There is Nothing Better

by Stuart Walton

Barbara H. Rosenwein, Love: A History in Five Fantasies
Polity Press 224pp ISBN 9781509531837 £20.00

Eva Illouz, The End of Love: A Sociology of Negative Relations
Polity Press 320pp ISBN 9781509550258 £14.99

Romantic love, in the present world, has turned out to be one of those commodities, like fame or money, that fails to live up to expectations of it. Its elusiveness has apparelled it in a thick coat of mythology that withstands rational dissolution to the extent that love itself remains an unknown quantity. Where it does appear, it depends on a process of exchange that imitates capitalist economic relations, but without the security of satisfaction implicitly written into commercial transactions. Its compound of grief, hope and passion, driven by radical inequity and its ecstasies, has powered one of the most enduring abstract beliefs in human affairs. If the only true love is the unrequited sort because, tested to its own disintegration, it finds its raging ultimacy, it may be better after all to have loved and lost, or better to be unremarkably satisfied with being immune to its ideology.

The publisher who turned down a proposal for a study of romantic love on the grounds that only poets and storytellers truly spoke its language uttered perhaps the last hurrah of the most impervious ideology of them all. For all the rivers of tears in which one waded waist-deep, in hope of arriving at the reward, it is exactly the idealised notion of the reward, the dazzled paradigm of happiness itself — better than drugs, better than money — that keeps the whole show going on. Love is indeed, as the publisher's rejection note claimed, overwhelmingly the principal matter of the stories and songs, pictures and poems, that unite the aesthetics of East and West, but nobody sobbing at the back of the night bus, after an evening spent in the corner watching him kiss her, needs to have read Plato or Stendhal to grasp its corrosive, nauseous force. There is, officially, nothing better. Its astringency, after all, reminds you that you are alive and born to suffer.

The historian Barbara Rosenwein is the latest to wonder whether a typology of the myths of love might be teased out of the centuries-long obsession with its elusive ideal. She distinguishes five of these: the miraculous kinship that unites soulmates; the transcendent rapture of the besotted state; selfless devotion to the loved one; ineradicable yearning that feeds on itself; and the blinkered carnal rampancy of the sex appetite. For all that its elements have propagated into five, there is an unmistakable hint here of Plato's triune definition of the soul, descending from the noble ideals housed in the head to the spirited adventures of the heart, and thence to the importunate hungers of the nether regions — the belly and genitals, their lust for possession.

Outlining a harmonious vision of civic chastity in the Laws, the elderly Plato insisted on the inevitable inequality in sexual relationships, the solution to which was the 'other half' theory of Aristophanes in the Symposium. We have all become detached from a part of ourselves that can be re-encountered, for those who have the necessary sensitivity, in another, a postulate that endures in the modern conception that a significant other 'completes' us. If such an account has anything persuasive in it, it emerges in the unassuageable agonies that await those whose unions have once more broken apart, an emotional analogue of the amputee's phantom limb syndrome. St. Aelred of Rievaulx, the 12th-century Cistercian abbot who was author of one of the great medieval texts on love, De Spirituali Amicitia (On Spiritual Friendship), theorises that what ennobles love and amity is a just measure of reason. The ideal of like-mindedness only gains authenticity if the two partners are prepared to adjust to each other as they grow together, a proposition that consigns the naïveté of the Aristophanic completeness myth to philosophy's remainder bin.

Rosenwein may not be in the demythologising game wholesale, but she is keenly alert to the self-contradictions that come with the territory. At the outset of her chapter on Obligation, she rehearses the standard homily that 'When you love someone, whatever you do is an act of love', but only a couple of pages later, is already enlarging on the dreary imperatives that inform today's relationships, from the incautiously literal approach to dating profiles all the way to pre-nuptial agreements: 'When and if what we do feels like drudgery, or when our partner says that what we expect from him or her feels like drudgery, we feel disappointed in love.' But then love — and not just modern love, to be sure, but the entire tear-streaked, turbulent history of love and pain and the whole damn thing — is compounded of disappointment. It's how you cope with the destruction of hope that determines love's authenticity.

On the other hand, keeping hope going against all odds, in the form of love as obsession, is the very pattern of tragic magnificence. Obsessive love, the kind that starts with sleepless nights and ends with restraining orders, Rosenwein shrewdly notes, is the one variety of it that calls itself into question. You know that, like drinking every night, you are probably doing more of it than is good for you, and yet when it comes to any thought of curtailing it, the attempt foredooms itself. In any case, as Rosenwein also declares in a nimble piece of dialectic, 'the very declaration of love is a form of power over others, even as it pretends to be submission'.

By the time the late Victorian era began to psychologise sexual desire, it had transformed what was once a philosophical postulate, Schopenhauer's Will, into the notion of the sex drive. It may be true that all romantic love begins with the adventitious fantasy in which somebody by whom one has become socially fascinated might consent to your laying hands on their body, or — better still — wanting to do the same to you, but there are many forms of love that outgrow the sexual impulse, or are never predicated on it in the first place. Here, Rosenwein is less certain of her footing, not least when she claims of the insatiability of lustful desire that 'its language is exactly the same as . . . all the other forms of love. It declares itself to be love'. This risks a Panglossian benevolence about the manifestations of physical desire, what men in particular are prepared to do in pursuit of it, and is in danger of taking too literally its glib self-sanctification.

What the young already know about the belated sagacities of those elders who can't help enlightening them, is that what remains to conjure away the aridity of age, far more than the achievements of work and material accumulation, is the memory of sensual delight. 'Get it while you can,' was how Janis Joplin put it. In poignant late life, Stendhal, in an autobiography that only saw the light of day a half-century after his death, counted off the number of women he had had sex with, only just making it on to the fingers of a second hand. 'I was not promiscuous,' he sighed, 'not enough so.' Oh well, too late. Judiciously measured, intoxicants will last you a lifetime, sex not nearly so. Somewhere between the two, love might just, as it mutates and sheds its skins, falters and resurges, thereby endure.

Rosenwein's book arrives within two years of another Polity title that might stand as its antithesis, Eva Illouz's The End of Love, originally published in Germany in 2018 under the title Warum Liebe Endet. The modification in the English is important: Why Love Ends not only has the ring of a pop psychology manual, but suggests that the focus is on why relationships come to grief, whereas what Illouz is primarily concerned with is why they barely get off the ground at all. Her argument, pursued not only polemically but through professional sociological methods, constitutes a contemporary romantic-sexual version of Hegel's end-of-art thesis, a summation of the wholesale repurposing of love and intimacy in the generation of dating apps, hookups and one-nighters, in which the assumption of illusionless honesty may be sheer ideology, but is all the more powerful for that.

At the outset of the work, Illouz states the decidedly Hegelian case that what has happened to love since the 1960s represents the progressive realisation of the individual's freedom, an often unnoticed offshoot of the passage to civic and political liberation. The accent is firmly on the 'negative' invoked in the book's subtitle, the notion, inherited from the German theorist Günther Anders, that the affirmation of the self is attained through the negation or parenthesising of the claims of others on it. And not only is the self buffered by its autonomisation, but it is at the same time elevated in its aesthetic discernment: 'Discarding persons is . . . intrinsic to the continuous exercise of taste,' Illouz asserts. If the fungibility and precariousness that have replaced the lifelong ideal induce a sense of emotional vertigo, consider the cheerless testimony of the 59-year-old divorced woman, who tells Illouz, 'I miss being married. The clarity of it. You may be miserably married but at least you know what you have.’

Divorce itself is now more a matter of subjective emotional perception ('I don't feel this marriage is going anywhere') than about objective material factors such as cruelty, infidelity, poverty or alcohol, which reflects the fact that, while romantic partnerships may be susceptible to legalistic consent, there isn't such a contract in existence that cannot be unilaterally torn up by non-negotiable feelings. The sudden death that feelings confer on asymmetrically failing relationships is what has led to the current practice of ghosting, a digital term for brutally disregarding the existence of somebody whose fluid residues you have only recently soaped away. Meanwhile, what particularly aggravates those defining themselves as incels, and has assisted their coalescing into a movement that may resort to acts of terrorism, is that something as straightforward as a sexual contract, to which they feel they have a constitutional right, is not even forthcoming to them to begin with.

None of this helps to sustain what was once the utopian potential of love, that it existed and evolved in a zone discrete from social coercion. The Schumanns may have had to go to court in 1840 to overturn the veto Clara's father tried to exercise over her and Robert's marriage plans, but the court rendered him powerless to stop them. One of the unintended consequences of the sexual liberation of the past half-century is to have dissolved the protective boundaries of love, which has become as permeable by commercial exchange relations and the reifications of mass culture as anything else. 'Sex and love no longer represent the site where the self can oppose society,' Illouz observes in concluding her book. If sex is no longer circumscribed by religious precept or moral normativity, it is nonetheless entirely saturated by consumerism.

Self-accusatory resignation is one of the many ways modern lovers have found to rationalise the corruption of romance. In a lyric of 1961, Noël Coward spoke for many: 'I am no good at love: / I betray it with little sins. / For I feel the misery of the end / In the moment that it begins. / And the bitterness of the last good-bye / Is the bitterness that wins.' The imperative to find people who have the same interests and outlook as you, by which the therapy industry conforms relationships to the banality of bespoke tailoring, helps crush the life out of love too. On opposite sides of the world, in cultures unvisited and unblest, from the security of distance, people are yearning to make online contact with each other, while nobody on your own block gives a tuppenny fuck for your new haircut. The heart wants what it wants, but only after it has wanted what it doesn't want.