Forget Valentine's Day: Can Love Be an Illusion?

Parashkev Nachev

I am head over heels in love but my cynical friends keep telling me that love is nothing but a cocktail of pheromones, dopamine and oxytocin, and that these wear off after a couple of years. The thought scares me, it makes the whole thing seem meaningless. Is love really just brain chemistry? Jo, London.

Licence my roving hands, and let them go,

Before, behind, between, above, below.

It is no accident that arguably the most erotic line of English poetry is all prepositions. The essence of love, at least of passionately romantic love, is revealed in its very grammar. We fall in love, not wander into it. And, as you say, we fall head over heels, not dragging our feet – often at first sight rather than on careful inspection. We fall in love madly, blind to the other’s vices, not in rational appraisal of their virtues.

At its root, romantic love is spontaneous, overwhelming, irresistible, ballistic, even if, over time, its branches take on more complex hues. It is in control of us more than we are ever in control of it. In one sense a mystery, it is in another pure simplicity – its course, once engaged, predictable and inevitable and its cultural expression more or less uniform across time and space. The impulse to think of it in terms of simple causes precedes science. Consider the arrow of Cupid, the potion of a sorcerer – love seems elemental.

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