Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘love’

30 JUNE, 2014

A “Dynamic Interaction”: Leo Buscaglia on Why Love Is a Learned Language

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From developmental psychology to Timothy Leary, a reframing of love as deliberate mastery rather than magical thinking.

Love might be one of the most quintessential capacities of the human condition. And yet, for all our poetic contemplation, psycho-scientific dissection, and anthropological exploration of it, we greatly underestimate the extent to which this baseline capacity — much like those for language, motion, and creativity — is a dynamic ability to be mastered and cultivated rather than a static state to be passively beheld. Despite what we know about the value of “deliberate practice” in attaining excellence in any endeavor, the necessary toil of mastery, and the psychology of what it takes to acquire new habits, we remain gobsmackingly naive about the practice of love, approaching it instead with the magical-thinking expectation that we’re born excellent at it.

That disconnect is precisely what Leo Buscaglia considers in one of the most stimulating chapters in Love: What Life Is All About (public library) — that slim and potent volume based on his 1969 course at the University of Southern California, which also gave us Buscaglia on education, conformity, and how labels limit us.

Citing famous cases, both folkloric and factual, of human children raised by animals outside civilization, Buscaglia notes that just like we “learn” to be human, we also learn to love. He points to the research of various psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists, anthropologists, and educators, who have indicated that love is a “learned response, a learned emotion,” and laments a fundamental cultural disconnect:

Most of us continue to behave as though love is not learned but lies dormant in each human being and simply awaits some mystical age of awareness to emerge in full bloom. Many wait for this age forever. We seem to refuse to face the obvious fact that most of us spend our lives trying to find love, trying to live in it, and dying without ever truly discovering it.

And yet, Buscaglia argues, this dreary destiny is self-made and thus avoidable through the choices we make, in how much of ourselves we invest in learning love. He observes a startling paradox that bespeaks how we, as a culture, cripple ourselves in the journey to love — if one wanted to learn about cars, one would “without question study about automobiles”; if one wanted to become a gourmet cook, one would “certainly study the art of cooking, perhaps even attend a cooking class.” But when it comes to love, Buscaglia points out, we expect the skill of it will magically bestow itself upon us. “No mechanic or cook,” he writes, “would ever believe that by ‘willing’ the knowledge in his field, he’d ever become an expert in it.”

He writes:

Love is a learned, emotional reaction. It is a response to a learned group of stimuli and behaviors. Like all learned behavior, it is [affected] by the interaction of the learner with his environment, the person’s learning ability, and the type and strength of the reinforcers present; that is, which people respond, how they respond and to what degree they respond, to his expressed love.

Love is a dynamic interaction, lived every second of our lives, all of our lives.

Buscaglia puts the premise poetically yet unambiguously in seven postulates:

One cannot give what he does not possess. To give love you must possess love.

One cannot teach what he does not understand. To teach love you must comprehend love.

One cannot know what he does not study. To study love you must live in love.

One cannot appreciate what he does not recognize. To recognize love you must be receptive to love.

One cannot have doubt about that which he wishes to trust. To trust love you must be convinced of love.

One cannot admit what he does not yield to. To yield to love you must be vulnerable to love.

One cannot love what he does not dedicate himself to. To dedicate yourself to love you must be forever growing in love.

This growth, Buscaglia argues, is a process both active and interactive:

Love is an emotion, that is true. But it is also a “response” to an emotion and, therefore, an “active” expression of what is felt. Love is not learned by osmosis. It is actually acted out and acted upon.

The process begins in childhood, as we absorb the picture of the world we are fed and emulate the psychoemotional tools we observe — something psychiatric trio Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon explored with remarkable dimension decades later in their excellent A General Theory of Love. Buscaglia writes:

In order to exist at some level of comfort, [the child] must accept what is offered, often without questions. In fact, he has few questions for he has little knowledge and nothing to compare it to. He is spoon-fed his world, handed the tools to meet its requirements and the symbols with which to organize it. He is even taught what things are significant, what sounds to listen for and what they mean, and what is valueless. In other words, he is taught to be a particular type of human lover. To be loved in return, he need but listen, see and respond as others do. It is a simple matter but the cost to his individuality is great.

Buscaglia applies Timothy Leary’s notion of developmental “imprinting” — the idea that a child’s acquisition of language and words serves as a “freezing of external awareness” — to love:

[According to Leary] each time a parent or society teaches a child a new symbol he is given both an intellectual and an emotional content for the symbol. The content is limited by the attitudes and feelings of his parents and society. This process begins too early for the child to have much to say about what words will mean for him. Once “frozen,” the attitudes and feelings toward the object or person to which the words refer become very stable, in many cases irreversible. Through words, then, the child is given not only content but attitude. His attitudes of love are so formed. A sort of map is set up, Leary continues, which is static and upon which all subsequent learning of attitudes and awareness take place. The child’s “map” will be determined by how closely the symbols resemble the facts and how they are taken in, assimilated, analyzed and reinforced through experience. The important language for establishing behavior, relationships, action, attitudes, empathy, responsibility of love, trust, caring, joy, response — the language of love, in other words, will thus be set.

The formal education system, Buscaglia argues, only compounds the problem with its propensity for “‘feeding in’ rather than a ‘leading out,’” coercing the child to accept the ideas of love as defined by his or her teachers. Buscaglia laments the distorted, backwards model of love instilled in us by culture and commerce since childhood:

Neither the love of self — what educators call self-respect — nor love of others — responsibility and love for his fellow man — can ever be taught in our present educational system. Teachers are too busy “managing” to be “creating.” As Albert Einstein said, “It is nothing short of a miracle that instruction today has not strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry. For this delicate little plant lies mostly in need of freedom without which it will fall into rack and ruin and die without fail.”

So the individual, now fully grown, leaves our schools confused, lonely, alienated, lost, angry, but with a mind full of isolated, meaningless facts which together are laughingly called an education. He knows neither who he is, where he is or how he got there. He has no concept of where he’s going, how to arrive there nor what he’ll do when he gets there. He has no idea what he has, what he wants, nor how to develop it. In essence, he’s a type of robot — old before his time, living in the past, confused by the present, frightened by the future, much like the teachers who made him.

Nowhere along the way has he been directly exposed to love as a learned phenomenon. What he has learned of love he has come upon indirectly, by chance or by trial and error. His greatest exposure and often his only teaching has been through the commercial mass media which has always exploited love for its own ends.

[…]

You are assured that love means running together through a meadow, lighting two cigarettes in the dark or applying a deodorant daily. You are given the idea that love just “happens,” and usually at first sight. You don’t have to work at love — love requires no teacher — you just fall into love — if you follow the right rules, and play the “game” correctly.

The result of this, Buscaglia argues, is a singular and pervasive psychoemotional crippling. And yet there is hope — active, dynamic, elastic hope for mastering this all-important skill that is learned like any other:

Most of us never learn to love at all. We play at love, imitate lovers, treat love as a game. Is it any wonder so many of us are dying of loneliness, feel anxious and unfulfilled, even in seemingly close relationships, and are always looking elsewhere for something more which we feel must certainly be there? “Is that all there is?” the song asks.

There is something else. It’s simply this — the limitless potential of love within each person eager to be recognized, waiting to be developed, learning to grow.

It’s never too late to learn anything for which you have a potential. If you want to learn to love, then you must start the process of finding out what it is, what qualities make up a loving person and how these are developed. Each person has the potential for love. But potential is never realized without work. This does not mean pain. Love, especially, is learned best in wonder, in joy, in peace, in living.

Love: What Life Is All About is a glorious read in its entirety — a dimensional synthesis of the insights Buscaglia and his students arrived at over the three years he taught his USC course on love, prompted by the tragic and discombobulating suicide of one of his brightest students. Buscaglia goes on to explore, in a fashion both philosophical and practically useful yet not the least bit self-helpy, such facets of love as its biological basis, its deterrents, its agelessness, and its relationship with personal responsibility. Complement it with these essential reads on the psychology of love and some timeless wisdom on it by Susan Sontag, Vincent van Gogh, and Albert Camus.

Vintage postcards courtesy of the New York Public Library archives

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16 JUNE, 2014

Albert Camus on Happiness and Love, Illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

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“If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.”

In this new installment of the Brain Pickings artist series, I’ve once again teamed up with the wonderfully talented Wendy MacNaughton, on the heels of our previous collaborations on famous writers’ sleep habits, Susan Sontag’s diary highlights on love and on art, Nellie Bly’s packing list, Gay Talese’s taxonomy of New York cats, and Sylvia Plath’s influences. I asked MacNaughton to illustrate another of my literary heroes’ thoughts on happiness and love, based on my highlights from Notebooks 1951–1959 (public library) — the published diaries of French author, philosopher, and Nobel laureate Albert Camus, which also gave us Camus on happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons.

The artwork is available as a print on Society6 and, as usual, we’re donating 50% of proceeds to A Room of Her Own, a foundation supporting women writers and artists. Enjoy!

If those whom we begin to love could know us as we were before meeting them … they could perceive what they have made of us.

When love ceases to be tragic it is something else and the individual again throws himself in search of tragedy.

Betrayal answers betrayal, the mask of love is answered by the disappearance of love.

For me, physical love has always been bound to an irresistible feeling of innocence and joy. Thus, I cannot love in tears but in exaltation.

The loss of love is the loss of all rights, even though one had them all.

Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness.

It is not humiliating to be unhappy. Physical suffering is sometimes humiliating, but the suffering of being cannot be, it is life.

The end of their passion consists of loving uselessly at the moment when it is pointless.

At times I feel myself overtaken by an immense tenderness for these people around me who live in the same century.

I have not stopped loving that which is sacred in this world.

Get the print here.

For more literature-inspired art benefiting some favorite organizations, dive into the artist series visual archive. For more of MacNaughton’s own fantastic work, see her book Meanwhile in San Francisco and her illustrations for The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert and Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology.

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05 JUNE, 2014

The Breathtaking Love Letters of Violet Trefusis and Vita Sackville-West

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“All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated.”

More than a decade before her love affair with Virginia Woolf, in an era when LGBT Pride was as laughable a concept as LGBT shame was culturally codified, English author Vita Sackville-West fell in love with another woman, the writer and socialite Violet Keppel, and the two embarked upon one of the most intense and turbulent affairs in literary history. The exquisite epistolary records of their relationship, which was later fictionalized in Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando, span more than a decade and are captured in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West (public library) — an immensely moving addition to history’s most beautiful LGBT love letters, preserved at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, brimming with some of the most urgently, breathtakingly passionate uses of the English language.

Violet and Vita had been friends since childhood, but began forming an intense romantic bond during their teenage years and eventually became lovers in their twenties. The surviving letters, beginning in 1910 when Violet was sixteen and Vita eighteen, capture the exultant and anguishing whirlwind of love so passionate yet so utterly quixotic in the context of their era’s bigotry toward same-sex romance.

In October of 1910, 16-year-old Violet replies — in French, and with exquisite candor — to a letter in which Vita had asked her why she loves her:

I am in the act of asking myself if I ought to reply to your question? A question furthermore most indiscreet and which merits a sharp reprimand. Reply, don’t reply, reply! Oh to the devil with discretion!

Well, you ask me pointblank why I love you… I love you, Vita, because I’ve fought so hard to win you… I love you, Vita, because you never gave me back my ring. I love you because you have never yielded in anything; I love you because you never capitulate. I love you for your wonderful intelligence, for your literary aspirations, for your unconscious (?) coquetry. I love you because you have the air of doubting nothing! I love in you what is also in me: imagination, the gift for languages, taste, intuition and a host of other things…

I love you, Vita, because I have seen your soul…

Over the decade that followed, the two remained lovers even though Vita married the wealthy writer and politician Harold George Nicolson in 1913. They had a mutually agreed upon open marriage. In 1914, Vita gave birth to the first of their two sons and Violet, at her “own sarcastic request,” became a godmother. She and Vita continued to correspond passionately and to steal the occasional weekend getaway for consummating their love.

Violet came to call Vita “Mitya,” short for “my Dmitri,” a character from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, the voluptuous music of which Violet identified with her beloved — it was a choice particularly poignant in its gender-reversal, as Violet wrote in a number of her letters that she would’ve married Vita if she were a man so the two could live happily ever after. But with marriage equality a century away, the fantasy of marriage was only possible if she envisioned her beloved as a male character.

Despite the increasingly forbidding circumstances of their lives, Violet fell deeper and deeper in love. In a letter from the spring of 1918, she writes:

Drunk with the beauty of Mitya! All today I was incoherent. I tell you, there is a barbaric splendor about you that conquered not only me, but everyone who saw you. You are made to conquer, Mitya, not be conquered… You could have the world at your feet.

A few weeks later, at the end of a few days together, Violet writes:

It was Hell leaving you today. God how I adore you and want you. You can’t know how much… Last night was perfection… I am so proud of you, my sweet, I revel in your beauty, your beauty of form and feature. I exult in my surrender today…

Mitya, I miss you so — I don’t care what I say — I love belonging to you — I glory in it, that you alone … have bent me to your will, shattered my self-possession, robbed me of my mystery, made me yours, yours, so that away from you I am nothing but a useless puppet! an empty husk.

In July of 1918, the reality of their impossible love sets in more firmly and Violet writes in anguish:

What sort of a life can we lead now? Yours, an infamous and degrading lie to the world, officially bound to someone you don’t care for…

I, not caring a damn for anyone but you, utterly lost, miserably incomplete, condemned to leading a futile, purposeless existence, which no longer holds the smallest attraction for me…

I never thought I would (or could) love like this.

Violet’s desperation swells all the more painfully if one were to imagine how their relationship might have unfolded had marriage equality been around at the time — a wistful realization that Violet herself touches on with remarkably prescient poignancy in a letter from August of 1918:

Oh, Mitya, come away, let’s fly, Mitya darling — if ever there were two entirely primitive people, they are surely us: let’s go away and forget the world and all its squalor — let’s forget such things as trains, and trams, and servants, and streets, and shops, and money, and cares and responsibilities. Oh god! how I hate it all — you and I, Mitya, were born 2000 years too late, or 2000 years too soon.

Later that night, Violet writes:

I want to see you. I want to hear your voice. I want to put my hand on your shoulder and cry my heart out. Mitya, Mitya, I have never told you the whole truth. You shall have it now: I have loved you all my life, a long time without knowing, 5 years knowing it as irrevocably as I know it now, loved you as my ideal…

Nine days later, on August 25, Violet can no longer contain her longing and pleads with Vita to go away together, oscillating between prostrate vulnerability and fervent ultimatum:

My days are consumed by this impotent longing for you, and my nights are riddled with insufferable dreams… I want you. I want you hungrily, frenziedly, passionately. I am starving for you, if you must know it. Not only the physical you, but your fellowship, your sympathy, the innumerable points of view we share. I can’t exist without you, you are my affinity, the intellectual “pendent” to me, my twin spirit. I can’t help it! no more can you! … We complete each other…

Mitya, we must. God knows we have waited long enough! Something will go “snap” in my brain if we wait any longer and I shall tell everyone I know that we are going away and why. Do you think I’m going to waste any more of my precious youth waiting for you to screw up sufficient courage to make a bolt? Not I!…

I want you for my own, I want to go away with you. I must and will and damn the world and damn the consequences and anyone had better look out for themselves who dares to become an obstacle in my path.

Above all, Violet is consumed with violent resistance to the life of mediocrity and duplicity, to the concessions they are forced to make in their love in the face of what society deems acceptable. In letter from October of 1918, she channels that resistance with exquisite urgency:

O Mitya, give me great glaring vices, and great glaring virtues, but preserve us from the neat little neutral faintly pink or faintly mauve ambiguities that trot between…

Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent — Live — live fully, live passionately, live disastrously if necessary. Live the gamut of human experiences, build, destroy, build up again! Live, let’s live, you and I — let’s live as none ever lived before, let’s explore and investigate, let’s tread fearlessly where even the most intrepid have faltered and held back!

But by the following spring, the bold fantasy had grown stifled by reality. Violet reluctantly became engaged to Denys Trefusis, a soldier with the British Royal Horse Guards, who had been courting her for years. Although Denys had given his word to remain a “gentleman” — that is, he had promised the marriage would be chaste, so that Violet could remain faithful to Vita — the prospect of committing to someone other than her beloved was unbearable to Violet. By March of 1919, as she approaches her twenty-fifth birthday, Violet grows even more desperate over the disconnect between the intensity of her love for Vita and the options handed down to them by life in Edwardian England:

My beautiful, my lovely, I want you so… Cast aside the drab garments of respectability and convention, my beautiful Bird of Paradise, they become you not. Lead the life Nature intended you to lead.

And yet Society, subjugating Nature, has different plans for them. On the last day of March in 1919, Violet attends “a ball of some sort” where her mother had publicly announced her reluctant engagement to Trefusis. That night, at 2 A.M., she sends Vita the most beautiful and harrowing letter of their entire correspondence, emblematic of the heartbreaking impossibility imposed on their love by the era’s punishing conventions and perhaps the most moving case ever made for the heart of marriage equality:

I was congratulated by everyone I knew there. I could have screamed aloud. Mitya, I can’t face this existence… It is really wicked and horrible. I am losing every atom of self-respect I ever possessed. I hate myself. O Mitya, what have you done to me? O my darling, precious love, what is going to become of us?

I want you every second and every hour of the day, yet I am being slowly and inexorably tied to somebody else… Sometimes I am flooded by an agony of physical longing for you … a craving for your nearness and your touch. At other times I feel I should be quite content if I could only hear the sound of your voice. I try so hard to imagine your lips on mine. Never was there such a pitiful imagining…

Nothing and no one in the world could kill the love I have for you. I have surrendered my whole individuality, the very essence of my being to you. I have given you my body time after time to treat as you pleased, to tear in pieces if such had been your will. All the hoardings of my imagination I have laid bare to you. There isn’t a recess in my brain into which you haven’t penetrated. I have clung to you and caressed you and slept with you and I would like to tell the whole world I clamor for you… You are my lover and I am your mistress, and kingdoms and empires and governments have tottered and succumbed before now to that mighty combination — the most powerful in the world.

It is as heartbreaking as it is unsurprising that the two women never escaped the shackles of their era’s narrow possibilities. Violet went through with the marriage to Denys. At the height of their inevitable marriage troubles a few years later, he burned all of her letters, rendering those preserved in Violet to Vita: The Letters of Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West a rare and bittersweet sacrality of a romance so beautifully full of expansive possibility yet so tragically stifled by the narrowness of a culture unwilling to see that all love is sacred.

Edith Windsor, patron saint of modern love, put it best.

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