What is love?

March 02, 2023 10:13
Photo: Reuters

“Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove” Shakespeare once quipped.

But in my eyes, love must necessarily alter when it alteration finds. For love must be organic, adaptive, and flexible. Its strength draws from its conditionality – that it is you that is loved, as opposed to some other entity that resembles you (e.g. an AI version of yourself, a twin, or a clone) that is loved. There is no necessary, deeper logical reason to such a binding relationship. The sensitivity of love to alterations – to the vicissitudes, ups and downs, and vacillations of life – is an inherent feature of its enduring strength. Few other relationships (e.g. employer-employee, sibling) are as unpredictably inexplicable as love, and that’s what renders it so precious (simple supply and demand, perhaps).

Love also does bend. Consider, for instance, the conceit of those who specialise in breaking up relationships. Why do we lament the death of a relationship in face of adultery? Why would we not, quite simply, conclude decisively that the love undermined by infidelity “ain’t true love” – for the remover has succeeded in purging the love (and trust, and warmth, and fidelity, and truthfulness) that underpins the relationship? This is because, again, we cherish the preciousness of the relationship that is thwarted by the conniving, cantankerous insertion of a third party. So Sonnet 116 got two things wrong about love – it ignores the capriciousness of love, and that it is the fragility of love that renders it so valuable.

I have never loved another. But I have also loved everyone in that very process. Love is all-oriented and all-consuming, and in so doing, orients itself around (sweet) nothing, and consumes nothing. We spend all our time mulling over how we can love better, how we can find a lover, and yet so little time contemplating the substance and contents of love. Love is liberating – not because it is sentimental or overriding, but because it resists rationalisation despite its blatant rationale (economic rationality – see Chen Zhiwu’s excellent work on marriage and risk-lowering; political rationality – see Germaine Greer’s critique of the patriarchy, and how it maintains itself through the heteronormative institutions of marriage), for it foregoes functionalist pretense in order to preserve its functionality. Love is contradictory. It is therefore unity.

There’s more to love than just, ‘What is love?’. There’s also, ‘Why is love?’ Do we love because it is a core constituent of our primal instincts? Or do we love because we are led to believe that it is a core part of our good lives? The former leads to lust, but does it lead to love? The latter yields pretention, but could such unctuous adulation amount to love? To make sense of the causal patterns underpinning love, is a prerequisite for our unlocking the true substance and nature of love. We can’t separate the Why from the What, and the What from the Why.

Love is simplistic. It compels us to simplify – to provide bare-boned and skeleton answers to elaborate questions. Costs and benefits are rendered into the term ‘faith’. Long-term securitisation of expected returns and value are internalised through the pledge to keep the love ‘undying’ and durable. Social norms and aesthetic pressures are rationalised through ‘true love’. There need be no explanation, no complex nuances, not because love is simple, but because it thrives on the pretense of seeming simplicity. It is thus simplistic but by no means simple.

Self-love, however, is the real end-vision of love. As Sinatra once asked, most wistfully, in ‘My Way’: For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught.

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Assistant Professor, HKU

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