Love Me Do's and Don'ts

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Americans like to think of themselves as the last romantics. Europeans can have their mistresses, marriages of convenience and topless game shows — but we Americans still worship at the altar of romantic love, sappy love stories and Valentine's Day.


In fact, Americans are both puerile and cynical about romantic love. The Hallmark soft-focus romanticism is just a form of self-deception. As Valentine's Day approaches, let's look at the evidence.

First, "Temptation Island." A show that basically works on the voyeuristic principle that romantic love is a much weaker bond than lust, and if you throw some buffed bodies in front of men or women, they will soon surrender.

Second, Tom and Nicole. How many thousands of misty, reverent magazine stories were written about the union of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman? How perfectly suited and endlessly devoted they were to each other. But, as it turns out, it was a merger more than a marriage between two spoiled people who each wanted their own way.

In fact, we would do well to realize that romantic love itself is a form of fiction. It was the invention of the troubadour poets of the 12th and 13th centuries — they were the Beatles of the Middle Ages — who basically coined the grammar and syntax of romantic love. It is from them that we derive so many of our romantic assumptions about love — that love involves suffering and anguish, that there is love at first sight, that absence makes the heart grow fonder, that a grand passion is life's great ambition and that finally, as John Lennon said, All you need is love.

Their poetry set the template for all these ideas, and we've been kissing by the book ever since. If you look at the movie "Titanic," which has done more to promote the sappy clichés of romantic love than anything else in the last 20 years, it follows exactly all the rules set down by the troubadours 800 years ago.

My wife always gets annoyed when I make this argument because she says the troubadours were only observing something that already existed. But I'm not so sure. C. S. Lewis argues that they actually invented something new in the human heart, and we've been copying it ever since. In a thousand different ways, we all learn the rudiments of romantic love from popular culture. Kids learn how to kiss and flirt from the movies and TV, and then spend the rest of their lives trying to live up to dumb clichés they learned as children.

In fact, love, as it turns out, is not very ethereal at all, but has a local habitation and a name. Andreas Bartels, a doctoral candidate at University College London, recently decided he would use an MRI to scan the brains of 17 students who said they were in love. He showed them pictures of their sweethearts and found that there were four particular parts of the brain that showed increased activity and blood flow. The areas that lighted up are part of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is near the brain's midline; the middle insula, which is deep in the brain; and part of the putamen and caudate nucleus. As it turns out, these are not the same precincts of the brain that light up for a feeling of simple lust. So, yes, love does exist.

Which is all the more reason why you should figure out how to love in your own way, and not from the troubadour poets, or "Titanic," or "Temptation Island," or Tom and Nicole.