Love in the Western World is an impressive and singular scholarly work penned by the Swiss writer and cultural theorist Denis de Rougemont. In this mammoth of a book, Rougemont takes a deep breath and plunges headlong into the ocean, eager to stir the depths of our subconscious and bring to light that which hasn’t ceased tormenting the western culture for whole centuries: the polarity between Eros dressed as passion and Love dressed as Agape.
Etymologically speaking, passion derives from the Greek word ”πάσχω” which means ”to suffer”. Therefore, passion means suffering. And this is the thread Rougemont is eager to unwind in order to unfold his analysis. In the book, the basis of the study begins with the quintessential Celtic myth of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Iseult. After all, this love affair covers a rich, fertile ground ready for the harvester’s hand: drama, intensity, passion, obstacles, infidelity, courtly love, melancholy, adventure etc. There could be no better myth for the work at hand.
We read that, ”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.”
Rougemont doesn’t get carried away with romantic ideas. On the contrary, he delves into the heart of the matter, bringing to the surface the dark truth that lies at the bottom of perhaps the most enduring and celebrated European myth.
Rougemont, with his remarkable insight, maintains the idea that what propels the actions and decisions between the lovers is not the love the one nurtures for the other, but the narcissistic love that each one harbours for one’s own self. Tristan and Iseult become involved with each other, entangled in a deadly game due to a magic potion they accidentally consume. A potion destined for Iseult and her future husband and Tristan’s uncle, king Mark of Cornwall.
The lovers are drenched in desire. But it’s not a desire burning for the beloved person. It’s a desire that flares up every time an obstacle rises in their way. It’s a desire for passion. In other words, it’s a desire for suffering, for frustration, for adventures. Every time they are about to be exposed before the king’s eyes, their desire magnifies tenfold, for the risk looming over their heads kicks up their adrenaline.
Separation and reunion. That’s the endless circle into which they’re running. Lost to the outside world, as if dead to every other stimulus, they are not interested in possessing each other. What they care about is their own selfish pleasure and satisfaction, their own excitement, their own longing for more suffering that energizes them.
The myth of Tristan and Iseult is a tragic story, a delicious torment that surpasses the boundaries of good and evil. It’s a true romance in all its nostalgic glory.
Rougemont writes that, ”To love in the sense of passion-love is the contrary of to live. It is an impoverishment of one’s being, an askesis without sequel, an inability to enjoy the present without imagining it as absent, a never-ending flight from possession.”
Rougemont observes that the myth equally conceals and discloses its terrible secret through a mystical language carried by the tradition of the Druids and later the trobadours. And what exactly is that secret? None other than love. But it’s not a love for the beloved person. It’s love for the idea of love.
Tristan doesn’t love Iseult and neither does Iseult love Tristan. Both are in love with the idea of love. They don’t need so much each other’s presence. It’s the absence that ignites their passion, leading them to a triumph of a most narcissistic nature.
In Wagner’s work Tristan wonders, ”For what fate? The ancient tune tells me once more: to yearn – and to die. No! Ah, no! That is not it! Yearning! Yearning! While dying to yearn,
but not to die of yearning!”
But this love for love cleverly hides an even darker truth: love for death. Death is the final destination. The only destination that can liberate them from their terrible passion. By dying, Tristan and Iseult retaliate against the magic potion and all the maelstrom it generated. This was always what the lovers longed for. This was the ultimate truth they weren’t even aware of. A truth that turned against them in the end.
Rougemont traces the religious origins of the myth in platonism, druidism and manichaeism. The dialectics of Eros introduces something of a most extraordinary nature, for it has to do with a desire that doesn’t diminish, that can find satisfaction nowhere, that evades its completion in this world because it longs to embrace everything. Its final goal is to reach the Infinite, to seek union with the Divine.
Eros despises the terrestrial pleasures because it’s a desire without end whose fruition lies beyond this world.
Rougemont always returns to the polarity between Night and Day, between life and death, between desire and obligation. Desire and obligation spring from courtly love that later turns into an heresy, Catharism. The damsel in courtly love is always married to an older, noble man. Always loyal and unapproachable, she is merciless and cold to her young lover to whom she pays no attention. The damsel becomes his mistress and the lover her vassal.
And if marriage is nothing more than a political pact between two families, it becomes patently clear why love outside of marriage wasn’t viewed as infidelity by the travadours but as an ideal relationship which merited poetry and songs and eternal praise through a carefully crafted and mystical language.
Eros is an askesis, a withdrawal within the self, an impoverishment where the outside world languishes and the inner world becomes intoxicated.
The exceptional psychology of the cult of Eros is revealed through language, a language that at the same time has the potential to tell lies and reveal what it truly wants to express. It’s a language preserved through the conviction that others won’t understand what it wants to convey. Therefore, in this misunderstanding, the very essence of passion isn’t understood, thus saved.
Rougemont then proceeds to bring to the table the concept of love as it has been portrayed in literature through Petrarch, plays by Corneille and Racine, the myths created by Don Juan and Sade and the movement of Romanticism.
Of particular interest is the parallelism Rougemont draws between love and war, between the military and the sexual instinct. The proof of this lies in the vocabulary applied. ”Cupid’s arrows”, ”the battle for love”, ”the siege of the lady’s body and heart”, ”the conquest of the object of our desire”, ”the defences that can be lowered”, ”the prisoner who can be won”, ”the sweet defeat and surrender”, ”the vassal into which the lover is turned”.
Imperialism is seen as a desire without end, a desire to conquer nations because the need for new territories arises. But war signifies death in the manner that love dressed as passion signifies death, even though nobody admits this openly.
Rougemont concludes his work with a burning issue that still remains pertinent: fidelity and the crisis of matrimony. Far removed from the social, political and historical context that gave birth to the myth of Tristan and Iseult, our society views marriage under a completely different light. Iseult might be a symbol of the ideal woman, a woman we can never possess and, if we possess her, she loses her idealistic qualities. And the same applies to Tristan.
But Eros is saved when transformed to the Christian concept of Agape. Infidelity arises when the idealistic object of our dreams enters into our possession. Once possessed, the dream wanes, and we find ourselves on the prowl, seeking for a new object on which to project our passions and desires. Agape, though, isn’t based on reflections or illusions, but on equality. Man and woman are treated as equal beings, not as romantic projections of mythic and dream-like proportions. The narcissistic desire withers and dies, giving its place to love and the desire for the well-being of the beloved person.
Love in the Western World is definitely an ambitious work that attempts to unearth the secrets of Eros-passion and Agape-love through historical, cultural, religious and philosophical dimensions. It’s not a book for everyone. I found it equally fascinating and bewildering. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I hadn’t considered before and, although it’s not a book that can be absorbed with the first reading, it has offered me plenty of food for thought. I will certainly come back to it many times in the future.
Love in the Western World strikes at the heart of the western culture, providing answers and challenging our notions regarding a matter still very much relevant to our existence. Almost 80 years after its initial publication, it remains meaningfully modern, for it still hasn’t finished saying what it has to say, as is the case with all good works.