- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

It's that day again, when all the world seems to be celebrating love, even those muttering Bah, Humbug. It is a well-known factoid that love makes the world go 'round; less well-known is love's ability to stop the planet dead flat in midspin when it ends, replacing Paris in the spring with Chicago in January.

Nevertheless, it's hard to top what John Barrymore once called that "delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering that she looks like a haddock."

Surely there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon oxytocin or the PEA molecule but it's hard to keep the romance out of even the most objective, psycho-physico-pharmacological studies. It's as if some Cupid in a lab coat were manipulating the test tubes.

Consider a book called "A Natural History of Love" by Diane Ackerman, which is riddled much like love itself with poetic phrases:

"Love is the great intangible. … Love is a long desire. Love is a biological ballet. … Love is a biological imperative. … Love is anarchic. … Love is an act of sedition, a revolt against reason, an uprising in the body politic, a private mutiny."

Well, long live the revolution. Apparently, scientists get as carried away as songwriters when trying to describe This Thing Called Love.

Love is a subject that makes scientists wax metaphorical, little girls blush, little boys squirm, and grown men grow deucedly uncomfortable. Only women seem to have a natural talent for it, which is an editorial opinion if there ever was one.

But not even on Valentine's Day is there a truce in what James Thurber called the War Between Men and Women.

Nor is there a Geneva Convention to govern a conflict in which all's fair. The rules keep changing, and even Valentine's Day may afford no relief from the new code of manners, or lack of them, that began with Women's Lib. For a while there, the high-minded principle that declared that men and women are created equal was interpreted as meaning they were created the same. They ain't, for which let us be thankful. (Why women would want to step down to equality still mystifies some of us.)

In his "Devil's Dictionary," Ambrose Bierce contributed to the general fund of scientific knowledge, or at least elevated misanthropy, by including this entry:

"Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal from influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease, like caries, is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages."

Contrary to the learned Mr. Bierce, one suspects that love will crop up in any clime or culture. Three things are hard to hide, says the Yiddish proverb: a cough, poverty and love. It's also said that love, like butter, is better with a little bread.

But on this day, let lovers rejoice unadvised by mundane counselors like Prudence. Flowers do not ask when to bloom, and spring should be here any night now.

Love is a teacher unbidden, and the education it imparts is never lost, however cheering or saddening. Its test is fidelity, and its seal trust. Trust, like a heart, can be broken. Or to translate into the Southern:

Your cheatin' heart will tell on you.

When it comes to defining love, the language of the King James Version of the Bible is impossible to beat, but even the version in the Revised Standard connects on this day:

"If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. … Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Amen.

Love seeks not its own, as Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians, even if the King James uses the word Charity. But how separate love from charity? Or patience? Or steadfastness? "Entreat me not to leave thee," Ruth begins her plea to Naomi, "or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: Thy people will be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried … ." Yes, love is strong as death, sings the Songs of Songs. If not stronger.

"No love, save intellectual love, is eternal," argued Spinoza, a hopelessly argumentative type. He tended to be a bit removed, mainly from reality. You could tell because he insisted on defining love, which may be the beginning of philosophy but can be the end of love.

The French have a deserved reputation for preparing bittersweet dishes like love. "Lovers never get tired of each other," Francois de La Rochefoucauld explained, "because they are always talking about themselves."

He also explored the long-debated relationship between absence and love. It is the same, the duke explained, as the relationship between wind and flame, extinguishing the small and fanning the great.

Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage, to quote that great philosopher Sammy Cahn, rather than like steed and rider. "Here must all distrust be left behind," Dante wrote of marriage, and "all cowardice ended." In this bland age, marriage may be the one heroic act left. It was Dr. Johnson who famously hailed second marriages as a triumph of hope over experience.

If love is feeling, marriage is an art. And if the French pride themselves on knowing love, it was left to a German to define marriage: "A good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of his solitude." Rainer Maria Rilke.

Ambrose Bierce had to go and define marriage, too: "a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two."

Marriage can be wearing. No wonder modern laws limited the institution to two persons. As Samuel Butler wrote of the Carlyles: "It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four."

But for sheer hardihood, moderns can scarcely compete with the patriarchs of the Old Testament or the Book of Mormon. To quote Artemus Ward's summary description of Brigham Young: "He is dreadfully married. He's the most married man I ever saw in my life."

No institution offers the joy and comfort, the pain and grief of marriage. Much depends on whether the courtship begins or ends with the wedding vows.

"I married beneath me," Nancy Astor is supposed to have said, adding: "All women do." It is a judgment any married man can confirm, and had better.

On the other hand, Fanny Dixwell Holmes looked around the nation's capital and concluded: "Washington is full of famous men and the women they married when they were young." Of course that was before the age of trophy spouses.

Marriage clearly defies all generalizations. Like love, each is unique.


Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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