Now I’m far enough into “Love in the Western World” by de Rougemont to see what his strategy is. And to stop reading. He reminds us that he’s in his early thirties as he writes, which is relevant. Basically, he is arguing that courtly love was a disguised heresy, in the sense that it was an evasion and justification of that evasion of the standing order in the 12th century of Europe. The Catholic world had gripped the continent, dominant, but had never quite eliminated the pre-existing Celtic world, which kept coming back -- in particular through women who had a much stronger role in the Celtic culture. In that world women were assigned wisdom, resourcefulness, healing and creativity. The kings, like Mark, needed the energy and sometimes the repair they could provide, but the women were heretical -- neither compliant nor conventional.
Most of the book is an accounting of a complex of heresies that still plague us (or save us, depending on how you look at it. “Us” meaning Euro-Americans.) Manicheism: the splitting of everything into good or bad; Gnosticism: the idea that all manifestations are illusion; and Catharism: the belief that this world was created by a bad god that one can only escape through death. Rather than splitting the deity into God vs. Satan, this idea says God IS Satan, or how could He have created this world of suffering and injustice?
Passionate love outside conventional marriage stood for the lure of these heresies, that they were destructive but irresistible. This was the era of cathedrals, paper, windmills, the compass, Marco Polo on the Silk Road, and the Hanseatic League of cities formed to protect trade. The Roman Empire had collapsed. De Rougement argues that the heretical ideas were sung by troubadors, protected from destruction by being outside convention and always traveling, pretending to just be entertainment. Sorta like rock bands. True love and all that. But outrageous.
If we accept this idea, which disguises intellectual questing with sexual longing, then perhaps today’s Iseult will be the same sex as Tristan. Or maybe a blue Pandoran. Certainly music continues to have a heretical dimension. The continuing disintegration we feel now is a continued loosening of the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire. (Saint Francis was a 12th century figure, never ordained.) The new ideas about the universe fit much better with Celtic notions about nature or even with Gnostic notions about illusion, since scientists say each of us lives in a constructed sensory analogue to what is “real” outside us. So it becomes clear that today’s media narratives, TV and movies, are also “troubadorean” heresies, covering their true nature not so much with transgressive love (since there are so few transgressive kinds of love now) as with outright crime.
De Rougement was a man looking in the mirror, not searching for the eyes of a beloved. Rather he was part of a movement looking for a political way forward in France between WWI and WWII, only their confidence that the standing order was wrong was their guide. In short, despite the reputation of the French as tres jolie, he was more interested in theory than a romp in the hay. But then, deconstruction is always like that, isn’t it?
We are so confined by Greek thought, for instance that love is of four kinds: eros (passion, sex), philias (friendship, “affiliation”), storge (attachment, belonging), and agape (generous selflessness), that we keep using the four terms in slightly different ways instead of making new words.
Here’s an intriguing quote from http://polytical.org
“If you don’t have words for something, you can’t talk about it. Why else do subcultures come up with new words like polyamory, metamour, compersion? Perhaps identifying different forms of love as genuinely different feelings, different things, not just different stages of love, would help us talk about them better.” (Metamour =meta-amour, the person who is in a love relationship with a person you are also in a love relationship with, but not with you. Compersion is the ability to shared a loved one’s joy at a loving relationship that’s not with you.) Did you ever think of that before?
I’ve always liked Erich Fromm’s schema in “The Art of Loving” about relationship as two circles: separate; conflated as in one swallowing up the other; or contrasting in size; or overlapping to some degree,. I like to think of that last as dynamic, moving between greater and lesser as the situation changes.
The heretical love we most need to talk about today is not the secret mutual obsession with a forbidden partner, or indeed any kind of love that hardens the boundaries of family, nation, religious category, or obligation into “us-versus-them”. What we need now is agape for the “other” no matter how strange, needy, or dangerous they are. The seeds of the heresy are there if we look for them: we need them.
An alternative that takes hold among the despairing is a return to Catharism: the idea that the world is evil, was created that way by a punishing God, and one’s pure soul can only escape by death -- maybe suicide. Mass murder by terrorism, maybe by war destruction -- ways of identifying with God -- are the covert belief of many people who control society from underneath, occasionally bursting into the open, but also present as stigma, jealousy and resentment. They try to force good. I suspect it is behind the widespread withdrawal from citizenship that is undercutting democracy. I was struck by the repeated sentiment in this little town when I urge people to attend council meetings: “It’s broken and can’t be fixed.” The people who show up have an ax to grind, often hatred of the leader. They wish to save themselves at the expense of all others, forgetting that we are all part of one body.
The Urban Dictionary http://www.urbandictionary.com is a pretty good way to check out what people are really talking about and thereby reinventing words. There is a huge category about sex, but only one definition for love: “nature's way of tricking people into reproducing.” Cynical, nihilistic, and catharitic.
Here’s another useful word related to Catharism: Catharsis: purification or purgation of the emotions (as pity and fear) primarily through art. a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release. A little mimesis of suicide. One would hope that a particular religious belief-system would provide effective cathartic ceremonies, but one could also go to the Wagnerian opera called “Tristan and Isolde.” Or a person could “rock out.” Or paint. Greek drama aimed at doing this.
Abreaction is a word invented to describe the reliving of an experience in order to understand and resolve it. Some insist that this should be done with a trusted other person. It is the basis of much counseling and would suggest that testifying can resolve what one witnesses. Now that we can directly observe what happens anywhere on the planet, formerly hidden because of distance or taboos or denial, we have an enormous need to revisit the traumas that still plague us all: genocide, slavery, trafficking, unjustified attacks, poverty, plague, famine. The Cathars have plenty of evidence.
In terms of Tristan and Isolde, which is where de Rougemont began, we have clung to the idea of falling in love, helplessly and as if enchanted, which has been portrayed sexually, in the flesh, resolved only by death. I won’t preach against that in itself, but I oppose the denial, the taboo, the refusal to resolve. Not because it’s morally evil, but because it prevents further transformation. Eros with snakes for hair. It is amazing how we cling to Evil. But what if it's an illusion? Hello, Buddha!