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Posts Tagged ‘repetition’

Love’s ‘Schema and Correction’: A Queer Twist on a General Principle
by Lynne Pearce

They had stood that way for a long time in front of the fire, its burning tossing ruddy chunks of light, the shadow of their bodies a single column against the rock . . . Stars bit through the wavy heat layers above the fire. Ennis’s breath came slow and quiet, he hummed, rocked a little in the sparklight and Jack leaned against the steady heartbeat . . . fell into sleep that was not sleep but something else drowsy and tranced until Ennis, dredging [End Page 1] up a rusty by still useable phrase from the childhood before his mother died said, “Time to hit the hay, cowboy. I got a go. Come on, you’re sleeping on your feet like a horse” . . . Later, that dozy embrace solidified in his [Jack Twist’s] memory as the single moment of artless, charmed happiness in their separate and difficult lives. Nothing marred it. (Proulx 310-11)

In a previous article for JPRS (2.1)– subsequently revised and expanded for a chapter in Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega’s edited collection, Trauma and Romance (2013)– I explored the issue of repetition in love-relationships: in particular, the tension that exists between the genre of popular romance (where love, for both heroines and authors, would appear to be infinitely repeatable) and the emphatically non-repeatable, typically tragic, endgames that characterize a good deal of literary romance from the fourteenth century to the present.

However, the unanswered question this investigation left hanging in the air is why and how certain love-relationships present themselves as so definitive as to be non-repeatable in the first place? Although, in the previous article, I acknowledged that it was attachments which demonstrated Agapic qualities (i.e., they were sudden, involuntary and non-negotiable)[1] that were most likely to resist substitution/repetition, I stopped short of offering an explanation for why this should be the case. The discussion that follows provides a speculative answer to this question through recourse to a psychological model that, to the best of my knowledge, has never been used in connection with romantic love before: namely, the art historian E.H. Gombrich’s modelling of perception and consciousness (what we see and what we know) as a process of ‘schema and correction’.[2] Following Gombrich’s work, I put forward my own general principle of how the cognitive processes involved in an individual’s first attraction to his or her beloved helps explain why some attachments are more stubbornly enduring than others, before adding the further queer twist of how this may be of particular significance in (certain) homosexual[3] relationships. In addition, the discussion carries with it a political subtext that calls upon us to reconsider the value of amorous attachments so seemingly unique and irreproducible that their spell cannot be broken. While my first objective here is to offer a psychological explanation for why this is so, I also find it interesting to reflect upon the ways in which attachments that contemporary Western culture would typically regard as obsessive and perverse (in the sense that they persist without hope of resolution) may be legitimated. The gauntlet that such a stance throws down to the ‘self-help’ discourses of ‘letting go’ and ‘moving on’ is something that I foregrounded in the conclusion to my chapter in Trauma and Romance (2012:86-87), but this was before I had brought the conceit of romantic attraction as a process of schema and correction into the equation.

Now provided with a model which is, at very least, one way of explaining how some passionate attachments persist while others fade, it is, I believe, possible to call upon society to better respect and understand what is so easily dismissed as unhealthy obsession. From a wider societal perspective it is, of course, good that not everyone’s experience of falling in love is as non-reproducible as the phenomenon I explore here; however, it is arguably equally important not to put unwanted moral and psychological pressure upon those enthralled by a particular relationship to seek out a new one when they have no need to. On this point, careful historicization of the discourses concerned also serve to remind us that, in the nineteenth century and early-twentieth century (as in many [End Page 2] non-Western cultures today), life-long mourning and/or melancholia[4] for a lost loved-one was, and is, fully permissible. This, then, is the wider political and ethical debate to which this article speaks and which will, I hope, bring to mind textual plots and subplots from a broad cross-section of literature where bereaved or abandoned lovers refuse recuperation and trouble the text’s happy ending. Often the discordant function of such figures is passed over, but s/he may well work as an exemplar of the general, yet queer, principle I seek to explore here with the help of Annie Proulx’s short story ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2002 [1999]) and Ang Lee’s award-winning film based on the text (2005). With respect to the latter, it is indeed worth remembering that many viewers and reviewers enjoyed the film but were critical of its (and, of course, Proulx’s) ending on account of Ennis del Mar’s perceived refusal to ‘move on’: a point to which I shall return.

The article is divided into three sections: first, an exploration of the theory that has informed my thinking; second, a section which I have entitled ‘Love’s Beginning’ which draws upon Gombrich’s model of schema and correction to demonstrate, with the help of Proulx’s story, how some love-objects impact upon our consciousness in such an explosive way; and third, a section entitled ‘Love’s Sustenance’ which turns its attention to how such enchantments remain fresh and vital in a long-term relationship like that of Jack and Ennis. For while all these mechanisms may be seen to apply to heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships, it is arguable that they are more visible in the latter on account of the extra work non-heteronormative subjects have had to do (at least, historically) both in matching their desires to pre-existing schema and then adapting them – often across genders – for their own use: the (im)perceptible ‘queer twist’.

Rethinking Ravissement

As readers of this journal will be aware, theories of love and romance, both ancient and modern, abound with evocative and poetic descriptions of falling in love – many of them figuring it as a singular moment in time (Cupid’s arrow) or, indeed, the ‘ambush’ of Barthes’s ravissement (1990 [1977]):

Love at first sight is an hypnosis: I am fascinated by an image: at first shaken, electrified, stunned, “paralyzed” as Menon was by Socrates . . . subsequently ensnared, held fast, immobilized, nose stuck to the image (the mirror). (189)

Yet such is the stupefying intensity of the event that accounts of how such an improbable and instantaneous ‘hypnosis’ might be explained are harder to come by. Barthes himself, a little later in the same entry, nevertheless provides the beginnings of a theory for how we can appear to fall helplessly in love with someone we have only just met:

In the animal world, the release-switch of the sexual mechanism is not a specific individual but only a form, a bright-colored fetish (which is how the Image-repertoire starts up). In the fascinating image, what impresses me (like a sensitized paper) is not the accumulation of its details but this or that inflection. What suddenly manages to touch me (ravish me) in the other is [End Page 3] the voice, the line of the shoulders, the slenderness of the silhouette, the warmth of the hand, the curve of a smile, etc. Whereupon, what does the aesthetic of the image matter? Something accommodates itself exactly to my desire (about which I know nothing) . . . Sometimes it is the other’s conformity to a great cultural model which enthralls [sic] me (I imagine I see the other painted by an artist in the past); sometimes, on the contrary, it is a certain insolence of the apparition that will open the wound: I can fall in love with a slightly vulgar attitude . . . a brief (but excessive) way of parting the fingers, of spreading the legs, of moving the fleshy parts of the lips in eating, of going about some very prosaic occupation, of making one’s body utterly idiotic for an instant . . . (190-1) [my italics]

For Barthes, then, it is the lover’s Image-repertoire (his or her cache of stock images/qualities and emotional catalysts) that is responsible for pre-programming us to respond to certain visual cues[5], attitudes and behaviours. The implication is that we will chance upon, in certain individuals, a critical mass of features that somehow “accommodate [themselves] to our desire” (191) (as determined by our Image-repertoire) no matter how idiosyncratic or un-aesthetic these may be.

Philosophers in the analytic tradition (such as Soble (1990) cited in note 1) struggling to account for the phenomenon of ‘love at first sight’ have come to a similar conclusion;[6] namely, that our seemingly instantaneous attraction to a particular individual must, in truth, be triggered by pre-existing values and/or practices, be this the manner of one’s loving (our love of God is extended spontaneously to other objects) or in the way in which the special qualities discovered in certain individuals resonate with properties we already esteem (see note 1). Such a verdict not only asks serious questions about whether an attraction which is, in effect, a response to a pre-existing schema can really qualify as ‘love at first sight’, but also whether Agapically-inclined romantic love (the sudden outpouring of desire and solicitude that characterizes Barthes’s ravissement) is really any more unpremeditated than Erosic love (typically seen as a considered response to attractive qualities in a certain individual). As the previous sentence hints, the inclination to lavish affection on unfamiliar individuals or objects is arguably as dependent upon pre-existing patterns of behaviour (our unconditional love of God spills into our love for our neighbours and prospective partners) as ‘property-based love’ is on pre-existing schemas.

Taken together, then, both Barthes and the analytic philosophers make a strong case for all romantic love – even when seemingly instant and involuntary – being, in effect, a response to something that is already there. As we shall see, this is a conclusion perfectly in line with what Gombrich (and the Gestalt psychologists he drew upon) believed about the workings of perception and consciousness more generally (i.e., ‘there is no seeing without knowing’).[7] Whether or not we subscribe to this thesis, it is clearly crucial not to confuse its implications, in a romantic-love context, with a devaluing of what we may previously have thought of as love at first sight. Just because there is an element of response or reflex involved does not render the ontological experience any less immediate and profound for the subject(s) concerned. Indeed, by turning now to Gombrich’s account of all that is involved in the process of ‘matching’ a new object to a pre-existing schema, I can, I hope, demonstrate why falling in love – whether ‘at first sight’ or by means of a ‘slow burn’ – can [End Page 4] have such a powerful and long-lasting impact upon our consciousness. To anticipate, this is because it is not simply something in the love-object that “accommodates itself exactly to [our pre-existing] desire” (Barthes 191) but rather that we have to work to make the ‘match’ happen. Indeed, it is now my belief that it is this cognitive labour, rather than ravissement or ‘love at first sight’ per se – that is the key as to why some expressions of romantic love prove both so searing and so enduring.

As acknowledged above and in note 2, E.H. Gombrich’s interest in the work of the philosopher Karl Popper, psychologist J.J. Gibson’s work on visual perception and the Gestalt School arose from his attempt to theorize the history of (Western) art (see Gombrich 21-25 for a full discussion of these antecedents): namely, how the styles and conventions of pictorial representation change and evolve. It was the way in which each new generation or school of artists developed a style which was similar to, yet different from, that which preceded them which fascinated him (Gombrich 55-78) and whose conundrum was ultimately resolved through the practice he described as schema and correction. According to Gombrich, in order to “even describe the visible world . . . we need a developed system of schemata” (76), but when we triangulate this schemata with both the representations of our predecessors and what we see with our own eyes (i.e., the ‘correction’) a wholly new schema emerges.

In these speculations on how the process of schema and correction operates in painting and draughtsmanship, Gombrich describes a circuit of cognitive activity that can, I believe, be usefully compared to the work the subject is compelled to do when presented with a prospective love-object (or romantic scenario) that matches, but not quite, the visual ‘semes’[8] and affective qualities cached in his or her Image-repertoire:

My point here is that such matching will always be a step-by-step process – how long it takes and how hard it is will depend on the choice of the initial schema to be adapted to the task of serving as a portrait . . . He [the draughtsman] begins not with his visual impression but with his idea or concept . . . Having selected such a schema to fit the form approximately, he will proceed to adjust it . . . Copying, we learn from these experiments, proceeds from the rhythms of schema and correction. The ‘schema’ is not the product of a process of ‘abstraction’ or a tendency to ‘simplify’; it represents the first approximate, loose category which is gradually tightened to fit the form it is to reproduce. (63-4)

Gombrich’s draughtsman, then, is compelled to repeatedly reconfigure what he knows in the light of what he sees even though without his initial schema as a point of reference, he would have been unable to even begin his task. “Matching might come before making” (Gombrich 99), for sure, but the lasting achievement of the artist is in wresting a new and fresh perception from the disjuncture of the percept and its schema. In the process, moreover, the draughtsman or woman – and his/her correlate, the lover – will have effectively manufactured a new schema against which all future variants will be compared.

Such acknowledgement not only of the importance of the correction relative to the schema but also of the intense labour involved in aligning the two, suggests to me a possible explanation for why those lovers who have worked hardest at the matching of their schema – their ‘ideal object’, however conceptualized[9] – with the percept will find it [End Page 5] hardest to replace the relationship with another when, for whatever reason, it ends: having toiled so hard on refining their outline – which is now at once ideal and idiosyncratic – where should they expect to find its likeness again? Moreover, the work, though exhausting, is not necessarily exhausted. Each and every time the lover chances unexpectedly upon his or her love object, the same instance of double-vision has the potential to recur: s/he sees the ideal outline (the gestalt), but also the dissonant halo – until the two, with a quick blink of the eye, are skewed back together into an Image-repertoire that is, for the subject concerned, seemingly unique.

A further benefit of utilizing Gombrich’s notion of the schema (a tool in a purely cognitive process) in contrast to psychoanalytic concepts such as Freud’s ‘ego-ideal’ or Lacan’s ‘objet petit à’ (see note 9) is that it enables us to explore the role played by the a priori objects of romantic love relations without recourse to heteronormative models of Oedipal subject development. In other words (and as discussed in notes 5, 8 and 9), the lover’s schema is not necessarily traceable to any one conceit, image or bond, but is more typically a composite of multiple qualities that s/he has encountered up to that point. This is especially helpful when we contemplate the nature and function of the schema in gay, lesbian and/or queer relationships (see note 3) where neither psychoanalytic nor ideological figures (e.g., the parent of the opposite sex or the prince and princesses of fairytale) may be expected to function as a generic ideal – at least, not in a straightforward way. Indeed, freed from the logic of Oedipus, it surely makes sense to propose that subjects who are aware of the heterodox nature of their affective and sexual preferences will discover their schemata in a dispersed range of sources rather than the abstract (yet gendered) parental objects of psychoanalysis. Further, the love-schema, like Gombrich’s visual-art schema, may be as far removed from its Ur-source as is imaginable and yet still be a schema. In the same way that – for Gombrich – the history of Western art may be traced through the evolution of its aesthetic schema (each new School, or movement, revises and adapts the schema of its immediate predecessor), so might non-heterosexual lovers today be expected to respond to schemas that are already queerly twisted before embarking upon their own practice of correction.

By corollary, and in anticipation of the discussion of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ that follows, we may also speculate that lovers who have previously identified as heterosexual will have to work especially hard to bring their love-schemas in line with a potential love object of the same sex. For if an individual has never had cause to question his or her sexuality before it is quite possible that the assemblage of semes (see note 8) that comprise his/her ideal schemata have become so associated with a person of the opposite sex that they are unrecognisable in a person of the same sex (in contrast to openly bisexual- or queer-identified subjects for whom such semes transfer easily across the sexes). In this regard, indeed, one could argue that it is the distance travelled between a schema and its correction that constitutes the truly queer and volatile space of a love-relationship even if, once his/her personal ‘correction’ has been effected, the subject concerned loses sight of how wide the gap once yawned. [End Page 6]

Love’s Beginning

Readers familiar with ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (the story rather than the film, though the latter is a very faithful reproduction of the former in many ways) may recall that it opens with an italicized postscript, at the heart of which sits Ennis del Mar’s dream of his dead lover Jack Twist:

Ennis del Mar wakes up before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminum door and window frames. The shirts on a nail shudder slightly in the draft . . . It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning . . . He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.

The stale coffee is boiling up but he catches it before it goes over the side, pours it into a stained cup and blows on the black liquid, lets a panel of the dream slide forward. If he does not force his attention on it, it might stoke the day, rewarm that old, cold time on the mountain when they owned the world and nothing seemed wrong. The wind strikes the trailer like a load of dirt coming off a dump truck, eases, dies, leaves a temporary silence. (Proulx 283)

Although it is now already several years since Jack’s death, Ennis still has the pleasure and consolation of dreaming about him; indeed, each night brings with it the promise of a new coup de foudre. Just as it was at their beginning, so might Jack Twist stride into his life again – unbidden. Indeed, it is the involuntary nature of the dream, the very fact that Ennis must not “force his attention on it”, that links it so neatly with the genesis of the love-affair and positions it at the Agapic pole of romantic love (see note 1).

Yet the unbidden question the persistence of these dreams raises is clearly ‘how’? How is it possible for certain love-affairs to live on in the unconscious in this way, and with this tenacity, when others see the tabula wiped clean overnight? Is it simply a matter of the individual psyche (i.e., evidence that some of us are more susceptible to lingering attachments than others)? Or of the qualitative strength of one attachment over the next: where we love deeply and meaningfully, we love longest?[10] Or is it, as I’m proposing here, somehow bound up with the nature of love’s inception: the way in which some encounters are marked by a process so charged – and challenging – as to defy the evacuating processes of memory?

There are, of course, other theoretical models available to explain why certain attachments persist and certain memories refuse to die: most notably, Freud’s diagnosis of mourning and melancholia (see note 4) and the trauma theorists’ accounts of how distressing incidents can be lodged in the unconscious indefinitely (Caruth, Felman and Laub). Vis-à-vis the special circumstances of romantic love, however, Roland Barthes has perhaps come closest to giving the moment and manner of the encounter the attention it deserves. For no matter how convincing we might find Freud’s proposition that mourning cannot be completed until each and every incident associated with the beloved has been revisited (253), this still fails to explain why some relationships accrue more memories – [End Page 7] or, rather, the raw-materials from which memories are manufactured – than others. And this is where Gombrich’s model of cognition as a process of schema and correction as outlined above can, perhaps, help us: namely, the more slippages that are encountered between a pre-existing schema and its queer or quirky ‘other’ during the period of ravissement, the harder the lover has to work in aligning the two; even, in some cases, years down the line and/or after the beloved has been lost. Put simply: the more unlikely the love-object, the more persistent the attachment.[11]

I turn now to Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ in order to explore these propositions further and, on that point, should clarify that my objective in so doing is to refine and illustrate my theory rather than provide a ‘reading’ of the text per se (fascinating though it undoubtedly is).

Although ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a text which keeps character-focalization to a minimum (and then almost exclusively through the eyes/consciousness of Ennis del Mar), there are one or two episodes near the start of the story which may, I think, be read as indicative of the extremely challenging schema and correction work both men (but especially Ennis) are compelled to engage in before the other was even recognizable as an object of love and desire. Starting with the occasion of the men’s first encounter –  in the “choky little trailer office” of the Farm and Ranch Employment Agency (285) – the text offers portraits of Jack and Ennis that reveal the extent to which both men, in their person, combine the idiosyncratic with the conventional and hence thwart classification according to idealized and or ready-made schemas:

At first sight Jack seemed fair enough with his curly hair and a quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buck teeth, not pronounced enough to let him eat popcorn out of the neck of the jug, but noticeable. (286)

Ennis, high-arched nose and narrow face, was scruffy and a little cave-chested, balanced a small torso on long caliper [sic] legs, [but] possessed a muscular and supple body made for the horse and for fighting. His reflexes were uncommonly quick and he was farsighted enough to dislike reading anything except Hamley’s saddle catalog. (286)

We see that while Jack at first sight conforms to the conventional/heteronormative schema of a good-looking man there is, nevertheless, something odd about him: even at twenty, he is slightly over-weight and has protruding teeth; Ennis, by contrast (and, in this case the idiosyncrasies or ‘flaws’ are listed first) is skinny and imperfectly proportioned but otherwise fits a conventional heroic ideal by being quick and powerful. While Proulx may not route this description through the focalization her characters, these physical characteristics – both ideal and idiosyncratic – are threaded through the narrative that ensues. When Ennis remembers or dreams about Jack, for example, the latter’s buck teeth feature; while it is Ennis’s physique that enables him to pack a punch, both literally and symbolically, on Jack’s heart. In terms of their semantic profiles, then, it may be seen that both men conform to and yet deviate from  heteronormative cowboy stereotypes in ways that are guaranteed to intrigue and provoke as they size one another up and, in Gombrich’s terms, begin the arduous process of ‘matching and making’. [End Page 8]

Significantly, the first time the text shows the men appraising one another, it is from the ultra-de-familiarizing distance of their respective camps on Brokeback Mountain:

During the day Ennis looked across a great gulf and sometimes saw Jack, a small dot moving across a high meadow as an insect moves across a tablecloth; Jack, in his dark camp, saw Ennis as night fire, a red spark on the huge black mass of mountain. (287)

This must be read as a somewhat hyperbolic demonstration of schema-correction inasmuch as huge cognitive effort is required to match the two semantic fields: a black dot in Jack’s case, a red one in Ennis’s. And yet it may also be read as paradigmatic of the sort of making and matching (bizarre, unfamiliar, difficult to make out) that lives longest in the memory banks and when focused on a potential love object – serves to fuel the life and after-life of romance.

The difficulty Jack and Ennis have in figuring each other out is registered in the text – at the level of the plot – in the length of time it takes before their mutual attraction is recognized. Love at first sight this is not; and yet, when they do finally come together it is with all the suddenness of a coup de foudre, as though – after long months of schema-adjustment (we remember Gombrich’s description of the draughtsman at work) they see each other as an object of desire for the first time:

Ennis woke in the red dawn with his pants around his knees, a top-grade headache, and Jack butted against him; without saying anything about it both knew how it would go for the rest of the summer, sheep be damned.

As it did go. They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” There were only the two of them on the mountain flying in the euphoric, bitter air, looking down on the hawk’s back and the crawling lights of vehicles on the plain below, suspended from ordinary affairs and distant from tame ranch dogs barking in the dark hours. (291)

For Ennis, consumed with homophobic anxiety, it is an alignment and realization that, at a conscious level, he can never come to terms with or completely understand; while in Jack’s case, as will be discussed below, it is only latterly (when he remembers the time that Ennis held him in a maternal embrace: see epigraph at head of article) that he is seen to glimpse one of the sources of his schemata.

Love’s Sustenance: Reification

I move now to the representation of the phase of Jack and Ennis’s relationship that Barthes, in his teleology of romance, designates ‘the sequel’ (197-8). In so doing I am not, [End Page 9] however, leaving ‘the beginning’ behind since the hypothesis of enduring love that I am testing here is crucially dependent upon the dynamic exchange between ideal and variant, schema and correction, established during the period of protracted ravissement. Further, the telescopic nature of Proulx’s plotting means that a good deal of information about the moment of first encounter is revealed retrospectively through the vehicle of the two men’s memories and dreams.

As readers familiar with either the short story or the film will be aware, the plot of ‘Brokeback Mountain’, subsequent to Jack and Ennis’s first summer on the mountain, is structured around a series of contrapuntal episodes focusing on the men’s domestic lives when apart and their annual or biennial ‘fishing trips’ together. The articulation of the two is handled extremely deftly in Ang Lee’s film which makes rather more of the domestic interludes and the (painful) passage of time this represents.

From their first trip away together, some four years after the summer on Brokeback Mountain, Jack and Ennis’s reunions take on a supercharged intensity. Although such passion can, of course, be explained simply as a response to abstinence (both sexual and emotional), there are several instances in the text where we can, I think, see the dynamics of the initial schema and correction process repeating themselves. Take, for example, this description of when Jack first lands on Ennis’s doorstep:

Late in the afternoon, thunder growling, that same old green pickup rolled in and he saw Jack get out of the truck, beat-up Resitol tilted back. A hot jolt scalded Ennis and he was out on the landing pulling the door closed behind him. Jack took the stairs two and two . . . then, and as easily as the right key turns the lock tumblers, their mouths came together and hard, Jack’s big teeth bringing blood . . . and Ennis, not big on endearments, said what he said to his horses and daughters, little darlin. (295)

What Proulx’s account of the reunion emphasizes is, once again, the ideal and idiosyncratic nature of this relationship, both in terms of the men’s physical appearances – note the mention of  Jack’s defining feature, his buckteeth – and what, following Barthes, we may describe as the ‘scene’ (192).[12] Although the doorstep is the prototypical site of romantic union from traditional folk songs to military homecomings, this is undoubtedly a queer one.

Dirt-poor, Ennis and Alma (Ennis’s wife) are, at this time, living in a small apartment above a laundry and, during the interlude of the embrace, Alma breaks onto the scene twice: the open door-frame symbolic, if you like, of Ennis’s heteronormative responsibilities and constraints. What is most interesting from the point of view of my hypothesis, however, is that this dissonance between the ideal and the actual serves only to magnify the specificity, and hence the intensity, of the romantic encounter. Indeed, it could be said that the text positions us, as readers, to share the ‘hot jolt’ that scalds Ennis as an explosion of incongruous visual and discursive cues converge in a split-second of time. Like Ennis, we scramble our schema to make sense of the scene before us and, in the gap between what we see and what we know, register once again the seeming uniqueness of this love-relationship.

The image of the ‘hot jolt’ that Proulx invokes here may, of course, also be read as indicative of the fact that – for lovers, as for the population at large – lightning can, indeed, strike twice. The chances of it striking more than twice would, however, seem slim – and [End Page 10] yet this is precisely how the reunions between Jack and Ennis continue to be characterized. Even within the context of the Hail Strew River trip (305-310), which Ang Lee’s film figures as the crisis point and nadir of the relationship, the same electrical imagery is invoked: “One thing never changed: the brilliant charge of their infrequent couplings was darkened by the same sense of time flying, never enough time, never enough” (307). And while, once again, it is possible to make a banal reading of this (the sex was good because it was so infrequent), it may – for the purposes of my hypothesis – also be read as evidence of the way in which the a priori moment of schema and correction continues to repeat itself. Each time the lovers meet the same ‘jolt’ of mis/recognition occurs. To re-iterate Barthes: “I cannot get over having had this good fortune: to meet what matches my desire” (194). And yet the ‘match’, as we’ve already established, is far from perfect; so it is rather a case of having always to tweak the schema to accommodate the desire.

Meanwhile, the way in which such repeated corrections may over time lead to a permanent expansion and alteration of the schema is recognized in Gestalt psychology through the concept of reification (the generative aspect of perception which causes the percept to appear to the beholder with more information – visual, sensory, conceptual – than the eye actually beholds).[13] This appears to usefully account for the way in which an expanded, intensified schema may eventually over-determine the act of perception to such an extent that we readily supplement the information provided in a perceptual prompt with data stored in the improvised schema. To invoke another school of cognitive psychology, perception thus becomes apperception[14] and, onto the figure of the beloved and all that has become associated with him or her, is projected the effort of all our past ‘making and matching’.

Read as an analogy for the dynamics that come to characterize a long-term love-affair like that of Ennis and Jack, it therefore also becomes possible to suggest that although the ‘jolt’ of schema versus correction has the capacity to continue ad infinitum, the repeatedly-adjusted schema will gradually come to subsume the original to such an extent that it will acquire a life or substance of its own – something in the manner of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacrum (Baudrillard 1981). Inasmuch as this revised schema will over time accommodate many of the beloved’s notionally undesirable features as well as his or her more endearing ones, it may also be seen to play an important role in protecting the relationship from ‘spoiling’: what Barthes figured as a “speck of corruption” on the Image-repertoire (25). Once brought within the figure of the new outline or schema, whose difference from the bland original is precisely what makes our attachment so compelling and unique, aesthetic flaws, bad behavior, and even everyday irritations – the death-knell of more Erosically-defined relationships (see note one)– are accommodated and forgotten.

As it happens, Proulx’s story features a metaphor which speaks to the benefits of the reification of the schema in a long-term love-relationship very well. Having been dealt a symbolic killer-blow in his fight with Jack at Hail Strew River (when Jack spells out to him the great life they might have had together were it not for Ennis’s homophobia), Ennis drops to the ground as if “heart-shot”(309). A minute or two later, however:

Ennis was back on his feet and somehow, as a coat hanger is straightened to open a locked door and then bent again to its original shape, they torqued things back almost to where they had been before, for what they’d said was no news. Nothing ended, nothing begun, nothing resolved. (310) [End Page 11]

Although this likening of the relationship to a gestalt or shape is, of course, entirely coincidental, the conceit of a coat-hanger being “torqued back into shape” also serves well as a trope for the redemptive power of the oft-corrected and now reified schema. For while everything in the circumstances in which Jack and Ennis find themselves in militates against the survival of their special relationship (Jack’s infidelity, Ennis’s conservatism and homophobia, the spoiling of their no-longer-young bodies), it does survive; largely, I would suggest, because these uncomfortable particulars have already been incorporated into an outline that, according to the first principles of gestalt, is always already more than the sum of its parts (see note 7).


As the title of this article indicates, my likening of the process of falling in love to E.H. Gombrich’s account of the role of schema and correction in the stylistic evolution of Western art presents itself as a general principle rather than one that is in any way exclusive to homosexual relationships. Indeed, as far as Gombrich and the theory that informed his work is concerned (Gestalt, Popper), the maxim that ‘matching comes before making’ is seen to be foundational to all acts of cognition. By implication, the application of the principle to the perception-cognition of lovers must necessarily include all lovers: each one of us will fall in love in response to our personal schemata regardless of where this – and, indeed, the gender of our potential love object – positions us on the spectrum of sexualities available to us.

On this point, I am aware that my description of Jack and Ennis’s relationship as ‘homosexual’ throughout the course of this article may seem rather dated in a special issue dedicated to the exploration of specifically queer romance. However, as outlined in note 3, this is because Proulx’s story is set – with much historical fidelity – in an era and culture when there were only two options (one normative, one deviant) as far as sexuality was concerned. In addition, picking up on my opening comments in the introduction, it is arguably the aggressively heteronormative context in which Proulx’s characters operate that makes visible the struggle they have in connecting their schemata to their apprehension of each other. And this, in turn, is what makes both the schemas and their corrections perceptible to us as readers; considering that Jack’s ideal love object may be sourced to his mother (see epigraph at head of article), and Ennis’s experience of affection is limited to his children and his horses (see extract in section one (Proulx 295)), it is no surprise that they have to work as hard as they do to make the match, effect the correction.

The fact that Jack and Ennis’s love-schemas appear to originate in the conservative and stereotypical semantics of the family is also unremarkable: in rural mid-West America in the early 1960s there was presumably little in the way of gay/lesbian iconography and the more complex sexual identifications of the queer movement had yet to be imagined (see note 3). Given the enormity of the gulf between ideal (and permissible) love-objects and their displacement onto a lover of the same sex it is also not surprising that the process of schema correction should take some time. In terms of Proulx’s narrative, indeed, it is not until the crisis of the Hail Strew River trip that Jack is seen to make the connection (even [End Page 12] now unconscious) between Ennis’s protective embrace and a mother’s love, while Ennis remains blind to his desire to perform that role (as Jack’s partner) until after Jack’s death. (Having created a shrine out of his and Jack’s entwined shirts and a postcard of Brokeback Mountain, Ennis belatedly utters the marriage vow – “Jack, I swear-”(317)). What Proulx’s text reveals to us so effectively, then, is just how hard her two protagonists have to work to bring their love in line with a schema they recognize and value. Jack, we know, has had a good many male lovers apart from Ennis, but whatever sexual pleasure or relief they provided, it failed to match the type/typology of love he yearned for. Understanding this also, of course, suggests why love so hard-won is also not easily forgotten. Jack and Ennis keep coming back to each other, year after year, precisely because – in Barthes’s words – each matches the other’s desire (194) without them knowing exactly what that desire is. The slippage becomes, in effect, a mystery that needs to be solved and, hence, a compulsion.

As noted above, the logic of the psychology on which both Gombrich’s model of schema and correction and my application of it to a romantic love context dictates that the processes I have explored here vis-à-vis fictional homosexual relationships should apply to all love relationships regardless of the sexual orientation of the subjects concerned. Although the practice of schema and correction may be more visible in homosexual relationships located in a history or culture where the non-normative is hidden from view, it follows that all of us discover and identify our love objects by a similar process; the qualitative difference, it would seem, is the comparative ease with which a heterosexual subject – or, indeed, a contemporary gay-/queer-identified subject – is able to match their schema to a prospective partner. In any relationship where the gap between our schema and our love-object is wide, however, the love itself is liable to be deep and long-lasting; it is the fascination of something that fits, or matches, almost but not exactly that has the power to bind us to him or her forever.

Finally, by way of conclusion, I return to the political subtext introduced at the start of this article. Although Proulx’s story was penned fairly recently (1999) and focuses on a relationship that spanned the latter-half of the twentieth-century (1963-83), for many readers and viewers it will be seen as a compelling but in every respect archaic account of how ‘modern love’ (whatever the sexuality) should be lived. Yet in line with my discussion in ‘Romance and Repetition’ (2010; 2012), I am personally rather less inclined to read the end of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ as ‘depressing’ or, indeed, to characterize those whose affections exceed the ‘normal’ period of time typically allocated for mourning unhealthy or obsessed. As I observed at the beginning of the article, time was – and less than a century ago – when widowhood (and its non-marital equivalents) was a socially acceptable affective state, and contemporary society’s pressure to ‘move on’ and love again as part of a life-project centred on the meeting of needs and the enjoyment of entitlements would have been unrecognizable.

The literary history of tragic romance, meanwhile, has typically preferred to draw the veil on any such extended mourning by contriving an ending that involves both parties. Proulx’s text, by contrast, which ends with the memorable but cryptic pronouncement “If you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” (318), may indeed be read as a positive break with the tradition in this regard. For while we may regard the text’s repetition of Ennis’s catch-phrase as the final, ironic comment on the cruel price he’s been forced to pay for his failure of nerve all those years ago, who is to say that Ennis del Mar, now, would be better off ‘moving on’? Instead – and notwithstanding the cold light of dawn in a lonely trailer – there [End Page 13] is surely also a case to be made for living with the thing that one has worked on so inexhaustibly and, in the process, defined one’s life no matter how queer this might seem to others.

[1] ‘Agapic love’: my use of this term to describe romantic love relationships has been questioned by scholars who understand it to refer to ‘the love of God’ and hence existing in singular contrast to the love that characterizes our interpersonal relationships. It should, however, be noted that I refer here to the ‘Agapic qualities’ present in certain expressions of romantic love, which is not the same as declaring the love Agapic per se. In this I am following the work of Alan Soble (1990) who proposed that the discourse of romantic love is inscribed by both Erosic and Agapic elements: “But romantic love may also exhibit features of the second [Agapic] view: it arises (and disappears) mysteriously, incomprehensibly; the lover is not always expected to have reasons for his or her passion; and the lover is only under an illusion that the beloved has attractive qualities” (15-16). See also Anders Nygren’s classic Eros and Agape (1983 [1936]).

[2] E.H. Gombrich (1909-2001) was a world-renowned art-historian whose theories of how the visual arts (principally painting) have evolved over the centuries drew upon the work of the philosopher Karl Popper and Gestalt psychology (which originated in Germany in the early twentieth century through the work of Max Wertheimer, Wolfgang Köhler and Kurt Koffka) (see Gombrich 21-23). Both Popper and the Gestalt school proposed radically new ways of understanding perception, arguing that our ability to ‘see’ objects depends entirely upon a pre-existing ‘schema’ or concept for the object concerned. It is also important to acknowledge that the principles of Gestalt had already been linked to the visual arts in Rudolf von Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye (1954). Gombrich’s debt to these theorists is visible in his Story of Art (first published in 1950) but becomes explicit in Art and Illusion (first published in 1960). A useful article comparing Popper and Gombrich was published by Norbert Schneider in 2009.

[3] As discussed at the end of the article, I recognize that my use of the term ‘homosexual’ as a descriptor assumes a binaristic conception of sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual) which the Queer movement has done much to undermine. However, for the purposes of this article, which centres on a fictional text set in the early 1960s, I have used the term advisedly since I feel it to be the most historically/culturally appropriate (although Ennis del Mar proclaims “I ain’t no queer” we know that the connotations of the term are not what they are today). In other parts of the discussion I use the terms ‘gay’/‘lesbian’ and ‘queer’ as I consider appropriate according, again, to the cultural/historical context. Ang Lee’s film  Brokeback Mountain (2005) solicited a good deal of media and online discussion about whether the protagonists were gay, bisexual or rather ‘heterosexual men who, by chance, entered into a homosexual relationship’. The fact that, today, Facebook and other social media sites provide users with an expansive list of sexual/gender identifications indicates how far Western culture has embraced the theoretical implications of Queer theory (even while it is important to recognize that this by is by no means the case in many other regions of the world). See: (accessed 14/02/14).

[4] ‘Mourning and Melancholia’: the distinction between these two terms, à propos Freud, is well-rehearsed and widely commented upon. Broadly speaking, mourning is seen [End Page 14] to represent a ‘healthy’ processing of loss which, while it may take a very long time, finally resolves in the mourner being able to ‘let go’ of the loved-object which is seen to be separate from him or herself, while melancholia is understood as an introjection of the lost loved-object in order to keep him or her permanently alive. In his essay, Freud links the tendency to melancholia to narcissistic personalities who depend upon their lovers to verify their own sense of identity and hence cannot bear to do without them when they disappear or die. See Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1991 [1915]) and Pearce (2007: 83-109).

[5] The specifically visual dimension of romantic love has been explored by Troy Jollimore in the widely-acclaimed philosophical study Love’s Vision (2011). While the love-schemas I refer to here may owe a great deal to specifically visual prompts, they are (following Barthes, note 8) probably best understood as a composite of visual, affective, and cognitive ‘semes’.

[6] Other philosophers who have explored the concept of ‘love at first sight’ include Simon May (2012) and most recently Christian Maurer (2014).

[7] Gestalt translates from the German as the “essence or shape of an entity’s complete form”. Philosophical interest in the concept can be traced back to David Hulme, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Immanuel Kant and David Hartley among others, but it was only in the early twentieth century that Max Wertheimer recognized its significance for our understanding of human perception. The key principle that underpins the theory as it was developed by the so-called Gestalt school is that the eye sees objects in their entirety before identifying their individual parts, hence Kurt Koffka’s maxim “the whole is other than the sum of its parts” (see D. Brett King and Michael Wertheimer’s Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory 2007).

[8] ‘Semes’: a term which derives from semiology (or ‘the science of signs’) and refers to the individual components of a larger semantic whole or ‘sign-system’. Roland Barthes made radical use of semiology in S/Z, his legendary analysis of Balzac’s short story “Sarrasine” (Barthes 1991[1970]). Of particular interest to my discussion here is his proposition that textual characters are no more than ‘a collection of semes’ rather than representations of subjects who are in any way integrated wholes. My suggestion here is that a lover’s Image-repertoire is constructed of a diverse ‘collection of semes’ in a similar way.

[9] ‘Ideal object’: Psychoanalytic theory has, of course, furnished us with several compelling accounts of how such ‘others’ form a crucial point of reference in our adult sexual relationships (e.g., Freud’s ‘ego-ideal’ and Lacan’s ‘objet petit à’: see Coleman 2009 240,Wright 175), their limitations (also well-recorded) being that they function in a specifically familial and heterosexual economy and the fact (discussed further below) that they fail to account for the idiosyncrasy of our attractions. In this regard, Barthes’s characterization of the human (textual) subject as a collection of ‘semes’ (see note 8 above) is a helpful counter to the notion of an abstract and holistic ‘ideal object’: as Barthes’s himself acknowledged in the entry on Ravissement (188-94) we can fall in love with a gesture as well as a person.

[10] Christian Maurer (University of Fribourg) cited in note 6 is now working on the significance of profundity in love relationships.

[11] With thanks to my colleague at Lancaster University, Professor Hilary Hinds, who helped me crystallize the implications of this point. [End Page 15]

[12] Roland Barthes on ‘the scene’: “The first thing we love is a scene. For love at first sight requires the very sign of its suddenness (what makes me irresponsible, subject to fatality, swept away, ravished): and of all the arrangements of objects, it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time . . . what is immediate stands for what is fulfilled: I am initiated: the scene consecrates the object I am going to love. . . (192)”.

[13] ‘Reification’: to ‘reify’ , in psychology refers to the mechanism by which an abstract concept is rendered concrete (Coleman 648), but in studies of perception has been extended to refer to the ways in which we project additional meaning onto an outline that does not, in itself, contain that information (see ‘apperception’, note 14 following). See also Kurt Koffka, Perception: an Introduction to Gestalt Theory (2014 [1922]).

[14] ‘Apperception’: “the process by which new experience is assimilated to and transformed by the residuum of past experience of an individual to form a new whole” (Coleman 50). [End Page 16]

Works Cited

Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. Universal Pictures, 2005. Film.

Arnheim, Rudolf von. Art and Visual Percpetion: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004 [1954]. Print.

Barthes, Roland. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc., 1991 [1970]. Print.

_______ A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 [1978]. Print.

Brett King, D. and Michael Wertheimer. Max Wertheimer and Gestalt Theory. Rutgers: Transaction Publishers, 2007. Print.

Coleman, Andrew M. Oxford Dictionary of Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Caruth, Cathy, ed. Trauma: Explorations in Memory. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. Print.

______ Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Print.

Felman, Shoshana and Dori Laub. Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis and History. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia [1915].” On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

Gibson, James J. The Perception of the Visual World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950. Print.

Gombrich, E.H. Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation. Second Impression. London: Phaidon, 1980 [1960]. Print.

Jollimore, Troy. Love’s Vision. Princeton: Harvard University, 2011. Print.

Koffka, Kurt. Principles of Gestalt Psychology (The International Library of Psychology). London and New York: Routledge. 2014. Print.

Köhler, W. Dynamics in Psychology: Vital Applications of Gestalt Psychology. New York: Grove Press, 1960 [1940]. Print.

May, Simon. Love: A History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. Print.

Maurer, Christian. “On Love at First Sight”. Love and its Objects: What Can We Care For?  Eds. Christian Maurer and Tony Milligan. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 160-176. Print.

Nygren, Anders. Eros and Agape. London: SPCK, 1983 [1936]. Print.

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge: Polity, 2007. Print.

_________“Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love”. Journal of Popular Romance Studies 2.1 (2011). Web.

_________“Romance, Trauma and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love”. Trauma and Romance in Contemporary British Literature. Eds. Jean-Michel Ganteau and Susana Onega. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. 71-89. Print.

Popper, Karl. The Open Society and its Enemies. Third Edition. London and New York: Routledge, 2011 [1957]. Print.

______“The Philosophy of Science: A Personal Report”. British Society in the Mid-Century. Ed. Cecil A. Mace. London and New York: Routledge, 2010 [1957]. Print. [End Page 17]

Proulx, Annie. Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories. London: Harper Perennial, 2006 [1999]. Print.

Schneider, Norbert. “Form of Thought and Presentational Gesture in Karl Popper and E.H. Gombrich.”Human Affairs 19.3 (2009): 251-258. Print.

Soble, Alan. The Structure of Love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990. Print.

Wright, Elizabeth, ed. Feminism and Psychoanalysis: A Critical Dictionary. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992. Print.

[End Page 18]


“Romance and Repetition: Testing the Limits of Love” by Lynne Pearce

The need for, yet denial of, repetition constitutes a paradox that seems set to confound romantic love for ever more. Inasmuch as many of our most enduring definitions of love regard its non-repeatability as key (“love is forever”; “you and no other” etc), and others (particularly those stemming from psychoanalysis) regard the human subject’s compulsion to repetition as equally non-negotiable, philosophical tension and dispute are guaranteed; and inasmuch as the romance genre depends upon an inexorable process of repeating and refiguring narrative and other conventions, so must the tension also live on in the love story itself. Repetition, in other words, is the seemingly inexhaustible, yet infinitely exhausting, life-blood of romance, regardless of whether the story in question is bound for tragedy (where death is invoked to vouchsafe love’s non-repeatability) or a “happy ending” (where past relationships, as well as new ones glimmering darkly on the horizon, are temporarily dazzled and silenced by an all consuming present). In this article I reflect further upon the theoretical and philosophical challenges that repetition poses for romantic love (the discourse and the genre) before turning to Sarah Waters’s novel, The Night Watch (2006) to reveal under what circumstances repetition may, indeed, become the enemy of romance.

Love as Repetition-Compulsion: The View from Psychoanalysis

Without wishing to rehearse in any detail those psychoanalytic theories of subject and sexual development that offer, often incidentally, some insight into the set of emotions commonly referred to as “love,” it is useful to begin this discussion of romance and/as repetition with reference to the work of Freud and Lacan (whose writings on the subject are, of course, themselves complicit in the circulation of amorous discourse [cf. Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse]).

For Freud, the patterns of adult love-relationships can be linked explicitly to early psychosexual developments in terms of both gender identity (and identification) and power. The oedipal attachments of children to their parents are repeated in love relationships in later life, including both the initial idealisation of/obsession with the love-object and the accompanying jealousy and hostility felt towards any rivals for that object’s affections (“On Narcisissm”). Although problematic in feminist terms—not least because of its assumption that all desire is, by default, phallocentric and heterosexual—the tensions Freud exposes in early childhood arguably do find their echoes in adult relationships, in the subject’s desire to possess both what is not strictly hers (inasmuch as our parents belong, first and foremost, to each other) and what is not easily had (seduction, deviousness, and general “bad-behaviour” may well be involved [see Gallop]). Furthermore, according to Freud’s repetition-compulsion hypothesis (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle”), it is the difficulty and/or failure of these childhood attempts to win affection that causes us to want to repeat them later in life, sometimes to the extent of seeking out an overtly hostile or inaccessible love-object (see Benjamin, The Bonds of Love). In his essay on “The Uncanny,” Freud gives additional spin to his hypothesis by implying that the compulsion to repeat is stronger than “the pleasure principle”: that is, the compulsion to sex itself. He writes:

In the unconscious mind we can recognize the dominance of a compulsion to repeat, which proceeds from instinctual impulses. This compulsion probably depends on the essential nature of the drives themselves. It is strong enough to override the pleasure principle and lend a demonic character to certain aspects of mental life. (145)

The implications of this startling realization for Freud were, of course, profound (ending in his hypothesis of the “death-drive”), but here I wish simply to note the gauntlet it throws down to all theories of love that are predicated upon the power exerted by an ideal object. For Freud, in this instance, the “object” has completely disappeared: we repeat, not in order to find “the other,” nor even a missing part of “ourselves,” but simply for the pleasure and empowerment of repetition itself.

For Lacan, meanwhile, it is the fact that all desire is, by definition, unmet and unmeetable—the intolerable Lack that grounds the human condition—that explains our compulsive tendency towards repetition in adult life (Ethics 151). Because of the fundamentally narcissistic character of the human subject, whose first love affair is an idealised encounter with the self, all subsequent attempts at relationships are characterised by a desire to return to this original state of imagined wholeness (“immortality”); and all, of course, are doomed to fail: “For what is love other than banging one’s head against a wall, since there is no sexual relation?” (“Seminar” 170). As Fred Botting observes, it is prognoses such as these that situate Lacan firmly to one side of all the theorists and artists that explain love as “the self’s completion of fulfilment” (27, emphasis added). While this end point may, admittedly, be the desire that fuels the process, Lacan’s narcissistic reflex is, in practice, far bleaker: for Lacan, the lover is banging his or her head against a wall not because the “thing” that s/he is seeking is no other than him/herself, but because that “self” is, itself, illusory and lost: a mere “sexed living being [ . . . ] no longer immortal” (Botting 27). While, at first sight, this claim may seem rather perversely counter-intuitive (surely the “sexed living being” is a subject of sorts, capable of participating in relationships that are capable of delivering mortal comfort and satisfaction?), it is important to remember that Lacan’s theory is not concerned with the everyday practice of desire but rather its psychic origins; in particular, the way in which our egotistical fantasies (where we aspire to be extra-ordinary beings) are repeatedly undermined by the disillusioning events of everyday life, including the romantic encounter. As Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse dramatizes so vividly, the condition of being-in-love is circumscribed by the threat that the other/lover will turn out to be rather less than “ideal” (25-8): merely another “sexed living being,” in fact, who can no longer deliver the subject from his/her own pitiful insignificance.

In the Lacanian economy, then, the notion of a “pure love” that is exclusive and non-repeatable is quite simply unthinkable: love, inasmuch as it can be said to exist at all, is only repeatable. Because we are never going to find what we desire (since the “ideal” lover/other will always, ultimately, fail us) we are compelled to keep searching and thus stave off the nightmare encounter with our own profound ordinariness and mortality.

Both Freud and Lacan, then, can be seen to have produced theories that move repetition to the centre of adult sexual desire and, by implication, test the limits of more idealised, object-centred definitions of love. Jessica Benjamin, too, sees the habitual tendency to repetition within the (typically asymmetric) family unit as key to the perpetuation of unequal power-relationships in adult life, often with recourse to sadistic/masochistic subject positioning (The Bonds of Love), even though—in contrast to Freud and Lacan—she does not regard either the originating dynamics or their reproduction as necessary or inevitable. Although destructive patterns of relationship may have become habitual in the contemporary Western world, it is a repetition that can, with effort, be broken (Like Subjects, Love Objects). In general, however, it may be said that, for psychoanalysis, “love” is a palliative discourse that seeks to conceal the unrealizable (and therefore insatiable) desire(s) that subtend it.

Love as Essence: The Philosophical Tradition

What any investigation of the history of romantic love quickly teaches us, however, is that psychoanalysis is a relatively recent and, in many respects, tangential, addition to the vast pantheon of philosophical and theological writings on the subject. Recent publications (for example, Høystad’s A History of the Heart) reveal that there are still a large number of scholars investigating “love” from within a tradition that looks back to Greek and other ancient cultures and has little interest in psychoanalytic explanations. For contemporary philosophers like Alan Soble, for instance, the quest remains rigorously metaphysical: the concern is not with how love functions (either as an ideology or as psychic mechanism), but with what it is, as an essence, as an aspect of Being.

While there are many ways of attempting to answer this question within a metaphysical tradition, it is clear that temporality has always been a key determinant in both defining and ascribing value to love. Similarly, wherever one looks in the history of Western literature and popular culture—be it folk-songs, Arthurian Legend, or, indeed, popular romantic fiction—there are few instances of love that are not tested, to a greater or a lesser extent, by time: through non-repeatability, simple longevity, or love’s capacity to survive the use, loss, or death of the beloved object.[1]

It is in the annals of philosophy, meanwhile, that we find the clearest proposition that love is an event defined by exclusivity and non-repeatability: inasmuch as “genuine love” is expected to survive the loss or death of the other, the issue of its repetition via a subsequent relationship becomes irrelevant. There is no need to repeat the experience since the first love lives on: “Love never dies.” Such a view is consistent with the defining characteristics of what, in the classical tradition, is known as “Agapic Love” (Pearce 4-6). In contrast to “Erosic Love,” which arises from a cognitive appreciation of another’s qualities, Agapic Love is predicated upon an idealized, some may even say fundamentalist, set of “first principles” that have exclusivity and non-repeatability at their core:

Love of individual Love of God / Neighbour(s)
Based on personal properties Involuntary / unconditional
Object-centred Subject-centred
Repeatable Non-repeatable
Indefinite Infinite
Rational Irrational
Bodily Spiritual
Heaven-bound Heaven-present            (Pearce 5)

As may be seen from this table of comparative features, Agapic Love is distinguished from Erosic Love through a series of binaries that places it firmly within a transcendental philosophical tradition. As I observe in Romance Writing (4-5), there are significant problems with this set of oppositions (derived from a number of philosophical texts which invoke Eros and Agape in their quest for a credible definition of “love”). These include both their rather crudely oppositional relationship to one another (e.g., “object-centred” vs. “subject-centred”) and, in terms of internal consistency, the way in which Agape’s association with the “love of God” and the “love of one’s neighbours” (both familiar to us as Christian injunctions) implies a degree of conscious piety at variance with the attendant notion of “unconditionality” and, it must be said, any love that includes erotic elements. If we take “spirituality” as the key term binding all the Agapic elements, however, the collocation makes better sense because of its association with both subject-centred fulfilment and sublimation. What binds together all the terms in the right-hand column is arguably the notion that love comes to us in a sudden, involuntary access of emotion (often expressed as an “out-pouring”) that, once-begun, is unstoppable and hence non-repeatable: the Agapic lover, thus construed, needs only to be struck once to be struck forever. A floodgate has been opened, and the waters of love will flow endlessly (towards God, towards neighbours, and towards one’s elective partner). The conversion of this “outpouring” towards an/other into intensely solipsistic spiritual satisfaction is familiar to us through the conventions of courtly love poetry which, according to de Rougement, is ultimately an exercise in spiritual salvation: “Passion has thus played the part of a purifying ideal” (45-6). In signal contrast to the psychoanalytic models of desire discussed previously, Agapic Love delivers so consummately that it is inexhaustible and without need of repetition.

As with all binaristic thought, moreover, it is not difficult to see how Agapic Love, which is so manifestly on the side of the angels, has become the dominant term within metaphysics, and why more recent philosophers like Alan Soble have had to work so hard to prove that Erosic Love isn’t merely a mundane and compromised version of “the real thing.” Further, as Soble himself argues, it is important to recognise that what we think of today as specifically romantic love very clearly combines features of both Eros and Agape; in particular, romantic love can sometimes seem to arise from the personal properties of the beloved (for example, their goodness and/or beauty), but on other occasions manifests itself as an involuntary and unpredictable shot from the blue–as in the proverbial “love at first sight.” I nevertheless believe that it is the persistence of the binary itself in our everyday thinking about love (in particular, our tendency to contrast something called true love with its ephemeral imitation) that helps explain why, despite the persuasiveness of the psychoanalytic models, Western culture still clings to the notion that “true love” is both durable and non-repeatable: it is, by definition, an emotion that stands the test of time.

A similar absolutism is to be found in the work of contemporary French philosopher, Jean Luc Nancy, who, like myself, has preferred to understand and define love vis-à-vis the radical transformation experienced by the amorous subject at the moment of ravissement (Barthes 189). My own proposition, expressed through the equation x + y → x’ + y’ (Romance Writing 2007 1 et seq.), is, quite simply, that it is the change wrought upon the lover at the moment of ravissement that most surely prevents him or her from being capable of repeating the event a second time inasmuch as s/he is now no longer the person s/he once was. On the surface this is an unremarkable observation, but it is striking how rarely the changes to the lover (x) are considered when theorists and philosophers debate the reproducibility, or not, of love. All the attention has traditionally been focused, instead, on the (lost) love-object: whether that is, or is not, replaceable. However, Nancy, too, has observed that the trouble is rather with the lover who, having undergone a transformation akin to a chemical reaction, is unable to return to his or her previous state. Working with the evocative motif of the “shattered heart,” Nancy writes:

I do not return to myself from love [ . . . ] I do not return from it, and consequently, something of I is definitively lost or dissociated in its act of loving. That is undoubtedly why I return [ . . . ] but I return broken: I come back to myself, or I come out of it, broken. The “return” does not annul the break; it neither repairs it nor sublates it, for the return in fact takes place across the break itself, keeping it open. Love represents I to itself broken [ . . . ]’ (96)

A little later, Nancy reiterates the radical consequences of this break not only for the subject-in-love but for the subject per se:

For the break is a break in his self-possession as a subject; it is, essentially, an interruption in the process of relating oneself to oneself outside of oneself. From then on, I is constituted broken. As soon as there is love, the slightest act of love, the slightest spark, there is the ontological fissure that cuts across and disconnects the elements of the subject-proper—the fibers of its heart. (96)

Although the cadences of Nancy’s prose (in translation, at least) make this “shattering” of the heart and self in the act of love appear tragic, it is clearly also possible to embrace this uni-directional model of love as evidence of love’s miracle: x + y → x’ + y’.

To summarize, then: what I hope to have shown in the first part of this article is that the question of whether love is, or is not, repeatable is at the very centre of attempts to both define and understand it. I have shown how, and why, certain theories and intellectual traditions (notably, the philosophical and theological) posit love as either metaphysically or practicably non-repeatable, while others (notably, the psychoanalytic tradition) have argued that love (albeit reconfigured as desire) is nothing but repetition.[2]

It is, of course, possible to escape this impasse, as Soble has done, by signing up to an essentially Erosic definition of “Personal Love” (5) which is fully rational and voluntary and predicated upon admirable qualities in the beloved (Pearce 4-6). Inasmuch as this love arises as the result of an individual being smitten by the unique properties of particular individuals, it is acceptable for a subject to be enamoured of more than one individual in a lifetime: hence the logic of the widower who claims, “I can love my second wife as much as my first because they are so completely different.” For the purposes of this article, however, I have chosen to leave the Erosic variant to one side in order that we may focus more closely on the more dramatic—and certainly more traumatic–tension that exists between the discourses of Agapic love and the “will-to-repetition” as figured by psychoanalysis.

In anticipation of the discussion of Waters’s novel that follows, my particular interest is in the crisis that arises when the non-repeatability—implicit in the most ancient descriptors of “Love” as an involuntary affect which, once ignited, is both “shattering” and inexhaustible—is challenged by the desire or need to repeat the first, earth-moving event a second time (typically as the result of the death of a former beloved). In other words, I shall be focusing on the tension—and agony—that proceeds from the fact that, rather than enter into a new experience with a different person (as is possible within the Erosic model), all the amorous subject wants is “the same again” even though s/he soon discovers that this will necessarily undermine the “totality” of the first love. This, of course, is the moment that Lacan comes knocking on the door (“I told you so!”) and the lover, thus held to account, may suddenly, if perversely, hope that his or her attempt to repeat the love affair will fail in order to prove that the first love was “true” and the beloved rather more than an (reproducible) object-ideal.

In the second part of this article I thus move on to consider the implications of repetition for romantic fiction writing: first, in terms of the different narrative responses available to authors; and second, through some reflections on Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch (2006), a novel which very self-consciously deploys repetition to test the limits of love.

Romance and Repetition: The Literary Response

A moment’s reflection will be enough to remind all readers of this article of the debt that the romance genre owes to repetition as compulsion. The philosophical conundrum of whether or not “genuine” love is repeatable arguably matters very little to the writers and readers of romance as long as the appetite to repeat the story per se remains. Indeed, it may be argued that it is in the context of its textual consumption that the paradoxical status of love vis-à-vis repetition is rendered a positive delight inasmuch as stories which celebrate non-repeatable love can, themselves, be repeated: and according to de Rougemont, this is the story (originating with the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult) that Western Civilization has most wanted to hear (23-37).

The history of the romance genre, especially the trajectory that runs from courtship fiction through to contemporary popular romance, must nevertheless be seen to challenge de Rougemont’s view of its readership. For many, romance has become synonymous with the promise of “happy endings” and this has necessarily given rise to storylines where the possibility of repetition stalks both past and future: the relationships the lover(s) may have had before and the ones that are yet to come.

How romantic fiction has, in practice, dealt with the spectre of repetition is surely a question worthy of investigation, and—although I have not had the opportunity to conduct such a survey as yet—I offer below some hypothetical models predicated upon the canon of classic romance:

  1. Happy Marriage: The most popular solution to the problem is to avoid repetition completely by focusing on only one relationship for the duration of the story and then bring the romance in question to a clean and definitive ending in marriage (“the white wedding”). If previous relationships did feature for one or both of the parties, they are very manifestly not “the real thing” and explained away (see 2 and 3 following). Even though common-sense tells us that it is impossible for any relationship to come to a fixed point, the illusion of closure remains one of the most singular pleasures that romance fiction trades in.
  2. Discredited Former Relationship 1: As in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet wherein Romeo is enamoured of a girl called Rosalind before he meets with Juliet. Although this “repetition” of behaviour has the potential to debase “genuine love,” Romeo’s devotion to Rosalind is treated comically, with the Nurse roundly sending up his heart-sick lament. Discrediting previous relationships through the implication that they were (for example) predicated upon lust, or convenience, rather than love is clearly a neat way of solving the repetition problem. In other words, the characters (and especially the male characters) can be permitted more than one relationship, providing that only the current one is “the real thing.”
  3. Discredited Former Relationship 2: As in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, there is also the possibility of a character having been “in love” more than once through a plot device which ensures that that the previous love-object is retrospectively discredited. This scenario was perfected in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca , a text in which it is possible to accept that Maxim loved both Rebecca and the narrator but only because his first wife is subsequently exposed as “not quite all that she seemed.”
  4. Definitive Death: Here the notional finitude of marriage is replaced by the absolute finitude of death. The fact that there is no possibility of death-bound lovers repeating, and hence discrediting, their UR-passion explains why tragedy remains the most cast-iron means of supporting the view that love is exclusive, non-repeatable, and forever. The fact that so many tragic lovers actively seek death as a means of protecting their love from compromise underlines the principle that “true love” eschews repetition.
  5. Duplicitous Afterlife: Although clearly a variant of “Death,” the solution offered by Gothic Romance is remarkable inasmuch as it simultaneously eschews and embraces repetition. While it is true that the star-crossed lovers at the centre of a Gothic Romance must never be seen to recover from their (one and only) love or its loss, this need not prevent them attempting a re-union with the lost loved-object (or, on occasion, his/her “double”) beyond the grave. Further, the crimes and mishaps that have caused the lovers to be doomed are subsequently seen to repeat those of their forbears and/or to generate a repetition in future generations (Pearce 86). In this respect, then, Gothic Romance must be seen as an instance of a genre both having its cake and eating it: “Genuine Love” is, of course, unique and forever—but so is the (doomed) will-to-repetition.

Taken together, then, what these models suggest is that, throughout history, romance has been consummately successful in side-stepping the problem that repetition poses for the integrity of love, through plot devices that either draw the curtain on previous/subsequent relationships or, alternatively, find some means of discrediting former love-affairs after the event. Gothic Romance is an interesting variant inasmuch as it ideologically adheres to the non-repeatability of “genuine love” while shamelessly indulging the Freudian will-to-repetition through supernatural possibilities.

What I would next like to propose is that, from the early-to-mid twentieth century onwards, the paradox of love’s “compulsive (non) repeatability” has been actively embraced by writers in search of a more honest account of how we wrestle with our drives and belief systems when in pursuit of love. Rather than a problem to be artfully evaded, repetition has been moved to the centre of contemporary literary fiction (high-profile examples in the UK would include Doris Lessing, Muriel Spark, Anita Brookner, Ian McEwan, Hanif Kureishi, and A.L. Kennedy), even if the “fallen worlds” in which these love stories typically take place cannot easily be compared with the zeitgeist of popular romantic fiction.

Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (2006)

In Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch, love’s repeatability—or not—is the existential question that propels the text’s story-line and presses upon its characters as a trauma every bit as nerve-splitting as the Blitz. For readers not familiar with the novel, the action is set in London during and immediately after the Second World War, with the story of the novel’s chief protagonists (Kay, Helen, and Julia; Viv and Reggie; Duncan and Fraser) narrated backwards in three sections: 1947, 1944, and 1941. The effect of this temporal inversion is twofold: first, it renders starkly visible how events in our past make us the people we are today (viz. x + y → x’ + y’); secondly, it highlights the extent to which our lives are, indeed, inscribed by repetition: willed and unwilled, individual and institutional, local and national.

In The Night Watch, repetition is a thematic pre-occupation as well as a narrative device. While its potential for dramatic irony, not to mention (poetic) justice and revenge, makes repetition a tempting plot embellishment for any fiction writer, Waters disguises her authorial orchestration well, not least because these are life-stories in which the characters’ will to repetition is routinely thwarted or culminates in an unpleasant surprise (c.f. Lacan: “For what is love other than banging one’s head against a wall since there is no sexual relation?” [my italics] [170]). Consequently, The Night Watch is characterized by a series of half-repeated, half-completed events which expose the doomed will-to-repetition for what it is as well as the extent to which the war, itself, changed everything: made repetition a historical impossibility.

The generic interplay between “history” and “romance” is, indeed, one of the things that distinguishes Waters’s novel: a retrospective account of three sets of relationships that span the war and post-war period. In the manner of historical fiction, Waters also strives hard to connect the experiences of these central characters with those of the population at large by making two of them, Helen and Viv, work for a post-war dating agency. The task of finding new loves for men and women whose lives have been turned upside down by the war is seen to be very difficult indeed. As Helen observes:

People came to look for new loves, but often—or so it seemed to her—only really wanted to talk about the loves they had lost [ . . . ] Recently, of course, business had been booming. Servicemen, returning from overseas, found wives and girlfriends transformed out of all recognition. They came into the bureau still looking stunned. Women complained about their ex-husbands. “He wanted me to stay in all the time.” “He told me he didn’t care for my friends.” “We went back to the hotel we spent our honeymoon in, but it wasn’t the same.” (15)

The collective “will-to-repeat,” as the concluding sentence here suggests, is strong, but the common experience is one of disappointment: both pre-war existence, and the heightened sensibilities of war-time, are impossible to recapture: the breach in history suffered by the nation is similarly visited upon personal relationships. In a later conversation, Helen and Viv comment on the fact that the war, but two years hence, already seems “a long time ago” (113). And yet it is manifestly clear that, in many respects, everyone is still “living it”: as Kay, the character who is arguably having the most trouble “moving on” confesses: “I don’t want to think about it. But I don’t want to forget it either” (109).

Yet while the war’s breach in history undoubtedly contributes to the demise of the relationships explored in the novel, it cannot be held fully responsible for their trauma. This is especially true of the relationship(s) between Kay, Helen and Julia where a distinctly Freudian will-to-repetition is seen to be at work (at least, in the case of Helen and Julia). The dramatic twist, for readers unfamiliar with the text, is that Helen enters into a relationship with Julia in the knowledge that her present partner, Kay, was involved with Julia before the war. As the affair between Helen and Julia takes hold, both reveal—belatedly and, at first, unconsciously—that their attraction to each other has been fuelled by a desire to repeat the earlier relationship with Kay. Julia is curious to find out about “the wife” (i.e., Helen) that Kay preferred to her, while Helen—mistakenly believing that Kay was rejected by Julia—is fuelled by a vengeful desire to assume Kay’s former role and succeed where the latter failed. After their second, sexually-charged encounter exploring the bomb-blasted houses, churches and streets of London Helen exclaims: “This is what Kay wanted, isn’t it? I know why she did, Julia! God! I feel like—I feel like I’m her! I want to touch you, Julia. I want to touch you, like she would—” (375). The uncontrolled—indeed, “hysterical”—nature of this outburst works well to underline the unconscious and irrational nature of Helen’s will-to-repetition. Her behaviour reminds us of Freud’s reading of Hoffmann’s The Sandman and his conclusion that human beings are driven to repeat in their desire to achieve control, not of the other, but of their own subjectivity (”The Uncanny”). By, albeit mistakenly, fantasizing that she was repeating Kay’s actions in making love to Julia, Helen is temporarily empowered. However, as subsequent events reveal, Helen’s action has arguably very little to do with either Kay or Julia: not only is she mistaken about the nature of Kay’s relationship with Julia (as Julia later tells her: “It wasn’t like that you know [ . . . ] she was never in love with me” [424]), but so, too, are doubts cast about “what she sees,” quite literally, in Julia. Not only does Helen habitually regard Julia with Kay’s eyes, but there is also the suggestion that her declaration of love is following an unconscious, yet calculating, script: “She hadn’t known, until that moment, that she’d been going to utter those words; but as soon as she said them, they become true” (369). Further, as the relationship begins to unravel, both Helen and Julia are seen to call each other’s bluff on why they got involved with one another in the first place. Although, on one level, we may be inclined to think that the demise of the relationship is the sole consequence of Helen’s spiralling jealousy and paranoia, a crucial segment of conversation hints at the fact that both characters are addicted to affairs (and, perhaps especially, affairs with women) on account of the thrill of transgression and, of course, the pleasure of repetition (which is given an extra spike in a triangulated relationship such as this):

“It always amazes me [said Julia], that’s all, that it should be you who has this fucking—this fucking fixation. Is there something about affairs? Is it like—I don’t know—Catholicism? One only spots the other Romans when one’s practised it oneself?”

She met Helen’s gaze, and looked away again. They stood in silence for a moment. Then, “Work it up your arse,” said Helen. She turned and went back downstairs to the sitting room. (150-1)

Suddenly, both women are quits. Julia, who has assumed the moral and emotional high-ground in the fight thus far is, herself, reminded of her past, and present, behaviour. In retrospect, it becomes clear that neither woman entered into the relationship on account of the “special properties” she perceived in the other (viz. “Erosic love” as defined above) but because of the thrill of repetition itself. What Helen and Julia’s story exposes, however, is the horror that awaits those successful in the chase: instead of finding the happiness and completion that eluded you formerly through some synthesis of self and other (in this instance, the fantasy of merging oneself with one’s former lover by assuming her role), all that is waiting is your shadow self (Lacan’s “sexed living being” [Botting 27]).

Entering into a relationship with one’s partner’s former lover is, it must be said, a fairly extreme means of re-igniting the spark of love and elsewhere The Night Watch explores some rather less convoluted types of repetition. For instance, Viv may be seen to be repeating, in increasingly banal and glamour-less ways, her wartime romance with Reggie, a married man. The irreversible bodily and psychological scars that this relationship has left on Viv are palpable: not only has she suffered a horrendous abortion, but—despite being still only twenty-five—she is described as having “something disappointed about her [ . . . ] a sort of greyness, a layer of grief, as fine as ash, just beneath the surface” (18). Thus, although this relationship was positively transformative of Viv at its outset, its demise has stripped her of agency and, two years after the war has ended, she is neither capable of ending it or falling in love afresh. And while Waters concludes her story with an action that is potentially redemptive (she finds Kay who “rescued” her on the night of her abortion), we are offered no assurance that she will go on to live and love again.

A similar uncertainty hangs over the fate of Viv’s brother, Duncan, who has recently rediscovered Fraser: his friend and cell-mate from the war. Although the story-line suggests that Duncan’s “brave” act of going to find Fraser at his house late one night might be the existential act that commits the men to a sexual relationship, there is no assurance of this either. Indeed, we have already been told how differently the men have recovered from the War (or not, in Duncan’s case) and Fraser’s homophobia is still evident in his attempts to chat up girls, including Duncan’s sister.

Kay, too, begins and ends the 1947 section of the novel going, quite literally, nowhere. Her daily life, post-war, consists of wandering the bomb-blasted streets of London, all the while appearing as though she has somewhere to go–when, in fact, she hasn’t: “She stepped like a person who knew exactly where they were going, and why they were going there—though the fact was, she had nothing to do, and no one to visit, no one to see. Her day was a blank, like all of her days” (6). Kay, it seems, may retrace her footsteps, but there is no sense that she will easily repeat her romantic attachment to Helen. As readers of the novel will recall, Kay’s love for Helen—whom she rescues “fresh and [ . . . ] unmarked” (503) from a bomb-site—is the most simply romantic of all the relationships featured. Helen is Kay’s “object-ideal” and, to invoke Freud on mourning (“Mourning” 252-3), has assumed a libidinal position in Kay’s life that will not easily be replaced. Further, in terms of how her story is told, I would suggest that this has less to do with the impossibility of replacing Helen (or, indeed, recovering from the traumatic nature of the latter’s betrayal) but rather (viz. Nancy’s “shattered heart”) the extreme and irreversible nature of her own transformation: a transformation that owes both to the war, and to Helen. As she confides to her friend, Mickey: “I’ve got lost in my rubble, Mickey. I can’t seem to find my way across it. I don’t think I want to cross it, that’s the thing. The rubble has all my life in it still” (108).

In conclusion, then, I would suggest that Waters’s The Night Watch is a text that can be used to think through, with some complexity, the ways in which repetition tests the limits of love. Several of the theoretical paradigms that I discussed in the first part of the article are given vivid, fictional expression in this text, each of them commenting upon the challenge posed by repetition in a different way. For example, while the behaviour of Helen and Julia may be seen to typify the Freudian will-to-repetition and its Lacanian demise, Kay may be seen to stand, heroically (but perhaps no less self-deceivingly?) for the non-repeatability of a “genuine love” that is focused on the other and entails a radical transformation of the self; meanwhile, Viv and Reggie’s attempt to recycle their love would appear to be doomed to failure on account of the fact that it can never be brought to a satisfactory “romantic” conclusion: that is, marriage or death. Indeed, arguably the only relationship in the novel that holds out any possibility of hope for the future is that between Duncan and Fraser inasmuch as their reunion may be seen as a continuation of their original relationship following a period of separation rather than a repetition per se.


Staring repetition in the face is clearly not an easy thing to do. While Waters’s novel is unblinking in its analysis of Helen and Julia’s relationship as the lovers reprise their own, and each other’s, former patterns of behaviour vis-à-vis the absent body of Kay, the text stops short of declaring that solipsism is the beginning, and end, of all romance. Through the parallel story of Kay’s enduring love for Helen, the text keeps faith with the possibility of an ideal, if “shattered” (viz. Nancy), love in which the amorous subject is transformed so radically that she will not be able to “repeat” the event even if, at some point in the future, she enters into a new relationship. Even in contemporary literary fiction, then (as opposed to classic or popular romance), the final disappointment posited by Freud and Lacan (“there is no sexual relation”) is too much to bear: better to give one’s self, or one’s lover, up to death or, as in Kay’s case, to stay “lost in the rubble” (106), than to concede that we repeat only for the pleasure of repeating or that our objectideal is, at last, only a poor substitute for the (ever elusive) “real thing.”

It is possible, as we hurtle through the twenty-first century, that qualitatively new ways of understanding the self and the self-in-relation (not least as a consequence of the impact of virtual reality) will render the philosophical issue of whether love is or is not repeatable something of a red herring. For the moment, however, I would argue that it persists as a nagging anxiety for all those of us invested in a concept of love as an “outward motion” (Pearce 8 ) involving at least the fantasy of “an/other” rather than proving itself to be a tawdry, solipsistic quest. Unfortunately, the brilliance of Waters’s forensic analysis of Helen and Julia’s slide towards the Lacanian abyss renders it a very close call (147-58) (“there is more to love than this—isn’t there?” [my paraphrase]) and I therefore hope that the romance genre continues to find ways of living with the tension, keeping the faith.

Works Cited

Bacharach, Burt & Hal David. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Perf. Chuck Baxter & Jill O’Hara. New York: Shubert Theatre, 1968. Performance.

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978. Print.

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problems of Domination. London: Virago, 1990. Print.

—. Like Subjects, Love Objects: Essays on Recognition and Sexual Difference. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.

Botting, Fred. Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions. London and New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2000. Print.

Cahn, Sammie & Jimmy van Heusen. “The Second Time Around.” High Time. Perf. Bing Crosby. 20th Century Fox, 1960. Film.

De Rougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World. Trans. M. Belgion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. Print.

Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Arrow Books, 1992. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. “On Narcissism.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 59-97. Print.

—. “Mourning and Melancholia.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 245-268. Print.

—. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” On Metapsychology. Trans. James Strachey. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984. 269-338. Print.

—. The Uncanny. Trans David McLintock. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 2003. Print.

Gallop, Jane. The Daughter’s Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis. New York, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986. Print.

Hollaender, Friederich & Sammy Lerner. “Falling in Love Again (I Can’t Help It).” The Blue Angel. Perf. Marlene Dietrich. UFA/Paramount, 1930. Film.

Høystad, Ole M. A History of the Heart. London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 2007. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “Seminar of 21 January 1975.” Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école Freudienne. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. London: Macmillan, 1982. 162-171. Print.

—. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Dennis Porter. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. “Shattered Love.” The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991. Print.

O’Connor, Sinead. Sean Nós Nua. Netherlands: Roadrunner Records, 2002. CD.

Pearce, Lynne. Romance Writing. Cambridge : Polity, 2007. Print.

Soble, Alan. The Structure of Love. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990. Print.

Waters, Sarah. The Night Watch. London: Virago, 2006. Print.

[1] Within the folk tradition there are countless songs in which the (male) lover is separated from his beloved for long periods of time (typically, seven years) on account of war or other commitments, and the (female) beloved is required to wait patiently and faithfully for his return. In the tragic variants (e.g. “Lord Baker”, “Her Green Mantle” [see O’Connor 2002]) the lover often returns just too late (the woman is dying or has finally given up and married another) though in many instances (e.g. “The Moorlough Shore” [O’Connor 2002]) the songs include defiant professions of love (on both sides) that will follow the lovers to the grave. However, it has also been pointed out to me that popular music includes many classics that celebrate the heart’s capacity to heal and love again: for example, “Falling in Love Again” (Lerner and Hollander (1930); “Second Time Around” (Cahn and van Heusen); “I’ll Never Love Again” (Bacharach and David) which ends with the line “so at least until tomorrow / I’ll never fall in love again.”

[2]As I discuss in Romance Writing (19-23) it is important to keep in mind the fact that “love” and “desire” originate in very different discourses even though they are often used interchangeably in everyday speech. In my own writing, I am always mindful that desire is a psychoanalytic concept which understands affect as an expression of the psycho-sexual drives, while love (as noted in this article) is a concept that means differently across a wide range of historical and cultural discourses but which is typically bound up with metaphysical and spiritual belief-systems.