Books

Love is the Drug

Why do many women risk everything for a doomed passion?

Patricia Chisholm April 30 2001
Books

Love is the Drug

Why do many women risk everything for a doomed passion?

Patricia Chisholm April 30 2001

Love is the Drug

Books

Why do many women risk everything for a doomed passion?

Is it love, or is it something a lot closer to heroin—that sudden, overwhelming euphoria, followed by a horrifying crash that

leaves you spent, withdrawn and desperate for another hit. In her compelling new book, Labyrinth of Desire: Women, Passion and Romantic Obsession (HarperFlamingo, $26), Toronto writer Rosemary Sullivan takes a refreshingly literary approach to a subject that has long intrigued psychologists, sociologists and a host of self-help gurus. Why, Sullivan asks, are even the most independent of women so often swept away by doomed passions, risking ambition, families, even mental stability for the sake of a man who fails to match his lovers commitment?

In the view of Sullivan, an English professor, poet and biographer of writers Elizabeth Smart, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Margaret Atwood, the answer lies mainly in the tendency of women, far more than men, to confuse passionate obsession with personal fulfilment. What anyone is really doing when she falls madly in love, the author says, is embarking on “one of life’s necessary assignments. It cracks us open. We put everything at risk. In the process we discover the dimensions of our own appetites and desires.” But obsession becomes a black hole for women when it is treated as an end in itself, instead of a transitional experi-

ence. That is because obsessions have almost nothing to do with the love object and everything to do with the self. “When obsessive love is over and the projections are ripped away,” she writes, “the person standing there is almost always a stranger. For romantic love is projection—projection of all that is most dramatic, indeed lovely and unclaimable in the self.”

Sullivan succeeds in making all this tangible—and troubling—by recounting famous love stories, real and imaginary, in which women who hung on to doomed obsessions were deeply compromised by them, while those with the courage to walk away attained their desires: lasting love, rewarding careers, intact families. There is Ottawa-born writer Smart {By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept), who bore four children by the self-absorbed, much-married English poet George Barker and raised them on her own, giving up a promising future as a novelist to write advertising copy. Or the brilliant French thinker Simone de Beauvoir {TheSecond Sex), who allowed herself to be dominated—and mistreated—by Jean-Paul Sartre. British-born sculptor Leonora Carrington, on the other hand, was able to walk away from her tumultuous affair with surrealist painter Max Ernst, eschewing the old role of passive artistic muse for a fam-

ily and career of her own. She has lived in Mexico since 1942, where she fled after rejecting Ernst, and is now one of its most esteemed artists.

Sullivan does a masterly job of describing some of the less sentimental aspects of romantic obsession— the awakening of the most primitive, needy self, the loss of old boundaries and reversion to irrational behaviour, the pre-eminent importance of the physical, the perverse pleasure of chasing the unattainable. But her real mission is to highlight the destructive side of romantic obsession and to warn against sanitizing something that has the power to devastate lives. “The idea that love, no matter what damage it causes, is a transcendent good is almost an unwritten axiom of our culture,” she notes, pointing out that passion is too often used to justify a whole range of vengeful, discreditable acts, from emotional cruelty to vicious custody wars. “A woman will compete against another woman for the prize in a ruthless, predatory way,” she notes by way of example, adding grimly that the man at the centre of a triangle is often not much better, using the competition as a mask for his narcissism and craven refusal to offer either woman real intimacy.

What women need to learn, Sullivan suggests, is to treat romantic obsession as a fantasy that teaches, rather than as a solution to problems as old as womens second-class status. Otherwise, enslavement to another very soon starts to look like the root from which the word “passion” is derived—suffering. The kind of love that sustains and nourishes, she concludes, can grow out of passion but has nothing to do with the romantic myth of oneness, itself a byword for dependency. Rather, its durability lies in the acceptance, even celebration, of the “fallible, imperfect other.”

Patricia Chisholm