It may have a lot to do with the shortcomings of the English language, but love remains an unspeakably tricky subject to talk about, in fiction and non-fiction alike. Sex is fairly easy to write about, because there’s plenty of describable stuff going on there – your main risk is that it will get dull. Sex described on a page can be startlingly un-erotic. The emotional side is a lot more awkward. Rare is the occasion when you can get away with ‘and then they fell in love with each other and that was all good’. Where love features in fiction, you end up trying to convey what it’s like, and here commences the problem.
Pretty much the only way to talk about love, is to talk about what it’s like. There’s very little direct language available for that heady rush of sentiment and the cocktail of chemicals underpinning it. In non-fiction you can talk about oxytocin, endorphins, bonding processes and other sensible sounding things. Readers of romance tend not to be impressed by this, not that I write romance very often… So we talk about what love is like, borrowing the language of any activity that makes sense to us. “Your passion’s the furnace, her body’s the coal, and love is the steel to be tempered and pressed,” is a favourite of mine, from an Archie Fisher song. Mostly we talk about love only by talking about something else entirely. When talk about divine love depends on reference to human sexual love, that can all get decidedly weird…
With the non-fiction hat on, it’s possible to talk about what love does – how it affects our choices, interacts with compassion, inspiration and ethics. With this approach we don’t talk about love as an experience, but we may think about what it means in terms of what we do.
Poetry can get interesting, not least because it invites certain assumptions. A poem about love always looks like a poem about a person you are in love with, not an expression of the experience. I’ve had a few rounds of people assuming I’d written things about Tom that are much more about me. It is all too easy to mistake the inspiration of love for the experience of love. Whatever is inspired within me, is mine, and I have learned not to lay that on other people too much. At the same time, without someone inspiring me, certain kinds of inspiration do not happen at all. Inspiration and love run close together for me, and on the whole inspiration is much easier to talk about.
Our capacity for love underpins our capacity for co-operation, which in turn makes much of what we do possible. It’s allegedly an almost universal experience, and yet we have no easy way of talking about it.