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Relationships • Romanticism
What is Love?
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.