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Love, the Many-Splendored Emotion

Thursday, August 25, 2011
The news about love — if anything can be said to be new when it comes to love — is that it affects us on more levels than we realized. Poets and artists have long viewed love as a prime mover, but by the beginning of the last century, scientists and philosophers were dismissing it as socially and scientifically irrelevant. Love was confined to private life, where only women and novelists and psychoanalysts were supposed to pay much attention to it. Then, a little more than half a century ago, biologists and economists and psychologists decided that love mattered after all, and began conducting experiments to determine how much.

The early science of love looks a little shocking in retrospect. Experiments meant to demonstrate that mammals attach themselves to mothers because they need love, not just food, all too often required outright torture. Researchers snatched baby creatures away from mother creatures and put them in cages to prove that life without love was a sad, diminished thing. The science of sexual attraction made use of more benign methods, but until more women entered the field and started asking different questions, the experiments tended to produce stunning affirmations of Western patriarchal stereotypes. Whatever the results, however, this work did make scientists appreciate the central importance of love for life. Love or the lack of it turned out to affect not just psyches but also bodies; not just brains and genitals but also hormones and the expression of genes; not just the well-­being of individuals but also the flourishing of societies.

Today, biology is said to be powered by love. A rat will grow up fat and sassy if well-­licked by its mother, nervous and underdeveloped if licked poorly or not at all. Culture is sometimes seen as an artifact of love, too, or at least of what Darwin called sexual selection. Sporting matches or music competitions, among other costly and apparently useless displays, have been reinterpreted as the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail, ways of signaling genetic excellence.

In “All About Love,” Lisa Appignanesi, who has written extensively on the history of psychoanalysis, turns her back on the ever-­growing scientific literature on love, largely out of disgust with the way sociobiological theories get used to defend a conservative social order: “I’ll believe in evolutionary psychology more, perhaps, when it’s used less as an explanation for male philandering and female nesting,” she writes. What she wants to know is how we humans experience love individually, psychically — love being neither purely bodily nor purely mental but irreducibly both. In the words of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, it’s the “imaginative elaboration of physical functions.”

A latter-­day Romantic, Appignanesi also celebrates the Byronic power of this “unruly emotion” to wreak havoc on our lives. “Rapture at bottom contains something of the asocial, the criminal, and desire may indeed be fueled by the breaking of bonds, whether of clans, families, or godly and social rules,” she writes. Love is a story we tell ourselves, if sometimes a dangerous one. The “purported facts” about love “garnered from the labs of biologists, cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists” are, to her, mainly ways of bolstering dominant social narratives. To really understand love, she argues, you have to demythologize those narratives, whether they’re fictional or factual or in that somewhere-­in-­between place where memoirs dwell.

You might say that Appignanesi aims to play psychoanalyst herself, listening between the lines of our culture’s semi-self-aware monologues about longing and desire. And a conscientious therapist she is, diligently assembling the “life history of love,” its arc through our lives. First comes first love: our crazed, adolescent forays into passion, when “carnal desire transports the lovers into a heightened world and everything in that world takes on powerful new meanings.” Next comes marriage, and its corollary, adultery, when the private ecstasies of love and the ungovernable nature of desire run up against the social expectation of unflagging monogamous romance. On she moves to child rearing, surely the most contested and political form of love today. Appignanesi wraps up her survey with friendship, which “catapults us out of the sphere of kin and binds us into the world of others,” she writes. Friendship is wise and calm and companionable and therefore best appreciated in old age.

To illustrate the different stages of love, Appignanesi recounts the plots of novels, poems and operas. She analyzes the popularity of cultural touchstones like the 1995 dating manual “The Rules” (its appeal betrays “a deep anxiety about appropriate modern codes”). She dissects marital narratives — “Pride and Prejudice,” "Bridget Jones's Diary" — and traces the evolution of the Cinderella narrative into high-end romantic fiction (“Jane Eyre”) and middlebrow chick lit (the “wittily exuberant” "Eat, Pray, Love"). She quotes a lot of psychoanalysts, Freud and Lacan and Donald Winnicott and Adam Phillips (an accomplished aphorist who hovers over the pages like an interrupting angel). “Why is it,” she asks, “that passionate love and loss seem to be so bound up with one another?” All later loves, she answers, stand in for that first, all-­absorbing love for mother, who is inevitably left behind. To become an individuated, language-­wielding “I” is to betray the “symbiotic plenitude” of infancy. Or as Appignanesi puts it, echoing Lacan: “To say ‘I am’ is already to say ‘I have lost.’ ”

Appignanesi offers up a brief history of marriage, from the Greeks through Victorianism and the sexual revolution and into the present. She outlines the literary history of love, by way of Dante and the troubadours of Provence. In her chapter on love in families, she gives the briefest of nods to the new science of epigenetics, which has shown how a mother’s experiences — the food she eats, the stress she feels — can regulate her child’s hormones and even affect his genes. But Appignanesi quickly shuts down this fascinating line of inquiry, warning that “the exponential growth in theories about early childhood is oddly coincident with the rise of feminism,” as if the science existed exclusively to perform the task of social control. She sidesteps the question of homosexuality, not just because the subject is too big but because, she explains, she aims to undermine the categories of gender and permissible versus impermissible sexuality that the very notion of homosexuality rests upon.

Appignanesi’s approach to love is aphoristic and whimsical. She loves to overturn some bit of conventional wisdom, rather than risk boring us with arguments. There is no unifying theory here, just a bewildering topography. We wander in a forest of other people’s fictions and ideas, often guided by little more than some faintly comical historical generalities. (“In the annals of love, adultery has ever played a raucous part.” )

For those of us who adore love stories — and who doesn’t? — a tour d’amour ought to be enough. That it isn’t tells you something about what it takes to write about love. Love stories, like love itself, turn less on things that are easy to summarize — situations, plots — than on the little details that give a tale or encounter its unexpected power: a gripping tone, a flash of wit, the eerily sadistic undertones of an erotic obsession. Such grace notes rarely make it into potted synopses.

No literature has fewer grace notes than scientific articles about love, of course. And yet at their best these documents have a freshness that Appignanesi’s book lacks. There’s something jolting, in the best possible sense, about science’s incessant quest to measure the unmeasurable, to give precise coordinates to knowledge that may have been common but was still vague. By now, everyone knows that you’re supposed to cuddle your infant, but who would have predicted that if you don’t, the mental health consequences may be passed down for three generations? Who would have guessed that, in the chemical sense, at least, people really may be made for each other — that the success or failure of a kiss may be due not just to feelings or technique but also to an unconscious olfactory response to your lover’s pheromones? Love cuts deep, much deeper, in some ways, than even our greatest poets have been able to describe. We are only beginning to learn how far down it goes.

Judith Shulevitz is the author of “The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time.”
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