I was talking to a friend about Anita Shreve’s Testimony, which has a bunch of characters who fall in love or lust with one another, including the four whose taped orgy unleashes emergent destructive forces on everyone around them. Or, rather, the reaction to the video unleashes those forces; the video itself is harmless save for how others treat it. The important thing for this post, however, is how those moments of love or lust are depicted. The short version is that they aren’t. In one sentence, characters are going about their business; in another, they are noticing one another in a potentially erotic way; many sentences later, they’re in bed with each other. But the moments when real interest develops are never really portrayed, save maybe through action or sudden thought. It’s like trying to describe the moment when an idea hits: we can resort to metaphor, but we can’t truly describe what it’s like to be in a state of flow.
My best guess to the question posed by the title is that in real life very few people decide they like or love each other. It just. . . happens, like an idea. You might see manifestations of it; in Testimony, the relationship between Mike and Anna really starts with the touch of a hand. The one between Silas and Noelle begins with them spending more time together. The attractive is partly physical and partly something else. The “something else” interests me.
I wouldn’t be surprised if, in evolutionary terms, we’re not even supposed to understand or analyze our feelings; they’re just supposed to guide us to survival and reproduction. Based on the large number of studies cited in The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality and elsewhere that show how much we understand subconsciously, this probably shouldn’t surprise us. But it does, especially in the context of stories, since so many of them have or should have reasons behind the characters’ action in them. When we push those reasons, however, we begin to see that they’re not so firm as we might once have imagined. I’d like to know about the limits of stories and how they reflect the way people act because sussing the limits helps us figure out how, if at all, we can or should transcend them.