Saints & Spells

The addictive chemistry of love: a how-to kit for mad weasels


Love is the exploding cigar we willingly smoke.

—Lynda Barry 

Legend has it that St. Benedict (480&–547 A.D.) was one horny fellow. Sources attest to this, citing young Benedict’s three years of perpetual arousal while still a struggling hermit. Deliciously lewd fantasies, it’s said, surged through Benedict’s pre-saintly loins, while electrifying, intoxicating and lubricious passions lay waste to his pre-holy soul.

Birthed of a single furtive glance at some now-forgotten lovely, these tribulations constituted unending rounds in Benedict’s lifelong wrestling match with provocations of the flesh. Persistent visions of the woman continued to fire up his equipment, even in the sparse, cool depths of his hermetic digs. Just as he set to uttering a Dark Ages version of “Fuck it,” thereby condemning himself to frolicking his life away in ecstatic, orgasmic and joyfully unfettered sin, God Himself (or so says the saint’s chronicler, Pope Gregory the Great), came to Benedict’s rescue by fashioning for him the wilderness equivalent of a cold shower.

Gregory writes that Benedict purged himself through a “wallow” in thick briers, staying “so long that, when he rose up, all his flesh was pitifully torn: and so by the wounds of his body, he cured the wounds of his soul.”

According to social critic and Simpsons creator Matt Groening, love has nothing to do with other people but lots to do with pain. “Love,” Groening says, “is a snowmobile racing across the tundra and then suddenly it flips over, pinning you underneath. At night, the ice weasels come.”

To burrow deep inside this, we turn to modern science and biological chemistry. Most everyone knows the yoni-yin of estrogen, testosterone’s wang-yang, and what each means to our sexual identities. Perhaps you’re acquainted with dopamine and its role as the so-called pleasure chemical, which, upon release, sails us gently amidst clouds of sensual bliss.

Add to these the stress hormone cum neurotransmitter norepinephrine. Norepinephrine exhibits adrenal similarities to cocaine. But it’s legal, and it’s free.

Now ponder the hyperhorny alkaloid phenylethylamine, one crazed-monkey substance if ever one existed. Phenylethylamine produces such an unreflective “let’s ball whoever you are” methlike euphoria that it’s labeled “the love drug.” In fact, some studies suggest that the drug Ecstasy, which is also called “the love drug,” obliges the dosed body to produce massive quantities of phenylethylamine. Fall in love this very moment, and your body mainlines you a maxi-load of phenylethylamine.

It’s the stuff of love legend, producing the rarified state actor John Barrymore addressed when noting that “love is the delightful interval between meeting a beautiful girl and discovering she looks like a haddock.” Phenylethylamine is so addictive that some race from one lover to the next just to keep their high going. The reason, of course, is that the chemical’s effects inevitably attenuate. Those of a more monogamistic disposition mostly just grin and bear the emotional letdown. But others suffer severe postpartum depression with phenylethylamine’s waning.

Could it be that Benedict dived into his briar patch while sky-high on phenylethylamine? Like the dendrophiliac, who gets his jollies by engaging orgiastically with trees, perhaps Benedict’s phenylethylamine rush bulldozed him into some roughly equivalent state, though he engaged briars and nettles instead, sparing the poor defenseless hickory its innocence.

Just as phenylethylamine jolts our body-beast into dopamine production, likewise dopamine stimulates the creation of oxytocin. Oxytocin can and does cause sexual arousal, but it’s a safe bet that this “cuddle” hormone wasn’t Benedict’s challenge, nor his cup of tea. His was likely a more highly charged, urgent, and perhaps pathological state, more akin to classic priapism.

Some will, no doubt, suggest human sex pheromones lie at the root of Benedict’s crisis of faith. Indeed, his meals were likely wrapped in cloth before being lowered into his cave. Said cloth was oft touched and perhaps worn too as a garment. Contact with bodily excretions that enhanced and stiffened it over decades when to bathe or wash clothes was verboten might indeed have driven an otherwise saintly Benedict stark raving horny. Problem is, there’s not much peer-reviewed material to back up this suggestion.

Which brings our chemistry quest to endorphins, nature’s way of saying “morphine.” Could be, had Benedict engaged a challenging regimen of exercise, his condition might be chalked up to the release of endorphins into his system. First problem with this scenario, though, is that the endorphin rush is one of opiated contentment and a sense of well-being, not the anxious, turgid need to screw. Besides, Benedict was still living in his cave and eating very little. It’s doubtful he had much energy or inclination for the extended aerobic output endorphin release requires.

But regardless his impulses, or the whys and hows that led to such behaviors, St. Benedict’s tribulations illustrate what’s been true since humankind first attempted to make sense of love and the libido—that no matter our enormous body of speculative, hearsay and scientific evidence, when it comes to these sweet things, we don’t know squat from Sasquatch.

Extract the chaff from human existence and what’s left are three simple essentials: eat, sleep, procreate. The eat and sleep stuff’s easy, but we’ve yet to get a handle on our procreate thing. Some religionists insist it’s our sacrosanct imperative to exclusively engage in coitus as though the process were merely some planned-obsolescent assembly plant meant to crank out cherub flesh. You know, do your duty, shut down the operation, and then keep the equipment quietly zipped up in your pants. Forever. If so, then why did this God design us so as to make intimate explorations of the flesh so continually desirable, stimulating and fulfilling long after our gardens have gone fallow?

When it comes to sexual genetics, do physiological responses to body chemical shifts determine where libido takes us, or does plain wanton desire need to be cultivated in order to access pure unrestricted pleasures our species is so handsomely designed to offer? Clearly, we clueless barbarians, eager but stupid, don’t yet really know .

It may be that old-time religion, the kind Benedict helped to create, and today’s scientific notions of love and the libido reflect upon one another, squeezing us into a deeper understandings of the nature and power of solo, mutual, hetero, gay, omni and still-to-be-conceived sexual conundrums.

Perhaps the poet Dorothy Parker best expressed our human love condition in appropriate poesy rhyme:
“Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.”