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Love is a collection of positive and strong emotional conditions that range from the quality of decent behavior to the innermost interpersonal affection and pleasures. Essentially, love is a key component of healthy interpersonal relationships, which keeps human beings together and going by its principal psychological significance, it is a frequently used theme in literary works, visual and performing arts. In this regard, love is also a key aspect of different cultures. Novels, poems, songs and films discuss love as a theme whether seriously or humorously. Furthermore, it is an effervescent theme for young people and a constant theme for the adults. For a long time, the nature of love when viewed philosophically has brought about various conceptions where some describe it as basically a physical phenomenon while others consider it to be a deep spiritual affair. All in all, the best idea of love combines historical, cultural and evolutionary accounts, which form the basis for literary analysis. With that in mind, this research explores the concept of the true nature of love through an evaluation of various literary works.
Nordlund (20) considers love to be a complex and fascinating phenomenon owing to its diversity and tendency to vary from one object to another. Normally, people talk of different kinds of love such as the love for a spouse, a drink or food, children, the self, humankind, God, hobbies, beauty, parents, children, their country, nature among others. Each kind of love that involves a distinct object has its phenomenology and iridescence. To understand these forms, one has to analyze them separately since their elements often have nothing in common. No significant progress in defining love can be realized if one approaches it from a perspective that presents itself with an inclination toward erotic passion. For that reason, the best approach is to first narrow the concept of love down to the love of persons. This approach mainly encompasses a strong emotional attachment shown in romantic and parental love while excluding the materialistic love for money and possessions (Nordlund 21).
In Elizabeth Browning's "How do I Love Thee? (Sonnet 43)", Elizabeth says, "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways / I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight" (1-3). This form of love evident in the above lines depicts an idealization of the object that is being loved by the poet. Going by the second and third lines, Elizabeth Browning perceives love from a romantic angle that revolves around the limitless realm of the soul. Assuming that the "thee" being referred to in the above poem is a person, then the concept of romantic love can be taken to be the experience of a strong desire for getting engaged to someone special (Gottschall 450). In this line, loving someone romantically involves caring deeply for his or her well-being and feeling desolate when this person is away. A dominant standpoint among social scientists and literary researchers for many years is that romantic love is a social phenomenon common to Western cultures. This view forms part of a constant doubt that the essential categories of emotions and psychology are experienced naturally as opposed to being constructed.
This skepticism brings forth the question of whether the deep emotional experience that characterizes romantic love is a sociocultural construct, a universal or a typical human experience. Fisher (59) points out surveys on 166 cultures by anthropologists Edward Fisher and William Jankowiak in 1992 and confirmed the existence of romantic love in 88.5% of these cultures. Members of some cultures sang romantic melodies while others narrated their pain to the researchers. The anthropologists then inferred that romantic love is a human universal.
On the contrary, Gottschall (452) argues that romantic love ought to be approached from the angle of an evolved human nature. The idea of the nature of love cannot be solely narrowed down to a hard-wired instinct that is resistant to social stimuli. In this regard, a satisfactory account of the nature of love would be grounded on the evolved psychological dispositions that are typical of human beings. In Christopher Marlowe's "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", Marlowe says, "Come live with me and be my love / And we will all the pleasures prove / That valleys, groves, hills and fields / Woods, or steepy mountain yields" (1-4). Love is portrayed as an emotion that one develops in the first line where Marlowe says "come live with me and be my love". Furthermore, being a characteristically human disposition, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th lines illustrate some of the pleasures that love can fulfill in one's mind and soul.
Another poet, Sir Walter Ralegh, in "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" says "If all the world and love were young / And truth in every shepherd's tongue / These pretty pleasures might me move / To live with thee, and be thy love" (1-4). This poem is a response to "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" where, through reasoning, the nymph rejects the shepherd's dream of a happily-ever-after life. Basically, the nymph has a higher rational capacity than the shepherd and calmly turns down the shepherd's proposal by reasoning out with him that all his wishes are short-lived.
Mesic (2) mention's Leonard Cohen's depiction of love as a strong emotion that one experiences when he or she is between two indeterminate states. In this line, Cohen considers love to be an emotional state that is shown neither when a person is alive or has passed on. Instead, it is a phenomenon stuck between the liminal realm and margins of day-to-day life. In simple terms, love appears when one leaves his existence behind, forgets himself and allows his soul to occupy another frame. However, the nymph's reply to the shepherd is a complete mockery of the above account of love. The shepherd's humanistic idea of living with the nymph and growing in love together is only a temporary state that is bound to vanish and be forgotten after a short while.
From line 9 to line 12, Ralegh says "The flowers do fade, and wanton fields / To wayward winter reckoning yields / A honey tongue, a heart of gall / Is fancy's spring, but sorrow's fall". This implies that the nymph is aware that what the shepherd is offering is just a yearning for love, or simply lust, which fades away in no time. Through an understanding of the foundations of mortal life, the nymph reasons that the shepherd's love is entirely materialistic.
Von Hildebrand and John (32) assert that the yearning for love and finding the object of one's love are two entirely different things. In "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", the shepherd exhibits signs of thirst by promising the nymph a happy life coming from gifts and material things that he offers her. He is on a mission to satisfy his desires. However, the nymph's rationality is shown in how she coolly rejects this proposal can be based on the fact that the happiness of love is not the product of the gratification of the desire for love.
In contrast, the yearning for love is a state of mind whereby a person is regularly searching for a chance to love someone and is mainly a response to the allure of the object's sex (Von Hildebrand & John 34). Going by this premise, the shepherd's love proposal can be considered to be only sexual in nature, which is bound to wane after fulfilling it. Roy and Newtown (217) acknowledge that sentimental themes, melting melodies and soft phrases are values of love distinct to the romantics. This attribute is a key element of the shepherd's love as seen in line 4 to line 8 in "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" where Marlowe says "And we will sit upon the Rocks / Seeing the shepherds feed their flocks / By shallow rivers to whose falls / Melodious birds sing madrigals".
Romantic love, arguably, holds a greater ethical and metaphysical position compared to physical attraction since it originates from the idea of love being a desire for the value of beauty that goes beyond the human physique. To understand the difference between romance and physical attraction, Margaret Atwood, in her prose poems and short stories, gives two love scenarios A and B that having entirely different implications. In scenario A, Atwood (par 1) uses the example of two characters, John and Mary, who fall in love with each other and eventually get married. After growing in love together and advancing their careers, they bear two children and commit themselves to protect these children. However, they both struggle with a difficult sex life in their marriage but are able to offset this shortcoming by enjoying vacations together and keeping a circle of close friends. Ultimately, they are separated by death which brings an end to their love story.
In scenario B, Atwood (par 2) still uses the same characters, John and Mary. Nonetheless, this time, Mary is in love with John but John does not reciprocate her affection towards him. He instead uses her as an object of ego satisfaction and sexual pleasures. This unrequited love causes a lot of pain to Mary, which is even noticed by her workmates. In spite of their attempts to persuade her to leave John, Mary still clings onto the hope that their relationship will change for the better with time. However, she soon discovers that John has a love affair with another woman, Madge, which breaks her heart to the point that she commits suicide. Eventually, after her death, John gets married to Madge and their love story develops as in scenario A.
Comparing these two cases, Atwood acknowledges that if one is looking for a happy ending characterized by a mutual affection toward one another, then scenario A is the ideal situation to realize this happiness. In scenario B, Mary is certainly experiencing a delusional romantic affair with John. The sad truth is that John cannot return her love as she wishes and ultimately brings her much pain and misery. Sumner (5) purports that it is highly likely that if a person is presented with the option of accepting the bitter truth or living in a comfortable false impression, they will choose the bitter truth. Nonetheless, like in scenario B, the reality that John does not Mary is a hard fact for her to accept. Therefore, she is unable to resist the luxury accorded by an inappropriate illusion that deep down, John is a nice guy and that soon he will be able to return her love for him. The nature of this kind of unrequited love is that it is not a gratifying emotional state that can accord the rewards of love to the one experiencing it at minimal costs. The enamored gets small benefits at a substantial amount of cost. As the benefits increase, the costs of loving also increase until the object reciprocates the love accorded to him or her in an equal measure or their affair ends. This depiction underscores the ironic nature of this love (Bringle et al. 12).
Finally, still in scenario B, Atwood (par 2) recounts how John does not recognize the value of Mary's love for him. He "fucks" her after having dinner together after which he sleeps to imply that Mary is nothing more than a sexual object to him. A similar situation can be seen in Sharon Olds' "Sex Without Love", where a seemingly bewildered Sharon says "How do they do it, the ones who make love / without love? Beautiful as dancers / gliding over each other like ice-skaters / over the ice, fingers hooked / inside each other's bodies, faces" (1-5). Sharon's message in the above lines points back to the idea that sex without love cannot be considered to be real love. To understand their difference, Stief (1082) acknowledges that the concepts of love, sex and desire possess an intrinsic and essential nature that can be approached from a phenomenological perspective.
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