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On the study of love
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Pass it on
I'm reading
On the study of love
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
On the study of love
Pass it on
Pass it on
15 February 2018

On the study of love

When so many human lives end with the realisation that it was love that gave their existence meaning how could we not think that this is a vitally important thing to be teaching our young people?

Written by Paul Willis

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

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.”

There was a discussion about early friendship touched off by a reading from The Little Prince. In the extract the Little Prince meets a fox who explains to him how he might tame him. The fox’s explanation is a deceptively simple unpacking of the complex dynamics of friendship, how it can at once elevate and bind.

Students shared their own experiences of first friends, the rites by which the friendship was cemented and their jealousy if someone else sought to move on in the relationship. Their age made them closer to the material so it was perhaps easier for them to call up these memories. Even so, I was impressed by their willingness to go there, especially after one or two of them were brave enough to acknowledge that these dynamics were still present in campus life.

Much of what was being discussed struck a chord. All my close friendships growing up were accented by jealousy, while my adolescent yearning for the opposite sex was not so much feverish as a full-blown outbreak, chained as I was to the proverbial lunatic of the libido.

I didn’t want to depress them, or embarrass myself, by revealing how long it could take to shed these tendencies—though Dan Siegel’s estimation that adolescent behaviours continue until 30 struck me as a touch on the conservative side. I should introduce him to some of my friends.

Where their experience of love differed noticeably from mine was in the extent to which it was mediated by technologies that didn’t exist when I was their age. This change was more fundamental than mere dating apps, said Poe. She made an argument for how smart phones themselves have become a kind of ‘transitional object’, a term associated with early childhood development to denote how babies and toddlers anthropomorphise objects—usually cuddly toys—with qualities of the mother to compensate for the loss of intimacy when she stops caring for them 24/7.

The contention that their phones had become a surrogate for mother’s love provoked some interesting reactions. One student complained about “this adult obsession with shaming dependency.” Another told a story that turned the theory on its head. She explained how the previous day she had become claustrophobic on the subway after her train was delayed in a tunnel. She tried to call her mum for reassurance but there was no phone network. There followed a panic attack. “If I’d just been able to call my mum I would have been alright,” she said, showing that if smart phones are the surrogate they can also be the conduit to a mother’s love.

By the end of the lecture I felt reassured. And how could it be otherwise, really. When so many human lives end with the realisation that it was love that gave their existence meaning how could we not think that this is a vitally important thing to be teaching our young people?

In fact, the impression I was ultimately left with was of how big of a subject you are contending with here, and how an undergraduate course like Poe’s can do no more than scratch the surface. I can imagine a future where entire university departments are given over to the study of love. While for its practice, life itself shall always offer ample training ground.

Paul Willis

Paul Willis is a writer and journalist. Born and raised in north-east England he began his writing career in his mid-twenties working as a reporter on his hometown paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his partner – a visual artist – and his young daughter.

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