I read We by Robert Johnson yesterday. It provided some excellent food for thought and some much needed perspective.
We is a Jungian reading of the Tristan and Iseult myth, with the aim of explaining the phenomena of romantic love in modern Western society. Johnson begins by pointing out that the focus on romantic love, as understood and practiced in the West, is an enormous and unprecedented development of the last thousand years. No other culture places the importance on romance that we in the West do, nor do they make it a precondition of marriage. Love and marriage in eastern societies, and in all the world prior to the last millenia, is and was a quieter affair. No epic passions, no “sparks”, no quasi-religious ecstasies of adoration. No pursuit of “the one”. Just friendship, relatedness, mutual respect, and commitment.
The origins of the modern notion of romantic love, Johnson believes, lie in the medieval idea of “courtly love”, which in turn had it’s roots in Catharist Manichiesm. The courtly model help that knight would give his heart to a Lady. To him, she would represent all that is good and pure and high in the world. She would inspire him to acts of bravery and chivalry; to nobility; to graciousness and selflessness. In her service all the better parts of his personality would be drawn out. They would pine for each other, always – but they would never be physically united. Courtly love was a strictly spiritual ideal. The Lady would always remain unattainable. She might even be some other noble’s wife. But the image of her in the knight’s mind, the epitome of the eternal angelic feminine, would forever inflame his heart with ecstatic passion and impel him onwards to greater and greater deeds.
In this we can already see glimpses of Johnson’s central thesis: that romantic love, in the heart of a man, is in actuality a religious experience.
Over time, courtly love evolved into what we now know as romantic love. And as reason became the dominant factor in Western life, religion became codified and ossified, and mankind’s religious function was consigned more and more to a dusty closet, the importance of romance grew and grew. Until the present day, where romance is the prevailing preoccupation of the majority of adults. As spirituality was pushed out of Western’s man’s thoughts, it manifested itself in the form of romantic love.
Consider the symptoms. A man newly in love suffers all the ecstasies of a religious convert. In the beloved he sees all that is good and pure. He sees someone who will complete him. He sees his salvation, a new factor that will give meaning to his life.
Johnson sees this state as a projection of the anima – the soul, the goddess within, the intermediary between the ego and the realms ot the unconscious. The man is not truly in love with the woman at all; he is in love with a projection of his own unconscious. He sees in her the answer to his need for connectedness, for relatedness, gor higher meaning – all the things that religion once provided. She is the blessed virgin, she is the Great Mother, she is Shakti.
Because it is not truly the woman herself that he sees, but an anima-projection, his love is doomed from the start. It is “love and death, mixed together”, in the words of the myth. No human being can bear the burden of a goddess for very long. And because he does not truly see her, the person, he cannot truly be a friend to her. Before long the enchantment will wear off. Then the projection will move on to a new human host, and our ill-starred lover will feel that unless he forsakes his partner to be with the new, he will be forever incomplete. It is a dream-world, and it’s tragic dissolution is only a matter of time.
We are all inculcated into this paradigm in the west. There is no avoiding it; it is in the stories we read, the fairy-tales we hear as children, the songs on the radio, and in the movies and shows that we watch. It is in our blood, at this point.
But Johnson doesn’t recommend that we somehow escape the romantic mindset. He suggests only that we be conscious of it, and that we try to separate our religious lives from the ordinary, comfortable, day-to-day relationship we have with a partner. He points out something I found intriguing, although not surprising – if the way remained open, Jung would send his patients back to the religion of of their ancestors as quickly as possible. The need for soul, for anima, cannot be ignored. But it is found within, not in the form of another human. Only when we give our soul the affection and attention she is due can we relate to another simply, and profoundly, as a human being.