There is something deeply disgusting in the publication of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s love letters. There is something loathsome in the mockery of these love letters. Yes, Sanford is guilty of negligence and dereliction of duty with respect to his responsibilities as Governor. Yes, it is very likely that Sanford stole from the citizens to South Carolina to fund his trips to Argentina. Yes, Sanford is a cynical hypocrite who used the mantra of “family values” to manipulate stupid conservative values based voters to support him and who participated in legislation designed to oppress women and LBGT folk in the name of “family values” (the show True Blood has the proper take on what these conservative religious groups are really about).
Despite all this, there’s absolutely no reason to publish these letters and the mockery of these letters is even worse. Last night I watched with thorough disgust as the gasbag Keith Olbermann adopted a mocking voice and read the letters to Bridges of Madison County music. Him and his guest ridiculed the style of the letters, their inept references, and various grammatical and spelling errors of the letters. However, in reading these letters it is clear that something of deep significance had happened in his encounter with this woman and that he had, no matter how poorly expressed, genuine tenderness for her. Whatever else Sanford should be condemned for– and he really should step down or be impeached –he should not be condemned for love. Indeed, if anything redeems Sanford to some degree, it’s these letters. Indeed, given his actions over the last few days– his bizarre disappearance without notifying any of his staff –it’s pretty clear that at some level he was trying to blow up his life.
But even if one disagrees with the thesis that Sanford deserves some sympathy, I cannot help but feel that there is something loathsome in the act of mocking the letters themselves; that somehow this mockery diminishes all love. Let’s face it, as a genre, the love letter is generally fairly trite. Few lovers ever reach the literary greatness of Abelard and Heloise or Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. However, to believe that the love letter should attain this sort of literary excellence is, I believe, to miss the point of the love letter. On the one hand, in love there is a sort of repetition of the infantile where all sorts of primordial childhood libidinal cathexes, traumas, and relations are creatively repeated between the two in a way that creates a new world. As Deleuze and Guattari so nicely put it,
…what the libido invest(s), through its loves and sexuality, [is] the social field itself in its economic, political, historical, racial, and cultural determinations: in delirium the libido is continually re-creating History, continents, kingdoms, races, and cultures. Not that it is advisable to put historical representations in the place of the familial representations of the Freudian unconscious, or even the archetypes of a collective unconscious. It is merely a question of ascertaining that our choices in matters of love are at the crossroads of “vibrations,” which is to say that they express connections, disjunctions, and the conjunctions of flows that cross through a society, entering and leaving it, linking it up with other societies, ancient or contemporary, remote or vanished, dead or yet to be born. (AO, 352).
However, like Beckett’s strange desiring-machine composed of three stones that circulate from the pockets of a vest to the mouth and back again, the machines created by lovers, their desiring-connections, cannot but appear to be ridiculous from the outside.
And if these machines appear so ridiculous from the outside, then this is because socially they are useless. That is, they are machines that are not caught up in the despotic signifying machines of the socius. This brings me to my second point. Language, as Hegel observed at the beginning of the Phenomenology, is composed entirely of general, abstract, universal terms, whereas the encounter between the two in love is singular. There seems to be a way in which lovers innately understand this contradiction between the general and universal and the singularity of their encounter. In this connection, the love letter filled with cliches, poorly wrought language, vulgarities, silly pet names, and all the rest almost functions like a private joke between lovers, bringing into relief the intensive and singular nature of their encounter through the banal and facile nature of their sweet cooings to one another. Just as we can say that the sober language of Spinoza’s Ethics disguises great intensities, we can likewise say that the stereotypical, cliched, and routinized nature of the love letter actually brings into relief the intensity of the encounter between the two. It is if the love letter must be brought to its ultimate point of banality stylistically, its most general and stereotypical form– not unlike the form letter –for the intensive of the singular to be brought into relief. In this way the two express the impotence of language to express the singularity of their encounter.
In last night’s segment, Olbermann mocks Sanford’s vulgar references– and they’re really not so vulgar –to his Argentinian lover’s body and their moments of passion, suggesting that somehow these shouldn’t be there. On the one hand, Olbermann should take a look at Joyce’s love letters to his wife. On the other hand, he misses something essential about the nature of love in this mockery. There is a sort of dialectical contradiction in love between the flesh and the spirit. There is a way in which lovers strive to reduce one another to the flesh in its most base form, turning it into nothing but an object and allowing themselves to become object for the other. There is almost a sort of desperation in the way in which two lovers clasp one another’s bodies, as if they are looking for something in the body more than itself. And this is the point. What is sought in this desperate clasping of the body is in no way equivalent to the man going to the prostitute, using her as a mere piece of flesh, but rather the aching despair with which lovers grasp each others bodies, in which they clumsily try to put each others bodies into words in the love letter, is a chasing after transcendence… The transcendence of the other not as flesh but as subject, or that which evades all flesh yet simultaneously somehow animates it.
I don’t know why all of this makes me furious. I am not suggesting that Sanford’s letters somehow rise to the letters of Abelard and Heloise or Joyce’s and his wife’s. What I am saying is that there is nothing to be mocked in any such letters, regardless of their literary merit. I applaud Sanford for his willingness to blow his life up over love. I just wish he could have done it without being a sanctimonious asshole or screwing over his constituents.