For Valentine’s Day, I wish to explore the ‘physics’ of romantic love, mainly through three movies: two are by Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and the third is an adaptation of a Milan Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
This week, we are told that the collision of two black holes created a gravity wave so large that it was finally detectable by the aparatuses built to detect them. Single black holes are incapable of generating enough gravity disturbance to be detected, so as with romantic love, it is the attraction and the consummation of the union that gets our attention.
In writer/director Charlie Kaufmann’s new opus, Anomalisa, we find a successful author and motivational speaker who is in a crisis associated with his “Fregoli delusion” condition. As the audience, we are quickly called upon to adapt to the conceit that every character’s voice, from his wife, to his son, to his ex-girlfriend, sound the same to the protagonist. The Fregoli Delusion is the mis-perception that different people are the same person in disguise.
Without spoiling the ending of this wonderful clay-mation feature film, let me say that the movie beautifully depicts a profound truth of romantic love. When the lead character meets an unlikely young woman on his business trip, he can finally hear her unique female voice. What ensues is a fascinating depiction of the experience of falling in love. It is the summoning of the oxytocin, testosterone, seratonin, and delusion that the hungry ego conjures to attract the other black hole and then consummate the explosive merging.
Romantic love is a very modern conception of ego-annihilating urge but in some ways, our expectations of it are like a Swiss Army Knife meant to translate Shakespeare and make us a Martini.
For most of human history, coupling for business, sexual satisfaction, companionship, and even religion ecstasy were not viewed as possible via one lifelong companion. In antiquity, a people would marry for connections, would use slaves or pornae for sex, have concubines for sophisticated companionship and entertainment, and see a temple priestess for a religion ecstatic experience. The sexual mores of women were also more relaxed although one cannot imagine they were quite as dynamic in the absence of wealth and power.
The second movie of Kaufman that asks and answers a profound question about romantic love is The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Namely, if we could erase the pain of past love, would we? And having succeeded, if we knew the pain that would be in store for us from choosing that person, would we still choose to couple with that person?
SPOILER ALERT STARTS HERE.
In this film, Jim Carrey plays a man who slowly comes to realize that he is living in a distorted reality because he actually paid for a procedure one year before to erase his memory of a love affair that he lost. In one of the most perfect moments of cinematic history, he confronts his lost love, who underwent the procedure before him, with the truth that they both opted to voluntarily undergo brain damaging procedures to forget the pain that the relationship inflicted upon them. At that moment of dual epiphany, like two black holes rending themselves apart, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett both confront the hopelessness of reliving their romance and yet they blithely declare that they would be okay with doing it again!
END SPOILER ALERT
In a slightly less heart-wrenching and existential/speculative fiction way, this is the full stop in the semicolon that was the final scene of Annie Hall, arguably the first truly modern film about failed relationships that diverged so strongly from the Hollywood happy ending that so few of us recognize as reality. Woody Allen’s classic analogy is the joke about the man whose brother thinks he’s a chicken. The reason they don’t institutionalize him is that “they need the eggs”. The act of romantic love is entirely irrational and yet it somehow provides the magic we seek.
The final movie to consider in The Unbearable Lightness of Being a phrase used by Tereza to describe her womanizing husband, Tomas, played by Daniel Day Lewis, who “considers sex and love to be distinct entities: he has sex with many women but loves only his wife, Tereza. He explains womanizing as an imperative to explore female idiosyncrasies only expressed during sex. [Wikipedia]”
Something that polyamorous swingers are better at negotiating is this unbearable lightness of being, which the wife Tereza feels she cannot master. She perceives her own identification with sexual obsession and fidelity to her beloved as a kind of weakness of character.
Because of the ego identification with the romantic coupling rules and responsibilities, it is nearly impossible for Tereza and most people to live with infidelity. The delusion of one separate person being united with you is illogical but is a persistent one created by emotional and physical intimacy. Likewise notion of a couple being continuously desirous of someone they already “possess” is contrary to the Buddhist truths that we can only want what we don’t have.
So in the end, romantic love and sexual attraction are usually doomed to failure by the conditions of their own existence. Two black holes cannot be eternally attracting each other without a destructive merging. When united, the two entities yearn to define themselves through conflict and strife. The only hope for true intimacy resides in a notion of separateness like binary star systems orbiting each other. The beloved is NOT a part of you and is eternally and constantly in a state of freedom; freedom to leave, to decouple, and to destroy your peaceful ego-driven delusion of stasis.
It is our superfluous and paradoxical desire to experience oneness with a separate being that permits us to endow the beloved with the power to lay illusory eggs and ultimately causes us to pay for brain damage procedures to forget them. And although the uniqueness of their charm may fade with time, the enjoyment of surfing those waves of emotion seems too much to resist for so many. You subconsciously decide that if you paid for your ticket to incarnate into this theme park of life, it would seem silly to not go on any rides, right?
Happy Valentine’s Day!