The Oxford English Dictionary defines love as ‘a pile of old shit’.
That’s a lie, I define it as that, but no-one ever started a wedding speech with “Kat Arnsby defines …”, so I figured bringing in the OED would have a more immediate impact.
My definition is actually clearer than the OED’s, which turned out to be a whimsical, link-clicking frenzy of lexical tautologies and confusion. As an atheist who is excited by words, the OED is the closest thing I have to a bible, and its failure to even start to define a word that everybody uses all the time has disturbed me. I’m going to get to the bottom of this romantic ideal, and the OED have already agreed to use my clear-cut definition going forward. Okay, that’s also a lie, but maybe you’ll agree with me, and start to use my definition, and possibly my name, the next time you’re called on to make a speech at a wedding.
Since last year’s cynical and miserable Valentine’s blog, I have fallen in love. Yes, with another person, not my own reflection, although I do wink at myself every morning, and why not? Flirting is fun.
Herein lies my first issue with the definition of romantic love… why do we put the verb ‘fall’ in front of it?
Falling usually isn’t a good thing, we fall down holes, we fall off cliffs and we fall into disrepair, and yet we use the same verb to describe our engagement with what is supposed to be the most wonderful of positive emotions. Even French, officially the most romantic language ever spoken with a smug intonation, uses the same verb (tomber amoureux). Why don’t we say ‘I chose love’, ‘I met love’ or ‘I rise in love’? I think we say ‘fall in love’ because we all instinctively know it’s dangerous. When you fall, the potential for pain is high, which is why we tag it onto love; one might want love, but one is going to have to take a fall to get it.
Love is already proven to exist, by the real-life folk of Science. Who in the humanities department do I think I am to argue with them? Science has taught us that when we begin to engage with another human at that level, our bodies produce a giddy-making dose of neurochemicals which have the potential to send us all a bit batty. Love is, literally, a drug; it’s called Oxytocin, and it’s widely and cheaply available from the street-corner pushers of your mind.
So why has nature given us this drug? If this neurochemical has survived millions of years of evolution, then ‘love’ must be important to our species, right? A quick look at the etymology of the word Oxytocin might shed a less than romantic light on this. It comes from the Greek oksys (swift) and tokos (birth), which put together says ‘swift birth’. I can only conclude that the neurochemical we call love and write poems about is nothing more than a species propagation expedient. Put more simply, it’s a way of making us so horny we increase our odds of having more babies, and quickly, before the last one we pumped out gets eaten by a velociraptor. The earliest humans will have felt love akin to what we feel today, but if they had made it the high cerebral issue that we try to then I wouldn’t be typing this, you wouldn’t be reading it, and lizards would probably be the dominant species.
This doesn’t seem entirely fair to love, after all, plenty of people have long-term romantic relationships that eventually end up as sexless, but the parties concerned would still define their relationship as one of love. When I look at old couples, I can see a love I feel jealous of. Recently, I watched an old man spend seventeen minutes helping his frail wife into their car. I could see the love on his face, he nearly shat himself with the effort it took, but I am sure he’d have died doing it, because he clearly loved his wife.
Suck on that, love cynics! They were both in their eighties and there’s no way they were going home for a sweaty romp, followed by the happy arrival of a shiny new human in nine months. Love is not just about having babies, it’s a feeling in its own right!
If love is a drug then we have to recognise that it will be habit forming, as all the best drugs are. Mammalian offspring require attention for a long time after birth, and it’s beneficial to our survival to have our parents stay together with us; if one of them is killed hunting, then the other is still around. When it comes to raising infants, multiple heads are better than one. During the course of our evolution the offspring of those who responded better to the habit forming properties of Oxytocin had a greater chance of survival. Psychologists refer to this stage of Oxytocin abuse as ‘attachment’. When I watched that old man help his wife, I wasn’t looking at romantic love, I was looking at a lifelong drug habit that it was far too late to break.
Oxytocin doesn’t just bring babies into the world, it’s also responsible for many cringey poems, soppy songs and the systematic murder of roses for centuries. What is the need for the cultural apparition of love, if it’s now understood that it’s just a nice word for making the realities of procreation a bit less awful?
This is a big question, and brighter minds than mine haven’t been able to answer it, so I’m not going to try here. If you have any ideas, please share, I’m genuinely interested. The problem I have with the cultural tenets of love is that sometimes our cultural habits are so spectacularly fucking stupid that it’s hard to see love as something untainted by human idiocy. Remember when it was a cultural standard to not let women or black people vote? Or when we imprisoned homosexuals?
I can’t answer the question of why love is such a dominant cultural ideal if it’s not a real thing, but my understanding of previously normalised cultural atrocities heavily undermines my blind acceptance of love just because society says it’s good, real and necessary. In 200 years, will future humans look back on our cultural presentation of love as separate to a drive for sex and laugh/be embarrassed? Very possibly.
Love is a word we have for an idea that acts as a smokescreen to the depressing truth that the only real purpose we have is procreation. As a species, we have a long history of searching for something higher, something more important than eating, sleeping, shitting and fucking. We’re all suckers for the concept that we are worth more than an animal, that we are beings greater than a pointless biological fact.
At the start of this rant, I told you I’d fallen in love this year, and you’re probably wondering how someone in love can be so harshly cynical about this popular concept. Truth is, like all drug highs, it didn’t last and I came out of it with a bit of a headache and a funny taste in my mouth. I just feel lucky that I didn’t get too addicted. I didn’t so much fall in love as step in it, and now I have to wipe it off my shoe.
So, after all this, here is my final, OED ready, definition of love:
Love [lʌv] noun A pile of old shit.
Yep, I’m sticking with it. You can use it in your next wedding speech, free of charge; you’re welcome.