Chapter 2: Romeo & Juliet University – Love as knowledge

E. Hopper, Summer Evening
E. Hopper, Summer Evening


Mr. Alfred Gell’s analysis (see part 1 first) is based on the notion that love is interlinked with, or grounded on, a secret, private sharing of information between the two partners. He starts way back, from chimpanzees:

“The exchange of these [precopulatory] messages (which consist of physical gestures, furtive genital displays etc.) must be covertly done, or more dominant animals will intervene. Here we do not just have communication between partners, but exclusive, ‘confidential’ communication. Then the copulation itself is conducted out of sight, a second type of socially strategic information control, and of course the phylogenetic origin of human unwillingness to indulge in public copulation except in special circumstances”

In any society, says Gell, ‘there is the stock of information everybody has, that most have, that only a few have, and that only one or two have’. It may be argued that there is an increasing value in information known by lesser people, and that a tie is formed between those people sharing it. In the case of Umedas who, as discussed, experience romantic love in adultery relations:

“Love consisted of the generation, at the margins of society (in the bush, away from other people) of lethal knowledge, and the creation of pacts between those who generated and exchanged this knowledge, to preserve secrecy and discretion.”

This may also be the case for adultery, or otherwise prohibited relationships in our society. The lovers are bonded, if anything else, by the very secret of their relationship. But what about standard, ‘lawful’ romantic love?

“In Umeda as Strathern (1990) has suggested in relation to Melanesian societies more generally, who you marry is part of your personal make up, just as much as your red hair or snub nose, or the fact that you have a brother called Amasu. [..] In the absence of this structural predestination, modern couples have to convert abstract, generic relations between categories of persons into specific, grounded, historically embedded relations which will bear the structural loadings that will be imposed on them. Courting and falling in love provide the means for endowing relationships with histories which make subsequent commitment to their consequences more or less secure. They obviate the spectrum of opportunity costs that choice of partners implies. A married B, while C and D were also possible partners. A must have access to a kind of knowledge that, in retrospect, shows that C and D were not really possible at all, were only generically possible, but not specifically possible. Through the reciprocal exchange of a graded series of indiscretions, the courting couple converts a relation for whose existence no particular reason exist, into one which must be preserved because knowledge has come into existence which necessitates the lover’s pact, not to be incontinent, sexually or verbally.”

If you ask me, so far so good. On  comparison, we Westerners have it much better than the Umedas. We get to create our own personal stories, our own histories to base our romantic relationships on. Despite randomness, despite the fact that B could as well have been C, given Romeo happened to be there first, we are at least then free to create a secret A-B universe that is unique. In other words, namely Lincoln’s words, A and B build a knowledge system of, by and for A and B.

Well, not so fast..says Mr. Gell. I’m not so sure I’m gonna agree with him this time though.

Coming up, the slavery of Romeo and Juliet.

Oh, and I almost forgot: (some) light in the tunnel.



Chapter 1: Shakespeare’s Fabrizio and Juliet

Shakespeare’s most famous play could well have been entitled ‘Fabrizio and Juliet’ if Fabrizio had showed up a minute before Romeo.


We all pursue our own goals, our own ideas of happiness, of ‘our best self’, or just follow our obsessions if you like. People we meet and fall in love just happen to be at the right place, the right time (or wrong, you pick the word): the place and time we need to fall in love.

By no means do I intend to underestimate Romeo, but in order to be realistic, one has to acknowledge that chances are there were many other bold, handsome young men whose noble families were keen to eliminate other noble families. Randomness plays a big role in defining what the name next to Juliet’s will be, and it is only our a posteriori deterministic need that makes us neglect this, the need to find meaning through idealization. Quoting from one of Mr. Pamuk’s books:

‘Many people know that no life is predetermined and that, in reality, every story is a sequence of coincidences. Despite the big number of those who know this, when, at some point in their lives, they turn and look back, they reach the conclusion that the situations they lived through as coincidental, they were -in their present view- nothing but necessities.’

Indeed. What love would be like if Juliet was all: ‘Oh Romeo I love you! But in case you don’t make it tonight, I’ll call one of the other 999 Romeos out there’. No, no. It is a fact that the person is randomly picked in that sense, and it is a necessity to neglect this fact. Unless…well, unless things don’t go well, in which case we suddenly remember the randomness factor. But doesn’t this switch make us look fool or at least inconsistent with our very ideal of love that we were so keen to follow to begin with?

According to many, romantic love in modern Western world is what we use to make a once-in-a-lifetime choice, a choice that it’s too risky to make without Cubic’s help. Alfred Gell makes an interesting analysis on his article ‘On love‘. Take for instance this tribe in New Guinea, called Umeda. They live in villages of max. 750 persons. The Umedas marry cross-cousins, i.e. the person whom they will marry is pretty much predetermined, often before they hit puberty. There are really no ‘singles’ available to mess around and fall in love. Yet they do. Mostly through extramarital relationships of women with younger unmarried men, that must remain secret at all costs. Pure Umedas, you think, what a lack of freedom…Well, not so fast…Let’s move to ‘our’ society, shall we?

“Here people are taught to believe that one day they will discover, through elective affinity, out of the indefinite number of social others of whom they have generic knowledge, some particular one to love, with whom they will live in predestined harmony, have children and so on. I do not need to say that this idea is as arbitrary, as fantastic, as anything Umedas believe on the subject of sorcery. It is, however, necessary, given the fact that in modern society choice of mates is not institutionalized at the level of individual (though it is highly institutionalized in other ways, i.e. class, locality etc.)”

And he goes on to say:

“Because, pecuniary advantage aside, there are no really good reasons for committing oneself to one person rather than another, and very good reasons for fearing the worst, the essentially arbitrary choice is rationalized as fixed in advance by the wiles of the love-god, whose intervention relieves us from the burden of responsibility for our actions, which, in fact, is necessary for us to act at all, rather than hover interminably in a state of radical indecision. Whereas in Umeda love is outside the social system, in our society love has license and is supposed to make the world turn around, to be the very principle upon which society rests’.

I find this ‘functionalistic’ view to be quite grounded. However, one could as well argue that this only applies to the initial stages of a romantic relationship, when two people first meet, flirt and grow intense feelings without really knowing the object of their affection. As they spend more time together and they get to know each other, they grow – if they’re lucky enough – another kind of love, more grounded on the ‘real’ qualities of their partner, more informed, more knowledge-based. Now their actions- maintaining the relationship or not – is based on rationally evaluating the other person according to the information they receive. This must be the real thing then.

Well, not so fast…Coming up next, love as a system of knowledge.