Why existentialism & love?

When I first discussed the idea of pursuing a PhD with my boyfriend at the time, he said with face reddening and eyes bulging, “But when will you have time for me?”

I didn’t even know where to begin with what was wrong with that question. It summed up the polar differences in our conceptions of a loving relationship. He thought that love trumped all other priorities and was total renunciation of oneself to the other. I wondered whether compromise ought to play a part in romance.

Needless to say, we did not seem to be MFEO (made for each other).

However, it was one of a few defining moments in my thinking that led me to question how romantic loving is supposed to be, how to disentangle differing expectations, and whether it is even possible freely to pursue my own hopes and dreams within a loving relationship. Was it still loving if, given the ultimatum, I chose my authentic pursuits? Was I doomed to be alone forever for being so selfish? Did anyone else face dilemmas such as these? I had mistakenly thought that these tensions were left behind in the 1950s and were only resurrected in The Stepford Wives movie.

An unconventional postgraduate professor first introduced me to existentialism. She had perfect brunette bangs, wore tight black satin dresses adorned with sparkly brooches, and walked with a limp that only added to her mystique. “Brooches are back” she justified to no one in particular in class one evening.

In a lecture about power dynamics, the pace of her voice quickened and the pitch rose when she started speaking about individual freedom in the workplace, referencing Simone de Beauvoir, and Beauvoir’s scoundrel lover and life-long partner Jean-Paul Sartre. These existential lovers spoke about freedom, authenticity and taking responsibility for choices. This was my kind of language. I soaked it up and was left wanting to know more, wanting to know about what other answers they might have.

My flirtation with existentialism wasn’t even extinguished after reading The Mandarins, a great prize-winning novel, but with outdated political plots and interludes. But the relationships in the book enthralled me, as did the raunchy ménage-à-trois in She Came to Stay, with murderous consequences.

These were characters dealing with similar questions to me (with the exception of murder). They were searching for the same kind of answers as to how to reconcile romantic loving and personal passions: how is it possible to love romantically without compromising authenticity?

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