The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Pierrot by Jean-Antoine Watteau (circa 1718-1719)

I’m reading a book by a philosopher named Susan Wolf about the meaning of life.  Or rather, about the importance of meaning in a good life.

What prompts such a book? you may ask.  Susan Wolf explains that philosophers have been discussing, and differing over, whether it’s better to seek selfish happiness or some universal moral objective in one’s life.  Her contention is that there’s a third thing people seek, or should seek: meaning.

So what gives meaning to a human life?  She thinks two factors confer it.  First is pursuing one’s passion.  Second: one’s passion should be for something that’s got objective worth.

There is a wide range of desiderata that can meet these double requirements.  One can have a passion for philosophy, for example, or for making fine pastries.  Both have “objective worth” in that many people value them.

What concerned me, reading her book, was another matter.  What leads anyone to ask, “What is the meaning of life?”

Most people alive and literate today encounter claims that life is meaningless or absurd.  Different reasons are advanced to support this conclusion.  Here are some of them.

  • We die, all the people who know and care about us also die, and pretty soon no one will know we were ever here.
  • Compared to the size of the universe, or universes, we are but a speck. Too small to matter.
  • Compared to the timeline of this universe, our span of life is too short to matter.
  • All our deepest beliefs, our concepts of self and of value, are fabrications, constructed by the socially dominant group within our culture.

Had enough?  I think I’ll stop there.

Re #1, that’s an empirical question.  There’s a fact of the matter.  Either we die when our bodies die, or we don’t, because we aren’t identical with our bodies.  It’s a real question.  The answer isn’t self-evident.  There is relevant empirical evidence to consider.  I’ll bracket that question for now.

Have you noticed something about 2 – 4?  These next three reasons are highly generic and abstract.  They’ve been introduced into the culture by theorists.  If you’ve embraced them, you’ve pressed into your personal worldview theories that come from outside your experience.  I’ll just say a word or two about these broad claims.

About 2 and 3: why should our filling x amount of time or space decide our importance?  A poem can take less than five minutes to recite and yet be marvelous to hear.  A sympathetic pat on the hand can rebuild the whole world for someone who feels abandoned.

About 4: however derived, if our concepts don’t fit us, we will wear them as uneasily as a pair of shoes that’s the wrong size or shape for our feet.   If it doesn’t fit, we can keep trying till we get a concept that fits better.

Now for the real question:

when does this wondering

about the meaning of life

arise?

It arises naturally just when our own life seems meaningless to us.  When does that happen?

In my life, when suddenly all of it seems grey and pointless – the grey extending as far as the horizon — when I can’t find a reason to take another step, the most urgent thing is to find out why I suddenly feel this way.  It’s important to ask that question without delay, because the feeling itself seems quite cosmic, as if there’s no reason to seek its cause because it’s just the way things are.

The question to ask is, what was the trigger, or precipitating occasion?  Often it’s something very small, a sensation or an encounter that triggers a memory.  Something has bumped one’s functions or forces out of alignment.  We are more delicate, more easily disaligned than we realize.

What fashionable contemporary thinkers call the absurdity of life either reflects some personal quandary that they’ve not seen and resolved, or else some highly theoretic claim coming to them from opinion-shapers and embraced to show that they too are in the vanguard.

Life comes to us already purposive.  Every living thing has purposes.  Ours are more individuated, conscious, complex and adjustable, but

there is no purposive void.

 

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“Two Views”

“Two Views”

This is the aerial view of Narraguagus Bay and the same bay, painted as I saw it from the attic of our old barn.

We are back there this week, visiting old friends in Washington County, Downeast Maine. It’s good to be home again.

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Real Life Returns

Illustration by Kurt Wiese
All The Mowgli Stories, Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1936

Real Life Returns

I’ve just finished writing and footnoting an article, exploring new territory, with potential impact in a controversy that’s been roiling opinion-shapers for decades.  Tonight I sent it to an editor at an influential journal of opinion who has signaled that he is receptive.

Of course, I’ve said things along these expectantly hopeful lines before, in this column.  As my mother used to say, “the unexpected always happens.”  In this case, the unexpected would be that … nothing happens.  Or a flower pot could fall on my head, and with it – there goes the influential article.  Instead we have to line up the mourners for a very small, local, social event: my funeral.

But as of now, I rather think something will happen, meaning that this article could well be accepted by an appropriate editor.  I am not trying to get rich and famous.  I am trying to say something that hasn’t been said and ought to be said.  How does that make me feel I wonder.

It makes me feel like a very small child, walking through the tall, sunlit grass, pushing back the dandelions on the path.  Instead of feeling like a grownup who’s applied for epaulettes of her own, I feel … like a kid again.

At Camp Hilltop, the bungalow colony in the Watchung hills of New Jersey where we kids spent our summers, we only took our parents along because somebody had to cook and pay the rent.  But it was essentially our place.  I named all my friends after the animal characters in Kipling’s Jungle Book, reserving “Mowgli,” the name of the boy who was raised by the wolves, for myself.

I fought my first battle against injustice there.  I was six and Jan, the unjust boy, was five.  So maybe you’ll think it was an unfair combat.  Why fight a smaller kid?

Well he may have been smaller, but he was certainly badder.  It started when we were all sitting on the porch steps of one of the bigger bungalows.  Jan came along with a hammer.  We wore sandals.  That gave Jan the idea of going from bare foot to foot to hammer our toes.  Nobody said anything.  They all sat there while Jan took his turn at each set of toes.  The big kids were just putting up with it.

That didn’t look right to me.  Before Jan could smash my toes, I rose to my feet and said loftily,

“This time, Jan, you’ve gone too far.”

I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but all the other kids did.  It meant, we had to have a fight.  It was first (and, to date, my last) combat with fisticuffs.

I didn’t like it one bit, and would have run away as soon as Jan’s first blow landed, but the other kids wouldn’t let me.  The had formed a circle around the combatants and were yelling,

“Don’t run away, Abby!”

As Johnny Cash says in “A Boy Named Sue,”

“What could I do?”

Jan ran away first.  It was counted a famous victory.

I was ten when I met my first romance at Hilltop.  Arnie.  He was twelve.  We played tetherball.  He coached me to swim more lengths of the pool.  That was as far as it went.  He won the name of Baloo, the bear in Jungle Book.  Mowgli’s friend.

Flossie was Bagheera, the black panther.  I thought she was the most wonderful person in the world.  She was thirteen, which is much more elevated than ten.  Together with a girl who lived in the compound of the farmer down the road who kept horses, we went on a tearing gallop up Old Stony Road.  In this world, it hardly gets better than that.

So why, having just finished an extremely grownup thing, an article taking moral risks in a real controversy, do I remember Camp Hilltop and feel like a kid?

It’s been a long and stony road.  I don’t know where Arnie is now, or Flossie, or poor Jan.  But I feel like I’m in the midst of …

real life again.

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Post-Traumatic Stress

Post-Traumatic Stress

There’s a book I’m reading now titled In An Unspoken Voice by Peter A. Levine, a man who’s done research on the causes of trauma when it lasts well beyond the end of the stressful incident and currently gets the name of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

He thinks many of us have some form of it and that it’s being approached in the wrong way.  Unlike most parlor Darwinians, he’s studied the behavior of actual animals to learn how they cope with stress.

Animals, as we who watch the National Geographic channel know, live in incessant stress.  If you’re prey, you’ve got to keep on high alert, for animals eager to kill and eat you!  Can you imagine?  The very idea would do me in.

But for the predator, things are not much better.  If you don’t make your kill, your adorable cubs will go hungry.  If you do, rivals could steal your dinner before you can drag it back to the lair.  Males of your species, who haven’t sired your cubs personally, will try to kill them so that they can mate with you and get cubs of their own.

It never stops.  And yet, as our researcher notes, among animals, PTSD is rare.  When we find it, usually it’s been induced by some ethologist doing research.

So what’s their secret, these animals who live in the easy flow of their muscles, nerves and functional responses to their world?

Or rather, what’s our secret, who so easily fall victim to stressful situations that live in our memories long after the original encounters are over?  What are we doing that we could do differently?  Or is our stress and anxiety simply a side-effect of our humanity, and nothing to get further stressed about?

The author thinks we could do better and he gives this explanation of trauma and how to handle it.  Trauma happens when we find ourselves in a situation where it would be most natural for us to flee or else to fight.  But for some reason we’re prevented from doing the one or the other.  Either physically prevented or socially inhibited.

We’re trapped.  So we go into a third escape mode.  We freeze.  For a mouse to freeze might persuade the cat to leave it alone.  She thinks it’s dead.  She can do something else and come back to eat it later.  While her back is turned, mousie can run.

In our human case, often we can’t break out and run.  We’re trapped, as a child is when held down and anaesthetized.  If the no-exit scene is imposed violently, or prolonged in some other way, the person targeted will have difficulty regaining the dynamic equilibrium of effective daily life.  You don’t get your story back.  They’ve taken it over.

I’d bet money that every single reader of this column can think of instances where this has happened to her or to him.

What’s the remedy?  Well, in the clinical cases Peter Levine describes, it must be administered carefully and gradually.  But it goes like this.

You must revisit (that is, vividly recall) the trauma scene and take the action, physical or other, that you were prevented from taking.

When I was a child, the Holocaust was still fresh.  My parents were involved in rescue work.  Survivors were often in our home.  It affected me in ways I can scarcely reckon.  I scarred up the faces of my dolls with a letter opener, “playing Hitler.”  Nobody seemed to think that was unusual.  Rescue work was playing cat and mouse with Hitler.

Of course, this is not the only situation one can think of where the targeted person can’t escape and no feasible action can remedy the wrong or remove the threat.  But this one extends so deep into the past of the culture, and returns under so many new names and guises, that it qualifies as an immobilizing trap.  This predator stalks the planet.   It evokes in me an underlying inclination to freeze.

I can’t kill it and I can’t cure it, though I’d dearly love to do one or the other.  What can I do, then?  What do I do?  If a case of injustice is in front of me – and has my name on it – I will fight it.

 It’s never enough but

 it’s all I can do.

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Overheard at the Café

“The Hangover”
1888, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Overheard at the Café

 Among the rewards of my composing this column at the café where I’m what the French call an habituée, is that I get to overhear scenes from other people’s real lives.  The café meets my need to be alone and in focus when I write, without leaving me isolated.  I get to look up from my writing notebook, from time to time, and consult other books in the library of life.

There is a stern rabbinic dictum against gossip, but none that I know of against overhearing what you can’t help overhearing.

Here’s what I overheard just a few days ago.

A couple was seated together in a shadowy corner of the cafe, wrapped in a conversation that appeared intense and consequential for them both.  From what she told him, the woman believed the man to outrank her socially.  Despite her modest social position, apparently she was sufficiently important for him to recruit her as the woman on whom he could pour out all his secret complaints about … his marriage.

I could not make out what was so wrong with his wife.  There seemed to be money involved, but it was hard to figure out who or what was being fleeced.  At any rate, the wife was so difficult that he would have left her a few years ago – most definitely he would have left her – had he not come down with a disabling medical affliction.  All the same, his nameless feeling for the younger woman seated beside him was something he could scarcely describe.  It was really something!

His approach was canny.  He did not say he was in love with her.  He struggled to say, the words bursting out unbidden, that he was greatly drawn toward her – held in her orbit by a powerful magnetism to which he could affix no accurate name.

The younger woman listened, holding nothing back in the way of warmth, compassion and concern, punctuated by allusions to her own more modest position and attainments, compared to his.

Presently the young woman got up to go to the restroom.  Meanwhile, I was assiduously continuing to take notes on several articles that I needed to read and I did not look up.

“You look like you’re working on the Red Sea Scrolls,” the man called out to me jovially, his voice projecting across several tables.

“You mean the Dead Sea Scrolls?” I said with a skeptical glance, shaking my head and returning to my articles.

My God, I thought.  She’s out of sight for a New York minute and he’s already working on Plan B!

Now I’m fully capable of taking a woman aside — even if she’s a perfect stranger to me — and telling her that one hour spent alone in her own solitary company would be better than a lifetime with this crumb!  However, for whatever reason, I felt that in this instance I should stay out of it.

Since then, I’ve thought about how this woman really saw her situation.  I suspect she saw it better than she let on.  What was really going on that night in the café?  Liberated or not, women still feel that we can’t get through our lives without a man, and that – if we are alone – the world is not on our side.  Better a losing situation — with a man — than accepting a Nobel prize on the world stage without a man.

When I was divorcing my first husband, I remember confiding my fears of the solitary future to a close woman friend, like me a philosopher.  I said that I would now be returning to the socially disadvantaged situation of the single woman.

No, she reassured me, with her keener ear for the rhythms of social life.  The situation of the woman who has been married is at least one or two rungs up from the bottom.

A few decades hence, when the story can be told more fully, what sort of a difference will feminism have made – against all this tide of history, biology and culture?  Against the whole erotic tidal wave?

I can’t make it better than it is.  Life for a woman without an accredited male protector has social costs.  Be it said too, life for anyone without a faithful and personal love has ramified costs.

So what’s the answer?  Is it all just a lottery, securing the conditions of personal happiness and social safety?  Or does God send the right person to each of us?  In Cool Tombs, Carl Sandburg, the poet, muses:

Take any streetful of people buying clothes and groceries,

 cheering a hero or throwing confetti or blowing tin horns …

tell me if the lovers are losers …

 tell me if any get more than the lovers …

in the dust … in the cool tombs.

To me, the story of life is a romantic story.  But not every romantic story is a happy one.

There’s tragedy in that,

 but dignity in admitting —

 without censorship —

 the painful truths of our lives.

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The Return of the Well-Tailored Proto-Nazi

“The Chess Players”
Frederich August Moritz Retzsch, 1831

The Return of the Well-Tailored Proto-Nazi

This is about my return encounter with the dapper gentleman who first surfaced last May, when I gave a talk at California’s Claremont School of Theology, based on a chapter from my book, A Good Look at Evil.

Gentle Reader, may I give you some advice in this Non-Advice Column?  Don’t write a book about evil!  Not if you want a quiet, harmonious life.  The title alone alerts the powers of darkness.  They will come calling.

We go to California periodically for an experimental treatment available only at the Loma Linda Neuropathic Therapy Center.  It’s the sole treatment I’ve found that appears to be doing me some good.

Jerry has given several talks at the Claremont School of Theology, on the subfield of theology that he founded, Theology Without Walls.  The talk I gave there last May bore the title, “Evil Is Not Banal.”  In my talk, I disputed the claim of the “banality of evil,” a claim popularized by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.

The attendees had been few last May, but they listened intelligently and asked good questions.  With one exception.  A dapper gentleman of middle years, wearing something subdued but in the best of taste, whose gestures were modulated, contained and precise, raised his hand.  He had not come to ask a question.  Nor did he say anything remotely related to my talk.  He had come to my talk to present a multi-point justification for the Holocaust.  Not, mind you, a denial.  A justification!

Among the millions whose annihilation he had come, in his own words, to “explain,” was of course this speaker.  I.  He had come to explain why it was okay to murder me.

I try not to get into a fight unless it has my name on it.  But there was no mistaking this one – or my name’s not Abigail L. Rosenthal.

Holy cow!  Speak of the devil! 

What do I do, Lord?

The instruction that came floating down to me was as plain as my name.

Don’t engage.

DENOUNCE.

So that’s what I did.  In absolute terms that I don’t recall ever having used prior to that incident.  Accordingly, the rest of the Q & A went back on track and resumed its normal academic tone.

Anyway, that was back in May.  Now, in July, Jerry was to participate in a Trialogue on Theology Without Walls along with two accomplished young theologians from CST.  The event was notably well attended.  Every seat was filled around and behind the long conference table.

And lo!  There he was again, looking as dapper and civilized as ever, in his well-cut summer outfit, greeting the other attendees left and right, almost like a co-host.

I had been listed as a co-participant, which meant that at some point I would be expected to say something.  The man’s quite-at-ease demeanor disconcerted me.  If I did say something, would he then feel free to attack me?   Not being the speaker this time, I could not easily summon the one-pointed focus from which flowed the tactical skill I had shown last time.  Meanwhile, he looked like a man who was feeling fit and feisty.

As for me, I was scared.  Instinctively I wanted to say, “I pass,” with a demure little smile, when it came my turn to speak.  I wanted to hunker down, to lie low.  Not to give him a target.  But then I thought, oh gee:

doesn’t that leave the adversary

in possession of the field?

There are techniques I learned riding the New York subway.  If there was a guy sitting across from me, with knees apart and one thing on his mind, I would focus on mentally pushing him back into his own skin and his own subway seat.  Don’t ask me to explain it, but it worked more often than not.  You use what you can.

I decided to scan my adversary’s energy field insofar as I could, intuitively.  Holy cow!  He was all over me, from my head to my toes!  As far as I could sense his mode of being present, he had come to the conference with me on the brain, with Jews on the brain, and he was in attack mode.

Okay, I thought, I was right to be scared.  Now let’s try, mentally, to push him back, the way I did on the New York subway, to get him off me and back to his seat at the other end of the conference table.

Push, push, push.

I made all the mental efforts of which I was capable.  But it was no use.  I couldn’t budge him.  He was really dug in.

Hmn.  If I can’t do it, with all my will and mental focus, maybe God can do it for me?  I decided to ask God to lift the dapper guy’s energy off me and put it back in his well-tailored body, where he was seated, at the far end of the table.

Waddya know!  That did work!  A large, cooling distance opened between him and me.  At the same time, the participant seated on my left put a thermos of coffee on the table, to the right of her arm.  Listing just a little to my left, I could place my face behind the thermos, out of the Holocaust-justifier’s line of sight.

By the time I was called on to join the discussion, I could speak about how I had discovered that I was essentially Jewish (hint: in a good way) – without any spirit of defensiveness or inhibition.  My words and my attitude gave the adversary no openings.

After the discussion, Jerry and I had dinner with a lovely couple, who added one more detail to this story.  One member of the couple had been attentively watching the man who justified the Holocaust.  It seems that the man came with a pen and pad and, as the discussion went forward, he was scribbling furiously.  Until suddenly his pen ran out of ink and he could scribble no more.

He seemed extremely disconcerted and frustrated by this, as if some project for which his scribbled notes furnished the needed fuel had been unaccountably thwarted.

And some folks say

there ain’t a God.

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Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

 These are some of the books I’ve been reading lately – that I can recommend.

A History of the American People

by Paul Johnson.

This book started out so fact-crammed and deadpan that I thought it would be a painful climb through the 976 pages before we get to the Notes and the Index.  (It’s 1088 pages all told.  I’m on page 475 now.)  By now, however, I’m fascinated.

I was reading Johnson partly to compare a British Conservative historian with Jill Lepore’s These Truths: a History of the United States, which describes roughly the same events from the vantage point of an American Liberal.  Neither history is factually inaccurate, so far as I can tell.  They just foreground different facts, each leaving in shadow the data that don’t fit his or her narrative.  Historians seem to be rather like lawyers.  The good ones don’t lie, but they tell whatever part of the truth will help their client!

Whereas Jill Lepore has a striking gift for story-telling, getting the color into the anecdote and just writing well — Johnson writes in grey tones, without trying to be eloquent.  At first, it seems a rather dogged business, even to keep going with him.  He fills in the economic part of the story without moralizing: what life held out for those who weathered the trip and what you could expect if you stayed home in Britain or Continental Europe.  The economics of the human race is its inflow and outgo, its metabolism; so it’s informative to view it plain.

As for slavery, our great original sin, although at first Johnson appears to put it dismissively in the background while he sets up the rest of his story, fact by fact,  I learned more about its actual villainy from him than I did from Jill Lepore.  To me, the deepest horror of slavery lies in an aspect of which I did not know: the breeding of human beings for sale.

To treat the human eros that way is blasphemy.  It’s a crime against God.

As a proud Englishman, Johnson occasionally betrays just a smidgeon of British contempt for us that is interesting.  I had no idea we had put up such a poor show in the War of 1812.  Not so bad on the water, from which Francis Scott Key wrote our National Anthem, but pretty sorry on land.

All this compiling of fact, economic, legal, and political, suddenly is seen to provide the groundwork for a part of the story that I didn’t see coming.  Among the “facts” of the American story is the verbal blossoming of New England.  Suddenly, our raw country springs into literature!  An American voice, a new sound, is heard.  First, there is Emerson.  He works, consciously and deliberately, to create, embody and justify the American character.  No longer cringing before its more mature and cultivated European models, the American is his own man or woman, shaped by original experiences — not a hand-me-down copy of long-established beliefs and attitudes.  Then we find Thoreau, paring his life down to essentials, trying to pay as he goes, in real sympathy with the woods around Walden pond.  There is Longfellow.  Nobody talks of an upright, unproblematic fellow like Longfellow any more, but Johnson makes clear his poetic reach and power.  And then there is Longfellow’s opposite, Edgar Allen Poe, who inhabits the other side of our vast, seemingly vacant spaces: the scary side.  There is Walt Whitman — gay and in the closet — the first American literary self-promoter.  He collected photographs of himself and designed his own tomb, anticipating the genius for self-invention of “Papa” Hemingway a century later.  Finally, outselling them all, is Harriet Beecher Stowe and her Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was translated and read all over the world.  As a girl, my mother must have read it in French.  Or in Russian.  It was her favorite novel.  It kept Britain from taking the Southern side.  It excited the first world-wide wave of anti-Americanism.  As Lincoln said, when he met Mrs. Stowe, it “started this great war.”

And now — what I am reading now — the extraordinary American epic: the Civil War.  It was bound to come.  Everything in our contradictory history explained and incentivized it.  Johnson’s picture of Lincoln is utterly riveting and stunning.  He thought long and deeply about the morally corrupting realities of slavery.  He had the mind of a good logician, the rough and ready, variegated, first-hand experiences of life that Emerson and Thoreau found marking the American Character.  He had a wide-angled view of the political forces in play, military good judgment, the tragic sense and the humor – above all the freedom from ego – to fit him for the task of leading America through it.

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten.


Love in the Western World

by Denis de Rougemont

This is another book that I started out disliking, but have come to find fascinating. (In quite a different way of course.)

D de R begins by making clear his opposition to Romantic Love as he understands it.  His purpose, stated at the outset, is to discourage readers from nourishing romantic delusions.  D de R wants us to get a job, get married, settle down, raise a family and not make trouble dreaming wild dreams of great love.  He associates the romance delusion with what Freud called the Death Wish, which is an erotic yearning capable of breaking through all the bonds that hold society together.  He holds, reasonably enough, that pursuing such a course can only end in self-destruction.

Since I am not a great fan of Sigmund Freud – neither his ego, his id, nor his Death Wish — I was finding D de R tiresome before he even got going.

It was a while before I began to see that he was pointing out something real.

When I lived in Paris, I couldn’t help noticing – none of us Americans could help noticing – that the couples strolling in the streets, the statues decorating the public squares, the artistic films, the popular songs, the classics of French literature, all described a type of romantic intertwining that we Americans had never seen.   Purportedly, it was irresistible, enveloping, complete in its choreography – and yet self-terminating.  That is, everyone agreed that l’amour was all in all, a world of its own and at the same time, doomed to end.  As one famous song, Les feuilles mortes, had it,

 the sea erases on the sand

 the footsteps of disunited lovers.

There were many such songs.

I did not know where and how this strange thought-form originated.  I thought it was mistaken — not because romantic love is delusive — but because the idea that it has to end is false.  Why should it end?  And yet, the citizens of France seemed to think it did.  It shaped their youth.  It reshaped their later years.  Where did they get such an idea?

D de R tells us.  At least, he makes out a persuasive case that it originated in a certain gnostic heresy that spread like wildfire through Europe from about the 10th century through the 13th: the Cathar heresy.

This heresy was brutally stamped out by Christian orthodoxy, its adherents killed and its attitudes driven underground.

What makes it “gnostic” and what does that mean?  Gnosticism has many varieties and is found in all kinds of circumstances around the globe.  It may represent a universal human tendency:

the desire to get the hell out of this world.

Typically, gnostic religions or cults have held that the empirical world is bad, a fallen or delusive realm, and its established divinities must be bad too.  The aim of the gnostic is to rise into a higher, purer, “more truly real” sphere by renouncing the world’s practices and acquiring – by some secret method – the knowledge (gnosis) that forever frees one from the world’s fetters.

For the Cathars who were “Pure” – the ones at the “Perfect” level — that meant renouncing marriage.  For Believers who could not attain the highest level, marriage was permitted but disvalued.

As de Rougemont tells it, underground Cathari ideals influenced the medieval troubadours and the ideal of courtly love that their lyric songs and poems championed.  At its inception, the idealized “Lady” of courtly love was code for the gnostic ideal.  She was to be adored but not carnally embraced, because she represented the hidden realm of pure Spirit.  The medieval romances, above all the story of Tristan and Iseult, should be read in this light: as encoded representations of the Cathari message.  As secret Cathars must do, Tristan and Iseult violate all the official protocols and obligations: Iseult’s arranged marriage to King Mark, Tristan’s required fealty to Mark, his feudal lord.  Their love has no means of actualizing itself in the empirical world.  For that reason, the fabled romance has “Death” inbuilt, as its telos or goal.

D de R shows – to my mind, persuasively – how this version of the romantic ideal is carried forward into post-medieval times, forgetting its origin but reappearing in attenuated form in many of the great classics of literature, in France and elsewhere.

Look at Romeo and Juliette, Dante and Beatrice – none of them can live together in the real world!  There are people who believe that these idealized couples must cover the whole spectrum of romantic possibilities.  Such is the entrancing power of ideas – even false ones – when they are beautifully expressed!

Though he has persuaded me that this gnostic thought-form, carried through the centuries, can still distort the lives of modern people, Denis de Rougemont’s conclusion — that romance itself is fatally misguided — does not follow from the evidence he traces.

In my experience, romantic love can give courage and sustenance for life within the real world.

You don’t have to die

to find something desirable

that you can trust.

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