O tell me the truth about love
... demanded W H Auden. But is there one truth, or many? We offer some answers for Valentine's Day
Sunday 09 February 1997
"What is love?" is a boring question for the up-to-date evolutionary biologist. "Why is love?" is more to the point. What good does it do us to be "love-sick"? Why did the cream of Homeric Greece take themselves off after Helen? Why did Anna Karenina sacrifice all for a creep?
Well the other side of love lies sex which seems to have to do with reproduction and the spreading of genes, and that is what life is for. But this merely raises another puzzle. For reproduction implies multiplication - and sex just gets in the way. Amoebae replicate well enough by splitting down the middle. Greenflies produce entire clones of themselves via parthenogenesis. The non-sexual route is both simpler and more efficient, since all the offspring derive from just one parent; sex needs two and so reduces output per head by 50 per cent. Asexual creatures should out-compete the sexual ones hands down.
But then the point of sex is not, in fact, to reproduce, but to mix genes. This in turn provides offspring that are somewhat different from their parents and that is worthwhile, so modern theory has it, as a guard against parasites, which find it hard to adapt to a host that alters with each generation. The constant supply of novelty also provides the raw material for evolutionary change - so, without sex, creatures as intricate as us could not have evolved at all. But that really is just a bonus. Without bugs and bacteria to harass them, animals could never have evolved sex in the first place. The asexual reproducers would have out-competed them.
Sex, then, is a rational pursuit after all - so why the heroics? Why the poetry? Why love? Because sex, worthy though it may be, is awfully dangerous. Lions and stags must out-face rivals as murderous as themselves. All suitors risk a potentially lethal response as many a male spider could attest, if only dead arachnids could tell tales.
In short, no creature in its right mind would risk sex, no matter how worthwhile the biologists might show it to be. So natural selection has ensured that we are not in our right minds: passion for motivation, ecstasy for reward - testosterone, adrenaline, endorphins. That's about all there is to it, really.
LOVE is the suspension of all rational thought. You enter this other place in which only you and others who love belong. You smile a lot, colours become vivid, the cold not unbearable but an excuse to snuggle, the seasons a miracle never previously noticed. Words take on extra resonance as your lover speaks to you. Who'd have thought the alphabet could arrange itself into such pleasing patterns. Sadly, how easily those words can be rearranged later, to cause pain.
At the sight of your lover you get heartbeats in your fingertips. Of course they're like no one else. They don't do mundane things like buy shampoo. No one understands how you feel, you've never felt like this before. You have, of course, but you forget because love anaesthetises you from everything. You look for similarities, coincidences, because, of course, you were meant to be together.
Love is like that "Magic Eye" game, but more exclusive. When you love things come into focus that no one else can see, all the good things, because the bad things are in the background. When you no longer love this process reverses and you only see the bad things for a while, until finally it all fades back into a jumble.
Only with hindsight can you look back and think "That was love". Until then, you can only guess. And hope.
LOVE requited, love's longing, love's hurt, love in the wings, stolen love, secret love, love awaiting, forbidden love, romantic love, erotic love, dangerous love, innocent love, expectant love.
Love as the weepies, love as the conquest, love as unfolding, love as penetrating, love as a promise, love as betrayal, love as hope, love as destruction.
Love as sexual politics, love as dispute, love as surrender, love as communication, love as yoke, love as freedom, love as author of self, love as seeker of truth, love as connection, love as gift.
Love as the compelling narrative of our time.
But what about the romance of love? Can we preserve it? Can we play with its secrets and promises for one day without allowing its duties, its tragedies, its depth, even its humour to impinge and dilute? Can we shyly open the Valentine and blush, be tickled by its caprice, revel in its indulgence, be charmed by its sweetness? Can we allow ourselves to open our hearts to romance; refresh our relationships and reinvigorate our passion. Can we dare to show our lovers who we are now, discover ourselves and them anew, risk bliss?
We fall in love when we are open. We find a part of ourself we love and show it to our lover. She or he receives us, appreciates us and we expand and tingle. We love loving and being loved. The power to see, to touch, to move the other extends who we are but it is also scary. It can feel too open.
When we love day in, day out, we can become closed. We forget, we get lazy, we become fearful, we no longer show our vulnerabilities. Love grows cold. Love hates.
It takes a risk, several risks, to open up anew, to re-romance, to see again, to hear, show and listen. And yet, we can and we must if we are to renew intimacy and find who we are today.
LOVE is excessive, and that is presumably why people return to it. As poetry occurs when words are used in such a way as to exceed the sum of their individual meanings, love is a sensation felt when someone's response to another is greater than anything the sum of the circumstances can explain. Other feelings are more or less reasonable reactions to events; love gives the impression of having in some way defied the gravity of daily experience. This is why people value it and deal in it, because it lets them escape the tyranny of the probable.
"Pure" love may exist only in the mystic's cell; for most people the emotion comes in compound form, with desire, protectiveness, affection, jealousy and various self-serving urges. People always recognise the presence of love, however, because it has an elevating effect which no number of baser feelings in the compound quite obscures.
Love is almost certainly a delusion, but one by which humans are healthy and naturally predisposed to be duped. Those few who can resist it are, oddly enough, not of a superior sanity but are damaged, psychopathic or otherwise incomplete.
IN THE end it all comes down to three things: symmetry, sound and smell. The rest is window-dressing.
We first find people attractive on the basis of the symmetry of their features, as scientists discovered a couple of years ago. People shown images that had been digitally manipulated preferred those whose faces were most nearly symmetrical. Supermodels are the apotheosis of that fact: when someone says that Cindy Crawford or Claudia Schiffer have "perfect" features, what they mean is "very symmetrical". And the same applies to men.
If you want to dream about love at first sight, then be reassured that it can happen, if your eye falls on someone whose symmetrical features - position of nose, eyes and ears - match yours closely enough.
But then you draw nearer, and what happens? You hear their voice. This, again, has a subtle but important impact, as essential as the call of a bird in the wild. There is no single characteristic for men's or women's voices which makes them attractive - though the unpopularity of nasal, whining tones, especially compared to the stentorian (in men) or high- pitched and breathy (in women) tells us something.
Once within hearing range, something even more subtle takes over. Studies suggest that it is not language that makes the difference, despite your best efforts at sparkling wit. No, it is the scent that you give off - your "pheromones". These are hormones generated inside the body and secreted in our sweat glands. Though we (mostly) try to tone down our olfactory volume in big cities, once we are close to someone our brains unconsciously begin sampling the other person's scent and comparing it to our preference.
Dr George Dodd, a former perfumer who lectured in chemistry at the University of Warwick, and directed its Institute of Olfactory Research, says: "The output of pheromones starts with puberty, peaks in the late twenties, then diminishes. The sexually compatible enjoy each other's body odour. There's an odour conversation between them. That's what is meant by 'sexual chemistry'."
Magazine adverts for pheromones (aimed at gullible boys) have tried to cash in on the finding claiming their use will make them irresistible to women. Unfortunately you can't guarantee the results: our pheromones are as individual as we are, and what other people will find attractive is just as unpredictable. Love remains an elusive thing. Perhaps it's just as well.
"LOVE has no law" wrote the poet John Lydgate. The opposite is equally true. Law knows no love. You can trawl for days through the legal tomes and the wisdom of judges down the ages without finding a trace of love. It is not a concept recognised by our law.
Men and women may kill for love; but to the court the mundane question is whether a psychiatrist believes the accused to be suffering from diminished mental responsibility, English law has no time for the crime of passion. Stalkers may claim they stalk for love; but their motives are legally irrelevant. "Through love, every law is broken," says Chaucer. "That's no excuse", the English judge retorts. Only the mercy-killer, putting an end to the suffering of a loved one, gains some sympathy from our law, in the form of a charge of manslaughter rather than murder, and a lesser sentence.
The marriage ceremony talks of love, but the word is absent in the legal relationship that follows. "In church you promised to love me," she complains. "Sorry, dear, that was not a contractually binding obligation for which you can obtain any legal redress" is the correct reply. Nor does our divorce law pay any attention to the presence or absence of love. The nearest it comes is the occasional mention of affection; but a husband who once sought a divorce on the grounds that his wife denied him the affection he craved was quickly turned down. In only one legal document has the word love appeared with any frequency. It used to be common - for complicated legal reasons, including the saving of stamp duty for a husband making a gift of property to his wife (or vice versa) - to state that he was doing so in consideration of "natural love and affection". It was a formula, no more, but a rare example of love entering the law.
Anthony Julius, Princess Diana's solicitor and a formidable literary critic, has elegantly created another of the very few links. Is not, he claimed in a recent lecture, the work of an advocate in court much the same as the task of a swain wooing his beloved? They are both engaged in pleading a cause important to them, with passion and by the persuasive power of words alone. A victory sends them into transports of happiness; a defeat into the depths of gloom. Julius entitled his lecture "Love poetry and the art of advocacy". It's the nearest that love gets to the law.
IT'S MAD. But why is it madness, if so many are in thrall to it at one time or another? Because it can be all-devouring, stop us eating or sleeping, make us sigh, obsess, stop work, ignore everything except the pursuit of our love. We lose our head. The passion of love blinds us to blatant flaws in our beloved that others see sticking out like a sore thumb, to the consequences of marrying someone we'll regret for decades in the cold light of clear reason. Disappointment in love leads many to take their life or try to do so.
Seeing someone in love with an object few care for makes transparent its almost delusional aspects. A fetishist's passion for women's high- heeled shoes imbued those he collected with beloved qualities like those in Donne's poems and Shakespeare's sonnets. The blindness of love amounts to true madness in a sufferer with erotomania who is deluded that her or his love is requited despite all evidence to the contrary, and stalks the beloved relentlessly.
Love is not the only emotion to make us irrational. We can become mad with rage or have a passion of jealousy that blinds us to rational action. Panic can scare us out of our wits. Emotions help us to seize life's opportunities and guard against threats. Anger makes it less likely that we'll be taken advantage of. Fear reduces the chance of our falling off a cliff or being savaged by people and animals. The lunacy of love that bonds parents together makes their arduous raising of children easier. If all we had was lust without love we'd have fewer offspring who became adult to have children in their turn.
LOVE is the very nature of God. God's love is: universal and not tribal, totally self-giving, totally undeserved, resolutely merciful (forgives and forgets), it rescues those who respond to it from the situation of the past and enables them to meet the situations of the future; it makes heroes of those it embraces because it is not the softening and over-protective love which makes the loved weak and flabby; God's love outlasts all the chances and changes and the threats of life, and because it is not sentimental God's love is the love which knows that discipline is an essential part of love. This love of God elevates us without inflating us, and humbles us without degrading us.
In that great hymn of love, St Paul in I Corinthians xiii, describes love as very patient and kind, never jealous or envious, never boastful or proud, never haughty or self-centred or rude. It is not always "me first". It is not irritable or touchy. It does not hold grudges and because it looks through a telescope and not through a microscope, love will hardly notice when others do it wrong. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices wherever truth prevails. The test of true love is loyalty to those loved no matter the cost; always believing in them, always expecting the best of them, and always standing one's ground in defending them. This love goes out in compassion to one's enemies. And certainly Abraham Lincoln was right when he said, "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?". God's only method of destroying his enemies is to love them into being his friends. This is love.
The only way we build a truly authentic human life is to build it on the twin pillars of the love of God and the love of our fellow human being. Yes, love is the magic key of life - not to get what we want but to become what we ought to be. But, unfortunately, true love is like ghosts, which everybody likes talking about but few have seen.
"WHAT is love?" is the wrong question. We need to ask why we prize love as we do. This is not to seek a purely causal explanation of our valuing love from a perspective outside human experience. What we need to do is to understand what we find of value in love. We cannot explain what love is unless we understand what we value in it. Evolutionary, psychoanalytical or theological accounts of the function of love inevitably fall short of explaining the value we find in the emotion.
One question is the extent to which love is a rational emotion. If we feel pride in something we must believe it to have various worthy features; and if we come to believe it has lost them, our pride should evaporate. Is love like this? That is, do we love for reasons? Do we love a person for certain features, so that if they were to lose them, our love should evaporate? Or is love more like the tie we might feel for an old teddy bear which persists even when the toy is hardly recognisable - a non-rational attachment of the sort we might feel for the region where we were brought up?
It seems that this unconditional and non-rational aspect of love is essential to our prizing it. Indeed, the irony is that we are rational to value love only because it is non-rational.
The Science Editor
Bishop For Stepney
I shall say what inordinate love is:
The furiosity and wodness of mind,
An instinguible burning, faulting bliss,
A great hunger, insatiate to find.
A dulcet ill, an evil sweetness blind,
A right wonderful sugared sweet error,
Without labour rest, contrary to kind,
Or without quiet, to have huge labour
Anon (15th century) wodness: frenzy
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