The physical substrate of love is a simple one: skin and brain. In a real pinch, brain only. Love is a learned (I say, LEARNED) response to a sensory understanding of another entity, hopefully a friendly human being. It can be on a continuum, it can be as an interaction, it can be temporary, it can be as close to eternal as humans can get. It can be consummated, but not if the other entity is imaginary, which it might be. It can be blissful or painful or just contented.
The media keep trying to drive it into commodified categories, but they are too dumb to see the variousness of it, so only exploit M and F or maybe GBLTQ in niche markets, and leave the long tail just dangling. They have XO minds and need a little SM to wake them up. Oh, nevermind, they exploit SM all the time. Once you realize what it looks like in diluted form, it’s everywhere. I really dislike this BLT idea of what sex is because yearning is not the same as identity. A mouse can yearn for a lion. (See imaginary above.) Even vice versa, though most people seem to want to trade “up.”
A person can be located who is exactly a perfect match: their gender, their economic status, their looks, their ethnic background, their fav movie/color/sport/food and all that other Facebook trivia, etc. etc. and simply stir no brain cells. While along comes the bearded old scissors-sharpener with his cart and bell, totally inappropriate, and an MRI of the brain would explode from the heat. No one knows why this is, but it makes a lot of good stories.
Some people blame pheromones, a molecular perfume that might not even be detectable consciously but that keys somehow into a memory or a need. (That’s the way smells work: they literally and physically stick a molecular key into a receptor in the nose -- how sexual!) The back of the U of Chicago Alumni mag always has an advertisement for a lab-made pheromone that comes in a bottle. It’s kind of half-consciously based on the image of a guy who spent his summer baiting moths with pheromones and could never really get the smell off him, so he had to give up baseball bleachers for the summer or anything else that couldn’t be accompanied by a cloud of moths.
I have an “ugly dog theory.” If an old dirty ugly dog shows up at your doorstep and refuses to leave but doesn’t really make trouble and you feed him and get used to him and maybe even finally take the garden hose to him, so that a million tiny transactions of “gaze” and feeding and stepping around each other gradually weaves a web of relationship that begins to approach some kind of bonding. A recognition at a deeper level. Affection shading into something more.
I was reading about one of those cultures where a man is assigned a wife chosen by the patriarchs of the family and never meets her, even at the legal ceremony. On the wedding night -- and confinement has guaranteed she is a virgin -- he goes to her in a dark room and inseminates her. At least that’s the goal. He may never really know what she looks like -- just what she smells and feels like, her shape, her body temperature, the taste of her mouth if he thinks to kiss her. And that’s what she learns about him. Seemingly. That way it’s easier to kill her if she breaks the code. Otherwise, they might actually fall in love. If she’s Scherazade, she begins to tell a story, whispering in the dark, so he learns her voice. Better than kisses.
My chaplaincy was at a big midwest hospital where one of the specialties was creating a sex life for seriously disabled or mutilated people. What I always remember was a story about a man who had been burned so badly that only the back of one arm still had feeling. By stroking it, his wife could bring him to climax. She was using memory and imagination. I’m talking about love here, not just sex. (Didn’t Jane Fonda make that movie?)
I have two touchstone sci-fi stories. One is about a woman who died and so her husband had her recreated as gold rings cleverly shaped and magnetized to stay together in her shape and house her brain. When she died, the rings fell chiming to the floor, no longer held together by identity. The other one is about pure sex. On a planet far far away a seductive woman in a turban would pick up space pilots in one of those Star Wars bars. She took them to her “crib” and as soon as they were fairly besotted with her, she took off her turban. She was not exactly Medusa: these were not snakes but something like worms or tentacles that slid and slipped and were faintly electrical and perfumed and long enough to wind around the man, penetrate all orifices, (I suppose maybe women, too, but this is an old sexist story) and send him into such an ecstasy that he went into overload and died. Then she ate him. Some people love like that.
If you sat in the village cafe and drank coffee while observing the locals, you would see no examples of either of these stories -- at least not obviously -- though people often arrive in pairs. Comfortable, accommodating, conventional and faithful. Is that love? One definition of home is that if you go there, they will take you in. One definition of love is if your partner needs you, you will go. In the last ten years I’ve seen some of these local people lose their partner, wait a while, then remarry and go on unchanged. I’ve seen others lose a partner and follow them into death soon, refusing the world. It has nothing to do with how thin, cheerful, ethical they are. Maybe money or number and kinds of kids matter. Rarely is there a whole new phenomenon, a relationship no one has seen before.
I see no need to prioritize love, to say one kind is more valid than another. I see situational relationships. I see the cosmos and the culture pressing in on the individual, insisting, removing options, blasting down gateways to meadows unsuspected. I see an individual finding a way to take the hand of another individual.