Love in the Western World by Denis de Rougemont

Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont

"[A]ll European poetry has come out of the Provencal poetry written in the twelfth century by the troubadours of Languedoc [...]. Let us grant that the language of passion was derived from a courtly literature, itself produced in the atmosphere of a certain heresy." (Pg 78 & 173)

Knights and Ladies, power dynamics

There arose in the 12th Century a conflict between a knight in allegiance and duty to a feudal lord versus a knight in allegiance to a lady. The lady was known as a "domina" (though sometimes the knight would use the masculine address, "mi dons" or in Spain, "senhor," for his Lady), and the allegiance was known as a vassal-relation (Pg 35). This was true for Andalusian and Arab troubadours alike. Many of the "supremely mystical" troubadour poets were also "notoriously homosexual" (Pg 104).

When a knight chose a lady, he bowed to her as to a suzerain. She granted him a ring and a "chaste" kiss on the brow. They were thereafter bound by "cortezia: secrecy, patience, and moderation." The white knight was originally meant as the unknown knight; a man fighting not for his own name or vanity, but for the ideal (Pg 264).

Although the poet was now considered a servente to the lady, and the lady his "nostalgic ideal", women in everyday reality were still powerless to men socially and politically.

Fascinatingly, in the European version of the game of chess, it was in the 12th Century that four kings were replaced by one King and one Queen, with the Queen gaining the most power on the board save that of the King; and wherein the King's movement was severely limited despite his presence remaining the determinant of the game (Pg 118).

Marriage, the enemy

Courtly love was a challenge to marriage, which had become a mockery of love or satisfaction. The abuse of the plea of incest involved males who married solely for dowery or inheritance and who would repudiate the wife through a "consanguinity of even the fourth degree" with little or no evidence. The Church had no recourse over this method of disposing of marriage bonds and wives.

The poetry was themed to love, and particularly, to unhappy love: unsatisfied, unrequited. It especially tended towards love outside of marriage. "[M]arriage implies no more than a physical union, but 'Amor' - the supreme Eros - is the transport of the soul upwards to ultimate union with light [...]" (Pg 79).

Love became something that was above and beyond the life here on earth - it became divine. Which meant it was unattainable and therefore true love was physically chaste.

Courtly love then, was by definition a bond that was not only above the law and Church (Roman orthodoxy), it was at odds with them. Courtly love was inherently hampered by the fact that it could not realize itself, for as soon as it did, it became undone. It was doomed from the start.

Pope Gregory VII enforced the centuries-old yet largely ignored forbiddance of marriage to priests in the 11th Century. Around this time the cult of the Virgin Mary began to receive support from the church (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady was instituted for instance), and monks were referred to as Knights of Mary (Pg117).

The difference between a worshipped Lady and a disparaged woman became more and more divided. Rambaut of Orange wrote that if you wanted a woman to love you (in the physical realm), then you should treat her roughly and crudely, such as to "punch [her] in the nose". But if you wanted to pursue courtly love, or passion-love, you would "behave differently," by being "humble, obliging, frank and gentle, fond, respectful, and faithful," which is how you would treat a sister (Pg 103).

"By the very fact that [she] is now his wife, he must not and cannot any longer desire her" (Pg 137).

Heretics, the passionate lovers

According to Rougemont, this poetic idolatry of love and lady were part and parcel of the major heretical movement against Catholicism, the Cathars. The Catharist religion was such a threat that the Catholic church stomped them out nearly completely - their books and doctrines were burned, and their proponents were killed through the Inquisition. The church was also openly against the tournaments.

In Christianity, divinity came down from heaven into man. In paganism, man attempted to ascend up to divinity. Cathars and poets kept alive the idea that bliss is not of this earth or this life. Only in death can it be found. "Death is release from a world under the sway of evil" (Pg 240). The Cathars did not accept incarnation, baptism by water, and they chose a strict life including chastity. Additionally, the more likely a man was to oppose sexual union, the more likely he was to philosophically oppose war; pro-marriage was often pro-war (Pg 251). Chastity though, was the springboard to the Cathars and troubadours being the passionate lovers, the ones who aspired for the purest love - love that was only consummated in suffering and death.

Mystics divided

Rougemont divides the mystics according to their belief in unity (a union) versus communion. Unity involves the fusion of our creaturely selves and the divine, whereas communion is envisioned more as a marriage that maintains a distinction of entities who are yet joined. This is further evidenced as a dualism in love; Eros versus Agape, which is correlated as the East and West respectively. It's a difference between rejecting the world now in order to ascend and fuse with the divine or embracing the divine here on earth within each of us and all of creation.

If one's mystical belief system allows for union with the divine, then there is no need for passion. Union is bliss. It is the mystics who believe in the essential differentiation between humans and God who evolved the language of passionate love; a love unfulfilled except through suffering and death. This love is based on desire, a desire that can neither be abandoned or seized.

For those who followed the path of separate but communal, it made sense to make the body (which is not divine) a servant to the soul (which aspires to commune with the divine). To make the body humble, to humiliate, denigrate the body, was a rational choice. Vows of poverty were spoken of in the same way a Knight talks of his Lady.

Saints, the passionate lovers

The poetic language of the traveling Franciscans and Cathars, the troubadours of the 12th century, St. Francis of Assissi in the 13th, and eventually the great orthodox mystics of the 16th century such as Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, spoke of Christ and love in the courtly fashion of chivalry; that is, in terms of sensual and sexual love. This despite and because of the rejection of sensual and sexual love in reality. The commonalities are the "heroic notion of moral obligation, of action, and of faith" (Pg 171). It wasn't until the 19th century that the eroticism of Christian poetry became embarrassing. At the time, it was considered quite innocent.

Freudian critics of the saints say they are deflecting sexual urges, sublimating them or inhibiting them through their use of erotic praise language. It could be argued though, as it is by Rougemont, that Saint Teresa is perhaps much less inhibited than her 19th century psychologist adversaries. Certainly, one of the most famous of her autobiographical passages indicates a rather uninhibited mind:

While Christ spoke to me I contemplated the extraordinary beauty of his humanity... I felt such strong pleasure that is not possible to feel in other moments of life... During ecstasy the body stops moving, breathing becomes slower and weaker, you only sigh and pleasure comes in waves... In ecstasy an angel appeared to me in its bodily form and it was beautiful; I saw a long arrow in his hand; it was gold and the tip was on fire. The angel stabbed me with the arrow through to my bowels and when he pulled it out it left me burning with love for God... the pain the arrow wound left was so acute that I could only sigh faintly, but this indescribable torment gave me such sweet delight at the same time that it was not bodily sufferance even if the body took part completely... Our lord, my husband, gave such excess of pleasure to make me say no more except that all my senses were enraptured.

Sexy chickens or sexy eggs?

So did heretics adopt the language of sex, or did sex adopt the language of the mystics? This goes back to something as simple and complex as; Does the word love fundamentally refer to the body or the mind? It's quite possible and often asserted that the mystics were sublimating sexual urges, but it is just as likely that lovers are sublimating their mystical beliefs. Rougemont actually sides with the language of passionate love originating in the mind and being applied to the erotics of the body. His argument for this is strong. Passionate love is expressly a love that is beyond instinct. "Madly in love," and "blinded by passion" are direct references to allowing the mind to create a desire above and beyond the sexual instinct of the body. Although the language of passion began in a heretical mysticism, it eventually moved into the domain of manners and metaphor, and finally today, into rhetoric. But throughout its entire transition, it has remained a thoroughly human creation.

Make your bed and stand by it

For the true mystic practitioners, the ultimate goal is to go beyond the trance, the intensity of feeling, and end up on the other side; not quite totally dispassionate or indifferent, but rather, to be so present in the moment, and so self-assured, that fear and desire are moot. For the believers who are not the Perfect (Cathars), they get stuck along the way by chasing the intensity and the longing; the feeling of love becomes a goal rather than the quiet of actual love itself, and it is an addictive intoxication of feeling. In this way, Rougemont sees the Orthodox mystics as achieving a certain happiness, while the heretical mystics are forever using their own unhappiness to prove their struggle. The Christian path of suffering to gain can eventually land in a peaceful, or even blissful, state of acceptance. The heretic on the other hand, may simply be an addict. In love with love.

"[...] few people would fall in love had they never heard of love" (Pg 183).

"The more a man is given to sentiment, the more likely is he to be wordy and to speak well" (Pg 184).

The happy ending is born, and wanes

Dante, Petrarch, Zola, Balzac, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Milton and finally, in the seventeenth century, the happy ending was born. "[...] the endings of novels became a return to something essentially alien to romance - happiness" (Pg 205). Main characters might actually get married at the end of the story.

This didn't last long. Soon, the male heroes were complaining that their women were too perfect, their love too close. A rival was necessary to create space, to create struggle and conflict, or in lack of infidelity, then the male could set out to cause pain which would require suffering. The intensity of passion, up close and physically possible, turned out to be a bit smothering. Now the lover wants to be "free" from devotion. Rougemont claims the hero/writer actually wants to be free from desire. The simple answer is to get rid of the woman. Passion must be continually stoked as a fire, and peace and happiness are in opposition to passion. It's not that there's too much love, it's that there's not enough passion.

At the same time, the final consequence of passion, death, began to temper. A prolonged sense of tragic sadness and suffering could substitute for something as absolute (and formerly, absolving) as death. The suffering of passionate love becomes as much an end as formally a means. Chivalry takes on new meaning as something simply akin to manners, in both love and war, giving birth to common "courtesy".

The eighteenth century brought some literary rebellion against courtly love and romance, and the "satiation" that the 17th Century had experimented with. The creation of Don Juan was a pivotal moment that led shortly to the Marquis de Sade's tales of S&M. The ideal of woman as the ideal of purity gave way to woman as the object of pleasure, and literary rape became socially acceptable.

Sadly, since marriage represented the end of passion (which can only be sustained by obstacle to satiation), marriage began to substitute for death. Once a man fulfilled his physical desire with a woman, then he might as well marry her. And where they may both think nostalgically on their past ardor, the "calm" of marriage presents a best case scenario compared to the death of the romantic. Pain is a symbol of true love, and is pursued of its own accord. What is lost from the structure of the myth at this point is the mystical transcendence. The purity of love abstained which was meant to lead to divine union was methodically replaced by the disappointment of the ideal faced fully in reality and the ensuing resentment of contentment.

With mass-produced media the tragic became more and more middle-class. Romance could include not only a yearning for an impossibly ideal woman, but also affluence and adventures (Pg 246). Passion, no longer deadly, became melodramatic.

Wagner simplified the myth components down to initiation, passion and fatal fulfillment. In the early 1900's the characters were simplified to the cuckold (King Mark), the gigolo (Tristan), and the idle, dissatisfied wife (Iseult). And although the mistress 'wins' over the wife, marriage 'wins' over passion. The happy ending persists, but only after a sufficient number of obstacles are overcome. The happy ending is the release from suffering and the myth is now clearly nostalgia.

Life after happy endings

The heresy of the 20th Century attempted to reclaim their women as accessible and normalized as well as their secular here-and-now social structure. Where the troubadours were happy to kill the body, the modern believer is willing to kill the spirit.

Passion, or, sex and violence

By the third century the language of war was already being used metaphorically as the language of love.

In 15th Century Italy, men abhorred the French innovations of cannon fire and artillery. Writers complained that the canon brought the death of valour and real passionate war. No longer were knights gallantly fighting one to one, now a common peasant could kill a knight from several hundred yards away.

By the 19th Century wars were not necessarily fought for goods, they were being fought for philosophical conquest. National wars became a concept, beginning with the idea of freedom for a group of people, and later transforming into the idea of unifying groups of people. The passion of the individual's quest for valor was amalgamated into a national identity of honor.

The purpose of war was for a time concerned with defeat of the enemy. Eventually though, defeat became synonymous with death. Whereas a Knight could win a battle without killing, war in the 1900s involved not only the death of those in battle, but whole cities of civilians.

In the same vein, Knights who previously sought to overcome the defenses of a Lady slid through rape into murder.

The old debate of what true freedom is plays out again and again. Is a man free when he has attained "self-mastery"; or is he defeated when he has given himself over to passion, when he is "beside himself" (Pg 296)?

Leaders such as Stalin and Hitler were very straightforward in their aim to ally war, passion and marriage. Passion was to be focused on the State; marriages on the other hand, should be stable breeding grounds for the eugenically preferred offspring. Hitler set up "a school of future brides" who were required to be blond, tall and Aryan, and were the soon to be brides of the SS (Pg 305). Individual happiness is not a foundation that a nationalistic leader can rely on, and once society reaches a point where sex is severed from marriage, and children are discouraged, then the military is in danger.

Passion vs Marriage

The pursuit of passion makes it impossible to ever be content. Passion is a future-centered activity. Marriage requires a deep awareness of the present. Faithfulness, according to Rougemont, requires that a person feel contentment with their present reality. If passion is meant to be happiness, then marriage is to be "lastingness". His opinion is not that divorce should be harder to acquire, but that marriage be harder to enter.

Finally, in the last chapters, Rougemont finally comes out as pro-marriage. He bases this on Agape vs Eros, where Agape wins. To be in love is a state, whereas to love is to take action. Loving another person takes moral action. For a man to love a woman, he must see her as equal, because he must put her happiness equal to or above his own. Rape and polygamy are asserted to be the result of a man who has not learned to see woman as a person. Marriage and fidelity require personhood.

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