THE BLOG
02/15/2013 01:00 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

The Myth of Romantic Love

Adapted from Michael Novak's book The Myth of Romantic Love.

We Westerners have come to think that the central fire of human happiness is romantic love, love forever and ever (love "happily ever after"). The romantic couple walking hand in hand across the fields toward the sunlight.

Many people spend their entire lives looking for such love, wanting to feel such love, wondering, when they are first attracted to a guy or girl, if that's what they're now feeling. Above all, most people love being in love, love the feeling of loving, love even the mad passion of being in love. They are bewitched by the passion that would make them want to die rather than not be in love. (I saw this phenomenon often in summertime romances all around me in Italy in 1961 and 1962, when I was writing two novels there. In summertime in those days American girls came in droves and were romanced by young Italian Romeos as they had never before experienced. My hotel near the Piazza di Spagna seemed taken over by young lovers. Often the American girl, her schedule pre-set and unchangeable, departed tearfully, brokenhearted to leave.)

Central among the features of romantic love is the fact that it consists in falling in love with love, not with a concrete person. In its high form it scorns mere bodily, erotic, sexual love. In this pure form it prides itself on being "above" the biological love that is satisfied by pornography or by groping interaction with another human being. Romantic love loves the higher passion, the spiritual ecstasy of love, not the body. A woman in romantic love loves being swept off her feet, longing for more, to the point of death. "I would rather die" than lose the feeling of loving him and being loved by him.

To feel the ecstasy of passion, romantic love entails a boundless desire, a longing for the infinite, a longing to "slip the surly bonds of Time," to escape from bodily limitations into the realm of the forever and the infinite. It is a revolt against mere flesh, against the limits of the human condition. The body, it finds gross. What it loves is the rarefied spiritual passion that only romantic lovers know. It loves feeling lifted "above the herd," into a higher sphere. It is not a sated appetite, but in fact quite the opposite. It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire. It feels a kind of murderous hostility toward rude awakenings.

This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles. If romantic love were to lead too quickly to physical consummation, it would cease being romantic. For then it would require dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and -- bump! -- romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. No, for the sake of romantic love, it is much better for fulfillment to be delayed, for obstacles to be put up, for a sword to be laid down between the longing couple, or a curtain drawn between them. For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another, must never get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life.

Romantic love is to be contrasted with the Jewish and Christian vision of human love. It is plain from scripture that God expected -- nay, commanded -- his followers to be sexy: "Increase and multiply and fill the earth." Sexuality is a crucial part of human life, both for deeply personal growth and, second, for the continuance and prospering of the human community as a whole. Even toward the end of Biblical times, there were not more than 250 million people living on this earth. That left a lot of "increasing and multiplying" to be achieved. And that meant a lot of sexual acts.

But the Jewish and Christian view of the human being is that sex is a natural expression, not only of the body, but of the soul. For there is no separation of body and soul. The human person is one, not two: an embodied spirit, a spirited body -- one. The notion that there is an errant body (like a wild steed) to be disciplined by a superior soul (the charioteer) is from Plato, not from Judaism and Christianity.

The extent to which modern philosophy is still divided against itself -- soul separate from body -- is due to mistakes by Descartes and his progeny. There are still worrying, in a primitive manner, about a supposed "mind-body" problem. Instead of imaging that knowledge comes through clear ideas, Descartes would have been much more accurate to have recognized that all knowledge begins in the five senses. It is less true to say "I think, therefore I am," than to say "I sit, therefore I am." Our first brush against existence is through the body.

The "mind-body" problem? What kind of problem is that? From the beginning, soul has been embodied in nerves, sinews, muscles, flesh. And among living persons these have been inspirited. The human person is a unity, not a duality. A man caressing his wife is not practicing a merely physical act; his whole soul is speaking in it. Her "Yes" is from her soul and body, both. They are one -- as soul and body, as wife and husband.