O the hateful, grateful, fateful, dateful day has arrived once more. The shops are full of heart shaped balloons and pink fluffy handcuffs, the restaurants are hiking their prices and it’s all coming up roses for florists. The ides of February are upon us. The saint responsible for our October birthday bonanza is having his day. Love is in the air; try not to choke.
‘Love’ is one of the two ultimate life memes (‘religion’ being the other); an idea passed down through the generations, slowly mutating, and stubbornly surviving as effectively as genetic material. An idea so ingrained that it seems completely natural.
But if love’s so natural, why does it need a special day? I mean flatulence, haemorrhoids, and the making of fatuous comparisons to undermine the importance of a subject also come quite naturally, but none are honoured with a patron saint or a day of appreciation. The bells of St Piles don’t ring and despite the invention of the vindaloo we don’t go out dining once a year to purposefully inspire the methane missives.
Falling in love, we learn from an early age, is the most natural thing in the world, we all do it, even educated fleas do it. Except, of course, they don’t (I’d say they simply hop about until they die, but maybe that’s jumping to conclusions). Birds don’t do it, bees don’t do it, not even the beans in Boston do it. It is a distinctly human trait and there is a growing trend in academic studies to treat the symptoms and causes of being ‘in’ love as ‘unnatural’ to the human condition. They have, after all, no discernible biological cause or zoological analogue. It’s not like we have to fall in love to procreate, just check Tinder. No don’t. Really. DON’T. Our species could get on just fine without being confused by courtship rituals or weathering the visceral silences as we disappoint each other’s parents at that first awkward meeting.
Although there are ways we love which are undeniably innate, instincts that guide us to care for, and about, our mates and progenies, being ‘in’ love is a different matter. The emotions of being ‘in’ love simply seem a delusional loss of sanity caused by trying to resolve two completely incompatible impulses: our ‘natural’ sexual instinct, our urge to procreate and continue our genetic line; and our ‘cultural’ sense of social responsibility, to live un-raped, in a civilised manner by a set of codes which protect all of us from each other.
And trying to balance the two, we all go a little crazy. Psychologists have even coined a distinct term for this delusional state: ‘Limerence’.
Then there are sociologists who have amassed evidence that the symptoms of ‘limerence’ are predominately ‘learnt’ from social influences and that ‘romance’ is the way we try to establish rules in our attempt to rationalise the madness.
And finally there are the historians and cultural academics, including CS Lewis, who have pointed to a distinct period in European history when ‘love’ was invented. A ‘cult of love’ sprang from the medieval courts of 12th Century France, in the era of the crusades when, for the first time in European history, women were left nominal heads of the states as the kings and menfolk went to kick off 900 years of resentment in the Middle East. Somehow, as the power of the queens ascended (this was also the time when the Queen was introduced to the chess board) the European feudal system changed from Lord-Fearing into Love-Fearing. To be in love is to always be aware of the possibility of rejection, a much more economical fear than all the beatings and beheadings medieval kings were always having to organise.
So, could ‘romance’, our interpretation of the confusion between the urge to mate and the need to date, been codified as a form of statecraft? A way to control the filthy masses through their own dirty urges?
Today, a cultural production line of romances, ads, dramas, pop-songs, poetry, bombards us every second, all telling us that love is the most fantastic experience possible, that it is something we must have. Is it really a reflection of human nature or is it propaganda?
If falling in love is unnatural, delusional, something perhaps designed to keep the masses in the thrall of the state; if it is subject to a mass of negative symptoms, anxiety, stress and insecurity; if it doesn’t help our sense of self-worth or sanity; why do we still feel compelled to use it to choose our mates? Why do we keep falling for it?
Lovers of the world unite. Put down your Special Valentines Menus, save your stamps and your SWALKs and your boxes of Milk Tray. Waste no more time with this ‘pretty little thing’, tell each other exactly what you want. Do the maths then go forth and multiply… that’s when everything really gets tricky.
First published in