The existence of the two modes of faith, legalistic and ecstatic, shapes the conceptualisation of ideal love and its depiction. It is the intensity of ecstatic experiences which give the ecstatic mode its power: its
practices are very intense emotionally; they may be rarely performed and highly stimulating (e.g., involving altered states of consciousness or terrible ordeals and tortures); they tend to trigger a lasting sense of revelation, and to produce powerful bonds between small groups of ritual participants. (Whitehouse 294)
This perfectly describes the bonding which George Paizis has labelled “passion-love” (109) and which he linked to the immediacy of love at first sight. Paizis notes that “‘passion-love’ implies forces outside human control, be it ‘destiny’ or even ‘nature’, which essentially connotes the primacy of external or unknown forces and a corresponding diminution of human responsibility and control over what takes place” (109). The impact of the beginning of this kind of love can be considered akin to that of a religious experience, in which the believer is suddenly and unexpectedly brought into the presence of the divine. "Passion-love" is love in the ecstatic mode and, as a concept, it draws on
the pagan idea of spiritual Eros: that immense desire, described by Plato and his followers, to rise above the transient, imperfect world into which we are born, the earthly flesh of which we are made, and, through increasing levels of spiritual attainment, to gain intimacy with the highest goodness, beauty and truth. (May 96)
Such a connection between love and spirituality is evident in the novels of the extremely prolific Barbara Cartland, who had more than 700 novels published before her death in 2000 (Ramsdell 2018, 37). Cartland wrote
with mystical and transcendental accents of romance as a means to spiritual enlightenment [...]. In Towards the Stars [...], love is described as “an ecstasy so wonderful, so glorious and so spiritual that it was not of this world.” Another such example is Love in the Clouds. On the very last page of this novel, the heroine has discovered a love that is “both human and divine”; it is “the celestial love that both men and the gods themselves sought” [...]. Cartland’s novels consistently represent love as transcending historical selfhood and acting as a catalyst for the emergence into a state of pure consciousness. We find the lovers’ raptures described as transcendent states of being. At the end of one novel, they are described as having “touched the divine”. (Rix)
Another, more recent, example is Sierra Simone’s novella Red & White (2019). The language used to describe the protagonists’ polyamorous threesome is at times explicitly spiritual, pointing to the underlying ecstatic nature of a sexual “hunger beyond all reason” which ensures that there is “no hiding behind routine or assumed roles.” Snowdrop is the least sexually experienced of the three, and thus it seems appropriate that she should think Liam is “like some kind of pagan god claiming his due, and next to me, Scarlett is like Aphrodite herself.” Read theologically, the scene recalls the way in which, in the grip of an ecstatic experience, the believer’s
whole being seems to fuse in a glorious communion with the divinity. Transcendental experiences of this kind, typically conceived of as states of ‘possession’, have given the mystic a unique claim to direct experiential knowledge of the divine. (Lewis 2003, 15)
Scarlett does indeed make such a claim: she has both “a sudden, nearly spiritual moment of gratitude for Liam and whatever cosmic power brought him to our cabin” (Simone) and, the next morning, what
feels like the most important moment of my life. It feels like coming home, like destiny, like some part of me was constructed at birth to be in love with these two people—and I’m so, so aware that I know fuck all about Liam, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
There is, then, a clear expression of awareness of an external force, bringing the lovers together with its power; their emotion is not based on a detailed, legalistic assessment of each other’s characters. In such a context, when a protagonist exclaims “Holy fuck” this may literally be the case, and through it he has found a love for which he would “give [...] everything.”
It is precisely because ecstatic love’s intensity demands “everything” that those who are legalistically-inclined caution that it is not necessarily a safe type of love which brings lovers to a secure “home.” They would argue that ecstatic love can demand sacrifice, even martyrdom and that it is also possible for the “external or unknown forces” controlling it to be something other than the benevolent ones explicitly acknowledged in Cartland’s work or suspected in Simone’s.
Romance author Anne Stuart has described the risks which are involved when one protagonist is a person
whose sense of honor and decency is almost non-existent. A man with a dark midnight of the soul. The heroine can either bring light into the darkness or risk suffocating in the blackness of his all-encompassing despair.
The heroine’s attraction to the hero is never in doubt [...], she is willing to relinquish family, friends, career, life itself in giving herself to the vampire hero. She is willing to give up everything, to become an outcast. The fire of his appeal is worth the risk of conflagration. [...] It is a bond that surpasses death and honor and the laws of man and nature. (86)
There is a clear acknowledgement here of the risk that ecstatic love may lead to destruction. Clearly, the core plot of the romance ensures that this will not occur to its protagonists, but the genre can and does acknowledge it as a possible outcome of ecstatic love.
By contrast, the rituals of the legalistic mode’s “forms of religious activity tend to be much less stimulating: they may be highly repetitive or ‘routinized’, conducted in a relatively calm and sober atmosphere; such practices are often accompanied by the transmission of complex theology and doctrine” (Whitehouse 294). This description applies to what Paizis refers to as “marriage-love” (109), but which I shall call legalistic love. Its calm derives from the fact that the lovers share aims and values, as in many friends-to-lovers romances: broadly speaking it is a “love that is derived from socio-religious principles and has as its aim to serve religion, society, etc” (117). Synithia Williams expresses the ideal of the legalistic mode in her Making it Real (2015): this is love as “a partnership. Mutual trust, mutual love, mutual understanding. Give and take.” This is a view of love which takes into account the strains and stresses of daily life, and argues that, as a secondary character states in K. M. Shea's Beauty and the Beast (2017),
Real love is looking at someone and knowing that you wouldn't mind waking up to their bad breath for the next century, and you are fine with them seeing you before you brush your hair and fix your face for the day. [...] Loving a person isn't a magical, sparkly passion. It's hard work. It's putting the other person before yourself. It's companionship and being able to trust and depend on each other. That theatrical true love everyone spouts about is really finding a partner who will go through the heartbreaks and joys of life with you.
Whereas ecstatic love creates bonds which may surpass “death and honor and the laws of man and nature,” works about love which are in the legalistic mode insist that
though we might ‘fall’ in love with inappropriate people - for Aristotle, those who lack virtue, or don’t share similar ideals, or fail to wish and do each other well - it won’t work. Such an urge will go against the laws of (human) nature: and so, with such people, no lasting intimacy will be possible. (May 67)
In Mary Burchell’s To Journey Together (1956), Elinor Shearn recognises in time that Rudi is not someone she should marry. Rudi had come into a substantial inheritance from an unrelated elderly lady who, after a disagreement, had cut a relative, Anton, out of her will. Rudi is aware that, “if she had lived, she would probably have forgiven him [Anton] and changed round again” (174). He nonetheless sees no reason to share any of the money with Anton, and tells Elinor so shortly before proposing to her:
His attraction was indescribably strong upon her. She knew she had only to turn her head and his lips would be on hers. Already she savoured the moment with a delicious thrill of anticipation. But, even while the feel of his nearness excited and fascinated her, his words blew a strange, chill breath upon her eager enthusiasm. (176)
Her grounds for rejecting him are distinctly Aristotelian: “I am not the wife for you, my dear, and you are not the husband for me. We think and feel too differently ever to be one. That's all there is to it” (177). The importance of shared values is also stressed in E. Davies’ Swish (2016). Alex, one of the heroes, is a private investigator but since “He never got hired to spy on great marriages or relationships between couples who finished one another’s sentences,” he turns to his parents, who have been happily “married for almost three decades” for advice:
“[...] there was a lot of work that went in behind the scenes to making it work. Compromises, learning to live with differences. And if those differences had been too great…”
“We would never have made it this long,” Mom agreed.
[...] “What do you mean? Life values?”
“Yes, and plans. We both wanted a kid, and to raise him a certain way. We wanted to live in the same kind of place and share the same kind of values.”
Legalistic love in fact resembles Aristotle’s ideal of friendship:
that of virtuous people who share their lives through conversation and common pursuits. Such sharing is possible only because they are roughly equal in virtue and intellect, and have common interests. Their equality and openness with one another also enable each to help the other improve in intellect and virtue (a state that comprehends practical wisdom, and thus sound deliberation and judgment). Aristotle regards such virtue friendships as vital ingredients of the happy or flourishing life. [...] Austen’s Emma illustrates this conception of friendship and happiness through its depiction of Emma’s friendship with Mr. Knightley. (Badhwar and Dadlez 25-26)
While some romances tend strongly towards either the legalistic or the ecstatic modes many, perhaps most, romances are neither purely ecstatic nor wholly legalistic. A conversation between Pamela Morsi’s protagonists in Wild Oats (1993) summarises why this so, in a way which links the issue very explicitly to theological beliefs:
"[...] love is more important than the rules, isn't it, Cora?"
She was silent for a moment considering the words as if for the first time.
"Yes!" she said, then, "No!" She shook her head. "I don't know!"
[...] "You can't know. It was a trick question." [...]
There was no amusement in his eyes, only sincerity. "The rules can be more important than love," he said. "And love can be more important than the rules."
Pulling her against him once more, he tried to make her understand. "You are right about needing the rules," he said. "We need the Ten Commandments. We need the laws of the land. [...] And the customs of our society are all very important, too. [...] But sometimes, rules don't help to uplift us, they only restrain us."
"That doesn't mean we can ignore them," she said [...].
"No," he agreed. "We can't ignore them. There has to be a balance." (238)
Romance will, no doubt, continue to explore the “trick question,” or mystery, of how to contain and combine the intense emotional appeal of the ecstatic with the moral and intellectual counterweight of the legalistic mode. One clear area of agreement between them, however, is the shared conviction that love is both good and durable.