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Imagination in Sex Attraction

( Originally Published 1957 )

Among well-known theories of the way sexual love grows is the belief that a powerful influence in its development is the imagination, or "idealization." The lover manages to find traits and qualities in his mistress all of them favorable that in reality she does not possess. A book could be filled with quotations, ranging from half-humorous epigrams to serious philosophical meditations, conveying the idea that the person "in love" is one who, to some degree, is pursuing a creature whose many virtues he has actually created himself, unknowingly. Stimulated by his emotional condition, he becomes a victim of his own fanciful invention. The process is related to what Freud called "overestimation of the sexual object." The traditional blindness of the lover results when all his perceptions are colored by his emotion. He is prejudiced by his feelings concerning everything about his sweetheart, just as a mother's judgments about her child may be biased in his favor by maternal feeling. Emmanuel Berl thinks, ". . . it would appear to be difficult to conceive of love apart from this erroneous super-estimate of the object it chooses." Concerning the "error" that love is primarily an effect of physical beauty, Denis de Rougemont writes, ". . . actually, this beauty is but an attribute bestowed by a lover on the chosen object of his love." Stendhal, long ago, expressed himself in similar fashion: "In the case of other passions, one's desires have to accommodate them-selves to cold realities; but in the case of love, realities model themselves enthusiastically on one's desires ..: " Even Dante, often called the greatest of romantic idealists, ".. . wrote a poem clearly expressive of the fact that the beloved woman does not actually possess the qualities ascribed to her, but that she has been endowed with them by the imagination of her lover."

The idea that sexual love arises through a kind of creative process within the lover is well expressed by the novelist Marcel Proust. In his writings the sexual emotion develops by way of the "projection," upon another person, of an inner state. The important thing is what is in the mind of the lover, rather than what is actually true of the beloved. He will tend to "see" in her what he most strongly desires to find there. The kind of person he is, himself, will in part determine the kind of person he will perceive the loved one to be. She may be thought of, Proust suggests, as no more than a silhouette upon which we ourselves confer all of that greater part which is needed to make the perception of a whole person.

In making the basis of attraction an illusion, in part, this doctrine has doubtless for many people thrown a suspicion of deception and unreality upon the love experience, and furnished material for many a cynical epigram. For example: "Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another." An at-tempt will be made at a later place to show that idealization, or "overestimation," in the growth of sexual attraction may be given an altogether different meaning from that suggested by Freud and Proust. Meanwhile, whatever the part played by creative fantasy in the charms of sex attraction, the important truth remains that the emotion aroused is real enough, regard-less. A person frightened by an imaginary danger may be affected just as much as by a real one. A person angered by a mistaken judgment of offense may become as "emotional" about it as he would by a correct one. Ortega y Gasset has proposed that the significant fact in sexual love is that it is inspired in us by perceiving some sort of value, merit, or perfection. If this is true, it matters less that the perception itself may be at times or in some degree in error. It matters more that it can be said that ". . . the egoist becomes less selfish, the cruel man gentle, the dullard clairvoyant; every man feels that he has become greater and more human. This is neither illusion nor projection, nor is it a subtle, psychical deception it is sober reality."

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