Friday, October 1, 2010

Is it Love

Does love have to be reciprocated in order to qualify as love?

Can one look at another with devotion and desire, knowing that the feelings are not returned, and still call it love?  A mother stares at her newborn with warmth and tenderness and caring and concern, hopes and dreams and expectations stretching out infinitely before her.  Her world has expanded and contracted at the same time - she's including another human in her realm, and she's excluding everyone else except the infant, that little ball of protoplasm which had until hours before been living under her heart and who is now the entirety of her life.  She certainly feels love, but does the baby?  There is need and comfort and security and familiarity - primal urges shared by all kinds of mammals.  But does the baby feel love?   

Is there a cognitive component that is necessary for love to exist?  Is the random arm waving and eye scanning that's part and parcel of an infant's life an expression of love or need?  Are the two inseparable?  As parents, we see in the open eyes of the baby a validation of our own feelings.  But does the baby internalize that as love or merely as the meeting of needs.  And is that some part - or all the parts - of love?

Can you love someone you do not need? If the loved one were to vanish and you felt no pain, did you really love at all?  Is the pain of absence an indicator of love, or is it loneliness masquerading as the loss of affection? 

Can you need someone you do not love?  And if you can, is that pathological?  Battered women put me in this quandry..... the confluence of abuse and lack of self-esteem mixed up with the emotional feelings that led the couple to marry come out, in the police station or the therapist's office as love, but it's not a healthy expression.  Yet I've interviewed bruised and beaten women who insist that they are loved and that they love in return.  I don't understand it, but I accept it as their version of the truth.

Passion may wane, but does it have to?  In The Good Marriage, Judith Wallerstein discusses 50 couples who have "good marriages".  She posits that physical love is part and parcel of this business of long term love.  Arguing well, laughing together, acceptance of differences all play a part, too, but the little touches, the hand holding and back rubbing and winks across the room are equally important, she says.  And the couples she interviews agree.  But what if there is no intimacy?  Is it possible to live side by side for decades and feel warmth and affection without touching?  Do nuns in a convent or monks in an abbey feel love for one another, or just for God?  And is that the same kind of love that a bride and groom share on their wedding day?

Does love wax and wane over time?  A great-grandfather in Adventure remarks to a stunned Clark Gable that, after 60 years of marriage, he and his wife are stranger to each other than they were when they met.  I've been running that through my head all day long.  Is it that the carapace of perfection we envisage when we see each other as young lovers peels away over time?  Does the reality of who we really are, our hidden foibles, our darkest secrets, become clearer over time?  Once we recognize those newer realities, is there a conscious decision not to care?  Do we incorporate the strangeness into our conception of love and learn to live with the discomfort because we care?

Or do we care because it's too hard to consider the alternative?  Is it fear of the unknown that keeps people together when love is in question?  Are we intrigued by the strangeness that becomes obvious over time?  Does love really conquer all?

I'm reading Virgil's Aenied for my Humanities Seminar this semester.  Leaving the ruins of Troy, Aeneas and his Trojan brethren wash up on the shores of Carthage and are taken in by Queen Dido, who has vowed never to love again after the death of her beloved Sychaeus.  Epic poems being what they are, she and Aeneas can't keep their hands off one another, and soon Dido is besotted.  But Aeneas has miles to go before he sleeps (actually, before he founds Rome) and he abandons Dido rather unceremoniously.  One can say it's not his fault, that the gods made him do it, but Dido's not buying that at all.  She rants and raves and questions and cries and ultimately stabs herself on a burning pyre.  Through it all, she still loves him.

I, however, am left with questions. Many, many questions.  I'm not sure the answers are available.  I'm not sure that your answers would be mine (or Dido's).  I just know that love is strange.

Love does not have to mean the same thing to everyone.  In Adventure, Greer Garson falls for bo'sun Clark Gable.  He's a cad, a roue, a wanderer
and when circumstances and her friends convince her that divorce is in her best interests she agrees, but with the rueful disclaimer that, had she not listened to their advice she would still have a wonderful husband for 3 days every 6 months or so.  Joan Blondell isn't buying it, insisting that she's better off without him since he has a girl in every port, and that cannot be love.

But Greer Garson loves him, even if he doesn't love her back. Or, to be more precise, if he doesn't love her the way that she loves him.  She's happy with the compromises her love requires.  She wishes it could be different, but she accepts the fact that it is not.  Is that love or obsession?

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