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Amorous Frustration

( Originally Published 1957 )

It makes a great difference whether one speaks of love fulfilled or love frustrated. Descriptions of this emotion in terms of "rapturous" or similar feelings are obviously best suited to the fulfillment of amorous desire, or to anticipations of it. In love stories one usually encounters the frustration side of the experience, since this is the side that has a history, and there-fore provides material for the novelists. These troubled, anxious and unhappy chapters of the natural history of the emotion have been analyzed in myriad details by Marcel Proust, whose accounts, at times bordering upon neurotic sensitivity, perhaps for this reason place the phenomenon in vivid relief.

For Proust, the amorous experience is almost identified with the pains of striving for possession, a theme that recurs again and again. For him there is never a question of how to "tell" when one is in love: it is by suffering that we know it. We do not really love except when in the throes of anxious uncertainty. "She had promised us a letter, we were calm. We were no longer in love. The letter has not come; no messenger appears with it; what can have happened? Anxiety is born afresh, and love." Love is a "function" of sorrow; perhaps it is sorrow; if the suffering for a moment vanishes, it will soon reappear in a different form. Love owes its life solely to anxiety; it amounts therefore, to a "mutual torment": "if suddenly ... we cease to be uneasy, to surfer pain, since it is this pain that is the whole of our love, it seems to us as though love had abruptly vanished . . ."

Proustian love is thus by nature an unhappy experience, an emotional malady. The amorous desire itself is the insistent urge toward complete possession; "we love only what we do not wholly possess." In Proust's view this desire can be of endless penetration. It is an almost insatiable passion to absorb the personality of its object. It must know every thought and feeling, it must know in detail the entire past, and is envious of every moment through which the loved one has lived before the first encounter. It is endlessly jealous of every relationship that person has with others. Every word uttered and every thought expressed that cannot at once be fitted to what is thoroughly known and familiar of the personality of the beloved becomes the beginning of new anguish and new seeking to know. Perhaps no one has better described the extraordinary compulsions in which the intense possessiveness of amorous desire may ex-press itself in a sensitive person with the leisure to abandon himself to it completely.

When this vast hunger for knowing is finally appeased, love ceases. Whereas many would say that the winning of secure emotional possession of a strongly desired and highly valued individual must be a deeply "rapturous" experience and the beginning of one of the supreme felicities of life because one is "in love," this same secure possession, by the Proustian formula, must be fatal to these felicities because fatal to love itself. The heroes in Proust's novels are people with pain sensibility but no capacity for pleasure in the region of amorous experience.

If such a judgment on sexual love seems strange, it is because Proust has identified the amorous experience as a whole with its longings and frustrations. It is as if one were to think of the whole experience of taking nourishment in terms of the pangs of hunger alone, omitting entirely the enjoyments based on the desire for food. Many who would describe sexual love in terms of "rapture" and its synonyms, would say that what is lacking in Proust is some acknowledgment of the profound and pervasive satisfactions that come with the anxiety-free possession of, and association with, a "treasured and precious" personality.

Few attempts have been made at scientific study of amorous emotion on its physical side. An analysis of adolescent love experiences gave some evidence for a "location" of the emotion in the region of the heart. Professor Dunlap thinks there is a kind of "amatory desire" that seems to be related to bodily changes "somewhere in the system which includes the heart, arteries and veins," but doubts there is basis for the specific "placement" in the heart region so often expressed in popular speech. (12) This kind of desire may be present, he believes, in the absence of circulatory changes in the genitals. Dunlap's recognition of "amatory" interests that are independent of the genital impulse was noted earlier.

Amorous feeling is not easy to analyze and no great progress has been made in doing so. As Folsom says, "Little has been done to organize our knowledge of this type of feeling; it lags behind our knowledge of sex behavior," and Symonds observes that psychology "has dealt adequately with the strong emotions but on the whole has ignored love." For concrete and vivid portrayals of this experience one must seek elsewhere than in psychological reports. A novelist suggests "... the substance in which one works here is emotion that evades definition; poetic flashes and figures of speech are truer than prosaic statements."

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