''Psychologists start to take the measure of love.'' This is the sort of headline that can drive a hermit straight back into his cave, scattering his New York Times behind him - especially if he has read far enough into the first paragraph to find love placed in the grim company of ''aggression'' and ''depression'' as ''objects of intense research.''
Love certainly is a serious, if not gloomy, business where the psychologists are concerned, and if you don't believe it, study the next news photograph of Masters and Johnson - ''American Gothic'' in white smocks.
Why is it that the people who are determined to deliver us from our puritanism look more puritanical than Cotton Mather? Hugh Hefner, for another example.
Love - a subject for celebration once approached with poems and songs and dances - is now approached as a problem, an ''object of intense research'' to ''take the measure of,'' to analyze, to talk (and talk) about.
It's just not that easy, it seems, to build a Maypole and cavort. You have to work at it. You have to take courses in it, based on the latest confident - but constantly changing - findings of those psychologists.
We perpetual students in the compulsory adult-education program on love are condemned to ask ourselves a lot of lonely questions after class is over. Whatever became of the blithe grasshoppers we intended to be? Have we simply exchanged the role of work-driven ants for the role of pleasure-driven ants? Now that we're allegedly uninhibited, why do we still feel the same guilt we felt when we were allegedly inhibited? With our own ''American Gothic'' faces dutifully determined to be passionate, are we in danger of being enslaved rather than liberated by the now-ancient sexual revolution?
The personal freedom that this revolution promised has not only tied us into another kind of knot but left us with a tangled legacy of new social dilemmas. We, the fun-lovers that D. H. Lawrence dreamed of, worry instead about rape and abortion - all the consequences the prophets forgot to mention when they were liberating us.
At this point, other headlines assault us.
A most sober symposium, conducted by Harper's magazine, has just considered, for instance, the topic of pornography. If one takes quotations out of context, a classic monologue of post-sexual-revolution cliches emerges: ''No one wants to be considered sexually illiberal or repressed'' . . . ''We can't legislate attitudes'' . . . ''I would never say, 'Smash the (pornographer's) presses!!' . . . But . . . .''
Ah, that humiliating ''but''! It's everywhere.
Still, we can't seem to let go of the dream. More earnestly, more naively than any other culture in history, we have placed a bet that our version of love is ''the test of freedom'' and ''the gateway to further discoveries in literature'' (and life), to borrow the words of a skeptical observer, the historian Jacques Barzun. So on with the backward revolution!
But what is this thing we call love? What are we so obsessively talking about? What are we so tirelessly, and often absurdly, trying to ''take the measure of''? Is it love or is it the name for a fuzzy idea in our heads, strangely combining a belief in hormones, valentines, and unfettered individualism?
The Greeks had two words for love. Eros - not just restricted to romantic love - expressed the richest sense of human love aspiring to its legitimate and deserved satisfactions. Agape went further. It took love beyond the calculation of who-gets-what-from-whom. Agape, to give an imperfect example, is the love of a parent for a child - the love that does not reckon upon a return, the love that comes closest to pure selflessness.
Here is a love that absorbs the lover, as a song absorbs the singer.
Until we analytical moderns regain a sense of this love that we cannot ''take the measure of'' - this love that passeth every kind of understanding except its own - we may be talking about a lot of things. But will we be talking about love?