Love, Lobsters, and Polyamory

A philosophical review of The Lobster.philosophical review of The Lobster

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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.

philosophical review of 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).

philosophical review of The Lobster

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.

philosophical review of The Lobster

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.

philosophical review of The Lobster

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?

philosophical review of The Lobster

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

philosophical review of The LobsterHuman. 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.

He’s written the best-selling short story anthology, Obsidian Worlds, and two novels, Hedon and The Solace Pill. His books will make your brain hurt. And you’ll come back for more.

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  • Michael Ferguson

    This movie was fantastic and original. I particularly enjoyed the crazy psychopathic lady with no feelings and the random animals walking around to break the tension. I voted that you love a person for their substance.

  • Virginia Horton

    Loved this and I voted for Yes, because one loves the beloved’s substance, or soul

  • Marco

    The movie is really nice, but I guess that if Colin Farrell became a lobster, he didn’t find his love…

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Marco, sorry for the confusion about this. When one enters the Hotel, they ask you what type of animal you’d like to become *if* one doesn’t find a lover. He chooses to become a lobster. But that choice happens before we find out whether he does/doesn’t find his love. I haven’t said either way in the blog post because I don’t want to spoil the ending.

  • Terri S

    I voted yes. This movie sounds twisted but I would give it a chance. I’ve enjoyed twisted movies before. Lol. Oh, let Tuvix make the decision. Great and interesting blog.

  • Paulo Costa

    Brilliant movie, fantastic execution of a deeply disturbing theme. However, I believe this blog post misses the point. I am convinced that “real” love is an intransitive verb. It’s the most human (as opposed to merely animal) of all our abilities, therefore it’s also a conscious choice. I can only truly love to the extend that I am unhindered by my own psychological-spiritual shortcomings. Love is the natural state of an enlightened being, it’s the light that shines in all directions. What mere mortals call “love” often is anything but. Usually it’s a mix of much less honourable or glamorous emotions: possessiveness, neediness, fear, anxiety, whatever. Romantic love is certainly not love at all! Ask yourself: is this stuff I’m feeling for so-and-so, which I’m calling love, stifling or is it liberating? Does it compel me to grasp or to set free? Does it seek my own satisfaction or theirs? So, going back to the blog post questions: Is love possible? Can we resolve Gellner’s Paradox? I say the question is ambiguous. If you mean romantic love, then of course it is possible, it’s what we look for most of our ignorant lives (in a spiritual sense, that is). Romantic love is monogamous, exclusory, possessive, irrational and ephemeral. However, to ask whether we love the properties or the substance of a person is to miss the point. We love because we cannot stand our intrinsic, existential loneliness; we desperately strive to mask it with the illusion of a noble emotion. And we target specific people based not on their particular properties or substance (whatever that may be), but on our own expectations. It really is all about ourselves, from start to finish. On the other hand, if we are talking about “real” love, that undirected flow of kindness, selflessness and well wishing that we are also capable of, then the properties versus substance debate becomes even more meaningless.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Paulo, I take your points. And I think you’re right about the nature of love – at least the nature of it psychologically. We do try to work out all sorts of selfish needs through romantic love. But there still remains the question: even if we’re working through all our selfish needs, are we doing so by loving a person’s properties, or by loving their substance?

  • Thanks for bringing this movie to my attention. I wasn’t aware of it prior to your post.

    It is an interesting question you and the movie bring up. I don’t know if there is strictly one answer… I know a number of people who participate in a poly-amorous lifestyle. They are happy and it works for them. It wouldn’t work for me, not because I don’t believe that people can’t romantically love more than one person, but because I don’t work that way. Anyway, thanks for the interesting food for thought.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Hi Rachel.

      Sure – I agree that polyamory will work for some, but not for others. There’s an interesting question though – in principle, can one really assure one’s partner that one won’t fall in love with someone else, even if one wants to to be monogamous? Gellner suggests we can’t sincerely make this assurance, because someone else could come along with the same lovable properties as your partner.

  • Coral

    I think of love and monogamy as completely disconnected ideas. Obviously there are polyamorous lovers who have love but not monogamy, and there are also plenty of loveless-but-monogamous couples who stay together out of a sense of duty, or fear, or just resignment to an entwined life that they’ve built together. Love is a feeling, and no, it’s not an exclusive feeling. You cannot promise to never fall in love with another person, nor can you promise you’ll love the same person forever. But monogamy is a choice, a commitment. Agreeing to a monogamous relationship is saying, “I will commit to you and only you.” – not necessarily that you will never fall in love with another, but that you won’t act on those feelings if and when you do.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Agreed!

  • Antonio

    The movie itself sounds fascinating, However, I believe humans maintain enough cognitive dissonance to not need to migrate to one end of the spectrum you describe or the other – they fall for the combination of substance and property. Also, while The Property does logically lead to a polyamorous resolution, most polyamorists I know tend closer to The Substance model – they don’t fall in love with someone new because the new person is just like their current lover (they already have one of those – why would they need another), but rather because the new person satisfies some other aching need in their life unfulfilled by the first. I firmly believe that love isn’t a zero-sum game where any new variety of love automatically diminishes your love for others, but rather it enhances your ability to love others more genuinely. If this weren’t true, then couples who have children are expecting to love one another less once the child arrives, and parents with more than one child would be a special kind of monster that knowingly plans to diminish their love for their first child by diluting it among his or her siblings.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Antonio, these are excellent points. I particularly like your position that poly lovers tend to love substance, even though polyamory seems to be an implication of the Property view. This seems phenomenologically correct to me.

      And I like the child analogy – romantic love might be more like a flame that lights another flame without it being diminished, rather than a limited vessel of water that’s reduced in capacity with each sharing.

      But, here’s a response to your view that people adopt both the property and the substance view over the course of their relationship. My question is, which comes first? Do we fall in love initially with properties, or with substances? If properties come first, then why don’t we fall in love later with someone else with the same properties, even if at that point we love our partner’s substance? And if substance comes first, then there’s the problem of irrationality I raise in the blog post.

  • Cory Engel

    This is a false paradox. Love is usually (at least in non-arranged relationships) a “properties” thing. Over time, we see through the properties to the mate’s soul, often to the point that we don’t really see the properties anymore. To the extent that love of the properties remains, monogamy is possible because it is a choice of the will–monogamy itself is an act of love. So, one may subscribe to a properties (or partial properties) view, yet hold to monogamy.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      This is an intuitively appealing position, Cory. But I’m not sure it resolves the paradox. So, suppose you meet someone at time T1, and fall in love with their properties (call these properties {P}). Then, over time, their properties become less and less important to sustain your love, until at time T2, you are now in love with their substance. Your view, if I understand it, is that if another person comes along at T2 with {P}, then you choose not to fall in love with them, and so, maintain monogamy.

      I’d like to raise two objections.

      First, why at T2 do you choose not to fall in love with this second person who has {P}, when you chose to fall in love with your original partner for having the same properties {P}? It seems irrational to choose one way at T1, but choose the other way at T2, given that at both times the person you encounter has the same set of properties {P}.

      Second, is it really possible to choose whether or not you fall in love with someone? Sure, it’s possible to choose whether or not you act on those feelings. But the actual fall – isn’t that outside of your control? If it is, then on your account love is still polyamorous, at least in its essence. You can love more than one person at a time, but not act on it.

      • Cory Engel

        I think at issue is the fact that we’re using two different definitions of “love.” And not just different from each other, but different over time. If I have an irresistible emotional attachment to a person with {P} at T1, there is a sense in which that is called “love.” A better word would be “infatuation.” If i develop a personal trust and permanent commitment to that person (what I call “love”), then there are two further considerations: (1) if I develop an infatuation with another person, that does not constitute polyamory under my definitions, and (2) my commitment to the first person may be sufficient to prevent (or at least make less likely) infatuations with others. I think most people disbelieve this, thinking they are at the mercy of doing whatever their genitals tell them to do, but the fact is that out of real love (my definition), a person can choose to avoid circumstances and thought patterns that lead to stray infatuations. That choice is an expression of love.

  • Sam

    We can only be aware of a person’s properties, not their substance, so we love their properties. But people are complex, with lots of properties – we’re not totally interchangeable. And it matters that the other person reciprocates your feelings, love is not the same one sided. I think we are potentially polyamorous, but monogamy :)s believed to be the ideal.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Hi Sam. Sure, it’s extremely unlikely that anybody will have *all* of our properties, but I don’t think we fall in love with every one of our partner’s properties. We don’t love them, for example, for the number of toe hairs they have (that’s one of their properties). We love them for their lovable properties – their sense of humor, patience, dashing good looks, kindness, etc. The problem, as Gellner sees it, is that somebody else might share that cluster of properties too, or even have that cluster of properties to a greater degree. When we encounter that person, would we not fall in love?

      I hear you about reciprocation. When we encounter the second person, that person has not yet had time to reciprocate the love we might have for them. But wouldn’t it be rational to give them time to do so, since we gave that time to the first partner we had?

  • Anonymous

    I have no idea what the solution is, but I do need to watch this movie, soon. Thanks.

  • yep, that’s me above who hit the button too fast. Still no solution

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Hope you enjoy the movie! And no problem about having no solution – it’s a paradox after all.

  • Erica

    Fascinating post! As much as I’m a believer of monogamy; I voted Yes, because love is polyamorous. Not in the “let me go out and find a couple more sexual partners” way, but we do love so many people. You love your parents, your children, your friends and they probably all have some similar related properties…or very similar DNA.

    I’ve never seen the movie, but now I’m intrigued! Thanks!

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Thanks, Erica!

      Agreed – there are lots of types of love. Question: can one love more than one person romantically at the same time?

  • Michael Senchak

    There is no such thing as love! A chemical reaction in the brain causes us to interpret our emotional state as something we call love. Really, it’s just Natures way of continuing the species. An Alien lifeform with a different chemical makeup would have a totally different set of emotions and the possibility that the emotion we call love would not exist. A slight change in the chemical composition in a human can have dire consequences. :{)

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Michael, that’s a good point.

      Question: do you think aliens could experience pain? It seems like species other than humans do, even though some have a very different chemical makeup. Octopuses have bizarre brains, and yet they do seem to experience pain.

      And if aliens could experience pain (even with a very different chemical makeup), don’t you think they could experience love too?

  • Dee

    What a wonderful article.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Thank you, Dee!

  • Marie R

    I was not aware of this movie. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Definitely going to watch it soon.

    Yes, because one loves the beloved’s substance, or soul.

  • Liz

    I love my children regardless of what they do. I have one that is a high school science teacher and another that is in prison. That love has little to do with substance or property.. I don’t feel that same way about my parents or siblings. I have to presume your blog in light of the movie refers to only romantic love.

    I don’t know the answer. Until I was in my 40s I didn’t believe in love. I married and had children in my 20s because it seemed like the next thing to do in my life and we had some commonality of background and ideas. I would have stayed married but 17 years later divorce at his request (and him becoming an alcoholic and spending more time with his girlfriend, divorce was the best choice.) I then met someone and in my early 40s was in love for the first time. After 10 years of marriage my spouse came out as transgendered and moved out. I realized that packaging had nothing to do with love. When I met her as a woman for me it was the same person that I knew. She was convinced she had to start over without me for a lot of other reasons that just didn’t apply to my worldview. We still love each other even though we live in different cities, are divorced,, and live very different lives. We are still there for each other when one of us needs something. Is that heart, soul, personality? I truly don’t know. I don’t expect I will fall in love again. I think love is extremely rare and we accept compatibility, shared goals, shared needs, sex, physical attributes, social status, and list of other things as a substitute.

    I couldn’t pick one of your answers Jason, because none of them really work for me.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Thank you for sharing your story, Liz. What an incredible journey!

      Yes, I was referring only to romantic love. I’m surprised, though, that you don’t subscribe to the substance (or soul) view, since you loved your partner even as her gender changed. The substance view is meant to get at the substance underneath ‘the packaging’. What is unappealing about that view for you?

      Always enjoy your comments, Liz. Thank you for touching base.

      • Liz

        I don’t think substance or property either alone or together are sufficient. I think there is some other component that I can’t define or name.

        I worked as a paralegal for 35 years and watching what people do to each other in family law against the person they once claimed to love has left me pretty jaded about what love is and how it exists

  • Wordwizard

    Loving someone for their personality is not the same as loving them for having spontaneous nosebleeds, which is a straw-man argument. That’s substance, not “just” property.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      Sure, agreed. The movie deliberately straw-mans love, for the purpose of parody. But even loving someone for their personality suffers from the same problem – Gellner’s Paradox. If I encounter someone else with the same personality, shouldn’t I love them too?

  • Raesun

    Love is either impossible or will only survive if polyamourous. Like Rachel,
    some can’t work that way, thus love is impossible to those.

  • Jake

    I have already been given high praise for this film and I will seek it out with even more desperation. I enjoy a film more knowing I should be on the look out for philosophical ramifications instead of car chases.

    I have only ever been able to accept love like light: a particle or a wave, (Property-based or substantial) depending on the method of observation.

  • Interesting post. I voted.

  • bn100

    not sure; interesting post

  • Martin Ekert

    Hi Jason,
    Thanks so much for recommending this movie. I’d never heard of it before, and after a little searching, I managed to find and watch it.
    And what a fantastic film it is too. I have never seen a film like it, and it certainly makes you think “what if” on so many occasions.
    A true dysto-classic kind of plot with a twist of evil sprinkles on top for good measure.
    A brilliant cast too, with the likes of Olivia Coleman and Léa Sedoux in the same room? lol. And of course, great eye candy for both sexes with Rachel Weisz & Colin (can’t ever shake this feckin oirish twang) Farrel.
    So a big thanks to you for the tip off.
    All the best.
    Martin.

    • Jason Werbeloff

      So glad you enjoyed the movie as much as I did, Martin. Dystopian to the extreme – excellent fun.