Congratulating William and Kate on their wedding day back in April, the Bishop of London managed to sound both reverent and relevant in his address: “Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman,” he cheered, “help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.” Yet would the same speech, with its distinctly modern-sounding emphasis on committed love as a means of self-knowledge, have resonated with a wedding party 100 years ago? What about 500? And, just as our tastes in wedding dresses have changed, has love also been at the mercy of intellectual fashion?
In Love: A History, Birkbeck philosopher Simon May suggests answers to all of these questions, and a good few more besides. How can a loving God subject us to suffering? Is our love of the divine essentially a sublimation of earthly desire? And given our powerful biological urges, do we really ever choose our life partners? May’s purpose is twofold: first, to prove that our quest for love is really about a need to ground ourselves-what May calls “ontological rootedness”; and second, to show when and how the spiritual concept of “God is love” morphed into the prevailing Valentine-sodden “Love is God”. Easy to blame the Enlightenment and the Romantics though it may be, May plots a more sophisticated trajectory from the code of pious chivalry to our current-day cult of Eros. Our amorous heritage, it turns out, is a curious bricolage of Jewish submission, classical elevation and Christian devotion, with an elastic capacity for honouring the truly transcendent (Socrates and Augustine) alongside the downright base (Schopenhauer and Freud).
For the most part, May’s writing is light and lively, despite his considerable intellectual ambitions, and he pinpoints the moments when our thinking on love shifts irrevocably. At the same time, May effortlessly extracts the strands of common complaint: the difficulty Westerners have aways faced in distinguishing between selfish and selfless love; the conflict between agape (divine) and eros (earthly) love, grappled with first by Plato and then the Elizabethan neo-platonists; the seemingly impossible task human beings face in realising that how God loves us is not necessarily the way we should love Him.
Along the way, there are some excellent off-the-cuff insights, such as May’s astute observation that the opposite of love is not hate, but disgust. But the tone does waver (surely a reader prepared to grapple with “ontological rootedness” doesn’t need telling Aphrodite is Greek for Venus?) and he signs off with a rather cumbersome recap of each chapter’s “findings”, bullet-pointing in a way which suggests that Love: A History may make a better undergrad “intro to” than an intellectual ready-reckoner.
Far less obvious, however, the book’s real limitation is May’s persistent reference to the love object as “she”. More than a stylistic tic, or cause for oversensitive feminist complaint, the problem isn’t that May relegates women to object status — plainly (or perhaps exuberantly), women have been the primary objects of desire since year dot — but that he fails almost entirely to consider any female thinking and writing on love at all. Not only have “beloved” women recorded the view from their pedestals (Elizabeth I a notable example), they’ve also been desirous beings for a good few thousand years, as the work of Sappho, the pioneering female sonneteer Lady Mary Wroth, Jane Austen and the Brontës suggest. And aside from a momentary mention of St Teresa of Avila, May also ignores an entire body of spiritual writing by women. Original and ambitious though it is, neglecting the tales of half of love’s supplicants leaves too much desire untold-which certainly cannot be said for Lisa Appignanesi’s All About Love, 346 pages fit to bursting with heaving bosoms and breaking hearts. Beginning with how we first “fall”, before negotiating a path through married love, infidelity, parenthood and friendship, Appignanesi has a written a buoyant account of that “unruly emotion”, in all the forms the average Western human being enjoys and endures during a lifetime. Here, women feature significantly in the story, and this is as much a mild feminist introduction to sexual politics as it is a condensed cultural history of love.
Appignanesi’s account of the evolution of marriage is particularly engrossing, and she offers some lively counterfactuals to our assumptions about olden-day attitudes.There is the Puritan marriage manual which urged “mutual dalliances for pleasure’s sake”; the suggestion that “the ideal of companionate marriage came early because of the shift in sexual power”, ushered in by the English Civil War. Across the channel, the land of liberté was far less attendant to women’s rights than the French would have us believe. In 1804, Napoleon introduced the Code Bonaparte, proclaiming that married women owed submission “to the man who is to become the arbiter of their fate”. Queen Victoria, meanwhile, snug and smug in her own domestic idyll, was baffled by the suffragettes’ cries for gender equality: “[I am] most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of ‘Women’s Rights’ … Lady X ought to get a GOOD WHIPPING.”
With a quick costume change, cultural history becomes self-help, and Appignanesi’s book is sprinkled with her own sage observations. “In the current culture where the sex industry is rampant, marital love gets infused with a worth ethic”. Later, in an exhausting analysis of the struggles of 21st-century child-rearing, she makes the same point about parenting. Losing sight of the joy of love, be it erotic or familial, we can find ourselves locked in a violent embrace with its “shadow side”, hate.
Like May, Appignanesi over-emphasises the experiences of one gender at the expense of another. Yet despite her evidently feminist sympathies, she recognises that our embryonic attitudes to active fatherhood can’t just be blamed on the dreaded patriarchy. Critiquing the feminist-backed American care model of motherhood, popular in the 1980s, Appignanesi believes it “locks men out of the pleasures of the nursery while liberating them from the burden of care”. If only Nick Clegg could put it so boldly, he might have half a progressive policy on shared parenting.
Yet despite the not-so-ulterior political motive, Appignanesi’s effective weaving of lit crit with social history, psychology with memoir, makes this giddy paean a summer-reading pleasure.