The myth of romantic love | Michael novak


A young Catholic today inherits a long, long tradition of reflecting on love that is unmatched in any other culture in the world, beginning with the sublime “Song of Songs” of the Jewish Testament, and the many sections of the Christian Testament devoted to the theme. More recently, if I can include this great writer in the English Catholic tradition, The allegory of love (1936) by CS Lewis. In this dazzling story, Lewis traces the invention of the story of romantic love, now the most standard of all loves recognized in the Western world. Romantic love is a Western invention, a quasi-obsession, supposedly the key to all happiness. For Lewis, the invention of romantic love in the days of the troubadours (the age of the Crusades) was far more important to the development of the West, and far more widely influential than, say, the Protestant Reformation. Lewis likens the Reformation to a ripple on the vast ocean of romantic love.

As a result of this invention, we Westerners have come to believe that the central fire of human happiness is romantic love, love forever and ever (“haply ever after” love). The imagination ends with the romantic couple walking hand in hand through the fields towards the sunlight. Many people spend their entire lives looking for such love, wanting to feel such love, wondering, when they are attracted to another for the first time, if it’s what they are feeling now. Mostly, most people like to be in love, love the feeling of loving, even love the crazy passion to be in love.

that of Denis de Rougemont Love in the western world (1940) opened my eyes to the phenomenon of romantic love. By pointing out several traits of romantic love, he offered a useful vocabulary for analyzing the meaning most often attached to the term “love” in literature, theater and cinema today. At the center of these is the fact that it is all about falling in love with love, not with a specific person. In its pure form, it despises simple bodily, erotic, sexual love. He prides himself on being “above” the biological love that is satisfied by pornography or by groping interaction with another human being. This unhappy higher love involves

factor having the power to make the instinct divert from its natural goal and to transform the desire in aspiration without limits, in something, that is to say which does not serve, even acts against, biological ends.

Romantic love loves higher passion, the spiritual ecstasy of love, not the body. A woman in love likes to be carried away, yearning for more, until death. “I’d rather die” than lose the feeling of loving him and being loved by him.

Passion is suffering, something suffered, the mastery of destiny over a free and responsible person. To love love more than the object of love, to love passion for itself, is to love to suffer and to court suffering, from the amabam amare up to modern romanticism.

To feel the ecstasy of passion, romantic love implies a limitless desire, a yearning for infinity, a desire to “slip the surly bonds of time”, to escape bodily limitations in the realm of the eternity and infinity. De Rougemont describes it as “the complete Desire, the luminous Aspiration, the primitive religious impulse carried to its highest perch. . . . a desire that never falls, that nothing can satisfy, that even rejects and shuns the temptation to obtain its fulfillment in the world. It is a revolt against pure flesh, against the limits of the human condition. The body, he finds it rude. What he loves is the rarefied spiritual passion that only romantic lovers know. He likes to feel elevated “above the flock”, in a higher sphere. Romantic love is “a transfiguring force, something beyond pleasure and pain, fiery bliss”, purer, more spiritual, more uplifting than physical “plugging”. It is not a satiated appetite, quite the contrary. He likes the feeling of never being satisfied, of always being caught up in desire, of remaining in the sweetness of desire. He feels a sort of murderous hostility towards rude awakenings.

This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles. If romantic love were to lead to physical consumption too quickly, it would cease to be romantic. Because then we would have to deal with messy clothes, mess to clean, bad breath and disheveled hair. Then there would be a meal to prepare, and-to bump!-romance has returned to the land of lumpen. No, for romantic love it is much better for the completion to be delayed, for obstacles to be erected, for a sword to be placed between the longing couple, or for a curtain to be drawn between them. For their romantic passion to endure, lovers must be kept away from each other. De Rougemont comments on romantic lovers: “Their need for each other is to ignite, and they don’t need each other as they are. What they need is not each other’s presence, but each other’s absence. It is the story of a love perpetually facing obstacles, without ever having to go into the details of daily life.

If and when Eros triumphs over all obstacles, it ceases to be romantic love. He must now choose between a commitment to another concrete with all the limits of this other, or a definitive break. Because with consumption, the illusion is shattered. The flesh meets the flesh. The reality of the human condition sets in. As a result, the most satisfying ending for the romantic love story is not , as one might think, physical consumption or even “aging together”. It is, in fact, death, while longing still pierces the heart. Because then the living member of the couple can continue to love infinitely, forever, above the ordinary of the simple earth. Or, if this empty fate is just unbearable, the remaining loved one may also meet a tragic death. Now this is truly satisfying: when a man and a woman continue in romantic love eternally, through the untimely death of each other. It’s a real tragedy, a real arrow of love to the heart, the best of all western tales.

Do few young people you know believe that true happiness is in true romantic love? (They may not know how to distinguish true romantic love, but they are desperate to try it, so that they can finally become “happy.” For many, “happiness.” ways romantic love.) Don’t many want to be “carried away”? Be honest, you almost certainly remember that melancholy in you from a long time ago. Perhaps, again, even at your present age, you tend to think that romantic love, a true passion as the French called it, was once, or still is, the highest, sweetest peak in your life. We all know people who refuse to be bound by an earthly commitment to a concrete and imperfect human being. Instead, they fall in love with love over and over again. Until death brings them rest.

Romantic love is to be opposed to the Christian vision of human love. Unlike romantic love, it is clear from the scriptures that God expected, indeed, commanded his followers to consummate their relationships: “Increase, multiply, and fill the earth.” Sexuality is a crucial part of human life, both for deep personal growth and, secondly, for the continuity and prosperity of the human community as a whole. The Christian (and categorically Catholic) view of the human being is that sex is a natural expression, not only of the body, but of the soul. In fact, the Christian faith does not consider the body to be separate of soul. On the contrary, in the Christian view, the human person is one, not two: an embodied spirit, an animated body.-a. The idea that there is a wandering body (like a wild steed) to be disciplined by a higher soul (the charioteer) comes from Plato, not from Judaism and Christianity.

A very good recent study of love in all its many different varieties has been bequeathed to us by Dietrich von Hildebrand The nature of love. Von Hildebrand sees all of the many varieties of human love – he distinguishes eight or nine different loves, each with its own name – as designed to fold over one another, all converging upward in a rich symphonic unity. This unity culminates in the greatest of all gifts, the caritas which is proper only to the Persons of the Trinity one for the other. The caritas that unites them. This caritas is also the force which pushes the Lord to overflow his identity, diffusing caritas throughout the human race, inspiring the race, uplifting its views and aspirations, turning the world like yeast to dough, or the heat of white-hot ingots that glow in the night.

Von Hildebrand’s distinctions between agape and caritas are particularly bright. Her view of the love of a married man and woman is both very lofty and beautiful, and quite down to earth. Conjugal love is not that of angels. It’s that of sweaty bodies, disheveled sheets, unruly hair, bad breath, unkempt beards, dirty diapers and, outside the door, little ones crying their breakfast. Christian love is that worldly and realistic. Resistant to romantic illusions, down to earth. Supreme realism. Reality is always better than illusion. And with regard to marriage, especially so.

But the love of man and woman is also very high and very beautiful, precisely in so far as it can be penetrated by the supernatural. caritas. As Von Hildebrand writes: “It is caritas which empowers those who are animated by it to enter into the kingdom of holy goodness, and it is caritas it brings dominance of the humble, reverent, loving center within them over the center of pride and lust. Not a bad statement of the fulfillment of marital love.

Michael Novak recently retired from the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion, Philosophy and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the Editorial Board of First things.