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Romance, Lovesickness Come to Caltech--in a Popular History Course

February 07, 1988|KATE CALLEN | United Press International

Buried deep in the Caltech semester catalogue, right across from "Solid-State Geophysics," is a history course that has been surprisingly popular with the Pasadena school's budding technocrats.

It's called "Love in the Western World: A History of Love, Marriage and Sexual Relations from Antiquity to Modern Times."

Taught by medieval scholar John Benton, "Love in the Western World" takes a serious look at the quirky aspects of romantic love that have endured through the ages.

Like the physiological phenomenon of lovesickness.

And the idea that unrequited love is terribly exciting but that requited love is a tad dull.

From the philosophy of Plato to the novels of Jane Austen, "Love in the Western World" examines l'amour over the centuries and concludes that, as Benton puts it, "(love is) not simply sexual attraction but passionate involvement that can capture the mind and make the body sick."

Or, as portrayed in "Seventeen," a novel by Booth Tarkington, "love is a sort of childhood disease, like the mumps."

"If you have it early, it's not going to cause you that much trouble," he says. "But if you have it later on or you get a really bad case of it, love can cause you a lot of trouble."

Benton's reflections on love are based on nearly 30 years of intensive research here and in Europe. Three years ago, his work earned him a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called "genius grant," and last year he was named Caltech's Doris and Henry Dreyfuss Professor of History.

So when he endorses the radical idea of a college course in the study of romance, other academicians listen.

"At an institute like Caltech, where there's so much communication on science and technology, there's relatively little chance . . . for students to study subjects which increase their self-awareness and enhance their ability to deal with other people," Benton says.

"Many of our students have not been very social in high school," he adds. And in the austere climate of high-tech education, he laments, "(We) encourage them to . . . avoid studying problems that don't seem to have rational solutions."

Enter "Love in the Western World," a semester-long date with a very non-rational subject: how to survive the ardors of romance.

Many of Benton's teachings are strangely edifying. If you are pining away for a loved one, you can take comfort in knowing that "in medieval medical literature, passionate love was specifically called a disease," he says.

The symptoms will sound familiar: "sleeplessness, loss of appetite, fixation of the mind on the beloved, flushing and racing pulse--things we experience today."

And the cure? In the Middle Ages, Benton reports, "They prescribed remedies like cold baths, going for long walks and even sexual intercourse with a young and desirable maiden--of course, that's from the male point of view--because that takes one's mind off the passion."

If you secretly devour dime-store paperback romances, you can stop being ashamed, he says. Such books are part of a literary tradition that dates from the 12th Century: the tale of a stormy, steaming love that ends in marriage.

"There's a dramatic tension when difficulties are put in the path of lovers," he says. "When they get around those obstacles and eventually unite in marriage, then the tale stops."

Marriage, Benton says dispassionately, "is a much less interesting subject. There are more dramatic possibilities in a couple kept apart than in aging, married lovers who stay together."

Apparently, all the world has always loved a star-crossed lover, he says. Witness the continuing popularity of the tragic tales of Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere and Heloise and Abelard.

One-Sided Correspondence

Benton's own research into the 12th-Century love story of Heloise and Abelard has taught him that you don't mess around with a romantic legend.

In 1986, he presented evidence to the International Congress on Medieval Forgeries that the famous exchange of letters between the two lovers after they were forced to separate might have all been written by Abelard.

Based on a computer-assisted study of phrasing and word frequencies, Benton concluded that "there's no way to distinguish between these authors." The line ascribed to Heloise, "I would rather be your mistress than the wife of Caesar himself," probably was penned by Abelard, the object of her affections.

This has not gone over big with romance scholars, Benton reports. When he first raised doubts about the Heloise-Abelard correspondence in 1972, he recalls, "one Frenchman got maudlin drunk and kept saying, 'I've been in love with Heloise all my life, and this man is taking her away from me.'

"He had to be put to bed by a Dutch theologian," Benton says with a slight smile.

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