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Perpetual Virginity: Five Writers Who Turned Unrequited Love Into Literary Gold

Posted: 06/26/2012 12:48 pm

"There is always some madness in love," wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, "but there is also always some reason in madness."

Coming from a philosopher whose mustache looked like a wounded tribble, ruminations on sanity should always be taken with a grain of salt. But it turns out Nietzsche was on to something. Modern research suggests that love is, literally, a form of madness. One study by the University of California, San Diego, revealed that the brain patterns of people in love are almost identical to those who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For writers, obsessive by nature, the idea that love equals madness can seem especially fitting, but nothing makes authors crazier than love of the unrequited variety. Throughout the ages, in fact, the raw sting of rejection has launched entire writing careers. Below are five literary giants whose hearts were impaled by Cupid's arrow in the most brutal way. Rather than wallow in self-pity, these tortured scribes picked themselves up and stabbed Cupid right back -- with their pens.

1. Ayn Rand
In 1922, more than two decades before The Fountainhead made her rich and famous, a teenage Ayn Rand had a fleeting love affair in her native Russia with Lev Bekkerman -- a tall, gray-eyed, fiendishly handsome sort, who was as arrogant as he was reckless. Rand fell instantly head over heels, and at one point she even fantasized about settling down and living in domestic tranquility.

There was just one problem: Bekkerman couldn't seem to love anyone more than he loved himself. He eventually gave Rand the brush-off, but she never forgot her old crush. A few years after she fled to America to pursue writing, Rand used Bekkerman as a model for the character of Leo Kovalensky, the dreamy but destructive love interest in her first published novel, We the Living.

2. Goethe
In 1774, the future giant of German literature published his breakthrough novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, a sentimental, melodramatic yarn about a young man tormented by unrequited love who ultimately shoots himself in the head. The story is largely autobiographical, minus the shooting in the head part, and is based on Goethe's own romance with a woman who was engaged to an older man. Published when the author was just 25, Werther became an instant smash, influencing fashion and attitudes all over Europe. The book also inspired some of the earliest known examples of copycat suicides, as lovelorn young men around Germany reportedly took their own lives in the same manner as Werther. The term "Werther effect" is still used today to describe suicides inspired by the media.

3. W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats first met the incendiary Irish nationalist Maud Gonne in 1889. Gonne was a fan of his ethereal poetry, but she did not share his ethereal nature. She was opinionated, politically minded, fiercely intelligent, and an imposing presence in every quantifiable sense -- a six-foot-tall Amazon who fought tirelessly for Ireland's independence from Great Britain. Her boxy jaw, thin lips, and knotty hair were not particularly idealized by Victorian tastemakers (in pictures she looks like a cross between Bea Arthur and the bass player from Twisted Sister), but Yeats saw something irresistible in her nonetheless. Over the course of his career, he produced volumes of verse and prose in her honor. Legend has it that the two longtime platonic companions had a one-night-only sexual encounter in Paris in 1908. Unfortunately for Yeats, the experience only caused him greater longing and heartache. The poet hinted to the tryst years later in a 1931 interview, famously remarking that "the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul." There really is no comeback for that.

4. Jane Austen
Janeites and other literary types tend to squabble over the seriousness of Jane Austen's brief encounter with the hot-shot law grad Tom Lefroy, which took place over the Christmas season of 1795. The 2007 film Becoming Jane envisioned the couple in a passionate, reciprocal affair. Most historians, however, doubt the accuracy of that account, insisting instead that the status-driven Lefroy could not have been very serious about a penniless country girl. But one fact that is not in dispute is Austen's astounding creative output following the fling. Over the next four years, she completed three novels, two of which became her most beloved works: Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. The third was Northanger Abbey, which is known colloquially as "the one nobody reads," but let's not split hairs.

5. Dante
Italy's Sommo Poeta is often compared with Homer or Shakespeare, but as a young poet on the streets of Florence, Dante Alighieri was just a hopeless romantic who drew much of his inspiration from the accidental temptress Beatrice Portinari, a neighborhood girl he barely knew. When Beatrice died suddenly at the age of 24, the grief-stricken Dante went into a writing frenzy. He spent the next few years composing love poetry in Beatrice's honor (an obsession that no doubt irritated his wife, Gemma). That collection of verse, completed around 1295, eventually became La Vita Nuova, which marked a momentous step forward in the development of Dante's style. The work ultimately paved the way for The Divine Comedy, the three-part masterpiece that would propel him into the literary stratosphere. Beatrice makes a cameo in this epic volume as well, appearing as (what else?) Dante's personal tour guide through heaven.

Adapted from Tortured Artists, from Picasso and Monroe to Warhol and Winehouse, the twisted secrets of the world's most creative minds, published by Adams Media.

 
 
 

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