Love & Its Disintegration

Man's happiness today consists in 'having fun.' Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and 'taking in' commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies -- all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones -- and the eternally disappointed ones.

-- Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

The passages below have been excerpted from "Love & Its Disintegration In Western Society," a chapter in Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving (New York: Harper & Row, 1956), pp. 2-3, 72-74.

"Our whole culture is based on the appetite for buying, on the idea of a mutually favorable exchange. Modern man's happiness consists in the thrill of looking at the shop windows, and in buying all that he can afford to buy, either for cash or on installments. He (or she) looks at people in a similar way. For the man an attractive girl -- and for the woman an attractive man -- are the prizes they are after. 'Attractive' usually means a nice package of qualities which are popular and sought after on the personality market. What specifically makes a person attractive depends on the fashion of the time, physically as well as mentally. During the twenties, a drinking and smoking girl, tough and sexy, was attractive; today the fashion demands more domesticity and coyness. At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of this century, a man had to be aggressive and ambitious -- today he has to be social and tolerant -- in order to be an attractive 'package'. At any rate, the sense of falling in love develops usually only with regard to such human commodities as are within reach of one's own possibilities for exchange. I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities. Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market...

"Modern capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardized and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience -- yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim -- except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead.

"What is the outcome? Modern man...has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing marketing conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness: first of all the strict routine of bureaucratized, mechanical work, which helps people to remain unaware of their most fundamental human desires, of the longing for transcendence and unity. Inasmuch as the routine alone does not succeed in this, man overcomes his unconscious despair by the routine of amusement, the passive consumption of sounds and sights offered by the amusement industry; futhermore by the satisfaction of buying ever new things, and soon exchanging them for others. Modern man is actually close to the picture Huxley describes in his Brave New World: well fed, well clad, satisfied sexually, yet without self, without any except the most superficial contact with his fellow men, guided by the slogans which Huxley formulated so succinctly, such as: 'When the individual feels, the community reels'; or 'Never put off till tomorrow the fun you can have today,' or, as the crowning statement: 'Everybody is happy nowadays.' Man's happiness today consists in 'having fun.' Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and 'taking in' commodities, sights, food, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies -- all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a big bottle, a big breast; we are the sucklers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones -- and the eternally disappointed ones. Our character is geared to exchange and to receive, to barter and to consume; everything, spiritual as well as material objects, becomes an object of exchange and of consumption.

"The situation as far as love is concerned corresponds, as it has by necessity, to this social character of modern man. Automatons cannot love; they can exchange their 'personality packages' and hope for a fair bargain. One of the most significant expressions of love, and especially of marriage with this alienated structure, is the idea of the 'team'. In any number of articles on happy marriage, the ideal described is that of the smoothly functioning team. This description is not too different from the idea of a smoothly functioning employee; he should be 'reasonably independent,' co-operative, tolerant, and at the same time ambitious and aggressive. Thus, the marriage counselor tells us, the husband should 'understand' his wife and be helpful. He should comment favorably on her new dress, and on a tasty dish. She, in turn, should understand when he comes home tired and disgruntled, and should listen attentively when he talks about his business troubles, should not be angry but understanding when he forgets her birthday. All this kind of relationship amounts to is the well-oiled relationship between two persons who remain strangers all their lives, who never arrive at a 'central relationship,' but who treat each other with courtesy and who attempt to make each other feel better.

"In this concept of love and marriage the main emphasis is on finding a refuge from an otherwise unbearable sense of aloneness. In 'love' one has found, at last, a haven from aloneness. One forms an alliance of two against the world, and this egoism a deux is mistaken for love and intimacy."

Further Reading:

"Homo Consumens." An overview of Fromm's thinking on contemporary society.

 

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