Love, Romance and “The Shock of Recognition”

Many have written about romantic love, or all love, as a ‘mystery’. Or a product of ‘fate.’ Or ‘divine guidance,’ ‘karma,’ or other impossible-to-comprehend factors.

But how about trying to explain this mystery called love? Why surrender all understanding of it to the mystical, when its complexity merely presents a challenge, not an impossibility?

I recently ran across an insightfully written article by Peter Cresswell entitled, ‘Don’t Cry for me Aristotle.’ [see] The author was writing about the experience of art — whether it be movies, novels, television drama, paintings, sculpture, opera, etc. But what he’s saying has implications for romantic love, as well.

Cresswell writes, ‘We experience a performance of Tosca, for example, or we look at a statue of David or a painting of Icarus Landing, and we say to ourselves (if we’re healthy): ‘This is the way I see things. This is the way I feel about the world.’ In short, when art truly touches us we say to ourselves: ‘This is me!’ And it is.

That is why art is so crucially — selfishly — important for us; because the human mind operates on the conceptual level, we need art to help us integrate our broadest abstractions, and to bring them before us in concrete form. We need art to concretise for us — in a painting, a story, a piece of music — the way we view the world around us and how we fit into it. The artist selects elements of reality to re-create and integrate into his work based on his own most profound choice of how he sees the world — if we see it the same way we experience almost a shock of recognition.

The key phrase here is: ‘Shock of recognition.’ When you encounter a work of art, music or performance, your subconscious mind—via emotions—acts as the selector. What’s being selected? The completed form of all your values. As Ayn Rand (whose ideas Cresswell draws upon in his article) puts it, it’s ‘an emotional sum.’

It’s the same with love. When you first encounter someone you believe you might love, it’s more than physical attraction. It’s more than chemical or hormonal reactions, although that’s part of it. Of course the physical matters, especially with respect to romantic love. But a complete emotional ‘sum’ refers to more than the physical. It goes deeper. You’re seeing what you believe (or at some point, actually know) to be the embodiment—mind and body—of all that you hold dear, precious, ideal and yet also real. When the ideal hits the real … that’s when you have connection.

The experience of love and art are synonymous. When you fall in love with something—in the sense of being moved by a work or art or theatre/drama, or in love with an actual person—what’s being activated are your deepest, innermost and not necessarily articulated values. ‘I can’t put my deepest values into words,’ most people will admit. It might take months/years of therapy or other forms of self-reflection in order to do so. But everyone—and I do mean everyone—is capable of the emotional response. Everyone falls in love, in some sense, whenever one encounters some concrete form (or person) which embodies one’s most basic view of life. Even if you live alone and isolated, in love with your ideals which you long ago gave up as real, you’re still in love, in some sense, with something.

Ayn Rand (the thinker I often quote here, who wrote “Atlas Shrugged” and much else) was a philosopher, but she contributed something enormous to human psychology when she wrote about ‘sense of life.’ Sense of life, she stated, was an emotional sum which includes one’s implicit philosophy of life—one’s view of reality, the nature of existence and of human life. She said that sense-of-life is one’s basic way of facing existence—as life-loving, and uplifting, or as perhaps just the opposite. It’s one’s sense-of-life, she maintained, with which one falls in love (and stays in love, or not.)

What about “love at first sight?” It certainly happens. When you fall in love with someone quickly, you’re falling in love with their apparent embodiment of all that you value. There’s no guarantee that the one you take to, so quickly, is what you feel him or her to be. It takes time and experience to bear this out. If you have the opportunity to pursue romantic love with this person, then you’ll eventually know. If their actual character and personality bear out your initial response, and if the feeling is returned, then you have the making of a love that may well last a lifetime. Disappointment and disillusionment happen, but they’re not inevitable. That’s what makes the exceptional cases of love (or art) so wonderful.


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