The Legacy of Romantic Love
The crisis of broken boys is a contemporary problem, but it is an old story. The archetypal story can be found in classical antiquity, in Ovid’s accounts of mythical figures like Icarus and Phaethon, boys who either wouldn’t or couldn’t manage the work of their fathers and perished in the attempt. The account of boys losing heart and ultimately their lives is developed more extensively and naturalistically in the medieval legend of Perceval/Parsifal and in the tale of Tristan and Isolde—and in the parade of romances that have followed.
Perceval, whose name means “little fool,” is the son of a warrior knight who, along with his elder sons, has been killed in combat. Perceval’s mother, Heart’s Sorrow, dedicates her life thereafter to seeing that her remaining son is spared that fate. She raises him in rustic isolation far from arms and warfare, gives him loving nurture and careful religious instruction. By chance, however, the youthful Perceval encounters a band of mounted, armored knights in the forest and is enchanted by them. Since his only knowledge of the larger world is his mother’s instruction, he concludes that they are angels, and from that time forward longs to become an angel himself. He fashions crude weapons from sticks of wood and attempts to tack the family nag as a knight’s steed. Realizing that she cannot deter him, Heart’s Sorrow allows Perceval to go out into the world to find his way. Perceval proceeds through many adventures, and while he is foolish and naïve and misjudges many situations, he is also charmed and seemingly divinely guided as he makes his way to Arthur’s court, where he improbably, in the manner of David slaying Goliath, kills a fearsome enemy of the court, after which Perceval assumes the slain knight’s armor and mount and continues his knightly quest.
Along the way he receives wise tuition from an older mentor and comes to the aid of a damsel in distress before making his way into a strange region where he is given hospitality by a Fisher King. At a banquet in the king’s castle, Perceval witnesses a procession of brilliant objects, including the Holy Grail. But because he is confused about what he is seeing, he fails to ask what it means. The next morning he finds himself alone in the castle, and when he departs, the kingdom of the Fisher King literally disappears. Perceval’s adventures continue, but he is no longer charmed. He learns of the death of his beloved mother, Heart’s Sorrow. He realizes that he has not kept his promises to her that he would be faithful in his Christian practice. No longer does he always succeed, always prevail. He encounters terrifying ugliness in the figure of a loathsome hag. One day, noticing drops of goose blood in the fresh snow before him, he stops to ponder and descends into gloom. He is self-conscious, no longer sure of himself—and sad. Here, in the earliest texts, the story ends, rather like the frayed ends of a rope. Later writers, so-called “continuators,” would pick up Perceval’s story, recount subsequent adventures in quest of the grail, many of them in the company of other Arthurian knights. In some accounts, Perceval is given another chance to behold the grail; in others he dies unfulfilled or is simply lost, his story dissolving into other Arthurian business.
The progress of Perceval’s life is troubling but instructive. The story of his boyhood has the exuberance and charm of a fairy tale. His trajectory after he is expelled from the Fisher King’s court carries an altogether different weight. Stalled on his mount and brooding over the bloodstained snow, Perceval has lost his resolve and spontaneity. He is self-conscious now, as, later, Hamlet would be self-conscious. No longer is he a “little fool,” and no longer is he a boy. As a boy he was held in the thrall of a bright, if mysterious, beckoning. As a man he is lost and troubled, and in this regard his story points to modernity.
The Jungian writer Robert Johnson proposes that certain stories have the capacity to transcend the historical era in which they are composed and in effect to announce the arrival of themes and questions that will engage mankind for centuries to come (We, 1983). He made this assertion in introducing his interpretation of Tristan and Isolde, a harrowing twelfth century love story that, Johnson suggests, gave form to an evolutionary new development in western consciousness, one that continues to enchant and bedevil contemporary men and women.
Johnson suggests that modern male consciousness began to surface in the twelfth century, and that Tristan is the prototype. Tristan’s trajectory out into the world is similar to Perceval’s. Tristan’s father was Rivalen, the warrior-king of Lyonesse in France. In the course of a successful campaign in England in support Cornwall’s King Mark, he is given Mark’s sister, Blanchefleur, in marriage. Shortly after his return to France, Rivalen is killed in combat. Blanchefleur, pregnant with Tristan and about to give birth, descends into despair. She lives only long enough to bear her son, and then she dies, but not before naming him Tristan, which means “child of sadness.” Tristan grows up into the culture of arms and combat. He will not know the identity of his real father until he is an adolescent. Like Perceval, he is charmed by chivalry, and becomes impressively adept. In the course of many adventures, he makes his way back to England, reunites with King Mark, his uncle, and swears knightly allegiance to him. Later in the course of adventures in Ireland, an enemy state to Cornwall, it falls to Tristan to deliver back to King Mark a new bride, the Irish Princess Isolde.
In the course of this mission Tristan and Isolde fall in love with an intensity neither will be able to put behind them, despite great and principled effort. In the medieval telling of the story, the irresistible mutual attraction of the lovers is attributed to their drinking a potion of wine and herbs that would bond the couple who drank it in consuming love. The potion was intended to be given to Isolde and King Mark on their wedding night, but by an accident it was provided by a servant girl to slake Tristan and Isolde’s thirst on a particularly warm day. Realizing the mistake, Isolde’s maid is horrified and, seeing the attraction already at work in the eyes of the lovers, warns them that death lay that way, to which Tristan responds, “Well then, come Death.” Tristan at that moment could be speaking for Romeo, young Werther, Heathcliffe and the whole procession of doomed, passionate lovers who have continued to engage the minds and hearts of western peoples.
Modern depth psychology offers strong explanations of the self-obliterating passion of young lovers. In the Freudian, and more mechanical, view, the repressed passion of infant boys for their mothers is reawakened in the course of biological puberty and becomes redirected to a new, age-appropriate, in-this-world female. This heady release of repressed feeling is so overwhelming it confuses the boy’s conscious ego as to its own identity and boundaries. The young lover does not know where he ends and his beloved begins. Objective reality loses definition and is replaced by pulsing inner subjectivity. The beloved becomes all, and the lover has no existence outside the love bond. No amount of wise, sound counsel can restore the young lover to a practical perspective. In Romeo and Juliet, when Friar Laurence attempts to draw Romeo out of his suicidal hysteria by reminding him of the consolations of philosophy, Romeo cries out, “Hang up philosophy! If it cannot produce a Juliet…”
In a somewhat similar way, Jungian analysis sees a boy’s consuming romantic passion as a projection of his unconscious feminine ideal, or anima, onto an in-this-world object. The intensity of this projection typically overwhelms the lover, the beloved, or both. The unbearable pitch of feeling cannot be sustained over time, nor can the beloved stand up for long under the force of the projection, which by its nature idealizes, falsifies and otherwise distorts her actual being. If and when a lover can adjust perceptions to the actual and can deflate the intensity of the initial infatuation, then perhaps a viable relationship can be established. But in the vaulting, beautiful and tragic stories of doomed young lovers, these adjustments are not made. The lover continues to find ecstatic, transporting communion in the presence of the beloved—or even her recalled image.
Because Tristan never knows his mother, it might reasonably be assumed that a “mother deficit” is the cause of such ardent love on the boy’s part, yet nothing in his language or behavior suggests anything like a need for mothering or nurturance. Other canonical lovers, such as Heathcliffe, are motherless, while others are not. Lady Montagu, Romeo’s mother, was a concerned presence in his life, and Romeo was already preoccupied and more than a little sex-starved for another girl, Rosaline, before he was overwhelmed by Juliet. Later fictional lovers, such as Goethe’s young Werther, are unmistakably in search of a mother figure, and the permanently lost boy, Peter Pan, seeks a girl-mother for his band of companions in Neverland, but Peter seeks no romantic attachment to Wendy. The persistence of the impulse to romantic love despite the particular tugs and ties of the mother-son relationship suggest that there is something essential, something more than a psychic compensation at work.
Tristan’s story is “modern” in that it explores in credible depth the tension between a young man’s necessary commitments-- to justice, community standards, to honoring beloved and revered elders—and the true longing of his heart. Tristan is nothing but loyal and honorable before he becomes entranced by Isolde. His love for her is infused with what had previously been his best energy, his charmed hero’s-- boy’s—sense of his place in the world. That quality of energy and feeling is then invested in the bond of love for Isolde. Everything that drove him before—commitment, service, enduring ordeals and tests, measuring up—becomes a secondary consideration to the thrall of being in love. Because he is strong and heroic, he doesn’t discard his former governing values altogether; they continue to bear on him in a tortured awareness of their antagonism to his new condition, but such values no longer inspire him and drive him through his days. When King Mark proceeds to make Isolde his queen, Tristan becomes a virtual and then an actual adulterer. It is his destiny to love Isolde with his body, heart, and mind, but it is his civic obligation to honor his vows of allegiance to the king, which could never allow his being the adulterous lover of the queen. But that is what he has been fated to become, and he will go on to live for three years in an aggravated state of ambivalence.
When Isolde’s maid first realizes that Tristan and Isolde have drunk the potion and are now irrevocably in love, she tells them, “Never will you know joy without pain again.” This is the sentence delivered to Adam and Eve as they are banished from Eden for having eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve’s sentence of drudgery and pain is the termination of their childhood innocence, which is to say their childhood. Tristan and Isolde’s sentence marks the end of their adolescence and imposes impossible barriers to happiness and fulfillment as adults. In the end, the maid’s initial prophecy—that consuming love leads to death—proves true in Tristan’s case, and he dies a divided, dispirited, and still lovesick young man.
So what exactly is the “modern” legacy of Tristan’s sad story? Tristan knows in his heart he cannot truly live outside a loving communion with Isolde. He also knows in his mind that he cannot truly live as a disloyal, adulterous cheat. There is no earthly resolution to the dilemma. The lovers meet secretly, but their trysts are as bitter as they are sweet. The ecstatic pitch of their initial communion is undiminished, but there is no room for it to breathe in the world of men. It is as if in Tristan’s case—or Romeo’s case, for that matter—the golden spark of boyhood is granted an extension in romantic love, but in the practical, waking world that kind of love is no more welcome or sustainable than the foolish exuberance of a boy. Yet—and here is the modern problem—boyish exuberance and deep romantic love are the truest and best conditions a male will know. Discernment, intelligence, practical adjustments, material gain, and consolidation of power never satisfy; they are always, when examined closely, compensations for what has been lost.
From the medieval era through modernity, the charmed spirit of puer aeternus, the eternal boy, continues to press its claims, as does the spirit of the heroic lover. Both the historical record and the literary record are replete with those claims, and while successive Icaruses continue to fly too high and star-crossed Romeos continue to love and lose, the larger culture proceeds apace, however violently and impoverished of spirit. The larger culture sanctifies the story, safely relegated to art, but continues to suppress the saving vitality of what the story tells.
In the medieval tales the boy hero thrusts himself without reflection into the larger world. He is virtually motherless. The world of his father and of men generally is a world of arms and combat and estate management. The young hero does not and cannot embrace the concerns of men, but he may seem to, in that he embraces the romance that seems to shimmer in manly pursuits. Young Perceval was sequestered away from bloodshed and killing and terror by his mother who had had enough of such wastage. When Perceval does happen to behold a band of knights, it is not their deadly potential that captures his heart, but the beauty of the sun glinting off their armor. He believes they are angels and sets out to be an angel himself. While he is held in the romance, he is charmed, vividly alive, connected to the unexamined force that sustains him. He is not really a boy-in-training-to-be-a-man; he is a boy held in a highly satisfying dream state. In this condition, he is unassailable and ecstatic. He is the biblical boy David, certain that he can slay the Philistine giant without aid of the man’s armor he is offered by Solomon. He is the boy tailor in the Grimms’ fairy tale who parlays the prideful achievement of “killing seven (flies) with one blow” into the heroic slaying of a malevolent giant. The heroic quest satisfies and energizes the boy as long as it holds its charm, its romance. But when that spell is broken, so is the motivation to go on. As long as there is the very ideal of effort, of perfect devotion, perfect love, a holy grail—an “impossible dream”—the boy spirit lives. When to his surprise Perceval beholds the actual grail, the enchantment is shattered, and he loses his way. Similarly, when Tristan’s romantic trajectory collides with the practical business of state, there is no more hope and no future worth having; there is only deception, enmity, endless fighting and death.
Deception, enmity, endless fighting and killing were indeed qualities that defined masculine medieval life, out of which these enduring stories were distilled as the era waned. All-consuming romantic love, it has been suggested, was an extension, a reprieve. The boy spirit enters easily and fully into romance, which serves both to stir the heart and to lift the boy hero out of the grim inevitabilities of arms and combat. The patriarchal civil order—the order of males who have outlived their boyhood—is utterly opposed to everything to do with the thrall of romantic love, of making love not war. In Edmund Spenser’s sixteenth-century allegory of the Faerie Queen, the seductress who lures the youthful warrior into her bower of bliss is a vitality-sapping witch who reduces her young victim to listless impotence, his shed armor rusting under the elements. This seductress can be found everywhere in the literary record of the west. She is Circe hoping to enchant Odysseus. She is Keats’ Belle Dame Sans Merci, who saps the strength and vitality of her young knight to the point that his life is reduced to “palely loitering.”
The witchy seductress lurking behind a cunningly lovely visage is a durable figure, one that continues to caution modern males against impetuous surrender to romantic love. Gestures, leanings in that direction are alternately risky business and fatal attractions which result in the wreckage of lives. But there is the counter-story: the love that is for real, beauty that is not deceptive but rather the outward sign of inward grace. There is Abelard’s Heloise, Tristan’s Isolde, Dante’s Beatrice, Romeo’s Juliet, Heathcliff’s Cathy For the heroic boy, unbowed and uncompromised, communion with his beloved trumps family, clan, state, and church. Romeo is a boy of his era and of his city, a boy of whom his worst enemy can say, “Verona brags of him to be a virtuous and well-governed youth.” He is a young knight trained in arms and had he not been diverted by the thrall of romantic love, would have joined if not led his clan in its brutal clashes with the Capulets. But love changes him and in effect extracts him from and elevates him above his martial peers and elders. Newly and secretly married to Juliet, he greets his wife’s Capulet cousin Tybalt as a brother and professes love for him, not enmity. Tybalt, who has not been so transformed, believes Romeo is putting him on and in consequence loses his temper and kills Romeo’s dear friend Mercutio in a duel. Mercutio is killed in part because Romeo attempts to break up the fight, enabling an unseen thrust of Tybalt’s sword to penetrate and kill him. Shocked and mortified by what has happened, Romeo momentarily shakes free of his amorous condition, and in a rage turns on Tybalt-- “O Juliet,” he cries, “thy beauty hath made me effeminate”—and kills him.
Again, the ecstasy of romantic love, while a welcome continuation of males’ puer spirit, is no more assimilable into the established masculine order than boyish exuberance. The unbroken succession of stories of such love into modernity is testimony to the psychological importance of opposing love to a deadening and deadly civil order. In the medieval telling of these stories there is the heroic suggestion that the spirited boy will choose love over any earthly alternative; moreover, without such love, there is no earthly alternative, only death—which banishes boy spirit from the world as surely as the civil order would have it.