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The Sociology of Sexual Attraction

( Originally Published 1957 )



Amorous Experience as a Value

THE DISCOVERY of love's instability, by a youth, in an illustration given by Emmanuel Berl, undermines his worship not only of the emotion but of its object as well. In Berl's ac-count a young man became enamored of a lady encountered during a voyage. The feeling endured throughout a separation of years. In the interval he fell in love with another. Then he again met the first, only to find that no trace of his passion for her remained. The effect of this was to destroy his feeling for the young woman he was about to marry. "One may truthfully say that he did not marry the latter because he no longer loved the former." After too painful a disillusionment, Berl suggests, one may no longer respond. In order to love, one must accept the emotion when it comes, "just as, in order to think, one must have a certain faith in the mind and in the reason." In other words, we must "believe in love" in order to be deeply affected. We must value this emotion if we are to be fully receptive to it. We must believe, among other things, that it will last.

A large part of the psychology of sexual love could be written in terms of the many influences that enter into the "rating" it receives as a part of life. Granted that there may be a "pure" sex-aesthetic emotion, the way it is experienced will be affected to some degree by the social judgments of each age on what it means and how important it is. William James, in considering Finck's proposal that "romantic love" is a new and recent phenomenon in human history, points out that the way an emotion is felt must be distinguished from the way it is valued, by an age and a society. The literary and historical material presented by Finck shows, James suggests, the changes in man's thinking about sexual attraction rather than actual changes in his amorous experience. It is "a record of ideas far more than of . . . psychological facts." James does not believe that so powerful an emotion as that which fills a man with "en-chanted respect" for a particular member of the opposite sex could be of recent evolution. Finck has confused the philosophy of an age with its actual feelings. Among the ancients, James observes, freedom from emotional disturbance and the achievement of a calm serenity rising clear of the disquieting passions was the ideal of reflective men. Then, as now, he feels sure, feminine charms were a source of emotional longing, but men did not esteem such feelings highly, nor "celebrate" them in their books.

On the other hand, and in further illustration, the amorous emotion, along with certain others, has now come to have a far different status, owing to a change in appraisal of the emotional life as a whole. It is acknowledged as, among other things, richly worthy of literary treatment. "But as well might one say that chiaroscuro did not exist in nature till Rembrandt's time as say that romantic love did not exist in human breasts till a couple of generations ago." (21) Friendship of the "romantic" type offers a further example. Exalted in ancient times, it is doubt-less as important as it ever was, but such feelings are not now so highly idealized as they were, nor are they publicly pro-claimed. Much of the meaning of this, for our purposes, may be summed up in the comment that "the way in which we think about our emotions reacts on the emotions themselves ..."

James was curious about the effect, upon marital fidelity in France, of a literary mode that tended to heighten the romantic appeal of married women. Others have pointed to the shift in emphasis with respect to the age at which women have been idealized for romantic purposes. Finck, during the eighties of the last century, wrote: "Formerly, . . . the woman between thirty and forty years of age was lost for passion, for romance, and the drama; now she rules alone. The girl of sixteen, as adored by Racine, Shakespeare, Moliere, Voltaire, Ariosto, Byron, Lesage, Scott, is no more to be found." (17) Writing of "Fashions in Love," Aldous Huxley thinks that the history of amorous experience will be written, as art history is written, in terms of periods, of "schools," and "styles." The roots of love continue unchanged, "but every epoch treats it in a different manner, just as every epoch cuts its unvarying cloth and silk and linen into garments of the most diverse fashion." " Within a given age, custom may even alter amorous expression into a form that reverses its direction, as illustrated in the Hellenic vogue of homosexuality, a "fashion in love" that be-came widely popular among people assumed to be normally sexed. As an example of literary influence, Huxley points to the writings of Proust and of Gide to explain, in part, the European outbreak of homoeroticism following World War I.

An attempt has been made to discover the origin of the romantic view of woman, as reflected in Greek literature. E. F. M. Benecke was, we may note in passing, among those who regard romantic love as "founded upon sentiments and ideas which are entirely distinct from the sexual emotion." While sensual interest may become individualized, "purely animal emotions, however developed or refined, could never lead to that feeling which we have called the romantic." In the earliest Greek period he finds, as have others, this sentiment to be absent. Such early Greek "love poetry" as was ad-dressed by men to women was entirely sensual in its concern. The romantic sentiment found outlet, instead, in the homosexual direction. The beginnings of the romantic attitude toward women involved what amounted to a withdrawal of it from men. It was a kind of grafting of romantic feeling upon the normal sexual impulse. What happened was therefore not so much the appearance of a new sexual emotion as the "re-adjustment of an already existing emotion."

The true origin of the ancient "romantic movement," according to Benecke, was a poem in which this sentiment toward women was for the first time treated with "seriousness .. . gravity, and . . . self-restraint." The poem (by the poet Antimachus) was admired by other writers and helped to bring about, along with the improved status of women, a new respect for her and for the marriage relationship, as shown in later Greek poetry. A new estimate of the sexual attachment is trace-able in dramatic literature: "the romantic idea ... the idea that a woman is a worthy object for a man's love, and that such love may well be the chief, if not the only, aim of a man's life." (2) Whatever the verdict on Benecke's findings, they illustrate the idea that a change in appraisal of the amorous emotion, even by a single source of influence, may importantly affect its social status, and therefore the way in which it is experienced.

Sexual love may be considered from the same point of view as are social movements, religious revivals, outbreaks of nationalist feeling, and other emotional epidemics, in the judgment of Emmanuel Berl. The present variety of amorous behavior is, he thinks, peculiar to a certain level of civilization. Only with a certain kind of social order is "sentimental love" possible. The way feelings are expressed changes with time and place, and this in turn alters the character of the feelings them-selves. Consequently, there is a sociology of love.

In illustration, Berl cites the exaltation of friendship in antiquity, the code-ruled courtly love of medieval romanticism, and the increasing prominence of the sensual mood at a later period. Models and ideals arise with respect to feelings and sentiments. As in art, the admired type of beauty varies from one age to another; there are comparable fashions in sentiment. "If society wants ascetics and monks, it will cause us to regard as beautiful the physique of Saint Paul, which would have appeared so hideous to Alcibiades or to Plato. In the same way, it will cause us to think that sexual love, or chaste love, or renunciation, or friendship . . . is the only feeling `worthy of being lived.' (4) The sentimental mode thus "legislates" in the domain of feelings, even though each person regards his emotions as quite spontaneous. The fundamental factors may even be economic: "Has society need of new works, new factories? It will cause wealthy young ladies to fall in love with young engineers . . ." Again, in a period of colonization, the mode may give an alluring glamour to exotic life in the tropics.

Despite the power of such influences Berl concludes that this cannot be the whole story. "In spite of certain appearances, it does not seem very probable that society can cause a feeling, unless, in a certain way, the feeling is already pre-existent." (5) Mario Praz, writing of the "fatal woman" in literature, says that for the creation of such a type "it is essential that some particular figure should have made a profound impression on the popular mind." (29) We may question whether, in the making of such impressions, the figure itself, apart from the artistry of its creator, must not touch in some way the deepest emotional susceptibilities of many people.

Looking at the matter very broadly, we should expect the current stage of a society's growth to influence the place it gives to this emotion within its scale of values. It will count importantly whether we are considering a young, hard-working frontier people preoccupied with the problems of subsisting, for example, or a mature one, able to coast on its accumulated capital and with leisure for erotic pursuits. Among other factors will be the current estimate of the sexes as love-objects; for example, the status of women: ancient Greek or modern American; the "rating" of the amorous sentiment itself, as in an age of cynicism (as described, for example, in DeGourmont's Woman of the Eighteenth Century) or an age of "romance," like our own. Or again, the esteem in which the emotional life itself is held: an "age of reason" or an "age of sensibility." The difference between the belief that sexual love is one of the supreme experiences, not only as between man and woman, but of life itself, and the belief that it is, rather, a deluding, unstable, and in general rather unhealthy phase of mating behavior, can hardly fail to affect the strength and quality of its impact upon the personality.



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