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This is a brief reflection on the arrow of time in the context of love. In science, the arrow refers to processes which can’t be reversed, and all of the ways in which the universe is moving towards an actual future that absolutely negates formerly possible futures. In love, this may be interpreted as a continuous stream of life-defining moments which never come again.

The unrecoverability of unique moments will be conveyed through selections of love letters. These will be contrasted with “time loop” stories which function as the unidirectional arrow’s counterfactual mythos.

Love: The Arrow

One of the most frequently recurring themes I’ve found in famous love letters is reverence for irreplaceable moments and a companionate mourning for lost time. These selections convey the perspective of those who had a chance at love and lost it; who had a soulmate ripped from their arms; whose love passed on too soon; or who were keenly aware that they had found a uniquely nourishing connection, only to have life’s obstacles keep them apart. The arrow of time is ruthless, and does not give second chances to these lovers.

Marcus Aurelius to Fronto

Marcus Aurelius is widely considered one of the most philosophically-gifted leaders of all time. His Meditations are still read and valued today, nearly 2000 years later. These letters to Marcus's beloved teacher, Fronto, convey not just his impressive education, but a timeless experience of how time itself haunts the minds of lovers.

139 CE“Hi, my very best teacher,If you get some sleep after the all-nighters you’ve been moaning about, please write and tell me; and please, first of all, take care of your health…Good-bye, breath of my life. Should I not burn with love of you when you’ve written this to me? What should I do? I can’t stop.

139 CE“Hi, my very best teacher,Go ahead, as much as you like, threaten me, accuse me, with whole clumps of arguments, but you will never put off your Suitor—I mean me. Nor will I proclaim it any less that I love Fronto, or will I be less in love, because you’ve proven, and with such strange and strong and elegant expressions, that those who love less should be helped out and lavished with more. God, no, I am dying so for love of you, and I’m not scared off by this doctrine of yours, and if you’re going to be more ripe and ready for others who don’t love you, I will still love you as long as I live and breathe… Socrates didn’t burn more with desire for Phaedrus than I’ve burned during these days—did I say days? I mean months—for the sight of you…Good-bye, my biggest thing under heaven, my pride and joy. It’s enough for me to have had such a teacher.”

143 CE“Although I’m coming to you tomorrow, still I can’t bear to write nothing back, not even this tiny little bit, when your letters were so loving, so delightful, and so elegant, too, my own dearest Fronto. But what should I love first? Even the very fact that you wrote me such a long letter, when I was going to be there tomorrow—that was really by far what I liked most of all... To me this day seems longer than a day in spring and the night that’s coming will seem wider than a winter night. For not only do I want more than anything to say hello to my Fronto, I especially want to put my arms around the writer of these last letters…Good-bye, ever my sweetest soul.

Now, in retrospect, it is not just the beauty of the words which make these letters special. They also encapsulate a moment in the evolution of love which would otherwise be lost—because, as Amy Richlin writes, "There is no other extant collection of love letters from antiquity.” So, for us, the letters are a unique preservation of history. While, for the authors of the letters, they were tiny encapsulations of an all-important bond which transcended their status as student and teacher. Richlin continues: “Marcus and Fronto are playing a game, dangerous but familiar, and the letters are themselves a form of sex on paper."

Sir Walter Raleigh to Elizabeth Raleigh

Expecting to be executed the following morning, an imprisoned Walter Raleigh wrote the following letter to his wife.

1603“You shall now receive (my deare wife) my last words in these last lines. My love I send you that you may keep it when I am dead, and my councell that you may remember it when I am no more. I would not by my will present you with sorrowes (dear Besse) let them go to the grave with me and be buried in the dust. And seeing that it is not Gods will that I should see you any more in this life, beare it patiently… I cannot write much, God he knows how hardly I steale this time while others sleep… I can say no more, time and death call me away.Written with the dying hand of sometimes thy Husband, but now alasse overthrowne.Yours that was, but now not my own.”

Raleigh, in fact, remained locked in a tower for many more years before finally being executed. Elizabeth was sent his severed head, which she had embalmed.

“Once in the possession of Lady Ralegh, it remained in her keeping for the remainder of her life.”- T.N. Brushfield

Ernest Hemingway to Mary Welsh

Although he needs no introduction, not everyone will be familiar with Hemingway’s more personal writing—such as this particularly intense letter. The arrow of time seems to weigh heavily on his mind.

April 16th, 1945“Dearest Pickle: This is just a note so that you'll have some mail anyway tonight. I counted on some sure this morning but none came. Maybe will get some tonight. Guess it is too early for the boat letters so must just be patient... [The next day, Hemingway continues:] Stayed in last night instead of going out to dinner because thought there might be mail. But there wasn't. And then was sure sure there would be some this morning. There had to be. Today was the 17th and you got in on the 12th. But guess what? There wasn't any mail. So now I'm going out on the boat with Paxthe and Don Andres and Gregorio and stay out all day and then come in and will be sure there will be letters or a letter. And maybe there will be. If there aren't I'll be a sad s.o.a.b. But you know how you handle that of course? You last through until the next morning.I suppose I'd better figure on there being nothing until tomorrow night and then it won't be so bad tonight... Please write me Pickle…Much love dearest Mary and know I'm not impatient. I'm just desperate.”

Iris Murdoch to Philippa Foot

These two were both accomplished philosophers (Foot is best known for originating the Trolley Problem, and Murdoch was fond of making self-deprecating remarks about her philosophical status, but her ideas endure). And they maintained an intellectual, intimate, even spiritual, connection throughout their lives. At times, their relationship was more friendly, romantic, or sexual, but its constant features were admiration, adoration, and recognition of their special bond.

May, 1968“Thanks for that letter, I needed it… It's odd how awkward we are with each other after all these years. The emotion is very great and very deep and the name of it is certainly love. (In a way I am afraid of you, and your sense of this may make you nervous.)… I'll be in London Tuesday to Thursday this week, and if replying at once could you write to 59 Harcourt Terrace SW1o and, darling, write legibly on the envelope! I can't think how any of your letters reach their destinations.Yours, dear heart, with much love,I”

May, 1968“I very much want to write to you, and yet don't find it at all easy. An unusual situation for me. In fact unique... How can I express what I feel. You have for me something which is almost a taboo quality, though this isn't quite it. Numinous certainly. I don't understand it myself, and feel very at sea, though not unhappily so…Much love.”

June 16th, 1968“Sometimes I feel I have to invent a language to talk to you in, though my heart is very full of very definite things to say. You stir some very deep part of my soul.”

Autumn, 1968“Sometime (soon) I would like to have a photograph of you. Would you mind? The only one I have dates from 1940! Not that you have changed since then, except to become more spiritual-looking still.”

December, 1968“I have thought about you a great deal… You are of course, for me, the Sphinx: beautiful, enigmatic, alarming and wise. I believe the Sphinx knew every man's secret but did not always know that she knew. Hence your surprise at the kind of fear which you inspire. You can answer a question for me to which no one else knows the answer. But what is the question? I don't know—though sometimes I can see its shadowy shape.This nonsense is a love letter. I have just finished the first draft of my novel. I will write again and hope to see you before too long.YourI”

March 23rd, 1976“Dearest girl, I haven't heard from you for ages. You are however regularly present in my dreams, you will be glad to hear. In latest one, we were in somewhere like India, where the mountains (seen from a train at night) were made of pure gold. You asked me to dine with you at some grand place, and said that afterwards we would have a swim together in the warm midnight air in some delightful bay. I said I have no bathing costume, but you said, don't worry, no one will be there but us two. A very happy dream.”

Late in life, Iris was afflicted by Alzheimer’s. Philippa, faithfully, spent some final precious time by her side as Iris forgot herself. Peter J Conradi adds, “During Murdoch's declining years Foot still gave her lunch every week. The last time I visited Foot, in August, she spoke affectionately of what an ‘astonishing’ woman Murdoch was.”

Dora Carrington to Lytton Strachey

These letters from artist Dora Carrington to fellow artist Lytton Strachey represent a small taste of a years-long correspondence. No doubt, they were lovers, even if they defied some of the usual connotations of that word. Lytton was homosexual, and so their relationship was never about physical passion. Nonetheless, their bond seemed to reach the cores of their souls, and their letters conveyed an attachment and commitment of transcendent importance.

April 27th, 1925“Darling Lytton, It was good to hear your voice again last night… My only pleasure is thinking that very soon you will be here with us again. I love you so very much.Your Carrington”

August 29th, 1929

“Darling Lytton, I couldn’t post the letter I wrote to you yesterday till rather late, (and even then I had to give it to an unknown female at the horse show to post). So I don’t know if you ever got it… It will be lovely to see you again on Friday, if only for a little…My very fondest loveYour devoted MOPSA xxxx”

August 11th, 1930“I loved your letter more than I can say. You were a dear to write so quickly.”

November 15th, 1931“Darling, I am coming up on Tuesday with Ralph so will see you then and hear all your news. I do hope you are better, and enjoyed Brighton very much...All my love.

I first encountered these two lovers in an essay by Martha Nussbaum, in which she writes from the perspective of a fictional woman who has also just encountered a book of Carrington’s writing. The character encounters mournful diary entries written by Carrington after Lytton’s early death at age 51.

February 11th, 1932“No one will ever know the special perfectness of Lytton… And now there is nobody, darling Lytton, to make jokes with about Tiber and the horse of the ocean, no one to read me Pope in the evenings, no one to walk on the terrace. No one to write letters to, oh my very darling Lytton… Substitutes for Lytton cannot be the same… One cannot live on memories when the point of one's whole life was the interchange of love, ideas, and conversation.”

February 12th, 1932“What can I do. For no future interests me… Oh Lytton darling, you are dead. The impossible terrible thing has happened. And all is utterly cold and grey on his earth now. All our plans for this year are laid in dust… Oh darling did you know how I adored you… I pretended so often I didn't mind staying alone. When I was utterly miserable as the train went out and your face vanished. You were the kindest dearest man who ever lived on this earth. No one can ever be your equal for wit and gaiety. And you transported me by your magical conversations and teaching into a world which no one could have dreamt of; it was so fantastically happy and amusing. What does anything mean to me now without you. I see my paints and think it is no use, for Lytton will never see my pictures now, and I cry.”

February 16th, 1932“I feel as if I was in a dream almost unconscious, so much of me was in you.”

Nussbaum adds to our reflection of love as arrow-like through her fictional character’s empathetic reading of Carrington.

“She felt that she had written this entry, so directly did it express her own mourning… She knew, and all too well, that what she loved and did not have was, as this woman said, a special perfectness, an exact, nonrepeatable thing that could not be found again… Well, what was this individuality? In what did it consist, according to Carrington?… [Her] friends do not seem to grasp the fact that unique, nonrepeatable properties are essential to love. They talk of others who could be substitutes. This implies that they believe that there are certain general features of Lytton that could be instantiated in someone else—perhaps in someone with similar values and character. But Carrington knows that, in the sense that counts for loving, there is not such another character as Lytton… Even if there might have been in the first place more than one person who could have aroused the same dimension of love in Carrington (a fact that in her own case she very much doubted), such another person could not possibly step in as a substitute now. For now the relationship had been enriched by years of intimacy, of conversation, of letters written and received. One could say that the love is in large measure constituted out of this history, out of the habit, for example, of telling every experience and of finding a fresh joy from each experience in the telling. Their relational rightness may have been in part a matter of initial fit, but history and its intimacy is a large part of what constitutes it as this deep, this irreplaceable.”- Martha Nussbaum

Carrington committed suicide in the month following the diary entries above. The following quote from Sir Henry Wotton was rewritten in her journal:

“He first deceased; she for a little triedTo live without him, liked it not, and died.”

Ludwig van Beethoven to an unknown “immortal beloved”

In this letter, written over several days, we get to know a different side of the iconic composer. I find his writing rather musical, itself, as if melodies always flowed unstoppably from his fingertips: “for you—for you—you—my life,” he writes. The playful repetition feels like a transposition of musical notes into written words. The letters are filled with beauty and, of course, deeply urgent awareness of time.

July 5th, 1812“My angel, my all, my very self.—Only a few words today, and, what is more, written in pencil (and with your pencil)… Can our love endure without sacrifices, without our demanding everything from one another; can you alter the fact that you are not wholly mine, that I am not wholly yours?… Love demands all, and rightly so, and thus it is for me with you, for you with me… My heart overflows with a longing to tell you so many things—Oh—there are moments when I find that speech is quite inadequate.”

July 6th, 1812“What a life!!!! as it is now!!!! without you… However much you love me—my love for you is even greater—but never conceal yourself from me—good night.—Dear God—so near! so far! Is not our love truly founded in Heaven—and, what is more, as strongly cemented as the firmament of heaven?”

How many exclamation points does one have to use before it qualifies as extreme love?

July 7th, 1812“Even when I am in bed my thoughts rush to you, my immortal beloved, now and then joyfully, then again sadly, waiting to know whether Fate will hear our prayer—To face life I must live altogether with you or never see you. Yes, I am resolved to be a wanderer abroad until I can fly to your arms and say that I have found my true home with you and enfolded in your arms let my soul be wafted to the realm of blessed spirits—alas, unfortunately it must be so—You will become composed, the more so as you know that I am faithful to you; no other woman can ever possess my heart—never—never—Oh God, why must one be separated from her who is so dear. Yet my life in V[ienna] at present is a miserable life—Your love has made me both the happiest and unhappiest of mortals—At my age I now need stability and regularity in my life—can this coexist with our relationship?—Angel, I have just heard that the post goes every day—and therefore I must close, so that you may receive the letter immediately—Be calm; for only by calmly considering our lives can we achieve our purpose to live together—be calm—love me—Today—yesterday—what tearful longing for you—for you—you—my life—my all—all good wishes to you—Oh, do continue to love me—never misjudge your lover's most faithful heart.ever yoursever mineever ours”

The letter, disappointingly, was never sent. It was found posthumously among Beethoven’s possessions.

Love: The Loop

In time loop stories, there is an appeal to lovers such as the ones who wrote the above letters. These films provide a valuable “what if” which, though ultimately impossible, reminds us to cherish love at every moment. It is only in these counterfactual worlds that we get more than one chance at love. These stories, like the letters above (but from the opposite perspective), spotlight time’s scarcity as an essential part of love. If one experiences a repeating loop of time, rather than a single arrow of time, then there are infinite opportunities to get things just right. These loopy stories, as juxtapositions for the actual arrow of time, are potentially just as valuable as the letters quoted earlier: From one side or the other, they remind us to revere every passing moment in which we are challenged to love more perfectly.

Groundhog Day

Let’s start here, since it popularized the time loop concept for modern audiences. Phil, the temporarily immortal weatherman, has many chances at a romance with Rita. But, with nothing but time on his hands, he takes quite a few detours. We experience love as an arrow, and it is antimoral to waste time which could be spent in active devotion. But for Phil, who experiences love as a loop, is there really such a thing as wasting time? He can do everything, and still have time for everything else.

Palm Springs

I like this reimagined Groundhog Day—I wrote about it once before. What stands out in Palm Springs is that the two leads are stuck in the time loop together. Infinite romance! Take that, arrow of time! At first, they have a great time together—using their situation to give each other silly tattoos and learn choreographed dances. But the film as a whole calls into question whether their love can fully flourish if tomorrow never truly arrives.

LMFAO’s Non-Stop Party

More partying isn’t always better.

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things

Originally a book by Lev Grossman, this film also traps its two romantic leads in the same daily loop. However, the movie is also typical of a subgenre in the space of time loop media: In these cases, the loop typically surrounds someone’s death or another equally tragic event. While it could be viewed as an opportunity to perfect love, the key analogy being made is more closely related to a confrontation—or repression— of trauma. (Watch The Final Girls for more of this kind of loop.) The main character here, Margaret, is stuck in a trauma-based, circular and never-ending day. She could be said to have “manifested” this time loop as a response to the arrow of time which was forcefully acting upon her real life. So the theme steers away from romantic love, but stays within a broader sphere of familial and platonic love—and their all-important time-element which these stories remind us of from their counterfactual perspective.


A teenager, Rob, wakes up on in a repeating day which resets whenever he… You know. His time loops are an opportunity to undo his mistakes until he finally has a flawless adolescent experience—something which clearly belongs in the land of counterfactuals.

Edge of Tomorrow

Yes, the movie where Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt wear mech suits and fight aliens. It’s also a romcom in which the time loop is not only an opportunity for the two main characters to save the world from an alien invasion, but also to save each other’s lives. Some delightful person made this music video which highlights their strange courtship.


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