- Edvard Munch, Death of Marat
According to no less an authority than Josiah Royce, to understand the philosophy of Schelling, one must understand Caroline Michaelis, his wife. In 1792, when she joined Therese Huber’s household, she was still Caroline Boehmer, recently widowed. Already August Wilhelm Schlegel was obsessed with her – and already she felt herself puzzingly superior to him, an intuition she was never to overcome. Later, after the occupation by the French and the counter-occupation by the forces of reaction, later, after Therese had fled to Strassbourg (which is when, apparently, she wrote Georg that she was leaving him for Hubner), after Georg left for Paris and received the condemnation of almost the entire German intelligentsia (poor mistaken Forster, Wilhelm Humboldt signed), and that after Therese might have written Caroline a letter giving her a green light for Caroline’s own affair with Georg, after the pregnancy with the unknown father, probably a French office, after being released from Mainz and exiled from her native town of Gottingen as a danger to morals and public order, she would be ‘rescued’ by Schlegel and cozened, cozening herself, into an loveless marriage, which broke up on the rocks when she finally met the man she did love, the young philosopher, Schelling. Caroline, it seems, spread her own version of what happened between Therese and Georg.
This pattern of split ups, rumor, and leftist politics is going to fasten to free love from the revolutionary period onward. The great charge against free love is its fissility – just as the great charge made against bourgeois love, from the standpoint of free love, is its creeping dissolution of the amorous impulse, which decays in the acids of repetition and over-familiarity. They fuck you up, your Mom and Dad. Love loses its courage, that side of its character that is a perpetual test. The family withdraws into its comforts, loses its curiosity and generosity, becomes fasco-tropic. Or as Shelley puts it later in the Notes on Queen Mab:
“Not even the intercourse of the sexes is exempt from the despotism of positive institution. Law pretends even to govern the indisciplinable wanderings of passion, to put fetters on the clearest deductions of reason, and, by appeals to the will, to subdue the involuntary affections of our nature. Love is inevitably consequent upon the perception of loveliness. Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty: it is compatible neither with obedience, jealousy, nor fear: it is there most pure, perfect, and unlimited, where its votaries live in confidence, equality, and unreserve.
How long then ought the sexual connection to last? what law ought to specify the extent of the grievances which should limit its duration? A husband and wife ought to continue so long united as they love each other: any law which should bind them to cohabitation for one moment after the decay of their affection would be a most intolerable tyranny, and the most unworthy of toleration. How odious an usurpation of the right of private judgement should that law be considered which should make the ties of friendship indissoluble, in spite of the caprices, the inconstancy, the fallibility, and capacity for improvement of the human mind. And by so much would the fetters of love be heavier and more unendurable than those of friendship, as love is more vehement and capricious, more dependent on those delicate peculiarities of imagination, and less capable of reduction to the ostensible merits of the object.
The state of society in which we exist is a mixture of feudal savageness and imperfect civilization. The narrow and unenlightened morality of the Christian religion is an aggravation of these evils. It is not even until lately that mankind have admitted that happiness is the sole end of the science of ethics, as of all other sciences; and that the fanatical idea of mortifying the flesh for the love of God has been discarded. I have heard, indeed, an ignorant collegian adduce, in favour of Christianity, it's hostility to every worldly feeling!*
But if happiness be the object of morality, of all human unions and and disunions; if the worthiness of every action is to be estimated by the quantity of pleasurable sensation it is calculated to produce, then the connection of the sexes is so long sacred as it contributes to the comfort of the parties, and is naturally dissolved when its evils are greater than its benefits.”
If we spread the deck of cards, circa 1793 to 1893, what houses do we see? The Forsters, the Shelley-Owens, the Herzens. Oda Krohg-Hans Jaeger. The Przybyszewskas. Blok-Bely.
Love generates two overlapping and yet contradictory semiotic fields. In one field, love is the essence of liberty. “Love withers under constraint: its very essence is liberty” wrote Shelley – variations of the same phrase are doubtlessly to be found in the letters of the whole generation of romantic writers. All other choices are determined, more or less, by need. Love, though, is the very angel of free will, bursting forth from the casements of the heart in one spontaneous moment, sword upraised. Love in this field, then, is the opposite of need, and those things which bear the mark of need, either physical or social, are either ignored or subsumed in the presence of true love. Both sex and money fall under this law. If we confine ourselves to this field, we could say that free love aligns itself in perfect opposition to the old libertinism, the old eighteenth century materialism. That free love demands the free giving and taking of sexual delight by no means affects this anti-sensual and anti-social turn. In the eighteen century, the sexual arrangements of the great aristocrats gradually flowed into the great bourgeois households and opinions, but they brought forth romantic love, as the enemy of that calculation, of that agreeableness – and beyond that, the antithesis of libertinism, free love.
On the other hand, another semiotic field folds over the one of liberty. “Love is inevitably consequent upon the perception of loveliness”, Shelley also wrote. The old story is that love does not come out from the heart as the central identifying act – it has, instead, an exterior power all its own, and imposes itself. If this is freedom, it is a freedom that gravitates to metaphors of captivity. If in this field, the beloved isn’t necessary the way satisfying a sexual appetite is necessary, this is because the beloved exists in a space beyond physical necessity. This second field plays around the edges of the first one, and out of the interference between the two there gradually emerges images not of the angel of sex, but of the vampire, the femme fatale.