“What is hell? I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.”
– Fyodor Dostoevsky
There is no sadder misreading of life than one that misreads what love and loving is.
Is it possible to misread the most universal, most profound, most powerful reality on the planet? If Elena Shalneva’s piece That Elusive Feeling We Call Love dated 22 March 2020 in Quillette is anything to go by, it is. A piece so packed with myths that it's worth unpacking.
Shalneva is talking about a lot of things in her piece; love isn't one of them.
Myth 1: Love is a feeling
It isn't. It’s a decision. It may involve feelings. It may be manifest in thoughts, words, actions, silences. At times of tough love, even in inaction. But all serve a movement of the will (the heart?) toward “the other”.
How sad to see love merely through the prism of romantic or sexual passion – a prism that cheapens the currency of love.
Shalneva writes with authority: “I am writing from experience. I was in love, and I knew elation and despair. Unrequited love wrought havoc in my life when I failed economics finals.”
Unrequited love is a curious phrase. It's also an inaccurate one. Love really needs to be replaced with another word that more accurately represents aggressive, near-incurable attraction to a person which, if not reciprocated, can become self-destructive. Either way, it's the equivalent of an infant unable to comprehend the terms "no", "not now", "not like this".
One woman seems to have understood this. George Sand (rarely known by her real name Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) is believed to have said: "unrequited love is as different from mutual love as delusion from truth".
Why do those who fall in love so easily, fall out of love just as easily? They’re probably trying to find the right person, not trying to be the right person.
As the wise ones repeatedly clarify, falling in love is a feeling, staying in love is a decision.
Falling in love is closer to Shalneva’s “elation and despair” – feeling and, well, more feeling.
Loving is much more. It’s hard work. It’s devoted more to giving than getting.
Love isn’t an event. It doesn’t happen once and for all. It’s a journey, a process that you have to work at, every day, year after year, decade after decade.
Wedding planners? They don’t know the half of it.
Myth 2: No one knows what love is
Contrary to Shalneva's claim, most men and women, not just writers “from the good to the great to the canonical”, know exactly what love is, even if they can’t articulate that understanding perfectly.
But if like Shalneva, you conclude that “none of these writers has been able to answer the question of what love is. I don’t think anyone knows. I certainly don’t” you may want to widen your reading list, at least a little - beyond Huckleberry Finn. Or perhaps to include Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving and his precepts of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge?
Fromm calls love a decision, a judgement, a promise.
You know what water is, even if you can’t describe it accurately enough.
Try explaining it to say, a girl, who’s blind and deaf.
Does your inability to explain water mean that you don’t know what it is?
Does her inability to see or hear water, mean that she doesn’t know what it is?
If you don’t know what love is, you can’t recognize its absence. But you do, don't you? Most of the time you do recognize its absence pretty well.
Myth 3: Sexual desire is the only essential component of love
In an incredibly amaurotic passage Shalneva writes, "Getting along is not love. Being married is not love. Being married for 30 years is still not love. Raising three kids together is not love. Having common interests is not love. Warmth, affection, and tenderness are not love (praiseworthy as they are). Duty and loyalty are not love. Sexual desire is not love (although, in this line-up, it is the only essential component). All of the above combined is not love. All of the above combined and raised to the power of 10 is still not love. It’s a relationship. A good relationship, solid relationship, long-term relationship. But still a relationship. And although the difference between love and a relationship is not in degree, but in kind, we tend to use these words interchangeably. Perhaps because a relationship is all that most of us will ever experience."
Take Shalneva's insistence that sexual desire is the only essential component for love to exist. She writes, “sexual desire is not love (although, in this line-up, it is the only essential component)”.
The only essential component??
She insists not only on the primacy of sexual desire in a relationship but also primacy over all the other components she's listed (getting along, being married for 30 years, raising three kids together, warmth, affection, duty, loyalty)?!
She insists that all these components even combined still do not constitute love, they represent a mere relationship and that “a relationship is all that most of us will ever experience”.
Frankly, in the hierarchy of love, sexual desire isn’t anywhere near the other components . It is – always has been – inferior to them.
Love can exist, even grow more powerful (in compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice) long after physical desire has weakened and died.
Sexual desire doesn’t imply love, any more than a smile implies happiness.
But if a relationship is consistently accompanied by warmth, affection, loyalty, sacrifice, selflessness, it strongly suggests the presence of love. Together, they’re much more than a mere relationship, one that's beyond transaction or utility. Together, they fulfil and complete both – the one who loves and the one who is loved.
These components or qualities of love can’t be found, can’t be felt if love were absent.
A bit like fire. Fire is not light, any more than light is fire. But can fire really exist without giving off light? Or warmth?
When you see the light and feel the warmth and smell the smoke, don’t you suspect there’s a fire? Often, you’re right. There is!
Love is known, seen, felt, experienced by its attributes. Love is proven through the generous, comforting, caring and healing shadow it casts.
The greatest writers and philosophers have listed forms of love: Eros, Philos, Agape and such. All expressions of love. Some lower forms, others more fleeting or more conditional. But all very much manifestations of love.
As humans we aspire to perfection. That’s good. To aspire to the purest, fullest, highest form – unconditional love.
But we must always use imperfection and frailty as our starting point.
Perfection maybe our destination. But our journey, lives and breathes imperfection.
Naturally, that’s what we see – and must expect - every day: imperfect love, imperfect loving. But it is love.
Is a campfire any less “fire” than a mighty forest-fire?
Sure, now and. then you'll find a couple whose love for each other “burns” at a different plane altogether. But as long as love “burns”, it’ll do. There’s no shortage of campfires in the world. Some just burn more brightly.
Shalneva correctly says, “sexual love doesn’t last” and references Shakespeare. He knew that passion – of any kind - bears within it the seed of its own demise. He knew that bonds built on feeling, on lust, are bound to live and die, obeying the rules of passion: rising and falling, erupting and subsiding, ebbing and flowing. He knew that our bodies and our passions have little to do with it, so he called love the marriage of “minds”.
Shalneva says “sexual desire is powered by imagination”, but she keeps stumbling, by mixing it up with love.
Love may include desire; it is not desire. It is much more.
Shalneva writes “So Don Quixote would renounce love and begin a relationship”.
But the two aren’t mutually exclusive!
She exults in Quixote’s eternal longing for an ideal beauty over his unrealized embrace of an imperfect albeit real person. She adds: “some would say this is immature. I say it’s glorious.”
Is it glorious? Is it better to embrace a fantasy than to love a real person? It would be, if our expectation of love is never to be hurt - unlike a real lover, a fantasy lover doesn't wound.
But love and loving presupposes hurt and hurting. So Ustinov calls love an "act", not a feeling.
Myth 4: Love is good at its own PR
Shalneva writes, “Love is good at its own PR”.
In reality, love (unlike romance) doesn’t need PR in the first place; it's too daunting for even PR to do the trick!
Still, even without PR, everyone wants to love and be loved. From birth. Even before reading the blurb.
Our being human, imbues most of us with a deep urge. To give ourselves to someone. Powerfully expressed in the fierce love of a young groom for his bride or a young mother for her child. We want others to surrender to our trust.
Our being human, imbues us with another urge. To surrender ourselves to someone else’s giving. Expressed in a smiling infant's utter submission to her parent or in the surrender of a sick, disabled or elderly person to his carer. We want to surrender to the trust of others.
Sure, we often let one urge overwhelm or end up burying a bit of both in a sea of self-pity, self-indulgence or selfishness. That doesn’t hide what we’re meant for: to love and be loved.
Shalneva writes “Romantic love is profoundly selfish. When we love, we want something in return: to be loved back.”
But romantic love is merely a spark. How tragic to be mistaken for the flame.
Infatuation or possessiveness is conditional, focused on the self.
Love, however, is focused on giving, on gifting, focused on the other. This commitment is in itself extremely demanding but not in the petty sense of "demanding" to be loved back. Of course in obviously violent or abusive relationships, self-protection must take precedence.
The romantic spark is “profoundly selfish” if it doesn’t outgrow romance, if it doesn’t grow into a flame – a mature decision, a commitment, a promise to love.
Shalneva writes that if we’re loved back “love is indeed fantastic. But if the goal remains unattainable......if the target doesn’t budge or.......budges in the direction of someone else, love becomes a dangerous force. It breaks us and distorts us and compels us to destroy.”
Again, she mistakenly uses the term love.
Infatuation can “become a dangerous force”, not love.
Possessiveness can “distort and compel us to destroy”, not love.
Myth 5: Love changes us, but not for the better
Almost every tendency that Shalneva incorrectly lists as belonging to the order of love - sinking into jealousy, obsession, transforming a decent man into a stalker, an honest man into a snoop, a kind man into a sadist, the thrill of the chase, the fortress falling, the enemy capitulating, victory being final and complete, triumph – belong more to the order of conquest, flirtation, obsession, even fetish. Not love.
Yet she writes with such certainty “love changes us, for sure – but not for the better.”
Love changes us – always for the better. It does more than that. It improves us, perfect us.
Russell Crowe’s character in the movie A Beautiful Mind (2001) is a largely fictional portrayal of Nobel-prize winning academic John Forbes Nash Jr’s battle with mental illness. The movie is less about Nash’s notoriety as math genius and more about his wife’s love (played superbly by Jennifer Connelly). A love that proved far deeper than mere romance.
The movie isn’t necessarily an accurate portrayal of how Nash’s wife cared for him. But it is a portrayal of millions of wives who have cared for their husbands through their years of alcoholism, drug-use, gangsterism, violence, debilitating disease - with no prospect of being loved back. It is a portrayal of millions of husbands who have cared for their wives through their years of bitterness, callousness and rage - with no hope of reciprocal affection or warmth.
An ageing Nash is saying a few words as he accepts an award at a gala ceremony: “What truly is logic? Who decides reason? My quest has taken me to the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional and back. I have made the most important discovery of my career – the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logic or reasons can be found.”
Nash then looks directly at his beloved, ageing wife sitting in the audience: “I am here tonight because of you. You are the only reason I am. You are all my reasons. Thank you.”
Nash speaks to everyone who loves, acknowledging their superhuman power not just to change us for the better but to transform, heal, make new, make whole.
Myth 6: To fall in (and out of) love is to have known it, experienced it
Shalneva writes of a relationship she was in, to illustrate her first-hand knowledge of, her experience of love. Then she clarifies that a “relationship is not love” and declares with startling finality: “Love is something that most of us will never experience.”
Is that so? Even if Simone de Beauvoir and Ivan Turgenev say it is?
Shalneva quotes a Turgenev character, a happily married middle-aged man who said “The only time in my life that I was in love was with my nanny when I was six years old” as “the best explanation of love that I have ever seen.” Shalneva continues "This is how, I would imagine, a six-year old child feels about a grown-up, unattainable woman. And it is a great parable for love."
But if prepubescent fixation is love, we would all be astronomers if we could just quote Carl Sagan.
Shalneva writes: “For Turgenev, love is sacrifice—but not the showy, impulsive sacrifice of Romeo. It is the clear-headed, quiet heroism of putting your comforts, needs, ambitions—and, if it comes to it, your life—on the line for another.” Here, Turgenev is correct.
Shalneva’s correct in saying: “Real love has no claims, no demands”. The journey of love may be exhausting, demanding but in itself it’s not a barter, demanding pound for pound.
But she’s mistaken when she adds “love is irrational, all-consuming.” The former is love. The latter is merely passion.
Shalneva writes: “Twenty years ago, you might have married Rimbaud. Since then, he became senior brand manager. The most natural thing to do is to leave and look for another Rimbaud....This is what I have done every time, and I have no regrets. But if you love....you will still recognize in the pointless character on your sofa the glorious youth who once burned and raged and threatened the world with his dreams. And you will stay with him for love—not for pity, or duty, or because it’s the right thing to do.”
“The most natural thing to do is to leave and look for another Rimbaud.” Really?
“This is what I have done every time, and I have no regrets.” Is that so?
But here's the thing that Shalneva misses. Love, in the afternoon (or evening) of life, is recognizing not just the pointless character on your sofa but also “the other” pointless character sitting across him – you! You stay with him because you recognize that he is anything but “pointless”. It takes some humility to then admit that, in spite of yourself, he has somehow stayed with you because he sees you as anything but “pointless”.
Shalneva writes: “I must add that love is when you continue loving someone long after they have stopped being what they once were.” The wisdom of love must add the crucial but missing half of her conclusion: love is when you continue to be loved long after you have stopped being what you once were.
If we struggle with this, it’s because we struggle to accept our imperfection, our humanity. We’re human. We change. Every day as a matter of fact. In attractiveness, not always for the better.
Shalneva writes, "So Don Quixote would renounce love and begin a relationship. It never comes to that, of course, as the world’s most famous idealist dies without ever meeting Dulcinea, and the image of an exalted princess with superhuman beauty stays untainted in his heart. Some would say this is immature. I say it’s glorious."
Again Shalneva misses the point of love.
If you want Quixote’s “untainted...exalted princess with superhuman beauty” it’s probably safer to embrace a mannequin.
If you want to love a real person, expect that she/he will change almost as much as you do. And prepare to revive your love for her/him, every day.
If you’ve watched A Beautiful Mind you can’t be blamed if you sense that Nash loves his wife more dearly in those closing scenes when she’s aged, no longer a stunning beauty, than when he courted her as a young man. He’s seen and discovered more of the immense love she had to give him. He's discovered in himself, more of the love he could have given her (and still can).
Myth 7: Friendship is nobler than (marital or spousal) love
Shalneva suggests that “friendship” is nobler than the “love”, say, of the lover kind.
She offers love a concession of sorts but barely: “love comes very close to another emotion. Friendship. It is my profound belief that friendship is a nobler feeling than love. Love fizzles out. Friendship....endures....Friendship is simple, it needs no affectation, no embellishment, no multiple exclamation marks....Lovers tend to stay in the same place. Friends’ paths diverge, and diverge widely: we grow up, we move countries, we pursue different passions, other people enter our lives.”
She uses the term friendship when she’s actually describing another form of love. Non-sexual but love all the same. The kind you’d see between siblings, parent-child that go beyond familial or filial love. The kind you see between utter strangers who become lifelong friends. This sort of soul-mate friendship, like love, is not an "emotion" but a commitment. A commitment to the happiness of the other that is liberating, not enslaving.
She then declares, “love fizzles out”.
Infatuation fizzles out, love does not.
She insists that “friendship—unlike love—has no agenda. It is free.’’
Possessiveness has an agenda, love does not. The former is manipulation. The latter is – always - freely given, in much the same way friendship is.
She believes that friendship “will be easy. It will be easy because........”
Love is never easy. Friendship is never easy either.
To say so is a grave injustice to those who take tremendous effort, over decades, in nurturing friendships and loving relationships. The survival of any bond (friendship or love) is a result of effort, not ease. Extraordinary - often messy - effort, consistently applied. That colossal effort endures the breaking or fracturing of the bond, it supports the mending and piecing together, it offers time and space toward healing, it is patient when a return embrace is not forthcoming, it is tolerant of the silences. It is anything but easy!
Anyone who sees love or friendship as “easy” nurses a fantasy: no disagreements, no fights, no humiliation, no insult, no alienation, no pain, no suffering, no commitments, no aloneness, no sense of loss, no regret, no jealousy, no rejection, no anger, no fear, no bitterness.
Human love – necessarily imperfect - includes all of these but ultimately puts “the other” above these. Which is why the relationship thrives, grows stronger with each strain, stays strong even amidst trials and the passing of years.
Contrary to Shalneva’s claim it is love that’s usually far, far nobler than friendship.
The intimacy that marital or spousal love demands, represents an incalculably grittier challenge – familiarity, proximity, exclusivity – that mere friends are rarely subject to.
Friends are at liberty to “wander around”, share times, spaces, passions with a wide range of other friends. They don't have to love the same person at breakfast, at lunch, at tea-time, at dinner. Not with the same intensity (give or take!) on Monday, Tuesday and so on. They don't have to put up 24x7 with up-close-and-personal and always-in-your-face differences and character flaws.
Shalneva writes with an obvious reference to marital or spousal lovers that they “tend to stay in the same place”. But that's because they don’t have the luxury of a change of scene that mere friends do. And it’s up to martial or spousal lovers to create newness wherever they are, and to find that newness in togetherness, whether it’s in a hovel someplace downtown or on a beach in Hawaii.
Beyond a point, hobbies and games and jokes and joyrides fade, leaving only - the person. When love continues to shine through “all that” it is unfathomably superior to buddy bonds that simply don’t have – and can never replicate - the untidiness of marital love.
Of course it’s easier to be “just friends”. It allows both people convenient liberties. Small wonder that many prefer live-in relationships that simulate friendships with a slightly higher level of give-and-take, but without the infinitely higher, full-fledged responsibility and give-but-can’t always-take that marriage brings.
Who doesn’t like “it will be easy”? What’s not to like?!
Shalneva writes “Whatever happens, wherever I am, I know that my friend is there. And when I see him again—in a year, or five, or 10—we will pick up where we had left.”
What a phrase. But it contains more messiness than friends in distant places ever get to know about, let alone deal with. It contains the humdrum, the drudgery of day-in and day-out. It contains little things that you don’t call a friend about. It contains silly stuff that a friend doesn’t need to hear. And won’t. Especially if you’re going to “see him again – in a year, or five, or ten”. After all, “we will pick up where we had left”. He isn’t there when “whatever happens” is actually happening! Or happening again. Or happening differently.
Small wonder that distant and now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t friends are romanticized, seem so unique, so exotic, more real, more special, more heart-pounding than marital partners.
Shalneva writes of friendship: “It will be easy because our tie is real, it is not based on fantasy, or fear, or desire—but on the unity of mind and spirit, unity that is selfless, and happy, and free.”
"Unity of mind and spirit that is selfless and happy and free" – what’s that?!
Isn’t that what drew impressionable teenager Danielle Bowden to serial-killer Max Cady in Cape Fear (1991)?
Let’s get one thing straight. "Unity of mind and spirit" will not help with the dishes on Sundays or take out the trash every night. Only love does that.
Sure, if your friend isn’t Max Cady, he may fly in and be at your side and hold your hand in the Hospital ICU for three-and-a-half nights. He may even express courier that cheque, to fish you out of debt. But will he be there when your memory fades, when you’re irritable and cranky and frightened and fed up? Will she be there when you throw up, have the runs, need daily medication and trips to the doctor? Will he be there when you throw a tantrum, have a fit, sulk in bed for days?
If you love someone, you are with him, with her. Right here. Not a phone call or drive or flight away. Right now. Always. Not merely this New Year or next Halloween. It's the only way you can, together, look at and experience life.
Beauvoir was right in saying “real love is a great privilege” but mistaken in adding “it is also very rare”. It isn’t. Love is abundant, omnipresent. Love is as plentiful as sunbeams on a sunny day, raindrops in a storm. At its fiercest it is also omnipotent - it can move mountains.
Loving is not so much a skill, as an art. Love is that fine art of living for "the other": feeling and thinking and saying and not saying and doing and not doing and being.
For those who are in it only for the no-risk, no-pain, thrills-frills-spills romance ride? Valentine cards, flowers, poems, ditties and emoji hearts are not just nice, they're pure heaven.
Love? Is not for the fainthearted. It's a high-wire act, with no net.
The deepest love grows beyond what others see as monotony, boredom, sameness. Instead it finds a joy in “the other” that those who don’t love, simply can’t understand. But because its riches are greater, love demands more.
Mere romance may demand something - the occasional heartbreak for instance; until the next poem is ready.
Love? Love demands everything. Nothing short of complete giving, complete surrender.
"That elusive feeling we call love"? Sorry, Shalneva. Love is not a feeling. And it’s certainly not elusive. It’s all over the place, just waiting to be experienced, by the ones who refuse to elude it. The brave ones, the blessed ones.
Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer writing on pop culture.