One of the courses I took as a psych major was called The Psychology of Love.

The class turned out to be heavily grounded in literature, and the first thing we read was Proust, the portion of Remembrance of Things Past entitled “Swann’s Way.”

According to Proust, “Love is space and time measured by the heart.”

Charles Swann falls in love from afar with Odette, a woman he hardly knows. Swann is a lover of art, and he imagines that Odette resembles a woman in a painting he admires. Swann spends years pining and obsessing over Odette, trying desperately to win her heart, until he finally possesses her and persuades her to marry him.

The reality of their union is then terribly disappointing for them both. Finally, after years of emotional self-torture, Swann realizes that he doesn’t love the real Odette after all. He bemoans:

To think that I have wasted years of my life, that I have longed for death, that the greatest love I have ever known has been for a woman who did not please me, who was not in my style.

Why might we fall in love with someone we barely know, or someone we can’t have?

Why choose such a painful, stressful experience?

No wonder Freud and other psychologists have assumed that people have unconscious desires to punish themselves! What else are we to make of Charles Swann and everyone like him?

I’ve got some ideas:

  • Love from afar might be more about self-love than love for another person. It’s a way of experiencing deep feelings without having an actual relationship, or of addressing one’s own emotional needs.
  • Love from afar might be a solution to another problem. Maybe there are other life concerns (career? family? health?) that cause pain and seem unsolvable; investing that suffering into a hopeless love relationship might make the pain feel more bearable, or at least more romantic and beautiful.
  • Love from afar may be a form of self-expression. Swann loves art and he imagines Odette as a figure from a favorite painting. Is love sometimes a way of more deeply experiencing beauty?
  • Love from afar may be a way to indulge in fantasy. Loving an unattainable, impossible other may not result in a permanent union, but it can be full of exquisite, precious moments that are valuable and enriching and memorable.

Charles Swann was a wealthy aristocrat with many women to choose from. Why do you think he chose to pine and suffer for Odette?

Why do you think we sometimes choose painful, angst-filled love affairs, when instead we could have “the real thing”?

Photo taken at Lis Sur Mer