Tuesday, May 1

On Love - Its forms, history and present

An excerpt from AC Grayling's book 'The Meaning of Things'. Very interesting analysis of Love in human society over a period of time:

It is no surprise that the feast dedicated to amorousness, St Valentine's Day, anticipates the onset of spring by a few weeks, as if to help rouse human sensibilities from their winter hibernation. Romance perfumes the air in spring, flowers appear for the express purpose of being bunched into lovers' tributes; chocolate manufacturers count their profits. Yet despite appearances, the kinds of love that are most significant to us are not those that fill novels and cinema screens. They are instead those we have for family, friends and comrades; for these are the loves that endure through the greater part of our lives, and give us our sense of self-worth, our stability, and the framework for our other relationships.

Romantic love, by contrast, is an episodic, usually short-lived, and often scorchingly vivid turbulence in our emotional histories. To judge by the attention it receives - not least in poetry and song, our parliaments for discussing the heart's essentials - it is one of life's profoundest experiences. Yet paradoxically, the official line is that apart from a few experimental feints in early adulthood, love's true heights should only be experienced once, with lifelong bonding as the appropriate outcome. Anyone who claims to fall in love frequently is deemed irresponsible, and with some justification: for it is such a time-consuming, exhausting, ecstatic, painful transforming business that it requires a long recovery - in some cases, indeed, whole lifetimes.

Sober folk claim that falling romantically in love is not a good way to get to know someone, for Stendhal’s reason that we cloak the beloved in layers of crystal, and see a vision rather than a person for the whole period of our entrancement. On this view it is a delusional state, and the fact that it is short-lived is therefore good. Others think that romantic love is the only thing that allows us to burn through the layers that conventionally insulate people from one another, baring the soul of each to each, and making true communication possible – the kind that speaks the language of intimacy, not in words but in pleasures and desires.

This is far from the only difference of opinion about romantic love. Another debate rages over the question whether a propensity for romance is an essential human trait, or whether it is a social and historical construction, present in some periods and societies but absent from others. As this crucial question shows, romantic love is a scarcely understood phenomenon, not least because in modern times we have conflated it with features and expectations drawn from other kinds of love, which latter we have ceased to reflect upon as if their naturalness exempted them from consideration.

The Greeks had different words for love’s different manifestations. They spoke of agape, altruistic love (in Latin caritas, which gives us – but with what a cold ring – our word ‘charity’). They spoke of ludus, the playful affection of children and of casual lovers, and pragma, the understanding that exists between a long-established married couple. They spoke of storge, the love that grows between siblings or comrades-in-arms who have been through much together, and of mania, which is obsession. And they allied the latter with eros or sexual passion. They thought that love in all its forms was divinely inspired, in the case of the last by Aphrodite. But divine inspiration was not always welcome; manic eroticism, they said, was often inflicted as a punishment by the gods, and its unreasoning and distracting character interfered with what they most valued, namely intellect and courage. Both Plato and his pupil Aristotle, in their different ways, therefore placed friendship at the summit of emotional life, and consigned the love that craves bodily expression to a lower plane. For many Greeks ataraxia, which means ‘peace of mind’, was a great good that was always under threat from sexual love and its obsessions and jealousies, and that is why Sophocles applauded old age for releasing mankind from what he called the ‘tyranny’ of sexual desire.

In making these distinctions the Greeks showed an alertness to the fact that close relationships subserve a variety of ends. People need emotional satisfactions of many kinds, but chiefly those that stem from giving and receiving companionship, affection, and the affirmations of being liked and approved. People might occasionally enjoy solitude, but never loneliness; they need to feel connected and valued. All of the six loves of the Greeks are connections, and all but mania bring a sense of self-worth. In the Greek ideal, the best and strongest emotional bonds are those of friendship between equals. Romantic and erotic passion might be felt by a man for a boy or (not quite as acceptably) a woman, but this was a distraction, and too much of it was regarded as weakness.

The downgrading of relations with women had a long and unhappy influence in the West. In the Christian era – despite what is suggested by the medieval side-show of ‘courtly love’ as celebrated by troubadours – most marriages were economic and practical arrangements, with disparity in age, education and status making companionate marriage rare. It remained so until recent times: Thomas Hardy remarked that the reason men and women were unable to establish a genuine camaraderie even in his own day was that they associated with each other only in their pleasures, never in their labours.

In saying this, Hardy presaged a new ideal of love as a combination of romance and comradeship. This is something really new in Western civilisation. Both romance and friendship have always been ideals, but quite separately; and romance has taken very different forms at different times in history. Romantic-companionate love as we now view it received its definitive statement very recently indeed – in fact, at the hands of Hollywood in its golden age, between the 1930s and 1950s, in thousands of films of every genre. Of course, progress towards the acculturation of its ideals and norms had already begun in nineteenth-century literature, which established the now-familiar pattern: a couple fall romantically in love, and therefore commit themselves to an open-ended venture of exclusive cohabitation (marriage, or in more recent times its surrogates), with children in the garden and roses round the door. The standard denouement for a Victorian three-volume novel is the engagement of the hero and heroine in the last chapter. In Jane Austen earlier in the century, this terminus is reached by more reflective and sober means; not with high passion, not even with palpitations and breathlessness, save for a faint simulacrum of these in an early phase of each novel’s development, to show that Elizabeth is not indifferent to Darcy, say, or Fanny to Thomas. The courtship of Emma and Mr Knightley is quintessential Austen: a matter of mind and morals, of character and decision.

Not so by the time of Hardy. Love here takes the form either of mania or mature sexual passion. In Hardy’s prophecy of the newly emerging pattern, romance is not an end in itself but a step towards love of the other kinds – it becomes the porch to friendship, comradeship, the equal or near-equal partnership in life’s adventure. ‘When I look up, there you’ll be, and when you look up, there I’ll be,’ says Gabriel Oak when he has gained Bathsheba at last, in a summary that would have curdled the passion of a medieval troubadour for whom romance was all in all, and domesticity its nemesis.

In opposition to the view that romantic love was invented by the troubadours, some argue that it is a universal phenomenon. To claim this is to take sides in the debate between ‘essentialists’ and ‘constructionists’. The former claim that romantic love is one of the four great, intrinsic, inescapable upheavals which define the human condition (the others are: being born, having children, and dying). The latter claim that although loving, in all its variety of objects and modes, is one of the central human emotions, how it is expressed is an historically determined matter. Both are right; for people have always fallen in love – which is to say become infatuated, desirous, obsessed in some degree; usually enough to lose sleep and to forget mundane tasks – but the expression of that state, the other forms of love it has been allied to, and the expectations nurtured by the parties to it, have been very variously conceived.

A Greek of classical antiquity might become passionate about a boy, but sex was not the only point, for the lover’s task was to educate his beloved in military and political ways, and help him in the early part of his career. In the love stories told by Plutarch the point was to illustrate the destructiveness of sexual mania – showing, for example, how the girl Aristocleia, and in another tale the boy Actaeon, were physically torn apart by competing suitors trying to snatch them away. Shakespeare’s lovers are also sexually manic; they can scarcely restrain themselves before a priest is found. Fielding and Richardson divide between them the uproarious tumble in the hay and the unremittingly threatened rape. Only with the increased education of women does the idea of a companionable love-life after erotic mania – indeed, initiated by it – come into focus, bringing other models to mind. Some are, once again, drawn from our earliest literature, as with Hector bidding his last farewell to Andromache – a scene touchingly drawn by Homer, who says the hero had to remove his helmet because its nodding plumes frightened his small son in Andromache’s arms. Another example is the marriage of Penelope and Odysseus, the pattern of sustained fidelity. Modern sensibility took these comradely marriages and added them to romantic infatuation as its proper sequel, and a kind of emotional economy was born: the passion, the friendship, the companionship, the partnership, the nurturing and the needing, that were once offered by different relationships, could now come in a single handy package marked Spouse.

But the modern combination of romance and comradeship which has thus become our ideal often proves an unstable mixture. The obsessive character of romantic and erotic love cannot be understood without reference to sex, nor sex without reference to gender. Sex is about physical urges and action, gender is about social and psychological categories; their failure to pair neatly is a fruitful source of trouble. Companionate love does not exclude sexual love, but its premises and aims are very different. It is about the shared project of what is in effect a small business – which is what a home, a household, is – purchasing and budgeting and managing other (usually small) people, and transporting and storing things, saving and spending, and dealing with problems, like illnesses and burst pipes. Gender differences, shaped and enhanced by social pressures, were thought to provide an apt division of labour for these tasks: the husband goes out to work, the wife tends the children and home. But that division, and even the gender differences themselves, have in recent years been bitterly questioned, the more so because – against feminist hopes and principles – science seems to suggest that in the competition between nature and nurture the former has an insistent and irreducible role in determining sexual behaviour and gender characteristics. Irenic feminists say that this does not imply strict determinism: as rational beings we can adjust biology in the direction of justice, as we do when we control our aggression and selfishness. But others accuse science of bias, saying that it tries to conceal behind statistics an historical conspiracy against women. There is a measure of truth on both sides.

On one crucial point, gender determinism has seemed to some men to explain a major source of trouble in monogamy. It is, they claim, that heterosexual relationships have always been shaped in the interests of women, who control and ration the amount of sex in them. If this is true, it would be natural enough; women have to be mindful of the fact that, in the form of pregnancy and childbirth, their potential investment in sex is far greater than a man’s. Safe and effective contraception is a very recent amenity, and old habits and needs die hard. It is for this reason, perhaps, that prostitution has been such an effective and long-standing friend to marriage, despite the hypocrisy that has usually surrounded it. One measure of the generally unsuccessful nature of modern romantic-companionate love is the high rate at which the relationships based upon it fail. Divorce in the contemporary West runs at forty per cent – for unmarried couples the rate is higher – and many of the marriages that survive do so at a high cost of compromise by one or both partners. Blame is variously assigned, often to causes that come down to maleness. Some writers extrapolate from Freudian theory the view that men suffer a psychological ‘wound’ caused by separation from their mothers and their inability (in some writers, notably Sheila Sullivan in Falling in Love, their ‘humiliating inability’) to give birth and suckle. They claim that this alleged wound explains everything women deprecate in men, chief among them emotional immaturity, lack of communication about feelings, proneness to infidelity, latent or active misogyny, and – at the extreme – aggression. And they cite these, in turn, as what derails the project of equal romantic comradeship.

Even without its dubious Freudian underpinning, this is improbable stuff, and no man will recognise what has been called ‘the harsh anomie of masculine existence’ as accounting for his behaviour in relationships. The problem, far more plausibly, lies elsewhere: in society’s endeavours to manage, constrain, deny, re-route, prohibit, channel and manipulate sexual passion and romantic love. It is the dead hand of oppressive institutions – principally religions – which explains why love can be a problem: which it only is when rationed and starved, as it is in the ‘family values’ dispensation of monogamy and restrictive attitudes to sexual expression and variety. When rationed and starved, eros becomes destructive, prompting the moralisers, in their wisdom, to ration and starve it more. And thereby hangs many a long tale, as novels and films in their thousands show. If the modern experiment of romantic-companionate love is to succeed, it has to be freed from the institutional arrangements made centuries ago for a quite different kind of relationship – the practical-economic model of Christian monogamy – in which neither romance nor companionship was the most important thing.

It is both a pun and a truth to say that the subject of love has always been left to amateurs to explain. There is no science of love because it is too various and protean to fit a theory. People attempt love as climbers attempt Everest; they scramble along, and end by camping in the foothills, or half-way up, wherever their compromises leave them. Some get high enough to see the view, which we know is magnificent, for we have all glimpsed it in dreams. And that is what the feast of St Valentine is about: the dream of love. Life would be bitter indeed if the dream never became reality, or if the main experiences of love in our lives – storge, pragma, ludus, agape – were not enduring and stabilising enough to save us when the storms of eros and mania sweep over us – bringing bliss, and leaving havoc in their wake.

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