When the seduction was complete the seducer did not find happiness but descended into despair. Whereas once he was consumed by the thrill of the hunt, the moment he acquired his object’s affections was the moment that revealed his own emptiness, and so he laments to the reader:
“Why cannot such a night last longer? … to love is beautiful only as long as resistance is present; as soon as it ceases, to love is weakness and habit.”
This is how the parable of Soren Kierkegaard’s The Seducer’s Diary ends, with a lesson about the transient nature of passion and the emptiness of its pursuit as an end in itself. Yet, unbeknownst to the philosopher, there was for centuries before this writing an answer to the rhetorical question of his fictional seducer, and that answer, according to author Denis De Rougemont’s classic Love in the Western World is concealed in the deepest ideas of the Western Romantic tradition and touches us today through our culture and politics.
How do you sustain the sensation of passion? Romanticism’s answer, according to De Rougemont, is to artfully choose an object of desire that eludes your efforts to possess it.
Beginning with the medieval romance Tristan and Isolde, De Rougement deduces from tell tale features of early romantic writings that human passion and aspiration are not what they seem. For all of Tristan’s superiority to his time, the bold knight never actually consummates his love for Isolde, there is always an obstacle, and the author’s inconsistent deployment of these obstacles hint at is hidden behind the scenes.
“They [the lovers] invent obstructions as if on purpose, notwithstanding that such barriers are their bane. Can it be in order to please author and reader? It is all one; for the demon of courtly love which prompts the lovers in their inmost selves to the devices that are the cause of their pain is the very demon of the novel as we in the West like it to be.
What, then, is the legend really about? The partings of the lovers? Yes, but in the name of passion, and for love of the very love that agitates them, in order that this love may be intensified and transfigured – at the cost of their happiness and even of their lives.”
Passion, our romantic tradition understands, is not in the possessing but in the pursuing. If passion is the telos of the romantic’s existence then the art of the practical is his enemy. In pursuing the impossible the pursuit is prolonged ensuring the experience of, if not ultimate satisfaction then its closest proximity, a desire that can only taste but never fully be satisfied.
“Most people do not bother about understanding or about self-awareness; they merely go after the kind of love that promises the most feeling … Hence, whether our desire is for the most self-conscious or simply for the most intense love, secretly we desire obstruction. And this obstruction we are ready if needs be to invent or imagine …
The ending of the myth shows that passion is an askesis [self-deprivation], and that as such it is all the more effectively in opposition to earthly life that it takes the form of desire, and that, as desire, it simulates fate.”
The more one’s object defies the possible the more consuming the passion, and in the absence of discernment the heightened sensation is willfully confused with authentic experience.
As De Rougemont describes it, this theme takes many forms and runs throughout Western culture to our time, first forced underground by the Church into romantic medieval poetry then to finally explode upon the Western imagination in the popularity of the 19th century novel, of which include the likes of Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the Ubervilles, Jude the Obscure, and Le Miserables. These, in turn, fed like an underground river the numerous tropes that informed the products of popular culture in the 20th and 21st centuries: the lovers whose love is doomed by the constraints of family or societal taboo; the cause fought by the oppressed against the oppressors whose story ends after the revolution is won but before we see how the victors actually govern.
Passion is at its most passionate when circumstances ensure it never comes in contact with practical realities.
Our society has been taught at the knee of this school of desire, as revealed not just by our popular culture but our ideology. As desire is stimulated by an ideal that eludes it has found excellent opportunities in the politics of the impractical. The socialist paradise, nationalist dreams of cultural purity, the crusade for total equality and transformative government, or the founding of a libertarian John-Galt-istan, are all visions that reside beyond reality’s horizon and succeed equally in enflaming the politicized soul by virtue of their impracticality or basis in fantasy altogether.
When the political philosopher Eric Voegelin observed that at the heart of destructive political movements is a gnostic impulse to transform the present world to conform to a vision of an impossible perfected world, he is approaching but is still only elucidating externalities and symptoms of the disease. What De Rougemont reveals is that destructive political movements are gnostic because they need to be in order to sustain the ever demanding requirement of the self who seeks the confusion of passion with heightened authenticity. De Rougemont’s discovery not only explains the peculiarities of romantic passion, but reveals that romantic passion, as portrayed in its earliest literature, provides an entry point into the inner workings of irrational desire which confounds civilization to this day.
In his unintentionally De-Rougemontian meditation on the motives of Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology, Lee Harris insightfully observed about a college friend’s progressive activism:
“…what it did for him was to provide him with a fantasy — a fantasy, namely, of taking part in the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed against their oppressors. By participating in a violent anti-war demonstration, he was in no sense aiming at coercing conformity with his view — for that would still have been a political objective. Instead, he took his part in order to confirm his ideological fantasy of marching on the right side of history, of feeling himself among the elect few who stood with the angels of historical inevitability … The protest for him was not politics, but theater; and the significance of his role lay not in the political ends his actions might achieve, but rather in their symbolic value as ritual. In short, he was acting out a fantasy.”
This political fantasicm exists for the passionate need of the self as heroic protagonist, everything else are props on the stage of the drama playing out between his ears. This, Harris goes on to argue, is a genus of fantasy that also explains some of our most virulent political movements, including Al Qaeda and by implication ISIS today. As destructive political movements go some are more destructive than others. Lee Harris’ college friend’s fantasy was relatively benign by any standard. The problem, Harris argues, is that many of the most seemingly benign fantacists, in their reverie, only aid in undermining the institutions and principles civilization depend upon to survive, and so render vulnerable what in their fantasy they think they are saving. As idealistic as the politics of Harris’s friend may seem, it informs exactly those sentiments that sought an American withdrawal from the world, which predictably surrendered territory to the most toxic of fantasies, jihadism, a fact of which we are now being reminded with each film of a beheaded westerner posted online.
Much of what has pre-occupied today’s commentariate is the apparent uselessness of language in our political discourse. What to one side may seem to be a simple discussion of keeping expenditures within budget is proclaimed by the other side as a war on the poor. Questions of whether a business owner can operate their business in accordance with their own values is transformed and magnified into a war on women. Accusations of bad faith ensue all to no productive end. But we make a mistake in assuming these debates are operating according to strictly rational interests, rather much of what passes for political discourse is informed by a popular need for morality theatre. To this extent philosophers make poor guides. Our literature reveals what the strictly rational disciplines often overlook.
In his book The Captive Mind, the polish poet Czeslaw Milosz describes the state of philosophical trance that seemed to possess the intellectual class in 20th century Communist nations. Resorting to a literary analogy about a pill that induces well-being in its recipients called Murti-Bing, he describes intellectuals of his time and place as so possessed by the vision of a world where ultimate well-being was almost within their grasp that they rationalized the brutal toll their communist system was taking upon their civilization. The more corrupt and sclerotic the regime became, the more Milosz’s artistic and intellectual comrades looked to a future glorious state to rationalize the present age of affliction.
“… the recompense for all pain is the certainty that one belongs to the new and conquering world, even though it is not nearly so comfortable and joyous a world as its propaganda would have one think.”
Milosz’s examples of captive minds is the intellectual counterpart to what I have described as politicized souls, revealing that when possessed the mind is no more a refuge than the heart. It is for this reason that we may be too quick to comfort ourselves with the notion that eventually the consequences of misguided politics will, like Samuel Johnson’s gallows, clarify the collective mind. The pain caused by bad policy in the service of a sufficiently grand vision can yet be transformed into its vindication. We have seen this to be the case in smaller ways as partisan rationalizations have succeeded in insulating such disruptive events as an incompetent roll-out of Obamacare and malfeasance in the IRS from their logical implications which threatened to stab at the heart of the liberal project. We will learn more about the severity of the national condition as we see how the politicized souls and captive minds in leadership respond to the accumulating conflagrations in the Middle East and the world. As of this writing, it does not look promising.
If De Rougemont is any authority, the condition left to its own trajectory leads ultimately to a bad end. Deluded passion, in its desire to achieve ever greater states of heightened sensation, finds its ultimate achievement in death itself. The story of Tristan and Isolde famously ends in the death of both in a glorious reverie of desire made most acute by their mutual end.
Hear now my will, ye craven winds!
Come forth to strife and stress of the storm!
To turbulent tempests’ clamour and fury!
Drive from the depths all her envious greed!
Destroy now this insolent ship,
Let its wreck be sunk in her waves!
All that hath life and breath upon it,
I leave to you winds as your prize.
De Rougemont explains, “The couple imagine that they are now more fully alive than ever and are more than ever living dangerously and magnificently. The approach of death acts as a goad to sensuality. In the full sense of the verb, it aggravates desire.” Anticipating the temptation for readers to assume that such a state only resides in romantic melodrama, De Rougemont builds an argument bridging romantic fatalism with its political equivalents including the raging nationalisms that swept up the 18th and 19th centuries. Generations of school boys learned by heart versus like this by Lord Tennyson glorifying what amounted to a tragic and bloody miscommunication in the Crimean War
”Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
In the recent movie Les Miserables (based on the 20th century musical based on the 19th century novel), Paris is portrayed as a metropolis populated by innocents suffering under the yoke of a brutal established order. Into this milieu enter the heroic revolutionaries of the ill-fated 1832 June Rebellion singing on behalf of their cause:
But now there is a higher call
Who cares about your lonely soul
We strive toward a larger goal
Our little lives don’t count at all!
Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!
At the end of the story, its most sympathetic hero, Jean Valjean, passes into the next world and we learn that in the afterlife the cosmos is governed by an eternal political revolution wherein the good Manichees of the Red stand victorious upon their battlements in a forever now that is never consummated in the actual taking of governmental power and responsibility.
The resonance of Les Miserables for our time is not a coincidence. Victor Hugo’s work is a masterpiece of romantic synthesis, subsuming in its ambitious scope not just the standard romantic tropes, but the religious and the ideological. The result is a seemless mash-up in the service of a political-revolutionary metaphysics. Of course our present day Manichees don’t think in terms of an afterlife or a metaphysics but have reconfigured an imagined heaven into an imagined future and the present moral order as made up of those on the right or wrong side of history. And in an age where postmodern solipsism has embedded itself in the collective weltanschauung, the shining future is to the modern ideologue what the bible was once said to be for protestants – to each their own interpretation. As a result, our political world is a hot-house of competing wannabe Jean Valjeans each wanting to be the hero of their own solipsistic epic. But as our political avatars have at it in the trenches of twitter hashtags and the ramparts of the blogosphere, the real world is still operating by its own Clausewitzian logic. Our continued hunger for confusing passionate distraction with authenticity has slowly surrendered this world to forces more practically minded and less sympathetic to the freedoms we seem determined to take for granted.
It is for this reason that it is well to be reminded that death comes to civilizations as well as individuals. And not all death wishes are wishes for death as such, some wish for it not knowing it as death, confusing it with that strange pulse of heightened passionate euphoria before the light goes out.