MYTHOLOGY

The Magick of Love

STEVE CHISNELL

26 Sept 2017

Rowling’s Ron Weasely, Star Trek’s Harry Mudd, and Rick and Morty’s title characters may be example enough of the chaos created from love potions. But the trope of “magicked love” goes back, of course, much further. It speaks to us across songs and myths, offering us one of the most powerful of temptations.

Yet even with a literature replete with warning, we find ourselves enacting weird efforts to attract the opposite sex on our own with Axe body sprays, faux perms and balayage, Forever 21 sales, and Tinder profiles. None of these are particularly magical, but each is designed to pull someone’s less voluntary attention to us and offer them a fantasy  that our natural selves cannot measure up to. Call them “Love Potion Lite,” protection against our own insecurities. It’s a kind of Cinderella complex–without the duds, no ball.

“Each is designed to pull someone’s less voluntary attention to us and offer them a fantasy that our natural selves cannot measure up to.”

The fantasies we desire–the “happily ever after”–is the promise of a perfect and endless love, the soulmate story, the stars aligning in true fulfillment. But really the love potion is the shortcut to the search, the Quest bypassed. It is the act of the unworthy hero. It is no wonder that in nearly every tale and song, the effort becomes tragic. Just ask Titania from Midsummer Night’s Dream, the tragic Tristan and Isolde, or the dog-loving Tone Lōc. As much as we imagine ourselves the heroes of the story, the ones deserving of love, our experiences of imperfect love overshadow the dream.

As well they might. It’s true enough that too many American marriages end in divorce from a kind of fatigue or disillusionment in our spouses. The love fades. When my freshmen were asked if they would ever use a love potion if they found one, many cited this very concern: they worried that it was they who would lose interest in the person they potioned. In an era of rom-coms and fairy tales that extol “forever love” as ideal, the failing of the potion is not therefore on the recipient but on the potion giver who is somehow too weak to measure up to his own creation.

It’s not that we don’t desire the ultimate fulfillment of a forever love. It’s that we don’t imagine we are up to it.  

Was this classical Paris’s problem? A Prince of Troy, after all, should have little trouble finding love. But when offered love or wisdom or power, he chose Aphrodite’s offer. The instant “magic love” offered in the form of Helen, bypassed anything more “human” that he might try. Even setting aside the loss of free will of Helen’s returned love (making the love potion an act of non-consent and the tool for a rape story little different from a rufie), Paris’s choice to “dope” the engaged Helen and whisk her back to Troy started a ten year war. Is even this not lesson enough?

Apparently not. We do succumb to the temptation to potion, even though:

  1. Our classical and contemporary literature specifically warns us against it;
  2. The “shortcut” to love is a clear unheroic cheat;
  3. The act of potion is little more than rape;
  4. Our real experiences with love suggest eternal happiness is at best unlikely;
  5. And we worry that we are not worthy of it.

Again from my students, the results were clear. Nearly none admitted that they would use such a potion, yet one savvy 14-year-old entrepreneur suggested that it would be a best-seller for him. Who could doubt it in the age of New Age Crystal cures, astrology charts, earthworm love diets, and profits for OKCupid and Tinder at $2.3 billion? My freshmen may be smart when it comes to reasoning out the consequences of magic love, but when loneliness pushes to desperation, our reason fails us. We’ll use such a potion, even if we know it will later reveal our own short-lived lovespan, our inability to live the fairy tale promised us.

“We know it will later reveal our own short-lived lovespan, our inability to live the fairy tale promised us.”

If we wish to live the fairy tale happily ever afters, then we must also accept a world of potions for non-consent and loves based upon ballroom appearances and sleepy kisses. The love potion is not a happy compromise, but we hold onto it rather than embrace narratives of loneliness, against reason. The alternative is to face ourselves in an uncompromising series of unmagical mirrors, each telling us that few if any will make the daily choice to love us naturally, freely.

The potion isn’t really for others to swallow. It is for ourselves.

 

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