Love as Pathology or Limerence: A Listicle - Matt Cunningham
Love as Pathology
or Limerence: A Listicle
I came across a wonderful word recently. It should be better known. It’s the kind of word, I reckon, that could even save a person’s life, diagnosis being the first step towards a cure.
The word is limerence and it describes a type of love that’s intrusive, obsessive, compulsive and delusional, and liable to make you act in funny ways. Unsurprisingly, it’s at its worst when it’s unreciprocated.
This is exactly what Vince is suffering in my play Weird Weather (running 4 – 8 March at VAULT Festival, Waterloo). Personally, I’m far too suave in matters of the heart to be going through something similar, but if I were prone to a bit of unreciprocated limerence then I might just carry round with me a mental list of fellow sufferers, for succour and for comfort—and maybe that list would look a bit like this.
(1) Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
It probably isn’t massively wise to admit an affinity with Humbert (I’m admitting nothing) but Lolita is as much about obsession per se as it is about obsession with an underage girl. Humbert’s tragedy is that he can never truly possess Dolores Haze, and not only because of the obstacles—legal, ethical, practical—that stand in his way (these he overcomes). And nor because Dolores isn’t (of course) going to remain a child forever (though there’s that, too). Humbert’s stated aim is to ‘fix once and for all the perilous magic of 'nymphets’—and it’s in the nature of perilous magic that it’s unfixable, that it’s always just outside our reach.
In Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, psychologist Dorothy Tennov, who coined the term ‘limerence’ in 1979, notes the condition gets worse the harder it is to bag the limerent object: we desire more ardently that which we can’t attain. ‘Intensification through adversity,’ she calls it, and the result is a kind of torturous limbo.
Nabokov’s gift in Humbert Humbert was to describe that unenviable state with a silver-tongued articulacy. In this, his final scene with Lolita, it’s impossible not to feel for Humbert. She’s grown older now; she’s married; and she isn’t going to run away with him. It starts at 37 minutes.
(2) Krazy Kat in Krazy Kat by George Herriman
George Herriman nails limerence—nails maybe the whole of love—in a simple little conceit, one that sustained his daily comic strip for more than three decades, from 1913 to 1944. Krazy, the eponymous, androgynous Kat, is in love with Ignatz Mouse. Ignatz Mouse can’t stand Krazy, so he throws bricks at Krazy’s head. Krazy takes the bricks to be tokens of love … and falls deeper.
Those bricks! Isn’t that just exactly how it hits you? And Krazy, in his cockeyed reading of them, displays another limerent-sufferer’s trait: the ability to read into the desired-other’s actions, however obscure, some hint of desire returned. ‘Lovers, of course,’ writes Tennov, ‘are notoriously frantic epistemologists, second only to paranoiacs (and analysts) as readers of signs and wonders.’ The picking over of every word and gesture, the mad scrutiny of e-mails and texts …
In this strip, Krazy—the kooky sex pest—turns things around a little bit. Ignatz’s response is every limerent sufferer’s dream:
(3) Viola in Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
According to Tennov—sod it, according to straight forward observation from life—the limerent-sick get tongue-tied when they’re with the ‘limerent object’: ‘a personal incapacitation,’ she calls it, ‘expressed through unsettling timidity’. It’s that same peculiar blip in evolution, familiar from all manner of situations, that sees us quivering wrecks at exactly the moment we need to be sturdy hunks of fab.
Viola gets her fella in the end, but only after an excruciating lead up to it. In one scene, she tells her would-be lover Orsino that she once had a—cough, cough—‘sister’ who’d been in love, and that this ‘sister’
never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.
The quote’s pretty devastating on its own, but it’s about the context here too. Viola is dressed as a boy and can’t reveal her true identity to Orsino. Orsino keeps banging on about the woman he does like—Olivia—all the while using Viola as messenger between them. It’s the worst kind of ‘my mate fancies you’ mission and, true to that chestnut’s form, Olivia winds up fancying Viola instead. Tennov identifies transference as one potential limerence-cure, so it makes some actual—as opposed to just dramatic—sense that by the end of Twelfth Night everyone winds up with somebody. A pleasant thought: maybe life has an equivalent dénouement up its sleeve.
I really like the 1996 film version of Twelfth Night, with Imogen Stubbs and Helena Bonham Carter, which sees Orsino in the bath for this scene and Viola scrubbing his back (but in—just, like—a totally matey way, yeah?). The crucial lines are cut there, though. Joseph Haydn set them to music in 1795. Try that instead.
(4) Linda Scott in ‘I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star’ by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II
Viola’s speech leads me to the Kern and Hammerstein standard ‘I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star’. I like the notion, put about by Sigmund Freud, that our unconscious minds are wise and looking out for us but don’t much care what route they take us to the best result. So the work you screw up tends to be for the job you don’t like and the calls you don’t return are to friends who, on some unacknowledged level, you don’t really want to keep. Perhaps that tendency to act like a first class dickbrain in front of your limerent object is really a repressed recognition that, on balance, he or she is not actually right for you after all.
There are sound, unconscious reasons, I suspect, for why the singer of ‘I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star’ hasn’t ‘told you’. One symptom of limerence is blind, dogged hope, but the unconscious knows better. Maybe you could love me too? Maybe nothing. The best version of the song is Linda Scott’s from 1961, mainly because of those emphatic, punky dum-da-dums, but there are tonnes of great versions out there. Anyone who can be as plinky plonkingly blasé about it as this lady is heading for a nasty fall.
(5) George in Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
Patrick Hamilton ought to be the patron saint of limerence. I’d have put him at number one if it weren’t for the fact he’s such a downer. After a pretty stellar start to his career (he wrote the play Rope, which was later made into a film by Alfred Hitchcock, as well as Hangover Square and a small pile of other, bitterly gorgeous novels) he drank himself into oblivion and eventually death, prompted at least in part by his unrequited love for a sex-worker named Lily Connolly. Basically, he was killed by liquor, limerence and Lily.
A Lily-figure haunts a number of his novels. In Hangover Square, she’s embodied in Netta, with whom George is madly in love. Literally ‘madly’: Hamilton diagnoses George (not especially convincingly, to be fair) as schizophrenic, a condition that sees him clicking periodically into a strange, alternative state, which he afterwards can’t remember and during which he’s possessed by thoughts of murdering Netta and running away to Maidenhead. Even when he’s compos mentis, George’s thoughts are dark—testament to the thin line limerence treads between love and something else. This is how he feels:
He even hated Netta too—he had known that for a long time. He hated Netta, perhaps, most of all. The fact that he was crazy about her physically, that he worshipped the ground she trod on and the air she breathed, that he could think of nothing else in the world all day long, had nothing to do with the underlying stream of scorn he bore towards her as a character. You might say he wasn’t really ‘in love’ with her: he was ‘in hate’ with her. It was the same thing—just looking at his obsession from the other side. He was netted in hate just as he was netted in love. Netta: Netta: Netta! … God—how he loved her!
He hated himself, too.
(6) Göran in Together by Lukas Moodyson
Because self-loathing is the inevitable side effect of limerence’s most troubling symptom: the total sacrifice it demands of your self-esteem.
In Lukas Moodyson’s 2000 film Tillsammans (Together), Göran has, at least in theory, secured the object of his affection. He and Lena are going out, they even live together—but in a commune, where the lax notions around monogamy are taken advantage of by her far more than they are by him. Meanwhile, he’ll do anything for her. And then—here, from around 05:17—this happens and if, for example, you were living with a PhD candidate studying 21st century European cinema while your limerent object, by some sick-minded twist of fate, had moved just a street—a street!—away from you so that every day you saw her and every night you came home with your heart around your ankles and your self-esteem in shreds, knowing—knowing!—that while you could never have her you could also never escape the feeling of wanting her so much, then you might make your housemate play this bit on the DVD over and over on euphoric repeat.
Just for example, I mean.
But anyway …
(7) Jarvis Cocker in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ by Pulp
… to my mind the person who captures limerence best is Jarvis Cocker, most especially in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ from the 1995 album Different Class. It’s not only the grubbiness of limerence that Cocker gets right here, the confusion, the sheer, chugging excitement of it (because, dammit, limerence is exciting) or the fact that its presence is somehow … impertinent. There’s a distinct physiological symptom of limerence that Tennov locates in the stomach, the chest, the bottom of the throat or, at least in some cases, the groin. For Cocker it’s a ‘slightly sick feeling in my stomach, like’—and this is the killer comparison—‘I’m standing on top of a very high building’. It makes him ‘have to sit down and catch my breath’. It’s perfect.
For Vince, that same feeling is ‘like you’ve swallowed a pint of snot’—not as elegant a simile as Cocker’s, perhaps, but it’s right for Vince (he’s a filthy, phlegmy, bum-sniffing sort of character) and it points to one other element of the symptom, not mentioned in the Pulp song: the feeling that you’ve spent all afternoon in hot, snotty tears—and maybe, if are prone to a bit of limerence, you have. Who knows? Not me.
Matt Cunningham teaches literature at Morley College, and Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Kingston University.
Weird Weather runs from 4 – 8 March @ 6.30 pm and on 8 March @ 2 pm at Vault Festival, Waterloo. Tickets are available now.