Mystical eroticism and Valentine's Day

With thanks for the inspirational teaching on courtly love and Dante from Jeremy Naydler of the Temenos Academy.

The BBC is airing a documentary on the relationship between the former pope, now saint, John Paul II and the “sexually attractive” married academic Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. No-one’s saying he asked her to be his Valentine. But the innuendo is clear. And speaks of a huge loss, I’d say, about how we now understand and imagine love.

These days, love gets sucked into the singularity of sexual action as relentlessly as light is sucked into a black hole. Since Freud, it’s said, there’s only one question to ask about eros: will it fall into bed? In truth, the founder of psychoanalysis realised exactly the opposite is true: human sexuality is so loaded with complications and meanings that coitus is usually the least interesting thing about it. He should be remembered for attempting to recover a far richer understanding of love which most of humanity, for most of history, had access to too.

Think of the experience of falling in love. You brush hands. A touch that yesterday would hardly have registered, now thrills you. You spot your beloved across the crowd: the face that previously would have blurred into the masses beams out like a star. You tell your friend about the discovery, an event that has turned your life inside out. They sit silently, indulgently whilst musing: hmm, sounds alright.

It’s as if you’re given a second sight, double vision. The beloved is no longer only a member of the species homo sapiens, a sample from the population sociologists call humans. They are an individual, uniquely offering happiness, pleasure, excitement, promise. When you venture to say, I love you, the words that billions have borrowed before carry a message that’s yours, way in excess of the familiar formula. You no longer see a face, you know a soul. You aren’t alongside, you are in a presence. You no longer feel flesh, you are embraced by the universe.

We need to take notice of these implicit, hidden senses when they ignite. Love prompts their ecstasy, even in the age that officially trusts only the empirical, instrumental, measureable. Lovers idle away the hours and, economically, they uselessly waste time. But to those whose eyes have been opened, idling the days in the company of love cannot be better spent. It is to embark on a transformative journey of depth.

It was celebrated in the medieval notion of courtly love. The point of these romances is almost inconceivable today, when we want mostly to know what the pope and the academic did next. But courtly love sought more patient goals. The knight fell in love with an unavailable, married lady so that the love couldn’t be consummated. It had to be borne so that, as the poems put it, the knight became gentle, aware, kind. The beloved nurtured experiences and, then, capacities of which the knight was previously unconscious. It was as if she became the lost half of his own soul. When he saw her, he might realise that he did not want her but rather what she graciously channeled and conveyed. That’s why Beatrice berates Dante when he finally catches up with her on the doorstep of heaven. Did you not see, she sighs? When you glimpsed me and I glanced at you, that glimpse and glance were like a knife slicing open the subtle path to paradise?

But now is the time of “single vision and Newton’s sleep”, to quote William Blake. Eros struggles to open the double vision Blake testifies his eyes “do see”. Only, perhaps Valentine’s Day gives us pause. Maybe it holds out the hope that love’s power remains. Implicit in the expensive roses, the red cards, the potent sentiments lies love’s alternative potential. Eyes meet and the inner beloved may be awoken. Yearnings might be detected that do not collapse onto the sexual. The hope could be not for a lover but a soulmate.

Nurture that moment. Suffer the suspense. A mystical eroticism can fulfill not just physical desires but spiritual aspirations. “Love is unto itself a higher law,” wrote Boethius after Lady Philosophy appeared to him in prison. “How happy is mankind, if the love that orders the stars above rules, too, in their hearts.”

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