Love sick (part 2)

The following is Part 2 of a three-part series about romantic love from Frank Tallis’ book Love Sick. In this part Dr. Tallis uncovers the cultural roots of men’s tendency toward idealizing women and placing them on pedestals. – Eds.

Incurable Romantics

The romantic themes of idealisation and forbidden (or non-consummated) love were taken to new extremes in Renaissance Italy. Poets such as Dante and Petrarch placed their muses on absurdly elevated pedestals. Dante’s Beatrice, and Petrarch’s Laura, are portrayed as models of perfection and purity. Moreover, the fact that both women died prematurely and then reappear in poetic visions, emphasises their divinity. There is some debate concerning the identity of Petrarch’s Laura. She may have been Laure de Noves of Avignon (a married woman with children), or she may never have existed at all (being merely a poetic invention). Dante’s Beatrice, on the other hand, was definitely a real person.

The extreme idealisation of Beatrice and Laura is partly attributable to Marianism. During the thirteenth century, Mary became increasingly important as a mediator between human beings and God. It was to Mary that the majority prayed for divine intercession. She was more `human’, and therefore approachable, than all three personifications of the Holy Trinity. Moreover, her curious (and paradoxical) position as the mother of God gave her considerable authority. For some time, the river of romantic literature was swollen by the tributary of Marianism. Women were worshipped with religious fervour, and sexual desire was wholly sublimated.

The story of Dante and Beatrice is principally recorded in Dante’s The New Life (a hybrid of autobiography and literary treatise). They met for the first time as children, when the poet accompanied his father to the house of Folco Portinari (Beatrice’s father). Dante immediately fell in love with Beatrice and remained devoted to her (more or less) for the rest of his life. She was married to a banker from an early age, and so – in true courtly style – Dante was forced to admire her from a distance. He appropriated the Arthurian role of Lancelot, and championed his `mistress’, not with arms, but with poetry.

The Marian nature of Dante’s love for Beatrice did not exempt him from the commonplace symptoms of love sickness. He complained of all the usual problems: expansive moods and depression, lightheadedness, obsession, anorexia, sleeplessness, paleness, trepidation and anguish. And Beatrice occupied such an elevated position in his universe that even the slightest suspicion of her disapproval was crushing. When she failed to return his greeting, Dante became extremely distressed:

… I was overcome by such sorrow that I left my fellow men and went to a secluded place, where I could bathe the earth with my bitter tears. Then, when my weeping was almost exhausted, I took myself to my room, where I could lament without being overheard. There, while calling for mercy from the lady of courtesy, and crying `Love, help your servant!’, I fell asleep like a little child crying after it has been beaten.

If anything, the spiritual nature of Dante’s love for Beatrice seemed to exaggerate the usual psychopathological resonances. Even his moments of rapture were tainted with the uncomfortable, manic energy of a religious fanatic. His eyes shine, and we question his sanity; we are not very far away from shaking fists, prophecy and revelation.

Perhaps the most compelling example of this arose during a period of sickness, when it suddenly occurred to Dante that Beatrice was mortal and might one day die: ‘At this I was overcome by such delirium that I shut my eyes and started to thrash about like a fever patient.’ He then entered a world of lurid hallucination: ‘Then I saw the sun darken and the stars changed to such a colour that I thought they wept; birds dropped dead while flying through the air, and there were vast earthquakes.’ We are reminded of the darkness that fell on the earth at the time of the crucifixion. For Dante, a presentiment of separation was not painful – it was the apocalypse.

At the age of twenty-four Beatrice did die, and predictably Dante was thrown into deep despair – even though, by then, he too was married. While grieving, he became temporarily infatuated with another woman; however, these feelings were completely expunged when Beatrice appeared to him in a heavenly vision. Dante was reminded of Beatrice’s incomparable beauty and he subsequently committed himself to a life of continued adoration. He became, in effect, a votary.

Love is predicated on togetherness in a world where things must exist separately, and total separation – because of death – is an inevitable and unbearable truth that few lovers can keep from contemplating. In the history of romantic story telling, love and death are old companions. Great love stories are made all the more poignant by our certain knowledge that the couple are cavorting on the lip of an open grave.

In his scholarly treatise, Love in the Western World, the Swiss philosopher Denis de Rougemont wrote:

Romance only comes into existence when love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering.

To live up to the romantic ideal, love must be fated. It must be passionate, painful and ultimately doomed. It must culminate in death and, if we are lucky, transfiguration.

But why?

Although death appears in love stories prior to the middle ages, it does so in the service of tragedy. After the middle ages, however, death is almost wholly in the service of love. The outcome of a fated love story might still be tragic, but death’s function has changed. Essentially, it offers unlimited possibilities for idealisation.

The most extraordinary feature of Dante’s The New Life is the degree to which he idealises Beatrice. Until Dante, almost all love poetry – however heady – recognised that beauty fades. In the end, time must ruin even the loveliest of faces. Yet, when it comes to Beatrice, Dante simply refuses to concede any ground to time. Of course, Beatrice conveniently obliged him by dying young, and in the reliquary of Dante’s imagination, Beatrice’s incorruptible body parts were preserved like those of a medieval saint.

The romantic tradition has always demanded that the beloved be, in some sense, beyond reach. Yearning, without out satisfaction or release, was presumed to be ennobling. Because romantic love is never supposed to be consummated, it never weakens, and continues to dignify the lover. When the beloved dies, she exchanges an earthly marriage for a numinous marriage. In death, she becomes completely unattainable, and the yearning must then go on for ever.

Islamic mysticism, courtezia and Renaissance literature have all added registers of meaning to the word `romantic’; however, it has also been enriched by association with a more recent, but nevertheless highly important, cultural development – the rise of Romanticism.

Strictly speaking, Romanticism is only tenuously connected with `romantic love’. The Romantic movement began in Germany towards the end of the eighteenth century, and continued to be influential, by varying degrees, until the end of the nineteenth. It began as a reaction against the values and preoccupations of the Enlightenment. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment venerated reason, lived in cities, and were keen to instigate political change. Romantics, on the other hand were fascinated by emotions, revered nature, and were far more interested in personal psychology than social reform.

The concerns of the Romantic movement were much wider than those of the troubadours or the Court of Love at Poitiers. Even so, in matters of love, there are several continuities that link the idea of romance with Romanticism. Indeed, the work which launched the Romantic movement was a love story which preserves many courtly themes. This was Goethe’s 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Werther, an artistic young man, falls in love with the beautiful Lotte. Unfortunately, she is already engaged to Albert, a gentleman renowned for his honesty and good character. While waiting for Albert to announce the wedding day, Werther learns that Lotte and Albert have already been married. Werther tries to divert himself, and for a while wanders aimlessly, but his yearning for Lotte does not diminish and he feels compelled to return.

Werther is consumed with jealousy: ‘At times I cannot grasp that she can love another man, that she dare love another man, when I love her alone with such passion and devotion, and neither know nor have anything but her!’ He sinks into black despair: ‘Ah, have ever men before me been so miserable?’

While out walking on a wet, dreary day, he meets a madman ‘scrabbling about the rocks’ picking flowers for his ‘sweetheart’. The madman’s mother appears, and explains to Werther that her son has only recently been released from a madhouse, where he has been restrained in chains for a whole year. The following day, Werther discovers that the madman was previously a clerk employed by Lotte’s father. He, too, had fallen in love with Lotte, and the revelation of his love had cost him first his position and then his sanity.

The encounter with the madman is a presentiment of Werther’s own fate. He becomes progressively more disturbed, agitated and has hallucinatory dreams of making love to Lotte: ‘My senses are confused, for a full week I have been unable to think straight, my eyes are full of tears.’ His misery becomes intolerable – even to the solicitous Lotte – who perceptively suggests: ‘I fear, I very much fear that what makes the desire to possess me so attractive is its very impossibility.’

Werther cannot be reasoned with. He desires an eternal connection with Lotte, and he begins to see how this might be achieved. He leaves instructions for his body to be buried in clothes that are ‘sacred’ (because Lotte has touched them), and places a pink ribbon – a gift from Lotte – in his pocket. While experiencing a kind of spiritual reprieve from mental anguish (‘All around me is so silent, and my soul is calm’) Werther shoots himself, and dies.

A romantic love triangle, an idealised woman, an episode of wandering, and a young man who edges towards his doom. The old courtly themes are very much in evidence; however, it is Werther’s demise that seems to resonate most strongly with the mystical origins of romantic idealism. Ultimately, courtly love is about realising spiritual objectives: beauty is back-lit by a sun that sets in paradise.

The spiritual sub-text of Werther’s love for Lotte surfaces several times before his death. For example, at one point, he says of Lotte: ‘She is sacred to me. All my desires are stilled in her presence. I never know what I am about when I am with her; it is as if my soul were throbbing in every nerve.’ In another section, the possibility of a spiritual reunion is innocently raised by Lotte herself, when she discusses her religious convictions: ‘There will be a life for us after death, Werther! . . . but will we find each other again? And know each other? What do you suppose? What do you say?’

The Romantics had a highly developed sense of the numinous. They believed in a universal soul – a mysterious `fundament’ behind visible nature. Moreover, they believed that an understanding of this deeper truth might be achieved through communion with nature, or the experience of altered states of consciousness, such as powerful emotions, dreams or madness.

In this sense, Romanticism returns romantic love to its cultural source. It returns us to the desert, where Islamic sages sought truth in beauty. We are again in the company of Majnun, whose love is so intense, so powerful, it punctures the celestial dome and fenestrates heaven.

Romanticism is the closest thing we have to a religious faith in a predominantly secular society. This is probably because love is frequently associated with intense experiences of rapture and ecstasy. When love’s madness enters its manic phase, consciousness is raised. If love is consummated, sexual activity can intensify the experience even further – evoking what psychologists have called ‘oceanic feelings’.

Love’s rapture and transcendent states have much in common. Both achieve a sense of escape from the limitations of human identity by union with another being (either lover or God). The desired outcome is a kind of self-annihilation, in which personality, ordinarily overburdened with worldly concerns, is lost in a moment of pure, unadulterated bliss.

Almost all religions have a pseudo-erotic mystical tradition. Hindus practise sexual Tantra and Sufi poetry is fundamentally love poetry. Even Christianity has – to the considerable embarrassment of the Church itself – been unable to resist linking sex and spirituality. St Teresa of Avila, for example, evokes the female genitalia by describing a ‘wound of love’, and famously wrote about a vision in which she was penetrated by an angel carrying a golden spear with ‘a point of fire’. For St Teresa, spiritual enlightenment is a process that begins when the soul falls in love with God, and ends with ‘spiritual marriage’.

In Revelations of Divine Love, another medieval Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, described oddly pornographic visions of Jesus Christ’s bleeding body. The sensuous language she employs knowingly emphasises the carnal aspects of carnage. Thus, her ‘revelation’ is ‘horrifying and dreadful, sweet and lovely’. Moreover, when Jesus speaks, he speaks in the person of a lover: ‘It is I whom you love; it is I whom you delight in … it is I whom you long for, whom you desire.’

The division that exists between reason and emotion has created a curious predicament for Western humanity. We find it hard to believe in God, but at the same time, we still have the capacity to look at the natural world and feel something thing close to reverence and awe. Although we suspect that there is no God, we feel that there should be. We are still dissatisfied with the limitations of personal identity. This is evidenced by the continuing popularity of recreational drugs. In the absence of an alternative, many settle for a chemical Nirvana.

In the East, where spirituality is still very much a part of everyday life, less is expected of love between human beings. The spiritual instinct is satisfied by religious observances, meditation or scripture. In the West, however, where religion plays no real part in the lives of most people, we have replaced religion with love. We have become passionate pilgrims, seeking the transport and meanings of spiritual ecstasy in the religion of romance and the sacrament of sex.

Even if we have little knowledge of the cultural history of romance, we all – to a greater or lesser extent – subscribe to a broad set of ‘romantic’ expectations. The notion of romance has inveigled itself into every aspect of courtship, sex and love. We seek to create a ‘romantic atmosphere’ on a dinner date, we allow ourselves the indulgence of a ‘holiday romance’, or attempt to revive passion with a long-term partner by taking a ‘romantic weekend break’.

The cultural history of ‘romance’ and various meanings of the word ‘romantic’ make it extremely difficult to define ‘romantic love’. Academic psychology – usually quite pedantic about its terminology – has been unable to establish a consensus. Some psychologists use the term in accordance with its courtly origins, whereas others use it interchangeably with ‘passionate love’. As a culture, we seem to have settled on the latter usage, viewing ‘romantic love’ and ‘falling in love’ as much the same thing.

It has already been argued that the fundamental features of romantic love are evolutionary in origin. Thus, courtship gives women time to evaluate the fitness of suitors; heroic acts are a form of male resource display; and an exclusive (or idealised) relationship is necessary for the formation of a strong pair-bond. Most contemporary evolutionary theorists would agree with Capelanus when he points out that the ease with which love can be won is inversely related to its value. In any social hierarchy, the more beautiful a woman is, the more difficult it will be for a man to win her affection. Beauty advertises good genes which, being at a premium, can be withheld for longer. A beautiful woman is never short of suitors. The inaccessibility of fairy-tale queens is perhaps the logical extension of this principle.

That we should find traces of evolutionary theory in story telling is unremarkable. Art has always served as an instrument of self-enquiry and self-definition. Therefore, it was inevitable that certain fundamental features of human behaviour should appear as conventions in romantic literature. The problem with the courtly tradition, however, is that during the course of its development, the romantic ideal became increasingly rigid and extreme; the imposition of arbitrary codes of conduct offered unlimited scope for self-contradiction contradiction and confusion.

The idea that psychopathology is related to conflict is an old one, and it is an explanatory principle that appears and reappears in the writings of numerous psychologists. Thus, individuals whose theories of psychopathology are extremely different – for example, Sigmund Freud and Ivan Pavlov – still have this much in common.

In the 195os, Gregory Bateson and colleagues developed a new conflict-based theory of psychopathology which made use of a pivotal concept known as the ‘double bind’. Essentially, Bateson suggested that severe psychological problems might be caused by ‘mixed messages’ – as, for example, when a mother repeatedly tells her son that she loves him, while turning her head away in disgust. The term double bind has also been used to describe ‘catch-22’ situations, where whatever choice is made, the outcome is undesirable.

The doctrine of romantic love has a double bind at its heart. It confuses the carnal and the spiritual. What started off as allegorical literature eventually became a code of conduct – and a completely impractical one at that. Arab mystical literature explored the correspondences between sexual desire and spiritual desire. However, as these threads were carried over the Pyrenees they became inextricably entangled – and much follows from this. The ever present tension between the carnal and spiritual produces a dynamic which generates layer upon layer of self-contradiction.

We expect another human being to make us feel complete, or fulfilled, yet these profound feelings of completion are usually only vouchsafed to the spiritually enlightened. We expect passionate love to last for ever – and even increase in intensity – but it is transitory; it almost always diminishes or turns into companionate love. We expect beauty to be resistant to the depredations of time, but all beauty fades. We like to think that we are being inexorably guided by supernatural forces towards one true love, but the most important factor in the formation of relationships (whether we like it or not) is chance, and in reality we fall in love promiscuously.

Worse still, the fabric of romance comes apart under the forces generated by its own contradictions. Women are worshipped as paradigms of purity, personifications of Marian virtue, but the foundations of adoration sink into a quagmire of lust and desire. Men make women into Madonnas, but cannot deny their sexual needs. Thus, they inevitably despoil paradise. In the later versions of ‘Arthurian’ legend (including those concerning Tristan), this is recognised by the introduction of a fatally adulterous relationship: Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere; Tristan sleeps with Isolde. As the courtly tradition evolved, more and more writers became preoccupied with adultery, rather than ennobling abstinence.

The impossible demands of romantic love have left a deep impression on Western literature. As Denis de Rougemont has astutely observed: ‘To judge by literature, adultery would seem to be one of the most remarkable of occupations in both Europe and America. Few are the novels that fail to allude to it … Without adultery, what would happen to imaginative writing?’

The fairy-tale, ‘Once-upon-a-time’ world of romantic love promises that we will live ‘happy ever after’, but romantic narrative is pure tragedy. Heroes vacillate between euphoria and melancholy, and then subside into states of morbid obsession. The name Tristan means child of sadness, and few romances end without first taking casualties. The confusion of the carnal and spiritual invites death into the bedroom and, ultimately, we join our voices with a vast choir and sing that great anthem of self-contradiction, the liebestod, the love death. Procreation and extinction accidentally join hands in the conceptual fog of romantic idealism, with devastating consequences.

Our romantic legacy is predicated on a Batesonian double bind, and its mixed messages incline us towards emotional instability. If evolutionary pressures have determined that love should drive us mad, then cultural pressures have created ideal conditions for its incubation.

Continued in part-3….

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