Sunday, June 25, 2006

Love as Capital

A correspondent's inquiries have sparked some thinking about the difference between "falling in love" and "love" and the possible nature of romantic love, starting from the premise that it's the glue between men and women.

To date, to kiss, to fall in love are all components of love. Sometimes it's a coup de foudre, sometimes it's gradual. But they're all one thing. Or are they?

For years I believed that, while love between a man and a woman began with passion and sex, it somehow transmuted into something else "higher," less lustful, more spiritual. Although I was not a son of Calvin or Jansenius, I found Western dualism a hard thing to shake: I'd been taught there is something relatively base (matter) and something much nobler (spirit), and that the spirit lived on long after the matter died and decayed.

The philosophical lineage of these ideas we can leave for another essay, but I will venture that, viscerally at least, they have wide currency. Certainly, children know this:

John and Mary sittin' in a tree
k -i - s -s - i - n -g ...
first comes love,
then comes marriage,
then comes a baby in a carriage.

Once there are diapers and schools and homework, out goes the passion, the mystery, the hormonal drive. If a man and woman survive within a marriage, you suppose it is because their love has changed from sizzle into something else entirely different. Charitably you call it companionship.

But in fact, with divorce now normal, this construct falls apart.

There is no "higher" romantic love. Eros will always involve taking leave of one's senses and doing the irrational for reasons of the heart, as Blaise Pascal wrote, that reason does not know.

So falling in love is suspending reason; while loving is, perhaps, persisting in the madness against all evidence to the contrary. Her guffaw, which irritates everyone, is to you a charming little hiccup; his flatulence does not smell.

Does love, then, exhaust itself? Could romantic love be, as my correspondent suggested, an essence stored up as a treasure in limited quantities?

If love is a substance itself, if one distributes it too freely its value drops. Or, as in some traditional cultures, love as capital is expressed in a certain status, such as virginity.

Could you run out of this capital, this essence, could you be forever devalued without a virginity of some sort? Is this what happens to marriages and love affairs? Is love spent out?

If love is capital and falling in love an expenditure of capital. Love might be a gamble -- or an investment.

My heart resists this. Love seems inexhaustible so long as people exist to be loved.
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