There are only one or two books that change your life. Milan Kundera says somewhere that his discovery of Rabelais made him realise what could be done with the modern novel. He also adores Don Quixote, the first great ironic modern novel of the West, and that novel deals hilariously with the topic at the heart of French historian Denis de Rougemont’s huge work, L’Amour et L’Occident, published in 1939 and translated into English as Passion and Society.
I was prompted to read it as a 17-year-old schoolboy by my history teacher, Denis Collinson. He was preparing me for interviews at Oxford and he asked me what I would say if one of the tutors asked what I was currently reading. “I’m reading The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B,” I said, full of confidence. “Oh God,” Denis said, “Don’t tell them that. Everyone reads JP Donleavy. You need to be much more original than that.” And the next day he brought in a copy of Passion and Society. “Read that,” he said.
So I read it. It is a philosophical history setting out a much-disputed contention that the Western notion of passionate love derives from the heretical works of the southern European troubadors of the Cathar period. De Rougemont suggests that their opposition to the mainstream Catholic orthodoxy was expressed through the idea of romantic love: the doomed longing for the perfect yet unattainable other which ever since became the mainstay of Western popular romance (and which Cervantes ridiculed so effectively).
De Rougemont was a Christian philosopher and his objective in setting out his thesis was to demonstrate the danger of adherence to the myth. Halfway through the book, once he has delineated the key elements of the main myth, that of Tristan and Isolde, he thunders on the destructive nature of passionate love, how it essentially expresses a longing for death and how it threatens the stability of all human life.
When I reported back to my history teacher, I told him I was absolutely transfixed by the notion that passionate love could be considered as an idea that didn’t necessarily depend on the real existence of another person. “I didn’t expect you to take that from it,” he said, somewhat disingenuously. “I just thought you’d find his description of the early French heretics interesting and you could talk about it in your interview.”
Too late. I don’t think I’ve ever quite got over reading it. And now, reading for the first time the extraordinarily wonderful Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which amongst many things is a dissertation on the idea of passionate love, I am reminded once again of how de Rougemont’s book effectively let slip the rope that held me to the land.