Beatrice or Iseult? The debate about romantic love

Beatrice or Iseult? The debate about romantic love

Thomas, Owen C


Several years ago my wife and I were on leave in Rome doing some writing and teaching. Through a friend we joined a group of four Roman Catholic priests who met weekly to study various historical texts. The first one was the Vita Nuova of Dante, a text which I had never read before. Its subject matter was entirely new to me, namely, the experience of romantic love as an experience of God. My neo-orthodox theological education in the late forties had not left me open to this possibility. The study of Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World had confirmed my uneasiness about such an idea. But since the meetings in Rome, I have often wondered about it. More recently some research on romanticism has led me to the writings of Charles Williams on the theology of romantic love which focuses on Dante’s Vita Nouva as well as the Commedia. The contrast between Williams and de Rougemont intrigued me-thus this essay.

In the thirties and forties of this century there arose a largely silent debate about the meaning and significance for human life of romantic love. On the one hand, Charles Williams (1886-1945), the English poet, novelist, literary critic, and theologian, proposed an orthodox Christian theology of romantic love. Following Dante he saw it as an experience of grace and salvation.l On the other hand, Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985), the Swiss historian, literary critic, and theologian, proposed an interpretation of what he called the myth of romantic love which had its origin in heretical Catharist sources. This myth interpreted the experience of the passion of romantic love as one which promised the exaltation and destruction of the lovers.2 As far as I know, neither Williams nor de Rougemont knew of the work of the other, with a single exception to which I will refer later.

The theses of Williams and de Rougemont on romantic love appear to be quite contradictory. They refer to much of the same historical and literary material and come to what seem to be exactly opposite conclusions. Let us consider their theses.

According to de Rougemont, in the twelfth century a Christian heresy known as Catharism arose in southern France which involved a dualism of body and soul. The divine soul has been tempted by the Woman and is imprisoned in the body. It longs to be delivered from the body so that it can be reunited with the divine. This longing is directed at an ideal woman named Maria, the mother of a docetic Jesus who teaches an ascetic way of deliverance from the body. This deliverance occurs finally in death. So the passionate longing of the soul for deliverance is essentially a longing for death. Thus, Catharism transformed natural sexual desire into passion, limitless aspiration and longing.

Catharism was persecuted by the Inquisition, went underground, and appeared again in the guise of courtly love. This was expounded in the poems and songs of the troubadours who were its evangelists. The fundamental myth of courtly love is the story of Tristan and Iseult. This is the legend of the passionate adulterous love of these two which was inflamed by numerous obstacles, the main one being that Iseult was married to King Mark. The message of the myth is that passionate romantic love is the true human fulfillment which exalts and transforms the lovers through death. De Rougemont interprets this myth to be in direct contradiction to the Christian understanding of love as Agape.

According to Williams the modern view of romantic love had its source in Dante’s experience of falling in love with Beatrice and his interpretation of this as an experience of grace and salvation. “He is the spring of all modern love literature.”3 Williams claims that the common experience of falling in love can be an experience of the unfallen state of original perfection, of the kingdom of God, and especially an experience of the love and grace of God incarnate in Christ, an experience of salvation. It depends upon what is done with the experience. If it is not seen as an end in itself but rather a beginning, it can be a following of the Christian way, especially in marriage.

Williams gives the larger context for his theology of romantic love. “It has been part of the work of Christianity in the world to make men aware of the spiritual significance of certain natural experiences…. [But this] has been attempted very little with romantic love. Yet an human energy which can be so described is capable of being assumed into sacramental and transcendental heights-such is the teaching of the Incarnation.”4 The lack of such an attempt in regard to romantic love in the past has been due to apocalypticism, the concentration upon another world, suspicion of any sacrament involving human delight, the haunting of Manicheanism, the asceticism necessary for the mystical life, and clerical celibacy.5

The beginning of romantic love was Beatrice’s appearance to Dante and his response. “A flame of caritas possessed me, which made me pardon anyone who had offended me.”6 Williams comments, “The experience . . arouses a sense of intense significance, a sense that an explanation of the whole universe is being offered.”7 This requires a response of intellect, will, and emotions. “Is it serious? Is it capable of intellectual treatment? Is it capable of belief, labor, fruition? Is it (in some sense or other) true? . . . Can this state of things be treated as the first matter of a great experiment? . . . The end of course is known by definition of the kingdom: it is the establishment of a state of caritas, of pure love, the mode of expression of one moment into eternity.”8 This is the Way of Romantic Love.

(In connection with de Rougemont’s thesis about Catharism as the source of the myth of romantic love, it is intriguing to note that about 1917 Williams was initiated into an occult group, the hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which had been founded in 1887 by three English Rosicrucians, a tradition which has similarities to Catharism.)

Now what are we to make of this fundamental disagreement? Is it simply a matter of differing interpretations of some medieval literature? It certainly is that. But does it also involve deeper disagreements? I shall look first at the differences in historical interpretation, especially in regard to Dante and the Arthurian romances, and then move on to other questions.

I have noted that for Williams, Dante is the main source of his theology of romantic love, and Williams interprets him to be an orthodox catholic Christian. De Rougemont, however, sees Dante quite differently, namely, as continuing the heretical tradition of the myth of romantic love.

De Rougemont’s main point is that for Dante, Beatrice is “entirely symbolical.”9 He states, “In Dante the images are the more passionate and ‘realistic’ in proportion to Beatrice’s progressive rise in the hierarchy of mystical abstraction, where she becomes first Philosophy, then Wisdom, and finally Divine Knowledge.”10 De Rougemont suggests that in Vita Nuova 19 where Dante describes Beatrice as heaven’s only lack and one whom the saints entreat, he is not referring to Beatrice as “a real woman” but rather as “the Holy Ghost in the act of upholding His Church with the charity of Christ.”” He grants that Beatrice existed and that Dante loved her, but he states that this is a case of sublimation. “Love is [essentially] mystic passion” and “it is perilous to stop short at the terrestrial forms [of love] which are merely its IMAGE.”12 Thus de Rougemont interprets Dante as standing in the tradition of the heretical myth of romantic love.

It is important to note that Williams explicitly denies such an interpretation of Dante. He criticizes the allegorists who “deny altogether the mortal identity of Beatrice and turn her wholly into Theology or Divine Grace or what not,” and also the spiritualizers for whom Beatrice “becomes so dim that she is, in fact, nothing but a kind of vapor of the soul, a mist that goes up out of the ground of the heart…. To spiritualize Beatrice away from the earth into a pseudoRomanticism is, in criticism, very like mortal sin.”13

Williams’s quite different interpretation of Dante emphasizes the very earthy and concrete reality of Beatrice and involves a very different understanding of symbols and images. According to Williams, Dante always affirms and never loses sight of the fact that Beatrice is a real flesh-and-blood woman from birth to death. But for Dante she is also an image of the kingdom of God. Here Williams’s doctrine of images comes into play. An image, unlike an allegory, is not constructed but discovered. An image exists independently of its imaging function and thus has its own uniqueness and integrity. Finally, an image is both identical with and not identical with its basis or referent. 14

According to Williams, therefore, for Dante Beatrice has a specific identity which is unique and integrated, and her whole being is a revelation of God. As Williams puts it, “She has a double nature.”15 “Beatrice was, in her degree, an image of nobility, of virtue, of the Redeemed Life, and in some sense of Almighty God Himself. But she also remained Beatrice right to the end.”16 “This is the law of symbolism-that the symbol must be utterly itself before it can properly be a symbol.”‘- It is clear that Williams’s view of imagery is quite different from that of de Rougemont, and that for Williams Beatrice can hardly be described as “entirely symbolical” or “merely an image.”

(It should be noted that C.S. Lewis, in his book on courtly love entitled The Allegory of Love ( 1938), which Williams quotes at length in “The Theology of Romantic Love,” agrees with de Rougemont that Dante stands in the tradition of courtly love but at one extreme. In Dante, according to Lewis, courtly love “find[s] a modus vivendi with Christianity and produce[s] a noble fusion of sexual and religious experience.”18)

De Rougemont’s main thesis is that the myth which dominates the imagination of modern western people is a secularized version of the myth of the adulterous love of Tristan and Iseult. Since the Tristan romance is one of the Arthurian romances, they are at the center of de Rougemont’s argument. He considers them to be largely a translation of courtly love from southern to northern France and England with new features added from the Celtic background but manifesting the same heretical dualistic idea of love.

According to de Rougemont, the main new theme which is found in the Arthurian romances is the occurrence of a sin against courtly love, namely, the adultery of Tristan with Iseult and of Lancelot with Guinevere. In the thirteenth century the Tristan myth was revived by Gottfried of Strasbourg who was Wagner’s source for his opera Tristan and Isolde, which is the classic modern form of the myth of romantic love.

Again Williams’s interpretation of the Arthurian romances is quite different from that of de Rougemont. Williams sees them, and in particular Malory’s Morte D Arthur, as one of the main documents after Dante supporting and exemplifying his theology of romantic love, and as “the supreme invention in Christendom of a story concerned with the adventure and ineffable destiny of romantic love.”19 In addition, Williams published two volumes of poetry on the Arthurian romances in which he expounds and interprets his theology of romantic love.

Both de Rougemont and Williams claim that their interpretations of romantic love have implications for all of human life and culture. De Rougemont argues that in the course of the last eight centuries, the myth of romantic love has been secularized and that the heretical dualistic religious context has been lost. The result has been not only the pervasive influence of the myth in novels, plays, and films, but also the spread of passion into every sphere of life. This has led not only to the breakdown of middle-class marriage but also to the emergence of passion in politics, nationalism, and war.

De Rougemont focuses especially on marriage. The Catharists had condemned procreation and therefore marriage, claiming that it was not a sacrament but rather a collaboration with the evil power which had created the world. They honored the passionate mystical love which led the soul out of the world to the divine. In the guise of courtly love, it took the form of passionate love of the Lady. It was gradually secularized and transformed into the myth of romantic love which honored the passionate love which was inflamed by obstacles. This led to the despising of marriage and the glorification of adulterous passion as the true human fulfillment. According to de Rougemont, however, Agape or Christian love can “rescue” Eros or passionate love, and “contain” it in marriage.20

Williams also sees his theology of romantic love as applying to all of life. Although its main focus is sexual love in marriage, “its principles are true in relation to other romantic occupations of men.”21 He refers to what he calls virginal love, friendship, and also “any relation of man into which the element of sincere and single attraction enters.”22 He mentions learning, art, nature, politics, sport, and even stamp collecting. “Any occupation exercising itself with passion, with self-oblivion, with devotion, towards an end other than itself, is a gateway to divine things.”23 In particular, the image of the city and its relation to the state is a central concern of Williams. “The principles of [Dante’s writings on the city of man] . . . are a necessary part of the Beatrician way. Politics are, or should be, a part of caritas; they are the matter to which the form of caritas must be applied.”24

Williams’s central concern, however, is also marriage. He is clear that it is an error to hold that romantic love should be the only basis for marriage or that it should necessarily lead to marriage. However, “the clearest possibility of this Way [of romantic love] and perhaps the most difficult, may be in marriage.”25 Williams’s theology of marriage views it as a microcosm of the church as well as of the state.

Williams also treats what is often assumed to be the problem which romantic love causes in marriage, namely, one partner falling in love with another person. Here there is a sharp contrast with de Rougemont who argues that the myth of romantic love exalts adulterous passion and derogates marriage. According to Williams, if a married person falls in love with another person (as happened to Williams), this person must not discard the first image of love in the spouse. Yet neither may this person deny the new love. The way of romantic love requires that one use the energy found in the second image of love for the heightening of the first. “One continues to love the second image, which is as much a revelation as the first, but restricts the expression of that love and its position in the total structure of one’s life.”26

And what should be the response of the spouse to this second image of love? Here Williams is a rigorist. Jealousy and the condoning of infidelity are both wrong. The spouse is called “to rejoice in every revelation the other receives, whatever it be, because `he who hates the manifestation of the kingdom hates the kingdom; he is an apostate to the kingdom.'”27 Williams points to the ideal of the way of romantic love: “The aim of the Romantic Way is the two great ends of liberty and power…. If it were possible to create in marriage a mutual adoration towards the second image, whenever and however it came, and also a mutual limitation of the method of it, I do not know what new liberties and powers might not be achieved.”28

Both Williams and de Rougemont make gestures toward the other’s position. Williams states that one reaction to falling in love is to “lose ourselves in it,”29 which means to treat it as an end in itself which excuses any response to it, rather than treating it as the beginning of a new way of life. He also states that among the attacks which Hell has made on the Way of Romantic Love is the assumption that the state of love is a personal possession of the lover, and that it is sufficient to have known the state of love and to consider oneself as one of the elect.30

On his side de Rougemont states that Agape, Christian love, can rescue Eros, passionate love, from the myth of romantic love. Agape makes the bondage of Eros evident and thus delivers from this bondage. He states, “All pagan religions deify Desire. All seek to be upheld and saved by Desire, which is thus instantly transformed into the greatest enemy of Life, the seduction of Nothingness. . . . In ceasing to be a god, [Eros] ceases to be a demon. And he finds his proper place in the provisional economy of Creation and of what is human.”31 De Rougemont does not elucidate what he means by this “proper place” of Eros, except to add that “fidelity secures itself against unfaithfulness by becoming accustomed not to separate desire from love,” and to define marriage as “the institution in which passion is `contained, not by morals, but by love.”32

De Rougemont goes on to state that in Christian marriage “fidelity is a refusal on oath `to cultivate’ the illusions of passion, to render them a secret worship or to expect from them any mysterious intensification of life.”33 Furthermore, “when a man is faithful to one woman, he looks on other women in quite another way, a way unknown to the world of Eros: other women turn into other persons instead of being reflections or means. This `spiritual exercise’ develops new powers of judgement, self-possession, and respect…. The sway of the myth [of romantic love] is by so much weakened, and although this sway is unlikely ever to be entirely abolished without leaving traces in hearts drugged by images, hearts such as men harbour today, at least it loses its efficacy.”34

De Rougemont seems to be quite negative about passion. He views it as the ultimate enemy of humanity and Christianity and also as an unavoidable element in human life which needs to be “contained.” Williams, on the other hand, sees passion as “a gateway to divine things.”

The exception mentioned above to the silence of the debate between Williams and de Rougemont is a brief review by Williams of the first English edition of de Rougemont’s main work. In this review he dismisses much of de Rougemont’s historical interpretation and argues for his own quite different view that the experience of falling in love can be one of grace and thus should not be identified with de Rougemont’s passion myth. “The great tradition of romantic loverenewed like the phoenix in each generation-is quite other than the desire of death. The passion myth is a heresy of it: at moments a temptation; in moments of agony a very great temptation…. By virtue of the Incarnation Eros and Agape are no longer divided, though they may be again at the next moment.”35

In an earlier work Williams stated, “Eros need not forever be on his knees to Agape; he has a right to his delights; they are part of the Way. The division is not between the Eros of the flesh and the Agape of the soul; it is between the moment of love which sinks into hell and the moment of love which rises to the in-Godding.”36

Now in conclusion what is the relation between these two interpretations of romantic love? Are they contradictory or complementary? Williams states that de Rougemont’s myth of romantic love is a heresy of and also a permanent temptation of the tradition of romantic love which he is expounding. De Rougemont also asserts that it is a heresy. Although he sees romantic love in the modern world as dominated by the myth, de Rougemont allows that Agape can “rescue” and “contain” Eros and thus allow it to find its “proper place” in human life. Although he does not explain what a rescued Eros would look like or what its proper place would be, it is clear that he views passion with suspicion and could not with Williams understand it as an important way of the Christian life. He would probably want to see Eros always “on his knees” to Agape, whereas Williams apparently wants to see them as equals. Like their differing views of images, their contrasting views of passion and romantic love surely derive, at least in part, from Williams’s participation in the catholic Anglican tradition and de Rougemont’s participation in the Reformed tradition.

Thus de Rougemont and Williams seem to represent, respectively, the protestant emphasis on the distinction between Agape and Eros, and the catholic emphasis on the synthesis of Agape and Eros in caritas. If a synthesis is possible between these two traditions and if the above-mentioned gestures which Williams and de Rougemont have made toward the other’s position are kept in mind, then their views of romantic love can be considered to be complementary.

Finally, it should be noted that this half-century-old debate about romantic love seems quite sexist and elitist in the contemporary context. Williams and de Rougemont focus on male experience, men looking at and falling in love with women, although both are clear that their theories apply to women as well. Neither refers to homosexual love, gays and lesbians falling in love, although there is no reason why their theories could not apply to any falling in love.

* Owen C. Thomas is Frances Lathrop Fiske Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1 The works in which Williams elaborates his theology of romantic love are as follows, with dates of writing:

“Outlines of Romantic Theology” (1925), in Outlines of Romantic Theology, ed. Alice Mary Hadfield (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1990). “The Theology of Romantic Love” (1938) in He Came Down from Heaven (Grand

Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1984), reprinted in Charles Williams: Essential Writings in Spirituality and Theology, ed. Charles C. Hefling, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Crowley Publications, 1993).

“Religion and Love in Dante: The Theology of Romantic Love” ( 1941) in Outlines, ed. Hadfield.

The Figure of Beatrice: A Study in Dante (1943) (New York: Octagon Books, 1983).

2 De Rougemont’s main work on the myth of romantic love was published as L’Amour et L’Occident in Paris in 1938. An English translation entitled Passion and Society was published in England in 1940. A revised edition entitled Love in the Western World was published in New York by Harper & Row in 1956. De Rougemont published an extended recasting of the argument in the introductory chapter of Love Declared, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963). An augmented edition of Love in the Western World was published by Princeton Universit; Press in 1983 with a 53-page postscript. The pagination of this and the 1956 edition is the same.

3Outlines, p. 55. 4Ibid., p. 9. 5Ibid., pp. 9-10.

6Charles Williams, p. 79, quoting Vita Nuova, 11:1. 7Ibid., p. 75. 8Ibid., pp. 7L73.

9 Love in the Western Wor/d, p. 178. 10 Ibid., p. 98. 11 Ibid., p. 179.

12 Ibid.; emphasis added.

13 Figure of Beatrice, p. 101.

14 For a summary of Williams’s doctrine of images, see Mary McDermott Shideler. The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), ch. 1.

15 Charles Willis, pp. 85-86. 16 Figure of Beatrice, pp. 7-8.

17 Charles Williams, Reason and Beauty in the Poetic Mind (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), quoted in Shideler, Theology of Romantic Love, p. 40.

18 C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 21.

19 Outlines, p. 60.

20 Love in the Western World, pp. 312, 315. 21 Outlines, p. 67. 22 Ibid., p. 70. 23. Ibid.

24 Ibid., p. 97. 25 Figure of Beatrice, p. 15.

26 Shideler, Theology of Romantic Love, p. 208. 27 Ibid., pp. 2089; quoting Figure of Beatrice, p. 50. 28 Figure of Beatrice, pp. 4950. 29 Ibid., p. 100.

30Charles Williams, pp. 8689. 31 Love in the Western World, p. 312.

32 Ibid., pp. 313, 315. 33 Ibid., p. 312. 34 Ibid., p. 313.

35 “One Way of Love,” in Charles Williams, The Image of the City and Other Essays, ed. Anne Ridler (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 161.

36 Outlines, p. 111.

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Fall 1997

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