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After I explain what the process of falling in love is all about, I describe its workings.


What does it mean to “fall in love” with someone?
It’s the ignition phase of a collective movement consisting of two people.

I could have easily presented this at the end of a book detailing an exhaustive analysis of facts and interpretative theories; instead, I chose to put it at the beginning, in order to help readers during this short excursion through emotional territory that is, on the one hand, familiar to all—insofar as we have all had direct experience in this regard, yet on the other hand eludes and escapes us.

The definition that I have just presented opens the way to a new way of viewing the experience of falling in love, one that differs considerably from the vintage perspectives provided us by art, psychology, and sociology.

The falling-in-love process is not some ordinary daily occurrence, nor is it a sublimated sexual state or a capricious whim of fancy. It does not normally constitute an inexpressible experience of divine bliss or hell-bound despair either. Rather, it deems to be classified under the heading of that well-known class of phenomena known as collective movements. Granted, it stands apart from, and can hardly be mistaken for, such other examples of collective movements as the Protestant Reform, the student protest movement of the late sixties, the feminist movement, the utopistic religious movement of the 19th century popular Tuscan prophet David Lazzaretti of Arcidosso, or the Islamic movement headed by Khomeini (for a general theoretical treatment of this problem, see Francesco Alberoni, Movement and Institution , Italian ed. Il Mulino, Bologna, 1977). While there can be no confusing it with these, the falling-in-love process nevertheless represents a special case of the same thing: it is a collective movement in its own right.

There are connections and parallels, of course, to be seen between the mass collective movements and that of two people in love.  There are the same unleashed forces at work, as well as similar and numerous experiences of solidarity, feelings of renewal, and joie de vivre. The fundamental difference lies in the fact that a mass collective movement is not only made up of a great number of individuals but is also open to any other people who care to join it, whereas the collective movement constituting the falling-in-love process is between two and only two individuals; for all its universally- human worth and potential, the sphere that this collective movement operates in is restricted to the two people involved. This explains its singular and unique essence, and in turn its unmistakable characteristics.

Numerous sociologists have already studied collective movements and described in detail the special sort of experience that they represent. Emile Durkheim comes immediately to mind here, of course. Concerning phases of mass unrest, he writes, “a man has the impression of being dominated by forces that go beyond his control, that he doesn’t recognize as his, that drag him here and there…he feels transported into a world different from the one inside which he lives his private life. Life in this new realm is not only intense but also qualitatively different…He loses interest in and forgets about himself, and instead dedicates himself completely to the common cause...(The larger forces at work) seem to expand playfully or whimsically at large and without end…At such moments, this superior life is experienced with such intensity and in such an exclusive way as to completely overtake all consciousness, and sweep away nearly all selfish and vulgar worries and cares.” (E. Durkheim, Value Assessments and Reality Assessments, in Sociology and Philosophy, Ital. ed., Comunità, Milano, 1963, pp. 216-217).

Durkheim wasn’t thinking the least about the falling-in-love process when he wrote these words; what he had in mind was in fact the French Revolution, together with other important revolutionary movements in history. Yet the experience he describes is in reality much more widespread and far-reaching. Over and beyond the French Revolution, or the rise of Christianity and of Islam, for that matter, this experience is also present in other collective movements of far smaller dimensions. We can generalize by saying that all collective movements, no matter what their size, have these same characteristics (as outlined by Durkheim) during their initial phase, which we will term “their nascent state.”

The curious thing is that Durkheim’s description also fits and captures the falling-in-love process.

We can take as our second example the study that Max Weber made of certain social phenomena that are fuelled by enthusiasm, creative energies, and faith (or fervent belief). Weber regarded such movements as a manifestation of power inevitably stemming from the rise of a charismatic leader (Max Weber, Economics and Society, Italian ed., Economia e società, Comunità, Milano 1961, vol. u, pp. 431-43).

This sort of charismatic leader appears to be making a break with tradition and leading his followers into a heroic adventure, which induces in the latter the impression of undergoing an inner reawakening, or a metanoia (repentance) as intended by St. Paul. The guiding presence of this charismatic leader causes economic concerns to become less important and, in place of these, manifestations of faith, ideals, enthusiasm, and passion begin to abound in daily life. In attributing all these things to the leader (and to the qualities of the leader), Weber makes the same error that each of us makes when we fall in love—that of attributing the extraordinary experience that we are living to the qualities of the person we love.

In reality, our beloved is no different from others of his/her sex, just as we not different from others of our own sex. Instead, it is the relationship that we have come to have with the one we love—it is the sort of extraordinary experience that we are living—that  renders our beloved different and extraordinary, and which at a deeper level renders both of us together different and extraordinary.

This, then, is our starting point. If we want to put it in yet another way, there are special phenomena—called collective movements—which when they take place in history and in our society cause the relationships between individuals to change substantially, and even radically, thus transforming the very nature of our life and experiences.

These movements may give rise to an institutionalized religion, such as Islam, Christianity, or Protestantism, just as they may to fringe sects, heresies, labour unions, or student rebellions. And let’s not forget, moreover, those aforementioned movements that stem from a new collective “us” consisting of only two people, as happens when we fall in love. Any collective movement within a social structure divides those who were up to that moment united and unites those who were before divided, in order to create a new collective subject—a new “us”, which in the case of a falling-in-love process, is made up of the couple in love—the lover and his/her beloved. The forces at work are in both cases similarly violent and unrelenting.

Up till now, sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers have displayed a sort of repugnance or embarrassment in admitting that there is something in common—or better, something identical—to be found both in great historical processes like Islam, the French Revolution, or the Russian Revolution  and in such personal, banal phenomena as the experience of falling in love. These experts and scholars have their professional pride and reputation to maintain, and this is inevitably tied to the study of things deemed significant, important, and central to our society. This cannot but be at loggerheads with studies examining the falling-in-love process, as it is experienced, say, by two rough rednecks or two timid petit-bourgeois; similarly, such professorial concerns explain a certain lack of interest in studies analyzing the passion and desire uniting an elementary schoolteacher and a gardener, or a middle-aged manager and his secretary; such matters seen so squalid and miserable to our experts that the farthest thing from their mind is that the same forces may be at work here. This is a repeat of what took place a couple of centuries ago in the field of biology. As it used to be practiced, biology held that at the top of the pyramid of evolution we had Man, master of all creation and made in God’s likeness, and then after Man came the higher animals (horses, lions) followed by less evolved creatures, down to the lowly worms, ants, and molluscs.

Today we know that all animals share the same cell structure, proteins, DNA, and even the same synapses between nerve cells. Yet, quite clearly, humankind and the higher animals remain distinct from other forms of life; we would never, in short, mistake a horse for a worm.

This diversity stems from the fact that the biological, biochemical, and genetic processes in the former are part of infinitely more complex life systems. This goes to show that in order to understand how things work, it is always necessary to study both the processes that systems have in common and the processes that are different or unique.

In an analogous way, the falling-in-love process is the simplest form of a collective movement, which certainly can’t be confused with the French Revolution or the enthusiastic initial phase of the Protestant Reform. Inversely, moreover, no revolution is simply a sum of many falling-in-love experiences. To return to our nature analogy, a horse is not, after all, the sum of many worms, nor is it a giant worm. They are two different things, yet both remain part of the same Animal Kingdom and share the same basic life processes.

The definition given of the falling-in-love process (i.e. the nascent state of a collective movement made up of two people) offers us a theoretical slot in which to position this mysterious phenomenon of collective movements. Not only, but the same definition provides us with a extraordinary tool for investigating the nature of all such movements.

Our first observation, naturally, is that these movements continue to crop up over the course of time. Any given person will during his/her life necessarily have to do with more than one collective movement. When they arise, and thousands if not millions of people become involved, as well as all the economic and class interests of  society, together with all their possible ideological mutations, the difficulty of studying such elementary mechanisms becomes extreme.

One way of dealing with this difficulty is to look at a smaller—or better, the smallest—collective movement first. The falling-in-love process is an experience that we all go through; each one of us is capable of giving a reliable eye-witness account of what it is like. It is owing to this factor that the study of the falling-in-love process may viewed as the key opening the door to an understanding of ungraspable phenomena that are far more complex that the experience of a single individual. Let’s leave it to the sociologists, philosophers, and historians of our time to ruminate on the larger latent issues relating to this last point, and proceed with our practical comparison. Let’s explore first, from the inside, the special type of collective phenomenon that is the falling-in-love experience and identify at least one of its distinctive characteristics. Doing this means rejecting the common tendency to view the falling-in-love process as a part of ordinary life and sex. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

To break through this misleading mindset, let’s start with the last thing mentioned—sex. There is ordinary sexuality and then there is extra-ordinary sexuality; the difference is significant and great…

The falling-in-love process—like all collective movements—can be classified as one of the extraordinary happenings in life.

Excerpt taken from Falling in Love and Loving, Francesco Alberoni,
Italian ed., Innamoramento e amore, Garzanti, Milano.

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