Is “I love you too” more binding than any marriage vow?

With Anne Mei off in Syracuse where an event as trivial as a few feet of snow never cancels classes, and with Toto asleep on the couch, I can think about what to binge watch during the Jonas blizzard this weekend, assuming we still have electricity.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend Transparent on Amazon.  Nominally the series concerns what happens when Mort, the father of the southern California Pfefferman family, decides to transition into Maura.

I think that I can say without giving away any spoilers that the irony of the title of the series arises not just from the transgender parent, but also because Maura and her family are anything but transparent with each other.  For example, when Maura moves out of the family home in Season 1, she gives it to more than one of her three grown children with the admonition “but don’t tell your brother (sister).”  Family secrets and festering resentments drive many of the events over two seasons, almost as much if not more than Maura’s transition.  Those you’ll have to see for yourself.

The series is also not transparent to the viewers on an important background issue: money, and how the family members can afford such a high standard of living in an area where the cost of living is quite high.  Mention is made that Mort is (was?) a political science professor at UCLA.  He goes to an office once or twice in the first season.  He’s never shown teaching.  In 2011 a full professor at UCLA made about $154,000, not enough to support the level of spending going on here, especially when there is no mention of book royalties, consulting or other sources of income.  Who supports his unemployed 30ish daughter who is just getting around to finishing her undergraduate degree?  Who continues to pay mortgage and upkeep expenses for the house after Maura moves out?  Who pays for an expensive remodeling and refurnishing of the house?  There are unmentioned financial aspects of the stories of two of the children that would be the source of worries and disputes for most Americans not in the 1%.  I can’t discuss those without revealing the plot.  Nevertheless, this opacity about money does not spoil the story at all.  If anything it emphasizes the privilege of the people we are watching.

One of the family characteristics that keeps the plot rolling and me watching is rampant narcissism.  About the only Pfefferman who is not a complete narcissist is Shelly, Mort’s ex-wife and mother of the three children.  She has her own neuroses and can even sound hard when pushed, but at heart she is much more caring about other people than is Maura or her children.  Over the course of the series so far, all three children become involved in romantic/sexual relationships, but cannot commit to their partners.

Here is an excerpt from the monologue of one of the children trying to justify having slept around to the other person in the relationship.

The whole polyamory idea is freaking me out. Don’t… That’s the wrong word. It’s not about other people at all. It’s about me and you. It’s about how incredible this is and how amazing you are and how much I love being with you and how, being with you, I’ve become myself, and I… and I want to keep doing that and expanding and getting closer and closer to that, and I know that I will just start shutting down if we have to, you know, make some commitment to… to next year, next month, or… A month? Is that hard for you to think about? A whole month with me or a week? Like tomorrow? Like a day? That would be hard? Or, like, you know, what’s going to happen in an hour? Are we going to be going out in an hour, or is that, like, too hard, like, so locked in? Stop. You’re so locked in by me. Stop it. What? No. Of course tomorrow. I’m just… But yes, like, day to day. Why not? Why not… not burden us with expectations and… Because this isn’t a burden. This is not a burden for me. I can’t do this way. I can’t do this version. That’s not who I am, and you know that. So I’m not doing it. I’m not going to the festival, and I’m not doing this. So figure it out.

Notice that this Pfefferman never says “I love you.”  Just “how much I love being with you.” And more telling “how being with you, I’ve become myself.”  The speaker does not mention wanting to stay with the other for the other’s sake, but in order to keep “expanding and getting closer and closer” to “myself.”  As for the other two siblings, one keeps denying a lack of commitment while behaving exactly the same way, while the third uses a legal loophole to back out of commitment at the last minute.

As someone who opens himself body and soul to love, sometimes quite carnally, Yehuda Amichai celebrates precisely what the Pfeffermans call “burden … expectations … hard … locked.”

Near the cemetery you always find stonecutters and gardeners.
Near the courthouse, lawyers’ offices and phone booths.
Near hope, plenty of despair, and around the train station, hotels.
And in the neighborhood of love, words like “I love you,”
“I love you too,” more binding than any marriage vow.

People like the Pfefferman children may never know the joy of binding with another by responding “I love you too.”  Never feel the jolt of returning the love of a deep look with a gaze that carries a current from heart to heart.

In his exploration of the workings of “face to face,” Emmanuel Levinas helps us understand that before the words “I love you, too” comes the mutual gaze between lovers that binds them because the world witnesses the love in their faces.

Everything that takes place here ‘between us’ concerns everyone, the face that looks at it places itself in the full light of the public order, even if I draw back from it to seek with the interlocutor the complicity of a private relation and a clandestinity.  …  The thou is posited in front of a we.



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