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Love, factually

Many have thrown off the God delusion. The romance delusion has us in a firmer embrace

At my own first wedding—as at the first weddings of so many others—the principal Bible reading was from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. You know the one, all about faith, hope and love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Actually, the version read out at our own rather traditional service was from the King James translation, which renders the original as “charity” rather than “love”—a semantic shift of some significance, because what we contemporarily understand as the love between committed sexual partners is quite different to any form of beneficence. When the priest intones— “So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”—we tend not to think of selfless acts of giving. Instead, looking to the couple standing hand-in-hand before the altar, we meditate on the comparative ephemerality of the phenomenon we call romantic love—ephemeral, even by the increasingly short standards of duration of most marriages. We wonder: Will theirs last? Do they love each other enough? Will the memory of that love (if not the love itself) sustain them when things get rough?

A Church of England marriage is an odd thing—true, the modern service has jettisoned the stern injunctions that prefaced my own first (and lamentably brief) union. No longer are the congregation told marriage was ordained firstly for “procreation,” and secondly as “a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.” Instead, we have a touchy-feely, tambourine-tapping, guitar-strumming substitute: “The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.” A charmingly naive estimation, I’d say, of the ability of us contemporary, spoilt, sexually sophisticated instant-gratifiers to stay the mortal, marital course.

Underlying this shift from a view of marriage as a de jure bromide, to one which joyfully acknowledges human concupiscence are all sorts of factors, not least the changing status of women in our society. However, I’d suggest that still more significant has been the changing perception of romantic love. It’s perhaps a little too trite to suggest that as we’ve lost our religious impulse, our urge for transcendence (and by extension personal immortality) increasingly takes the form of romantic longing, but the parallels between the two states of feeling are legion.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues Donald Trump is a consequence of the American government ignoring the people—and they’ll have to deal with his impact whether he wins or loses the presidential election. Diane Roberts explores the rage eating America by looking at the people that government has failed. Switching the focus to the UK, David Marquand and a quartet of commentators assess Labour’s position—with varying conclusions. Also in this issue: Matthew Qvortrup looks at the relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, two of Europe’s most important politicians whose lives have long been intertwined. Andy Burnham, Labour’s candidate for the mayor of Manchester, lays down the reasons why the northern powerhouse is so important and Prospect’s Arts and Books Editor Sameer Rahim reviews Zadie Smith’s latest novel.