Is love universal?

Love makes the world go ’round, but does it also go around the world? How do portrayals of love in various cultures allow us to explore our own? Eric Selinger, an English professor at DePaul University, speaks about his experiences as a scholar of popular romance.


Is love universal?

One of the things that I’ve loved about becoming a scholar of popular romance is the way that it has opened up a world of texts and a world of media to me. It has been claimed, and I think it’s probably true, that what we think of as love is on the one hand a set of biological, neurological, emotional phenomena that are our common inheritance as human beings, as a species, as animals, as primates. And on the other hand that those are understood, articulated, and put into practice through culture, and cultures vary a lot. There are cultural scripts about whom you can love, about what that love will feel like, what are the emotions that are involved, and what are the social behaviors that are appropriate when it comes to love. Those vary from culture to culture.

But cultures do not live in isolation, so even as those vary from culture to culture, cultures also mix and match them. Right? And there is, I think, a fascination with other culture’s love stories, just as there is a fascination with other people’s love lives. It’s the much nicer intellectual version of that voyeuristic impulse.

So what does this mean? Well, it means historically that if you look at love stories and love literature, poetry, drama, whatever it might be from various parts of the world what you find is people are constantly stealing stories from each other, stealing motifs from one another, and adapting them to local use. You find elements of pastoral love, which emerges in Hellenistic culture in a particular period, being seized on and adapted in the Middle East, in Hebrew language culture and Arabic language culture, and then picked up and transformed in Persia and in Persian culture and crossbred with ideas that are coming over from China. In a way that’s fascinating and alluring. What makes it so fascinating and alluring is precisely the mixture of the familiar and the exotic.

There’s a marvelous Korean drama, Secret Garden is the name in English, where the hero and heroine are together at the end. It’s got a happy ending, but they never marry because the hero’s mother doesn’t approve. We see them in the sort of epilogue going year after year—with their children even! Going year after year to the gate of the mother’s house waiting for her approval. Until that comes, the story’s not done. In that sense, there’s a kind of bittersweet quality to the ending. You’re not going to get that in an American TV show; you’re not going to get that in American film. So the demands of family, the demands of faith, the duty one owes to one’s job, the duty one owes to one’s children, the shame of having been previously married or even previously in love with someone—there are lots and lots of variables that can play out very, very differently in different local cultures. I love it when as I’m getting sucked into a narrative, suddenly something interrupts and reminds me I’m not alone in this universe. I’m not alone as an American, not everything says my culture back to me. I love that. The other thing that I love are those moments when you’re seeing something from another culture and you say, “That is so true. That is so vivid. That is so real, and I didn’t have a word for it before.” I didn’t know how to conceive of it, I didn’t have the story in mind, I didn’t have the characters in mind, I didn’t have the sort of archetype to use in my own thinking that this other culture has given me.

The great example of this I would say is what happens when Eric Clapton, who is passionately and hopelessly in love with Pattie Boyd Harrison goes into a London bookshop, and finds a translation of Nizami’s poem “The Story of Layla and Majnun.” It’s a Sufi poem. It’s kind of vogue for Sufism in the counterculture at that time. And he reads that book and he says, “Ok wait, this love of Qays who becomes mad,” majnun he becomes “the madman” for love for Layla, “that’s what I’m feeling.” And he borrows the name, gives it to his most famous song, that’s what the song “Layla,” that’s where the name Layla comes from. There’s another song on that double album, the song “I Am Yours,” if you look at the lyric credit or the song writing credit it’s Clapton/Nizami, and the lyrics come straight out of that translation.

Those moments of recognition—not just recognition of something in another culture, but recognition of something in yourself, recognition of something in your own life. In that mirror that another culture offers are beautiful. They’re priceless. They’re part of the way that cultures keep fertilizing one another, keep spurring one another on, keep revitalizing one another from century to century, from place to place. It’s the kind of cultural exchange that we’re very familiar with in the 21st century, in the 20th century. But if you look back historically, it’s a kind of cultural exchange that’s been going on pretty much almost through recorded history.

Anytime you get cultures in contact with each other, you find—not literally, but sort of imaginatively—you find these cultures asking, “Who are your gods? Are they like my gods? What are your stories? How do they relate to my stories? What does love look like where you are? What could I learn from that? What could I steal from that? And how can I give it back to you changed and estranged and made new in a way that keeps the cycle going?”

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