Love is considered to be one of the purest and most fundamental emotions of humanity. Its manifestations may vary greatly—from a mother’s affection towards her child to cheap and shallow pop romances. However, there is pretty much a consensus in public discourse regarding love being something positive and even necessary.
Within modern pop culture (such as in cinema, music, etc.), love is often employed as a tool in order to make and increase sales.
But does the possibility of love really even exist with modernity?
Modern Love: Is It Even Real Love?
Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) was a Swiss essayist, and despite him not really being well-known in the English-speaking world, he was quite influential in France from the ’30s onwards. This is also the period when he wrote his most famous book, Love in the Western World.
He says that what is widely considered today as being “love” actually has its roots in medieval Europe; specifically among the troubadours (a kind of wandering public poets) of France, Italy and Spain. These troubadours themselves were influenced by the Cathars—a Gnostic sect deemed heretical by the Catholic Church—and eventually eradicated during the Albigensian Crusade (1209–1229).
Denis de Rougement shows that the idea of love espoused by the troubadours and Cathars was not Christian in nature. Their conception of it was essentially pagan in essence, with love equating eros or “boundless passion” whereas Christianity puts more emphasis on agape (a Greek word which basically refers to love as selfless charity).
We could see it as a sort of Shirk-grounded “love” devoid of modesty and without restraint in its expression. The objective is purely carnal and not religious.
In order to prove his thesis, Denis de Rougement carries out a detailed examination of the history of Western literature, from the popular medieval Tristan and Iseult romance (based on some Celtic legends of the Arthurian cycle) to more recent authors such as Cervantes, Wagner, etc.
The later passages of the book are more relevant to our discussion, as this is where he makes a connection between such “passional” love and the crisis of our modern world.
For instance, how passion being equated with love basically led to the legitimization and normalization of zina (pp. 276-277):
The appearance of the passion of Love was bound radically to transform the attitude to adultery.
Only thus can we account for the fact that in the twelfth century an adulterer or adulteress suddenly became somebody ‘interesting’. King David, in lying with Bath-sheba, was held to have committed a crime and to have made himself into an object of contempt. But when Tristan carries off Iseult, his deed turns into romance, and he makes himself into an object of admiration. What had hitherto been a ‘fault’ and what could only give rise to edifying remarks on the perils of sin and on remorse now became—in symbol—something mystically virtuous, and later on was degraded (in literature) into a disturbing and alluring entanglement.
This is typical of cultural-liberalism. Just take a look at the multitude of movies and TV series that portray adulterers and adulteresses as being some sort of heroes.
Netflix utilizes such psychological tricks in an attempt to normalize obviously abnormal behaviors, employing clever and emotional characterization.
After all, if love is merely just passion, then what value does the “patriarchal institution” of marriage entail anyway? Why restrain two “free” individuals whose only desire is to express their love for one another?
According to Denis de Rougement, this passional concept of love had a certain easily anticipated and short-term consequence for society: the breakdown of marriage (also the title of an entire chapter in his book).
When someone grows up watching “romantic” movies and TV series, they’d naturally expect to have a daily dose of romance.
This is obviously impossible even from a purely neurobiological perspective, as this person’s dopamine receptors have intentionally been messed up by the mass-media in order to transform them into a consumerist junkie. It is for this reason that they’re always craving more.
Nobody would ever be “happy” or content within a marriage if happiness is synonymous with a constant stream of daily outings, flowers, poetry, and whatnot.
Besides this love-passion notion, Denis de Rougement says the other reasons behind the implosion of the institution of marriage are feminism and psychologization (note how he was writing this in the ’30s).
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We read on p. 294:
It is also clear that the present breakdown of marriage, in Europe as in America, results from a plurality of profound or proximate causes, of which the cult of romance is but an instance. (But it was my due to myself to insist on it here.) For the quest for individual happiness to have precedence on social stability, and for respect of psychological evolution to have precedence on the meaning of a vow, is something which can be connected with the romantic complex. But there is more to it, and in other domains, or at other levels of reality, at times social and at other times psychical.
Woman’s emancipation—her entrance into the professions and her claim to equality of treatment—is a perceptible factor in the breakdown. The popularization of psychological knowledge is another.
Love During Times of Individualism, Materialism and Secularism
We now understand how people’s understanding of love has become skewed, so let’s also take a deeper look at how modernity shaped such an understanding.
Zygmunt Bauman (1925-2017) was a Polish sociologist of ethnic Jewish origins who conceptualized the idea of “liquid modernity.”
Bauman refused to embrace the idea of “postmodernity” as, according to him, we were still in the process of modernization or late modernization and that solid modernity was being replaced by liquid modernity.
As detailed in his book, Liquid Love, he uses “liquid” to denote the frail and transitory nature of modernity as a whole, including human relationships.
In Bauman’s view, maintaining bonds within liquid modernity is an arduous task. For example, this is the reason why he thinks many don’t wish to “create a family,” i.e., have children (p. 43):
‘Creating a family’ is like jumping headlong into uncharted waters of unfathomed depth. Forfeiting or postponing other seductive consumer joys of an attraction as yet untried, unknown and impossible to predict, itself an awesome sacrifice stridently jarring with the habits of a prudent consumer, is not its only likely consequence.
Having children means weighing the welfare of another, weaker and dependent, being against one’s own comfort. The autonomy of one’s own preferences is bound to be compromised, and ever anew: year by year; daily. One may become, horror of horrors, ‘dependent‘. Having children may mean the need to lower one’s professional ambitions, to ‘sacrifice a career’, as the people sitting in judgement over professional performance would look askance at any sign of divided loyalty. Most painfully, having children means accepting such loyalty-dividing dependence for an indefinite time, entering an open-ended and irrevocable commitment with no ‘until further notice’ clause attached; the kind of obligation that goes against the grain of liquid modern life politics and which most people at most times zealously avoid in the other manifestations of their lives. Awakening to such a commitment may be a traumatic experience. Post-natal depression and post-childbirth marital (or partnership) crises look like specifically ‘liquid modern’ ailments, in the same way as anorexia, bulimia, and countless varieties of allergy.
The “Muslim feminists,” with their cultural-liberal rhetoric about “being independent” and “autonomous,” should be concerned by these lines.
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Another author who sees the demise of love within modernity is the contemporary Morocco-born Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz.
She argues that love is suffering from what you might call the intrusion of cultural capitalism (a consumerist approach to relationships, seeing love as a form of “transaction” that you can easily withdraw from, and so on).
But these authors are often some sort of Marxist, and the enemy is conveniently always capitalism. Whereas the real culprits may in reality be a set of factors defining much of the modern-liberal Western civilization: individualism, materialism, and secularism. And despite these being phenomena being linked with capitalism, they also go beyond just capitalism alone.
After all, within an individualistic society or civilization, only the “sovereign” individual’s “feelings” matter. So why even maintain a “relationship” when you could satisfy your primal urges through short-term sexual “adventures”? If it’s all just about you and you alone, why even “bother” committing to a long-term relationship, let alone marriage, with all the pseudo-romantic gimmicks?
Materialism intervenes in the sense that, from a materialistic perspective, the idea of “pure love” itself is redundant. It’s all about neuronal connections. And from the perspective of neo-Darwinian evolutionary psychology (see the works of Geoffrey Miller), it’s all about “mating” and “transmitting your genes.”
Why would anyone even bother with “love” when operating within such a paradigm?
Is there even a place for love under such a cold worldview, apart from being a mere utilitarian and temporary lie—ahem—instrument?