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Romantic Love: A Literary Universal?

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 30, Number 2, October 2006
pp. 450-470 | 10.1353/phl.2006.0030

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


To love someone romantically is—at least according to innumerable literary works, much received wisdom, and even a gradually coalescing academic consensus—to experience a strong desire for union with someone who is deemed entirely unique. It is to idealize this person, to think constantly about him or her, and to discover that one's own life priorities have changed dramatically. It is to care deeply for that person's well-being and to feel pain or emptiness when he or she is absent.

But is this intense emotional experience a universal experience, something that is characteristically and quintessentially human, or is it merely a sociocultural construct that belongs to a particular time and place? On this point there is less agreement, both within and between different academic disciplines. The audacious question we want to raise in the pages that follow is whether literature—or more specifically, a large-scale, multiple-coder content analysis of thousands of folk tales drawn from different parts of the planet—can contribute something to this difficult question about love, culture, and human nature.

Let us first look briefly at the theoretical problem that we aim to address. A widespread view among literary scholars and social scientists over the last decades has been that romantic love is a social construction specific to Western culture. This is part of a relentless skepticism toward assumptions that important categories of human psychology and emotion—romantic and parental love, gender, sexual orientation, and so on—are "natural" rather than constructed. This position is often, if not always, linked to an ideological concern to demystify (or at least problematize) what is perceived as an essentially destructive or oppressive emotion or belief. Taking her cue from Simone de Beauvoir, Marilyn Friedman gives no less than ten reasons why it may be problematic for women to fall in love with men.

Of course, no argument of any kind can be strictly ideological in nature since it always involves empirical assumptions—either explicit or implicit—about the nature of things. For example, the psychoanalyst E. S. Persons opines that the "best evidence that romantic love is not hard-wired into the emotional repertoire of humanity but is a cultural construct is the fact that there are so many cultures in which it is virtually absent." Another frequent argument for love's constructedness has been that "there is no definition that describes love throughout the ages or across cultures."

In some literary-critical accounts, it is even argued that romantic love is a cultural invention that can be traced back with precision to the courtly troubadour culture of twelfth-century France. According to yet another school, represented by the influential literary theorist Jonathan Culler, "the notion of romantic love (and its centrality to the lives of individuals) is arguably a massive literary creation."

While the social constructivist position on romantic love typically involves a strong commitment to cultural specificity, a weaker version is held even by some cognitive theorists who grant more to biology and panhuman traits. From the perspective of their communicative theory of emotion, Philip Johnson-Laird and Keith Oatley argue that the "components [of romantic love] exist separately in different societies, but their integration into a recognizable complex is a cultural accomplishment [by the West]."

At the other end of the romantic love continuum we find those who argue that this emotion belongs to a universal human nature: or, more specifically, that it can be attributed to specialised neural circuits whose ultimate purpose is to enhance reproductive success. Not surprisingly, this has been a favorite position among evolutionary psychologists, and it has recently received some support from neuroscientific studies.

For example, the neuroscientists Andreas Bartels and Samir Zeki claim to have uncovered a "functionally specialised system" that lights up in fMRI (magnetic resonance) scans of brains whose owners claim to be enamoured. Among other things, these studies lend unexpected support to the proverbial idea that "love is blind" since the experience of romantic love can be correlated with the deactivation of brain regions concerned with critically assessing other people's intentions and making moral judgements. Another research team (Helen Fisher and associates) has drawn extensively on similar neuroscientific evidence in...

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