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February 14, 2014

Happy Valentine's Day!

Posted by: Susan Mai

In celebration of Valentine's Day, enjoy an excerpt from Irving Singer's Philosophy of Love on the "varieties of Romantic love":

The idea of merging with another person comes to the fore in romanticism. That is a primal component in it. Romantic theory also partakes of Platonism, Neoplatonism, sometimes Aristotelianism, and also pantheism—which many scholars have deemed uniquely Romantic: the idea being that passionate love is sacred in itself and therefore justifies one's intense experience; or else, that Romantic love is not just loving someone passionately but may also include a deified version of what Schopenhauer calls “loving-kindness.” The latter is not the same as passion.

In Schopenhauer, who was a pessimist and who best represents Romantic pessimism, sexual passion is always an illusion-making device that nature employs to get people to engage in marriage, and therefore coitus, for the sake of reproducing the species. For the men and women who are in love and give themselves to it completely, passion is the greatest thing in life and they are sure it will lead to happiness. In reality, according to Schopenhauer, it is just a cunning self-deception created by nature to get people to procreate. The idea was picked up by Tolstoy and many other writers at the end of the nineteenth century, and also by Freud in the early twentieth century. They thought that passion enables our existence to be affirmative and vibrant, at least bearable, but always severely marred by emotional deception.

Nowadays when people treat Romantic love as the only kind of love, they tend to assume that passionate attachment alone makes life worth living. That is a wholly Romantic idea. It does not exist in the medieval conception of courtly love. In courtly love there may be sex, and even passionate sex—Tristan and Iseult is a story of adultery. The troubadours had to avoid that, or pretend to, but the trouv√®res and other adherents to courtly love didn't fudge the fact that their experience involved carnal indulgence. At the same time, the medieval writers rarely assert that the oceanic feeling of sexual passion justifiably frees one from the bonds of ordinary morality. In the Romantic period, that is exactly what was meant. Passion of this libidinal and erotic sort appears in the glorified abandon and complete yielding of oneself that is then defined as the nature of truly romantic unity between man and woman, and as the basis of all love in general, indeed the only thing that creates meaning and goodness in life.

Bernini's statue of St. Teresa shows her in a state of ecstasy, with her eyes rolling, while she is half unconscious, or maybe wholly unconscious, but undergoing a passionate love of God. That is how the church was willing to represent religious love—the passionate and total surrender of oneself to the deity. If you take this work of art in isolation from its social setting, let's say if you're a Martian who comes in and looks at that statue, you might see it as something out of Playboy...The notion of Romantic love, extolling the supremely passionate, concentrates entirely upon the overwhelming and quasi-religious emotionality that men and women may get from love, particularly sexual love. This view of interpersonal possibilities predominates throughout the history of romanticism in the modern world.

 

 

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