Once upon a time, there were two great lovers. He was a rich young thug, part of a gang known for their eagerness to draw on their enemies in the street. She was fourteen, pledged to marry a much older man to enhance the political ambitions of her father. When they got together, it was murder.
Well, murder-suicide if you're going to be picky about it. When faced with the possibility of life apart, they choose to end it all. They're not alone. In the course of the story, quite a few people die. Technically speaking, the girl dies twice. The story ends with their two families united at last: in grief, mourning the loss of their two most precious flowers. Love conquers all, even if death has to become involved.
It seems like the two states are intertwined, as if you can't have one without the other. After all, the marriage vow contains the phrase “till death us do part.” Hell of a thing to say on the happiest day of your life. And yet the art and poetry of love is filled with references to the end of all things. Even the greatest song on the subject of love, “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, contains the line “I'll love you till I die”.
But what is love, as Haddaway asked? It's not an emotion. There are theories that view it as a kind of neurological imbalance, a form of imprinting that overwrites normal behavior, replacing it with a manic state similar to bi-polar disease. The French, always expert in matters of the heart, have a phrase for it: “amour fou”. Crazy love, as Van Morrison would say.
Love turns us into different people, creatures acting on instinct, capable of the most radical life changes with barely a moment's thought given to the consequences. Thanks to love, we will change careers, countries, leave our families behind, move in with someone we barely know, pledge our fealty and enduring loyalty to someone that may have been a stranger two months before. The heart wants what the heart wants, but surely if the heart wants us to shack up with that cabana boy we met on a Caribbean break we should at least get a second opinion.
Love, as Mickey and Sylvia sang, is strange. When we fall in love we subsume our wants and needs, allowing that one base need to overwhelm everything else. We will change our diets, our nationalities, our religion. Whatever it takes, as long as we can be with that special someone. Greater minds than mine, for example, Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, have likened the needs and behavioral changes associated with love to drug addiction. There's certainly evidence that the very state changes the chemistry of the brain. Being with the one you love is one hell of a rush.
But hold on. Are we getting love mixed up with something more primal? There's a big difference between want and need. Let's go back to the handsome young street thug we looked at earlier. For the sake of clarity, we'll call him Tromeo. Now, when we first meet this character, he's in love. With someone completely different. Some chick called Rosaline, who we never see. But she's the light in Tromeo's heart, his one, his only. Right up until the second that he claps eyes on that delectable little fourteen year old, then all of a sudden it's “Rosaline who?” He drops her like yesterday's paper and boom, the greatest love story of the ages, apparently.
But really, there's no difference between the feelings Tromeo has for sweet Rosaline and for his underage bit of strange over the bridge. Love, you see, is not that first overwhelming rush, that first heart-pounding, skin-tingling wallop of hormonal overdrive. That's desire. That, for want of a better word, is lust.
Love comes from the realisation that you are bound to this other person, for good and for ill. Love is sacrifice, love is compromise. Love is being able to live with the bad things about a person as well as the good. We never get to find out if the girl (call her, for sanity's sake, Juliana) knows about Tromeo's bad habits: his stinky feet, the way he chews with his mouth open. They're simply not together long enough for Tromeo to realise that Juliana has the most terrible taste in music. They spend one night as “husband and wife” (nudge nudge) and then they're dead. They probably hadn't even got to the point of saving each other's mobile numbers.
Which is, of course, the problem with most romantic fiction. It's all about the opening act, the heat and the flash. You get the first flush of love, the comedy misunderstanding, the final rush to the airport to clear everything up and get the big clinch in before the credits roll… and that's it. Romantic fiction tells us nothing about love, and everything about desire. Desire takes over everything, and when it fades you're on your own. Sarah Polley's remarkable film Take This Waltz is one of the few that actually allows the lights back up after the fade-down, to see that lust doesn't run a relationship. Love does. And love's a lot harder to maintain.
See, I'm with Juliana's dad. OK, I'm not down with the fact that he's trying to force his fourteen year old daughter into an arranged marriage. But he does say “you will learn to love him.” And therein lies my point. Lust gets you through the door, but then the hard work begins. You and the one you love have to spend time on your conjoined lives. You have to be willing to bend, to be honest, to back off sometimes, to be there always. You have to learn to love. Love is knowledge – of your partner, of yourself in relation to the other person in your life. Lust is simple. Love? Man, that's complicated.
How would I know all this? Well, that's a whole different story.