On the intoxicant of romantic love

I recently taught William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. A geologic epoch has passed since I first read the play, and I cannot remember my original response. What stands out now is my melancholic detachment from the kind of romance that makes the world feel all at once alive with radiance and susceptible to extinction. I never experienced that upheaval of emotion as an adolescent and only once, in a somewhat convoluted way, as an adult.

As time passes, I wonder if it is possible to reverse the years and see everything with young eyes again. When Juliet appears on the balcony of her house, Romeo does not see a teenager girl in all of her awkward glory. He sees the center of the solar system.

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she
Be not her maid, since she is envious
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

The poetic discourses of Romeo and Juliet put the prosaic realities of my single life into sharp, even painful relief. Sure, the religious life can transform my cosmic vision, but it lacks the same thrilling immediacy as the intoxicant of romantic love. Without romance, the world seems robbed of its sunshine. Just when I am about to sink into this dark mood, W. H. Auden’s lecture on the drama offers me some buoyancy:

In literary tradition there are always obstacles to love. For the intoxicant of romantic love to remain effective it is essential that the relationship not change into something else, dwindle into friendship or domestic, married love, for example, with its ties to the community. No, something must come between the lovers that prevents their union – one of them is already married, there is an interfamily feud, there is a barrier of race, or religion, and should no barrier be present, the lovers themselves must provide one. For the purpose of the obstacle is clear: it is to intensify desire by impeding fulfillment. Now the obstacle that the lovers ideally require must be insurmountable. That is to say, their union must be possible only through their deaths. This is the secret, the religious mystery, of Romantic Love, the mystery that is represented by the suicides of Romeo and Juliet. If people marry on the assumption that love must always overcome obstacles, they will either become unfaithful or they will make things difficult. The better you know someone, the better you can torture him: man and wife become each other’s devils. Falling in love is a good thing if by means of it you become a self with whom it is possible to have a real relationship, if your I can develop. If a person falls in love every five minutes, people rightly suspect he has no heart. Falling in love can be bad if it leads to nothing. There are other ways of discovering oneself, but in our time falling in love seems the commonest. Because of the development of industrialization, there has been a decline in religious feeling as well as a decrease in the number of jobs that are really vocations, and in big cities there is also a shrinkage of love and of important relationships to family.

Auden cautions me against romanticizing romance. A single person is vulnerable to coveting the “miracle of sudden intimacy” (Erich Fromm) that Romeo and Juliet experience at the masquerade party. But that miracle, in all of its intensity, cannot last except through death, which offers the lovers an illusion of keeping the intoxicant alive. Sometimes I mistakenly think that I will be cured of my “repining restlessness” (George Herbert) if and when I find someone who, upon first sight, will stir me to say, “Did my heart love till now? forswear it, sight! / For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night.” I forget that even a lover, who inspires an encomium like “bright angel,” cannot remain “a thing enskied and sainted,” as Shakespeare says in another play. I forget that all romantic love is “death-mark’d,” that the wedding bed is a grave for everyone insofar as no marriage persists eternally. My tendency is to fantasize about love that is “a summer tan” but never “a winter windburn,” “moonlight” and “roses” but not “groceries” and “room rent,” to borrow memorable images from Carl Sandburg’s poem “Honey and Salt.”

Auden also makes me aware that my aspiration to fall in love is bundled with an aspiration to discover myself. John Calvin famously wrote, “Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself.” Does this logic apply to romantic relationships? To attain true self-knowledge, must a person gaze upon his lover’s face? Judging by the life of our single Savior, the answer should be “no,” although it may not be helpful to compare ourselves to Jesus in this respect; he lacks the same need to discover himself like we do. I am a finite and fallen creature who discovers myself within a community of other finite and fallen creatures, who are—for better or worse—the very face of God to me. My friendships help me become a self, but they seem less satisfying than marriage because a spouse has a constant and attentive presence that no friend does, even the most loyal. Auden rightly mentions other ways of developing an I besides falling in love, but is industrialization the main reason for the decline of religious feeling and vocation in our time? I believe we prefer falling in love because the face of the lover reflects back upon us with more intimacy and immediacy. Self-discovery through religious feeling and vocation happens in subtle, almost imperceptible degrees. My challenge is to trust that I am becoming a self—not as the beloved of any human being but as the beloved of God, who summons me into the only eternal romance.

ChristopherBenson50aChristopher Benson lives in Dallas, teaches literature, worships at an Episcopal church, and writes for various publications. His eponymous blog is Bensonian.

2 thoughts on “On the intoxicant of romantic love

  1. Thank you for this honest reflection on romantic love! Unfortunately I am all too well-acquainted with this “melancholic detachment” that you speak of, but it is not a place that I choose to dwell if I can help it! Overall it is quite easy to idealize romantic love, to make it this giant basket in which we find the golden eggs of intimacy, wonder, fulfillment and self-actualization. I do believe romantic love can contain all of these things, but what we as single folk need is encouragement to seek these goods elsewhere, where they can indeed be found in varying degrees. I would also be careful about treating romantic love as a means of self-discovery; certainly self-discovery can be a by-product, but it seems that self-forgetfulness is a better goal.

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