Today is Valentine’s Day! In honor of the occasion, we have a post from Lawrence J. Friedman, author of The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet, in which Friedman discusses Erich Fromm’s views on love, as articulated in his book The Art of Loving.
Erich Fromm had many “lives”. He was a political activist, a psychoanalyst, a theologian, a personality theorist, a social psychologist, a philosopher, and a clinician. Fromm wrote a great many books. Only one sold less than 1,000,000 copies. Through these volumes, Fromm conveyed the most complex thoughts of Einstein, Goethe, Darwin, Freud, Marx, and other intellectual giants in a way that readers everywhere could understand. In a very real sense, he was an “educator to the world.”
Fromm is primarily known for two of his books. Escape from Freedom (1941) addressed murderous dictators like Hitler who were running rampant over Europe and threatening to extinguish millions. For Fromm, hatred and sado-masochism were basic to their mass appeal. The Art of Loving (1956), on the other hand, was very different. It concerned hope and joyfulness – the upside of human experience. Whereas Escape from Freedom sold roughly 5,000,000 copies, The Art of Loving marketed 25,000,000 copies globally and continues to sell well.
Why has The Art of Loving had such an enormous attraction? Why has it competed with flowers and candy as a Valentine’s Day gift? Why does it appeal to my current Harvard undergraduates just as it appealed, half a century ago, to the undergraduates I studied with at the University of California?
We all seem to be animated by love and downcast by its absence. It is perhaps the most upbeat emotion of human existence. Fromm’s delineation of love is clear. Love requires a good deal of effort on many fronts and for the duration of one’s life. One has to love oneself, other(s), and all of humankind. For Fromm, love is Biblical command to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and then some. Love requires “central relatedness” – allowing the deepest region or essence of one’s spiritual self to enter another self and to extend that entrance into all of humankind. There is a reciprocity of feeling and commitment that begins with self understanding, extends to parental understanding, takes the form of erotic mutuality with a partner, and extends into all of humankind. Fromm’s view of love resembles the Quaker concept of the “inner light of God” that connects (on the deepest possible level) the self, the other, and all of humankind.
If Fromm’s explication of the meaning of “love” was not unprecedented, he advanced it with such animation and freshness of vision that it has appealed to millions. He offered up an inspiring sense of hopefulness in a world that he found blighted for most of his life by war, terrorism, bigotry, famine, and other dispiriting ills. But there was another quality that added a zest and conveyed a credibility to Fromm’s discussion of love. He was in love at a very deep level as he wrote his book about love.
Fromm had three wives and several affairs. The first marriage, to Frieda Fromm Reichmann, ended in divorce. Henny Gurland, his second wife, committed suicide. He started dating Annis Freeman shortly after Gurland’s suicide. Raised in Alabama, Freeman was tall, sensuous, and beautiful. Whereas Fromm Reichmann and Gurland had been Jewish, intellectual, and professional, Freeman was a Gentile and had no vocation. She practiced astrology, meditated, enjoyed tai chi, and took some interest in Eastern spiritual traditions. Despite their differences, Freeman fell quickly and deeply in love with Fromm. She considered all of his thoughts to be brilliant and was thrilled by his every mannerism. From the start, Fromm professed a lifelong commitment to Freeman. He enthusiastically indulged her with tea, pastries, flowers, and all else she might desire. When Fromm was with Freeman, there was not much else that he could desire – not even an affair a film celebrity or dancer.
Fromm and Freeman were married in December of 1953. Beginning with their courtship a year earlier and going right up to the publication of The Art of Loving, Fromm wrote frequent epistles to Freeman. These letters testified to a man deeply in love and they decidedly shaped the text of The Art of Loving as the book unfolded. Before and during the marriage, Fromm wrote to Freeman several times a day. It did not matter whether he was on the road or at home. The warmth of affection and the joy of caring underscored each letter. “It is 10 now – I go to the office. Maybe you call me up after (the) first cup of tea. Shall be back at 2. I am all yours totally. E.” In some sense, Fromm was penning mundane epistles about everyday life – work experiences, minor discomforts, and little anecdotes – all punctuated by his profound love for Freeman. He told her about new books and old acquaintances, elegant attire she might wear, and how she was always in his dreams. Fromm concluded each epistle underscoring the deepest feelings of love for her. Once, when Freeman was in New York and he was Mexico City, he urged her to frequent good restaurants, enjoy theater and opera, and to buy any attire that made her feel happy. “Life is extravagance,” Fromm underscored, and together they had to enjoy all that life had to offer – all that facilitated joy. Fromm’s love letters were mundane, redundant, and hardly the stuff of Elizabethan drama. But it is well to remember sociologist Erving Goffman’s admonition that “gestures which we sometimes call empty are perhaps the fullest things of all.”
It was this mundane but deep-felt expression of love that percolated through the lives of Erich Fromm and Annis Freeman which gave The Art of Loving much of its authenticity. The theme of the book – love as a practiced art that connects the self, the other, and humankind – was quite compelling. But while Fromm elaborated this thematic structure, the hundreds of epistles that he sent Freeman at the same time were also relevant. They made their way, more through mood than mind, into his the text, concretizing some of the theoretical abstractions. Succinctly, the book expressed the nature of love on two plains – the measured, clear, and vibrant text of a gifted writer and the more mundane feelings uttered by a man in love daily, hourly, and perhaps lastingly. Because The Art of Loving combined a compelling exposition of the nature of love with expressions of the everyday experience of being in love (the head and the heart), it will be read for a good long time.