Is it love?

Could you recognize love in another time or part of the world or even another subculture? DePaul University professor of English Eric Selinger ponders the wide variety of actions and thoughts encompassed within one word.

How do you define love? What’s required for you to read or view or feel something and accept it as love? Do you have family or acquaintances whose definitions seem different than your own?


Is it love?

Well, one thing that we can say is that what counts as love in one time and in one place can be unrecognizable as love in another. When I teach Dante’s Vita Nuova I have to explain to my students that we’re dealing with love that number one isn’t aiming towards marriage. Dante marries. Beatrice marries. Nobody’s thinking about how do we get a couple together. That’s not what love is about. Love is not about a relationship. It’s not about intimacy. It’s not about coupledom. It’s not about building a family. All of those things have their place in the culture, but they’re not thought of as the realm where love plays out. Love is something else.

There’s a way in which, if you really want to understand love in all of its variety and all of its complexity, you need to go—not to philosophers, not to theologians—you need to go to anthropologists, historians, sociologists, people for whom difference is everything. People who can tell you that what counted as love and what looked like love in 16th-century Istanbul might get you locked up in 20th-century London. And frankly that what looked like love and was talked about as love and what constituted love in 1959 in New York City, you read that same story 50 years later and you think, “What’s wrong with these people? What happened here? What are they thinking?” Those kinds of changes, whether it’s chronologically within a culture or whether it’s geographically across cultures are important for us to know not because we need to change, not because somebody’s right and somebody’s wrong, but because they remind us of the sort of delightful variety.

And recognizing how different they are from one another helps us understand sometimes why it is that even at a single moment in a single conversation in a single date in 21st-century America you can have two people talking about love with very different ideas in their heads and very different expectations in their hearts. Neither one is wrong. They’re using one word that means many, many different things, and has meant many different things, and is going to keep meaning many different things, and that’s probably a very good thing.

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