Thursday, July 15, 2010

Romantic Love and the Love of God

Divine Madness: Archetypes of Romanitc Love
Romantic Love and the Love of God
article by John R. Haule

If puppy love is foolishness, a mature romantic love is full-blown madness. The lover has strayed from the highways and mainstreams of our placid and well-planned common life to build a solitary hut somewhere in a wilderness of disgraceful and deranged notions. There is no convincing the love-mad of their errors and delusions; they would rather disabuse us of ours. Whether love is an insanity grandiosely claiming to be wise, or a sublime wisdom masquerading as folly, seems not to admit of calm debate. We do not persuade one another about love. We find ourselves already lined up on opposite sides: one throng facing east, eyes sharp and clear; the other facing west, eyes hooded with scales.

Although, aside from periods of famine, it is hard to imagine a time when eros did not occupy a prominent position in human culture and society, romantic love as we know it today is an outgrowth of the courtly ideal, which sprang up suddenly as a dominant theme in twelfth-century Europe. Denis de Rougemont’s classic book, Love in the Western World, traces its beginnings to one William IX, Count of Poitier and Duke of Aquitaine, who can be called the first troubadour. He wrote ribald songs boasting about his sexual prowess and kept a notorious woman, known as La Dangereuse, in a tower of his castle. When two of his repudiated wives formed a convent to liberate women from the servitude of sex, William retaliated by forming an anticonvent of courtesans whom he praised in songs resembling monastic hymns.


This theatrical gesture turned out to be less silly than it may sound. William of Poitier and Aquitaine was a complicated man: petty, cynical, self-indulgent, insensitive and mean to his wives, but still high-minded and very much in earnest in other ways. His versifying and irreverent mockery was more than a passing whimsy for him; rather it drew him into a compelling and transformative lifelong project. His songs gradually began to shift from the lewd to the spiritual. Very likely the religious form of the monastic hymns he was satirizing exerted an influence on the imagery and ideas of his songs. For, although they retained their erotic quality, a different order of longing began to find expression in them.

In particular, William started exploring an image he referred to as “The Unknown Lady.” From the day he first dreamed of her while out riding, his compositions began to voice a deeper aspiration underlying his promiscuity. The Unknown Lady assumed greater and greater importance as William came to know her better. She grew into a kind of erotic, mystical queen whom he served with his whole heart and soul. He did not know what difficulties and tasks she had in store for him, but he was burning to undergo them, so great was her worth. Obedience to her coincided with perfect fidelity to himself. “Through her alone,” he sang, “shall I be saved.”

The fact that within a few years hundreds of troubadours were wandering about Europe indicates that the work of this satirical libertine had far more than personal implications. The songs expressed an important unconscious yearning in European culture as a whole. De Rougemont argues that there were two roots of this movement, both religious: one came out of a dualistic understanding of Christianity and the other from Islamic mysticism.

The Christian movement was Catharism, a dualistic philosophy that held that God had created only the spiritual world, the good portion of reality, whereas Satan had created the material world intrinsically evil. The human condition, therefore, is characterized by the incarnation of a sublime spirit, and the primary task of human existence is to free that spirit from its imprisonment in an evil body. The Cathars quite logically condoned suicide and forbade sexual intercourse, which they saw as a demonic device to imprison free souls in bodies. They considered marriage an “organized vice” and favored celibacy as the best way to deal with human sexuality. Still they tolerated casual sex, especially sodomy, for these practices, while avoiding the imprisonment of souls, relieved instinctual pressures for the great majority of individuals who did not qualify to be counted among the elect.

Catharism, therefore, requires a spiritualized love that denies or, at its weakest, tolerates the body. It finds expression in the fundamental principle of courtly love, whereby the knight dedicates all his efforts to the service of a lady he may have no hope ever of marrying. He is inspired by an erotic spirituality to do great deeds that advance both his kingdom and his own honor. Such a spiritual love exists outside of convention and free from the procreative instinct. In its most characteristic form, as we see in the stories of Tristan and Isolde or Lancelot and Guinevere, the most virtuous and powerful knight of the kingdom is the queen’s lover. Because they cannot be married, their love is forced into an essentially spiritual form, or else it is illicit.


Unlawful as this love may be, however, the stories agree that God surely tolerates and may even actively favor the union. For example, in the story of Tristan and Isolde, the lovers are brought together again and again by fortuitous (God-directed) natural events, such as the currents of the sea and the birds of the air. They are saved from death and punishment by gusts of wind; and Isolde at one point passes a “divine judgment” by lifting a red-hot iron bar without burning her hands. When Tristan is bringing Isolde back home to be wed to his king, they inadvertently drink a love potion, and after this no power can dissolve their union. In one of the five earliest versions of the tale, Beroul’s Romance of Tristan, they are confronted by the Hermit Ogrin who tells them they are living in sin. They protest that it cannot be sin, as they have drunk a potion that puts it beyond the power of their wills to separate. The Hermit accepts the argument and takes them under his roof.

The second cultural current that contributes to the tradition of romantic love in the West is Sufism, the mystical tradition in Islam. Although Islamic mysticism embraces a multitude of divergent doctrines, practices, and attitudes, the vast majority of Sufis hold that love is the only genuine way of coming to know God. Islam itself has even been called a “love-mad” religion (Schimmel, 1982: 11-13). In the Sufi view, “Everything in the world is in some mysterious way connected with Love and expresses either the longing of the lover or sings of the beauty and glory of the eternal Beloved who hides His face behind a thousand forms” (ibid., 77f.). Love between men and women is part of divine love, for the human experience both conceals and reveals the ultimate Lover and the ultimate Beloved. Indeed the love of God is really the only love there is. Divine love is the depth, meaning, and esoteric secret residing in profane love. The eleventh-century Sufi Ibn al-Arabi writes:
It is God who in each loved one manifests himself to the gaze of each lover . . . for it is impossible to adore a being without imagining the divinity present in that being. . . . Thus it goes for love: a creature really loves no one but his Creator. (Corbin, 111)
The romantic love that results from Cathar and Sufi currents, therefore, is a powerful expression of the human spirit. It is an ennobling bond between two human souls who are separated by physical, moral, and social constraints—typically in opposition to the rules of matrimony and liberated from the procreative instinct. Its sublime goal is a mature and individuated love of God. Just as God is one, so are we one with God and with one another when we love.
Those on the way are almost invisible
to those who are not. A man or a woman
recognizes God and starts out. The others
say he, or she, is losing faith.
(Rumi, 1986: 44)
We are, indeed, talking about a matter of faith—but not the kind of faith that can be written down as a set of propositions. Rather it is the faith that is rooted in our life experience. The Greeks called it gnosis: either you have had the experience, and know the truth about the invisible, or you have not. What is more, “gnostics,” the mystic cognoscenti, love their madness and believe it has peeled the scales from their eyes. Their opponents say that love has blinded them. This book sides with the madmen and explores their madness sympathetically: its rapture, its pain, its wisdom, its power to lead us astray, and its fiery pillar that leads us through the night of our ignorance toward a promised land that is glorious in ways we have not dreamed—but is generally not at all the way we had always imagined it would be.

Perhaps the most articulate mad lover of all time was Jelaluddin Rumi, a thirteenth-century Muslim from Iran who fled the Mongols to Turkey, where he succeeded his father as an expert theologian and had a sizable following of orthodox believers. He scandalized them all, however, when one day a weirdly dressed mystic, or “Sufi,” appeared on the edge of his audience. This man, Shamsuddin of Tabriz, fascinated Rumi, who closeted himself with the newcomer to learn a more emotional and flamboyant way of loving God. He came out of seclusion dancing, and introduced musical instruments (forbidden to orthodox Islam) and the whirling dance of the dervishes to his skeptical followers. They killed Shams in hopes of getting back their beloved teacher; but divine madness, once experienced, cannot be renounced. Rumi became Islam’s greatest poet and most famous lover of God. He says,
Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absent minded. Someone sober
will worry about events going badly.
Let the lover be.
(1986: 7)
Leave the lover alone because he or she is onto something the rest of us have missed. We find a sense of wholeness in love that reveals the poverty of life without it. Plato expressed these sentiments in his Symposium: he has Aristophanes relate a legend whereby we humans were originally round hermaphrodites, spheres with four arms, four legs, and two genders, each. In this time before time, we were whole and satisfied. But later we were separated into male and female halves, each going about restlessly in search of its mate—each of us haunted by an inchoate memory of the wholeness toward which our entire being tends. When we fall in love, we slip into feelings of oneness and completeness; our aching comes to rest. And when we lose our beloved, we plunge into an emptiness and insufficiency like nothing we have ever known before. From the outside, it looks like the most pitiful derangement, to suffer so at being no more than human. But the lover seems to have found a deeper truth. There is wisdom in that suffering—and a sublime kind of joy.
When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them.
(Ibid., 1984: Quatrain 36)
In the one case our beloved is so near us, and our enjoyment so important, intense, and soul-satisfying, that we cannot bear the vague parting that sleep brings. In the other case we actually love the insomnia and pain we experience during a night alone, for this binds us to our beloved in a new and no less significant way. Our beloved is present, also, in his or her absence. Even this pain is a blessing because it reveals another dimension of our union. We even find we need the separation in order to appreciate, by its contrast with the bliss of togetherness, the shaft of light that binds our minds and hearts and spirits. If we have ever fallen in love, we have known the agonizing bliss of union of which Rumi sings.

Rumi and most of the other love-mad poets of Islam refer again and again to the legends of the human lovers Layla and Majnun to describe their own love affair with God. These legends were part of Middle Eastern folklore long before the coming of Islam in the seventh century. Although the stories are filled with a great number of incidents, there is no beginning, middle, or end of a single narrative. Majnun, whose name means “madman,” and Layla, whose name means “night,” are a pair of lovers who—like the Sufi and God—almost never see one another. She lives under the constant guard of her tribesmen, who would be dishonored if they were to let her wed such a tramp as Majnun. Meanwhile, he lives alone in the wilderness with only wild animals for companions. Love fills them both and makes them sensitive to the messages they hear in birdsongs and to the sounds of one another’s sighs carried for miles on the desert breezes. Gradually they discover that they have become more a single unified being than mere bodily togetherness could ever have effected. Because they have become one in soul and substance, they find that they no longer need to see one another face to face. The Persian poet, Nizami, collected most of the lovers’ legends into a single poem, which mainly follows the life of Majnun and observes how love transforms everything he is and does. He becomes, in fact, a kind of hermit troubadour:
Love was glowing in [Majnun]. When it burst into flames it also took hold of his tongue, the words streaming unbidden from his lips, verses strung together like pearls in a necklace. Carelessly he cast them away. . . . Was he not rich? Was he not free? Had he not severed the rope which keeps men tied together? (Nizami, 1966: 126)
Their oneness transforms them, painfully but gloriously; it also separates them from their fellow humans and makes them outcasts: “Once I was Layla . . . now I am madder . . . than a thousand Majnuns” (ibid., 145).

According to the Sufi, this state is just as true of God-intoxication as it is of human love. It is a madness to be desired, because the Majnuns of the world are tuned in to a deeper reality than are the ordinary run of people. The true lover knows a different love and a different universe. . . .

The previous article is an excerpt from Divine Madness: Archetypes of Romantic Love by John R. Haule.
John Haule holds a doctorate in religious studies from Temple University. He is a Jungian analyst trained in Zurich and is a faculty member of the C.G. Jung Institute-Boston.


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