Love occupies a privileged place in the French national identity, on a par with fashion, food, and human rights. For hundreds of years, the French have championed themselves as guides to the art of love through their literature, paintings, songs, and cinema.
What we now call romantic love can be traced back to the early twelfth century, when William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, created the first troubadour love lyrics. These song-poems focused exclusively on love and especially on the beloved woman. Casting aside traditional practice, William reversed masculine and feminine roles, granting the woman power over the man.
Since that time, one can say that French love has been "feminized"--by which I mean that Woman has commanded the spotlight in French amatory relations, both as the object of man's desire and as the subject of her own desire. The French have never believed that women are any less passionate than men.
One defining feature of love à la française is its forthright insistence on sexual pleasure. Without the moral overlay pervading the Anglo-American world, the French accept the premise that carnal passion has its own justification. From the medieval tale of Tristan and Iseut to modern films like Mississippi Mermaid and The Woman Next Door, love is represented as an irresistible fate against which it is useless to rebel.
Marilyn Yalom is the author of How the French Invented Love: 900 Years of Passion and Romance [Harper, $15.99].
The image of the heart as the symbol of love was unknown until the Middle Ages. It became familiar to the French-speaking world in the 14th century when the heart was painted on the pages of manuscripts recounting love stories and crafted into jewelry to be given to the loved one. In this tapestry, a lover is shown holding his heart between his thumb and forefingers as he offers it to his lady. By the time this tapestry was woven, France had developed very sophisticated rules regarding the exercise of courtly love intended for members of the nobility. Falling in love was ostensibly occasioned by a lady’s sublime beauty. More often than not, the lady was someone else’s wife, obliging the lover to undergo severe tests of his love and devotion. As author Denis de Rougemont argued over 60 years ago, romantic love is predicated on obstacles, the kind still found today in any steamy novel worthy of the word “romance.”
Eighteenth-century French art and fiction are practically synonymous with lovemaking. If we were to judge only by paintings, we would conclude that members of the upper classes did nothing but disport themselves as lovers. Fragonard’s lovers, in this and other paintings, frolic in bucolic settings and vow to love each other forever. But this sentimental vision was only one side of the picture; the other side was union of an earthier sort. Increasingly, as the century progressed, the word “gallantry” implied sex as its main object, whereas the word “love” denoted an emotional attachment. On the one side, there was the divine power of sentimental love, as proclaimed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his best-selling novel, <em>The New Eloise</em>, and on the other, physical seduction, as depicted in Laclos’s wickedly erotic novel, <em>Dangerous Liaisons</em>.
In France, a generation of writers born around 1800 and subsequently known as Romantics (including Alfred de Vigny, Honoré de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Prosper Merimée, George Sand, and Alfred de Musset) promoted love as the supreme value in life. Love was worth living for and dying for. In novels, poems, and plays, women and men died of broken hearts, even as their authors went on to new romances. George Sand—the pen name for the sole ranking woman writer in this camp—imagined love as a sublime experience that had the power to unite and elevate two kindred souls. Like her mentor Rousseau, she espoused emotion above reason as a spiritual guide to life. Many of her novels, for example <em>Indiana,</em> are stories of women struggling to free themselves from oppressive situations and to find “true love,” but Sand’s claim to a place in the pantheon of Love resides even more in her famous affairs with the poet Musset and the composer Chopin.
In affairs of the heart, nineteenth-century France oscillated between the poles of Romanticism and Realism—between belief in the ideal of “true love” and ironic disbelief. The artist Daumier satirized blind love in his caricature of a woman rapt in admiration of her sleeping husband, and the novelist Flaubert savaged romantic love in his masterpiece, <em>Madame Bovary</em> (1857). But the ideal of true love never really disappeared, and it reasserted itself with vigor in the last decades of the century. Manet’s painting of an adoring lover who gazes into the eyes of his female companion, and Edmond Rostand’s neo-romantic play, <em>Cyrano de Bergerac</em>--the country’s most popular play of all time--are testimonials to the enduring power of romantic love among the French.
The French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud became known in the 1870s for their short, passionate affair. A precocious adolescent, Rimbaud came to Paris when he was only 16 and proceeded to wreak havoc in the life of Verlaine, a married man 10 years his senior. Rimbaud insisted that “love has to be reinvented” and aspired to a mystical union, with the help of alcohol and hashish. Instead, Verlaine and Rimbaud ended up in mutual violence. In 1873, when they were traveling together in Belgium, Verlaine was arrested for having shot Rimbaud in the wrist during one of their heated quarrels. Like the Englishman Oscar Wilde a generation later, Verlaine was sent to prison, where he had considerable time to reflect upon his misfortunate love affair. Verlaine and Rimbaud, followed by authors André Gide and Marcel Proust, were responsible for bringing homosexual love out of the closet in France and into public awareness.
Between 1900 and World War II, lesbians came out in Paris as never before. With their cropped hair and boyish jackets, they were immediately recognizable to each other, as well as to the tourists who gaped at them in women-friendly bars and bistros. The first woman writer to make lesbian relations well-known in France was Colette in her novels about Claudine-- a school-girl who falls in love with her female high-school teacher. Several years later, Claudine marries but also has an affair with another woman. In real life, after her own first marriage began to fail, Colette was a member of lesbian circles in Paris, and had a serious relationship with Missy, the Marquise de Belboeuf. Colette and Missy shocked Parisian society by performing in a pantomime that included an on-stage kiss between them. Eventually Colette returned to heterosexual relations and married for a second time (1912 to 1924), and later for a third time. When she died in 1954 the Church refused her a Christian burial; instead, because of her stature as a writer, she was given a state funeral—the first given to any Frenchwoman.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are the most famous French couple of the twentieth century, though they never married, were frequently separated, and engaged in numerous affairs with other men and women. This unique relationship that endured for five decades shocked many of their contemporaries and still causes fierce debate among disciples and detractors. Their union was based on the assumption that one could have both an “essential” or primary love, as well as “contingent” or secondary love affairs. Beauvoir and Sartre remained lovers in the physical sense of the word for about ten years, but long after they had ceased sleeping together, in fact for the rest of their lives, they maintained their “essential” relationship. Today they are buried together in the Montparnasse Cemetery with a single ledger tombstone covering their adjoining plots.
During the summer of 2011, I found myself walking behind the Cathedral of Notre Dame and came upon an amazing site. Hundreds of small padlocks, many bearing initials, names, and dates, were attached to the grille on the bridge behind the Seine. C and K, Agnes & René, Barbara & Christian, Luni & Leo, 16-6-10. I hung around, enchanted by the spectacle, and was rewarded by the sight of two youthful lovers, who came across the bridge arm in arm, affixed a lock to the grille, drank from each other’s lips, and threw the key into the river.