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Flashback Friday: The Alchemy of Love

Could love be magic?

Flashback Friday: The Alchemy of Love
1903 illustration by Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944)/ Wikimedia Commons

Back in a simpler age, people believed that when they’d fall in love they’d hear birds and violins. Now we know the truth: Your brain belches phenylethylamine and sets off your norepinephrine system. It’s all in “The Alchemy of Love” by Glenn O’Brien, originally published in the September, 1980 issue of High Times.


Love comes on like acid. Same sort of weak feeling in the stomach. Same sort of hallucinations. Love is a trip. It can give you a rush like cocaine, making your nerve endings feedback like guitars. It can make you obsessive and paranoid like speed. It can get you strung out, hooked like smack. You can OD on it, bum out, lose everything. Or it can give you incredible visions, new perspectives, a feeling of calm, meaning. Pleasure beyond description. It can build you up or bum you out. It can kill you or make you live again. You can’t buy it over or under the counter. A prescription won’t help you, unless you find the right witch doctor. Love is the drug with a mind of its own.

You can’t find it. You don’t get into it, you fall into it. You can’t smoke it, pop it, snort it or shoot it. Cupid shoots you with it only when he feels like it. You can’t help it. It just… tasted right. It was a chemical reaction, his juice and her juice and there was smoke all over the place.

That love has a chemistry is an old story. Sexual excitement is obviously hormonal. But the actual chemistry of love is as yet somewhat elusive. Perhaps the mechanism of quite specific attractions is rooted in our very DNA. Falling in love or love at first sight may come from chromosomes matching like lock and key. But the chemical mechanism of being in love may be a little easier to observe. Some researchers, including Michael Liebowitz and Donald Klein of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, believe that love may be related to a specific brain chemical, phenylethylamine.

Occurring naturally throughout the nervous system, phenylethylamine works on the neurotransmitter systems affecting the movement of nerve signals at the synapse. The amines, which include substances produced by the body as well as stimulant drugs such as amphetamines, have the potential to affect several of the receptors found in the nerve synapse. The principal receptor sights affected by phenylethylamine are those of the serotonin and norepinephrine systems. Among its other actions, chemical messenger serotonin stimulates broader associations in the brain, and when its system is activated by drugs such as LSD or marijuana it gives one a “spacy” feeling. Norepinephrine is related to adrenaline and when its system is artificially triggered by such drugs as cocaine or amphetamines, the result is a quickening of sensation, speediness and that “up” feeling. Mescaline, which occurs naturally in peyote, is a derivative of phenylethylamine and chemically resembles both norepinephrine and its precursor, dopamine. Dopamine is particularly concentrated in that part of the brain thought to involve emotion.

Anyway, phenylethylamine has lots of potential effects that might be commonly associated with love. Researcher Michael Liebowitz says, “Love brings on a giddy response comparable to an amphetamine high. The crash that follows a breakup is much like withdrawal.” According to Newsweek, Liebowitz and Klein began to suspect that phenylethylamine was the love transmitter when each experienced cravings for chocolate after the breakup of a love relationship. Chocolate is very high in phenylethylamines, and it has a long history as a love drug.

Chocolate was first cultivated by the Aztecs of Mexico who believed that it had been brought down from heaven by the god Quetzalcoatl. It was great for the Aztecs but bad for Quetzalcoatl, who was subsequently excluded from heaven for this unauthorized boon. By the time Cortez invaded Mexico, chocolate was consumed in honor of Xochiquetzal, goddess of love, and Montezuma always had a gold cupful or two before visiting his harem.

Chocolate, the sex sensation of Europe for years after its arrival, was considered a love aid by experts as sophisticated as Casanova. It was condemned by the Vatican, banned for years in several European countries and the subject of the usual drug-scare journalism. It has remained a potent symbol of the love goddess: The blond venus has kept it alive since Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight. It’s still big business on Cupid Day. But over the years the reputation of chocolate, or perhaps chocolate itself, was tamed. It seems to have lost something— maybe in processing. The Aztecs didn’t take sugar. Once a major aphrodisiac, today chocolate is safe enough for children. In fact, we may be immune to the erotic effects of chocolate because we have been loaded on it since weaning. Maybe we are a nation of phenylethylamine heads, love addicts with a “love jones” and a bad “love hangover,” as Diana Ross would say, maybe from too much “baby love.”

At any rate, the brain docs are moving in on the love transmitter; they discovered “pleasure pathways” or “reward systems” in the brain. They may have found a chemical that produces love symptoms, but the chemistry of love isn’t just the rush and its mechanism. What turns that on? Where’s the trigger? Perhaps there is another chemical trigger, maybe a reaction between a chemical in you and a chemical in your lover. Mix juices and bingo, bang, zoom…

The Electrochemistry of Love

The chemistry of love is actually an old business. For hundreds of years love was explained chemically, alchemically and electrochemically in terms of vapors, humors and magnetism. In the 18th century the German physician Friedrich Anton Mesmer, pursuing a theory of “animal magnetism,” developed the technique of using hypnosis for psychosomatic illnesses. His healings were the rage of Paris, but the unconventionality of his techniques and perhaps a bit too much animal magnetism got him run out of town. But that did not diminish the rage he had created: Soon love was seen as the ultimate form of animal magnetism. Love has always kept up with the sciences.

Freud, father of psychoanalysis and cocaine, built a science around failed love and repressed sex. But he didn’t create these pillars of his church—they were the keystone of the colonialist empires. To the Victorian mind, breeding was the important thing, love was generally lost and sex was a bother.

Freud hoped that Jung would carry on his work and one day Freud begged him to never give up the sexual theory. “You see, we must make a dogma of it,” he said. “An unshakable bulwark. And promise this one thing my dear son: that you will go to church every Sunday.” Jung answered: “A bulwark—against what?” “Against the black tide of mud,” Freud said, and then hesitated before adding, “of occultism.” It was not long after this that Jung split with Freud. Jung didn’t become an occultist. He discovered “the problem of love and power”: love as a power drive toward the superman. Freud and Jung agreed that man had evolved into a state where he expended much more energy into sexuality than was necessary for the reproduction of the species. The answer to the problem seemed to be successful sublimation—turning that excess sexual energy into something useful, like acquiring power. Jung thought Hitler was doing a good job of it.

Wilhelm Reich, a maverick psychotherapist out of the Freudian/Jungian axis, had a similar analysis, except what he thought was healthy was Jung’s idea of sick, and vice versa. In The Mass Psychology of Fascism Reich analyzed the colonialist imperialist state as an institution based on certain pandemic neuroses and psychoses directly attributable to state- and religion-induced sexual repression.

According to Reich, most human ills, including the cancer epidemic, can be attributed to disturbances in the sexual function of the organism. Reich explained that sex was essential not only for reproduction but also for maintaining the proper balance of energy. Orgasm is as natural and necessary to health as eating or breathing. When a satisfactory orgasm is not achieved regularly the body builds up tension, and this accumulated tension contributes to a vast range of physical, mental and ultimately social problems. And in modern society very few individuals have a healthy sex life. From early childhood, natural sexual instincts are suppressed, resulting in a highly tense bodily condition even before puberty. Reich noted that the tensions of unreleased sexuality are cumulative and cause in the body a condition he called “armoring.” Reich defined “muscular armor” as: “The sum total of the muscular attitudes (chronic muscle spasms) which an individual develops as a block against the breakthrough of emotions and organ sensations, in particular anxiety, rage and sexual excitation.”

But muscles are wired to very complex personalities and so Reich explained that there is another sort of armoring—character armor—that is the behavioral equivalent and direct cause of muscular armoring. Reichian therapy breaks down with manipulation and massage the muscular armoring of the entire body, particularly the chronically spastic areas, starting with the eyes, mouth and chest and finishing with the most critically armored area: the pelvis. Reich found that once the tension of the musculature is relieved, most individuals are able to have rewarding orgasms.

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While much of the sexual repression that made Western society neurotic may have been instituted in the name of love, as in the case of the institution of marriage, Reich was not about to blame love and glorify impersonal sexuality as many modern sexologists have. On the contrary, Reich believed that love was a natural and easily obtained state, not an unattainable or even difficult ideal. Once proper orgasm potential is achieved, love and sex become identical; kinks, fantasies, even taboos disappear as the lovers mutually surrender to their pleasure. Reich noted that in orgasmic partners there is little difference between the male and the female role in sex: “The man is spontaneously gentle, that is without having to cover up opposite tendencies, such as sadistic impulses, by a forced kind of gentleness…. In the ‘onanistic coitus’ with an unloved object the gentleness is absent. The activity of the woman normally differs in no way from that of the man. The widely prevalent passivity of the woman is pathological and mostly due to masochistic phantasies of being raped.”

When a sexual relationship is successful there is a great identification between partners; their feelings harmonize and unite. Love happens.

The Evolution of Love

Plato explains the great force of love, which he acknowledges as the first of the gods, comes from a great split that occurred at the beginning of human history. Aristophanes, one of the participants in Plato’s Symposium, asserts that at one time the human race consisted of three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite. At this time, he says, each person had four arms, four legs, two faces and was quite round. Those with both sexes, according to Aristophanes, “had terrible strength and force, and great were their ambitions; they attacked the gods, and what Homer said of Otos and Ehialtes is said of them, that they tried to climb into heaven intending to make war upon the gods.” The gods fought back by cutting each man, woman and woman-man in half. “And if they choose to go on with their wild doings, and will not keep quiet,” warned Zeus, “I’ll do it again… And they shall hop about on one leg!”

When mankind found itself cut in half, love was born. “So when the original body was cut through, each half wanted the other, and hugged it; they threw their arms round each other desiring to grow together in the embrace and died of starvation and general idleness because they would not do anything apart from each other.”

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Aristophanes also used this mythic event to explain love, Athenian style. If a man was half a man-woman, Aristophanes explained, such a man would be fond of women, the type prone to adultery; if a woman were a cutting of the old man-woman, she would be fond of men, an adultress. “The women who are a cutting of the ancient women,” said Aristophanes, “do not care much about men, but are more attracted to women, and strumpetesses also come from this sex. But those which are a cutting of the male pursue the male.”

Aside from providing an interesting explanation of mankind’s complex sexuality, Aristophanes’ tale of sexual creation also provided one of the best arguments for the “soul mate” theory. The soul mate might be the same sex or the opposite, but without finding one another the spiritual halves would never find the bliss of fullness. The soul mate theme is one of the great crowd pleasers throughout the classical periods of Western literature. One never meets cohabiting soul mates; the soul mate is always lost or unattainable. In Greek myth, Orpheus, mortal son of Apollo, travels to the underworld because his wife Eurydice has been abducted by the Prince of Darkness and they have been, according to Mr. Ovid, “joined by Love.” Dante had his lost Beatrice, Gèrard de Nerval had his lost Aurelia. Without the soul mate theme there would have been no stories, no cantos, no sonnets.

The romance of the halved souls could also describe, loosely of course, the process of evolution. Like Aristophanes in the Symposium, Dr. C. Owen Lovejoy, professor of anthropology at Kent State University, believes that love happened when men went from four legs to two. Lovejoy doesn’t say anything about being split in half though. He makes it more like teaming up. Love was invented by marriage. Not like horse and carriage. Before marriage, man went around on all fours behaving promiscuously, he theorizes, just like chimps. This was fun, but not an efficient reproductive scheme. Humans got organized when natural conditions became more difficult. By pairing off, two adults could raise a large number of children. Without family division of labor, single mother chimps can raise only one child at a time. Love was the bond that held the first male and female together—it was based in sexual attraction that was based in evolution, improvement of the species.

But to compare Plato and Professor Lovejoy’s theses, perhaps there’s more similarity than meets the eye. If man became man at some point during evolution from the apes, perhaps it was at the moment that he became conscious of himself. Was that when he first sought his reflection in a single mate? Or did he perhaps first become conscious of himself when he was somehow separated from his ideal biological mate, whom up until then he had been bonded with in consciousness as one unit? Perhaps this was the fall. It comes a little after the original idea of the fall. But it makes more sense. Paradise didn’t arrive ’til Adam got Eve. It was over when they couldn’t find each other; when soul mates were separated by space or time.

The soul mate or “sister soul” might represent an evolutionary target. Thus in some ways the soul mate might be more opposite than similar, representing qualities that are deficient in the partner. Genetically each partner would provide what the other lacks, building together a perfect unit. Evolutionary theory is not exactly a quantum leap from the myths in our closets.

Love at the End of the World

In the secret tradition of Judaism, the Kabbalah, one of the principal mysteries is the mystery of Shekinah, the great female who is called “the Mirror of Jehovah.” In some cases she is the daughter of God, His bride or His sister, but in many manifestations she is clearly seen as Mrs. God. Jewish mysticism does not believe that perfection excludes the rapture of union.

According to Kabbalistic authority A.E. Waite, “marriage is the union of the Sacred Name here below—that is, its completion in each person…. Now, the Sacred Name is never attached to an incomplete man, being one who is unmarried, or one who dies without issue. Such a person does not penetrate after death into the vestibule of Paradise, on account of his incompleteness. He is like a tree that is rooted up, and he must be planted anew—that is to say, he must suffer rebirth… in order that the Sacred Name may be completed in all directions.”

The Kabbalah states that in the process of creation Jehovah was separated from Shekinah, and that the souls of men and women have been similarly separated from souls that mirror their own. But it is also a part of the tradition, according to Waite, that at the time when the Messiah comes “all the souls who are kept in the treasury of souls against the day of their incarnation shall have actually come hither in the flesh….Then shall the chosen people deserve to find and shall not fail herein—the beloved and sister soul predestined to each from the beginning of creation.”

The Quest

There were only two forms of legitimate activity for the gallant: love and combat. As Eric Auerbach points out in Mimesis: “Except feats of arms and love, nothing can occur in the courtly world—and even these two are of a special sort; they are not occurrences or emotions which can be absent for a time; they are permanently connected with the person of the perfect knight, they are part of his definition, so that he cannot for one moment be without adventure in arms nor for one moment without amorous entanglement. If he could, he would lose himself and no longer be a knight.” Knights were limited to these two pastimes, and generally the relationship between the two was intimate: The knight was not depicted as fighting wars for political or social reason, but as accomplishing feats of arms, generally in the service of his lady.

Throughout the courtly tradition runs the theme of unattainable love-princesses imprisoned in towers, awaiting an impossible rescue—but the greatest love stories of the period, Tristan and Iseult, Erec and Enide, Perceval and Blancheflor, are not stories of unattainable love, but stories of ideal love realized. The great knight, with divine aid, was successful in his quest. No matter the plot’s outcome, finding the perfect lover was victory enough.

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The greatest quest in knightly romance is of course the quest for the Holy Grail. The conventional account of the Holy Grail is that it was the chalice in which Joseph of Arimathea caught blood dripping from the crucified Christ when he was pierced by the spear of Longinus. A vision of the Grail was the object of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table, and only the purest knight could approach it.

Although the Grail Quest dominated Christian culture, the literature incorporates elements from Celtic myth and ancient fertility cults. Manley P. Hall writes: “There is… evidence to support the claim that the story of the Grail is an elaboration of an early pagan Nature myth which has been preserved by reason of the subtle manner in which it was engrafted upon the cult of Christianity. From this particular viewpoint, the Holy Grail is undoubtedly a type of ark or vessel in which the life of the world is preserved and therefore is significant of the body of the Great Mother—Nature. Its green color relates it to Venus and to the mystery of generation.” The spear is the potent, erect phallus; the cup is the receiver of life. They are a matched set, a perfect fit. The ideal phallus; the ideal vagina.

Among other things, the Grail Quest is perhaps a symbol of the split soul’s journey through the world in search of its lost half. The Grail Quest and the idealized, questing love of knightly legend created a profound sublimating influence on Western culture. The knight quested a soul mate for love, but the test of his love was not in loving but in service of his lover—and the principal knightly quest, the Grail, was approachable only by the purest of the pure.

The Third Reich appropriated the Grail myth, as received through Wagner’s Parsifal, for its own purposes. The Nazi philosophy found in the Grail Quest a quest for pure blood—a sacred genetic process. Hitler possessed a spear reported to be the spear of Longinus. Believing that if he possessed both the spear and the cup there would be no stopping him, Hitler dispatched a secret branch of the S.S. to the Pyrenees to seek out the Holy Grail.

Nazi sexuality was a synthesis of the Grail Quest, Aryan racism and Darwinism. Courtly love was identified with the ideal genetic mating. At times when the soul mate trend is on the upswing in society, as in Germany 1850-1945, sexual role playing tends to get more extreme, perhaps to make it a little easier for soul mates to locate one another. The soul mate doctrine tends to promote severe, subli-macho behavior in men and an equally mannered (earth mother, virgin, whore, femme fatale) style in women. Nazi love was Plato’s soul mates going berserk once again. So Zeus threatened to split them all once again. Maybe that’s where “unisex” comes in.

Love You to Death and Back

Frankie and Johnny were lovers. So were a lot of other victims. Love made them do it. But maybe they died happy, still loaded on phenylethylamines. The doctrine of the “soul mate” can be very troublesome. If your soul mate is not readily observable you’ve got to quest, and that can be rough, especially with a billion girls and a billion boys in the world. Meanwhile, one is charging up all of this orgone energy that is not being discharged through good orgasms. This is going to make it a lot rougher to get it on with the soul mate when found, so today’s knight had better have an orgone box around and a Rolfer too, if he’s going to hold out for his intended. (This is equally true of maidens on the quest.)

There is a much better and far safer metaphor for the millennium, another theory on the genesis of love, besides the Platonic big split. As Manley E Hall explains: “According to the other school, the so-called division of the sexes resulted from suppression of one pole of the androgynous being in order that the vital energies manifesting through it might be diverted to development of the rational faculties. From this point of view man is still actually androgynous and spiritually complete, but in the material world the feminine part of man’s nature and the masculine part of woman’s nature are quiescent. Through spiritual unfoldment and knowledge… the latent element in each nature is gradually brought into activity and the human being thus regains sexual equilibrium…. From this point of view, marriage is regarded as a companionship in which two complete individualities manifesting opposite polarities are brought into association that each may thereby awaken the qualities latent in the other and thus assist in the attainment of individual completeness. The first theory (“soul mates”) may be said to regard marriage as an end; the second as means to an end.”

Psychoanalysis calls the feminine mind of man anima and the masculine mind of woman animus. Unlike the soul mate—split from one long ago, one of a kind—this model posits a love based on a “soul match.” The lover should be a person of the opposite sex who manifests what is latent in the other. The lover becomes a mirror in the image of which one perfects one’s self. This love is not “opposites attract” but “likes attract.” The lover possesses the qualities one likes in oneself. The role of the romantic is too dangerous. Knights of the Holy Grail, Nazi dating services, the Sharks and the Jets—it’s too much trouble. As Reich observed, the macho stance is much too armoring. To get down with love you’ve got to be loose. Maybe if you don’t look too hard for love, it will find you. Besides which, if this should happen to be The End and the good Kabbalistic doctors were right, you’ll have no trouble at all finding the perfect one for you.

Jesus Loves You

Jesus is coming. Don’t be surprised if He brings a date. One of the last and most moving of the books by Dr. Wilhelm Reich, who died in federal prison after the burning of his books by U.S. authorities, was The Murder of Christ. In it he wrote, “They will hide away the evidence of Christ’s love for women, as God himself has created it, into deep dark catacombs with heavy locks at the doors and the keys thrown into the river….Christ never mentions asceticism and we cannot, from what we hear in the four narratives about Christ, imagine him demanding abstention from the genital embrace, either for himself or for his followers. There is no indication to the effect that he lived in abstinence with the women he knew, and there is no indication in his whole being to such effect.”

Among the Gnostic Christian documents uncovered at Nagh Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 were several gospels and documents relating to the life of Christ. The documents, which were pronounced heretical by the church, were buried for safekeeping or posterity about 1,500 years ago. These gospels have much to say on the subject of Christ’s sexual teaching and maybe even his sex life.

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The Gospel of Philip says, “If the woman had not separated from the man, she would not die with the man. His separation became the beginning of death. Because of this Christ came to repair the separation which was from the beginning and again unite the two, and to give life to those who died because of the separation and unite them.”

The Gnostic gospels make it clear that Christ’s teaching meant to make men and women the same, to break down the barriers between them so they might love each other. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female… and when you fashion eyes in place of an eye and a hand in place of a hand and a foot in place of a foot and a likeness in place of a likeness, then you will enter the Kingdom.”

The Gospel of Philip relates, “There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion.” In this gospel Christ redefines adultery not as a sin against the institution of marriage, but against one’s nature: He says, “Indeed every act of sexual intercourse which has occurred between those unlike one another is adultery.”

That gospel also says, “And the companion of the Savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love her?’”

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