Academic journal article German Quarterly

Romantic Love and the Enlightenment: From Gallantry and Seduction to Authenticity and Self-Validation

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Romantic Love and the Enlightenment: From Gallantry and Seduction to Authenticity and Self-Validation

Article excerpt

Today, the adjective "romantic" has lost much of its luster. Although still used in popular culture to sell books and movies, romantic ideals carry little more than a sentimental value. Long gone are the days of romantic suicides. In our age, romance at best makes us smile. Indeed, since Harry met Sally, passion appears to have found its most suitable representation in the "romantic comedy," an emotionally charged yet uncommitted genre whose humor thrives on the protagonists' sentimental stance towards their sentimentality. This is not to downplay the persisting significance of the concept of love, so apparent in the seemingly endless repetition of this topos both in high and popular culture. Love has remained the primary medium for the expression and experience of the modern self. In love, we wish to express ourselves authentically and find ourselves acknowledged and appreciated for who we are. Or, to follow a more precise formulation by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann: "Was man [heute] in der Liebe sucht, was man in Intimbeziehungen sucht, wird somit in erster Linie dies sein: Validierung der Selhstdarstellung."1 Under the aegis of self-validation, the concept of love came to subsume an ever increasing multitude of emotional, sensual, sexual, and even intellectual practices which-as long as they promote the experience and authentication of one's self-has challenged many of the traditional social norms and ideals that have guided romantic interactions for many centuries.2 While the quest for self-validation has broadened the standards for acceptable romantic interactions, the reliance on "authenticity" has increased. Lovers today are expected to adhere to an ideal of communication that emphasizes genuineness, truthfulness, and originality. Although it is rarely contemplated whether authenticity is indeed desirable or even possible, for the purpose of self-validation it appears to be indispensable. This is notable considering that the demand for authenticity contradicts traditional definitions of "passion" where the self experiences itself outside of itself. As a brief glance at Denis de Rougement's seminal work on Love in the Western World indicates, the change from "passion" experienced as a loss of self to the emphasis on self-validation is largely a post-WWII phenomenon. In 1940, de Rougement defines the goal of modern love still in terms of the "man of passion" who seeks "to be defeated, to lose all self-control, to be beside himself and in ecstasy."3 In 1982, only forty years later, de Rougement concludes in the preface to his now classic work that a new "ethic of love" may be emerging, "having as a goal the full and authentic freedom of a real person: the control, not of others, but of oneself."4 But I would argue that this new "ethic of love" that becomes the dominant paradigm after WWII emerged long before, during the Enlightenment. The association of love with authenticity and the validation of one's self-portrayal, which has led us away from the idealization of such attributes of romance as passion, sensibility, and chivalry, evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, culminating in the literature of Romanticism. In the second half of the eighteenth century, Romantic love (the adjective must now be capitalized) discovered and explored in new depths notions of subjectivity and individuality. The evolution of Romantic love took shape first and foremost as a literary phenomenon. Although love has always been a favored theme of literature, it was only in the second half of the eighteenth century that literature itself became the favorite site for the expression and the experience of love. In the German context, this shift found its emblematic articulation in Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werther and the famous "Klopstock!" exclamation where the evocation of a literary figure appears to determine Werther's love experience.5 More generally evident is the increased significance of literature with regard to the experience of love in the new popularity of the epistolary novel. …

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