Is love ultimate objectification of the beloved?

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Rohit Dhankar

The cover page of the 71st impression of Alchemist by Paulo Coelho proudly declares that 65 million copies of this book are sold. Inner cover informs that it is translated into 72 languages. The book obviously has been a rage, and may still be. In last about 6-7 years I think at the least five people recommended it to me as a good read. Finally I read it a few weeks back.

This short note, however, is not about the novel itself. But is only a comment on the prologue in the book. When I read the prologue its implications for moral action caught my attention. But to understand that we first have to look into what is the picture of romantic love that is painted here. Therefore, I will come to the moral action at the end of this note.

The prologues narrates “the legend of Narcissus, a youth who knelt daily beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty.” (Emphasis added.) Narcissus become so engrossed in love of his own image that fell in the lake and drowned. The lake, which was of fresh water earlier, cried so bitterly on the death of this ego-centric youth that it turned into a lake of salty tears.

The goddesses of the forest thought that the lake was crying because of loss of the beautiful youth, who paid no attention to any other goddess, and was at the lake every day, providing her with the opportunity to contemplate his beauty from close quarters. That made the lake ask in surprise: “But . . . was Narcissus beautiful?”

The question baffled the forest goddesses and they said: “Who better than you to know that?” the goddesses said in wonder. “After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!” The lake was silent for some time. Finally, it said: “I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

What struck me in this little story was that the lake was no less narcissistic[1] that Narcissus! Narcissus did not come to the lake to contemplate its beauty, he came to contemplate his own beauty reflected in the lake. The lake was not the object of his love, it was merely a means to reflect the real object of his love: himself.

The lake liked coming of Narcissus to its banks every day, and loved it. But Narcissus was not the object of her love either; his eyes were merely means to reflect the beauty of the lake itself, thus the real object of love for the lake was: the lake itself.

For each the other was merely a means to see their own reflection through the other, to contemplate their own beauty. They were not even particularly aware of the other’s beauty, if any. They were aware only of one quality in the other: the capacity to reflect their own self. The other was only a medium, merely a means.

This is ultimate ‘objectification’[2]; ultimate example of using the other only as a means for one’s own pleasures of contemplating one’s own beauty.

Is that what ‘true love’ means in humans? Turning the beloved into an object to see one’s own image? Using the other merely as a mirror?

Does one fall in love with the ‘mirror’ which reflects the most gratifying picture of oneself? Is the beloved simply an ego-massaging reflector for humans?

Isn’t it a very twisted understanding of love? And, if not, then are humans necessarily narcissistic? Does love necessarily snatches away the personhood of the beloved as far as the lover is concerned? Does love turns the beloved into an object in the eyes of the lover?

Of course, the story could be turned into a positive idea as well: each of a loving pair realises oneself through the other. The success of a lover is in becoming a most gratifying mirror for the beloved, so that the beloved in turn can serve the same function for the lover. Each loses oneself, to regain through the eyes of the other.

But the logic here is somewhat flowed. Because in the story of Narcissus as in prologue quoted above, neither loses himself voluntarily; it is that they simply do not notice each other. They are completely absorbed in their own image, the other does not exist beyond the practical function of reflection it performs. The idea of losing oneself for the other does not arise here. Each one is too full of himself/herself for such an altruistic ideal.

The question then remains: are humans necessarily narcissistic? Does human romantic love necessarily uses the other merely as a means?

Implications for moral action

Love is supposed to be the most selfless human sentiment; and romantic love is only a variety of ‘love’ which is a more general sentiment/feeling. Moral action necessarily requires recognition of the other as having unalienable worth in himself/herself; being ultimate end in himself/herself. The moral agent necessarily needs to see the other as a person, and certainly not as an object to gratify his/her own desires. If even love, which is recognised as the most selfless feeling/sentiment, is as completely self-absorbing as the Prologue makes it, what room does it leave for humans to be selfless? If humans are incapable of subordinating their own selfish ends to some moral principle can they ever think morally? Can they ever act morally?

A least the prologue of this extremely popular novel seems to imply impossibility of moral action through portraying love as completely narcissistic. One hopes it is not true, even if 65+ million readers are enchanted by this twisted ideal.

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28th January 2017

[1] Characteristic of those having an inflated idea of their own importance

[2] the action of degrading someone to the status of a mere object.