Love in the Western World

My wife recently rearranged a large portion of our books so that they are on shelves by color. It’s not the best system for finding a specific book (granted, I’ve had some of these books long enough that I do know off the top of my head what color many of them are), but by simple virtue of the rearrangement I found myself sitting on the couch looking at a different set of books than previously. This started me off on reading some books which I have had sitting around for years. One of them is Denis De Rougemont’s Love in the Western World (as translated by Montgomery Belgion in the Schocken edition from 1983).

I can’t imagine trying to summarize the book, but at a very basic level it is about the idea of passionate love and its movement through time to the present (or Rougemont’s present of 1940). Rougement goes back to the heretical Cathars and the Troubadours of the 12th century and focuses on the myth of Tristan and Iseult. For the most part, it is a dense and fascinating work which on one reading would elude my ability to discuss it intelligently, but I wanted to share some quotations that I think will easily show this books relevance in thinking about romance and love in a vast majority of contemporary narrative works and even in our thinking in real life (possibly influenced by said narrative works).

We saw Woody Allen’s latest, Vicky Christina Barcelona, last week, and I couldn’t help seeing that movie through the view of this book. The characters are all stuck in the idea of passionate love, with obstacles to love and what happens when those obstacles are removed. I can even see its relevance in Tanizaki Junichiro’s Some Prefer Nettles which is in essence about a married couple and their self-imposed impasses on getting the divorce they both claim to want.

Happy love has no history. Romance only comes into existence where 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. There we have the fundamental fact. (15)

The myth operates wherever passion is dreamed of as an ideal instead of being feared like a malignant fever; wherever its fatal character is welcomed, invoked, or imagined as a magnificent and desirable disaster instead of as simply a disaster. It lives upon the lives of people who think that love is their fate; that it swoops upon powerless and ravished men and women in order to consume them in a pure flame; or that it is stronger and more real than happiness, society, or morality. (24)

Tristan and Iseult do not love one another. They say they don’t, and everything goes to prove it. What they love is love and being in love. (41)

Hence, whether our desire is for the most self-conscious or simply for the most intense love, secretly we desire obstruction. And this obstruction we are ready if needs be to invent or imagine. (52)

The happiness of lovers stirs our feelings only on account of the unhappiness which lies in wait for it. We must feel that life is imperilled, and also feel the hostile realities that drive happiness away into some beyond. What moves us is not its presence, but its nostalgia and recollection. Presence is inexpressible and has no perceptible duration; it can only be a moment of grace… (52)

…passion is by no means the fuller life which it seems to be in the dreams of adolescence, but is on the contrary a kind of naked and denuding intensity; verily, a bitter destitution, the impoverishment of a mind being emptied of all diversity, an obsession of the imagination of a single image. In the face of the assertion of its power, the world dissolves… (145-6)

…the matter in question is the passion of love, and not love purely profane and natural. What, it seems to me lies at the heart of the antithesis between the two forms of mysticism is that the Romance deals, not merely with profane and natural love, but with passionate love. Orthodox mysticism brings about a ‘spiritual marriage’ of God and the individual soul already in this life, whereas the heretical looks to union and complete fusion, and this only after the demise of the body. In the eyes of the Cathars, this world was past all possible redemption, and their belief implied in theory that profane love is absolute misfortune, an impossible and blamable attachment to an imperfect creature. In the eyes of the Christian, on the other hand, divine love is a misfortune also since man in his fallen state is unable to love God fully in return, but it is a misfortune which nevertheless creates man anew, and which, far from being antagonist to profane love, results in making this love holy through marriage. Accordingly, the mystic lovers in the Romance are compelled to pursue the intensity of passion, not its fortunate appeasement. (149)

So soon as passion goes beyond instinct and becomes truly itself, it tends to self-description, either in order to justify or intensify its being, or else simply in order to keep going (173)