Emotional Control   /   Spring 2010   /    Emotional Control

Love and Its Discontents: Irony, Reason, Romance

Eva Illouz

Reflecting on the impact of the French Revolution on social mores, Edmund Burke mused on what was in store for humanity:

All the pleasing illusions that made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life…are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our weak and shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.3

Burke anticipates what would become one of the chief sources of the dynamism and discontent of modernity, namely the fact that beliefs—in transcendence and authority—become accountable to Reason. And, for Burke, far from auguring a progress in our condition, “the Empire of light and reason” exposes us to truths we cannot bear. For, Burke says, as power withers away, our illusions will also fade, and this new nakedness will leave us immensely vulnerable, exposing and revealing both to ourselves and to others the true ugliness of our condition. The scrutinizing of social relations by the implacable gaze of Reason can only tear down the harmonious web of meanings and relationships on which traditional power, obedience, and fealty rested. For only lies and illusions can make the violence of social relationships bearable. To be tolerable, human existence requires a modicum of myths, illusions, and lies. Put differently, Reason’s indefatigable attempts to unmask and track down the fallacies of our beliefs will leave us shivering in the cold, for only beautiful stories—not truth—can console us.

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