episode four: reflections on love

in which, I, or rather we, ruminate on love at first sight and Genie’s photo in particular…why did she choose it? Am I reading too much into it?  And what would Genie herself say?

Last time, I promised a break from family matters and especially the war between fathers and sons…so, in keeping my word, I want to take a little time out from our story to create space for, well…reflection, speculation, thinking time if you will……those of you who can’t wait have my blessing to skip this episode and move on to the next…but for those of you who, like me, spend more time than is absolutely healthy, thinking, analysing, wondering, about life and love, please stay a while…

I’ve been ruminating on the beautiful GreenGenie and the whole business of love at first fight, and because the thoughts are just that, thoughts going on in my head only, there’s really no soundtrack to give you a sense of place…though some have proposed the echo of an empty space might be appropriate…I wondered briefly if the dawn chorus might do…so I got up very early with my recorder…no I don’t think so either…instead I want to pay tribute to the unpaid heroes of music who offer up their talent for producers like me to use without expecting to be paid…people like Wes Hutchinson who has provided the theme to this series and Aakash Ghandi…who’s compositions work beautifully as incidental breaks…thank you to them all, you can connect with these guys via the website…may the mainstream music industry learn from their example and streamline their labyrinthine licensing process to the benefit of us all…

I’ve been thinking about Genie’s photo. You remember Genie, Greengenie. The woman who stole my heart one evening in France and whose image lingers still as an ideal, Platonic and still powerful a year later.

I’ve been thinking especially about the notion of recognition.

If you see a photograph of a tiger, or a kettle, or a banana, and I’m drawing no comparisons with Genie here, you surely must have some sense of what a tiger is, what a kettle does, what the curvy yellow thing is, whether you can ride, wear or be eaten by any of the same. There has to be recognition for there to be love at first sight. Don’t you think?

In other words, there must be a series of associations implicit in the object of your desire, if only at the most basic level of recognizing the species, the sex, the type and the individual characteristics suggested by the image, or indeed the reality, of the loved one. And whilst a photograph excludes information from the majority of our senses—four out of five as it happens—with Genie that was clearly no obstacle, demonstrating, I guess, the power of the visual.

So I wonder, what are the associations suggested or embodied in that one image? And how particular are they to me? Neither my daughter nor my best friend felt as I did, though each subsequently found superficial similarities with my ex-wife and ex-girlfriend respectively, though only to explain my bizarre behavior, I think. But when I saw Genie’s photograph, I saw someone I felt I knew, even though I’d never seen her before.

But before I try to answer, perhaps we should take a moment to consider if the phenomenon of love at first sight exists at all. There is little in the way of hard evidence and the question has thus been in dispute, no doubt since love itself was first invented, presumably a very long time ago.

A quick online trawl delivers a certain Dr. Earl Naumann, author of the appropriately named Love at First Sight. He surveyed 1,500 individuals of every race, religion, and background in America, concluding that love at first sight is far from being a rare experience. What’s more, Dr. Naumann theorizes that if you believe in love at first sight, there’s a roughly 60 percent chance it will happen to you. Here’s what led him to that conclusion:

  • Nearly two thirds of the US population believes in love at first sight.
  • Of the believers, more than half have experienced it.
  • Fifty-five percent of those who experienced it married the object of their affection.
  • Three quarters of these married couples stayed married.

Assuming one believes, it seems that love at first sight is rather like spotting aliens or believing in God, (not that those two things should be put in the same basket, naturally), relying heavily on an act of faith to come true, remarkably convincing when it does and more often than not, long lasting.

The British apparently mirror Americans. Cosmopolitan Magazine, (December 2012), reports a survey that found 72% of otherwise sensible Britons believe in love at first sight. An almost identical proportion.

Of course, there’s a counter argument. A pernicious rumour that takes away all the romance and recasts the experience as pure physical attraction. The Cosmopolitan piece points out that 96% of men have experienced lust at first sight, as have 92% of women. I call this rumour pernicious because it’s a tough one to contradict given that love and sexual attraction often go hand in hand, so to speak, and because it reduces my own experience to something biological, if not mechanical.

All I can say to draw a line is that my reaction to Genie was not lust at first sight. I can’t deny an element of physical attraction—the loose long hair, straight shoulders, shy smile, elegant fingers—all qualities I respond to generally in women. But these qualities are common and hardly exclusive to Genie, and when I do find some of them, or even all of them combined in one individual, they seldom result in feelings akin to love.

Having said that, I should acknowledge that previous loves share some characteristics with Genie. Some, but not all. My ex-wife for instance. Very similar build, though curly-haired and with quite different features. And come to think of it, there’s the girlfriend who let me know by email about her son’s wounded feelings. Not quite as tall as I imagine Genie to be, but the loose hair and shy smile, for sure. And whilst my first love, Linda—we spent ten years together from the age of seventeen to twenty-seven—wore very similar cardigans, the similarity ends there. Those are the three long term relationships of my life to date—though I’m still hoping there’s time for one more. Other shorter-term partners bear little relation to Genie except in rather general and obvious ways, being both women and human.

I might go further in refuting this pernicious rumour. Is there really any necessary connection at all between love and lust? Many of us, if pressed, would confess to feelings of lust for members of the opposite sex, or the same sex, unlikely to make suitable partners for life. Lust is therefore not a precise indication of the potential to love. This debate sometimes breaks down along gender lines. The old adage, that men are able to separate the two instincts relatively easily where women are more inclined to find a combination of love and lust more satisfying, persists. Again, this relies more on hearsay than hard evidence. The Cosmo stats for instance, speak of a more equal distribution. Anyway, the debate is irrelevant to me right now, because my real interest lies in this notion of recognition.

Though just before we turn to recognition, let’s acknowledge the reverse can also be true. Love can blossom and grow without lust being involved, before lust is involved and even more tellingly when lust is largely a thing of the past. Couples continue to love just as passionately and with great commitment, even without sex.

Think for a moment about carers. There are 6.5 million carers in the UK—one in eight adults—a figure estimated to rise to 9 million in twenty years time. Around a quarter take care of their life partner. Many of those being cared for will have conditions, including dementia, that preclude or inhibit physical love to such a degree as to make it a thing of the past. And yet the care goes on, as does the love, even when the odds are stacked as high as they could be in terms of lust.

Okay, recognition…a quick definition to make sure we’re, figuratively speaking, on the same page:

recognition

rɛkəɡˈnɪʃ(ə)n/

noun

the action or process of recognizing or being recognized, in particular:

synonyms: identification, recollection, recall, remembrance

identification of a thing or person from previous encounters or knowledge.

 

Those synonyms are useful. Identification, recollection, recall and remembrance. I’ve already acknowledged that Genie shares characteristics with women I’ve found attractive in the past. And, Genie’s dress sense and pose and situation on the beach all send signals of her values that I might identify with. She’s not wearing heels or make up, she’s in the fresh air even on a cloudy day, she’s relaxed, if shy. I am clearly responding to these as positives, elements I can begin to construct a whole personality and outlook from. But given there’s clearly a very personal component, is that all there is?

Perhaps our great philosophers and psychologists have something to teach us. Am I, are we, carrying around a Platonic ideal in our heads and hearts, a perfect Genie who guides our journey from pure idea to real world search for the living embodiment? Freud I’m sure, would have a field day, but then who cares what Freud thinks…Alternatively, Herr Jung might have us believe we’re responding to archetypes of the collective unconscious. Or maybe there’s not so much weight attached and we’re simply recognizing familiar contemporary cultural signifiers, the source forgotten or obscured by our scattergun brains. After all, every place you look, from magazines to galleries, there are images that suggest ideal forms of both men and women we can use to measure ourselves and others against, often incidentally finding ourselves wanting and keen to retire hurt to the sidelines of the dating game.

For instance—and I claim no specialist knowledge of art, so don’t take my word for any of this—Genie’s pose, the averted eyes and lowered head in particular, are beyond familiar. Check out Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, and Leonardo’s La Scapigliata on the me2mama website. And there are dozens of other representations with similar iconography, mostly, it has to be said, from the more distant past when ideals of chastity and humility were prized in, or more accurately, foisted on, women.

But stop a moment. I’m casting this as aesthetics and artistic tropes derived from religion. This is the twenty-first century and it is beholden upon me as a partially reconstructed male to concede the demure, eyes averted pose is an outmoded male fantasy, a kind of voyeur’s paradise tied up with notions of sexism and horrid objectification. Boys watching girls, as Andy Williams memorably put it to music.

Okay, what’s interesting is that Genie chose the photograph as her principal profile image, even if the pose itself was unconscious and accidental and carried connotations she did not intend or want. On the other hand, it would make sense for Genie, as for any of us, to post a picture that references cultural ideals and that is, in a sense, an idealized version of herself, whether consciously or not. Particularly in the context of internet dating. Men like me, and I’m sure many others, will stop and pay attention because we’re getting all the ‘right’ signals.

Alternatively, her reasons for choosing the photo may have been altogether simpler and more personal. In her other photographs Genie is generally older, she’s more active and pictured against a more exotic landscape. The beach photograph on a grey day is a younger Genie. Perhaps the self she sees in the photograph reminds her of a time and place she feels a special attachment to or longs for? If so, Genie’s decision to choose that particular photograph becomes an act of personal nostalgia only coincidentally calling on the iconic.

In this analysis, Genie is having a conversation with Genie and I’m having a conversation with myself that touches on the same references but results from entirely different realities and ultimately, in entirely separate meanings. Meanings that are deeply personal and very possible contradictory. I just happened to overhear what Genie was saying to herself as I skimmed the pages of a lonely hearts club and just happened to resonate with her thoughts in rather dramatic fashion.

Whatever. All I’m sure about, is that Genie’s photograph and Bob Willoughby’s image of Audrey Hepburn are virtually indistinguishable. (You’ll have to take my word for it with Genie’s photo to protect her privacy, but believe me the fit is very close. One day, I might work up the courage to ask Genie about the photo, when it was taken, what it means to her and so on, but when I don’t know.) And whilst the similarity between Genie and Audrey may be mere coincidence, it matters to me because Audrey Hepburn is significant in a way entirely unrelated to Willoughby’s photo and the characteristics she shares with Genie.

Because Audrey looks like my mum.

 

Before I go, you might be interested to know that in the course of writing this, I finally decided to ask Genie about that photo. How, you may wonder, if she had no subscription to the dating website? Ah! Another story altogether, but one that is considerably less important here than the remarkable fact that she very graciously responded…with this:

I don’t mind revealing my thought process to you: 

Although I was happy at the time this photo was taken, my selection of it was not an act of personal nostalgia.  Neither the day nor my companion were particularly special to me…

 I didn’t think for a moment that the photo would catch people’s eye; to the contrary, I thought that in all probability it would result in most men swiping past my profile; which was all to the good.  I’m not materialistic, I appreciate the simple things in life, I value character over position and property, and I’d rather be single than in a relationship with someone that I couldn’t connect with on an emotional, ‘spiritual’ (not in the religious or hippy sense) and intellectual level.  My hope was that this might, in some way, be conveyed by the image I’d selected. 

I had concluded that anyone who objected to my careless attire was unlikely to share many, if any, of my passions. Hence, by choosing it as my profile picture I could separate the subjective wheat from the chaff, so to speak.  Also, I hate having my picture taken.  

For me there is a direct correlation between having my picture taken and abject misery; therefore, I go out of my way to avoid cameras.  Subsequently, the pool of photographs I have to choose from is very small; and to make matters worse, of the photos that do exist 90 percent are truly hideous – honestly, I’m not exaggerating, these photos would frighten small children and make them cry.

Given my aversion to cameras it is perhaps ironic that the photo was taken by an ex who was a keen amateur photographer.  However, in contrast to my father he liked to take untainted photos of landscapes and wildlife, and he knew better than to request that I pose for him.  My ex always carried his camera with him and would commonly take photos of the environment, so, with him at least, the camera became invisible and I neither noticed or minded when he took a quick snap of me. 

I hope I’ve not spoiled your imaginings with the tedious truth 😉