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Love is in the air—but not in the curriculum. Just scan the headlines, and stories of love swirl all around us. “Kim Kardashian Reveals Whether She’s Ready to Be ‘In Love’ Again 9 Months After Pete Davidson Split.” “Three New Love Languages to Know in 2023.” “Marijuana-infused aphrodisiacs emerge as new love drug in New York.”
And, of course, songs about love dominate the airwaves and streaming services. “Somebody to Love.” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” “Love Me Do.” “All You Need Is Love.” “Endless Love.”
I find it striking that love—whether carnal or erotic or platonic or maternal or marital or altruistic—has almost no place in the college curriculum, even though college is where most undergraduates experience their first serious romantic relationship. Sure, a student might be able to take a literature course that touches on the courtly love tradition or, perhaps, a class on the neuropsychology of love. But love—a subject front and center in literature, music, opera and theology—is rarely treated as a subject worthy of sustained, interdisciplinary analysis. Sex, which is, of course, merely one expression of love, receives far more attention than love itself.
Everything has a history, and that is as true of love as it is of the fork, the family, childhood or sports.
Denis de Rougemont’s 1939 magnum opus, Love in the Western World, argued that there was a persistent, ongoing tension within Western culture between the sexless love associated with parenthood or filial respect or religious devotion and the passionate, erotically charged, unappeasable lust associated with torrid love affairs, adultery and romantic yearnings.
The book contrasts the “animalistic” love that grows out of lust, libido, lechery, the lubricious, the lascivious, fed by projection, idealization, narcissistic lust and romantic fantasies and illusions, with the more “spiritual” love that purportedly arises from motherly or fatherly affection, filial respect and fondness, duty and devotion.
The author is of two minds about love. As one comment quite rightly notes, he “presents himself as the enemy of ‘Eros’ and proponent of ‘Agape,’ as the critic of immature, romantic passion and the defender of mature relationships based on a realistic ‘dialogue’ between two unique, complex individuals. On the other hand, he reveals the heart and soul of an incurable romantic, someone who has been love’s thrall, who has been swept up in the dark rapture and sublimely lyrical death wish that is Wagner’s ‘Tristan und Isolde.’”
Of course, the divide between the animalistic and the spiritual blurs under close scrutiny. The very language we use to describe carnal love overlaps with Christianity’s theological vocabulary. Note how we speak of love using such religiously laden terms as adoration, bliss, ecstasy, rapture, transcendence, transport and union. Simon May’s 2011 Love: A History argues that over the past two millennia “‘God is love’ became ‘love is God’—so hubristic, so escapist, so untruthful to the real nature of love, that it has booby-trapped relationships everywhere with deluded expectations.”
In the 20th century, de Rougemont argues persuasively, the nation-state and the instruments of commercial culture succeeded in exploiting love. Love of nation fueled war machines while marketers, manufacturers, authors and book publishers, fashion designers, wedding planners and many others figured out how to monetize romantic passion.
Attitudes toward love are profoundly shaped by culture. Many languages have words or phrases to describe intimate relationships that have no precise English equivalent. Examples include “Unmei no hito,” a Japanese phrase that translates as the person one is fated to meet. There is the Chinese word “yuanfen,” drawn from Buddhism, which refers to the “binding force” that dictates a person’s relationships and encounters. The French speak of “la douleur exquise,” the heart-wrenching pain of wanting someone one cannot have. “Forelsket” is Norwegian for the euphoria that individuals experience when falling in love. Then there is “saudade,” Portuguese for the longing for a lost love; and “koi no yokan,” Japanese for premonitions of love. These words can be translated into English, but at a price: the words’ emotive qualities and evocation of a broader system of social relationships are lost.
Over time, cultural ideals of love have shifted dramatically. In classical Greece, there was “paiderastia,” the idealized relationship between an older male and an adolescent youth; “ludus,” game-playing and flirtatious love; “eros,” passionate sexual love; “storge,” the love that grows out of mutual understanding, respect, companionship, sharing and concern; “mania,” obsessive, jealous, irrational love; “pragma,” the love based on self-interest and practical concerns; and “philia” and “agape,” the universal love later extolled in the New Testament.
Then there is the unrealizable, unattainable courtly love of medieval romance that aspired to cross class boundaries and the ethereal romantic conception of love as an involuntary force that unites distinct selves, the metaphysical union of “gratified desire” that Blake described or Shelley’s description of “one soul of interwoven flame” or Keats’s reference to the “melting … mingling” of love. There is also the notion of rational love found in the works of Jane Austen and George Eliot, as the highest form of friendship.
A key development that began in the 19th century is the feminization of love. That’s the association of true love with intimate self-disclosure that evolved, in the late 20th century, into the ideal of the soul mate who is capable of fulfilling all of a person’s emotional and sexual needs.
Around the turn of the 20th century, ideas about love underwent a major transformation as psychologists, scientists and others sought to deromanticize and demystify the emotion. There were scientific realists who sought to lay bare love’s physiological, neurological and psychological roots; secular moralists who viewed love as a source of jealousy, possessiveness and obsession; and feminist critiques that associated love with female dependency and loss of self.
According to Freud, adult love was grounded in an infant’s suckling of the mother’s breast; in sublimation of libidinal impulses; in self-love projected onto an idealized love object; and in a mixture of erotic and aggressive impulses. In his words, romantic love was nothing more than “lust plus the ordeal of civility,” a way to sacralize or elevate carnal impulses.
According to Marxists, romantic love was an expression of bourgeois values: a belief in the exclusiveness and sanctity of love epitomized the bourgeois adoration of private property. For Sartre, love was, first and foremost, an expression of egotism and an exercise of power: “love consists merely in a desire to be loved.” For the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, love was a way to overcome existential loneliness. Writing eight years before her own marriage, Gloria Steinem declared, “The truth is that finding ourselves brings more excitement and well-being than anything romance has to offer.”
In our age of careerist individualism and diminished expectations, many fear that lasting love is unattainable and perhaps even undesirable, since it may lead to complacency and dependence. Oscar Hammerstein II made the point most forcefully in the 1938 musical The Boys From Syracuse (itself based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors) when he wrote that “falling in love with love is falling for make-believe.”
More recently, romantic love’s demystification has taken a new form, as neuroscience associated love with brain chemistry. The passion, obsessiveness, joy, giddiness and jealousy associated with romantic love have been connected to the production of phenylethylamine, a natural amphetamine, which also clouds judgment and makes individuals reckless and manic. Attraction has been linked to increased levels of dopamine and norepinephrine and a decrease in serotonin, while attachment has been correlated with vasopressin and oxytocin, two neurotransmitters. Far from a mystery—a heart-wrenching, visceral, overpowering feeling and a longing for connection and completion—love is a chemical cocktail combined with emotional neediness.
Yet at the very time that a host of critics sought to demystify romantic love, an emerging mass commercial culture idealized unbridled romantic passion and elevated it to new heights. A 1912 play by George Bernard Shaw was the first to use the word “romance” to refer to an emotionally passionate, sexually charged love affair. Like romantic love, it involves a powerful fantasy of emotional intensity, union and self-transcendence. But unlike romantic love, it is more sensual and erotic and less tied to a single other person. It is a psychically intense, seemingly mystical experience rather than a spiritual bond. It is also tied to leisure and consumption in a way that romantic love was not.
During the 20th century, a commercial “love culture” emerged, directed primarily, but not exclusively, at women and girls. It encompassed popular magazines, like True Romance and Dream World, which first appeared during the 1920s and romance novels, romantic movies and soap operas.
A defining message conveyed by the love culture was that individuals’ lives were incomplete unless they experienced romantic love, culminating in marriage. Film, fiction and advertising helped to shape popular images and the story of romance. Key components of the early and mid-20th-century romantic fantasy were that love happens; it is not chosen nor is it the product of conscious agency or control. It is a product of fate, it is mysterious and magical and it is the very opposite of everyday experience.
Romance was deeply integrated into the realm of commodity exchange. Certain products and exotic experiences acquired romantic auras: engagement rings, champagne, candlelit dinners, isolated tropical beaches and, for a time, cigarettes.
Today, the words often used to describe that love culture are uniformly negative: sappy, syrupy, gushy, maudlin. But the need for attachment, communion, magic and mystery in relationships remains intense. It is not surprising that marketers and manufacturers strive ceaselessly to exploit these emotional needs.
In his last book, the philosopher and social critic Allan Bloom complained that contemporary culture had demeaned and devalued love, reducing the emotion that lies at the heart of the greatest works of literature and art to sex and using the term indiscriminately to refer to anything that one likes. For Bloom, 20th-century society had increasingly adopted the pseudo-psychological and faux sociological language of relationships for older words of love, downgrading lovers into self-enclosed individuals whose interactions invariably involve self-love, libido, elements of masochism and sadism and relations of power, control and dependence.
Yet if some disdained and demystified love, these efforts did not reduce love’s power. The need for fusion, adoration and transcendence has only grown greater over time.
One of the classic themes of social science is that modernization produces emotional relationships that are far more fragile and transient than those in the past, leaving individuals more atomized and anomic. If individualism and secularization bred a yearning for solitude and autonomy, modernization, with its emphasis on mobility and the independent self, also increased the need for emotional connection, support and companionship that can only be met through love.
Surely, it’s time to bring love into the classroom.