The following is Part 1 of a three-part extract from Frank Tallis’ excellent book Love Sick. The book takes a good look at romantic love, or more accurately the sickness of it, a fact underlined in several of the articles on this website. Dr. Tallis’ extensive clinical experience confirms just how sick-making these practices are for all who indulge them.
Love, love, love – all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures, a welter of self-induced miseries and joys, blinding and masking the essential personalities in the frozen gestures of courtship, in the kissing and the dating and the desire, the compliments and the quarrels which vivify its barrenness.
The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
Romantic love has been described by the Jungian psychoanalyst Robert Johnson as `the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche’. Although this sounds like a wildly extravagant claim, it is almost certainly true. Love – and in particular romantic love – is our great preoccupation. Almost every aspect of our life is affected, in some way, by the concept of romantic love.
The word ‘romantic’ is troubled by a long history. It is like an overworked canvas, the composition and brushwork of which cannot conceal the suggestion of earlier drafts. English dictionaries distinguish ‘romantic’ with several definitions, but in reality, such tidy divisions are misleading. When we use the word, these different meanings bleed into each other. To be romantically involved is an admission that carries a host of implications: passion, folly, obsession, anguish, recklessness, intrigue, and adventure; archetypes rise from varying depths and jostle with each other for recognition and influence.
As with any native tongue, we first speak the language of romantic love without being able to explain its grammar. The assumptions on which romantic love is predicated are buried in the unconscious mind, where they exert a powerful influence on our beliefs, attitudes, and expectations. We never pause to question their legitimacy. When a romantic hero decides he will sacrifice everything for love, no one will ask ‘Is she really worth it?’ or ‘Can’t he find someone else?’ Romantic love has its own obscure logic which we all tacitly accept.
The roots of romantic love run deep. Indeed, the fundamental mental conventions of romantic love were consolidated on the ancestral plains of Africa, where evolutionary pressures determined that men should court women, that women should be coy, that relationships should be exclusive, and that love should storm the mind like a form of madness. However, since the rise of civilisation, these features have been increasingly complicated by ideological factors. The roots of romantic love are profoundly deep, but, now, they are also hopelessly tangled.
To understand fully the concept of romantic love requires an examination of its cultural history (in addition to its evolutionary history)…
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The Islamic courtly tradition was introduced into Western culture by the troubadours, whose poetry preserved many features of Arab mysticism – particularly, a quasi-religious praise of female beauty. However, as this theme was reworked, it also began to change. Spiritual inaccessibility gradually evolved into alluring aloofness, which in turn became regal disdain. Thus, a recurring figure in troubadour poetry was the cold, cruel mistress.
The theme of inaccessibility was also explored in another way: the introduction of a female character, immensely desirable, but unavailable through marriage.
Even at this very early stage, the authenticity of love was being judged according to its difficulty (with respect to obstacles and impediments) and its irrationality. In troubadour poetry, we can recognise the cultural ancestry of modern concepts such as Lee’s mania or Tennov’s limerence: love that does not need liking – love that may even thrive in response to rejection or contempt. The troubadour’s cruel mistress reappears again and again in literature in different guises: the enchantress, the femme fatale, the Belle Dame sans Merci. Long before psychologists began to study love in a systematic way, literature required a particular female type who would represent unhappy love.
The doctrine of romantic love (also known as courtezia or amour courtois) would have spread across Europe irrespective of royal patronage; however, the process was certainly accelerated by events at the court of Poitiers, where William IX is reputed to have been ‘the first troubadour’ (on account of having written the earliest surviving examples of coutly verse in the Provencal language). It was also at Poitiers that William’s granddaughter, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, Marie de Champagne, encouraged celebrated poets such as Bernard de Ventadour and Chretien de Troyes to compose works that exemplified courtly ideals. A narrative vehicle that was popular among the poets of Poitiers was Arthurian legend, which delivered a cast of characters whose relationships could be fully exploited to dramatise the frustrating dynamics of romantic love. Thus, Guinevere’s beauty is beyond compare, and Lancelot – Arthur’s most loyal servant – must fall hopelessly in love with the queen. (English readers are more familiar with this dynamic through Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur.) In the poetry of Chretien de Troyes, love – always complicated, but even more complicated by courtly conventions – is once again described as an illness: ‘My illness is what I want. And my pain is my health… I suffer agreeably… I am sick with delight.’
One of the most extraordinary developments at Poitiers was the creation of an inner court – the Court of Love – where noblewomen would meet to pose questions about love and the proper conduct of lovers. Questions would then be disputed, juried and judged, according to the increasingly dogmatic principles of courtezia. Perhaps, in an effort to make the task of this inner court easier, Marie instructed a cleric, Andrew Capelanus (also known as Andrew the Chaplain), to write a formal book of statutes: a kind of lovers’ charter.
Andrew began his task by consulting a classical authority – the Ars Amatoria (or Art of Love) by Ovid. It is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate work on which to base a ‘respectable’ canon. As with much to do with romantic love, history reveals cross-purposes, because for Ovid adoration is only a means to an end. Ovid adores, not because he can’t help himself, but because by feigning adoration he is more likely to succeed in seduction. He is a cunning and manipulative strategist, who advises on everything from good ‘chat up’ lines to how physical defects can be concealed by adopting special positions during intercourse. In an age of political correctness, he is still able to offend modern sensibilities. He recommends pretending to cry, making false promises, writing flattering verses (however insincere) and even coercion: `Some force is permissible – women are often pleased by force.’
Ovid also advises the aspirant libertine to affect the symptoms of love sickness: ‘All lovers should be pallid, it’s chic to be pale;/ Only fools deny it, pale skins rarely fail.’ Moreover, he observes that loss of appetite and worry ‘make the young lover as thin as a rake’. Therefore, if wishing to attract the attention of women, one should: `Look lean – it suggests passion.’
When Andrew Capelanus came to write his own work – The Art of Courtly Love – he did so by borrowing from Ovid. Thus, Ovid’s cynical observations were used to shore up the romantic ideal. Love sickness – merely another weapon in Ovid’s armamentarium – became fully established as a crucial sign of love’s authenticity.
Capelanus described love as `a certain inborn suffering’ and suggested thirty-one rules of love. They include the following:
Rule 2 He who is not jealous cannot love.
Rule 9 No one can love unless he is impelled by the persuasion of love (also translated as: No one can love who is not driven to do so by the power of love).
Rule 13 When made public love rarely endures.
Rule 14 The easy attainment of love makes it of little value; difficulty of attainment makes it prized.
Rule 15 Every lover regularly turns pale in the presence of his beloved.
Rule 16 When a lover suddenly catches sight of his beloved his heart palpitates.
Rule 20 A man in love is always apprehensive (also translated as: A lover is always fearful).
Rule 21 Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love.
Rule 22 Jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.
Rule 30 A true lover is constantly and without intermission possessed by the thought of his beloved (Also translated as: The true lover is continuously obsessed with the image of his beloved.
Love and mental illness were closely linked according to the principles of Hippocratic medicine; however, Capelanus’s principles seem to do much the same thing. At Poitiers it was decided that love – if true – must be disturbed and slightly perverse; it must be obsessive, compulsive, agitated, anxious, jealous, suspicious, clandestine, and frustrating.
There is still some debate concerning to what extent Capelanus meant his rules to be taken seriously. It is possible that The Art of Courtly Love was meant to be satirical – but if so, its satirical content was lost on contemporary and subsequent generations. The Art of Courtly Love was never viewed as a critique. It was always viewed as a manifesto.
Romantic love became an increasingly important feature of literature in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Lais of Marie de France and de Lorris’s Romance of the Rose are significant examples; however, the quintessential courtly romance of the middle ages must be Tristan – now more widely encountered in the opera house as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
Although Tristan does not feature King Arthur, it is an ‘Arthurian’ romance set in a landscape of castles, quests and dragons. An authenticated ‘original’ does not exist, but five versions have been handed down – the most famous being those of Beroul, Gottfried von Strassburg and Thomas.
Tristan is raised by his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, and it falls upon him to escort King Mark’s bride-to-be, the beautiful Princess Isolde, from her home in Ireland to the king’s castle. While crossing the Irish Sea, they both mistakenly drink a love potion, and subsequently fall in love. The love potion – a potent symbol of love’s madness – neatly excuses Tristan’s betrayal of his uncle.
In Gottfried’s version, the bemused Tristan complains: `I do not know what has come over poor Isolde and me, but we have both of us gone mad in the briefest space of time, with unimaginable torment – we are dying of love …’
Tristan and Isolde (against their better judgement) become clandestine lovers and, in doing so, stir the gods of tragedy. Much of the ensuing drama concerns their attempts to avoid discovery, and eventually they must separate. Tristan is wounded by a poisoned spear and, as his life ebbs away, he calls for Isolde. She rushes to be with him, but arrives too late and can do nothing to save him. Clasping his dead body, she gives up her spirit and dies.
During the middle ages, romantic narrative’s landscape of kings and queens, knights and ladies, heroism, bravery, destiny and magic became established in the Western imagination, and is familiar to children, appearing in numerous story-books. The idea of romantic love has penetrated so deep into our culture, that few people escape its influence before leaving the nursery. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that many grow up assuming they will find fairy-tale happiness in the real world – an expectation that is rarely fulfilled. Moreover, it is curious that the main exemplars of courtly romance (which in a sense foster our fairy-tale aspirations) rarely end with a `happy ever after’, but with torment, tears and death.