Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Review: The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

Title: The Art of Loving

Author: Erich Fromm

Rating: Unable to Finish

Year: 1957

Synopsis: In this stimulating and thoughtful look at the theory and practice of love, Erich Fromm discusses romantic love, the love of parents for children, brotherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God. Learning to love, he suggests, requires practice and dedication.

Review: I received this book second hand from a book swapping website earlier this year. I'd just read A Lover of Unreason and it mentioned that Sylvia Plath had read The Art of Loving while her and Ted Hughes were having marital problems. As a hardcore Plath fan who's always willing to dive into her mind, I knew this was something I'd want to read. If she read it, I'd read it.

A few weeks ago I was served by a guy at Borders who recommended reading any of Erich Fromm's works after we got into a discussion about humanism.

Now, I'm usually the first to point out to critics of old writing that opinions written in the past are bound to be different and less tolerant as we are now. Unfortunately, I couldn't stand it in this book and had to put it down this morning.

Fromm's preface begins:

"This book ... wants to show that love is not a sentiment which can be easily indulged in by anyone, regardless of the level of maturity reached by him. It wants to convince the reader that all his attempts for love are bound to fail, unless he tries more actively to develop his total personality..."

and so on and so forth. I took from that that Fromm meant in order to fully commit to someone, to love a person wholeheartedly, you must first try to love yourself, to be entirely comfortable in your own body to avoid projecting your own insecurities out on those around you.

And I'm pretty sure that's what he was getting at. Unfortunately, he didn't seem to ever actually get to that point.

This book is just over 100 pages long and I stopped about 54 pages in. I skimmed through to see if I would be making any progress soon but was dismayed to find that Fromm's focus is more on the 'types' of love (romantic love, the love of parents for children, brotherly love, erotic love, self-love and love of God) rather than the practice.

I know that lust and desire can be mistaken for love. I know that a parent's love is unconditional. I know that it's important to 'love thy neighbour.' And, as a result, felt as though I was wasting my time being told this over and over again.

Not only that but some of his ideas were dreadfully old fashioned:

"Sexual attraction between the sexes is only partly motivated by the need for removal of tension; it is mainly the need for union with the other sexual pole. In fact, erotic attraction is by no means only expressed in sexual attraction. There is masculinity and femininity in character as well as in sexual function. The masculine character can be defined as having qualities of penetration, guidance, activity, discipline and adventurousness; the feminine character can be defined as having the qualities of productive receptiveness, protection, realism, endurance, motherliness."

I think my sex life just went down the drain. I realise this was written in the '50s. I do. I really do. But I can't sit back and read a man describe a woman as being 'motherly' when it comes to erotic love. As a young woman who's very in tune with her own sexuality and (TMI!) quite 'adventurous' with it, I don't appreciate the old-fashioned ideas about men and women's traits.

More to the point, he mentions how sex is only slightly used as a way to relieve tension. What we really want is love. Yes, I'm sure we do ... eventually. But, as I've said, young people in the modern world want to experiment with their sexuality before finding the 'one' to settle down with and are proud of that and probably don't like being told that they're craving closeness.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in a long-term relationship. I'm in love and I enjoy what I have. But it's so wrong to assume that everyone does want the act of sex to be about love and closeness and intimacy.

Moving on from that, another example of his old-fashioned views on parenthood:

"Fatherly love is conditional love. Its principle is 'I love you because you fulfil my expectations, because you do you duty, because you are like me.' "

I know fathers like that. But they aren't all like that. If that had been the case, my father would have disowned by younger brother long ago because they're polar opposites. And I also hate the assumption that all mothers instantly feel that connection to their babies. I'm afraid it just doesn't happen sometimes, especially with cases of post-natal depression and ... some mothers just don't feel it immediately. It can take time.

I realise that I've only quoted some very old-fashioned views here (don't get me started on the 'homosexuals will never feel complete because they're the same sex' point Fromm makes) but the real reason I couldn't finish this book was, as I said, that the points he was making were points I already knew. I didn't feel like I was getting any deep insight into the human psyche and there was nothing remotely profound about what he wrote. Not to mention, his references to the New Testament and 'love of God' were something I couldn't actually connect with.

Maybe I'll give Fromm another chance one day with another book and another subject but I couldn't finish this one and will probably never pick it up again. I like the way I love my friends and family and everyone I meet. I don't need any coaching at the moment. Let's move on to the next book instead.  


Anonymous said...

I totally get your feelings on this.

Ceri said...

J. Kaye - Thanks, I'm glad it was semi-comprehensible. :P heh

Andreea said...

I am sorry to hear that this book didn’t meet your expectations! I hope the next book will be better!

Violet said...

hmmm...I really like your review. I disagree with the passages you posted too. I mean, what age are we living in? Is there any boundary or set rules to any relationship?

Statements like "Fatherly love is conditional love" just sounds plain ignorant to me.

Sorry you didn't like the book. Thanks for the review, I'll stay away from it :)

Ceri said...

Andreea - Thanks. Me too. :)

Violet - Thank you. Yeah, the book was just so frustrating to keep reading. If those passages frustrated you, you'd definitely be best off leaving it. :)

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