Friday, 6 April 2007

What is this thing called love?

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 had the title of this blog. It was symptomatic, I thought, that someone asked me “why do you need to talk about love in this book?” Nowadays, so much sexual activity is purely sensual and emotionless that love has been relegated firmly to the sidelines. 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 lack of love, 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 of not] in every event and relationship of our lives.

I believe, however, that, regardless of the good or ill fortune of their upbringing, and the influences it has exerted upon them, all human beings experience the need to be loved, whether of 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. It is 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.

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 uncannily 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.

How many of us achieve this in our lives?


Emmie said...

This is an awesome article on love!! I enjoyed browsing through it. Would love to come back for more. Hope you have a great Easter weekend. Cheers.:)

1loneranger said...


I appreciate your metaphor of the two columns very much. Experience with different ideas or types of love offers much to a honest relationship. If it were not for the past hardships and ecstasies that accompany finding love we could not offer our partners what they need, Of that I am sure.
To not know love as a child surely resticts the ability to offer love as an adult.. and this is one of the sadest things I can imagine.

I personally believe True love to be True friendship... and this must be both the easiest and most difficult thing for us humans to find on earth.

I offer what Roy Croft said about love to the thread....

I love you,
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am
When I am with you.
I love you,
Not only for what
You have made of yourself,
But for what
You are making of me.

I love you
For the part of me
That you bring out;
I love you
For putting your hand
Into my heaped-up heart
and passing over
All the foolish, weak things
That you can't help
Dimly seeing there,
And for drawing out
Into the light
All the beautiful belongings
That no one else had looked
Quite far enough to find.

I love you because you
Are helping me to make
Of the lumber of my life
Not a tavern
But a temple;
Out of the works
Of my every day
Not a reproach
But a song.

I love you
Because you have done
More than any creed
Could have done
To make me good,
And more than any fate
Could have done
To make me happy.

You have done it
Without a touch,
Without a word,
Without a sign.
You have done it
By being yourself.
Perhaps that is what
Being a friend means,
After all.

anticant said...

Thanks for that, ranger [I'm glad you're not alone]. The opposite of the twin pillars is two drunks using each other as lamp posts.

ranger said...


Hey, everyone needs a tavern sometimes! I could use one now in fact. Mimi's in Toronto!

anticant said...

Why not nip over to the burrow Snug?

lavenderblue said...

I feel love in the Snug........and sometimes that is all i ask for more would just be laughed at.

anticant said...

All you need is love.

Jose said...

Excellent essay, Anticant. It reminds me of Einstein's alleged anecdote when he was a student.

He said that evil did not exist, that evil was an expression we use to denote the absence of love, humanity and faith.

At long last I've found a way to comment here. It seems the site didn't recognise my password, so I'm using my web site instead.

pela68 said...

Nice one Anticant. All the best to you, and have a nice one!

Jose said...

I expect my problems with Google have been fixed up. Let's see if my comment appears now.

anticant said...

Einstein, as usual, was right. I don't believe in 'evil' as a supernatural force either. I do believe in human wickedness, folly, and greed. As you will already have gathered, I don't believe in ANY supernatural beings or forces. Everything we experience comes from within, as part of being human. As I say in the blog, being a good and loving person is a conscious choice which is the reponsibility of each individual. It has no necessary connection with belief or disbelief in a God.

Anna MR said...

"Evil" is a word that native English speakers seem to easily recoil from, due to its religious connotations. Being a mere foreign Johnny myself, I don't find that restriction in the word. I am sure there exists a thing that could, even if only for convenience's sake, be described as "evil", without any hint of tv preachers or similar thinking. Therefore, I like the (alleged) Einstein quote - surely nobody could accuse him of resorting to platitudous (is this a word?) religious discourse, even in his student years.

This was a lovely post, by the way, anticant. I will be back for more wisdom.

anticant said...

Much appreciated, Anna MR. I hope you will enjoy browsing some the arena's earlier postings. It's only been open since January, so there's not a HUGE backlog to wade through. The burrow is a bit older, but there's some good stuff among the earlier posts there too [if you'll forgive my immodesty].

Richard W. Symonds said...


"I am not an atheist...In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognise, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what makes me really angry is that they quote me for support of such views (1941)...

"My feeling is religious insofar as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insufficiency of the human mind to understand more deeply the harmony of the universe which we try to formulate as 'laws of nature' (1952)...

"My religiousity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals in the little that we can comprehend of the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God" (1927)...

"Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man...In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiousity of someone more naive (1936)...

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the one fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.
"It was the experience of mystery...that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiousity;
in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man" (1930)


Ms Melancholy said...

A lovely post, anticant, and I am drawn to the metaphor of the two pillars. I agree that one must learn to love oneself - 'realistically and with some sense of proportion' as you so beautifully put it - before one can truly love another. This self acceptance enables us to deal with the disillusionment we inevitably feel when 'the beloved' reveals him or herself to be merely human, complete with human frailties and weaknesses. We can only tolerate the other's frailties when we are truly tolerant of our own. I look forward to checking out more of your blog x

Emmett said...

'WHO Tastes, knows' say them mahometan Sufis -- and, that will have to do as I find love such a mysterious thing, and have made such a mess of it on all these messy embodied levels, that anything I could even remotely 'say' should be (rightly!) shouted down by anyone with an ounce or nipple, of true perception.

Wook, American Farmer & Elegiaist

Emmett said...

anna mr, my middle daughter is Anna, too -- and, I got in the habit of listening to Tom Waits whilst water-colouring (!), oh, twelve or thirteen years since. This was not my daughter's fault but that of my teacher in Mankato, Minnesota, at the state teachers' college that nowadays calls itself a 'university'. Rea Mengeva taught me lots about painting -- and, to enjoy Mr Tom Waits!

Wook, fermier & artiste

Anna MR said...

Emmett, how funny, I've always had a soft spot for water-colouring (I am terrible at it but love the process). I enjoy it also with the 3-6-year-olds whom I teach, it gives so much more of a delicate and nuanced result (as well as teaching a bunch of basic arts skills) than poster paint or similar goop.

Tom W of course can't put a note wrong. Did I tell you about my cousin's degree work? - Yes, of course I did. I told everyone.

*slinks off, aware of the fact she is attempting to bask in the sunshine of others*

Anna MR said...

Just to check, anticant - is it ok to waffle sociably and amicably with people here, or should I be saying poignant and intelligent stuff?

Will shut up if the latter...

anticant said...

Dear Anna MR, Please free to be yourself, here and in the burrow! The only things I deprecate are hostile personal attacks, and the aggressive use of sexual terms [whose proper use should only be warm and loving]. See my "rules of engagement" at the beginning of this site. I don't like people being NASTY - although I was called nasty myself on someone else's blog not so long ago: the communication being the message received, I suppose.........