“A savage place! As holy and enchanted
As e’re beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover.”
Coleridge, Kubla Khan, ii, 14-16.
When a woman asks her suitor if he “really loves her,” she is asking if he is “madly” or “passionately” in love. Madness and passion are the same thing, both words indicating a state in which the man’s reason has been overturned and he is operating under the control of more primitive impulses. This is why we speak of a “crime of passion” as a “fit of temporary insanity.” The inquisitive woman who asks this question is, therefore, seeking to discover if her suitor has lost control and is, quite literally, “crazy about her.”
If he says yes, she will be pleased, for she will have found her “demon-lover.”
There are a great many names for this peculiar mental condition of being “in love.” Our ancestors called it “erotic madness,” “erotic fury,” “erotomania,” or “demoniac love.” All of these phrases denote an inordinate and overmastering desire for the loved one, and should not be confused with an inordinate and overmastering desire for sexual pleasure wherever it may be found. The voluptuary and sex fiend are mad in their own way, but priapomania and satyriasis do not concern me here.
We nowadays prefer the word “infatuation,” which literally means to render fatuous or foolish. From this follow a great many expressions that identify the man who is in love as a fool. “He is playing the fool,” for instance, or “I’ll be a fool for you.” Fool is simply the old French name for a madman, so we have here just one more variation on erotic madness. This was recognized by the English playwright Francis Beaumont in the sixteenth century:
“Now fie on foolish love, it not befits
Or man or woman know it.
Love was not meant for people in their wits,
And they that fondly show it
Betray the straw, and features in their brain,
And shall have Bedlam for their pain.”
Features here means fantasies, so the fool in love has a head that is stuffed with fantasies and straw. Bedlam was the name of London’s insane asylum.
Erotic fury did not imply sexual assault, by the way, but was simply to be in an erotic passion and mad with sexual desire. The furies of Greek myth were the hell hounds (actually hell bitches) who drove wrongdoers mad with remorse for their evil deeds. A man beset by the furies is, therefore, in a strict sense, a man who is overwhelmed or consumed by remorse. But the word long ago expanded to cover any overwhelming and consuming impulse or idea. We have all described a man who is overwhelmed and consumed by anger as furious.
In Ovid’s Epistles, we meet Charaxus, brother of Sapho, who fell in love with the courtesan Rhodopis, played the fool, and squandered all his money on her. As Sapho explains:
“My brother next, to furious love a prey,
Cast wealth and fame on venal charms away.”
Charaxus was not furious in the familiar sense of insane anger. He was overwhelmed and consumed with an inordinate and overmastering desire for Rhodopis. And so he played the fool.
Needless to say, very few people over the age of eighteen are altogether unfamiliar with the temporary insanity of being “in love.” We have all tasted its ephemeral glories, its cruel humiliations, and its excruciating regrets. Erotic madness is natural in men and women, most especially those who have just arrived upon the age of sexual maturity. Some are subject to fits of erotic madness throughout life, and some to a bizarre recrudescence in old age.
When a young man insanely magnifies the value of a young woman, we call him “romantic.” If a young Romeo keeps and cherishes the crumpled napkin with which his Juliet wiped a dollop of ketchup from her lips, she would certainly say he is “romantic” (and we would likely shake our heads and mutter that he is a fool). Extravagance is of the very essence in a romantic courtship, and the young man who will not rise to at least some degree of folly will likely be dismissed as “not very romantic” or “no Romeo.”
I am not concerned with these rituals of romantic courtship between man and maid. Like the erotic madness from which they arise, they are natural and harmless when kept within bounds. I am concerned with a culture that magnifies the value of erotic madness, and that therefore steps to one side whenever some young Romeo loses his mind and goes on a tear.
I call this a romantic culture, and would say that it is defined by an inordinate and overmastering desire for erotic madness. It is a culture designed to give erotic madness the widest possible scope, and it therefore places virtually no checks on the fatuous follies of men and women who have fallen in love. One has simply to appeal to erotic madness to excuse the defiance of fathers, the deception of spouses, and the abandonment of children.
In a romantic culture “love conquers all,” but not always in a good way.
There is one more thing I would like to say about erotic madness in a romantic culture. When young Romeos are roundly praised for magnifying the value of their young Juliets, and for the most fatuous extravagances of romantic courtship, erotic madness will likely become a permanent condition. Its ephemeral glories will certainly fade, but its morbid and insane misjudgment of woman will linger. Grey-haired Romeos will continue to worship the sex as a goddess (some by the sacrifice of sex).
Here is how Max Nordau described it in Degeneracy (1895).
“The thought of woman has for him the power of an obsession. He feels that he cannot resist the exciting influences proceeding from the woman, that he is her helpless slave, and would commit any folly, any madness, any crime, at her beck and call. He necessarily, therefore, sees in woman an uncanny overpowering force in nature, bestowing supreme delights or dealing destruction . . . . The erotomaniac ‘degenerate’ stands in the same position to the woman as a dipsomaniac to intoxicating drinks . . . the passionate eagerness for the bottle and the loathing and horror of it.”
What this means is that the overvaluation of erotic madness will one day cause a romantic culture to curdle into a feminist culture in which degenerate men both worship and fear the female sex.
And that woman wailing for her demon lover will at last have found her man.
*) Paul Elmer Moore, Shelburne Essays, vol. 2 (1909).