The Genteel
December 14, 2017
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(Source: openwalls.com)

It's Valentine's Day next week. Of course you've heard, right? It's one of those days - rather, it's one of those days that stretches into weeks - that can make you feel bad for not having something other people do. There's a very Western way of looking at this day that seems to place more importance on ourselves than on other people: I want love because, well, it looks like everyone one else has it, and they look happy enough, and I want to celebrate something too. If you've ever played the Valentine's game before, you know better. All you have that other people "don't" is a deficit in your bank account and a stress knot in your shoulders.

Type the word "love" into Google, and you'll receive back over eight billion results. The first few hits are indicative, I would say, of the spectrum of the word's meaning: the emotion as explored by Wikipedia; the concept in relation to people and their couplings ("Calculate the chance of a successful relationship"); The Love Magazine from the UK, catering to our fondness of the material world and everything it has to offer; and a John Lennon song. I would say that's a pretty accurate assumption of the cornerstones of modern love: what, who, why, and how can I get more. 

Wallis and Edward (Source: telegraph.co.uk).

The dictionary definition of "love" is a bit more complicated: "a profoundly tender, passionate affection for another person; a feeling of warm personal attachment or deep affection, as for a parent, child, or friend; sexual passion or desire." It's a set of observations that outline why this concept/feeling/word governs almost every action and decision we make, whether we like to believe it or not. Basically, there's a fine line between love and lust, and love and hate - so no need to complicate, right? Sure, sure, it's a neurological state of being; this I get. But perhaps the best way to describe love, or how one would define it, is to look at its derivatives. What are the words that come to mind when you think of the only emotion Lennon said you'll ever need? For me, it's words like "sacrifice," or "champagne," or "ephemeral." Other strong contenders in my personal definition are words like "nascent," "serrated," and "trenchant."

If you've read past stories in this column, you've probably picked up on hints of romanticism in me. I'm not very explicit about it, not in the way I used to be. I would approach love with a specific intention, with very defined boundaries that didn't lend themselves well to the vast and ambiguous nature of the idea itself. The word "love," for example, has become too hyperbolic. I want to respect it, as a word and as an emotion, and work around the semantics of what it has come to represent in our everyday observations and evaluations of things. In everything from fashion blogs to clothing stores, people love one thing, or loooove another even more. It's an exhausting expression that has come to lose all meaning, much like the holiday it's supposed to represent. Above all, I'm a champion for love - and great love stories - even if I'm not entirely sure what it's all about.

Yet, how much can we ever really know about something like love? People do crazy things for it: Antony and Cleopatra, King Edward and Wallis Simpson, Katy Perry and Russell Brand. Citing a book by Helen Fisher entitled Why We Love: the nature and chemistry of romantic love, there is an interesting theory that I'm going to lift directly from Wikipedia: "Love may be understood as part of the survival instinct, a function to keep human beings together against menaces and to facilitate the continuation of the species." Has it always been like this? Are we, by our very design, just prone to hyperbole, a species developed intellectually and morally enough to place too much consciousness into our biological impulses? (As an aside: I'd like to think it's more about battling the world's menaces with someone else, and that intense partnership where two people share everything, rather than the simple act of procreation. Please.)

We're starting to send a message about fulfillment through the channels of love, guided by desperation, not empowerment.

In Chinese and East Asian cultures, "love" is closely tied to a sense of duty, making an individual ultimately accountable to a greater, universal brand of the sentiment. In Ancient Greece, there were five distinct definitions for the word, describing everything from passion to hospitality. At its core, this feeling governs all of our relationships (even the love-to-hate ones). It can be universally accepted as among the greatest emotional connections that exist beyond our being (the love for something we've never had, inanimate objects, the deceased). Me, I find the allusions between love and a higher power most interesting. To borrow a quote from the play Les Miserables: "To love another person is to see the face of God."

So, what about you and I? Are we ever quite sure what we mean when we speak of love? I don't love everything, I can't love everything; my critical mind says I shouldn't love everything. When I get the urge to say it, I want to make sure I know exactly what I'm trying to say, or what meaning I want to convey. I think we're all guilty of bastardising the word for our pleasures, and our own excessive satisfactions. Indeed, that's the period we live in, and perhaps why any sort of traditional "great love story" is dead in our popular opinion. Frankly, we have no idea what that entails anymore. Our materialistic obsessions-slash-conditioning lament that it's equally okay to love a pair of shoes just as much as you love a human being, and probably even more. We have entered into an époque of shameless approaches to showing off emotion for no reason other than we can identify what we're feeling, prompting "love hangovers" across a generation that binges too much and regurgitates it all even harder (think Lana Del Rey). 

Our cultural cachet is also shifting. In music, for example, the search for love was always of thematic importance, from '60s torch songs to the '80s power ballad. Yet we've entered into a verbal agreement that if you're not loved, then you're not worthy. Think of musicians like Taylor Swift, or nu-literary empires like Twilight. They both feast incessantly on this need to be defined by something outside of one's self: if I don't have a man, I can't go. He doesn't love me, it's the end of the world. Why me, why him? Why am I not this, why am I not a vampire too? I hate life. I remember when power dance tracks used to shout, "I will love again!" or "It's not right, but it's okay, I'm going to make it anyway." The next generation of iPad-loving youth will probably love everything more than I did, and will feel a deep sense of remorse or emptiness without it, or for not being able to live up to it.

Perhaps it's just a sign of our times: uncertainty - either economically or socially - breeds insecurity, which, in turn, needs to be quelled and comforted constantly. We're starting to send a message about fulfillment through the channels of love, guided by desperation, not empowerment. Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent clergyman and "social reformer," summarises the intricacies of the interchangeable future well: "Young love is a flame; very pretty, often very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. The love of the older and disciplined heart is as coals, deep-burning, unquenchable." Perhaps it's a metaphor for our generational attitude shift: forever young, forever in love.

Indeed, we are parched. That's why Valentine's Day still manages to douse our fires.

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