According to wikipedia love is “an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment.” According to the Beatles love is all you need. According to Shakespeare the course of true love never did run smooth. According to Nietzsche there is always some madness in love.
But what exactly is love and why are we always trying to achieve it? How come that we all have certain ideas about “true love” and where do they come from?
When a person is falling in love it is often the case that this state shows symptoms that we rather associate with diseases and illness: sweaty palms, inability of articulation, insomnia, lack of concentration, etc. This also leaves room for the question: Is there a cure?
According to Lynn Pearce and Jackie Stacey, scholars on romance, there are two ways of explaining our cultural and individual obsession with love.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that the first one is rooted in Freudian psychoanalysis. According to Freud libido is dependent on obstacles: you desire exactly that which seems unobtainable to you. If there are no real obstacles (such as a family feud in Romeo and Juliet, a fatal disease in Love Story, or the class divide in Pretty Woman), mankind invents obstacles in order to make love more enjoyable. One of the most common obstacles to love, which paradoxically heightens libido and desire, is the overvaluation of the loved one, Lacan’s object á, as maybe most clearly and nervewreckingly exemplified in Bella Swan’s constant adoration of sparkling, gorgeous, rich vampire Edward Cullen in Twilight. Freud further argues that this dates back to oedipal attachments in early childhood. The child idealizes the parent of the opposite sex as source of all knowledge and prime caregiver. You try to identify with this person, which is also why – in later life – we want someone who is like us, you understands us and who “loves us the way we are” as Mr. Darcy feels for Bridget Jones. Yet, despite a cultural perception that women are the ones who overvalue and who consume romance and love stories, Freud claims that this idealization of the loved one is more true for men:
“Where (men) love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love.” (Sigmund Freud)
One of Freud’s successors in psychoanalysis and the father of psychosemiotics, Jacques Lacan, also feels that our adult perception of love is intrinsically connected to childhood experiences. He claims that in the mirror stage the child enters the symbolic order and simultaneously loses its connection to the imaginary order in which he/she conceived of him-/herself as perfect. This creates a loss and a constant feeling of lack which we try to fill, for example by looking for the perfect relationship and for someone who makes us “whole again”.
But there is a second explanation for our desire for desire, which stems from structuralism. Here it is argued that the very pattern in which love stories are organized is extremely simplistic: falling in love – experiencing love – fulfillment of love in marriage/or loss of love. The very simplicity of this pattern allows for various re-writings of love plots and those re-writings can be adapted to current cultural norms: Patrarchan love sonnets deal with courtly love, Jane Austen allows you to look into women who fall in love, Whitney Houston sings about endless and eternal love, and Friends’ Rachel and Ross show you that the love of your life might have been there for a long time and that you need some perseverance to have your happily ever after.
“To invoke the metaphor of a virus, it is its capacity for mutation which has enabled romance to survive.” (Romance Revisited, Pearce and Stacey, 1995. P. 12)
Western culture appreciates a good story and the simple romance plot which can either end as tragedy or comedy, with its similarities to a fairytale structure, is the perfect archetypal story. We organize our relationships as stories, starting with the initial meeting and ending in a happy end and failure but we tell the stories over and over again and everyone can “invent” their own love story with this simple plot structure. French semiotician Roland Barthes systematizes love by exploring a discreet set of “figures” (e. g. “waiting”, “declaration”, “jealousy”, “fade-out”) and a set of exactly 79 emotions which can be tied in with the figures. This allows for a wide range of different love story patterns, which can be shaped into a narrative form like a jigsaw puzzle.
In 1992 Haddaway asked “What is Love?” but he didn’t provide an answer. Neither can I. Whether our quest for love is a relic of the oedipal stage or is rooted in our appreciation for a good story… I don’t know. I just know that love is all around.