Look to The Literary Greats For Advice to The Lovelorn

Release Date: February 5, 1999 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- If your love life stinks, it might be time for desperate measures -- like READING!

Andrew Hewitt, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Comparative Literatures at the University at Buffalo, insists that, yes, the bewitched, bothered and besotted can look to great literary works for soothing assistance and fresh ideas.

Hewitt has explored some of the ways in which writers explicitly instruct us how to love. Jane Austen, the Marquis de Sade, Shakespeare, Hardy, Lawrence and Genet are just a few of the unlikely bedfellows who teach us to gambol with elegance and ingenuity through the forest of woo.

"Writers teach us not only how to express emotions," he says, "but also imagine new forms of relationships. That's why erotic literature is often unsettling to the powers that be."

Hewitt says many have forgotten that making love has, throughout history, been considered an art form in itself.

"When we talk of 'making love'," he says, "we often forget that love truly is something that does indeed have to be 'made' -- crafted, that is, from the chaos of emotions and urged into something meaningful. Such 'making' is also the writer's craft."

He points out that from the Greek and Roman eras through the 1700s, people seemed to have accepted that the "making" of love is a ritual with rules and procedures -- a social art form that some master better than others. Hewitt reminds us that it is no accident that the libertines of the 18th century were all terrific writers, as well as superb lovers.

"Of course, in a supposedly more liberated age we're trained to think of love as something spontaneous and irrational, but that idea is just a convention like any other," Hewitt says. "In fact, we are still surrounded today by any number of influences that subtly tell us who to love and which emotions to express."

The ancient art of love -- the ars amatoria -- has taken refuge in contemporary sex manuals, according to Hewitt, and he hopes we can revive the tradition of ars amatoria in order to understand how is that art not only reflects, but actually shapes the way we make love.

"We often complain of the demise of gallantry in our society," Hewitt notes. "Well, gallantry involves learning and practicing certain codes of behavior until they become second nature. Literature is the apprenticeship we serve in embracing these codes. We can learn a great deal from those who focus on the experience of feeling and conveying love, affection, passion and endearment."

Although we tend to think of our own romantic encounters as the most personal and explicit of our life experiences, Hewitt says that "just one look at the bookshelf will prove that what is personal to us is big business to someone else. Books on the subject of love have been so influential that even within classic novels we find authors like Jane Austen writing tongue-in-cheek about the way literature teaches us how to love.

"How many young lovers romanticize themselves and their predicaments as latter-day Romeos and Juliets?" he asks. "And for those who never read a word of Shakespeare, his sentiments, at least, are carried over in films like "West Side Story" or even in MTV's urban grunge production of "Romeo and Juliet." And how about "Shakespeare in Love?" Did the bard tap into a fundamental human experience or is it we who tap into Shakespeare so as to make our everyday emotions a little more dramatic than they really are?

There have always been skeptics, he says, who have claimed that love does not exist except as a behavioral trait clearly and differently defined by each culture.

"A 17th-century French philosopher argued that most people would never fall in love if they hadn't heard the word," Hewitt says. "Popular lyrics like those by Lorenz Hart: This can't be love because I feel so well/No sobs, no sorrows, no sighs, amplify the cultural definition of love acceptable to our day and age.

Whatever we call "love," it's been causing trouble along with glee for years. Our cultural antecedents, the ancient Greeks, provide early evidence of how a culture can sanction the "handling" of erotic obsessions. Far from being rational in the passion department, Greek lovers burned dead dogs and lizards on Athens' rooftops while grinding out gruesome "binding spells" that they hoped would bring their intended lovers to heel forthwith and forever, whether the victim liked it or not.

Hewitt says that the literature of romantic love and its hot-blooded sister, sexual passion, have long been accused of producing the best and the worst in all of us. As a result, literary experts on love often have been at the center of public scandal. Goethe produced an uproar in 18th century Europe when he was held responsible for a rash of copycat suicides after his best-selling novel culminated in the suicide of its romantic hero, the "young Werther."

"Hardy gave up writing novels altogether after scandals attending the publication of 'Tess of the D'Urbervilles' and 'Jude the Obscure,' both tales of obsession and erotically charged passion," Hewitt says. Jane Austen's cynical wit raised a few eyebrows in her day as well as our own.

"'Lady Chatterley's Lover,' Lawrence's tale of class under sexual pressure, predated by 40 years the sexual frankness that radicalized the way we talk about love and sexuality," he says. "Radicalized it, it happens, in ways I think Lawrence wouldn't have liked at all!"

Another voice to be heard is that of Jean Genet, the brilliant French writer-rebel-anarchist who spent large parts of his life in prisons and reformatories. Genet's genius lay in his ability to transform violent, often degraded, erotic subject matter into a poetic vision of the universe. "He used the solitude afforded him in prison," Hewitt says "to spin out fantasies that shocked and fascinated his contemporaries."

The Marquis de Sade, the lover-debaucher from whom "sadism" takes its name, is the first of the modern écrivains maudits ("damned writers"). De Sade's works are still banned by the French courts and still read by aficionados around the world. His own life was a circus of scandal and lewd excitation involving bouts of bondage, sexual slavery and scores of seductions. His best-known contribution to French literature is "Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue" in which he made the reader aware as never before that the search for fulfillment through the enjoyment of cruelty forms part of the human psyche.

Roman love rears its head in selections from Ovid's idealistic sensual masterpiece "Ars Amatoria" ("The Art of Love"), a book Hewitt says "could probably teach Dr. Ruth a thing or two." Its publication certainly helped get Ovid exiled by Caesar Augustus and set the stage for the development of the courtly love tradition that came to full bloom in the Middle Ages.

As a postscript, Hewitt, a native of Great Britain, offers, "A nice distinction drawn from Lawrence. It is a mistake, he says, to say that the Italians are passionate and the British are not. The Italians, he says, are merely excitable. It burns up and burns away. But the British? Passion burns with a low, slow, intense, flame - THAT is passion, says Lawrence. And I say, THAT is VERY British!"

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.