Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MOLIERE: The Misanthrope (Act IV: Love Is Blind)

Love is blind. You’ve probably heard that one before. Pop quiz: who said it? Hint: whenever you’re asked who said something and you don’t know, guess Shakespeare. He said so many things that eventually made their way into common English usage. In this case, you would be correct. Shakespeare did write that love is blind, several times. It appears in three of his plays, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry V and The Merchant of Venice. “Love is blind” seems to be a universal proverb, probably because love is a universal phenomenon common to all human cultures. Everyone, everywhere, at some point, falls in love and gets a broken heart. All human cultures confirm this. Here’s confirmation from Brazil: Love is blind, so you have to feel your way. Here’s a Danish proverb: Love is blind and thinks that others don’t see either. My personal favorite is the one from Mexico: Love is blind, but not the neighbors.
In the fourth act of The Misanthrope, Moliere doesn’t explicitly come out and say love is blind. But he does something better: he shows it to us and lets us see how it works. It goes like this. Alceste is in love with Celimene. Now any fool can see that Celimene is the last person Alceste should be in love with. Alceste knows this himself but, what can he say, love is blind. He loves her anyway. And here’s the weird thing, Eliante (Celimene’s cousin) knows that Alceste is in love with Celimene, but she loves him anyway. Go figure. And to make matters worse, Alceste’s friend (Philinte) knows all this. He knows that Alceste loves Celimene and he knows that Eliante loves Alceste. This is what makes it strange: Philinte, even knowing all this, has fallen madly in love with Eliante! What’s going on here? To quote Shakespeare: love is blind.
This situation is like another old saying: the blind leading the blind. Pop quiz: who said that? No, it wasn’t Shakespeare. (That trick doesn’t work every time.) This old saying was taken from the Bible. But the meaning applies well in this play. None of these characters seem to be able to choose who they fall in love with. Even when they know it’s crazy, they can’t help it. Alceste puts it best when he says: “I know that love’s irrational and blind; I know the heart’s not subject to the mind, and can’t be reasoned into beating faster; I know each soul is free to choose its master…” Alceste may be right, but he could be wrong. Each soul may be free to choose its own master, or it may not. If love really is irrational, no amount of reasoning will persuade the heart otherwise. If love really is blind, no amount of insight will persuade the heart otherwise. Why? In Moliere’s opinion, it’s because the heart is not subject to the mind. Regardless of what Plato or Aristotle say about the mind ruling the body, when it comes to love all that philosophy stuff goes out the window. Passion takes control. Philosophy is good in its place and Alceste is something of a philosopher himself. But when he sees Celimene… he can’t help himself. He loves her. And he loves her in spite of the kind of woman she is. Celimene represents everything Alceste is against as a philosopher. On the other hand, as a lover Celimene represents everything he wants. And it’s driving him crazy that she’s flirting with other men.
As we said before, any fool can see that this won’t turn out well for Alceste. Celimene isn’t his type. He wants to get away from it all and live like a hermit, except with Celimene by his side. For her part, Celimene is most alive when she’s in a social group gossiping about friends and neighbors, the very thing that Alceste detests. In Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Mark Antony is destroyed by a similar love for Cleopatra. Her hedonistic Egyptian ways are diametrically opposed to the old stoic Roman virtues. But Antony can’t help it, he loves her. And so from one generation to the next, Moliere and Shakespeare show us that love is blind.


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