A philosophical review of The Lobster.
The film starts. A woman stops her car. Steps out into an open field, and puts three bullets in a donkey’s brain. As you watch on, the sequences become increasingly bizarre. And disturbing. The film floods your chest with nervous laughter, and the uneasy sense that the director is messing with your wiring. You realize with growing discomfort that you’re watching something ghastly, juvenile, and important, all at once. Two hours later, you get off the couch with a cramping heart and a pleasant headache.
By the time the film is done with you, you both regret having watched it, and wish you could take the amnesia pill promised in Philip K. Dick stories, so you can watch it again fresh.
This is a post about a movie that simultaneously ruined and enriched my night. This is a post about the philosophy of love, lobsters, and polyamory. This is a post about a movie with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 91%. This is a post above a movie titled, The Lobster.
Before we get started, you’ll be pleased to know that there aren’t any significant spoilers in this post. Your viewing pleasure, if you haven’t yet seen the film, is secure.
What the hell is The Lobster about? you ask. Imagine a dystopia where coupling is obligatory. That is, all adults must find a stable romantic partner (the gay man in me was pleased to notice that homosexual coupling is permitted too). Yes, I know what you’re going to say. Countless sci-fi novels and films have explored the pressures and evils involved in coupling (if you haven’t read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, now’s the time). But The Lobster handles this idea with a novelty and finesse I haven’t encountered before. Because in The Lobster’s particular brand of hell, all single adults are sent off to the Hotel. They have 45 days from the time of arrival to find a partner. If they don’t, they’re permanently transformed into an animal, and let loose in the Forest.
Yes, you read that right. The price of remaining single in this film is that you literally lose your humanity.
Granted, you get to choose which animal you become. Dogs are a popular choice. But our protagonist, played by Colin Farrell, who has recently been left by his wife for another man, specifies that he’d like to become a lobster if he doesn’t find love.
Yet even with the choice of the animal one is to become, Hotel guests are terrified. Some singles choose to jump off the building or run off into the forest before their 45 days expire. These runaways, or ‘Loners’, are hunted down by the Hotel guests on excursions into the woods. For each Loner caught and tranquilized (and later turned into an animal), the hunter is rewarded an extra day above his 45-day limit. (The hunting scenes, by the way, are gorgeously shot. Think slow-motion dashes through sultry woods, accompanied by classical music).
There are some fantastic comic points included in the dystopia. The guests don’t express any emotion at all, especially when they find love. Each night the single guests are subjected to awfully scripted propaganda plays about the advantages of partnering – e.g. having someone to Heimlich you if you choke on your food. And until one finds a partner, regular sexual stimulation without orgasm by the Hotel maid is obligatory. But don’t masturbate alone, or your hand will be roasted in the cafeteria toaster.
A blissful existence, right? Yeah, not exactly.
But this movie is so much more than a parody of the romance genre. Hidden within the bewildering, convoluted folds of this film is an ingenious presentation of a core question in the Philosophy of Love, namely: Is love possible?
What kind of question is that? you cry. Silly philosophers. Of course love is possible. Love is only impossible for you if you’ve got serious intimacy issues. Clearly, the philosophers who raise these questions had unhealthy childhoods. Well, by the end of this blog post, you may change your mind. Love is more fraught, metaphysically, than one might think …
So, what possible reason could one put forward for thinking that love is, in principle, impossible? In The Lobster, singles in the Hotel pair up based upon similarities in what they call their ‘Defining Characteristic’. The guests choose each other because they both suffer from nosebleeds, are both short-sighted, or both prefer horizontally-striped pajamas.
These are, of course, ridiculous reasons to fall in love. The film mocks what philosophers call the Property view of love. The Property view, also called the Erosic view, holds that what makes us love someone is their properties, or features. We love someone because of their good looks, or sterling personality, or wealth, or social status – all of these are properties, or features of the beloved. But the film asks us to question just which properties we pay attention to when we fall in love with someone. And it suggests that those properties are often arbitrary. Love is blind, they say. People fall in love for the strangest (and often highly irrational) reasons. We both get spontaneous nosebleeds? Fantastic! We must be a match.
However, the difficulties associated with the Property view of love run deeper than the issue of arbitrariness. The Lobster, at bottom, shows how our commonly held conception of love as monogamous and durable is in tension with the Property view. Those of us who watched too much bad television in the nineties will remember Phoebe from Friends, and her view of lobsters. “Come on, you guys,” says Phoebe. “It’s a known fact that lobsters fall in love and mate for life. You know what? You can actually see old lobster couples walkin’ around their tank, you know, holding claws.”
It turns out that Phoebe is only half right. Lobsters are indeed monogamous, but not for life. They’re serial monogamists, just like the guests at the Hotel. Once the guests have partnered, they’re sent off to live in the City as a couple. But when those relationships sour, which they seem to fairly easily, the singles are immediately sent back to the Hotel to find another partner within 45 days. And it makes perfect sense that these relationships would sour easily. Why? Because if love is based on noticing and appreciating the properties of the beloved, then love will end as soon as the beloved loses those properties, or one no longer notices or appreciates those properties.
If I fall in love with you because you suffer from nosebleeds, I’ll fall out of you the moment your nosebleeds stop, or I no longer care for nosebleeds.
And, more importantly, if the Property view of love is correct, we’ll fall in love with another partner if the other has the same properties we loved in the original partner, since all love is (on the property view) is the appreciation of another person’s properties.
If someone else comes along who also suffers from nosebleeds, why shouldn’t I love that person instead, or even in addition?
The film raises what philosophers call Gellner’s Paradox, which might be summed up like this. If the Property view of love is correct, then love is not, in principle, exclusive, since it’s possible to encounter multiple people with the same lovable properties. (Nobody is so unique that their lovable properties cannot belong to someone else too). But we think that love IS, in principle, exclusive. That is, intuition suggests that love is always monogamous. And so, if the Property view of love is correct, love is impossible (or more accurately, if the Property view of love is correct, love doesn’t exist).
Hold on just a second, you say, wagging a finger. There’s some crazy shit going on here. No way can this be the final word on love. There must be a way out of Gellner’s Paradox. Love simply MUST be possible.
Thankfully, there are a few possible solutions to Gellner’s Paradox. But each of them comes at a price. To finish off, I’ll briefly outline two solutions, and show you why you might be uncomfortable adopting them.
Remember the movie poster for the film?
It’s a damned clever poster, and not just because it shows off the movie’s cast. The poster hints at a possible solution to Gellner’s Paradox. Here’s the idea …
The chief opposition to the Property view of love is the Substance view. Philosophers who hold the Substance view (also called the Agapic view) argue that it isn’t the properties of a person we fall in love with, but the substance underneath those properties (some might call this a person’s ‘soul’). It’s not your wealth, or social status, or good looks that I love. It’s you I love, regardless of your properties.
Now this solves the exclusivity problem immediately. If I love you, and your defining characteristic is your nosebleeds, and someone else comes along with nosebleeds, I don’t fall in love with that person too. Why? Because that person isn’t you. You and she aren’t the same ‘substance’. And I love only your substance – nobody else’s.
Have we found a solution to Gellner’s Paradox? No, I don’t think so. And we can see why by looking at the movie poster. What exactly is this ‘substance’? Rachel Weisz and Colin Farrell hold blanked out versions of each other in the poster because they’re not in love with each other’s properties – they’re in love with the ‘substance’ of each other. But what is this substance?
The substance, by definition, has no properties inherent in it, since it’s the thing underneath their properties. It’s the thing in which properties inhere. The substance doesn’t have height or weight or good looks or wealth or social status or beauty or kindness or good humor – those are all properties. The substance of a person, if people actually have a substance, is by definition entirely featureless. And why, what possible reason could we have, for loving something entirely featureless?
The problem then is that on the Substance view of love, love turns out to be deeply irrational.
If we fall in love with someone simply because they are them, we fall in love with someone for no reason at all. Because every reason will cite a feature, or property of the person – and substances have no features.
“Why do you love me, darling?” “For no reason at all, dear.” This sort of irrational love doesn’t seem like love at all. Or, put differently, it’s not the sort of love worth having.
Another possible solution (and my preferred solution) to Gellner’s Paradox is to keep the Property view, but bight the bullet on monogamy. Maybe love isn’t exclusive after all. Perhaps we just have to admit that love is, by its nature, polyamorous, or non-exclusive. “I love you darling, with all my heart, but if someone else comes along with your lovable properties, I’ll love them just the same.” How would you feel if you received that declaration of affection? I can tell you that Mrs. Werbeloff wouldn’t be impressed. But that might be the position we have to adopt if we’re to salvage a love worth having.
What do you think? Is love impossible? Is it based upon the love of substance? Or is love fundamentally polyamorous? Do you have another solution to Gellner’s Paradox? Cast your vote in the poll below. And then I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section at the bottom of the page:
About the Author
Human. Male. From an obscure planet in the Milky Way Galaxy. Sci-fi novelist with a PhD in philosophy. Likes chocolates, Labradors, and zombies (not necessarily in that order). Werbeloff spends his days constructing thought experiments, while trying to muster enough guilt to go to the gym.
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