Friday, September 15, 2006

Romantic Love

Browsing a second-hand bookshop recently, I came across a book by Denis de Rougemeont called 'Passion and Society'. I think it has since been re-issued as 'Love in the Western World'. De Rougemeont is an interesting figure - a public intellectual without any particular academic affiliations involved in the post-war advocacy of European Unity. This book, I have since learnt, made a deep impression on John Updike who has recently made something of a stir with his latest work 'The Terrorist'. The core thesis of the book is that the Western concept of Romantic love originated in Troubador poetry, which itself was an expression of the 'Cathar-influenced' culture of the 'languedoc'. The Cathars offered a Manichean interpretation of Christianity based on an opposition between an irredeemably evil world and a transendant hereafter. As (almost) eveyone now knows, thanks to Dan Brown, the Cathars didn't last very long - their beliefs directly contradicted one of the core doctrines of orthodox Catholicism: the idea of the incarnation and its partiuclar concept of love as agape. Troubador poetry, according to Rougemont's thesis, was an 'outlet' for 'cultural Catharism'. The idea of the unattainable lady, the notion of a 'pure' love unsullied by the terrestrial bonds of matrimony and most importantly the 'pain' of such love celebrated in this poetry and in the 'courts of love' established by the poets' atistocratic patrons can all be seen as, drawing for their symbolic power, on the underlying substrate of Cathar belief. Rougemonet then goes on make the case that these ideas found a further powerful expression in the Arthurian legend and in particular in the legend of Tristan and Isolde. The latter provided in particular the strongest expression of the idea of an unttainable love ending in the death of the lovers that was to prove an important trope in romantic literature and cinema up to the the present day; consdier, for example 'Romeo and Juliette', 'La Traviata'. The idea of the 'death of the lovers', so de Rougemont arguments goes, drew on Manichean cultural resonances that emphasized the imperative of transcending the transient, corrput and terrestrial world through death. The contemporary concept of Romantic love is then a secularization of this initial religious-cultural composite.
How should we assess de Rougmont's argument? First of all, it has to be acknowledged this is more a suggestive argument than anything else - evidence for the links he wants to make are obviously few and far between. I would argue, however, that it is useful starting point for considering the complex resonances that romantic love has for us in the West. Indeed, the full force of his argument cannot be appreciated until the reader has followed his historical narrative that takes us from the Arthurian legends to the latest Hollywood Rom-Com. Also interesting for us is the fact that de Rougemont highlights the way the Manichean world view is not the sole legacy of the Christian west. He indicates that the Manchean religions were developed largely in what is now known as the East and further that the Celtic religions of pre-Chrisitan Europe also contained certain manichean themes.

1 comment:

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