Limerence and the Novel

I’ve recently been working with a Finnish writer, Tua Laine, whose novel Resurrecting Jack is soon to be published in English. Ms Laine introduced me to the concept of ‘limerence’, which she insists lies at the heart of her novel about a diplomat’s suspicious death and his widow’s attempts to uncover, or perhaps invent, the truth. A quick google search confirmed that limerence is one of those buzzwords that erupt from time to time into the public consciousness and spawn endless websites.

The term was originally coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in 1979 and has been defined as ‘an involuntary, potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (LO) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation’. It’s sometimes referred to as a third state between love and lust, or as the condition of being in love with the idea of love rather than with a person. One of its key elements is the unattainability of the LO through obstacles or barriers of one kind or another, such as physical distance or the fact that the LO is already attached. Those who dislike the term – and whose point of view I found myself agreeing with – maintain that limerence is little more than what we used to call ‘unrequited love’ or ‘infatuation’.

The iconic limerent text is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, in which a young man falls hopelessly in love with his best friend’s fiancée. At this point I started paying attention because, halfway through my novel The Year of Living Philosophically, hapless diarist Dave realises his life is repeating the plot of Young Werther, except that instead of falling in love with his best friend’s fiancée he’s fallen in love with the fiancée of his worst enemy. In fact the entire novel was conceived as in part a comic retelling of Young Werther, played for laughs rather than tears (and, in the case of Young Werther, a spate of copycat suicides).

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that my novel was a paradigmatic limerent novel. Poor Dave is wedded to the idea of being in love with his LO Sophie, but she’s completely the wrong person for him, they have nothing in common and she’s already attached. And then it occurred to me that my first novel, The Empire of Lights, was also a limerent novel: the protagonist of that book is in love with a fantasy woman he only ever meets, except for a single casual encounter, in his lucid dreams. And I began to think that maybe limerence had been the subject or central theme of my writing all along, it was just that I didn’t know it.

Then my thoughts turned to other limerent novels. What were the canonical limerent works, the seminal works? Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage perhaps, about a young man’s obsessive, masochistic love for a woman who has no affection for him. Or The Great Gatsby? After all, Gatsby’s heroic fantasy of stealing Daisy Buchanan from her husband by transforming himself from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby could hardly be more limerent.

But something was niggling me. If it was so easy to see limerence everywhere, might that not mean that it wasn’t actually something new, just something old wearing new clothes? And so I ended up back at my original point of view, which was that limerence is no more than a fancy, erudite-sounding way of talking about unrequited love or infatuation. Despite all that, if I was back doing the job I used to do, as a dictionary editor, I would certainly be adding ‘limerence’ and ‘limerent’ as new words to the next edition.

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