Love Explained

John Barth

Midafternoon midlife lovers, postcoitally lassitudinous and sweat-wet, skin to skin.

Presently: “Explain love to me.”


“Love: Explain.”

That’d take some doing.

“So do.”

Presently: The phenomenon in general? Or us-here-in-this-bed-on-a-weekday-afternoon-in-October?

“Your pleasure. Just explain, please.”

Wuff. We may have to go back a bit. Perspective . . .

“So go. I have a long attention span.”

You do.

“Wait. . . .“

Presently: Well. In the beginning—

“So far, so good.”

On with the story?


The Big Bang, of course . . .


Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions . . .

“Not to mention later conditions.”

If you’d gone to Macy’s that day instead of Bloomingdale’s, or to Bloomingdale’s but not through Housewares on your way to Bedding—

“As it were.”

Or if you’d passed through Housewares a half-hour earlier or later—we wouldn’t be lying here all these years afterward.


The great god Contingency.

“Scary to imagine.”

But back to the really initial conditions for just a fraction of a second, from T-zero to the beginning of nucleosynthesis one one-hundred-thousandth of a second later, let’s say: the first hundred-thousandth of a second of Time. . . .

“To me it seemed like ages. I thought you’d never look up from those Krups coffeemakers.”

I saw you. But after all that time I couldn’t believe it was you. Anyhow, I wanted to look you over before I officially noticed you.

“I noticed.”

The point is, even back at the virtual beginning there were already certain inhomogeneities—

“The old songs are the best. That’s love?”

“To put it mildly. Nice Hyphenated-American girl meets Hyphenated-American boy, equally nice but differently hyphenated. . . .”

Her a thirtysomething single parent? Him fortysomething and divorcing?

“If they hadn’t known each other already, from before . . .”

Another set of sensitive conditions, thank goodness.

“They should thank the Institute’s grant-funding policy, which gives young postdocs and their mentors a chance to rub elbows.”

Und so weiter.

“They could’ve got it on way back then!”

But he was too shy, and she too proper.


Were it not for which, the atoms of matter that finally got their act together after Time’s first three hundred thousand years would have spread through space like buckshot instead of clumping together into sheets of galaxies with humongous voids between.

“Story of her life, till Bloomingdale’s.”

What concerns us here in this bed on this brilliant Thursday afternoon in October is that a zillion years after our story’s beginning, we’ve got this still-expanding universe on our hands, with a scale of magnitudes ranging from superstrings of galactic clusters down to the electrons of the atoms of the molecules of DNA, for example. If we’re going to explain love, we’ve got to adjust our focus.

“Like so?”

Oh my yes.

Presently: As one was saying, at a certain very critical point somewhere between those superclusters on the one hand and those subatomic particles on the other, one finds our friendly neighborhood galaxy and even our dear little solar system with its nine or so planets, of which the seventh from the edge happens to be this pretty blue-white-brown-and-green job, like the algae that got life going on it.

‘‘I’ve been there! It comes complete these days with oceans, continents, and the Boston-Cambridge urban complex, as I remember, comprising not only streets and buildings and shopping plazas but inhabitants. . . .”

Including, though not limited to, rats and roaches, pigeons and starlings, pet animals, and maybe a million Homo sapiens, teeming and swarming.

“Getting and spending. Dealing dope and composing music.”

Hijacking cars and leveraging buyouts.

“Laundering laundry. Mugging and panhandling.”

Learning long division. Staring at TV screens and computer monitors. Shooting baskets and one another.

“Mating in and out of wedlock with members of the same and differing sexes. Cooking up stir-fries and stories.”

And even, in rare instances, contemplating the nature of the universe and the phenomenon of consciousness therein.

“But not explaining love, I notice.”

Not quite yet. Among those last-remarked instances, however, is to be found here and there the oddball capable of formulating or at least of comprehending Einstein’s relativity theories, Schrodinger’s quantummechanical wave-function equations, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—

Along with other apparent esoterica that are in fact among the indispensable intellectual baggage of our narrative-historical moment, right?”

As you may have heard.

“In spades, chez l’Institute. But play it again.”

More than Freudian psychology, more than Marxist ideology, quantum mechanics has been the Great Attractor of the second half of this dying century—even though, speaking generally, almost nobody knows beans about it.

“The old songs are the best. That’s love?”

We’re getting warm.

“We were getting warm, back there with the mating and the stir-fry. Then we lost the picture.”

So we fiddle with the clicker. The next-to-bottom line is that per Standard Theory, the position of any and every electron is a field of probabilities until we measure it; then and only then its “wave function” collapses and it truly has a position.

“Shall we cut to the chase?”

“All hands on deck, and kiss me again.”

This is the chase. It follows that the universe aforementioned might be said to be as much an effect of our observation of it as we observers are an effect of its aforesummarized evolution, which happens to have happened within extremely critical parameters, like a cute re-meet.

“The Anthropic Principle! Kiss me quick.”

It comes in three flavors—

“Don’t we all: The Weak, the Strong, and the Participatory, if I remember correctly.”

Whereof we democratic types have no time for any save the Participatory: “The observer is as essential to the creation of the universe as the universe is to the creation of the observer.” All hands on deck, and kiss me again.

“Nothing is but thinking makes it so.”

Quod erat demonstrandum and voilà: The universe is a self-exciting circuit, like us.

“Not only like us, if I follow you, but because of us.”

You’re leading me. Don’t stop.

“By turns and together we’re both both leading and following, no? At our best, I mean.”

And at our best we’re both both leading and following the observable universe as observed, so declareth the Participatory Anthropic Principle.

“Things are as we find them to be because we who are among both the causes and the effects of those observed conditions thus observe them. Kiss?”

No sooner said than.

Presently: “And no sooner done than said. Thus just as consciousness is both the impulse and the prerequisite for explaining consciousness, and so might be said to be equally subject and object, or question and answer . . .”

And just as Dante, led by Love to the final circle of Paradise, sees there that the big L is literally what “moves the Sun and the other stars," so you and I, about halfway through our expectable life-story just when our planet, mirabile dictu, happens to be about halfway through its

“Time, time . . .“

See how it runs, and so we make it run.

“Love exists, like the world, you’re telling me, as much because I asked my question as conversely.”

You’re telling me.

“Now that we’ve explained it, I knew it all along.”

Presently: Much obliged, dear friend.

Presently: “Dear friend: my pleasure.”

John Barth (1930–2024) was the author of novels including The Sot-Weed Factor and Chimera, which won the National Book Award.
Originally published:
January 1, 1996


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