One of the Britain’s elite writers and thinkers, Appignanesi has lectured at the University of Essex, New England College, and worked at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. She has worked as a fellow of the Brain and Behavior Laboratory at the Open University. A novelist and television commentator, she has written for French TV, BBC, and her articles appear in The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent, and The Daily Telegraph. Among the many literary prizes earned in Europe, she earned a Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987.
“Love is a word that stands in for a host of feelings, many of them shaped in our largely forgotten early childhoods,” Appignanesi says from her London home. “The relationships between our parents or careers, the affection or hostilities that permeate a household, the way we’re touched or not, what we’re praised or scolded for, how the siblings treat us, the jealousy or longing we may feel for them — all this plays into the way we eventually live out our loves.”
Relationships can be a fickle business. “Love is unruly because we simply can’t predict or control how we feel or who the object of our passions will be,” she adds. “It often eludes our best intentions. Alternately you wake up one day and an obsessive passion has suddenly transmuted into indifference, which, of course, rather than hate, is the opposite of love.”
In the book, which explores the influence of history, philosophy, psychology, popular culture and the arts to challenge some of the traditional notions of this most-sought after emotion, Appignanesi describes the comparison of the intoxication of first love with the rush of erotic obsession or lust in later years.
“Our first loves provides giddy transport because they’re also inflected with the energy it requires to break away from our families,” she explains. “Everything is fresh, new, an adventure. In later years, memory comes into play, to add texture to our passions, but also to inhibit them or to give them what is sometimes the illusion we can contain them, keep them separate from the rest of our lives. There is nothing like an obstacle to feed erotic love.”
And what about when love, unrequited or rejected, comes full circle into a nightmare of negative emotions?
“When you put all your desires in the hands of another person, you become supremely susceptible,” Appignanesi says. “Love is a dangerous business. You loosen your boundaries, become permeable. So if you’re rejected, spurned or abandoned, you feel that the self you constructed in the arms or attention of another has lost, not only its value, but its very shape. You fall apart. Putting the pieces together again, re-drawing the boundaries of a separate self is a difficult business. You change in the process though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
At many time in life, we indulge in carnal affairs which society labels as taboo and forbidden, or as Appignanesi writes “conquering barriers in the self, slipping past defenses and inhibitions. Yes, right. Why does “being bad feel so good?
“Because these acts can transform us; make us other than our habitual self, hence the attraction of it,” she continues. “It’s an escape from the quotidian self which may have become to bear. Then, too, as Woody Allen quipped — Is sex dirty? Only if it’s done right. You notice that sex became culturally and openly “permissible” — an object of health — people quickly got more and more far-fetched in their tastes. Being bad these days might mean being chaste…well maybe.”
Either chaste or practicing masturbation? “Now that ‘masturbathons’ exist and masturbators can have an identity group and loudly proclaim in an era that champions self-interest, that they love themselves best of all and that’s okay, why not? Masturbation is pleasurable and seemingly easy. It requires little of us and little reality.”
Gay desire and marriage has become the bugaboo for this society, because there is the matter “of choice of the entrance into a domain of fixed biological or cultural identity.” In this regard, same-sex love or unions are not covered in the Bill of Rights.
“We live in an era where engaging in a homosexual love choice has become tantamount to choosing a cultural as well as a sexual identity,” Appignanesi says. “This can take on a rigidity. Youth is a time of experimentation, sometimes sexual as well as in other ways. People change and indeed their desires can change. A single identity taken on in adolescence when we’re prone to thinking in groups can become constricting. Many people are and have been plural in their sexual orientation, but the weight of the cultural-sexual group may impose an identity that is difficult to escape.”
And what about the social, cultural and cultural contradictions of love and marriage, even when the formula seems successful?
It’s these theories that landed Appignanesi in the doghouse. “Marriage was once primarily a social and legal institution based on property and rearing of children,” the writer notes. Currently, we have loaded a great many wishes and desires into that one institution. We want it to fulfill all of our hopes of passionate and companionate love. We want continuing passionate sex as well as friendship. Both partners seek to become to become more truly themselves within the marriage, while both maintaining their independence, pursuing careers, sharing parenting and everything else.
“And all that forever,” she adds. “That’s quite a load to put on any relationship. It’s difficult to realize all those ideals, particularly in a world where sexual satisfaction has become an imperative, and where individual desires and continued self-invention trump values such as loyalty, responsibility and endurance.”
Eroticism is always on the mind for some. But is this a major threat to love in today’s society?
“Sexual performance or the search for a range of partners becomes hard work,” Appignanesi says. “In our supermarket of sexual dreams, we’re never quite sure we’ve found the right one and there isn’t a better one round the corner. Anxiety can set in. Am I getting enough, doing it well enough, and so on? In the process, we forget that sex is rarely simply sex, but carries meanings that can reach well beyond the animal act.”
The fantasy in society, in religion, and in the media is for the perfect love. Is there such a thing?
“It depends what you mean by perfection,” she laughs. “You might as well ask is there such a thing as a perfect life.”