“Jesse-Belle” is, as Serling notes in his opening narration, a familiar love triangle. Jesse-Belle and Ellwyn are each in love with Billy-Ben, who is alternatively attracted to each, but ultimately must make a choice. Is the selection of a lover or mate a matter of choice? If our choices are based on our beliefs and reasons, will Billy-Ben rely on them? “Jesse-Belle” explores the irrationality of the phenomenon of love and attraction. Love, like witchcraft, is deeply mysterious and largely inaccessible to human understanding. Choosing a lover is not a matter of rational choice.
In the opening scene, we are confronted by the fact of Billy-Ben and Ellwyn’s attraction to each other. We only know that they are mesmerized by each other. We don’t know why, and we don’t learn why. We find out that Jesse-Belle is Billy-Ben’s jilted lover, and the intensity of her anguish matches the intensity of the attraction between the Billy-Ben and Ellwyn. Jesse-Belle quickly uses witchcraft to remedy the situation. Through witchcraft she causes Billy-Ben’s attraction to revert back to her. Suddenly and to everyone else, inexplicably, Billy-Ben is heads-over-heels in love with Jesse-Belle, in violation of a host of social norms.
The interjection of witchcraft into these relationships makes the point that love, or at least attraction of the kind we witness here, is no less an irrational attraction than one caused by a witch’s spell. Just as Billy-Ben is attracted to Ellwyn, as he presumably was earlier to Jesse-Belle, thanks to witchcraft, he is again attracted to Jesse-Belle. The attraction in all these cases is direct and results not from some sort of reasoning, or analysis of the good character of the person loved. Billy-Ben can no better explain why he was attracted to Ellwyn than he can now explain why he favors Jesse-Belle.
Perhaps there are other kinds of romantic attraction than the kind that is on display in “Jesse-Belle.” Two people may meet at a library, or coffee house, and engage in meaningful dialogue about important matters, where such conversation leads each to the appreciation of the beliefs, interests, and character of the other, and this may lead result in romance and love. Here one could reconstruct the reasons for the eventual attraction. This variety of attraction is part of a long tradition in philosophy. G. E. Moore argues for its importance in accounting for the nature of love in Principia Ethica.
We can fit this kind of intellect-directed love with accounts of other things we take to be virtues, such as courage, honor, and honesty. We can describe the good-making features of such virtues and our approval of them in the same way that we could describe the good-making features of someone we love. But when asked to describe what it is that draws one to the visceral attraction between Billy-Ben and Ellwyn, or latter Billy-Ben and Jesse-Belle, we come up empty handed. When Jesse-Belle speculates that Billy-Ben prefers Ellwyn because she wears pretty clothes and comes from a family of means, Billy-Ben denies it. He tries to describe the difference in his attraction to Ellwyn, but all he can say is that he loves her “in a quiet way.” When Jesse-Belle wins Billy-Ben back through witchcraft, Ellwyn sees the futility of attempting to win him back. She says: “I won’t get the chance. Jesse-Belle bewitched him.” We often say that someone who is in love is “bewitched,” which means that just as don’t, and maybe can’t know how witchcraft works, we also don’t know how love and attraction works.
Nussbaum highlights the difficulty of coming up with a clear understanding of the nature of love, when we take seriously the kind of non-intellectually based love on display in “Jesse-Belle.” If love is a sentiment or feeling, which can’t be adequately described or explained, then what sense can we make of Billy-Ben’s claim to know that he loves Ellwyn? If, thanks to witchcraft, he is suddenly caused to switch to loving Jesse-Belle, how can he claim to know that? Does the consciousness of the feeling of being in love with someone constitute an incorrigible belief or certain knowledge?
As a sentiment or feeling of attraction toward another person, this form of love is a kind of sentience rather than a form of sapience. There is a tradition in philosophy that marries sentience and sapience, by treating our sensations as foundational bits of knowledge. Descartes argues in Meditation 2 of his Meditations on First Philosophy, that although I may not know that there is a piece of wax in front of me, because it may be an illusion, I know that I am having a sensation or experience of wax-like features. Stripping away the conceptual superstructure of Billy-Ben’s understanding of the love he feels, what he directly and immediately knows is that he is forcefully attracted to his love interest.
The idea that sensations, perceptual or emotional, can constitute immediate, certain knowledge, has come under attack since the work of Wittgenstein, Sellars, and Quine. These philosophers argue that knowledge requires sapience, or the mastering of concepts, and the mere presence of feelings doesn’t put one in the space of reasons in which knowledge functions. This insight is hinted at in “Jesse-Belle,” when the story moves from the initial multiple attractions, to the consequences of those attractions.
As “Jesse-Belle” shows, love can’t be just a matter of attraction. It matters how that attraction is achieved. Jesse-Belle gets Billy-Ben, but at what cost? Witchcraft, or its secular counterpart, unreasoned attraction, may be not be the best way to attract a partner. Jesse-Belle has to pay for the power that she has, that she has to be punished for it. She ultimately realizes that “torment comes from buying something, and finding out that the price was dear.”
Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica Cambridge University Press.
Nussbaum, Martha, (1990)”Love’s Knowledge,” in Love’s Knowledge : Essays on Philosophy and Literature, Oxford University Press.
Quine, Willard V.O., (1951) “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” The Philosophical Review 60, 20-43.
Sellars, Wilfrid, (1997) Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Harvard University Press.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, (See “Further Readings” for “Mute”)