What is it about that first kiss? Ever notice how in the movies the moment people kiss, they seem to fall in love immediately, sometimes against their wills? Is falling in love really that easy? Don’t we have a choice in the matter?
For instance, in the Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal [link] high powered editor-in-chief, Margaret Tate, and her executive assistant, Andrew Paxton, are forced to kiss and unexpectedly discover they have feelings for each other. My reaction was, “Huh? How did that happen?” Especially when they’ve demonstrated nothing but mutual contempt. How do people go from hating each other, to head over heels in love? Only in the movies!
Maybe I missed something and should take a closer look. In the movie, Andrew, played by Ryan Reynolds, agrees to marry Margaret, his boss, played by Sandra Bullock, so that she can stay in the country [view clip]. To convince the immigration office they have to fool everyone, including his friends and family, that they really love each other - no easy task since they’re barely able to contain their total disregard for each other. They go to visit Andrew’s family, who, during a large family gathering, insist that Andrew and Margaret kiss. After a half-hearted and awkward attempt they finally lock in embrace and give it their all… and “voila!” - you can actually see the change come over them. Later on, Andrew explains to Margaret: “three days ago I loathed you…but that changed when we kissed.” There’s our clue: Andrew and Margaret were ALREADY ATTRACTED to each other, but it wasn’t LOVE, it was FASCINATION.
We see it time and again in the movies… the moment the barriers come down, former antagonists are irresistibly drawn to each other. For instance, remember Gone with the Wind and that greatest movie kiss of all time [view clip]. You get the sense that Scarlett has some sort of feelings for Rhett, but is it LOVE or FASCINATION? It’s important to know the difference, but too few of us do. The fact is, Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship is pretty tense throughout, caught as they are in a continuous game of back and forth, a perfect example of MUTUAL FASCINATION [view clip], what Rene Girard (one my favorite thinkers) describes as MIMETIC RIVALRY [link]. It’s caused by MIMESIS [link], the unconscious imitation of others’ desires, which leads us to want whatever it is we believe the other possesses. Left unchecked, FASCINATION can develop into a sort of FATAL ATTRACTION, what Girard terms the MODEL-OBSTACLE relationship [link].
The problem with FASCINATION is that it’s so darn irresistible. We can’t control it. We’re all vulnerable to its manipulations. In The Proposal, Margaret and Andrew describe themselves as “two people that weren’t meant to fall in love,” but they did; all those late nights working together… “something happened, we couldn’t fight it.” Once they realize this and give into their feelings, they can get married and live happily ever after, at least that’s the romantic myth portrayed in the movies, but it’s not reality. In the real world fascination rarely, if ever, ends that way. When the barriers are removed and we find ourselves in close proximity with the other person, the object of our fascination, it’s true each may be irresistibly drawn to embrace the other. But that fascination can get ugly, especially when one or both sides becomes obsessive.
When fascination crosses that threshold it does not respect the other as other. In it’s more developed stages, we not only want to be together all the time, attached at the hip, so to speak, we desire to be like the object of our fascination, to be in their skin so to speak, even to become them. Andrew wants to be Margaret Tate, he wants to be editor-in-chief, that’s what drives him to keep up with her every step, to be always at her beck and call. At times he even imitates her, drinking the same coffee beverage as Margaret: “unsweetened cinnamon lite soy latte.” But in reality the closer they get, the more they imitate each other, the more conflicted their relationship will become. In today’s competitive workplace, where everyone’s convinced they have a right to be the boss, or receive the next promotion, anger, rivalry and resentment tends to run rampant behind the scenes. Just watching one episode of NBC’s The Office is proof enough of that [link].
Rene Girard explains: the social barriers which once prevented the editor-in-chief and her executive assistance from crossing the old thresholds, are quickly disappearing. As Margaret says, its not the first time someone married their secretary, but in the old days, people still knew their place. The secretary would never dream of becoming their boss, and bosses never felt so threatened. Now, free of constraints, there is nothing to prevent our fascination with each other. Margaret, though she wouldn’t dare show it, is equally fascinated with them. She knows that her employees are vying to take her place. Her ability to keep her job actually depends on her maintaining her hold over them, on her ability to manipulate them. LOVE has nothing to do with it, these are really fatal attractions.
So why don’t we realize it until its too late? Because LOVE often looks and feels like FASCINATION, but there’s a crucial difference. In fact it’s so difficult to tell the difference that many seek the advice of experts. For instance, when asked the difference between “love” and “infatuation,” Dear Abby defined love as “giving, not taking. It wants the best for the one you love.” [link] When asked how to deal with a case of fatal attraction in the workplace, Dear Abby recommended contacting a lawyer [link]. This advice barely scratches the surface of the problem. If what Rene Girard says is true, that fascination is both unconscious and infectious in nature, that it’s a widespread condition that influences each and every one one us, how are we to overcome it? In the case of the fatal attraction, the women writing to Dear Abby insists that she has “a rock-hard Christian marriage” that can resist such temptations…. all I can say is, “good luck there.” I wonder, is there even such a thing as a “Christian” response to this dilemma?
In Philippians 3:17-4:1 [link] Paul actually says:
Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us…
Sounds like he’s trying to provoke his reader’s fascination… In the past, scholars actually assumed that Paul’s command to imitate him was an assertion of his authority, a demand for total obedience like that Margaret Tate exacts from her employees. But what if their own confusion between LOVE and FASCINATION has led to a one sided interpretation of Paul’s action? According to biblical scholar, Willard Swartley, Paul invites us to break free of our fascination with each other by focusing our attention on those who have already broken free, by imitating their examples [See Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary].
But be warned, as examples, they are far from fascinating figures, and in fact imitating them may be the most difficult thing of all, the IMPOSSIBLE. Christ died a humiliating death, in total isolation. Out of love, he refused to play games, to manipulate those close to him, to do anything which might draw us irresistibly to him, to bind us in any way. He refused to cross that threshold. As a result, there is nothing attractive about him, except for the space that opens up between us when we do the same.
So instead of Dear Abby, we may choose the advice of postmodern philosopher Jacques Derrida: to love is “to surrender to the other, and this is the impossible, would amount to giving oneself over in going toward the other, to coming toward the other but without crossing the threshold, and to respecting, to loving even the invisibility that keeps the other inaccessible.” (Jacques Derrida, On the Name, 74)
Philosopher-theologian John Caputo explains: the loved other …must remain other, must be kept safe as other,” rather than seize it in the grip of passion, “we must lay down our arms and surrender.” (John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct, 80) Rather than pursue its every step, LOVE let’s the other slip away. [read more: Derrida on Love] So contrary to the movies, LOVE, unlike FASCINATION, does not happen to us against our will, it actually puts space between us and the other. As Girard says, reintroducing this distance may be the only way to gain some freedom in a world caught in the inexorable grip of fascination (see Rene Girard, Battling to the End, 106). LOVE may actually allow us to live in close proximity with others without crossing each others’ threshold. - Sue Wright