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Love's End

The Ascendance of the 'Relationship'

By Thomas B. Cotton

Once about every, say, three weeks, the Crimson editorial page prints the obligatory opinion article on social life/dating/sex at Harvard. Somewhat less frequently, the news page prints a feature on the topic, complete with quotations both from Harvard students who presently enjoy the company of a significant other and from those who do not. The conclusions are always the same: Harvard sucks. We (we being Harvard students) are social misanthropes. We don't like to date. We are either randomly "hooking up" or we are "married." We spend all our time lamenting about why we suck. And so on.

Yes, Harvard does suck, just like Yale, Princeton, Stanford and every other college in America, and I do mean every other college, including the state universities for which the amorous and libidinous among us yearn. The problem is not at Harvard--the problem is in our generation. We don't love or have love affairs. No, no, no! We "commit" and have "relationships."

There was a time when love affairs were "where it was at," but those days are long gone. You see, love is too inconvenient, too dangerous. We can't really ration or control love; that's why it's called falling in love. It consumes all other emotions, and certainly conquers reason. It relegates all other claims on our time or on our energy to the margins--if it doesn't wholly destroy them. As soon as love is recognized for itself, it unleashes a recklessness that can vitiate everything else we hold dear.

Love also makes life worth living.

Fortunately for our constancy--and unfortunately for our hearts--love is no longer an easily-attained feeling. We don't love from first sight, or even from first date. There certainly can't be degrees of love, a growing and expanding love for someone over time. No, we now know--just know--that love is something so strong, so ultimate, and so final that to accept a relationship as love is foolhardy. So love has become something distant, something we may have "someday, with someone." But for the here and now, we banish love from our lives.

Yet we still long for what used to be love, so what do we do? We have relationships. How wonderful and mellifluous! relationships are absolutely perfect for us. We can manage a relationship, we can direct it in whatever direction we choose. We can work at it, fit it onto our calendars in nice half-hour slots. We get to compartmentalize a relationship, push it aside for exams and essays, e-mail and eating. If a relationship becomes too bothersome or too empty, we have an easy solution: Simply adjust the commitment. Like a patient in a hospital, we just change the dosage to attain a more pleasurable state. And how easy it is to change the commitment. A short e-mail or phone message, or a cup of coffee will do the trick.

So what could be better than a relationship? Those of you who have let your guard down and experienced love, even if only in its nascent form, know well the answer to this question.

The late (and great) Allan Bloom perhaps put it best when he said "love suggests something wonderful, exciting, positive, and firmly seated in the passions. A relationship is gray, amorphous, suggestive of a project, without a given content and tentative. You work at a relationship, whereas love takes care of itself."

If we let it be, love is a threshold, and a low one at that. We should be able to love early and often. In a love affair, love will naturally grow, unmanaged and unfettered. If it stops growing, the affair falls apart, violently and wrenchingly. But we live to love again, our world having been enriched by all of our past affairs. It is spontaneous, and it is unmatched in human life. Relationships, however, start with a tension--if we weren't initially related, how did we become so?--and represent a struggle ever after. They are a constant fight to "work things out, to talk things over." There is no magic, and there certainly is no lasting impression on our lives. There is only tidiness, which our generation apparently desires more than passion.

Most of the articles we run about love end with some upbeat, go-get-'em suggestion, a new plan to invigorate Harvard social life. I, unfortunately, have no such suggestion. The problem is much larger than Harvard and much deeper than most realize. Indeed, I do not know if love is salvageable for us. Surely many of us will mature and eventually marry, maybe even to someone we love; but many of us will not, and even more will do so unsuccessfully. No, love is going downhill and picking up speed, and I do not have a solution. I only hope it slows for me.

Thomas B. Cotton '98, a Crimson editor, was spotted at the Adams House Waltz this past weekend.

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