‘Love’: Final exam

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I’m thrilled to have you in the course “Love.” My intention as teacher is to make you think, to push you to unforeseen boundaries. To achieve this, I will do a single—rather ambitious—thing throughout the entire semester: define the word in our title.

What do we mean when we say I love you? Is there a debt we incur? Is this a solely human emotion? Has it changed over time? That is, did the Greeks understand love the same way we do today? Together we’ll look at an assortment of material across disciplines: a series of poems by Catullus, American children’s books such as Where the Wild Things Are, the movie Princess Mononoke, Spinoza’s Ethics, a segment of Dante’s Divine Comedy, online dating, a discussion of pornography by Susan Sontag, and so on. We’ll improvise quite a bit along the way; otherwise my own understanding of love would be undermined.

It is untraditional to hand out the final exam at the beginning, I know. What follows is a series of 20 questions. Use them as your GPS. You’ll be expected to answer any of them in front of the entire class—without the use of a support device—in no more than five minutes. That seems daunting now, since you don’t know what I’m talking about yet. Hopefully you’ll be on steadier ground in several months.

1. Is it appropriate to use the same word, love, to refer to self-love, romantic love, love of family, love of community, love of nature, love of country, love of the divine, and love of knowledge? Might we be kidding ourselves?

2. What kind of love does Abraham exercise in Genesis 22:5-8, the sacrifice of Isaac? Should all parents be ready to kill their children for a higher form of love?

3. Explain the concept of “soul mate” in Plato’s Symposium. Do you believe each of us truly has a soul mate?

4. Using the definitions of love in the Oxford English Dictionary (English), a Larousse dictionary (French), and Diccionario de la Lengua Española (you can replace the last two with dictionaries in other standardized languages, such as Russian, German, Portuguese, Italian, Hebrew, or Latin), explain how the word love is understood across cultures. Do we all understand the same thing?

5. Why has it been argued that Petrarch invented “romantic love”? Do you agree? Or is it each of us who invents it every time we fall in love?

6. I’ve heard it said that immigrants to the United States see love differently than their children do. Do you buy this idea?

7. Is Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” narcissistic? Are you?

8. Explain this line from Romeo and Juliet: “Don’t waste your love on somebody, who doesn’t value it.” Is it true that love always wants to be reciprocated?

9. What do you make of this quotation from The Hunger Games: “Destroying things is much easier than making them”? Is love constructive and destructive at the same time? If so, why do we engage in it, since it often goes against self-preservation?

10. In what sense is the love explored in the Hebrew Bible different from the love presented in the New Testament? Use Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5:7) as your case study.

11. Is the love of Huck for Jim in Huckleberry Finn the same as the one of Jim for Huck? If love means freedom, can one love in bondage?

12. What is the difference between love and sex? That question might sound easy, but each time I teach the course, I’m surprised by the answers.

13. Reflect on the idea of “love of country” in Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.” Why would one defend one’s country while not loving it?

14. Is Pedro Almodóvar the king of melodrama?

15. Explain the concept of “love beyond death” in Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” How can one love what one no longer has?

16. Use one of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s sonnets to digress on lesbian love. Is love across genders different from love within genders?

17. What kind of lover of nature isolates himself from society, as Henry Thoreau did? Is society not nature?

18. Is it implied that the child in de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief will grow up with a strong set of moral values? Will he know how to love his own child?

19. Is sacrifice intrinsic to patriotism? Are all patriots alike? Would you be ready to sacrifice yourself for your country? I would not.

20. Was the course worth your money? How about your love?

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