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  • Petrarchan Love and the Pleasures of Frustration
  • Aldo Scaglione

—Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife, He would have written sonnets all his life?

Lord Byron, Don Juan, canto III, st. 7

As Byron ironically intimated, there is a behavioral connection between much of the literature of love and sexual frustration. What is known as medieval “courtly love” was an epiphany of idealized love. Whether self-imposed or forced restraint, it infused much of Arthurian lore, the troubadours’ and then Petrarch’s lyric, and later partly merged with the Renaissance phenomenon of Platonic love. 1 But we wonder about possible historical derivation both on the cultural (literary) level and on the level of practical behavior. In other words, if taken case by case, is the similarity among cultural patterns and between literary phenomena and behavioral patterns a consequence of: 1) intertextual connections with courtly love and Petrarchism; 2) ideological circumstances similar to those which produced “courtly love”; or, inversely, 3) a broader human need that also lies in the background of courtly love? Where and how did frustration, denial, or sublimation acquire a deeper and greater value than consummation and satisfaction? Was it through religion, myth, morality, psychology, or a combination of these factors? Is this essentially an anthropological or rather a psycho-moral question? Does it originate in our perennial “nature” or in our time-bound mores?

It seems safe to assume a combination of these factors. Ideals of psychologically sublimated, hence physiologically frustrated, love have an anthropological foundation and are inherent in any sophisticated cultural form. At the [End Page 557] same time, in the Western tradition they owe much to the persistence of the specific historical phenomena of courtly love and its Petrarchistic variations.

Of course the folklore of love includes both satisfied and unfulfilled sorts. Jean Hagstrum’s Esteem Enlivened by Desire (1992) deals with the conjugal sort, implying consummation. He distinguishes his theme from “long-term relations that remain unconsummated, valorizing delayed or obviated climax, prolonged foreplay, ascetic discipline, traditional Platonic or Petrarchan love, or various forms of sublimation.” 2 Yet “this last ... is dialectically and psychologically tied to [Hagstrum’s] main theme: it is one kind of long-term love relationship with often more than a tinge of the erotic.” 3 For Hagstrum these behavioral variations are determined by culture, since purely “natural” behavior would be more uniform and “unhistorically” steady. 4

The notion that idealized desire is culture-bound finds support in Denis de Rougemont’s well-known thesis, that chivalry and courtesy are inventions of medieval Europe with no equivalent at other times and places except by direct influence or imitation: the behavior of an ancient Greek lover or a modern Japanese lover does not involve “chivalry” toward the woman. 5 For de Rouge-mont, ideal love came under the spell of what he called eros, defined as infatuation with desire itself rather than love for its natural end. Difficulties and obstacles became more meaningful than success, even to the point that, as in the story of Tristan and, differently and uniquely, in Dante’s poetry, the death of the beloved marked the culmination of eros. This eros postulates self-denial and sublimation for the sake of a higher achievement.

Regardless of chivalry’s roots in medieval Europe, frustration can be a powerful ideal in non-Western cultures, too. One signal example might suffice. The Chinese literary classic, The Dream of the Red Chamber by Chan T’sao (ca. 1717–63), is the life story or Bildungsroman of a high prince who, after a [End Page 558] life of indulgence, decides to renounce the world and become an ascetic monk. 6 This problematic main character, Pao Yu, moves in the framework of Taoist and Confucian ideals, with the addition of some Buddhist religious traits. His final withdrawal from the world, however, which appears to family and society as a disappointing betrayal, obeys a psychological need for a frustration that represents a nobler achievement than the satisfaction of worldly ambition.

The point of this essay is to sample a few cases of literary representations of idealized love while underlining their ideal and, at times, literal interconnections. I also mean to suggest...