In his younger days a man dreams of possessing the heart of the woman whom he loves; later, the feeling that he possesses the heart of a woman may be enough to make him fall in love with her.
When it comes to love, artists can be usefully divided between romantics and cynics.
The former see love as something unambiguously wonderful, whose presence produces absolute joy and whose absence the most profound misery—something endlessly interesting to contemplate and unquestionably good. The cynical attitude—far less common—sees love as a kind of illusion, a self-hypnosis, which promises everything and delivers nothing. Proust was unquestionably of the latter camp, whose solipsism admitted no possibility of genuine human connection.
I admit that I normally incline towards Proust’s view. I have never much liked love songs or love poetry, and most love stories leave me cold. Indeed, I wish that we did not dedicate so much of our art to romance. Human life is so rich in potential themes, and yet our art circles endlessly around the standard tropes of romantic love: the pain of rejection, the agony of desire, the triumph of success, the pangs of jealousy, and so on. The conventions are so well-established that it strikes me as artistically lazy to go through the same motions: first, because little originality is needed; second, because love, being an innate human desire, is something that people will respond to automatically, so little skill is needed to hold the audience’s attention.
I would even go farther, and assert that any art which relies so exclusively on these instinctual urges is a form of pornography. This is what I mean. However artfully pornography is directed and acted, it is still a lower form of art than non-pornographic films, since to be effective it only needs to appeal to a fundamental human desire. Food photography is arguably in the same class: even when well-done, its main appeal is to the stomach and not the mind. Extremely sentimental art, by appealing to the basic human desire for intimacy, falls into this category as well.
This is not to say that art should not involve emotions; that would be absurd. But true aesthetic appeal, for me, is always disinterested, involving the absence of desire. Thus any art which appeals directly to desires—and, like pornography, is really just the satisfaction of a desire in fantasy—falls short of real aesthetic appeal. Much love-themed art is clearly based on this fantasy satisfaction.
I do not wish to be dogmatic about this. Undeniably there are poems, plays, songs, and novels of the finest quality about love. My contention is only that these superlative works sublimize love into an aesthetic sensation, a pure appreciation of emotion devoid of pain or excitement. The ultimate example of this is Dante, who took his erotic passion and made it the primary element of his sweeping vision of the universe. But this, of course, is no easy thing. Rather I think it requires the greatest artistry to create excellent works devoted to love, since the artist must resist at every point the temptation to give into fantasy.
If Dante is the ultimate artist of the positive potential of love—describing God as “The Love that moves the sun and other stars”—then Proust is the ultimate artist of the cynical view. For him love was just another false prophet that distracts us from the truth of life and the tranquility of art. And nowadays it is hard to disagree with him.
We have found that love, far from a divine mystery, is the expression of an instinctual drive to procreate. Since stable pair-bonding is helpful for the survival of our children, it makes sense that we would evolve the tendency to fall in love. And now that romantic relationships are more fluid than ever before—with the rise of dating and divorce—we have clear and persistent evidence that even the strongest feelings of love do not necessarily, or even often, lead to permanent relationships.
Indeed, when you observe a person moving from partner to partner, equally in love with all of them in turn, equally convinced that each one is incredible (until he breaks up with them, at which point they become undesirable), then it is hard to resist the conclusion that love is a sort of self-hypnosis. For when we fall in love, we see only perfection in the beloved; and when we fall out of love, we see only ordinary flaws. The conclusion seems to be, as Proust says, that we love what we possess only because we possess it, and see the beloved as extraordinary simply because it is our beloved. This, of course, is an ironical situation, since the “most intimate” of connections appears, upon inspection, to be based on willful misapprehension. The loving eye sees least.
Given these reasons for cynicism, why is the romantic, rosy-eyed view of love so common in our culture? I would even go so far as to say that the cult of love has become a sort of religion. Finding the perfect partner is portrayed as the apex of happiness, the seal and guarantee of a good life.
Now, do not think I am some bitter enemy of love. Anybody who has ever been in love knows that it is one of the best feelings in life. Even so, I think it is unhealthy to dwell so insistently on romantic love, as if it could save us, complete us, perfect us. It is unhealthy, first, because happiness must always come from within us, and not from some external—not even a relationship; and, second, because our inflated notions of love ironically lead us to expect too much from it, which damages relationships.
Though it is a cliché to say so, I think the truth about love lies between the romantic and the cynical view. Neither salvation nor illusion, neither effortless nor impossible, neither invincible nor insubstantial, neither the point of life nor a pointless waste—love is a beautiful but ordinary thing. And art, insofar as it strives to represent reality, ought to try to show love in all its ordinariness.