If the holy grail is love, and I argue here that it is, then Tony Hoagland’s poem, Why We Went and What We Found is my favourite love poem of all time. It starts by describing the craziness of being in love, the sleepless, twisted, complex, gorgeous journey of love that leaves you not knowing where you are going yet gives you absolute confidence that when you get there it will be so amazing that a “mute beggar by the church will launch into an aria in perfect unaccented Italian.”
Hoagland could be describing the loss of cognitive control we experience when we are in love. Studies have shown that when we’re in love, we can’t focus well, especially on matters we deem unimportant. Researcher Henk van Steenbergen studied forty-three new lovers and asked them to “discriminate irrelevant from relevant information.” He concluded in his article, Reduced Cognitive Control in Passionate Lovers, that the more in love they were, the less able they were to focus.
Maybe we are using all of our cognitive resources to focus on our lover? It sure feels that way. When we’re in love, we think about our lover constantly – from big things like vacations to small things like where to go for dinner. And life is just better. Food tastes better. Minor annoyances melt away. Shitty days at the office are less shitty.
A Syracuse University study reveals that “when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopression. The love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation, metaphors and body image.”
So the cartoon image of a heart beating out of our chest, birds fluttering about and flowers and kisses floating out of our eyes seemingly represents new love well. We are a little crazy. We feel and think and want and need like we’re high, and like when we’re high, everything is that much more stimulating and it makes us want it more. We make promises of forever and always and until death because rational words like maybe and probably and lots don’t make sense anymore.
Hoagland captures the euphoria and desperation, the feeling that you would do anything to protect your newfound love: “If the order comes to burn the bridges, we will burn the bridges. If the order comes to cast ourselves into the sea, we jump.” We are all in when we’re in love. And the thought of not being in love anymore is absurd.
Until it happens. And we are changed. We’ve witnessed something elusive, that we can no longer put our finger on, no longer describe with abandon. But we know we felt it and now it’s gone. It’s a broken heart, plain and simple, because all we have now are rational words to describe an emptiness deeper and more profound than anything we've experienced before. The birds are fluttering somewhere else and we’re back where we started: “When we wake in the morning, we will be ourselves again, and begin our post-grail lives. We will return to our people who eat mud and say that it is good, and we will eat mud with them and say that it is good. But it will never taste the same to us and our post-grail existence.” We reached a summit, the holy grail, and nothing but the top will do anymore.
Of course this fall from grace is too much for many. Some of us stay on the ground for fear the top will never be reached again. Some of us vow to never fall in love again. Others throw caution to the wind, and try again because, eventually, the feelings of pain subside and the longing for love returns. The good news is that love is actually a bit of a painkiller.
Perhaps this is why my friend’s mother once told me: “the best way to get over one man is to get underneath another.” I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she wasn’t prescribing random sex to avoid sadness but rather she read the Stanford University Medical Center study that found “intense, passionate feelings of love can provide amazingly effective pain relief, similar to painkillers.”
So maybe we’re addicted to love. Maybe that’s why every book, movie, song, show is about love. And that’s why, despite how hard, heavy, heart wrenching it is to lose our love, Hoagland suggests that we ultimately find ourselves pressing “our faces deep into the artificial flowers, half-hoping to be stung by bees.”
And that’s why Valentine’s Day is stupid. Love is a biological, scientific, philosophical, chemical thing that is hard to describe but exhilarating to experience and Valentine’s Day is a supermodel sitting in at a string theory symposium. It’s a waste.
Why We Went and What We Found
We will find the grail.
We will gallop our horses all night
and at dawn, descend from twisted mountain roads
to the plaza of a town without a name.
At the bronze hour when the sun
melts on the horizon like an old doubloon,
we will sail our ship into the harbor,
—salt crusted in our beards, trembling from years of motion
without maps or compasses; a little daffy from the velvet
sibilance of waves.
The prowl will touch the stone wharf
without a sound, the nightingales
will trill, the dead oak shaft of the
No Trespassing sign will blossom morning glories.
The mute beggar by the church will launch into an aria
in perfect unaccented Italian
and we will hoist the bucket from the courtyard well
on its frayed rope
and drink the sacred water
as the horses nicker
and the almond trees
drop their white petals of applause.
If the order comes to burn the bridges,
we will burn the bridges.
If the order comes to cast ourselves into the sea,
When we wake in the morning, we will be ourselves again,
and begin our post-grail lives.
We will return to our people
who eat mud and say that it is good,
and we will eat mud with them and say that it is good.
But it will never taste the same to us
and our post-grail existence.
Something will be missing we can’t say.
No one will understand the Ph.G. we sign after our names,
or why we press our faces
deep into the artificial flowers,
half-hoping to be stung by bees.
Why we always go astray inside the glittering maze
of the department store,
and always end up at the perfume counter wearing
scents called Shangri-La, Obsession, Holy Night,
finding none of them quite right,
none of them equal to a blow on the head
with a silver mace, a word whispered in a dream
like a gold key slid across a grate.
They won’t understand, and we won’t remember,
but we will never again be sad—never sad again!--
Or rather, never sad in the same way.
- The amazing Tony Hoagland:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Hoagland
- Leiden, Universiteit. "Reduced cognitive control in passionate lovers." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 November 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131111091355.htm>.
- Syracuse University. "Falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second, research reveals." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 October 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/10/101022184957.htm>.
- Jarred Younger, Arthur Aron, Sara Parke, Neil Chatterjee, Sean Mackey. Viewing Pictures of a Romantic Partner Reduces Experimental Pain: Involvement of Neural Reward Systems. PLoS ONE, 2010; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013309
The amazing Cory Basil: http://hereliescorybasil.com