Today, as in the past, we remain steeped in mythologies instructing how to conceptualize the nature of men and women. In continuing to underline the importance of stories for informing our views of people and the world, we bring you an excerpt from philosopher Richard Kearney’s excellent book, On Stories. – PW
Where do stories come from?
If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating.
A Winter’s Tale
Telling stories is as basic to human beings as eating. More so, in fact, for while food makes us live, stories are what make our lives worth living. They are what make our condition human.
This was recognised from the very beginnings of Western civilisation. Hesiod tells us how the founding myths (mythos in Greek means ‘story’) were invented to explain how the world came to be and how we came to be in it. Myths were stories people told themselves in order to explain themselves to themselves and to others. But it was Aristotle who first developed this insight into a philosophical position when he argued, in his Poetics, that the art of storytelling – defined as the dramatic imitating and plotting of human action – is what gives us a shareable world.
It is, in short, only when haphazard happenings are transformed into story, and thus made memorable over time, that we become full agents of our history. This becoming historical involves a transition from the flux of events into a meaningful social or political community – what Aristotle and the Greeks called a polis. Without this transition from nature to narrative, from time suffered to time enacted and enunciated, it is debatable whether a merely biological life (zoe) could ever be considered a truly human one (bios). As the twentieth-century thinker Hannah Arendt argued: ‘The chief characteristic of the specifically human life … is that it is always full of events which ultimately can be told as a story …. It is of this life, bios, as distinguished from mere zoe, that Aristotle said that it “somehow is a kind of action (praxis)”.’
What works at the level of communal history works also at the level of individual history. When someone asks you who you are, you tell your story. That is, you recount your present condition in the light of past memories and future anticipations. You interpret where you are now in terms of where you have come from and where you are going to. And so doing you give a sense of yourself as a narrative identity that perdures and coheres over a lifetime. This is what the German philosopher Dilthey called the coming-together-of-a-life (Zusammenhang des Lebens), meaning the act of coordinating an existence which would otherwise be scattered over time. In this way, storytelling may be said to humanise time by transforming it from an impersonal passing of fragmented moments into a pattern, a plot, a mythos.
Every life is in search of a narrative. We all seek, willy-nilly, to introduce some kind of concord into the everyday discord and dispersal we find about us. We may, therefore, agree with the poet who described narrative as a stay against confusion. For the storytelling impulse is, and always has been, a desire for a certain ‘unity of life’. In our own postmodern era of fragmentation and fracture, I shall be arguing that narrative provides us with one of our most viable forms of identity – individual and communal.
If the need for stories has become acute in our contemporary culture, it has been recognised from the origin of time as an indispensable ingredient of any meaningful society. In fact, storytelling goes back over a million years, as scholars like Kellogg and Scholes have shown. The narrative imperative has assumed many genres – myth, epic, sacred history, legend, saga, folktale, romance, allegory, confession, chronicle, satire, novel. And within each genre there are multiple sub-genres: oral and written, poetic and prosaic, historical and fictional. But no matter how distinct in style, voice or plot, every story shares the common function of someone telling something to someone about something. In each case there is a teller, a tale, something told about and a recipient of the tale. And it is this crucially intersubjective model of discourse which, I’ll be claiming, marks narrative as a quintessentially communicative act. Even in the case of postmodern monologues like Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape or Happy Days, where the actor is talking and listening to him/herself, there is always at least an implicit other out there to whom the tale is addressed – that ‘other’ often being ‘us’ the listeners. In short, where the author or audience appear absent they are usually ‘implied’. That is why the continuing, and I believe inexhaustible, practice of storytelling belies the faddish maxim that ‘in narrative no one speaks’, or worse, that language speaks only to itself.
To imagine the origins of storytelling we need to tell ourselves a story. Someone, somewhere, sometime, took it into his head to utter the words ‘once upon a time’; and, so doing, lit bonfires in the imaginations of his listeners. A tale was spun from bits and pieces of experience, linking past happenings with present ones and casting both into a dream of possibilities. Once the listeners heard the beginning they wanted to find out the middle and then go on to the end. Stories seemed to make some sense of time, of history, of their lives. Stories were gifts from the gods enabling mortals to fashion the world in their own image. And once the story-telling genie was out of the cave there was no going back. ‘No one knows how long man has had speech’, write Scholes and Kellogg in their classic book, The Nature of Narrative.
Language is probably even older than man himself, having been invented by some ‘missing link’, a creature in the phylogenetic chain somewhere between man and the gibbon. It may have been as many as a million years ago that man first repeated an utterance which had given pleasure to himself or to someone else and thereby invented literature. In a sense, that was the beginning of Western narrative art.
The magical power of narrative was not lost on its first hearers. And, as anthropologists like Lévi-Strauss and Mircea Eliade have shown, one of the earliest roles of the shaman or sage was to tell stories which provided symbolic solutions to contradictions which could not be solved empirically. In the process, reality itself would find itself miraculously transformed. The classic example, cited by Lévi-Strauss, is of the woman who has difficulties giving birth: suffering from a blocked womb, she is told the ‘myth’ of the good warriors freeing a prisoner trapped in a cave by monsters, and on hearing the plot resolution recited by the shaman, she gives birth to her child. Thanks to an imaginary break-through, reality follows suit. Nature imitates narrative.
But stories served to address psychic as well as physical suffering. The pain of loss and confusion, of loved ones passing away, called out for stories. Myths arose, as Lévi-Strauss says, as ‘machines for the suppression of time’. Or as Tolkien put it, as ways of expressing our yearning for the Great Escape – from death. From the word go, stories were invented to fill the gaping hole within us, to assuage our fear and dread, to try to give answers to the great unanswerable questions of existence: Who are we? Where do we come from? Are we animal, human or divine? Strangers, gods or monsters? Are we born of one (mother-earth) or born of two (human parents)? Are we creatures of nature or culture? In seeking to provide responses to such unfathomable conundrums – both physical and metaphysical – the great tales and legends gave not only relief from everyday darkness but also pleasure and enchantment: the power to bring a hush to a room, a catch to the breath, a leap to the curious heart, with the simple words ‘Once upon a time’.
We might thus account for the genesis of stories in so-called ‘primitive societies’. But such powers of storytelling are not, I am convinced, as antiquarian as we might imagine. Just think how children today still crave for bedtime stories of fantastic creatures and conflicts – from Grimm’s fairytales to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings – so that they may act out their inner confusions through these imaginary events and so, in the safety of their beds, prepare for sleep. As Tolkien himself put it, describing his own childhood passion for stories:
Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faerie. I desired dragons with a profound desire. Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood, intruding into my relatively safe world, in which it was, for instance, possible to read stories in peace of mind, free from fear.
Are we adults so very different when it comes to the need for narrative fantasy?
The Greek term mythos meant, as noted, a traditional story. And in its earliest form, that is just what narrative was. Our modern question – where does narrative come from? – did not arise back then. The aim was not so much to invent something that never happened, or to record something that did happen, but to retell a story that had been told many times before. Primordial narratives were thus essentially recreative. And myth, the most common form of early narrative, was a traditional plot or storyline which could be transmitted from one generation of tellers to the next. It generally had a sacred ritual function, being recited for a community in order to recall their holy origins and ancestors. This is true of the great mythological sagas of Greek, Indian, Babylonian, Persian, Chinese, biblical, Celtic and Germanic traditions, to name but obvious cases. What would we know of Western cultural identity, more specifically, if we could not recite the tales of Odysseus, Aeneas, Abraham or Arthur, for example? And the same reliance on narrative recreation applies to non-Western cultures, as the Indian novelist Arundhati Roy reminds us.‘The Great Stories’, she writes,
are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. THAT is their mystery and their magic.
But there is another mystery too. For every time that the Great Myths of Beginning are told, they are told by a human teller. So while they are the same, they are also just that little bit different at each telling. The storyteller ‘tells stories of the gods, but his yarn is spun from the ungodly, human heart’.
Mythic narrative mutated over time into two main branches: historical and fictional.
Historical narrative modified traditional mythos with a growing allegiance to the reality of past events. Storytellers like Herodotus and Thucydides in Greece, for instance, strove to describe natural rather than supernatural events, resisting the Homeric license to entertain monstrous and fantastic scenarios. Alexander and the Persians took the place of Odysseus and the Sirens. The first historians strove to provide narrative descriptions of ‘real’ time, place and agency, making it seem as if they were telling us the way things actually happened. At the level of individual humans, this gave rise to the genre of biography or ‘case history’. At the level of collective humanity, it gave birth to history in the general sense, understood as the narrative recounting of empirical events (res gestae).
The second branch of narrative, the fictional, also moved away from traditional mythos, but in a different direction from the historical. Fictional narratives aimed to redescribe events in terms of some ideal standard of beauty, goodness or nobility. This reached its most dramatic form in romance, a literary genre typified by such works as the Chanson de Roland and Perceval, where metaphor, allegory, hyperbole and other rhetorical devices served to embellish and embroider the events. But one already found strains of it in Dante’s Commedia, where historical verisimilitude combined with fantasy and imagination, without losing sight of the basic human impulse to tell a story ‘as if ’ it were happening, and ‘as if ’ the characters described existed – or could be believed to exist.
It was, however, with the emergence of the modern novel in the post-Renaissance period that fictional romance reached its apogee. What differentiates the novel from preceding kinds of romance is its extraordinary ‘synthetic’ power: it draws liberally from such diverse conventions as lyric (personal voice), drama (presentation of action), epic (depiction of heroes or anti-heroes) and chronicle (description of empirical detail). But above all, the novel is unique in its audacity in experimenting and evolving, metamorphosing and mutating into an amazingly rich range of narrative possibilities – even entertaining the hypothesis of its own demise in what some commentators describe as anti-narrative or post-narrative. And as we enter the cyber-world of the third millennium where virtual reality and digital communications rule, we find many advocates of the apocalyptic view that we have reached the end not only of history, but of the story itself.
This pessimistic attitude towards our new cyber and media culture is canvassed curiously by critics of both the left (Benjamin, Barthes, Baudrillard) and the right (Bloom, Steiner, Henri). Their bottom line is that we are entering a civilisation of depthless simulation inimical to the art of storytelling. The exclusive vulgarisation of intimacy and privacy in popular culture – ranging from TV Talk Shows to multiple Chat Rooms on the Internet – appears to be exhausting the fundamental human need to say something meaningful in a narratively structured way. There is now, we are told, nothing that can’t be immediately confessed to anonymous strangers ‘somewhere out there’, the most secret realms of experience being reducible to voyeuristic immediacy and transparency. Narrative is being superficialised and consumerised out of existence. And the fact that computers can now supposedly produce stories to order – as in the case of the Jacqueline Susann novel Just this Once – merely adds to the cynicism. The pseudo-Susann novel was written by a supercharged Apple- Mac computer called Hal, after the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and published to a fanfare of publicity in 1993. But as even Professor Marvin Minsky, AI pioneer from MIT, admitted, no matter how many computer-coded rules you use to program your writing project, you still have to confront what he calls the ‘common sense knowledge problem’. Computers can certainly copy and simulate, but the question remains whether they can create in a way comparable to a human narrative imagination.
A postmodern cult of parody and pastiche is, the pessimists conclude, fast replacing the poetic practices of narrative imagination. We shall see. For my part I am convinced that the obituarists of storytelling, be they positivists who dismiss it as anachronistic fantasy or post-structuralists who decry its alleged penchant for closure, are mistaken. Indeed, against such prophets of doom, I hold that the new technologies of virtualised and digitised imagining, far from eradicating narrative, may actually open up novel modes of storytelling quite inconceivable in our former cultures. One thinks, for example, of the way that Beckett explores the electronic retelling of one’s life in Krapp’s Last Tape (where a 69-year-old man rehears and retells the story of his 39-year-old former self through a tape-recorder); or, more graphically still, the way in which Atom Egoyan renarrates the Beckett play through the more sophisticated technologies of cinema and DVD. The complex narrative relationship between memory and recorded memory, between imagination and reality, can be brought into especially sharp focus by the new and technically avant-garde media. Moreover, this option is being fruitfully explored by a whole range of experimental film-makers from Chris Marker in Level 5 (and his accompanying art work and CD-ROM, Immemory) to Tom Tykwer in Run Lola Run. That is why I believe that no matter how ‘post’ our third-millennium culture becomes, we shall never reach a moment when the phrase ‘This is a story about . . .’ ceases to fascinate and enchant. Hence my wager that postmodernism does not spell the end of the story but the opening up of alternative possibilities of narration.
But let me return briefly to our genealogy of storytelling. What both historical and fictional narratives have in common is a mimetic function. From Aristotle to Auerbach, it has been recognised that this involves far more than a mere mirroring of reality. When Aristotle defines mimesis in his Poetics as the ‘imitation of an action’, he means a creative redescription of the world such that hidden patterns and hitherto unexplored meanings can unfold. As such mimesis is essentially tied to mythos taken as the transformative plotting of scattered events into a new paradigm (what Paul Ricoeur calls the ‘synthesis of the heterogeneous’). It has little or nothing to do with the old naturalist conviction that art simply holds a mirror up to nature.
Narrative thus assumes the double role of mimesis-mythos to offer us a newly imagined way of being in the world. And it is precisely by inviting us to see the world otherwise that we in turn experience catharsis: purgation of the emotions of pity and fear. For while narrative imagination enables us to empathise with those characters in the story who act and suffer, it also provides us with a certain aesthetic distance from which to view the events unfolding, thereby discerning ‘the hidden cause of things’. It is this curious conflation of empathy and detachment which produces in us – viewers of Greek tragedy or readers of contemporary fiction – the double vision necessary for a journey beyond the closed ego towards other possibilities of being.
Aristotle confined this cathartic power to fictional and poetic narratives, maintaining that these alone revealed the ‘universal’ structures of existence – unlike historical accounts, which dealt merely with ‘particular’ facts. But I would wish to contest such a schismatic opposition and acknowledge some kind of interweaving between fiction and history. One of my main preoccupations in this book will be to explore various examples of such interweaving, and to unravel some of the more intriguing enigmas which result. In the chapters which follow, I shall endeavour to treat of a number of actual stories, before trying to sketch out a more precise philosophy of story-telling in our final section. I shall be returning, therefore, in conclusion to Aristotle and certain contemporary thinkers about narrative and would hope to be in a position at that point to offer a clearer conceptual account of the characteristics of storytelling. In other words, before getting to the moral of the story, I shall first engage with stories themselves. Before the theory the practice.
Hence, in what follows I propose first to explore the controversial relation between fiction and history in three individual cases – Stephen Daedalus, Ida Bauer (Dora) and Oscar Schindler. Then, I shall extend the discussion to three examples of more collective or national narration: Rome, Britain and America. By means of such examples – drawn from literature, cinema, art, psychotherapy and political history – my aim is ultimately to disclose a philosophical view instructed by the rich complexities and textures of these narratives. That way, we may not just be putting thinking into action but also, with luck, some action back into thinking.
In the light of these various explorations of narrative, sometimes probing the very limits of the sayable, I shall conclude that narrative matters. Whether as story or history or a mixture of both (for example testimony), the power of narrativity makes a crucial difference to our lives. Indeed, I shall go so far as to argue, rephrasing Socrates, that the unnarrated life is not worth living.
*Excerpt reprinted with permission of the author.
The Greek goddess Hera was the patroness of marriage, status, and social power, and as I hope to demonstrate here, a goddess appropriate to feminism too. By analyzing the character of a goddess we follow the late psychologist James Hillman’s suggestion that “Mythology is psychology in ancient dress,” – ie. it gives us insight into human nature, and more specifically into the nature of feminism.
No other goddess in the Greek pantheon comes close to capturing the activities we associate with feminism – not the warlike independence of the Amazons, not the esteemed motherhood of Demeter, and not the allure of Aphrodite. These are merely peripheral topics taken up by a feminism that is concerned with securing multiple varieties of power, and Hera is the goddess I’m going to finger for that role.
Hera was first and foremost a goddess of marriage, or rather the goddess of marriage. Under her sign marriage tamed men to great advantage of the Greek State, and the State in turn extended honors to her cult. In parts of Greece men could not be recognized as citizens until the day of their marriage, thus enticing men to marry and providing a means for Greek cities to continue reproducing the citizen-estate, not to mention securing a ready supply of laborers, taxes and military personnel to boot. James Hillman writes,
Marriage belongs to the state; it belongs to society, to the community. Zeus and Hera are social stability; they are the state in a way, so we can be married by a Justice of the Peace at City Hall, because marriage is also secular. We recognize that by having both church weddings and legal weddings. Our tax code, our inheritance laws acknowledge that a fundamental structure of the organization of society is marriage. Therefore some can claim it has nothing in particular to do with the persons who are engaged; it hasn’t anything to do with God; it hasn’t anything to do with symbolic representations. It is a fundamental structure of society belonging to the polis or the city or the community.1
While the marriage of Hera and Zeus is mythological, life in this instance had a way of imitating art. In the marriage month (Gamelion ) the mythical marriage of Hera and Zeus was reenacted and celebrated with public festivities, a time when many couples would get married in imitation of the divine couple. On these occasions prayers and offerings were given to Hera, and the bride would pledge fidelity to extending Hera’s dominion on earth. One can only surmise that the riches, status, and influence of the divine couple became a model to which each couple would hope to aspire.
Another facet of Hera’s cult was the focus on buildings, and her temples were usually the biggest and most lavish in all Greece. Women would carve small houses, or make them out of clay and give as offerings to the Goddess. Remarking on this practice, Hillman states that our modern obsession with houses and real estate, one of the bedrocks of our economy, may also arise from a Hera-like sentiment;
If you think back to all the times you play house as a child, or had a dollhouse, or made little houses out of cartons and boxes, this is an archetypal move going on. We forget that the house is not just something made by an architect and sold you by a developer… What one does for the house, to the house, with the house, is taking care of Hera. Housekeeping is a Hera activity. Our culture recognizes this. Think of the enormous quantity of house magazines: House and Garden, House Beautiful, Home Decorating, Architectural Digest, World of Interiors, the home section of newspapers, home improvement on TV, supposedly a best-selling TV show or one of the most watched, “This Old House.”
“I know a woman who decorates people’s houses. You pick out the furniture and the fabrics – then she’ll lay out the paintings you should have, what repros you should have on the wall, and the bric-a-brac and what colors the walls should be and so on. She told me that in every one of the cases that she works with (of married couples), the woman picks out everything in the house and the entire house belongs to her except for the husband’s desk and his playroom and maybe the garage. He has his little area and the rest of the house is hers. He makes no decisions about what color the upholstery should be or the kinds of window shades.
“Often when you go to people’s houses the wife shows off the house while the husbands talk shop. “Come, let me show you my house; I want to show you the house.” She’s showing a part of her Hera nature.
“There are these old sayings (whether you go with the gender of them or not): a woman likes a man who can do things around the house, and she hates it that she always has to pick up after him and he leaves things in a mess. By desecrating the house that way, he insults Hera. And a man likes a woman who’s a good housekeeper. These are Hera statements. Another one: She loves the house more than me. And the jokes: A man is making love to a whore and she says, “You’re the greatest;” and when he’s making love to his mistress, she says, “I love you so much.” But when he’s making love to his wife, she says: “I wonder what color we should paint the ceiling.” Now, that is a nasty gender joke, but it isn’t! She really loves the house. That’s crucial and shouldn’t be treated as just a kind of obsession. Her obsession with the house equals his obsession with sex.1
In a telling newspaper cartoon some years ago, two women were conversing. The first said she was getting a divorce, to which her friend replied it must be an awful thing to go through. “Not really” the woman replied, “it’s actually a dream come true; I get the house, the furniture, the artworks and the kids. I’ve been planning this divorce since I was a little girl!” In this cruel cartoon we get a sense that the husband was merely a backdrop to securing the larger vision of a house, renovations, furnishings and the children. But especially the house.
Hera was nicknamed ‘The Tamer.’ She tamed horses, men and heroes and in some places was recognized as the tamer of the seasons, of nature, and even the universe itself.
Her goal was to limit wildness and freedom by placing all creatures in her service. Her tools-for-taming were the entrapment of men and women in marriage, the use of her own sexuality as an enticement for conformity; shaming, and aggressive punishment of any rebellious behaviours. Even her lordly husband Zeus did not escape her control: “Hera’s cruel rage tamed him.”2
Hera was worshipped as ‘Goddess of the yoke,’ an enslaving device symbolizing her desire to create utilities of beasts and men. She yoked obedient men to wives, and yoked heroes to an inevitable death through their performance of labours that bring betterment to women and society.
In the Iliad Hera is said to tame heroes through death, not marriage. Death through service to others was considered -and is still considered- something appropriate for males and for their own good. In The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell recounts a Greek story which illustrates the fact:
The Hero As Slave:
Once upon a time, a mother who wanted to see the beautiful statue of Hera had no oxes or horses to carry her there. But she did have two sons. And the sons wanted more than anything to make their mother’s wish come true. They volunteered to yoke themselves to a cart and take her over the mountains in the scorching heat to the faraway village of Argos, the home of the statue of Hera (the wife of Zeus). Upon their arrival in Argos, the sons were cheered and statues (that can be found to this day) were built in their honor. Their mother prayed that Hera give her sons the best gift in her power. Hera did that. The boys died. The traditional interpretation? The best thing that can happen to a man is to die at the height of his glory and power. Yet had this been a myth of two daughters who had substituted themselves for oxen to carry their father somewhere, would we have interpreted the daughters’ deaths as proof that the best thing that can happen to a woman is to die at the height of her glory and power? The statues and cheers can be seen as bribes for the sons to value their lives less than their mother’s request to view a statue. The fact that the statue was of Hera, the queen of the Olympian gods and protector of married women is symbolic. The sons’ sacrifice symbolized the mandate for men to become strong enough to serve the needs of mothers and marriage, and to be willing to call it glory if they died in the process. Which is why the name Hercules means “for the glory of Hera”.3
Sexual manipulation was another of Hera’s strategems to gain what she wanted. In one popular tale, for instance, she asked if she could borrow Aphrodite’s magic girdle to help her woo the King of the gods. By borrowing Aphrodite’s natural charms (the girdle) Hera imitated the goddess of love and sex and thereby seduced Zeus. As we read in Homer’s Iliad, the magical girdle of Aphrodite had the power to create subservience in the target;
Hera was divided in purpose as to how she could beguile the brain in Zeus of the aigis. And to her mind this thing appeared to be the best counsel, to array herself in loveliness, and go down to Ida, and perhaps he might be taken with desire to lie in love with her next her skin, and she might be able to drift an innocent warm sleep across his eyelids, and seal his crafty perceptions…
Now, when she had clothed her body in all this loveliness, she went out from the chamber, and called aside Aphrodite to come away from the rest of the gods, and spoke a word to her: ‘Would you do something for me, dear child… Give me loveliness and desirability, graces with which you overwhelm mortal men, and all the immortals…
Then in turn Aphrodite the laughing (philomeides) answered her: ‘I cannot, and I must not deny this thing that you ask for, you, who lies in the arms of Zeus, since he is our greatest.’ She spoke, and from her breasts unbound the elaborate, pattern-pierced zone (himas), and on it are figured all beguilement (philotes), and loveliness is figured upon it, and passion of sex (himeros) is there, and the whispered endearment (oaristos) that steals the heart away even from the thoughtful. She put this in Hera’s hands, and called her by name and spoke to her: ‘Take this zone, and hide it away in the fold of your bosom. It is elaborate, all things are figured therein. And I think whatever is your heart’s desire shall not go unaccomplished.’ So she spoke, and the ox-eyed lady Hera smiled on her and smiling hid the zone away in the fold of her bosom.4
Hera employed sexual manipulativeness as an artifice to purchase the power and influence she so desperately craved. Today we would call this behavior “Love bombing,” which has the ability to tame a man to schemes he might otherwise have never dreamed of following.
Binding Hera’s rage
When Hera didn’t get her desired measure of power, when her status didn’t reach high enough, or worse, when she lost status or power, things went very badly for the world around her. Epithets of spitefulness, jealousy, vengefulness, vindictiveness, cruelty and rage belong to the scorned goddess, and from a reading of the myths it seems she felt scorned much of the time.
We turn for example to the priestess Medea who murdered her children as revenge against her husband’s transgressions. Her husband, Jason of Argonauts fame, decided to leave her after the marriage went stale. He found a new bride and Medea devised to make them suffer for their happiness. Much like the goddess Hera to whom Medea was priestess, she carried out a scorched-earth policy in the face of frustrated power urges, saying;
I will send them with gifts in their hands, carrying them unto the bride a robe of finest woof and a chaplet of gold. And if these ornaments she take and put them on, miserably shall she die, and likewise everyone who touches her; with such fell poisons will I smear my gifts. And here I quit this theme; but I shudder at the deed I must do next; for I will slay the children I have borne… and when I have utterly confounded Jason’s house I will leave the land, escaping punishment for my dear children’s murder, after my most unholy deed… so help me God, Never shall he see again alive the children I bore to him, nor from his new bride shall he beget issue, for she must die a hideous death, slain by my drugs. Let no one deem me a poor weak woman who sits with folded hands, but of another mould, dangerous to foes and well-disposed to friends.5
After killing Jason’s bride with a poison-smeared robe, murdering her own children, and then setting fire to the palace, Medea fled to Athens where she married the mighty King Aegeus, thereby securing a place of notoriety in the mythological scheme of Greece.
Mythologist Karl Kerenyi asks, “What should we make of it that Medea, a barbaric representative of the Hera world, and her gloomy cult, found acceptance in the sacred precinct of Zeus’ spouse?”6 Kerenyi was struck by the fact that Hera remained associated with Medea’s barbarism and surrounded her with the sanctity of her own world. Our thoughts on this question might extend to a similar comparison of moderate feminism and how it remains associated with radical feminism’s relational and cultural terrorism.
The Greeks understood better than we moderns, however, that impulses of the psychopathic mind needed to be restrained by a civil society.
To that end the Greeks developed a religious ritual that involved winding a rope tightly around a statue or effigy of the Goddess Hera, particularly during what they imagined to be her ‘unfulfilled’ moments. That hog-tying symbolized containment of destructive energies resulting from loss of status or power. Participants understood the binding was of the proverbial ‘woman scorned,’ a ritual teaching how to deal with such behavior in the lives of mortals.
In contrast to her fulfilled behavior within marriage, when the Queen of Heaven lost her marital station and status, she would tear the social fabric into black confetti. Hera then became monstrous or in some stories started giving birth to monstrous creatures who did her bidding. Jungian psychologist Murray Stein talks to this monstrous side of the goddess;
This compounding of evil upon evil is an image of Hera in her Iuno inferna aspect and energized by a full-blown animus rage and destruction, running amuck through the world, devouring whomever she can lay her hands on. Hera is in this development a veritable epidemic of pathology.
The ancient cults of Hera showed great foresight and wisdom in “binding” her image during the dangerous periods of her cycle. This was prophylactic against the potentiation of the she-dragon. But what could they have done to prevent this potentiation in the face of the Typhaonian spirit energizing it? Hera’s reaction to her experience with Zeus bursts all fetters, for without a full experience of the Teleia [fulfillment] aspect of the cycle the bindings on the infernal aspect of it cannot possibly hold. Thus we find in the Homeric and classical image of her a Hera Unbound, whose boundlessness knows no limit to destruction. The rhythm inherent in the archetype has been disturbed, and we get a sort of symphony whose rhythm is one long downbeat. The restoration of Hera Teleia is an individual and cultural historical project that is still being worked on in our time.7
The comparisons of Hera and Medea with feminism are unmistakable. The male shaming, intimidation, manipulation, and power-seeking are all there – as are the destructiveness and scorched-earth policy accompanying frustrated goals.
It’s no surprise that a Google search for Hera + feminist returns over 80,000 results, and Medea + feminist over 100,000, and the number of feminist orgs, initiatives and editorials paints its own picture; The Hera Women’s Cancer Foundation; Hera Entrepreneurs Against Trafficking; Hera Hub: female-focused co working space and entrepreneurship; The Hera Herald; Hera Society; Hera Health, Empowerment and Rights for Women; Hera Communications: Empowerment, Enrichment, Enlightenment; Women’s Club Hera (etc.).
Along with Hera, Medea is universally recognized as a feminist heroine. As an example of feminist websites promoting her we read, “There is, however, one other role that we twenty-first-century audiences are able to recognize in Medea: that of the feminist pioneer. And the fact that this precursor of the suffragettes is a mythic character dramatized nearly 2,500 years ago by a man is quite astonishing.”8
The Wikipedia entry for Medea reads, “Medea is widely read as a proto-feminist text to the extent that it sympathetically explores the disadvantages of being a woman in a patriarchal society,” – to which characterization is implied (by feminists) that we dare not read her as anything but a hapless victim, as one Jungian analyst Cheryl Fuller was to discover.
Fuller, a feminist, gives a revealing account of what happened when she attempted to shine a light on the dark side of Medea, and by extension of women. She writes;
Eight years ago as I searched for a dissertation advisor, I ran into a wall with the feminist scholars on the faculty of my university. As soon as I explained that I wanted to write about Medea came the assumption: of course, they said, you will be looking at the patriarchy as the issue in her behavior. And when I replied that indeed I was not going to be looking in that direction, but rather at Medea herself and at the meaning intrinsic to her acts and her story, interest in my work evaporated and they declined to serve on my committee. Though long a feminist myself, I had been absent from developments in academic feminism. It had escaped my attention that there were “right” ways and “wrong” ways to study women, both real and mythological, and clearly considering Medea as anything other than a victim of the patriarchy was the “wrong” way.
I persisted, found an advisor who could accept my apparently heretical viewpoint and happily explored the character of Medea and developed a description of a Medea complex. But the resistance to considering that Medea could be anything other than a hapless victim of the patriarchy continued to intrigue me and set me to wondering about the meaning of excluding this dark and troubling aspect of her, and by extension all of us, from our understanding of what it is to be human and more specifically a woman. It is this wondering which is the subject of my paper.9
In summary, the traditional binding of Hera has failed and her destructive energies are loosed upon the world – to devastating effect. Her bindings began to unravel in the Middle Ages with the advent of an indiscriminate chivalry that saw men worshiping women as pure and infallable vessels, while failing to recognize and bind their destructive potentials with reasonable forms of social constraint.
While we continue on our current path the scorched earth policy too will continue… compliments of a vengeful, and power-craving Hera.
 James Hillman, ‘Hera, Goddess of Marriage’ in Mythic Figures (2007)
 Joan O’Brien, ‘The Tamer of Heroes and Horses,’ Chapter 6E in The Transformation of Hera, (1993)
 Warren Farrell, The Myth of Male Power, Simon and Schuster, (1993)
 Richard Lattimore, Trans. The Iliad of Homer (1951)
 Medea By Euripides (431 B.C.E), Translated by E. P. Coleridge (1891)
 Karl Kerenyi, Goddesses of Sun and Moon (1979)
 Murray Stein, Hera: Bound and Unbound, in Spring: an annual of Archetypal Psychology (1977)
 Medea: Everywoman, Many Women (website)
 Cheryl Fuller, Medea, Feminism and the Shadow (2009)
Author’s note: Part of the Taming section was previously published in the article How to tame men.
Christine de Pizan: the first gender warrior
Jane Anger: gynocentrism in 1589
Modesta Pozzo: gynocentrism in 1590
Lucrezia Marinella: gynocentrism in 1600
Margaret Cavendish: gynocentrism in 1662
Elizabeth Poole Sandford: Female Power, Influence, and Privileges in 1835
La Querelle des Femmes
Ernest B. Bax on “Chivalry feminism”
Feminism: The Same Old Gynocentric Story
Gynocentrism and its Discontents
Feminism: Gynocentric or Egalitarian?
Feminism, Sex-Differences and Chivalry
Nathanson and Young on Gynocentric Feminism
Gynocentrism, Humanism and The Patriarchy™
Offering a Concise Definition of Feminism
Damseling, Chivalry and Courtly Love in Modern Feminism
Book review of ‘Governance Feminism: An Introduction’
Mythologies of The Men’s Rights And Feminist Movements
Hera, Ancient Greek Goddess of Feminism
Tradwives, Modwives and Feminists
A New Aristocracy
Women of Color Feminists vs. White Feminist Tears
White Supremacy: A Euphemism For White Women Worship
The following is a three-part extract from Dr. Frank Tallis’ excellent book Love Sick. The book surveys the concept of romantic love, or more accurately the sickness of it, with Dr. Tallis’ extensive clinical experience confirming just how sick-making these practices can be. Obsessive thoughts, erratic mood swings, insomnia, loss of appetite, recurrent and persistent images and impulses, superstitious or ritualistic compulsions, delusion, the inability to concentrate—exhibiting just five or six of these symptoms is enough to merit a diagnosis of a major depressive episode. Yet we all subconsciously welcome these symptoms when we allow ourselves to fall in love.
In Love Sick, Dr. Frank Tallis, a leading authority on obsessive disorders, considers our experiences and expressions of love, and why the combinations of pleasure and pain, ecstasy and despair, rapture and grief have come to characterize what we mean when we speak of falling in love. Tallis examines why the agony associated with romantic love continues to be such a popular subject for poets, philosophers, songwriters, and scientists, and questions just how healthy our attitudes are and whether there may in fact be more sane, less tortured ways to love.
A highly informative exploration of how, throughout time, principally in the West, the symptoms of mental illness have been used to describe the state of being in love, this book offers an eloquent, thought-provoking, and endlessly illuminating look at one of the most important aspects of human behavior.
Historical writings about courtly and romantic love
● The Art of Courtly Love – by Andreas Capellanus (1190)
● Mediaeval Love – by Violet Paget (1895)
● The Troubadours – by H.J. Chaytor (1913)
● Courtly love – by C. S. Lewis (1936)
● Eleanor of Aquitaine and her ‘Courts of Love’ – by Amy Kelly (1937)
● Masculine submission and ‘Love service’ – by Sandra Alfonsi (1986)
Contemporary writings about courtly and romantic love
● Courtly Love Today (Summary of paper by John G. Rechtien – 1988)
● Courtly Love Described (Brooklyn College – 2000)
● Courtly Love, An Overview (Michael Delahoyde – 2006)
● Rise of Courtly Love (Brandy Stark – 2007)
● To ‘Believe’ in Love – The Religious Significance of the Romantic Love Myth in Western Modernity (Sarah Balstrup – 2012)
● The Sexual-Relations Contract (Peter Wright – 2013)
● Damseling, Chivalry and Courtly Love (part 1) (Peter Wright – 2016)
● Damseling, Chivalry and Courtly Love (part 2) (Peter Wright – 2016)
● The Evolution of Gynocentrism Via Romance Writings (Peter Wright – 2017)
● To Be a Better Man: Courtly Values Revived in Modern Film (R. Cormier – 2018)
● Sexual Feudalism (Peter Wright, Wiki4Men entry – 2019)
● Courtly Love – by Joshua J. Mark (2019)
● ‘Frau Minne’ Goddess of Romantic Love (Peter Wright, 2020)
● Is Romantic Love a Timeless Evolutionary Universal, Or a Creation of The Middle Ages? (Peter Wright, 2022)
Historical articles about gynocentric-chivalry
▌ Enterprise of the Green Shield with the White Lady (1399)
▌ Chivalry for love – by Thomas Warton (1774)
▌ The spirit of chivalry – by Sir Walter Scott (1818)
▌ The evolution of chivalry – Analectic Magazine (1818)
▌ Instruction of boys in the arts of chivalry – by Charles Mills (1825)
▌ The role of ladies in the first sporting tournaments – by Charles Mills (1825)
▌ Has Chivalry Fled? (Article, 1912)
▌ Modern chivalry – by Ernest Belfort Bax (1913)
▌ The Dream of Heroism and Love – by Johan Huizinga (1924)
Contemporary essays about gynocentric-chivalry
▌The birth of chivalric love – by Peter Wright
▌Sexual Feudalism – by Peter Wright
▌The Feminine Imperative – by Rollo Tomassi
▌What ever happened to chivalry? – by Peter Wright
▌The allure of chivalry today – by Peter Wright
▌Chivalry: a sexist expectation of the medieval mind
▌Feminism, sex-differences and chivalry – by Peter Wright
▌Chivalry: A learned deathwish – by Paul Elam
▌Sporting tournaments: a gynocentric tradition? – by Peter Wright
▌Damseling, chivalry and courtly love in history (Part 1) – by Peter Wright
▌Damseling, chivalry and courtly love in the feminist tradition (Part 2) – by P. Wright
▌ Aggrieved Entitlement – women’s reaction to temporary loss of chivalry – P. Wright
▌ Bastardized Chivalry: From Concern For Weakness to Sexual Exploitation – P. Wright
● Enterprise of the Green Shield with the White Lady (1399)
● Chivalry for love – by Thomas Warton (1774)
● The spirit of chivalry – by Sir Walter Scott (1818)
● The evolution of chivalry – Analectic Magazine (1818)
● Instruction of boys in the arts of chivalry – by Charles Mills (1825)
● The role of ladies in the first sporting tournaments – by Charles Mills (1825)
● Modern chivalry – by Ernest Belfort Bax (1913)
● The Dream of Heroism and Love – by Johan Huizinga (1924)
● The birth of chivalric love – by Peter Wright
● Damseling, chivalry and courtly love (part one) – by Peter Wright
The following is the final of a three-part series about romantic love from Frank Tallis’ book Love Sick. In this part Tallis looks at the division between Asian and Western approaches to love.
In the early 1990’s, a group of social scientists undertook a large cross-cultural study, in which they interviewed students from the USA, Italy, and the People’s Republic of China about a variety of emotional experiences, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and love. When the study was completed, it was found that there was remarkable agreement concerning all of the emotions, but with one exception – love. American and European subjects rated love very positively, and equated it with other positive experiences like joy and happiness. The Chinese subjects, however, were much more doubtful. In the Chinese language there are very few ideographs that correspond with the more positive love-related related words found in English and Italian. Instead, love tends to be associated with more negative emotional states. For example, the Chinese subjects linked passionate love with ideographs which translate as ‘infatuation’, ‘unrequited love’, ‘nostalgia’ and ‘sorrow’. When told of Western ideas about love, the Chinese subjects thought they were inaccurate and unrealistic.
These findings raise some interesting questions. Has the Western romantic tradition made us blind to love’s madness? China has no equivalent tradition. In fact, during the Cultural Revolution, ‘romantic love’ was outlawed – considered by the communist elite to be a ‘bourgeois’ indulgence. Given this context, is it possible that the Chinese are better equipped to evaluate the pitfalls of passionate love? It would seem that for many Chinese students, they would as much want to fall in love as develop a psychiatric illness.
The ancient Greeks were troubled by passion – seeing it as a force that could easily overthrow reason and disturb the mind’s equilibrium. In many respects, this view has been preserved in several Asian and Oriental cultures. To be romantic is to play with fire – the volatile, inner fire of Hippocratic and Islamic medicine. Although passion can be exciting, it is extremely unreliable – so unreliable, that Asian and Oriental cultures have rejected passion as the basis of marriage, subscribing instead to the more rational processes of ‘arrangement’. The formation of a new family unit is considered to be of such great importance – not only to the bride, groom, their progeny and immediate family, but to the entire local community and wider society – that it cannot be based on love alone. There must be a deeper level of compatibility, embracing factors such as background, education and temperament, to ensure that the relationship will last.
The Chinese anthropologist Francis Hsu has suggested that Western and Eastern cultures differ with respect to social awareness and obligation. In the West, the individual – his or her personal identity – is considered to be much more important than his or her social role. In the East, however, this is entirely reversed. The individual’s personal identity is considered less important than their ability to be a good son, daughter, husband or mother. Therefore, a successful marriage is more likely to arise from a pairing that takes the full social and cultural credentials of both parties into account.
The romantic tradition represents the antithesis of this kind of thinking – and reaches its most extreme expression in elopement. From a Western perspective, the instinctive response to elopement is positive. Yet, the eloping couple are usually in the throes of love’s madness, and remove themselves entirely from their social context. In doing so, they immediately lose the benefits of an existing support network (friends and family) and incur the costs of geographical displacement. They become disconnected, two mutually absorbed individuals who have relinquished social obligations and can no longer properly occupy a defined social role. Needless to say, a relationship that takes place in a social vacuum has fewer external forces holding it together.
It is interesting that this disregard for social context was always a feature of romantic writing. For example, the figure of the Majnun, being mad, is by necessity a social outcast, but in the romantic tradition, losing or risking everything for love, including one’s mind, is almost expected. In the Lais of Marie de France (a collection of courtly tales written in the late twelfth century) the disconnection of lovers from their social context is even more conspicuous. French literature scholars Glynn Burgess and Keith Busby point out that:
Marie concentrates on the individuality of her characters and is not very concerned with their integration into society. If society does not appreciate the lovers, then the lovers die or abandon society, and society is the poorer for it.
Perhaps as a consequence of this disenfranchisement, Marie’s images of love are almost always painful. Again, Burgess and Busby write:
If we take the Lais as a whole work, compared with other works of medieval literature, the characteristic of Marie’s view of love seems to be an almost inevitable association with suffering.
The theme of the lover – or lovers – standing outside society, re-emerges intermittently throughout the entire history of romantic writing, and ultimately we find ourselves in the frozen wastes of Romantic poetry, where young men set off on winter journeys, meaning either never to return or to die. This represents yet another paradox. One of the main aims of the courtly tradition was to socialise love, to make it genteel and polite. Yet ultimately, romance is an anti-social phenomenon. It weakens social cohesion.
The Asian and Eastern belief that all of society has a stake in the success of love was curiously echoed by Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving. Fromm insisted that the principal problem of Western society is alienation. When we love, however, we should feel connected – and this sense of connection extends beyond the family to the social whole. Socially aware love – love that acknowledges its social context – is essential to the well-being of everyone.
For most people raised in the West, the concept of an arranged marriage – or policing love – seems distasteful, even repugnant. Yet, arranged marriage is practised by 60 per cent of the world’s population – and approximately half of these couples claim that they stay together because of love (not romantic love, maybe, but something far more durable). In Britain and the US, where people still uphold the romantic ideal, nearly half of first marriages end in divorce, while those marriages that survive are often characterised by deep levels of dissatisfaction – particularly among women. The divorce rate for second and third marriages is even higher.
Love’s madness usually strikes with the onset of adolescence. Subsequently, there is a high risk of pregnancy, impetuous marriage, or both. Statistics show that teenage marriages are very fragile, and a high percentage break down within only a few years. Teenage pregnancy (compared with pregnancy in early adulthood) is associated with premature birth, low birth weight, and death during childbirth. Teenage pregnancy also has social consequences. It will interrupt, or even terminate, a young woman’s education, and the children of most teenage families are financially disadvantaged. The idea of risking everything for love is portrayed in the West as a noble undertaking, but subscribing to this doctrine frequently results in loneliness, hardship and poverty.
In stark contrast, the tradition of arranged marriage has a number of pragmatic advantages, rarely appreciated by dyed-in-the-wool romantics. The arranged marriage system is strongly associated with the idea of coercion, yet, in reality, Asian and Oriental cultures almost always allow the prospective bride and groom to exercise some choice, albeit limited. In India, the ‘girl-seeing’ ceremony has evolved specifically for this purpose. Typically, the young man’s family will visit the young woman’s family, and the young man is given a special seat. The young woman then enters the room, kneels, bows and leaves. Both are then in a position to decide whether they find each other attractive and wish to proceed further.
Although arranged marriages are treated with suspicion in the West, they represent a preference for many who have been raised in Asian and Eastern cultures. It is assumed that a ‘good marriage’ can only be achieved if couples are carefully matched, and then supported by their families. To base a marriage on passion is simply irresponsible, and likely to result in unhappiness. Surprisingly – for incurable romantics at least – contemporary research does not contradict this view.
Psychologists Paul Yelsma and Kuriakose Athappilly have studied relationship satisfaction levels of couples who married for love and those who married by arrangement. Those whose marriages were arranged show much higher levels of satisfaction than those who married for love. Other studies have produced a similar pattern of results.
Almost instinctively, the Occidental sensibility finds such results difficult to believe, but why shouldn’t arranged marriages be superior to those that are based on a temporary madness? A long-term relationship – if it is to be happy – must be based on more than the tortured logic and inflated expectations of romantic idealism.
The Dalai Lama, examining romantic love from the cool, rational vantage of Buddhism, does not hesitate to identify it as a form of madness:
When a couple has just met, seen each other on just a few occasions, they may be madly in love and very happy, but any decision about marriage made at that instant would be very shaky. Just as one can become, in some sense, insane from the power of intense anger or hatred, it is also possible for an individual to become in some sense insane by the power of passion and lust.
Romantic love springs from absurdities such as ‘love at first sight’. It is preoccupied with superficial (and transient) characteristics such as physical beauty, and usually ends in confusion and frustration.
… sometimes you might even find situations where an individual could feel, `Oh, my boyfriend or girlfriend is not really a good person, not a kind person, but still I feel attracted to him or her.’
According to the Dalai Lama, meaningful, satisfying and lasting relationships are not based on romantic idealism, but on mutual understanding, respect and compassion. True love is not instant. Love that strikes like a bolt of lightning is almost certainly suspect, as are the whirlwind romances that are the staple of romantic fiction. In essence, the Dalai Lama suggests that a commitment based on deep friendship is more likely to outlast a commitment based on desire. In contrast to the storm-tossed seas of romanticism, he offers an attractive alternative of still waters and lotus flowers – the relationship as sanctuary, a retreat from madness, rather than a manifestation of madness.
Perhaps, after more than a thousand years of disappointment, we can see the first signs of disaffection in the West – cultural trends that tacitly acknowledge the commonsense sense virtues of Asian and Oriental attitudes to love and marriage. Over the last fifty years, dating agencies have become increasingly popular, operating on similar principles to those that govern arranged marriages. The only fundamental difference is that the initial matching takes place in a computer, rather than a group of human brains. Even seemingly esoteric rituals, like the ‘girl-seeing’ ceremony, have equivalents – for instance, the provision of a photograph or video.
Dating agencies are distinctly unromantic. They militate against all the basic assumptions of romantic love. Yet, they are responsible for bringing a large number of people together in relationships that seem to be very successful.
The idea of arrangement does not preclude falling in love. Indeed, in Asian and other Eastern societies, it is assumed that a couple will fall in love and become passionate – but after the marriage has taken place. Thus, couples can experience love’s madness safely, but know that when it passes, they will still have a robust and healthy relationship. Dating agencies seem to offer the same kind of security; couples can engage in the dangerous high-wire act of falling in love, comfortable in the knowledge that there is a safety net in place.
Disaffection with the failure of romantic love was dramatically demonstrated recently by American psychologist Robert Epstein, who, in addition to holding several academic posts, is also the editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. Having considered the merits of arranged marriages, Epstein wondered whether it would be possible to rehabilitate the concept for Western consumption. Consequently, in the June 2002 issue, he argued against romantic assumptions, and suggested that it might be possible to learn to love any suitable partner. He proposed a programme to test his hypothesis: the signing of a six-month exclusivity contract (to obviate the problem of parallel dating); commitment to intensive joint-counselling sessions; frequent ‘getaways’; and participation in exercises designed to foster mutual love. Epstein suggested that such a programme – credible to Westerners – might achieve the same result as the arranged marriage system: reliable, meaningful and enduring love. More daringly, Epstein volunteered to be the first subject in his own experiment.
He expected the article to have little impact; however, the subsequent response was overwhelming. It aroused enormous media interest, and Epstein received hundreds of letters, e-mails and telephone calls from women eager to sign his contract.
It would seem that romantic love – which promises heaven on earth – has ultimately delivered something closer to despair.
The following is Part 2 of the three-part extract 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.
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.
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…