Sunday, January 4, 2009
Who Invented Romantic Love?
For many decades, at least in the West, the most prevalent view of man/woman romantic love has been that it is a very recent invention, emerging along with the code of chivalry sometime in the Middle Ages, being most forcefully introduced into modern consciousness by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the late 18th century.
I first heard this as an undergradate years ago, in a political philosophy class funnily enough, and have since heard or read it numerous times. The last time was only a few weeks ago, in an Intellectual History class at the University of Victoria.
But...I've always thought it was nonsense. It requires believing that there has been some mammoth reconfiguration of human brain circuitry in just the last eight or nine centuries, such that no one ever fell in love 2000, or 5000, or 15,000 years ago; or even worse, that no one fell in love in a non-Western country until "we" invented and exported the concept. It requires believing that all of those obsessive thoughts, all the spectacular feelings of ecstacy and longing and even worship, are culturally conditioned, like deciding to wear trousers rather than a toga. Like I said, nonsense.
A more plausible view is that while the world's different cultures have mediated (and continue to mediate) the formal expression of man/woman attraction in many different ways, that no culture is, or could ever be, strong enough to eradicate the human propensity to fall in love, which is innate, or biologically rooted. In a word, I think that boys and girls, men and women, have fallen in love for many, many thousands of years. And thank God, finally someone with academic clout is making a hard case for this view.
Helen Fisher, an anthropologist from Rutgers, writes in her 2004 book "Why We Love":
"Thousands of romantic poems, songs, and stories come across the centuries from ancestral Europe, as well as the Middle East, Japan, China, India, and every other society that has left written records...from Siberia to to the Australian Outback to the Amazon, people sing love songs, compose love poems, and recount myths and legends of romantic love. Many perform love magic - carrying amulets and charms or serving condiments or concoctions to stimulate romantic ardour. Many elope. And many suffer deeply from unrequited love...
"From reading the poems, songs, and stories of people around the world, I came to believe that the capacity for romantic love is woven firmly into the fabrice of the human brain. Romantic love is a universal experience".
Yeah baby. You're preachin' the gospel.
Fisher marshals a lot of evidentiary support for this view. For example, she begins Chapter One by quoting from a poem written by a Kwakiutl from southern Alaska, translated into English in 1896:
"Fires run through my body - the pain of loving you. Pain runs through my body with the fires of my love for you...consumed by fire with my love for you. I remember what you said to me. I am thinking of your love for me. I am torn by your love for me...I am told you will leave me here. My body is numb with grief. Remember what I've said, my love. Goodbye, my love, goodbye".
She then retells a fable from 12th century China, in which Meilan - a pampered fifteen year old princess - falls in love with a charming lad named Chang Po. The problem is that Chang Po is from a lower class: their love is forbidden by the whole structure of Chinese society. Nevertheless, the two meet secretly in a garden, where on one occasion the boy tells the princess, "since the heaven and earth were created, you were made for me and I was made for you, and I will not let you go". Meilan and Chang Po then decide to run away together. They are pursued by Meilan's family; Chang Po escapes, but Meilan is captured. As punishment, and as a warning to other youngsters, she is buried alive in her father's garden. So...it's not that romantic love "didn't exist" in ancient China; only that other values were considered far more important. And certainly Meilan's punishers would not have made an example out of her unless they were well aware of the propensity in others to fall in love just as she had.
In the rest of the book, Fisher presents evidence from fMRI studies, endocrinological studies, survey results, etc., for the thesis that romantic love is rooted in the hardwiring of the human brain, not contingent upon purely cultural accident.
So...to the question of who invented romantic love?, I think we can answer - not Rousseau (as if Alaskan natives were secretly reading Swiss philosophers in between hunting polar bears and building igloos, or the Persian love poet Rumi had a time machine...), and not medieval knights...
It was the same force which "invented" sympathy, patriotism, religious feeling, or maternal instinct...if not a deity, then nature through eons of natural selection. It is just part of who we are as humans.
More on this later. I'll try to make the next segment on this less boring!