[Paleopsych] TLS: Fiona Ellis: Lovesick

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Sat Jun 11 20:54:02 UTC 2005

Fiona Ellis: Lovesick
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.7.30

    LOVESICK. Love as a mental illness. By Frank Tallis. 240pp. Century.
    Pounds 12.99. - 0 712629 041

    In Lovesick, Frank Tallis believes that we can best define love as a
    mental illness. He is, however, only concerned with erotic love - the
    love into which we "fall": and, though he does not make this clear, he
    merely focuses on the initial stage of this - the stage which has been
    referred to as passion-love. His claim, then, is that passion-love is
    the mental illness. Tallis details various psychiatric disorders which
    capture the lover's inner turmoil. A person in love harbours obsessive
    thoughts about his or her beloved and spends as much time in the
    bathroom as patients with contamination fears (obsessive compulsive

    He or she is prone to bouts of melancholy (clinical depression) and
    has no appetite (anorexia), feels nervous before a date (panic
    disorder), oscillates between mania and despair (bipolar disorder),
    and is an addict.

    All of this is rather extreme and leads one to surmise that either the
    author is unaware of the nature of mental illness, or he has been the
    victim of pathological love. Certainly, lovers might take more care of
    personal hygiene, lingering in the bathroom before a date, but it is
    absurd to suppose that they were engaging in compulsive washing
    rituals. A lover's bouts of melancholy are not the same as the
    crippling inertia that grips the clinically depressed and, though one
    can suffer a loss of appetite (or eat too much for that matter), this
    affliction is hardly comparable to that of the anorexic. Certainly,
    lovers are subject to mood swings; but unless they are already victims
    of bipolar disorder, their "mania" does not escalate to a level at
    which they are incapable of engaging in coherent thought or action. If
    it did they would be too busy running on empty to entertain thoughts
    about their beloveds. Erotic love is neither a cognitive nor an
    affective disorder, but a passionate response to another person, based
    on an understanding of who and what they are.

    The idea that love is an addiction leads Tallis to produce some
    amusing comparisons, the best of which is that the lover is some kind
    of alcoholic. Of course, there are lovers who display addictive
    tendencies - those, for example, who are in love with being in love
    and who flit from one grand passion to the next rather than taking the
    effort to truly love another person. What this shows, however, is not
    that love is an addition but that there are addictions which make it
    impossible to love. Tallis is so taken up with the idea that love can
    make us feel drunk, he decides that "being drunk can make us fall in
    love". Apparently, two and a half glasses of wine does the trick.

    There are affective disorders arising out of love - the "madness of
    Tristan", for example, which formed a topos for medieval poetry - and
    there are cognitive disorders arising out of love - the jealousy of
    Othello, with his willing belief in the impossible - but these cases
    are recognized to be abnormal. Falling in love is generally both a
    falling and a knowing, a surrender and an act of self control, as
    described by Jane Austen in the love of Emma for Mr Knightley. Tallis
    is prepared to concede that being in love can be a positive
    experience, but, given his wish to pursue his preferred "definition",
    he is compelled to give precedence to the agony it involves. Indeed,
    his only concession to the opposing viewpoint is to cite those who see
    mental illness as a "painful but necessary process of self-discovery,
    which enriches the individual's inner world". That view of mental
    illness may have been fashionable in the days of R. D. Laing, but it
    receives no support whatever from subsequent developments in

    The final few pages of the book are much better. Tallis begins to
    question the claim he makes elsewhere that even "normal love" is
    indistinguishable from mental illness and acknowledges that he has
    been describing a pathological form of love.

    His account then tackles erotic love as it is meant to be - the love
    which really does enrich the individual's inner world and, of course,
    that of his or her beloved. At this point, Tallis tells us, we have
    divested ourselves of the "hopeless, confused, deluded and insecure
    posturing that characterizes 'romance' and replaced it with true
    love". So love is not a mental illness; and it is both confused and
    deluded to think otherwise.

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