Sunday, June 26, 2005

What's love got to do, got to do with it (Part II)

Once I began researching love, sex, and marriage in the Middle Ages, I was surprised by how little theory there is on love. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the most recent major work of any usefulness has been C.S. Lewis' "Allegory of Love," which was first published in 1936. For 70 years, academe has failed to take love seriously.

Of course, much has been alleged to be written about love, but upon examination you see two categories: The first is the Leo Buscaglia level of writing -- perhaps valuable, but intended for popular audiences. The second is serious writing that purports to be about love, but is in fact about sex or marriage.

I've been wondering why that is. My first assumption was that we don't write about love because it is hard. Take, for example, the Marxist and feminist positions (which I will shamelessly caracature here). The orthodox Marxist position seems to be that love is a construct we erect to obscure the economic exchange that marriage really is. The feminist position is the same, except that we trade the phrase "power dynamic" for "economic exchange." Both positions, while apparently courageous and de-mystifying, fail to take love seriously, accusing it of being a kind of lame excuse for bad behavior.

As I was contemplating this dearth of serious thought, though, I ran into two apparently contradictory positions in the same day. Glen Gill over at Logoi Kai Erga said that he thought that it was because love was sacred, and thus we feel that theorization of it is profane. On the same day, I read a passage in The Natural History of Love in which Ackerman claims that "love" has become an obscenity.

As with a lot of important insights, both claims are simultaneously true and false. Love is both sacred and obscene, in that love itself is sacred, but as the Marxist and feminist positions point out, it is often used as an obfuscation for the obscene. The problem is that we like the obscene, and like to partake of it, so we glorify the obscenities that "love" supposedly permits, while we refuse to talk about the sacred nature of love -- it's just not polite dialogue.

I see now that my class this fall will be seen as terribly obscene by many students, because we talk about love, not because we talk about sex. I seem to recall that it was in a Saul Bellow novel (Herzog, maybe, though I'm away from my library at the moment) that the narrator opines that when he was a boy, his parents openly talked about death, but never about sex, but that he was the opposite with his own children. Talk about sex seems to be the obscene screen we use to avoid the sacred: love, death, submission, faith, hope, unity.


  1. There's Dennis De Rougement, Love in the Western World (using Tristan and Isolde as a jumping off point) and Valency In Praise of Love (mostly dealing with troubadour [sic] stuff) in terms of post-Lewis books on love. And then there's Thebeaux The Stag of Love on the "love hunt."

    You could be totally radical and include a medieval Irish text in translation, perhaps Deirdre of the Sorrows. Or the Serglige con Culainn/The Wasting Sickness of Cuchullin, where love is a disease. Or even the first branch of the Mabinogi, which presents two different kinds of "married" love, one involving an unwitting and chaste spousal switch, and one with a woman who comes seeking a man she's never met, in order to marry him because she's in love.

  2. Thanks for the suggestions. It is too late (believe it or not) to order more texts for the class, but I'm particularly interested in Denis de Rougement's book. I guess I'll have to make a library run tomorrow!