“If you feel like you love someone, does it really matter why?” asked the advertisement for a Dublin stage production. The question is intriguing, were it possible to attend the play, perhaps more questions would surely be posed? Are we more than just chemical processes? Are we more than a complex of behaviours explicable in terms of neurology?
“If you feel like you love someone:” is love phrased in such terms? If someone was uncertain about their emotion, perhaps they might say that they felt they loved someone, but who would say that they felt like that they loved a person? There are thoughts and feelings that are not amenable to analysis. Love is not rational, there is no explanation why, nor is there an explanation for many other thoughts.
What is it about composer Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” that, for centuries, has made it one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the world? What is it about painter Claude Monet’s canvases of water lilies that carries their prices into tens of millions? What is it about the words of William Shakespeare that give them the power to hold audiences enrapt four centuries after they were written? What is it about the lines of a poet, or the movements of a dancer, or the words of an actor that have a capacity to evoke feelings within us that we cannot articulate?
It is no more possible to explain those things that have a universal appeal than it is to explain why we differ on other things. Music that captivates some listeners may be regarded as dull and boring, if not objectionable, by others. Some will stand in front of Picasso’s cubist paintings and think them sublime, others will stand baffled at what there is to be seen. Novelists whose works may sell millions of copies may be held in scant regard by critics. Artworks received with critical acclaim may arouse dislike among popular audiences. The question of whether one has a critical vocabulary with which to apprehend works is not a sufficient explanation of differences; sometimes everyone might agree on something, on other occasions the disagreement will be deep.
If we cannot be consistent in our reactions to things outside of us, then how can we be consistent in our inner emotions? We cannot offer an answer to a question, “why?” when we cannot define what it is that we are questioning. Before we can ask “why?” about love we need to define what love is like; and before we can define what love is like, then we have to understand love itself. Love is more than chemicals; if we do not know what it is, we know what it is not.