In Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont mounts a remarkably probing investigation into the origins of our modern notions of romance. His startling thesis: for the last thousand years, the overwhelming majority of poetry and literature in the west has glorified passionate love – which is necessarily unhappy – over and against marriage, to which it is fundamentally opposed. According to de Rougemont, the cult of passionate love has its roots in world-denying heresy: it is an experience of desirable suffering that transcends earthly notions of good and evil and moves the lover beyond the material world into a kind of purely spiritual apotheosis. Though it is often debased into mere sensuality, when pursued all the way to its end, passionate love is nothing other than a longing for death. Marriage, on the contrary, is informed by the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation. God proved that matter is not evil by condescending to become flesh. Whereas passionate love promises an escape from the world, marriage ties man to the world. The end of marriage is not death, but life.
Though there are near-infinite permutations, de Rougemont names the myth of Tristan and Iseult as the purest expression of the drama of the passionate love affair. Tristan is in love with Iseult, but continually holds himself back from actually possessing her. Instead, he invents increasingly elaborate obstacles to prolong the desirable suffering of love. In de Rougemont’s final analysis, although Tristan is in love with Iseult, he does not truly love Iseult. What he truly loves is being in love; the object of his love is of no consequence. We might recall Augustine’s famous confession: “I was in love with love.”
Each of the three Star Wars trilogies offers a striking variation on this drama. Perhaps it is telling that the most popular Star Wars romance by far is Han and Leia’s passionate love affair, which is so completely characterized by conflict and opposition – of temperaments and values, but also of social status – that Han’s quick transformation into domesticated boyfriend material at the end of Return of the Jedi is somewhat unconvincing. Though we might have preferred to imagine years of tranquil wedded bliss for the couple after the conclusion of the trilogy, far from betraying the characters, The Force Awakens rightly intuits the nature of Han and Leia’s romance when it suggests that their relationship is marked by frequent separations and reunions over the years. Like Tristan and Iseult, Han and Leia find ways – consciously or not – to preserve the passionate (and thereby unhappy) character of their romance, over and against the stability (and happiness!) of marriage.
Ben Solo’s hang-ups are less than surprising when we consider his position: the product of a union that tacitly exalts passion above all, he is sent to train under a monk who rejects passion entirely. His romance with Rey is almost completely sexless, and thus it is both more and less passionate (by de Rougemont’s definition) than Han and Leia’s love affair. Indeed, Rey and Ben’s romance is Platonic in the proper sense of the word: each inspires in the other a passion that is sublimated into spiritual ascent. The lack of consummation is a hallmark of passionate love in its pure form (that is, before its confused debasement into carnality). Passionate love, as initially conceived by de Rougemont’s world-denying heretics, is concerned with the apotheosis of the lover instead of union with the beloved. In similar fashion, Rey and Ben’s romance ends not in marriage, but in death, and this death is not really a tragedy so much as a triumph. Like Tristan, Ben is fulfilled in death – which also, it seems, detaches Rey from the material world. Nevertheless, there is little sense that Rey and Ben particularly relish the state of being in love, as Tristan and Iseult do. Ben’s death is not a voluptuous, self-focused dissolution but a genuinely other-focused sacrifice. Though initially defined by opposition, Rey and Ben’s relationship is finally characterized not by romance so much as compassion. It is, in de Rougemont’s terms, more agape than eros.
The prequel trilogy offers the most complex treatment of the drama. While we have seen that the central romances of the other trilogies are both downstream, in their own distinct ways, from the cult of passionate love, neither drinks as directly and bracingly from the source as the romance of Anakin and Padmé.
From the beginning, there is a pronounced element of idealization in Anakin’s love for Padmé. His first vision of her, in The Phantom Menace, prompts him to ask, “Are you an angel?” Later, in the final moments of the film, at the height of her exaltation as a queen, Padmé gives Anakin a wordless glance, analogous to the “salute” of the courtly love tradition; and Anakin, for his part, is to become a “knight” who would be forbidden to marry. The stage is set for a courtly romance. Anakin’s love for Padmé – who will become, more and more as he grows older, the faraway princess of his nostalgia, the icon of this idealized moment in his life – will go unconsummated. Curiously, the Jedi do not seem to discourage Anakin from pining for Padmé from a distance. (When Anakin tells Obi-Wan that he has thought of her every day since they parted, Obi-Wan does not bat an eye.) It is only actual possession that they forbid.
The love between Anakin and Padmé, then, bears all the hallmarks of passionate, unhappy love. It is forbidden by society and beset on all sides by obstructions that serve to repress (and thus intensify) passion. Like the love championed by the troubadours of the eleventh century, it creates a suffering which is, to some degree, cherished as it is endured: the suffering of being in love. Anakin borrows all the language of his romance from this tradition: he is wounded by love, “scarred” by the kiss of his lady, who only ever refuses his advances.
Not unlike the Jedi, de Rougemont’s heretics condemn the earthly institution of marriage, along with the physical consummation it implies – the better to perpetuate the spiritual state of “being in love.” However: while Tristan is the architect of his own frustration, Anakin earnestly desires the consummation of his love, and while Tristan is, in the final estimation, indifferent to Iseult, Anakin – whatever his other foibles – actually loves Padmé. Moreover, unlike Iseult or the lady of the troubadour’s song, she reciprocates his love. What starts out as forbidden, passionate love issues into marriage: when they kiss, they move out of the dark, secluded interior of the cave and into the bright and public arena. Padmé begins as an intensely idealized dream figure and ends, contra courtly love, as Anakin’s flesh-and-blood wife.
The end of Attack of the Clones, though, leaves the lovers in a rather fiendishly contrived middle ground between passionate love and marriage, eros and agape. For Anakin and Padmé, marriage, the icon of societally sanctioned love, is itself illicit – and thereby maintains the intensity, the pleasurable suffering, of secret, unhappy love.
Revenge of the Sith explodes this underlying tension. The birth of Anakin and Padmé’s children threatens to decisively end their passionate love affair, exposing their secret marriage. In some sense, they will no longer be lovers; they will be husband and wife, father and mother, all roles that are anathema to the cult of passionate love. Anakin, Tristan-like, chooses death, but in the end, life gets the final word. Anakin is saved not by a bloodless spirituality or by lawless sensuality, but by his son – an embodiment of a love that has been both consecrated and consummated in marriage.