I’m currently in the process of writing wedding vows with my fiancé, Antoinette. I’ve been casting about everywhere for inspiration and influences, to the extent that Antoinette has accused me of treating the vows like an academic paper. She’s right, of course:erotic love is one of the original philosophical themes, and the prospect of making claims about it in front of an assemblage of family, friends, and colleagues is daunting. I can’t stand up there and make vague references to Aristophanes’ absurd myth of gendered division and reunification, despite its familiarity to wedding-goers and Hedwig and the Angry Inch lovers everywhere. So I’ve been doing my research.
There’s a wonderful passage from the beginning of Kierkegaard’s Acts of Love to which I keep returning, detailing the problem with Cartesian doubt when it comes to intersubjectivty: love is a leap and certainty is its antithesis. I also enjoy reading Wendell Berry’s Poetry and Marriage essay, which develops these issues a little further, and especially because it foregrounds the quotidian and domesticated part of loving, the elemental relation, the seasonal return, choice that is not a choice. But the conflict I return to again and again is an as-yet unremarked conflict between Jean-luc Marion and Luce Irigaray. I know Marion primarily from his work on the history of phenomenology, Saturated Phenomena, while my relationship to Irigaray is much more complicated: I’ve been critical of the political aspirations of her work, the attempts to move from a critique of phallogocentrism to constitutional amendments that enshrine her particular account of sexual difference within the law. But for all that I might decry her heterosexism, I can’t deny that I find much that is personally relevant in her work, especially I Love to You.
The conflict between Marion and Irigaray is not too difficult to explain, though of course it is at times couched in fairly dense philosophical jargon: for Irigaray, sexual difference is the primary metaphysical and ontological category, and love is charged with the sheltering and preservation of this gendered alterity, the irreducible Otherness of the sexed Other. For Marion, love is the act of giving oneself to a singularity, whose return of affections makes the world meaningful and whose sex is only evident in the encounters of the flesh in which this gift culminates. Despite this emphasis on the gift, Marion avoids the economic metaphors of reciprocity and calculation, instead rendering an account of loving relation that requires a certain unreasonable risk.
Philosophically I tend to balk at erotic fundamentalists for whom love is the only true path to knowledge, meaning, or justice, but I’m not exactly going to lecture on metaphysics and politics at my wedding. Marion’s efforts to ground eros in the gift really resonates with me; his critiques of Descartes sound an awful lot like Kierkegaard’s, and his lengthy account of the actual practices and development of love seems both more vulnerable and informed than Irigaray’s often repetitive abstraction.
Still, I worry about Marion’s theism, as I worry about Barry’s conservatism, Irigaray’s essentialism, and Kierkegaard’s asceticism and obsession with Regina. And most of all I worry that the project in a marriage vow is not, somehow, to ‘get marrigage right’ by giving a fully informed account of the history of the idea of love and the contemporary debates, but to express something unique to this couple, my relationship with Antoinette and hers to me, which is at the same time recognizable and familiar. To do all that work of expressing idiosyncrasy in a common idiom without invoking controversy or cliché. Like this, only, you know, different.
Perhaps it’s best to ditch the logos and stick to the mythos. It’s possible that we’ll base our vows on the story of Naomi and Ruth:
“Do not make me leave you, for wherever you go, I shall go. Wherever you live, so shall I live. Your people will be my people. And your god will be my god too. Wherever you die, I shall die, and there shall I be buried beside you. Nothing but death will separate us.”