I’ve always believed it is the job of the book reviewer to meet the book where it is, to evaluate it according to the terms it sets out for itself, its own goals and priorities. The problem with “The Enduring Kiss,” however, is that it doesn’t meet us where we are. Though Recalcati offers a more appealing and robust version of love than Freud does, the book falls so far short of acknowledging how we actually experience and practice love in the 21st century that it feels like an artifact from an earlier era.
Here is, for example, a list of things the book seems to pretend do not exist: online dating, single parents, flexible gender roles, people who are aromantic or asexual, folks who practice any form of polyamory or nonmonogamy, those who are happily unpartnered, those who operate outside the gender binary, and, finally, thinkers or philosophers who aren’t White men. It’s not that Recalcati simply ignores these things, it’s that the vision of love he constructs on the page is a total heteronormative eclipse that obscures the light of their existence.
Though he briefly acknowledges the possibility of “lesbian or homosexual” love about two-thirds of the way through the book, Recalcati quickly assimilates it into straight love, citing French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as he says that, even if love is not heterosexual “in the anatomical sense,” it is “in a profoundly ethical sense.” (If this is confusing to you, know that I have read the passage several times and still don’t fully comprehend Recalcati’s meaning. I thought perhaps the problem was my lack of familiarity with Lacan, but diving into his work has not clarified things.)
Despite these significant omissions, the prose confidently makes one sweeping generalization after another: “falling in love, like madness, is not an act of will”; “love always implies a desire to appropriate”; “it is beyond doubt that love, for men, is an experience that erodes their identity”; “no woman truly knows what it means to be a woman.”
Occasionally the book’s proclamations yield flashes of real wisdom. “It is never a good thing to amputate a part of oneself,” Recalcati writes, “to mutilate one’s own life by offering it in sacrifice to those we love.” In the chapter on jealousy, I found myself nodding along, thinking of a friend who could use Recalcati’s advice: “Love is not possible if there is not complete trust in an Other that I know I can never truly know.”
Throughout, the book strikes an uneasy balance between attempting to offer insight and insisting that love is fundamentally unknowable and that the vast majority of us are doomed to get it wrong. “Is it really possible to give lessons on love?” Recalcati asks in the introduction, before quickly answering his own question: “Obviously not. It is never possible to explain love, never possible to reduce love to a concept.” This feels like a strange admission, given the lessons promised by the book’s subtitle — not to mention that it conveniently ignores the many scholars and scientists who have devoted entire careers to bringing new and valuable insight to how we love.
In her book “What Love Is: And What It Could Be,” philosopher Carrie Jenkins coined the term “the romantic mystique” to describe our shared cultural assumption that love is fundamentally incomprehensible. The danger of this assumption, she argues, is that it encourages us “to accept love’s ‘nature,’ passively and uncomprehendingly, instead of trying to resist or alter it.” Believing love to be unknowable is a wholly disempowering stance toward something with enormous consequences for our daily lives. Critic and theorist Bell Hooks argues that defining love as something we feel, rather than as something we do, can make it difficult to recognize unhealthy and even abusive relationship patterns.
These thinkers, among others, have insisted not only that is love knowable but that learning to think about it in more sophisticated ways can make us smarter, kinder, better lovers. Given that Recalcati cites only two women — both White, one a poet and one a novelist — in his 66 citations, it seems unlikely that he has encountered ideas like these that might genuinely empower readers. Instead, his “lessons” feel less like an offering and more like a circular conversation among European men whose real love is the sound of their own voices.
The Enduring Kiss
Seven Short Lessons on Love
Translated by Alice Kilgarriff
97 pp. $19.95 paperback