When it’s you and I, sitting across from each other, is there another in the room? When it’s you and I, does ‘you’ and ‘I’ provide an exhaustive account of ‘us’? Or is there a third term also?
In the film Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, María Elena, reappears in his life after a suicide attempt. Juan Antonio is seeing another woman. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena still feel strongly for one another, yet they both acknowledge that the love between them simply doesn’t work. Merely trying again seems futile and yet alone Maria Elena is deathly depressed. In addition to all this, there is the complication of Juan Antonio’s new woman. Maria Elena suggests an alternative set up: the introduction of a third person, to fix the dynamic between the two.
While Juan Antonio and Maria Elena were hopeless together, perhaps with this other woman involved they will be able to find some balance in their love… In the film this set-up works and harmony is indeed found, until the other woman decides to leave. And Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are returned again to their origin impasse. It’s a Woody Allen film, so, of course, the moment of impasse is precisely where it ends.
But I want to push a little further, through Vicky, Christina, Barcelona’s impasse.
While not advocating for the introduction of a third human, I think there is something worth lingering on in this desire for a third element in love. I have a couple of different ways that I find helpful to think about this third element.
Through Albert Wendt’s writing I was introduced to the Samoan concept of va. ‘Va’ designates the space in-between; the space in-between concepts, things, people, cultures ect. This in-betweeness is not empty space, not a painful void, not a problem to be overcome. Rather, it is space that relates – one to another. And because this in-between space is not empty, but instead has positive content, it gets a name: va.
So in any relationship of two, there is always already three: me, you, and our va. And just like the other two terms this can be in good shape or out of whack. Our va will have a character of its own, but it will also require some work from us. Sometimes we can mess it up, and sometimes we can make better. Wendt, of course, does a much better job of explaining this concept here.
Wendt describes va as space which ‘relates and separates’. I began thinking about this concept of va again this week when I heard someone use the very same phrase – ‘relates and separates’ – to describe political theorist Hannah Arendt’s concept of power. Arendt understands power as something that lies between people. For her power is a sort of bond of in-betweenness that holds people together and gives direction to their action.
I’m sure there’s important differences between the concept of va and Arendt’s power. But I think perhaps they both point towards a similar idea: that when there is two, maybe there is really already three.