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Can Fantasizing About Love Ever Be Enough?

Life—including love—needs to be lived, as messy and risky as it is.

Source: Ollyy/Shutterstock

In the pantheon of classic Hollywood, there have been many great screen couples, including Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, and William Powell and Myrna Loy. As brilliant as these pairings were, the steamiest by far was Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, who starred in eight pictures together over the decade from 1931 to 1940. They also carried on a not-so-secret love affair behind the scenes while both were married, which was so feared by their studio that MGM would send them on separate press junkets, sometimes with their spouses, for the same movie.

In her autobiography, Crawford wrote about filming with Gable:

Occasionally we'd break away early, go for a quiet ride along the sea. And all day long we'd seek each other's eyes. It was glorious and hopeless. There seemed nothing we would do about it. There was no chance for us. ... We talked of marriage, of course. But I dared not ruin the dream. I'd rather live with them unfulfilled than have them broken. (p. 91)

The last line above really struck me, saying that she preferred to relish the fantasy rather than have it crash to earth in failure. (Of course, she didn't just dream: they did indulge in an affair, only stopping short of divorcing their spouses and marrying each other.)

It also brings to mind the 2014 film Une recontre (Quantum Love), starring Sophie Marceau and François Cluzet, in which the lead characters toy with the idea of an affair. One of the taglines for the film is “For the story not to end, it must never begin…,” suggesting that one might take a greater delight in imagining a love together, a dream that can last forever, than indulging in it, only to see it end. Crawford would understand!

And she’s not the only one. I’ve often thought the same way, choosing to let a crush go unrevealed, remaining a constant possibility albeit perpetually out of reach, rather than acting on it and seeing it destroyed (which I naturally assume it would). In my case, though, I don’t even let myself think about the dream, lest it become too tempting as an actual possibility, so I deny myself the chance of the real thing and the fantasy that might make up for it. (But maybe that’s just me.)

Perhaps we can cling too much to the dream, though. As Nietzsche wrote in Beyond Good and Evil, “One loves ultimately one's desires, not the thing desired,” which explains why we are often dissatisfied once we get what we want (or what we only thought we wanted). But I think this misses the point in the case of romance we choose not to pursue. The problem here is the risk we avoid by restricting ourselves to imagination: In our dreams, everything can be perfect, while reality is inevitably messy. Why risk failure when the fantasy will never disappoint?

Here’s why—because fantasy is ultimately more disappointing on a much deeper level. We don’t want to merely imagine things; we need to experience them, to live them, to do them. This is the lesson of Robert Nozick’s famous “experience machine” thought experiment in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience that you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life's experiences? (p. 42)

Most people’s intuitions are no: As magnificent as these artificial experiences may be, there is something intrinsically valuable in doing them, in being the person that does them, and—most important for our current topic—in interacting with other people in the process. We can imagine talking and being with another person, but in the end this is one-sided. Like the main character in the 2012 movie Ruby Sparks (about which I wrote here), who created his “dream woman” in real life by writing about her, in our dreams we are writing both sides of the conversation, and there can never be any surprise, enchantment, or true love. It's safe, predictable... and boring.

This shows that in love, as in life, risk is a feature rather than a flaw. To love is to risk, and you might get hurt. But if you never take that risk, if you never venture outside the realm of fantasy and take a chance with the person you like, you’ll never have the opportunity of the actual experiences, good and bad, that in their richness far surpass the ephemerality of even the sweetest dreams. As I’ve written before, that is the wisdom in the saying “it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Even if the good and bad cancel each other out, the experience itself has a value that a mere fantasy never could.

UPDATE: See my follow-up post, "What If the Fantasy of Love Is All That You Can Have?"