Love and its confusions
in a crusty oyster shell
Love... parental, perfect, forbidden, unrequited, passionate, puppy, sentimental, obsessive, altruistic... so many notions and descriptions of love, to reflect the turmoil it causes us. We probably have more adjectives and expressions for love than for any other emotion. And it’s not even just the words themselves. “I love you”, depending on tone, speaker, context, could have at least five distinctly different meanings, of which “I am in love with you” is only one. Ironically, the love in the haiku I have started with - unconditional love - is the meaning we would most often want to be heard by the person to whom we say “I am in love with you”, but it is the meaning least likely to be true. Here is the start of our confusion − the confusion between love and need, which, in the case of romantic love, is most often a confusion of before and after. While I am waiting and agonising, before my love has been reciprocated, I can say in all honesty and good faith “I would do anything for you”. But when I know that my love is returned, I give away a part of my own being to that ‘between us’ and so “I would do anything” has a condition and becomes “...anything except let you go”. My love has created a need, because the other person has become part of me. Such a paradox.
In order to have faith in the ultimate goodness of humankind when we are beset with so much evidence to the contrary, we create for ourselves an idyll of romantic love, as the only aspect of being human which can be pure and perfect and constant, to be an aspiration and a dream. But it can never be so, because our very nature gets in the way. The subtext of “I would do anything for you... except let you go”, is “My love for you is so perfect that it is all you need and I am all you need”. Taking one view, we might describe these two statements as indicating commitment and self-belief respectively. Taking another, we might say possessiveness and arrogance.
Sexual love is inextricably linked in our minds with romantic love. But in reality is it wishful thinking or some knee-jerk assumption which means that we make this automatic connection between sex and love? Certainly throughout history and across the five continents there have been societies (and still are), where the primary function of sex was/is procreation, and love, if it comes, comes later. And then there are the libertarian segments of western societies.
In the moment of orgasm we are completely self-absorbed. You might say we are cut off from the world by our ecstasy. Our ecstasy is ours alone, each one of us. Even if we have managed not to neglect our partner in the few moments before, we are on our own for those few seconds of ultimate pleasure. The great 20th century French composer Olivier Messaien who wrote one of the most remarkable expositions of the winding passage of life, the Turangalila symphony, suggested that man comes closest to God in the moment of orgasm. Perhaps... in this sense − that nothing else exists in our universe at that moment, we are all-powerful and totally powerless, and they are the same.
So how to account for romantic love? And how to describe the element, which, added to possessiveness and arrogance and integrating the most self-centred of human behaviours, has the potential to create a bonding that can have a resilience exceeded only by the bond which is the referent for all others, the mother with her child?
The answer lies in that paradox. Being all-powerful, we are powerless. Possessing everything, we possess nothing. In every aspect of human behaviour, once everything has been accomplished, its value disappears. When you possess everything, the very notion of possession is meaningless. If you were all-powerful, then power would be meaningless as a concept. It is as if opposites don’t just define each other, but they actually create each other. And so, possessiveness and arrogance, and commitment and self-belief, only exist because their opposites also exist, respectively, generosity and humility and hesitation and self-doubt. All these are constituents of romantic love, in real life if not in dreams. They are complementary in the two-way process of relating. Even hesitation and self-doubt, because they make us people who can receive: unsure of ourselves, there are ways in which we can be helped. In romantic love our weaknesses are our openings. Such relationships are built on the dynamic of mutual giving, because there is a willingness to receive; and mutual receiving, because there is a wish to give. So here, in the qualities that bring romantic love closest to a mother’s love, we have the possibility of transforming the passion which started out as desire into the emotion which each can call their love, and to let this be the fundamental process of the relationship.…