On Art, Literature and History

By Naguib Mahfouz

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From ‘Love and the Sexual Impulse’1

I am neither joking nor exaggerating when I say that the role that love plays in our physical and social lives is more important, and of greater consequence, than any other factor. Indeed, it is almost as though it lies hidden behind every action, just as the breath of life lies concealed in each living organ, driving it and directing it. Perhaps you already know that there are scientists who attribute to it every activity in the life of the human being without exception. I always try to steer clear of general, universal principles, however; they provoke apprehension and doubt in me. Therefore, let us content ourselves by simply acknowledging that love occupies an important place in the life of the individual and in society.

It should be mentioned that some of the philosophers conceived of love’s influence as not being restricted to the lives of humans and animals only, but as extending to the natural world itself – to the life of matter, or, more accurately, to the being of matter. These philosophers viewed it as one of the constituent elements of being. The ancient philosopher Empedocles stated that the four known elements are the source of existence and that everything which occurs is a result of their combining or separating.2 According to him, this combination or separation of elements occurs due to the agency of two forces: love and hatred. Furthermore, Arthur Schopenhauer claimed that egoism exists in the elements of nature, taking the forms of repulsion and attraction, or hatred and love. It is, without doubt, a wonderful thing that man would uncover the essence of this beautiful mystery, this irresistible force which controls our lives, which directs our minds, and which affects the greatest impact on our present and future states.

The topic of love is closely linked to that of the sexual impulse. No matter how lofty an amorous affection may be, the bond connecting it to its source – the basic instinct in man’s nature – cannot be severed. Indeed, if this connection were to be severed, then perhaps it would put an end to that affection and its loftiness both. In order to understand what love is, we must first concern ourselves with understanding this impulse.


It is society, with its laws and customs, that produces all of the situations and outward forms which clothe this impulse, but which also signify its presence. Society is the natural stage whereon it acts out its roles: godliness and evil, obedience and defiance, submission and revolt, exaltation and decadence. The explanation for this, in my opinion, is that society, through its conditions and circumstances, both wages war against the sexual impulse and protects it, subdues it and empowers it, it channels it and provides it with that which will awaken it and invigorate it. Society suppresses the sexual impulse and fights against it by means of its religion, tradition, and laws. Perhaps society is severe, for it renounces the impulse, and thinks little of dressing it in sullied robe of shame and disgrace. On the other hand, however, through society’s observer, through its dancer, though its arts and literature – and, indeed, by society’s prohibition itself – it strengthens and awakens the sexual impulse. It is almost as if society causes both its strength and weakness, and its life or death. Naturally, this produces a state of conflict; we can witness in society the conditions for immoderation and excessiveness, wherein shots are exchanged between the monastic cells and the abodes of licentiousness. There are those among us who are exalted to the heavens by this impulse, there are those who sink to the depths on account of it, and there are those who waver between the two in a state of agitation and misery.

In any case, I do not have the time to provide a detailed discussion of these states; rather, by discussing this impulse, I merely wanted to pave the way for a discussion on love.

1 Article from al-Majalla al-Jadida March 1934
2 The ‘four known elements’ being referred to here are the classical elements: earth, water, air, and fire.

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