Dramatic personages

by Denis de Rougemont, translated by Richard Howard
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 170 pp., $4.50

Love Declared: Essays on the Myths of Love

by Denis de Rougemont, translated by Richard Howard
Beacon, 235 pp., $1.75 (paperback) (paper)

It is now twenty-five years since the first edition of Love in the Western World appeared. Most of the essays in Dramatic Personages precede it; the ones in Love Declared are quite recent. Taken together, the three books make a representative triptych of De Rougemont’s achievement. Literary figures interest De Rougemont less for their ideas than for the inner tensions revealed by the way in which they express ideas. In these tensions he hopes to find the identity of a person. This is the author as neither thinker nor particular individual, but somehow the two determining one another. Dramatic Personages consists of readable but minor essays on Goethe, Kierkegaard, Kafka, Luther, Calvin, Gide, and T. E. Lawrence. In each man De Rougemont seeks the “incarnation of a thought in a life or of a vocation in an individual.”

In Love in the Western World the approach remains constant, but its scope is tremendously enlarged. Contrasting pagan Eros with Christian Agape, De Rougemont assigns them to conflicting patterns of life in the West. For him Eros is adulterous passion, subversive to marriage as well as orthodoxy, in love with love itself rather than the beloved, seeking an infinite joy that transcends human forms, and so forever suicidal, sad, unsatisfied. By Agape he means Christian love between human beings as well as man and God. In this relationship lovers do not try to merge with one another, as Eros would require, but rather sustain each other’s separateness. While Eros is a love of death, Agape establishes a living communion. The concept of Agape originates with the New Testament. Eros, De Rougemont traces to the medieval legend of Tristan and Iseult, which he relates to Christian heresies deriving from Manichaeanism. According to De Rougemont, all history since the twelfth century has been a struggle between the passional, self-destructive “myth of Tristan” and the redemptive possibilities of orthodox Christianity.

Love Declared resumes the argument with greater sophistication. To the myth of Tristan, De Rougemont adds the myth of Don Juan, interpreted as Tristan’s after-image. In novels by Nabokov, Musil, and Pasternak he exposes the secret workings of Tristan in the twentieth century; in Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Gide he detects varying responses to the “dialectic” between Don Juan and Tristan; throughout he suggests a “mythanalysis” that penetrates to “symbols governing our emotive life.”

I propose a mythanalysis, which can be applied not only to persons but to the characters of art, and to certain formulations of life; the immediate objective of such a method being to elucidate the motives of our choices and their too frequently unconscious implications, spiritual as well as social.

The book ends with a comparison of Eastern and Western ideas about the self which enables De Rougemont to reaffirm his commitment to Christian Agape.

What are we to say of this triptych? Its design so simple, its panorama so vast, its religious conviction so powerful, will it not strike us as deep and meaningful? Possibly so. And yet, is it…

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