Marilyn Yalom proposes How the French Invented Love, giving us “Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance,” and then she brings us up to the present day, in which the French have seemingly lost the recipe. Yalom is the prolific elucidator of many feminine-oriented fields of inquiry, including A History of the Wife and A History of the Breast. Her book on love is an historic tour of the subject through a mostly literary lens, until it isn’t. She starts with Abelard and Heloise and moves on through the centuries, covering La Princesse de Cleves, (her affection for which is very appealing), and on through such heavyweights as Moliere, Rousseau, Madame Roland, Stendhal, Balzac…of course Flaubert, Gide, Proust, Colette, de Beauvoir and Sartre, and pretty much finally, Duras. This book is uniformly well-written and presents a useful time-line of mostly French literature.
Passion dies after Yalom’s appreciation of The Lover, the incandescent and elliptical novel in which Marguerite Duras exposes her autobiographical, quivering everything. It runs into Michel Houllebecq, for one major amatory roadblock, though Yalom’s complete dismissal of his depressive reductions misses the poignancy to be found, for example, in The Map and the Territory. Very oddly Yalom finishes up her book with a hard left turn into the ripped-from-the-headlines story of Dominque Strauss-Kahn. Why conclude a book about literature with a real-life story of rape? Certainly his is not the first story of a man in power exerting a savage indifference to others, and neither is his state-sanctioned violence against women original. And what’s love got to do with it?
This sudden pothole in Yalom’s narrative got me thinking. Apparently there’s no love left in France, or in the French imagination: why not? Though certainly not confined to the recombining of chromosomes and the whelping of resultant generations, love does have perhaps the most practical of all purposes, and that is procreation. The French, of course, have been famously declining in numbers for some time, the population of the country bolstered with immigrants. So…are there big love stories coming from burgeoning races elsewhere? Not that I have heard of or know about, though of course I’m provincial and limited. Is there a love literature alive anywhere? It would seem not.
Does our 7 billion-plus Earthly population have anything to do with it? We don’t need romantic love anymore. We have more than enough people and our civilization runneth over. Eros has done its job too well. The French may have invented “romance,” but who will now invent or reinvent agape, which arguably includes reverent and protective impulses, and philia, which extends love outward to just about everybody? Who invented compassion, or is the concept still on the drawing board?