What Is It We Call “Love At First Sight”?
Reflecting On A Popular Romantic Idea
By Professor Christian Maurer (University of Lausanne)
February 14, 2017 Picture: Carlos Barria/Reuters.
This is a preview article for The Critique’s upcoming 2018 Valentine’s Day Issue “What Is Love? Friendship, Sex, And Romance In The 21st Century.”
Valentine’s day has been promoted into a day when love of the, say, romantic variety is celebrated —with a strong capitalistic side-interest (some of us may want to add with a sour grin!) In any case, one of the really interesting facets of that kind of love is how it begins. So, let’s start with that.
“And how did the two of you get together?” – Especially on a day like Valentine’s day, many stories we hear as answers to this question are going to involve some reference to the experience commonly called in English “love at first sight”. All of us have heard a line like this one: “…and when I saw her entering the room, it was as if the light changed, as if the atmosphere became electrified, and as if suddenly everything made sense.” And here is another version: “…and when I saw him standing at the bar, when I saw his gestures – I knew it immediately, he was the one! It was as if a string inside of me was pulled, a string that was just waiting to be pulled.” Not much imagination is needed to think of both stories ending with the exclamation: “It was love at first sight!”
Again, especially on a day like Valentine’s day, such narratives are often told to present the earliest moments in the history of a couple, that is of two persons bound together by the strings of reciprocal love. The many stories involving references to the thing called “love at first sight” suggest that there really is something the expression refers to. But what exactly is the thing the expression “love at first sight” refers to?
Here’s a first answer – one that is particularly tempting to give on Valentine’s day: it’s love, of course! Many of the stories we like to tell about the experience, and the very name we give to it in English, “love at first sight”, suggest indeed that it is love. That would also mean, of course, that love in its genuine sense could be there “at first sight” – very quickly, very overwhelmingly, and very much really so.
Here’s a narrative to corroborate this first answer. You will remember the myth recited by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. To be picky, the proper object of that dialogue is actually eros, but to keep things somewhat simple, let us translate this term with the common English word “love” – thinking of its romantic version, as opposed to things like friendship, the love between parents and children, and so on. As usual, things are more complicated than that, but as a starting point for our subsequent discussion, it’s not too bad.
Presenting his account of eros, or romantic love, Aristophanes tells his audience that there used to be creatures with four arms, four legs and two heads. Since they became somewhat annoying and arrogant, the Gods decided to make them weaker by splitting them into two, and by scattering them over the surface of the earth. Ever since, these incomplete halves of the original creatures, instead of pursuing their revolutionary endeavours, are trying to find the other half to which they previously belonged, in order to realise again their original state of unity. Note that there’s one, and only one such other half that can make them really complete again.
Aristophanes’ approach may find its contemporary echo in a specific conception of romantic love that strongly insists on exclusivity. Let’s think of this claim as the idea that the one person I happen to romantically love is also the only one I really could love in a proper sense – there is no other being with whom I could possibly have this! Trying to love anybody else would be like trying to match one of the zillion wrong other halves in Aristophanes’ myth onto me – it just wouldn’t work.
Now, in the coming about of such a very special union, the experience called “love at first sight” might be interpreted as the internal evidence for the fact that I have finally found the one person with whom my union was meant to be completed. If presented this way, the couple appears of course in a very special light – it is indeed a very special union they form! How lucky were they to have found each other, entirely against the odds! (If the relationship fails, the explanation is at hand as well: it wasn’t the one, it wasn’t meant to be!) In any case, according to such a view, love can really be there at first sight, and in the best of all cases, it starts with the overwhelming experience called “love at first sight”.
Love at first sight in times of multiple loves
We live, however, in times of quite widely experienced serial exclusive loving relationships (apologies for that lengthy expression). Amongst other things, this means that many of us treat romantic love as something very exclusive in that we think that we can romantically love just one person at a time. But then, of course, many of us would not go as far as to say that this person would really be the only one with whom such a very special union based on reciprocal romantic love would be possible. As a matter of fact, many of us have experienced several such unions, and we know that they are not necessarily going to last all of our lives. It’s not excluded, of course, but statistics suggest something else. (Also, broken hearts still make us sad, but we’re glad not to be excluded from society anymore in case we break up with someone.)
With this background in mind, matters become again somewhat more complicated than suggested by Plato’s Aristophanes. Imagine that we are not in our first romantic relationship, but in a subsequent one. Well, even if there was a break-up, we may still not want to discredit those partners with whom we were in earlier relationships. Maybe things just didn’t work out that well – or maybe they even did, but something (or someone) else happened to interfere, maybe ourselves. Thus, many of us are quite ready to drop the heavy assumption bestowed upon the concept of love by Aristophanes’ myth, accepting that there can be more than one person, one after the other, with whom we could form an excellent couple in its own right.
Even if we accept such a lighter version of exclusivity, we can still treat the experience called “love at first sight” as the very special, beautiful and overwhelming experience that starts one of those very special relationships, and thus treat it as proper love. Compared to Aristophanes’ idea that there is one and only one possible other half, this second description may be somewhat less glorifying, since we drop some of love’s exclusiveness, but it has the advantage of being somewhat closer to what many of us experience.
Persisting doubts: infatuation
However, there might be some more doubts: is the experience we call “love at first sight” really part of the thing we call “love”? Couldn’t it be something else? There is certainly no reason to doubt that there is a close connection between the thing called “love at first sight” and the experience called “love” – after all, many instances of the former are followed by instances of the latter. But then there is also a thing called “infatuation”. This English term is usually reserved for passionate stories that may have gone in the direction of love, but then went wrong. We are commonly much less inclined to call these stories cases of love, in spite of their most striking similarity with cases of love at first sight.
Usually, we do not know whether we are facing a case of infatuation or a case of love at first sight before we know how the story ends—before the final tears, cases called “infatuation” look pretty much like those we call “love at first sight”. Look at cases of what is called “love at first sight” (that’s the term for those stories which will turn out to have gone well), and at cases of what is called “infatuation” (that’s the term for those stories which will turn out not to have gone well). Are they in any way distinguishable, or do we only know in retrospect whether it’s the one or the other?
“Before the final tears, cases called “infatuation” look pretty much like those we call “love at first sight.”
Here are some prominent similarities: both types of cases involve most intensely felt experiences, they overwhelm us and make us almost passive bystanders to what’s happening to us, surprising us with the velocity of the involved processes. Without going into further detail, we can reasonably assume that biology plays a major role in these processes. In what we call “infatuation” and in what we call “love at first sight”, the person undergoing the experience has her attention most narrowly focused on one specific person, and usually on only some features of her. It seems that in both cases, information is very scarce – it wouldn’t be “love at first sight” if it was preceded by a thorough study of the qualities of the potential candidate, would it? All this might suggest that the thing called “love at first sight” and the thing called “infatuation” are actually two different names given to the same type of experience, distinguished only in retrospect by their outcomes: One happens to be followed by love, the other doesn’t. But then, is this how we really want love to begin?
The thing called “love”
Even more doubts may arise once we shift our attention to the thing called “love” (again, let us only think of romantic love here). As said above, the expression “love at first sight” suggests that the experience it refers to is love. There seem to be some good points for that: the love which manifests itself in the couple celebrating Valentine’s day often comes after the thing called “love at first sight”. There are also some striking similarities between the thing called “love” and the experience called “love at first sight”: both are marked by a narrow focus on the one person who is in some sense the object of the experience; both make that person appear as someone very special; both engender a reluctance to see others as potential alternatives, and so on.
But then, what exactly is this thing called love? As usual, philosophers won’t agree on one single answer to that question, but here are some of the features often indicated: Love is some sort of positive attitude to another person – “positive” in the very general sense that distinguishes it from a, say, “negative” attitude like hatred. In loving, we wish well, in hatred we wish ill. Note that this broad sense of “positive” wouldn’t exclude the possibility of being at times furious about those we love – and that not in spite, but really because we love them.
Next, most philosophers agree that love is a phenomenon with a certain profundity, which distinguishes it from other positive attitudes, most importantly that of merely liking someone. Philosophers generally agree that loving someone and liking someone are two quite different attitudes, but they disagree on what precisely constitutes that profundity which characterises love: Is it the robustness of the lover’s caring for her beloved? Is it the strength of the union between the lovers? Is it the way in which the lover sees his beloved as a unique individual? Is love’s profundity grounded in the specific reasons the lover may have for loving his beloved one? Is it based in the vast amount of intimate information the lovers have about each other? Or is it in the degree of vulnerability love engenders (think of the fact that people we love can hurt us in ways that people we don’t care about can not)?
Whatever the correct answer, or the correct combination of answers, philosophers generally agree that profundity has to be distinguished from mere intensity of feeling. Love (romantic love included, even if it’s Valentine’s day!) can be something completely unspectacular yet still absolutely fundamental. It might be that we are only reminded of how much we love someone, or maybe even that we love someone, when we experience ourselves reacting to the news of their death. And that might make the thing called “love” something very different from the thing called “love at first sight”, which seems to be something that is experienced first and foremost as intense.
“Love can be something completely unspectacular yet still absolutely fundamental.”
The stories we like to tell
We are now at a point where we see the grounds for a second answer to the question of what love at first sight is: it is not love – it’s something else. According to this second perspective, the experience referred to as “love at first sight” is most intense, of course. Depending on the circumstances it might also be followed by love in a proper sense. But most essentially, it is part of the same kind of experiences as infatuation – and this we usually don’t want to call “love”. The thing called “love at first sight” is thus some sort of passionate and causally massive reaction to another person, but in an important sense, it is rather about ephemeral features of that person than about the person herself. The object of admiration can only be the object of love proper if we really come to, say, see her more clearly. Sure, the experience called “love at first sight” might make us ready to encounter the other person as one that is genuinely loveable, and might make us ready to support the developing of that other thing, which is called “love” – the profound rather than intense thing. But undoubtedly, this readiness can also be based on a long friendship, where we know as much about the other as we could possibly know, and where we thus don’t rely only on what we can access “at first sight”.
You might find yourself drawn either more to the first, or to the second answer. Maybe you’re one of those who wish to see love glorified, especially on Valentine’s day, and who therefore wishes to connect it closely to the stunning experience called “love at first sight”. Or, on the contrary, you may be one of the more cautious critics of the many mythologies told about love, and may thus want to avoid the problems caused by overly high expectations in the different forms of love in our lives. Part of that cautious approach might be to separate the thing called “love” from the one called “love at first sight”. I leave the continuation of this discussion up to you (and to your beloved).
Between glorification and pessimism
There is one last consideration that I should bring into play. There is the more general question of what is gained and what is lost by the two approaches to the thing called “love at first sight”. One thing seems pretty obvious: if we keep love and love at first sight closely together, we are more likely to preserve the glorious sides of love, to make love “great” – the intensity of the beginning shall shine on all later stages. And this might be the desired register for many on Valentine’s day.
If we separate love at first sight and love, we might lose some of that shining glory, but then shift attention and gain something else. We can conceive the first thing, love at first sight, as a primarily intense experience that is closely connected to the domain of the erotic. The second, love proper (which may or may not be preceded by the first), is seen as the primarily profound experience. Not on Valentine’s day maybe, but on other days of the year, it’s usually acknowledged that love proper is something that may take quite some time to grow, and sometimes even quite some effort to keep going. Love’s not just something that falls into your lap and then is there. Typically, there is some cultivation I need to do as a lover, and thus also some responsibility I have with regard to it – but it might well be worth the effort, since love really can change your life!
At this point, we should insist that claiming that the thing called “love” cannot just be there “at first sight”, and that it might require quite some care, is not to fall into a pessimism regarding love: it just means to take love’s often unspectacular fragility seriously, and to take into account some lessons from beyond what romantic mythologies tell us about love. This again doesn’t mean that we must fall into a sort of pessimism regarding the experience called “love at first sight”, and regarding the erotic phenomenon more generally. They sure do serve their purposes!
If we neither glorify, vilify, nor completely ignore love at first sight and love, we can still understand both phenomena as something very important and beautiful that may happen to ordinary beings like us, in an ordinary world like ours. This somewhat more distant way of looking at the experiences called “love at first sight” and “love” might do justice to a more, say, realistic view of ourselves and our place in the world. But maybe it’s not the kind of story we wish to tell, or hear, on Valentine’s day?