Notes on Love: A Short Tour Through History
Love is a feeling, of course, and like every other feeling, Love does not exist in vacuum and is a concept with biological, social and historical contingencies. Let us fall in a brief exploration of the phenomenon, Love - romantic love to be precise. There will be no relationship advice here, if you want that, go for general advice and to for specific advice, just don’t go to your coaches-don’t-play friends.
Good Ol' Days
One of the cutest accounts of Love is a creation myth from the Greeks. Here is how it goes:
Thousands of years ago, there roamed a curious creature on earth. It had one head with two faces facing in the opposite direction and two sets of limbs - basically two bodies in a do dil ek jism type situation. These creatures came in three flavors, two men, two women and a man and a woman. Now these creatures were pretty strong and decided to usurp Mount Olympus which is where the gods lived. Unfortunately, Zeus, the big ol’ daddy (with all the connotations of the word Daddy) of the gods and some humans and many animals probably, cut them all in half and thus were created humans. We are only halves of an originally whole being. As per this myth, we feel empty because what completes us was severed from us by some dude in the mountains and when we find our other half, we are finally complete. The three flavors of the mythical creature of course roughly corresponds to gay, lesbian and straight relationships.
I know, very cute. It is, however, at the end of the day a myth and there is more to love than just that and the world is not as okay with the gays as were the Greeks, so there is more to love than just a myth with very creepy imagery.
There is another very famous kind of love, the love at first sight. This is an excellent opportunity to quote Nietzsche, “A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love,” but since this is not about personal experience, let us look at the tradition and forget about this quote. The Swayamvar, of course could be a political move but shhh about that. Yes, the Swayamvar is often based on love at first sight, we have ample stories in Indian Mythology. In fact, Shakuntala and Dushyant fell for each other at first sight. There is a semantic irony here, how love which is so blinding, can happen at a sight. Alas, life is not so poetic.
Sometimes we have to woo the beloved, for example in the Courtly Love. You know that very problematic thing where the dude did all sorts of stuff for a woman who had a higher social status? This can be extended to all forms of wooing which generally have very rigid gender roles with the dude as the active participant who would do all he can and the dudette as a passive participant. And yes, dudette is a word.
The Messed Up 1900s
The openness to certain non heterosexual relationships that the Greeks had goes away soon enough with homosexuality becoming a No-No in the 1900s.
Something interesting happened in the first half of the 20th century. Thanks to Sigmund Freud, psychology gained prominence as a field of study. The mating rituals changed. Yes mating rituals, you know how peacocks open their winds and dance? After psychology became a part of the cultural consciousness, love became more about sharing deepest things with the beloved, like peacocks except instead of opening wings, we open our hearts.
It is clearly implied that the act of opening hearts has become now a ritual and has lost the immense value it once had.
Speaking of Freud, he too gave women a passive role when it came to love so he is not free from the prejudices of his time either. His ideas on love are not very striking for us now since they have been around for quite some time. We idealize the beloved and feel that they will fill a lack in us and all that fairy tale stuff. Then he infamously speaks of how men are into women who remind them of their mothers and women are into men who remind them of their father. *ahem* Oedipus *ahem* Not-so-cute now, is it?
Let’s take a different direction now. How we define ourselves depends on how we are perceived by others, this goes for even the most idgaf attitude boys. Sartre called it being-for-others, it is our being as it exists in someone else’s consciousness. We can, of course, agree or disagree with this but this does open the door for a different discussion.
Taking cue from Sartre, love is not just a feeling, it is a game or a strategy. We love people whose perception of us matches our own perception of us. This does not mean that we want to be perceived as a good person. It is more than perception, it is self definition. Remember the quote from Perks of Being a Wallflower, “we accept the Love we think we deserve”? Yes, that's what we are talking about. Love is a strategy to define the self and this largely happens unconsciously. If you imagine an ideal relationship, what you will see is not an ideal person but a situation in which your “self” as you see it, is most perfect.
The idea goes for friendships too but since friendships are not held as sacred, the extent to which it defines us is lesser. By the same logic, having multiple partners can also make it easier since you don’t rely on just one person for self definition. But can you love multiple people at once? This is where things get a little messy.
The Chaotic Present
What kind of love is....normal? Who should be involved? What should be the age gap? How many partners should there be? Is it okay if they are related? It only gets more uncomfortable from here. The first question should be, how is normal created? Simple, by drawing a line perpendicular to the plane, haha math joke.
You know what else is perpendicular to the plane? Buildings. And you know a cool thing about buildings? They are constructed. You know what else is constructed? Normal. Not only the mathematical one, but the category normal too. Wow that was not a smooth transition. Nevermind.
It is not a new thing to say what we consider normal is a social and historical construct. The focus on LGBTQIA+ identities and polyamory is based on the assumption that there is no “normal.” But how was the normal constructed? Through literature, philosophy, everything that was ever written and mainly through power. How you think about love depends on the media you have consumed, the ideas that are prevalent in your times and any other voice that is allowed to speak in your culture.
There are cultures that allow multiple partners, and there are and have been ones that are okay with homosexuality, for example the Greek myth we talked about earlier. So, it would be rather provincial to say that there is a naturally normal relationship. (Did you know Koalas are largely lesbians? Dolphins fuck anything and there are a lot of gay animals? Pure Heterosexualtiy is, naturally speaking, unnatural)
So, there is no one way of being, people often say that there is less drama in “normal” relationships, and that we are naturally made for monogamy but is it really natural? Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens the norm of collective fatherhood that by the way is still practiced by Bari Indians. Within this system, females can form sexual bonds with multiple men and women and all the adults involved co-parent the children born.
Let us now turn to a different perspective- love in the time of consumerism. Zizek, when talking about love, said that in many languages we have the phrase “Fall in Love.” Think of a Karan Johar scenario, you are a nerdy college girl who nervously bumps into a hot cool biker-footballer guy on her first day. You fall down and he helps you up. BOOM, you are in love. You quite literally fell in love. It was matter of chance, of discovery and it is pretty fucking cute.
Zizek compares this with the medieval times when wise elders choose the partner. There was no matter of chance, rather it was a planned arrangement. Zizek finds that this is closer to online dating with Tinder and Bumble and the likes that bring us love without the fall. It is like non-alcoholic beer. The height of consumerism, pleasure without essence. Zizek is kind of romantic sometimes.
There is a lot more to love and everyone experiences it differently, the aim should be to chill and let chill.