Famed writer C.S. Lewis, best known for his Chronicles of Narnia series, as well as his Screwtape Letters (which have been adapted for the theater) was a fellow at Oxford University, a chair person at Cambridge University, and also a leading Christian theologian in the 20th Century. I “rediscovered” him via an essay collection edited by Lesley Walmsley which lead me to explore all of his remaining fictions and additional philosophical works.
One of his shortest and most profound pieces was a book entitled The Four Loves. With Valentine’s Day as the highlight of February, each week we explore one of the “four loves” and attempt to explain it through art. I found the The Four Loves valuable to me as a writer of fiction and expect it might be valuable to visual artists as well in that it well explains that “emotional something” that often seems to “push” us from behind into a variety of situations. Writers of fiction may enjoy The Four Loves as a timeless exploration into what motivates character, while artists may enjoy the book as intellectual challenge of depicting some of the most common emotions known to man.
Lewis addresses each of the loves from the perspective of “love by necessity” and “love by gift.” In the simplest sense, the “receiver” of a type of love as well as the “giver.” By breaking it down like that, he explores what he considers healthy or ideal forms of each type of love as well as their inversions, excesses, and even perversions.
I’ve selected paintings that I feel do justice to the concepts as explained by Lewis. The book is highly recommended.
The first of The Four Loves is named after the Greek word “Storge” which focuses on the bond of empathy, or affection.
We get a decent picture of empathy and affection, taking a look at three paintings:
Paul Peel‘s Mother Love
Briton Rivière‘s Cupboard Love
Norman Rockwell‘s Doctor and Doll
I enjoy Mother Love because it depicts the bond between mother and child. In the book, Lewis speaks of those whom are needy receivers of love that place extravagant demands on the giver, yet then points to the child whom could almost be considered ‘greedy/needy’ for love by necessity. Likewise, the mother whom placates the child is not like the “enabler” in an unhealthy relationship between adults but a wellspring of affection which symbolizes one of the most fundamental human relationships.
Yet, it’s not necessarily too quick to then think of the overbearing parent whom spoils a child rotten. The painting Mother Love symbolizes this ideal empathy well in that it is a beautiful painting without much actual beauty. The scene is rather homely, the mother with her exposed feet isn’t the typical ‘siren’ depicted in classical art — yet, despite the unappealing surroundings, the image itself does well to play on the viewers sense of empathy. It’s interesting how what we focus on is not necessarily the tangible aesthetic qualities of the art work, but what they symbolize and imply.
Peel further drives the point home with the adorable kittens playing in the foreground. Apparently, cute kittens aren’t a pet interest of YouTube millennials, but a timeless wonder that have been enthralling viewers for at least the past 120 years.
Next up, we take a look at Cupboard Love from 1882. It doesn’t take much analysis to interpret that there just might be ‘treats’ in that cupboard. The affection that transpires between master and dog is one that dog lovers everywhere can empathize with. In terms of giver/receiver, the owner takes satisfaction in response granted by the proposed receiver of treats. Though the subject of this picture is wholly a dog/human relationship, it conjures up the dog in all of us that enjoys random acts of kindness when bestowed by total strangers or those in positions of authority.
Lastly, in Rockwell’s Doctor and Doll we see the darker side of affection, yet portrayed in the lightest possible manner. A kind doctor indulges a child’s concern for a ‘sick’ doll. While we are able to smile at this semi-absurd picture, we can also recognize that perhaps the child is the one that is truly ‘sick.’ If the adults in this child’s life were to continue to indulge the child’s fantastical delusions, imagine what type of maladjusted adult that kid might grow into. Abstracting the darkest meaning from this painting: think of the deluded people around you that you humor in order to avoid conflict — and then wonder (in terms of the giver/receiver relationship) whom if any gains by this type of farce? In a way, this painting is funny because Rockwell understands the inherent absurdity of the human condition and puts a happy face on it — he allows us to recognize the unhealthy side of affection and laugh at it. Yet, what if Rockwell had presented this not as a doctor examining a child’s doll, but a doctors indulging a neurotic patient whom sees sickness even in health.
Next week, for Valentine’s Day, we take a look at the 2nd type of love, Friendship, which is the key not only for the Valentine’s Day of ‘today’ but that of ever after.