The tragic love story (pt. 2)

Many cultures across the world and throughout time have painted passionate love as a doomed affair. Eric Selinger, professor of English at DePaul University, says that, though the American HEA has its own unique appeal, tragic love stories carry their own wisdom, drawn from centuries of human experience.

Part 1 can be found here.


What is the appeal of the tragic love story? (Part 2)

In Arabic literature, in Japanese literature, in a lot of Chinese literature, in a lot of—though not all—Indian literature, you have great, tragic love stories. Part of the reason for this, I think, is that literary culture in each of these contexts, we’re talking about either court literatures or we’re talking about literature that is not trying to represent the everyday lives of ordinary people. The idea that literature should be about the real world that it needs to submit itself to the test of verisimilitude is not universal. It emerges in different cultures at different times and different places. In the West it is very much a new thing when it emerges in the 18th century—that’s why it’s called the novel, ’cause it’s the novel thing, it’s the new thing. And I think when you do have—when you have court cultures, when you have tribal cultures, when you have cultures where love is almost a kind of technology of the self, a technology of the emotions; it is a way to cultivate certain states of mind, certain kind of sensitivity to beauty to loveliness in the arts, to loveliness in your surroundings and another person.

All of these are in some way aristocratic; if they’re not literally coming from the court, they’re a kind of aristocracy of the spirit and tend to be distinguished from the ordinary course of things where your parents tell you that here’s the person you’re going to marry, or here are some people to choose from, or he’s good enough or she’s good enough—marriage is a very practical thing in most cultures in most times. The world of love literature is not about practicality in those times, in those places, in those cultures. The idea that marriage should be based on love is a crazy idea in many cultures. The idea that marriage having started as based in falling in love should then continue to be a romantic enterprise as the marriage endures decade after decade. There are cultures that would look at this idea and just laugh. How on earth could you possibly think this could happen? [. . .]

On the one hand, as an American romance scholar, on the one hand, I am profoundly invested in the HEA love story—I love it in my books, I want to live it in my life. As an adult and as a scholar I have to look at some of these other cultures and say, you know what, there are centuries of wisdom that are at play in the lack of these HEA love stories. There’s something very wise about that; we need to kind of remind ourselves that this is not just a simple narrative of progress, of “Oh, that’s such a shame, but now we’ve got our stories.” There’s wisdom to be found on both sides.

Download a transcript.

Share this