If you give your body away, where do you live? Lovers, the tortured, athletes, combatants, the grievously afflicted, and perhaps dancers or musicians surrender the control of their physical selves to something larger. But, doing this, they can feel enormous intimacy, even spiritual. Perhaps the parts of the identity that dwelt in the larger body come to concentrate in the mental life, brain-based. There is often some kind of attachment that develops, very intimately and not necessarily caressing. Then attachment can become obsession and finally addiction, which is a minutely physical neuronal change in the body, most intensely in the brain. Usually it works against survival. So now I’m including on this short list all kinds of PTSD and much drug use. There may or may not be self-awareness of what has happened, no perceived ability to change back to a former self or a future addiction-free state, except through great suffering, like opiod withdrawal.
I’m speaking from observation and testimony, not my own experience, in the way the first aboriginal people assigned an interpreter, who were often women living at crossroads. The tribal lives were not lesser, but different; not better or worse, but different. Those whose brain nodes-of-assumptions (I mean literal neuron sorting centers) have been deeply changed will try to avoid explaining and probably couldn’t if they tried. The inside/outside boundary cannot be breached except by those very few who can go back and forth. It is a shaman’s journey and humbling.
My copy of “Love in the Western World” by de Rougement is second-hand (Princeton, ’83). Ch. 8, “The Love of Love,” has been previously underlined almost throughout. None of the other chapters are marked except for one sentence in the next chapter: “The Love of Death.” “. . .the lovers’ secret -- that they are seeking peril for its own sake. But so long as the peril comes from without, Tristan’s prowess in overcoming it is an affirmation of life.”
The original tale is far more elaborate than we are used to knowing, with many partings and reunions, many struggles to give each other up, many ordeals. De Rougement is worth quoting. P. 39 in my paperback. : “They are thus in a thrillingly contradictory position. They love, but not one another. They have sinned, but cannot repent; for they are not to blame. They make confession, but wish neither to reform nor even to beg forgiveness. Actually, then, like all other great lovers, they imagine that they have been ravished ‘beyond good and evil’ into a kind of transcendental state outside ordinary human experience, into an ineffable absolute irreconcilable with the world, but that they feel to be more real than the world.”
This is a condition of the instrument, not that which is measured. The sensory interface with the world becomes engraved on the lens of the observer, so that nothing else matters or can be accurately perceived. But in addition there is always an over-chord of transcendence, a feeling that there must be something mystical going on. As I write, the radio is suddenly playing Wagner.
Still, we are bodies, embraceable and sometimes singing. We age. Unexpectedly I found this quote from a David Brooks conversation with Gail Collins entitled “How to be Old.” “Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Turner and Cézanne, peaked in their elderly years. These artists shared what he called: A sense of isolation, a feeling of holy rage, developing into what I have called transcendental pessimism; a mistrust of reason, a belief in instinct.” And yet a wish to help others.
In fact, fascination/obsession/addiction to these issues comes through a felt intimacy (as ill-fated as that of Tristan and Iseult and not at all physical) that holds attention, which is the craved state, but equally strong is fear of entrapment and that’s true on the other end as well, a tie between two people. It’s not dependent on writing except that print can be the body of the connection.
De Rougemont gives much attention to the END of this relationship between Tristan and Iseult. Contemporary derivations emphasize eternal love, endlessness. “love beyond death.” This seems to come from Christianity and its roots, not as universally transcendent as those sources would claim. Compared to Buddhism, it seems to me shallow. Compared to awareness of simple embeddedness in the natural world, it seems to me unnecessary.
Chapter 11, “Unhappy Mutual Love” addresses suffering. (The previous owner of the book has now begun dog-earing pages. One could easily write a short story playing that reader against this reader against the text.) De Rougement proposes (p. 51) these alternatives: “According to the sturdiness of our spirit, this unhappiness may be the ‘delightful sadness’ and spleen of nineteenth-century decadence, a transfiguring torment, or a challenge which the mind flings down to the world.” They are not mutually exclusive.
In spite of the emphasis on transcendence evoked or even forced by the inescapable dilemma, religion is not the solution -- it is an example. Particularly the ones that premise an anthro-theos can only harden the dilemma of unrequited love locking one into addiction to one’s own brain template.
De Rougement claims in the Freudian way that this is all rooted in a yearning for death. I think this is pretty much a distraction since we all die anyway. If you want death, all you have to do is to wait. Maybe be a little careless. Live in the wrong place. Have passionate encounters with the wrong people -- or, worse, passionless transactions with the wrong people. But since the whole assurance of Christian and Islamic traditions is that obedience will earn eternal life, maybe yearning for death is simply a Celtic assertion of belonging to oneself and one's own body -- not some system imported from the Middle East.
Once one realizes the inevitability of death, then the issue moves to how to be most alive in the time allotted. One of the figures not often considered in the Tristan and Iseult tale is the “Morholt” which is a kind of Minotaur figure that demands the sacrifice of youths. Youth is much admired by older persons (in spite of their willingness to sacrifice them) but despised by those still in that state. The young are still death-deniers, still susceptible to the love-potions, still on the surface of their mind formation. Therefore they are vulnerable to ill-use, addiction without wisdom, and resistance to the culture that could have supported them. Tristan slays the Morholt -- then discovers that the creature is Iseult’s brother. (Remember the giant albino in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy?)
The whole point of King Mark’s marriage to Iseult the Fair is to produce heirs for his kingdom. Genetic succession keeps order and might even assure quality. Tristan and Iseult prevent the creation of children, a new generation. This could destroy the whole nation. Even Tristan’s legal marriage to Iseult of the Fair Hands is never consummated and therefore produces no rival children, which preserves the community. The lovers have taken themselves out of the standing order without creating something new except for ideas, story.