By Thomas Moore
Why do we imagine love as blissful and experience it as painful? Jealousies and other insecurities dig into the fabric of even simple and promising relationships, turning the discovery of happiness into yet another ruined adventure. Do we expect too much? Are we doing something wrong? Is happiness in love even a possibility?
No one, of course, has a full and complete answer to these questions, but the 2000 year-old tale known as Eros and Psyche offers some reliable hints.
Psyche is the Greek word for soul and Eros for the kind of love associated with desire and pleasure. Today, our word “erotic” has shady overtones, but the early depiction of Eros is positive and cosmic. Eros is the magnetism that draws people to each other and keeps the planets in harmonious orbit. It’s related to both the beauty of Venusian attraction and the compulsions of the phallic spirit Priapus.
In the story, people admire the incredible beauty of the girl Psyche so much that Venus feels an affront and causes trouble. Psyche falls from a high mountain crag, and the West Wind catches her and places her lightly in a valley of delight, where she meets the young man Eros, but only during night rendezvous. Eros warns her that her sisters are jealous of her situation and are plotting against her. She is not to tell them about him and is forbidden to see him.
But Psyche succumbs to her sisters’ pleas and, with a knife and an oil lamp in her hands, she startles Eros awake. As promised, he abandons her. The rest of the story is about the four near impossible trials that Venus arranges for her and then her eventual reunion with the one she loves, who is Love. They have a child they name Voluptas, Pleasure, a name that tells us what the story is all about.
The trouble in love is not just relationship misstep and failure, it is a problem of the far deeper soul. We are a people that fails to appreciate the profound, indeed sacred place of Venus’s realm: beauty, sexuality, desire, intimacy and playful physicality. We work too hard and have a history of repressing and working against all that Venus stands for. For us marriage is often a burden and obligation, sex a compulsion, and beauty the lowest item on our list of priorities.
Like the girl Psyche, our soul needs initiation into the world of Venus. We need to rediscover how to find solid and deep pleasure, and make Venus a real priority. It can be done. We only need to re-evaluate our attitudes, often shaped by anxious religious trends in the family. We need a fresh imagination of sexuality, free of the compulsions that arise when we represses Venusian values.
We need to enjoy the company of loved ones, rather than work at making the relationships effective. We need to create a graceful setting for love, rather than an atmosphere of satisfying needs and winning approval.
Our modern psychology of love is full of faulty assumptions: dependence is unhealthy, love of self is narcissistic, sex is mainly about expressing feelings of affection. The tale of Eros and Psyche says instead that sex is highly spiritual and deeply human, we need to sort out carefully the many ingredients of love, we need to be living a rich life and we need to appreciate the special beauty of the deep, deep soul.
A good experience of love might begin with mutual experiences of beautiful things—in nature, art or people. It might acknowledge that love is not about “us” so much as the spirit of love in the world at large. One of the worst problems with love is that we focus on the relationship rather than on bringing Venus’s spirit into our worlds and into the greater world. A shift in attention toward divine beauty is clearly the teaching of the ancient tale. Voluptas is the goal: Solid, deep and abiding Holy Pleasure.