Is love past its sell-by date? Hannah McGill (part one) thinks she’s better off without it, while Tom McLean (part two) skips through a buttercup meadow hand in hand wi’ his gie bonnie lass.
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Part One: Don’t buy into the myth
Into love and out again, / Thus I went, and thus I go. / Spare your voice and hold your pen – / Well and bitterly I know / All the songs were ever sung, / All the words were ever said; / Could it be when I was young, / Someone dropped me on my head? – Dorothy Parker.
Imagine if you could just have it cut away, like a little tumour or a Californian matron’s excess blubber. There would be so many more hours in the day! Never mind a cure for the common cold: bring on the horn-rimmed scientist who can galvanise my heart against the flushing, fainting, swooning wonder of love.
Not since Dr Robert Oppenheimer started tinkering about in the desert has such a destructive invention been loosed on humankind. The time wasted, the tears and money and emotional energy expended to absolutely no avail – it amounts to a quiet holocaust of human potential. What have I gained from my own ill-judged forays down lovers’ lane? Intimate knowledge of a few uncomfortable beds in damp, rented flats. A certain level of sexual experience. A few books with sentimental inscriptions. But most enduring of all, a sense of shame. I have astounded myself with my own idiocy, my own willingness to suspend my intellect and prostrate myself before someone who I ‘know’, deep down, will soon be a half-remembered face in the photo album. I have howled at the moon, begged on the phone, roamed darkling streets sobbing my fickle heart out – and within weeks I’ve sent the poor blighter on his way, barely able to remember what we ever talked about.
Love is the most powerful system of self-delusion there is – and we kid ourselves that it’s ‘beautiful’.My God. I could have read The Iliad in ancient Greek in the time I’ve spent reading hidden meanings into five-minute phone conversations. I could have written a sequel to it in the time I’ve spent salving frail egos bruised by my own casual cruelties. And crying? Alice’s puddle of tears has nothing on the Olympic-sized shower complex I could have wept into existence. If anything’s heartbreaking, it’s not the loss of some half-baked romance; it’s the sheer waste of effort involved. I don’t drag around an albatross necklace of bad relationships; I don’t have a Bridget Jones little black book of bastards. On the contrary, I have known some lovely men – people I learned from and had fun with and had great sex with. What screwed things up? The meaningless notion of ‘love’ that shackled us to one another and made us jealous, possessive and resentful of each other. Love turns mature, intelligent people into gibbering fools, and mutually enjoyable shortterm sexual liaisons into emotional battlegrounds.
Let’s have a case study, shall we? A girl – let’s call her A – meets a man, somewhat older, who shall be known as B. B is very keen in his pursuit of A. A is not so sure. Soon, she tires of his attentions and tells him she’s not about to fall in love with him. B tells her that’s fine with him, because he’s not in love with her either. He is, in fact, profoundly besotted by someone else and only passing time with A because he’s sexually attracted to her. A’s feelings alter with lightning speed. Suddenly, positioned in the flattering glow of unavailability and glamorously shadowed with evil, B looks strangely appealing. That which she rejected when she thought it easily won, she desires desperately as soon as it is denied her. She proceeds to devote about three years of her life to ceaseless pursuit of B, dignity flaking off her like so much dandruff. B regards her with mild bemusement, edged with contempt.
Another one? OK. A girl – coincidentally also called A – meets a boy, C. C adores A. He is a model boyfriend – considerate, patient, thoughtful and intelligent. They make a lovely couple and spend all their time together. Within a few months, A goes mad with boredom and runs for the hills, screaming.
The problem of love is exacerbated by the current fashion for serial monogamy. To simply ‘go out’ with someone in the literal sense – dating them intermittently, getting to know them slowly – is no longer de rigeur. Instead, lovers have become ‘partners’ and affairs have mutated into ‘relationships’ – six or 12-month mini-marriages that begin with a tense countdown to that obligatory ‘I love you’, and end with stalemate and tedium. We incorporate our partners into every aspect of our lives, sub-let our bedrooms to them and expect our friends and flatmates to virtually adopt them – and then we wonder why we feel stifled and bored.
Romantic love used to be a convenient myth, one that soft-soaped women into accepting lives of drudgery and domestic abuse (Bake,boil-wash, darn and scrub? Of course I will: I love him, after all. Put up with the odd slap across the face? Of course I must: he loves me, after all. Bear his children, turn a blind eye to his infidelity and share in the dubious infections he thus acquires? Yes, yes and yes: in sickness and in health, till death do us part, we love each other, after all.)
Now that feminism has educated us out of that slave mentality, the notion of patient, giving, self- sacrificing love seems oddly out of whack with current mores. We’re all supposed to be carving out our own independent paths, attaining personal fulfillment and financial independence; and yet both men and women still dutifully swallow the greatest myth of all. Even as divorce rates boom, the idea of ‘romance’ is brutally commercialised, and infidelities both fictional and factual crowd our media, we cling to our hearts-and-flowers fantasies of eternal devotion. We can never be anything but disappointed. Look at the denial involved in love: we all ‘know’ our partners harbour secret lusts for friends, colleagues and random passers-by. We ‘know’ they sometimes yearn for the ones who preceded us, or the Penthouse ‘Pet of the Month’, or solitude. We ‘know’ they don’t always tell us the truth, and we ‘know’ that given half a chance they’d take a scalpel to half of our physical attributes and personality traits. We know these things; and yet because they’re incompatible with that love blueprint which insinuates itself into our consciousness around the time we read our first fairytales, we can’t accept them. If any such issue rears its head, it causes ugly rows. So, girl to boy: ”Do you think she’s prettier than me?” And boy to girl: ”Do you still fancy him?” And either way, back and forth, night and day: “Do you ‘love’ me?'”
Take a deep breath and be honest. “No. That’s a meaningless construction, a four-letter lie. I just like rooms better when they have you in them. One day I’ll probably find someone even more agreeable. For the moment, you’re the one: but let’s not overdo it.” Unromantic? No. Compromising your intellect, dignity and sanity, wasting your time, scuppering your potential, denying yourself fun, adventure and experimentation in the name of some stagnant relationship long since devoid of its spark? That’s unromantic.
Part Two: I believe in miracles!
Love for love is the bargain with me – Robert Burns.
It’s a sign of an addled mind to say that love is dead. The average (waiting) concentration span of an internet user is 3.1 seconds before they move on to another site. This frantic twitchiness is being transposed to our bedrooms. Relationships are becoming like lightbulbs. The bulb is the ultimate metaphor for the economic madness that surrounds us. They have the capacity only to last a pre-defined length of time, thus ensuring constant re-purchase. At the start of a new century, this is how we are asked to view love: something to pick up like any product on a shelf. The enduring or permanent is rejected for the immediate, the quick-fix, the slick and superficial. Love is thus as much part of today’s culture as ‘Girl Power’: here today, gone tomorrow.
We have come a long way in the sexual liberation stakes since the days of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. But the evolution of public mores and accepted behaviour is not an upwards spiral towards an enlightened state of libertarian grooviness. Today we have replaced the shame and self-loathing we once held for sex with a similar, growing distaste for love. It’s almost as if we have a finite amount of shame and guilt needed, and we’ve just shifted the ground.
Today, now, rootless and feckless and terminally cynical, love is held in the highest contempt. And quite right too. It’s not surprising that we are weary of it. Numbed by romantic failures, ground down by the ball-crushing pressure of Blind Date and surrounded by death and destruction, love isn’t the first thing that springs to mind. And yet, despite this love-hating malaise, I have recently been smitten. I don’t want to bore you with my personal triumphs, but it is relevant to the topic in hand. Let’s make some distinctions. I’m not talking about teenage kicks, nor hungry animalistic lust, but the big one, the main frame.
You know, that ‘once-every-millennium-swallowed- the-whole-cheese-get-down-on-your-knees-and- praise-the-Lord’ sort of feeling that starts in your toes and winds its way up your body till your hair is pointing at the sky. Have you ever been so in love your soul ran past your mind and body shouting “loser”? That sort of love.
Surprisingly though, no-one I know is entirely comfortable with my new-found glory. People shift around uncomfortably in conversation on the bus. Friendly banter trails away and phone lines go dead. People can bore on and on about the most patently moribund relationship but turn mute if you say you are ‘on the Love Boat’. So low is its current estimation that the word ‘love’ has an effect similar to halitosis.
If only I was Italian. “True love is that which is born after ecstasy,” said Giacomo Girolamo Casanova. I think he’s right. MDMA wasn’t around in 1750, so he wasn’t talking about the chill-out room. The big man points to an important distinction – between love and romantic emotion. One is a deep well, the other a ubiquitous puddle. Disdain is the easy and proper response to a puddle. But we all have a need to quench our thirst from the deep well, or curl up and go dry. True, we’re not very good at love. We combine the awful British uptightness with a sort of quiet Calvinist dread and a couthiness that could soften the skin of an armadillo at a thousand paces. But let’s remember some of the pace and verve of true love. “I try to say goodbye and I choke /I try to walk away and I stumble” is the “Ae fond kiss” of today. Robert and Macy express all the shared guts and fragility of the hopeless lovelorn. Being in love. Not being in love. Loving being. Not loving being. There is a chasm between the neurotic romantic and the star-crossed lover that is routinely ignored. It’s the difference between a dove and a pigeon.
Love is loss of control. Love is sensual. Love is irrational. Love is instinctive, impulsive, compulsive.
It is not just rutting. If love is despoiled, shunned and reviled then we’re in deeper trouble than we thought. Rejecting love as a concept just isn’t credible. It’s fair enough to say, “I’ve had a string of bad luck” or “my heart was broken and I don’t do love anymore”. Fine. But to say “love is over” is like “the end of history” or “nobody makes good music anymore”. It’s as transitory a claim as the system that sustains it.
A soul which knows it is loved but does not itself
love betrays its dregs – its lowest part comes up. – Friedrich Nietzsche
If you can’t love, that’s sad. If you can’t see the possibility of love, that’s terminal. What we’re seeing is not the death of love but the death of belief. So you don’t believe in love? You don’t believe in anything.