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.'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. 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!



Tyson Jacobsen said...

I remember seeing a documentary on the great wall of China where love notes were left in the wall from the workers. Not that the history channel is the best source, but it makes sense. And the great wall was built something like 4-500BCE and 1600CE.

Gretel Shuvzwichinstov said...

They can't write poems about it, but I think many animals fall "in love" with the mates they choose in nature.

There was recently the whoop-dee-doo about a pair of gay penguins in the Chinese zoo. I haven't done any research into it, but there doesn't seem to be a big biological advantage to a pair of male penguins becoming a couple, especially if they're hoping for a baby, so there must be an emotional component to it for them.

Glenn said...

By "romantic love" I am assuming that you are referring to "eros" or sexual love in any and all of its forms. That is, a caveman hitting a cavegirl over the head with a club and dragging her back to his cave for some nookie would be "romantic".
If you are referring to something more than this, then I would suggest that the level of sophistication involved in the romance directly corresponds to the level of sophistication within a society or civilization.

rachael said...

That link was very interesting, thanks very much for that, it makes me think of a favorite novel, Valley of the Horses, a love story which took place around 28,000 years ago in prehistoric Europe.

The author, Jean Auel, did a great deal of archaeological and paleontological research for this book, and while the characters daily struggles and lives were obviously vastly different from what ours are today, in this story, it is presumed that very little was different for humans as far as the experience of falling in love goes.

I have always felt this was likely, after all, as far as feelings go, why would ancient humans be any different than todays?

And like Gretel was saying, animals can be seen to show love too. It must just be in the DNA somewhere under survival and procreation. Many have hauntingly human appearing emotions, like when a Gorilla is standing by a mate that has been captured in a trap, or an Elephant herd surrounding a sick, dying, or dead elephant? Its powerful and emotional and so very awesome.

Whoever thought that love was only recently invented, must have been mad.

Tim said...

I think there is a difference between Romance and Romanticism. There are all kinds of examples of romancing from the ancient world.

This idea that Cupid's arrow is real and "falling in love" in unavoidable whether it's a new idea or not is poppycock.

Kris K said...

Oh come on, Tim. Why so cynical? Aren't you open just a little tiny bit to the possibility that a small man in a diaper and wings flies around spreading the thrill of love? :o)

Romantic Love is cultural. Passionate love is hormonal. True love is a choice.

Katie said...

Love is a gorgeous powerful wondrous sticky joy to be respected and enjoyed and explored and consented upon and well learned. You can know more about it in one lover's moan late at night than by any amount of reading, so what are all these words?

Tal said...

You saying I was supposed to make love to my computer instead of typing out the post?


rachael said...


I finally found some time to come back and look up up Helen Fisher, and easily found a number of great videos of her givng speecehes on this topic. She made complete sense to me as I watched her share her research and theories, thanks greatly for the lead. I had to laugh, she even used Gorillas and Elephants as examples in one of her videos, however she was a billion times more articulate and her examples were used in better context, but, at least I know I was on the right track of understanding even if I am not excellent at expressing it.

One of my favorites lines which she used to describe our experience, and how far reaching it is; "almost nobody gets out of love alive"

Katie said...

You saying I was supposed to make love to my computer instead of typing out the post?

No. I was complaining that there was no reference to hot-breathed open-mouthed joy, no mention that love is an outpouring of the most wondrous and messy and baffling and orgasmic and desperately needed of human emotions anywhere to be found. That's all. If you're going to write about love, why cheat us of the best part? Shame on you.

Tal said...

Well Katie, I do think that would be an interesting blog entry. But the title of this particular entry was a question: "who invented romantic love?", and the point of the entry was to answer it.

But an entry with the title, "What does love feel like?" sounds good. If you want, write up a draft and send it to me, and I might post it here as a guest editorial.

Katie said...

You said:
But the title of this particular entry was a question: "who invented romantic love?", and the point of the entry was to answer it.

And it seemed to me a person couldn't discuss romantic love respectfully without also talking about how it invades and violates your very soul. Like one of those wasps that injects its eggs into an innocent and unsuspecting insect host, only to have that host eventually burst apart, hollow and broken, having been eaten from the inside out. Now that's romantic.

Oh, I could write about love, if you want. Should I post it here?

Tal said...

Sure Katie, go ahead - then I can complain about how your post entitled "What does love feel like?" doesn't address who invented romantic love :P

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Katie said...

What Love Feels Like, by Katie.

Thundering unstoppable bloodrush of love pouring into your bones like fire, defenses pathetic, heart exploded, skin atremble, life suddenly in glorious ruins.

I think that just about covers it.

Cameron Sharpe said...

Most people experience this type of love many times in their life. It is when you see that person for the first time and he/she makes your knees go weak or gives you butterflies in your stomach.i.e. "Love at first sight”. Most people don’t even love the person they think they are in love with…they fall in love with the idea if being in love. This is more of a lustful kind of love, it wears off after a while and hopefully leads to…

Paresh Rana said...

I've spent so much time thinking and exchanging conversation about this. Mostly these conversation seem to occur between me and my oppositional, defiant, disorderly mind:)

At some point in this cyclic conversation, I inevitably come to the conclusion "I don't care where it came from, whether it is real or not, how long it has been around, or whether I should subscribe to the idea of it". What seems to remain at this end of my mental craziness is,

"Will I love?", even if I can't define it.
"Can I stop defending it?" so it has a chance to live for me.
"Can I choose for it to be ok in exactly how it fills my days, with no craving for it to look different than I have it?" so I can spend my time and life making a difference for those whom I say Love rather than questioning whether I am doing it the "right" way.

Having said all this, I enjoy hearing what others have to say. It's nice to bump up against something once in a while. I think it keeps me on my toes :)

Thank you for your post

Big Love....