Rougemont's study of romantic love as a cultural phenomenon is an engaging and, at its best, compelling account of the origin and development of the western "cult" of romantic love between the sexes. He begins with a lucid reading of the myth of Tristan and Isolde, which exists in several medieval versions, showing how and why the mythic lovers seem to seek out barriers to their love rather than consummate it. Rougemont eventually links the Tristan myth to the early lyrics of the twelfth-century Troubador poets of southern France, whose lyrics are the foundation of the "courtly love" tradition in subsequent medieval and Renaissance poetry. Rougemont asks where the Troubadors got the idea that it was noble and poetic to pay erotic homage to an idealized lady who was beyond one's social reach. His answer is that the "courtly love" poems of the early Middle Ages arose from misappropriations of hymns developed by the heretical Cathars, a mystical sect that flourished in southern France in the twelfth century but was fiercely persecuted and eventually wiped out, leaving few authentic records of their beliefs. Nevertheless, Rougemont argues that the sect's predecessors included the Manichees of the third, fourth, and fifth centuries, as well as earlier Gnostic cults of the Near East. The Cathars, he suggests, composed mystical hymns to a figurative "lady" who represented the essence of the cult itself. He argues that the Troubadors seized on these hymns and used their conventions to address real ladies in Provencal courts.
As it developed out of neo-Manichean theology, courtly love poetry focused on the barriers to love such that the real topic of courtly lyrics is not the object of desire, but the desire itself, and especially its perpetual deferral. The deflection of erotic desire heightens the pleasure of desire, such that what one desires is to go on desiring indefinitely. Such desire, or "passion" as Rougemont calls it, seeks unconsciously to perpetuate itself infinitely, so that a lover in the grip of passion seeks out the ultimate deferral of consummation: death. As such, courtly love and its descendents always includes an implicit death wish.
After explaining the connection between the Cathars and early Medieval poetry, Rougemont proceeds to explain how the cult of courtly love developed through subsequent literary periods. He moves at a quick pace through Dante, Petrarch, and other medieval authors. Chaucer, along with many later English authors, seems less prone to conventional courtly love, and Rougemont's argument that some of Milton's poetry exhibits Manichean tendencies is wholly unconvincing. When the argument moves into the rise of the novel, however, he is on firmer ground. In later chapters, he attempts to connect the valorization of passion in literature with the rise of Fascism in Europe--the book was originally written in the late 1930s--by showing how various dictators won their audiences by wooing them as lovers. It is a bold argument, and not entirely unconvincing. The last few chapters are dedicated to an exposition of Rougemont's answer to what he sees as a misplaced admiration for the passion of courtly love. He explains that the ideal of Christian marriage, an arbitrary commitment made without calculation of the potential for future happiness, is capable of eventually subduing the eros that produces passion and integrating it into a healthy order of loves.
Rougemont begins with the assumption that the obsession of Western Europe with romantic love is unparalleled in other cultures. That may or may not be true, but compared to the epics of Greece and Rome, and the sagas and legends of the Nordic peoples, it seems to Rougemont that the hero-lover of Medieval and Renaissance literatures came to displace almost entirely the hero-fighter of the earlier European literatures, and his books tries to explain how that shift happened. Whether or not one finds his explanation convincing, one has to admit that the phenomenon needs an explanation. The fact that most libraries and book stores devote far more shelf space to love stories than to war stories seems commonplace to us, but it would have seemed strange to the civilizations that produced Beowulf and the Iliad.
Rougemont has written a daring argument, and he has had many detractors. For one, he has been frequently criticized for throwing in his lot with those who set up an absolute division between eros (a selfish love) and agape (an altruistic love). For example, the late Avery Cardinal Dulles (in "Love, the Pope, and C.S. Lewis." First Things Jan. 2007. 20-24.) equated Rougemont's position with that of Anders Nygren, who argued that eros has no place whatsoever in Christian love. But in a 1941 review of the book, the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden chided Rougemont for not being clearer about his views, saying, "I find his definition of Eros a little vague. He sometimes speaks as if he meant, which I am sure he does not, that Eros is of sexual origin and that there is a dualistic division between Agape and Eros rather than--what I am sure he believes--a dialectical relation." Auden was right, and Dulles was wrong, and in the second edition of the book (1956) Rougemont did clear up some of the ambiguities, but his early chapters still portray the relationship between eros and agape as more strongly oppositional than his conclusion might warrant.
As a work of literary criticism (and one of the book's attractions is that it crosses many disciplinary boundaries), the book succeeds in tracing some strains of the courtly love tradition into the modern novel, but readers should know that Rougemont was almost certainly wrong in his hypothesis that the Troubadors appropriated their poetic conventions from the Cathar sect. A more likely source now seems to be certain Arab poets. As a work of cultural criticism, the work is somewhat stronger, since it taps into psychological features of the European mind that not even Freud had guessed at. His observations about the nature of passion as a paradoxically self-inhibiting desire are formidable explanations of human psychology, whether or not he was right about the origins of Western culture's idealization of that passion. Rougemont is worth reading because he raises new and important questions, even if his answers are often wrong.