In self-surrender in love, we understand the purpose, however roundabout and broadly defined, to be salvation or self-elevation. And even those for whom the experience of surrender is tinged with ambivalence may find it ultimately rewarding.
In enslavement (obsessive self-destructive love or masochistic surrender or both) the goals may be the same, but the depth and insatiability of the need doom the yearning lover to almost inevitable defeat. Sometimes, too, the impulse to surrender can be contaminated with the need for self-punishment. When this occurs and the lover comes to feel empty and worthless except for the perpetuation of his love, he has entered the realm of desperate love and he feels enslaved. The line dividing self-transformation from self-abnegation may sometimes be porous, and the deterioration of surrender into self-abnegation and self-destruction rapid. All serious critiques of romantic love point to its frequent corruption into enslavement. Without a strong core of identity and self-worth the lover's wish to merge is perverted into a wish to submerge himself into the beloved. This latter impulse may be so strong that the lover will sacrifice his autonomy, even his life in the vain attempt to achieve it. The lover may die to ensure merger in death, or being rejected, he may attempt suicide to evade separateness in life. (From this flows the paradoxically romantic contention that the lover is in love with death: Tristan, Werther, even Antony might be considered as examples.) And in the range of masochistic distortions of love, we observe no gender difference.
Masochistic surrender in love may be akin to the ultimate pornographic dream of total objectification as exemplified by The Story of O. The beloved may be granted the power of God with total power over one's person; even, in extreme cases, over one's life. Then surrender appears to be motivated by guilt and outright self-loathing, not just by the sense (existential or psychological) of inadequacy, weakness, or mean-inglessness. Its purpose may still be understood as salvation, but it is salvation through self-punishment and humiliation.
If one cannot be meaning to oneself, and if meaning is not supplied by a social nexus (the traditional mode of being meaningful), then one may seek to become meaningful through self-objectification: becoming an instrumentality for another. The self that feels itself to be powerless, or worthless, gives itself into the power of another: it is colonized by a foreign power. Complete surrender sustained over time rather than being experienced in brief moments, is an admission of meaninglessness.
While there are those who search for a loving master and only accidentally fall in with a tyrant, still others appear to crave a tyrannical lover.
Most often, in these instances of abject enslavement, the object to whom one surrenders is so visibly marred that the lover himself intuits that the impulse to surrender has been perverted. It is no longer merely the wish to merge with someone exalted, but something more complex, the self-destructive futility of which is revealed in the choice of the beloved. The following account of a three-year "love" affair was told me by an aspiring actress; her choice of a love object had none of the redeeming qualities of the man chosen by that other actress, Juliette Drouet. Retrospectively she sees the relationship as a long unhappy episode of self-abnegating love. I here repeat the story in her own words as nearly I have been able to remember them.
I'm not saying love and obsession never walk in rhyme, because that isn't so. But in this case, my case, it wasn't love. Ben was seven years older than I. I met him while I was working as a waitress in an Upper East Side restaurant. I recall the scene. It was Sunday brunch—pancakes, lox, and scones. My uniform consisted of black pleated (and stained) trousers and a pink buttoned-to-the-nose Oxford shirt. I used to pin my hair on top of my head like Gypsy Rose Lee and there was always a piece dangling, a sure-fire giveaway of the committed waitress. I wore flats and too much rouge. He used to methodically drink mimosas and order food he'd never touch. He had an obvious drinking problem which, naturally, I chose to ignore. He was very boyish looking, with straight blonde hair and a couple too many teeth, and at that time was extremely thin. He attributed this to his using cocaine every day. His little silver vial was ever-present, and he made countless trips to the men's room, always passing me at the service bar, where I would get him a refill of champagne.
I looked forward all week to brunch because I'd see this apparition, a genuine party boy. The self-destructive blueprint begins to take form. I would go to Bloomingdale's on Saturday to buy a new shade of lipstick. He told me the shape of my lips took his appetite away. (It was actually the cocaine that did that.) I spent a small fortune on gloss and lip liner. My entire week revolved around this ninety-minute meal with this disturbed, excessive, tormented person. If I met a guy like that now I'd run for my life. But he was like a defective piece of Steuben glass; if you turned the cracked part toward the wall, you couldn't really notice it. I wanted to bathe him in ammonia and watch him sparkle. I never fantasized about him making love to me; it was always me playing the aggressor, rubbing his tired nostrils, massaging his overworked liver with liniments of love and soul camphor, a false adoration. I rationalized my behavior as a tremendous need to heal. Maybe I needed someone pathetic to rescue. It was my 'Joan of Arc' period.
We slipped into a relationship. He was the son and I was the mother, cradling him to my breast like an infant. He was the laborer and I was the boss, always giving orders, astounded if he didn't carry them through. He was usually just too high to do too much of anything. He was the prisoner and I held the keys. But in truth, I was the one incarcerated. The claustrophobia I experienced at that time due to the bars I erected around myself was stifling. All I thought about was him. What was he doing? Who was he with? Did he stop anywhere on the way home from work? Did he go home alone? Did he phone anyone once he got there? Nothing else existed in my life. I barely functioned. I lived for his visits, they were the only time I was sure I knew where he was. My jealousy was unfounded. He wasn't particularly sexual. I always had to initiate everything and it was usually sheer submission on his part. He allowed me to have sex with him. He agreed to let me attempt to arouse him, but he was usually so intoxicated on either liquor, coke, or valium that he couldn't get it up. I thought I wasn't sexy enough for him. The last year we never made love at all. The sexual failure was silently accepted. I shined his shoes instead, went over to his apartment once a week and scrubbed the bathroom.
I used to look in his wallet while he was asleep to check for infidelity. Now I'm appalled. I'd wake up in the middle of the night and pour myself a juice glass full of brandy to keep myself from trying his number to see if he was home. I'm talking three or four in the morning. I paced like a crippled cougar, figuring, planning, piecing things together. The energy I wasted on love.
But where was the love that was supposed to exist, especially in the bloom of a new relationship? I am not sure it ever existed, but I thought it did. I realized afterwards that I got more affection from my cats. He was like a living piece of sculpture propped against my pillows. Finally, when the end came, I miraculously survived the loss. I was definitely sitting on the ledge but I chose the stairs rather than the window.
Looking back I see my love affair as a breakdown, as simply illness. It was a sickness, an emotional plague. It was equally as threatening as an alcohol or drug problem. I can honestly say it was the worst feeling I ever experienced. It's like being trapped in an elevator. You feel like evil has totally taken the controls of your life, and all you can do is comply with its wishes and watch your own destruction, as though you were viewing yourself and your actions on a tiny TV set: The Demon Channel. All your self-respect, esteem, dignity, and integrity are washed away like a sand castle. You are helpless. You hear people chant "What do you mean helpless? Out of control? Can't help it? That's insane. Just stop what you are doing." Like they say, "Throw that candy away. Put out that cigarette! Flush those pills! Tote that barge!" Insane is an appropriate word. That is just how you feel, like you are under some spell and you find yourself doing amazing things. Suddenly you realize you excel in being a sneak, a detective of sorts. You creep about like a cat burglar, searching for clues of betrayal, hints of disloyalty, signs of confirmation for all the crimes you suspect he's committed. At the time you assume it is love from start to finish. But when the holocaust comes and you are lucky enough to survive, in retrospect you will see there was no love, just a terrible need.
The actress was so terrified by the excesses of her experience that she subsequently withdrew from men altogether for several years after the end of the affair. She described herself as a love anorexic. The story is one of obsessive love, certainly contaminated with masochism, but the impulse to rescue her beloved is at the center of her story. She did not choose a lover she regarded as exalted, but one she saw as needy. Her story points to the complexity of motives in obsessive, enslaved, and desperate love. The manifest need to rescue the beloved appears as a component in many tales of self-destructive love.
Insofar as the impulse to surrender is perverted, it often happens that the beloved, far from being exalted, embodies the worst (often repressed) characteristics of the lover himself. The choice of the beloved is thus a reflection of the lover's negative self-image. In attempting to rescue the beloved, the lover attempts to rescue himself. To redeem the beloved is to redeem and purify the self. This is purification through martyrdom, not through surrender to someone exalted; it may also be an attempt to redeem part of the self that has been projected onto the Other.
Just as women are believed to be more preoccupied with love than men, it is also generally assumed that women suffer more in love. There is an almost cavalier assumption that men are relatively immune to the masochistic degradations of love (just as they are believed to be immune to the obsessive longing for love which is supposedly so rampant among women). But this assumption is erroneous. It might be that women are simply more open in communicating their suffering. The impression I get from my patients, where both sexes are committed to honestly articulating their feelings, is that men suffer just as much and are just as prone to enslavement.
One of the enduring fictional accounts of a man's enslavement in love is depicted in W. Somerset Maugham's novel Of Human Bondage. As a young medical student, Philip Carey finds himself preoccupied with—and ultimately in love with—an extremely commonplace, but high-handed, waitress. Wounded by her initial disdain for him, trying to recover his bearings by overcoming her indifference, he falls in love with her. But what a strange love it is, for to Philip "it seemed impossible that he should be in love with Mildred Rogers. Her name was grotesque. He did not think her pretty. ...She was common He remembered her insolence He had thought of love as a rapture which seized one so that all the world seemed spring-like, he had looked forward to an ecstatic happiness; but this was not happiness; it was a hunger of the soul, it was a painful yearning, it was a bitter anguish, he had never known before." She accepts his attentions reluctantly, and only yields to him when she finds herself pregnant by someone else. But despite his goodness to her, she betrays him time and time again. Even after she leaves him and he discovers she has become a prostitute, he takes her and her child into his home. Though by this time the passionate phase of his love has faltered and he is more repelled by her than ever, she continues to exert a deep power over him.
Finally, Philip, like the young woman of the previous tale, recovers. But what impels him? Mildred does not appear to be part of his secret self; that is, he is not fundamentally identified with her. Maugham has highlighted one of the gradients between Philip and Mildred that draws him to her: he who is psychologically crippled by his club foot, inward, diffident, and easily humiliated appears to be enthralled by her apparent self-sufficiency, her insolence, her very airs and pretensions. However Mildred is not the standard destructive woman to be found in life and literature. She is herself persistently self-destructive in her passionate choices and throws away any possibility for her own happiness by her affairs with two inconstant, insincere men, men to whom she relates much as Philip relates to her.
Maugham said his novel was an autobiographical one: "the emotions are my own, but not all the incidents are related as they happened, and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate." He claimed the book freed him from the pains and unhappy recollections that troubled him. (It may be worth noting that the two great literary accounts of men enslaved and obsessed by love—Maugham's Carey and Proust's Swann—were both penned by male homosexuals.) One may or may not recover from obsession and enslavement in love; in some instances, as with Philip, the damage to the self was reversible, but with Mildred it was irreversible.
There is a good deal of cultural and literary evidence to substantiate the male's vulnerability (and attraction) to self-destruction in love, documented by Leslie Fiedler among others. While male novelists have mythicized the Pure Maiden, they have also established the Dark Lady as a powerful temptress who sometimes lures the male protagonist to his death. From Lilith and Delilah, to Shakespeare's Dark Lady of the sonnets ("For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright/Who art as black as hell, as dark as night") and through the romantic Belle dame sans merci to the present, literature asserts the fact (and fear) that men can destroy themselves in pursuit of romantic love. However, some male writers seem to see the danger as originating in the woman, not in any internal proclivity of the man for self-destruction. Yet this is a misunderstanding, a projection externalizing what is an internal psychological need. As pointed out by Fiedler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps more than any other novelist, uses the Pure Maiden as a disguise for the Dark Lady. Just as in Tender Is the Night Dick Diver is ultimately destroyed by his relationship with Nicole, so, too, is Jay Gatsby's demise brought about through his love for Daisy. As Fiedler said of Fitzgerald's work:
There is only one story that Fitzgerald knows how to tell, and no matter how he thrashes about, he must tell it over and over. The penniless knight, poor stupid Hans, caddy or bootlegger or medical student, goes out to seek his fortune and unluckily finds it. His reward is, just as in the fairy tales, the golden girl in the white palace; but quite differently from the fairy tales, that is not a happy ending at all. He finds in his bed not the White Bride but the Dark Destroyer; indeed there is no White Bride, since Dark Lady and Fair, witch and redeemer have fallen together.
Fitzgerald seems to have viewed himself as no less a victim than Jay Gatsby or Dick Diver. Of his own life he wrote, "I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanitariums."
Von Sternberg's movie The Blue Angel, based on Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrath, is the classic film portrayal of a man's degradation in love. The story is that of a high school professor who, discovering his students looking at picture postcards of the provocative entertainer Lola Lola, sets out to reprimand her for her bad influence on them. But after visiting her in her dressing room, he finds himself hopelessly enthralled by her seductiveness and the awakening of his own slumbering sexuality. Having spent the night with her, he precipitously proposes, abandons his teaching position, and goes on the road with her. The movie tells the story of the professor's steep decline into degradation. In the end he becomes no more than a comic member of his mistress's troupe, and Lola Lola enters film history as one of the legendary Dark Ladies of fantasy, one whose erotic power sentences a man to humiliation and ultimately to death.
The wish for humiliation or self-punishment often surfaces in male sexual life as the fantasy of the big-breasted, high-booted "phallic" woman with a whip. But the masculine wish for self-punishment and self-destruction just as often finds expression in a romantic preoccupation with the Dark Lady. She is specific to and a staple of male fantasy life. And a man drawn to the Dark Lady in fantasy often arranges to find her in the real world. Men are just as capable as women of using love relationships to gratify their unconscious longings for humiliation, self-punishment, or self-destruction.
Was this article helpful?