Harry Frankfurt’s (and Baruch Spinoza’s) idea of self-love interests me, despite sounding New Agey and schmalzy. The fact that Frankfurt looks like my dad and that Spinoza was a rigorous 17th Century thinker reduces the chances, at least in my eyes, that both men are on the same level as whoever wrote that Whitney Houston hit Greatest Love of All. Frankfurt suggests the reflective self would do well to stop nagging the spontaneous self and find a way to accept and even love it, in the same way you love your own child, despite it often being bloody annoying. He recommends changing what can be changed among your vices and accepting the rest with good grace. This relaxed attitude has little to do with being smugly pleased with yourself.
I have begun to wonder if the familiar advice to live in the present moment might really be a counsel to spend more time with yourself rather than trying to escape yourself. If you are in the same room as someone who gets on your nerves you do all you can to avoid noticing them. You will read a book, watch TV, anything rather than have to engage with them. Yet if you are with someone you love you want to do things with them. Maybe the same is true of yourself. If you don’t much like yourself then best to keep yourself busy. Yet if you like yourself then why not enjoy your company as you might that of your best friend? The following poem, Love after Love by Derek Walcott, gives a taste of what this might be like:
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
I have to confess that imagining this makes me dizzy. Though I sometimes talk to myself, occasionally even addressing myself by name and am often in two minds about something, I never actually think of myself as being two persons, blesséd binity. Still, if the human condition forces self-consciousness on us, forcing us to reflect upon ourselves, why not go the whole hog and treat that other me I am conscious of as a completely different person?
Even so, I’m sceptical. I just can’t imagine being both lover and beloved. Still, no harm in trying I suppose and self-love must surely be preferable to self-hate, as demonstrated here in the final scene of the French film, The Piano Teacher. No good can come of hating yourself.
As I said at the start, I like Harry Frankfurt and that naturally makes me well disposed to his ideas. I wrote a little more about him here. I also saw him here on the Jon Stewart show and thought he looked and behaved like everyone’s favourite uncle. I thought it possible that his nice manner might be proof that his ideas are worth something.