I wasn't expecting to find the "Love and Sexuality" chapter in Paul Breer's book, The Spontaneous Self: Viable Alternatives to Free Will, to be very interesting. After all, he'd already made his arguments for why free will is an illusion, along with describing the benefits of giving up the illusion.
But his observations about how romantic love is largely a product of Western culture, and is at odds with Eastern philosophy, were thought-provoking. I'm not sure what to make of them, which is why the title of this blog post ends with a question mark.
What do you think? Here's excerpts from the chapter pertaining to this issue. Breer is a retired sociologist, so his views carry some academic weight.
Most of us growing up in a Western culture have either known romantic love directly or participated in the experience vicariously through literature and film. While being in [romantic] love tends to be a relatively brief experience, counted more often in months than years, our fascination with it rarely ceases altogether, even in old age.
It comes as something of a shock, therefore, to learn that the non-Western world of Asians, Indians, Africans, Polynesians, and Eskimos knows little of romantic love. A phenomenon we have always thought of as a human experience is limited primarily to Western and, to a lesser degree, Near Eastern culture.
Strange as it may seem to someone nurtured on Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind, and Love Story, it appears that, before we can fall in love, we must be educated to the concept of romantic love... According to Denis de Rougemont, at the heart of Tristan's and Iseult's passion is a surrendering of self, not to the other, but to the experience of love itself.
...That which gives romantic love its intense, unreal, soaring quality is the very thing that dooms it to non-fulfillment. The lovers are not in love with each other but with love itself. The other person is simply an excuse for being in love, the passion being "tasted and savoured for its own sake, in a kind of indifference to its living and external object."
...As free agents we are not only separate from everyone else physically; we are separate spiritually, separate as souls, separate as centers of will and moral responsibility. The more highly a culture values this spiritual separateness, the greater will be the pain of differentiation and, thus, the greater the appeal of a kind of love that promises to overcome all separation through a merging of selves.
According to this alternative hypothesis, the widespread appeal of romantic love in Western culture draws much of its power from our view of ourselves as autonomous agents. Easterners, many of whom are inclined to look upon romance with disdain, are more apt to find their basic identity in the Tao, the Buddha-nature, the Brahman, or whatever it is that transcends subject and object, the ultimately nameless One.
They view free will and moral responsibility as expedient illusions, necessary for survival in the samsaric world, but meaningless in the nirvanic world of no-form. For the un-Westernized Easterner, all autonomy is ultimately illusory. The world is One and all seemingly separate objects and selves participate in that Oneness. If differentiation appears painful, it is because we do not yet see beyond the illusion of form.
Our Western belief that individual souls remain separate throughout eternity, in heaven as well as on earth, creates a sense of personal isolation unknown elsewhere in the world. This isolation heightens the appeal of returning to a less differentiated state through a surrender of the agent/self to passion.
As Rougemont points out, romantic love is not a surrender of the self to another person, but to love itself. Surrendering to another person may ease the burden of individual responsibility, but it does not erase the boundaries of the agent/I. Romantic love goes further. By shutting out everyone else, it reduces the world to "me and thee" and then holds out the promise of further dissolution into oneness.
Interesting, though not completely convincing. Breer is saying that romantic love functions as a Western alternative to Eastern oneness. Rather than merging with a cosmic entity, the Western lover seeks to merge with a physical beloved.
Well, maybe. Having been married for 33 years, I remember when my wife and I were very much into romantic love. But as Breer says, that sort of highly passionate love can't last for long. Now Laurel and I are into plain love, which is plenty good enough for us.
I've never thought that when we first met and were experiencing the passion of romantic love, this was a substitute for merging into Oneness. But who knows? Maybe that's what we were doing, unconsciously.
If you're an Easterner who reads this post, leave a comment about whether you agree that romantic love plays a smaller role in India, China, Japan, and other Asian countries. I've heard that this is true, which explains the historical popularity of arranged marriages, but am not sure it is true.