Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Possibility of True Love

   That perfect someone, your soul mate. The one you have dreamed of all your life. Is it utter magic? Is this the stuff of which dreams are made? Or is it all a myth, a cruel joke being played on us by the Hollywood marketing machine and sappy romance novels?
   Robert Epstein, editor of Psychology Today, recently caused quite a stir when he set out to vex the myth of romantic love. His goal is to enter into an agreement with someone for six months, during which time they put themselves through "various exercises . . . the goal being to fall deeply in love by the end of the contract period.

   "We teach our children, and especially our little girls that a knight in a shining sports car is going to drive up one day, awaken perfect passion with a magical kiss, and then drive the blessed couple down the road to Happily Ever After, a special place where no one ever changes," says Epstein. "Hollywood tells us that ‘the One’ is out there for everyone, so no one is willing to settle for Mr. or Ms. Two-Thirds. We want our relationships to be like our antidepressants -- perfect and effortless."

   The evidence backs his statement. According to Psychology Today, over 60 percent of world's marriages are arranged. These marriages have far lower divorce rates, and the couples often find themselves falling in love. In contrast, "romantic" marriages have a 57 percent failure rate, with even less promising statistics for second marriages.1

   This topic was also dealt with in The Kreutzer Sonata by Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) which opens as a third-person narrative by an anonymous gentleman making his way across Russia by train. When the conversation among the passengers turns to the subjects of sex, love, and marriage, a lawyer claims that many couples live long, content married lives. However, Pozdnyshev, another passenger, violently contradicts his statement and announces that he has murdered his wife in a jealous rage, a crime of which a jury had acquitted him. Citing that the deterioration of their marriage began on their honeymoon when they first began a sexual relationship, Pozdnyshev reveals himself as a man with an insane sexual obsession—he links sex with guilt, regards it as a 'fall' from an ideal purity, and describes sexual intercourse as a perverted thing. He tries to persuade his captive audience that all marriages are obscene shams, and that most cases of adultery are occasioned by music, the infamous aphrodisiac. This latter idea explains the title of the story, which is also a musical composition by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Pozdnyshev explains the circumstances that led to his tragedy: after marrying a pretty woman who bore him children, he came to hate, but lust for his wife. One day a musician named Trukachevsky, accepting Pozdnyzhev's invitation to visit their house, accompanied Pozdnyshev's wife on the violin while she played the piano. Convinced that the pair were having an affair,

    Pozdnyshev went into the country to attend the meeting of the local council, often recalling the look on their faces as they played the "Kreutzer Sonata." He returned home early, thinking that he would find the lovers in bed and consequently kill them; instead he found them sitting in the drawing room after they had played some music. Enraged nevertheless, Pozdnyshev killed his wife after Trukachevsky had escaped.2

    The idea of arranged marriages, which was one of the topics discussed on this train ride, is completely foreign to most people in the Western world; however, it is quite common to many cultures throughout the world and according to Robert Epstein it has a very high success rate.  While I am not necessarily advocating the idea of marriage, I do not believe that the “fairy tale” image of marriage is entirely accurate either. 

    It is important to keep in mind that one of the major influences impacting this novella was Lev Tolstoy’s religious belief which advocated celibacy rather than marriage as being virtuous.  In an essay entitled “The Lesson of The Kreutzer Sonata”, Tolstoy explains his view of the subject matter. Regarding carnal love and a spiritual, Christian life, he points out that not Christ, but the Church (which he despised and which in turn excommunicated him) instituted marriage. "The Christian's ideal is love of God and his neighbor, self-renunciation in order to serve God and his neighbor; carnal love – marriage – means serving oneself, and therefore is, in any case, a hindrance in the service of God and men".3

   When Tolstoy wrote this novella, he had been married for many years and had several children.  How did his wife, Sophia Andreyevna, feel about it?  "You are harassing and killing yourself," she wrote him on April 19, 1889, at Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy’s estate). "I...have been thinking: he does not eat meat, nor smoke, he works beyond his strength, his brain is not nourished, hence the drowsiness and weakness. How stupid vegetarianism is....Kill life in yourself, kill all impulses of the flesh, all its needs -- why not kill yourself altogether? After all you are committing yourself to *slow* death, what's the difference?"4  

    What is meant by true love?  If we mean that a person must surrender their own identity and simply serve the needs of their husband or wife in order to make sure that he or she is always happy, I am not sure that this is true love. People are constantly changing and evolving, so it is unrealistic to expect that someone can simply give up their identity and individuality in order to serve someone else.  I believe this is one of the problems that Anna Karenina experienced in her marriage and this led to her relationship with Count Vronsky.

    However, if we mean that two people work together as a team and continue to grow together instead of growing apart, I believe that true love is possible.  One of the challenges that many people face is the “fairy tale” understanding of relationships where everyone always lives happily ever after.  One of the most famous lines from the movie, “Love Story” was “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  There are very few people for whom this would be understood as one of the definitions of love. 

    While everyone may not experience true love in their lives, does this mean that true love is not possible?  The Kreutzer Sonata would not be ideal reading for someone who is a hopeless romantic, but the issues which Tolstoy deals with in this novella have been addressed by countless people throughout the centuries. 

                                                     End Notes

1)     GinaMarie Jerome “Is True Love a Myth?” (posted 7/11/2008, accessed 9/5/2012)

2)     Lev Tolstoy, “The Kreutzer Sonata” (accessed 9/5/2012)

3)     Lev Tolstoy “The Lesson of the Kreutzer Sonata” (accessed 9/5/2012)

4)     Aleksandra Tolstoya “Tolstoy: A Life of My Father” (accessed 9/5/2012)

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