Declaring love

The difficulty of a declaration of love opens up quasi-philosophical concerns about language. (…) The words were the most ambiguous in the language, because the things they referred to so sorely lacked stable meaning. Certainly travelers had returned from the heart and tried to represent what they had seen, but love was in the end like a species of rare colored butterfly, often sighted, but never conclusively identified.

The thought was a lonely one: of the error one may find over a single word, an argument not for linguistic pedants but of desperate importance to lovers who need to make themselves understood. Chloe and I could both speak of being in love, and yet this love might mean significantly different things within each of us. We had often read the same books at night in the same bed, and later realized that they had touched us in different places: that they had been different books for each of us. Might the same divergence not occur over a single love-line?

She really was adorable (thought the lover, a most unreliable witness in such matters). But how could I tell her so in a way that would suggest the distinctive nature of my attraction? Words like “love” or “devotion” or “infatuation” were exhausted by the weight of successive love stories, by the layers imposed on them through the uses of others. At the moment when I most wanted language to be original, personal, and completely private, I came up against the irrevocably public nature of emotional language.

There seemed to be no way to transport “love” in the word L-O-V-E, without at the same time throwing the most banal associations into the basket. The word was too rich in foreign history: everything from the Troubadours to Casablanca had cashed in on the letters. Was it not my duty to be the author of my feelings?

Then I noticed a small plate of complimentary marshmallows near Chloe’s elbow and it suddenly seemed clear that I didn’t love Chloe so much as marshmallow her. (…) Even more inexplicably, when I took Chloe’s hand and told her that I had something very important to tell her, that I marshmallowed her, she seemed to understand perfectly, answering that it was the sweetest thing anyone had ever told her.
(Alain de Botton – On Love)

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