Nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter quite like unrequited love.”
–Charlie Brown, from Peanuts, by Charles M Schulz
Charlie Brown has been hopelessly in love with the Little Red-Haired Girl for more than forty years. He usually notices her while eating his lunch at school, but rarely is he able to pluck up the courage to speak to her, and when he does, it tends to go badly. Valentine’s Day is always a particular trial. He makes plans to impress her, but they inevitably end in disappointment – he’ll manage to get himself tangled up in a pencil sharpener, or end up phoning Peppermint Patty by mistake.
We never see the Little Red-Haired Girl, but she is crucial to the dynamic of the Peanuts cartoon strip. As the focus of Charlie Brown’s unrequited love, she is emblematic of his vulnerability. When he buys her chocolates, but seeks out the cheapest box, because he knows he’ll never pluck up the courage to give them to her, we understand precisely what he’s going through, because we’ve been through it ourselves. To love somebody is to risk the possibility that we won’t be loved back – that our most intensely experienced feelings might as well be directed into the black void for all the chance there is that they will come to anything.
Alfred Lord Tennyson famously wrote that
“‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.”
Most of us will probably think that he pretty much gets this right. Love is surely worth the risk it involves, and anyhow, we mostly don’t have much choice about it – we’re just wired up to form attachments and to fall in love.
But perhaps there is something just a little too trite about the idea that the compensations of love necessarily outweigh its pain. Certainly, it is doubtful that the unrequited lover, desperately struggling with an obsession that threatens to unhinge them, will be so sanguine about love’s many pitfalls. Indeed, unrequited love has the power to lead its victims into obsession, misery and ruin.
Alys Pearsall Smith, Bertrand Russell’s first wife, experienced this at first hand over a period of fifty years. In 1901, some seven years into their marriage, Russell informed Alys that he had fallen out of love with her while on a bicycle ride. Alys was devastated by the revelation, but, utterly devoted to her husband, she urged him to continue to live with her. Russell agreed to do so, in his words, because “there was no other woman to whom I wished to go, and there seemed therefore no good reason for not doing as she wished.”
However, things changed in March 1911, after Russell had a sexual encounter with Lady Ottoline Morrell, wife of Philip Morrell, and decided then and there that his marriage was over. Alys was immediately informed, the couple separated and were eventually divorced in 1921.
Fifty years after Russell dropped his bombshell, Alys wrote this paean to their marriage:
“Bertie was an ideal companion, and he taught me more than I can ever repay … I was ideally happy for several years, almost deliriously happy, until a change of feelings made our mutual life very difficult. A final separation led to divorce, when he married again. But that was accomplished without bitterness, or quarrels, or recriminations, and later with great rejoicing on my part when he was awarded the OM (Order of Merit).
But my life was completely changed, and I was never able to meet him again for fear of the renewal of my awful misery, and heartsick longing for the past. I only caught glimpses of him at lectures or concerts occasionally, and thro’ the uncurtained windows of his Chelsea house, where I used to watch him sometimes reading to his children. Unfortunately, I was neither wise enough nor courageous enough to prevent this one disaster from shattering my capacity for happiness and my zest for life.”
In 1949, Alys and Russell renewed their acquaintance and began a correspondence that continued for two years until her death. In April 1950, aged 82, Alys sent him the following letter:
“I have so enjoyed our two meetings and thee has been so friendly, that I feel I must be honest and just say once (but once only) that I am utterly devoted to thee, and have been for over 50 years. My friends have always known that I loved thee more than anyone else in the world, and they now rejoice with me that I am now able to see thee again. But my devotion makes no claim, and involves no burden on thy part, nor any obligation, not even to answer this letter. But I shall still hope thee can spare time to come to lunch or dinner before very long …
Thine ever, Alys”
The pain of unrequited love is nothing new. It is a blight from which people have suffered for millennia. The opening section of Plato’s dialogue, Lysis, for example, finds Hippothales suffering a one-sided infatuation with the eponymous Athenian youth. His friend Ctesippus teases him for blushing at the mention of his beloved, and takes him to task for not revealing the young man’s name to Socrates. He also lets it slip that the besotted fellow has developed the distressing habit of singing and reciting poetry to his adored one.
Socrates, in a roundabout way, advises Hippothales to forget about wooing Lysis, and to pursue instead a long-lasting friendship. But such a course of action, while perhaps advisable, is not easily achieved, because love, the noblest frailty of the mind, answers to the demands of rationality only with great difficulty.
This much, of course, is obvious. Love has been described as a kind of madness for as long as people have been describing things at all. The earliest love poetry, originating in Egypt some 5000 years ago, makes frequent use of images of illness. For example, one lovelorn ancient poet bemoans that:
“It is seven whole days since I have seen my love.
A sickness pervades me. My limbs are lead. I barely sense my body.
Should physicians come, their drugs could not cure my heart,
Nor could the priests diagnose my disease.
Should they say, ‘Here she is,’ that would heal me.
Her name would restore me.”
This is all very well if love is reciprocated, but if it is not, then its attendant madness, resistant to the interventions of the usual round of sages, priests and physicians, can play itself out in disastrous fashion.
The fate of Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem, an eighteenth-century German lawyer, is instructive. On October 29th, 1772, after spending the evening drinking wine and writing letters, Jerusalem, still only in his twenties, put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. He was not killed instantly, but rather was able to drag himself across the floor of his study before collapsing unconscious next to a window, where he was found the following morning by a servant. He survived only a few more hours, and was buried later that day.
Jerusalem was driven to suicide by his love for Elizabeth Herd, a married woman. She had rejected his advances and asked her husband to ensure that he did not trouble her again. An ugly confrontation followed, which left Jerusalem a broken man. An acquaintance later wrote of his death that it “was loneliness … that ate away his heart.”
These events would not warrant even a footnote in the annals of doomed love were it not for the fact that this acquaintance was Wolfgang Goethe, who at this time was also suffering the pain of unrequited love.
He had met and fallen in love with Charlotte Buff in the early summer of that same year, while living in the small German town of Wetzlar. “Lotte” was nineteen years old, attractive, funny and vivacious, but already engaged to another man, Christian Kestner. Goethe befriended them both, and spent what he later described as an idyllic summer in their company. However, when he eventually declared his feelings to Lotte, she made it clear that there could never be anything more than friendship between them.
Goethe responded to this setback by leaving unannounced for Koblenz, writing to Lotte:
“I am alone now, and may shed my tears. I leave you both to your happiness, and will not be gone from your hearts.”
In fact, he was hardly gone at all, maintaining a correspondence with them both over the next few months. In this way, he came to learn of the suicide of Jerusalem, whom he had met occasionally during his summer in Wetzlar, and was immediately struck by the similarity of their two situations. He returned briefly to the town, and with the help of Kestner was able to piece together the circumstances that led to Jerusalem’s death.
We know all this because Goethe drew upon his love for Lotte, and the suicide of Jerusalem, as the inspiration for The Sorrows of Young Werther, the exemplary tale of the perils of unrequited love. Partly autobiographical, partly biographical, the novel tells the story of Werther’s descent into despair, and his eventual suicide, as he realizes there is no escape from the torment engendered by his one-sided passion for a sweet-natured, but unattainable, young woman. In the first half of the book, Werther is Goethe, in the second half, he is Jerusalem, and the young woman, of course, is Lotte.
The novel was an immediate success, establishing Goethe’s international reputation. The fact that its origins lay in real-life events quickly became the catalyst for the emergence of a Werther cult. The young men of Germany began to imitate Werther’s style of dress: blue frockcoat, yellow waistcoat and breeches. There were plays, poems and paintings inspired by the romantic hero, and even pilgrimages to the grave of Wilhelm Jerusalem, where flowers were left and speeches given.
It is also said that the novel inspired an epidemic of copycat suicides amongst the lovelorn youth of Europe. It is certainly true that worries about this darker aspect of Werther fever led to the book being banned in Denmark, Italy and parts of Germany.
Unrequited love, then, drove one man to suicide, another man to write perhaps the world’s first great “confessional” novel, which itself inspired a cult among the young people of Europe that celebrated the romantic impulse that was the spark that set this whole chain of events in motion. Art imitating life, and then life art, both in the name of a kind of love that exists almost exclusively in the imagination of the lover.
These events contain within them the elements that constitute our fascination with unrequited love. There is its universality: Werther was a success because people empathized with its hero, just as we empathize with Charlie Brown. There are the dark aspects of unrequited love: its links with unpredictable and destructive behaviors; the close relation it enjoys with obsession; and its potential to induce misery, self-harm and sometimes even suicide. And then there is the strangeness of the phenomenon itself: the fact that we are able to love passionately despite the absence of reciprocal feelings. This last element merits further consideration because it raises a number of interesting issues about the character of unrequited love.
Unrequited love has a pure or classic form. It is the kind of love that Charlie Brown has for the Little Red-Haired Girl; he adores her, but she is barely aware even of his existence. This pure form is exemplified in the life and work of the great Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri, who loved and celebrated a young woman named Beatrice Portinari, the daughter of a local politician, for almost his entire life.
This is how Dante describes his first meeting with her:
“At that moment, I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me.”
These words are perhaps not so surprising. We are all familiar with sentiments of this kind as an expression of love at first sight. Except Dante was only nine years old when he first met Beatrice, who herself was only eight.
We know about Dante’s love for Beatrice primarily because it is the subject of the masterpiece of his youth, Vita Nuova. He tells us there that after his first meeting with her, he was irrevocably changed – his soul was now ruled by love. However, though he frequently sought her out, he did not speak to her for another nine years. He recounts the circumstances of their first words with a reverence that is typical of all of his writing about her:
“… passing through a street she turned her eyes thither where I stood sorely abashed: and by her unspeakable courtesy … she saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that I seemed then and there to behold the very limits of blessedness.”
The consequence of this salutation was that Dante went half-crazy with love. He talks of giving up the whole of himself to thoughts of his lady, and mentions that his body quickly became weak and reduced. He began to live for Beatrice’s salutations, and was then destroyed when she later snubbed him:
“I became possessed with such grief that, parting myself from others, I went into a lonely place to bathe the ground with most bitter tears: and when, by this heat of weeping, I was somewhat relieved, I betook myself to my chamber, where I could lament unheard.”
It is a curious experience reading Vita Nuova, because one is quickly led to the thought that when it comes to matters of the heart, things really haven’t changed much over the last 800 years. For example, Dante reports that shortly after he had been snubbed by Beatrice, he was surprised when she turned up at a wedding party. He then describes a scene that would not be out of place in a Hollywood tragicomedy: he promptly suffered what looks like a thirteenth-century panic attack, and, as a result, ended up being mocked by his lady and her friends.
However, it was Dante’s response to these setbacks that marks his love out as extraordinary. He resolved simply to exalt Beatrice through the medium of his poetry. He was, in this way, able to achieve a kind of equilibrium, albeit one dominated by his feelings for her.
This way of going forward was shattered by Beatrice’s sudden death in 1290. It seemed to Dante, in the immediate aftermath, that this was something from which he could not recover. His poetry at this time is suffused with references to death’s welcoming embrace.
But again, his love proved to be resilient. In the face of the bitterest misfortune, he was able to find a resolution that would allow it to endure. He tells us of this in the very last pages of Vita Nuova, where he writes that he can love Beatrice as she continues to exist in the heavenly realm – that he can send his heart soaring up to her, to gaze upon her as she gazes upon God. He resolves that if his life continues for a few more years, he will “write concerning her what hath not before been written of any woman.”
There is something deeply touching about Dante’s love for Beatrice, perhaps because it comes to us as an echo from a world more chivalrous, less cynical, than our own. Properly considered, it is an example of courtly love, a highly ritualized form of love, common in the middle ages, which aimed at protecting the virtue of the various protagonists (more often than not, members of the nobility).
However, though touching, it is also profoundly absurd. It is easy to forget this in the face of Dante’s ability as a poet, but the fact remains that to spend one’s life in thrall to a woman to whom one has barely ever spoken is the stuff of madness. It is this point that encapsulates the fascination of the pure kind of unrequited love. How can love emerge out of nothing in this improbable fashion?
It is possible that we’re inoculated against perceiving the strangeness of it. The modern novelette Virginia by Jens Christian Grøndahl is interesting in this regard. It tells the story of a woman whose life is shaped by a chance encounter she has with a downed pilot when a teenager in the Second World War. She is never able to forget the pilot – she shares her first kiss with him – and as a result her life takes a trajectory that it would not otherwise have taken.
The important point is that the story works. Partly this is because Grøndahl handles his theme with subtlety. But it is also because it has prima facie plausibility. We do not find it extraordinary that a young woman, on the basis of a fleeting encounter, might fall helplessly in love with a dashing young pilot, and that the experience might come to shape the course of her life. Similarly, perhaps, we are not incredulous that somebody such as Dante might spend his life celebrating a person who is more ghost or imaginative construct than flesh and blood.
Yet unrequited love does warrant further examination. Its ubiquity is indicative of its relation to aspects of ourselves that are integral to our humanity. Charles M Schulz, Charlie Brown’s creator, had this to say about the phenomenon:
“I don’t know why there’s so much unrequited love in my strip. I seem to be fascinated by unrequited love, if not obsessed by it … I suppose it’s because we can all identify with it. We’ve all been turned down by somebody we love, and it’s probably the most bitter blow in life.”
Schulz is not alone in his obsession. Themes of unrequited love are a cornerstone, largely unheralded, of Western culture: from Cervantes to Ian McEwan, Greek mythology to Shakespeare, from Derek and the Dominos to Dido, and from self-help books to the Bible, its ubiquity is a mark of the centrality of unrequited love in the human experience. To better understand unrequited love, therefore, is to learn a little bit about ourselves. How is it that we are able to love another human being passionately – perhaps even to die for them – in the absence of any knowledge of them? How does love endure, sometimes to the point of obsession, in the face of its rejection? Why does unrequited love lead some people to destruction, and others to transcendence?
The answers to these questions and others like them tell us something about what it is to be human – what it is to be a species able to experience the passion and joy, pain and anguish of deeply felt love.