Forget the self-help homilies, the sweet old-fashioned songs, the romance novels. Love is seldom simple. Love is confusing. It always has been...

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“Love’s Confusions”
by C.D.C. Reeve
Harvard University Press,
224 pp., $23.95

Forget the self-help homilies, the sweet old-fashioned songs, the romance novels. Love is seldom simple. Love is confusing. It always has been, and always will be. Love is complex and contradictory, because life is. Live with it.

That’s the message of C.D.C. Reeve, a University of North Carolina philosophy professor. In “Love’s Confusions,” he’s gathered dozens of sources throughout history, to show just how confounding human desire can be.

In keeping with this premise, Reeve’s book doesn’t offer a clear story line or a single coherent set of ideas. Instead, he threads together a lot of thoughts about assorted aspects of human desire, by authors ranging from Homer and the Old Testament prophets, to Freud and Kierkegaard, to modern-day psychologist Carol Gilligan.

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In between, he recounts some of the ways fiction writers (Proust, Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence, Milan Kundera, Iris Murdoch and more) have turned conflicted longings into great stories. He even unveils a violent Mickey Spillane scene during an aside about sadomasochism.

Among the conflict points Reeve cites: We’re supposed to love family members (or the Christian God) voluntarily but can face violent recriminations if we don’t. We desire some potential lovers for pleasure but find others to be more useful life partners. The personal qualities that lead to success in business (or in war) don’t always work in intimate relationships.

Reeve gently points out the contradictions of the authors he quotes, with one another and within their own positions. He coyly flirts with their stances, only to jilt them for the next intriguing possibility.

“Love’s Confusions” takes the reader on a meandering journey with no clear goal but with a lot of learning and discovery along the way. It teases, it entices, it turns your head inside out, and it’s a hell of a ride. In that regard, it’s a lot like love itself.