the alter of desire

In the courtly legend of Tristan and Iseult, Tristan is not really in love with Iseult. He is in love with love itself. And so is Iseult. Their violent passion is forged into a god.) Read about it in DeRougemont's provocative Love in the Western World.) 

Worshippers at this alter of desire try to avoid the guilt that comes from obedience to raw emotion by treating Eros as if it were an overwhelming power, an irresistible force. They have “fallen in love.” Love is an unexpected experience beyond their control. Romance crept up from behind and pushed them into this ditch. Devotees at the alter of desire are helpless but to fall under the power of love. Certainly the victims cannot be held responsible for obeying this unexpected urge, can they?  

Ultimately, boredom drives the mystic lovers. Bowing to the thrilling promises set forth in the myth, their romantic excitement builds on short excitations, passionate partings and obstacles blocking the path (obstacles like disapproving relatives or the torn conscience of one of the lovers).  Suffering the intolerable pain of desire unfulfilled, the lovers endure the angst of wanting and not having. Circumstances that force them apart only intensifies their condition.

Their growing passion feeds on the unknown and mysterious. In this savage love, an erotic man sees a woman as a means, a mystical mixture of dreams and sex. He has removed her personhood because he pursues the unattainable. Seeing her as fully human with faults and weaknesses, would remove the mystery. Since the love-potion is weak and passes quickly, new obstacles or adventures must continually rise up in order to keep that “wonderful feeling” immediate and real, covering the beloved's flaws with a layer of sentimentality.

The true culmination of a love like Tristan and Iseult’s can never be marriage. That would put an end to the pursuit, and thus the thrill. A man of passion seeks to be defeated, to lose all self-control, to be beside himself in ecstasy. Marriage, as De Rougemont suggests, is the grave of such sentimentality. To possess her is to lose her. To know her, really know her for who she is, is to lose the mystery in the clatter of everyday life.

Marriage is made up of habit, daily union, and growing accustomed with one another. When a couple marries in obedience to romance, they experience a flatness in the relationship.  The allure of passion is buried underneath familiarity.  Unless they chose to grow in love, they run the risk of once again pursuing unattainable beauty, tempted by the next person who triggers that strong emotion or by pursuing some other adventure and thrill.  One pursuit leads to another and then another, because passion is typically the doorway to no other world but itself. 

This obsession fails to satisfy and always cries out for more. It's can play a single fleeting aspect of a complete and full life, but no more. Giving the false god place it does not deserve eventually consumes it's worshippers, robbing them of the energy and perspective to pursue authenticity. 

Real love involves a decision. To be “in love” is a state of being that can only be endured or accepted. But “to love” is an act.  The lover seeks “to love” by pursuing what is best for the beloved. This "seeking" is not a one-time event, but a pursuit, a habit chosen again and again. In the marriage ceremony, when a couple vows an enduring love, they cannot mean an attempt to maintain some sort of state of perpetual sentiment.  This is not possible. What is possible is a commitment to take action--to make an act of love.. and to do so with each sun rising.  

Stephen Goforth