Over at the Centre for the History of the Emotions blog, my former tutor, the wonderful Lesel Dawson, reviews Simon May’s Love: A History. My favourite passage:
As May’s book makes clear, a number of traditions require that the lover achieve psychic distance from the beloved in order to attain higher goals. Looking across various approaches, I cannot help but wonder if the very process by which the human beloved is elevated to a higher ideal (or seen to embody abstract notions such as beauty and truth) might secretly depend upon not knowing the person all that well. In the Renaissance one of the best cures for lovesickness was sex, not only because it allowed the (usually) male lover to satisfy his desires, but also because intimate knowledge of the beloved was thought to disabuse the lover of his dreams. By actually getting to know the mistress, the suitor would have to relinquish his private self-created fantasy of the beloved in favour of a living, breathing human being.
Unfortunately, some men didn’t find this a very good exchange; for them intimacy with the beloved led, not to an appreciation of her particular qualities, but rather to a sense that they had been duped into believing that someone disgusting was beautiful. Many Renaissance poems, which oscillate between elevating and vilifying the mistress, reproduce this tension, demonstrating the ways in which idealization and misogyny are really two sides of the same coin. Although May does not focus on gender, one can imagine how some of his arguments could be used to demonstrate the ways in which idealistic constructions of love have helped to foster unrealistic ideas of women, contributing to the ways in which women have alternatively been seen as objects of veneration or disgust.
That’s true of many forms of love – not just the love of a man for a woman, but likewise sometimes the love of a woman for a man, or the love of a child for their parents, or a parent’s love for their child, or a friend’s love for another friend. There is a move from idealisation to a clearer-eyed recognition of the other’s faults, flaws and limits. And yet that can lead to a deepening of the love, when one recognises that the other is imperfect, vulnerable, fragile, and mortal. Sometimes the deepest love a child feels for their parent is when they see signs that they are getting old and a bit frail – and it is our turn to return all the care and love they provided to us.