Is love ultimate objectification of the beloved?

February 19, 2017

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.


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.

And children pay for our fragmented thinking

February 9, 2017

Rohit Dhankar

Professor Krishna Kumar has written a very thought provoking article (my response in Indian Express) on the CBSE’s decision to make class X board examination compulsory again. He rightly argues that compulsory class X exam will serve no useful purpose and will increase stress in children. He also points out the problems in re-introducing of annual examinations in elementary classes, and rescinding RTE decision that introduces CCE.

These arguments are sound; still the analysis presented in the article needs to be taken further. Professor Kumar rightly points out that examination can never be effective motivation for learning. Actually it is well recognised that it only devalues understanding and kills joy in learning. But motivation through examination is not the most important argument that the people wanting to rescind CCE and reinstate compulsory board exam are making. Their argument is that children reach the next level of schooling grossly underprepared if one removes annual exams in the present day Indian system. Annual examinations, according to them, make some dent in this unpreparedness, even if cannot remedy the situation completely. This is not an argument that can be dismissed summarily.

His arguments against the examinations are pedagogically peripheral. The most forceful argument is that examinations cause stress in children. Yes, education should be sensitive to the child and should not cause stress to the level where childhood becomes a burden. But being serious about studies is also a necessary condition for learning well. If proper teacher training could be a solution for implementation of CCE, as Professor Kumar argues, it can also be assumed to be a solution for stress-less annual examinations. The stress argument provokes sentiments without saying much about quality and depth of learning. One can also argue that the stress is caused by the family pressure and competition in the society; not by the examinations per se. Whatever system of certification of relative merit one creates, if the society remains competitive and parents make children means of realising their unfulfilled aspirations, we cannot reduce stress in education.

Professor Kumar thinks that if examinations are reintroduced in elementary education the path to child-centrism will be closed. This takes child-centrism as an article of faith, and as if that is the only true path to educational reform. But exactly what do we mean by child-centrism in India? Does it mean that the children should decide the curriculum, or that only what is interesting for children should be taught, or that children should be left free to discover their own knowledge, or is it simply teaching through activities? All these positions are taken by different people at different times; and each one of them has serious problems; theoretical as well as practical at the level of classroom pedagogy.

One viable form of child-centrism is what John Dewey, the famous American philosopher, articulated. He calls it “progressive education”. That the school curriculum has to be ‘psychologized’. Dewey argues that one necessarily has to start from the child, her experiences, and her understanding; but has constantly to look at the accepted human knowledge and understanding. One is the starting point, the other the end. Without the end in view, the starting point itself is of no value; and in fact there can be no justification for taking this or that starting point without reference to an end point to reach.

We in India do not realise what all does it take to ‘psychologize’ the curriculum in Dewey’s sense. The matter is not that of activities or keeping the children happy or even stress free. It is quite a different story. To psychologize the curriculum would mean that the subject matter of today’s accepted human knowledge may become part of child’s experience. And how the teacher’s knowledge of subject matter may assist in recognising what is valuable in the child’s experience today, what the child’s needs of growth are and how her growth can be properly directed towards the end of acquiring knowledge and understanding.

All this demands freedom, flexibility and contextual decision making on the part of the teacher; keeping in mind individual child. And that is the crux of the matter: our system of schooling does not give that space. We have a year wise divided curriculum, grade wise organised school and annual occasions of progression. And wnat to implement CCE keeping this structure intact. But this structure militates against using child’s experience and growth of understanding based on experience. Because the understanding to be built on experience cannot be predicted for all children and cannot be planned in a timed sequence in advance that is universally applicable. Graded school and curriculum assume precisely that. One can of course plan rough overall time and sequence of knowledge acquisition; but the day to day activities and their results are to be left to the teacher and the child. Therefore, the graded school and curriculum logically demand pass-fail kind of examination. CCE and automatic promotion, then, are a logical anathema to present day schooling system. This contradiction makes CCE in any reasonable form impossible in our schools. The school structure and basic ideas behind CCE are in a fundamental and irresolvable contradiction with each other.

This is not a problem that can be solved through better teacher training. Actually there can be no teacher training that can prepare teachers to implement CCE in the present day rigid and authoritarian system. All attempts will turn out to be a series of miniscule examinations and burry the teacher in more and more record keeping, without really interpreting those records into any helpful way. It is a systemic problem and teachers cannot be expected to solve it through their sensitivity, skill and understanding. It is a matter of making up one’s mind regarding what kind of school and curriculum organisation suites child’s development that is sensitive to her emotional, intellectual and moral growth. It is a matter of fitting the school structure and curriculum to the desired visions of education and CCE; and not the matter of fitting a form of so called CCE to the existing school and curriculum structure. We are looking at the problem up-side-down.

Our fragmented thinking that educational ideas can be implemented out of their overall theoretical and structural frameworks is the cause of repeated failure to achieve success in any reform. We get infatuated by singe ideas and never take on the bull of total system by horns. As long as we keep thinking in this fragmented way without looking at the overall structure in which such ideas can fruitfully exist, our children will keep on paying the price of reform pendulums we set in motion without any real progress. Therefore, if we are serious about doing away with stressful examinations be that at elementary or X standard level, we have to dismantle the rigid structure of school and curriculum.