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Is the Amorous Emotion a Rarity?

( Originally Published 1957 )

An entry in the Journal des Goncourt of 1877 gives an account of a literary gathering including Goncourt, Zola, and Turgenieff, into which a discussion of sexual love was introduced. (30) Goncourt observed that it had not, up to that time, been scientifically studied by novelists, who had dealt only with its poetic side. At this, Zola declared that love was not a specific sentiment, that it did not possess people as utterly as had been represented. He maintained that the behavior to be observed in love was also present in friendship and in patriotism, and that its great intensity really meant no more than the anticipation of sexual intercourse. Turgenieff disagreed with this, asserting that the love emotion contains an altogether unique color or quality, unlike that of any other sentiment. He proceeded to describe an experience without trace of sensuality. Goncourt concludes his account with the statement that, unfortunately, neither he nor Zola had ever been seriously in love, and so were incapable of describing the experience.

Finck came to the opinion, after many years of observation, that relatively few men and women are able to have the amorous experience. Genuine romantic love, he believed, "seems to require a special emotional or esthetic gift, like the talent for music." The greater part of humanity, he thought, has not yet risen above the sensual level of sexual experience.

Other views on how many are capable of amorous feeling have also restricted it to but a few people. Havelock Ellis was emphatic that not everyone is able to experience it, "even at any time in their lives." Myerson found evidence that "in the average man sexual union and marriage remain on a non-sentimental basis . . . the word `beloved' can hardly be applied to most sex situations at all." (44) He thinks that sexual union "much more frequently than not lacks the sentiment of love." Professor Linton has stated that "all societies recognize that there are occasional violent attachments between persons of opposite sex, but our present American culture is practically the only one which has attempted to capitalize these and make them the basis for marriage. . . . Their rarity in most societies suggests that they are psychological abnormalities to which our own culture has attached an extraordinary value . . ." (38) Mary Hamilton thinks that novelists have deceived their readers in leading them to believe that, however lacking in ability for high achievement a person may be in all other ways, there is one gift, at least, that he can be sure of, and this is that he can love greatly. It is not love that is an illusion, she suggests, but rather the notion that the capacity for it is a universal birth-right.

If such views as these contain any considerable truth, there must be many who would find that the phrase "unique quality of amorous emotion," has no more meaning for them than a description of color would have for one born blind and for whom very much of this book would be meaningless. It is very doubtful, however, whether these views can have any great weight. Little reliable information of this kind has ever been gathered. A few studies are merely suggestive. Dr. Albert Ellis sent an anonymous questionnaire to five hundred girls at nineteen widely scattered American colleges. Responses indicated that 71 per cent of these girls were "in love" at the time; only 11 per cent said they were "definitely not in love." About one in five reported being in love "three or more times between their 12th and 18th years." Of the same subjects, 7 per cent admitted "two or more loves before the age of 12," while one girl in three had had plural loves between the ages of 12 and 18. One in four of the girls had had the experience of being "in love" with two males at the same time. Ellis observes that his findings agree with those of an earlier study by Hamilton of 200 adult men and women, in which the subjects reported "about seven love affairs apiece," with a total of 1,358 such experiences. Another study on American college students disclosed a total of 896 "serious love affairs" among 399 individuals. A report on 324 Russian women students showed that only 25 had had no such experience.

While these findings are, for our purpose, imperfect in several ways, they may be taken to suggest that some degree or quality of amorous feeling is by no means a rarity among certain social groups. It should be noted that there is no reason to think of this emotion as an "all-or-none" affair. Like any other, it may be regarded as varying in strength, and therefore as contributing much or little to interest between the sexes.

It seems very doubtful whether descriptions of an emotional experience of which few people are capable could inspire the wide general interest aroused by the literary classics of "romance," by an ocean of popular fiction, and by the endlessly repeated theme of the cinema. We could also ask what human needs could furnish the motive for changing a "psychological abnormality" into a national model and ideal of sexual experience, the "prologue and theme" of marriage. Concerning Rochefoucauld's observation that amorous passion, like a ghost, is something everyone talks of but no one has seen, Schopenhauer remarked, ". . . it is impossible that something which is foreign and contrary to human nature, thus a mere imaginary caricature, could be unweariedly represented by poetic genius in all ages, and received by mankind with unaltered interest." "

Our choice is to conclude either that the term "sexual love" nearly everywhere serves only as a polite name for sensual desire, or to grant that some capacity for an apparently quite different sentiment or emotion may be present in more than a few. One evidence pointing toward the latter possibility is the wide popularity of the notion of "sublimation." This offers, among other things, a means of explaining, by a kind of trans-formation of emotion, how certain feelings that do not seem sexual are actually traceable to the sexual impulse. The idea of sublimation has been, in particular, applied to just that "amorous" type of sexual behavior which is of central interest here, and its wide use may be seen as a token that there is emphatically enough of this kind of emotion to warrant a careful study of it.

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