What Love Is—and Isn’t
What Love Is—and Isn’t
Abstract and Keywords
Why do you fall in love? Nothing is more simple. You fall in love because you are young, because you are growing old, because you are old; because spring is fading, because autumn is beginning; from excess energy, from fatigue; from gaiety, from boredom; because someone loves you, because he does not love you. … I find too many answers: perhaps the question is not so simple, after all....
Why do you fall in love? Nothing is more simple. You fall in love because you are young, because you are growing old, because you are old; because spring is fading, because autumn is beginning; from excess energy, from fatigue; from gaiety, from boredom; because someone loves you, because he does not love you. … I find too many answers: perhaps the question is not so simple, after all.
The experience of love is so universal that it seems to have no mystery. Everywhere, at every hour, even at this very moment, thousands of men and women are saying to each other with astonishment or awe, “I love you. I am in love.” They are saying it loudly or softly, with these words or others, but they are saying it—for otherwise it would not be love. “I need you. I will suffer without you. I can no longer live without you.” Time and space hang in the balance, immobilized before a face that holds the essence of everything that is precious in this world.
Since we no longer believe in the myth of predestined lovers, how can we explain these exclusive choices? To the lovers, they are self-evident. Yet friends ask one another, “What does he find in her? What does she see in him?”
(p.100) Stendhal has described this process as a “crystallization” that can transform anyone at all into a unique being. Today, psychoanalysts speak of it as an “investment.” But why have Paul and Paulette begun to “invest,” to “crystallize” precisely with Pierrette and Pierre? The choice amazes their friends.
It has been said that “lovers are alone in the world.” No statement is more false. According to Freud, the love relationship involves not two people but four. Actually it goes much further than this and involves the whole of society. “You are different. You are an exception. You are not like anybody else.” Everyone who has been in love has said these words, and when they do, they are saying that their beloved has been chosen in comparison with all others and against all others. A person who is too harmoniously adjusted to society may never know love. In the past, and even in the present, there have been entire civilizations that were unaware of romantic love.
The first great romance in the West, Tristan and Isolde, is the story of a revolt. You love in defiance of a husband or a wife, in defiance of your parents, in opposition to friends and surroundings, in defiance of all those who in some way have thwarted you. Suddenly you deny their importance; you even forget their existence. Lovers isolate themselves; but their solitude has not been given to them; they have seized it with defiance. Love would not have its somber violence if it were not always, at first, a kind of revenge: revenge against a closed society to which you can suddenly belong; against a foreign country in which you can suddenly take root; against a provincial circle from which you suddenly escape.
Love often takes us by surprise. It is only when we meet the man, the woman, who fulfills our expectations that these expectations are revealed to us. But even before this, we had in us, masked or disguised, that emptiness, that need. You do not fall in love when you are completely happy or on the crest of the wave; it is only when life has lost its flavor. Nor do you fall in love on the eve of a long voyage, but rather in strange surroundings and especially in the letdown of the journey’s end.
However, extreme unhappiness, an impending catastrophe destroying all hopes, all plans, may also make love impossible. Boredom, on the other hand, is singularly suitable for love. It is when the monotony of the world becomes apparent that you begin to dream of new horizons. Love does not appear when life fulfills you, nor when it crushes you, but only to those who openly or secretly wish to change. For it is then that you anticipate love and what love brings: through another person, a new world is revealed and given to you.
(p.101) This kind of experience can be captured by other means. The ambitious man, the man of action, the artist can change his relationship with the world or even the world itself. If he throws himself body and soul into his project, love has no hold over him. But not everyone is in a position to impose his will in this way, and that is why women today are particularly predisposed to love. They rarely possess the implements—an art, a profession—that will permit them to enlarge or overturn the universe without the help of someone else. Love is their only opportunity. But even the most privileged often prefer the unexpected and wonderful joy of receiving everything without so much effort. To explore an unfamiliar country is work, but to possess it through the love of an appealing foreigner is a miracle. In this case, as in many others, love is a marvelous shortcut.
Still, the shortcut must present itself. You must, in order to fall in love, encounter an attractive object. What is attractive differs, understandably, for each individual. Values that are socially acceptable—beauty, fortune, intelligence—do not in every case give rise to love. What you expect in a lover depends on your childhood, your past, your plans, on the whole context of your life. You may be looking for something very specific: a father, a child, a kindred spirit; security, truth; an exalted image of yourself. Or your need may be ambiguous, indefinite or even infinite. You may want something else, no matter what, just as long as it is something you do not have.
Whatever the values, the symbols or the role may be, however, no one will awaken my love unless I see him basically as The Other. If he annexes himself to me, he loses the power to take me into another world. This is why envy so often gives birth to love. The very fact that a man or woman escapes you may be enough: you find yourself projecting onto him all the qualities you are looking for in The Other. However, if he holds back too stubbornly, then you cease to expect anything from him; love is aborted.
You may, on the other hand, be fascinated by the fascination you hold for someone else, by the dazzling image that he gives you of yourself. This is the pitfall of the narcissists. The masochists and all those who have chosen defeat fall into another trap: loving those who are indifferent to them. For you can love not only for the joy of loving or the glory of being loved, but also sometimes for the poignant bitterness of not being loved.
And here I come back to my point of departure. Why do you fall in love? Nothing could be more complex: because it is winter, because it is summer; from overwork, from too much leisure; from weakness, from strength; (p.102) a need for security, a taste for danger; from despair, from hope; because someone does not love you, because he does love you. …
“What Love Is—and Isn’t,” McCall’s, August 1965, 71, 133; translator unknown; © Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir. The article was preceded by “A Celebrated Frenchwoman explains …”