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Over the years I have continued to investigate the nature of love feelings; thanks to this work I have been able to formulate an all-inclusive description.
What is love?
At a certain point in their lives, two people begin to undergo a change; they are suddenly willing to detach themselves from their previous love objects and relationships in order to create their own private community of two. This entails their entering into the fluid and highly creative ignition phase (or nascent state) of love, wherein they identify totally with each other and tend to fuse together. In such a way, they start to constitute an “us”—a tiny collectivity highly charged with solidarity and eroticism.
Within the safe confines of this “us”, the two people realize their dreams—erotic or otherwise, as well as their aspirations and unexpressed potential. The great solidarity and immense erotic pleasure that they give each other causes each to undergo as well as to exert tremendous pressure on the other; these pressures in turn lead to the creation of a shared life project and to a common view of the world.
The newly created couple is animated with inexhaustible energy and overflowing enthusiasm. The world seems marvellous to the two of them, and the possible range of action utterly limitless. They hammer out a new conception of daily life and revamp all their insider and outsider relationships to fit it; in the end they create what might be termed an environmental niche for themselves.
Thus the creative, fluid energy of the nascent state is transformed, solidifies into structures and norms. These principles, rules, conventions, and habits are constructed quickly and effortlessly, and are adhered to with enthusiasm, as the couple has established them in that special, brief period when their fusion is at its peak. They are similar to undersigned pacts which safeguard the hopes and promises forthcoming from the nascent state, where the Absolute reigns. During the passage from life lived under the control of social institutions to that of the free-reining nascent state of love, such fixed structures as one’s family, home, children, friends, and consolidated opinions were changed into raw energy; now, it is the opposite process that occurs. The liberated energy of love is transformed back into structures—a new home, new friends, and a new conception of life and the world.
It is natural to wonder what love, as an emotion, sentiment, subjective experience, and mental state, really is when seen from this prospective. The answer can only be that love is the inner emotional consequence of the creation of the new collectivity and of one’s new “me.” The person I love is the pivotal centre around which this reconstruction of my life revolves. What’s more, the experience of fusing together with him or her to create the new entity of “us” reshapes my personality and renews my being, as it renews the world in which I live.
The experience is fundamentally that of finding myself part of a new world, under a new sky, and in a new land. And the person whom I love is the door that allows me access to all this.
Love as an emotion of love—of launch, languor, desire, quiver, and dream, is hence creative energy in motion. As it shoots through me, this creative energy transforms me into a building material for the construction of my new world and the new “me”.
This means that we love what is creating us and, at the same time, what we ourselves are creating. In this sense we are at once both children and parents. This takes place when we fall in love. But can we also apply this same definition to the other forms of love that we know?
We can begin to answer that by taking a look at maternal love, at what a mother feels for her child. Let’s think of this in terms of the definition we just gave; we said that we love what it is that we ourselves are creating at the same time as we love whatever it is that is creating “us.” Applying that to a mother, it seems clear that in all the various phases of child-raising (first when expecting her baby, and then nursing, feeding, and bringing it up) a mother experiences the creation of a being thanks to whom she herself is re-created She creates a new community inside a new world; within this community, both components, both she and her child, are destined to change. It is, in short, a co-creation of a world. Her child does not play a passive role. Rather, he responds to her stimuli and in this way causes her to keep on re-defining herself, as well as him (her) and their world together. This process will continue on for the rest of their lives. And this accounts for how both a mother’s love for her child and a child’s love for its mother are so enduring. This love endures because it is continuously renewed and replenished.
We may wonder why this type of love does not run the risk of disappearing, as it does between a couple? Why does it resist the most bitter frustrations and disappointments? The reason has to be that the couple is, by contrast, made up of two already formed individuals, each with his or her own individual as well as collective love bonds, and each with personal conceptions of the world.
In falling in love they de-structure their previous self and previous world. But this happens only in part. The co-creation of their new identity as a couple is achieved thanks to a long series of clashes, love tests, and compromises. Each yields on or gives up certain things, while at the same time holding firm on yet other values. The risk—about which nothing can be done—is that over time their two personalities may develop in different directions. By contrast, the universe shared by parents and their children is far vaster, and the process of mutual adjustment happens when the child is at a malleable stage. Furthermore, this process continues day in and day out, under the guidance of the parent, who manages the changes and prevents any irresolvable divergences from arising. These will only appear later—during adolescence or in adult life.
Let’s consider now the sort of love relationship which may arise from friendship. Its foundation is that of the pleasure principle. It doesn’t have a passionate or sudden start, as there is in the nascent state of falling in love; there is no burning, risky, searing fusion. Instead, friendship takes shape slowly—encounter after encounter—with each friend building a bridge to connect one meeting with the next. This is classically how things fall into place in the case of successful, gratifying, reassuring, and enjoyable relationships. Even in the case of pure friendship that never evolves into anything different, two friends will tend to achieve a partial fusion and arrive at a common vision of the world. They also come to regard themselves as an “us”, without there being any radical, violent destruction of their old life and world. If differences immediately arise regarding political and religious beliefs, or concerning differences in tastes, habits, and opinions, such divergences will not dissolve in time in any process of fusion but rather will remain in place as threatening weak points in the relationship.
If friends remain together, it is because they gradually discover that they have elective affinities, and because they honestly try to adjust to each other by looking for what unifies rather than divides them. Nevertheless, if ideological differences surface, or conflicts of interest arise, or if one of the two acts in an ethically unacceptable way, the friendship will break off suddenly and—usually—for good. In short, you may forgive a friend for lying or letting you down, but things will never again be the same between the two of you. Friendship is the ethical form of Eros. Even the love element in friendship hinges on a common conception of the world and of what constitutes individual identity. This love intensifies in moments of change and crisis, when we confide in our friend and ask him or her for support and advice.It also grows stronger as we two exchange experiences, tackle problems together, or fight side by side—like a pair of hunters or warriors—against a common enemy or threat.
Let’s move on now to a consideration of that sort of admiration commonly termed star worship, which I have postulated as springing from an indication of worth made by others. When such interest is extremely strong, the celebrity involved becomes an internalised factor in the determination of one’s definition of self and the world. Think about what the various sports champions, stage and film stars, or pop singers represent for teenagers. They become the models with whom these young people identify. Adolescent girls, moreover, often get emotionally involved in the reported ins and outs of their favourite star’s love life; on occasion they might even fantasize about being in a relationship with him.
Even deeper is the process that occurs in the ‘star-worship’ relationship with the charismatic leader of a political or religious movement. A charismatic leader is someone who interprets the current historical situation, transmits a sense of meaning as regards the world, and establishes a common goal and direction. Love for a charismatic leader closely resembles the feelings we have for the person that we are in love with. And should that leader remain as such for a long extent of time, the love we feel for him will become in turn become comparable to our love for our mother or father; as a result he will surely represent a point of reference for us as we deal with life’s problems.
This definition of love also helps us to understand what takes place when we undergo a loss. Because of this loss, our familiar, consolidated world and the objects that provide us with our stable points of reference, together with our goals, are shaken and threatened with destruction. We suddenly find ourselves at the edge of an abyss signifying nothingness. This forces us to re-examine the worth of all the things we have, and to re-think our life, future, and intrinsic sense of self. This implies that we will redefine what for us has value and what has no value. The struggle to save our individual or collective love object from loss constitutes, therefore, the re-construction of our world.
It is not the appearance of a new world, nor a march towards some Promised Land, but rather it is a march towards the lost land whose value and beauty we have rediscovered; we can think of it as a sort of native country which we are determined to re-conquer because it embodies all that is good in this world and is hence even worth dying for.
We have therefore seen that all the forms that love takes—ranging from the nascent-state experience of falling in love to relationships fuelled by the pleasure principle, by indications of worth made by other people, or by the process of loss—always involve the creation or re-creation of a collectivity. We belong to this collective movement and are shaped by it. The conclusion we can draw from this is that love is the subjective, emotional part of a larger process wherein we generate something that transcends us at the same time that we ourselves are generated by it in turn.
One very important consequence can be seen as deriving from all this. This is the fact that if and when love endures over time it clearly means that the processes and workings feverishly in place during the initial phase of revelation and discovery characterising the experience of falling in love, also continue to be present. In other words, love, if it exists and because it exists, is always “nascent.” It is always discovery, revelation, admiration, adoration, and desire for union with something that transcends us and gives order and meaning to the world. The person we love incarnates—for the simple fact of our loving him or her—the revelatory cornerstone of our world. In him or her, the essence and order of the world shines through.
All this helps us fathom why love is always the thrill of the absolute-to-be-found-in-the-contingent and why it is something unfailingly mysterious, marvellous, and divine. When it is returned, moreover, it is a gift and blessing infinitely worthy of gratitude and acknowledgement.
Adapted from I Love You, by Francesco Alberoni (Italian edition, Ti amo, Garzanti)