Why We Need Distance

The expression, “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, is as true today as it was in 29 BC, when the Roman poet Sextus wrote (the first version of it) in his Elegies. The trouble is, today, we are all too accessible. Absence is disappearing. Everybody can be reached — by phone or social media, by rapid/ cheap travel. In his book, The Agony of Eros, the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that:

Today, more and more, dignity, decency, and propriety — matters of maintaining distance — are disappearing. That is, the ability to experience the Other in terms of his or her otherness is being lost. By means of social media, we seek to bring the Other as near as possible, to close any distance between ourselves and him or her, to create proximity. But this does not mean that we have more of the Other; instead, we are making the Other disappear

Without distance, love suffers. But why does distance make the heart grow fonder? According to Stendhal, the author of The Red and the Black (1830) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), love is all about imagination, and loving from afar requires more imagination. Freud’s term for this imaginative investment is cathexis; ‘the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object (especially to an unhealthy degree)’. Stendhal’s term is crystallization; ‘a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one’.

Stendhal developed the concept of crystallization after falling in love with a woman named Mathilde. Unfortunately, she did not reciprocate and so Stendhal turned to writing as an outlet for all he was experiencing. The result: one of the greatest expositions of love and the constitutive role of the imagination:

Crystallization goes on throughout love almost without a break. The process is something like this: whenever all is not well between you and your beloved, you crystallize out an imaginary solution. Only through imagination can you be sure that your beloved is perfect in any given way

In this instance, the beloved is like Walter Benjamin’s ‘cult object’ which derives its value from its inaccessibility:

“Cult value” depends on existence, not on exhibition. The practice of locking sacred items in an inaccessible room, and thereby withdrawing them from visibility, heightens their cult value. For example, some images of the Madonna remain covered almost all year. Only priests may approach certain divine statues

In our information-saturated and transparency-obsessed society, ‘everything is measured by its exhibition value’. Nothing is sacred. The distinction between the private and public domain is disappearing — replaced by a pornographic ‘excess of display’.

As Han writes in The Transparency Society, erotic tension requires ‘equivocation and ambivalence, mystery and enigma’. Without this, we are forced into a different sort of eroticism; the only kind that thrives in transparency: namely, voyeurism.

The Voyeurs (2021)

A voyeur is someone who watches people do things (usually sexual things) they probably don’t want to be seen. Historically, this has been a taboo position. Jean-Paul Sartre cleverly demonstrates this in his famous ‘keyhole’ thought-experiment, which goes as follows:

Imagine that you are spying through a keyhole at some scene on the other side. You are absorbed in what you are witnessing, losing all sense of yourself. Until! You hear footsteps behind you. Someone is looking at you. You suddenly are aware of yourself and feel a sense of shame (you probably even feel shame on behalf of this hypothetical voyeur). The average person would be mortified in such a position. Shame thus acts as a deterrent. However, today, things are set up in a way that makes voyeurs of us all — without any of the shame. The prime culprit in this is, of course, social media, which allows us to anonymously pry into each other’s lives with impunity.

The Woman in the House Across the Street from the Girl in the Window (2022)

Social media stalking is not only considered acceptable, it is considered prudent. A passage in Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts perfectly captures this (and the process of crystallization) well:

I crafted an email in my head as I threaded through the bridge’s daytime crowd and reflected on the clear signals of attraction Felix had projected, clear signals of attraction being some of the most appealing things to reflect on. Every instance of possibly prolonged eye contact counted as evidence, but I don’t know why I was focusing on these when I had in front of me the clearest signal of all, that when I dropped him off at his apartment on the way to the train he said, “Well, I guess we’ll never see each other again,” in a wistful kind of voice that suggested he might have been sad or he might have been joking, and then he gave me his email address. Already I was heading in the direction of fixation. When I met someone I liked I wanted him in my orbit, virtually or physically or mentally, at all times; I would want to know what he was thinking and doing and saying when I was not around; I would want to account for him. I’m aware this is considered unhealthy. I also suspect it’s normal, that it’s the aloof, pointedly independent people who should be checked on and deemed dysfunctional. The train came and I almost missed it because I wasn’t paying attention

The desire to ‘fixate’ on one’s lover has always existed. (As Eva Illouz notes, ‘the serotonin effects of being in love have a chemical appearance similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder, which would explain why we seem not to be able to think of anyone else when we are in love’). The difference is, today, technology enables our fixations. It enables us to bring the ‘other’ into our orbit ‘virtually or physically or mentally, at all times’. In his book De L’Amour, Stendhal writes that the ‘ideal breeding-ground for love is the boredom of solitude, with the occasional long-awaited ball’. I personally believe that the present terrain is the ideal breeding-ground for fleeting infatuations ‘doomed to immediate devouring’.

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