Interview by Brenda Webster
BW: What made you decide to write about love?
LA: It is something of a bizarre or perhaps grandiose subject to explore, given how many books have been there before. It’s the principle subject of the novel, of course. It certainly was of my novels. But it’s also the subject of scores of self-help books. I think I wanted both to anatomize love in an essayistic form and produce a kind of anti-self-help book. A book that thought about love in our times - in a world of shifting forms of relationship – but didn’t set out to produce easy answers but instead probed the complexities of this unruly emotion which is the site of so much happiness, but also of so much pain.
It all started as a joke at the party for my last book, Mad, Bad and Sad. My publisher asked me what I wanted to do next and I said ‘what’s left? I guess it will have to be a book on love.’ This wasn’t so crazy as it might seem. One of the themes of Mad, Bad was that over the last 200 years or so, the mind-doctoring professions had so colonized all aspects of our behaviour and emotions that the span of sanity or normality had grown ever slimmer. The only point of excess that we’re still permitted, you might say, is love: it hasn’t altogether been subsumed into the DSM and we just about allow ‘the lunatic, the lover, and the poet’ to have ‘seething brains’ and be of ‘imagination all compact ‘.
But as I was researching, I realized that I wanted not only to probe the heights and depths of obsessive passion, but also all those other points on life’s map where what I call ‘ordinary love’ comes into play to sustain us. This is not often a sung emotion in our culture which prefers the darkly sensational sphere of abuses and malignant bonds. And I wanted to attempt a rebalancing and put our passions side by side with ordinary love, love lived in a temperate clime, as well as that sustaining bond of friendship
BW:Your book follows the winged god love from the Greeks to the present. Would you say our (Western Civ) views have evolved--towards an increased equality between men and women, for example? Or does it swing back and forth over the centuries?
LA:I’m not generally wedded to Whiggish history which sees the centuries as a great march along the boulevard of progress. None the less, I’m a woman and it’s quite clear to me that except in isolated pockets of history - and there only where wealth and power combined - women are now far more equal to men than ever before. This has obviously affected how we live out our loves and what we expect of them. We want equality and equal say in our relationships: women may now ‘pursue’ men more openly or take the initiative sexually or try and tap that supposedly male ability - as Sex and the City told us – to couple without emotion.
However in our inner lives, in our imaginings, in those wants and acts that are unwitting or hidden from ourselves, we may not always either want equality or find ourselves living it out. We’re complicated creatures, shadowed by those emotional patterns that haunt us from childhood, where we were all, men and women, for quite a while, vulnerable, powerless and often subjects of great love.
BW:In a wonderful chapter of Family love you say there has been an increase in the valuing of "mother love" in our times. What does it mean? Why do you think this has happened?
LA:Although it’s always dangerous to over-generalize, I think it’s correct to say that the education of women on the whole results in them moving away from a life of repeated pregnancy. That, together with efficient contraception means that In the West – and in many other parts of the world - we have far fewer children than our Victorian forebears. In the onetime Catholic heartlands of Europe a single child (or less) is the average. The few-ness of our children means that we value each one far more, endow him or her with greater hopes and aspirations. Women alone, or single parents after marriages or cohabitations have failed, may also look to the child as the sole repository of all their love, and indeed have hopes of its being returned.
As a society we also put far more onus on the importance of mother- and parental love in shaping the child’s life than ever before. In All About Love, I explore the ways in which our various philosophies (and now neuro and cognitive sciences) on top of psychoanalysis have made mother-love special (in ways which build on all those wonderful images of Madonna and Child). I also explore all the pressures on women to become not only ‘yummy mummies’ but chauffeurs, educators, best friends to their offspring in a competitive spiral which can lead to effects which aren’t altogether loving.
BW:I was fascinated by the rules you describe that the younger generation has for hooking up--not allowing intimacy for example. What surprised you most in your interviews? How would you describe the way such rules (obstacles) could actually stimulate love.
LA:I interviewed a people of different generations and differing sexual orientation for the book. Not with sociologist’s questionnaires, but with the kinds of general questions which elicit stories. (I think - whatever the neuroscientists tell us or the evolutionary biologists with their sagas of selection - people still live love by elaborating stories for themselves, in part along the lines our imaginative culture, high and popular, provides. Anyhow, the interviews were fascinating in their diversity and I’ve threaded them through the book. Because I’m now an older woman, I was particularly fascinated by the young and their sophistication, which didn’t minimize their hopes of love or their faith in it, whatever the over-lay of irony.
I was particularly interested in the way the sexually permissive culture our urban young inhabit, that avoidance of intimacy and its one-time equation with sex you mention, didn’t preclude their wish for eventual commitment. Or for long-term fidelity once monogamy had been committed to, preferably in that publicly witnessed event of a wedding. I explore some of the problems a culture of sexual hype – excessive sexualization and far too young, as well as a tendency to see so many of the goods of life as tied up in sex – can tumble into when it comes together with a wish for monogamy . None the less, I found myself inspired by young people’s ‘normative aspirations’. Perhaps, as one of them told me, because they’ve had their sexual experience young, they can settle into fidelity rather more easily than their parents.
As for rules – it’s clear that transgressing them increases individual passion. There’s nothing like an obstacle – a parental ‘no’, a marital prohibition – to enhance desire, at least for a while. When everything is permitted, sex can be voided of its meanings. So people end up recreating rules to break.
BW: What were some of your early experiences of love as a child, how did you became aware of the plethora of things that could be called Love?
LA:In the ‘overture’ to the book, I situate myself biographically. I tried to think about my own experience of the word ‘love’ and the meanings it acquired in and through my childhood, many of them riddling, as adult emotions often are for children. I don’t want to rehearse that here, but in any case, music, siblings, weird encounters with the uses of the word love to cover a host of behaviour, storks, pears, movies and books, all play into the story.
I grew up amidst a variety of cultures, all of which inflected love and certainly marriage differently: the Catholic with sin and salvation; the Protestant with Puritanism and unspoken guilts, the Jews with enthusiasm or world weary humour.
It was when I became an avid reader that I grew aware of the different ways love and marriage were interpreted by English and continental novels. It’s a long way from Jane Austen’s ‘happy end’ to Balzac’s worldly comedy.
All of this brew has fed into All About Love.
BW: You've structured your book as a biography of the emotion, Love. How or why did you decide to do that?
LA:Well, I’m playing with the notion. Writing a biography of Love suggests that I can track it through historical time – from its appearance in ancient papyri, through the Greeks and down the ages into our own time. It also suggests that I’m writing something of a life-history of this very unruly emotion, tracking it through an individual life – which is in certain respects the structure the book takes
From my own experience and observing that of others, it’s, of course, clear that Love shows little heed of physical age, no matter how much we may want to constrain it into age-appropriate form. A rickety grandfather may fall as wildly, as passionately in love as he did as a young man with a mere slip of a woman; or a grown woman find herself as needily dependent on another as a crying toddler.
But that said, it’s also true that for many of us the way we experience love will also change through the arc of time from the wilder energies of youth to the more tempered climes of middle and declining years.
My biography of love is alert to those contradictions.
BW:Where were Freud’s theories most helpful?
Of course, I read Freud for his theories, but mostly I read him as a writer and an unflinching observer – like one of our great novelists – of the ironies and vagaries of everyday life. So he’s always helpful, in the way that Proust and Tolstoy are. Like all interesting thinkers, Freud’s ideas changed over the course of his long lifetime and his gathering experience. He’s affected me in the most general sense. He puts love (and work) up there as life’s primary fact and goal. He shows us that people are both cut up by their contradictions, but nonetheless inhabit them. That in our passions, and indeed our loves, we’re all unwitting. That we don’t really know why we fall for someone: we attribute qualities after the fact. That our loves thrive on obstacles. That libido and how we elaborate it are important. Freud also gives us one of our time’s most resilient paradigms by tracing our adult experience and proclivities back into what we experienced in childhood. But Turgenev did that too… ‘I never had a first love,’ his wonderful novella First Love begins. ‘ I began with the second’. The first love is of course lost in the shrouds of memory and is mother or nursemaid or first carer…
But much has changed since Freud’s day. I imagine if he were amongst us now he might name sex, not as a force of the ID, but as a super-ego injunction. ‘You must do it, as much as possible and in all ways’ - with the result that we all feel in some way anxious or guilty and often dissatisfied.
BW:Would you say a little about what you call a backlash to feminist theories of women's oppression? Is this really a good time for a renewed interest in romance? What makes you think we are moving towards a re-balancing?
LA: I think in the domain that I’m interested in in All About Love, the backlash really has to do with re-naturalizing – if that’s the right word – women’s maternal and reproductive role. Many neuroscientific observations and those of the evolutionary, sometimes also cognitive psychologists make it sound as if science is more than prepared to will women back into the Victorian era. We have to be wary of the way in which science and so-called science are used to essentialize the genders – in that way locking out much of what many people feel, experience and do; and provoking anxiety along the way. So, for example, if love for babies gets translated as ‘breast is best’ and scientists step in to tell us why – sometimes touting not only the evidence of immunity, got in the first few feeds, but purported evidence in hikes in IQ, well-being, etc etc – we might want to question not only the science but the ideological implications.
Not sure if this is what you’re driving at, but…. I guess I prefer in the current cultural moment not to think of romance as simply a myth to do down women and keep them enslaved, - as we did in the early days of the second wave of the women’s movement. Rather, if I look back to the origins of romance, it seems to me it was part of an attempt to civilize crude and rampant male sexuality … So wooing, language, postponement , elevation of women, deferred gratification (or perhaps none at all) were part of project to develop courtesy. These are no bad things. As for the romance of ‘the right one’ and ‘forever’, the longing, the pain, the obsessiveness - it may be a useful counterweight to the meaninglessness of random sex.
BW: How does sex fit in?
LA: Any and everywhere.
BW: The way you drew on examples from literature was one of the most interesting parts of the book. You are also a novelist. Would you like to talk a little about love in your own work, your novel “The Things we do for Love”, for instance.
LA: Gosh – Talking about love in one’s own fiction is difficult – because it’s all there on the page in the unfolding of character and story. The Things we do for Love was the story of a woman who desperately wanted a child and whose husband had stopped making love to her, though hadn’t left her. It dates from the late 90s – so the early days of assisted reproduction. When I dreamt my heroine I didn’t know which way she would turn in her desire for a child. To IVF? To those older forms of assisted reproduction that went by the name of adultery? (Is there a way of romancing a sperm donor, you might ask). To adoption? Was there the possibility of remaking her marriage? Perhaps in the name of comedy, rather than under the aegis of failure and divorce? All that went into the brew …
In any case, I learned much about love from the writing (as well as the reading) of fiction – since you have to imagine yourself into different parts. And by imagining yourself into them, you lose the desire to make one pattern rule all, which is often the way of Advice books, the kind that fill you with anxiety as you read them and try and fit yourself into someone else’s slipper….
Which brings me back to the beginning… All About Love is an anti-advice book. Our cultural forms are far too good at producing anxiety. Less good at evoking understanding, which is perhaps what All About Love tries to do, just as fiction does. And understanding helps in the sphere of love as in all others.
BW: Thank you Lisa. That was terrific.
Causes Brenda Webster Supports
Doctors Without Borders
The Nature Conservancy
Women Support Women