When God died—that is, when Western intellectuals and artists of the 18th and 19th centuries began finding themselves unable to believe in the Christianity of their forebears or its deity—the idea took hold that in selfless love for another person one could find the same absolute intensity of feeling, capacity for moral regeneration and conviction of one's own immortality that had been previously associated with the love of God.
Simon May, a philosophy professor at the University of London's Birkbeck College and the author of "Love: A History," describes this phenomenon, peculiar to modernity, as the "divinization of human love." In the Western imagination, he says, "love came to play God"—that is, the belief in the power of love supplanted religion as "our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment." Mr. May describes the humanist funerals he has attended in which there is typically a declaration that this will be a "godless ceremony"—accompanied by an equally adamant declaration that the love between the deceased and those close to him somehow "survives" his death.
All About Love
By Lisa Appignanesi
Norton, 399 pages, $28.95
The story told by Mr. May—and also, in their own ways, by Lisa Appignanesi in "All About Love" and by Paul Hollander in "Extravagant Expectations"—is not a new one, of course. It is the story of the rise of Romanticism, which exalted feeling and conceived of a heroic self ever in search of an ideal human Other, one in whom the self could find perfect consummation, even if that consummation violated conventional social and moral norms concerning marriage and chastity. As early as 1939, Denis de Rougemont, in his "Love in the Western World," located the origins of the modern conception of all-consuming human love in the lyrics that 12th-century Occitanian troubadours composed in praise of their (usually married) mistresses. The troubadours' idealization of the beloved and of amorous passion itself helped inspire the Romantic sensibility several centuries later.
During the rapidly secularizing 20th century, as divorce and sex outside of marriage became accepted (a process accelerated during the 1960s by rebellion against convention and efficient birth control), the Romantic championing of all-consuming human love, once mostly the province of disheveled geniuses, became democratized. Nowadays everyone seems to be seeking someone upon whom to bestow a love that is "enduring, unconditional, and selfless" (Mr. May's words) and expecting reciprocation from the chosen object of affection. When that chosen object proves to be either nonexistent or all too humanly disappointing, there might be a divorce, a breakup or bitter resentment—but the search usually goes on.
In the view of novelist Lisa Appignanesi, even a bitter outcome is not such a bad thing. "Affairs, great or casual loves, make the story we tell about ourselves, about our lives, rich and varied. They proffer meaning. And the pleasures of passion," she writes in "All About Love." Although people also expect "a predictable steadfastness" and a sense of "exclusive specialness" from their beloveds, especially spouses, the expectation should be tempered by a realization that "the love that sees us through life is a gift freely given by the other, not a form of enslavement."
Ms. Appignanesi's rambling, minimally organized "All About Love" is a kind of case study that bolsters Mr. May's arguments about the displacement of religiosity by a mushy, self-regarding amorous sentimentality. Ms. Appignanesi's book is part autobiographical memoir (with much lurid emphasis on her psychically straitened—as she tells it—although comfortably middle-class childhood in repressed pre-Trudeau Quebec); part collection of interviews with informants (her friends?) who are startlingly candid about their sexual and marital adventures; part dogged Freudian analysis (Ms. Appignanesi has written several Freud-centric books and is taken with the postmodernist literary theories of the French neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan); and part—no, mostly—exhaustive summary of the many, many books that Ms. Appignanesi has read, from canonical literature to self-help guides. If you would like to read Cliffs Notes-style cheat sheets for "Madame Bovary" and "Anna Karenina," the complete text of Shakespeare's sonnet "Let me not to the marriage of true minds," or every single one of the "Rules" against throwing yourself at men, as devised by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (Ms. Appignanesi is not a fan), then "All About Love" is the book for you.
There is also feminism, feminism, feminism. If the book has a chronological and thematic spine, it is that women endured millennia of oppression under strict regimes of chastity and lifelong marriage until, voilá, our own liberated time. These days all might not be entirely well (or "easy," as Ms. Appignanesi would say), but it's an improvement over what went before. "All About Love" is the sort of book that refers to any defense of marital tradition as "shrill" and sugarcoats the effects of divorce. When the children of divorce are obliged to live with other children of divorce after parents remarry, the "range of step-siblings," we're told, can "provide new interest and give love other shapes, grow the range of affections and ways of caring." We need love, Ms. Appignanesi concludes, "because it confronts us with the heights and depths of our being." Those 12th-century Occitanian troubadours have a lot to answer for.
Paul Hollander, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, might be called the anti-Lisa Appignanesi. In "Extravagant Expectations" he covers much of the same ground that she does (including a plot summary of "Madame Bovary" and unkind words for "The Rules"), except in a dystopian context.
Mr. Hollander duly notes the effect of democratized Romanticism—combined with the crumbling of Western marriage norms—on people's conceptions about the formation of intimate ties. "The core conviction of romantics is that uniquely meaningful and satisfying relationships between a man and a woman can be established under unspecified conditions, based on the revelation of profound mutual attraction and some essential compatibility." The result is those "extravagant expectations" concerning the attributes of their hoped-for love-objects and the power of love itself.
By Paul Hollander
Ivan R. Dee, 250 pages, $27.95
For sociological data, Mr. Hollander mines the dating and marriage guides written by such self-proclaimed love experts as Dr. Phil, Dr. Joyce Brothers, John "Men Are From Mars" Gray, and Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo of "He's Just Not That Into You" fame, not to mention the "Rules" duo. Mr. Hollander also looks at the ways in which users of Internet dating sites present themselves and the ideal mates for whom they quest. A "fun orientation" is the No. 1 quality most sought after, even in the religiously and politically conservative Midwest and South. Although many of the Internet romance-seekers claim to be searching for serious long-term relationships, few express much interest in the qualities that have traditionally denoted husband and wife material, such as being a good provider or skilled homemaker. Finally, Mr. Hollander takes a look at personals ads, especially the ads in the New York Review of Books, the most entertaining material in "Extravagant Expectations." The New York Review's ad-placers, two-thirds of whom are female and few of whom will ever see 45 again, carefully signal to prospective mates their "trim" figures, their "progressive" politics and most of all their expensive highbrow tastes—just mentioning "Tuscany" and "exploring restaurants" gets the job done.
Unfortunately, Mr. Hollander has little of interest to conclude about what he has found, except that it is evidence of the "consumerism" and "individualism" rampant in contemporary American life. Well, maybe. That makes Mr. May's "History of Love" by default the most intellectually engaging of the three studies. Indeed, Mr. May actually offers a serious definition of love. He calls love a feeling of "ontological rootedness" in another—whether spouse, lover, child, friend or even a thing or idea. In loving a person, Mr. May says, we are inspired by the sense that we will feel "at home" with our beloved: Being with the person will bring a sense of "validity and solidity" to our existence, one that will overcome our persistent sense of vulnerability. For that reason, Mr. May theorizes, human love is not—despite the story line promoted by the Romantics and their heirs—selfless, unconditional or eternal. In short, he says, it in no way resembles the limitlessly generous divine love of conventional Christian belief. The most ardent of human lovers fall out of love fast when they discover something distasteful about their beloved. Even parents, although they hate to admit it, have favorites among their children. Love—in contrast to admiration or a sense of duty—is rare, selective and fickle.
Love: A History
By Simon May
Yale, 304 pages, $27.50
Mr. May's thesis is provocative, but it is also problematic, because he bases it on his own eccentric and decidedly hostile reading of the Bible. In his view, the God of Judaism and Christianity is a caricature out of an atheist website: a celestial grumpy-pants who inflicts "horrors" on even his faithful Israelites. Jesus fares no better. Mr. May interprets the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, as not about divine forgiveness but about a father who happens to prefer his wastrel offspring to his dutiful brother. Christian theology was just following Jesus' lead, the author says, when it consigned outsiders to hell and heretics to the Inquisition. Nonetheless, Mr. May argues that the biblical commandment to love God with all one's heart provides a "template for a successful human relationship . . . a way of saying that our flourishing is founded upon a lifelong search for a powerful relationship to the ground of our being." One may wonder why that should be so, if the Bible is supposed to be bunk.
"Love: A History" is cloaked in pessimism about the modern world, but in the end Mr. May's exaltation of love doesn't sound much different from that of Lisa Appignanesi and the ever-hopeful authors of personals ads. He turns out to be another Romantic. That may be the point. As creatures of a secular age, we may be stuck with Romanticism, criticize it though we may. The only alternative for the godless, as Mr. May says, is despair.—Ms. Allen is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus website.