What Is Love (Part I)

In my Bowie tribute blog (“Bowie is Dead – Long Live Bowie”, 1/13/16), I neglected to mention Graham Nash in my list of grizzled oldsters who are still putting out new music – in this instance, his new album This Path Tonight.  I’ve always admired him, loved his voice, his politics and his aesthetic.  I read an interesting article about him recently that noted how “Nash has been motivated by the desire to ‘make the world a better place for me and my friends and my family and my children and for everybody else’s children.’”  (Jon Wiederhorn, “Graham Nash Opens Up about Trump, Divorce, and Neil Young,” re-blogged on Yahoo! Music, 1/19/16, http://jwiederhorn.tumblr.com/post/137637249043/graham-nash-opens-up-about-trump-divorce-and).

There was something else in that article that struck me, however.  Nash said, “On my next birthday, I’ll be 74 years old, and I need to be happy with whatever life I have left.’”  In a move some might have considered selfish at face value, he had recently left his wife of 38 years after he “fell in love with this wonderful person in New York City” and it changed his life.

I often wonder about this “falling in love” concept.  Without sounding maudlin or woe-is-me, I’ve frankly never experienced that reciprocal depth of feeling with anyone in my entire 56 years of life.  It bothers me sometimes, but only in the sense that I won’t be able to give comfort to my daughter that there’s someone out there for her when she bemoans that she’s doesn’t have a significant other.  I can’t tell her with confidence that she WILL find love someday, because I know for a fact that it’s quite possible that she WON’T.  For better or worse (pun intended), it appears that my anxiety over that question is premature because, as far as I know, she is not actively looking for love at the moment, nor has this been a concern of hers during her teen years (unlike certain of her friends, who are NEVER without a boyfriend, no matter what a loser or dead weight he might be; in their minds – and in a lot of women’s minds, sad to say – a BAD boyfriend/husband is better than NO boyfriend/husband, which is another blog post for another day).  What is that “young love” thing about, anyway?  I honestly don’t know.  I never had it.

I loved my husband, and was grateful for his love of me, and we united to create an amazing human being so it was clearly a good thing that we were together, at least for that purpose.  But I confess that I was never IN love with him (whatever that actually MEANS).

There have been a number of people in my life who I believed I was in love with, but the feeling was so far from mutual that I’ve had to conclude that what I was experiencing didn’t qualify as love at all but was something else entirely – lust, animal attraction, obsession, delusion (or, in my case, perhaps all of the above).

Lifelong (or presumed lifelong) companionship is a wholly different notion.  That actually EXISTS, and I’ve known quite a few couples for whom that has been the reality of their lives together.  There’s a compatibility in those relationships and a depth of feeling, respect and trust, almost universally a friendship that sometimes (but not always) involves touching each other’s private bits.  But this fiery, passionate, never-tear-us-apart love, with one’s soulmate (I think the social media world calls it an “OTP” – one true pairing), the love that songs and poems are written about and people are killed over (a crime of passion would obviously not exist if there was not this crazy-making “love” thing) – I’ve come to the conclusion that this “love” is an artifice, a creation of our collective, historical imaginations.  Romantic love is just something humans made up long ago to keep themselves entertained while they went about the business of procreating, and it can only lead to drama and, ultimately, tragedy.

I remember taking a course at Trinity College with an interesting professor, so blonde and pale she was almost translucent, where we had to read Ovid’s The Art of Love and Shakespeare’s love sonnets, among other things.  Sadly, even though the subject matter interested me and was a frequent topic of rumination in my journals at the time, as I recall, it was an early-morning class, which of course meant that I didn’t attend regularly and I slacked on the reading so the subject matter never sunk in the way it should have, and so I can’t call upon it now when I’m trying to explore the concept of romantic love on a more intellectual level.  (I’ll have to track down my journal entries from that period to see if I can rekindle the discourse and gain a better understanding with decades of a loveless existence to inform my youthful thought processes.  I am confident this will not be my last blog post on love because it’s something I think about often.)

People are rendered stupid and insane by this so-called love. They get taken advantage of, they make dumb and costly decisions.  They MURDER.  When I started writing the notes for this piece in my journal a few weeks ago, there was a tragic story in the news about a murder-suicide in the SUNY Geneseo community.  The guy doing the killing had been in love with the girl and was distraught over their break-up; her current boyfriend was an innocent victim of the madness of the murderer’s failed “love”.  [Tobias Salinger, “Murder-suicide leaves upstate New York village and SUNY Geneseo heartbroken as classes resume ahead of memorial events,” New York Daily News, January 19, 2016, http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/murder-suicide-leaves-suny-geneseo-heartbroken-article-1.2502085%5D

What about all those idiots on the Springer and Maury shows, who exacerbate their idiocy by thinking that they’re acting out of some form of demented “love”?  This is dangerous love and, if we’re being honest here, it’s not actually love by any definition.  It’s mental illness.  Possessiveness and jealousy, abuse (and the taking of abuse) – this is not what I would consider LOVE, and yet it’s been perverted in that way throughout human history.  (Antony and Cleopatra, anyone?)  Unlike my romantic love 300-level college course, there should probably be some kind of required class in high school or college that actually teaches young people what “love” is supposed to look like, because if we’re basing our understanding on TV and movies and music, we’ve all been sold a bill of goods.

What are affairs about?  Like Graham Nash, people “fall in love” with someone who isn’t their spouse and often destroy a true companionship/co-parenting relationship.  The way I see it is, if you fall in love with a cheater, s/he will inevitably cheat on YOU.  S/he is clearly a love junkie and can’t control the addiction, no matter what’s at stake.  But what’s at the root of a life-changing circumstance like an affair is probably not “love”, even though that’s what it’s often called.

I was listening to my “The Best of Lesley Gore” CD [20th Century Masters:  The Millennium Collection, 2000] the other day.  What a HORRIBLE series of messages to send to girls in any era of history, especially when you contrast the prudish side of the early ‘60s (in the liner notes by Tony Sachs, he says that early Lesley is “always acting like a good, subservient, Eisenhower-era young lady”), when most of her hits were popular, with the later “free love” of the “Swingin’ ‘60s” and Woodstock.  There’s girls fighting over the inconstant bad boy – first, in “It’s My Party” [“and I’ll cry if I want to”], Johnny hooks up with Lesley’s rival Judy (at her own birthday party, no less!) and then, of course, it was “Judy’s Turn to Cry” when Johnny inevitably goes back to Lesley.  Good heavens!!  There’s the “I’ll do whatever you want” attitude [in “I Don’t Want to Be a Loser” (!), Lesley sings, “Tell me, what can I do to keep from losin’ you/’Cause I could never live without your love”, which of course could only mean “putting out”]; there’s even a hint of physical abuse in one of her songs [in ”That’s the Way Boys Are”, she lists, among a litany of inexcusable behavior she clearly excuses the boy for, “When he treats me rough and he acts as though he doesn’t really care/Well, I never tell him that he is so unfair!/Plus, he loves me and I know it/But he’s just afraid to show it!/’Cause that’s the way boys are!”].  My favorite song in the Leslie Gore canon, “You Don’t Own Me”, which is perhaps her only pop anthem coming from a position of female strength and self-confidence (a precursor perhaps of the “girl power” movement that came years later), still arises from an environment of possessiveness, where guys take a girl and “put [her] on display”.  Some of this atrocious (and yet catchy!) songwriting can be attributed to the old white guys who wrote the lyrics, believing they were capturing the truth of young people at the time (although the vengeful “Judy’s Turn to Cry” was significantly written by two women), but unfortunately, things haven’t changed that much in the five decades since.  Girls still fight amongst themselves for boys and allow themselves to be abused and disrespected, calling into question the whole concept of “love”.  This kind of “love” is a destructive, misunderstood force that frankly makes people act like idiots.

Look at a show like “The Bachelor”, which assumes that it is even possible that a single one among a gaggle of competing women can “win” the love of the anointed husband-to-be.  How does “love” even factor in?  It seems highly unlikely that such a forced and artificial environment can result in anything that’s real.  Gloria Steinem was on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week and I thought to myself that she must think shows like “The Bachelor” are an abomination that has set the cause of feminism back decades.  For those who say, “Well, they do it with a bachelorette, too – equal time!”, please:  I remember how horribly the public ripped apart that last bachelorette woman – Chris Harrison reading those horrendous tweets to her face on national television was just nasty and cruel – because she DARED to get intimate with more than one of the men who were wooing her.  As a sentient, reasonably intelligent human being, I find the whole franchise embarrassing.

And yet – romantic love has been the catalyst for some of the world’s most beautiful and significant art, music and literature.  This kind of love even has magical salvation properties – how many country songs have been sung about being saved by the love of a “good woman”?  According to B.B. King and Bono, “I did what I did [bad] before love came to town [good].”  There’s Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, there’s the “All You Need Is Love” that the Beatles sang about (although I don’t think that’s romantic love per se, but really, where is the dividing line?), love for our children, and love for our friends – that’s the GOOD kind of love.  As far as I’m concerned, THAT love that is the only thing that will allow us to survive as a species.  But “romantic love” – or at least the perversion of it – is more often than not a highly destructive force that will drive humankind to its demise.

So even though Haddaway sings, “What is love?  Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more,” and Nazareth quite clearly says that it does (“Love hurts/Love scars/Love wounds and marks”), that’s not the love I’m talking about.  Even though admittedly I’ve never felt a “love” like that, I instinctively know it shouldn’t hurt.

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