Love for Marcel is “the essential ontological datum,” that is, it is intrinsic to the structure of human existence, of being-as-such, as he conceives it:
Love, in so far as distinct from desire or as opposed to desire [i.e., pure passion, erotic attraction], love treated as the subordination of the self to a superior reality at my deepest level more truly' me than I am myself, love as the breaking of the tension between the self and other, appears to be what we might call the essential ontological datum.
(Marcel. 1965a, p. 167)
What Marcel means by love as “the essential ontological datum” is that it requires a commitment to, and a responsibility' for, the other, one that can only be made when there is mindfulness “of the absolute value and eternity of the person loved” (Keen, 1967, p. 32). As Keen explains, love, also called “unconditional fidelity,” affirms that the beloved is not spiritually' destroyable: “To say that one loves a being ... means ... Thou, at least, thou shalt not die,” as one of Marcel’s characters says in a play (Marcel, 2001b, p. 61). What this means is that love is best understood as “a reality-relation, not an image or a memory' of a shadow, but the ‘still existing’ of what ‘no longer exists,’ an indefectible [not affected by' decay' or failure] non-shadow, non-image” (Cain, 1995, p. 100). Any other assertion is a form of betrayal because to relinquish one’s loved other when they die is to interpret “silence and indivisibility for annihilation” (ibid.). In the mind and heart of the lover, neither the passage of time or even actual death can ultimately destroy the trace of disclosed being of the beloved. While the lover knows that actual physical death is inevitable, in the most evolved form of love, the lover makes the astonishing demand for “everlastingness”; but most importantly, there is the heartfelt pledge that the co-created reality experienced within the relationship is inexhaustible and cannot be snuffed out by death (ibid.). It is, in part, for this reason that Marcel believed that love is the only way to effectively counter the dehumanizing objectification and problematization that so characterize contemporary relationships in our “broken world.” The “broken world” refers to how we have been “leveled” as people according to our functionality (bureaucracy, technology, and social regimentation), and where betrayal and other forms of interpersonal treason are encouraged for practical purposes, such as getting ahead in a job or staying in a loveless marriage for self-serving financial reasons.
In his magnum opus, The Mystery of Being, Marcel states clearly what “genuine” love is, though he notes this is merely a “cut and dried answer” (because it suggests a dualist conception of the lover and the loved) that needs considerable elaboration:
Under what conditions can love be known as genuine? At this stage of our investigation we may be satisfied with saying that my love is the more authentic according as I love less for my own sake, that for what I can hope to obtain from another, and more for the sake of the other.
(Marcel, 2001b, p. 98)
Similar to Buber, and maybe before him, Marcel indicates that “it is possible to transcend the level of the self and the other; it is transcended both in love and in charity [i.e., self-donation, like love of God and neighbor]. Love moves on a ground which is neither that of the self, nor that of the other qua other; I call it the Thou” [what Marcel calls the domain of “mystery,” Bubers “between,” though Marcel also speaks about the “between” co-belonging”] (Marcel, 1965a, p. 167; Marcel, 1967, pp. 43, 46).33
In these two quotations, we begin to apprehend that all love involves a radical openness to the other, what Marcel calls “disposability” or “spiritual availability” (henceforth, “availability”). Availability is a certain kind of openness and receptivity to the other as exemplified in love, fidelity, faith (including grace), and hope. Such an existential preparedness involves being “permeable”; however, Marcel further refines his phenomenological analysis by using the evocative word “porosity,” as easy to cross, infiltrate, and penetrate, to point to the inner state of readiness that makes the experience of love possible (Marcel, 1964, p. 87).34 Marcel converges these notions in his discussion of love by describing love as equivalent to “communion.” Communion can be roughly defined as the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the give-and-take is on a deeply psychological or spiritual level. While Marcel says communion emanates from love, in fact “communion is love” (Gallagher, 1962, p. 78).That is, while the other can be responded to as other (though not as an absolute or wholly other, which would make him or her inaccessible and un-addressable; Treanor, 2006),35 there is the likelihood for communion between the self and other that acts like a modulating bridge between them as they engage in person-to-person participation. In other words, for Marcel, unlike perhaps Levinas, “the independent inner reality of the other person is not violated or diminished by his participation in an intersubjective relationship with the self, a relationship that takes place in a shared reality” (ibid., p. 100). Marcel does not hold that participation in shared reality, including a universal shared reality, inevitably means the loss or subversion of independent, individual realities or the others otherness. In other words, universality is not to be confused with totality, as Levinas claims (ibid.).
In light of the aforementioned, the main aspects of Marcel’s notion of love can be briefly summarized (Gallagher, 1962, pp. 78-79). First, love does not pertain to a hermetically sealed or monadic essence but, instead, opens up onto an infinity a kind of presence which no kind of actuarial or calculative thinking can pin down or deplete. Second, the beloved is in a certain sense beyond anything except a superficial characterization—for example, she is sweet and funny—or judgment—for example, she acted mean and selfish—for this implies that the totality of what constitutes the beloved qua beloved can be objectified as if she were merely a finite thing or thing-like. And finally, love engages the being of the beloved and not simply one’s notion, conception or idea of her. The beloved’s presence is more than, and different than, what one can say in words, however well crafted (it is more presence than content, more testimonial than description).36
Thus, for Marcel, similar to Buber, love is the ultimate expression of intersubjective communion, an act of mutual, unique, non-objectifiable, and personal relationship in which two persons surrender themselves to each other’s presence with the fullness of their whole being. For Marcel, love when experientially described “is a union of lover and loved, a participation of each in the reality of the other” (Anderson, 2006, p. 142), a co-created relationship in which paradoxically two people “become one while yet remaining two” (“each in being himself makes the other be”) (Machado, 1961, pp. 55, 60).37 Love thus reflects one aspect of the “mystery of being,” an aspect of human experience that reassuringly points to an eternal, infinite, Divine reality which provides ultimate meaning, value and truth, what Marcel calls “ontological weight,” to human existence (Marcel, 1965a, p. 103). “Real love,” says Marcel, presupposes “the active recognition, in God and through God, of the bond which constitutes all real love” (Marcel, 2001b, p. 98). However, Marcelian love, conceived of as the “royal road” to access the “mystery of being,” always includes fidelity and hope, which I want to briefly describe.
How can a partner astonishingly promise to love their significant other forever? For Marcel, fidelity, that free (and, most importantly, freely chosen), flowing, unrestrained self-donation, is an expression of one’s intimate being, a self-giving that is grounded in the mystery of being, that “plenitude” that affirms our most profound exigence (irrepressible urge) as a person, our conviction that serving both the other and God (to the believer, or the transcendent for the non-believer) is the main purpose of our being in the world (for Marcel and Buber, it appears essence precedes existence, unlike the atheistic existentialists who believe existence precedes essence).38 Put more straightforwardly, it is through the loving engagement with and belief in the finite empirical “thou s” goodness that one is able to assert, “I will love thee forever.” A belief in the eternal goodness of the finite other is a form of bonding with and witness to the infinite, all-good God that is also supremely self-affirming to the believer. Fidelity, in part a volitional act of commitment and responsibility to and for the other, is rooted in a willingness to remain “available,” “open,” and responsive to the others needs and wishes, often before one’s own. Marcel calls this continuous, dynamic, transformative openness to participation and self-giving “permeability” (Marcel, 1964, p. 172). As Cain so aptly suggests, the type of promise-making that embodies the highest form of Marcelian fidelity “is an act of‘consecration’ in response to the call or manifestation of transcendence ... a unity of personal decision and transcendent command is involved” (Cain, 1995, p. 124). In other words, “personal self-creation” as it applies to faithfulness in a relationship requires a receptivity “to transcendent, supra-personal reality” in which the person is ultimately satisfied. It requires “self-consecration and self-sacrifice to something beyond oneself—a ‘creative fidelity’ to being” (Cain, 1963, p. 81). According to Marcel then, fidelity to the empirical “thou,” the loved other, calls to mind the “Absolute Thou,” God, that transcendent reality of “infinite plentitude” (Marcel, 1964, p. 37), which is experienced as a cherished person intimately related to me (Anderson, 2006, p. 68).To reside in this dimension of the spirit characterized by fidelity to the thou/AbsoluteThou is a manifestation of fidelity to being, to the peace of being. Being is an opaque fullness, fulfillment that quickens and refreshes as it points to the eternal/transcendent in one’s existential circumstances (Gallagher, 1962). Anderson aptly summarizes why it is thus possible to promise unconditional fidelity to one’s beloved (or good friend), why I feel compelled by the promise I made: Such a person experiences “albeit vaguely, both his being and his beloved’s being participating in an eternal dimension of reality which can only be described as personal or supra-personal [‘a supra-temporal depth of myself, my eternal being’]—or, as he [Marcel] prefers to say, as an Absolute Thou. It is apparently in the veiled experience of such a Being, who is the absolute ground and guarantee of our fidelity, that we glimpse the promise that the complete fulfillment of our intersubjective union, and hence of ourselves, will take place in Eternity” (Anderson, 1985, pp. 280-281).
Thus, the person who lives his human and non-human relationships with “creative fidelity”—fidelity conceived of “as the hold the other has over us”— tends to experience his life at a “higher” level of autonomy and integration, at a “higher” register of being, certainly compared to someone who betrays the trust placed in me (Marcel, 1965a, p. 46). What is “creative” about “creative fidelity” is the lover’s will and ability to engage in “constant reinvocation of the presence of the other,” and not to be utterly reduced to two thing-like organisms emotionally blunted by everyday routine (Wood, 1999, p. 89). It is this theme of unfaithfulness—“betrayal as evil in itself,” as Marcel describes it—that Marcel was deeply troubled about (Marcel, 1965a, p. 41). Betrayal for Marcel was a form of self-obsession or “self-worship,” of “unavailability,” of “closed-in-ness”; it is a way of staying riveted to the selfish self and indifferent to the other and the higher claims of intersubjectivity, an entitled way of being that claims through one’s words and actions that “I am,” rather than “we are.” If, as Marcel says, “being,” authentic selfhood “is the place of fidelity,” then non-being, inauthentic selfhood is the place of betrayal.
And finally, Marcel claims that like fidelity, hope is always an aspect of love (in fact,fidelity/hope/love are deeply entwined).39 Indeed, unlike desire, which is focused on what one wants for oneself (e.g., to possess a paramour), hope focuses on the we and the thou: “I hope in thee for us,” an affirmation accentuating that to hope involves being other-directed, other-regarding and other-serving. While Marcel grasps that hope is a scale concept often enacted in trivial contexts (e.g. like hoping one’s sports team wins), this is not the hope he is describing (Gallagher, 1962). “Hope,” says Marcel,
consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data, beyond all inventories and all calculations, a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me, which cannot but will that which I will, if what I will deserves to be willed and is, in fact, willed by the whole of my being.
(Marcel, 1995, p. 28)
Hope is thus is an expression of that irrepressible human urge towards “something more,” “something higher,” and “something better,” towards transcendence (that “unknown and higher dimension of reality attainable through human experience”; Cain, 1963, p. 115); it “is engaged in the weaving of experience now in process or, in other words, is an adventure now going forward” (Marcel, 1965b, p. 52).40 Hope, says Marcel, is an “exigency,” a fundamental impulse or striving of being, “a deep-rooted interior urge ... an appeal” (Marcel, 2001b, p. 37) and thus is one of the fundamental ways in which freedom is affirmed. Hope, when it is joined with a robust imagination, generates the freedom to expand possibility: “I act freely if the motives of my act are in line with what I can legitimately regard as the structural features of my personality” (Marcel, 1973, p. 86). What needs to be emphasized here is that for Marcel hope is better conceived of as “hoping”; that is, the phenomenology of hope reveals that it is not simply a fixed idea that one possesses, but rather a processive, emergent and renewable psychological and behavioral activity that tends to upsurge in particularly challenging contexts,41 in “extreme” situations of imprisonment. “Hope,” says Marcel, “is a response to tragedy” (Pruyser, 1963, p. 92). While there is much more to Marcelian hope, perhaps the clearest summary of what Marcel is getting at, at least as it pertains to the love relationship, can be found in his masterpiece, Homo Viator, Introduction to a Metaphysic of Hope:
We might say that hope is essentially the availability of a soul that has entered intimately enough into the experience of communion [the love relation] to accomplish in the teeth of will and knowledge the transcendental act [an act that is not restricted to what our desires are and what we reckon]—the act establishing the vital regeneration of which this experience affords both the pledge and the first-fruits [the love relation is an experience already ours, and also an inkling of what could possibly be], (Marcel, 1965b, p. 67)
Hope thus requires a willing receptivity and engagement with others; in fact, it is this aspect of hoping that Marcel claims is its foundation: “There can be no hope which does not constitute itself through a we and for a we” (Marcel, 1973, p. 143). Most importantly, in Marcel’s ontology it is this characteristic of hope that points to God. For Marcel, it is one’s relationship to others, most directly and profoundly one’s loving relationships, those animated by Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, that are the “royal road” to the transcendent God. God, the Divine realm, can thus be conceptualized as “the ‘Absolute Thou’ who lurks in the truncated experience of presence felt as human communion” (Early & Gallagher, 2003, p. 134). Such a point of entry to the summoning God is not beyond everyday experience, but within it, what to the believer is embraced as moments of holiness (Marquez, 2017). “The way to heaven,” Marcel warned, “is to dig down deep where you are” (Cain, 1963, p. 81). Marcel spoke of the “ontological exigence,” an impulse or urge that was the bedrock of the human condition, an irrepressible need, even a “demand” for the presence of being. Marcel’s “being is an ‘Absolute Thou,’ not the whole of reality, a particular being, not being in general,” but rather his God is an impulse to which we are mysteriously tied, “immanent in yet transcending our experience, to which we have access by the act we are at liberty to realize or not” (Kosthal, 1964, p. xii). It is, as I have said, by way of communion broadly described, that one creatively pursues the Absolute Thou, a way of being that is also self-authenticating and the basis for one’s self-presence (Pax, 1975, p. 20).42 “Perpetual renewal,” says Cain,“and continual self-intimacy” thus “go together” (Cain, 1995, p. 111). It is through the intimations of hoping and the cautious confidence regarding the future it implies that is the surest testimony of the Godly, mysterious realm (Cooper, 1998, p. 92). In a word, one becomes irrepressibly aware of the transcendent and bountiful nature of being, at its best. Love then for Marcel, like Buber, demands prior to anything else the free, flowing, and unrestrained availability enacted as the joyful welcoming of the other as Thou.