Two views on love compete for our heart

A medium must be found between unreal romanticism and cold rationalism

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer (2009)

When it comes to that ‘crazy little thing called love’, no-one actually knows what they’re doing. Despite years of study and experience it’s surprising that we have no sort of comprehensive formal education on the matter. The education we as millennials have received has been woefully inadequate. We’re the generation known for being perhaps the most disillusioned. So whilst we’re looking for a voice of authority on love, to guide us out of our confusion we get caught between two competing philosophies of love: one of emotionalism and one of rationalism (often called cynicism).

Today, more than ever, we’re reluctant to suggest the two are linked. You can see the two ideologies exemplified in the 2009 movie (500) Days of Summer. If you haven’t seen it, you should know, the film begins with the narrator describing “Tom Hansen of Margate, New Jersey, [who] grew up believing that he’d never truly be happy until the day he met his… ‘soulmate.’ This belief stemmed from [his] early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” Even though Tom was a teen in the 1980s and is from the USA, I’d argue this is the sort of education on love many of us received.

We’re the generation that learned about Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in school, and then would go home and broodingly listen to Drake, (or maybe something edgier if your parents owned vinyls). Tom exhibits the emotional approach to love. His ‘love interest’ Summer, is of course a ‘cynic.’ She informs him, on the subject of love: “I don’t even know what that word means. I know I’ve never felt it, whatever it is in all those songs… Oh yeah, And I read in Newsweek, there were these scientists who found that by stimulating a part of the brain with electrodes you can make a person fall in “love” with a rock.”

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So we’re either falling headfirst in love or having sensory reactions to rocks… In the past, views on love were at the ‘Tom’ end of the spectrum. When you’re younger, your parents would tell you about love, and you’d believe what they said. This stage lasts a long time. Apparently we stop believing in Santa around age nine or ten, but believe in love well into adulthood, and spend colossal amounts of time looking for it or, at least, reading about it.

This is because once we’ve neglected our parents authority on the matter, we might turn to our friends, or even more worryingly, to literature. This is an art form rampant with couples starting duels, running themselves through with swords, and eating arsenic or at the very least writing exceptionally sad journals. Once you’ve realised perhaps this isn’t the best way to learn about love, without becoming too cynical you’ll perhaps have to turn to music. However this industry is equally concerning. One of the most ‘romantic’ lyrics in British music reads “if a double-decker bus crashes into us / To die by your side is such a heavenly way to die / And if a ten-ton truck kills the both of us / To die by your side, the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” There’s ‘romance’, and then there’s that! – A complete explosion of what realistically is narcissistic, and cringeworthy diatribe (although that may be a very unpopular opinion).

On the other hand, I grew up being told that the most authoritative voices in music on love were, of course, Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman which are obviously not always the most uplifting influences. However, both are truly fantastic artists and many of us will feel some sort of heartbreak like theirs in our lives. Most of us admittedly won’t write a beautiful album about it, we’ll likely listen to theirs instead. So this emotionalism, whether it be literary, musical or other, works wonders as a crutch and a way to explain or educate us on how we’re feeling, but they don’t provide a complete education.

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However in the last few years, recent studies into love have turned to Summer’s ideology. The rationalists have gone so far the other way and are fraught with statistics, facts, cynicism, and rationale. In a way, making explainable the mix of feelings that constitutes love is reassuring. Yet this approach definitely makes love seem more like a science than an art. Notions of ‘soul-mate’, ‘one and only’ and ‘love of your life’ get replaced with statistics that can tell you exactly how many ‘long term partners’ you are likely to have, how many of these you will ‘cohabit’ with and how many you will statistically ‘marry’ and ‘divorce’. A concept that was once intrinsically romanticised, is now being routinely analysed.

Today that voice of authority comes from an industry. ‘Matchmaker’ and ‘Love doctor’ now exists as professional platforms. In the last five years, TedTalks on love have focused on things like the science of love, linguistic studies of love, and how to step into love as opposed to falling into it. The industry has turned being ‘lucky in love’ to being ‘smug in love’ since there appears now to be a specific algorithm for finding love, which only some of us will master before a certain age. I mean, Buzzfeed will probably be able to tell you what type of person you find attractive based on your favourite pizza topping.

Today’s challenge seems to be to find a way of talking about love that is somewhere in the middle. We all know we have a tendency to over romanticise, but becoming analytical robots isn’t too appealing either. There needs to be some realism within this age old concept.

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