Whatever love is – it might, in the last analysis, resist any convenient summing up in a definition – it is most certainly not the simple, passive experience that popular culture or folkloric wisdom mocks it up to be.


Current popular culture, catering to and so dominated by the ubiquitous "youth," offers an adolescent notion of love: insipid high school types – blond cheerleader and stereotypical "jock" – find themselves mutually smitten; the girl's parents adduce high-handed reasons to oppose any intensification of the "relationship" past chaste dating; intensified, precisely, by parental opposition, the love-stricken couple do what the partners will and the charisma of their consummation convinces one and all that they are made for each other. This is the story even when the mode is utterly grotesque, as in the hugely and cynically successful American Pie movies, where a "nerd" replaces the "jock." Shakespeare offered a more realistic interpretation, not of the plot, but of the phenomenon: Romeo and Juliet is about the disaster of infatuation. One might agree that, from their own point of view, the two teenaged spooners are "in love" (who would be churlish enough to deny it?); but that their passion is incompatible with their situation, that they are incapable of imposing their conviction on a world that transcends them – this dooms the transitory bliss of their connection. Even with assistance (Juliet's nurse and the helpful friar), they terminate in calamity.

No one interprets Romeo and Juliet accurately. Critics invariably side with the pair (the "star-crossed lovers"), without endowing the parental objection with its actual legitimacy. Shakespeare's The Tempest, despite the fact that it is a magical fantasy, offers a more realistic scenario for young love than Romeo and Juliet. Prospero, the wise father, carefully tests Fernando before giving his daughter Miranda in marriage; Fernando must prove himself worthy to support and partner the wide-eyed girl.

Love is a union of two parties against the world – in a very real sense, against bad traits in one another. It requires not only a certain type of equality in the partners, but also a certain type of compatibility founded on significant experience and meaningful achievement in the world. The radio counselor Dr. Laura Schlesinger famously, and to the irritation of many, advises people not to marry until they reach age thirty; the proof of her advice is in the endless stream of telephone calls she receives from young women in their early and middle twenties who married out of high school and suffered the disaster of growing apart while growing up. People are simply not complete as people until they approach thirty and have established an independent niche in the social fabric. The Swedish playwright August Strindberg (1849-1912) wrote a story called "Phoenix," which lays bare the causality.

In a mode of irony, Strindberg begins by heaping cliché on cliché: "The wild strawberries were getting ripe when he saw her for the first time at the vicarage. He had met many girls before, but when he saw her he knew this was she! But he did not dare to tell her so, and she only teased him for he was still at school." The language is pregnant: the youth's love has as its context the ripening of the "wild strawberries." It is, in other words, a completely natural phenomenon, akin to the fructification of the vegetable world and the rutting of animals. Strindberg conveys the youth's naivety in the lack of daring in his character: for a long time he is too shy to speak to the girl. A mature person would dare to assert himself because he would be rooted in his accomplishments and so confident in his own desire. The youth is "still at school," a telling phrase, but what of the girl? She can lay claim to maturity even less than he, except peculiarly that her teasing him suggests that she half-understands the situation better than he does. It is a fit scenario for teasing. But the youth flatters the girl even as he inflates his own worth and he extracts a promise of marriage from her. Unfortunately, he must complete ten years of schooling before he earns his degree in engineering; he must spend these years apart from her, and he postpones the nuptials until that day. He thus selfishly and stupidly deprives the girl of the edifying experience of being courted by a variety of young men before making her choice of husbands. She has no chance to grow into her own and gain knowledge of life before becoming a wife. Her illness betokens the strain that the condition puts on her. The marriage, of course, is a disaster. Neither partner knows himself; only the youth has any accomplishments, nor are they other than narrowly technical. Strindberg later makes it clear that the youth was merely infatuated when he decided that he loved the girl. His fixation on his daughter, who resembles his wife when she was young, and his remarriage, after his first wife's untimely death, to a girl impossibly younger than himself, point to an unhealthy idée fixe. The story's protagonist did not marry a person, only a sweet, girlish image. The girl, trapped by an unfair engagement, never had a chance to grow up; the premature arrangement denied her a measure of her own potential for personhood.


One of the functions of story telling – of fiction – is to reflect the human world. Yet paradoxically, fictions about love are one of the pitfalls in the social reality: people who believe the fairy tales about love, the fables that misidentify passion or longing as love, end up betrayed by their own gullibility. A quirky little parable by science fiction writer Robert Sheckley (born 1928) – his Pilgrimage to Earth (1952) – skillfully dissects the phenomenon. Sheckley's protagonist hails from Kazanga IV, "a small agricultural planet near Arcturus." He is a farmer, formally unschooled; he buys a book of antique poetry from a traveling vendor and asks the man to tell him about Earth. Comes the answer: "On Earth… everything is possible, nothing is denied." Earth, the storyteller alluringly adds, "still has love" and indeed "is the only place in the galaxy" where one can still find it. Simon becomes fixated on "love" and makes the titular Pilgrimage to Earth in order to find it. Earth, "the mother planet," turns out to be a completely, grotesquely commercialized place where "nothing is denied" only in the sense that everything is for sale. Love is for sale. A cinema marquee suggests the tenor of affairs in Times Square, where Simon wanders: "LUST ON VENUS! A DOCUMENTARY ACCOUNT OF SEX PACTICES AMONG THE INHABITANTS OF THE GREEN HELL! SHOCKING! REVEALING!" Simon looks for love but what he sees is lust – for sale, of course. It baffles him when a shooting gallery owner asks whether he wants to take a shot at one of the "scantily dressed women" each "with little bulls-eyes painted on their fore heads and above each breast" at the target end of the firing range. Later, at Love, Inc., Mr. Tate explains to Simon that: "Our product is not a substitute. It is the exact, self-same feeling that poets and writers have raved about for thousands of years. Through the wonders of modern science we can bring this feeling to you at your convenience, attractively packaged, completely disposable and for a ridiculously low price." When, his experience over, Simon complains that – well, that it's over – Tate reminds him: "Love is a delightful interlude, a relaxation, good for the intellect, for the ego, for the hormone balance, and for the skin tone. But one would hardly wish to continue loving, would one?" The episode was scientifically engineered to be satisfying to Simon and during it the girl was as convinced that she was in love with him as he was with her. It is a fake, of course. The customer is too naïve, shocked, and confused to argue effectively. Sheckley takes him back to the shooting gallery, where he tells the manager to "line u2018em up."

Sheckley makes two points. The first is that love is spontaneous and must both emerge and develop organically, as a long-term relationship between the parties; the second is that the confusion that people have about love makes them susceptible to exploitation. Love, Inc. trades on naïve perceptions and offers a commercialized product to off-planet rubes, people who know no better. Disappointed by his commercial rencontre, Simon becomes a misogynist ("line u2018em up"), cutting himself off forever from love.

Sometimes it can work the other way around. Isak Dinesen (1885-1862) has a story, The Young Man with a Carnation (1949), that puts on display a protagonist, Charley Despard, who has love, in the form of a beautiful and intelligent wife, but who fails to understand that he has it until a series of miraculous accidents awakens him to the reality: he sleepily enters the wrong hotel room late at night and spends an unknown dandy (the "young man" of the title) away from the door; later he grasps that he had spent part of the night in bed with a stranger, a young woman, and that the "young man" had come to make love to her. His wife therefore never read the farewell note that he now regrets having left for her – but the other woman must have, and must feel as parted from her lover as he feels from her. Despard has been tested (maybe, as Dinesen suggests, by God) and the story concludes with a hopeful rather than an outright happy ending. Dinesen's point is that love comes from effort. Despard is attractive to his wife because he has real accomplishments. (He has raised himself from poverty by becoming a best-selling writer about social issues.) She is educated (the daughter of a scientist) and worldly and can join him in marriage as an equal. They share their world as genuine partners.


No better representation of love and its related phenomena exists than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's late opera The Magic Flute (1791), with a libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812). Mozart (1756-1791), who has been portrayed as a silly person but who was not, had worked hard at his own marriage to his wife Costanza and understood the seriousness of plighting troth; Costanza for her part had endured the hardships entailed by conjugal union with one who made his living, in some years fretfully, as a performing artist and composer. Yet in the last year of his life, Mozart's income had risen and his prospects looked good. Years of hard work and striving were beginning to pay off. Although it shows the outward appearance of a fairy tale, The Magic Flute is a serious work that illuminates in brilliant lights the psychology of love and friendship.

As Act I begins, a young prince, Tamino, has lost his way in a mysterious forest where a fierce dragon pursues him. He cries out for help and then faints dead away (perhaps not a propitious sign), whereupon the adventitious Three Ladies dispatch the monster and secrete themselves, the better for them to observe the interloper. The Three Ladies invite sympathy for their timely intervention, but closer scrutiny suggests that all is not right with them. Their praise of the sleeping Tamino suggests an underlying lasciviousness, which the comedy of their banter ("I'll stay and watch him while you two take word to the Queen of the Night") does not entirely dispel. Lasciviousness, which Mozart also reveals in the character of Monastatos, is a debasement of the proper admiration between incipient lovers; it concerns sex alone and in most cases is non-reciprocal. Through the medium of the Three Ladies, the Queen of the Night charges Tamino and Papageno with freeing her daughter from her supposed captivity in the Temple of Sarastro. Tamino is smitten by a cameo of Pamina and claims, on that basis, to be already in love with her. Papageno has previously sung of his longing for a mate. The quest of the two young men coincides with their parallel search for meaningful amorous union.

By the end of Act I, Mozart has clarified a number of issues. The Queen of the Night is not benevolent, but evil; Sarastro, formerly her husband, is not a tyrant, but a philosopher king. More importantly, Tamino's infatuation with the mere image of Pamina is an insufficient basis for a union with her: Sarastro sees in Tamino a worthy candidate for philosophical initiation and a potential groom for his daughter, Pamina; but first both must be tested – and so must Papageno. The bird catcher, despite supplying most of the comic relief in this ritualistic opera, is a fully human person and a morally admirable character. It is Papageno, not Tamino, who first discovers Pamina and who helps her to escape from Monastatos. Papageno and Pamina sing the important aria about man and woman being God's supreme creation. When it comes to actual cases, Papageno does not lack courage and has an instinctive grasp of right and wrong. Tamino is more civilized and refined than his new friend, but quickly learns to respect him and tries to help him, as much as he can, during their trials in Act II. The "test for lovers" is an ancient motif from folklore, exploited with warmth and sensitivity by Mozart (and by Schikaneder). Papageno has a rougher time than Tamino because he lacks schooling and is not consoled by philosophy, but he does overcome his fears and shows good intentions to Papagena, when the priests first introduce her to him. A trio of boyish "Spirits" (the benevolent counterparts of the Three Ladies) occasionally gives helpful advice to the aspirants – and once they intervene boldly to keep Pamina from suicide when she thinks that Tamino has turned his back on her. (In fact, he was bound by a vow of silence as part of his candidacy.) The good personae in The Magic Flute all show care for one another – Sarastro to Pamina, Tamino and Papageno to each other, Tamino and Papageno to Pamina and Papagena respectively. None puts any demand on the other; reciprocity is freely observed. When the story divulges why Sarastro wants Tamino to be joined to Pamina, the reason is important: their marriage will cement the peace of the kingdom, for Sarastro intends them to rule in his place when he abdicates his throne.

The Magic Flute addresses one further aspect of love – its relation to art and beauty. Love is a species of order arranged freely by a man and wife or by those who call themselves friends; this order in turn is the basis of the social order. Art also depends on – it is – a form of order; music especially requires harmony among its parts and people do not by accident refer to the "harmony" in love or in marriage. So Tamino's magic flute holds the power, for example, to tame savage beasts and Papageno's magic bells can immobilize enemies by placing them under a terpsichorean spell. The final scene of Act II, when Sarastro has defeated the Queen of the Night, shows the general dance after the crowning of Tamino and Pamina: the whole community has been brought under the harmony and order anchored in and expressed by their new conjugal union. The notion of the social order as "harmony" goes back to Heraclitus, the archaic Greek thinker who was the first to exploit the metaphor.

Courage, commitment, experience, education, and openness to beauty – all of these are ingredients of the finally indefinable phenomenon. That one cannot define love exhaustively, however, does not mean that love is whatever anyone says it is; that it is anything or nothing. This is by no means the case. Many of the predications that people ascribe to love are downright stupid. And even supposing that one could not exhaustively define it, one might still show it, as the artists do in their stories and operas and plays.

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