He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: On the possibility of love in the face of structural violence

In Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese makes contact with the frontier and the act of colonialism itself. Killers considers loving and not loving; it is concerned with the possibility of love in a relationship founded on deceit and dispossession. The film depicts the real-life systematic murders of the Native American Osage people through the 1920s by white-American settlers seeking to profit from the oil-rich Osage county. At the film’s centre is Ernest Burkhart, an ex-army man married to the measured Osage woman, Mollie Kyle. The film revolves around this relationship, portraying Ernest’s engagement in a series of murders orchestrated by his uncle, William King Hale. Among those Osage killed by Ernest and his uncle are Mollie’s mother, her sisters, and nearly Mollie herself. Together Hale, Ernest and the omnipresent force of whiteness collectively nudge one another beyond redemption. I can’t know all the intricacies of their relationship; notwithstanding his commitment to historical fealty, Scorsese’s film is a simulacrum of what really happened. It is the adaptation of an outsider’s history book  attempting to describe a gone-by reality. Having not read the book or been present during the Osage murders, I am as far removed as can be from the real relationship – I don’t want to speak definitively about it. This being said, the film has moved me to reflect on loving – feministly – in our own relationships. 

Ernest and Mollie are never alone in their relationship; terror and colonial violence hang in the air of the bedroom, the dining room and the delivery room. The architect of their relationship, Ernest’s uncle Hale, is not a single man acting out of greed alone and succeeding by virtue of his own cunning. Rather, he is spurred on by a settler-colonial logic and enabled by the white legislators and law enforcement determined to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the Osage. Similarly, Ernest Burkhart is not just a weak man or oblivious associate of Hale. There is a recurring implication within Killers criticism that because Ernest is unremarkable, this somehow complicates his role in the wrongdoing. Thus his is a banal evil; he is simply a yes man, always caught up in the machinations of a greater evil. But unintelligent and unreflective, Ernest nevertheless inflicts pain knowingly on Mollie in order to satisfy his own greed. The consensus – public, critical, and of Mollie’s descendants – seems to be that Ernest loves Mollie, yet it feels possible that he does believe that he loves her, whilst his behaviour affirms the opposite. This tension between believing and behaving prompts a re-examination of what we understand to be love. 

Bell Hooks adopts Erich Fromm’s definition of love as: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” She continues, “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will—namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” Hooks highlights that Fromm’s conception of love as a choice reframes it as something practised, rather than something instinctual. The idea that we love instinctually is perhaps inadequate for understanding love in this context, because love becomes something primordial and disconnected from our material realities. It becomes separate from the systems of stratification and subsequent subjugation that we have brought into existence. That we can love instinctually implies that love transcends difference, as opposed to difference not only characterising but structuring our feelings for one another. In this case it is possible for there to be – and supposedly often is – a chasm between professed love and actually-existing love. It is then possible to say, and even believe, that we love something or someone which we really do not. 

The Love that Bell Hooks describes enters into and subverts structures of domination to enable the self-actualisation of others – it doesn’t reinforce or predicate them. In Killers, although Ernest claims to love Mollie, at best he demonstrates weakness in the face of colonial power, when Love (faithful to hooks’s/Fromm’s definitions) should inspire bravery and the will to speak. 

What are the implications of applying this definition of love to our own interpersonal relationships? What happens when we shift our focus from the conscious, immediate violence depicted in Killers, and consider the symbolic violence of the status quo? To nurture their spiritual growth, surely we owe it to those we love to remodel the world in a way which is kinder to them. Or rather, to love them in the truest sense we must be willing to end those processes which marginalise them. There is a risk that in reconsidering love in this way, we risk measuring every meaningful relationship we have ever had against some arbitrary scale of allyship. This is misguided, uncomfortable, and unnecessarily painful. Loving is not about sainthood. It is not about knowing everything or being perfect allies; our lives are messy and full up and the consequences of our acculturation in a profoundly unequal society run deep. Rather, Love should be about the will to know, to bear witness and to remedy to the best of our present ability. I hope we can all learn to practise loving in such a way. 

By Soraya Odubeko

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