Category Archives: love

The Cube has landed (in bookstores)! Nat Karody’s new science fiction novel

The Cube by Nat Karody

The Cube, a new novel by Nat Karody, has landed (in bookstores)!

 

Were you disappointed by the ending to the series Lost? What follows is a story with as intricate a mythology as Lost’s but with an important difference: in the end it is all explained mechanistically, without resort to mysticism or religion. At the conclusion of the novel, the following summary of the core mystery, taken from the opening chapter, will be perfectly sensible: The Oopsah told a story, a majestic, exalted, beatific story of the coming of the end times and the rise of the Controller.

He learned how the world would end, who would destroy it, and how he, Zranga, could prevent it. He learned that he had been appointed by destiny – by the Controller himself – to carry out this mission. But above all he learned of the existence of a perfect being, the demigod Celeste, trapped beyond time in a cycle of eternal death. Only Zranga could rescue her, and to do this he had to place a giant door on the bottom of the Silent Sea, and kill the Great Man. Read on to found out how far Ivy Morven will go to stop Tobor Zranga from realizing his destiny, and how this alternative universe is bizarrely structured so that the most rational acts are the most extreme.

The Cube is well-written, ingeniously crafted and has great character development. Although clearly a science fiction narrative, The Cube also transcends its genre, to attract a broad audience. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story of a  young couple from adjacent sides of a  cubic planet who meet at an edge and develop a relationship in the midst  of a war that threatens to  destroy the planet. The story is unique  in creating an alternative  universe from first principles:  all matter is   oriented in one of the six Euclidian directions.

This simple deviation  from our own universe leads to the creation of cubic celestial bodies and   allows a reimagination of  transportation, power generation, warfare,   architecture, and lovemaking, among other things. As an example, the  political conflict   leading to war is that both inhabited sides of the   planet generate hydroelectric power by draining a large body of water on   one side   through edge sluices, a cheap and easy source of energy that will ultimately destroy the planet if the water is drained too far.

What  drives this story is the relationship of the two main characters,  a girl  escaping from a classified weapons facility with terrible secrets she   refuses to share, and a rural boy who literally catches her  when she leaps   over the edge and soon learns he is the target of international espionage.   The novel is organized around a series of   revelations of the girl’s   secrets culminating with an answer to the ultimate question — who is  Celeste?

As you can probably tell even from my brief description, The Cube is a multidimensional narrative (pun intended!) that could simultaneously described as a science fiction novel as well as a moving love story and a dystopic utopia fiction,  similar  to George Orwell’s 1984.  You can discover this alternative universe, governed by different laws of physics but similar political motivations and machinations for power as in our world, on the links below:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXP7xYtrVeU]

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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Book Review of Trivial Pursuits? by David K. Israel and Jennifer Byrne

There’s no easy or standard way in which human beings cope with loss. The process of mourning can pull families together or tear them apart. David K. Israel’s and Jennifer Byrne’s new novel, Trivial Pursuits?, reveals how two families deal with one of the most difficult and non-trivial aspects of life: the death of their loved ones. Although written in a realist style, with three-dimensional characters that readers can easily relate to, the structure of the novel has some postmodern, Robbe-Grillet, elements to it in the way it intertwines, in an almost accidental meeting, the two distinct strands of the plot.

One strand traces the life of Fareed, an endearing fifteen year old Druze boy from Israel, whose mother died tragically of breast cancer. He spends his life in an R.V. touring L.A. with his father, memorizing trivia in the hopes of landing a spot on the popular show Jeopardy! Teen-tour.

Incidentally, for the history buffs out there, the novel offers a fascinating depiction of the Druzes, people of Arab origin (perhaps with Jewish roots, some experts claim) that remain loyal to every country they live in. For this reason, as young Fareed explains, the Israeli Druzes are the only Arabs who enroll in the army to defend the state of Israel. This is a very interesting choice of narrator: one that crosses ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries in unexpected ways, especially given that the political situation in the Middle East is such a polarizing topic.

The second strand of the novel follows the lives of Amy and Greg, a couple who live a few miles away, in the Valley. Their marriage initially faces the challenge of not being able to have a baby (naturally) together, then the sudden death of their adopted child, P.J. To cope with their loss, both families undergo a difficult process of mourning. The only question is: will this pull them together or push them apart?

While Amy finds temporary solace in a casual but torrid lesbian affair with Lynette, Fareed experiences his first true love with an older girl named Eos. Their paths cross as Eos meets Amy and Lynette, but eventually the two sets of lives move in different directions. You can read this intricately woven and moving novel about loss and regeneration online, by purchasing it on Amazon.com Kindle Edition or by sampling select chapters on Neatorama’s Bitlit, on the link below:

http://www.neatorama.com/bitlit/category/trivial-pursuits/

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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The Seducer: A Modern Cautionary Tale

 

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

During the nineteenth century, novelists like Flaubert and Tolstoy viewed literature as interlinked with education. In their minds, literature was not reducible to its educational value. Novels, however, represented one of the most moving and creative means of doing both things at once: entertaining and instructing the general public. The great masterpieces of nineteenth-century literature, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, show what happens when women lose their sense of self and boundaries and get involved with dangerous men. My new novel perpetuates this literary tradition for our times. The Seducer shows what happens to two women who get involved with a social predator. The modern seducer, however,  is no harmless and frivolous player, like Madame Bovary‘s Rodolphe. He’s a vicious psychopathic sex addict posing as Mr. Right.

There’s no better time for reading educational fiction, intended to simultaneously enlighten and entertain you, than in the days following the new year. This is the time when most of us do some soul searching, to see how we can improve ourselves and better our lives. During these days, advertisers deluge us with new products–diet aids, exercise equipment, beauty supplies and how to books–all intended to show us that their products will help us lead a better and healthier life.

Most of the time, however, these self-help tools are like band aids for the soul. They may help us marginally improve ourselves if we already lead good lives, with loving partners and have a healthy self esteem. But no beauty treatment, exercise equipment or diet formula can change an inherently bad relationship, heal a partner suffering from a personality disorder, or give you a sense of worth. Self respect must come from within: from a healthy attitude towards yourself and others. Consequently, if you’ve spent months or even years struggling in a toxic relationship with a disordered partner, the best thing you can do for yourself this new year is face reality and leave the toxic relationship. This will not be possible, however, unless you learn how to respect yourself.

In my new novel, The Seducer, I  illustrate how a lack of adequate self esteem and insecurities can lead some women directly into the arms of social predators. These dangerous men know how to flatter them initially, only to later gradually isolate them from others, play upon their insecurities and gnaw at their self-esteem. The insidious process of eroding one’s sense of self and boundaries is most obvious in the interaction between Michael, a sociopathic sex addict, and Karen, his loving partner who can’t escape their toxic relationship no matter how much he mistreats her. And mistreat her he does: he cheats on her with dozens of women; lies to her; plays catch and release games by breaking up with her and then feigning love and contrition to get back into her life; makes her feel insecure about her body image leading her to bulimia and food addiction; encourages her to feel unattractive by unfavorably comparing her to other women and undermining her self-worth. For many of you who are–or have been–involved with bad men, this story will sound very familiar, as fiction will reflect your real life.

The Seducer also shows how even women who have high self esteem, like the main character, Ana, can fall into the trap set by psychopathic seducers. Such men flatter you, reflect your dreams and pose as your soul mates. Only once you fall into their clutches do they show their true colors and start eroding your boundaries and self image. You can witness for yourself the whole process of psychopathic seduction in The Seducer, previewed on Neatorama’s Bitlit.

The main thing that can save you from a psychopath–or from any other manipulative person who wants to take over your life–is cultivating a healthy self-esteem. This may seem like a truism. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of common sense that many know but fewer actually practice. Any therapist will tell you that he or she stays in business largely because of people’s unrealistic perception of themselves. Character distortions not only damage our self-confidence, but also taint our relationships. They make us excessively vain, or needy, or inflexible, or too willing to bend over backwards just to please others. More seriously, character disorders, such as psychopathy and malignant narcissism, are unfixable in adults.

Fortunately, however, most people don’t suffer from such constitutive emotional and moral deficiencies. More commonly, we suffer from distorted perceptions of ourselves. This puts us at risk of falling into the clutches of controlling individuals. To find your compass you need to look within, as the Greeks wisely advised. Ultimately, nobody else can save you. You can save yourself by living well, which depends upon knowing your worth–neither underestimating nor overestimating it–and pursuing with a mostly internally driven self-confidence the path you want to take in life.

As a novelist and literary critic, I believe that this lesson can be learned as much from literature as from life. Novels can touch you on both an intellectual and an emotional level. I’m hoping that my modern cautionary tale, The Seducer, will  introduce you to a fictional world that mirrors and magnifies the psychological reality within you to help you see more clearly–and surmount–the real challenges you face in life.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Seducer-Novel-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0761858075/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1326297451&sr=1-1


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David Israel’s Behind Everyman: Let’s Hear it for the Good Guys!

They say that behind every man is a good woman, yet so much contemporary fiction features the devastation caused to women’s lives by bad men. David Israel’s novel, “Behind Everyman,” offers a refreshing counterpoint voice, on behalf of all the good men out there. With candor and wit, this novel sketches a vivid portrayal of contemporary life and true love, from a good guy’s perspective.

As you read “Behind Everyman,” you will smile and remember that decent men are more common than their dysfunctional counterparts. Whatever challenges life presents–and there are many depicted in “Behind Everyman”–this novel will make you feel that there’s hope for real relationships and true love. For the film directors out there, this novel also provides perfect fodder for a romantic comedy. Let’s hear it for the good guys!

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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Velvet Totalitarianism: When Love Triumphs Over Oppression

We  know why we read genre fiction, like the latest Harry Potter saga or Stephen King’s horror novels. Genre fiction helps us escape from our daily lives. It carries us to an alternative world that is either so fantastic, or so horrific, that it takes our minds off the tedium of our jobs, our daily duties, our routines and our family and health problems. Genre fiction provides readers with much-needed entertainment and an escape from reality.

But sometimes we read novels in order to hold a mirror up to our own natures and lives. It’s comforting to see that we’re not alone in our struggles to raise a family, in our stumbles in love, in our battles with illnesses beyond our control, or in our efforts to maintain our marriages. Literary fiction in particular,  such as Wally Lamb’s psychological novels and Jonathan Franzen’s formidable realism, enable readers to view themselves inside and out, from multiple perspectives. Whatever stories these great novelists tell, and wherever they may take us, we can identify with their characters and relate to the situations they describe.

My own first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, offers readers a little bit of both worlds: realism with a touch of fantasy. It is the partly autobiographical narrative of my family’s struggles to escape the hardships of communist Romania during the 1980’s. This is a story that few Americans would have lived through, so I enhanced it by adding more spice, the element of fantasy: a spy plot about the inner workings of the Secret Police.

Velvet Totalitarianism will take you to a place that few have visited (communist Romania) and an era that many have forgotten (the Cold War reality of communism). Hopefully, my account of the love and loyalty that united my family is a story that many American readers can identify with. It is a mirror held up to the feelings that bind together any loving family. But the story about the incredible challenges we, along with tens of millions of Eastern Europeans, had to overcome will take you to a far-away corner of the world to remind you of a different era: one that may be gone, but shouldn’t be forgotten. The chapter from Velvet Totalitarianism pasted below offers a little bit of both aspects. It describes (in a fictionalized manner) the family reunion between my mother and I with my father, after our family had been separated for several years by the Romanian Secret police.

Chapter 23 of my novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009)

After being tied up in New York City for three days due to a bureaucratic mix-up regarding their entrance visa, Eva and Irina were about to take a plane and meet Andrei in San Francisco. The brunette at the PanAm counter asked Eva very sweetly: “Hi, how are you?

Not accustomed to friendly service, Eva was caught off guard. “Does this girl know me?” she wondered. “Why in the world does she care about how I’m doing?” Since the young woman smiled in an amiable enough manner, however, she decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and answered her question in earnest: “I very tired—we have long flight. Come from Italia. Have not seen her father,” she pointed to Irina, “for near three years. We are from Romania. Imigranti,” she emphasized, in case there was any doubt.

Upon hearing this rather unconventional answer in broken English, the girl’s affable smile was replaced by a glazed-over, disinterested gaze, and from then on she was all business: “That’s nice. May I see your passports please?”

Eva handed them to her.

The girl looked from the photos to Eva and Irina, then asked: “Are you checking any luggage?”

Eva had made some progress on her English, but not enough to fully understand the question: “Yes. Go ahead!” she threw up her arms.

The girl at the counter looked puzzled.

“Our luggage is been checked three times. Already done! We have nothing undeclared inside. Nothing! You can see if you vant…,” Eva invited the girl to rummage through her luggage, as the security guards had done at customs.

“No, I mean do you want to check it on the plane?” the girl clarified, speaking louder for the benefit of her foreign client, who had perfectly good hearing, just poor English comprehension.

Eva still couldn’t fully understand what was going on, but for the sake of expediency and the benefit of the people waiting in line behind her, she acted like she did: “Okay,” she replied. For the next few months, this was to become her stock answer whenever she didn’t understand something in English, since people tended to react better to it than when she said with her heavy accent “I don’t speak English.”

“Here are your tickets for Flight 340 departing for San Francisco from gate 23A,” the girl at the counter handed Eva the plane tickets. She then turned to the next customer in line, reassuming her former friendly persona: “Hello, sir. How are you? Checking any luggage?”

The gentleman in question, an American, already knew the lesson Eva had just learned: “I’m fine, thanks,” he answered flatly, without getting into the details of his personal life. He then said that he had one suitcase to check and showed her his driver’s license.

Eva whispered to her daughter in Romanian: “Strange country, this America… They ask you how you’re doing yet they couldn’t care less about your answer.”

Once they got on the plane, Eva’s mind was fully occupied by her imminent reunion with her husband. She felt butterflies in her stomach. What would Andrei think of her after nearly three years of separation? Would he still love her as much as before? Would they adjust to being a couple once again? And how would he behave with Irina, who had changed from a little girl to a young woman?

For Irina, the idea of finally seeing her father again still felt like an abstraction; an implausible event that blurred the line between dream and reality. Since for her three years of separation was practically an eternity, she remembered only traces of her father, not his whole personality: the way they’d sing together on the way to school; his bright blue, intelligent eyes; the way he always seemed to be in a hurry; his insistence that she do correctly her math and science homework (a task which she always vehemently resisted); his awkward gestures of affection (stroking her head as if she were a puppy); his congruous mixture of indulgence and severity.

Mother and daughter arrived at the San Francisco International Airport around 1:00 a.m. Andrei was supposed to greet them at the gate, but he was nowhere in sight. Rather than going to get their luggage, Eva and Irina waited for him, scrutinizing every thin man with dark hair and blue eyes.

“This is so typical of your father! He’s been in this country for almost three years, and he still can’t manage to find our gate,” Eva said to her daughter, after a nerve racking twenty minute wait and in answer to the latter’s repeated questions, all variations upon the same theme: “Do you see him yet?” “Is he here?” “Is that him?” “What’s taking him so long?” Despite her unsentimental words, Eva’s heart was racing with excitement. In a few moments, the indefinitely postponed future would become an immediate, palpable present.

Suddenly, she thought she spotted her husband: a slight man with a lost gaze, who, at that moment, was looking precisely in the wrong direction. Andrei seemed thinner than ever and his dark hair had turned salt and pepper, but Eva recognized the confused expression he assumed whenever he attempted anything practical.

“Timpitelule! Little Dumdum! We’re here!” she shouted affectionately in Romanian, waving to her husband and feeling relieved that, in spite of his cluelessness, at least he was lost in the right area.

Andrei moved so fast towards his daughter and wife that his face became a blur as he hugged and kissed them on both cheeks, several times, as if not quite trusting his senses, reassuring himself through these repeated embraces that after all these years, they were finally reunited as a family.

“Gogosica mea, my little dumpling,” he said to Irina, his voice cracking with emotion. But the terms of endearment that had worked magic when his daughter was eight no longer had the same effect on her at nearly twelve: “Daddy, I’m not fat! I just ate a few ice creams,” his daughter felt compelled to justify her food frenzy in Italy. She immediately regretted saying that, however, since she had imagined the first words out of her mouth to her father as being slightly more sentimental.

“We ate like pigs in Rome,” Eva excused herself as well for the extra pounds she had put on lately, which, she thought, her husband was bound to notice.

Andrei finally got a chance to look at his wife, who had filled out slightly and looked understandably tired. Nonetheless, to him, she was the most beautiful woman in the world: “You look perfect,” he said and kissed her tenderly on the mouth this time.

“Yuck!” their daughter interrupted this otherwise romantic reunion.

“I hope you haven’t spoiled her in my absence…” Andrei said, looking at Irina with mock sternness.

“If you only knew… You have your work cut out for you,” Eva replied, while Irina tugged at her sleeve looking at her mother with an expression of disapproval.

“What do you mean you? Where do you plan to go?” Andrei asked his wife.

“Who knows? I may also need a three year break from parenting,” Eva replied.

Andrei couldn’t resist the urge to hug his wife once again: “No more breaks for us, Papusica. No more separations. Ever again.”

Eva looked into her husband’s eyes, finally allowing herself the luxury of feeling emotion: “For so long, all I’ve dreamt about was being reunited as a family. With both of our children. With Raducu also.”

Andrei nodded gravely: “I’ve made some progress on that….”

“Did he contact you?” Eva asked.

“No. I would have told you. But I got in touch with that French artist, Jean-Pierre, as soon as you told me about him. I pulled a few strings at the university and found a way of inviting him to give a talk at our Institute for the Humanities. That way we can meet him in person and see how much he may know. But you need to be careful, okay? Don’t spill your beans to him immediately.”

“Oh, I don’t have any beans left to spill, Andreias,” Eva sighed, looking discouraged and weary, as she always did whenever the subject of Radu came up.

“Where’s your luggage?” Andrei changed the subject, recalling they still needed to take care of practical matters.

“I don’t know,” Eva shrugged. “They talk so fast that I couldn’t understand which baggage claim we’re supposed to go to.”

Uncharacteristically, Andrei took charge of the situation. He looked up their baggage claim number and, once they retrieved the luggage, chivalrously insisted on carrying it all by himself. His slight form looked like an ant struggling with giant bread crumbs.

“I have a new car which I think you’ll like,” he told Irina as they made their way through the crowd to the parking lot.

Irina gazed with undisguised admiration at all the large sedans they passed by. Her father stopped in front of a tiny, European-looking vehicle: a 1980 metallic blue Horizon. Despite its unimpressive size, Irina’s eyes sparkled with delight. The car was her favorite color, the kind she had only dreamt of: light blue with silver sparkles which shimmered like diamonds under the parking lot lights. Irina felt confident that even her doll, Greta Barbie, would like it.

“I love it!” she declared, sitting down in the back and bouncing up and down on the cushy seats, touching with open hands their soft, velvety covers.

“What luxury!” Eva said, equally in awe of the modest, economy-size vehicle. Having prepared in advance an explanation why he couldn’t yet afford a Mercedes, Andrei felt relieved that his family was so easy to please. Maybe they’d also overlook the bullet hole in the door of the cheap apartment he had rented for the summer in Berkeley.

“I didn’t quite understand your explanation on the phone. How come we’re not going directly to Ann Arbor?” Eva asked.

“This spring quarter I’m Visiting Associate Professor at an even better university. It’s called the University of California at Berkeley,” Andrei declared with pride.

“Berkelei?” Eva repeated, unimpressed. Back in Romania, she had only heard of Harvard.

“That’s right.”

“If this Berkelei’s so smart, then how come they didn’t hire you permanently?”

“I suppose I haven’t made an important enough breakthrough in physics. I was too busy struggling to get you and Irina out of Romania,” her husband responded with an affectionate smile. He felt elated. After all these years, his spunky, pragmatic wife hadn’t changed one bit.

“You mean you’re blaming us for your failures again?” Eva wanted to know.

“My biggest success is reuniting with my family,” Andrei replied with an uncharacteristic sentimentality which, his wife surmised, would wear off in a couple of days.

In spite of her sharp tongue, Eva’s eyes twinkled with warmth. She placed her hand on top of his, which was holding, by force of habit, the automatic gear shift.

Andrei drove fast, as usual. Eva scolded him, calling him an Italian race car driver, and warned him that he’d be pulled over by the police if he didn’t slow down, also as usual. Irina looked out the window, mesmerized. The Golden Gate Bridge shimmered with its bright yellow lights, like a garland illuminating the darkness of the night. The skyline of San Francisco flashed before her eyes, looking exactly like the girl had envisioned–extrapolating from the American movies she had seen—only even more shinny, beautiful and inviting. Colorful billboards displayed alluring women in sexy positions lying next to what looked like bottles of tuika (vodka). These Americans must drink even more than we do, Irina speculated. Her parents kept on talking excitedly in Romanian. Irina basked in their familiar presence, as the distant past folded almost seamlessly unto the present, leaving only the faint scars of long years of separation, which neither the present nor the future could erase.

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 


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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, communism, communist Romania, contemporary fiction, Jonathan Franzen, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, love, psychological fiction, Romania, Velvet Totalitarianism, Wally Lamb

Lucidity and Passion: Denis Diderot’s Love Letters to Sophie Volland

For almost thirty years, up to the very end of their lives, Denis Diderot wrote beautiful, touching letters to his friend Louise-Henriette Volland. While these letters became more subdued in tone and less frequent after the first fifteen years of their friendship, they nonetheless stand testimony to the powerful sentiments that bind human beings together in friendship and love. For this reason, they are worthy of an attention which goes beyond biographical curiosity. Diderot’s letters expose, with sensibility and depth, a significant aspect of our legacy of passion left by Enlightenment thought.

Few authors are as appropriate to a discussion of the value of passion—in both life and art–as Diderot, and few texts as useful to this undertaking as his letters to Sophie Volland, which make special claims to reality, sincerity and truth all the while being saturated with moving rhetorical devices that one finds in eighteenth-century philosophical discourses, plays and fiction. The key concepts whose development I will trace in these letters–the notion of aesthetics, which is derived from the Greek word “aisthetikos” meaning “of sense perception” and the notion of passion, derived from the Latin word “passio” meaning suffering, or being acted upon—connect the sensory and emotional experiences we associate with love in life with the mediations and distortions we expect from their representations.

Spanning the period from 1754, when Diderot was editing the Encyclopédie, to his last work, Entretien d’un philosophe avec la Maréchale de…(1776), Diderot’s love letters also give us special insight into his intellectual and artistic production, ranging from his materialist discourses and plays, to his marivaudage and theatricality, to the themes and style of his later fiction. If these letters continue to excite our aesthetic interest, it’s largely because they link life and art in a sophisticated way without inciting us to reduce one to the other. This palpable and moving yet at the same time mediated expression of feeling is, I would like to argue, what creates the unparalleled value of aesthetic passion which we inherit, at least in part, from the French Enlightenment.

Passion in life and passion for art, Diderot’s writings lead us to believe, have analogous manifestations, even if different objects. Both unleash a sense of wonder; a strong form of enthusiasm. As love of art is immediate, personal and visceral, so is the love of a person. It’s a taste that, unlike in Kant’s subjective universal—which is separate from both reason and cognition–can nonetheless be rationally justified. The passionate lucidity we identified in Diderot’s aesthetics is also present in his attitude towards passionate love. And the author does, indeed, repeatedly express this attitude in his love letters to Sophie Volland.

“Look within yourself, my Sophie, and tell me why you are so sincere, so frank, so true in your words? It’s because these very qualities are the foundation of your character and the guide of your behavior.” ( 45)

The reasons for personal like are, in fact, generalizable. If Diderot admires his mistress’ sincerity and frankness, it is because he loves these qualities in general. For Diderot not only is love tied to knowledge—looking at the beloved open-eyed, knowing her and loving her for who she is—but also to ethics—loving in her qualities one can admire in other human beings. In one letter, he advises Sophie:

“Let’s act in such a way, my friend, that your life is without lies. The more I will respect you, the more honest you will be. The more I will show you my virtues, the more you will love me.” (47)

Yet love, like the appreciation of art, requires some special preference and a lot of imagination. Lucidity alone is not enough. Seeing someone for who she is does not imply one will fall madly in love with her. Nor does the fact she exhibits qualities one admires imply a preference for her over all others who share those qualities. Love is a non-distortive enhancement of the real. In other words, Diderot does not attribute qualities that aren’t there to Sophie. But he does value those qualities especially in her. Given the magnification of value in love, it’s not surprising Diderot confesses to his beloved: “Tell me why I find you more lovable with each passing day. Where do you hide some of your qualities which I hadn’t noticed before?” (47)

To maintain this state of freshness, wonder and excitement, love depends upon the interplay between proximity and distance. When the beloved is too close, one gets near-sighted and risks taking her for granted. When she’s too far, one loses sight of her and feelings can diminish or become too solipsistic. Regular contact, proximity, only enhances the imagination. Which is why Diderot constantly imagines himself with Sophie even when they’re apart. In his thoughts and feelings—through their very intimacy—he bridges the distance which constantly threatens to separate them and diminish their feelings:

“How are you today? Did you sleep well? Do you sometimes sleep as I do, open-armed. How tender was your gaze yesterday! How you’ve been looking at me like that for quite a while… I kiss you; oh I kiss you well, isn’t that true? And it’s always the same pleasure for me… always! They wouldn’t believe this, but this is in spite of all the commonplace sayings, may they be those of Solomon. This man had too many women to understand anything about the soul of a man who loves and respects only one.” (50)

Which brings us to the next quality of passionate love. Love renders the beloved unique. In this respect, it is different from ethics. While we may say, along with Kant, that a good action or intent is good only if we believe it to be good for everyone, the same logic does not fully apply to love. There may be thousands of women as frank and down-to-earth as Sophie Volland. But Diderot adores only her. His life revolves uniquely around Sophie. Which is why passion is never static. In creating such a hypervaluation and interdependency, even the most enduring and stable love oscillates emotionally. Because when one prizes one human being above all others, one becomes vulnerable to him or her. Diderot often expresses such doubts:

“I know neither happiness nor pain… if I have the least worry about you. Do you love? Is this how you desire to be loved?” (81)

Jealousy is also never far removed from his mind. He even goes so far as to be jealous of Sophie’s sister, whom he suspects of excessive intimacy with his mistress. Yet as much as passion disperses emotion in a flurry of contradictory feelings, it nonetheless remains rooted in the constancy of sentiment and the pursuit of mutual happiness. Passion is a form of dynamic stability. With you, Diderot explains getting to the essence of passionate love, “I feel, I love, I listen, I look, I caress. I have a kind of existence that I prefer to all others” (87-8).

The endurance of earthly love—like the love of art– gives a materialist like Diderot the only hope for afterlife. If love is so deep and constant, who knows if, even in a world deprived of the solace of a personalized divinity, that sense of meaning might not last forever? Perhaps even death, Diderot hopes in one of the most moving passages of his entire oeuvre, cannot separate those who have loved, as Diderot certainly did, with passionate lucidity:

“When the cell is divided in a hundred thousand parts, the primitive animal dies, but all his laws still exist. O, my Sophie, I still have the hope to touch you, to feel you, to love you, to seek you, to blend with you when we no longer exist! If there were in our nature a law of affinity; if we were destined to blend into one common being; if in the space of eternity I could remake a whole with you; if the dispersed molecules of your lover became agitated and began to search for yours! Leave me this hope, this consolation. It’s so sweet. It assures me of eternity in you and with you.” (91)

Passion for art and passion in life–this delicate balance between the emotional and the cognitive, between intimately personal feelings and transmittable knowledge–Diderot suggests, are the closest human beings come to reaching immortality. And who are we to disagree?

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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Rousseau on Love: Passion in Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse

In 1837, Victor Hugo wrote to his friend, Juliette Drouet, “A letter is a kiss sent by mail.” Hugo’s brief phrase captures the essence of the rich tradition of epistolary novels in France. Although referring to real letters as opposed to novels, Hugo’s definition underscores the expressive powers of letters to convey through language a sense of intimacy and immediacy of communication that rivals, and sometimes even exceeds, direct contact. For Hugo, as for the epistolary novelists, passionate love is the privileged subject of letters. Only because of the special status of this subject can Hugo compare a letter to a kiss sent by mail.

Using Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse as a significant example of the tradition of French epistolary novels, I wish to examine how this novel is able to represent Romantic passion in a modern way that comes close to how we understand it today: namely, as a complex, compelling, at once emotional, cognitive and ethical force that is at the very center of our lives. Rousseau’s representation of passion is all the more important because it contributes to displacing reductive or dismissive views of the concept. La Nouvelle Héloïse illustrates that passion cannot be regarded simply as the opposite of either morality or reason; which is to say, as a blind and uncontrollable drive that threatens human societies. Because of the close connection established by Rousseau between passion and morality, in Enlightenment and Pathology, Anne Vila aptly classifies Rousseau’s novels as contributing to the Enlightenment morale sensitive, placing them alongside the writings of the naturalist Tissot. She maintains that both authors attempted to preserve natural virtue by using the healthy aspects of sensibility to perform a moral cleansing of the sources of social corruption and of the uncontrollable elements of emotion itself.

Perhaps due in part to the complexities of its literary form, however, Rousseau’s vision of love exceeds the boundaries of its own moralism. While the author describes passion as sometimes uncontrollable, forceful and emotive, he also relates it to human values, cognition, sense of purpose and processes of reasoning. As Martha Nussbaum puts it in Upheavals of Thought, “Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself. Thus a theoretical account of emotions is not only that: it has large consequences for the theory of practical reason, for normative ethics and for the relationship between ethics and aesthetics” (3). Rousseau’s early Romantic vision of passion does, indeed, provide us with such a complex and messy ethical model of human emotion, one which is inextricably tied to its literary form.

The Epistolary Novel

La Nouvelle Héloïse does not convey, however, a universal philosophy of love. Rather, this novel captures in a literary manner a historical moment whose effects we continue to experience today. I wish to explore here Rousseau’s depiction of passion and its connections to other human faculties and concepts—such as virtue, honor, reason and jealousy—by pursuing some of the ethical, aesthetic and social questions raised by this novel. Why, for instance, does the author choose, as did so many others before him, the epistolary form as the optimal literary medium for the expression of passion? How do letters come to acquire the privileged status assumed by Hugo as conduits of human sentiment? Similarly, in the end, what model of the family does Rousseau endorse in depicting the effects of passionate love?

Nancy Armstrong shows in Desire and Domestic Fiction that the tradition of the epistolary novel in England, Germany and France contributed to the formation of a modern understanding of desire and love that could fit the social and emotional needs of the new nuclear family. While certainly participating in this cultural process, Rousseau’s novel at the same time poses an obstacle for it. As the abundant criticism on the subject reveals, the conclusion of La Nouvelle Héloïse is puzzling: not so much in its tragic resolution, but rather in its implicit critique of all of the models of love and of the family it represents. In other words, the complex logic of passion both creates and undoes Rousseau’s proposed system of moral values.

To begin examining this problem, let me first briefly situate Rousseau’s novel with respect to the tradition of epistolary literature and expressive theories of art. While novels contained letters before the eighteenth-century, it was during this period that the epistolary novel became most popular. One of the most famous seventeenth-century novels of letters, Guilleragues’ Lettres portugaises, already foreshadowed the tension among uncontrollable passion, individual moral limitations and social constraints as the major theme of the epistolary genre. During the eighteenth-century, this type of novel became so popular in France that it branched out into several sub-genres. We could characterize, for example, Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721) and Madame de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une péruvienne (1747) as travel narratives or as novels of ideas; while Crébillon’s Lettres de la marquise de… au comte de R…(1742) and Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) fit into the category of libertine novels. This tradition of literature gained prevalence between the years 1750 and 1820, and, as J. Herman indicates in Le mensonge romanesque, reached the peak of its popularity in 1780, when 450 letter-novels were published in France, a third of which were translations of British fiction.

Not surprisingly, the rise in popularity of epistolary fiction more or less coincided with the birth of Romanticism and expressive theories of art. The main principles of Romantic literature seem particularly well-suited to the epistolary form. In The Mirror and the Lamp, M. H. Abrams illustrates that Romantic literature presents art as a special kind of expression of feeling. Taking Wordsworth as his principal example, Abrams finds in the latter’s definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” a more general characteristic of Romantic literature, even that which, like Rousseau’s novel, predates British Romanticism.

We can see how the epistolary novel would lend itself to the Romantic understanding of emotion. The letter form easily mimics real letters and builds upon the seventeenth-century tradition of letter writing popularized by Mme de Sévigné. The use of the first-person singular in letters conveys the impression of a transparent self pouring out his or her real feelings to a reader prepared for emotional identification. At the same time, as J. Herman points out in his study of the genre, the epistolary novel’s use of several correspondents and of a variety of situations and points of view allows for complexity of expression, creating what Bakhtin has called a “polyphonic” or multiple-voiced text. This genre also permits the cohesion and organization of ideas, themes and tropes, since epistolary novels are often presented by an editor who clarifies what is happening, makes value judgments and provides readers with additional information in prefaces and footnotes.

The Novel’s Plot and Sources

Rousseau wrote La Nouvelle Héloïse at Monmorency. This novel was in part inspired by his love for Sophie d’Houdetot, who was in turn in love with the poet St.-Lambert. Published in 1761, La Nouvelle Héloïse became an instant bestseller. Expressive, poignant and emotive, the novel had special appeal for its readers as many of them thought it was not a work of fiction, but the exchange of real love letters. Once literary expression could be linked to authenticity of feeling, the gap between reality and representation appeared to diminish, if not altogether disappear. The scene is set on the shores of Lake Geneva, but the plot harks back in time to the relationship between Peter Abelard and his pupil and mistress, Heloise.

As in the medieval relationship, the heroine, Julie, the daughter of the Baron d’Etange, falls in love with her middle-class tutor, Saint-Preux. Since Julie’s father hopes to find a suitable aristocratic match for his daughter, he strongly opposes her marriage to the tutor. Upset by the tension in her family, Julie’s mother dies of sorrow. Although Saint-Preux is obliged to leave Julie and travels around the world, the lovers remain closely in touch through their letters. When he returns, Julie is already married to Wolmar, an aristocrat who nonetheless seems to represent Rousseau’s middle-class ideals of masculinity. Frugal, virtuous, practical and rational, the husband complements the wife’s sensitive and emotive femininity. The tutor eventually joins the couple and their family without reigniting his affair with Julie and thus violating their sense of honor. Yet the fragile equilibrium among the three friends breaks once Julie sacrifices her life to save a child from drowning.

Significantly, one of Saint-Preux’s first gestures is to establish both rhetorically and sentimentally the modernity of his relationship to Julie by distinguishing himself from Abelard. As is well known, Peter Abelard (1079-1142), one of the foremost logicians and philosophers of his times. He’s arguably even more famous, however, because of his tumultuous personal life: most notably, the fact that he fell in love, had a child with and secretly married Heloise, the aristocratic girl he tutored. To punish Abelard for dishonoring his niece, Heloise’s uncle hired a group of thugs to attack and castrate the young man. Both Abelard and Heloise subsequently retreated into monasteries. Following their separation, Abelard did not show the same intensity and loyalty of feelings to Heloise that she maintained for him and that Saint-Preux wishes to show his beloved. The difference between medieval and modern romance, Rousseau suggests, lies not so much in the behavior of the woman as in that of the man.

As Saint-Preux writes to Julie just after their first kiss and overt avowals of love, “I’ve always felt sorry for Héloïse; she had a heart made for love; but Abélard never seemed anything but a sad man who deserved his fate, since he knew as little about love as about virtue” (Première partie, Lettre XXIV, Flammarion, 61, my translation). Embittered by his punishment and true to the religious values of his times, Abelard proved incapable of perceiving erotic love as at the same time sublime and transcendental. He ultimately chose the love of God over passion for his beloved. Saint-Preux wishes to do the opposite. He gives voice to the early Romantic conception of human love as (at least in part) transcendental.

For him, Romantic love entails the elevation in esteem of a human being who comes to represent ideal moral and aesthetic qualities: beauty, virtue, goodness. These qualities had been associated with the divine by previous models of love, including the Platonic and the Christian, which, as Martha Nussbaum points out in Upheavals of Thought, had represented love as an ascending ladder from the contingent (or ephemeral, accidental and carnal desire) to the transcendental (or everlasting feelings motivated by universal or religious values). Yet, one may ask, why the need to attribute transcendental value to earthly love? And how is this possible to achieve when speaking of relationships between contingent, vulnerable and imperfect human beings? These questions lie at the center of a novel that represents the tension between the fragility of human life and feelings and the search for absolute meaning—a tension that would become the chief characteristic of Romantic literature, art and philosophy.

Human Flourishing and Romantic Passion

At first glance, in La Nouvelle Héloïse love is sensual. The famous bosquet scene, where Julie, Saint-Preux and Claire share their first kisses, captures the enchantment but also the dangers inherent in erotic desire. Saint-Preux surprises the two best friends and cousins, Julie and Claire, hiding and whispering in a bush:

“Upon entering, I saw with surprise your cousin approach me, and, with a pleasantly suppliant air, ask me for a kiss. Without comprehending this mystery, I kissed this charming friend; and, likable and appealing as she is, I never knew that sensations are that which the heart makes them to be. But what do I become a moment after when I felt … my hand trembles… a sweet shiver… your mouth like a rose…Julie’s mouth…placed, pressed upon mine…and my body pressed close to yours.” (34, Première Partie, Lettre XVI à Julie)

For a picture of the first kiss of the Romantic couple, this scene is so tantalizingly triangular that we’re tempted to ask what logic requires the presence of Claire. I would argue that this triadic scene allows passionate love to emerge (as it will end) in the context of moral ambiguity. For if the author wishes to situate sensual pleasure in the midst of innocence, what could create a more appropriate situation than two timid school girls whispering to each other, hiding and blushing once they notice the young man they are talking about approach them?

Moreover, what better way to proclaim the involuntary nature of erotic passion, than to initiate it playfully, not by the heroine—who cannot be represented as a libertine or seductress—but by her less eroticized foil? Finally, what better way to describe the difference between harmless desire and tumultuous passion than through the dramatic contrast between Saint-Preux’s responses to the two girls’ kisses? While Claire’s kiss barely registers, Julie’s unleashes the fury of passion, marking its moral ambivalence as both key to virtue and path to destruction: “No, the fire of the sky is not more lively nor more swift than the one that overcame me the minute we kissed.” (34, Première Partie, Lettre XVI à Julie).

Ambivalence also manifests itself in contradictory bodily and psychological reactions. On the one hand, passion gives cohesion to the scattered self, focusing mind and body upon the intensity of feeling and pleasure. This movement towards unity and coherence, however, is countered by a simultaneous and greater movement towards dispersion and self-destruction. Julie takes Saint-Preux’s description of the force of passion as a moral indictment. She too feels overwhelmed by her feelings and sensations:

“I had foreseen all too well, the time of happiness passed like lightning; the one of disgrace begins, without anything telling us when it will end. Everything alarms and discourages me; a fatal languor overcomes my soul; without having any reason to cry, involuntary tears escape from my eyes…” (Première Partie, Lettre XXV de Julie, 52)

Passion thus assumes the signs that we still commonly associate with it and have made generations of Romantic and Postromantic writers describe it as a force akin to madness: loss of coherence of the sense of identity; loss of control over one’s emotions and actions; depression and loss of vital energy; despair; a sense of detachment from the world and loss of meaning. As the mind gives in to this irrational drive, the body becomes animalized by its own sensuality. When the author focuses upon Saint-Preux’s agitation after the kiss, however, he saves the hero from his drives only by depicting his acute self-awareness:

“In the violent transports that move me, I wouldn’t know how to stay in place; I run, I climb with ardor; I throw myself upon rocks; I roam about with big steps and find everywhere in the objects that surround me the same horror that reigns inside of me.” (54)

To off-set the effect of the centrifugal movement towards the body and immanence, Saint-Preux evokes centripetal, cohesive images of unity and transcendence. Like Goethe’s Werther, Saint-Preux looks into himself to find a world. The inner world of memories, visual images, and fantasies supplants the dangerous effects of tangible reality. Moving upward on the classical ladder of love, the hero transforms the comic vision of androgyny depicted by the character of Aristophanes in the Symposium into a tragic Romantic union of two complementary beings:

“Come, oh my soul! In your friend’s arms let us unite the two halves of our being; come before the sky, guide of our flight and witness to our vows, swear to live and die for one another.” ( Premiere Partie, Lettre xxvi à Julie, 53)

Yet the tension between such literary and philosophical elements would remain abstract without the concreteness of social rules and assumptions to give them a specific meaning. Saint-Preux invokes codes of honor to assure Julie that she has no reason to despair. If their act of love had any moral ambiguity, that could be easily corrected by conforming to social and moral conventions and marrying each other. In his advice, Saint-Preux both relies upon and shifts codes of conduct. It had long been the case that marrying the woman one made love to would save her from dishonor. Yet at the same time, the alliance-based model of the family poses an obstacle to such an easy solution. The problem is, of course, that Julie’s family planned to marry her to a man of the same social class and would prohibit her marriage to the middle-class tutor. To overcome this barrier would mean nothing less than succeeding in persuading Julie’s parents that a new model of the nuclear family, based on mutual love and class mobility, should supplant the dominant one they believed in. Perceiving this obstacle as insurmountable, Julie accuses her lover of disingenuous naiveté:

“There was a time, my sweet friend, when our letters were light and charming; the sentiment that dictated them flowed with elegant simplicity; it didn’t need either art or color, and its purity was its only decoration… A pure and sacred fire burned in our hearts; abandoned to the ways of the senses, we are now nothing more than vulgar lovers.”  ( Lettre XXXII, 63-64)

In her accusation, Julie does more than suggest that her lover underestimates the power and value of social prescriptions. She also does more than demand a Romantic understanding of love as an unmediated and undistorted expression of true feelings. Julie proposes a complex model of sentiment, which we can call, following Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelian description, as the eudaimonic model of love. Such a model regards the beloved as supremely important to one’s happiness and well-being, or what Aristotle called human “flourishing”. This importance is not abstract, but rather related to practical circumstances and possibilities. It depends upon issues such as: does the beloved deserve this valorization; does the love have a future; can the lovers actualize in practical life their union and prove how important they are to one another?

Julie sees love as inextricably tied to three aspects of human experience: 1) her appraisal of the importance of the lovers to one another; 2) her appraisal of their moral distinction (do they act in a sufficiently ethical and dignified way not only toward each other, but also toward others they care about, to be deserving of profound sentiments?), and 3) her appraisal of practical facts and possibilities (can they live out their love and in what manner?). If Julie remains unconvinced by Saint-Preux’s easy moral solution to their problems, it’s because she can’t answer firmly and positively two out of these three questions. Although it’s clear to her that St-Preux is fundamentally important to her happiness and that she is to his, that’s not sufficient to make their love dignified and happy. For instance, Julie is not convinced that their behavior was ethical toward each other both because it risked degrading feelings of friendship to desire and because it does not take into consideration the feelings of other people they care deeply about, most notably Julie’s parents. She’s even less convinced that their love has any practical possibilities, given her father’s desire to marry her to an aristocrat.

What kind of human flourishing is made possible by Romantic passion? Rather than a more strictly Aristotelian one tied to practical possibilities, ethics and external circumstances, Rousseau offers us an internal, psychological model of human flourishing. Romantic passion is nothing less than a conflagration of the senses and emotions ignited by the object of desire as well as by various psychological reactions. Since love is above all a shared emotional state, the author illustrates the importance of jealousy, possession, ambiguity and doubt in fanning the movements of passion. Saint-Preux and Julie constantly provoke and alleviate each other’s jealousy in a partly conscious effort to preserve excitement and desire. St-Preux, for instance, deliberately mentions to Julie his attraction to a beautiful young woman, only to reassure her in a subsequent letter:

“How I should love, this pretty Mme Belon, for the pleasure she has given me! Pardon me, divine Julie, I dared enjoy for a moment your tender tears, and it was one of the sweetest moments of my life… What was your delighted lover doing? Was he conversing with Mme Belon? Ah! My Julie, can you believe that? No, no, incomparable girl, he was better occupied! With what charm his heart followed the movements of yours!” (Lettre XXXIV, de St Preux, Première partie, 66)

Giving oneself to another, the author suggests, can exist only in the space of intersubjectivity. Two lovers cannot devote themselves to one another in an imaginary world made only for two, as though they lived on a desert island. To give oneself meaningfully to another, one needs to have the sense of choice and freedom. Passion implies the existence of alternatives and the sacrifice of the multiplicity of desire to the strength of one dominant sentiment. When we claim to love we say: among all possible and desirable partners, I give myself to you. But the sacrifice is meaningful, in the sense of not being merely arbitrary, only if there is a qualitative difference of desire and emotion for the beloved as opposed to the impersonal desire for all others. That is to say, love renders the object of affection unique and the nature of desire more intense and rich in feeling—and thus the threat posed by jealousy unreal.

So then, we are led to ask, what is the role of jealousy in passionate love? To create affective movements. The interplay between multiple objects of desire and the choice for the most compelling one. The interplay between freedom and possession. The homage of sacrificing other attractions for one person. The titillation of possibly losing privileged status in the eyes of the one we love. The security of having it, and deservedly, for the moment. In describing the modern self, Rousseau renders jealousy more than just an isolated emotion by tying it to will, freedom of choice, sacrifice, sentiment and moral obligation. When founded, jealousy potentially undoes all of these elements. When unfounded, it makes each dimension of love richer and more poignant.

Julie’s reply, as usual, nuances the picture of the role played by emotions such as jealousy in passion. She responds more cautiously:

“It’s not that I don’t know that your heart is made for mine and not another. But we can fool ourselves, mistake a passing fancy for passion, and do as many things by whim as we would have done for love… Swear to me, then, my sweet friend, not by love, a sermon that we only give when it’s superfluous, but by the sacred word of honor; that if respected by you, I will never cease being the confidante of your heart, and that no change will take place of which I’m not first informed.” (Première Partie Lettre XXXV, 69)

Julie, however, is only partly satisfied with her lover’s account of jealousy. She believes that his conception of love carries inherent risks. When love is so emotional and sensual, and moreover, when it’s so dependent upon the efforts of one’s imagination to idealize the beloved and render her unique, what distinguishes the manifestations of real passion from a mere coup de foudre; from a strong and impulsive desire? While the durability of passion, the history and friendship of the lovers, the mutual respect based on known rather than merely supposed psychological qualities all render the difference between passion and desire palpable when the two are contemplated calmly and from a distance, they resemble each other in the heat of the moment.

Moreover, Julie observes, with the proper attention and focus, the more superficial form of attraction can develop into love. Knowing that jealousy is based, quite legitimately, on the slippery and often sudden progression from desire to love, Julie asks her lover to warn her of the early symptoms of this transition. She proposes a modern model of faithfulness in love, which she calls “honor,” but which is actually more psychological than social in nature. Fidelity demands the exercise of judgment and caution, the avoidance of potentially dangerous situations which can heat up the senses and create the illusion of true love, and above all, the avoidance of obsessive focus upon other objects of desire that enhances their qualities and renders them special.

First and foremost, therefore, Julie asks Saint-Preux to regard the difference between desire and love ontologically. While the other women he desires are substitutable, she needs to remain a unique and privileged being in his eyes. Second, this distinction must also occur on an epistemological level: for while desire may be involuntary, our consciousness of it is not. Julie thus requires her lover’s mental self-awareness to fortify his moral restraint: as soon as he observes in himself the enhancement and focus upon another woman he desires, she should be the first other person to know about it. In so doing, she claims to appeal to Saint-Preux’s sense of honor, not his love.

What could she mean by this distinction? Given the fact that strong desire and passion can share the same symptoms—if not the same causes—as we all know, love does not guarantee fidelity. Nor does moral obligation, since immediate desires can exceed it, or, to put it more simply, the flesh is weak. What emerges from Julie’s response is thus a more nuanced vision of the ethics of Romantic love. Faithlessness, she implies, has its warning signs. Human beings don’t act upon their desires, like animals, without some psychological preparation: focusing upon desirable persons and their attributes, mentally enhancing their qualities in their imaginations, and perhaps even seeking their company in ambiguous circumstances. Before this chain of symptoms is irreversibly unleashed, Julie demands to be forewarned of the process that transforms attraction into passion so that, together with her lover, they can help one another to remain faithful.

Having transformed the notion of passionate love, Rousseau does the same for that of moral duty. By means of Julie’s reflections on jealousy, he suggests that honor is neither, strictly speaking, the observance of universal moral principles nor that of social prescriptions. Far from opposing morality to convention and principle to desire, Rousseau makes us aware of the intimate links among principle, emotion and desire. Morality begins with the awareness of these connections. For it is above all an epistemological act of self-awareness which makes possible the control of destructive desires, meaning those that hurt oneself, the beloved and society by and large. Only after taking such precautions does Julie agree with Saint-Preux that—when unfounded—jealousy is delightful:

“What pleasure I taste in taking useless precautions; in preventing the appearance of a change which I sense to be impossible! What charm to talk of jealousy with such a faithful lover!” (70)

Julie is acutely interested in everything Saint-Preux has to say not only about other women, but also about nature, society and culture. She responds thoughtfully to his observations about how French society corrupts the difference between men and women—including his classically Rousseauistic conviction that women need to remain women and men men and that in order to stay properly gendered the sexes should live separately and fulfill different social roles. Jealousy thus serves a point of departure to show not only the potential dangers of being permeable to other human beings, but also its merit in opening us up by our awakening interest in that which is greater than the individual and the couple. By talking about others to Julie, Saint-Preux may excite her jealousy sometimes, but above all he stimulates her interest in broader social phenomena. In this way, the relationship itself remains open to other human beings and to the outside world, encouraging sympathy and civic virtue as well as reinforcing the couple’s love through close communication.

This permeability to one another and sensibility to the world, however, also leads to instability. Perhaps because of its charged and fluid emotional states, passionate love, Rousseau suggests, cannot exist without a sense of doubt: without, that is, the possibility not only of its diminution, but also its dissolution. As worrisome as the tumultuous movements of passion seemed to the lovers, what troubles them much more is a sense of tranquility and complacency. Alarmed by his own calmness, St-Preux declares:

“What calm in all my senses! What pure, continuous, universal voluptuousness! The charm of ecstasy was in the soul; it will never leave it; it will last forever. What a difference between the furors of love and such a peaceful situation!” (Lettre LV a Julie, 97-98)

Rousseau would like to illustrate that intense passion can be calm and sublimated; that love, once its erotic and emotive elements have been stabilized, grows stronger, more virtuous and deeper. Yet his characters spectacularly contradict such a model of passion. To them, the presence of tranquility only indicates the absence of strong feelings. The doubts awakened by the apparent calmness—raising questions such as, are my feelings as strong, do I still love her, what does that imply about the passionate and loving person I thought I was—only reawaken the movements of emotion. These doubts provoke a sense of despair about the nature of sentiment and identity which arouse Romantic feelings once again with renewed intensity.

The calmness of passionate love is thus only the eye of the tornado; an apparent stillness that’s surrounded by agitation. Passion does not lead to a Stoic or Epicurean understanding of happiness defined negatively, as the tranquility that results from the lack of physical and psychological pain about events outside of one’s control. Rather, passion is a key component in a Romantic understanding of happiness which is more positive than negative. Romantic fulfillment signifies not the absence of pain but the presence of heightened sensations and emotions, especially those provoked by a person who reciprocates and deserves them. Passionate love is shared rather than solipsistic and intense rather than calm.

Rousseau suggests that a genuinely tranquil love—one in which happiness is understood as the lack of pain—requires the absence of strong erotic and emotional attraction. Wolmar’s relationship to Julie illustrates such a relationship. Yet is this calmer model of love and, more generally, of fulfillment more promising than the one offered by passion? Julie and Saint-Preux had frequently discussed the necessary complementarity between men and women. Saint-Preux had often criticized in his letters to Julie the masculinity of French aristocratic women who were as educated as men, surrounded by them in their roles as salonnières, and even behaved like men in devoting their lives to politics and intellectual pursuits. Nonetheless, Julie and Saint-Preux are hardly the complimentary beings implied by their own model of gender. If anything, the two characters are strikingly similar. Both lovers are sensual, sensitive, emotive, observant, obsessive, expressive and analytical. Their actions and rhetoric are at times undifferentiable (although Saint-Preux is at times more heated in his words and reckless in his behavior). By way of contrast to Saint-Preux, Wolmar represents a true masculine foil to Julie and makes her appear more feminine by comparison. What kind of interaction does such gender complementarity yield? In depicting her husband, Julie describes their relationship as follows:

“I never saw him either happy or sad, but always content; he never talks to me about himself, rarely about me; he doesn’t seek me, but he’s not upset when I seek him, and leaves me unwillingly. He doesn’t laugh; is serious without making others want to be as well; on the contrary, his serenity seems to invite my play… In a word, he wants me to be happy; he doesn’t say it, but I see it; and wanting the happiness of one’s wife, isn’t that obtaining it?” (101)

Being cold and reserved, Wolmar’s love is not impelled by strong emotions or desires, but by a sense of respect, like, and familiarity which Julie calls “attachment.” This attitude is stable and lasting because the reasons behind it are: if Julie was worthy enough of Wolmar’s affection and respect before marriage, provided that she behaves appropriately, she will continue to deserve them. As Anne Vila points out, Julie describes Wolmar as a man who combines a classically Stoic attitude—of apatheia, or absence of feeling in the face of external forces beyond one’s control—with a modern protestant capitalist ethic of frugality and moral health. (see Enlightenment and Pathology, 211). The complementarity between man and woman, in this case, is obvious, but does it lead to love and, perhaps more importantly, to a sense of human flourishing? Julie wishes to persuade Saint-Preux that she considers the former less essential than the latter. Abandoning the idea that passion is necessary for happiness, she writes to her ex-lover:

“What misled me for a long time, and what may still mislead you, is the idea that love is necessary for a happy marriage. My friend, that’s a mistake…” (Lettre XX de Julie , 274).

Julie claims to share her husband’s understanding of love as a form of mutual respect and friendship. More fundamentally, she accepts his Stoic conception of happiness as the lack of moral and physical pain. She also wishes to emphasize that this model of human relationships, which is calm and self-sufficient, is not by extension also selfish or even amoral. Wolmar may not seek pleasure in life, but he encourages his more fun-loving wife to laugh, enjoy herself and feel happy. Moreover, despite his self-sufficiency, he places value upon her and their children, showing normal fatherly concern when one of them appears to be in danger. Much as he has given us a modern and thus transformed understanding of passionate love by depicting the relationship between the lovers, Rousseau proceeds to present a modernized notion of Stoic virtue in marriage. Does the author set one form of love and happiness above the other? Which one does he ultimately endorse as a role model in his representations of the interaction between men and women and of the nuclear family? As I suggested in the beginning, it appears that both and neither. For just as passionate love could not lead to moral and social stability, love without passion precludes communication and intimacy. Not fooled by Julie’s consistent praise of her husband, St-Preux writes quite critically of the marriage:

“You know Julie, you who know how much this expansive soul loves to share; imagine what she would suffer in this reserved atmosphere, when she would have nothing but this sad communication between those who should have everything in common.” (Cinquième partie, Lettre V à Milord Eduard, p 448)

If intense passion rendered the lovers too similar and volatile to form a stable and lasting union, complementarity renders husband and wife too different to communicate meaningfully. In her last letter, before her death, Julie confirms Saint-Preux’s evaluation of her marriage by declaring that it’s only with him that she seeks eternal union: “The virtue that will separate us on earth will unite us in our eternal resting place.” (Sixth Part, Lettre XII de Julie, 566).

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect about some of the reasons why both models of Romantic love—the passionate and the conjugal—are doomed to failure in Rousseau’s Romantic vision of human emotion. It seems that in the first part of the novel, the author elevated the notion of passionate love to critique the old, alliance model of the family. This model assumed that marriages were made to unite the economic and social interests of two families rather than two beings who loved each other.

The rest of the novel, however, relies upon an ambivalent representation of passion to elevate a model of marriage that strikingly resembles the one previously critiqued. Wolmar marries Julie in part because they’re both aristocrats. Such a marriage clearly serves mutual economic and social interests. Rousseau suggests that to be moral love must be intimately connected to social virtue, as Wolmar’s and Julie’s relationship certainly is and St-Preux’s and Julie’s illicit affair is not, or at least much less obviously. At the same time, the author presents passion as a necessary link between personal and civic virtue. Without passion, in other words, it’s very difficult to be moral.

At the conclusion of the novel, Julie must be sacrificed precisely because the conjugal friendship she has established with her husband leads to a conventional and arid form of virtue rather than to the heart-felt and authentic one endorsed by the novel. What can this paradoxical scenario—where the unpredictability and fire of passionate love overwhelm civic virtue while the tranquility of conjugal friendship render moral behavior a mere convention or abstraction—tell us about Rousseau’s early Romantic conception of passion? Most obviously, it suggests that passion is both necessary and problematic to the individual and to society. Yet even more interesting than the contradictions of Rousseauistic passion is the model of eudaimonia sketched by the novel. For it seems that although La Nouvelle Héloïse sets passion in partial opposition to moral and civic duties, it also depicts it as necessary to human flourishing.

Rousseau’s representation of passion as a foil to conjugal love, in its very tensions and impasses, traces the ethical and emotional boundaries of what we continue to view as the truest and most meaningful form of love today. While passionate love may often violate civic duties and moral principles, it also preserves some of the most fundamental aspects of social ethics. In loving passionately, we step outside our egocentric boundaries to value and even sacrifice our desires for another human being. We also acknowledge the permeability and vulnerability of the self, our dependency upon others, particularly upon those we care about deeply. Finally, individuated love may lead to social sympathy, or to forms of identification with people we do not know well or love, cementing in a real rather than solely abstract manner the concept of civic virtue. Through his Romantic conception of passionate love, Rousseau suggests that although love may sometimes obfuscate the path to civic virtue, such virtue cannot exist without the emotive responses, appreciation of other human beings and modes of identification that only passion excites.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

http://www.amazon.com/Romanticism-Postromanticism-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/0739116754

 


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