Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger$

Sudhir Kakar and John Munder Ross

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780198072560

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198072560.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.oxfordscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 17 September 2019

The Phenomenology of Passionate Love

The Phenomenology of Passionate Love

(p.177) 8 The Phenomenology of Passionate Love
Tales of Love, Sex, and Danger

Sudhir Kakar

John Munder Ross

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Passionate love lies in the intermediary space between body and mind, bounded by biological instinct on one side and imaginative impulse on the other. It was ‘discovered’ only after sexual love between man and woman had begun to emancipate itself from its biological function of reproduction alone. Passionate love has been characterized by the sharp stabs of jealous possession, burning torments of unrequited or unconsummated love, and the high pitch of ‘supreme joy’ that comes with loving. Yet passionate love also associates itself with devotion and meditation, along with religious intimacy and the ‘gravity’ of the lovers' world. This chapter discusses the phenomenology of passionate love and analyses Sigmund Freud's concept of desire and longing. It also examines aggression, arousal, and violence in relation to passionate love.

Keywords:   passionate love, desire, longing, Sigmund Freud, aggression, arousal, violence

In the intermediary space between body and mind, bounded by biological instinct on one side and imaginative impulse on the other, lies the country of passionate love. In both Western and Eastern cultures this has been considered a new territory, a recent phenomenon in historical time, a province no more than two thousand years old in India and classical Greece, and younger in Europe. It was ‘discovered’ only after sexual love between man and woman had begun to emancipate itself from its biological function of reproduction alone. Progressively conquering nature, the survival of old and young alike assured in diminishing infant mortality rates, men and women could begin to choose each other according to spiritual and sensual lights rather than biological and social dictates. No longer merely instinctive or crudely purposeful, eroticism per se began to free itself from moralities and kinship laws subserving the preservation of the family and, ultimately, the larger social order. With this, there followed its romantic elaboration.

Indeed, there is but one activity in love’s country. As its philosophers have defined it, its religion and commerce consist of the single-minded and relentless search of individuals desiring to constitute themselves into two-person universes. In the words of Teilhard de Chardin, this activity is ‘the play of countless subtle antennae seeking one another in the light and darkness of the soul; the pull towards mutual sensibility and completion, in which preoccupation with (p.178) preserving the species gradually dissolves in the greater intoxication of two people consummating the world’.1 In the many ‘dividual’ or contained universes within this country, the delirium of love’s passion is both ‘normal’ and avidly sought. The dread, in fact, lies in a loss of such feverishness and a consequent return to a world of ordinary consciousness becomes in its distantiated realism arid and alien.

These deliria and the delusions and illusions they foster have been condemned by men of so-called good sense—Christian theologians, Muslim divines, Hindu pundits, even perhaps a few psychoanalysts. As spokesmen of their societies they have for many centuries tried to bring the rule of the law to the erotic spontaneity which in their eyes runs wild in this profane terrain. Rarely have they recognized that the attractions of passionate love lie not only, or even primarily, in the promise of an orgiastic license but in the fascination exercised by its paradoxes. On the one hand there do exist those burning torments of unrequited or unconsummated love, the sharp stabs of jealous possession, and the high pitch of love’s ‘supreme joy’—the hoechste Lust of Wagner’s Isolde. On the other, however, are found the devotion and the meditation, ‘the religious intimacy’, and the ‘gravity’ of the lovers’ world. The land of love is not only overgrown with steamy jungles and criss-crossed by untamed torrents but, at the same time, dotted with many a ‘tolerant and enchanted slope’ on which, as Auden tells us, while the lovers die in their ordinary swoon, ‘Grave the vision Venus sends / Of supernatural sympathy / Universal love and hope’.2

Passionate Love: Desire and Longing

Freud, as the first psychoanalyst, was in fact a natural philosopher. His views of love have their clear sources in the spirit of the nineteenth century. In his first book on Eros and the wellsprings of love, Freud posited an initial union of the two currents of Sinnlichkeit and Zaertlichkeit—the sensual and the affectionate. For Freud, both flowed out of the single subterranean reservoir of the libido, that ratio-mystical pool of the sexual instinctual drives, its rivers coursing along the frontiers of the body and mind.3 The tender, protective stream, Freud felt, was one of desire, diverted by inhibitory dams and delaying its gratification to preserve the well-being and abiding availability of the other person. The second had an openly lustful (p.179) intent, imperiously and precipitously seeking satisfaction for its own sake, a tidal rush of gut instinct. According to Freud, these currents diverge during the course of life, crisscrossing now and then to converge again in what he called ‘adult object love’. It is in the plumbing of subcurrents and their interrelation with one another that we have sought to fathom the core of passionate love.

Freud’s stress on the physical or sensual underpinnings of love has troubled many, not all of them simplistic moralists. Some have proposed a different category of love altogether—more platonic ‘true love’ or ‘loving’, where the role of sexual impulsion per se is lacking, or at least muted.

The contemporary challenge to the primacy of physical desire does not derive from an anachronistic resurgence of some Rousseauan romantic puritanism. Rather, this deep uneasiness with the instinctual element of love, we would surmise, stems from an inchoate understanding of dimly perceived and unexpected fantasies which are largely unconscious. These hidden products of our unknown minds show themselves in the form of unexpected and often frightening shades of stabbings of the heart. These suggest that sexual desire as we typically know it may also have aims other than the keen pleasure of genital intercourse and orgasm. One elemental urge tends to dredge up other instinctual elements—witness, for instance, Romeo’s devouring, insatiable hunger.

Psychoanalysis became belatedly a ‘dual instinct theory’, granting libido and aggression equal footing. Criticizing his erstwhile disciple Alfred Adler, Freud commented that his psychology of power omitted to consider ‘love’, the very heart of the psychoanalytic enterprise. It was a long time before Freud could countenance violence as an essential element of psychic life. Reluctantly, in the wake of the First World War, twenty years into psychoanalysis, Freud came to speak of an elemental death instinct directed towards the self and its obliteration, subsequently turned outwards against others. His followers were eventually to speak of the aggression drives, thereby emphasizing man’s cruelty and murderousness towards his fellows. In any event, the cauldron of the instinctual drives was now seen to contain two sets of drives; lift the lid for one and the other might pour forth without rhyme or reason. Violence and loving might even be bound together in some terrifying unity.

(p.180) In unconscious erotic fantasies, the darker purposes of destructive aggression come into play. According to Sartre, possession is paramount in sexual intercourse—the chaining of the partner’s will to one’s own and therefore the reduction of his or her consciousness to a reactivity of the flesh alone.4 The urge to subjugate, he continues, prevails over the wish for pleasure as the individual seeks to assault and degrade the partner. Thus, for instance, a man’s arousal and attention concentrate on the least personal, most inert parts of the woman’s body—breasts, thighs, stomach.

There is resonance in Sartre’s view, however incomplete as it is in its didactism. A variant of the ‘possession fantasy’, for example, finds its way into classical Sanskrit love poetry, with its rhapsodic descriptions of female breasts and hips, thighs, and navels, and its predilection for love scenes where woman trembles in a state of diffuse but nongenital bodily excitement, as if timorously anticipating a sadistic attack, her terror a source of excitement for both herself and her would-be assailant. In Kalidas’s Kumara Sambhava, a fourth-century masterpiece of erotic poetry, for instance, Siva becomes impassioned at the sight of nail marks at the root of Parvati’s thighs, deep tooth marks on her injured lower lip and her dishevelled hair. His excitement reaches a crescendo when Parvati ‘in the beginning felt both fear and love’. And in our own tales, the violence of the ‘possession fantasy’ is most graphic in the description of the sexual intercourse between Vis and Ramin.

While not equivalent with it, the hostility of sexual conquest is reminiscent of the ‘normal’ displays of aggression and apparent violence observable in the mating of many mammals. Briffault eloquently depicts the spectacle:

With both the male and female, ‘love’ or sexual attraction is originally and pre-eminently ‘sadi’; it is positively gratified by the infliction of pain; it is as cruel as hunger. That is the direct, fundamental, and longest established sentiment connected with the sexual impulse. The male animal captures, mauls and bites the female, who in turn uses her teeth and claws freely, and the lovers issue from the sexual combat bleeding and mangled. Crustaceans usually lose a limb or two in the encounter. All mammals without exception use their teeth on these occasions… The congress of the sexes is assimilated by the impulse to hurt, to shed blood, to kill, to the encounter between a beast of prey and its victim and all distinction between the two is not infrequently lost. It would be more (p.181) accurate to speak of the sexual impulse as pervading nature with a yell of cruelty than with a hymn of love.5

Aggression in the service of self-gratification is no doubt an essential ingredient of the paradoxes of which passion is composed. Sexual violence bespeaks instinctual desire in its rawer form. Phylogenetically it harkens back to the procreative and territorial prerogatives which the male animal asserts when it lays claim to a female—baser motives from sociobiology still very much with us. It finds its ontogenetic origins in each child’s fanciful misconception of the sheer physicality of the so-called ‘primal scene’. As he overhears their groaning, senses the sweating and abandon to feeling, the child is quite overwhelmed by the bestiality and power of his caretakers as sexual beings. To a child’s unschooled imagination, the parents in sexual congress seem to be engaged in a sort of mutual violence. That they survive a fight to death seems miraculous to many for whom the terror of it all halts or erodes erotic development.

Many cultures have sought to civilize and transform this aggression into exquisite refinements of the pleasure it ultimately serves. In the Kamasutra, for instance, the ‘bestiality’ of intercourse or, better, foreplay elaborated and extolled, is evident in its chapters on the eight forms of ‘the love scratch’ and ‘the love bite’. A scratch made on the foreparts of a woman’s breast is compared to the marks of ‘a tiger’s claw’; tooth marks on the base of the breast are compared to the ‘chewing of a boar’.

This rather benign or playful violence, civilized into foreplay, is delectable for all involved in it. Hostility proper—the wish to harm and degrade the object—frequently does not express itself in convulsive overt violence at all. It is more detached, manifest in cold rage rather than hot lust. The possessive and hostile ‘lover’ does not give up his self-possession, seeking instead a reversal of trauma and a revenge for the early slights and the hidden injuries of the parent– child relationship. And indeed, the French sensibility does touch on a dynamic truth known to the psychoanalyst from his studies. Sadism subserves self, the clinician knows all too well. The degradation of the other, through sexual instruments of power, is exploited as testimony to one’s own would-be grandeur, fostering all manner of ritualized cruelty—most notably, of course, misogyny.

(p.182) In women, the counterpart of the phallocentric possession—encompassing the woman’s urge to attract, ‘entrap’, and control the male—is rarely expressed in the same way as in men, namely in conscious or unconscious fantasies of conquest, ravishment, and mastery. Rather, it takes a more circuitous route, wherein, as Erich Fromm once put it, mirroring their typical coital posture, women—in subtle and not so subtle ways—would undermine the man who thinks he dominates her.6

Given woman’s social dependence and vulnerability to masculine whims through centuries and their inevitable impact on her psyche and specific sense of femininity, it follows that her vindictiveness should be expressed in images of herself as a self-abasing and self-humiliating slave—a slave, that is, who mocks the pretentious master that is man. As the sociologist Evelyne Sullerot observes of French feminine writings over the centuries

There is no weightier set of chains, no more paralysing trap, than a woman ‘who has totally surrendered’ to a man… They escape their would-be masters by the very excess of the dependence forced upon them, paralysing them, devouring them.7

Treated as chattel, woman, in other words, seeks to debase and control man through a caricature of masochistic slavery which veils her more fundamental control of his appetites and emotions. She toys with his sexual urges and needs while perpetuating for him an illusion of his supremacy. In the process, she charges him with utter responsibility for her lot, shackling him with the ball and chain of a guilty conscience. She then becomes the possessor of good will and absolution in the granting of her sexual favours.

Freud’s sensual current, then, the Sinnlichkeit, falls under the rubric of an even more complex and encompassing instinctual desire. In this, the body’s wanting and its violence, the mind’s yearning for sexual pleasure but also the need to rid itself of ancient pain and noxious hate, the excitement of orgasm and the fierce exultation of possession, all flow together. Where desire alone holds sway and the body overtakes the soul, the boundaries of the self are not expanded to include another but, rather, the self and its impulsions are propelled outwards, effectively effacing what lies in their path. The kinds of wishes we have just described, wherein aggression comes into play, are inevitable but insufficient components of love.

(p.183) The urge towards conquest is an incentive on the way to a passionate embrace. Yet, love does, as the psychoanalyst puts it, transform or ‘neutralize’ hostility, even sublimates it, such that its aims and form are no longer recognizable. Dominance and intrusiveness make entry into a woman possible for a man and, with it, the loss of his self-composure when he yields something of his self, his seed, to her. The act of union is, as we shall soon argue, also therefore one of parting with something of one’s self, of willing surrender. Aggression therefore is not the central theme, we contend, but an inevitable corollary of love. Heightened, hostility may in fact sever the bonds that unite two individuals in love. Here we part company from the studied cynic who cavils only at what is for him or her, mawkish, outworn, or dishonest romanticism.

A stress on desire alone leaves out the human need to preserve what is possessed. As far as intercourse is concerned, penetration and domination constitute penultimate acts en route to a higher goal—that of union. Entering the body of the lover, or taking it into oneself, the individual cannot fully embrace the psyche of another. The quest for oneness finds its object elusive and illusory. It may be that it is a foreknowledge of this ultimate privation which moves the individual to hate in advance what or who cannot be had, confounding love with lust as the onlookers do in Romeo and Juliet.

In passionate love there is, then, another stream—Freud’s tender current—in which the adoration and cherishing of the person for whom one lusts override the forces of ambivalence, selfishness, and destruction which, we must concede, accompany the quest for pleasure. This tender stream we would signify with the idea of longing which, in conjunction with desire, gives birth to the dialectic of romantic eroticism. In Roland Barthes’ words,

I want to possess, fiercely, but I also know how to give, actively… I see the other with a double vision; sometimes as object, sometimes as subject; I hesitate between my tyranny and oblation. I am condemned to be a saint or a monster; unable to be one, unwilling to be the other.8

The prototypes of the ‘longing’ in passionate love can be found in three well-known myths from Greece, India, and Persia which are among the earliest attempts of the human imagination to formulate in poetic images and symbols an explanation of heterosexual love. (p.184) They offer metaphors for the hermaphroditic quest for self-completion and fulfilment which underlies it.

According to Plato’s myth in his Symposium, with Aristophanes as his spokesman, humans began life as spherical creatures with eight limbs, two faces and two genital organs facing in the opposite direction. These beings were so mighty and strong that they posed a threat to the gods. Zeus retaliated against their hubris when they attacked the gods, not by destroying them but by cutting them in two. From then on, the two parts of human beings, each desiring his (or her) other half ‘came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one: they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart’.9 They were in the process of thus destroying themselves when Zeus at last took pity on them, relented, and turned their genitals around to the front so that they could at least embrace in intercourse. Thus, they ‘might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man’.10

In the Indian myth of creation from the Upanishads, Purusha was alone at the beginning of the universe. Looking around, he saw nothing other than himself. ‘He found no pleasure at all. So, [even now] a man who is all alone finds no pleasure. He longed for a second. Now he was the size of a man and woman in close embrace. He split this Self in two: and from this arose husband and wife… He copulated with her and there were human beings born’.11 Besides the myth of an original androgynous being, formally expressed in literature and art in the figure of Siva as half man and half woman, Indians conceived of another explanation for human origins. In this story, the first man, Manu or Yama, and his sister, Yami, were twins. After the latter had overcome the former’s scruples, they produced the human race.

This myth is very similar to the ancient Persian story of Mashya and Mashyoi, who grew up intertwined in the form of a tree. The twins were united in such a manner that their arms rested behind on their shoulders while their waists were brought close and so connected below that it was impossible to distinguish what belonged to one and what to the other. Later they were changed from the plant (p.185) into human shape, received a soul, and copulated to sire the human race.

In all these narratives, as well as in the terse Koranic statement, based on the creation myth of Genesis, ‘It is He that created you of one soul, and fashioned thereof its spouse, that he might find repose in her’ (Koran, 189), there is a striking lack of stress on sensual exuberance. Correspondingly, they underplay the roles of sexual desire and heterosexual intercourse in the conjunction of man and woman. Rather, these myths contend, lovers strive for a sort of swaddling in the contours of another, a person whose gender fits the mould but whose flesh is almost incidental to the primeval quest for wholeness. Commenting on his own myth, Plato remarks, ‘for the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of lover’s intercourse, but of something else which the soul of either evidently desires and cannot tell and of which he has only a dark and doubtful presentiment.’12 The myths make it clear that ‘this something else’, which we have called longing, lies anterior to desire.

The longing for union is not for a fusion, with which it is often confused, which would recreate the original androgynous entity. Union makes the boundary of the self permeable; it does not altogether erase it. It heightens the sense of both the self and the other; it does not create a new, merged state which screens a secret solipsism by obliterating, finally, our awareness of another. The narcissistic self-sufficiency of an undifferentiated being who does not require another is implicitly condemned by all the myths; Plato’s globular monsters are, after all, not only unattractive but in danger of annihilation; Purusha, alone, ‘does not enjoy happiness’, while the tree of Mashya and Mashyoi, joined at the trunk, lacks soul.

The myths also suggest that the solution to the anxiety of separation does not lie in a regressive ‘dedifferentiation’ of self and another, which blurs the difference between I and you, and subsequently male and female. The answer resides in a specifically heterosexual commingling which temporarily assuages the ache of this longing for release, rest, and immersion. Even if it cannot erase felt solitude altogether, intercourse provides a respite which is both immediate and evanescent. Granted no amount of physical and emotional mingling of lovers can undo their sense of distinctness from one another—to (p.186) obliterate the fateful sexual distinction that one is the ‘he’ and one the ‘she’. Yet, moments of deep sexual intimacy and the ambisexual illusion they tender permit men and women to transcend the reality of their corporeal boundaries, to join longing to desire, as in the embrace of Radha and Krishna, and fulfil both in the cataclysmic tenderness of the orgasm.

Longing presupposes, first, a special kind of identification that makes the person of the beloved attain for the lover a centrality at least the equal of his own. Infusing sexual sensibility and action, such identification heightens a man’s masculinity (and its acceptance) by satisfying his feminine aspirations in the embrace and vicarious enjoyment of his lover’s womanhood—and vice versa. These identifications are complex phenomena, as elusive as they are compelling, and to which many menial processes contribute. We have tried to plumb their nature in some of our tales—in Romeo and Juliet, and perhaps, most starkly, in the secret passion of Radha and Krishna.

Longing requires, also, an idealization, that great construct of imagination which is capable of conceiving with the conviction of known fact a more perfect and valuable reality while ensuring that what is idealized is inevitably adored, admired, and held in awe. Idealization makes ‘me’ experience the loved one as an infinitely superior being to whom I willingly subordinate my desire. I need the other outside of myself as a telos to which or whom I can surrender and obey and thus reverse the accents of the master–servant metaphor of possessive desire. Somehow, I sense that without this telos of another I shall share the futility of Narcissus who, in Auden’s interpretation, ‘falls in love with his reflection; he wishes to become its servant but, instead, his reflection insists upon being his slave.’13 The idealizing fervour of passionate love, which recognizes only the spontaneity of religious passion and grateful devotion as its equal, reveals the beloved as a being of almost sacred stature—the Layla of Majnun’s vision. It is that part of the lover’s ‘discourse’ (that is, passion) which, to quote Barthes,

is usually a smooth envelope which encases the image, a very gentle glove around the sacred being. It is a devout, orthodox discourse. When the image alters, the envelope of devotion rips apart, a shock capsizes my own language (the horror of spoiling [the idealization]) is stronger than the anxiety of losing.14

(p.187) The great imaginative creations of identification and idealization are only preliminary achievements in the work of longing. They are, so to say, psychic looseners, jarring the soul out of the narcissistic sheath of normal, everyday, self-limiting routines. They serve as a prelude, establishing in the lover a special receptivity, a readiness to risk transcending individual boundaries so that he can become as one with the beloved. As Ortega y Gasset remarks, whereas in every other situation in life nothing upsets us so much as to see the frontiers of our individual existence trespassed upon by another person, the rapture of love consists in feeling ourselves so metaphysically porous to another person that only in the fusion of both can it find fulfilment.15 In it, we hunger for that which otherwise threatens our individual survival.

The striving for ineffable union, the longing par excellence, has been traditionally considered love’s greatest gift, Yeats’ ‘marvellous moon’ that love tears from the clouds. Suffusing our relationships, such yearning becomes the fount of what is most exalted in human beings and their aspirations. It constitutes much of the subject matter of poetry (as also the more poetic aspects of theology and metaphysics), and it provides the starting point for various aesthetic and mystical ventures.

Love’s longing to transcend personal boundaries in a union with the other suggests many parallels to mysticism, especially to its devotional variety. The relationship between the two has been pondered by theologians over many centuries, leading in the Christian tradition to a distinction between sacred and profane love. No wonder so many secular and profane lovers have hitherto taken divine vows in search of oneness and tranquility while others, then and now, have fled their ecclesiastical communities, spurred on by erotic passion. The poets, though ecstatics of love, scorned such distinctions in favour of giving expression to the underlying identity between the two. In much of Sufi and Hindu erotic/religious poetry, as also in John Donne’s songs and sonnets, for instance, it is impossible to know whether the beloved is human or divine and whether the poet himself makes this distinction or even considers it important!

In both East and West, religious traditions would interpret the longings of passionate love as essentially a vain quest for a unio mystica, fated to founder since it has found only an inferior object. (p.188) They would contend that the lover needs to take one further step from the person of the beloved creature to the Person of their common Creator, for the love of the individual to the love of All. Profane love falls short of the sacred, dooming the lover to mortality’s frustrations.

Where the mystic envisions a yearning for oneness with that which is everlasting, the psychoanalyst will often see a forlorn attempt to recapture long-lost unity from the infant’s earliest experience. In the emotional and sensual riches granted in the fleeting moments of oneness with the mother and the maternal universe, there, too, was a similar quality of (in Ibn Hazm’s words):

that pure happiness which is without alloy, and gladness unsullied by sorrow, the perfect realization of hopes and the complete fulfilment of one’s dreams…a miracle of wonder surpassing the tongues of the eloquent, and far beyond the reach of the most cunning speech to describe: the mind reels before it, and the intellect stands abashed.16

This is not to say that longing is reducible only to its infantile origins, for novelty is fundamental to this sort of overreaching. All recherches du temps perdus are transfigured by the changing consciousness of psychic growth, each evolving mode of knowing obliterating the contents of previous experience, so different in its qualities of perceiving and encoding, seeing and remembering. Attempts like this, entailing what analysis calls the twin processes of regression and restitution, induce the tensions of colliding, irreconcilable realities. Sometimes the dissonances are so unbearable as to produce anxieties of psychotic proportions. Yet in art, love and mysticism, with their consensual and sometimes ritualized rules of illusion, the longing for union erotic or mystical, need not imply a psychotic dissolution of the demarcators between self and object, fantasy and consensual reality. Conjoining with the newly idealized other, and identifying with this novel perspective, the lover’s sense of himself—more secure initially than the madman’s—and of the world around him, becomes heightened, as if discovered anew. The lover is filled to the brim, not depleted, and there is no need for that restitution in delusion and hallucination that is the prime work of insanity. Quite the contrary, a lover’s ache is anything but a void.

(p.189) The lover is akin to the mystic who, when in a state of grace, rekindles the world with a fresh vision, discovering or rather endowing it with new-found beauty and harmony. In the moving verses of St John of the Cross:

  • Overflowing with God’s grace
  • He passed through the groves in haste
  • And, though he saw them
  • In their natural state
  • He left them garbed in
  • Beauty to his taste.17

Erotic grace illuminates what have been hitherto perceived as shadows, background figures, animates a lover’s relationship with nature and art, and deepens his sensate and metaphysical responsiveness. The garbing of the world with ‘beauty to his taste’ is, of course, most striking in first love. In a quieter vein, however, this basic creation of meaning and a subjective ordering of the outside world is equally true of any mature lover who falls in love passionately. In the full circle of love, what is familiar is also surprising.

The ecstasy—from ek stasis, to be outside one’s self and the world—which comes with the fulfilment of longing, reaches beyond the cold triumph of aggressive conquest and the transience of orgasmic explosion in the satisfying of genital desire. It is, put simply, a feeling of complete peace in an ineffable intimacy. Thus, the eighth-century Sanskrit poet Bhavabhuti lets Rama, with Sita asleep across his arm, reflect on it as ‘this state where there is no twoness in responses of joy or sorrow / where the heart finds rest; where feeling does not dry with age / where concealments fall away in time and essential love is ripened.’18 The hidden promise of all passionate love, the eye of the instinctual storm—this peace is not as much quiescence, a complacence of the heart, as voluptuous absorption and repose. Yeats evokes this in verses from the poem, ‘The Indian to his love’:

  • The island dreams under the dawn
  • And great boughs drop tranquillity;
  • The peahens dance on a smooth lawn,
  • (p.190) A parrot sways upon a tree,
  • Raging at his own image in the enamelled sea.
  • Here we will moor our lonely ship
  • And wander ever with woven hands
  • Murmuring softly lip to lip,
  • Along the grass, along the sands,
  • Murmuring how far away are the unquiet lands.
  • How we alone of mortals are,
  • Hid under quiet boughs apart
  • While our love grows an Indian star,
  • A meteor of the burning heart
  • One with the tide that gleans,
  • The wings that gleam and dart.19

Just as some philosophers have equated the whole of erotic desire with one of its parts—possessive violence, for example—so have others discerned at the core of longing nothing more than a masochistic offering, suffrance, and ultimately a nirvana of self-destruction and death. With all the anguish in lyric poetry and the glorification of woe and wretchedness in novels of forlorn love, it is indeed a seductive idea, namely to believe that torment is love’s aim.

In one such view, derived from a less than careful application of psychoanalysis to literature, one which does credit to neither, love is seen to be motivated by unconscious guilt and its tortured expiation—by a ‘moral masochism’, in short. ‘In the love story’, William Evans observes,

it is as if both author and the reader enter into an unconscious pact and the writer says, ‘You want a pretext to enjoy a masochistic fantasy and to enjoy it without the reproaches of conscience. I will provide you with a most skilfully devised rationalization—all the more so as it is the name of love.’20

It is, however, often forgotten that one major reason for the preponderance of pain and anguish in the literature of love has to do with the nature of the literary enterprise itself. ‘Happy love has no history’, de Rougemont ruefully remarks—an observation familiar to everyone since novels were written.21 Auden, with his usual lucidity, argues in the same fashion for poetry:

(p.191) Of the many (far too many) love poems written in the first person which I have read, the most convincing were either fal-la-la’s of a good natured sensuality which made no pretense at serious love, or howls of grief because the beloved had died and was no longer capable of love, or roars of disapproval because she loved another or nobody but herself; the least convincing were those in which the poet claimed to be earnest, yet had no complaints to make.22

Passionate love is not solely the stuff of raw nerves, bleeding wounds and sheer pain. It is not a pathological variant of ‘algolagnia’, to borrow from the sexologists of the nineteenth century. To reduce its periods of inevitable self-doubt and despair to masochism, in itself a notoriously ambiguous and over-inclusive notion, is to close one’s eyes to the limitations of human existence and seriously to overestimate, in a way the novelist and the poet do not, the range of human freedom and available choices.

A second argument advanced in favour of love as moral masochism takes as its evidence its power to subjugate the lover—a truth which has distressed scores of poets, among them Shakespeare: ‘Being your slave, what should I do but tend / Upon the hours and times of your desire?’23 This fear of a dangerous vulnerability to the power and whims of the beloved again seems to be of greater concern to men, with their fears of emasculation and inability to become habituated to receptivity. Their timorousness contrasts with the sanguine optimism of women, who are more accustomed to taking in and being invaded and even used by others (their babies even more than their men). Once more, it is the man’s terror most in evidence, especially so in the West. The lament is relatively absent in Indian love poetry where a large number of poets—especially those influenced by bhakti and Sufi ideas—positively welcomed their ‘enslavement’. In this culture, greater sanction is granted to the sacrifice of a delimited selfhood to something—be it a godly abstraction or a joint family—transcendent or at least overarching. In medieval Islam, too, with Majnun as a prototype, there were cultivated men of letters who applauded love’s slavery as a state of being that enhanced a man rather than diminished him.

One of the wonderful things that occurs in Love is the way the lover submits to the beloved, and adjusts his own character by main force to that of his loved one. Often and often you will see a man stubborn by disposition, intractable, (p.192) jibbing at all control, determined, arrogant, always ready to take umbrage, yet no sooner let him sniff the soft air of love, plunge into its waves, and swim in its sea, than his stubbornness will have suddenly changed to docility, his intractability to gentleness, his determination to easy-going, his arrogance to submission.24

Man’s dismay at his surrender to woman centres less on the possibility of a breakthrough of his masochistic urges than on the twin dreads of ‘feminization’ and ‘annihilation’ in adoring and, inevitably, identifying with her. These fears are, once again, rooted in infancy, the era when the child is helplessly dependent upon the mother and has yet to differentiate his male psyche from her feminine aura. Both anxieties belong to the shadow side of the longing for union, fears which have expressed themselves so variously in our tales of love.

In passion, longing is revealed to desire as if to lend to the latter permanency and stability. Yet, and this is love’s greatest paradox, the urgency of sexual excitement and possessive violence, in which desire finds shape, cannot, after all, be reconciled with the still tempo of mutual repose. Desire and longing do not combine to build a solution in some chemical sense; but at least, and only at certain moments, they may temporarily be in a state of amicable suspension. As Barthes observes: ‘The tender gesture says: ask me anything that can put your body to sleep, but also do not forget that I desire you—a little, lightly, without trying to seize anything right away.’25 The firm contours of the self presupposed by one aspect of passionate love—desire—stands in opposition to the willingness to yield and accede to the union demanded by the other—longing. Sensual and possessive desire aspires to be fulfilled by the overpowering of its object, while longing would have her or him indestructible, immortal, and ascendant.

This disclosure of desire and longing to each other is, to paraphrase Octavio Paz’s observation, almost always painful because the existence of the other person presents itself as a body that is penetrated and a consciousness which is impenetrable.26 In the erotic pursuit, the soul is also ‘a vision that is not insensible to touch’. These and other similar dilemmas pervade passionate love with irreducible ambiguity and potential tragedy. At one end of the long tunnel, there is no rejoicing, no song and verse extolling its glory, but often enough (p.193) lovers’ cries cursing it as a plague and a poisonous affliction. Here, in Bedier’s ringing words in Tristan and Isolde, the onlooker is called upon to witness ‘Passion and Joy most sharp, and Anguish without end, and Death.’27

An awareness of love’s simultaneous joy and anguish conforms with what has become the ‘modern’ view. Traditional Sanskrit poetry, in contrast, with its myriad rules for creating a particular mood, deemed inappropriate the intermingling in the same love poem of love’s happiness with its sorrow.28 Whereas the erotic may combine on equal terms with the comic and on unequal terms with the compassionate, the combination which Sanskrit so studiously avoids characterizes much of what is best in modern Western literature, with its Marxist and Freudian emphasis on the dialectics of human nature. It is the exception, the rare Sanskrit love poem, that breaks this rule, which has the greatest resonance for the modern reader.

The torment and obsessive quality of passionate love derives not only from the inherent conflict—a collision, a squashing together—of desire and longing, but also from the unyielding reality each encounters. Hence, the wish for Liebestod, for the fateful conclusion to it all and the release promised in it, as the ironic outcome of erotic vitality. In longing, the ‘purest’ state is one when the soul nearly contains the body. Lovers like Tristan and Isolde or Layla and Majnun, who yearn for their souls to merge and become one, find consummation impossible as long as they do have bodies. Their ultimate goal becomes no longer to live but rather die in each other’s arms, escaping the flesh that once excited their aspiration but has become a prison. In The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo tells his Jessica, ‘such harmony is in immortal souls; But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it’.29 Corporeal reality forces lovers to doubt what they most believe by insisting on the existence of a final mystery that separates one from the other. It dictates that the challenge to death and to the transitory nature of the individual, contained in love’s transcendence of self, is doomed to fail. This reality enjoins us to accept the sadness of our ‘savage solitude’ and, if we are lucky, to learn in the beloved’s eyes, ‘that existence is enough’.

The fate of instinctual desire, all-wanting and all-consuming, is no better, for it must perforce grapple with finitude and freedom of the other. As Auden states it,

(p.194) Tristan and Isolde (the symbol of longing) are tormented because they are compelled to count up to two when they long to be able only to count up to one; Don Juan (the symbol of desire) is in torment because, however great the number of his seductions, it still remains a finite number and he cannot rest until he has counted up to infinity.30

Freud’s first version of the pleasure principle proves inadequate. Desire does not subside with seeming satiation. Each orgasmic encounter merely whets the appetite in self-perpetuity. Memory as well as deliciousness of pleasure’s ache gnaw at us, making it impossible to rest.

The suffering of passionate love is felt by individuals differently, in consonance with the variety of the lives they have led. As psychoanalysts Martin Bergmann and Otto Kernberg, among others, have pointed out, all crossings of borders amount to a defiant sally into forbidden territory, challenging time-honoured prohibitions against breaching sexual and family barriers and taboos which are so basic a component of human society.31 In crossing individual, sexual, and, as we saw in the stories of Hamlet, Phaedra and the Indian tales, generational boundaries, passionate love collides with the culture and its inner emissary, the ‘superego’, Freud’s term for conscience and the ideas and critical faculties of which it is composed. The rigidity and unyielding cruelty of this conscience, the extent to which it is punitive or benign, will influence the intensity of the guilt and the suffering which are, alas, in some measure inevitable corollaries of love. Christendom, antipathetic as it is to fleshy appetites, seems to have engendered some of the guiltiest of lovers. However, other factors too, as we saw in our tales from Islamic and Hindu cultures, conspire to suffuse erotic elation with its sombre or tearful opposites.

All lovers weep. The sadness of each is related to his or her particular capacity to mourn. Whether the individual has inwardly succeeded in detaching himself from the allure of his parents, whether he has grieved their loss at the same time that he has reconfirmed their past and continuing goodness in his inner life, whether he brings to love a ceaseless effort to undo his earlier expulsion from the maternal Eden, whether he has more or less resigned himself to his later exclusion from the sexual life of father and mother as man and woman—all enter into his present anguish. Inevitably, however, all passionate love (p.195) is built on a trembling foundation of loss and depression. This, too, is what is meant by longing.

Even now, as we must remember, we are culturally and historically bound. The notion that desire and longing—the two prime movers of passion—are products of individual needs and wishes is a modern one. It is far removed in spirit from the older conception of passion as an overwhelming alien invasion. In the Greek scheme, as we saw in our chapter on ‘mother love’, the goddess Aphrodite made her presence felt unequivocally. She claimed individuals and toppled the pride of ascetics, stoics, and warriors who tried to discredit her in favour of her more chaste sibling. The modern notion has also led to a weakening of the emphasis on ‘love at first sight’. In the past, it was not infrequent that a man fell violently in love with a woman after catching the merest glimpse of her, as she went about on everyday business. Indeed, there are many tales, in both East and West, of love flowering to its fullest splendour (and anguish) at the sight of a woman’s portrait, at the hearing of her voice raised in song, or a description of her charms. A modern psychologically informed society, attuned to the mind’s boundless capacity for projecting inner events onto the outer world, now takes issue with the reality of any external agent that can simply overpower one completely without his wanting it, expecting it, or participating actively in its seizure of himself. Yet, in spite of contemporary cavilling, the older view has not disappeared from our sensibilities. Its continued presence is not a merely picturesque ruin of an abandoned theory but, in its emphasis on novelty and uniqueness, challenges any easy disposition we might have towards psychoanalytic determinism. Lovers are more than shadows projected on the screen of their individual unconscious infantile pasts. There is a ‘chemistry’ of sorts in their encounter, an alchemy beyond analysis.

Nor are the historians or anthropologists in possession of the revelation of love’s truth. The artist plays on love’s transcendence of cultural context, as we have said, turning over the social expectations that govern audiences he knows all too well. That one poem can reach from one culture and era to another is further testimony to the transcendence of time and place inherent in art and love. As the psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan put it: ‘We are all more human than otherwise’…forever human, we might add.

(p.196) Perhaps our somatic selves yield the metaphorical secrets of love better than any purely psychic exegesis. The body’s expression of passionate intercourse contains and condenses its varied psychological themes. Indeed, the progression may amount to a sort of amorous archaeology, containing clues as to love’s history, allowing us to reach back into bygone eras of desire and longing beyond articulation, representation, and recollection.

Wooing and craving call up the theme of (as yet) unrequited love, the poise and the vibrancy of expectant pleasure, and the edge of union. In this stage, idealization and novelty are paramount, as from a distance the beloved is contemplated as a total and separate person. Forepleasure is a savouring of one’s own and the other’s body, heightening desire and awakening, enlivening senses dormant in everyday life. Witness to the joy he induces and receives, he finds himself (or herself) identifying with the responses of the lover—in their shared pleasure and anticipation. Soon enough, it matters not whose response is whose—‘the love you get (being) equal to the love you make’, in the lyrics of the Beatles. The lover can then enter a different realm, an interpenetration of psyche and soma. Penetration by the man and inception by the woman indeed constitute acts of aggression in which tender lovers are conquered, seized—and joined. Penultimately, with ‘ejaculatory inevitability’, in the apt if crude language of Masters and Johnson, comes our last gasp, the final line of resistance to orgasm, to the lost selfconsciousness of the little death. Climax, when achieved, carries with it myriad illusions of union and a flooding in of all past and future pleasure. A whole lifetime collapses into an instant, in a process of which we are dimly aware, reviving sensations submerged in everyday adult life. In ecstasy, the self is freed from its sensory and temporal confines and finds a second birth as if immersed in another.

This is passion, the concatenation of longing and desire, seemingly dangerous and even grief-laden, but profoundly vitalizing. Its aftermath, when the two bodies must again divide, is a cherishing, the aftertaste whetting an appetite for the beloved and her or his inner regions which can never be satisfied. We never have enough, for even while possessing the body of another, his or her soul eludes our grasp—the butterfly eternally pursued by an indefatigable Cupid. (p.197)


(1) Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1972, On Love, New York: Harper & Row, p. 11.

(2) W.H. Auden, 1976, ‘Lullaby’, Collected Poems, New York: Random House, p. 131.

(3) Freud, 1912, ‘On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love’, Standard Edition, vol. 11, p. 180.

(4) See Jean Paul Sartre, 1956, Being and Nothingness, New York: Philosophical Library, part ii. For Freud’s views on the importance of sado-masochism in erotic life, with its component of humiliation, see ‘On the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love’ and ‘A child is being beaten’ (1919), Standard Edition, vol. 17.

(5) R. Briffault, 1927, The Mothers, vol. 1, London, p. 119.

(6) Erich Fromm, 1957, The Forgotten Language, New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

(7) Evelyne Sullerot, 1979, Women on Love: Eight Centuries of Feminine Writing, New York: Doubleday, pp. 30–1.

(8) Roland Barthes, 1978, A Lover’s Discourse, New York: Hill and Wang, p. 42.

(9) Plato, ‘Symposium’, in B. Jowett (tr.), 1950, The Portable Plato, New York: Viking Press, p. 145.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Brahadranayka Upanisbad, I–IV, 1–3.

(12) Plato, p.146. For a psychoanalytic discussion, see William Binstock, 1973, ‘On the two forms of intimacy’, Journal of American Psychoanalytic Association, 21 (1), pp. 93–107.

(13) W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand, New York:. Vintage Books, p. 115.

(14) Barthes, p. 28.

(15) Ortega y Gasset, 1957, On Love, New York: Greenwich Editions.

(16) Ibn Hazm, 1953, The Ring of the Dove, translated by A.J. Arberry, London: Luzac & Co., p. 118.

(17) St John of the Cross, 1960, Poems, translated by R. Campbell, Baltimore: Penguin Books.

(18) Bhavabhuti, 1964, Uttara Rama Carita (The Later Story of Rama), in Six Sanskrit Plays, Bombay: Asia, p. 368.

(19) W.B. Yeats, 1956, ‘The Indian to his love’, Collected Poems, New York: Macmillan, p. 14.

(20) William N. Evans, 1953, ‘Two kinds of romantic love’, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 22, p. 76.

(21) de Rougemont, The Myths of Love, p. 65.

(22) Auden, Collected Poems, p. 498.

(23) Shakespeare, Sonnet 57.

(24) Ibn Hazm, p. 87.

(25) Barthes, p. 224.

(26) Cited in Otto F. Kernberg, 1977, ‘Boundaries and structure in love relations’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 25 (1), p. 96.

(27) Bedier, Tristan and Iseult. (p.198)

(28) See Daniel H.H. Ingalls, 1965, An Anthology of Sanskrit Court Poetry, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 15.

(29) William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, V.i.63–5.

(30) W.H. Auden, 1973, Forewords and Afterwords, London: Faber and Faber, p. 24.

(31) Martin Bergmann, 1982, ‘Platonic love, transference love and love in real life’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 30, pp. 87–111; Kernberg, p. 95. See also Leon L. Altman, 1977, ‘Some vicissitudes of love’, Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 25(1), p. 42.