Avi Garelick

Love Potions


Read afterthoughts to this piece from Michael Kinnucan.
I didn’t know if it was day or night
I started kissing everything in sight
But when I kissed the cop down on 34th and Vine
He broke my little bottle of Love Potion Number 9.
—The Clovers, “Love Potion #9”

Poor guy! He was just trying to be a hit with the chicks, but what an embarrassment it all turned out to be. Instead of amplified amorous power, all the ninth love potion can produce is blind lechery and a public disturbance. He falls in love with everyone he sees. But really, what are we to expect? How could Madame Roux design this potion for the right kind of loving? The whole point is to make you fall in love you wouldn’t otherwise fall in, so how can that love be other than general and blind? Does the potion make you come alive to the subtleties in your beloved’s character that you previously overlooked, like a photo retouching? Does it bring you to fall madly with everything which annoyed you before, reversing intensities, hate to love? Or maybe it superimposes an image of the perfect lover onto the creature you have selected. In any case, though, the love potion can’t have too much to do with “love” in the best sense.

It’s hard to imagine what sort of relationship could develop out of a love potion: to work, the potion must blind us to the particularity of the object. But this oddness isn’t characteristic of love potions alone. What the love potion reveals is an already existing architecture of passion, one that makes it possible to imagine the passion coming to a triumphant climax while blind to the individuality of its object. The love potion is not the only passion we know which cannot be resolved into a sustained program of action and relationship; it’s just the most blatantly ridiculous.


The romance of Tristan and Isolde is a kind of urtext for literature of Western romance (“Before Romeo and Juliet, There was TRISTAN AND ISOLDE,” proclaims the tagline for the 2005 adaptation starring James Franco). This tale of a doomed adulterous love first emerged in written form in the 12th century in several versions, most of which feature the use of a love potion in a central role.

Tristan goes on a voyage to Ireland to bring back Isolde to be wed to his uncle the king. During their return voyage, the seas are becalmed, and their ship is stranded. The two complain of thirst, and Isolde’s maidservant accidentally feeds them the love potion meant for Isolde and her future groom. That is how they fall in love.

Denis de Rougemont, in Love in the Western World, points out that the rest of the narrative, read from a certain perspective, actually has no compelling conflict to propel it. Tristan restores Isolde to King Mark, then seeks to rescue her furtively, then goes on adventures, aims to return to her side again, etc. But her marriage to King Mark isn’t enough to explain their failure to get together: Tristan is physically more powerful than anyone else in the romance, and the Middle Ages happily admitted the divine right of the stronger. And throughout the tale, on every occasion at which the coast is clear for the two to escape and live happily ever after, the opportunity is inexplicably deferred. This oddity is most vividly presented in a scene in which, the couple having fled successfully years ago, the king happens to come upon them while they are sleeping. But he doesn’t find them wrapped in each others’ arms: between the slumbering couple lies Tristan’s drawn sword! Their relationship seems to be unconsummated; the king leaves them to sleep.

Why were they not sleeping together? What was that sword doing there? Everyone in the kingdom already assumed they were adulterers, and they had been traveling together for several years in the wilderness as fugitives because of their all-consuming passion for each other. Surely now at least they could have sex?

It is a bizarre contradiction that they stop at the edge of a sword—a ridiculous, contrived obstacle rivaled only by the ridiculous, contrived impetus for their love, that is, the potion. The sword should be understood as the inherent contradictory limit to the potion’s sphere of effect. That they cannot actually consummate when faced with the opportunity betrays the fact that their drives must fall short of fulfillment. Their love for each other cannot be lived, it can only be itself desired.

De Rougemont’s major insight into Tristan and Isolde concerns the influence of mystical passion on the romance. He suggests that the outbreak of troubadour culture (from which Tristan and Isolde emerged) with its ballads of romantic love can be traced to the Church’s suppression of Cathar mystical heresies. The Cathars believed that the material world was the domain of an evil god who had ensnared human souls inside physical bodies. Union with the good god in his spiritual realms could be achieved only through abstention and mystical escape. Most of our knowledge of the Cathars derives from the records of their opponents, who insensitively burned all the good primary sources, so their precise theology is a bit murky, but historians nonetheless know something of their only sacrament,1 the consolamentum. It elevated them to the ranks of the Perfect, and was often preceded and followed by forty-day fasts, known as endura. Once Perfect, a Cathar could not lie or swear, kill or eat animals, or have sex, even with his wife. The consolamentum was a rite which you could only perform once, so devotees often deferred it until as close to death as possible, and apparently at times used the endura as a means to bring death, and thus spiritual union, much closer. The mystical union they pursued was longed for but had to be deferred. It had to coincide with annihilation of the self.

Troubadours were responsible for sublimating this drive for divine mystical union into human romance. Having been violently suppressed by the church, and thus unable to announce itself as driven by passion for the infinite, unreachable god, the Cathar impulse instead produced songs describing immense longing for beautiful women. But the women were outmatched: “For what will meanly satisfy / Nor can nor ought to fire my zeal.”

Both the romantic and the mystical impulse are intimately connected with the death impulse, because both idealize their object. The romantic attaches his idealized passion to an embodied creature, thus annihilating the parameters of her actual being in his mind. Tristan isn’t actually in love with Isolde. He is in love with love itself and attached to an image of himself as lover, or more precisely, a doomed lover. He wants to want something he can never attain. As illustrated by the sword episode, the passion itself refuses consummation, even when it is favored by circumstance.

Passion in general produces a kind of mystical, ecstatic narrowing of focus towards an object that is voraciously pursued but effectively denied. The surrounding world, as a stage for the pursuit, turns dim in the blinding light of the ideal. This can be compared to the rudimentary account of one's surroundings taken by a person seeking to slake an acute thirst, or perhaps to piss. The passion, while it remains potent, is the dominant pattern for structuring experience and making choices. Like a love potion, it works as an imperial takeover and violent reordering of your affect towards a goal that looms infinitely large. Love potions don’t exactly produce a love that can be lived with. Their love is induced, not cultivated, and leaves little room for building a relationship, or for constructive contentment.

A question that sometimes comes up in the analysis of love potions: should the potion not be treated as a narrative alibi, as a disavowed means for the fulfillment of a repressed wish? It could be that the love inspired by the potion already existed in some form, at least potentially. For example, if someone declares that he loves you while he’s piss drunk, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe both that he wouldn’t have said it sober and that it is nonetheless true. The alcohol let him say what he had in fact already meant. Does the potion really induce, or does it allow? I might illustrate this by way of a quote from the Talmud. Says R. Hanina, one who is seduced (or persuaded, made naive) in their wine has something of the consciousness of their Creator. As it says, “God smelled the sweet smell…” (A reference to Genesis 8:21: “God smelled the sweet smell, and said to Himself: I will never again curse the ground on man’s account, for the nature of man’s heart is evil from his youth, nor will I again strike all life as I have done.”) Says R. Hiyya, one who is settled in their wine has the consciousness of the 70 judges of the Sanhedrin.

Both of these sayings are surprising. The first, for being theologically astonishing. The second, because it describes the exact opposite of what the Talmud itself expects of a drunk: one must be mentally settled in order to pray, which for this reason is the one thing you certainly may not do while drunk.

The Ritva, an interpreter, says the point here isn’t the wine as such, as an intoxicant, but rather the wine as an offering from one who seeks forgiveness. A wise person, one who emulates the Lord, waits for a gesture of appeasement before forgiving. It’s not that he’s unwilling to forgive until he gets drunk—drinking is merely the appropriate occasion for what he already wants to do. The Ritva’s reading makes total sense, given that no one wants to be caught thinking that God can be seduced, let alone by being offered pleasure! It’s not that God got drunk and relaxed his view on human sinfulness; instead, he was providing us with a model for forgiveness. God must act in a way which emulates suggestibility in order to teach us something about suggestion. In this case God is a good example, because God is obviously devising His own seduction. So we can say with certainty that His wine is a literary device.

Indeed, whenever the potion has an effect which the subject would in some way have liked to approximate even if he were sober, the potion can be read as an alibi. If the subject got tricked, though, then the material effect of the potion is clearly visible: we find him doing what he would not have done and what he may regret in the morning. In either case, though, its purpose is the production of new will. God fundamentally reorients His will in Genesis 8:21: before, He would destroy life if it was evil; now, He leaves life to do what it will, because it is evil. Tristan ends up with a new will as well, but in a way which provides the momentum as well as the direction. The love potion describes a self-overcoming which is not careful, which involves a rejection of life’s charge.

There is a fundamental relation, the movement of which describes life’s charge, between what is forced upon you (what you inhabit) and what you can choose to do (how you articulate agency). Knowing when to intervene, having some up-to-date sense of the coordinates of oneself, is a subtle and challenging task. The love potion willfully rejects this reckoning. It submits the self to a force that annihilates both its situation and its agency.

To return to the Talmudic notion of what is a Godly way to get drunk, I submit that to be made naive is a temporary upheaval of self that imposes a fundamentally different production of will than the potion’s compulsion. R. Hiyya and R. Hanina describe complementary opposites. As opposite poles, seduction and settling articulate the whole sphere of the wise person’s drunk attitude. Both describe a degree of certainty in the way one holds oneself in relation to their situation: either drawing above and before oneself or settling deeper into it.

Given that we must allow something to sweep us away at times when we are dealing with ourselves, we still have to make choices about how that wave will strike. Imagine that Tristan and Isolde drank the potion as a response to the maddening stillness of the becalmed sea, that they just let themselves be overcome. Indeed, they never again had to stop hurtling forward, not until they found themselves beside each other again.

1 They rejected the Catholic sacraments. Baptismal waters: material, can’t cleanse the soul. Communion: relies on the premise that God himself can be ingested materially. I mean, the Cathars really hated communion. Christ in his own lifetime must have been an apparition and not a man, according to them.

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