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Romance in the Courts of Love

As I begin parsing these five traditional steps in the development of an intimate relationship between a man and a woman, I find that I have been reduced to a dry, didactic narration of what must still remain essentially a poetic experience: becoming complete in the discovery that we are already complete, through a deepening companionship with a beloved significant other. To capture and comprehend that experience fully while reading this, I would ask you to remind yourself of what has already happened to you romantically, and how you were changed each time it happened.

Much of what we know today as romance has its origins in the Courts of Love of Twelfth Century France. There "a kind of parlor game played by the ladies of aristocracy" (as Will Durant summarily dismissed it) developed largely under the direction of two remarkable women: Marie, Countess of Champagne, and her mother Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitane and sometime Queen of France and— somewhat later— England.

It was a time when Mary, Mother of God, was emerging as a central figure in medieval Christianity, and the Church was beginning to domesticate the barbarism of the Dark Ages through the invention of the Crusades. A major cultural shift was signaled by the gradual ascendancy of the feminine Church over the masculine State. The authority of Latin had begun crumbling into various popular local Romantic languages, and women were beginning to gain some respect as persons of value beyond that of simple property.

Of all the many great teachers at Berkeley during my undergraduate years, one I well remember was Alain Renoir, son of the film director and grandson of the painter. Like his father and his grandfather before him, he was a passionate redheaded Gallic, with roots driven deep into the fertile soil of Provence, where Langue d'oc (the southern tongue) was spoken, and the Courts of Love had reigned. He outlined the practice of courtly love, as I recall, as a course of five discreet stages, illustrated by the following legend.

One enchanted evening a Gracious Lady was seen by a Perfect Knight and— synchronistically enough— she noted his presence as well. The secret message that was telegraphed between them went largely unnoticed by everyone else in court, their mutual rapport being a very private affair. Inspired by this Look, the knight then launched himself upon a prolonged ordeal to prove himself a worthy man, exiling himself for several years, and busying himself with rescuing downtrodden folk, and capturing adversaries to send back to serve his lady.

Eventually enough the knight returned to court, having earned the right to speak with her at last, and to make his implicit commitment to her explicit through the spoken Word during their first conversation. The intellectual naming of their relationship in this way made it something tangible and shared, rather than remain the subject of separate, private emotional fantasies. When he was certain this first dialogue had become accomplished he was ready to set out once again to prove his love, while she remained at the castle window awaiting his return.

After many more years of vanquishing giants and great monsters the knight again returned, prepared for the next great initiation in the tempering of his zeal: their first Touch. Perhaps it was simply a hand that came to rest upon an arm as they gazed into each other's eyes, but the electricity that had been generated emotionally and mentally over the years is now grounded in a physical contact, sufficiently to further unfold their relationship.

Decades followed as the knight wandered about abroad, proving his love in many an adventure while his lady remained behind walking about within the walled castle gardens with her ladies-in-waiting. When he at last returned to her he was able to claim his reward: the sealing of their vows with a Kiss. The first kiss always brings a great emotional climax to all the pent-up yearning that had preceded it, and always promises an absolute intimacy yet to take place. But before that promise could be fulfilled, another (this time ultimate) quest required undertaking.

Entire armies were then routed in total disarray, and herds of dragons slaughtered in the name of his lady, until at last the knight could return, triumphant from his travails, to claim his long-sought guerdon in the arms of his beloved: Pitye— as M. Renoir referred to it— the sexual ecstasy that would consummate their love in a release of the energy that had built up throughout their long relationship.

These five stages of romantic courtship can be seen at work down to today, from flirtation with strangers all the way to the intimacy of lovers. Unfortunately, many move quickly through this story, eager to have it done with, neither savoring nor digesting (so never becoming nourished by) the journey that had been taken up. Always, throughout history, the older ones have cautioned the younger ones to draw the process out and to prize the progress more, and to develop self-control in the postponement of gratification. Rushing madly about the bases towards home plate always seems somehow sadly anticlimactic, the morning after.

Flirtation is of course a great pleasure in itself, when a delightful game is played as we busy ourselves spinning delicious fantasies about one another. It is only when we pursue these fantasies, when we begin Dating and talking, that the illusion of projection is gradually replaced by what we learn from one another in conversation. The third phase begins when we have found a person attractive enough to focus our romance upon, to the exclusion of all others. Now we are Going Steady, prepared to connect in a more concrete, physical way— because we are satisfied, emotionally and mentally, that it is safe to do so.

When the physicality of the romantic relationship is so tangible that we know we have learned our boundaries (and the boundaries of one another), it is safe to lose ourselves in the kiss that brings hearts together (somewhere I remember knowing that the tongue and the heart are developed from the same muscle tissue in utero). We are now fully Engaged, and preparing for the final consummation of our personal completeness in the arms of our beloved, having followed the thread of sexuality from the fantasies of flirtation towards eventual satisfaction in a climax of sexual ecstasy. This is the true Marriage, not in the legal sense of the word but in the psychological, spiritual sense: we have become perfectly married to the Beloved within ourselves, and therefore we have become perfectly healed in the presence of one another.

Jung wrote of alchemy as a path taken from the hermaphrodite, whose sexuality is confused (in reference to the uneasy marriage of the Greek gods Hermes and Aphrodite), to the androgyne, whose sexuality is resolved by a conscious custody of both genders. From the one to the other there is a remarkable pilgrimage to be taken, by which we may know how we are whole. This, I am certain, is the fundamental and ultimate purpose of falling in love.

This article previously appeared in The Listener: volume five, issue four (Winter 2000-2001).

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