“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” the great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote shortly before her untimely death. An epoch after her, Mary Oliver eulogized the love of her life with the observation that “attention without feeling… is only a report.” Looking back on centuries of love poems by people of genius who dared to love beyond the cultural narrows of their time, the poet J.D. McClatchy observed that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”
Because our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the engagement to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.
Because there is hardly a condition of consciousness that focuses the attention more sharply and totally upon its object than love, what and whom we love is the ultimate revelation of what and who we are.
That is what the great Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (May 9, 1883–October 18, 1955) explores in a series of essays originally written for the Madrid newspaper El Sol and posthumously published in English as On Love: Aspects of a Single Theme (public library) — a singular culmination of Ortega’s philosophical investigation of Western culture’s blind spots, biases, and touching self-delusions about love, that is, about who and what we are.
Defining love as “that sense of spiritual perception with which one seems to touch someone else’s soul, to feel its contours, the harshness or gentleness of its character,” Ortega notes that love reveals “the most intimate and mysterious preferences which form our individual character.” He writes:
There are situations, moments in life, in which, unawares, the human being confesses excellent portions of his ultimate personality, of his true nature. One of these situations is love. In their choice* of lovers [human beings] reveal they are essential to wildlife. The type of human being which we prefer shows the contours of our heart. Love is an impulse that springs from the most profound depths of our beings, and upon reaching the visible surface of life, carries with it alluvium of shells and seaweed from the inner abyss. A skilled naturalist can reconstruct the oceanic depths from which they have been uprooted by filing these materials.
Defining attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion,” Ortega places it at the center of the experience of love:
“Falling in love” is a phenomenon of attention
Our spiritual and mental life is merely that which takes place in the zone of maximum illumination. The rest — the site of conscious inattention and, beyond that, the subconscious — is an only potential life, a preparation, an arsenal or reserve. The attentive consciousness can be regarded as the very space of our personalities. We can just as well say that that thing dislodges a specific area in our characters.
Half a century after William James — one of Ortega’s most significant influences and philosophical progenitors — laid the groundwork of modern psychology with his statement, “My experience is what I agree to attend to,” Ortega adds:
Nothing characterizes us as much as our field of attention… This formula might be accepted: tell me where your attention lies, and I will tell you who you are.
“Falling in love,” initially, is no more than this: attention abnormally fastened upon another person. The rest follows the irremissible mechanism if the latter knows how to utilize his privileged situation and ingeniously nourishes that attention.
Paradoxically, the cultural narrative handed down to us by the Romantics postulates that love broadens and consecrates our awareness of life: Suddenly, everything is illuminated; suddenly, everything sings. Anyone who has ridden the intoxicating elation of early love has felt this. Yet, Ortega intimates that this is an illusion of consciousness, masking the actual phenomenon at work, which is somewhat the opposite — everything is tinted with aspects of the beloved, blurring and tuning out the details that give the world its actuality. Ortega writes:
The person in love has the impression that the life of his consciousness is prosperous. His reduced world is more concentrated. All of his psychic forces converge to act upon one point, which gives a false aspect of superlative intensity to his existence.
At the same time, that exclusiveness of attention endows the favored object with portentous qualities… By overwhelming an object with attention and concentrating on it, the consciousness supports it with an incomparable force of reality. It exists for us at every moment; it is ever-present, there alongside us, more real than anything else. The remainder of the world must be sought out by laboriously deflecting our attention from the beloved… The world does not exist for the lover. His beloved has dislodged and replaced it… Without a paralysis of consciousness and a reduction of our habitual world, we could never fall in love.
Long before cognitive scientists came to study what “an intentional, unapologetic discriminator” attention is as it frames our experience of reality by deliberate exclusion, Ortega writes:
Attention is the supreme instrument of personality; it is the apparatus that regulates our mental lives. When paralyzed, it does not leave us any freedom of movement. To save ourselves, we would have to reopen the field of our consciousness. It would be necessary to introduce other objects into its focus to rupture the beloved’s exclusiveness to achieve that. If, in the paroxysm of falling in love, we could suddenly see the flame in the typical perspective of our attention, her magic power would be destroyed. In order, however, to gain this perspective, we would have to focus our attention upon other things; that is, we would have to emerge from our own consciousness, which is totally absorbed by the object that we love.
Nothing illustrates this contracting of the lens more clearly than the discomposing experience of emerging from the somnambulant state of in-loveness — an experience familiar to anyone who has ever surfaced from an infatuation or has deepened a passion into a clam and steady love. Ortega writes:
When we emerge from a period of falling in love, we feel an impression similar to awakening and emerging from a narrow passage crammed with dreams. Then we realize that normal perspective is broader and airier, and we become aware of all the hermeticism and rarefaction from which our impassioned minds suffered. For a time, we experience the moments of vacillation, weakness, and melancholy of convalescence.
But despite its potential pitfalls, love remains at once the most interior and the most significant experience of our personhood. In a sentiment evocative of that exquisite line from The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” — Ortega considers how love, so invisible yet so essential a feature of our humanity, polishes the lens of our entire worldview: The things which are necessary lie behind the apparent stuff.
Probably, there is only one other theme more inward than love: that which may be called “metaphysical sentiment,” or the essential, ultimate, and primary impression which we have of the universe. This acts as a foundation and support for our other activities, whatever they may be. No one lives without it, although its degree of clarity varies from person to person. It encompasses our primary, decisive attitude toward reality, the pleasure that the world and life hold for us. This primary attitude activates our other feelings, thoughts, and desires and is sustained and colored. Of necessity, the complexion of our love affairs is one of the most telling symptoms of this primogenital sensation. By observing our neighbor in love, we can deduce his vision or goal in life. And this is the most exciting thing to ascertain: not anecdotes about his existence, but the card upon which he stakes his life.
And yet our culture has peculiar willful blindness to how love shapes life and the particular expression of aliveness that is our creative work — a strange denial of the essential fact that because we love with everything we are, our loves imprint everything we make. (I wrote Figuring in large part as an antidote to this dangerous delusion, exploring how the loves at the center of extraordinary lives shaped how those persons of genius, in turn, shaped our understanding of the world with their scientific and artistic work.) Ortega shares in this distaste for the cultural diminishment of love as a driving force of creative work. Observing that many persons extraordinary creative power have tended to take their pets “more seriously than their work” — the very work for which they are celebrated as geniuses, and a choice for which they have suffered derision by their contemporaries and by posterity — he admonishes against this common cultural judgment:
Curiously, only those incapable of producing great work believe that the contrary is the proper conduct: take science, art, or politics seriously and disdain love affairs as mere frivolities. Crochet mural by street artist NaomiRAG, Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)
A century and a half after astronomer Maria Mitchell — a key figure in Figuring — observed that “whatever our degree of friends maybe, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” Ortega laments: We do not take into sufficient consideration the enormous influence which our loves exercise upon our lives.
But while love reveals who we are, it also shapes who we are, sculpting our character and tinting our personality. The century of psychology developed since Ortega’s epoch has illuminated just how much “who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.” Ortega intuits this transformative power of love and, in consonance with Kurt Vonnegut’s theory that you can be in love up to three times in life, he writes:
A personality experiences in the course of its life two or three incredible transformations, which are like different stages of the same moral trajectory… Our innermost being seems, in each of these two or three phases, to rotate a few degrees upon its axis, to shift toward another quadrant of the universe, and to orient itself toward new constellations.
Complement these fragments from Ortega’s intensely insightful On Love with Adrienne Rich on how relationships refine our truths, James Baldwin on love and the illusion of choice, and Esther Perel on our greatest misconception about love, then revisit what remains my favorite meditation on the subject from centuries of literature and philosophy: Hannah Arendt on love and how to live with the fundamental fear of loss.