“If we go through our lives thinking that love needs to be a swept-off-your-feet kind of love, like Romeo and Juliet in the first springs of passion, that’s slightly delusional,” said Edison Miyawaki, assistant professor of neurology, who wrote “What to Read on Love, Not Sex,” a book about love, literature, and Freud.

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Arts & Culture

He wrote the book of love

4 min read

Literary neurologist examines the tough work that underlies tender relationships

Love is hard, and Edison Miyawaki knows it. He wrote the book on it.

The insomniac neurologist, who practices at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School, stayed awake many late nights pondering love and its complexities for his latest book, “What to Read on Love, Not Sex: Freud, Fiction, and the Articulation of Truth in Modern Psychological Science.”

Don’t be fooled by the winding title, or the presence of Sigmund Freud, says Miyawaki. This is a book for anyone “trying to find the right language to frame very complicated emotion.”

An English major while studying at Yale, Miyawaki, a Honolulu native, eventually migrated toward the sciences, but not without falling head over heels for literature. Literature “never leaves you,” said Miyawaki. “One might say it haunts you.”

It’s literature — not science — that informs his outlook on love, as with Freud. “The problem I have with Freud as a theory is that it doesn’t suffice to say that we harbor these incestuous wishes about our mother and father. I understand that’s part of the Freudian project, but it’s the 21st century and things are moving on,” said Miyawaki, who argues instead that Freud’s contemporary value lies in his deep reading of the canon.

“As fancy as we get in our science, there’s something about the language of imaginative writing that speaks, and resounds more clearly, and is true in a human way,” he said. “My indebtedness is to Freud as a thinker, not a person whose theories are going to apply in patients.”

But love is hard — even Freud said so — and Miyawaki says he’s spot-on about that.

“One of the big issues in the book is a concept of love as difficulty,” explained Miyawaki. “If we go through our lives thinking that love needs to be a swept-off-your-feet kind of love, like Romeo and Juliet in the first springs of passion, that’s slightly delusional. Love doesn’t always persist that way. And ask anybody what’s the secret in a marriage that’s lasted for a while, and the secret is the work involved in it.”

Beneficial insight into the pains and pleasures of love, and life, comes as a result of personal introspection, contends Miyawaki, which in turn arrives, in part, with well-roundedness in literature and the arts.

Freud believed love to be a recapitulation of one’s childhood, a memory that unfolds in how our relationships unfold. He was fascinated by Sophocles’ “Oedipus,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “King Lear,” and reveled in these works’ coupling of love with tragedy — tragedy, defined not by bad outcomes, “but tragedy in the Sophoclean sense — the idea that a person has some characteristic that plays itself out inexorably,” Miyawaki said.

“Why do we end up dating or marrying a rock singer, as opposed to a classical musician, as opposed to God knows what? There are reasons for that, and those reasons can be revealed, one hopes, through introspection.

“Understanding yourself is the task of love, because it’s incredibly hard, impossibly impossible, to truly understand another person. The nature of that impossibility isn’t couched in any kind of pessimism, it’s just one of the beauties of interaction. In love, we almost move from one misunderstanding to another, but at the end of the day, one of the great things about the emotion of love is that it’s OK. It’s OK to have mixed feelings.”

At the end of “What to Read on Love, Not Sex,” Miyawaki calls upon the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who said that “there is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another … it is work, day labor, day labor, God knows there is no other word for it.”

Miyawaki agrees. “Rilke’s not being pessimistic. He’s not being dour. He’s being realistic. It would make your love life and my love life easier if we didn’t entertain notions that love should be a certain way. Life should be a certain way, but it’s not. How do we deal with that difficulty? That’s the essence of the book. Love as difficulty, as memory, as a human innovation, that we learn by what we read most deeply, in a lifelong exercise.”