Saturday, February 5, 2011

What is love? Valentine's Day Reflections

What is love? Expressions like “Mmmm, I love this chocolate…” or “Wow, I love this dress!” somehow do not seem to belong with “Whoever fails to love does not know God, because God is love.” (First Letter of St. John, 4: 8). The month of February is a good time for considering this question since it is dedicated to the celebration of love and romance, with the ubiquitous red hearts, sweets, diamonds, and Victoria Secret’s underwear ads. Apparently, it is also a time for desperate searching for a mate, with the accompanying spike in the use of dating sites and the inevitable incidents of depression.

I know at least one lovely and love-filled couple who celebrates their engagement on Valentine’s Day, and why not? I imagine that such perfectly match paired human beings are like the mystical angelic creatures dwelling in Swedish theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven – eight-limbed, perfectly whole, united for eternity… Swedenborg writes: “The most perfect and noblest human form is that which exists when by marriage two forms become one single form, thus when two fleshes become one flesh in accordance with creation. That the mind of the man is then elevated into superior light, and the mind of the wife into superior heat; and that they then bud and blossom and bear fruit, as do trees in the time of spring.” (From Swedenborg’s Wisdom's Delight in Marriage Love, 201: XVI).

In Swedenborg’s perfect “conjugal union” the male element is wisdom and the female is love. By uniting and exchanging these core elements, the man and woman become whole and perfect. Only together they are completely fulfilled. This vision of coupled happiness inspired the following poem:

Eros 6

we are the walnut
of perennial wisdom

locked together
(two halves in one)
we share one breath
of blessed air

we peel the minutes
off the ancient clock

The loving couple defines their own world that they share and that they exclude everyone else from. In their uniquely intimate love, the sexual and the emotional are fully united. Their bond is deep and deepens with time. Eventually, it may seem to be timeless – we hear about couples celebrating their 30th, 40th, or 50th wedding anniversaries and still in love… They are on their way to become Swedenborg’s angelic creatures in married heaven.

For the rest of fallible humans, there are repeated try-and-fail attempts, serial dating, serial marrying, serial heartbreaks. The fairy-tale romances start from love at first sight and continue in the novelty and excitement of meeting the beloved, discovering new things about him or her, knowing them and knowing oneself through them. Poets write about that love, film-makers keep producing romantic comedies filled with surprise romances, ending these made-up stories, for the edification of the masses, at their high points of romantic fulfillment. Dante and his Beatrice? Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? Goethe’s Werther and his beloved?

Amor 2
You looked at me
and I saw myself
for the first time

I’m beautiful! I’ve heard this
many times before
but did not quite believe

In your hands
love fills
every square inch of my skin

I glow with a brightness
that even your absence
cannot dim

The contentment with having found a perfect, loving partner, too soon and too often gives in to the longing for more, always more – to see the beloved all the time, to glow with the delight of his or her presence, doing the most mundane, silly, every-day things… Does such “love-at-first-sight” exist?

Dr. Earl Nauman in Love at First Sight: The Stories and Science Behind Instant Attraction (Casablanca Press, 2001) claims that it does, and cites a whole series of first-person narrative accounts of its sudden appearance and life-long persistence. The “love-at-first-sight” tradition extends to ancient literature of Greece and Rome, to the story of Narcissus, an innocent youth of such incredible beauty and ignorance that he fell in love with his own reflection in smooth surface of the water and stayed there, transformed into a flower, abandoned to eternal self-contemplation… The psychological disorder of “narcissism” comes from that story. Is all “love-at-first-sight” and its core of desire essentially selfish? Why the success of so many romances in novels, theater, film?

Desire, the heart of erotic love may be understood and explained as a profound sense of emptiness, of needing and wanting someone to be together with, to “have and hold” – as the British marriage vows have it. That longing, in turn, too often leads to disenchantment: when satisfied it may be transformed into boredom, when the satisfaction is postponed, it may lead to disappointment. The heightened expectations are a set-up for failure. And so the cycle continues.

Eros 1

my dreams are simple –
I just want you

today, tomorrow,
in my bed, at my table,
talking on your cell phone,
putting on your socks,
all wet from the shower,
bewildered by the steady
glow of my love,
touched so deeply
that it hurts –

you – just one man
of wicked charm,
strength, wisdom

A friend of mine with a rich romantic history told me of a horrifying moment of self-revelation. While seating in a car with her lover number three, she looked at his hand, that he wrapped around hers in the exactly same gesture as her lover number one used to do. Déjà vu ... She felt the same love, the same elation, perfect happiness of togetherness with both men, yet, they were so different. Was it not the love of that person, then? The love of who they really were? Was it just a sweetly seductive feeling that being near and with these men engendered in her? Did she actually care about them and their dreams or did she just need them to put herself in a dream state of being filled with the ecstatic joy of love? Was it the heightened emotion of being in danger, of flirting and breaking rules that she misread for love?

Amor 6

the more I love
the more dangerous
life becomes
in its graphic beauty
carved with a dagger
stolen from time

the blade cuts
old wounds open

it slides on the skin
of the moment

pierced by knowing

I could end here, by adding a comment from a love-researcher, Stanton Peel who analyzed the phenomenon from a critical perspective in “Fools for Love: The Romantic Ideal, Psychological Theory and Addictive Love.” Peel contrasts “addictive” love filled with pain, “uncontrollable urge and unconscious motivation” with love as a “state of heightened awareness and responsibility.... one that kindles the most elements of feeling and moral awakening.”

In a similar vein, Robert J. Sternberg, one of the editors of The Psychology of Love where Peel’s article was published (Yale University Press, 1988), came up with a triangular theory of love (passion + intimacy + decision/commitment), and a multi-tiered classification of types of love that result from presence and absence of some of these elements. Between the extremes of passion (infatuation) and intimacy (liking), dwells the romantic love. Between passion and commitment you can find “fatuous love” but commitment alone is “empty love” – is it love at all? Just deciding to be with someone without either being attracted to that person, or liking him or her? If you add “liking” – the resultant “companionate love” is what most marriages turn into after 10 years, if not ending in a divorce. Only when the three elements co-exist, Sternberg claims, love becomes perfect “consummate love.”

Are there any other kinds? Let me continue next week...


All poems cited from Maja Trochimczyk, Miriam's Iris: Or Angels in the Garden (Moonrise Press, 2008).