which came first: love or the love story?

I was sitting at my writing desk, about a year after my parents split up, when the pictures I’d taped on the wall above me caught my attention. There were four photographs:

J and I at our friends’ wedding: We were twenty-two, dressed up, slow dancing in the grass, sweating in the humidity. He grins broadly. My eyes gaze into the camera, glinting in the Tennessee sunlight. Our fingers are wrapped around each others’ like we’re afraid a great wind might come up and sweep us apart. What I remember most about that day is how, just before they cut the cake, he’d grabbed me and whispered in my ear, “You look beautiful.” He’d never said anything like that to me before. I don’t think anyone had. Because he lived in Ecuador at the time, and because I was just about to move to Florida, we’d been working hard to convince ourselves and the people around us that we were just friends. But when we were alone for a moment, he’d grab me and kiss me, like he was memorizing my mouth for the months ahead. They were the kisses I’d spent my adolescence dreaming about. I don’t remember being kissed like that before or since. Looking at the photo, I can see how blatantly our act must’ve failed. My round, red cheeks betray us.

The house I grew up in: It sits atop a small ridge. Brick with three dormer windows and a wrap-around wooden porch, it was my mother’s dream house. The green lawn is freshly mown with the perfect diagonal stripes of a baseball field. The sky is cloudless blue and the pear tree, its trunk just out of the frame, is a burst of white confetti blooms. Looking at the photo from our tiny one bedroom apartment in Vancouver, I could see, for the first time, the indulgence in such an expanse of property–three acres and four bedrooms. But from Vancouver, I couldn’t see the half-furnished rooms or the for-sale sign staked in the grass by the road. I couldn’t hear the way the tv echoed off the pine floorboards. From three-thousand miles, it looked like a kind of pastoral paradise with antique rockers on the porch and a dog lazing in the grass.

My parents at the prom: My dad was a chaperone again, twenty years later, but this time as a high school principal. Mom stands just in front of him in a black dress she borrowed from my closet. In perfect prom-photo style, his palm rests on her elbow; her hands are neatly clasped. Beside the piano, standing on an antique Persian rug, they are a handsome couple.

A postcard of a sculpture by Auguste Rodin: Two stone bodies against a black background. A man lifts a woman above his chest. I bought it in Paris, years ago, at Musee Rodin.

In Rodin’s Je Suis Belle, a man hoists the crouching, compact figure of a woman toward the sky. His every muscle is tensed, in exhaustion or ecstasy I can’t decide. She is delicate, almost inhuman with her frog legs pushed up into her abdomen. One arm hangs down, pinned against him. Her face turns away from his as he bears the entire weight of her body on his chest. His knees bend, his buttocks ripple. I wonder, is he bringing her down from the hands of God or offering her back up?

And I wonder why this image? Why these lovers? Why not Rodin’s The Kiss, a more popular, more conventional scene: a man and woman in a passionate embrace? What stories of love had I surrounded myself with? Or, was each image just another version of the same story?

I used to believe that the problem with my own relationship was that I expected it to look like my parents’ relationship–and it never would. But when they split up, I was suddenly free from that expectation. Here were two people who seemed to have done everything right, and they still couldn’t make it work. So maybe it didn’t matter that we kept making mistakes. A couple of months later, J and I moved in together. I remember those first weeks in our tiny apartment, walking around and saying to each other, “Isn’t this a happy home?”

Je suis belle. I am beautiful. Rodin’s title comes from the first line of a Baudelaire poem of the same name: “I am beautiful as a dream of stone.” So it is not the man or the woman who stakes a claim for vain beauty, but the stone itself, the story. I like to think of Rodin in his expansive, airy studio, scratching his beard and gazing into a rough marble block, not as a sculptor but as a storyteller. Look, he says, love is an offering, love is a burden.

Rodin said that sculpture is “an incantation by which the soul is brought down into the stone.” But for all his talk of incantation, Rodin was not actually a carver. He did not chip away at negative space, but instead he sculpted by addition, using clay to form bodies from nothing. Making models, then casts, into which he poured molten bronze. His marble sculptures are duplicates of the original bronzes, crafted not by Rodin himself, but by dozens of skilled assistants.

Rodin knew that to give something form was to give it meaning. When he spoke of incantation, Rodin must’ve considered the power of a soundbite. A great success in his own time (the poet Rilke dropped everything to move to Paris, not just to write about Rodin, but to write for him, as his secretary), Rodin was already crafting a myth that could outlive him. Was he shrewd and skilled at self-promotion? Or did he really believed a love story could be incanted out of the air, brought down into clay, poured out of bronze, then turned into stone?

And was that what I was trying to do with these photos above my desk? Was I incanting the soul of love into a story? Or are these images just images–pictures of the people and places I love?

Stone imprisons the form of a body. Or it is an empty vessel until the artist brings down her soul.

Stories define love, or they are inspired by it.

Love is a burden. Love is an offering.

The myth of my parents’ romance is immobile, outdated, yet I see its muscles bulge under the weight of the meaning I have placed on it. We are the chickens and our stories are the eggs, still I do not know which came first.

5 thoughts on “which came first: love or the love story?

  1. A very provocative question. We must learn a lot about relationships from our parents, living around them and seeing how they are together. We also learn how, in much the same way, to love from reading literature, love stories,or from movies, TV shows, and love songs, all part of our mental environment. It makes me wonder if I would even know what love is without first knowing a love story, of my parents, or from reading and watching and listening. Do I learn from these stories, do they teach me? And I’m left with the answer that to live is to have a narrative. And to know your own narrative, I must start from living through another one. So does the love story really come first? I’m still just speculating. Where did I learn the meaning of love?

    • Hi Billy: Yes, I think it’s an interesting question. Current science sees love as a biological drive, just like–but distinct from–sexual reproduction. So obviously, if that’s true, we would love without love stories. However, I wonder how different our experiences and expectations might be if they weren’t first informed by the stories we tell. I love your idea, “to live is to have a narrative”–I agree completely.

      • I have to say, I’m not sure I agree with current science or your take on it. Certainly scientists studying love bring cultural preconceptions with them and so I would say they are likely to not have an objective take on what the nature of this biological drive is. Or, more charitably, they recognize that what they are studying is not “love” as the word is used in common language and are using the term to market their research (no negative connotations on the work “market” intended here). Just fyi, I found this page by googling “where did I learn the meaning of love”. It was the only page that came up.

  2. Reading the OP, I am reminded of the evolution of signals and the idea from Godel Escher Bach of meaning arising from meaningless symbols. Sexual selection has created many costly signals in many species that are viewed through the lens of Evolutionary Biology as tools of genetic competition, ways of tricking others into mating with you…. what begins as an “honest” signal, once it becomes recognized by the general population, will be coopted and produced as a dishonest signal at minimum cost, leading to the adoption of genuinely costly signals that are meaningful only because of their cost. I think much of what we associate with love is similar, for instance, the ritual giving of gifts. But also much of the stereotypical lovers’ behavior.

    • Hi David: Thanks for reading and responding so thoughtfully. I haven’t read Godel Escher Bach, so I can’t comment on it directly. However, I agree that there are probably lots of symbols we’ve come to associate with love that have no inherent meaning or significance when it comes to love: hearts, chocolate, tiny singing birds, and perhaps other, more subtle things. And this must necessarily extend to behaviors, the giving of flowers is a good example.

      If you’re interested in reading more about the research on love as a biological drive, check out Helen Fisher’s work. She, along with a few others, seems to be the big voice in the field of biological anthropology and love research. Certainly, though, the word love itself is problematically ambiguous (English uses the one word to mean many different things), and reading up on the biological/neurological science of love has changed my own thinking about romantic love to a certain extent.

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