Feel Better

The Metaphysical Itch Which Can’t Be Scratched

According to Denis De Rougement in his book “Love in the Western World” the wanting and yearning of passionate love is often characterized by an unattainable ideal, a longing that cannot be fulfilled. This is embodied in the troubadours’ tales of knights pining for married ladies, their love doomed by social constructs. De Rougement argues that this tradition of unfulfilled or impossible love permeates Western culture, leading to our contemporary obsession with heartbreak, unrequited love, and tragic romance.

Yearning is not something we do for the person who is gone but for the intense emotions and the romantic ideal that their presence represented, which is then characterized by desire and longing, often more for the idea of love itself than for the actual individual. Our pain, longing, and suffering are seen as proofs of authenticity and depth of feeling.

As Novalis points out, “The lover is alone with all that they love.” This passionate love, far from being the fuller life it seems to promise, often proves to be a form of intense deprivation, an obsession with a singular image to the exclusion of all else. To the impassioned lover, the world dissolves and there remains only the beloved. This is the ecstasy of love, an inward flight from all created things, leading to a profound sense of isolation.

Stendhal provides the causal psychology of this in his idea of “crystallization,” a process where the mind continually uncovers new perfections in the beloved, often endowing them with attributes they may not truly possess. This process idealizes the concept of love, propelling it into the realm of fantasy, which is perhaps its legitimate abode.

“At the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable.”

Stendhal alludes to four kinds of love in his writing: passion-love, sympathy-love, sensual love, and vanity-love. To love in the sense of passion-love, which is where this crystallization occurs (Rougement warns us, “is the contrary of [the verb] to live. It is an impoverishment of one’s being, an askesis (which is to say: a practice) without sequel, an inability to enjoy the present without imagining it as absent, a never-ending flight from possession.” Passion, he goes on to delineate is “by no means the fuller life which it seems to be in the dreams of adolescence, but is on the contrary a kind of naked and denuding intensity, verily, a bitter destitution, the impoverishment of a mind being emptied of all diversity, an obsession of the imagination by a single image.”

The gratification of desire does not satisfy the passion, Stendhal acknowledges. The beloved, once possessed, might lose the allure they once held as the embodiment of all that is eternally elusive, which incites pursuit and evokes an intensity of desire more delightful than possession itself. Thus, the satisfaction of desire can make the beloved seem less attractive. For this reason, the lovers might prefer to retreat from the beloved rather than face the reality of shared existence.

Plato in Phaedrus cast love as ‘an enthusiasm,’ which translates more or less as ‘being ‘possessed by a god’. De Rougement removes God from the equation and calls it a kind of allergy, a relentless condition that causes restlessness, longing, and the chronic yearning for what we can’t have.

Wanting then is a kind of metaphysical itch that cannot be scratched, a divine possession that fills us with overwhelming fervour and passion, but for no purpose. It is rather, and I have perhaps experienced it as such, a divine delirium.

Our hearts ache for the idealized, unattainable love, the platonic perfection we have projected onto the beloved. Our yearning, while potentially causing pain and heartbreak, provides a profound emotional intensity that the ego, the self, interprets as the truest form of desire.

Even though we all know how the “trick” is carried out, it is often like watching Penn and Teller doing the that classic cup and balls switcheroo, but using plastic cups so that we can see exactly the sleight of hand being carried out, and yet we are still fooled. We see it all happening before our eyes, but our eyes and even more importantly, that desiring organ within us which we refer to as our hearts, cannot detach from the bewitchment and just focus on the mechanics of the illusion.

No surprise then that loss only amplifies this romantic allergy, intensifying our longing, and leaving us in a state of chronic wanting, forever reaching out for the divine, the perfect, the unattainable. In this state of yearning, we are both supremely alive in our desire and yet paradoxically in all sorts of pain from its unfulfillment.

Us moderns, men and women of passion and romance, expect irresistible love to produce some revelation either regarding ourselves or about life at large. This is a last vestige of mysticism we might say, even in its secular guise. Passion is the ne plus ultra experience, something that will alter our lives and enrich it with the unexpected, with thrilling chances, and an enjoyment ever more profound and gratifying. The whole deluded possibility opens before us of a future that assents to desire, with us having been “blessed” so as to enter into it, to rise to it, to reach it in transports.

Human philosophy, transmuted into theology and now psychotherapy would argue that we are free only when we have attained self-mastery, whereas the creature of passion seeks instead to be defeated, to lose all self-control, to be beside themselves and in ecstasy.

I don’t want a relationship where we experience conflict more than ever-so-occasionally, you once told me, and then proceeded to seek such a relationship by going back to the Hing Love Love Boutique where you were able to acquire a “keeper” from their Husband shelves. I thought conflict was how the dialectic of our being-together got worked out, ultimately for the better. I don’t believe in this idea anymore.

The myth of passionate love, as de Rougemont suggests, exerts a powerful hold over us, convincing us to view love as our fate, a force that consumes us in a “pure flame,” stronger and more real than happiness, society, or morality. However, this love is often, perhaps it was for us two, a twin narcissism, a love born from the standpoint of self, not the beloved.

Seen through this lens, chronic yearning for a lost love object is then ultimately a yearning for an idealized, unattainable love that, while potentially causing pain and heartbreak, also provides a sense of profound emotional intensity that we are most likely to interpret as the truest form of wanting, when it is rather a projection of our own desires and romantic ideals, an insatiable craving for the feelings and emotions the beloved once stirred within us. In this way, wanting conflates the individual with the experience of love itself, obscuring the distinction between the person and the emotions they evoke. In this sense, the yearning is not so much for the person as for an imagined state of absolute emotional fulfillment, an impossible ideal.