I sat in a cafe on the Lower West Side of Manhattan. My copy of The Goldfinch rested on the table next to a steaming pot of Genmaicha tea. A bookshelf spanned one of the walls of the cafe, putting on show the well-worn books with tattered covers and dog-eared pages. Looking up, plants and exposed lightbulbs hung from the ceiling. In this little space, I could escape from the frigid December air and hectic noise of the city and forget about everything except for the book in front of me.
Or so I thought. I was acutely aware of the presence of two men as they sat down at the table next to me and began talking about a book they had both recently read in loud, enthusiastic voices. They started with discussing the characters and plot of the novel and moved on to connect it to their own lives — quite an intellectual conversation to find myself listening in on. One of the men said, “There’s that idealized love that we know is false but resonates in our hearts.” When I heard that, I immediately wrote it down and saved it to think about later.
An hour or two passed, and I moved from my small table in the corner to the counter which was set against the wall opposite the bookshelf — a quieter location. Two different men came in almost immediately and sat besides me, their stools angled away from me and towards each other. They exchanged presents — and kisses — and began to chat. I tried tuning them out (at this point, I honestly, truly, just wanted to read) but I felt myself tense up when one of the men said, “I just want to know what we are.” I realized the conversation had progressed into a what-are-we talk. I flipped the pages of my book noisily to convince them that I was deeply preoccupied, but they didn’t seem to notice or care. The same man who had brought up the topic continued to describe his feelings for the other; he was scared to lose him, his “other half.”
These two conversations I overheard just hours apart struck a chord with me. Why do the majority of us, like the first man said, hold on so tightly to the idea of idealized love when we know it doesn’t exist? Why do we believe, like the second man, that there is someone destined to be our other half, as if we can’t fully exist on our own?
As long as people have existed, so has the concept of finding “another.” Love is embedded in history. Plato’s Symposium, a philosophical text dated from 385-370 BC, provides a prime example of the formation of this idealized love, especially in Aristophanes’s speech. Aristophanes begins his origin of love story with how humans used to have four hands and feet and two faces. The power of these beings frightened the god Zeus to such an extent that he used a lightning bolt to cut the beings in two. He forced the two halves to spend their entire lives seeking the other, for they could never feel complete until they reunited with their other half. Once the two people found each other, they could never be separated.
This Ancient Greek source — something that seems so removed from today’s culture — is one of many that has influenced how people view love. Maybe we can blame Aristophanes for making us believe that only our other half will make us happy, for feeding our beliefs that we are destined for someone.
But what is this idealized love we talk about? For some, it might be the image of a prince saving a princess and then riding off together into the sunset. It might be some undying, unyielding passion that seems to overcome everything. It might be the sparks flying, Taylor Swift kind of attraction. It might be love at first sight.
The word “idealized” implies that something is perfect or better than reality. That’s problematic when we use that word to describe something as powerful as love. In the film 500 Days of Summer, the main character’s best friend, Paul, is asked what the “girl of his dreams” would be like. He says she would have “maybe different hair, and she’d probably be a little more into sports. But truthfully, Robyn is better than the girl of my dreams. She’s real.”
There’s something about idealized love that we can’t seem to let go of. It’s romantic, glorious, even beautiful. We want to think that everything can have a happy ending, that love can conquer all things — and maybe it can. But I think what we come to realize is how much we love the realness of love, whether that be in the small things, the big things, the nervousness or the excitement. I like to think that Paul is right. Because the person of our dreams — some glorified person — remains there. We get what’s real.
Gaby Leung is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.