February 13, 2013

All You Need Is Love?

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If it’s around midnight in Times Square, and you’re in need of a Valentine — look up. Nestled amid glittering advertisements for Broadway staples are radiant billboards, on which love songs have been scrawled in neon light.  “I listen to the ocean, and all I hear is you” is among the enigmatically profound and cheesy lines concocted by Tracey Emin, the widely known but not widely loved British conceptual artist. For years, Emin has fashioned brilliantly hued neon, from coral pink to warm white, into sculptures styled after her own handwriting. Her New York City installation, which presents digitized recreations of these sculptures, runs throughout February as part of the Times Square Alliance art initiative Midnight Moment.  For the last three minutes of each day this year, advertisers are giving way to a star-studded roster of installations, including Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace.

I’ve liked Emin’s light sculptures since I saw one that read  “I woke up wanting to kiss you” at the White Cube booth at Art Stage 2012. Far more violable than I’d imagined them to be, they are memorials to the clumsy thoughts we may have when we’re with someone we love. Even the most cringe-worthy ones (“I can feel your smile”) can be personable and hypnotic.

But what do I really know about love, anyway? Not much, but I’ve seen enough to know that, for something so remarkably difficult, love must be exceptional if so many people give up so much for it. Staring at Emin’s neons or watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I still wonder if anything so serendipitous and bewildering will ever happen to me. It’s hard to stop believing in fairy tale encounters when I keep seeing them happen.  How do you end up marrying a stranger who liked your blog post, never mind that he lives 8,000 miles away from you? Or the tourist you gave directions to? Maybe these are exceptions, but then again, all love stories are exceptional. But here is where the questions begin. Should you let love ‘happen’ to you? Or should you pursue it, bravely and recklessly? And if you don’t, does it mean you don’t want it badly enough?

I watched the Grammys last Sunday with very mixed feelings. Rihanna, who impressed many with her Bob Marley tribute, probably alienated more by looking unapologetically happy to be back with Chris Brown again — four years after they both missed the Grammys because he assaulted her. She told Rolling Stone that the reunion was liberating after years of “being angry and dark,” and that being “happy” was more important than what people might think of her. And while I was rooting for fun., I was hoping that Pink would pull off an upset in the Best Pop Vocal Album category, if only for her tireless attempts to arrive at the truth about love. The truth, apparently, is “salty” and involves “all the poetry you’ve ever heard.”

Sadly, there aren’t too many songs and films directed at people who have yet to experience heartbreak, but know the ache of falling hard for someone, even when it’s not the best idea. I’ve wondered, along with a 19-year-old Adele: “should I give up, or should I just keep chasing pavements, even if it leads nowhere?” I found Silver Linings Playbook disconcerting, because it made out love to be a precarious game of reading signs. I’ve been on the other side before, and I was shocked that someone could value everything I said, or did, so much. Distinguishing faith from delusion is harder than it looks. I have always erred on the side of caution, and it’s only in recent months that I’ve seriously questioned the place of practicality and restraint in relationships. You can’t be “poetically silent,” a friend told me last week. I fully agree. But I’ve never had the courage to admit my feelings to someone I liked, and maybe I won’t in the four months I have left at Cornell. I don’t see the point of endangering a friendship I value. It’s less a case of risk aversion than my not knowing what to do, or think, about any of this. And yet, perhaps contradictorily, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes if the right person asked. Some part of me takes comfort in the notion that there’s “nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be,” as the Beatles have established.

Why do we want love, and why are we so troubled by the questions it poses? MIT philosopher Irving Singer has pointed out, in Philosophy of Love: A Partial Summing Up, that “understanding love or its related conditions” is inseparable from “problems about meaningfulness in life as a whole and the creation of human value in general.” Just as we need air and some kind of fundamental purpose to live, we crave love because we want to “be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to,” as Frank Ocean has written. I think it’s more about giving than receiving. In love (or what little I know of it), we don’t seek comfort; we give it, and so much more, away to someone else. We do it just because we want to, and because we can. When we’re in love that compulsion can be so strong. In essence: I love, therefore I am. But here I go again, speaking in cliches.

Original Author: Daveen Koh