The Art of Receptivity: Hilton Als on Love

“The thing seemingly freely given often isn’t. It is rare to receive the gift of love, for instance, from someone who doesn’t want to be celebrated for their generosity in having offered it.”


The Art of Receptivity: Hilton Als on Love

“The temperament to which Art appeals,” Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “is the temperament of receptivity.” If art and love are one, as Vincent van Gogh so ardently believed, and if the experience of love — that splendid osmotic permeability of loving and being loved — has taught me anything, it is that Love, too, arises from the temperament of receptivity. But in a culture of hard work, which casts both happiness and love as objects of pursuit, there is little room and even less respect for the requisite softness of being receptive to the supreme gift that can only ever come unbidden.

How to reclaim and redignify this essential receptivity is what Pulitzer-winning writer and longtime New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als explores in his wonderful essay “Lonesome Cowboy” for Rookie on Love (public library) — an anthology of reflections on romance, friendship, and self-care, written for the young but drawing on a wealth of life-earned wisdom, edited by Rookie Magazine founder Tavi Gevinson and featuring contributions by Etgar Keret, Margo Jefferson, Sarah Manguso, Emma Straub, Janet Mock (and one from me).

Hilton Als (Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe)

Half a century after Henry Miller contemplated the paradox of altruism and the osmosis of giving and receiving, Als writes:

The thing seemingly freely given often isn’t. It is rare to receive the gift of love, for instance, from someone who doesn’t want to be celebrated for their generosity in having offered it; altruism is often a dream. But there are those who connect through the truth of love — the irrefutable force of it — establishing a mutual bond grounded in reality and not the theater of the giver’s “I.”

In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s insistence that befriending our neediness is essential for lasting happiness, Als adds:

It’s odd, but wouldn’t you say that in our universe of worked-out bodies and worked-out minds, that to be receptive is looked upon as “weak,” a passive vessel for someone else’s love and dreams? So, instead of embracing the generosity inherent in being able to accept love, the receptors among us punish themselves by adopting stereotypical “needy” behavior, warping their instincts to look “active,” the better to satisfy an audience’s view of what it means to be open.

Art by Jean-Pierre Weill from The Well of Being

In a lovely complement to Wilde and Van Gogh across space, time, culture, and sensibility, Als draws on classic cinema to illustrate the centrality of receptivity in the parallel experiences of love and art:

How can we reverse the negativity that surrounds being receptive — to love, to someone else’s dreams? What are we supposed to do with this space? Stare down into it? Put flowers in it? Shout out to the less receptive among us that there is nothing wrong with saying what one wants, including love? I don’t know. Just don’t call me until you’re ready to receive, and I’m ready to give. One sees flowers growing around Montgomery Clift’s mouth at the end of that black-and-white masterpiece, A Place in the Sun (1951). The flowers grow in the earth of his receptivity — his openness to the scene, the atmosphere. In all aspects of his work Clift was, to my mind and eye, the greatest film actor this country has ever produced, largely because he jettisoned acting out for acting in. He embodied receptivity.

[…]

Watching Montgomery Clift taught me that there is no shame in being receptive to a given situation or person; it is part of my job as an artist, and part of who I am as a man in search of love and its flowers.

Complement this particular fragment of Rookie on Love with German humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm on what is keeping us from mastering the art of loving, Martha Nussbaum on how to know whether you love somebody, Robert Browning on the discipline of saying “I love you” only when you mean it, and Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on how to love.


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