Monday, July 09, 2012

Traditions, Traditions (Things Called Love, 2)

So...traditions of love.

There are several, even within what we lump together as "Western culture," and that multiplicity is a good first thing to recognize, not least so that we can see when authors are talking past each other, or counterpointing one tradition with another.  What are some of these various traditions?  

In the introduction to my first book, What Is It Then Between Us? Traditions of Love in American Poetry, I wrote the following:
Poets such as Sappho and Archilochos first defined the three-part structure of eros:  "lover, beloved, and that which comes between them" (Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet, 16).  Such love is essentially a mode of desire, in which the actual beloved is the occasion for and object of the lover's imagination.  For all that it may dream of perfect union--a thought we find in Plato, though not in the poets before him--this version of love demands a certain distance, dodging reciprocity.  It flowers in the fine, frustrated romances of Petrarchism, where the Lady and her poet never squander their attraction in the duties of domestic life or the brief commotion of actual sex.  And, as Freud understood, such love lives under the "law of ambivalence," in which "loved ones are on the one hand an inner possession, an ingredient of our personal ego, but on the other hand are partly strangers, even enemies," simply because of their continued exteriority.   
The poets I have chosen for this book are, by and large, uneasy with this first tradition of love.  They may still invoke it.  (Few traditions have a finer pedigree.)  But they are often drawn to a contrasting, companionate ideal.  This second ideal may date back to ancient times as well, as Jean Hagstrum argues in Esteem Enlivened by Desire: the Couple from Homer to Shakespeare.  It has flourished, however, both as theory and as art, mostly since the English Renaissance.  English Protestant preachers mocked the Petrarchan structure of idealizing, ever-unacted desire.  In its place they offered the delights and cares of marriage, where the lover joins "in conjugal fellowship a fit conversing soul."  So did English poets such as Spenser, Jonson, Shakespeare, and above all Milton, whose "Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce" I quoted a moment ago.  According to Anthony Low, Milton's hymns to wedded love in Paradise Lost have shaped "a substitute Petrarchism for our time"; and, indeed, modern writers on love often insist that it is, properly speaking, a mode of relationship between two people, married or otherwise, rather than a state of the lover's or poet's mind.  In this tradition of love, the free play of the erotic imagination must answer to the actual beloved in his or her fullest particularity.  The "Other than self / O inconceivable" must become an "O believeable" at last, and the lovers respond to each other with what Ortega y Gasset calls "warm corroboration." 
The split between these two traditions runs deep, and may be irreconcilable.  Proponents of the second form of love, from Milton to Simone de Beauvoir, see the first as idolatrous and inauthentic, a mask for narcissism.   The partisans of Eros, for their part, often see companionate love as a muted, mundane thing, hardly worthy of love's name.  "I'm talking about love, and you're talking about marriage," a colleague once sniffed.  And they say courtly love is dead.  
There's a lot that I've read and learned since then about traditions of love--erotic, companionate, and otherwise--and I'll post about it here.  There's also a whole second set of terms in the book that talks about "idealist" and "realist" traditions, which is actually a rather awkward structure, looking back.  I'll post about those, too.  But this distinction between Eros and Companionate traditions is useful, I think, especially since popular romance fiction tends to draw on both of them.  It will serve to start things off.


  1. Juxtaposing this post and your recent one at the Popular Romance Project, I can't help but think that in the first kind of love, the lover is in love with an idealised, godlike beloved. In other words, the beloved is a placeholder or representation of the ideal beloved, and so naturally distance is required, or the humanity of the beloved will make it impossible to continue to sustain the illusion of god-like perfection.

    In the second kind of love, it sounds as though the lover, to borrow the Quaker idea of seeing "that of God in everyone," sees a spark of the divine within the humanity of the beloved, but does not expect the beloved to be divine.

  2. That's an interesting connection, Laura. In Plato, of course, we're supposed to make our way from loving a person to realizing that we love the virtues / beauties of that person, and thus move on to loving the Virtue or Beauty or Goodness as such. (We end up as philo-sophers, lovers of wisdom.) So the Eros tradition there is absolutely about some love of the ideal, with the human as a placeholder. Sappho's "Hymn to Aphrodite" puts a slightly different spin on the idea: in that poem, human beloveds come and go, but there is one ongoing relationship, which is between the poet and the Goddess, or Love itself.

    I suspect that the second kind of love doesn't HAVE to feature any spark of divinity at all--and it often gets defined precisely in those terms, as a sort of horizontal, purely human sort of love, and therefore necessarily imperfect. If we wanted to think about it in religious terms, that Quaker idea sounds about right; I'll think more about that now.

    In some other Christian contexts, that imperfect love gets contrasted (even quite sharply) with the relationship the soul can have with God, either now or in the heavenly communion of saints. Denis de Rougemont writes about this distinction in some very smart ways, and I'll post about them soon.

    There's also a famous, rather wise bit of advice from the Puritan preacher (and sometime poet) Thomas Thatcher, which I use in my book. "Look not for perfection in your relation" with your spouse, he tells his congregation in a sermon, since "God reserves that for another state where marriage is not needed."

    (Render unto Cupid the things that are Cupid's, you might say...)

  3. "I suspect that the second kind of love doesn't HAVE to feature any spark of divinity at all"

    No, I suppose it doesn't, but if (a) one believes that we are all made in the image of God and/or that there is that of God in all of us, and (b) if God is defined as the ultimate in all good things, then (c) presumably the good things in the beloved could be seen as "that of God" in them. Does that make sense?

    In my chapter on the mimetic modes in For Love and Money I sort of touched on this, because of the way in which allusions to divinity can be used to express admiration for the beloved and can therefore lift them from the low to the high mimetic mode.

  4. That does make sense, Laura--and in fact, this series of thoughts helps me understand an Indian romantic comedy I've always enjoyed, "Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi" (God has Made this Couple), where the ability of each partner to see God in the other is crucial to the resolution of the love plot.

    In fact, there's a song each lover sings to the other, at different points in the story, early and late, framing the narrative, which speaks directly to this point: "Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai" ("I See God in You"). Great song, great scenes, wonderful movie.

    Your discussion of allusions in For Love and Money is very interesting to me, because it works both as a literary investigation (a way for us to see how a novel shifts modes at particular moments) and also as a psychological insight (a way for us to see how admiration and praise are part of how one thinks when one loves). True and insightful on both counts!