Provocations #4: Labors of Love

Word Count: 1,121

by Richard B. Keys
Monthly Exclusives



view the original artwork in full in Issue 011: SLEEP

Stillpoint Magazine asked former contributor Richard B. Keys to respond to Luce DeLire’s essay “Lessons in Love II: The Erotics of Toxicity“, written for Issue 011: SLEEP. DeLire concludes her essay with the following proposition, and this is what we posed to Richard:

Now that we have an alternative paradigm of love, what do we do with it? We need to form social institutions that perpetuate the indeterminate sublime and help to rehearse it—movies, podcasts, pop songs, social practices, and institutions. This is where you come in. Just as each individual love is a fragment, infinite in its constitutive incompleteness, so is love as an experience of the indeterminate sublime itself. It is up to us, up to you to provide examples, stories, songs, movies, social institutions, legal code, and whatever else seems useful to depict and display, project and foreshadow, pre-enact, question, and despair of love as an experience of the indeterminate sublime. But these are other stories and they must be told another day … and by someone else …


a response to DeLire’s “Lessons in Love II”

In reading DeLire’s piece, and her proposition (or provocation) of the indeterminate sublime as a model for love, I was drawn particularly to her use of a fragment from the Greek poet Sappho, which deserves to be fully restated here:

[un]bending … mind
            … lightly … thinks
… reminding me now
Of Anaktoria gone […]

Impossible … to happen
… human, but to pray for a share
            … and for myself

DeLire’s reading of Sappho’s fragment gestures towards notions of indeterminacy in love (qua the sublime), both in the relation of the lover to the beloved and in the act and experience of love itself. In her reading of Sappho, there is a model of love and loving that eschews the toxicity that, for DeLire, characterizes love under capitalism—a toxic love defined by the logic of commodification and possession (of private property). This logic leads to a reduction of the beloved to an object to be possessed and the collapsing of the horizon of infinity as indeterminacy that she sees as part of the radical potentiality of love and loving.

Matters of love and death have preoccupied me personally, professionally (as a psychoanalyst), and philosophically in recent years. Two texts in particular resonate with me profoundly as I have grappled with these existential concerns. The first of which, written by the philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil, is Gravity and Grace, a posthumously compiled collection of notebooks, first published in 1947. In contrast, the second is the memoir of the philosopher Gillian Rose (sister of the more famous Jacqueline), Love’s Work (1995), published not long before her death from cancer.

For Weil, whose socialism was intimately entangled with her heterodox Christianity (with its notions of charity and poverty) love is ultimately a spiritual affair, a radical act of non-possession, that involves the recognition of the beloved’s absolute otherness without any attempt to control, constrain, or possess them. As she puts it:

The beautiful is that which we cannot wish to change. To assume power over is to soil. To possess is to soil.

To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.

This is a radical act of recognition of the beloved in their singular beauty and uniqueness, but simultaneously an acute awareness of the importance of not attempting to assume power over or possess them out of avarice or untempered desire. Adoration of the distance between lover and the beloved allows for and sustains the infinite dimension of love which DeLire calls for.

While Weil’s notion of love is thoroughly spiritual and somewhat chaste (verging on a renunciation of the world and its sins), Rose’s more erotic portrayal of love allows for the ambiguities and ambivalences that so often characterize our embodied experiences of love and desire. If Weil’s notion of love foregrounds the infinite, Rose’s emphasizes indeterminacy, characterized by her as risk or “staying in the fray.” Love’s Work speaks of friendship and romantic love (both fulfilling and unfulfilling), of forbidden love and infidelity (including an affair with a priest), and of the loss, death, and grieving of loved ones. For Rose, the spiritual purity of love characterized by Weil is an impossibility—love for her is never far removed from the sins of “language and lips.” Yet, in the friendships and romances she recounts from the vantage point of her death’s bed, there is a profound sense of tenderness and generosity in her accounts of the fleeting intimacies she shared with others throughout her life. While the connections we make throughout our lives may often be fraught and temporal, characterized by failure as much as any sense of “success,” this does in no way diminish the significance of our lived experiences of love, loving, and being loved. To quote the epilogue to Love’s Work:

I will stay in the fray, in the reveal of ideas and risk; learning, failing, wooing, grieving, trusting, working, reposing—in this sin of language and lips.

Rose, Gillian. Love’s Work. New York Review of Books, 2011.

Sappho. Sappho: A New Translation of the Complete Works. Translated by Diane J. Rayor, Cambridge UP, 2014.

Weil, Simone. Gravity and Grace. Routledge, 2003.


Richard B. Keys is an artist, writer, educator, and psychoanalyst-in-training whose work operates at the intersection of the psychoanalytic clinic, the arts, and cultural theory. He is interested in the unique capacity of psychoanalysis as a mode of thought, writing, and speech that cuts across social, political, and psychic registers. His writing explores the relationship between literature and scientific formalism that is inherent to psychoanalysis as a linguistic practice. As a writer, his essays have been published by Counterfutures (NZ), Plates (US/NZ), Identities (MK), and &&& (US/DE). He is based in Aotearoa, New Zealand, where he operates a private clinical practice and sees patients internationally.

Richard was featured in Issue 010: JUDGE with his essay “In-Between the Law and Transgression: Desire, Ethics, and Symbolic Destiny in Psychoanalysis.”

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