Pinch, "Thinking about the Other in Romantic Love"

Romantic Passions

Thinking about the Other in Romantic Love

Adela Pinch, University of Michigan

Desire is like a thought which thinks more than it thinks, or more than what it thinks. --Emmanuel Levinas


  1. Lovers spend a lot of time thinking. What they think about, of course, is the one they love. But in the Romantic tradition, I hope to show, thinking about the beloved other is attended with all kinds of questions. Is it a special kind of thinking? How and when and ought it be done? Is being alone with your thoughts about a person akin to being with him or her? How does thinking about the other establish relation, proximity or distance, and how does it construct or construe the beloved's presence, or absence? Does it bestow the lover with knowledge, consolation, or power? In particular, is it possible that the act of thinking about another person can in and of itself constitute a form of damage to the other's identity or integrity? That the problems of thinking about the other in romantic love can come to seem ethical--veering around questions of projection, violation, respect--as well as epistemological, is the burden of this essay; and my argument is that the Romantic (capital R) and the romantic (little r) are conjoined in the ethics of thinking. I will begin with some thoughts about the place of love in discussions of Romantic (capital R) epistemology, focusing on Shelley; then briefly test these ideas against Shelley's love poetry; and then pursue the consequences of these ideas for later Romantics (both capital R and little r), both nineteenth-century poets and contemporary philosophers.

  2. For some critics, romantic love provides a solution to Romanticism's central epistemological dilemma: the relationship between mind and object. For example, in her arresting reading of "Mont Blanc," Frances Ferguson recast Shelley's poem as a love song to the mountain. She did so in order not only to highlight the poem's languages of personification and address, but also, more importantly, to alter our sense of the epistemology that informs Romantic speculation: from an epistemology correlated with ontology, to an epistemology correlated with love. She explains:

    In the one account--that which continually seeks to align epistemology with ontology so that one's knowing always struggles to coincide with the real existence of what one knows--the adequacy of one's ability to know is always suspect. In the other account--that which aligns epistemology with love--emotional profligacy that continually postulates and assumes the existence of an interlocutor supplants any notion of matching one's knowledge with things as they really are. (Ferguson, 207)

    In this view, Romanticism--conceived of as a form of understanding--is a language of love. Love language effects a transference that is the condition of possibility for any relation, for intelligibility itself. Through romantic love, Romanticism rests its claims to have transcended an empiricist skepticism.

  3. But if Romanticism's claims to understand the other involve an epistemology of love, the explicitly erotic stance towards the other--precisely by seeming to have solved one set of terms--raises another set of problems. We can perhaps begin to see them in Shelley's Epipsychidion, in its compulsive search to determine what or who the beloved object is, to name and rename her, a search that quickly reveals the structure of desire and the movement of figurative language to be one and the same.(1) While for some readers this poem's achievement lies in its aspiration toward an endlessly transferential, erotic language that totally detaches itself from the beloved as other or as referent, it's important to recognize that Shelley also conceives of his attempt to think Emily as a crisis: "Ah, woe is me! / What have I dared? where am I lifted? how / Shall I descend, and perish not?" (Shelley's Poetry and Prose, ll. 124-26).(2) If Epipsychidion truly defines poetic language as (as it does at the end) the "flowers of thought" (l. 385), then one thing the poem may underscore is that thinking about the beloved, and knowing her, may be inversely or diametrically related. Desire wages war with the desire to know. What we might notice if we focused further on the role of thinking in Epipsychidion is that the poem seems worried about the possibility that thinking is a kind of zero-sum game or economy of scarcity whereby one person's thinking can only occur at the expense of another's.(3) At the beginning of the poem Shelley invokes Emily's own heart as striving,

    'Till those bright plumes of thought, in which arrayed
    It over-soared this low and worldly shade,
    Lie shattered; (ll. 15-17)

    Why should the poem begin with the shattering of the beloved's thoughts? Perhaps the feminist argument we'd want to make here--that Shelley is part of a poetic tradition in which the masculine poetic subject must cast the feminine as shattered or scattered object in order to speak (4) --can only be explained by a more basic point: that romantic love may always involve a struggle over who gets to think about whom.

  4. For love poets in the Romantic tradition--say, poets of the generation after Shelley--these kinds of issues are specifically cast as ethical as well as formal dilemmas. My examples will be drawn from Victorian sonnet sequences by women. Rather than seeing these sonnet sequences as quaint confluences of the Pre-Raphaelite revival of Dante and Petrarch with Victorian sentimentality and domesticity, I'd like to make some more ambitious claims about them. The sonnet is of course always about the problem of thinking, construing, hailing the other. In our understanding, the sonnet seems to be the very shape of thought: in its dense, patterned form it exteriorizes thought; and "I think" or "I thought" is the perfect iamb. Exteriorizing thought, the sonnet de-psychologizes it, materializes it, alienates it from the thinker as subject by placing any given sonnet about the beloved other in a syntagmatic relation to all other thoughts about other beloved others. In so doing, it puts the problem of thinking about others into a realm other than that of psychology, or even epistemology, or skepticism about other minds. Victorian sonnet sequences seem particularly self-conscious about their own status as practices of meditation. They make use of both romantic love and Romantic aesthetics to work out the larger philosophical and political stakes of negotiating social relations. (5)

  5. We might take our cue from Christina Rossetti's sequence, Monna Innominata, which makes clear that what lovers do is sit around thinking ("Thinking of you," one sonnet simply begins [9.1]). Here is the first sonnet:

    Come back to me, who wait and watch for you:--
      Or come not yet, for it is over then,
      And long it is before you come again,
    So far between my pleasures are and few.
    While, when you come not, what I do I do
      Thinking "Now is when he comes," my sweetest "when":
      For one man is my world of all the men
    This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.
    Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang
      Because the pang of parting comes so soon;
      My hope hangs waning, waxing like a moon
          Between the heavenly days on which we meet:
    Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang
      When life was sweet because you called them sweet? (Pre-Raphaelites, 144) (6)

  6. What interests me here is not simply the sonnet's extension of the "parting is such sweet sorrow" idea so that the beloved's absence turns out to be genuinely preferable to his presence (7); more important is how Rossetti focuses that space of absence as a lover's practice: "While, when you come not, what I do I do." What the lover does, what defines her practice as a lover, is thinking. That the poem conceives of thought as practice or action--rather than as a particular content--is stressed by its highlighting of abstract markers of time at the expense of substantives: the prominence, for example, particularly as end rhymes, of "then," when," "again." In lines 6 through 8, the "you"--the beloved--gets assimilated to a "when": notice how the line endings set up a kind of apposition between "my sweetest 'when'," "of all the men," and "you." The assimilation of the beloved to a "when" also underscores the poem's revelation of thinking as productive practice rather than as, say, a reflection of a pre-existing object: the lover's thinking calls the beloved into being ("when") with the act of the poem.

  7. Monna Innominata's way of thinking about thinking about the other is very much indebted to the sonnet sequence that Rossetti is writing in response to: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, which is of course exhibit A in almost any discussion of nineteenth-century romance.(8) Like Rossetti's sequence, Sonnets from the Portuguese is obsessed with figuring out the place of thinking in romantic love (and like Shelley's Epipsychidion ends by offering itself to the beloved as the "flowers of thought" (Works, 223, sonnet 44)(9); and it too explores the problems of thinking about the other. How is thinking a problem in the Sonnets from the Portuguese? Let me count the ways. First, the opening sonnet immediately establishes the lover as thinker--lover as nerd, really. "I thought," she begins, "once how Theocritus had sung"--and casts love--in the form of a spirit who appears behind her and yanks her by the hair--as a violation of her scholarly and introspective musings. Love interrupts a certain kind of nerdy thinking, an idea that comes up again in sonnet 34 where the speaker confesses that when the beloved calls her by her childhood pet name, she responds more slowly than she did as a child: "When I answer now / I drop a grave thought" (34.9-10). Thinking makes one almost unfit for love; it would seem to make the project of the sequence that of learning to assimilate thinking with loving.

  8. Second, when the poet does transfer her thoughts to the world of love ("The face of all the world is changed, I think" [7.1]), thinking comes to seem both a way of solving the problem of what it means to be in relation to another, and a problem for relation. The sequence as a whole is an anxious meditation on what relation is: it ruminates on questions of proximity and distance, questions that are ultimately about what kind of "being-with" a person it is to have them in one's thoughts. That is, I would argue that the sequence's obsession with spatial relations, with questions of scale and size, with measuring which of the two lovers is greater, smaller, higher, lower, nearer, or further than the other, is in itself a symptom of the poem's meditation, on a more phenomenological level, on what it might mean to have a person, literally, in one's mind.(10) What, Barrett Browning wants to know, does it mean to turn a person into a thought? Is fitting a person to one's mental space to miniaturize, or to aggrandize him?

  9. Third, Sonnets from the Portuguese raises the ethical stakes of such meditations by putting into play the tensions among thinking, knowing, and loving, never truly assimilating any one term to the others. (11) Things come to a crisis in sonnet 29, where the poet is struck by self-consciousness about her own thinking:

    I think of thee!--my thoughts do twine and bud
    About thee, as will vines, about a tree,
    Put out broad leaves, and soon there's nought to see
    Except the straggling green which hides the wood.
    Yet, oh my palm-tree, be it understood
    I will not have my thoughts instead of thee
    Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly
    Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,
    Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,
    And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee
    Drop heavily down--burst, shattered, everywhere!
    Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee
    And breathe within thy shadow a new air,
    I do not think of thee--I am too near thee.

    While the imagery here--the clinging vines, the strong tree--and some of the sentiments might at first confirm our suspicions that Sonnets from the Portuguese is an embarassing sequence of poems, it helps if we focus on this sonnet's strange violence towards thought and on its emphasis on thought as violence that chokes and conceals its object. That this violence towards thought is the Sonnets' Romantic legacy is signalled by its echo of the image from the beginning of Epipsychidion: the shattering of thought. Here, as there, is a funny economy in which one lover's thoughts have to be stripped away for love to happen. To utter "I do not think of thee" is to use the sonnet-form's modes of address, which establishes both proximity and distance, to perform a thinking of the other that is the opposite of thought. I hope this poem helps make my point that both Romantic and Victorian love poetry often manifests a strange ambivalence about the very act of thinking, fantasizing, speculating about the beloved: worrying that the sheer act of having the beloved in mind is a form of damage to him or her. The kind of worrying I'm identifying is to be distinguished from the epistemological worry Ferguson saw Shelley shifting away from in the passage I discussed at the beginning of this essay: a worry about misrepresenting the object of one's affections. Nor is it a worry that the thinking, loving subject might do him or herself wrong by ruminating obsessively about the object of his or her affections. It is rather an ethical ambivalence about the act itself of thinking about the other.

  10. Finally, I'd like to suggest that this peculiar feature of Romantic love may have a long and interesting legacy, not only as it shapes and is shaped by these nineteenth-century poems, but also because this worry about the ethics of thinking about the other may have lodged itself in some contemporary philosophies of love, ethics and alterity. For Emmanuel Levinas, the erotic relation to the other often stands as the highest example of the search to establish a truly ethical relation: the relation that respects and responds to the other's absolute alterity. (12) On the one hand, Levinas takes care to distinguish his modern understanding of love from Romantic (capital R) ideas about romantic love: the notion that love is a commingling of two beings into one, is, he says, a "false romantic idea "(Ethique et infini, 58). Emphasizing the lovers' utter alterity to each other, Levinas' lovers' discourse defies the Platonism that is part of, say, Shelley's programmatic take on love, in Epipsychidion and elsewhere. But on the other hand, Levinas' writings on the ethics of eros harbor a by-now familiar ambivalence about thinking, as they strive to define a mode of mental attention, proximity, or being-for the other that does not authorize itself as knowledge. To be in love, in his view, is to be in a state of not-knowing in relation to the beloved; for knowledge of the other inevitably partakes of the logic of identity, a making-intelligible by making the same; it is thus a violation of the beloved's alterity. The condition of being-for the other is the condition for the emergence of the intentionality of thought (Totality and Infinity, 261); but at the center of Levinas' understanding of eros are the vicissitudes of a mental proximity that does not presume to know. This is the aporia or impossibility that in some sense founds the struggle for ethical relation. It is an impossibility that bossily demands that we totally reimagine what it would mean to think about the one we love, lest thinking itself threatens to become our own worst enemy. The thought that love may be akin to its opposites--agression, violation--is no surprise to anybody; it's the oldest idea in the book. But perhaps tracing this particular strain of Romantic love--and its literary formations--can help us understand the conditions under which thinking itself can come to seem scary.



1. See Ulmer, Shelleyan Eros. back  

2. All references are to the Reiman and Powers edition. back  

3. See Sharon Cameron's understanding of the inter-personal economies of consciousness among Henry James's characters and narrators in Thinking in Henry James, 171. My own thinking is somewhat indebted to Cameron's. For the purposes of this paper, "thinking" is defined as a practice, as a mental action, a category that would include imagining, fantasizing, as well as having ideas about an object. back  

4. See for example Vickers. back  

5. On Victorian aesthetics' articulation of sexual relations as a way of focusing on philosophical and social questions, see Armstrong. back  

6. All references are to this edition. back  

7. See Barthes on the object's double status in the lover's discourse: always "absent as referent," yet present as object as allocution, of the lover's address (15). back  

8. On the canonization of Sonnets from the Portuguese as the apotheosis of nineteenth-century romantic love, see Lootens, 116-157. back  

9. All references are to the Preston edition of the poetical works. back  

10. See for example sonnets 3, 4, 5, 7, and 16. back  

11. On the poem's treatment of knowing, see for example sonnets 17 and 20. back  

12. The question of the relation between eros and ethics in Levinas is a vexed one; for a reading which stresses the changing relationship between the two over the course of his career, see Chanter, 170-224; see also Bauman, 108-109. The primary texts here are Part IV and the "Preface" of Time and the Other, 29-37 and 80-94; "The Ambiguity of Love" and "Phenomenology of Eros" in Totality and Infinity, 254-66; and Ethics and Infinity. back

Works Cited

Armstrong, Isobel. Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics. London: Routledge, 1993.


Barthes, Roland. A Lover's Discourse. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.


Bauman, Zygmunt. Postmodern Ethics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993.


Browning, Elizabeth Barret. The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barret Browning. 1900. Ed. Harriet Waters Preston. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.


Cameron, Sharon. Thinking in Henry James. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Chanter, Tina. Ethics of Eros: Irigaray's Rewriting of the Philosophers. New York: Routledge, 1995.


Ferguson, Frances. "Shelley's Mont Blanc: What the Mountain Said." Romanticism and Language. Ed. Arden Reed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984. 202-214.


Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985.


---. Ethique et infini. Paris: Fayard, 1982.


---. Time and the Other. Trans. Richard A. Cohen. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1987.


---. Totality and Infinity. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991.


Lootens, Tricia. Lost Saints: Silence, Gender and Victorian Literary Canonization. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.


The Pre-Raphaelites and their Circle. Ed. Cecil Y. Lang. 2nd. ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.


Shelley's Poetry and Prose. Ed. Donald H. Reiman and Sharon Powers. New York: W. W. Norton, 1977.


Ulmer, William. Shelleyan Eros: The Rhetoric of Romantic Love. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.


Vickers, Nancy. "Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme" Critical Inquiry 8.2 (1981): 265-279.