In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we’ve unearthed John Michell’s March, 1980 article that profiles casualties of love and madness. You’re welcome!
Frustrated passion is just about the worst pain there is. It’s worse than gout, which is said to be the second worst pain after childbirth; worse than being eaten by a lion, which Livingstone, who experienced a bit of the process, said was neither particularly frightening nor painful at the time; much worse than being ruined, and even worse than the bereavement of friends and family. More people commit suicide as a result of sexual jealousy and love obsession than because of the death of a spouse.
Anything may become the opium of obsessive people (artists and others whose work demands obsessiveness being the most prone to addiction). With the possible exception of certain reported mystical states beyond everyday reach, perfect sex is the highest sensation there is. Therefore, if the desires arising from great sex are projected full-force upon a particular person, they can lead to the most dangerous and deadly of all obsessions. There is plenty of good advice around for the sufferers—avoid jealousy, forswear possessiveness and so on—but these items of common sense are powerless against flowering obsession, which is a species of madness. It is better to be the lover than the beloved, concluded Plato after lengthy enquiry. Why? Because the lover is possessed by madness, eternal and of divine origin, whereas the beloved, though materially advantaged, is left behind in a state of man-made sanity. But as another authority, Germaine Greer, says, if you think you are in love with someone, you are in bad trouble.
Love obsession is a temporary mental derangement. So the jury found at the inquest into the case of poor Sir Samuel Romilly, a graceful young man, a little shy, his mother not very approving of his girl friends. As William Cobbett related in Advice to a Lover (1829), Sir Samuel met a girl, liked her, loved her, was loved by her, and became emotionally dependent, though he did not know it at the time. Then they broke up. It may have been his fault: Perhaps he could not stand up to Mother, or to what some aunt would have to say. He then missed her, wanted her back, asked her, pleaded with her, became abject, unattractive: the antimagnetic effect. Then he tried being aloof, like Lord Byron, but she did not notice it. Sir Samuel could not stand it for long, and particularly since he knew that she was interested in someone else, so he broke down and suffered temporary mental derangement (though how temporary it really was can never be tested). In the words of the coroner’s jury, “the loss made his life insupportable.” He went to see the girl. It was dreadfully humiliating. Her new boyfriend was there, and Sir Samuel had to pretend he had just called on her so he could return a pair of gloves she had left in his carriage. He could only speak to her for a moment at the front door as she showed him out: “If I can’t see you again, I’m going to kill myself. Oh, darling, I…” But she cut in: “I can’t stand your self-pity and emotional blackmail. I’m in love with Ted and I want to give him the same love I could have given to you if only you’d let me. Now I don’t want to talk about it any more. Mother will find you a nice girl friend, and you’ll be much happier with her than you could have been with me.”
These words did nothing at all for Sir Samuel’s temporary mental derangement. He went back home, took one of his father’s 12-bores out of the gun room and blew his brains out all over the bedroom. He had left a note on the hall table addressed to the girl and leaving her all his possessions, but the family suppressed it. She married Ted, but later he, too, committed suicide. And the girl told herself that it wasn’t her fault: She was cursed with a liking for weak men.
Cobbett cites another case of suicide through love obsession:
“This unfortunate youth, whose name was Smith and was a shoemaker, was in love with a young woman, who, in spite of all his importunities and his proofs of ardent passion, refused to marry him, and even discovered her liking for another; and he, unable to support life, accompanied by the thought of her being in possession of any body but himself, put an end to his life by the means of a rope.”
It was not so much the loss of his beloved that killed poor Smith: It was the jealous, grisly image of her pleasure with another body (especially since the body and the pleasure could have been his if only he had said or done something differently).
It doesn’t help at all to know that jealousy is a disease, that it throws the entire mind out of balance so that the diseased person is able to conceive of no possible state of mind but his present one. Cobbett rightly says that in a case like Smith’s, reason is perfectly useless. ‘‘You may, with as much chance of success, reason and remonstrate with the winds or the waves.” The disease, he says, is incurable, but it may at least be mitigated by absence, new faces and new voices. But the trouble with mental diseases like love obsession is that they resist their own cure. The diseased person becomes protective towards his obsession, feels at home with it, finds comfort in the wan, injured personality it inflicts on him. And, just as he can conceive of no other state of mind but that which obsesses him, neither can he conceive of the possibility of finding satisfaction with any other lover but the lost one. Not that he is likely to find much in the way of temptation, for the victim of love obsession, like all other obsessives, exudes a kind of dull unattractiveness that makes other people turn away from him. When you are out, you are out.
When the rest of life can only be foreseen as continued frustration and torment, one obvious answer is suicide. Hitler expressed contempt for suicide (‘‘No game is lost until the final whistle”) but made an exception for suicide as a result of love. It is the most common reason people kill themselves, and there is a kind of nobility in it. But in practice, most people ruin their ‘‘love suicides” by unaesthetic conduct: threats, tears, abject notes, pestering the beloved, finding perverse pleasure in self-loathing and loathsomeness (as described in Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground). Then there’s the suicide note, written perhaps in the hope that the beloved and the writer will read it together after she dramatically saves him from death: “Oh darling, I never thought you’d… that you cared so… oh, and you’ve left me everything.”
An alternative to suicide, scarcely to be called preferable, is another mode of conduct, involving long, drawn-out madness and violent behavior, as exemplified by one Woodcock Carden (so called on account of the zigzag gait he adopted to avoid the pistol shots of his Irish tenantry). This man, who flourished—or, rather, languished—in the middle of the 19th century, was a rich landowner of old family in County Tipperary, Lord Lieutenant, member of the Grand Jury, et cetera, who was generally well liked and popular with women. At the age of 43 he had yet showed no inclination to marry, and when he was asked to a party one evening he mocked the goddess of love, saying that he would only go to amuse himself by laughing at the lovers. This brought about his painful and absolute ruin. He met there a quiet, pale young lady of 18 and immediately conceived himself desperately in love with her. After many social encounters with her and her family, during which he never informed her of his obsession, he asked her mother for leave to marry her. The mother said he was being ridiculous—her daughter had never for a moment thought of him as a lover. This somehow convinced him that the girl was being influenced against him contrary to her inclinations, so he began an energetic campaign of pestering her. He followed her wherever she went, from Paris to Aberdeen, always trying to attend the same parties or theaters that she was going to. He once walked 20 miles just to see her pass in a carriage.
As the madness grew, he became convinced that the only way to secure his bride was by abduction. He furnished his yacht with all that he imagined might be attractive to a young lady, spending £10,000 on bridal accessories. His plan was to sail her to the house of a friend in Scotland where, removed from the influence of her family, she would acknowledge her hidden passion for him. It was a desperate notion; the penalty for abducting a virgin was death or banishment. Carden and his retainers tried to pull the girl out of her carriage as she returned from church with her mother, sister and governess. They fought and scratched him, helpers ran up from nearby fields and Woodcock Carden and his men were put to flight. After what was described as the most exciting chase ever known in Tipperary, he was arrested, tried, found guilty of attempted abduction and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. Popular sympathy was with him, as it naturally and properly is inclined to be with mad people, and he was offered immediate release if he would undertake to pester the girl no more. However, since he was determined to continue with the pestering, this being the only object of his life, he refused the undertaking and served his full term. When he came out he continued as before, until his death, even though there were many other women who favored him as a romantic figure. The girl whom he had so confused and embarrassed by his obsessive attentions never married and died at the age of 89.