“Love is love” declares the sign on my neighbor’s lawn. It is a generous sentiment, reminding us that love is valued no matter who loves whom, and regardless of how and why they love.
Yet it contains a thousand complexities, not least because it joins the many contradictory memes that we repeat to ourselves about love. Consider the following:
- Love is wonderful.
- Love is painful.
- Love hits like a thunderbolt.
- Love takes time and patience.
- Love is morally uplifting and the foundation of society.
- Love is socially disruptive and must be tamed.
- Love is forever.
- Love is variety.
- Love is consummated in sex.
- Love transcends sex.
- Love demands everything.
- Love demands nothing.
These and many other ideas about love jostle and clash with each other. All have a kernel of truth. All may be manipulated for self-regarding reasons. And all are potentially at play when people love (or say they love) one another. We understand one or another meaning according to our fantasies—and sometimes to our peril. “Captain Smith and Pocahontas/had a very mad affair,” sang Peggy Lee in 1958,1 and many Americans then and since have liked to imagine that a beautiful Native American girl fell in love with the man who helped the Jamestown settlers to prosper in the seventeenth century. But, as the real Pocahontas herself later explained to Captain John Smith, the moment in which she supposedly saved him from death was the culmination of a ritual of adoption that the Powhatan Indians had orchestrated. It was meant to signal their desire for alliance and friendship as well as to demonstrate their political superiority. Her “love” had nothing to do with a young girl’s sudden crush.
Few of us learn so explicitly as John Smith did what sort of love “I love you” entails. Luckily, most of us live in subsets of our culture, I call them “emotional communities,” that generally agree about the meaning of love and other feelings in one or another context. Pocahontas was clear when she confronted Smith; she had no romantic illusions about him, and (a Powhatan princess herself) she knew very well what the ritual was meant to express. Yes, her “rescue” was an act of love, but not of the romantic sort. It was meant to seal a political alliance.
Although we have lost the idea today, the English of Smith’s time knew as clearly as the Powhatan that love could mean simply “affiliation.” As Smith once told Chief Powhatan, “The vow I made you of my love, both myself and my men have kept.”2 But Smith also knew about romantic love, for that was a European invention still in vogue in his day (and for many people in ours as well). That romantic sort of love was not part of Powhatan culture.3
“Love means affiliation.” “Love means life-long devotion.” These are memes that hide centuries of change and elaboration. In their longer form, they are fantasies—inventions that we have and use to mold our own feelings and set our expectations, and also to change and sometimes wiggle out of. By “fantasy” I have in mind the sort of thing that Arlie Hochschild means when she speaks of the “deep story” behind the stated discontents expressed by members of the American political right. Or that E. Angus and L. S Greenberg are thinking of when they advocate a form of psychotherapy that intervenes and changes the narratives that people use to understand their feelings and identities. Fantasies are the reasons why Iiro P. Jääskeläinen and his colleagues use neuroimaging to unravel “how narratives influence the human brain, thus shaping perception, cognition, emotions, and decision-making.” When I speak of fantasies, I mean what Joan Didion summed up in her striking essay opener: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”4
All fantasies have histories, but it is impossible to talk about their “ground zero” origins. We may, rather, speak of climates in which such narratives flourished and see how they took on different meanings as they encountered—and influenced—a variety of people and social groups at various times. It is not true to say that “love is love” if by that we mean that it is universal, always around, always felt in the same way. It is also not true to say that love is entirely socially constructed, a figment of the Western imagination. Love has always been and remains a kind of negotiation between the two.
Many of the stories of love show up best in literature, but that makes them no less real and important than those in lived experience. Narratives reflect and set forth models of beliefs and behavior —whether discovered in poetry, heard in churches or temples, read in novels, or depicted in frescoes; watched on TV, YouTube, or Facebook; heard on podcasts, sung in songs, read about on Twitter, or publicized via influencers on Instagram, WeChat, Tumblr or TikTok.
Ours is not the first era to deal with love’s many dissonant voices and contradictory impulses. Indeed, the leisured classes in ancient Athens, for example, were well aware of a great variety of seductive ideas about love. Plato even staged (in writing) a fictional drinking party at which various guests held forth on their favorite idea of love, each speaker hoping to outdo the other.5 This Symposium exerted an enormous influence on subsequent thinking about love. And it very usefully set forth some of the many theories—convictions, really, since people rarely suggest any tentativeness about love—circulating in the ancient world. Plato made clear that there was no consensus on the matter and yet also indicated how high the stakes were. In pre-Revolutionary French society, similarly, a number of very different fantasies of love were deliberately set forth and passionately debated at salons of the wealthy: the gallant love of the courtier, the manipulative love of the libertine, the rigorously non-sexual love of friendship.
Eros and Anteros, (engraving on laid paper), probably 1588, by Jacob Matham (artist), 1571 - 1631, and Hendrick Goltzius (artist after), 1558 - 1617. Gift of Ruth B. Benedict. National Gallery of Art
Many narratives of love inundate Western culture today. They shape, often unconsciously, how we think about our own feelings and assess the feelings of others. In Love: A History in Five Fantasies I strive to bring to light not only the bare outlines of some salient fantasies of love but also their long histories. It is hardly useful just to say what a particular fantasy is. It is far more helpful to see that our many stories of love have had different moments and contexts for flourishing and waning; that their significance has changed over time; and that their continuance today must be assessed, judged, and accepted or rejected according to the circumstances of the world we live in. In short, histories make visible the half-hidden stories that continue to shape our contemporary ideas about love, show us what still makes sense now, and help us decide what we might want to jettison.
In my book, I begin my exploration with the idea that love is the union of two people of like minds. I continue with the story of love’s power to transcend, to take us out of ourselves to a higher realm. I then take up the idea that love implies freedom instead of obligation, and follow that with the fantasy that true love is obsessive. Love’s insatiability is my final fantasy.
Taken together, the many threads separated by chapters in my book form a richly hued tapestry. Yet it is an unfinished tableau, for just as the fantasies of love I study have endured over the long haul, so we may expect them to twist, turn, and change in unexpected ways in the future. Love is a trickster. But I won’t have that printed up to put on my lawn.