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What is Love? Answering the Eternal (and Most Googled) Question

By Jeremy Fancher

With irony, we perhaps most readily associate the universal inquiry “what is love?” with Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan’s feature-length reprisal of the Saturday Night Live skits, 1998′s “undeniably pathetic but strangely lovable” movie, A Night at the Roxbury.

Without question, the best part of this movie is the frequent aural appearance of Nestor Alexander Haddaway’s magnum opus, a top-40 hit in over 20 countries in 1993. Our time’s greatest philosopher-musician prompts us with a question so austere, so simple, and yet so painfully unanswerable. So great is this question (or the song) that it turns out to be the prophetic Google’s most popular search ever in 10 different countries.

We yearn for an answer; so seriously, what is love?

The star of KoldCast TV’s dramatic series, Stuck, likens himself as just the kind of prophet we need to answer our deepest existential inquiries. A beautifully shot, rambunctious show, doled out in fitting 12-minute increments features David Rea, a life coach hell-bent on jolting his ‘patients’ out of their fearful, culturally-conditioned ruts.

You are watching Episode 1 of Stuck:
“The Observer Effect”

What hope is there for love
when a man believes that even…
Episode 2 of Stuck: “Sex Does Not Exist”

Yet, David’s forever-young fraternizing-cum-therapy betrays his own deep psychological confusion and vulnerability. His exciting sex life, bolstered by his manipulation of the myriad troubled clients who come to him for help, is a mere panacea for his misery.

David seems to believe, as so many do, that a prolific sex life will save him from his innermost pain. Inspired by a show that describes so richly the pipe dream that is the twenty and thirty-something man’s pursuit of happiness, we’ll look at some great thinkers’ attempts to define that universally evoked word, love.

She loves me, she loves me not…
Unrequited love makes the world go ’round

Before delving into the loving relationship, two people forming a reciprocal emotional bond, we should probably talk about that pesky, ever-present ‘unrequited love,’ one-sided love as it exists before a person finds their other half. Devoting yourself to another and not knowing if the feeling is mutual. It’s the basis for every rom-com ever made. Eric Meme wrote in 1970 that “one-sided love is better than none, but like half a loaf of bread, it is likely to grow hard and moldy sooner.”

The German philosopher (and profoundly lonely man) Friedrich Nietzsche thought that unrequited love and desires otherwise unfulfilled constitute the defining motivators for human life. It is the quest for romance that gets us all out of bed in the morning. He wrote that: “Restless discovering and divining has such an attraction for us, and has grown as indispensible to us as is to the lover his unrequited love, which he would at no price relinquish for a state of indifference.” Dare we say marriages might sometimes get dull because there’s no more chase, no more fretting over whether she or he loves you back.

To Love: A Definition, Please.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines love as (1) “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties” or (2) “attraction based on sexual desire.” I’m sure these guys are good, but the definitions feel a little unfulfilling, don’t they? If number two is love, how’s it any different from lust?

For a more enlightened answer, let’s turn to Deborah Anapol, author of the saucy Polyamory in the 21st Century. She writes that “love is inherently free. It cannot be bought, sold, or traded.” Sure, you can buy sexual stimulation, “whether by way of fingers, mouths, objects, fantasy play, whips and chains . . .” and we’ll stop Deb there. But, she makes a valid point. There’s a big difference between things like sex and even marriage and love.

Deb believes you cannot determine how, when, or where love manifests. It comes and goes as it pleases, despite your attempts to ignore it. It’s an unstoppable force. This is, indeed, why we call it falling in love. She adds that “love is not a substance, not a commodity, nor even a marketable power source.” And, I think we’re getting somewhere. We can’t turn on and off our love at will. It constrains us in ways we can’t fully understand, and can’t really fight back against.

Huey Lewis: the biggest thing to hit Germany since Nietzsche.

(Theoretically) Physical Love

Let’s ground the conversation a little by turning to theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili’s take on love. For him, it’s all in the science. “In true love, the brain can release a whole set of chemicals: pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin,” he writes. But, this is a little too reductionist. We can take literally any human interaction or emotion or feeling, any suffering or pain or delight or joy or confusion, and say that it is, at its heart, just our brain cells firing, a biological event determined by the precise release of neurochemicals.

But, where does this really get us? I’d like to think of this neuroscience explanation as a good way to explain the foundations of human experience, but I don’t think it’s equipped to truly capture the kind of human definition we’re after. Al-Khalili also gives us a definition of love as evolutionary theory: “love can be viewed as a survival tool – a mechanism we have evolved to promote long-term relationships, mutual defense and parental support of children and to promote feelings of safety and security.”

But, I think he fails us once again. If this is all there is to love, then we could explain the mating of birds, or the bond of a mother chimpanzee to her son in the same way. But, I’d like to think there is a uniquely human love, something that can’t be reduced to Darwin and survival instincts.

Philosophy and Love
Thoughts From a Sweaty Slovenian Man

For fun, we can indulge for a moment the Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek’s take on love. For him, love is in a way evil. “Isn’t love a cosmic imbalance? I’ve always been disgusted by this idea of universal love, loving the world. Love for me is an extremely violent act. Love isn’t, ‘I love you all.’ It is, ‘I pick out something, a small, fragile individual person.’ I say, ‘I love you more than anything else.’ In this quite formal sense, love is evil.” If you can get past his caustic words, he’s getting at something pretty interesting here.

While we might like to throw around phrases like “love everyone equally,” it turns out that most of us enter monogamous relationships. We pick one person and choose to love them, to value them in a way more than we value anyone else. There is something quite extreme and exclusionary about this form. And, what better way to illustrate it then love’s angry mutant son, jealousy. We become possessive of our lovers in a way we would never think to do with our friends.

So, it’s clear we’re not going to get to the bottom of this. But, given how often we say, “I love you,” it’s surprising how clumsy we are at trying to grasp what it truly means.

The greatest mind of the 90′s, Haddaway, knows better than to try to answer his own question, but he gives us a hint: “Oh, I don’t know, what can I do / What else can I say, it’s up to you / I know we’re one, just me and you.”

Click to watch Episode 3 of Stuck:
“Reproduction is Something Serious”

The fine line between seduction and date rape.
Episode 4 of Stuck: “Electra Complex Party”

Jeremy Fancher is a third-year student at the University of Michigan Law School. He is left-handed, and wishes he had a dog, which he would name John Elway. Jeremy would hypothetically enjoy taking long walks with said John Elway.

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Must Reads 9/16/2014