In which we contemplate etymology, ancient philosophy,
anthropology and knights in shining armour
if you say ‘i love you’ then you have already
fallen in love with language, which is
already a form of break-up and infidelity.
You are lying in bed next to your boyfriend, your wife, your boyfriend’s wife, whoever. You are suddenly swamped by emotion. You want them to know what you are feeling. You wonder whether they may even be feeling something like it too. You try to think how to say it. ‘My insides feel disrupted, but in a semi-pleasant, non-physical way, and it seems to have something to do with you.’ Too unromantic – and they may just think you have a hangover. ‘No other person on this planet excites me as much as you do.’ Better, but you haven’t met everyone on the planet so you are laying yourself open to charges of insincerity. ‘There is something mysterious and precious about you. I can’t name it or describe it, but it gets to me. I want to rip you apart, to sillly love songs devour you, to invade your body by osmosis. I want to tear your hair and bite your cheeks, and then to wash you in daffodil juice.’ Maybe some people would like to hear this, but it’s risky. You don’t want to frighten them off at the exact moment you are trying to tell them how much you like them. You decide to be more traditional. At least this way you will get your point across clearly and it won’t turn into a display of your verbal dexterity.
‘I love you.’
There is a pause. Maybe the other person smiles. Perhaps they look into your eyes. Possibly they say, ‘I love you too.’ But then again maybe they don’t. Either way you wonder what the hell you’ve just done. Your lover suddenly becomes strange to you. Even their irises look weird. Maybe you’ve upset them – or, just as bad, maybe you’ll never get rid of them now. Do you really love them, or just the idea of love itself? Who are they, and what is love anyway? You should have stuck to option number three. At least that way they would have grasped the idea that whatever it is, it isn’t necessarily all good.
The word ‘love’ stems from the Old English word ‘lufu’, meaning love, affection or friendliness. This in turn grew out of the Pre-Germanic ‘lubo’, the Old Frisian ‘liaf’ and the Gothic ‘liufs’, meaning ‘dear’ or ‘beloved’. There is also the much older Sanskrit word ‘lubhyati’, meaning ‘desires’. (And that’s before you get onto all the other etymological journeys the concept has taken – from Latin ‘amor’, to modern English ‘amorous’, via French ‘amour’. Or from Greek ‘Eros’ to contemporary ‘erotica’. Or ‘philia’ – a dispassionate, virtuous form of love – which now gives us necrophilia, coprophilia and a whole load of other delightful tendencies.) When you say ‘I love you’ you are joining in a centuries-long game of Chinese whispers, passing on a series of phonemes to the next person, hoping you didn’t screw up too badly. If in the future people find themselves saying ‘I loaf you’ it will only be partly your fault.
You may have got the sounds right, but what exactly were you trying to get at? It’s not just the word ‘love’ that’s changed, it’s also the definition. While in the eighth century ‘lufu’ appears to have been a gentle emotion, by the sixteenth century the word\ ‘lovesick’ emerges, attesting to a more uncomfortable feeling. A century after that, you get ‘lovelorn’, the addition of the Latin ‘loren’ bringing out the idea that love can make you a loser. So what happened in the intervening millennium to bring about this shift from pleasant to painful? What other words did the Goths have to speak about the misery of attachment? What might we mean by ‘love’ now? How much does it differ between one culture and another, between one person and another, between ourselves yesterday and today? Is there anything stable about the concept? And, if not, why do so many people choose to say ‘I love you’ when there is a multitude of other flawed and alienating words to choose from?
Fools for Love
Although there may be little general agreement as to what love is, there is a long-held suspicion that it may have some effect on one’s good judgement. In short, it can make you either very clever or very stupid. Greek philosophy and Buddhism – which developed roughly simultaneously in the fifth and sixth centuries bc – seem to have opposing takes on this. In Plato’s Symposium, each of the seven speakers may have different ideas about Eros, but they are all largely of the opinion that love is somehow linked to creation, beauty and the philosophical quest for truth. On the other hand, Buddhism teaches us that romantic attachment can be an obstacle on the path to enlightenment. Is it that Buddhists and Platonists have radically conflicting notions of love? Or are they ultimately saying pretty much the same thing?
Plato’s Symposium takes place one drunken night in Athens, when the tragic poet Agathon’s dinner guests are invited to speak about love. The first of the monologues belongs to Phaedrus, who tells us that love makes people capable of great heroism. Pausanias then goes on to explain the legal situation regarding pederasty. (He basically says it’s great, as long as the boy is going along with it for intellectual or virtuous reasons and not in the pursuit of money or power.) Eryximachus discusses medicine and puts forward a theory about the right kind of love regulating body temperature and humidity. Then Aristophanes gives his famous speech about blob-shaped, cartwheeling creatures being cut in half by Zeus, from which comes the popular idea that the search for love is the search for one’s missing other half. Next Agathon talks about the marvellousness of the God Eros, after which Socrates hits back with a series of questions undermining the notion of love as straightforwardly good and noble. Finally Alcibiades wanders in and rants drunkenly about Socrates’ sexy inner statues. (Much like your average night round at the neighbours, then.) The point here is that, while all the speakers apparently have a different conception of romantic or erotic love, none of them are trying to persuade you not to do it. Quite the opposite. Even Socrates, who presents the lover as someone needy and lacking, capable of deceit and manipulation, is very much behind the idea that an experience of erotic love can set you to work, make you think, study and create.
Haven’t you noticed what a terrible state animals of all kinds (footed beasts as well as winged birds) get into when they feel the desire to reproduce? They are all sick with the excitement of love, that makes them first want to have sex with each other and then to rear what they have brought into being
… Mortal nature does all it can to live for ever and to be immortal. It can only do this by reproduction: it always leaves behind another new generation to replace the old.
But in case it appears as though she’s simply saying that love makes you want to jump on people so you can have lots of babies, Diotima makes a very important distinction. There are some people who are pregnant in body – meaning that love simply makes them want to breed. And then there are people who are pregnant in mind. If a person of this type is lucky he’ll meet another mind worthy of triggering mind-babies – i.e. poems, artworks, mathematical theories, etc. The great thing about mind-babies is that not only do they not wake you up at four in the morning, they are also ‘more beautiful and more immortal’ than your average brat. ‘Everyone would prefer to have children like that,’ she tells Socrates. So her idea is that the ‘terrible state’ you get into when you come across someone you desire can cause you to produce something worthwhile. Using the perceived good qualities of the other person, you can come up with stuff you could never have managed alone. Something in the relation will make it possible for you to make, think or do extraordinary things. If you perform the rites of love correctly you might even ‘reach the final vision of the mysteries’.
So far so encouraging, but here’s where it all goes a bit Buddhist. There is a very specific order in which one’s romantic/erotic life must proceed, otherwise it will all amount to nothing. In the first place it helps to be a very good-looking young boy. In this state an older – and very brilliant – man must fall in love with you. You love him back and have loads of great conversa - tions, during which he opens you up to all manner of big ideas. Soon you realize that if you are going to admire a man for the beauty of his body, it’s only rational that you should love all similarly beautiful bodies equally. You stop being stuck on one body and begin to value beauty in a more objective way. You soon understand that beauty of mind is more important than beauty of body. In fact you become interested in all forms of beauty, such as the beauty of law, or of nature. At last you realize that it’s pointless to fixate on any single instance of beauty. It’s all the same to you. Beauty becomes an uncontaminated notion, and you can finally appreciate it ‘absolute, pure, unmixed, not cluttered up with human flesh and colours and a great mass of mortal rubbish’.
But to reach these heights, you have to fall in love with the clever guy in the first place. It takes a proper experience of erotic love to lead you to the point where a nice bottom and a pair of well-angled cheekbones no longer mean anything to you. A love affair needs to happen in order to supplement your short - comings, to train your mind in new directions, and ultimately to teach you that love affairs aren’t the solution. (Naturally, you may find yourself obliged to make pretty young men fall in love with you in order to keep the system rolling, but you will now be in a position to do this in an appropriately disinterested way.) So how is this different to the teachings of Buddhism, which also warn against the perils of exclusive erotic attachments? Why do Buddhists have a reputation for being down on romance? This rather brutal quote from the Buddha might begin to explain it:
I have killed all of you before.
I was chopped up by all of you in previous lives.
We have all killed each other as enemies.
So why should we be attached to each other?
(Try saying that to the next lecherous drunk who accosts you in a bar.)
Romantic attachment is an exaggerated form of not wanting to be separated from someone. You imagine that losing your loved one would be the end of your life, or at least the end of your happiness. In this sense, it’s no less foolish than being attached to a big bag of money. According to Buddhist ideology, attachment is one of the key things that keeps us captive in samsara. We have to lose our attachments to everything – to people, possessions, even to life itself – if we are ever to achieve enlightenment and not just get stuck in a loop of endless, tedious rebirths. (Oh no! Don’t say I’ve come back as a limpet again!) And it’s not simply because attachments are fundamentally pointless, but also because they can make us behave badly. We get so stuck on someone that it seems we can only be happy if they are there, being nice to us. We try to make it obvious to them that our well-being is in their hands. We present it as a compliment: ‘You are so lovely and brilliant and nice that I can’t live without you!’ But this compliment is something of a Trojan horse. It makes the other person responsible for us. If they remove their presence we are sad. And it’s their fault. They know how we feel about them. How could they do this to us? Why did they have to stay at work late/go and see a friend/climb a mountain? We’ll get back at them later. We’ll teach them what suffering is, let them see how it feels to be abandoned. We might do this in a number of ways: give them a glum look, be a bit monosyllabic, pick a fight, snog their best friend. The important thing is that we make them feel as miserable as we do. How dare they be happy when we are in so much pain?
Of course Buddhists can fall in love. They just have to work out a way to do it without making their own and the other person’s life hell. The generic Buddhist advice is to make a clear distinction between selfish attachment and a more altruistic kind of love. If you can focus on the other person’s happiness without fretting too much about your own, then you may have some hope of continuing to be good for each other. The problem with attachment is that it is fundamentally self-seeking. In extreme cases, the other person is simply there to fulfil your needs, make you feel good about yourself, tell you they love you and generally fill up the gaping void that is your inner being. They are never going to achieve this impossible feat, so meanwhile you can berate them. You have someone to blame for your unhappiness, which stops you taking responsibility for it yourself. Well done!
Instead, you could try thinking about who your partner is, and what they might need or like. And, as long as you haven’t chosen to build a life with an autocratic monster, then things might turn out okay. Best of all you can get together with another compassionate Buddhist and live undemandingly ever after. Perhaps you can even practise Tantric Buddhism and reach sexual nirvana. In fact it sounds so obvious it’s amazing that all relationships aren’t happy. Be nice to each other – it’s that simple. Or is it? If marriage is so great, then why did the Buddha find it necessary to walk out on his own in order to pursue his spiritual practices?
The story of Siddhartha and Yasodhara’s marriage is somewhere just below Dido and Aeneas in the pain stakes. Siddhartha was born the son of Queen Maya and King Suddhodana, towards the end of the sixth century bc. It was pretty obvious that he was special from the start – it was a painless birth (in the garden) and he could walk and talk immediately. Straight away weird things started happening: the statues in the temple prostrated themselves and a great ascetic came to visit. It was clear that this was no ordinary child. A week later Queen Maya died and her sister stepped in to bring up the baby. As any psychoanalyst would tell you, this boy’s life was never going to be easy.
When Siddhartha was twelve, a council of Brahmans predicted that if he witnessed old age, sickness and death – and if he met a hermit – then he would become a great ascetic himself. King Suddhodana didn’t like the sound of this at all and began laying on the treats, doing everything possible to make his son’s home life pleasant. He believed that if he hid everything bad from his beloved son, then he might save him from having to run off and become a penniless recluse.
One of the biggest treats was Yasodhara herself, the most beautiful princess in the land. As teenagers, Siddhartha and Yasodhara were married. They continued to live in incredible luxury at the palace, behind three walls, surrounded by people who were forbidden to mention death or grief. (It was a sort of early precursor of The Truman Show.) Unsurprisingly, Siddhartha became curious about the local town and decided to pay it a visit. Despite great stage management on the part of his father, he nonetheless stumbled across the sick and the elderly, the homeless and the dead. The game was up. The world was far more complex and fascinating than he’d ever been allowed to know. Immediately, he wanted to leave the palace and become a beggar.
Devastated by the prospect of losing his son, the king’s answer to this was to crank up the festivities and employ more guards. At which point Yasodhara gave birth to a son. Siddhartha’s immediate response was ‘A rahu is born – a fetter has arisen’, so he named his son Rahula, meaning ‘fetter’. (And some children complain about being called Archie or Gwendolen!) That night, after one last tender look at his wife and fetter, Siddhartha left the palace, shaved his head and became a monk. From then on Yasodhara lived in misery, getting occasional news reports on her errant husband and copying everything he did – eating one meal a day from a shabby bowl and dressing in yellow robes. When he came to visit years later, she cried all over his feet. Still, she soon came round to the idea that hers wasn’t such a bad lot. She had apparently absorbed his ascetic ideals so thoroughly that it all made perfect sense to her.
Of course, hiding all the bad stuff from someone is bound to give them a very special take on life, love and happiness. No wonder the poor man needed to go off and have a serious think. But why did he have to abandon Yasodhara and the hideously named Rahula? Couldn’t they have stuck together and explored the nature of being, as a family? Why should knitting one’s existence to someone else’s necessarily stand in the way of true enlightenment? Is there something in the very fact of being with other people that inevitably generates pettiness? Will there always be a sock-tidier, a chronic snorer or a nag?
Both the Buddha and Socrates seem to agree that it doesn’t make sense to get too stuck on someone. But they certainly don’t think that the solution is therefore to spread it around. It’s quite clear that, according to either philosophy, it would be no less stupid to try to squeeze satisfaction from ten people than from one. The problem is trying to use your fellow humans to get any satisfaction at all. Good things can happen between people, but only people who aren’t trying to claw good things out of each other. But the fact that Siddhartha chose to leave his wife in order to achieve Buddhahood is a sign that this isn’t so easy. It’s not like you can simply say, ‘I’m going to stop being an idiot now and start being reasonable.’ If you could, people wouldn’t have to tell stories about painless births, gesticulating statues and lights shooting out of bodies (as is said to have happened when Siddhartha finally became a Buddha). There is something really very extreme about the whole notion of enlightenment. Pretty much no one in real life ever actually makes it. Especially not those of us who aren’t monks. We are just stuck in samsara, doing other people’s washing up, listening to their complaints and exacting various levels of revenge on them. It’s extremely rare, if not totally unheard of, for people to be consistently decent and happy. You can try very hard to behave yourself in a relationship, but something irritating or impossible will generally seep out. If the Buddha couldn’t do it with Yasodhara (who, by all accounts, was a very special woman) then who are we to imagine we might fare any better?