Overrated: love

The Western idea of romantic love is a recent invention— and much less than the sum of its parts

Stephen Bayley

All you need is love, love, love me do. And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make. Ah yes. So it is. Or maybe was.

The cheerful ditties and anthems of the Beatles are a corpus dominated by the idea of love. After all, their very first hit was the plaintively innocent “Love Me Do”. And for seven years following they explored the love-struck, the love-lorn; the oneiric and the mystical, the cynical and the seductive in matters romantic. They explained love in all its contrariness and irrationality and pain. No surprise really that Pop’s greatest band was preoccupied by culture’s greatest subject.

So dominant is love in culture that I had the whimsical idea of writing this entire piece using simply the titles of songs connected by prepositions. It could be done. And next I would have explained that love is a many-splendoured thing. This was a title of a 1955 movie (see left), in DeLuxe Color, based on the novel by Han Suyin. Set in Hong Kong, the warbling schmaltz of the title song reminds us that the Western idea of romantic love has penetrated Asia. And the world.

But this Western idea of romantic love, many-splendoured as it might be, of one individual forming a lasting attachment to another, is quite recent in history. Even if, in the animal kingdom, lovebirds, gibbons, beavers and bald eagles mate for life and so provide a precedent whose curious logic only an Attenborough could elucidate.

Romantic love began with the Provençal troubadours of the Middle Ages, remembered best in the poem The Romance of the Rose. But be aware that the life expectancy of a Provençal troubadour was about 35 years. Today we have longer to consider the implications of lasting attachments among humans.

Inside or out of marriage, the dynamics of love are rarely equable. Keynes thought much of the misery of the world would be eradicated if children loved their parents as much as parents loved their children. Maybe, but Keynes was wrong about many things.

A parent’s love for a child is normally all-consuming and not, to be honest, always productive of joy. Many grown men sob when their first child leaves for, say, university. I know I did. In a poem, C.S. Lewis says that you prove you love your children if you let them go. Consider the emotional torture implied there and pause to wonder whether this version of love is necessarily a good thing. Do the pains of love lead to pleasure? Or is it the other way around?

Evolutionary biologists say that love is a matter of co-operation, something requiring social cognition, a process that began with the Neanderthals. It was turned into a boy-meets-girl thing with those troubadours and arrived at its present state of complicated refinement via the Romantics who made love a commodity.

Thus, like privacy, the idea of love at first sight is, in fact, not much older than the steam engine: historically, marriages were business transactions, not love-matches. Both privacy and romantic love are products of the cult of personality, the notion that each of us has exceptional traits which might, if all goes well, be matched to the exceptional traits of another individual, met at random or sourced online.

Romantic love, which floods the brain with beta-endorphins and bad ideas, has its discomforts, as Goethe’s wretched young Werther knew all too well. The disadvantaged third in a love triangle, young Werther shot himself in the head. So much did this despairing gesture speak to the mood of its age that this cult best-seller of 1774 inspired copycat suicides.

For those fortunate enough to experience one, a happy marriage is a benefit of incalculable value, but will the idea of love outlive the diminishing institution of wedlock? Tenderness, empathy, care, concern, commitment are civilised attributes. And each is an attribute of a successful marriage. But “love” itself? Looking for a convincing definition is like trying to embrace mist. Perhaps it is less than the sum of its parts.

Meanwhile, isn’t “making love” a wince-making expression? Will Self, ever the contrarian, once explained to me his theory that it was perfectly fine to make love to someone you hated as love and hate are really very similar: evidence of a strong emotional involvement with another. The big thing, Will believes, is to avoid indifference in relationships.

And that is where we are with the strange bargain of romantic love. Beta-endorphins don’t last forever and in return for enduring emotional satisfaction and great practical comforts (the excellent combination of temptation and opportunity, as Wilde put it), the lover accepts the pain of possible separation. Grief, as we all know and fear, is the price—one day—one of us will pay for love.

What sort of a bargain is that?

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