• Email
  • Print

Strangelove

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 deep, or just boldly superficial? De Rougemont captures the imagination by daring to speak of love with the high seriousness of Stendhal, Kierkegaard, Proust, Ortega. He dazzles the lay reader with scholarly references, carefully selected. He pursues his Tristan thesis with single-minded fervor. He has a message, and he never shrinks from elaborating its speculative enormities. Since myths inform the rest of life, why not assert that all “classical music, from Mozart to our day, is erotic” and that De Gaulle with his symbolic sword loves France much as Tristan loved Iseult? Why not? The resemblances are there, and De Rougemont is quick at finding them. In fact, his major talent consists in the ability to see interesting parallels between dissimilar writers or between situations in literature and those in life. He is at his best comparing the real Kierkegaard to the fictional Hamlet or even the fictional Doctor Zhivago to Pasternak’s real love of his country. But we come away from these comparisons with a sense of disappointment. De Rougemont has claimed so much for his isolated insights; he has argued so little for his grand conclusions; he has pretended to such great but unsubstantiated truths. We end up convinced of the man’s cleverness, but uncertain about his ultimate integrity.

Or is it his rationality we doubt? Reading De Rougemont on the theme of Tristan in the twentieth century, we feel as if we had been trapped by the manic eye of an ancient mariner. His intensity keeps us from putting down the book, but his tone is feverish, alarming. “There is only one novel in our literatures! Only one passion dictating the same vicissitudes ever since Tristan, ever since the great and decisive epiphany of passion’s archetype, in the twelfth century.” Perhaps De Rougemont does not mean this to be taken literally. In context, he seems to be as astonished by the idea as we are. Yet he cannot resist it. On the contrary, he acts as if he has found a new confirmation for his thesis about Eros and the western world.

Actually, the thesis itself is just as insupportable as the notion that all fiction since the twelfth century has really been the same. Much of the romantic literature of the nineteenth century does fit De Rougemont’s specifications. And possibly Wagner’s Tristan may serve as a clear case of what De Rougemont calls “passionate love.” There the relationship is blatantly adulterous, subversive to social institutions, infinite in its sexual demands and so incapable of being satisfied, even self-destructive as when Tristan allows himself to be wounded at the end of the second act. In Isolde’s transfiguration we may well intuit a love of death. In the lovers’ blind infatuation we may rightly find an impulse that cannot direct itself towards the beloved as a person. But none of this applies to the medieval legend. Tristan et Iseult is not the same as Tristan und Isolde. In Wagner love transcends the ordinary world, and does so with metaphysical triumph. Love grows: it does not struggle within a moral conflict. The opera has virtually no action, for nothing is worth acting against. The narrative line is evolutionary within a single theme (as in the wave motifs), not at all dramatic. In the medieval story, however, love is but one of two antagonistic themes. The other is the importance of order, society, honor, feudal duty, religious orthodoxy. Neither triumphs in the way that passion does in Wagner. As a result, the structure of the earlier version is indeed dramatic. Though glorified, love conflicts with elements of medieval life which are equally idealized. In the medieval, but not the romantic, version the lovers realize their need for society. Their adultery is an evil fate that prevents them from enjoying a world they have no desire to escape: it does not symbolize subversion or suicidal inclinations. The medieval lovers suffer because they cannot have both love and life in society. Wagner’s lovers suffer as a way of punishing themselves for having tried to destroy society.

De Rougemont nowhere recognizes these differences between the two Tristans. For him all passionate love (whether Courtly or Romantic) is really love of death rather than the beloved. Wherever he finds passages that mention love and death together, he insists that they both describe the lover’s objective. What he fails to consider is how the concept of death operates. In the Middle Ages it rarely functions as De Rougemont thinks. For the troubadours in the southern tradition, death symbolized their frustrations in love and their intermittent loss of hope. It means all suffering entailed by amorous servitude and cheerfully accepted for the sake of joyful love. The troubadours never speak of death as a goal or culmination. Bernard de Ventadour is perfectly representative when he says: “Noble lady, full of joy, your lover is dying! I fear that my heart will melt if this endures.” The poet obviously has no wish to die, he is not in love with death; and however much his love involves frustration, he undergoes it as part of the self-sacrifice that all ideals demand. As one could have expected from a troubadour poet, the next line runs: “Lady, for your love I join my hands and adore you!” This alternation between dying and living, despairing and hoping, fearing and adoring is characteristic of troubadour poetry. Far from identifying love and death, it rather signifies the precarious existence of noble sentiments in human life. Likewise, in the northern tradition (to which the Tristan legend belongs) death symbolizes the risks that lovers run for the sake of the beloved. It is used to indicate the authenticity of love, as when Tristan and Iseult declare that they would rather die than live without each other. In both traditions, death is something foreign to the joyfulness of love, an enemy and a scourge that may intrude upon the ideality of the relationship but cannot subjugate it.

With Petrarch and Cavalcanti the concept of death begins to change. By the time we get to romanticism, it often functions (in Novalis, for instance) as De Rougemont claims. And as a description of one type of Romantic Love his thesis might have some utility. But this is not the use to which De Rougemont puts it. For basically his position is itself a kind of Manichaeanism. To him all love that is not religiously oriented must be alike in some unwholesome respect. He calls it Eros and always finds it death-driven or diseased as in Wagner. Against this evil he can then pose the alternative of an absolutely good Agape. How pleasant for us all if things were that simple! In generalizing as he does, De Rougemont not only ignores the differences between the medieval and the modern world, but also the fact that most Romantic Love is not Wagnerian, that usually Courtly Love is neither adulterous nor passionate, that in Shakespeare, Molière, and many other authors love is neither Courtly nor Romantic nor Christian, and in any event that Christian love can hardly be described as mere Agape. So eager is De Rougemont to contrast Eros and Agape that he fails to analyze either properly, or to recognize their joint functioning within Christian dogma. In orthodox mystics like St. Teresa or St. John of the Cross he sees the symbolism of Eros but assumes that only the words are similar, Quite an assumption! How unsatisfying, in this regard, is De Rougemont as against the real Christian scholars: Nygren, Gilson, Denomy, even D’Arcy.

De Rougemont claims to be creating a new type of mythanalysis. Yet are we even sure that he is dealing with myths? Is there a myth of Tristan? To show that a Tristanian pattern has filtered through the ages, De Rougemont would have to undertake a more minute analysis of ideas than he ever attempts. He says that Proust, for instance, belongs to “the” Tristan myth; and perhaps he is right. But Proust explicitly attacks Courtly and Romantic ideas of love, developing what looks like a totally different approach. If it is true that the tensions within Proust’s critique are governed by a myth of which he was not aware, this must be shown through conceptual analysis.

In all three books one feels that spiritual tensions within De Rougemont himself make adequate analysis impossible. Is it religious faith intervening for evangelical purposes? Following certain suggestions of Max Brod, De Rougemont interprets Kafka as one who can neither believe nor disbelieve in God, a man no longer sustained by the moral absolutes of religion and yet incapable of liberating himself from them. To this De Rougemont adds: “If faith were to supervene in his life, it would give him the assurance of pardon. Then this obscure sense of guilt could become distinct consciousness of sin, of the real sin, which is much less a moral fault than the refusal to love God in Christ” (his italics). But why assume that Kafka’s need for faith must be the same as De Rougemont’s? Though the symbolism in Kafka is Christian as well as Jewish, why constrain it within the prior categories of Protestant pietism? It is as if Kafka’s admiration for Kierkegaard, whom De Rougemont worships as a hero, automatically converts Kafka into Kierkegaard.

Elsewhere, too, one senses that De Rougemont’s religious needs limit critical insight. Kierkegaard had thought of his own writing as itself a Christian vocation: the enacting of a spiritual commitment. De Rougemont tries to use the history of ideas for a similar purpose. The Tristan thesis enables him to discard all concepts of love to which he is not committed; mythanalysis serves to reveal the “spiritual person” transcending environmental influences, etc. And through it all De Rougemont does succeed in showing forth as a dramatic personage himself. But since he is not an original like Kierkegaard, the incarnation of his thought always appears derivative and much removed from reality. In his later books one sees him living a second-order myth; not the Tristan myth, but the idea that there is such a thing, that Eros and Agape are irreconcilable, that this discovery will lead to a rebirth of faith, etc. Indeed, as a writer where would De Rougemont be without his tendentious myth? Time and again he snarls at (but does not answer) scholars who question the accuracy of what he says. Wherever possible he cites recent books and movies that seem to model themselves upon his thesis. Even trivial remarks by Gide about Love in the Western World are dragged in to lend authority. This has become De Rougemont’s religious vocation. Unless one reads him with that in mind, his books are sure to mislead.

The world ignores what it does not need or cannot assimilate. I think this has already happened to De Rougemont. Dramatic Personages is dated by the vagaries of French Personalism of the 1930s. Though seemingly up-to-date, Love Declared receives its inspiration from a bright idea that lost its luster many years ago. By casting the western world into the dichotomy of passionate vs. orthodox love, De Rougemont wrenches himself away from the creative tendencies of the twentieth century. In our age mankind has finally begun to examine love in relation to concepts of health or sanity, and without religious presuppositions. In pragmatism, psychoanalysis, analytical philosophy, and certain aspects of existentialism, the ground has been cleared for a type of love that is neither diseased nor supernatural. About these developments De Rougemont has nothing to say. He confuses the so-called sexual revolution with mere eroticism, Don Juan, if not actually Tristan. As a result, he completely misses the new ideals that this post-Romantic period is brewing. He inhabits a past that never was. He is not a maker of the future.

  • Email
  • Print