Why do lovers break each other’s hearts?

In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism

February 14, 2017
8 min read

(Photo by Iain Watson via flickr.com)

Sexual love is the movement that breaks the rules; an uprising of the senses that abolishes propriety. Time alters. A gasp lasts an hour, a night separates into heaps of minutes, a conversation from bar to bed to bus stop – has it been a fortnight or a day? Objects floor you with sudden meanings; a weed becomes a flower beside a canal that is an ocean. A shell swells with feelings. Touches echo, nerves misbehave, hands ricochet. Eyes kindle and melt in a world of constantly altering surfaces. Love offers a glimpse of the most intimate communication that we have experienced. Everything that’s said about love is true, except the happy ending.

To love in capitalism has an especially bitter intensity. It is to repossess feelings to which we have come foreign. Emotions that come without rules or prices or power attached to them. In love’s bed, mutual subjectivity allows absolute altruism. The precious is given without price, the delight lies in delighting another. We recover that which we have been taught to withhold, avoid, or have had shaken out of us by parents and teachers and each other. It is a state of revolution against the discoloured flatness which is the ‘normal’, sleep-work-play life. Lovers win permission for a short parole to trail after the ditch-flowers, to stare through the swirls of harbour water to the stone, and become entranced by the dart and hover of storm clouds. Sexual love cannot be hoarded, accumulated or displayed. Neither moth nor rust can corrupt it.

In general, the individualism so avidly developed in us by the capitalist system is for external application. We are persuaded to distrust our emotions when they conflict, as they usually do, with competitive success. If we are going to ‘get somewhere’ and ‘make something of ourselves’, education not experience should be our guide. The adverts school us, the slogans batter us down. Get without giving. Take what you can. Look after No. 1. ‘The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being’, wrote Marx. But even the bourgeoisie flounders on love which it is obliged to honour, however much it loathes its expression. For love is a zone of subjectivity which also has official approval, a precarious holiday where feelings and finance are supposed to rule. Love allows you, briefly, to return to what was once yourself.

It is not hard to see why such an unruly state of mind has to be strictly rationed and kept controlled with greeting cards, marriage licenses, and marzipan cakes. It is unpredictable, disorderly, and bad for industrial relations. It’s too simple, too difficult, and doesn’t consume enough. For the effective growth of commerce, it should only occur once in life, its emotions must be surrounded with regulations, icing sugar and lace, made as well-behaved as possible. It would be easier of it didn’t exist, this love, and for many it never does. But it has proved quite impossible to remove the gnaw or eradicate the itch. So it has been turned into something quite different, a mouldy, consoling sort of emotion which, for men, is made palatable by bouts of ‘sexy’ sexuality which must be purchased or forced rather than discovered. Sex itself must be turned into work, with its own rules and games. It is forced back into the black sack of marriage, a contract to feel in a matter whose very essence lies in its voluntary nature.

It is not just a case of love ‘withering under constraint’, as Blake – one of the first rebels against the laws of trade, marriage, and scholarship – thought it. Love is buried by love’s forms, while sexual love becomes an acted insincerity.

The echoing sense of unbroken subjectivity is made silly and impossible to sustain. Such love needs more space than five football fields. That kind of love becomes, in practice, a privilege for the rich. The rest of us are left to read about the affairs of ballet dancers and the loves of princesses. Ordinary love is locked up in its own company, given guards called Jealousy and Fidelity, taken out in public once a month, and stifled to death beneath the TV and the nappies. The underside of love surfaces; passion now wants its penalties. A once equal love capsizes and becomes itself the subject of the division of labour. The man is the human being who has to be kept fuelled and sustained, fit to do his stuff in the outside world. As time passes, it is mysteriously the man who comes to fill this world; placating, anticipating, mollify, sacrificing – in time becoming bitter and lonely by what love has become. The labour of love becomes just another labour.

Love can quickly become a species of tyranny, a word offered and withheld like a dog’s biscuit. A word that turns suddenly into a slap, a trap, a threat. ‘Do you love your mummy?’ means ‘reward me for your dependence’. ‘Mother knifed baby to prove she loved it’, says a local paper. Love becomes involuntary, a system of emotional Green Stamps, promised, stored and exchanged. The platitude that love is close to pain becomes cruelly true. The intensity of violence replaces the gentleness of love. Not just broken alcoholic men but the smart young executives find violence sexy when the fun has gone out of love.

Violence is the occupational disease of a wife. Men beat their spouses regularly who would never harm their dog. But the slow death of love is a different sort of pain, full of guilt and dread and exhaustion. Love becomes an oath or a pang or a regret; the grease in the spoon, the hook in the tune. Women are less keen to forget. That is why they are called sentimental. But mulling over memories while contriving to be lovely-to-come-home-to is apt to produce a mawkish and sickly romanticism – no use to anyone. The evidence of loveless marriage lies in the concealed and unrecorded doorstep grumbles, corner shop intimacies, and smoothed-over-rows in public bars, to be kept from the outside world if it can be.

How the economic set-up of the family mutilates the emotions of love and the unequal relations of the sexes, turning a particular pair of lovers into sparring partners, is not the most important crimes of a system which can starve whole continents and destroy and make ugly entire cities. But it is one of the saddest. Feelings which have regulated life itself are relegated to a mere memory. A glimpse of something becomes a taunt. Once mixed up with marriage and corrupted with cash, love is bent into a certain shape which no longer fits its feelings. People are sorted into twos and marched up to the wedding cake while relatives make bitter jokes behind their backs and hire-purchase agents lick their pencils. The family is a convenient self-financing unit of competitive consumption and indoctrination, the original sweatshop where production, repair, and reproduction are carried out by an unsafe, unpaid, and under-appreciated women workforce. For the state it is cheap at its price. No need to spend on good public transport, comprehensive group care for young children, community centres or restaurants, all which could provide better and cheaper food and entertainment compared to the commercial outfits, if everyone does it at home one by one. Exhaustingly, inefficiently, expensively; the family then sits in front of the TV to watch still more invented happy families serving out their Shreddies. The family provides certain certainties and keeps us all wadded with stupidities. If the family is breaking down, that is the occasion for rejoicing, not dismay. We need to start finding alternatives and demanding the facilities to make them work, not trying to force the broken pieces back together again.

This article was first published by Oxford Left Review in the October 2013 issue. It will be published in the forthcoming publication ‘Against Miserablism: Writings of David Widgery 1968 – 1992’, edited by Juliet Ash, Nigel Fountain and David Renton, Vagabond Voices, Glasgow, September 2017.


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