We Need to Talk About Love

I am a man who has loved in his lifetime and, despite my propensity for profanity this is the four letter word I have probably said the most (Credit: Nietjuh via Pixabay)

Probably an article more suited to release a few weeks ago, around Valentine’s Day and all. I am writing this because I am currently doing an analysis of “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” and I have realised that despite the fact that it is supposedly a romantic tale, despite the fact that it is supposedly about love (it isn’t, it’s about hypocrisy and suffering) I haven’t talked about love at all in over 10,000 words of analysis.

So love, what is it?

That’s a difficult question to answer. You see when most people hear ‘love’ they think of sexual ‘love’. This is an attraction to another person caused by a response to certain stimuli; from their appearance, to their smell, the pheromones they emit, a certain ‘I don’t know what’ but whatever it is it causes the release of all sorts of happy-nervous hormones and neurotransmitters (literally mind-altering chemicals) that leads to a desire to be with that person.

Predominantly this exists as an attraction from one sex to the other but the world, and the biology in it, is more complicated than that and such attractions can exist between just about any two individuals or even individuals and objects, and that’s perfectly cool. The fundamental mechanisms are still the same, the target of attraction different. This exists in nature as well, with many species demonstrating attractions or even full relationships with same-sex individuals of their species, with other sex, with different species altogether or with objects. Biology! If you think it’s in some way fixed or innate, you didn’t study it enough!

Now, there is a nice, easy, biological explanation for this attraction we think of as ‘love’. Your genome has, for billions of years, had an underlying desire to reproduce and it is good for two humans who reproduce to feel a closeness to one another in order that they can exist in a happy community and raise healthy offspring who can go on to perform the genome’s will and produce more healthy offspring of their own, repeat until the Earth is engulfed by the Sun.

If that trivialises ‘love’ for you somewhat, I make no apology. What you feel is as a result of a physiological reaction the can form a psychological dependency for the benefit of yourself, your partner and your offspring – if you have any – humans have this curious little thing called ‘consciousness’ that can, if not overpower, at least sometimes veto overwhelming biological urges.

Even then we are so untrustworthy with it we have invented cheats like condoms or contraceptive pills to help us trick our genomes so we can enjoy all the satisfaction of pair-bonding with none of the complications of having to actually look after offspring. Clever, aren’t we?

I don’t care about the branding and watermarks. I was looking for the most awkward stock photo to demonstrate ‘attraction’ and how is it not this? They’re both wearing the same baby-shit green t-shirt and look of disdain! Neither of them touching the wine to their lips as if they think the other has poisoned it. Looking at each other with eyes on fire with suspicion and doubt…This is quality! (Credit: DepositPhotos – Used without permission, please contact us for removal but don’t make me take this down it’s so funny!)

There are then homosexual, bisexual or pansexual people in whom those mechanisms operate more or less the same only the targets of their attraction are different. There are also asexual people who may feel no sexual urges at all, or else when they do feel them they do not have the same imperative as sexual people. Again, all of this is perfectly fine and biological. People who want to claim there is something unnatural about any of this haven’t studied nature enough and need to shut up.

Now true ‘Romantic’, in the artistic/philosophical sense, love is another thing altogether. It is an aesthetic-spiritual thing whereby you create an almost cult-like devotion to a person. In Tess it is a romantic, idealised version of Tess that Angel Clare falls in love with. It is entirely his own fault, and he is an idiot. ‘Romantic’ love is dangerously unhealthy, of course, and the kind of fanaticism that leads to cults-of-personality, stalkers, religions and dictators.

It is not uncommon for a ‘romantic’ devotion to arise from a physiological attraction, just as it is not uncommon for a physiological attraction to be deflated once one realises the true nature of the object of affection (see Angel and Tess) – These two systems, one physiological and one mainly psychological tie into one another – The separation of mind and body being merely a fabrication of a pre-neuroscience understanding and interpretation of anatomy and philosophy.

We now know that mind and body are one and so these systems of ‘love’ interconnect. Our physiological attraction creates a psychological image of a person that may not reflect their true selves, just as a revelation of a true-self can affect the degree to which you are physiologically attracted to someone. It’s quite remarkable really!

The ‘Google Image Search’ page, when I put in Romance and ‘Free License’. Note the appeal to nature, sunset imagery, moon imagery – it is very pagan, much like the ‘Romantic’ movement was a counter-culture against Christianity or rationalism. The couples are all intertwined, as if trying to climb into one another, possessive not just in a physical sense but also spiritually, like demons trying to possess each other’s bodies. ‘Romantic love’ is an idealisation of sexual attraction that is unhealthy, in my opinion. (Credit: Image by me, respective images in the collection used under Creative Commons. If you want it removed contact us)

But I still don’t think I’ve explained what ‘love’ is.

And that’s because it is a question without answer. Or rather whatever answer you can come up with is yours.

What is love?
(baby don’t hurt me…Sorry…)

To me love is active. Love is not a passive feeling; it is not something that simmers in the background. Love is activity. Love is doing. It lends it somewhat a sacrificial air, sure, but sacrifice is a part of love as far as I am concerned.

Love is not merely attraction – because, circularly, that’s attraction. Love is what you do out of that attraction. Do you learn? Do you change? Do you offer a hand? Do you give a lift? Are you a shoulder to cry on? Are you there? Do you help? To me this is love.

Let me get Christian and theological. Did Adam and Eve love each other in Eden?

They didn’t have to work, everything was provided for them and they had no worries or sorrows in the world. Neither knew suffering or pain, thus neither had to help the other with anything. They were together, sure, and they enjoyed being together. Is that love, though?

When cast out, both cursed to dig and paw at the ground, or take the lives of other animals and tear at their flesh, for something to eat, Eve cursed with pain during childbirth, did they love then?

Love is not merely enjoying being together. Love is Eve rubbing Adam’s back when he has been toiling in the soil all day to grow them something to eat. Love is Adam returning the favour when Eve has been working. Loving is comforting each other through the emotional trauma of taking a life to sustain your own. Love is Adam giving Eve a hand to squeeze as she screams and gives birth. Love is them working, struggling and striving to provide for their children. Love may be a feeling, but it is expressed as action.

Adam and Eve in their so-called ‘innocent love’. But what is love when neither of them knows pain, when neither of them know fear, when neither of them knows fault? This is not ‘love’ as much as it is ecstasy. Is love merely pleasure? The joy of being together? Or is there something more to love?
(Credit: The Wellcome Collection CC-BY-4.0)

Love is what makes you go out of your way for someone else and in that regard love does not have to be between a man and a woman, or between two partners, love does not even have to be exclusively sexual. Indeed, most of the love I have ever encountered has been entirely non-sexual. Love does not even need to be mutual; indeed one person can act out of love for another knowing they gain no advantage whatsoever. Though true altruism is hard to find I cannot say it doesn’t exist. For the most part we love mutually, we love so we may foster relationships, but sometimes we merely love for love’s sake, to prove that love is.

I don’t talk about love in my analysis of ‘Tess’ because to me there is little love on display, besides Tess’ consistent sacrifice for everyone else. In a sense she is a self-fulfilling romance, yet she does not love herself. Indeed, quite the opposite. She loves everyone and everything else so much to escape herself and the hatred she has for herself. The more damaged she feels she is, the more she suffers, the more she shows love to others.

This is the sad complexity of love. To many love is suffering, but it is a willing suffering. In ‘Tess’ we see this exhibited by Father Clare, a vicar who gladly takes a beating to save another’s soul. He revels in it, for to him receiving those wounds is proof of his love for others. Love is being happy to give up part of oneself for another.

‘Romance’ has tainted this, especially in its modern interpretation. Turning nothing but lusty, possessive physiology into ‘love’ and making us all believe in satisfactory rain-drenched kisses and last minute airport confessions.

Love is seldom so joyful, seldom so happy. Love’s refrain is a dirge; it is a song of sorrow, for love hurts.

But if it hurts so much would we be better off without it?

Love Hurts: Calling to mind image of Saint Sebastian, smothered in arrow wounds for his devotion, or the Sacred Heart, the pierced, thorn-embowered heart of Christ, burning with love for humanity. This is some absolutely stunning street art from Paulo Ito (Credit: Paulo Ito CC-BY-2.0)


A mother’s kiss on a child’s wound does not actually fix anything and yet the child feels better. Love may not be able to repair the wound, but it can help us deal with it. The wounds of life do not stop coming, and our mothers are not always around. If we do not love each other, how can we feel better?

It is not a love of money, but a lust for power, that tears down rainforests for factories, plantations and profit. A love of nature, driving passionate action, can protect it, though.

You may only have a short time with the people you love, but in your actions you can demonstrate how love should be, the sacrifices love makes and the joy love can bring. You can do for others, out of love, merely for the joy it brings them.  

Think back to your past relationships, with partners, with friends, with family, think about times when you did things for them and they for you, you will remember with fondness those acts of love, even if all else turned sour. Love is the sweetener.

There is no idealism to it, it’s visceral. Love is throwing yourself under a bus to save another. Love is, actually, in many ways, a human compulsion. People see a child drowning in a river and they throw themselves in without thinking to try and rescue them and when asked later why they did it they say “I didn’t even think about it…”

No doubt an act of love, one done unconsciously, that could easily endanger the other party – indeed many are the people who have died for love.

‘Romantic’ books, movies, TV shows, they cheapen love. Valentine’s Day can fuck off. Love isn’t chocolate and flowers, it is aching feet and empty purses. Love is being that guy who sells the Big Issue who puts ‘dog food’ at the top of his shopping list. I’m no lover of dogs but when you prioritise your pet’s comfort above your own, even in dire circumstances, that’s love.

Love loves without thinking. It’s a feeling as old as our genes themselves. It is a feeling as deeply natural as fear. Indeed in my book the opposite of fear is not bravery, it is love. I am not the first to say or think it, either.

Love, then, can best be described as a complicated prism through which actions and suffering, through which our pain, can be shone and divided into many beautiful colours so that we may, one day, appreciate them.


Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Karl Anthony Mercer is a writer, poet, author, musician and part-time dandy. He can often be found squatting in fields looking at insects (he is an unapologetic wasp fanatic), wandering around museums over-dressed, or hiding in a dank corner singing sad songs on a small guitar. His writing on WordPress consists of MercersPoems - an outlet for his poetry often using natural imagery, gothicism and decadence to explore the struggles of living as an autistic person; and We Lack Discipline - Where he writes about factual, often academic topics he has learned and is interested in (e.g. biology, psychology, Roman history etc.) with an inimitable, often light-hearted and irreverant style. You can support Karl by; Subscribing to the We Lack Discipline Patreon - https://www.patreon.com/WeLackDiscipline Or buying him a coffee (he loves coffee!) - https://ko-fi.com/welackdiscipline

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