“Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western Psyche. In our culture it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.”
—-from We by Robert Johnson
Western romance mythology centers around being in love as an ecstatic state in which we feel we have been completed, found the ultimate meaning in life, and have larger than life feelings of intensity. Unconsciously we have the expectation that our lover provide us with these feelings continuously. We also assume that our model of romance is the best and that love relationships not based on “being in love” must be pale, insignificant shadows by comparison. We are convinced of this despite all the evidence that tells us that few enterprises, besides diets, begin with such high hopes and typically such dismal results as the falling in love sort of romances. Western society is the only culture in history that assumes romance should be at the core of marriages and other love relationships and is the highest ideal of “true love.” The ideal romance, the West believes, involves the ecstatic adoration of the image of perfection in the form of a man or woman.
The Western myth has come to flourish and dominate during a patriarchal and increasingly materialistic era where the image of the divine is only rarely experienced in the context of religion. The “imago dei” has shifted from the image of God, gods and goddesses, the heavens, etc. to the romantic beloved. With religious mania and frenzy many seek to capture and possess someone they are in love with as though this fellow, flawed mortal could redeem a lifetime that is deficient in meaning. Just as those who have absolute, fundamentalist identifications with particular religions have historically been some of the greatest sources of violence, oppression and suffering, so too, those who identify absolutely with the aims of the Western myth of romance often become violent and create chaos and tragic dramas in their wake. Today’s newspaper should give you many examples of both types of violence.
Our culture does not provide us with a single ruling mythology. In that vacuum some will seek out religious fundamentalisms, and others will pursue the myth of romantic love as their religion. Still others may pursue dieting or the world view of an eating disorder as their religion, or perhaps the latest multi-level marketing scheme, self-help or New Age fundamentalisms like The Secret or other variations of you-create-your –own-reality, etc.
A person whose life is lacking in soulfulness, experience of the feminine, deep relationship and spirituality may seek to recapture all of these through the pursuit of a beloved. Such a person will say they are looking for “love,” when actually they are looking for a very specific type of deluded romance. Our whole culture tends to falsely equate romance with love when the two are quite different, and in some cases manifest as almost polar opposites. One can be swept up by romance and yet be severely lacking in love, commitment, loyalty, or even basic relatedness.
The Western mythology of romance is an atmosphere charged with sexual, emotional and mythological content that has surrounded us for our entire lives. We have breathed in this atmosphere from music, movies, television shows, advertisements, casual conversations, novels, and text messages. Just like fish might have a hard time getting an outside perspective on what it’s like to be wet and immersed in water, it is hard for us to get a perspective on this key element of our inner and outer world.
For example, can you remember when you first heard that an ideal relationship should involve “falling in love”? Was it a song on the radio? An overheard conversation? Most of us won’t be able to remember such a moment, because it is more like our psyches were booted up into a cultural operating system in which the Western myth of romantic love was a core, unquestioned element. For some, to even raise the question of the value of “being in love,” may seem an offense to rightness equivalent to questioning the value of sunshine.
The religious certainty that exists in so many about key aspects of the Western myth of romantic love derives from its genuine ability to tap into some of our deepest psychological, alchemical, social, sexual and spiritual aspirations. We are not talking about some flimsy mental construct, but a powerful mythological system that is capable of channeling our core energies. To deal with a system this powerful, and that is at the core of Western values, we are going to need one of the most powerful Western technologies for gaining distance from something. In short, we are going to need to turn the Western myth of romantic love into an acronym. Hereafter I will refer to the Western myth of romantic love as “WMRL” ( which I pronounce as “wormal”)
“Always you were the reason for my existence;
To adore you for me was religion…”
— from a Mexican love song quoted by Robert Johnson in We
If WMRL is a kind of religion, where and how did this religion arise? According to Robert Johnson, the French myth of Tristan and Iseult “…was the first story in Western literature that dealt with romantic love.” ( We , p. xiv) Johnson traces the origins of WMRL to an early religion now nearly forgotten:
“One of the most powerful of the early religions was the Manichean movement, named for the Persian prophet Manes. In Europe this religion became “Catharism,” for the believers called themselves Cathars, meaning “pure.” By the twelfth century entire towns and provinces in the south of France, though nominally Christian, practiced Catharism, and many of the nobility in the courts of Europe were Cathars. In France the movement was called the Albigensian heresy because the movement centered in the city of Albi in France.
“One of their basic beliefs was that “true love” was not the ordinary human love between husband and wife but rather the worship of a feminine savior, a mediator between God and man, who waited in the sky to welcome the “pure” with a holy kiss and lead him or he into the Realm of Light. By contrast this with this “pure” love, ordinary human sexuality and marriage were bestial and unspiritual. Cathars believed that the love of man for woman should be an earthly allegory of their spiritual love for the Queen of Heaven.” (p. 69)
After a period of flourishing alongside of Christianity, Catharism was driven underground. Johnson continues,
“The pope declared Catharism a heresy and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux drove it underground by relentless crusades. But like every powerful idea that is driven underground, it reappeared in another form—a supposedly ‘secular’ form. The teachings and ideals of the Cathars suddenly reappeared in the cult of courtly love, in the songs and poems of the troubadours and in the ‘romances.’ Some cultural historians believe that courtly love was a deliberate ‘secular’ continuation of Catharism, that the knights and ladies who first practiced courtly love were Cathars continuing their religious practice under the guise of a secular cult of love. To outsiders it looked like a new and elegant way to make love, to woo and flatter pretty damsels, but for the insider who knew the “code,” it as was an allegorical practice of Catharist ideals.
“The ideal of courtly love swept through the feudal courts of medieval Europe and began a revolution in our attitudes toward the feminine values of love, relationship, refined feeling, devotion, spiritual experience and the pursuit of beauty. That revolution finally matured into what we call romanticism.” (pp. 70-71)
Courtly love so caught on fire in the Western imagination that it became “…the driving force behind a flow of poetry, song, love stories and plays. The French love stories were called romans , which was anglicized into ‘romance.’” (p. 46) As Johnson points out, our present view of romance, even entomologically, derived from 12th Century French love stories: “Our word romantic and our romantic ideal have come down to us through the romances. Romantic love is ‘story-book’ love.”
Our present view of romance is a sexualized version of Catharism- influenced courtly love. Here’s how courtly love worked as summarized by Johnson:
“There were three characteristics of courtly love that will help us to understand it. First, the knight and his lady were never to be involved sexually with each other. Theirs was an idealized, spiritualized relationship, designed to lift them above the level of physical grossness, to cultivate refined feeling and spirituality. The second requirement of courtly love was that they were not to be married to each other. In fact, the lady was usually married to another nobleman. The knight-errant adored her, served her, and made her the focus of his spiritual aspiration and idealism, but he could not have an intimate relationship with her. To do so would be to treat her as an ordinary mortal woman, and courtly love required that he treat her as a divinity, as a symbol of the eternal feminine and of his feminine soul. The third requirement was that the courtly lovers keep themselves aflame with passion, that they suffer intense desire for each other, yet strive to spiritualize their desire by seeing each other as symbols of the divine archetypal world and by never reducing their passion to the ordinariness of sex or marriage.” (pp. 45-46)
WMRL, with its origins in a repressed religion, is an encompassing mythological belief system that has as many martyrs, misguided crusades and deluded practitioners as any fundamentalist religion. An essential tenet of WMRL is that one should “fall in love” with someone and through this path of “being in love” experience ecstatic heights, and tremendous feelings of completeness, wholeness, meaning and fulfillment. What systems besides WMRL make such exalted claims? Religions do; this is what people look for in religious experience. The word religion derives from the Middle English word “religare” which means to tie, fasten or bind. Some have interpreted this etymology to suggest that the original word means “re-link” as in relinking to the divine. To me it sounds like they are editing out the other, darker implication—bondage to a mythology or a belief system. For many, WMRL is their religion, their way to seek to relink to the divine. Too often that path leads to a deluded bondage to a romantic relationship or aspiration. Of Human Bondage is a classic novel by W. Somerset Maugham on this exact theme. Jung once said that everyone who came to him with a religious problem turned out to have a sexual problem, and everyone who came to him with a sexual problem turned out to have a religious problem. The religious and the romantic, the sexual and the spiritual, are highly connected, and one of them will often come grotesquely masquerading as the other. Both religion and WMRL have an ability to relink us to the divine, but also an all too familiar tendency to bind us to a rigid conceptual framework that produces mechanical, stereotyped behaviors.
The purpose of this essay will be to take a look at WMRL as a relinking or religious system for connecting to the divine and to suggest some alternatives. The central thesis is that WMRL attempts to interpersonalize the search for wholeness which needs to be intrapsychic. You cannot find wholeness in the beloved; you can only find it where it always was—within. When we shift our relinking aspirations from the interpersonal domain to recognizing intrapsychic wholeness, we will not lose our connection to love. When we set aside the many well-worn golden oldies of WMRL we will actually become far more capable of love, and more likely to have deep and truly loving relationships.
Getting past WMRL is not something that can be done by reading an essay. I’ve known about WMRL for many years and yet still find myself deeply affected by its awesome power. WMRL has profound influence on my sexuality, emotional body, my sense of social status, interpersonal boundaries and many other key aspects of my life and being. Awakening from such a potent and far reaching enchantment is a long and labyrinthine process. But the labyrinthine journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and the first step is to be able to name WRML, to see its outline, to gain some sort of observational distance so that we are not entirely encompassed by its world view.
This essay is largely inspired by the book We by Robert Johnson and a dream and synchronicity that highlighted its significance. In early March of 2010 I was trying to summon enthusiasm to finish my essay “Casting Precious into the Cracks of Doom—Androgyny, Alchemy, Evolution and the One Ring” which, as of this writing, remains in the rough draft state it has been in for the last several years. This essay uses the Tolkien mythology to illustrate the need for androgyny, the alchemical inner marriage of archetypal masculine and feminine within, to replace the externalized search for wholeness in an outside “precious”—-a romantic beloved, material goods, social status, etc. I was having trouble summoning enthusiasm for the rewrite since the document had been sitting for a few years. During this period of neglect I had a dream where I was in the basement of my parent’s house in the Bronx and saw a book that was poking out of a book case. It looked old, neglected, but highly numinous and filled with emotional content. The book was entitled “We.” Immediately after I saw the book I woke up and realized I had been given a message meant to be worked out in the waking life. In the dream I imagined the book to be a novel, but I knew it wasn’t the classic Soviet science fiction novel entitled We . Vaguely I remembered that a Jungian author I had never read, Robert Johnson had written three books entitled He , She and We . Since Johnson is a fellow Jungian dealing with mythology and depth psychology I felt sure that it was his book that my unconscious was pointing toward. I immediately went to the used book store and got a copy.
An hour later I walked into the Roma coffee shop in Boulder and began reading the book. We turned out to be a parallel work to “Casting Precious…”, essentially about the same thing—the drive to look for wholeness outside rather than within. While “Casting Precious…” centers around the Tolkien mythology, We centers around the 12th Century myth of Tristan and Iseult. Johnson’s central thesis is that WMRL began with this myth and that Tristan, an heroic figure who violates every bond of loyalty and ethics after drinking a love potion and falling in love with Iseult, represents the Western ego fully under the control of WMRL. For some reason, after reading the book for a couple of hours at a corner table in the coffee shop, I turned around and looked behind me at the employee area. Just a couple of feet behind my head I found a handwritten sign had been posted that said, “No Tristans Allowed Beyond this Point.” The meaning of the synchronicity was both obvious and perfectly succinct: This is the point where, at least for me, being controlled by WMRL (what Tristan is emblematic of) has to be disallowed.
In We, Johnson documents that WMRL began as a religious offshoot, a path of spiritual aspiration which was championed by the knights and Troubadours of Tristan’s era. Unlike our version of WMRL they chose to sacrifice seeing woman as sex object and “…instead made her into a symbol of the eternal feminine, the soul, divine love, spiritual ennoblement and wholeness.” ( We , p. 54) In our time, Johnson points out, “For lack of any other channel, any other form in which it could be lived in our modern culture, our religious instinct has migrated almost completely into one secret place where it is allowed to live sub rosa: romantic love.”
Because WMRL carries religious content and is the modern person’s closest connection to the divine, it is necessarily out of control. The Western ego has so much trouble coping with WMRL because secretly and unconsciously we want to lose control, we want the ecstatic, transformative experience that lifts us out of the sterile, scheduled, rigidified worlds created by the ego and patriarchal society. The image of the divine, the imago dei —the god-image—-content that is submerged in materialist, patriarchal culture— resurfaces from the unconscious personified by the beloved. The person on whom we project this image will then have great power over us, though we may also seek to compensate for that effect by attempting to have power over them. Even if we succeed, it may only be to find that the image of the divine has now shifted to someone else, and we are, like a person chasing after a rainbow, never able to bring the image of desire within our control.
Essentially, the person in the grips of WMRL projects disowned aspects of their own soul onto the beloved, causing them to light up as numinous and all-attractive. This projection has two key unfortunate aspects. he first is that when we project part of ourselves onto the other we get further from recognizing, owning and integrating our own inner content. We fragment; we split off part of our inner wholeness and attribute the disowned part to someone else. The second great misfortune is that the projection causes us to be deluded about the beloved. We idealize them, and therefore fail to locate them as the specific, flawed human being they actually are. When the idealization inevitably collapses it turns into the equal and opposite disillusionment, and the relationship to the actual person is undermined or destroyed.
The person who is “in love” is essentially related to a projection, a piece of themselves and not to another person. Their commitment is not to any particular person, despite what they may think, but to romantic passion itself. To achieve this passionate intensity the WMRL-addled person may willingly sacrifice everything else—loyalty, duty, obligation, relationship, and commitment. They are, as some have put it, “in love with being in love.”
“Being in love” is a state of intense projection in which one projects onto a human being an image of the divine—the perfect man, woman, youth, androgyne or whatever. I am only going to give a quick example of Jung’s anima and animus to explain this projection because his model tends to stereotype the way this works, and doesn’t always fully acknowledge some of the variations. Anima and animus does work well, however, to explain many of the classic cases of projection. For example, a heterosexual man is walking down the street and sees a beautiful woman he has never seen before. She lights up in his psyche like a goddess. He has this feeling of eternal recurrence, as if he has known this woman from other lifetimes and he feels this conviction that he and she are destined to be together. This is a simple example of what Jung calls “anima projection.” The man projects his soul, which is connected to the archetypal feminine, onto an actual woman. Since it his soul that he is seeing mirrored back to him through projection, he of course feels like they are destined to be together and that they have been companions in past lifetimes, etc. He is seeing a disowned, unintegrated part of himself in the outside world.
The most common, and often deadly, form of human unconsciousness is the perennial confusion of inside and outside. We think we perceive something in the outside world when actually it is a projection of inner content. The result could be stalking, scapegoating, genocide or the billion he said/she said arguments going on any time of the day or night. Unless we are taking the contra naturum path of rigorous self-examination, we live in a state of continual projection. In “Stop the Hottie!” I illustrated projection this way:
“Imagine the following thought experiment. You enter a crypt filled with pirate treasure. The crypt is absolutely dark. You have a flashlight with you and switch it on. You gasp as the flashlight beam illuminates red rubies, glittering gold, green emeralds and cobalt blue sapphires. What beautiful colors these precious objects have!
“Actually, this is the illusion of projection, these objects have no color, no light energy, the light, color and energy are mere reflections and refractions of the white light of the flashlight which contains all colors. Freud noticed something similar about the sexuality of the modern person as compared to the ‘primitive.’ The primitive worshipped the mysterious inner fire, and the object on whom this might be bestowed was secondary. The modern person conversely sees all the magic and fire in the outside object (in another words, the Hottie) and fails to recognize the mystery and power of their inner fire. Some guy sees Britney on television and says, ‘She’s so hot!’ Actually, she’s an odorless, touchless, two inch pixel phantom moving beneath a glass screen. What’s hot is his inner fire, the power that he forever gives away to the image, fantasy or person of the Hottie.”
So when a person is “in love” they are primarily or exclusively in love with their own projection. If the actual person they are projecting onto does something inconsistent with the projection—sleeping with someone else, for example—their “love” could turn to homicide in a heartbeat. Just as sleepwalkers can become violent if suddenly awakened, the person who is in love may be ruthless with anyone or anything that stands between them and their projection. What clouds the picture a bit is human complexity and variability. Some people are “in love” with someone where it is not entirely projection. The projection, for them is a superimposition on the actual person so they perceive a composite containing elements of projection and elements of the actual person. In a fortunate case, as the projection inevitably starts to decline, authentic love for the actual person fills in the vacuum. For example, one of the most classic cases of an authentic love relationship most of us are likely to have witnessed, is that of an elderly married couple who are devoted to each other and are life companions and best friends. If you ask them, they are likely to tell you that they were “in love” when they were young sweethearts who barely knew each other. When that phase ended there were many years of bitter arguments and disappointments, but they managed to survive many difficult phases and that’s when the real love started to grow. Louis de Bernières, in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, describes the evolution from infatuation to authentic love with poetic eloquence:
“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are.
“Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossoms had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”
Although I would want no part of the custom, arranged marriages seem to have as good or better chance of turning out happily as marriages based on romance. Adult match makers may be less subject to projection and may therefore pick more suitable matches than those arranged by romantic projection.
From the classical Jungian point of view, if you are conscious of projection it is no longer a projection. In my view that’s too clean a distinction. For decades I have been conscious of my romantic projections, but they are still a powerful influence. I may experience aspects of “being in love” while at the same time have a fairly realistic perception of the actual person. Ideally, in such a composite case, one sees the best potential of the actual person lit up by the projection and this is inspiring to both parties. On the less ideal side one will tend to inflate the beloved’s virtues, overlook or underestimate serious character flaws, and form a codependence.
The composite case is a very realistic possibility for people consciously working on freeing themselves from WMRL. An element of projection may be necessary to have the requisite enthusiasm to form a relationship, but one does not mindlessly idealize or become infatuated with the beloved. The outcome will be a sliding spectrum of composite possibilities with elements of neurotic WMRL in the ascendant some times, and authentic love at other times.
One way to tell you are on the wrong side of WMRL is if you find yourself ruthlessly pursuing the beloved without regard to basic ethical principles. In the Western world it is often considered correct to suspend ethics when in love because the pursuit of romantic love is considered more important than any other value. Hence the familiar proverb: “All’s fair in love and war.” The saying dates back to 1850 (Francis Edward Smedley) but it seems to be a paraphrase of a line from Don Quixote (1605-1615, Miguel de Cervantes): “Love and War are the same thing, and stratagems and polity are as allowable in the one as in the other.”
Western romantic love is expected to be pursued with the ruthless, obsessive focus of warfare. A movie about someone going to insane lengths to win over someone they are in love with is considered a “romantic comedy,” when actually what’s portrayed is usually a toxic blend of self-humiliation, sexual harassment, deception, crass manipulation and cloying sentimentality.
The connection between WMRL and warfare shouldn’t surprise us given the fact that it began in the context of chivalrous 12th Century knights who, when they weren’t pining after some impossibly idealized woman, were busily hacking people to pieces to defend or acquire territory. The person under the sway of WMRL is focused on getting what they want, not on love. As Margaret Anderson put it, “In real love you want the other person’s good. In romantic love you want the other person.”
Like someone coming out of a football huddle, like someone getting psyched up for warfare by a charismatic general, WMRL tells you that you have to go for it, consequences be damned. As U.S. Navy Admiral David Farragut put it during the American Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay: “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” WMRL tells you to rush in where angels fear to tread. It insists that you have a cyclopean focus on obtaining passionate, romantic love with the other person no matter what happens to you or to them. As Ronny Cammarei (played by Nicholas Cage) tells Loretta Castorini (played by Cher) in Moonstruck : “I don’t care if I burn in hell. I don’t care if you burn in hell.” In this classic star crossed lover’s statement we see a blending of WMRL and Christianity. WMRL is a kind of religion, so it is not surprising that it should have parallels to other religions. When Christianity made Gnosticism heretical, it lost sight of finding the savior within. Instead the focus became you, the wretched sinner, in pursuit of the external, absolutely perfect savior. This is what I have called in “Casting Precious…” the “mislocation of the Godhead.” From my point of view, the location of the Godhead should be oriented like some of the more recent interpretations of the Sanskrit salutation “Namaste.” A popular (if nontraditional) version is sometimes translated as: “I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me.” You recognize the godhead in the other, but also recognize that is within you and everything else. This location of the godhead is like the Sanskrit definition of God as a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. If your location of the godhead, however, is asymmetrical, if it is unevenly distributed, you get major schizoid splits and often violent outcomes. If I locate the godhead exclusively in me than I will tend to become an Anti-Christ, a psychopath, a Wall Street executive or something of that sort. If I locate the godhead disproportionately onto a savior, a sky god, or something like that, I tend to feel that everybody is a wretched sinner and I need scapegoats to carry the dark side of reality which I don’t want to attribute to my savior or sky god who is supposed to be the sunnum bonum or all good. I may feel that some sort of blood bath is necessary to please God, and so forth. (For a more thorough discussion of how this works see “Casting Precious…”)
The tendency to seek for the divine externally is a commonality between WMRL and many versions of the three Abrahamic faiths. This type of religion, the external savior type, is the gateway drug that primes the psyche for WMRL. Robert Johnson, who is a Christian, views WMRL as sort of counterfeit religion. Religion, he seems to assume, is a far more appropriate medium for relating to the divine. But more blood has been spilled in the name of Christianity than even WMRL. Islam, in many of its variations, can create even more suffering for women than WMRL. Fundamentalist religionists often adopt “all’s fair” ethics and want to convert the infidel at the point of a sword and pursue crusades and jihads. The Twelfth-Century knights that got WMRL going were also Christians. WMRL, warfare and bad religion seem to always be getting mixed together, and the Priesthood tolerates a plague of pedophilia, and religious fervor wants to proselytize, crusade and jihad. If recent generations want Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll, for most of history it’s been a much more dangerous combo: blood, romance and religion. WMRL, warfare and bad religion all tell the psyche: “I own you. Go into a frenzy doing what I tell you to do regardless of consequences: Kill anyone who stands in the way of your love. Put on this explosive vest and sleep with afterlife virgins tonight. Onward Christian soldiers!” WMRL, warfare and fundamentalist religion are like a good margarita—the tequila, lime juice and triple sec all seem to blend together and you’re always drunk on something: romance as your religion pursued like warfare, religion pursued as warfare, warfare pursued as religion, and so forth. After so many centuries of intoxication with blood, romance and bad religion, it’s tough to sober up. Of course, I’m talking about the dark side of religion and it doesn’t exactly correspond to fundamentalism—the Amish are peaceful fundamentalists, but almost everyone on the dark side of religion are fundamentalists. The dark side of religion is not a matter of aberrations, however, not just a few bad apples, it is a huge side of the overall expression of the human species and its relationship to religion. Obviously, this subject is beyond the scope of this essay, but suffice to say that like WMRL, the more a particular variation of a particular religion mislocates the godhead, the more violence tends to happens Religions that locate the godhead everywhere such as Taoism and Buddhism are rarely the ones who want to please God with a blood bath. So if you have an outside savior—whether it is a romantic beloved or a divine entity—if you do not locate the godhead/the kingdom of heaven within—you are likely to do some major violence to yourself and the outside world as you stumble around in a state of projection.
Breaking the spell of WMRL is like trying to deprogram someone who has been part of a cult for 8 centuries. An 800 year collective addiction to WMRL means that there will be some serious withdrawal symptoms. Sobriety is likely to be a one-day-at-a-time struggle. We may need some version of the twelve steps:
- We admitted that we were powerless over WMRL, that our lives had become unmanageable.
- We came to believe that a power greater than us did not reside in the other person and we thereby restored our sanity.
….and so forth.
We could shrink the antidote to WMRL down to a single phrase: the inner alchemical marriage of masculine and feminine. How to achieve that is also obviously beyond the scope of this essay. You can find more depth on this subject in the still rough draft version of “Casting Precious…” For now, if you are WRMLaholic—admit it and aim at living your life in a way that allows authentic love to supersede romantic love.
Robert Johnson says essentially that we should replace the contrived, histrionic dramas of WMRL with “stirring the oatmeal” —a humble acceptance and appreciation of “…ordinary human life, with its obligations, its ties, its commitments, its duties, its limitations…” ( We , p. 139) Johnson describes grounded, authentic love with an oatmeal metaphor:
“Many years ago a wise friend gave me a name for human love. She called it ‘stirring-the-oatmeal” love…Stirring oatmeal is a humble act—not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To ‘stir the oatmeal’ means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty, in simple and ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment, or an extraordinary intensity in everything.” (p. 195)
Johnson points out that for many of us this: “…focus on ordinary human beings, is too earthbound, too dull and sordid for our romantic prejudices.” In other words after eight hundred years of hitting the crack pipe of WMRL the transition to oatmeal is a bit difficult.
I am wary of fluctuating between polar opposites because that just keeps you swinging forever on the pendulum of enantiadromia. For me, the transition from crack to oatmeal is a little too steep. I need some transitional steps, and I need more than oatmeal to fill the vacuum of WMRL withdrawal. Some may be ready for the oatmeal phase— by a certain age decreasing hormones and other physiological changes may pull the metabolic rug out from under the velvet slippers of WMRL. It’s like the story about the old man who is walking down the street when he finds a talking frog staring up at from the pavement. He stoops over, picks the talking frog up and puts in his overcoat pocket. The talking frog squirms in his pocket with frustration. It’s voice muffled by the overcoat, the talking frog shouts at the old man:
“What are you doing? Don’t you know that if you kiss me I’ll become a princess?”
“Well, at my age,” says the old man, “I’d rather have a talking frog.”
But suppose you are at an age when you don’t prefer the talking frog, but are more attracted to a prince or a princess? Personally, I can’t go cold turkey with WRML and live on oatmeal, bad religion and talking frogs. Giving up WRML is a sacrifice, but the potential gains are power, creativity and authentic love. Imagine if the human race were able to get back all the psychic energy that went into WMRL and channel it into something else—say space exploration. I’d probably be drinking tea while casually looking out of the anti-reflective coated synthetic sapphire window of my personal starship by now, wondering which galactic sector caught my fancy. Instead, all of that psychic energy, money, lives, music, you name it, went into WMRL and instead of the starship I’ve got glossy magazines telling me all about which celebrity slept which other one, and who’s breaking up with whom, and so forth and so on. To get all that psychic energy, sexual chi, time, attention, emotional energy, financial investment back from WMRL could be a giant reclamation of power, someone going from life support to where they are getting recruitment calls from the Olympic team. As you can read in “Casting Precious…,” the forever pursuit of the precious—romantic beloved, externalized religious savior, territorial conquest—turns you into a withering ring wraith, it strips you of power, vitality, magic and imagination. If you can get some of that power back you will also be more attractive to others, more likely to have fulfilling relationships, more likely to do something with your life besides acting out in a tawdry series of he said/she said soap operas.
How to reclaim that power and what to do with the reclaimed power once you’ve got it back is what this essay is challenging you to figure out for yourself. I want you to part of the team that puts a manned mission on Mars. I want to hear from you what you’ve been able to pioneer, what propulsion systems you’ve come up with to get escape velocity, to break the surly bonds of blood, romance and bad religion and cross the event horizon into other worlds than these. We all need to be part of this great enterprise of exploration.
So before I turn the controls of the starship back over to you, I have just a few more things to say about WMRL and how to change one’s relationship to it.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher says: “Nothing is cheaper and shoddier than dramatic living.” In fairness, it seems that we should also add that nothing is more exciting than dramatic living. And of all dramas, romance is the most exciting. When in love we feel like the star of our own dazzlingly unique movie, but as Robert Johnson points out,
“Strangely, this is the point where a man feels most unique, most individual, as though this has never happened to anyone other than him and his beloved. In fact, it is at this point that he loses his individuality. The lovers lose their individual identities; they are Tristan and Iseult or Romeo and Juliet—actors in a collective play where the script is predetermined and the scenes are known beforehand. It is precisely because one has ceased to be oneself and has become a player in a universal drama, that one feels so intense, so out of the ordinary, and at first, so wonderful.” 164
Nothing strips away individuality better than falling into stereotyped romantic delusions except for something that’s even worse—becoming addicted to despersonalized sexual promiscuity. If your alternative is to be an interchangeable part in the hydraulic machinery of sex on the level of the genitalia, then you might be better off WMRL. Deromanticized sleeping around is not a transcendent solution to WMRL. See Born Under a Blood Red Moon and Incendiary Person…. for more on that theme.
Getting rid of deluded romance does not mean that we get rid of the magic and sense of the sacred that flowed through the distorted portal of WMRL. It means that we work to reclaim magic and the sense of the sacred and get them flowing through perhaps better portals.
Although I’ve expressed some differences with how I view WMRL compared to Mr. Johnson, I would highly recommend that everyone read We and allow Robert Johnson to illuminate an amazing journey into the world of Tristan and Iseuld, a journey which leads right up the present day and most likely into your life and psyche. Essentially, what Johnson points out is that the real sin is to confuse the personal and archetypal, to project the divine outside and then try to bring it under ego control. As he puts it, “If there is such a thing as psychological blasphemy, it is to take what is sacred and try to convert it to something else; it is to try to make the sacred into grist for the ego’s mill. Psychological sin does not consist in sex nor in being physical nor in “immorality” but rather in calling a thing other than what it really is, treating it as something other than what it is, pretending to do one thing while doing another. This is the sin against consciousness, the refusal to take life consciously.” (177)
Rereading what I’ve written, I see that I have perhaps too one-sidedly treated WMRL with sarcastic disdain. When compared to the trend of increasing materialism and cynicism which favors exploitative promiscuity as the “sophisticated” alternative to WMRL, the path of romantic love shows some redeeming qualities. For many people, the romantic love relationship may be the most spiritually transformative experience of their lives. Sometimes the transformation comes because it leads to dark nights of the soul and various forms of tragedy and suffering. Sometimes the transformation comes because the projection eventually leads to authentic love for the actual person. Sometimes the suffering and dark nights of the soul, as well as the inspiration and intensity brought by WMRL, are exactly what is necessary to lead to the authentic love for actual persons and a renewed sense of the sacred.
The Dali Lama usually encourages spiritual aspirants to reconnect with their own native spiritual traditions. If WMRL is a major part of your spiritual tradition, as it certainly is for me, perhaps there is a way to redeem it, to allow it to transcend itself and not merely pathologize in all the stereotyped ways. Perhaps what was unconscious enchantment could be transitioned toward a conscious sacrament. By becoming more conscious of the projection, we can learn to relate to it as symbol, as a metaphor for the divine. A person of great physical beauty can be appreciated as evocative of the divine without confusing them with a god or goddess. I can be stirred by the light coming through the stained glass windows of a great cathedral without thinking that I need to worship stained glass windows. The windows, like the beautiful person, like the droplets of moisture that prismatically refract a rainbow, are a medium through which my inner sense of the divine is stirred and inspired. If I am consciously in love with someone, and am aware of the projection, I can relate to the actual person while at the same time feel inspired by the sacred refracted through that actual person like a rainbow. As with rainbows, I know that any particular manifestation won’t last, and that new rainbows will appear when the conditions are right. I may know the scientific reasons for rainbows, but still experience their numinous beauty. Rainbows are still just as beautiful even after I have learned not to chase them down for pots of gold.
Instead of seeing the other in an impossibly idealized way, as if they were permanent rainbows, their numinous beauty could instead light up their highest actual potential in my perception, and this could be inspiring to both of us. Recognizing the projection and the machinery of WMRL, I can side step some of the obsessive aspects. Realizing that the divine projection will alight on others, and eventually fade from any particular person, I recognize that a relationship with the beloved must be grounded in their individual actuality, not on the projected idealization. The more I learn about the history and workings of WMRL, the more I realize that all is not fair in love, and that ethics should not be suspended because of an intense projection on someone. I follow the rainbow but not to a pot of gold or a god or goddess, but toward a recognition of the inner source of divinity and authentic love.