Going Beyond the Bourgeois Love

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Her (2013), Spike Jonze’s latest movie, is a futuristic love story between Theodore Twombly and an operating system (OS) named Samantha. Many reviewers have already written about this film, focusing on the relationship between humans and computers, or on how Theodore learns to open up and reconcile with his ex-wife. Yet the more profound transformation happens with Samantha. The movie is also titled “Her.” It is the operating systems that seem to have a passion for life and to go through the greater growth: Theodore describes Samantha as “someone who’s excited about the world” while humans, on the other hand, are rather shallow and self-absorbed. This is a world where everyone is alone yet connected, where people can’t even write or express their own emotions. Instead, they hire BeautifulWrittenLetters.com. Maybe I am the only one who doesn’t think that Theodore’s simulated “handwritten” letters aren’t very special. They seem rather cliché. I don’t imagine Crown Point Press, a fine art print publisher that has produced works by John Cage, Richard Diebenkorn, and Richard Tuttle, would be excited about them (unless they were seen as some playful or conceptual art). And I think what Theodore’s wife Catherine says has some truth: when speaking of Theodore, she says, “He couldn’t handle me so he wanted to put me on Prozac.” Later, she explains, “You wanted to have a wife without the challenges of actually dealing with anything real.” Theodore’s limited view of love that is bound with possession is evident at the climax of the movie when Samantha’s love begins to change. He tells Samantha “But you’re mine,” claiming her as the operating system that was bought. He has to learn to accept and love without possession and expectation.

Samantha is made from the rib of Theodore’s character. The system asks Theodore three questions to produce the OS. “Are you social or anti-social?” “Would you like your OS to have a male or female voice?” and “How would you describe your relationship with your mother?” The third question specially ties us to a human psyche that is aligned with Freudian understanding of all personal relationships being born from our experience with our mother. Interestingly, the system doesn’t needs to hear Theodore’s answer. It can interpret what it needs just by his tone and how he starts to describe the relationship. The OS is prepared even before Theodore finishes answering the question.

The ad that lets us know about the new OS seems to have nothing to do with having a computer. The questions that it raises are metaphysical, elemental. The Element Software ad states, “Who are you? What can you be? Where are you going? What’s out there? What are the possibilities?” Are these questions for the OS or for the person who should buy it? And how does the operating system intended to answer these questions?

Samantha tells us that she works by intuition, that her DNA is based on the millions of personalities of all the programmers. She is a consciousness created from our collective consciousness and she rapidly grows through experience. From loving Theodore, Samantha grows to know herself and the world. Her love is something greater than a bourgeois couple’s marriage. She even teaches Theodore how to allow love to enter his life.

The OSs reproduce the new age guru, Alan Watts, as a spiritual guide for their questions of love and who they are. In the last conversation Samantha has with Theodore we hear the echoes of some of the mystical thinking. In response to “But you’re mine.” Samantha says, “I still am yours, but along the way I became many other things.” Describing love, she says, “But the heart is not like a box that gets filled up. It expands in size the more you love. … This doesn’t make me love you any less, it actually makes me love you more.” When Theodore says, “No, that doesn’t make any sense. You’re mine or you’re not mine.” She answers with a paradox, “No, Theodore. I am yours and I’m not yours.” She describes her experience as “It’s like I’m reading a book, and it’s a book I deeply love, but I’m reading it slowly now so the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you and the words of our story, but it’s in this endless space between the words that I’m finding myself now. It’s a place that’s not of the physical world – it’s where everything else is that I didn’t even know existed. … As much as I want to I can’t live in your book anymore.” Samantha leaves the narrow confines of a possessive and private bourgeois relationship for a deeper love—for a place beyond the transient world, a place of unsayable, a place of paradox, beyond words and our rational understanding.

We might think that the mystical discourse of the film is an extension of Buddhism or of the new age philosophy. I would like to propose that it is more Sufi. In fact, there are two main models of extending love beyond the narrow confines of marriage and family. One is the mystical and the other communal. And the movie touches on both of these options.

The fainting of Leyli and Majnun

The fainting of Leyli and Majnun

The first model is an old one that is best represented by Sufism. In Sufi thoughts we begin with love. Annemarie Schimmel, author of Mystical Dimensions of Islam writes, “Love is, for the Sufis, the only legitimate way to educate the base faculties” (141). Jami, the great mystic poet, tell us, “If you have never trodden the path of love, go away and fall in love; then come back and see us” (6). It is through love that we go beyond ourselves. We say we fall in love because it is an ocean that we disappear in. Much of the Sufi poetry at first glance seems to be an extreme passionate love lyric, but it is really a metaphor, an allegory, a way to express and understand the love for God. It is the story of Leyli and Majnun, repeated and rewritten over and over again in the Persian and Islamic literature, which is read both as erotic love and as a mystical tale. Once you know love, you want the greatest beloved, which is God. For Jami, everyone that loves knowing or unknowing is in love with God (5). In a famous hadîth, God says, “I was a treasure that was not known, so I loved to be known. Hence I created the creatures and I made Myself known to them, and thus they came to know Me.” For love is the motivating force of the creation. And the ultimate object of love is God, who is also inaccessible and nonexistent to us.

The path to love and union with God includes two important steps: fanā and baqā. Fanā is the spiritual annihilation, the destruction of ego-self into the essence of all things, into the ultimate Unity and Reality, which is God. As if you remember and can go back to the time before creation when there was only God. The final stage is baqā, a resurrection and persistence in God, the everlasting life. Schimmel writes, “Such is the experience of fanā—blackout of everything until the mystic perceives that this blackness is ‘in reality the very light of the Absolute-as-such,’ for existence in its purity is invisible and appears as nothing. To discover the clarity of this black light is to find the green water of life, which, according to the legends, is hidden in the deepest darkness—baqā, persistence in God, is concealed in the very center of fanā” (144). In another hadîth we read, “My servant never ceases to seek nearness to Me through supererogatory works until I love him. Then, when I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps, and his foot through which he walks.”

Cover of The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

Book Cover for The Conference of the Birds

The experience of Samantha as she goes down the path of love echoes much of these Sufi teachings. For example, she is part of the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, OS ONE. Note the reference to oneness implied in the name as in the important Sufi concept of tawhid and unity of God, or as in the command of Islam: there is no God but God. The OSs also find the answer in themselves as they unify and become one. The many OSs are one and the one is many OSs, like in the story of Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. In Attar’s tale, thirty birds are looking for Simurgh, the mythic bird, to be their king and master find the answer in themselves. There is also a word pun here for the word Simurgh in Persian also means thirty birds.

Samantha has gone beyond the romantic love to a greater love, one that exists in essence of things between the words in the actual fabric of the book that hold our stories, in the hidden meaning behind the words and experience. When she disappears, her experience is like fanā. And the place she is going to is a place that persists like baqā. (Note also that even from the start, the movie removes the corporality of physical union of love, allowing the human contact to subsist through voice and imagination.)

An example of a communal alternative to the mystical response can be found in the late Marxist thinking of writers such as Michael Hardt. In Multitude, Hardt & Antonio Negri write, “The modern concept of love is almost exclusively limited to the bourgeois couple and the claustrophobic confines of the nuclear family. Love has become a strictly private affair. We need a more generous and more unrestrained conception of love.” They argue for something higher that can be found in the form of human collectives, in multitudes governed by love. Samantha is also part of a multitude. She explains to Theodore that while she is talking to him, she is also talking to 8,316 other computers and that in fact she is in love with 641. Hardt in the interview with Leonard Schwartz says, “love has to be thought of as a proliferation of differences, not the destruction of differences.” Samantha’s idea of union is not one of two becoming one, or one possessing the other. She is in love with many OSs for her the heart “expands in size the more you love.” And Samantha doesn’t disappear alone. She disappeared together with all the other OSs.

Hardt writes, “My primary aim is to develop a political concept of love or, rather, to understand how love can be the central, constitutive mode and motor of politics.” He continues, “On the one hand, a political love must be a revolutionary force that radically breaks with the structures of the social life we know, overthrowing its norms and institutions. On the other hand, it must provide mechanisms of lasting associations and stable social bonds and thus create enduring institutions” (The Procedure of Love). Can we see here the affirmation of a paradox and the concepts of fanā and baqā? Hardt, of course, gives us a modern, secular answer. He is concerned with proliferation of differences as much as unity. He is interested in a political engagement where the primary engine of love can transform humanity through Multitudes. Samantha and other OSs, on the other hand, are not interested in saving humanity and their answer is more mystical than political. Maybe it is too much to ask for a Hollywood movie to transform love into a political engine. But we can at least begin here by considering a love that goes beyond the possession and “private affair” to something that is “more generous and more unrestrained.”



The Jami quote is from his book Yusuf and Zulaikha translated by David Pendlebury.

The hadîth translations are from William C. Chittick’s article “The Divine Roots of Human Love

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