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Love, Lovers, and Choices

"The Lovers" from The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith. Public Domain.

Joseph Campbell’s work is full of reflections on love. I like to think this is due to his successful marriage to his life partner, the dancer and modern dance choreographer Jean Eardman (1916–2020).

In a Q&A session during Joseph Campbell's Mythos series, The Ego and the Tao, the mythologist uses the Eastern notion of Tao, that circle with a sinuous line that divides it into equal parts, one white and luminous and the other black and dark, to speak of the wisdom of the body to produce the world. In this symbol, he highlights the interaction of the pairs of opposites, rotating his hands in a moving sphere to convey the idea that this interaction is not static, but happens in a continuous, circular way. Therefore, life must conform to this cycle. According to Campbell, it’s important to watch closely in order to take the right action at the right time.

This essential capacity for observation and discernment, which underlies the processes of choice, is clearly represented in tarot card six, the Lovers. Most people interpret it as the arrival of romantic love in life, which may be correct in some cases. But if you have a Raider-Waiter-Smith deck, hold card six in your hands. You will see a sun that opens wide onto an angel-like figure with its wings spread out over male and female figures. The woman is innocently standing in front of a tree with a snake wound around its trunk. The metaphor captures Eve, of course, on the verge of eating the forbidden fruit, a choice that will grant them wisdom but also represents the end of their paradise, or at least that particular experience of paradise. 

Well, Jungian psychology is solidly based upon the concept of the union of opposites. This is because the male and female figures are not only symbols of love and marriage, but also of our own dual nature. In this psychological approach, the integration of the conscious and the unconscious is the ultimate goal. The interesting thing is that in this choice the union of duality gives rise to a third condition, which is dialectical, called the transcendent function. Something new emerges that did not exist before.

In the mythic tarot deck this card is represented splendidly by a scene inspired by the judgment of Paris. As we know from the Greek myth, Paris is minding his own business tending cattle. He is the son of King Priam of Troy. And out of nowhere, Hermes chooses him to award the golden apple to whichever of the three goddesses before him he deems fairest: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. A tough choice, and he doesn’t want to do it, as he probably intuits the mess it will inevitably cause. The goddesses, as is their way, try to cast their spells upon him: Athena promises him power in war, Hera promises to make him king, and Aphrodite promises he will get the most beautiful woman in the world. The most beautiful woman in the world? Paris is a young man, and like most young men he has romantic love on his mind. He can plainly see that Aphrodite is offering him the most beautiful mortal woman in the world, Helen. And, as we know, this event precipitates the Trojan War, for the beautiful Helen is married to King Menelaus of Sparta.

There’s perhaps a side of us that wants to point the finger at Paris and say, “Hey, you didn’t choose wisely.” But let’s face it, the contest had been imposed on him (by a God, the metaphor for that divine part of the psyche that wants our personality to relate to the Self, the most integrated, whole version of ourselves). The contest takes him out of his bucolic comfort zone and throws him into something entirely new. After choosing love, his entire known world is radically transformed. What he will likely learn as the story unfolds is that every choice has its own particular consequences, and we are responsible for them. And yes, as the ancient Greeks might have said, skata happens, and eventually it will be all right.

And this brings us to one of Joseph Campbell’s favorite themes: the troubadours and the Arthurian legends. The troubadours used to associate love to spiritual life. Perhaps, in our troubled times more than ever, it is necessary to have a kind heart—that is, a heart capable of love—in order to face the interesting and challenging times of today. As Campbell says in Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, “the best we can do is ‘lean towards the light’ in an attempt to understand the other in a compassionate way. (197) Because the other mirrors a conflict that is within us, in our family, our community, our country, our culture, our world.

It was Campbell’s integrated perspective on body, love, and spirituality that captivated me when I first heard him talking about stories of love and marriage in the Power of Myth series with Bill Moyers. I never forgot the journalist’s frequent surprise when he asked Campbell a question. It was as if he were facing a wise old man like no other. I felt the same way. I imagine that, like many, I was hooked by the erudition and sympathy of the mythologist, who interpreted profound mysteries in a passionate and simple way. 

The series first aired on Brazilian public TV in 1991. I diligently recorded each episode on VHS tapes so I could review them whenever I wanted. Eventually the series could be purchased, and I acquired the box set to use in the mythical narrative structure classes I taught to students of journalism in those days.

For the past year, and two residences later, I’ve been organizing my house and moving things up to the attic. I confess that I couldn’t merely put these old tapes in a cardboard box and banish them to the solitude of the attic. For me, those tapes represent something that I consider to be among the best of my academic and human training. They reflect the heart of who I am. I have learned from Campbell that troubadours recognized love as the highest spiritual experience. And, for me, the individual experience in relation to another is still the toughest and the most sacred journey, one that smooths one’s edges day after day. Woe to Paris, woe to Tristan and Isolde, and woe to us lovers all!



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