Today I went back to university for the first time in nearly two decades to learn about love. I sat in on a unique undergraduate course at New York University that explores love in all its permutations, from the parent-child bond to universal love and everything in between.
Riding the subway to NYU’s downtown Manhattan campus I found myself questioning the course’s premise. Wasn’t it indulgent, semi-delusional even, to run a course like this at such a moment in America’s history? In these dark times surely the emotion most urgently in need of academic enquiry was love’s opposite?
And leaving aside the disturbing political realities, where was love evident on this subway ride, except as a cynical advertising ploy on the billboards spinning by on the platform? It certainly wasn’t to be found in the studied disregard of my fellow passengers and I as we did our best to ignore the homeless man’s panhandling. Nor in the shove in the back from the commuter who barrelled in to me at the last stop and couldn’t even muster an apology.
And yet I know that love is deeply important. I have a three-year-old daughter whose main role, it often seems, is in reminding me of this truth. And I know too that love is complex. My partner taught me this in the early days of our relationship. While I was still fumbling in the dark, leaning my weight on supposedly time-honoured wisdoms (‘relationships are meant to be hard’, ‘an argument clears the air’) that kept giving way beneath me, she quietly steered a copy of Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving in to my hands and I began to understand what a subtly dynamic force love is. How it changes according to the relationship (the mother’s all-encompassing compassion versus the father’s conditional love) and how it can be perfected through daily practice in the way of an artform.
But in spite of this there was still a part of me that refused to take love seriously. The same left-brained materialist part of me probably that throws aside intimations of the ineffable as self-delusion, and prefers to override my intuition with wooden reason.
I sensed this half of me in a rather bleak ascendancy a few minutes later when I found myself standing in front of a room full of smiling undergraduates and I could manage only an uncertain nod before retreating to the back of the lecture room to listen to the rest of the class.
The course, the brainchild of NYU associate professor Megan Poe, uses diverse sources to explore the human experience of love. The lecture I attended was focused on the pre-teen and early adolescent phase of life and the students were asked to analyse excerpts from the movies Stand by Me and My Girl as well as a VCR recording of one of Poe’s friends reading a love letter written as an 11-year-old to Leonardo DiCaprio. A discussion followed about the intensity of young love and a student shared an anecdote about spotting DiCaprio on the streets of Manhattan a few months earlier. “Ten-year-old me freaked the fuck out!”
Poe told them about the work of the psychologist Dr Dan Siegel who identified four key behavioural features of adolescence: heightened emotional intensity; a turning away from parents towards the peer group; novelty-seeking and an explosion in creativity. To illustrate Siegel’s ideas she showed them a clip of DiCaprio playing opposite Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet. The clip captured the febrile quality of adolescent love with the two young stars eyeing each other hungrily through a fish tank and later locked in a passionate embrace.
“Adolescence is this time when this great palette of emotions opens up in you,” Poe told the class. “You want to know all the colours. And you’ll get them, and you’ll learn how to paint with them too.”