the smitten

Exodus 12:12 goes like this:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the LORD.

It’s classic King James Old Testament; like every Gothic cathedral you’ve ever visited, it’s at once ornate and resplendent and petrifying.

Another good smiting occurs in Deuteronomy 8:22:

The LORD shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish.

The OT is full of smitings. Most notably the mid-night killing of all Egyptian first born sons. But a smiting isn’t always genocidal; it can apparently resemble certain STDs (or bathroom molds?), and includes curses, plagues, punishments, and pestilences of all variaties. Though the word smite has been used in other contexts, thanks to King James we usually equate it with a blow of Biblical proportions.

Reading these verses reminds me of a visit to Mamaw’s one-room Southern Baptist church. I must’ve been seventeen or eighteen–familiar enough with theology to be arrogant, young enough to be angry. Before baptizing my cousin’s new baby, the preacher made a call to the unusually-large crowd (most of which, in this tiny congregation, was my family) to consider God’s daily personal message to us. If our lives weren’t going as we’d hoped, he cautioned, if we were experiencing sickness or suffering, God was probably punishing us for a lack of faith. It was God’s elbows, nudging us back into his worship. I left boiling with anger at someone telling an already-impoverished community that they were sinners, that their suffering was deserved. But here it is, in God’s very own words (by way of a variety of scribes, politicians, and translators, of course).

Sesquiotica considers the word in all its etymologic complexity. Compared to synonymous words like beat, strike, punch, or smack, “only smite carries the weight of divine justice, of a great Gothic fist, of a rusty broadsword, of some great hero or medieval ogre; if you are smitten, you don’t just fall, you are laid low.” And this–smitten, the past participle of smite– is what I really want to talk about. lays it out in three definitions:

  1. struck, as with a hard blow.
  2. grievously or disastrously stricken or afflicted.
  3. very much in love.

How is it that when we are smitten, we are struck not with a curse but with love? Or is love a curse? Most obviously, the loss of love feels a lot like God’s elbow to your face. But our language is full of violence when we talk about love in the most positive ways (when we are falling, crushed, or struck), and we tend to treat love as an all-powerful deity. Cupid’s arrow hits us and we stumble through our days, passive and dreamy.

When J and I broke up, I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted from love, what my next relationship might look like. I wanted to love moderately, I decided, to be patient and generous, but also to sacrifice the highs of love in hopes of avoiding the lows. What I’m realizing a year later is that, chemically speaking, loving moderately is a more difficult proposition than it sounds. Last time I wrote about the dangers of dopamine–it is seductive–and along with the other chemicals involved, it turns out that infatuation is a much more likely path than moderation, no matter how much intention is involved.

We can blame this partly on serotonin, or the lack thereof. When, in the beginning of love, levels of dopamine and norepinephrine rise in our brains, serotonin production goes down. And low serotonin is responsible for the worst parts of infatuation: the obsessive message-checking, the drunken late-night texts. The brains of those in the early stages of love closely resemble the brains of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. (I am now thinking, with concern, of The Aviator.)

Interestingly (importantly), high levels of serotonin, especially in those on serotonin-enhancing antidepressants, can decrease libido and the ability to have an orgasm. Helen Fisher argues that, aside from being generally unpleasant, not having orgasms can make it difficult to develop attachment to a potential partner:

With orgasm, one of the main things that happens is that levels of oxytocin and vasopressin go up enormously in the brain. These are feel-good chemicals. They’re associated with social bonding, pair formation, and pair maintenance. So when men and women take serotonin-enhancing medications and fail to achieve orgasm, they can fail to stimulate not only themselves, but their partners as well. This neural mechanism, associated with partner attachment, becomes a failed trigger.

Memidex, another online dictionary, defines smitten as “marked by foolish or unreasoning fondness.” And maybe this makes the most sense. When we are smitten, we are stricken by unreasonability, by foolishness. Even the best intentions are overrun by chemistry. As much as I may want to be cautious and thoughtful and moderate, biology has a different agenda. And it does feel kind of like an assault–albeit a pleasant one–like something that has suddenly expanded beyond the reach of reason, obtrusive thoughts begging for a moment’s attention, a litany of reasons to cancel all plans and spend the day in earnest gazing. But it’s the constant thinking about someone, the desire to be with them when you’re apart–the very unreasoning fondness–that pushes love through those initial stages into deeper attachment, which just happens to be helpful for the perpetuation of our species.


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