Love Stories

Love Stories

Just now I am reading a book Jerry got me, titled, Love in the Western World.  Translated from the French, it’s by a guy named Denis de Rougement.  With a name like that, and a title like that, who can resist?

Actually, that very same book sat on my parents’ bookshelves where, from time time, I would pluck it off its shelf, in youthful anticipation of the romantic peaks that might be found in a book.  After a time, I would put the book back, never able to figure out what he was talking about.  So here it is again, and now’s my big chance to fathom the depths and scan the heights of what the French call la carte de tendre, the map of love.

Except that it turns out de Rougement is against romantic love.   So it’s like reading a book about religious experience where the author is on hand to explain how unbalanced that experience must be, from a chemical standpoint.

Denis de Rougement is not a chemist.  His case is more literary than that.  I can only tell you what I’ve learned so far.  The Western Tradition is contaminated, he argues, by the legend of Tristan and Iseult.  As the thirteenth-century poets tell the story, Tristan is a knight sent by King Mark of Cornwall to fetch Iseult, the king’s intended bride.  On their way back to Cornwall, they accidentally drink a magic potion meant only for the bride and groom.  The potion causes them to come down with a fatal passion for each other.  Under its influence, they betray their every feudal obligation, till at last only death can claim them for its own.

From this tale, de Rougement infers that, in the unconscious, the force of eros is linked with a death wish; these combined forces tear the web of loyalties and obligations that secure personal and social life.  Only by controlling and sublimating the erotic urges can one achieve good citizenship and marriages that last.

This is Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Freud, unadulterated.  Nowadays, it’s not often served up as neat as this, but the view continues to undergird most modern and post-modern attitudes.

I think it’s hooey.

I see no necessary link — experiential or conceptual — between romantic love and an unconscious death-wish or anti-social behavior.  Neither nature nor history supports this theory.  It’s the opiate of the intellectuals.

There are ways to test whether an animal is acting under unconscious programming or is figuring things out consciously.  The tests are called “deprivation experiments.”  When you take away some feature of the environment on which the animal normally depends, if the animal can’t cope with the change but continues to react as if the missing feature were still present, then his behavior is deemed unconscious or innate.  If, on the other hand, the animal figures out how to attain his objective in the new circumstances, then he’s a conscious actor.

Animals can’t afford the dark urges of nineteen-century German philosophy.  They can’t get professorships.  They have to manage their lives!

Romantic love is not a threat to personal or social survival.  Nor did it arise for the first time in twelfth- and thirteenth-century France.   We find it in the Bible, which is a quite different site, culturally.   Although the theological glosses on the Song of Songs may have their claims, on its face that book is about the longing — the world-enveloping desire — of true lovers for one another.  The way the very landscape is encompassed by their yearning is indicative of the romantic way of being alive.

Its intensities don’t require artificial barriers, as Stendahl thought.  The experience doesn’t depend on bad faith, as Sartre thought.

Ladies, don’t take advice

on personal relations

from bad lovers.

If the presence or absence of romantic love turned out to make the strongest difference in human life, I would not be surprised.

How does that personal force appear in history?  We’ve just finished watching Franz, a film set in Germany and France in the year 1919.  Its protagonists are a young German woman whose fiancé was killed in World War I, and a young Frenchman afflicted by guilt over a German soldier he met in a trench and killed, face to face.

Will these two appealing young people discover their love for each other in time to save it from a past they cannot share and the looming future that, fourteen years hence (in the Nazi era), might present still darker obstacles?

What gives the story its strange grip — its fascination — is not only the near-genius with which Director Francois Ozon has recreated the vanished worlds of Germany and France at that more innocent time.  It’s also the way the tie that binds the lovers allows us to see how tragic was and will be the history that even now threatens their silent yearning.

Perhaps history itself

is a long,


unspoken romance.


About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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