Should we scoff at the idea of love at first sight?

Malta Independent - - FEATURE -

For a lec­ture course I teach at Brown Uni­ver­sity called “Love Sto­ries,” we be­gin at the be­gin­ning, with love at first sight.

To its detractors, love at first sight must be an il­lu­sion – the wrong term for what is sim­ply in­fat­u­a­tion, or a way to sug­ar­coat lust.

Buy into it, they say, and you’re a fool.

In my class, I point to an episode of “The Of­fice,” in which Michael Scott, re­gional man­ager for Dun­der Mif­flin, is such a fool: He’s blown away by a model in an of­fice fur­ni­ture cat­a­log. Michael vows to find her in the flesh, only to dis­cover that the love of his life is no longer liv­ing. De­s­pair­ing (but still de­ter­mined), he vis­its her grave and sings to her a stir­ring re­quiem, set to the tune of “Amer­i­can Pie”: Bye, bye Ms. Chair Model Lady I dreamt we were mar­ried and you treated me nice

We had lots of kids, drink­ing whiskey and rye

Why’d you have to go off and die?

This might as well be a fu­neral for love at first sight, since all of this comes at delu­sional Michael’s ex­pense.

If you find your­self smit­ten with some­one you’ve only just met, you’ll ques­tion whether you should give the feel­ing so much weight – and risk end­ing up like Michael.

Psy­chol­o­gists and neu­ro­sci­en­tists have tried to find some an­swers. But I would ar­gue that for the best guid­ance, don’t look there – look to Shake­speare. of the 250 stu­dents indi­cate they don’t.

At least one study sug­gests that the rest of us agree with my stu­dents. Like them, par­tic­i­pants in this study be­lieve that love takes time. Two peo­ple meet and may or may not be in­fat­u­ated upon first meet­ing. They grad­u­ally de­velop an in­ti­mate un­der­stand­ing of each other. And then, and only then, do they fall in love. That’s just how love works.

Then again, maybe we’re more like Michael Scott than we think. Other sur­veys sug­gest that most of us in­deed do be­lieve in love at first sight. Many of us say we’ve ex­pe­ri­enced it.

What does brain sci­ence say? Some stud­ies claim that we can clearly dis­tin­guish what hap­pens in our brains at the mo­ment of ini­tial at­trac­tion – when chem­i­cals re­lated to plea­sure, ex­cite­ment and anx­i­ety pre­dom­i­nate – from what hap­pens in true ro­man­tic at­tach­ment, when at­tach­ment hor­mones like oxy­tocin take over.

But other stud­ies don’t ac­cept such a clean break be­tween the chem­istry of love at first sight and of “true” love, in­stead sug­gest­ing that what hap­pens in the brain at first blush may re­sem­ble what hap­pens later on.

Re­gard­less of whether chem­i­cal re­ac­tions in love at first sight and longer-term ro­man­tic love are alike, the deeper ques­tion per­sists.

Does love at first sight de­serve the name of love? first sight can be as true a love as there is.

Let’s look at how his lovers meet in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Romeo, be­sot­ted with Juliet at the Ca­pulet ball, musters the courage to speak with her, even though he doesn’t know her name. When he does, she doesn’t just re­spond. To­gether, they speak a son­net:

Romeo: If I pro­fane with my un­wor­thi­est hand

This holy shrine, the gen­tle sin is this:

My lips, two blush­ing pil­grims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a ten­der kiss.

Juliet: Good pil­grim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which man­nerly de­vo­tion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pil­grims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm palmers’ kiss.

Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

Juliet: Ay, pil­grim, lips that they must use in prayer.

Romeo: O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do!

They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to de­spair.

Juliet: Saints do is holy not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

Romeo: Then move not, while my prayer’s ef­fect I take.

Even though it’s their first en­counter, the two con­verse dy­nam­i­cally and in­ven­tively – an in­tense back-and-forth that equates love with re­li­gion. Love po­ems typ­i­cally are spo­ken by a lover to a beloved, as in many of Shake­speare’s own son­nets or Michael’s re­quiem. Gen­er­ally, there’s one voice. Not in the case of Romeo and Juliet – and the en­ergy be­tween the two is as stun­ning as it is silly.

In the first four lines, Romeo priv­i­leges lips over hands, in a bid for a kiss. In the next four lines, Juliet dis­agrees with Romeo. She as­serts that, ac­tu­ally, hands are bet­ter. Hold­ing hands is its own kind of kiss.

Romeo keeps go­ing, not­ing that saints and pil­grims have lips. Since they do, lips mustn’t be so bad. They should be used.

But again, Juliet an­swers Romeo read­ily: Lips are to be used, yes – but to pray, not to kiss. Romeo tries a third time to re­solve the ten­sion by say­ing that kiss­ing, far from be­ing op­posed to prayer, is in fact a way of pray­ing. And maybe kiss­ing is like pray­ing, like ask­ing for a bet­ter world. Juliet at last agrees, and the two do kiss, af­ter a cou­plet which sug­gests that they are in har­mony.

Romeo and Juliet ob­vi­ously have un­re­al­is­tic ideas. But they con­nect in such a pow­er­ful way – right away – that it’s un­gen­er­ous to say that their re­li­gion of love is only silly. We can’t dis­miss it in the same way we can mock Michael Scott. This is not a man with an of­fice fur­ni­ture cat­a­log, or two rev­el­ers grind­ing at a club.

That two strangers can share a son­net in speech means that they al­ready share a deep con­nec­tion – that they are in­cred­i­bly re­spon­sive to each other.

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