Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?

This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 19,  Romance

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Why does love got to be so sad? The question is from a song famously performed and co-written by Eric Clapton, the guitar maestro, for whom love could, apparently, be a sad affair in life as well as in art. “Layla,” the song he’s best known for, has him down on his knees, begging for love from a woman who, the story goes, happened to be George Harrison’s wife. Even rock stars get the blues. Even rock stars suffer in love. It’s a universal condition, erotic suffering. It afflicts us all. “Ay me,” says Shakespeare’s Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “for aught that I could ever read, / Could ever hear by tale or history / The course of true love never did run smooth.”

Why is this so — assuming that it is? Why is the erotic life so often full of grief, sorrow, or at least radical disappointment when it is supposed to be — and of course on occasion actually is — a world of joy? Is it in our stars? Is it in ourselves? Is it a societal flaw? Might we, by creating a better culture, make erotic life a sphere of enduring joy? We know, or think we know, that love promises ongoing bliss, yet it so often ends in sorrow. (“As high as we have mounted in delight,” the poet says, “in our dejection do we sink as low.”) Perhaps we should simply reduce our expectations, anticipate disappointment and dissatisfaction. But many people are erotic idealists — they seek joy in love. They are people — dare one say — whose erotic lives have become their spiritual lives. They are Romantics, and Romance is their highest good. Why does love fail them so often?

One of the first people to tackle the question, years before Clapton ever set eyes on Layla or anyone else, was Aristophanes. According to Plato’s Aristophanes, there was a time when human beings lived in a condition of bliss. Two people lived together as one body. They were all and everything in themselves. They were complete, though they were also, to be sure, rather grotesque. They had eight limbs (spider-like) and were fused in the middle. They must have cartwheeled from place to place. But they were merry, so merry that they made the gods jealous. The gods split these rolling unities apart, and made them into two people. From then on, people have roamed the world, looking for the missing part of themselves, the half that had been sundered on that sorry day.

The soul mate, Aristophanes believed (perhaps with some irony), is the person who makes us complete. Without him, without her, we are only partial beings. We are all mind and no heart, all analysis and no imagination, all work and no play — the list goes on. But when we merge these qualities, we become whole and free. We work and play at once, making our avocation our vocation, as Frost puts it. We think and feel at the same time, conquering what Eliot called the dissociation of sensibility. We play with full and productive seriousness, as Schiller said that we might when we made ourselves one. We labor and know the fruits of our labors as being our own and not the property — in fact or in conception — of another (Marx, indirectly). Love without that true other half is not possible, and must by necessity be sad.

Schopenhauer had his own interpretation of love. Though he wrote years before Darwin, his notion of Romantic love was Darwinian in virtually every way. Why are so many individuals miserable in love? Why does love have to be so sad? For Schopenhauer, sexual desire is at the core of our being (like, well, Darwin). As natural creatures, we have one fundamental task in life and that is the task of reproduction. We are propelled to find the best mate to create the healthiest possible child. We are pushed — driven — in the direction of an individual to collaborate with. And we are filled with happiness when we have found our object and been accepted. Thus Schopenhauer — and thus, the Darwin of Origin of Species, who depicts Nature as a great “pigeon fancier”, spectacularly adept at breeding the healthiest, strongest possible pigeons.

Nature, Schopenhauer says, does not care for our happiness at all. What Nature cares about is the health of the next generation. Nature does not care much about the powers of nurture that a given couple might be able to generate between them. In the great Nature-nurture debate, Nature casts the ultimate vote. It does not matter to Nature that the child-to-be will live in a house full of books or listen to Mozart while he is in the womb. It doesn’t matter that both of the parents will dedicate themselves entirely to the baby. No, all Nature cares about is creating a bouncing, healthy, thriving little integer who will go on to produce more of the same. Says Schopenhauer:

There is something quite peculiar to be found in the deep, unconscious seriousness with which two young people of opposite sex regard each other when they meet for the first time, the searching and the penetrating glance they cast at each other, the careful inspection all the features and parts of their respective person have to undergo. This scrutiny and examination is the meditation of the genius of the species concerning the individual possible through these two, and the combination of its qualities.

Nature has no concern whatsoever about the happiness of the two people who come together to create the best possible child. The child is the object — not the pleasure of the parents. The idea is to create a winning baby, not to live happily ever after. Nature cares absolutely nothing about ever after.

Why does love have to be so sad? According to Schopenhauer, it is because Nature brings people together regardless of their personalities, their wants and desires and dreams and hopes. Nature is not worried about whether the male and the female in question are compatible or not. (About same-sex attraction, Schopenhauer has, alas, little that is illuminating to say.) Happiness is not part of Nature’s plan. Life is. So, people wake up from the dream of love and they find themselves ill-matched. Nature brings them together through the laws of attraction — her laws — and then, her work done, leaves the scene.

Love is an affair of the Will, Schopenhauer says. It is a matter of transpersonal drives much stronger than we are. In love, we use our intellects instrumentally. That is, we use them to help us gain the favors of the beloved. The intellect creates the stratagems that make love into a version of war. With the mind, Iplot and plan to secure what I want — but of course in love there is no I, there is no individual. We plot and plan thinking that we are fulfilling our own desires, when in fact we are pursuing the desires of Nature.

But in love, the intellect also deceives us, weaving a story about the beloved and creating a narrative that justifies the love we feel. The intellect finds all of the beloved’s better qualities and enhances them. Shakespeare has a lot of fun with the erotic mobility of our esteem in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the characters, their eyes anointed with love’s balm, snap from despising to worshipping each other. The mind, in this theory, actually functions as an unpaid attorney — an advocate for Nature — acting in the interest of the species.

How can you be happy in love, from Schopenhauer’s harsh and rather Darwinian vantage? You can get lucky. You can wake up and find that besides being a splendid biological match, you two are a human match to boot. Is this theory rather off-putting? Schopenhauer has an answer for the disappointed:

However loudly those persons of a lofty and sentimental soul, especially those in love, may raise an outcry over the gross realism of my view, they are nevertheless mistaken. For is not the precise determination of the individualities of the next generation a much higher and worthier aim than those exuberant feelings and immaterial soap bubbles of theirs?

This was perhaps the most potent philosophical attack on erotic idealism, though Nietzsche, who saw Schopenhauer as his master and guide, did take up the question some years later. (Nietzsche was so dedicated to Schopenhauer that when he was in the army — conceive of Nietzsche in the army! — and matters became too exasperating, he was prone to look to the heavens and cry out, “Schopenhauer, help me!”) Nietzsche, as might be expected, fell into Schopenhauer’s dim view of things. He claimed that Romanticism was the spiritualization of sensuality — an attempt to confer meaning and respectability on the pleasures and needs of the flesh. Nietzsche may have been in a particularly prickly mood that day, but he clearly rejected the more charitable view of things: the Romantic as someone who aspires to make his or her erotic life into a spiritual life.

This brings us back to the Romantics. All worldly-wise people know that the path to erotic satisfaction is not an easy one, perhaps nonexistent. Love is a peril and all the rest. This was clear even to the writers and thinkers we call Romantics. But the Romantics were willing to take the ideal of love and Romance as being at the center of life and consider the possibility that an erotic life can be a spiritual life. The Romantic wants love to be his spiritual life, but he will not rest easy with what we might call spiritual love. He wants his love to be as physically intense as possible. He wants it to include all the passion that Darwin and Schopenhauer evoke. But he wants more than that, too.

Shelley famously defined love as “a going out of our own nature and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person not our own.” The definition sounds abstract and a bit cold, as though Shelley’s sense of love was Christian and monastic, but nothing could be less true. Shelley was a proponent of sexual love. For Shelley, if love was authentic, it had powerful erotic attraction and sexual consummation at its core. The instincts must be engaged and the appetites must be awakened.

Did Shelley believe in free love? That’s what many people think. He surely wrote a ferocious polemic against marriage: “[W]ith one chained friend, perhaps a jealous foe, / The dreariest and the longest journey [we] go,” he says of that institution. He also seemed to endorse multiple loves: “True love in this differs from gold and clay / That to divide is not to take away.” But no one should think of Shelley as an avatar of promiscuous abandon. To him, love was sacred — too sacred to be confined by mock sacraments, such as churchly marriage. Nothing should stand between a man or woman and the embrace of the soul mate.

For Shelley, love was the primary venture in life. You see this in one of his first major poems, Prometheus Unbound. To unbind himself from his limitations, physical and metaphysical, Prometheus needs to perform two tasks: he has to repudiate the spirit of revenge and he has to fully embrace his beloved, Asia. She is his soul mate — the being that Aristophanes describes when he speaks in Plato’s Symposium.

Prometheus finds this sort of completion in his Romance with Asia. Thinking of her, he cries out: “Asia! who when my being overflowed / Wert like a golden chalice to bright wine / Which else had sunk into the thirsty dust.” That is, she gave him focus, aim, objective, form. And it often seems that Asia is the more analytical of the pair. She spends herself in shrewd, lawyerlike questioning of the poem’s weird spirit of transformation, Demogorgon. It is she who seems to have more gift for metaphysics.

Who is Shelley’s Prometheus? Or to put the question in a better way: Who is Prometheus once he is unchained and joined with Asia? When the two are joined together, Prometheus attains full powers. He has been the one who made cities and seen the azure ocean flow between the white columns as they stand on the cliffs. He has not only created the works of poetry that matter — for as Shelley says, all true poems contribute to a giant poem always in the making — but also made scientific discoveries, to free men from pain and to prolong a joyful life:

He told the hidden powers of herbs and springs,
And Disease drank and slept. Death grew like sleep. He taught the implicated orbits woven
Of the wide wandering stars; and how the sun
Changes his lair and by what secret spell
The pale moon is transformed when her broad eye Gazes not on the interlunar sea:
He taught to rule, as life directs the limbs,
The tempest-winged chariots of the Ocean,
And the Celt knew the Indian. Cities then
Were built and through their snow-like columns flowed The warm winds and the azure ether shone,
And the blue sea and the shadowy hills were seen.

Where does such creativity come from? Shelley answers that it comes from love and from unbinding the imagination from the constraints imposed by repressive cultures and by the mind’s own timidity. It comes from the joining of lover and beloved.

How does Shelley’s vision of love and Romance respond to Schopenhauer — and all the other enemies of Romantic love who have been, and still are, abroad in the world? Shelley will not repudiate the instincts. Love, to count as love, must be sexual love and based in the drives, but it must pass beyond that too. Love that matters for Shelley not only dispenses sexual bliss, but fires invention, imagination, creation. The question for Shelley’s lover isn’t simply: Does he set me aflame? It’s the question of what happens to the flame. Does this love get poems written, discoveries made, move people to justice? If not, then it’s merely the old biological delusion.

For Shelley, the only love that matters is the love that feeds creation. He only respects love that leads to more work, and works. If an attraction doesn’t make the individual more creative, more humane, more generous, and more eager to redeem the world (or at least some corner of it) then it is not love. When love ceases to inspire fresh creation, it is no longer love.

Is it possible to be anything but a fool to Schopenhauer and Darwin’s procreative Nature? Can you ever see through the haze of obfuscation, ever truly recognize the authentic beloved? Shelley’s poem suggests that you can prove it on your pulse. If love makes you and your beloved more generously imaginative then you have beaten the biological imperative — though you will be indulging biology, too. If you thrive and make and do for others, not yourself, when you are in love, then it is love worthy of the name. If your love makes you kinder, more compassionate, more generous, then that is true love. If it makes you ready to sell something of what you have and give it to the poor, then that is true love. If love makes you braver — readier to stand up and fight when fighting is what’s needed, then that is true love. If love makes you more thoughtful and you take a step, no matter how shaky, in trying to answer the everlasting questions, then that, Shelley suggests to us, is true love.

In this insistence on the creative impulse, Shelley creates a definition of authentic love that defies the skeptics and isolationists. Freud says repeatedly that lovers create a world in which only two people exist. Yes; true. If what you have is “dull sublunary lovers’ love, whose soul is sense,” as Donne immortally put it, then yes, you’ve created a world of only two people. But that’s the definition of lazy love. It’s narcissistic love, Oedipal love, the spiritualization of sensuality, the love of one biological entity bent on improving the species for another. (Though without that natural imperative, Shelley says, there is no true love.) But if love begets “Ode to the West Wind,” then it is something else again. If it makes you fight, as Shelley did from the time he was a boy, for political justice, then who is to say it is not true love?

How rarely does this happen? Rarely. Though I persist in thinking that no effort, however shaky, is to be disregarded, if it comes from a loving heart. Do not judge yourself by results, the Bhagavad Gita says, but by what you aspired to do and how potently you have thrown yourself into the effort.

Clapton had it wrong — love doesn’t have to be so sad. Though unless we are as wise about love as Shelley was, it probably will be.


Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia. His newest book is  The Heart of the Humanities: Reading, Writing, Teaching.

LARB Contributor

Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in the Online World (2023).


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