Dispatches | May 07, 2007
Is Literary Love Real?
Recently, on a lazy evening, I saw the movie “The English Patient” a second time, and it reminded me of the weirdness of the “romance.” To what degree is such a storytelling genre true to the subject as lived in life and how much is pure artifact? Is there a true connection between love in life and love in stories?
Certainly there are classic elements in literary romance that didn’t appear until some point fairly recent in human history. As in Shakespeare’s tragic romances, love is potent, often destructive, and people in love are temporarily insane or at any moment might become so. They may be blissful or miserable, capable of the highest reaches of poetry, yet they’re never far from prostration or suicide. Deprived of judgment, they can be manipulated by others. Socially, their passion is a great welding force that may bridge gaps between classes and races, or between families, as it promises to do at the end of Romeo and Juliet. But more immediately it endangers them and everybody in their vicinity.
In many ways, the love in Shakespeare’s tragedies is like the love in epic poetry — black-and-white possession or loss characterized by madness and danger.
Shakespeare’s ideal of love is expressed in his sonnets in more realistic form, without the shoot-em-up of the theater or the epic conventions of theatrical tragedy. The model of this kind of love had been floating around Western Europe since the eleventh century, when it apparently made its first appearance among scholar-poets in Provence. One of the fascinating things about the Provencal depiction of ideal love is that it cannot be traced with any certainty before that time and place. There are theories about previous sources, but none is convincing.
In his monumental book Feudal Society, historian Mark Bloch says that the new forms of chivalry, born in the eleventh century, were at first confined to southern France, where the church was relatively weak. Courtois, the courteous, was soon being imitated in Italy and in Germany; the codes of chivalry had much to do with a new role and influence of women. Prior to that time, a noblewoman might have ruled her household or been politically powerful, but it was only with the birth of chivalry that she could rule a salon.
The highborn lady was the person for whom a knight might seek to outshine his rivals not only by his reputation for valor but also by good manners and literary talents. This is quite an evolution from the love of the gods and heroes of epic poetry.
How imaginary the conventions of Courtly Love were will never be known. In the real world, the marriages of nobles were usually business transactions. Courtly Love had little to do with marriage, and in many ways it directly opposed it. The female beloved was usually already married and of a higher rank than the man — off limits times two. While Courtly Love was not opposed to physical satisfaction, obstacles to it enriched its melancholy pleasure, as the man, pledged to secrecy, remained frustrated and jealous.
It was quite a step when knights of all degree began, in the l2th century, to devote themselves to lyric love poetry. William IX of Aquitaine was the earliest troubadour whose work has survived. The troubadour style was intricate, sometimes deliberately hermetic, and perfect for recital at aristocratic gatherings.
Whether modern love was invented by Provencal poets in the 11th Century or at some earlier time, it does strike me that its literary conventions do relate to love in real life: The suffering, the “other person” (jealousy), the inspiration and opportunity for improvement, the conflict and magnetism involved in possible class distinctions between the two lovers, the connection between love and mortality — such issues are certainly not unrelated to love in real life. And even as the epic poets described it, love is dangerous and it can get you into trouble. So go for it.
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