The idea of “love at first sight” originates in Greek and Roman literature. Images of love arrows from the God’s Eros and Cupid causing someone to fall in love with someone upon meeting them for the first time have survived over the centuries. The Greeks used the expression theia mania, meaning madness from the Gods.
It seems that the expression “love at first sight” makes its first appearance in 1598 in English literature with Christopher Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander.” Marlowe, a friend and rival of Shakespeare, is concerned in one section of the poem with how Fate influences our life choices.
It lies not in our power to love, or hate,
For will in us is over-rulde by fate.
When two are stript long ere the course begin,
We wish that one should lose, the other win.
And one especially doo we affect,
Of two gold Ingots like in each respect,
The reason no man knowes, let it suffise,
What we behold is censur’d by our eyes.
Where both deliberat, the love is slight,
Who ever lov’d, that lov’d not at first sight?
Although you have certainly heard tales of people who had an instantaneous attraction to someone, most people dismiss such things as not being true “Love.” In modern times, you might even hear someone say about a house or a car that it was love at first sight.
When I saw the film Citizen Kane at age 16, I had already experienced not only love at first sight but also what I call love at first glance. I identified immediately with a scene in the film in which old Mr. Bernstein tells a story. Here’s the dialogue (clip at the bottom)
“A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it, there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”
That kind of phenomena is what I call love at first glimpse because the sighting is probably one-sided, brief, and with no possibility of any further interaction. It is a phenomenon because it is a situation that though it happened, its cause or explanation is in question.
I can think of many examples in my life. It is the woman I see pass my sidewalk cafe table and continue down the street. The waitress who I saw and immediately was attracted to and see occasionally and who seems flirtatious beyond trying to get a good tip is not love at first glance (though she might be at first sight).
In Milan Kundera’s novel (also a good film) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes about how love heightens all of our senses and how the novel’s protagonist, Tomáš, finds himself in love with someone he barely knows.
He had come to feel an inexplicable love for this all but complete stranger… But was it love?… Was it simply the hysteria of a man who, aware deep down of his inaptitude for love, felt the self-deluding need to simulate it?… Looking out over the courtyard at the dirty walls, he realized he had no idea whether it was hysteria or love.
When I first confessed to my mother at age 13 that I was in love with a girl from my class who I had never even spoken to, she dismissed it as “puppy love.” She said you can’t fall in love just by seeing someone.
My mother was not a believer in love at first sight or first glance. Hero and Leander’s love story didn’t have a happy ending. But Tomáš’s object of love does become his wife.
Science and love don’t usually mix very well, but decades of research have led psychologists to suggest that the notion of love at first sight is a myth. True love, as my unscientific mother told me, takes some time to develop. One study described love at first sight as a “positive illusion.”
Love at first sight suggests a possibility – a possibility that that might not really be possible. Love at first glance offers no possibility – and therefore no chance of failure. I’m with Mr. Bernstein.