One of the most provocative analyses of love ever produced is to be found in the writings of the Danish Existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. In a book entitled Works of Love, published in Copenhagen in 1847, Kierkegaard — then thirty-four years old — proposed a theory which deliberately upset every leading idea that his own age (in this respect very similar to our own) liked to entertain about this hallowed concept.
First and most importantly, Kierkegaard insisted that most of us have no idea what love is — even though we refer to the term incessantly. The first half of the nineteenth century in Europe saw the triumph of what we today call ‘Romantic love’, involving a veneration and worship of one very special person with whose soul and body we hope to unite our own.
Kierkegaard insisted that through concentrating on Romantic love, we develop a narrow and impoverished sense of what love can actually be.
Love is not, Kierkegaard insisted, the special excitement we feel when in the presence of someone unusually beautiful, pure, clever or accomplished. He proposed that we return instead to an exacting version of Christian love, which commands us to love everyone, starting — most arduously — with all those who we by instinct consider to be unworthy of love.
He made a distinction between what in Danish is termed kaerlighed — true love, the kind Christians are commanded to give, and elskov — erotic love.
For Kierkegaard, we should learn to love all the many people it would be so tempting to curse and to hate; those whom we believe are mistaken, ugly, irritating, venal, wrong-headed or ridiculous; those who may have made some truly serious mistakes and offended our moral codes. To learn to love such people, to practise kaerlighed, this is the real accomplishment — and the summit of our humanity.
It is love when we can look at someone who appears misguided, lazy, entitled, angry or proud and instead of labelling them despicable, can wonder with imagination and sympathy how they might have come to be this way; when we can perceive the lost, vulnerable or hurt child that must lie somewhere within the perplexing or dispiriting adult.
Love means making the effort to extend our compassion beyond the bounds of attraction so that we may look generously on all those we might at first glance have deemed beyond the pale or ‘undeserving’.
Kierkegaard tells us that if we understood love properly, when we said we loved a person, we wouldn’t mean that we admired them but that we had a handle on all the many difficulties that underpinned their troubling and objectionable sides.
Kierkegaard was especially aggrieved by how his contemporaries had replaced the Christian-inspired emphasis on forgiveness with the pursuit of something that feels a great deal more objective, hard-edged and rational: justice.
The pursuers of justice want to give everyone what they actually deserve. This sounds extremely reasonable — until one comes face to face with an uncomfortable fact: that if we all actually ended up with what we truly ‘deserved’, the world would at once be rendered entirely unlivable. The attempt to pursue justice at all costs, and the belief that doing so is theoretically possible, gives rise to appalling intolerance, for if one really believes that one can be a flawless instrument of righteousness, then there is logically no limit to the degree of rage or the sternness of punishments that can be brought to bear upon ‘wrong doers’.
For Kierkegaard, our goal should not be to create a world in which everyone gets exactly what they deserve; it is to try to ensure that as many of us as possible get the kindness we need.
Applied to children, concepts of justice quickly reveal their absurdities, Kierkegaard could see. If parents were to give their children exactly what they ‘deserved’, most small people would at a stroke be put out on hillsides to die. The pursuit of justice may spring from the noblest of motives but it is a quick route to an unloving hell.
Kierkegaard proposed that there is a ladder of love, from the most undemanding to the true. On the first rung of the ladder, we love those who love us; then we love those who do not love us, then we love those who persecute us and finally, and triumphantly, we should love everyone without exception.
Kierkegaard mocks those who say they believe in love but add that they haven’t found someone they can love. There are millions of people around. If we say that they are not worthy of love, we haven’t understood love. We need to love those we can actually see, not ‘invisible beings.’ A Kierkegaardian dating site would force us to love utterly random candidates, not based on admiration or virtue, but on the basis of our shared humanity. He bemoaned ‘the selfishness of preferential love.’ ‘Christianity has never taught that one must admire his neighbour,’ he wrote, ‘one shall simply love him.’
Kierkegaard detects an appalling snobbishness in Romantic love. People who otherwise pride themselves on their lack of prejudice will apply terrifyingly strict criteria to their choice of partner: they want someone with just a certain sort of face or income or sense of humour. They think of themselves as kind and tolerant but when it comes to love, they have all the broad-mindedness of a believer in ‘a caste system whereby men are inhumanly separated through the distinctions of earthly life.’ Kierkegaard adds: ‘Christians don’t only love the poor; they love everyone. The rich, the corrupt, the powerful: “He who in truth loves his neighbour loves also his enemy…” Love is the fulfilment of a law…’
Kierkegaard talks about Christ’s love for his disciple Peter, who repeatedly lets him down: ‘Christ did not say: “Peter must change first and become another man before I can love him again.” No, just the opposite, he said: “Peter is Peter, and I love him; love if anything will help him to become another man.”’
So, in imitation of Christ, we should love people especially if they are hateful: doing something hateful does not disqualify anyone from love, in fact it makes them all the more deserving of it. ‘We speak continually about perfection and the perfect person. But Christianity […] speaks about being the perfect person who limitlessly loves the person he sees […] with all his imperfections and weaknesses.’
Ultimately, Kierkegaard wants us to do something that sounds both utterly odd and yet entirely kind: ‘To be a Christian means to be the imitator of Christ […] and to be an imitator means that your life has as much similarity to his as it is possible to human life to have.’
Danish readers of the 1840s who came across Kierkegaard’s writings on love must have been as surprised as we are on what this philosopher had to say on the subject — because his perspective is so different from that we ordinarily operate with. But however arduous his message to us may be, we can see how relevant it remains. We too so often get stuck on the idea that we have not found ‘the one’ and on that basis refuse to love anyone; we too judge and moralise rather than forgive and lend sympathy. We may still be at the dawn of understanding what true love really offers, and requires of, us.
When we think of what might have been lost on the way to becoming modern, we’re liable to think about mealtimes: how seldom they now take place communally, how rare it is for whole families to gather, how much technology can intrude. In paintings of communal meals that reflect the older way of doing things, we can appreciate how all ages used to come together around a table, what a joy the home prepared food was and how welcoming the atmosphere seems to have been. Even the family horse might have been invited to join in.
Frederick George Cotman, One of the Family, 1880
The modern condition appears infinitely bleaker by comparison. Rather than a family around the hearth, the emblematic image is of a single person with a tray on their trees in front of the television. It was the Swanson Corporation, originally a poultry producer in Omaha, Nebraska, that launched the frozen TV dinner in 1954, the same year colour television was introduced in the United States. The dinner came with two slices of turkey breast, sweet potatoes, buttered peas and cornbread dressing. The company had plans to sell five thousand in the first year; in the event, they sold ten million. In the coming years, Swanson made a number of innovations to their solitary meals. They produced a fourth compartment for the tray, typically filled with apple or peach slices in syrup. There were turkey sausages and chicken escalopes, ‘lean beef in natural gravy’, a German tray (‘with a generous helping of sauerkraut, spätzle and Bavarian red cabbage’) and a Thanksgiving edition (with ‘a little something extra to cheer about – tangy cranberry sauce. Hooray!’). It may have been a short distance in time, but it was a long way in spirit, from Norman Rockwell’s laughter-filled family Thanksgiving celebration to Swanson’s sequestered industrially produced turkey meal for one (‘Just heat and serve’).
Swanson Corporation, Turkey Dinner, 1962
Norman Rockwell, Thanksgiving 1943
Modernity is surely a lonelier place than the world that preceded it. The question is why. Frozen dinners are an easy target – but these precisely engineered trays are more likely to be symptoms of our unease about solitude than causes of alienation in themselves. It isn’t ultimately technology (cities, cars or screens) that have made us lonely; it’s an identifiable set of ideas. Being on one’s own doesn’t have to be problematic, demeaning or say anything sinister about one’s character. Yet we have in a variety of ways made this the firm equation. Loneliness does not arise simply because one happens to be physically isolated; it’s caused when our culture encourages to feel a sense of shame at being so. We have rendered ourselves lonely first and foremost because of certain stories we have started to tell ourselves about what loneliness means.
Most eras before our own knew that solitude did not – per se – have to be a sign of wretchedness or deficiency. There were ways of being one one’s own that could be filled with honour and an impression of communion with what is noble and sincere; physical isolation could be accompanied by a strong sense of connection with a god, a person in a book, a piece of music or a quieter part of one’s own mind. One could be alone and at the same time not feel isolated or damned – just as one might be surrounded by family and yet feel painfully unseen and unheard.
In the early history of Christianity, it was believed that true sociability didn’t involve chatting to whomever happened to be in the vicinity (our blood relatives or people we went to school with). It meant being connected to the most satisfying sources of meaning in the universe. And that might require going to live by oneself somewhere very remote, a hut in the woods or a tower on a cliff, and learning to commune with God and his love and wisdom. In a cave, with only a bible for company, and hours to connect to scriptural ideas, one might end up feeling less isolated than in a bustling but spiritually vacuous household. In the fourth century, the greatest saint of early Christianity, Saint Anthony, was said to have spent more than forty years by himself in Egypt’s Western desert, not saying a word, eating only bread and salt, communing with God in what was technically-known as a ‘hesychasm’, a mystical contemplative prayer in which a believer attempts to still everything about themselves, even their breathing, over many hours, in order to try to come closer to the immeasurable mysteries of God. So impressed were some with St Anthony’s life, they came to join him in the desert, camping out in nearby caves, growing their beards and hair and writing down their thoughts and visions. They became collectively known as the Desert Fathers, and their philosophy of asceticism and solitary piety would go on to have a decisive influence on the founding of monasteries, institutions that, in succeeding centuries, ritualised and codified the solitary faithful life. At the height of monasticism in the Middle Ages, it was estimated that a million people across Europe and north Africa had chosen to forego the bustle of family and commerce in order to dwell, in some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the world, in silent contemplation of the beauty of the divine spirit.
However, in the wake of the Reformation and the destruction of the monasteries that accompanied it, solitary piety began to lose its prestige and recede as a practical option. Those who had previously lived alone at the tops of mountains were now encouraged to serve God by remaining in the community, finding a suitable spouse – and starting a family. There was an increasing sense that to be solitary might slide over into selfishness or be evidence of an overzealous mind.
To this newly social religious impetus was added the influence of Romanticism, a movement of ideas that – with different ends in view – similarly encouraged people to give up on thorough commitments to their own company and questioned the honour of solitude. For the Romantics, happiness lay in identifying one exceptional soulmate to whom one could surrender one’s independence and with whom one might fuse mind and body. With a genuine lover by one’s side, one would never again need to feel sorrow or dislocation, one would at last understand one’s purpose and appreciate one’s place: one would have come home.
The Romantics painted a hugely moving portrait of coupledom – and thanks to their artistry and the examples of their own lives, they convinced the modern world. But in the process, the Romantic movement had a catastrophic effect on our assessment of what it might mean to remain by ourselves. Romanticism turned solitude from a respectable and profound choice, to evidence of pathology. It seemed, through the lens of Romanticism, that there could be no other reason why a person might have opted to be by themselves other than because they were in some way exceptionally emotionally diseased or sexually deviant. ‘Those who have never known the deep intimacy and the intense companionship of happy mutual love have missed the best thing that life has to give,’ explained the Romantic (and four-times married) philosopher Betrand Russell. It sounded encouraging. It was also, beneath the surface, a characteristic threat of the Romantic era.
By propagandising so successfully on behalf of conjugality, Romanticism guaranteed that those who were on their own would have no option but to be left doubting their goodness and sanity – and might end up a great deal more isolated than a Desert Father after half a century of silence in the Nitrian desert.
With seeming innocence, Romantics drip fed stories of loving couples and their joys. Like Christianity, Romanticism had its saints and holy figures, its epic poems and sacred books. There were lovers like Abigail Adams and her husband John, second President of the United States, whose hugely cosy and endearing relationship was widely held up by the Romantics as an example of what marriage could be for everyone (as opposed to a charming fairy tale, about as rare and representative as becoming president). Husband and wife remained extremely close for 54 years, wrote to each other five times a day when they were apart (the collected correspondence runs to 1,160 letters) and knew everything about one another from their political and religious ideas to their tastes in soup, gloves and favourite songs. On her deathbed in 1818, Abigail was reported to have said to her husband: ‘Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend. I am ready to go. And John, it will not be long’ (though it would in fact be eight years). The suggestion was that good people weren’t only to be in couples in this life, they would also rightly be so in the next one – a point further enforced in the 19th century through the habit of burying couples in double crypts or vaults. Singlehood was no longer a decent option for the living – or, it appeared, the dead.
In a couple forever: Abigail and John Adams, Buried alongside each other, Quincy, Massachusetts.
Romanticism didn’t just make single people feel freakish; it massively increased the pressure on anyone already in a couple who couldn’t lay claim to extreme contentment with their partner; it made those who were merely quietly muddling along and politely putting up with some less than ideal habits and routines feel lonelier and more cursed than they had ever done. For most of history, no one had expected couples to be very content; forebearance and compromise had been praised as the true achievements. One was doing very well indeed if one managed not actively to despite one’s partner after a few decades. But under the new influence of Romanticism, anything but perpetual ecstatic transport appeared to be a violation of the ground rules of existence. One wasn’t meant to be in the business of merely tolerating a person. Settling with someone because they were – all things considered – really not so bad, because it was convenient, because they had a kind face (at least from one angle) and a sometimes friendly manner, all this became a heresy as severe as anything that might have been condemned by the early Christians at the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325. The nineteenth century (publically very happily married) Romantic artist, William Orchadson was typical in his condemnation of any hint of compromise in his satirical work, The Marriage of Convenience of 1883. To find one’s partner a little bit boring and hard to talk to at dinner (even while one appreciated the services of the butler and the comfortable dining room and liked raising children together) wasn’t an understandable and on balance fair enough eventuality in a good enough relationship; it was a pitiful tragedy.
William Orchardson, The Marriage of Convenience, 1883
Romanticism trapped the human race in a double bind: by framing singlehood as psychologically impossible, it encouraged us to panic and accept marriage proposals that it would have been wiser to resist. But at the same time, by suggesting that ongoing fascination and bliss were the norm within every decent relationship, it made the vast majority of couples feel as if they had somewhere along the line gone very badly wrong.
The tensions came to a head in Britain after the First World War. Following the loss of life in the conflict, a census revealed that women now outnumbered men by 1.75 million. The newspapers spoke in alarmed voices of ‘Two million surplus women.’ There was no sense that failing to get married offered – on balance – as many opportunities and sorrows as being so; there was no admission that there might be loneliness in both camps and that the unmarried variety might on occasion be preferable. The ‘war spinsters’ as they became known were treated with a mixture of derision and charity. An Oversea Emigration Committee was set up with the express purpose of encouraging single British women to travel to distant parts of the Empire, to escape the ignominy of a solitary life at home. For a generation thereafter, the ‘spinster’ or ‘maiden aunt’ was a stock character to mock and feel sorry for. It simply seemed inconceivable that one could have, at once, a tolerable life and no husband.
When the Beatles released Eleanor Rigby in 1966, the song that more than any other defined what loneliness meant for the modern age, it was at once clear why Eleanor was a lamentable figure. The famous face that she kept in a jar by the door had been intended for the enchanting partner that, like all single people, she must have longed to find. Only with romantic love could there be a decent life, so ran the philosophy of the song, of all the Beatles’ works and in fact, of every modern pop song every written. Fail to fall completely in love and, Romanticism warned, one would soon enough be picking up rice in the church where a wedding had been – or rivalling for strangeness the comparably odd Father Mackenzie, around whom there seemed so little of the glamour that had once attended the Desert Fathers.
The modern world not only made it mandatory to have a partner. It made it feel essential to have a vibrant gang of friends – and to enjoy seeing them regularly at parties. Opportunities for large scale socialising grew with the development of electric lighting, restaurants, dance halls and bars. Weekends were newly devoted to going out – and an otherwise unknown form of anxiety began to grow if, as Saturday evening approached, one realised one had nowhere in particular to go in the fun-filled city. An empty diary became an emblem of deformity.
Phoebus Levin, The Dancing Platform at Cremorne Gardens, 1864
Newspapers grew filled with reports of the social lives of others. One could find out who had attended Elizabeth Taylor’s 40th-Birthday Party and what had been served at Marie-Helene de Rothschild’s Proust Ball, what the most beautiful dress was at The Met Gala and how Valentino had done the seating plan at his White Fairy Tale Love Party. But more importantly, we were being subtly schooled in the notion that to be respectable would be to love going out; that there was no glamour in staying in with a book and no value in collecting one’s thoughts in a diary or turning over one’s memories of childhood in a hot bath. At the same time, there was not the slightest admission that it might, all things considered, be a distinctly curious way of living up to one’s ideals of community to stand in a crowded room full of status-panicked, socially-anxious people, every one of them terrified of honesty or failure – where the only possible answer to a shiny enquiry of how one was doing was a vigorous ‘absolutely terrific – and how are you?’
In 1921, Carl Jung – in his book Psychological Types – had introduced the terms ‘extraverted’ and ‘introverted’ to divide humanity. The former referred to a sort of person who could best realise their potential in the company of others; the latter were those who needed to move away from crowds and idle chatter in order to regain their integrity. ‘Everyone possesses both mechanisms,’ wrote Jung – but it was evident where the spirit of the age resided; the modern world belonged to the extroverts, while the introverts were left at home to feel as if what they most enjoyed – being by themselves – was a disease.
It was of course nothing of the sort. But in order to feel less lonely, we don’t – most of us – need to be pushed into going out again or given yet more encouragement to track down perfect lovers; we need society to change its stories about what solitude can mean. We need to shift the associations we have been given – away from failure and freakishness towards depth and discernment. Feeling that one doesn’t want to stand in a loud room chatting with people, that one wants to have a simple meal on one’s own, that one wants to be left with a pad of paper, that one wants to walk in nature, these are no signs of madness. They are primary evidence of a complex and rewarding interior.
It’s been the achievement of a few, often at the time ignored artists of the modern period to make a case for the other side, to speak up with due confidence and skill for introversion, to try to coat solitude in glamour. In a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, we are invited to trust that the lonely figure in the landscape is no outlaw or brigand; he is privy to insights that would be lost in the crowd down in the lowlands, he has needed to travel up to the mountains in order to put the bluster and envy of humans into perspective; on his own, the wanderer can be returned to the most significant parts of himself. We should dare to follow him in his trajectory.
Caspar David Friedrich, Landscape with Mountain Lake, Morning, 1823
In Corot’s art, solitude is not some poor alternative to company, it is not what one might turn to when, and only when, one had been rejected from a gala dinner or one’s prospective husband has been killed in battle. Solitude is a paradise from which every noisy greeting, every superficial remark and every insensitive encounter is a painful rupture we should be proud to resist.
Jean-Baptiste Corot, Solitude, 1866
Gwen John’s young woman doesn’t seem to belong to any official religion. But if there were one dedicated to the appreciation of solitude, she would be one of its saintly and legendary figures. Her expression – kind, gentle, melancholy and lost in profundity – is an advertisement for all that modernity has neglected in its promotion of active, cheery lives.
Gwen John, Young Woman holding a black cat, 1920
Separated by eight decades, the leading figure in Hannah Starkey’s photograph of a diner seems similarly to make an eloquent case for isolation. The setting may be bleak, but the picture is anything but – perhaps because it allows us to remember, and better hold on to, our own experiences of solitude, when being by ourselves is not some form of punishment, but a chance to digest griefs, to recenter ourselves and to escape a hypocritical and tyrannical world – always keen for us to join in its raucous enthusiasms and sentimental moods. Despite the starkness of the furnishings, the location itself does not seem wretched. Others in the room may be on their own, men and women drinking coffee or a Coke by themselves, similarly lost in thought, similarly distanced from society: a common isolation with the beneficial effect of lessening the oppressive sense within any one person that they are alone in being alone. Isolation isn’t a particular malediction; it’s where good people tend to end up.
Hannah Starkey, Untitled, October 1998
We should feel proud to be the descendants and the spiritual twins of the people in the great solitary works of art. We should dare to believe that we are in solitude not because we are ill but because we are noble of spirit – because our ideals of sociability are higher than anything our world is able to provide. We don’t hate company; it’s just that we would prefer to stay home rather than accept the counterfeit tokens of community presently on offer.
The way to make people feel less alone isn’t to pull them out of their musings in the forest or in the diner, in the library or the desert – and force them to go bowling. It’s to reassure them that being alone is no sign of failure. To lessen modernity’s crisis of loneliness, we need for solitude to be rehabilitated and for singlehood to regain its dignity. There is nothing catastrophic about eating dinner, many dinners, on our own. The Swanson TV dinners might have been capable of improvement, but it is ultimately far better to be eating a basic meal in peace than to be in a ballroom surrounded by false smiles and oppressive judgements. When we do so, we aren’t in fact on our own at all. We are – as modernity has failed to remind us – dining with some of the finest, most elevated spirits who have ever lived. We are, though ostensibly by ourselves, in the very best company.
In Book 10 of the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we’re introduced to one of the world’s more curious but telling myths: a Cypriot sculptor called Pygmalion has developed a problem with women. He has seen the daughters of a local man called Propoetus refuse to honour Venus, the goddess of love, and then turn to prostitution. As a result, he has decided he is ‘not interested in women’ and devotes himself to his work instead. But, for old time’s sake, he does carve a woman out of ivory, shaped into exactly the form he has always longed for. When she is finished, as he gazes up at her nakedness, Pygmalion discovers that he has fallen deeply in love. Bereft at the thought that she is merely a statue, he implores Venus to take pity on him. In exchange for a ritual offering, she turns the ivory figure into a real woman, who awakes and instantly reciprocates Pygmalion’s feelings. They fall into a rapturous kiss and he starts to explore one of her breasts (Ovid leaves the rest to our imagination). Soon after, Pygmalion and his lover decide to get married, have a child and live happily ever after.
What is striking from a historical point of view is exactly where and when this myth took off: Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century. The story had always been known; now it became venerated. It was the second most painted subject in all of culture in this period – handled by, among others, Auguste Rodin, Jean-Léon Gérôme (four times), Edward Burne-Jones (five times), and Ernest Norman – as well as being covered by playwrights, song-writers and poets.
Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1890
Edward Burne-Jones, The Soul Attains, 1878
Ernest Normand, Pygmalion and Galatea, 1886
The story’s popularity was not a matter of chance, it coincided exactly with a movement of ideas that flourished at this time known to historians as Romanticism. Romanticism proposed a very different vision of relationships to that which had existed hitherto. It argued that passionate love was the only possible basis on which two people could form a good relationship: kindness, mild attraction, intellectual sympathy and a commitment to growing old in each other’s company were no longer enough. Nor was one meant to dwell on practical considerations like views on money or on household management or the opinions of parents (such matters were simply and tellingly now deemed ‘un-Romantic’). Romantics believed that true lovers would understand each other intuitively, without needing to use words; there would simply be a sudden sympathy of souls – and a strong feeling that one had always known this person, perhaps in another life. Furthermore, love would be born immediately: one would lay eyes on someone and know at once. Through intuition, one could within minutes locate a person with whom to spend the rest of one’s days. The swifter and more dramatic the process, the safer the relationship was assumed to be. Thinking too much about love was a dangerous sign (and very un-Romantic too). There was certainly no need to have a conversation with one’s lover. The Romantics also assumed that true love involved a perfect combination of sexual attraction and spiritual sympathy; it was unimaginable that one wouldn’t be very turned on by a partner one loved, or find that one fancied someone whose character one wasn’t so interested in (along the way, Romanticism turned adultery from a problem into a catastrophe). Romanticism reconfigured love as the entire meaning of life – not a passing adolescent fantasy or a species of madness, as it had until then typically been considered. No longer did friendship, work, religion, philosophy, hobbies, travel or politics hold out any promises: one’s happiness would be entirely dependent on discovering a lifelong soulmate, who would render everyone and everything else superfluous.
One begins to see why Pygmalion might have been rediscovered by Romanticism. He represented everything that this ideology believed in: his passion developed at first sight, he didn’t need to do any talking; he didn’t have to get to understand his statue-lover; he didn’t bother to find out about her views or aspirations. He loved her completely and at the same time didn’t know a thing about her – beyond her shape. It was going to be forever and involve children, but not even a hello was in order. Beneath a veneer of cultural prestige, the story was close to insane or, more politely, just very Romantic.
Pygmalion’s influence on emotional culture was surpassed only by one other Romantic couple (who were also the most popular topic for late nineteenth century painters): Romeo and Juliet. Romanticism recategorised Shakespeare’s play from being judged among his weakest and most forgettable to the greatest work he wrote. London and Paris were not to be without a performance of the play throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. From a rather pitiful and implausible tale of teenage love, the play was re-evaluated as capturing everything that love was meant to be – for all people, for all time. The story of the boy and girl from Verona was meant to be a reliable guide to love for university graduates and recently qualified accountants, this was to be the compass by which married couples in Neuilly sur Seine and Leamington Spa were to navigate their emotions. This wasn’t simply entertainment; it was (the unusually gory ending aside) a roadmap.
Pietro Roi, The Death of Romeo and Juliet, 1866
Ford Madox Brown, The Balcony Scene, 1870
Unfortunately, Romanticism did not stay neatly within the confines of art and literature; it wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. It began to influence people’s actual assessments of themselves and others. It altered what happened on trains and at parties, in bedrooms and in seaside resorts. One didn’t need to have read Ovid or Shakespeare to be impacted; the Romantic influence pervaded one’s mind all the same. Its influence spread to every nation, Romanticism became the official religion of modernity, it filled in for our loss of faith in saints and deities and even encouraged us, not coincidentally, to call our lovers ‘angel’. The new religion’s victory became total, it could no longer be escaped or even thought about properly. It shaped the instinctive way in which a boy and a girl in downtown Manila might think of their emotions after seeing a film together or guide a home-maker in Seattle in her assessment of her marriage. People who didn’t feel Romantic emotions learnt to pretend they did – just to survive – and might feel that there was something very wrong with them for finding the Pygmalion story somewhat odd.
Abraham Solomon, The Meeting, And at first Meeting Loved, 1854
Along the way, Romanticism became the single greatest obstacle to our ability to have successful relationships; it became a disaster for love. To get a sense of the hurdles it created, we need only imagine how many problems Pygmalion and his carved wife might have run into in the years after their miraculous union – and how unprepared the cult of Romanticism would have left them (as it does all of us).
Romanticism works with a charmingly innocent view of our instincts – and the chances of their reliability. It forgets that what we call ‘falling in love’ tends to be a process of refinding a love that evokes for us the sort of emotional relationship we knew in childhood, which for many of us involved pain, distance, suffering, neglect and frustration. Our instincts tend to guide us not so much to a pure being who will finally make us happy – so much as a troublingly familiar figure who will make us unhappy in just the way we are used to from childhood, and whom we feel drawn to by a psychological impulse to repeat patterns of suffering.
Not only does Romanticism venerate an instinct which we should be hugely suspicious of, it then drains us of any will to get to know our partners properly, because it suggests that we know them already. It makes conversation feel laborious. It associates patient analysis with pedantry: true lovers are meant to communicate by mysterious motions of the soul. The result is that like Mrs Pygmalion, lovers end up as figments of each other’s over-hasty imaginations.
This in turn leads us into constant outbreaks of sulking, whereby we become furious with our partners for having failed to understand us for things which we haven’t bothered to explain – so convinced are we that true lovers simply know what’s in their partner’s hearts.
We develop unecessarily militant views on sex; we imagine that we should be able to be totally honest about our desires but then find that sex and love can sometimes run in opposite directions – at which point we panic and may call time on otherwise perfectly sound relationships. So bewitched are we by the image of true lovers admiring everything about one another, we fail to see how much of love could be a business of two people gently guiding each other to become better versions of themselves. We insist, often quite crossly, that a true lover should accept us ‘for who we really are’ – a terrifying possibility at any point. We picture love as a feeling of awe at another’s perfection; we don’t remember that it might also be a species of patience and benevolence towards a partner’s frailties and less than admirable dimensions.
No wonder if the modern age has not only obsessed more about love than any other – it has also singularly failed to help us get into and succeed at the relationships we do attempt. The future won’t belong to Romanticism. It will belong to a proper analysis of Romanticism’s flaws, a historical post-mortem out of which can emerge a kinder, more thoughtful, more psychological and more loving approach to others. We will learn to send Pygmalion to therapy, rather than the art gallery.
One of the great intellectual puzzles that daily life forces all of us to consider on a slightly too regular basis is: ‘Why are other people so awful? How come they are so unreliable, aggressive, deceitful, mean, two-faced or cowardly?’ As we search for answers, we tend quite naturally to fall back on a standard, compact and tempting explanation: because they are terrible people. They are appalling, crooked, deformed or ‘bad’; that’s simply how some types are. The conclusion may be grim, but it also feels very true and fundamentally unbudgeable.
However, when things feel especially clear cut, we may be goaded to try out an unusual thought experiment, which stands to challenge a great many of our certainties and render the world usefully more complicated: we can try to look at our fellow humans through the eyes of love.
The experiment requires particular stamina and is best attempted at quieter, less agitated times of day. When we manage it, it may count as one of our highest ethical achievements.
We are normally resolutely on our side, deeply invested in our own point of view and prone to trade in settled and moralising certainties. Yet, very occasionally, we have the strength to look at other people through a different lens: we notice that their reality is likely to be far more complicated and nuanced than we first expected – and that, contrary to our impulses, they may be deserving of more sympathy and consideration than we thought, even though they have hurt and frustrated us, even though their behaviour runs contrary to what we expect – and even though the temptation is to call them idiots and numbskulls and move on.
Looking at another person through the eyes of love involves some of the following:
Moralistic-thinking identifies people closely with their worst moments. Love-thinking pushes us in another direction, it bids us to use our imaginations to picture why someone might have done a regrettable deed and yet could remain a fitting target for a degree of understanding and sympathy. Perhaps they got very frightened, maybe they were under pressure of extreme anxiety and despair. They might have been trying to say or do something else, and this was all they could manage.
Those who look with love guess that there will be sorrow and regret beneath the furious rantings or a sense of intolerable vulnerability behind the pomposity and snobbishness. They intimate that early trauma and let-down must have formed the backdrop to later transgressions. They will remember that the person before them was once a baby too.
The loving interpreter holds on to the idea that sweetness must remain beneath the surface – along with the possibility of remorse and growth. They are committed to mitigating circumstances; to any bits of the truth that could cast a less catastrophic light on folly and ‘nastiness’.
– Hurt Not Bad
Love-thinking refuses to believe that there is ever anything such as evil pure and simple. Bad behaviour is invariably the consequence of hurt: the one who shouts did not feel heard, the one who mocks was once humiliated, the constant cynic had hope snatched from them. This is not an alternative to responsibility, it is just a knowledge that acting badly must be a response to a wound, and never an initial ambition.
The fundamental step of love is to hold on, in the most challenging situations, to a distinction between a person’s overt unpleasant actions and the pity-worthy motives that invariably underlie them.
– A Story, Not a Headline
Moralistic thinking likes headlines; love-thinking goes in search of stories. ‘Angry spouse abandons family’ will have its origins decades before, in the old house, at the hands of unsteady parents, when innocence was first lost and stability destroyed. ‘Scandalous CEO ruins company’ isn’t a story of greed or venality, but one of loss, grief and mental illness. In the face of caricature, the task of love is proper curiosity.
– The Child Within
To consider others with love means forever remembering the child within them. Our wrongdoer may be fully grown, but their behaviour will always be connected up with their early years. We’re so keen never to seem patronising by treating someone as younger than they are that we overlook the need occasionally to ignore the outward adult sides of others in order to perceive and sympathise with the angry confused infant lurking inside.
When we are around small children who frustrate us, we don’t don’t declare them evil, we don’t bear down on them to show them how misguided they are. We find less alarming ways of grasping how they have come to say or do certain things. We don’t readily assign a negative motive or mean intention to a small person; we reach around for the most benevolent interpretations. We probably think that they are getting a bit tired, or their gums are sore or they are upset by the arrival of a younger sibling. We’ve got a large repertoire of alternative explanations ready in our heads.
This is the reverse of what tends to happen around adults; here we imagine that others have deliberately got us in their sights. But if we employed the infant model of interpretation, our first assumption would be quite different. Given how immature every adult necessarily remains, some of the moves we execute with relative ease around children must forever continue to be relevant when we’re dealing with another grown-up.
– The Possibility of Tragedy
Moralistic thinking is sure that people get what they deserve. Love-thinking believes in the existence of tragedy, that is, in the possibility that one can be good and still fail. Tragedy teaches us that the most shocking events can befall the more or less innocent or the only averagely muddled and weak. We do not inhabit a properly moral universe, disaster is at points distributed to those who could not have expect it to be a fair outcome, given what they did. Love-thinking accepts a remarkable, frightening and still-too-seldom accepted possibility: that failure is not reserved for those who are ‘evil’.
Moralistic thinkers reach their certainties swiftly; love thinkers take their time. They remain serene in the face of obviously unimpressive behaviour: a sudden loss of temper, a wild accusation, a very mean remark. They reach instinctively for reasonable explanations and have clearly in their minds the better moments of a currently frantic but essentially loveable person. They know themselves well enough to understand that abandonments of perspective are both hugely normal and usually indicative of nothing much beyond passing despair or exhaustion. They do not aggravate a febrile situation through self-righteousness, a symptom of not knowing oneself too well – and of a very selective memory. The person who bangs a fist on the table or announces extravagant opinions is most likely to be simply rather worried, frightened, hungry or just very enthusiastic: conditions that should rightly invite sympathy rather than disgust.
– Redeeming Features
Love-thinkers interpret everyone as having strengths alongside their obvious weaknesses. When they encounter these weaknesses, they do not conclude that this is all there is, they know that almost everything on the negative side of a ledger could be connected up with something on the positive. They search a little more assiduously than is normal for the strength to which a maddening characteristic must be twinned. We can see easily enough that someone is pedantic and uncompromising; we tend to forget, at moments of crisis, their thoroughness and honesty. We may know so much about a person’s messiness, we forget their uncommon degree of creative enthusiasm. There is no such thing as a person with only strengths, but nor is there someone with only weaknesses. The consolation comes in refusing to view defects in isolation. Love is built out of a constantly renewed and gently resigned awareness that weakness-free people do not exist.
– We Are Sinners Too
The single greatest spur towards a loving perspective on others is a live awareness that we are also deeply imperfect and at points quite plainly mad. The enemy of generosity is the sense that we might be beyond fault – whereas love begins when we can acknowledge that we are in equal measures idiotic, mentally wobbly and flawed. It’s an implicit faith in their own perfection that turns some people into such harsh judges
Looking at the world through the eyes of love, we are forced to conclude that there is no such thing as a simply bad person, and no such thing as a monster. There is only ever pain, anxiety and suffering that have coalesced into unfortunate action. We are not just being kind in this notion; this isn’t merely an exercise in being nice, it’s an exercise in getting to the truth of things, which may – when we get down to the details of human psychology – be roughly and almost coincidentally the same thing.
One way to get a sense of why love should matter so much, why it might be considered close to the meaning of life, is to look at the challenges of loneliness. Too often, we leave the topic of loneliness unmentioned: those without anyone to hold feel shame; those with someone (a background degree of) guilt. But the pains of loneliness are an unembarrassing and universal possibility. We shouldn’t – on top of it all – feel lonely about being lonely. Unwittingly, loneliness gives us the most eloquent insights into why love should matter so much. There are few greater experts on the importance of love than those who are bereft of anyone to love. It is hard to know quite what all the fuss around love might be about until and unless one has, somewhere along the way, spent some bitter unwanted passages in one’s own company.
When we are alone, people may well strive to show us kindness; there may be invitations and touching gestures, but it will be hard to escape from a background sense of the conditionality of the interest and care on offer. We are liable to detect the limits of the availability of even the best disposed companions and sense the restrictions of the demands we can make upon them. It is often too late – or too early – to call. In bleak moments, we may suspect we could disappear off the earth and no one would much notice or care.
In ordinary company, we cannot simply share whatever is passing through our minds: too much of our inner monologue is overly petty or intense, random or anxiety-laden to be of interest. Our acquaintances have an understandable expectation, which it would be unwise to disabuse them of, that their friend should be normal.
We must operate with a degree of politeness too. No one finds rage or obsession, peculiarity or bitterness especially charming. We can’t act up or rant. A radical editing of our true selves is the price we must pay for conviviality.
We have to accept too that much of who we are won’t readily be understood. Some of our deepest concerns will be met with blank incomprehension, boredom or fear. Most people won’t give a damn. Our deeper thoughts will be of scant interest. We will have to subsist as pleasant but radically abbreviated paragraphs in the minds of almost everyone.
All these quietly soul-destroying aspects of single life, love promises to correct. In the company of a lover, there need be almost no limits to the depths of concern, care, attention and license we are granted. We will be accepted more or less as we are; we won’t be under pressure to keep proving our status. It will be possible to reveal our extreme, absurd vulnerabilities and compulsions and survive. It will be OK to have tantrums, to sing badly and to cry. We will be tolerated if we are less than charming or simply vile for a time. We will be able to wake them up at odd hours to share sorrows or excitements. Our smallest scratches will be of interest. We will be able to raise topics of awe inspiring minuteness (it won’t have been like this since early childhood, the last time kindly others expended serious energy discussing whether the top button on our cardigan should be done up or left open).
In the presence of the lover, evaluation will no longer be so swift and cynical. They will lavish time. As we tentatively allude to something, they will get eager and excited. They will say ‘go on’ when we stumble and hesitate. They will accept that it takes a lot of attention to slowly unravel the narrative of how we came to be the people we are. They won’t just say ‘poor you’ and turn away. They will search out relevant details; they will piece together an accurate picture that does justice to our inner lives. And instead of regarding us as slightly freakish in the face of our confessions, they will kindly say ‘me too.’ The fragile parts of ourselves will be in safe hands with them. We will feel immense gratitude to this person who does something that we had maybe come to suspect would be impossible: know us really well and still like us. We will have escaped from that otherwise dominant, crushing sense that the only way to get people to like us is to keep most of what we are under wraps.
We will start to feel like we exist. Our identity will be safe; we won’t be the only guardians of our story. When the world’s disinterest chills and erodes us, we will be able to return to the lover to be put back together again, reflected back to ourselves in terms that reassure and console us. Surrounded on all sides by lesser or greater varieties of coldness, we will at last know that, in the arms of one extraordinary, patient and kindly being worthy of infinite gratitude, we truly matter.
In Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium, the playwright Aristophanes suggests that the origins of love lie in a desire to complete ourselves by finding a long lost ‘other half’. At the beginning of time, he ventures in playful conjecture, all human beings were hermaphrodites with double backs and flanks, four hands and four legs and two faces turned in opposite directions on the same head. These hermaphrodites were so powerful and their pride so overweening that Zeus was forced to cut them in two, into a male and female half – and from that day, each one of us has nostalgically yearned to rejoin the part from which he or she was severed.
We don’t need to buy into the literal story to recognise a symbolic truth: we fall in love with people who promise that they will in some way help to make us whole. At the centre of our ecstatic feelings in the early days of love, there is a gratitude at having found someone who seems so perfectly to complement our qualities and dispositions. They have (perhaps) a remarkable patience with administrative detail or an invigorating habit of rebelling against officialdom. They might have an ability to keep things in proportion and to avoid hysteria. Or it might be that they have a particularly melancholy and sensitive nature through which they keep in touch with the deeper currents of thought and feeling.
We do not all fall in love with the same people because we are not all missing the same things. The aspects we find desirable in our partners speak of what we admire but do not have secure possession of in ourselves. We may be powerfully drawn to the competent person because we know how our own lives are held up by a lack of confidence and tendencies to get into a panic around bureaucratic complications. Or our love may zero in on the comedic sides of a partner because we’re only too aware of our tendencies to sterile despair and cynicism. Or we are drawn to the atmosphere of thoughtful concentration of a partner because we recognise this as a relief from our overly skittish, superficial minds. This mechanism applies around physical attributes too: we may admire a smile as an indicator of a much-needed acceptance of people as they are (to counter our own troublingly punitive or acerbic attitudes) or a cheeky ironic smile may draw us in because it suggests the balancing quality to our own excessively compliant view of the world. Our personal inadequacies explain the direction of our tastes.
We love at least in part in the hope of being helped and redeemed by our lovers. There is an underlying desire for education and growth. We hope to change a little in their presence, becoming – through their help – better versions of ourselves. Love contains just below the surface a hope for personal redemption: a solution to certain blocks and confusions. We shouldn’t expect to get there all by ourselves. We can, in certain areas, be the pupils and they the teachers. We usually think of education as something harsh imposed upon us against our will. Love promises to educate us in a very different way. Through our lovers, our development can start in a far more welcoming and energising way: with deep excitement and desire.
Aware of our lovers’ qualities, we may allow ourselves some moments of rapture and undiluted enthusiasm. The excitement of love stands in contrast with our normal disappointments and scepticism about others; spotting what is wrong with a person is a familiar, quickly completed and painfully unrewarding game. Now love gives us the energy to construct and hold on to the very best story about someone. We are returned to a primal gratitude. We thrill around apparently minor details: that they have called us, that they are wearing that particular pullover, that they lean their head on their hand in a certain way, that they have a tiny scar over their left index finger or a particular habit of slightly mispronouncing a word… It isn’t usual to take this kind of care over a fellow creature, to notice so many tiny touching, accomplished and poignant things in another. This is what parents, artists or a God might do. We can’t necessarily continue in this vein forever, the rapture is not necessarily always entirely sane, but it is one of our noblest and most redemptive pastimes – and a kind of art all of its own – to give ourselves over to appreciating properly for a time the real complexity, beauty and virtue of another human being.
One of the more surprising and at one level perplexing aspects of love is that we don’t merely wish to admire our partners; we are also powerfully drawn to want to possess them physically. The birth of love is normally signalled by what is in reality a hugely weird act; two organs otherwise used for eating and speaking are rubbed and pressed against one another with increasing force, accompanied by the secretion of saliva. A tongue normally precisely manipulated to articulate vowel sounds, or to push mashed potato or broccoli to the rear of the palate now moves forward to meet its counterpart, whose tip it might touch in repeated staccato movements.
We can only start to understand the role of sexuality in love if we can accept that it is not – from a purely physical point of view – necessarily a uniquely pleasant experience in and of itself, it is not always a remarkably more enjoyable tactile feeling than having a scalp massage or eating an oyster. Yet nevertheless, sex with our lover can be one of the nicest things we ever do.
The reason is that sex delivers a major psychological thrill. The pleasure we experience has its origin in an idea: that of being allowed to do a very private thing to and with another person. Another person’s body is a highly protected and private zone. It would be deeply offensive to go up to a stranger and finger their cheeks or touch them between their legs. The mutual permission involved in sex is dramatic and large. We’re implicitly saying to another person through our unclothing that they have been placed in a tiny, intensely policed category of people: that we have granted them an extraordinary privilege.
Sexual excitement is psychological. It’s not so much what our bodies happen to be doing that turns us on. It’s what’s happening in our brains: acceptance is at the centre of the kinds of experiences we collectively refer to as ‘getting turned on.’ It feels physical – the blood pumps faster, the metabolism shifts gear, the skin gets hot – but behind all this lies a very different kind of change: a sense of an end to our isolation.
In general, civilisation requires us to present stringently edited versions of ourselves to others. It asks us to be cleaner, purer, more polite versions of who we might otherwise be. The demand comes at quite a high internal cost. Important sides of our character are pushed into the shadows.
Humanity has long been fascinated – and immensely troubled – by the conflict between our noblest ideals and the most urgent and exciting demands of our sexual nature. In the early third century, the Christian scholar and saint, Origen, castrated himself – because he was so horrified by the gulf between the person he wanted to be (controlled, tender and patient) and the kind of person he felt his sexuality made him (obscene, lascivious and rampant). He represents the grotesque extreme of what is in fact a very normal and widespread distress. We may meet people who – unwittingly- reinforce this division.
The person who loves us sexually does something properly redemptive: they stop making a distinction between the different sides of who we are. They can see that we are the same person all the time; that our gentleness or dignity in some situations isn’t fake because of how we are in bed and vice versa. Through sexual love, we have the chance to solve one of the deepest, loneliest problems of human nature: how to be accepted for who we really are.
Romanticism is one of the most important historical events of all time. Unlike a lot of what gets called ‘history’, Romanticism isn’t a war or a piece of technology or a political event. It refers to the birth of a new set of ideas; it’s about a mindset and a way of feeling.
The strange thing about love is that even though we experience it in a deeply personal and apparently instinctive way, it has a history. In other words, people around the world haven’t always fallen in love the way they do now.
The point of rehearsing a few of the telling moments in love’s history is to remind ourselves that there are different ways of arranging relationships, depending on what a given society happens to believe in. Love is a cultural invention and we are not at the end of its evolution. We may, in fact, still be only at the early stages of the history of love. We are still learning what we need and how we might get more successful at love.
Mari, Syria, 1775 BC
King Zimri-Lim of the ancient city of Mari, on the banks of the Euphrates, marries Shibtu, the princess of the neighbouring kingdom of Yamhad.
Far from being the outcome of love, this marriage, like that of many between powerful people in the ancient world, is purely transactional. Mari occupies a critical position in the trade routes between Syria and Mesopotamia, and marrying Shibtu will allow Zimri-Lim to expand his wealth and power.
Zimri-Lim’s attitude to marriage continues with his children. He marries off eight of his daughters to rulers of neighbouring cities, forcing each of his new sons-in-law to sign a document pledging themselves to him.
The people of Mari are in effect saying that what gives a marriage meaning isn’t how much the couple happens to love one another, but whether it is beneficial in terms of trade, connections and war.
This is so alien to us, it’s worth reflecting on just how much we nowadays refuse to entertain – at least in public – any practical considerations when marrying. Feelings are meant to be our only lodestars. Yet for thousands of years, until only a minute ago on the historical clock, it was unambiguously meant to be only about land, power and money. The notion that you should love your spouse would have seemed plain laughable. This may have created a collective trauma we’re still in flight from.
Blaye, France, 1147
Jaufré Rudel, the Prince of Blaye, sets sail for Tripoli, in modern day northern Lebanon. He is off to see the Countess of Tripoli, with whom he has fallen deeply in love. Rudel is one of the earliest known Troubadours, or skilled court poets, who rise to prominence in southern France in the 12th century and write poetry on one subject exclusively: Love. Rudel has written many poems in honour of the Countess and wants to write some more in her presence.
But Rudel’s idea of love is very particular and at that time, dramatically new: it’s love that’s utterly divorced from practical considerations, that doesn’t involve children, money, dynasties or even any kind of reciprocation. The Troubadour poets never try to have sex with the objects of their love. Their focus is exclusively on what we would call the infatuation – or more colloquially, the crush – side of love.
Rudel has fallen in love with the Countess without ever having set eyes on her. Pining away for his lady from hundreds of miles away, he composes and sets to music many songs expressing grief and joy.
Unfortunately, he falls ill en route to the lady and has to be stretchered into Tripoli, where the countess hears about him and visits him in his chamber. Rudel recovers momentarily, before dying, finally at peace, very chastely, in her arms.
The Troubadours took love very seriously, only they didn’t see it as linked to marriage. Romantic love was something you felt for someone you were never going to do household chores with. And that may be the secret of its intensity. This kind of love was spared too much contact with daily life. Rudel could imagine how lovely the Countess of Tripoli was – without ever having to dispute with her about the right place to hang a tapestry or get frustrated if she didn’t particularly want to do a special embarrassing thing for him in bed. Their love could remain pristine.
The Troubadours show us a historical moment when the idea of love was not tied to the notion of moving in together or to the intertwining of two practical, economic and social lives (using the same toilet, sharing utilities bills and trying to go on camping holidays with your partner’s friends).
Versailles, France, 14 September 1745
At 6 o’clock in the evening, in a move engineered and planned for weeks, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a 23-year-old beauty from Paris, rouged, powdered and wearing a black off-the-shoulder dress, enters the Cabinet du Conseil, approaches King Louis XV, and curtsies three times.
This simple gesture makes it official: Jeanne-Antoinette is the king’s maîtresse déclarée, or chief mistress, and from now on, she will be known as Madame du Pompadour, and reside at court with the king.
The king has, by this point, been married for 20 years, but marriage doesn’t mean fidelity. You marry for reasons of state, and have mistresses on the side. No one gets upset, that’s just what happens. Louis XV had several mistresses, including 14-year-old Marie-Louise O’Murphy, who is painted in a famous semi-pornographic painting by François Boucher.
At Versailles in the 18th century, there was an acceptance of the imperfect fit between marriage and love. It was understood that there would always be a tension between the two. Marriage was for children, practicality and continuity. Love was for excitement, drama and sex. One should never try to blend the two.
Rather than be underhand or deceitful like many people are today, the king of France simply split love from marriage – and, without shame or guilt, made his romantic attachments an organised, public part of his life with his wife.
Gretna Green, Scotland, 1 January 1812
A couple has just got married in a secret ceremony. John Lambton, the 1st Earl of Durham, who is posh and has land and responsibilities, and Harriet, the illegitimate daughter of the Earl of Cholmondeley, who has no money and little social status but is very pretty, are now man and wife.
Their families are furious – and have tried desperately to stop the wedding. But the couple are ‘modern’, which means they believe that in marriage, love should come first and practical considerations second. They’ve gone to Gretna Green, a village just inside Scotland, to escape English law – and are exemplars of the new philosophy of Romanticism, which privileges feeling over reason and impulse over tradition.
Romanticism transforms love. The old system of marrying for political or economic advantage slowly crumbles around the world. The village of Gretna Green becomes synonymous with illicit marriages, and John and Harriet are among hundreds of English couples in the late 18th and 19th centuries who elope there. The public appetite for stories of romantic dissent is such that the local priest publishes some bestselling memoirs of his time there, full of daring coach-rides across the border, and the wrath of unconsulted fathers who reach the runaway children too late.
Gretna Green becomes an important place because there is a growing belief that marriage should be the consequence of love. And that if two people love each other that alone is what matters. Income, the standing of the wider family, career and how the parents-in-law might get on seems irrelevant. And more than that: they begin to be cast not as wise, serious matters which really ought to be taken into account, but as things that could only seem relevant to gouty fathers, snobbish aunts and dried up conventional people with no care for the happiness of a couple.
Mostly, when we want to do something we take advice if we can from people who have done it before. Gretna Green stands for a remarkable shift in thinking, around relationships, which is powerful today: the assumption that people who have already had marriages are likely to be very poor advisors and guides to the young. Love is understood to be an enthusiasm, not a skill.
London, England, 1813
Readers of Jane Austen’s latest novel are on the edge of their seats as Fitzwilliam Darcy stumbles his way through a proposal to Elizabeth Bennet.
His offer of marriage promises to fix all her problems: not only is he handsome, but he is rich – and Elizabeth’s family, with four unmarried daughters to support, needs all the cash they can get.
But Elizabeth says no. Darcy, for all his gifts, is also arrogant and a snob. Pride and Prejudice may suggest women marry for money, but Elizabeth’s actions reveal a new and subversive belief rapidly gaining currency in English society: that they should love the man they marry too. It is an idea Austen supports strongly. Eleven years earlier, she had herself rejected a proposal of marriage, claiming “anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection”.
In her greatest novel, however, things turn out for the best. Eventually, after many twists and turns, and despite her lack of standing and money, Elizabeth and Darcy marry.
What continues to strike readers today is that Jane Austen is deeply concerned about romance and about money. To marry only for money is, she argues, a disaster. But equally she holds that to marry only for love is terrible folly too. In her eyes a good marriage requires warmth and tenderness of heart and a strong practical, worldly, managerial competence. And from this, she draws the conclusion that few people are actually well-suited for marriage. She is unsurprised that many marriages are a little hollow or a little grim. Her novels depict numerous unsatisfactory relationships and a very few happy ones.
In the early years of the 19th century, Jane Austen is defining the wise ideal of modern love. She sees marriage as a hybrid enterprise: in some respects it is like running a small business, or organising a village fete. If you don’t keep track of the practical details and don’t have quite an efficient turn for administration, things will go badly wrong. But at the same time, marriage is a profoundly complex emotional encounter. And to thrive in it one needs emotional maturity, affection, playfulness and warmth.
Through her novels she is trying to present the reader with an education. In a truly classical way, she believes we can do few things well if we leave our performance to nature, luck and chance. A happy relationship depends on the maturity of both parties. In Pride and Prejudice, both Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy have to be improved – he has to lose his pride and she has to shed her prejudice – if they are to be capable of living well together. Love is something we need to learn.
London 24 November 1859
It’s the day Darwin publishes The Origin of Species. There is a huge initial resistance. But eventually much of the world is convinced by his arguments. Human beings are descended from the primates. And that means that we have inherited not just their skeletal structure but also a lot of their drives and basic psychology.
Darwin’s detractors are aghast at the implied humiliation. But there’s consolation in Darwin too, because he suggests that our inability to live up to our ideals is not wholly our own fault. We are, at any time, half apes. And for apes to aim for faithful, life-long, passionate, egalitarian relationships is to attempt to pull off something hugely difficult starting from a very unpromising base. No wonder we often fail.
Without particularly intending to, Darwin ushers in a strategic and useful pessimism about relationships. Rather than being, for instance, essentially monogamous, he implies that human beings might – by nature at least – be predisposed to (as many apes are) to polygamy, opportunistic sex and the dumping of one mate for another on the basis of nothing more than their breeding potential, signalled by such unedifying and unspiritual characteristics as how big their breasts are.
Aquatic Park, San Francisco, United States, August 1965
Jefferson Poland, wearing a flower behind his ear, strips off his swimming trunks and wades naked into the sea.
Poland is one of the first hippies. He wears his hair long and rejects the sophistication of modern life for a romantic notion of getting back to a natural state of grace. Behind him and three other protesters braving the icy cold ocean water is a cheering crowd of beatniks and anarchists, who hold up signs and chant the phrase “Sex is clean! Law is obscene!” in front of a hastily assembled group of reporters.
This event is one of many organised by groups advocating free love in the 1960s in America. They argue that society’s rules against nudity, same-sex relationships and sex before marriage are all forms of sexual repression.
Soon monogamy itself is being questioned; in an enlightened world, they argue, sexually liberated men and women should give up marriage, along with it, jealousy, adultery and divorce.
It’s a beautiful, deeply Romantic idea of what love could be – which eventually collapses into disaster.
The country achieves a notorious distinction. It is the nation with the highest rate of divorce in the developed world, an astonishing 71% of couples split up. A newspaper in the country asks why, and the answer comes back clearly: initial expectations were not met.
Other countries are not far behind. In the UK, the divorce rate is 42%, in the US, 53%, in Hungary 67% and in Portugal 68%.
Part of the reason lies in the disappointment people feel with what had apparently been promised to them by the free-loving 1960s, and before that, by 19th-century Romanticism.
The dream of love survives, but it disappoints constantly. At dinner tables around the world, otherwise intelligent people complain that they simply cannot understand the strange and tricky subject of love.
The future hope for love lies in the notion of sacrifice: that is, in accepting that we won’t get everything we want from love, relationships or marriage. We’re trying to do something highly ambitious in our modern ideals of relationships: unite sex, affection, the raising of a family, a career and adequate material security. We will, by necessity, fail to get all of these.
The idea of sacrifice, though, helps us if we consider that getting half of what we really want and need might still be quite a lot – in comparison with what it would be like if we avoided relationships altogether. Clearly a solitary life can work really well for a few people, but mostly we hate living alone. The question should not be so much whether relationships live up to our ideal hopes of mutual happiness but whether they are better (if only a little) than not having relationships at all.
The future of love needs us to get interested in ambivalence: that is, in the capacity to keep on thinking that something is quite good even while we are painfully conscious of its many and striking day-to-day imperfections.
The world is sick for a surprisingly modest-sounding reason: we don’t understand love – and yet we are rather convinced that we do.
We talk a lot of love of course, but generally in terms of a dizzying rapture lasting a few months focused on someone’s beauty, intelligence and strength.
The most convincing discussion of love in the West came from Jesus of Nazareth, which has been unfortunate, given how easy it is to overlook everything he had to say once you don’t ‘believe’.
We might require a new philosophy of love, in effect, a powerful secular religion of love.
Here would be seven possible ingredients in Love redefined:
Love means, above anything else, benevolence and gentleness towards what is failed, disgraced, broken, unappealing, angry and foul in other people and in ourselves. Love isn’t about an admiration for strength, it’s about directing sympathy in a most unexpected direction: at what is messed up, lost and in pieces, and at what we might hate, resent and be frightened of. Anyone can express an interest in perfection, to love is to devote an active charity towards the mistakes and aberrations. One day, we will all require the charity of others. In one way or another, we’ll be on our knees – and we will need people to look past our evident failings in a tender search for our deeply hidden merits.
To love with imagination is to look beneath the surface – where there may be rage, cynicism, brittleness or transgression – and to picture the suffering and pain that got a person to this place. To love with imagination is to fill in the better reasons why others are behaving as they do. Imaginative love knows that we are all, somewhere, desperate: it seeks out that desperation and treats it with sorrowful gentleness.
There are so many fighters for social justice, so many people determined to make a better world. They denounce their enemies, and feel certain of their cause, but along the way, they have a fateful habit of forgetting to be kind. In their denunciations of the evils of others, there is precious little mercy, humility, tenderness or grace. It is not enough to be right or just, to be kind is to know that everyone, even sinners, and in a way, especially sinners, deserve ongoing sympathy and mercy. It is never simply because someone is wrong that we have any right to cease showing them the greatest kindness.
To forgive is to know that we are, in our own way, as guilty as the next person. Given what we all are, we have no option but to cut each other slack. Of course we have failed and been hasty and less than admirable. But that is no reason forever to withhold love. We learn to forgive when we are no longer self-righteous, that is, when we’re brave enough to fathom the darker sections of our own hearts.
To love means being loyal to people (this could be ourselves) even though the crowd no longer agrees. Outside the mob may be jeering, but we continue on the same side, with steadfastness and an unbudgeable resilient faith.
Love overflows. It isn’t about loving just one person, it encompasses the love of someone you have just met, of strangers in another land, of the earth, of plants, weevils, house bats and a moth by the window who might be dead by nightfall.
We want others to meet our hopes right now. But true love means giving people the time to mature and develop; to go wrong, to wander in another direction, and not to shout at them but to give them every chance to grow, at their own pace, towards their better selves.
If we can believe wholeheartedly in some of the above, it won’t matter who we vote for or what our cause is, we can count as part of what is helping.
We should be almost done with Romantic love by now. We should be setting our sights on the challenge of this sort of love. Yet it’s not surprising if we’re still only at the beginning, we’re just starting on the path to being human.
Love is our highest value, what we all crave and what we believe makes us fundamentally human, but it is also the source of considerable anxiety. Chiefly, we worry whether we are entirely normal because it frequently feels as if we are not experiencing love the way we should be.
Society is subtly highly prescriptive in this regard. It suggests that to be a decent person, we should all be within sexual relationships and furthermore, that within these, we should ‘love’ in a very particular way: we should be constantly thrilled by our partner’s presence, we should long to see them after every absence, we should crave to hold them in our arms, to kiss and be kissed by them and – most of all – want to have sex with them every day or so. In other words, we should follow the script of Romantic ecstasy throughout our lives.
This is beautiful in theory and hugely punitive in practice. If we’re going to define love like this and peg the idea of normality accordingly, then most of us will have to admit to ourselves (with considerable embarrassment) that we don’t know much about love – and therefore don’t qualify as decent, sane, or normal people. We’ve created a cult of love radically out of line with most of our real experiences of relationships.
This is where the Ancient Greeks can help. They realised early on that there are many kinds of love, each with their respective virtues and seasons – and that a good society requires us to append a correct vocabulary to these different states of the heart, lending each one legitimacy in the process.
The Greeks anointed the powerful physical feelings we often experience at the start of a relationship with the word ‘eros’ (ἔρως) . But they knew that love is not necessarily over when this sexual intensity wanes, as it almost always does after a year or so in a relationship.
Our feelings can then evolve into another sort of love they captured with the word ‘philia’ (φιλία) normally translated as ‘friendship’ though the Greek word is far warmer, more loyal and more touching than its English counterpart; one might be willing to die for ‘philia’. Aristotle recommended that we outgrow eros in youth, and then base our relationships – especially our marriages – on a philosophy of philia. The word adds an important nuance to our understanding of a viable union. It allows us to see that we may still love even when we are in a phase that our own, more one-sided vocabulary fails to value.
The Greeks had a third word for love: agape (ἀγάπη). This can be best translated as a charitable love. It’s what we might feel towards someone who has behaved rather badly or come to grief through flaws of character – but for whom we still feel compassion. It’s what a God might feel for his or her people, or what an audience might feel for a tragic character in a play. It’s the kind of love that we experience in relation to someone’s weakness rather than their strength. It reminds us that love isn’t just about admiration for virtues, it’s also about sympathy and generosity towards what is fragile and imperfect in us.
Having these three words to hand – eros, philia and agape – powerfully extends our sense of what love really is. The Ancient Greeks were wise in dividing the blinding monolith of love into its constituent parts.
Under their tutelage, we can see that we probably have far more love in our lives than our current vocabulary knows how to recognise.
For intense periods of our lives, we suffer the agony of unrequited love. Our sorrow is accompanied by a certainty that if only the elusive being would return our smiles, come for dinner or marry us, we would know bliss. Epochal happiness seems tantalisingly close, wholly real and yet maddeningly out of reach.
At such moments, we are often counselled to try to forget the beloved. We should – given their lack of interest – try to think of something or someone else. Yet this kindness is deeply misguided. The cure for love does not lie in ceasing to think of the fugitive lover, but in learning to think more intensely and constructively about who they might really be.
From close up, every human who has ever lived proves deeply challenging. We are all – at close quarters – trying propositions. We are short-tempered, vain, deceitful, crass, sentimental, woolly, cold, over-emotional and chaotic. What prevents us from holding this in mind in relation to certain people is simply a lack of knowledge. We assume – on the basis of a few charming outside details – that the target of our passion may miraculously have escaped the fundamentals of the human condition.
They haven’t. We just haven’t got to know them properly. This is what makes unrequited love so intense, so long-lasting and so vicious. By preventing us from properly growing close to them, the beloved also prevents us from tiring of them in the cathartic and liberating manner that is the gift of requited love. It isn’t their charms that are keeping us magnetised; it is our lack of knowledge of their flaws.
The cure for unrequited love is, in structure, therefore very simple. We must get to know them better. The more we discovered of them, the less they would ever look like the solution to all our problems. We would discover the endless small ways in which they were irksome; we’d get to know how stubborn; how critical; how cold and how hurt by things that strike us as meaningless they could be. That is, if we got to know them better, we’d realise how much they had in common with everyone else.
Passion can never withstand too much exposure to the full reality of another person. The unbounded admiration on which it is founded is destroyed by the knowledge which a properly shared life inevitably brings.
The cruelty of unrequited love isn’t really that we haven’t been loved back, rather it’s that our hopes have been aroused by someone who can never disappoint us, someone who we will have to keep believing in because we lack the knowledge that would set us free.
We must, in the absence of a direct cure, undertake an imaginative one. We must accept, without quite knowing the details, that they would, of course, eventually prove decisively irritating. Everyone does. We have to believe this not because we know it exactly of them, but because they are – in the end – human and we know this dark but deeply cheering fact about everyone who has ever lived.