Bon Iver, dopamine, and Neruda’s wives

Last Friday night I saw the Bon Iver show at Deer Lake Park. It was my first warm summer evening in Vancouver, and I was feeling simultaneously happy and sad in that wistful way one inevitably feels as the sun sets over a lake and the sound of a nine-man band—including two full drum kits!—echoes through the leafy branches. The experience has gotten me thinking about the things that move us.

Take this, for example:

When Justin Vernon’s voice cracks as he sings “Now all your love is wasted? Then who the hell was I?” it just nails me. Shirt to skin to sternum to aorta. Over the past five days, I’ve probably listened to “Skinny Love” twenty or thirty times. Because I want to understand something about the aesthetics of love, something about how a song or a poem or a love story can make us feel, and something about the legitimacy of that feeling.

I’ve always thought that the difference between love (of the regular affectionate variety) and romance (the more spectacular, dreamy kind), was an aesthetic difference. My most romantic memories seem to be predicated on the beauty of a particular moment: The empty pebble beach, the gleaming Aegean Sea, and the limestone cliffs. The setting is so aggressively beautiful that if you visit it with the man you love, it is not possible to care who did or did not wash that morning’s dishes. That’s romance: He is the landscape. So are you.

What is both powerful and problematic about love songs is that they make us feel like we’re the ones on the beach, when in actuality we’re living another person’s romantic moment vicariously. Love songs annihilate any suspicions we may have that our feelings don’t matter, that they are only atoms organized into neurons that shoot chemicals across our brains.

The first time I fell in love, I fell in love with a person, but I think I also fell in love with a feeling I got when I listened to certain love songs. They made me ache. And, under the influence of love, that ache was more poignant and compelling than it had been before. Ache-y romantic love is beautiful in Bon Iver songs and Pablo Neruda sonnets. It’s affecting and powerful. But in real life that ache is uglier. It makes us say stupid things. Or it is prosaic, and we exhaust everyone we know by talking incessantly about it.

Romantic longing is rarely as pretty or dignified as it is in verse. A friend of mine once told me that she was pretty sure her fiancé would love her forever. The statement wasn’t overconfident, or romantic, or naïve, just a pragmatic understanding of the terms of their relationship. A good reason for wanting to marry someone. And the more I think about love, the more I find myself siding with the pragmatists.

Sometimes I wonder if writing and researching romantic love has made me unromantic. And then I wonder if I should care. You’re not supposed to say that you’re marrying someone because of how much he loves you, but rather because of how much you love him. We have been taught–and by “we” I mean all us Westerners, but especially women–that it is noble to love more that you are loved, to sacrifice yourself for love’s sake.

When fourteen-year-old Juliet cannot be with Romeo, she wants to die:

Take up those cords: poor ropes, you are beguiled,

Both you and I; for Romeo is exiled:

He made you for a highway to my bed;

But I, a maid, die maiden-widowed.

Come, cords, come, nurse; I’ll to my wedding-bed;

And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead!

Seriously? She’s known him four days. But when I first read the play–also at age fourteen–her words never seemed rash or dramatic. They made perfect sense. To my credit, iambic pentameter makes even the most overwrought reactions seem more reasonable. But these days I’m inclined to think that dying for someone you love at fourteen takes a lot less than staying married to someone until you’re eighty.

Our neurochemistry rewards both love and love songs. Even male finches produce dopamine when they sing to females. “Despite the distant evolutionary relationship between birds and humans,” researchers said, “it may be that during such intense social interactions as courtship, both share some similar emotional state.” And recent research shows that “when you experience an emotion while listening to music, ancient reward circuits are flooding your brain with a chemical [dopamine] designed to make you feel good.”

For years I longed to love someone “as certain dark things are loved/ secretly, between the shadow and the soul.” I know I’m supposed to want romantic love, but for now, it’s kind of a relief to know that, when the song or poem or play ends, the dopamine recedes and I can get on with things. For now, I will leave “the dense fragrance that rises from the earth” to Neruda and his three wives.

3 thoughts on “Bon Iver, dopamine, and Neruda’s wives

  1. Lovely. You know, I’ve read that Freud hated music because he couldn’t understand why it made people feel things. He couldn’t make a logical connection between the notes on the page and the feelings produced upon aural acceptance. I’ve also read that he had musicogenic epilepsy, a form of hypergraphia, apparently, in which certain types of music literally drove him to an epileptic attack. Still, my point is – you’re in good company pondering this question.

  2. Pingback: on the dangers of kissing | the love story project

  3. Re Music and/vs Lyrics: Take a listen to Sia’s song “Chandelier” from Saturday Night Live’s January 17, 2015 show. Simple lyrics/premise, compelling notes, amazing voice. “I feel the love.”

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