When I write about book I've read, usually, I post a picture of the book cover, but I'm not going to this time. I'm going to post pictures of a completely different nature. If you'd like to see the cover of the book, check it out at Amazon.com: We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. I come at this book as a fiction and non-fiction writer/poet, not as a critic, or as a scholar of literature. At one point or other in my life, I've considered studying history, medieval studies, English literature, comparative literature, philosophy, classical studies (by which I mean the study of art, history, language, and literature of ancient Greece and Rome), psychology, and creative writing. Although I've enjoyed classes on all of these subjects, and read deeply and broadly, I haven't yet managed to commit to an advanced course of study. Instead, I find the books that fall in the interstices, mash things up (you got peanut butter in my chocolate, you got chocolate in my peanut butter), and use the tools of comparative myth, comparative literature, and integral theory to give us a framework of myth or story we can apply to our lives for the purpose of spiritual growth. I love books that do the unexpected and speak stories through other stories. I like reading books that, like the labyrinth of King Minos of Knossos, take you on a long journey, via a perilous, circuitous route, challenge you at the turning point where the Minotaur stands, and then bring you back again, transformed.
1. The Autobiography of Red - Anne Carson.
2. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
3. Achilles - Elizabeth Cook
4. The Hero with a Thousand Faces - Joseph Campbell
5. Achilles in Vietnam - Jonathan Shay
The first work listed is a prose poem about Geryon. In this version of the myth, Geryon is an angsty teenager. He's red, he's got wings, and he's totally in love with this adolescent jerk called Herakles; this story gets deliriously stuck at the turning point, when Geryon becomes embroiled in a love triangle with Herakles and Herakles's lover, Ancash. The second features Cal/Callie Stephanides as the gender ambiguous protagonist, who is a girl at the beginning of the story, and a boy at the end, having successfully navigated the turning point at the center of the labyrinth. The third book is a prose poem about Achilles that I love simply for its transformative beauty. "Two rivers. Flowing in contrary directions ... life teems in this water, gives it its green. Even from a boat you can see the fish streaming through, swift, thick as a rain of arrows. It doesn't take much to skim some off for a meal which lingers in the smoky, charred bits of flesh and skin that stick to your fingers till you rake at the bits and gnaw them off with your teeth to suck up the last of the salt." The last two books offer a different transformational experience for the reader. One describes the journey of an archetypal hero by delineating the stages of his development with fragments of myth and Freudian and Jungian concepts. The other uses the mythical wrath of Achilles to explain post-traumatic stress in veterans of Vietnam.
Whether fiction, or non-fiction, in each work, there is a turning point, an opportunity for transformation, evolution, and healing. All of these retellings and repurposing of myths are gifts to the spirit. Sometimes they are meant to entertain, but many are written as a balm to the soul. Jonathan Shay's book is a frank call to social justice. Please, it says, have compassion for our soul-wounded heroes. You may not agree with the politics that sent them into battle, but their wounds, even though invisible, are no less valid, no less crushing for all that. When they were asked to fight, they went, and they got stuck at the turning point in the labyrinth. We who sent them into harm's way, must now help them find their way out. I didn't suffer my PTSD from going to battle; I got my PTSD from the kind of battle waged at one's hearth, within one's heart, but I am a veteran, and I am a human being wounded in other ways and in need of solace, and so the book spoke to me profoundly.
Reading We was an even more profound, and provocative, healing experience, speaking directly to the worse of my self-inflicted wounds. It hurt like crazy to read this book, and I cried a lot. Using Jungian analysis concepts, and the ballad of Tristan and Iseult, Robert A. Johnson crafts an argument about the destructiveness of the romantic ideal when it is expected in human relationships, when lovers expect to find eternal romance and passion in one another's arms. For much of the book, Johnson moves between a summary of the ballad of Tristan and Iseult, and a description of romance in Western marriage, the presence of which quite often leads to the death of love. At the heart of the book is an analysis of the Western definition of love, and being "in love," and to me, it sounds as if Johnson is quoting Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means." Near the climax of the ballad, as Johnson recounts it, where the ensorcelled lovers have each married someone else, Tristan says of Iseult, "I would that I might die, but that the Queen might know that it was for love of her that I die. If only I might know that she suffers for me as I suffer for her!"
In We, Johnson wonders why Tristan keeps using that word, "love":
What kind of "love" is this, whereby Tristan wants his beloved, not to be happy, but to suffer? If he believes that she has made peace with the past and is happy with King Mark, why does Tristan return to throw fuel on the flames of her passion? Why does he seek to renew her suffering, to upset her life with King Mark?
And what of Iseult? What is this "love" that moves her to despise Tristan because he has married another woman? Iseult is married to King Mark and lives with him. Yet by these strange standards, Tristan may not marry another woman, may not love another woman; above all, he may not be happy. If he does any of these normal human things, then it is a "betrayal" of Iseult the Fair! What kind of "love" makes Iseult want Tristant to be alone and miserable, to have no wife, no home, no children?
This is not love. Love is a feeling that is directed to another human being, not at one's own passion. Love desires the well-being and happiness of one's beloved, not a grand drama at the expense of the other person. Yet, strangely, Tristan and Iseult call this "love."
By human standards, it is all backwards: They "love" each other, yet each wants the other to suffer, to be unhappy. They speak of "betrayal," but their way of being "faithful" to each other is to betray Iseult's husband and Tristan's wife. They have refused to set up a household and make a human life together, yet neither will allow the other to live in a normal human fashion with someone else.
And so Johnson uses the story of Tristan and Iseult, who drank a love potion and eventually died of their unrequited passion, to excoriate the virtue of romantic love in the human relationship. As someone who has made many life decisions based on being "in love," or "romantically invested" in another person, having turned down a tour of duty in Germany, having moved across the country in search of a "new start," having borne a child, having given up the possibility of graduate school (at least for several years), I admit I was dumbstruck by this book's argument, flayed alive and set before a mirror to weep for my own folly. What a wonderful and terrible thing to do with an old ballad, I thought, to take it apart, to show us the ridiculous reality of our own social behavior, and teach us a better way to live? What better purpose for a myth than that, honestly?
Now that we're at the center of the labyrinth, at the turning point of this post, it's time to refer to the photographs I've included here. The photographs were taken during a trip with one of my companions to Newport, Rhode Island. This trip was meant to commemorate something. It was meant to symbolize and mark something, to prove that something was alive and well. That there was something worth worshipping with a slow tour of these magnificent homes, and honestly, when I think back on it, the irony of wanting to honor a loving relationship in that environment is remarkable. Many of the people who lived in those homes were miserable, bored, wealthy women trying to fill their lives and their hearts with something material, and chose to do this with big houses. Beautiful houses, with windows you wouldn't believe, one house built completely of golden marble, one of its chambers heavily decorated with dark wood and blood red velvet and Catholic images, where the matriarch kept her daughter strapped to a board at night to keep her back straight--all the better to give her the carriage and bearing of a woman worthy of marrying a duke. Such a happy destination at which to commemorate and/or recapture a happy feeling of romantic bonding. A place of heredity, suffering, and death, embalmed, enthroned, sanctified, ossified. Why on earth do we do these things to ourselves? Why this painful focus on romance? Why this brutality to the self? What transformative spell are we trying to cast by enshrining those butterfly feelings of passion in suffering, and call it love, place it in the middle of a dark labyrinth, and then get lost searching for it?
According to Johnson, this romantic suffering need not be wasted. This search can be meaningful, but only if you eventually discover that what you're searching for is yourself, and that you will never find it in another human being.
Suffering is the inevitable path that must be trod on the way to consciousness, the inevitable price for the transformation we seek. By no means can we escape it; we who try to evade it never succeed; and we are twice unlucky, for we pay the price, anyway, but miss our transformation. There is a terrible and immutable law at work: We only transform when we take our suffering consciously and voluntarily; to attempt to evade only puts us into the karmic cycles that repeat endlesslly and produce nothing.
This, then, is why we suffer, and this is why, unconsciously, we even seek to suffer: "Because we long for the branding; because we long to grow aware of what is on fire inside us." (quoting from de Rougemont, Love in the Western World).
But freedom is given to us to choose how to take our suffering. Most people take it unconsciously. This is why suffering usually seems to lead nowhere, to produce only pain; this is why romance often seems to be a meaningless cycle: We fall in love, we set up our ideal of perfection, and in time, we are bitterly disappointed. We suffer. We follow our projections about, always searching for the one who will match the impossible ideal and will magically give us our transformation. And when we don't find the divine world where we search--in a human being--we suffer; we fall into despair.
But if we take our suffering consciously, voluntarily, then it gives us something in return; it produces the true transformation. To suffer consciously means to live through the "death of ego," to voluntarily withdraw one's projections from other people, to stop searching for the "divine world" in one's spouse, and instead to find one's own inner life as a psychological and religious act. It means to take responsibility for discovering one's own totality, one's own unconscious possibilities. It means to question one's old patterns--to be willing to change. All of this involves conflict, self-questioning, uncovering duplicities one would rather not face. It is painful and difficult.
Yes, completely. Lifting up the layers of denial and truly looking at yourself is painful and difficult. It's a long, slow slog through the labyrinth, and although the original labyrinth was not a maze--if you just kept going, you would eventually make your way out; there were no dead ends or oubliettes--it was still a difficult and daunting path. The path was dark and winding. It was easy to get turned around and end up going back the way you came, again and again, until you forgot which way led forward to the center, and which led backward to the beginning. It's easy to get lost in the labyrinth just as it's easy to think you will find divinity in the love of another. It's easy to grasp at, and cling to, and strangle the one you "love," trying to force them to show you your own reflection, like Narcissus, trapped gazing at himself in the still waters of a pond. It's easy to forget that the pursuit of romance isn't about trapping a mate, and forcing them to mirror your favorite qualities, and create heaven on earth. It's easy to forget that the person we're romancing is ourselves, and in forcing another to carry our image, we're not being loving to that actual human being who may be standing there loving you. We forget (or never knew) that what we're doing is not love. It's as if we've made a bargain with another person: "You be me, and I'll be you. Then we'll pick a china pattern and try to be happy." And then we miss the whole point of love. We get lost in the suffering. We get lost at the turning point. But it doesn't have to be that way if we can stop asking our "loved one" to be ourselves. If we allow them to be them, allow ourselves to be ourselves, and see where the pursuit of romance is truly taking us, we can make it to the center of the labyrinth.
...this suffering leads us to our totality. It elevates romance into a path to the divine world. We discover that we don't have to die physically to find that world, but we do have to die symbolically: Our suffering is our symbolic death.
The wonder that is finally revealed is that we can live in the divine world even while we live in the flesh, here on this earth. For deep within each of us rises a "castle of white marble; at each of its thousand windows burns a lighted candle; at each a minstrel plays and sings a melody without end." To find that wondrous palace we must look neither to another person nor to the other side of the grave, but within ourselves.
If we live this death correctly--as paradoxical as this sounds--it becomes journey of discovery leading toward a new life. Death is revealed as the other face of life. And the "death" that awaits at the very center of romance is not the destruction of life but the flowering of an inner world.
I don't know about you, but I would like to give and receive actual human love; I would like to stop demanding godhead from my cherished ones, and stop forever telling them how they fall short of divinity. I would prefer not to be a goddess, worshipped for every moment of someone else's happiness, or made a scapegoat and blamed for every moment of someone's unhappiness, or lose myself in trying to reflect someone's self, so they can freeze in time and space, gazing erotically, but morbidly, at their own reflection. I would prefer to offer sincere love to a human being, and not force that person to be my shield or conquerer. I would, however, be grateful to those who would help me find the door to the labyrinth, perhaps even walk up to it with me, and give me the key. I want to thank those of you who have handed me that key, and I want to apologize for asking you to be castle, and for offering to be the castle for you. Both things are folly.
I've been both Tristan and Iseult, and I've died of romantic love a dozen times, at the turning point in a relationship, where romance had died. Instead of being transformed, I have turned around and gone back to the beginning of the labyrinth, sure this time around that I could locate god in yet another person. I have been sure that I would eventually find my divine reflection, and be protected all the days of my life. I have died, and I have failed to resurrect. I have instead walked backward from the mess I made, away from real, flawed human beings, turned my back, and fled back to the beginning. This time, I hope to grow up, to allow myself and my loved ones to be human. I hope to take the key, unlock the door of the labyrinth, go inside, and search again for the castle. And this time, I hope make a different choice, once I find it. I want to go on more trips like the one I took to Newport, many more trips, during which I will allow my companion to be human, and I will offer real, genuine human love instead of demanding to be loved. I expect those trips will be full of grace.
It might seem obvious, what my castle really is, what my worship of it is, what the castle I am romancing should be, in this world. I have spent so much time talking about my passion for writing, but there are many paths before me, many opportunities, many things to write about. Some of these paths, I think, lead toward growth, and other paths, I fear, lead back to the beginning of the labyrinth, where I might find myself endlessly turning over my failures, searching for the key to the door through which my present life might begin. One path has stories about women who need to figure out how to love themselves before they can love anyone else. They are stories about romantic death, from which women may arise, transformed, but by doing so may walk off into the sunset leaving a trail of broken bodies behind them. Are these stories building the white castle, in which I may be transformed, or are they keeping me trapped at the turning point of the labyrinth, mourning the impossibility of romantic human love?
I don't know the answer, but because I believe, underneath the desire for romance, that I truly love, and I am truly loved, I think I can figure it out eventually.