The Curious History of Love

Sasha Roseneil is unswayed by a chronicle of intimacy that fails to reach the heart of the matter

February 9, 2012

Sociology needs, more than ever, to address wider audiences and to engage the attention of non-specialists. In the post-Browne Review funding era, we will have to work harder at attracting students, and in the context of the emergence and consolidation of the "impact agenda", our success or failure in communicating the value of sociological knowledge will have material consequences for the future of the discipline.

So perhaps we should welcome all contributions to the project of "public sociology", particularly a book about the inherently sexy topic of love. After all, books by sociologists that might attract the interest of the general reader and the potential student, and that might be reviewed in the mainstream press, are rare enough.

Yet I found myself pondering, as I read Jean-Claude Kaufmann's "curious history" of love, a slightly revised version of the "Lady Chatterley question": would I approve of young people, friends and neighbours reading this book, as an exemplar of what sociology has to offer in understanding this everyday, yet supremely complex, human experience? The answer, sadly, is no.

The basic premise of the book is the sociological truism that love must be understood not as an unchanging universal but as a historical phenomenon that has undergone significant transformation over time. But rather than offering what historical sociology might offer best - an analysis of changing meanings, practices and experiences of love that attends to questions of power and difference - this book spins a rather simplistic and idealist narrative of the history of love.

Starting from the position that "modern society is cold, cruel and full of injustice", and that it "cannot make us happy", Kaufmann identifies three "characters" in his story: agape, the love that aspires to be universal, all-encompassing and systematic; its antithesis, passion, which is highly particular; and anti-love, "cold and egoistic" reason. His grand and pessimistic narrative encompasses the confrontations between agape and passion, between common love and heavenly love, between mystical passion and physical human passion, as he romps through Western history from the ancient Greeks and Romans, through early Christianity, medieval courtly love, Celtic religion and the cult of the Virgin Mary, to the Enlightenment, and then rapidly to the contemporary world of conjugal coupledom and romantic fiction. In this version of history, love has been defeated by "cold calculation and selfish competition", by the triumph of capitalism. Granting world-making historical agency to the otherwise unspecified persona of "the political", he asserts that capitalism was "asked" to take its place as an instrument of government, and hence came to dominate society, thereby marginalising love. Yet the exact processes by which this happened, and key moments of change, are never explicated. The book is, ultimately, almost entirely assertion, and lacks the concrete historical detail that might support its bold claims.

As well as being intellectually unconvincing, the book is written in a style that I found profoundly patronising. Claiming a "lightness of touch", and eschewing references to all but a rather random selection of (largely male) authors, Kaufmann is clearly seeking to talk to the ordinary "woman in the street". The book sets out to address "Isolde", a reader of his earlier work, who has asked him to illuminate "how love works". Perhaps the translation fails to do justice to the nuances of his voice, but I often wondered whether he was intending to be ironic or humorous, or whether he meant to be read at face value. And the extensive declamations about the awfulness of "the times we live in!", with which the reader is expected uncritically to agree, were particularly annoying. Might feminists, lesbians and gay men, for example, not think that there have been some positive changes in the landscape of love over recent decades?

Sociologists still have much to say about love and related questions of sexuality and intimacy, but this book contributes little to advancing the field, and will probably not persuade the lay reader of the value of a sociological perspective on that which is most personal to us.

The Curious History of Love

By Jean-Claude Kaufmann, translated by Helen Morrison

Polity Press

200pp, £50.00 and £14.99

ISBN 9780745651538 and 1545

Published 9 December 2011

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