"It was bigger than the both of us."
That's how an acquaintance described the love that drew her and her beloved together many years ago. She really meant it and I believe her. That is how the passion struck her at the time. It sprung up as something beyond her will and outside of her judgment. It broke up two marriages, but in the light of this ardent longing, the vows of the past had no force. They wanted one another—physically, emotionally, spiritually—and the want wasn't entirely theirs. Can we, she implies, really apply ordinary moral strictures to their actions, when the impetus for the affair came not wholly from themselves?
The dalliance went on in secret for months before the truth came out and everything exploded. It happened three decades ago and they eventually got married, but those early months are still a vibrant episode. It had all the drama of the forbidden. In the initial stages, their longing was framed by deceit. It made them furtive, but it also heightened their stolen moments, turning them into the sole inhabitants of a special universe. When they were together, life was full, experience intense. When they were apart, reality dimmed. Moral scruples had no chance against this primal force of the heart. They were Paolo and Francesca, Tristan and Isolde.
It is easy to deflate the claim "it was bigger than the both of us" by calling it a simple rationalization of lust. But when we consider passion of this sort from a distance, and have no personal connection to the parties, we see there is more to it than that. In attributing lust to a "bigger" source, people don't just try to ennoble the lower passions. They distinguish themselves as the objects of that source. When someone experiences desire as a cosmic force, he makes the flattering assumption that he has such a capacious, dynamic sensibility that his ardor must originate in something larger and deeper and more important than does the love of the other ninety-nine percent of mortals. It sets them apart, makes them "star-crossed" or "star-aligned." The rest of us have humdrum lives and no romance. Millennials hook-up and then separate; thirty-somethings move in together and move out a year later. Others get married, have kids, and embrace more out of habit than longing. For us, the thrill is gone. For them, age hasn't stilled the tremors of an illicit kiss. While regular people settle into the routines of middle age, a romantic aura fills the One Percent's waking hours.
It's a pleasing notion of rarity. But, in truth, we have no shortage of it. Every seventeen-year-old assumes it when the first boyfriend or girlfriend comes along. I've encountered over the years many thirty- and forty-year-olds who act the same way. Talk to them about their dalliances and they soon slip into clichés. The distinctiveness they claim soon turns into a dull self-compliment. If they were so special, you think to yourself, why does it seem that we've heard it all before? We need more than that to believe that this is, indeed, a singular passion. Show us more evidence than the lover's faith that it is so.
In one sense, however, we must agree: the passion does lie beyond their control. We may not accept that a higher energy is responsible, but we certainly recognize that desire doesn’t come and go as the lover wishes. It runs against the will; desire never makes you feel like you possess it, not for very long. You know you've fallen in love with the wrong person; you know you shouldn't act upon your urges. But you can't help yourself. It's bigger than you are.
But this is nothing to prize. I have seen people so crazy in love that they have committed atrocious acts and felt no shame over them at all. (This happens especially when one party has rejected the other who adds to his or her passion profound feelings of betrayal and self-loathing.) Something inside them that in some way isn't a part of them urges them to action—keying a car, driving by a house at midnight, writing nasty notes. When they have to explain afterwards why they did it, they falter. A foreign power possessed them. It wouldn't let them not do it. Medea is an example.
My acquaintance, of course, would not favor the comparison. She doesn't want her love grouped with anything tawdry or vicious. It was a transcendent passion, not a denigrating one. This brings us back to the One Percent element cited above, but in a different way. Yes, the people who undergo a "bigger love" raise themselves above people who only know "ordinary love." Marx would interpret it as a form of class stratification founded on an ideology of Romance. But our subject doesn't only want to be lofty and distinct in relation to fellow human beings. She really does trust in the notice of a more than human factor. She’s not cynical.
That's the daunting part. The bare thought that YOU should be one upon whom Love devotes special attention is an audacious beginning. If erotic love sometimes rises into a power that transcends individuals and acquires a life of its own, we have to ask why it selects this person and not these other two hundred persons. The points above might explain part of it, stating that certain people merit Love's regard because of their extraordinary depths of soul. But I don't think my acquaintance would be entirely happy with that explanation, though it would please her. Yes, she has a rare temperament, she would say, but would maintain if pressed that the love that seized them had a superhuman character.
"But why were you appointed to enjoy Love's uncommon exertions?" I want to ask her. Why should you be selected?
I would never ask it. The question would discomfit her. It would push her to assert explicitly that the affair had a transcendent dimension. She would have to identify too sharply the thing that overcame her and her lover. To describe it would be to lessen its compelling mysteriousness, to give it too much specific content. If someone were to say, "I met him last year and right from the start I knew that the Lord had sent him to me…," we would have a transcendent origin for the passion. But it wouldn't have quite the breathy cachet of "it was bigger than the both of us." God is ready for anyone whose heart is open to Him. He is not nearly exclusive and extraordinary enough. Better to stay with the vague formulation. It has more sublimity than the clear attribution of love to God. An "It was bigger" love is so much bigger that we can't even give it any names or attributes. We can only feel its power—or rather, observe its power in those special emissaries of it, the impassioned few.
What reinforces it, then, is not a dogma of metaphysical love. It cannot stand up as doctrine. Instead, people understand it in and through art. The great pairings of civilization—Romeo and Juliet, Aeneas and Dido, Anna and Vronsky, Gatsby and Daisy—in their own ways give the romantic couples of today myths of transcendent eros. Gatsby fails, but his green light lives on and inspires idealistic yearning. Romeo and Juliet consign the longstanding hatreds of human affairs to petty concerns, and their deaths dignify the reduction. Wagner's great opera Tristan und Isolde is the great expression of erotic transcendence. Their love is, indeed, bigger than honor and fidelity, and their death, the liebestod, is presented as a triumph.
Here is how David Goldman put it in a 2010 essay:
His music is what still draws spirit-starved listeners into opera houses, as they seek in Wagner what they do not find in the old religion; that is, a supposed cosmic validation of their own impulsiveness. They are rewarded with what appear to be a few moments in which time itself is suspended, and they, like Isolde, “sink and drown unconscious in the world-breath’s wafting All, in highest pleasure.” Or at least they persuade themselves that they have done so.
That phrase nicely captures the dream of erotic love: "cosmic validation of their own impulsiveness." Wagner’s sweeping, glorious chords enable that illusion to survive. The finale carries them away. They experience for a blissful hour the happy assurance that erotic desire can last forever.
But it can’t, and Tristan und Isolde tells us so. They die at the end, however magnificently. They must die. Tristan recognizes this from the very beginning. If they do couple in erotic bliss in an afterlife in another world, we don’t join them there. The opera ends with her expiring over his body. For us, the liebestod lasts only a few minutes.
The dream is irresistible, though. Here is how Mark Twain described a performance in Bayreuth in 1891:
This opera of "Tristan and Isolde" last night broke the hearts of all witnesses who were of the faith, and I know of some who have heard of many who could not sleep after it, but cried the night away. I feel strongly out of place here. Sometimes I feel like the sane person in a community of the mad; sometimes I feel like the one blind man where all others see; the one groping savage in the college of the learned, and always, during service, I feel like a heretic in heaven.
But by no means do I ever overlook or minify the fact that this is one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen anything so great and fine and real as this devotion.
Twain is serious. The weeping Wagnerians knock the irony right out of him. It shows how deeply runs the desire for an everlasting and otherworldly, but still human desire.
So when I hear the worn-out rationale “It was bigger than the both of us,” I don’t laugh and think that human beings are ridiculously vain and self-justifying. I repeat to myself, instead, that any one of us can fall into that trap.
Mark Bauerlein is Senior Editor at First Things and Professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his PhD in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-05) he served as Director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His latest book is The State of the American Mind: 16 Leading Critics on the New Anti-Intellectualism, a collection of essays edited with Adam Bellow. He has also written Literary Criticism: An Autopsy (1997), The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief (1997), and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (2008). His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Weekly Standard, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.