Love in Western Literature
What are we talking about when we talk about love? Which is the truth about love in Western literature? Is there a constant, a principle of identification through the centuries? Or are the historical differences too strong to be subsumed under a conceptual doom? Moreover, is it necessary, or helpful in some way, to seek to find a guise of catalyst for defining a model?
Denis De Rougemont opened his renowned and discussed volume saying that in Western love-literature the happy love n’a pas d’histoire. This may be a starting point, undoubtedly. But first of all, it needs at least one correction. Some love stories end well (with a marriage, for instance), but when things work out, the story just ends. In fact, the earlier misadventures have been creating the story: the happy denouement closes the book. On the other hand, De Rougemont has a conception of supreme and sublime love, the passionate love, as the acme of sensitivity and beauty in the field of literary feelings. And this hyper-love is always tragic: Tristan and Yseut are the paradigmatic couple, from Thomas to Wagner. The literary and sentimental ideology of De Rougemont is, in a way, reactionary: while the pre-Modernity, the Early Modern and the Modern go toward an increasingly strong “realism”, the privilege of a transcendent love is waning. This does not mean that love stories are progressively less infelicitous, on the contrary. We want to remark that the catharsis of the sentiment of love is always rarer. Banality or horror overtake the idealism, and what may look like satiric is actually authentic.
Thus, we would restate the discussable position of De Rougemont configuring our treatise on the basis of this pattern: the history of love-theme in Western literature has been showing the tableau of a grand and/or pathetic failure. The chronological progression of this phenomenon is for us ascertainable, but there is no denying that we may find it in any time, less or more disguised. From the ambiguous Courtly love until the Romantic age (these are our boundaries), but even more in the whole 19th Century, Western literature pursues the stories of love fiascos between mockery and gloom, elevating the tragicomic blend up to the mirror of reality. That may seem a simplification, more than an elucidation, but we do not find something fitter to highlight a common thread for our narration.