Johann Hari: The unromantic reality of love

Love - as you and I understand it - is a recent cultural invention stitched in the 18th century
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The Independent Online

Forget Christmas, Chanukah and Ramadan - there is only one shared sacred day in the West, one moment when we all unite in a gooey mutual mush. Yes, St Valentine is hurtling towards us all through the February fog, yielding a box of additive-centred chocolates and a saccharine smirk to mark his Day of Days. Every year he takes over our shops to flog his factory line of mass-produced love, offering up a dozen identikit ways to express your most intimate feelings. And yes, it's a crass commercial cacophony - but it matters.

The ideal of romantic love is now our One True Faith, the religion we cling to even after we have cleared God, Allah and Vishnu into history's skip. After 9/11, 7/7 and the tsunami a few people prayed, but everybody picked up a phone to say to someone: "I love you." Romeo and Juliet won out over the old Holy books and as a sign of its victory, we have transferred the old, dead religious symbols into hymns to love - "I'm loving angels instead", "Heaven is a place on earth", "Hallelujah". The defining philosophy of the 21st century is: there's no god and no ideologies and no answers, but - hey - I got you babe.

But there's one problem: this philosophy is built on a string of myths as empty as the old religious ones. We all believe romantic love is eternal, romantic love is the same all over the world, romantic love is as basic as breathing and eating and crying. But - wake up and smell the rotting bouquet - it's a delusion. Love - as you and I understand it - is a recent cultural invention, stitched in the 18th century and propagandised for ever since. The complete victory of this invention - with all its sweet strengths, and all its withering weaknesses - has happened without discussion or debate, so we are blind to its downsides. It's time to pick open the heart-shaped box and see what it contains.

Wherever human beings live, people feel passionate love - an urgent, surging infatuation and enchantment with another person. But it is only very recently in the West that people began to expect this feeling to harden into something permanent, a settled romantic relationship that lasts until death (or the law courts) do us part. Look at the marble cities of ancient Greece, whose inhabitants were periodically, passionately gripped by Eros. This term is usually translated as "love", but this implies far greater continuity between them and us. It actually means a burning fire for another person that, as one classics don explains: "does not last, or rather it was not meant to last." Nobody expected Eros to lead to a permanent commitment, or to overlap with marriage, which was based on duty and respect - very different urges. Indeed, for the ancients it is a hideous, hilarious mistake for a man to feel Eros towards his wife. Seneca said, "To sleep with one's wife like a lover is as disgusting as adultery."

The Greeks are - in this respect - far more representative of humanity than us. For most people who have ever lived, love and marriage were totally separate concepts. The peasant couples of medieval Europe, for example, would almost never kiss or caress each other and would have found the idea of having a romantic impulse towards their spouses incomprehensible. The truth is that romantic love - our religion, our purpose, our first thought when our lives are threatened - was invented in the 18th century by a generation of aristocratic Englishwomen, just as surely as the Manhattan Project invented the A-bomb. Now their children were starting to have a better survival rate, these women were no longer under constant pressure to breed - so, as the sociologist and expert on the history of love, Anthony Giddens, says: "They began both to idealise the object of their love, and then tell stories to themselves about how their lives can be fulfilled by a lasting relationship with that person. It had never happened before." This ideology was popularised - and spread further down the social chain - in the next century, by novelists like Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë.

The upside to this romantic love - start humming Sinatra now - is obvious to us all. It is egalitarian - it assumes both women and men enter freely into an open contract, and walk away when the other stops pleasing them. It dissolves the deadly demands of duty - drudgery, pain and subservience, with no end in sight. In many societies, this is still almost unimaginably radical - just look at what happens to women who try to live by this code in, say, Somalia or Afghanistan.

But what about the downside? As a culture, we have swung in two centuries from seeing romantic love as irrelevant to seeing romantic love as everything. If the Eros is gone, we forget the other half of the Greek reality - duty - and ditch the bitch (or bastard). The cost of freedom to walk away is that many people do it so casually: the number of men who refuse to pay the soon-to-be-abolished Child Support Agency, or even to see their own kids after a relationship ends, is astonishingly high.

By making romantic love absolute and everything, we place spleen-rupturing strain on relationships. It's not enough to chug along happily - if we're not intoxicated with Eros, we're out of the door, seeking the next cupid-steered excitement. One of the reasons why so many relationships break down is that - thanks to this 18th century ideology - we expect more from them than ever before, and perhaps more than they can give.

We are so in love with love that we forget that it needs to be held in balance with other values - like duty to children, or care for the feelings of somebody you once loved. It is grotesque for conservatives to hold up the 1950s as a golden age - but isn't it fair to say that the ideology of individual romantic fulfilment is not enough on its own?

But deconstructing romantic love - and seeing the need to balance it with other values - doesn't help us to change the way we feel. Neuroscientists have already made huge inroads into explaining and artificially creating feelings of love: in one recent investigation into treating depression, experimenters used electrodes to stimulate the brains of women in ways that cause pleasurable feelings. The result? They fell in love with their experimenters. But even once these women knew - as we all do, on some level - that their love was merely an arbitrary chemical reaction, they still felt the pining and longing of Eros. If they couldn't see beyond their feelings, what hope is there for us, aware of history and sociology but infatuated with our latest love-object and day-dreaming about settling down forever?

It turns out St Valentine - and his ideology - rules over us all, no matter how much we throw his box of chocolates back in his face.