Denis de Rougement (1906-1985)


[L’Amour et l’Occident: In this classic work, Denis de Rougemont explores the psychology of love from the legend of Tristan and Isolde to Hollywood. At the heart of his inquiry is the inescapable conflict in the West between marriage and passion--the first associated with social and religious responsibility and the second with anarchic, unappeasable love as celebrated by the troubadours of medieval Provence. These early poets, according to de Rougemont, spoke the words of an Eros-centered theology, and it was through this "heresy" that a European vocabulary of mysticism flourished and that Western literature took on a new direction.]


The Myth of Passion

Tristan et Iseult  is a Celtic myth taken up in France. Today we read the myth in Bédier's translation. He was a great medievalist who made a synthesis of many texts in order to include all the real incidents in the myth in their oldest form with the least later adulteration. The Wagnerian atmosphere of Bedier’s verion is more explicit in its concern with death than the actual myth. This emphasis influenced de Rougemont’s explication of the myth in L’Amour et l’Occident.

 L’Amour et l’Occident employs a phenomenological method to find a pattern in the myth. De Rougemont is not engaged in literary criticism. Instead he tries to discover the origin and nature of a unique aspect of Western civilization, which he identifies as passion–love. Antiquity understood excessive concern with sexual pleasure as a sickness of the emotions, but in the Middle Ages these feelings were transformed into an ideal of love under the influence of mysticism. The charm of a woman corresponds to the love potion of the myth.


Agape and Eros

De Rougemont distinguishes two driving forces behind the human spirit, agape and eros. Agape is charity or compassionate love which accepts life and incarnated existence. Eros is passionate love which hates life and the body. Eros is a contradictory force at the center of the world of the West. Agape, the stabilizing element in the West, rejects the extremes of mysticism and sensualism associated with eros.

De Rougemont claims that Plato was the philosopher of eros, the love exemplified by Tristan and Iseult. In his work the mystical tradition of the East is joined with the passionate love of the West. This combination reappears with the Albigensians, who lived in the south of France. The troubadours belonged to the court of Toulouse; they believed in a Platonic ideal of love and rejected the flesh.

The Albigensians had an extraordinary civilization, far in advance of the civilization to the north. But they were Catharists, a heretic faith, and were destroyed by a crusade of their northern neighbors. De Rougemont argues for the continuing influence of their ideal of love. The weakness in his theory is the disappearance of almost all traces of the Albigensians.


Mediated Desire

Tristan et Iseult is the first romantic poem, the first poem that lies. It hides the true nature of the relationships it describes. As the myth proceeds the destructiveness of passion becomes more and more evident. De Rougemont concluded that the lovers only love each other to the extent that obstacles separate them. The sword that lies between the two lovers in the forest symbolizes the necessity of an obstacle. The essential obstacle is death which unites them in the end. Passion is an indirect search for death in all the great love stories of the West.

De Rougemont connects love, obstacles and death but the analysis must extend to the social relations between the people involved as well. Troubadours have been conceived as second and third sons of lords, deprived of the property and the seigneurial rank they desired. They expressed their desire by focussing it on highly placed women, wives of Kings and suchlike. In the authentic tradition Tristan is the son of a distant King who plays no part in the story. This justifies his ambition to be king.

There are two Iseults for Tristan just as there are two Tristans for Iseult. The first pair are their ordinary selves before they become lovers. King Mark is mocked as the cuckold King, but Tristan does not fall in love with Iseult until she is betrothed to him. Iseult becomes a symbol of the King who possesses her and this is why Tristan desires her. He feels like nothing before Mark and wants to become him.

The difference between eros and agape is not so very great. In both desire is mediated. Both are the desire to be God, but in different ways. Tristan’s desire to be God is individualistic and Promethean. But his individualism is not self-sufficient since he needs Mark as a model to imitate. The desire to be God in agape resembles children’s innocent imitation of their parents. Agape accepts limitation and the rejects mendacious individualism.