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This article is taken from PN Review 210, Volume 39 Number 4, March - April 2013.

Catchwords 19 Iain Bamforth
Love in the Western World

Love in our culture, in which reciprocity has been established as the ethical basis of social relations, is still dominated by the idea of heady romantic and sexual passion, even if no gender difference is involved - at Plato's banquets the only culturally noteworthy form of love was homosexual, and that provided by younger men to older.

But the older biological relationship - and a viscerally internal one for women - is that of mother and child, the figure which utterly dominates Renaissance art. It is manifestly an asymmetrical relationship, which turns on the mother's recognition that the baby cannot defend or even feed itself: it is utterly dependent. Its needs are naked. Sexual and romantic lovers, on the other hand, can become adversaries, as they unforgettably do in Kleist's play Penthesilea where the Amazon heroine confuses kissing and biting, and ends up taking her own life after she has mistakenly killed her lover - but also rival in the hunt - Achilles. The play is a memorial to the cruelty of desire, and to language's role in mediating it.

By contrast, the nature of the mother-child relationship is very obviously tenderness; and lovers can become tender with each other too, if each partner is able to 'mother' the other in mutuality. One partner in a long-standing marriage will often care for the other seriously ill or demented partner in just this way when their external relationship has lost the ...

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