There are more challenges to defining love. If we trace the manner in which the word has been used by various cultural groups on different occasions, we would come up with a perplexing yet extremely rich “manifold of uses, some contradictory, some overlapping each other, some with apparently no connection except the signifier, and some with apparent, but very complicated, family resemblances. We would find no core or essence that holds all these uses together.” (Netting, 2009, p.519) Hence a more pragmatic approach would be to just decide what love (or “romantic love”) means, and get on with it. There is also the question of grammar and linguistic limitations. For example, during the Shakespearean era, the word ‘love’ was more semantically flexible than in current times. During the former, the word covered a wide range of phenomena from friendship to even non-emotive phenomena. It is not an exaggeration to claim that beneath these multifarious representations of the word there lies a core, revealed by “Darwinism, materialism [in the non-Marxist sense in which all human phenomena are assumed to be materially caused], and evolutionary psychology”. (Schalkwyk, 2009, p.256)
Just as The Bard is a vital source for understanding love, so are the Greek and Roman intellectuals of the ancient world. The fact that their views on love are still in currency (for example Platonic love still part of the lexicon) underscores not just the universality of love but also the validity of their insights. (Secomb, 2007, p.23) This assessment could be extended to the Poets of Divine Love too. Alessandro Vettori’s book of the same name is an investigation into the intermingling of religious inspiration and rhetorical elaboration behind the work of two main authors of twelfth-century vernacular literature: Francis of Assisi and Iacopone da Todi. (Anichini, 2009, p.154) In this milieu, love is seen as the aspiration for the human to merge with God. The challenges of defining this experience through language are expressed thus:
“The moment in which the human soul merges with Christ represents the peak of mystical experience, and the content challenging any mystic writer. Since this moment is by nature ultra-mundane and ultra-sensorial, therefore ineffable, it creates the conditions for linguistic experiments. Vettori’s analysis is based on the paradox implicit in Franciscan poetry: that especially the language of poetry, despite its high degree of elaboration, best serves the purpose of describing the joining of the human soul with the divine, the experience most remote from human capacities of expression.” (Anichini, 2009, p.154)
The profundity and sanctity accorded to love in the days of Francis of Assisi is a far cry from how it has come to be defined in contemporary consumerist culture. As bookstores are being flooded by self-help manuals, even titles such as How to Marry the Man of Your Choice, How to Get Married in a Year or Less, and How to Marry the Rich have cropped up. The assumption that love is a commodity subject to scarcity is central to these courtship manuals. Female audiences being the base, these so-called scholarly works highlight the short supply of marriageable men and the need for women to compete for them. The book Beating the Odds compares it to the supply-and-demand dynamics of the marketplace. These courtship manuals urge women to use aggressive sales tactics like getting a nose job, colouring gray hair; growing your hair long, etc. It also suggests, “’Be quiet and mysterious, act ladylike, cross your legs and smile. Don’t talk so much.’ The implication is that we can’t expect to be loved for who we really are. A stubby nose, baggy sweatshirt, or loud laugh might drive potential mates into the arms of more “ladylike” competitors…” (Flanagan, 2006, p.41)
In conclusion, the array of understandings of love highlighted above attests to Alan Watts’ observation that ‘Love is always something more and something different than can be captured by any single definition’.