Loving is Not “Really Liking"
All lovers believe they are inventing love (Anne Carson)
Loving is not the same as ‘really liking’. Love is, first and foremost, an ambivalent experience. There is just as much to dislike as there is to like. In fact, for some, the negative emotions far outweigh the positive. Shulamith Firestone, for instance, writes that ‘bliss in love is seldom the case […] for every short period of enrichment, there are ten destructive love experiences, [or] post-love “downs” of much longer duration’.
Love is like and dislike, bliss and agony. Like Sappho’s expression, ‘bittersweet’, one cannot be separated from the other.
Before falling in love, we can easily mistake a strong attachment for true love. This is difference between infatuation (which is fatuous) and enamoration (which is all-consuming). It is only after experiencing what Roland Barthes calls ‘the amorous event’ that we realize what we once thought of as love is not worthy of the word. By this comparison, the lover exalts their beloved and lifts their bond beyond others:
I encounter millions of bodies in my life; of these millions, I may desire some hundreds; but of these hundreds. I love only one. The other with whom I am in love designates for me the specialty of my desire (Barthes)
Previous attachments help bring love into relief. This occurs in all the great love stories. For Romeo, there was Rosaline before Juliet. For Werther, there was Leonora before Charlotte. The precursor — the ex — sets the stage for enamoration. When Friar Laurence ‘chides’ Romeo for moving on so quickly, Romeo responds not by denying his feelings for Rosaline, but by elevating his feelings for Juliet. The intensity of his previous attachment feeds into his love, making it more extraordinary: ‘she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’.
In both of my examples (Romeo and Werther), love is a fatal condition. This is not a dramatic exaggeration. Love is life-or-death. In the early stages of love, death is present the ‘amorous panic’; the classic heart-pounding, floor-melting encounter with the object of our love. A classic example of this ‘amorous panic’ is found in Dante’s Vita Nuova, in which he describes his brief encounters with his beloved Beatrice. Just seeing her was enough to bring about ‘the very summit of bliss’, but at the very same time, fear and trembling: ‘I seemed to feel a strange throbbing in the left side of my chest which before long spread to all parts of my body’.
When you are in love the heart races, but when the heart races it feels like you are dying. Bliss and agony again:
What could restrain me dies out of my mind
when I stand in your presence, my heart’s bliss;
when I am near you Love is there to warn:
‘Run, run the other way if you fear death.’
My blanching face reveals my fainting heart,
which growing fainter looks for some support,
and as I tremble in this drunken state
It seems that every stone is shouting ‘Die!’
Death in the context of love begins with the dissolution of the self — or at least one’s self-control. As Eva Illouz points out, ‘love has long been portrayed as an experience that overwhelms and bypasses the will, as an irresistible force beyond one’s control’. The Greeks thought of this as a possession by the mischievous god of Love (Eros):
Consistently throughout the Greek lyric corpus, as well as in the poetry of tragedy and comedy, eros is an experience that assaults the lover from without and proceeds to take control of his body, his mind and the quality of his life. Eros comes out of nowhere, on wings, to invest the lover, to deprive his body of vital organs and material substance, to enfeeble his mind and distort its thinking, to replace normal conditions of health and sanity with disease and madness. The poets represent eros as an invasion, an illness, an insanity, a wild animal, a natural disaster. His action is to melt, break down, bite into, burn, devour, wear away, whirl around, sting, pierce, wound, poison, suffocate, drag off or grind the lover to a powder (Carson)
Similarly, Dante recounts his first encounter with Beatrice:
At that moment, and what I say is true, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that even the least pulses of my body were strangely affected; and trembling, it spoke these words: ‘Here is a god stronger than I, who shall come to rule over me'
The loss of autonomy is a frightening experience, but it is also associated with overwhelming ecstasy. Le petit mort. At the expense of the self, one becomes all. This is what Freud refers to as the ‘oceanic feeling’, the feeling of eternity and limitlessness. It occurs during profound religious experiences — like falling in love:
At the height of erotic passion the borderline between ego and object is in danger of becoming blurred. Against all the evidence of the senses, the person in love asserts that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one and is ready to behave as if this were so (Freud)
Lovers lose themselves in love. This is the cause of their characteristic melancholy (because they are constantly mourning themselves and fear that their love will leave them). But it is also the cause of their incomparable highs. They move between these extremes ‘in a kind of lunatic sport’: ‘the lover, in fact, cannot keep his mind from racing, taking new measures and plotting against himself’ (Barthes). Again, bliss and agony:
All my thoughts are telling me of Love;
they have in them such great diversity
that one thought makes me welcome all his power,
another Love’s power is insane,
another makes me hope and brings delight,
another moves me oftentimes to tears (Dante).