Happiness, it is said, is the ultimate object of love. A person in love experiences or tries to bring himself and/or the other party pleasure, whether this is achieved through care-taking, physical gestures, moral support or imbuing life with additional hues of meaning. What if, however, the same or even greater happiness can be obtained in situations devoid of love?
In Scarlet Heart, a drama adaptation of a popular novel, a nondescript white-collar worker from the year 2011 got into an accident that sent her mentally back in time to 18th century Qing China, where she woke up in the body of a Manchu girl and developed a romantic relationship with a prince who later ascended the throne. His ruthlessness in politics and her backfiring attempt at altering history, nonetheless, drove a wedge between them, such that she eventually entered into a marriage of convenience with another prince in spite of their lingering feelings for each other. Love-sickness aggravated her deteriorating health and she passed away in a foreign era, after spending 21 years there. Back in the 21st century, she awoke from a coma and visited an exhibition on the Qing dynasty, where she ran into a man who looked exactly like the prince she loved. The man wondered why she was staring at him, a stranger, with tearful eyes and dug into his pockets for tissues to offer her but could find none. With a helpless smile, he walked away, while she took off her glasses as he vanished in her blurred vision.
In its final scene, the drama quoted the novel’s concluding passage (italicized lines below), which, in turn, was based on a love poem by the sixth Dalai Lama Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706?). An unwilling young monk who lived under the control of the de facto power holder Sangye Gyatso, Tsangyang Gyatso expressed sentiments of love and heartbreak through poetry. The novelist Tong Hua (1980-) adapted a vernacular translation of his lines by polylinguist Yu Daoquan (1901-1992) to form the opening part of the passage (upper italicized sections below) and ended the passage with literature professor Zeng Jian (1892-1968)’s rendering of the same lines in classical Chinese (lower italicized sections below). Interestingly, even though the translations originated from the same writing by the Dalai Lama, Yu Daoquan framed it as a quasi-lesson, whereas Zeng Jian constructed it as a mournful plea. If it were a cautionary lesson, it seemed to be one neither Tsangyang Gyatso nor us could truly apply in practice. Separate from the drama, two fans later inserted their own lines between the two sections to expand its concept of love as a trap. In an infrequent instance of fan writing crossing over to mainstream media, filmmakers subsequently edited the resulting poem and featured it as the ending theme of a movie. The full unedited poem, a grand collaboration among literary arts lovers of different eras across time and space, reads:
Ten Commandments Poem
First, best not to see each other, so that we would not find ourselves in mutual love.
Second, best not to know each other, so that we would not lose ourselves in mutual thought.
Third, best not to stay by the side of each other, so that we would not set up ourselves for mutual loss.
Fourth, best not to cherish each other, so that we would not bind ourselves to mutual recollection.
Fifth, best not to love each other, so that we would not lead ourselves to mutual abandonment.
Sixth, best not to face each other, so that we would not bring ourselves to a mutual encounter.
Seventh, best not to hold up each other, so that we would not land ourselves in mutual debt.
Eighth, best not to pledge our hearts to each other, so that we would not entangle ourselves in an interminable mutual destiny.
Ninth, best not to rely on each other, so that we would not lock ourselves into mutual attachment.
Tenth, best not to run into each other, so that we would not find ourselves coming to a mutual reunion.
But once we have caught each other’s sight, we will know each other. Our lives are no longer the same as they were in the days before we met.
How can we break our ties once and for all to spare ourselves the agony of mutual longing in life and in death?
Nevertheless, it can be asserted that what relationship troubles call for is not rejection of companionship and affection, but communication, openness, trust and tolerance―in other words, the values prescribed in a typical relationship advice column. With mindfulness and respect, love can bring us more benefits than hurt. However, Zhuangzi, a philosopher who, like Confucius, was active in the golden age of Chinese philosophy (770-221 BC), presented a bleaker tale of mutual love, which was briefly referenced in the drama:
Some fish lay on the bed of a spring after its water dried up. They slowly exhaled moist air and spat saliva at each other to keep the other party hydrated. This scene might appear touching but it was really an unnatural state of being. Rather than moisturize each other, the fish would be better off forgetting about each other in lakes and rivers. Instead of worshiping good and castigating evil, let go of these concepts and have things return to their natural rhythms.
(Reference for interpretation adopted above: The Harvard Review of Philosophy)
This idea appears antithetical to some of the most common themes in popular narratives: overcoming barriers, finding positive meaning in hardship and celebration of love as the worthiest of all human pursuits. On the other hand, such a view would find support in hedonism, a school of thought centered on the concept of pleasure as the solely important ethical end. Admittedly, vehement objections to hedonism have emerged over the years, with critics citing human relations, beauty and other qualities as other valuable ends while condemning pleasure derived from acts of evil (e.g. torture of others). Yet the two groups of opinions need not be irreconcilable with regard to the question of love in severe unhappiness versus loveless happiness. In fact, the prizing of the former over the latter can be problematic even by non-happiness-based measures of good. For one, it may become a justification for not remediating situations that threaten human survival at the same time as they reduce happiness. Examples of these situations include poverty and epidemics, both of which have inspired acts of selflessness and devotion, as evidenced by recent incidents of medical volunteers risking personal health to provide humanitarian aid in the recent Ebola crisis. Yet we cannot possibly accept that, because they draw out love and concern from the human community, situations that heighten risks of death need not be forestalled. In addition, as admirable as the manifestation of love in adverse circumstances is, it is arguably a perverse form of moral beauty, with onlookers deriving their satisfaction (and thus pleasure) from the suffering of victims of misfortune.
This is not to say that love in adversity should not be celebrated. On the contrary, the recognition that there are more desirable states of existence than misfortune accompanied by love does not detract from the absolute value (as opposed to relative value) of love blossoming in such circumstances. Furthermore, happiness is arguably critical at a given moment only to the extent that it secures or reflects attainment of physical and psychological health. Beyond this threshold, further happiness may have to be sacrificed to some degree depending on the scenario to net greater future happiness (e.g. giving up play for studies) or to achieve other moral ends. These ends would include love valued independently of any pleasure it may bring. Continue to seek out human encounters and believe in the meaning of these encounters, on the condition that you also steel your resolve to fight against abusive partners and abusive conditions.
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Special thanks to First Night Design and Cindy Knoke for their expression of support in the prelude to this post.