The Shape of Love

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is a truism. Nonetheless, that does not lessen the value of a book’s title. Selecting the right title is important, like giving the right name to your child. I chose The Shape of Love to introduce my book about the importance of moral virtue, and its rootedness in love. Love transforms us. It gives us a certain shape, so to speak. Our lives are shaped by love, and that shape should be evident to others. If we live by virtue, our lives should take on a certain luster. We can think of the face of Jesus, or the actions of any number of the saints.

After my book was published, I came across another book bearing the same title. Gelsey Kirkland, a ballet legend and superstar of the dance world, also saw fit to title her book, a biography The Shape of Love. The “shape” to which she alluded is the beautiful shape the ballerina achieves as she performs Romeo and Juliet, Sleeping Beauty, and other ballet classics. The title is most appropriate, although referring to the body rather than one’s life in general. The “ballet is about love,” Kirkland tells her readers. No one would counter such a claim.

Each of these books refers to a beautiful shape that is formed by love. At the same time, love is a quality that rises from within the person. Suppose, however, that one could achieve a certain shape that is merely the product of one’s will? Is such a maneuver even possible? In today’s world, where the will is given centrality, the idea has become very popular.

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Consider the 2017 romantic fantasy, The Shape of Water, which the American Film Institute hailed as one of the top ten movies of the year. In this film, the main character is abandoned at infancy by the side of a river. She is a mute who finds work as a cleaner in a secret government laboratory, and falls in love with a watery creature—a humanoid amphibian. At the close of the movie, she develops gills and lives “happily ever after” in a watery environment, remaining steadfastly in love with the Amphibian Man.

Despite all of the awards the movie garnered, film critic Rex Reed of the New York Observer, called it “a loopy, lunkheaded load of drivel”. He may have been right on the mark. Although the theme fits snugly into our modern-day assumptions, it is, from a philosophical point of view, purely fantastical.

Jean-Paul Sartre is the philosophical forerunner to absolutizing freedom so that a person can form himself—achieve his shape, we might say—purely through the force of his will. This notion of absolute freedom is very attractive to many who may be discontent about the thought of being affixed to a stereotype. Would it not be glorious if one could be anything he wanted to be? For Sartre, we define ourselves in time through our choices. Being born male or female, therefore, would not limit people to a specific gender. People could change gender, have no gender, or slide from one gender to another. Terms such as bisexual, pansexual, omnisexual, asexual, and non-monosexual have come into our language.

Sartre, an atheist existentialist, provided a simple, straightforward principle to enunciate his notion of wide-open freedom. He states “existence precedes essence”. When I first came across this statement I regarded it as the most philosophically indefensible claim I had ever read. It belonged, I thought, to the category of jokes. According to the more realistic thoughts that belong to the tradition of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “existence does not exist”. Things exist. Being exist. Wherever there is existence, there is always something that exists. But existence cannot exist all by itself, no more than one hand can clap or that there could be a smile without a face. How could anyone believe for one second that a person could be completely lacking in any essence or nature, and yet somehow have the capacity to make choices? At least such a being would have the essence of a choice-maker.

Water, as we all know, has no shape. It is fluid. The only shape it can have belongs to the container in which it is placed. But we are not watery creatures seeking an alien shape. We are human beings who have a destiny that is rooted in our being. We are born with the capacity to love. It is love that gives us our shape, not our will. The LGBTQ+ consortium, however, is insisting that freedom of choice, contrary to what Genesis teaches, precedes sexual identity. Therefore, we can be whatever we want to be. But if we are “nothing” to begin with, we are doomed to that barren state because nothing comes from nothing. In truth, we are God’s creatures, endowed with His image and likeness, and given the opportunity to become who we are.

The view that man is a nothing, looking to be a something, is an impoverished idea. We are made in a way that our inherent capacities for love, knowledge, truth, beauty, justice, goodness, and so on are available for our benefit, our delight, and our beatitude. We are beings who have been given freedom. But our freedom is not absolute. We are not free to unmake ourselves and become something other than ourselves. We are free to be ourselves. We are free to say “yes” to the way God made us. That is a freedom that is both realistic and rewarding. It is a freedom that honors the myriad gifts that God has made available to us. Let the shape of our love be the shape that God had in mind when He created us.

[Image: Romeo and Juliet by James Northcote]


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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