The Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky once wrote a series of secret love letters to his mistress, Elsa Triolet, which he published as a novel. The one constraint he gave himself was that he could not mention the word ‘love’. It was called Zoo, or Letters Not About Love.
Alongside death, love is the most enduring theme of literature, music, cinema, in fact all the arts. One of its earliest articulations comes in Plato’s Symposium – the premise of which is a dinner party at which the guests all have to deliver their theory of love.
Aristophanes delivers the most compelling speech, explaining how a long time ago all humans were hermaphrodites, but after an act of disobedience people were punished by the gods. The gods cut all the hermaphrodites in half, scattering them about the globe, each half desperately seeking its counterpart in an effort to become whole again.
This image of love as an attempt to find one’s other half is present in literature throughout the ages, including Ovid’s tale Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from the Metamorphoses, in which the lovers melt together, and in Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights, when Cathy declares, ‘I am Heathcliff’.
Sigmund Freud theorised the idea as follows: ‘the state of being in love threatens to obliterate boundaries between ego and object. Against all evidence of his senses, man in love declares that he and his beloved are one.’
Another variation in the attempt to address the theme of love was the ‘complaint’ - usually by a male about the cruelty of his beloved in denying his advances. We see this distilled in Catullus’s memorable two-line poem ‘Odi et Amo’: ‘I hate and I love. And if you ask me how / I do not know: I only feel it, and I'm torn in two.’
The main convention for Comedy with a capital ‘C’ (including Classical and Shakespearean comedies, the comedies of Oscar Wilde and the novels of Jane Austen) is that, after various mishaps and wrong turns, the narrative ends with a marriage – usually involving a perfect match of handsomeness, cleverness, and wealth.
Then there is the darker, more tragic side – often when there is an asymmetry of age, wealth, class, race, family feud, or availability. This is embodied in the eternal triangle – as in the romance and later opera Tristan and Isolde, or in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction, with its famous boiled bunny scene.
Either way, the narrative convention was to portray the love relationship as fated to succeed (comedy) or fail (tragedy).
In the nineteenth century, an adulterous female – it was almost always the female – often ended up committing suicide (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Thérèse Raquin). For a time in the twentieth century that tragic narrative passed to homosexual relationships. Thankfully both female and gay liberation (the love that dare not speak its name) have more recently seen their power relations normalised.
There are those for whom love is socially constructed as a form of ‘discourse’. For La Rochefoucauld, ‘Some people would never have been in love, had they never heard love talked about.’ According to this idea, romantic love was an invention of the Middle Ages, usually the preserve of aristocrats who had nothing else to do (peasants were too busy gathering enough food to survive).
Yet there remains something magical about the concept of love – how else explain its enduring appeal? Dante ended his Divine Comedy with the marvellous line, ‘l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.’ The Polish poet and Nobel Laureate, Wisława Szymborska, wrote defiantly: ‘Let the people who never find true love / Keep saying there’s no such thing. // Their faith will make it easier for them to live and die.’
There is love as a kind of craziness or intoxication, as depicted in Charlie Kaufmann’s film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The male and female protagonists each submit to a clinical procedure in which their failed relationship is erased from their memory. But somehow as strangers they happen to meet and fall in love again. The attempt at erasure is discovered: they learn that they have been through all this already, and that it didn’t work. What should they do? They stare at each other, aware of the risks — and irrationally decide to try it all over again.
There is also the notion of love as something mature and wise, as in this from John Williams’s novel, Stoner: ‘Love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another...an act of becoming...a condition’.
It has been said that when we are young, we long for adventure; then when we are older, we search for meaning. Love has its part to play in that adventure and also that search for meaning. They both in a way involve a quest for happiness. And for Freud, there were two things most likely to make you happy: liebe und arbeit – love and work.
One aspect of a modern education is to develop the emotional intelligence of students. Young people need to feel safe and happy, protected and yet also able to engage in life as human beings, understanding what it means to feel fully alive and fulfilled.
Through literature, language, philosophy, art, as well as of course their own experience students will over time develop a sense of a life that involves love – love that can be glorious, crushing, jubilant, dismaying, maddeningly complex and clarifying all at the same time.
Love is about compassion as well as passion. It is the subject of the happiest and the saddest songs. There may be a discourse that defines it, and whole enterprises that exploit our vulnerability to its appeal, but its ultimate theme – that we need other people, and that other people need us – is one that enlarges us, enhancing the mental health of young people and allowing us to survive even the darkest times.
Principal & CEO
- Emotional Intelligence