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…
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 ings 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.
Continued in part-2….
By Paul Elam
For the values centered model, I assume three states of being most typical to modern western men. Those are:
Gynocentric refers to the average man. He usually, but not always, operates with women unconsciously, just following whatever scripts he has adopted from early life. He seeks women’s acceptance without an intact set of values that are designed to protect him. In fact, it is his values that put him at risk. Many men value only being accepted sexually and romantically, by any woman they are attracted to, regardless of her moral character and any possible risk she represents.
The gynocentric man is the one with a piece of paper that says kick me taped to his back. We can mock him if we want, but we are well to remember that we have all been this man at one point or another in our lives.
The next state of being, Gynocentric Reactive, is a much more complicated affair. Here we see men who are infinitely more conscious than gynocentric men. They are aware of relationship pitfalls, may even be quite familiar with concepts like gynocentrism, hypergamy and male disposability.
It is their reaction to that information that may foment troubles. These men can be perpetually fulminating and overtly hostile to anything female. It’s the “all women are bitches and hoes” crowd, and the ever present resentments they carry can cause emotional and psychological atrophy. They may have a diminished capacity for reason and defensively take refuge in an ideology that shields them from examining their anger productively.
Another manifestation of the gynocentric reactive man is one who hides inside emotional armor, simply reducing women to their sexual utility, doing their best to get sex then get out. Unfortunately, it is a form of self-protection that may well heighten risk with repeated sexual contact with women who have not been assessed for anything other than physical attraction.
Finally, there are still other gynocentric reactive men who are just frustrated by the realities of lived experience with women. They find themselves caught in a web of confusion and consternation. They tend to be understandably mistrustful of women, and sometimes vacillate between being indifferent to them and being attracted. They feel stuck and outgunned. Chronic loneliness is often part of their lot. For this reason, many of them may be attracted to the other forms of reaction-based mindsets that don’t leave them feeling so vulnerable.
Gynocentric Reactive men get call misogynists a lot. They’re not. Setting aside judgements about the efficacy of their state of being, they are just men rationally demonstrating the will to self-protect. Regardless of how tiring the perpetual anger may be, they are much more functional and conscious than the gynocentrist.
Finally, there is the Gynocentric Proactive man. He routinely operates consciously with women. He has a clearly identified, personally chosen set of values that trump his sexual instincts and significantly temper his need for female approval.
Whether he includes women in his life or not, he is not burdened by fear of, or resentment toward, them.
He does not tolerate abuse, doesn’t take unnecessary financial risks or commit thoughtlessly. He can be available for a relationship if he chooses. He is also willing and able to let a relationship go that threatens his well-being. And he can do it without undue emotional distress.
Importantly, he is willing, indeed insistent, on evaluating any woman on his radar for risk and maintenance concerns.
It is important to reiterate here that none of these states of being can be called wrong. They are simply ways of coping in the modern sexual milieu. Even the gynocentric male is trying to cope in his way.
I will point out, however, that when I see men belittling and shaming other men for not walking in lockstep with them, it usually comes from gynocentric and gynocentric reactive men. Those are also the two states of being where, exceptions notwithstanding, I have observed the least happiness and the least reasonable points of view.
So, obviously, the intent here is to suggest that there is much more benefit to men in a Gynocentric Proactive state of being. The benefits are certainly there for emotional health.