The Iconic Nature of Love
Updated: Apr 6, 2022
From cold air and brightly-colored trees to a perfect 70 something degrees and stunning sunsets: we are back in Arizona to care for our family’s ranch for a week. As much as I enjoy Utah’s autumn, Arizona always surprises me with the feeling of home. The skies seem wider here, the air clearer. We drove to Tucson for vegan Mexican food, mole coffee, and the desert botanical gardens. We went to a nearby olive mill, where we drizzled infused oils and balsamic reductions over wood-fired pizza, sitting beneath the olive trees. Arizona is ideal for my seasonal depression. But there is nothing here for me: no philosophy programs for my interests, no universities where I would like to teach someday. Confirming the stereotype that philosophy thrives on a bit of melancholy, all the good continental programs are concentrated on the East Coast—cold and rainy. I confirm the stereotype, too. In this barren, uncomplicated desert (especially on these perfectly mild autumn/ winter days), I become impatient with obstruse arguments, especially of the continental flavor (long and winding sentences that seem to revel in their obscurity). Here I crave only brightly colored art, fleshy poetry, and philosophy that can work for its wages. Nothing pretentious or overburdened with references. Simple truth & self-evident beauty. Our geographies shape us, more deeply than we would like to believe. How can we admit we are still creatures of earth? We’d rather not acknowledge our deep entanglement with our surroundings, how shaped we are by the people around us, equally raised by a specific culture and climate. This is why I feel the need to situate myself at the beginning of each email. How can I speak without first contextualizing my speaking? We pretend to speak from self-contained vacuums, but we are thronged always by material suggestions, our brains clogged with others’ thoughts. Here we are in Arizona. Chasing crafty chickens who escape the pen, mouthing French phrases while I shovel horse shit, practicing zen while living with a hyperactive Australian shepherd. This place, these circumstances, are windows into a particular kind of life. And here we find the starting point of this email: each place, object, person, and idea may open our lives into new and unexpected realities.
A clay barrette, forest green and engraved with leaves. I saw it on Etsy—handmade by a girl in California, and wanted it immediately. A strange desire, as I am not much for fashion and have never even owned a barrette. But the barrette went beyond itself: just looking at it made me feel young and forest-green. Every time I clip it in my hair, I will feel thronged by the company of trees. Magical thinking, of course. But it’s why we buy anything unnecessary. It’s not the pair of shoes; it’s what they say about the kind of person we are, or the person we desire to be. We may not kiss wood carvings of the Virgin Mary, but we still treat objects as icons, openings into a particular reality. Some terminology: an icon is a carving or painting, a material item that connects one with the divine. An idol can be the same object, but it is said to trap the gaze rather than connect it with something beyond/ beneath the appearance. Or, the idol becomes a mirror that simply reflects the human ego. These categories have nothing to do with the objects themselves: a statue of the Buddha is an idol no more or less than an ideology. The icon/ idol distinction refers to modes of perception, not actual objects, humans, or ideas. You may wonder why I am employing religious language to talk about love or clay barrettes. But this distinction between icon and idol has been an important framework for some continental philosophers in recent years, and need not be contextualized religiously. If love de-objectifies, it’s not because it ignores appearances (each birthmark and personality quirk is also precious) but because it allows those externals to lead the gaze to the person’s inner depths. Love de-objectifies because it sees iconically. Idolatrous love, on the other hand, blocks the gaze from real sight, often reflecting our own desires and fears instead. The essential difference is in the reciprocity: an object may not have a will of its own, but it can still draw the human gaze outside of itself, into another reality (this is the function of art, after all). So can another human or a place, when seen iconically. The idolatrous gaze is characterized by the close-sightedness of need, and that need’s desire to control and co-opt. The problem with lust and envy is that reciprocity of gaze becomes impossible. While a woman’s body is being probed as a sexual object, nothing in her thoughts or desires can influence or reverse that gaze (and of course, this is not just limited to women). Single-minded and violent, it obliterates reciprocal connection in submission to the all-consuming need. When you envy another for their possessions, you cannot let those objects function as icons, windowing open a particular type of beauty. Instead, appreciation for their beauty or utility is consumed in your own need. Infatuation is often illusory for this reason: a person may captivate your attention because they are emblematic of something you lack. A free-spirited girl reminds the man in a mid-life crisis of the youth he has forgotten; a sexually confident man may remind an aging woman of the sexuality she has neglected. Not confined to romance, buying a pair of designer boots reminds one of their worth. Moving to a new city represents a new birth. Symbolism is lost to modernity. We tend to externalize these needs, feeling compelled to act on the literal manifestation rather than the symbolic underpinning. Of course, acting on these “infatuations” often creates real and needed change in one’s life. Sometimes you really do need to leave an unfulfilling relationship or buy that pair of designer boots. Whether you run off with your boss or move to Vienna is not really relevant here. The idol/ icon paradigm is about perception, and more power resides in the perception than we assume. Anyone with a toddler will know how a trip to a store can quickly become treacherous when the child glimpses a desired toy or a treat. Grasping, begging, crying, and tantrums often ensue. Knowing my daughter and her obsession with stuffed animals, I decided to try something unique. I let her hug and kiss the stuffed animals we pass, talk to them if she likes (she acts as if they are all her friends), and sometimes I let her hold them while we shop as long as she puts them back when we are done. When it is time to go, she says goodbye and assures them she will see them soon. Never again have we dealt with a tantrum at the store. She offers all her love to each one, and so she is convinced they belong to her, even if she doesn’t take them home. She is right—love links us to the world, just as we believe ownership links us to our objects. Ownership is only an externalization of what we love. And love without ownership is more real than ownership without love. The same goes for people. To see another person deeply is to love them, and to love them is to have them. Don’t misunderstand that “have.” There is an ownership that is egoic and controlling (idolatrous, the person is a mirror of our needs). Iconic love is neither; it lets the other be in all their complexity and freedom. By letting them be, the essential link between is revealed, is felt. Paradoxically, to not grasp at another is to truly have. To love and let be is the profoundest testament to that essential link between. How do we practice seeing the world iconically? We begin with minimizing needs. The less you need, the more you can appreciate without trying to graft it onto your identity. Then, practice the soft gaze mentioned in the previous email. Let the world unfold before you; look closer. How does this object, person, or place make me feel? It is not irrational to let the world speak. So, listen. To even objects. Memories and futures will come to you. The barrette? I haven’t bought it. We came to Arizona and the pressing need seemed to pass. Desires for things are fickle things, and this desert is no place for memories of green trees. But the barrette is mine anyway, because I choose to see it iconically. The feeling it elicited—of freedom and youth, communion with trees— it lives somewhere in my repository of experiences, and here it is again, cropping up in this email as an object lesson. All things dead or alive belong to me (and the dead are revived by my living perception, so all is living to consciousness). To love another human, place, or object is simply to uncover that essential link. I woke up this morning to find a new blouse folded on the dresser. I had been complaining that I have no t-shirts or blouses (in spite of my barrette fantasies, we try to be minimalist in our belongings, and I had run out of shirts). My husband must have bought it for me last night. As I raised it to the light, I smiled. It’s the exact shade of the olive leaves we sat beneath as we dipped our pizza in infused oils. So there: even a blouse is an icon, reflecting meanings and memories, and perhaps, new possibilities. Until next week,