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Can Any Definite Meaning be Ascribed to the
Popular Declaration “I Love You”?

Since I don’t really know what other people mean by love, I avoid the word.

Gore Vidal

[When people say “I love you,” they often mean “I need you” or “I want you” or “You satisfy me” or “You fulfill my desires” or “You give me what I want. But without sexual or romantic chemistry—which depend on sense experience—is it possible to feel the kind of love that John Keats felt for Fanny Brawne? The following is from a letter (October 13, 1819)—one of hundreds of notes and letters—that the poet wrote to her when he was 23 and she was 19.]

My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you—I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again—my Life seems to stop there—I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving—I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. . . I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion—I have shudder’d at it—I shudder no more—I could be martyr’d for my Religion—Love is my religion—I could die for that—I could die for you.

Romantic love used to be thought of as a kind of temporary madness. Right into the early 19th century the two things that were thought to be very poor grounds for choosing a marriage partner were sexual passion and romantic passion.

[The following passage is from one of Heloise’s (1101–1164) letters to her disgraced lover (and former tutor) Peter Abelard (1079–1142). After the scandalous affair she was more or less forced into a religious life for which she had no vocation.]

The pleasures of lovers which we cultivated together were too sweet to displease me, and can scarcely fade from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them reawakened desires. Not even when I sleep am I spared these illusions. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd fantasies of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that I think more on these turpitudes than on my prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost.

Susannah M., a college student, was President Kennedy’s lover shortly after he was elected: “I thought I loved him. Absolutely! To be as bowled over as this, this must be love! Because my best day dreams were literally at their limit in having a love affair with John Kennedy.”

[The first time Canadian broadcaster and media personality Betty Kennedy (of Front Page Challenge) saw Gerhard Kennedy, it was across a room at a party in Montreal. Apparently it was a case of love at first sight, although Gerhard was 14 years older and married with three children. After 27 years of marriage to Betty and another four children, Gerhard died of colon cancer in 1975. The following is from Gerhard: A Love Story, her memorial to a man of whom she wrote, ‘I have never met any other person in my entire life with the power to kindle such excitement in me.’ I guess you could say she was lucky in love.]

He took me home that evening, and from then on there was no other person for either of us. Some years later when we saw “South Pacific” on Broadway, the lyrics of “Some Enchanted Evening” sounded as though they had been written about us. . . Our life has not been always smooth, without problems; we have suffered reverses, disappointments, failures. But the one constant thing has been our feeling for each other. There has not been a morning in our lives together when we did not waken in one another’s arms, or reach out for each other and say, “I love you.” That is quite literally true. Yet there was nothing mundane or routine about the words, always a sense of wonder in what we knew in each other. I honestly don’t know why we were so blessed. I only know we were.

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons
Wise men never try.

Oscar Hammerstein

A perfect woman could have no personality. Hélène [his third wife] is a harmony of delightful imperfections, which is the most flattering thing I could say about anyone. I only hope my imperfections seem half as delightful to her. It is so easy to give if there is someone willing to take; it is so easy to take if there is someone with so much to give. She has made me into something approaching the man I once hoped to be, privately and secretly. She came to my rescue at a turning-point during that exhausting, terrifying and magnificent journey of self-discovery we call life. And for that, I am endlessly grateful.

Peter Ustinov (from his autobiography Dear Me, 1977)

You want to know what you see in another person because that’s what fuels your passion: it’s when your mind, the knowing intellect, and your passions are aroused in unison.

(from CBC Ideas program Instant Intimacy, by Suanne Kelman)

[In his sexual memoir, Scoring, 1971, Dan Greenburg describes an affair he had with a seventeen-year-old when he was an “elderly” 28. The passages below are from the beginning, middle and end of that affair.]

I suppose I gaped at her rather transparently, because she returned my gaze with a moist, somewhat amused smile. I had never desired anyone so immediately or so powerfully in my life, never wanted to abandon myself so completely to nakedness and... I loved her with mind and heart and body and I would cheerfully have written out a proposal of marriage to her on the spot in exchange for even one night in bed with her. . . She started to cry for the first time since I’d met her. I had never expected her to say anything about loving me—I hadn’t spoken much about love to anyone at that point in my life—and it really rocked me. I held her and I told her how much she meant to me, because suddenly she did mean a great deal to me, and I told her that I guessed I probably loved her too and that I would call from Chicago and to take care. Then I walked out the door and ran out onto the street to hail a taxi. . . . I telephoned Shelley from my parents’ home in Chicago and...my parents, though forbidden by me for many years to inquire about my plans for marriage, were trying so hard to keep from asking me anything about the girl I had just spoken to and said “I love you” to that they were in almost physical pain. . . . Obviously, the only true thing she had ever told me was that she was pregnant—and I wouldn’t even be sure of that if my own internist hadn’t verified it. But pregnant by whom? Joe, the stoned felon? Peter, the former lover and alleged present “friend”? Cliff, the cocky entrepreneur who’d allegedly never made it into bed with her? Or perhaps she was pregnant by one of her many lovers I didn’t even know by name and who couldn’t afford to pay for an abortion as I could. To think that I’d believed her when she said she loved me! Bitch! . . . . Suddenly I didn’t know anything at all about what had really happened between me and my teenaged mistress, because now any of it or all of it, including her loving me, could just as likely been the truth or not. The only thing I did know for sure was that it was now too late to matter.

There may be those who have first felt mere sexual appetite for a woman and then gone on at a later stage to “fall in love with her.” But I doubt if this is at all common. Very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the Beloved—a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself.

C. S. Lewis (from The Four Loves, 1960)

[Eros may be absent from this relationship, but need love and the fulfilment of desire are only too evident.]

A moment of disillusion came when Goebbels suffered through a crude and bombastic two-hour Hitler speech at a party conference in February 1926. His hero was suddenly revealed to be “amazingly clumsy and uncertain,” his political program “dreadful,” and Goebbels himself felt “devastated.” It was “one of the greatest disappointments of my life. I no longer fully believe in Hitler. That’s the terrible thing: my inner support has been taken away.” But Hitler, a skilled party infighter, retrieved the situation. The February meeting had served his purposes, helping him consolidate his control of a party still prone to factions; and with that end now in hand, he turned to the cultivation of key subordinates, above all, the messiah-hungry Goebbels. At the climactic reconciliation meeting, Hitler spoke for three hours, and this time Goebbels was transported. “I love him,” he wrote in his diary, and shortly thereafter, “I believe he has taken me to his heart like no one else . . . Adolf Hitler, I love you.”

Thomas Levenson (from Einstein in Berlin, 2003)

[This passage, although from a work of fiction, shows the tremendous emotional power of the romantic/erotic experience. In Henry Morton Robinson’s 1949 best-seller, The Cardinal, Stephen Fermoyle, an Irish-American priest being groomed for Vatican diplomacy, meets the cousin of his high-born clerical buddy at a society ball in Rome shortly before Mussolini takes power. Fermoyle makes the mistake of spending the entire evening with Ghislana Falerni, a beautiful, intelligent, stylish, well-bred woman. Widowed by the recent war, the contessa also happens to be ‘heroically built.’ After spending the long hot Roman summer getting her out of his system, the plot reunites them at a Tuscan villa in September where his commitment to his priestly vocation is tested to the max. Presumably the ‘words never to be spoken’ were “I love you.”]

Stephen’s surprise was genuine. “Did the Cardinal Secretary visit you at Capri?”

“Everyone visits me there.” Rebuke, light as a petal, lay on the contessa’s lips. “Had you paid me a courtesy visit in Rome last spring, I would have invited you for a holiday.”

Stephen said nothing.

“And you,” she went on, “would have refused the invitation.”

“How could I do otherwise? I am neither your cousin—nor an aging Cardinal.”

Night turned on a noiseless axle. “Does that mean you cannot be a friend?”

Ghislana Falerni’s question was an honest proffer of human regard. By the timbre of her voice Stephen recognized it as a sincere bid from an emotional equal to share with her some part of his isolation and loneliness. As a man Stephen could not lightly reject the offer; as a priest he could not rise to it. He was familiar with the advice of those saintly counselors, Chrysostom and Jerome: flee relationships with unattached women. He knew, moreover, that his feelings for Ghislana Falerni were not the stuff of which friendship is ordinarily made. Yet illusion beckoned; hope soared on rosy wing. The thing was possible! Aided by the pure fires of discipline, and skill sprung of extra grace, might one not transform forbidden clay into a vessel of singular devotion?

“I should like to be your friend . . .”

A light breeze, distilling hints of rain, lifted the ends of the contessa’s chiffon scarf about her shoulders. Her hands caught at the fluttering fabric. Too late. A loosened end of the scarf flicked Stephen’s cheek and sent a shivering charge along his facial nerves.

Field scents surged across the terrace in a perfumed wave; midnight was about to dissolve in urgencies of rain. On Stephen’s arm lay the unretrieved end of the contessa’s scarf—gossamer testimony of a truth too heavy for denial, unerasable even if withdrawn.

From the terrace Stephen could see an orchard of pear trees in the moonlight, their low boughs heavy with fruit. To say, “Walk with me in the orchard . . . once . . . for remembering,” and to hear Ghislana Falerni whisper, “Yes . . . for remembering always,” would have been happiness enough. But such fulfillment was denied. The only possible relief was the utterance of her name.

“Ghislana.”

“Stephen . . . I have so longed to call you by name.”

“I have called you by name a thousand times.”

Along the grass, tiny winds curled in rising overtures to rain. “How did I reply?”

Stephen’s voice was barely audible. “In words never to be spoken—except on grass beneath a pear tree.”

The first raindrop fell, a full period to their conversation.

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