Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Love in the Western World

I have got hold of a very interesting book called Love in the Western World by some Swiss writer named Denis de Rougemont. It was originally published in French. I had heard of this book first in one of Woody Allen's films (was it Crimes and Misdemeanors?) and when I saw an old copy in a used book store, I picked it up. Now, I know, reading all these books about love is not going to do anything to change my life, which remains profoundly single, but I find Love to be a very interesting natural phenomenon which deserves to be understood in scientific, detached and objective manner(!!).

This book is actually a cultural history of romantic love in the western civilization. Yes, its cliched, vulgar and baser manifestations (Valentines day, Bollywood, Chick lit et al ) are surely products of culture or rather, of the capitalist system. I have read only a few chapters so far but I don't really agree with its central idea, and I don't think it is true either, the idea that romantic love as we know it today was an invention of the western culture, in particular the medieval lyric poets (also known as troubadours) who wrote songs about courtly love. Rougemont also claims that it was troubadours' idealization of passionate love that changed the social system, which was earlier based on arranged marriages. Marriage in noble classes was considered on opportunity to increase wealth and improve social standing (much the same as we have in our country prevalent even now). He also tries to explain the fascination adultery had for western writers and poets and tries to connect it all to one theory.

I don't think the idea of romantic love is a cultural construction. It is very definitely a human universal, that is it springs from basic human nature. It is also widely accepted by the currently fashionable branch of evolutionary psychology. We had for example, in our Eastern culture, an honourable share of poets who sang praises of love too. In fact there is whole genre (Shringar Rasa) dedicated to the celebration of love. Although there was very little psychology involved, most of these poems either objectified women and celebrated the beauty of their organs or otherwise confused it with religious ideals. But yes, the idea of conflating marriage and romance has been missing. That might be because of the deep-rooted feudal mentality which treats women as private property, sadly still so widely prevalent in our culture.

Will write about it when I finish the book, although it is a little difficult to read. It seems Rougemont had read all those books present in the Don Quixote's library! There are so many references to medieval literature and myths of which I know nothing about.


km said...


There's more to shringar rasa and its (seemingly tenuous) connection with religion and spirituality.

It's too easy to interpret those poems and lyrics as only celebration of physical beauty, but many of these poets, particularly the mystical poets often "use" the physical body and its beauty as a "gateway" to a Higher Truth.

The notion that there's a romantic love (separate and distinct from other forms of love) is, if you think about it, an odd one. Which was precisely the point of the Sufi poets (or even Meerabai) - you love one, you love all, and through that love you find God.

Alok said...

Yes, I agree with what you say.

What I should have added was that because the romantic love was mixed up with philosophical ideas, the idea of romance as a thing in itself got devalued. I am not saying that it was bad but it generally didn't help the idea that love could be used as basis of marriage or companionship.

Still there are many examples of stories of courtship, men pursuing women, both falling in love, getting married or separated in our tradition too. Which just goes to show that romance (and not just sexual desire) is a universal trait too and not a product of any specific culture.