The Myth of Romantic LoveMICHAEL NOVAK
For C.S. Lewis, the invention of romantic love in the age of the troubadours was far more momentous for the development of the West, and far more broadly influential than, say, the Protestant Reformation. Lewis compares the Reformation to a ripple on the vast ocean of romantic love.
A young Catholic today inherits a long, long tradition of reflection 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 dedicated to the theme.
In more recent times, if I may include that great writer in the English Catholic tradition, The Allegory of Love (1936) by C.S. Lewis. In that dazzling history 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 near-obsession, supposedly the key to all happiness. For Lewis, the invention of romantic love in the age of the troubadours (the age of the Crusades) was far more momentous for the development of the West, and far more broadly influential than, say, the Protestant Reformation. Lewis compares the Reformation to a ripple on the vast ocean of romantic love.
To feel the ecstasy of passion, romantic love entails a boundless desire, a longing for the infinite, a longing to "slip the surly bonds of Time," to escape from bodily limitations into the realm of the forever and the infinite. De Rougemont describes it as "complete Desire, luminous Aspiration, the primitive religious soaring carried to its loftiest perch. . . . a desire that never relapses, that nothing can satisfy, that even rejects and flees the temptation to obtain its fulfillment in the world." It is a revolt against mere flesh, against the limits of the human condition. The body, it finds gross. What it loves is the rarefied spiritual passion that only romantic lovers know. It loves feeling lifted "above the herd," into a higher sphere. Romantic love is "a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude," purer, more spiritual, more uplifting than physical "hooking up." It is not a sated appetite, but in fact quite the opposite. It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire. It feels a kind of murderous hostility toward rude awakenings.
This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles. If romantic love were to lead too quickly to physical consummation, it would cease being romantic. For then it would require dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and – bump! – romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. No, for the sake of romantic love, it is much better for fulfillment to be delayed, for obstacles to be put up, for a sword to be laid down between the longing couple, or a curtain drawn between them. For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another. De Rougemont comments on romantic lovers: "Their need of one another is in order to be aflame, and they do not need one another as they are. What they need is not one another's presence, but one another's absence." This is the story of love perennially facing obstacles, never having to get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life.
Romantic love is to be contrasted with the Christian vision of human love. Unlike romantic love, it is plain from scripture that God expected – nay, commanded – his followers to consummate their relationships: "Increase and multiply and fill the earth." Sexuality is a crucial part of human life, both for deeply personal growth and, second, for the continuance and prospering of the human community as a whole. The Christian (and emphatically the 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 hold to the view that the body is separate from the soul. On the contrary, in the Christian view, the human person is one, not two: an embodied spirit, a spirited body – one. The notion that there is an errant body (like a wild steed) to be disciplined by a superior soul (the charioteer) is 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's The Nature of Love. Von Hildebrand sees all the many varieties of human love – he distinguishes eight or nine different loves, each with its own proper name – as designed to fold into each other, all converging upwards into a rich, symphonic unity. This unity culminates in that greatest of all gifts, the caritas which is proper only and solely to the Persons of the Trinity for one another. The caritas that makes them one. This caritas is also the force which impels the Lord to overflow his identity, diffusing caritas throughout the human race, inspiriting the race, raising its sights and aspirations, transforming the world like yeast in dough, or the heat of white-hot ingots glowing in the night.
Michael Novak. "The Myth of Romantic Love." On the Square (February 14, 2011).
This article is reprinted with permission from First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.
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