Wednesday, March 31, 2021

“Love Ain’t Nothin’ But Sex Misspelled”

Or love is just pheromones.  That’s the “hook” in “The One,” a Netflix series based on a novel I’ve never heard of (so how faithfully or not it follow the novel I can’t say).  The premise is that, with enough DNA information on enough people, you can be “matched” to the person genetically predisposed to love you; at least at first sight.  Is that what love is?  Is that what makes a long-term, even lifetime, relationship?  The story doesn’t stretch that far, at least in this one season.  All the characters are below 50; they aren’t married or involved with their “match” long enough to know how permanent, or not, it is.

The premise of the “match” within the world of the story, is that the attraction:  physical, emotional, spiritual, what-have-you, is immediate.  Immediate and, presumably, permanent. Characters who are “matched” think, at first sight, that they’ve known each other for life.  Is that reasonable?  Who cares?  It’s a science fiction premise, not a philosophical conundrum. Is there choice involved?  

Well, if there wasn’t, the characters would all be robots; or no more than “particles and fields” causing and being caused upon because of Aristotle’s Unmoved mover or the Big Bang or some seminal event which wasn’t caused but caused all because....well, that’s a pseudo-philosophical conundrum.  Leave it.  The idea of the company that markets this “matching” service is that it is infallible and inescapable; that when you meet your match, there’s no going back.  Which would make for dull story-telling if it worked that way in this simulacrum of reality.

So it doesn’t.  Which makes the story intriguing, and having at least a bit of verisimilitude.  The company does begin with two clever people who realize ants recognize each other by pheromones, which somehow has something to do with people (else how does the premise begin?) and all that’s needed is enough of a database to start making “matches.”  How that blithely works into a world-wide phenomena (think Google plus Facebook plus Twitter turned into the ultimate app that can match any human being with any other human being on the planet) by getting enough data to fulfill its  promise of perfection, is not explained.  Maybe an unmoved mover is involved; or a Big Bang.  Or a miracle just happens because the interesting part of the story is not how, but:  what happens next.  An insight Margaret Atwood had, it occurs to me; in a short story I used to teach.  If I remember the title I’ll plug it in (maybe), but the story is a series of plot conjectures with two base characters who meet, marry, live together, and suffer the consequences until they die. As the stories gain more characters, old characters disappear in the new iterations, but the result is always the same:  the story ends when the characters die.  That’s how stories are, she explains:  just a who and a who and a what and a what.  That’s all plots are.  “Now ask why,” she concludes; if memory serves.

The plot of this story is not important.  Part of it is a potboiler murder mystery related to the origins of the company.  No one who is rich earns their fantastic wealth by being humble and servile.  There is always some larceny involved.  It’s a mundane insight and an almost cliched storyline, but it’s what provides the main dramatic tension while other characters in ancillary stories meet their “match” and find themselves unable to resist the pairing off.  Which, yes, reduces “love” to pheromones or genetics (the two most popular forces of popular science today.) In Marvel Comics in the ‘60’s it was “radiation,” which did marvelous and magical things to human beings; rather than just give them cancer and very painful deaths.  I put the word in quotes because it wasn’t really radiation, it was the latest “scientific” concept, according to popular science, and it would provide magical resources for us. Ironically I’m old enough to remember when viruses were explained to us in school as not animal, vegetable, or mineral, and therefore maybe something falling off a passing comet or that came to earth with a meteor.  Genetic material, at least to popular science, was completely unknown.  Oh, Mendel’s peas and where blue eyes came from (or didn’t) was taught; but free-floating genetic material anxious to invade the DNA of a cell and replicate itself by re-writing that code?  It wasn’t the stuff of science fiction, it was literally incomprehensible unimaginable.

The interesting part of the “match” process in the show comes up when a woman is matched to another woman.  One lives in England (where the show is set), the other is from Spain.  The Spaniard comes to England to meet her “match” but is in a traffic accident and winds up in hospital, which eventually draws her brother across the Channel.  The English woman and the brother meet, of course, and the genetic match works with him, too.


So is love just genetics?  Is sex better with the “one”?  Science actually tells us the idea of soul-mate, an ideal partner, is a fiction.  We marry, or don’t, the people we grow up around.  People don’t marry people they don’t know, and most people don’t travel that far from home, or have meaningful relationships with people of wildly dissimilar backgrounds.  It isn’t impossible to marry someone from another country, it’s just so rare those who do marry people they met as adults, are the exceptions that prove the rule.  One couple in the story almost break up their marriage because the wife learns curiosity killed the cat.  She seeks the match for her husband, and it turns out to be a woman she’s friends with.  Tensions rise as she tries to keep them apart, convinced the myth of the “one” is true, and love at first sight trumps all.  In the end the fated couple do meet; but we see him returning to his wife, because life experiences mean more than pheremones or genetics.  It rings true.  Love in adolescence or at first meeting is a powerful force; but it’s rather like having an ecstatic religious experience in youth, and expecting to have that experience the rest of your life.  Some of us never have them; some of us do, only once.  Some of us garner a sense of reality from the experience that others don’t have.  Some struggle with the absence to the end of their days.  Some turn it into a deep religious commitment to others.  Some couples marry and divorce. Some couples marry and are together until death do them part, decades, even three-quarters of a century, later.  Because of pheremones?  Genetics?  It seems unlikely.

The premise of the “match” is interesting, and almost credible because its reach is global.  One character in London is matched with a woman in Somalia (how the database gets her DNA is not explained), a woman who is a refugee.  But if a “match” can’t be someone from the other side of the planet, then the “match” is just somebody you grew up with, went to university with, met through work.  How can you fail in love with someone you never meet?  But then, if there is “true love,” and so few people find it, doesn’t that mean you just never meet “the one” you were meant to be with?

Or is “The One” the myth, and “true love” something that involves a bit more effort than breathing or deciding what to have for breakfast?  Is the question of the story ultimately:  are we all wrong about the nature of love?  Is it more a force in human existence, which is to say, for us, in the universe, as fundamental as gravity or atomic bonds, as connected to us as time is connected to space?  The characters who are “matched” act like adolescents in the first throes of love.  There is a period when you can’t think about anything but your beloved; and there is a period when you can.  To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.  Is love really just adolescent infatuation attenuated by genetics, made permanent by science?  If that’s love, then love itself is as false as water.  If love is just as immutable as eye color, than we are just vessels for particles and fields; which is a helluva thing to tell your beloved.  For some people love is just fiction; or a skill they never master.  For others it is a force, as inscrutable and as undeniable as a religious experience; “as permanent as death, implacable as stone.”  And you learn to cultivate that reality, or you try your damndest to just be worthy of it.  Or you never have that experience; and you have no idea what it’s really all about.

We are not all Romeos and Juliets; and besides, they died young.  Had they lived long enough, would it have been happily ever after?  Even Shakespeare left his wife and mother of his children the “second-best bed.”  Then again, he left her in Stratford and spent almost all his marriage in London, until he retired and then, shortly after, died.  What are the lessons we are supposed to learn about love?

Is love just a way of making us responsible for the children that result?  Love in the story is primarily about sex; “matches” can’t physically resist each other.  Their passion is always expressed in the carnal embrace.  Thanks to modern science we already know that doesn’t have to mean procreation; but isn’t that the purpose of lust?  And isn’t love the bond, the power, the force, that makes us take care of the offspring when such passions have long cooled, or at least produced the after-effects of that physical action?  So is that what love is:  the way we keep the species going, not only in procreation but in the important years after?  Our entertainment and our science has taught us to divorce on from the other.  People copulate freely on our screens (or rather pretend to, for our entertainment) but the consequences are always emotional, never physical.  The few times there is a pregnancy the issue is always abortion and choice; and the children are easily separated from the equation, because children are so hard to present on a the screen, so hard to work into a story line. They are born; then they disappear. Adulthood is so much more entertaining than parenthood.

The main character in “The One” is matched, but not to the man she publicly identifies as her match.  There are reasons for this, but they don’t matter here.  Another character exposes the charade by seeing the couple on stage (deeply in love, for public view), but sees them off stage walking away from each other, dispassionately.  My wife and I would behave the same way, in the circumstances.  Are we not a “match”?  Again, in the mythology of the story, a “match” is permanent adolescence.  But in the words of Dorothy Parker:  “What fresh hell is this?”

There are characters in this story who are married, and stay married (so far) because of the history they have with each other, the knowledge (and love) they have for each other   Love is surely knowledge as much as pheremones, else why do we date for so long (some of us; there are exceptions to every rule) before marriage (my father proposed to my mother a few weeks after meeting her.  They met as adults, after he’d come home from the war. He met her through his best friend, who was dating my mother’s twin sister.  They were friends (and in-laws) for the rest of their lives.  My parents were married for almost 70 years; only death finally parted them.). And there are characters who love each other, but don’t know each other.  True love, apparently, prevails even in the face of lies.  Or does it?  If it does, it can be idiotic.  How do you love someone you don’t know?  Do you love someone you don’t know?  Linus once tells Lucy he loves everything in the world, in a bid to be truly open and accepting of all of creation, to emulate God.  Lucy tells him (wisely) that he doesn’t love Gila monsters.   “I don’t know what a Gila monster is,” he declares loudly, “but if I did, I’d love it!”  Is that what love is?  I don’t know who you are, but I love you anyway?  Is that even plausible?

Does it matter when we lie to each other?  Doesn’t it matter?  Aren’t lies the acid that dissolve the trust between two people that is the basis, as well as the result, of love?  But isn’t love just genetics, or pheromones? Iago dissolves the trust Othello has in Desdemona; but the tragedy is he doesn’t destroy the trust she has in him.  Othello is guilty, as surely as Oedipus is, because Othello believes Iago, and too late realizes he has been wrong.  But his love for his newlywed wife is destroyed; his love for her is lost.  Lies destroy the bonds that preserve love. Iago’s lies threaten to dissolve social order itself, the authority of government, the basis upon which we are social beings in a civilized, or just a socially ordered, world.  Murder mysteries (there is one at the heart of “The One”) expose the same danger:  who is the murderer?  Who is it we cannot trust, who would kill any one of us for their own selfish purposes?  Who is the one telling the lies about who they are?  Who is the one the rest of us can’t trust?

The power of lust, of sexual desire unrestrained, is that it dissolves the bonds of society, of social order. Just ask Ovid.  It can be rape (Zeus) or it can just be the disruptive and unrequited need (Apollo and Daphne).  It can be a powerful force that is too powerful, that turns the lives of everyone involved in the story upside down.  The murder mystery story revolves around power and money, the desire for something other than sex.  Murder is the ultimate disruption; at least in our fiction, at least when it’s part of the story.  But the stories of other characters in “The One” turn on questions of relationship, of trust, of human bonds and bondage. Lies turn those lives upside down, too.

Love is not about misery; but surely it isn’t also just about happiness.  Are people in love happy?  Always?  One character loses her “match” to murder, and tells a friend the idea of never being with him again, “hurts.  It really hurts.”  Love is about her; but what about him?  Isn’t love about the other, more than it is about you?  Is what hurts that you can’t be with them?  Or that they are gone forever, that they no longer know life itself?  Love in adolescence is about how I feel; love in maturity is about the beloved.

The character who markets this revolution, this technical marvel, admits to another, just one other character, that the whole process is a lie, that what she’s selling is “magic,” because genetics can create siblings so closely aligned that they create a “match” for one person with both of them.  So there is no “one,” not even in science.

And then there are the characters that “register” another for a “match,” without the person being matched knowing it’s being done. Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?  The company takes the hair follicle, fingernail clipping, what have you, and sends the “donor” a notice of his/her match.  That can be so disruptive it amounts to a tort.  It could certainly be a tool of revenge. But don’t we give technology that much power over us now?  There’s more than a touch of “Black Mirror” in this story, too.  Still, the interesting question is:  “What is love?”  Is it just genetics; a response to pheromones; what we need to keep humanity going? Or is it a fundamental force, at least in human existence (and what force outside of human existence is knowable or worth knowing?)

Is there one answer?

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't help but notice the passing of Larry McMurtry this past week and that his widow, Faye, is also the widow of Ken Kesey and was the Merry Prankster's grade school sweetheart and only wife. I mentioned in a comment here that I thought McMurtry might have been the model for Kesey's McMurphy character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. They were both part of Wallace Stegner's writing workshop at Stanford, but McMurtry was actually admitted to the program. Kesey was a drop-in.