|Recently I’ve talked about love twice: First when I lamented society’s prohibition of loving more than one person without limit, in my reply to and recapitulation of Glenn Parton’s essay Love Politics, and secondly in stating my belief, obliquely last week, that to love, joyfully is our purpose for living. I thought I’d try to bring the two threads together. After all, if we can save the world, we should be able to figure out what love’s all about.
First, a caveat. I’m getting old, and I don’t love as well or as easily as I once did, so if you’re young and outraged by what I’m saying and know that I don’t know what I’m talking about, forgive me: Living without a lot of love is a form of madness, so chalk this up to the ravings of a lunatic. A blind man’s memories of seeing are inevitably imprecise and romanticized.
Now on to the theory, and the thesis which is: Love is an Evolutionary Addiction. We tend to think of addiction as something to be overcome, but addiction to love is positive, “devoutly to be wished”. We need a lot more of it, to be healthy, and perhaps if we hope to save the world.
The model for this theory is shown in the figure above. Explanation: Our sensation (physical or pheromonal) of someone or something we love both informs and stimulates our intellect and triggers positive emotions. This sets up a feedback loop: Our charged emotions further inform and stimulate our intellect, which triggers further positive emotion. In the physical and pheromonal absence of the object of our affection (and also if that object is pure invention or fantasy), we instead remember or imagine it, sustaining the same feedback loop.
I know, this is pretty clinical, but it does explain how love can be so overwhelming, pushing everything out of our minds and feelings and awareness. This model also doesn’t pretend to explain how we ‘decide’ who or what to love, and why so often that love dies — that’s an issue for another day.
Whether the sensation is hearing a piece of music or seeing a piece of art we love, or watching a candle in the fading light, or smelling the wind and rain on a rhapsodic evening, or listening to the voice of a loved friend in conversation, the effect is the same — positive reinforcement between our intellect and our emotions. And the ‘aha’ moment or experience of passionate joy we obtain from reading a poem or fine expository work or in contemplation, is, though often more muted by the lack of direct sensory reinforcement (depending on the memory and the imagination of the contemplator), also a love experience subject to the same positive reinforcement, but precipitated by conception instead of perception.
Now when the love is reciprocated (in fact or in our imagination), the impact is even more intense, and doubly reinforced, as shown in the figure at right. Lovers literally ‘feed off’ each other, as mutual sensations stimulate both their intellects and emotions, and the food of love — the physical and pheromonal sensation of each other, is right at hand. The positive cycle of intellectual and emotional stimulation can be sustained almost indefinitely, and can be simply intensified almost without limit. In my opinion (and early experience) such love does not even need to include sex — although imposed sexual fear and repression is very unhealthy, self-imposed sexual abstention or, in younger lovers, unawareness of the sexual dimension of love, need not in any way lessen or inhibit its depth and intensity.
I would argue that such love is evolutionary. We get such positive reinforcement from loving others, and loving beautiful and fascinating things, that we tend to keep doing it, and want to do it more. It makes our life joyful and gives us purpose and motivation to live longer, and so when those without love give up and die, and those of us with love procreate and live on, evolution yields species and individuals with enormous instinctive capacity for, and desire to, love, and to protect those we love. When I observe the flocks of geese out watching after each other and the fluffy newborn goslings on their first swim, I have no doubt they love each other with the same intensity as humans, if not more. And these are communities of geese, not just nuclear families — the one on our pond has 10 adults and 14 goslings, and it’s impossible to tell which of the adults gave birth to which chicks.
I would also argue, as a corollary, that love is addictive. The more of it we have, the more we want, and when we have it and lose it we go through a withdrawal as agonizing as the withdrawal from any drug. But unlike most addictions, addiction to love is healthy.
Now we get to Glenn’s essay, and his argument that we should not restrict ourselves to loving only one other person, and that our cultural abhorrance of loving more than one, and the moral retribution we suffer if we even think of loving many others without limit, makes us mentally ill — and underlies much of the world’s anger, violence, hatred, neglect of others, depression, withdrawal, lack of emotional resilience, self-loathing, disconnection from our senses and from the Earth, and emotional detachment, emotional retardation, emotional isolation, emotional shallowness and emotional immaturity — neurosis and psychopathy. I think Glenn is partly right, though I would say that it is as much our culturally-imbued reluctance and inability to love and to show love without condition or restraint, to even one person, let alone many, that underlies this mental illness and its symptoms.
Why would civilization, our culture, want us and teach us to behave in ways that are counter-intuitive, counter-evolutionary, and physically and mentally unhealthy? One could argue that it is a form of self-destruction — as I’ve said in my environmental essays, I believe that overpopulation and resource shortages lead to stress and competition, and that normally leads to lower fertility, higher mortality, and hence brings the population size back into balance with the rest of life on Earth and its available resources. So perhaps our reluctance to show love, and our moral taboo against loving many, are Darwinian mechanisms to break our addiction to love, make us less joyful, and hence restore ecological balance. If that’s true, learning to love openly and without reservation, and to love many and not just our nuclear family members, could be ‘against nature’ and might actually aggravate overpopulation and worsen the coming eco-collapse. That assumes of course we could even learn to do so in the face of all the opposing natural pressures and stresses and civilizational moralities we face today.
But I think there’s another, equally compelling explanation. Glenn wrote to me saying that “Sexual repression is the root of fascism.” While I prefer to use the terms ’emotional’ and ‘love’ instead of ‘sexual’ and ‘sex’, I think he is right in arguing that fascists (and today’s corporatists, who want the world to be run by an integrated all-powerful political and business elite, rather than democratically by messy consensus) want and need to sustain physical, emotional and intellectual control over the ‘masses’. They cannot afford to have even a minority of humans at the lower levels of the corporatist hierarchy aware of better, healthier, more egalitarian ways to live, or restless and discontented with their roles as passive consumers, or conscious of the ecological crisis on the horizon caused by the corporatists’ obsession with perpetual and unsustainable growth. And they cannot afford for more than a few to be emotionally independent of the corporatist orthodoxy, lest they walk away and show others the way to build a new culture that would cause the corporatist civilization culture to crumble. A healthy ability to love, even one other person, even ourselves, but, much worse, many others, could provide the emotional liberation that would open billions of minds, hearts and imaginations to better ways to live, and reveal starkly the insanity of the corporatist, civilized world. That would critically threaten and undermine the political, social, educational, religious and economic status quo, and corporatists do everything they can to prevent it, including invoking religious and moral taboos against free love, and politically ridiculing liberal education and a liberal, open upbringing of children.
Which explanation do you prefer? Are we uptight about love because nature’s telling us to hunker down for apocalypse, or because the powers that be are brainwashing us to be so, in their own self-interest? Does it really matter which is the cause? And whatever the cause, what can and should we do to break free from these inhibitions, which are so obviously unhealthy and unnatural, and start to love, once again, openly, without restriction or limit, as many people as we can, and give in to our wonderful addiction to love?
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