In the early 1990s I wrote a short book, Speaking of Sex, about the various ways in which sex was thought about and discussed in our then contemporary society. I say ‘then’ because attitudes and discourse have changed considerably during the past 15 or so years, and if I were writing the book today it would be different in a good many respects. However, I believe it is still worth reading.
One of the chapters was called "What is this thing called love?" It was symptomatic, I thought, that someone had asked me: “Why do you need to talk about love in this book?” Nowadays, so much sexual activity is purely sensual and emotionless and love often plays little if any part. But it did, and does, seem to me important to consider the nature of love. I realise that this is a topic which has been mulled over by some of the profoundest minds down the centuries, and it is presumptuous of me to add my twopennyworth. Nevertheless, here goes.
Resorting to metaphor, love is an embracing atmosphere which we absorb – if we are fortunate – in infancy and childhood. Those who grow up surrounded by it, and receiving it, take it for granted: for them, love is the natural, spontaneous feeling people have for each other in the absence of painful emotions. The caring concern and warmth of parents and other close grownups confirms the child’s sense of self and worthwhileness; and those of us who are fortunate enough to have received such positive messages about ourselves when we were little give out love spontaneously to others.
Those who know that they are loved, and who grow up loving others in their turn, do so largely unaware of how lucky they are. Those who don’t receive and experience love in their childhood don’t know what it is that they are missing; and so their own capacity to love is stunted. Often they are angry, without knowing why; and their emotions of resentment, and even hatred, which stem from their not having been loved, seem as natural to them as a loving nature does to those who have been brought up lovingly.
While the potential to experience and to express emotions is inborn, the activities of loving and of hating are acquired through experience and reciprocation. Even then, one does not spontaneously become a loving or a hating person; each one of us constantly makes and remakes that choice [whether we are conscious of doing so or not] in every event and relationship of our lives.
I believe that, regardless of the good or ill fortune of their upbringing, and the influences it has exerted upon them, every human being experiences the need to be loved, whether or not they comprehend what this yearning is; and that its absence, or frustration, is the most potent breeding-ground of misery and of anger which all too readily turns into hatred and cruelty. And the need for love is not only emotional: it has a strongly physical component which expresses itself through the sensuous urge [not always, but very often, sexual] for fusion with other human beings. Plato identified this urge, and depicted it beautifully in his legend [told by Aristophanes in the Symposium] of the hermaphrodites cut in two by the gods, who constantly yearned to be reunited with their ‘other halves’.
Apart from this instinctive physical yearning, and far from being the soul-shattering thunderbolt which romantic novels and films depict as ‘falling in love’, love is not an unwilled experience. As Rollo May tells us in Love and Will, love is the outcome of a deliberate act of will and intention – a chosen reaching out towards others, and specifically to one other [‘the Beloved’], in loving care and concern for their wellbeing. To be loving requires openness and involves risk. It is an art, and also a skill, which can be consciously learned and developed, as Erich Fromm describes in The Art of Loving.
Do these notions bring us any closer to defining the elusive butterfly? In Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson offer an original metaphor: ‘Love is a collaborative work of art’. This, they say, incorporates many other metaphors: love is an aesthetic experience [beauty]; love is energy; love is work; love requires co-operation, dedication, compromise, discipline, patience, instinctive communication, shared values, goals and responsibility.
Some other familiar metaphors are: Love is a journey, an adventure, a pilgrimage, a service; Love is madness [as in ‘I’m crazy about him’; ‘She’s driving me wild’]. An entire book [Love and Addiction by Stanton Peele] has been devoted to the metaphor of love as a junkie’s fix, characterising the state of being ‘in love’ as a toxic dependency upon a romanticised vision of the Beloved who, being actually only an ordinary human being, is incapable of living up to the lover’s inflamed expectations. In this state, love becomes an unhealthy mutual protection racket forged out of a victim-like need for security. Such overheated ‘romantic love’ flies in the face of common sense and lures many to heartbreak and even tragedy. And the clearer vision of detached third parties is rarely of much help.
Before we can love anyone else happily and successfully, we have to love ourselves – not in a selfish or self-centred way, but realistically and with some sense of proportion. We must be aware of our own strengths and weaknesses, and take responsibility for making fruitful use of the former and improving the latter. Only then can we offer supportive affection to another human being, rather than making dependant demands upon them. My own favourite metaphor for a healthy loving relationship is two pillars standing side by side in comradely togetherness but each solidly based upon its own sound foundations.
The essence of love is emotional honesty which does not falsify, either to oneself or to the beloved. That cannily sage and unusually modern Victorian, Robert Louis Stevenson, says in one of his essays: “Truth to your own heart and your friends, never to feign or falsify emotion - that is the truth which makes love possible and mankind happy.” And elsewhere he writes: “The essence of love is kindness; and indeed it may best be defined as passionate kindness: kindness, so to speak, run mad and become importunate and violent”. In this, Stevenson concurs with his friend Henry James, who once said that only three things really count in life: the first is to be kind; the second is to go on being kind; and the third is still to be kind.
It is a noble aspiration. I wonder how many of us achieve this in our lives?