I was searching at the time for what seemed a washed-out road connecting women's psychology with that of girls. It was a path that novelists had followed but psychologists for the most part had ignored (girls having been consistently left out of research on adolescence). Picking up the voice of pleasure in girls at the edge of adolescence, I came to the places where this voice drops off and a tragic story takes over. The tragic story where love leads to loss and pleasure is associated with death was repeated over and over again in operas, folk songs, the blues, and novels. We were in love with a tragic story of love. It was "our story."
If we have a map showing where pleasure is buried and where the seeds of tragedy are planted, then an order of living that over the millennia has seemed natural or inevitable becomes instead a road we have taken, and we can explore alternative routes. Piecing together an ancient love story with the findings of contemporary research, I found myself led into the heart of a mystery - why do we keep repeating tragic love stories? - and then to a new mapping of love. This book is a record of that journey.
I picked up the ancient road-map of love, seeing in the myth of Psyche and Cupid a map of resistance that converged with the findings of my research. The myth was written or recorded by Apuleius, a Roman born in North Africa at a time when the hegemony of male gods was becoming unsettled - a time in this respect very much like our own. Like America in the late twentieth century, North Africa in the second century was a place where cultures were mixing and women's voices were finding new resonance. Apuleius, educated in Carthage and Athens, worked as a lawyer in Rome before returning to Carthage where he married an older woman who was steeped in the traditions of women's culture. The story of Psyche and Cupid appears at the center of his novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass. It is presented as "an old wife's tale."
The word "metamorphosis" means changing the shape or overcoming the form. Apuleius' novel follows the adventures of Lucius, a man whose curiosity leads him to be turned into a donkey. He is the supreme or golden ass. In this form, he travels through a familiar landscape of millers and priests, highways and robbers, taverns and wenches, until with the intervention of Isis and the coming of spring, he regains his human shape by eating roses. For a time he devotes himself to the worship of Isis before returning to his old life as a new man.
Midway through this journey, the story of Psyche and Cupid bubbles up, seemingly from nowhere like an ancient spring. It too is a story of transformation, overcoming the traditional form of love between a man and a woman. Its central place in the novel suggests that only when Lucius has assimilated this change in the love story can he regain his male human body without assuming the old forms of manhood. The revolutionary insight in this comic novel lies in this realization: a change in the love story is a psychic key to a cultural and historic transformation.
While Apuleius' novel ends with an ode to Isis, suggesting a change in shape from patriarchy to matriarchy (a change that retains the hierarchical form), the love story of Psyche and Cupid ends with a more radical suggestion: as the relationship between Psyche and Cupid is made "no longer uneven" and a democratic marriage replaces the patriarchal form, so the birth of a daughter named Pleasure carries the intimation of a new story. The tale of Psyche and Cupid traveled from North Africa into the heart of Europe at the time of the Renaissance, becoming an inspiration to poets and painters and a prime source for Shakespeare, shaping his writing about love and the voices of the women characters in the comedies, tragedies, and romance plays just as Holinshed's Chronicles shaped the writing of the history plays. J. J. M. Tobin, a classics scholar who has documented how extensively Shakespeare borrowed from Apuleius, especially from the story of Psyche and Cupid, has called The Golden Ass "Shakespeare's favorite novel." Thus a radical map of love, a story told by an old wife to a young woman, came into the center of high Western culture. Carried along on the cultural mainstream, the story itself undergoes transformation. We hear it repeated, over and over again, in a variety of forms. Lucius, the golden ass, and Charity, the young woman to whom the story is told, become the lovers in Edith Wharton's novel Summer. The old woman who tells the story becomes the street woman in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, the story itself - barely comprehensible - interrupting the stream of people's consciousness as they cross a busy street in London. And Psyche's voice becomes Katharine's voice in Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient, when she says to Almasy, "If you make love to me I won't lie about it. If I make love to you I won't lie about it."
In the mid-1980s, I embarked on a study with men and women whose intimate relationships with one another had reached a point of crisis. People were asking new questions about love - finding their way alone and together across a shifting societal and psychic terrain. More women were speaking openly about their experiences of love, saying what they knew about pleasure. The double standard, or what Freud had called "a double morality" had led, he observed, to a "concealment of the truth, false optimism, self-deception and deception of others" on the part of both men and women. The poet Jorie Graham's questions became everyone's questions:
How far is true enough? How far into the earth can vision go and still be love?
A search for truth was uncovering a buried history, revealing the extent to which neither men nor women felt authentic. How had this happened? Where had they split with their souls, their desires, their connection to themselves and each other?
Led by an awareness of disconnection, I began to explore the roots of what seemed a pervasive trauma. Trauma is the shock to the psyche that leads to dissociation: our ability to separate ourselves from parts of ourselves, to create a split within ourselves so that we can know and also not know what we know, feel and yet not feel our feelings. It is our ability, as Freud put it in Studies on Hysteria, to hold parts of our experience not as a secret from others but as a "foreign body" within ourselves.
The foundational stories we tell about Western civilization are stories of trauma. Oedipus is wounded and abandoned by his parents, who drive a stake through his feet (hence the name Oedipus, which means "swollen foot") and give him to a herdsman with instructions to leave the baby on a hillside to die. Saved by the herdsman, Oedipus is fated to kill his father, Laius, and to marry his mother, Jocasta - a fate decreed
by Apollo as retribution for Laius having sexually violated a young boy.