“We’re going down,
And you can see it too;
We’re going down
And you know that we’re doomed.
My dear, we’re slow dancing in a burning room.”
— John Mayer, ‘Slow Dancing in a Burning Room’
If there is any one lesson I’ve internalized after years of grappling with the Fall, it is this — that one should never take love seriously.
I remember long ago (in one of my entries) making the distinction between phenomenology of love — the feeling and sensation of being romantically involved — and the logic undergirding the performance of love, the mechanics of romantic desire. If I’m not wrong, I implicitly argued that while romantic feelings are spontaneous and erratic, attraction is a very rational process. I mean, there are cultural, psychological, and biochemical processes explaining how and why we fall in love (with someone); and if we are hardcore determinists — at the risk of being overly but justifiably reductive — we can maintain that at bottom, love consists essentially in the collision of atoms and molecules. Of course, no romantic would want to grant that, and we are all romantics in some guise or another, whether we believe in Fate or interpersonal chemistry. Such a scientifically reductionist approach to defining or understanding love grates against the strongest of our intuitions — although love makes us believe anything sometimes.
Yet even if we remove the microscope a tier or two higher up the explanatory hierarchy — at the level of psychological analysis — we still observe the same casual relations subsisting between discrete units: neurons, psyches, individuals. All we have done is simply to overlay the disconcertingly mechanical operations of love at the atomic chemical level with more aesthetic or intellectually comfortable concepts; we replace collisions with desire, desire with love, and love with Love capitalized and transcendental. Still there remains a thread of logical rigour that weaves these seemingly disparate strata of discourses into a unifying fabric — a kind of operational blueprint of romance. While ostensibly counter-intuitive, this systemic conception of love is a no less valid one. Before the clueless romantic gets all up-in-arms with accusations that I have desecrated the altar of Eros, I wish to remind him/her that this is an objective account of love. Just because you don’t immediately see or feel the underlying causality (and we can’t) doesn’t mean it isn’t operant.
Anyway, all is well and reasonable — this polyvalent yet conceptually singular understanding of the causal action of love — until we (or rather, the romantics amongst us) venture passionately to claim, perhaps under the auspices of Aphrodite, that love is nothing but an inexplicable, intoxicating feeling. That is to say, love just happens, and when it does, it is mysterious and esoteric. What we would have done in making this assertion is to not only (1) make the convenient leap from ontology (love as system) to phenomenology (love as experience), but also to (2) deny one and privilege the other.
To transit from the logic of romantic action to the sensation of love — to equate and conflate them — I think, is a kind of fallacy of identity.
A romantic fallacy, if you will — something that perhaps the aforementioned romantic would champion and fiercely defend. Yet in his construction of love as pure sensation, it deserves mention that the romantic would be just as guilty of the reductionist charge that he had leveled against the determinist earlier (for reducing love to mechanics).
Now, as we observed earlier, from physics to biochemistry to neural systems to psyches, and finally to individual persons, the causality or logic of love at each tiered system is evident (and essentially identical). But once we stack the phenomenology of love onto this equivalence hierarchy, the thread of identity is broken. This is because while the chemical, psychological, and cultural machinations of love are rational processes, the sensation of love — its phenomenology — is anything but rational. It is purely and only felt, and no depth of intellectual discourse can induce in a mind the feeling of being romantically affected. It is no different from the fact that we can never reproduce a touch, or a taste, or a smell, or an image by means other than a spontaneous engagement with the senses. Even in dreams, their imaginary analogues cannot ever match the degree of intimacy that characterizes the immediate sensations — of actually smelling a rose on a mildly drizzling evening, or waking up to a warm wash of sunbeams pouring forth from an open curtain.
Why then are we so intuitively inclined to conflate the raw sense impressions of love (what it feels like) with its objective ontological account (what it is), such that — falling as much in love as into the trap of the romantic fallacy — we claim that love is feeling the rush of dizzying adrenaline, or the self-consuming desire for another? The answer is pretty straightforward: we only have access to the phenomenology of love. Can we see the undergirding clockwork causality — the directors or stage-masters — of romantic performance? No; what we feel is the pathos of the performance, the enthralling heights of ecstasy and the annihilating abyss of loss. We do not and can never perceive the biochemical precursors to what we feel and identify as phenomenological love. What we immediately perceive is the very intimate force of romantic sense impressions engendered by mechanical processes we cannot see or feel. This is why it is so easy to say that love is and only is phenomenology — pure sensation. At one level it is; but one cannot discount the fact that there is another dimension of romance that is operant as a foundational substratum, and which brings into effect or causes the sensations of love that we spontaneously experience. The relation between the invisible logic of love and the experience of love is not one of identity, but causality.
Because all we personally know of love is the sensations it impresses upon consciousness, we can only refer to them, or their memory, when we make decisions or judgments that may affect the course of our romantic endeavours. As we all know, love as phenomenology (or feeling) is fundamentally irrational in virtue of consisting in sense impressions, since as mentioned earlier, sense impressions are beyond the purview of Reason (and therefore not-rational). As such, just as how we spontaneously perceive light from the Sun, or heat from a stove, feeling romantic affect is immediate — that is to say, it is not mediated by the judicious gatekeeper, Reason, or the wise old man, Memory. When we feel attracted to someone, we don’t form internal arguments from premises and arrive at the conclusion that we like him/her; we just feel. No act of judgment is involved, at least not until we make decisions on the basis of these sensations.
And when finally we do, we are susceptible to the same errors of judgement as one unwittingly falls prey to upon believing that he sees a yellow wall in front of him, when in fact what he perceives is a white wall under yellow light. Our senses deceive us — or rather, they are imperfect and thus fallible — and latching onto those faulty impressions, we inevitably make misguided judgements that do not immediately seem faulty. The same mode of misrecognition and misjudgment is evident in our experience of love and how we navigate our romantic geography. Often along the way, there are mirages of reciprocal attraction — perhaps we misinterpret a certain gesture or a particular vocal inflection, and thus mistakenly infer the possibility of affection. Then we begin to invest our expectations and ideals in what we perceive to be a prospective relationship, only to realize later that the oasis is a lie — a self-conjured illusion. And it is very difficult to blame anyone but ourselves, because no one else sees the same things we do — our emotional states inflect our personal phenomenology. Truly, we see and feel what we want to, and sometimes not even the incessant hammering of Reason at psyche’s door can convince us otherwise.
And so no matter how rational and mechanical the underlying processes of love are, there is always the possibility of delusion at the level of sensations, and subsequent errors of judgement in decision-making. We are only granted access to the irrational facet of love, and because its foundational system of surefire causality is irrevocably removed from us and our senses, we can never be too sure of ourselves when we do fall in love. Our only certainty is of what we feel when we are finally loving someone. Nothing can prepare us for that, or anything that follows from that moment of genesis.
In short, romance is a kind of religion, if you ask me. Not in the sense of being an institution with a monolithic center, but rather in the way that it demands a leap of faith — to jump even though we’re not quite sure what lies ahead. The essential difference is that you may lose your footing while making that romantic vault, but no God will be there to catch you when you fall. Because not even our faith can save us, we’re better off wearing simulacra of our hearts on our disposable sleeves, while keeping the Heart safe where it rightfully belongs — right here, at Home.
One should never take love seriously.