Lusting for Love

I find myself perhaps disproportionately frustrated when my students come into a medieval literature class with the idea that “in the olden days, people got married for money, not for love.” I mean, it’s true to an extent, right? But it had mattered so much to me when I first started reading literature from “the olden days” and discovered that although marriages may have been based on economic and lineage concerns, people did indeedย feel romantic love – though that romantic love may have been for someone other than their spouse…

Why does it matter so much to me? Well, remember when I confessed to that conversation I had with college friends where I claimed that Orthodox relationships are based on more than just physical lust, as if all non-Orthodox relationships are purely physical with no emotion? Yeah…. Okay, here’s some more about that.

I was always a bookworm. And I always reacted very viscerally to what I read. I identified strongly with characters, and I threw myself into the emotional turmoil and triumph of each story.

As I grew up and started reading more grown-up books, my mother grew concerned with my strong attachment to fiction (and fantasy). More than once, she told me quite clearly that romantic love as it’s portrayed in books and movies is a fiction of the modern age – that before the loss of all semblance of morality, people knew that love is based on mutual trust and working to make a marriage work. But with the loss of morality (beginning in about the late nineteenth century, with industrialization and… wait for it – America…), people wanted to indulge their lust. So they created a fiction called “romantic love” and whenever they felt lust, they called it love. And of course, that leads to the “revolving door” of sexual partners and the promiscuity and “sexual deviance” that is apparently the root cause of so many of society’s problems…

Which is why I was so excited when I began to read books and texts older than the nineteenth century and saw that in fact, these ideas of lust and romantic love being intricately intertwined existed long before industrialization and the “loss of morality…”

Last year, I took a graduate class on “Bastards, Kingship, and Kinship,” taught by a professor who studies the history of bastardy – ie when did the idea of a legal bastard develop, what were the practices associated with allowing a bastard to inherit, etc. And it turns out that’s a very important piece to understanding how the concept of marriage and love develops, influenced by economic, legal, and religious interference in emotional relationships… (Here’s a link to her book that’s been recently published, in case you want to check it out.)

The idea that lust and love are not necessarily two completely separate things (though they can be) is a revelation I’m going to cling to for quite a while still. I’ll never attempt to convince those who still think romantic love is just a fiction of the immoral world to allow them to indulge themselves. But I know for myself, and that’s enough.

5 thoughts on “Lusting for Love

  1. > I find myself perhaps disproportionately frustrated when my students come into a medieval literature class with the idea that โ€œin the olden days

    I find the whole “olden days” annoying. As though the past is one homogenous bloc that started a decade or so before the person talking was born.

    > But with the loss of morality (beginning in about the late nineteenth century,

    Because the whole of the “olden days” was Victorian. Have you noticed how when people talk about “morality,” what they really mean is sex. And not rape or promiscuity, but how acceptable it is to talk about sex and to not be ashamed about it. Never mind that by most other measures, this is the most moral era in human history. Or that they would find the sexual mores of most times and places horrifying.

    > The idea that lust and love are not necessarily two completely separate things (though they can be) is a revelation

    That’s interesting. One, I think that popular culture often takes it to the other extreme, where love and lust are inextricably intertwined. At its extreme end are those people who think their significant other shouldn’t find anyone beside themselves attractive. Two, I think this ties into the Madonna-whore complex, which is how yeshivos portray relationships with women. Either they are our mothers, sisters, or eishes chayil, who we are to love and admire as more spiritual than men, or they are succubae, objects of lust who exist to lead good yeshiva bochurim astray.

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    1. Although – there’s a new song I’ve heard around recently with a line “you just wanna touch me, you don’t want my heart” (male singer though I dont know who, or the song’s title, but he’s saying that’s not enough for him). So at least we can say our parents were wrong about pop culture *always* equating desire with love.

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  2. I always wonder how people who believe that lust is immoral feel about their bodies. I wonder if they spend all day wanting to rip their flesh apart, in order to stop feeling. Then, I wonder some more and feel an extreme sadness on behalf of anyone who doesn’t delight in love and lust, together or separate. It’s human thing.

    You know what? I should probably leave this here. Because if I start going about what about the concept of lustful love as immoral, I might never shut up. I might even start screaming.

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