Polemical Preface to Valentine’s Day Program

 

Some radio listeners may be wondering (and probably have wondered from the very beginnings of my “Tower of Song” music program) why the GS presents and persists, year after year, in the celebrations of Valentine’s-Day “love” (which to many is a overly sentimental and saccharine commercialized one), when it has of late been under attack in a slew of publications—and their authors on tv and radio—, amounting to anti-Valentine’s Day  (from multiple perspectives, the sociological to the psychological) recoil against this annual day for American romantic lovers.

 

So it looks like an increasing number of authorities have big problems with Valentine’s Day, pointing out the uncritical, commercially-constructed, attitudes and what it represents. (Indeed, there are not just a few of these naysayers who would like to massacre and do away altogether with St. Valentine’s Day!) And, because of this, there are now more Americans than ever who are “cynical” (and bolstered by the bad press)—not just about Valentine’s Day, but about the reality of love itself—“romantic love,” that is. It’s like, if you’re a “sophisticated” individual, “cynicism” about this kind of love—the “hearts-and flowers” kind— is the order of the day, when it doesn’t match the reality of people’s relationships, especially when they’ve experienced disillusionment and great pain because of “love.”  (And, as the personal biography of one current influential author of an article against Valentine’s Day, indicates, only an individual so jilted in romantic love could be “the great cynic”!) Especially so in these troubled times. I mean, it’s like people feel the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and people who are “in love” want and expect from their lovers on Valentine’s Day flowers and chocolates to carry in that same basket! As the singer-songwriter the GS pays most homage to would say:

 

Everybody got this broken feeling

Like their father or their dog just died

 

Everybody talking to their pockets

Everybody wants a box of chocolates

And a long stem rose

Everybody knows …

 

Thus, to answer (when I present “musical essays in Argument & Song” for Valentine’s Day) those who might otherwise “stay tuned,” to justify the time and energy of those listeners, who might be a bit cynical about Valentine’s Day and wondering why the GS persists in singling it out as a day worthy of  radio air time (and, given this above admission to the cynics, now double-wondering how he could nevertheless especially use Leonard “Ain’t No Cure For Love” Cohen for his questionable purposes), he will put forth an argument  to try and explain/justify his incurably hopeless-romantic practices on radio.  (The GS should point out before preceding that he has already engaged in this to some extent in the “Introduction” for these musical essays read on radio, but time would not have permitted a sustained and more in-depth exposition. Thus this polemical “Preface,” which, btw, can be filed under the song by Van Morrison: “Why, Why, Why Must I Always Explain?”)

 

As I look out at the cultural landscape of “love in the [modern] Western world,” I think, at the risk of oversimplifying, you could identify two main attitudes (or mind-sets) regarding “romantic love”—two diametrically opposed viewpoints/memes. The problem is that since the beginning of the Christian era the Western world has been torn by an ontological dichotomy between “sacred and profane love.”

 

The first (and much older one) is, of course, that which comes from the Western, Judeo-Christian tradition: of the two forms of love (agape and eros), the love of “God” is the normalizing and “higher” love in the world, and sexual love is a lower, even base, form of love, which tends to lead the heart away from the “love of God” because of passion or lust. In order to carry out the agenda of God’s love, the theologians argued, this “passion” between people must be (to use a Freudian term) “sublimated” to higher purposes than just satisfying our “animal” nature.

 

The second (and relatively recent in the history of Western civilization), more “enlightened,” view (from at least D.H. Lawrence all the way to E.L. James) is: sexual, or “erotic” love, is “liberating” (from culturally-induced bodily repression) and thus (a) good in itself, (b) worth pursuing as an end in itself, and (most extremely) (c) the only “love” there is. (In other words, to put it bluntly, it’s all about sex, and any idealized love is a morally anxious fig leaf covering the genitals, and consequently—as the logic goes—, if humans could live in a paradise free from cultural sublimation, all they’d want to do is fuck forever!)

 

Okay, I’m being a bit facetious in order to make a different case. (Actually, there’s a serious point to be made here! Some radical writers on this topic—William Blake being one of the earliest—have argued that sexuality expanded could give a transcendent experience and lead humankind back to paradise.) This entails rejecting both these opposing points of view at their extremes and offering an alternative, or third meme, if you will, concerning proverbial theme of “love in the Western world” when I offer my Valentine’s Day program. What I mean to say here (and say at least musically during the program)—my alternative argument—is that there’s a deeper (psycho-historical) meaning to Valentine’s Day. (If, that is, we research deeper into its historical background, engendered by the human erotic imagination, before it became the superficial lover’s holiday it is today under that name, and trace it back to its inspiring, literary sources. And it is this I have attempted to do with my musical essays.)

 

However, before this will begin to make any sense when it comes to developing an alternative perspective on “love in the Western world”—and this is the key to the subject to my argument here—we must divest ourselves of our contemporary (Christianized, not pagan) notion of what the “erotic” stands for and nakedly open ourselves to see it in a different light, since “eroticism,” as contemporary people understand the term, has been epistemologically truncated to identify exclusively with the psycho-physical realm of genital sex (at least since the Victorian-Christian age of the discovery of ancient “erotic artifacts,” which were anxiously dispatched to Western “secret museums” away from the pornographic gaze of the general public).

 

The classical understanding of the entire realm of the “erotic” and “erotic love” between two people is epitomized by Socrates and Plato, who put in it in a “philosophical”—and metaphysical—context, having to do with the nature of the psyche/soul. (The same philosophers, by the way, who gave us the myth of “soul mates”.) This special type of “love” was recognized to be under the auspices of the “god of love,” Eros (and thus the myth of Eros and Psyche).  The image of Eros as Cupid, the chubby little angel-babe that flutters on our Valentine’s Day cards is a caricature of the original god of love as depicted in early Greek poetry and art; i.e., a beautiful young man who embodied divine sexual power. (And let us remember about Eros, “the god of love,” that he was the constant companion of Aphrodite, “the goddess of beauty.” So much for the truncated modern notion of the “erotic” dimension!) [i]

 

After centuries of diminishment of the pagan concept of the “erotic” at the hands of Christian theologians and apologists, who were promoting agape, the idea of the “erotic” (the love of Eros) suffered a historical suppression and was incompatible with religiosity (it was heavenly love vs. earthy love). This antagonistic epistemological situation began to change in the European eleventh and twelfth centuries, when (with the help of the Latin literary tradition of studying and knowing the work of the Roman classical writers and poets, from Cicero to Ovid (The Art of Love), who kept the suppressed erotic tradition alive and served as literary role models, and also with the help of Muslim scribes preserving and translating the Greco-Roman texts during the “Dark Ages”) educated Latinate Europeans started to revive the what has been called “the tradition of eros (the most famous of such are the “love letters” of the Parisian twelfth-century scholastic lovers Abelard and Heloise, who I also have done musical essays on for this tradition).

 

Thus today, to make a long and complicated story (which I take up in my musical essays on the Troubadours) short, it is proverbially said that “the French invented love” when the topic of romantic love comes around. (And rooms full of scholars and other experts on love gather at conferences to discuss “The Art of Sex and Seduction.” See Susannah Hunnewell, “The Habits of Highly Erotic People,” The Paris Review, 2/6/14.  But, as I shall make clear shortly, for my money I’d much prefer to attend one of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s and Marie de Champagne’s wild twelfth-century “courts of love,” where a lively discussion of the “art of love,” guidance on the “rules of love,” and advice for the lovelorn was on the agenda! And I would point out here that, while there have been troubadours who expressed “cynicism” now and then, they nonetheless went contrary to modern romantic expectations—the more jilted by their lovers, the more adamant they became in poetry/song about the great passions of fin amor! Indeed, they made an art-form out of romantic misery and suffering—singing praises to “love’s wound!” Sound familiar on the music scene in our time? There’s a good reason for this!—and so the GS’s programs on the Troubadours by way of using today’s singer-songwriters, especially L. C.)

 

That said, about the French inventing love, what’s important for me is to ask (a) just “who” were these French inventors, (b) “when” did they “invent” it, (c) what kind of “love” did they have in mind, and (d) what form did the “erotic tradition” take in the Western world after them?

 

As anyone who has listened to the GS’s past annual musical essays, entitled “The Troubadours & The Beloved” (which were typically kicked off with Valentine’s Day), is aware, the answer is: (a) the southern (Langue d’oc) French poet-singers, the troubadours, (b) the twelfth century, (c) they had something they called fin’ amor (“refined love”) in mind, and (d) it was the pan-European tradition of modern poetry. (This love poetry was propagated single-handedly Dante, the Italian poet responsible for carrying the French troubadour legacy forward, through his Vita Nuova, from the thirteenth century to the Renaissance with Petrarch. This is the poet of the Italian cult of love—the fedeli d’amore—, who also had in mind this “love,” when, in his heavenly quest for the lost Beloved, as depicted in his Divine Comedy, he declared: “Love that discourses in my mind. / I am the one who, when Love inspires me, takes note, and goes setting it forth after the fashion which he dictates within me.”)

 

Therefore, the GS wants to re-vision “romantic love” through the “tradition of eros,” reclaiming “erotic love” in the Western world as a crypto-religious phenomenon.

 

The key here is a new understanding of “the erotic” as a unique dimension of love that transcends dominant either/or definitions and memes of love (i.e., the exclusively heavenly as opposed to the exclusively earthly, or the spiritual as opposed to the sensual). And this is why I go back to the twelfth-century troubadours in my musical essay about Valentine’s Day. They were the first Western poet-singers to invent a “love,” though illicit (oftentimes “adulterous” and outside the sacramental marriage), that wasn’t just an “idealized” love cut off from human passion or, on the other hand, purely a “physical” love, but alternatively a “love” (fin’ amor) that embraced both at once and created a third kind—one that led to mystical vision and the highest human attainment (and which, as depicted in the romance narratives of the medieval period, issued in a spiritual quest for the “Beloved”). This amor was at once sexual and mystical (and presented in ways that were deeply ambiguous). In other words, a “love” which was eroto-mystical in a profound dialectical sense. Thus, “courtly love” (cortezia, cortez amors, or amour courtois) was only seemingly contradictory, and instead encompassed both sexual desire and spiritual aspiration. As one modern authority puts it “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and self-disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent.” This is what the GS means when he argues for identifying the “love” of the troubadours as eroto-mystical.”

 

This goes against the hermeneutical fashion in the Anglo-American academy when dealing with the texts of the French romance tradition, which is to reduce all so-called “idealization” to a displaced sexual conquest. (I remember a literary course I took as an undergrad from two French post-structuralists, who epitomized this. We were studying the seminal text of the troubadour era, The Romance of the Rose, a thirteenth-century “courtly love” poem on the “art of love” styled as an allegorical dream-vision authored by two separate poets. Of course, our esteemed professors of medieval French literature, pointed to the second poet’s, Jean de Meun’s, provocative verse about how he longed to “pluck the rose” (the beloved was named Rosebud) to prove that “well, it’s obvious—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—what he meant!” (I wish you could have seen the look on their faces when I raised my hand and asked: “What about the claim of no less the great Albertus Magnus, who interpreted the roman as a hermetic allegory of the Alchemical process?”)

 

In any case, up until very recently in Anglo-American scholarship, medievalists were divided in one or the other of two camps; those who argued that the troubadours invented and practiced a “love” that was chaste (idealized, never consummated), or those who, on the contrary, argued that, despite the fine poetic rhetoric, it was all about sexual seduction. (And there has recently been a further development of the second: this “art of love” was indeed the art of sexual seduction—mainly due to the influence of chaplain Capellanus’ twelfth-century The Art of Courtly Love—, but “courtly love” was never really practiced in the real world. It was merely an elite “game” in the courts of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie de Champagne. Btw, this has been, imo, successfully challenged: these critics are mistakenly centuries too late, when these twelfth-century “courts of love” had degenerated to the romantic “parlor games” of later courts.) It is the second camp that seems to have won the day in our time. (For a brief survey of the contending academic theories of “courtly love,” see the GS’s companion text, “Polemical Background for Troubadour & Courtly Love Theories.” For a contemporary example of the second camp viewpoint at its best, see again Hunnewell citing former professor of French literature at Yale, Catherine Cusset, discussing “The Art of Sex and Seduction.”) The fact is that this French kind of postmodern interpretation of the medieval roman—and thus, by extension, “romantic love”—fits quite nicely with our contemporary and popular sex-in-the-city and fifty-shades-of-grey romances.

 

Therefore, it is to sidestep and undermine both these normative interpretations of “erotic love” and to defy both the moralists and the realists/cynics that the GS—romantic dreamer that he is—would dare to kick off his discussion of the troubadours and their invention of amor on Valentine’s Day. (“Oh, the dreamers ride against the men of action. / Ah, see the men of action falling back!” –L. Cohen)    

 

Now, to get the crux of my argument concerning the new conception of the “erotic” and its ontological status for an alternative theory of “love in the Western world,” let me cite a couple of the GS’s mentoring professors who have dissented from today’s dominant view about the “erotic,” in order to prepare listeners with some epistemological groundwork that underlies my discussion of “romantic love” in these musical essays.

 

My first academic mentor pointed out (from a psycho-historical perspective) that we could be in for a revival of the eros tradition. He cites for evidence even that great reductionist Freud, who could yet (in this classic text of “sublimation,” Civilization and Its Discontents) envision the eros-principle coming back in our age:

 

Men have brought their powers of subduing the forces of nature to such a pitch that by using them they could now very easily exterminate one another to the last man. They know this – hence arises a great part of their current unrest, their dejection, their mood of apprehension. [cf. “Everybody’s got this broken feelin’ / like their father or their dog just died.”] And now it may be expected that the other of the two “heavenly forces,” the eternal Eros, will put forth his strength so as to maintain himself along side of his equally immortal adversary [Thanatos, death].

 

He comments on this passage: “What the world needs, of course, is a little more Eros and less strife …. I little more Eros would make conscious the unconscious harmony between ‘dialectical’ dreamers of all kinds — psychoanalysts, political idealists, mystics, poets, philosophers – and abate the sterile and ignorant polemics ….”

 

My second academic mentor has provided me with a superb definition of the revised concept of the “erotic” that brought everything I had intuited about the troubadours and their ambiguous intermingling of sexual and mystical love into a profoundly clarifying focus:

 

By “the erotic” I refer to that specifically dialectical manifestation of the mystical and the sexual that appears in any number of traditions through a range of textual and metaphorical strategies which collapse, often altogether, the supposed separation of the spiritual and the sexual. Intend by “the erotic” a radical dialecticism between human sexuality and the possible ontological ground(s) of mystical experience. I thus use the category not as a reductive category to explain away mystico-erotic experience as a simple sexual displacement al la Freud, but as a respectful, ultimately hopeful, way of insisting on both the sexual rootedness of mystico-erotic events … and the possible ontic source(s) of those same remarkable experiences.

 

Therefore, one could say that the GS’s musical essays about so-called “courtly love” are (a) a recognition that there was a “twelfth-century Renaissance” wherein the troubadours, through a mystico-erotic (or a eroto-mystical) sense of love (fin amor), participated in a revival of the eros tradition (“a rebirth of eros”) for Latin Europe, (b) that they furthermore revision these poet-singers and mystics as “dialectical dreamers” because of their intermingling of sexual and spiritual love, and that (c) they argue for a ceiling of “romantic love” that locates its fulfillment in a “religious” dimension, which does not negate its floor in the sexual, —“the (secular) religion of love.”

 

 



[i]  The god Eros (“desire”) appears in ancient Greek sources under several different guises. In the earliest sources (the cosmogonies, the earliest philosophers, and texts referring to the mystery religions), he is one of the primordial gods involved in the coming into being of the cosmos.

 

According to the poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC), one of the most ancient of all Greek sources, Eros (the god of love) was the fourth god to come into existence, coming after Chaos, Gaia (the Earth), and Tartarus (the Abyss or the Underworld). Hesiod first represents him as a primordial deity who emerges self-born at the beginning of time to spur procreation. Thus this Eros was one of the fundamental causes in the formation of the world, inasmuch as he was the uniting power of love, which brought order and harmony among the conflicting elements of which Chaos consisted. In the same metaphysical sense he is conceived by Aristotle and similarly in Orphic poetry he is described as the first of the gods, who sprang from the world's egg. In Plato's Symposium he is likewise called the oldest of the gods. It is quite in accordance with the notion of the cosmogonic Eros, that he is described as a son of Cronos and Ge, or as a god who had no parentage and came into existence by himself.

 

Thus the myths connected with these traditions make him a primordial god. However, in later sources he is the son of Aphrodite (to whom he was a constant companion) and Ares, and was one of the winged love gods, Erotes. His mischievous interventions in the affairs of gods and mortals cause bonds of love to form, often illicitly. Ultimately, in the later satirical poets, he is represented as a blindfolded child, the precursor to the chubby Renaissance Cupid, whereas in early Greek poetry and art, Eros was depicted as an adult male who embodies sexual power, and a profound artist. Eros was also associated with athleticism, with statues erected in gymnasia, and was often regarded as the protector of homosexual love between men.

 

Eventually, Eros was multiplied by ancient poets and artists into a host of Erotes (Roman Cupides. This was the Roman name for Eros). The singular Eros, however, remained distinct in myth. It was he who lit the flame of love in the hearts of the gods and men, armed with either a bow and arrows or a flaming torch.

 

Although there are many myths about Eros, the most famous is the story of Eros and Psyche (This has a longstanding tradition as a folktale of the ancient Greco-Roman world long before it was committed to literature in Apuleius' Latin novel, The Golden Ass.