The Incurable Romantic and Other Tales of Madness and Desire – Frank Tallis

Our exaltation of love has weaponized it to make love a thrilling, sometimes desperate, shockingly dark thing that we both kill and die for. The fact that The Incurable Romantic portrays reals stories of real people who have, in essence, gone mad because of love/desire, is quite unnerving but also an authentic portrayal of the limits we as humans are willing to go to have our desires met. From classical times to the eighteenth century, love-sickness was treated as an illness and diagnosed in hospital just as you would diagnose lung cancer. Love-sickness in the Middle Ages was considered a legitimate diagnosis. Some early medical practitioners, due to the belief that such inflamed love was some kind of demonic possession, would drill holes into the skull to give the demons a way out. The lengths we go to understand love are universally mind-boggling. Unfortunately, unrequited love is a common cause of ‘madness’ and suicide, as portrayed in poetry, music, plays, films, and, quite unfortunately, in real life too.

The 11th-century physician and monk, Constantine the African, made clear the connection between an excess of black bile (associated with melancholic people who appeared to be more prone to love-sickness) in the body, and love-sickness:

The love that is also called ‘eros’ is a disease touching the brain … Sometimes the cause of this love is an intense natural need to expel a great excess of humours … this illness causes thoughts and worries as the afflicted person seeks to find and possess what they desire.

In The Incurable Romantic, expect sins of the flesh stories, haunted bedrooms, and everything that lies at the intersection of cerebral deformities and the cold hard reality of the human emotions. There is a story of a wealthy man who has slept with over 3,000 prostitutes (and that’s not the crazy part), and another of who quite literally falls in love with himself because of masturbating while looking in a mirror. In the book, Tallis attributes the study of love in all his eight years at school to only a one hour class.  Rather than criticize, his approach is to empathize with these people, 11 of whom have been his patients as a psychologist. He has taken a more inquisitive approach to the study of mental health and gone deeper than science into philosophical discussions of idealism, determinism, functionalism, and more. But, before we go any further, are you aware of the eight types of love?

  • Eros – erotic, sexual love.
  • Philia – emotionally deep, life-enriching friendship.
  • Pragma – practical, co-operative commitment, for mutual benefit.
  • Storge – affectional bonding of a familial, unconditional nature.
  • Agape – spiritual or altruistic love that transcends (e.g., love of God).
  • Ludus – playful, but casual love, without deep commitment.
  • Philaupia – self-love (in the self-esteem sense). 
  • Mania – obsessive love (imbalance between eros and ludus) hurls the person into a type of madness

For further study, read The flavours of love: A cross-cultural lexical analysis.

Photo by Jonah Pettrich on Unsplash

Related: How To Find A Meaning In Life: Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning Review

The author of twenty other books goes to say, “I have often found myself sitting in front of lovesick patients whose psychological pain and behavioral disturbances were equal in severity to any of the cardinal symptoms of a major psychiatric illness.” As love can bring about suicide, it can also bring about murder. Sexual jealousy accounts for at least ten percent of all homicides. 58 percent of all women killed in the world are killed by a boyfriend, husband, or relative. An average of 137 women across the globe are killed by a partner or family member every day, according to data released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). One-third of murdered women worldwide are done in by husbands or boyfriends, as Aaron Ben–Ze’ ev and Ruhama Goussinsky recount in their startling book, In the Name of Love.

“All right—I suppose I can be quite controlling, possessive—whatever. But so what? If you love someone, isn’t that just natural?”  one of his female patients said in a jealousy entangled mess. Overcoming jealousy in relationships Is a universal obstacle most people seem to get disheveled by. We tend to laugh at other people when they seem all puppied up in love, but the thing is, it only takes the right circumstance, combined with the correct biological process and corresponding predisposition to end up as a lovesick patient in a psychiatric ward.

A person is a person, and the little bit of reason that one may have comes barely or not at all into play when passion rages and the limits of mankind press on one.

The Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

In his books, those familiar oceanic feelings, light-stalking, and powerful affinities that transcend time and space are experienced more intensely by sufferers that, in one story, a dentist is forced to flee to a different continent to escape a woman who believes he is in love with her –too. (De Clerambault’s Syndrome)

Romantic love is a rather fluid social and cultural concept, and is widely under-defined, with most academics only able to agree that it is a human emotion. There is a blurry line between love and Limerence that jumps out of the pages of the book. Limerence is an altered mental state that we accredit to that first falling in love feeling. It’s a change in psychological “affect” caused by the neurochemical response to a hyper stimulus, i.e., the object of affection. That walking on air feeling, physical aching in the chest, and euphoric feeling of buoyancy regarding the limerent object are signs of Limerence.

I take the difference between love and Limerence to be an obsession for the later that leads to the unexpected, obsessive attachment towards one person. Attachment anxieties with symptomology relating to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, addiction, separation anxiety and depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, disassociated states, and maladaptive fantasy can be observed in people experiencing Limerence. In fact, there are dedicated websites devoted to the study of Limerence, some by clinical practitioners too, like Living With Limerence. You can read further on Limerence in the books by Psychoanalyst Ethel Person, Dreams of Love and Fateful Encounters and By Force of Fantasy.

Years of being so close to this type of madness have turned Frank into a fine writer, one whose descriptions of carnal, bestial like human desire will not only grip you, but also keep you unfailingly interested in every story. He’s excluded an excess of medical jargon that is so often found in books written by doctors. Dr.Kay Redfield is an example of an excellent writer and renowned mental health practitioner famed for her book An Unquiet Mind, which you can read about below.

Frank goes further and tells of episodes of his own life where, when living in a rural area, a messianic evangelist suffering from psychotic delusions was preparing a bloodbath as a direct ticket to heaven for him, his beloved and step-children. The murderous preacher sliced his arms open, and all the women had to look up to in terms of momentary guardianship was Frank.

He goes on to prove that biology does not trump psychology, but rather, these two work together to give a more informed perspective of situations one might call love sickness while another might call a delusional disorder. The author of the Max Liebermann mystery series points out the severe mental effects love gone wrong can have on an individual and how, in a sense, our upbringing and biological makeup can influence how, who and why we end up loving what we love.

He cements the principles of the context in the book about desire and madness using Sigmund Freud’s famous case history of Anna O to the background of demonic possession to various DSIM diagnoses and how they came to be. There was a dash of flowery language that did more to intrigue me but, according to most others, annoyed them instead. I found his professional responses questionably redundant/short and a bit odd in some instances. Once in a while, I zoned out over the verbose text of appearances and surroundings. I did enjoy the lengthy discussion of the history of various theories and philosophical ideas but people who are not necessarily into history might find these parts banal. I think such parts of the book are an integral inclusion that paints more clearly a picture before us, connects the dots, and enhances our perception of the stories.  

He calls to attention how false inferences often lead to erroneous conclusions by giving an example of a man who believes he is possessed by a demon named azgoroth. This man has been flagged as a risk to HIV contamination by health officials because apparently, azgoroth makes him sleep with prostitutes. However, the very real symptoms of this demoniac were, in fact, symptoms of anxiety, exhaustion and mental break-down. Under the influence of religious upbringing, the man interpreted the symptoms like migraines to be the devil stabbing me in the back of my head.

Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

The Incurable Romantic can be viewed as a good-humored narrative fictional book that uncovers the impact of love in the human experience. This is Frank’s second book on the topic, too; the first being Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness. After reading the book, some might argue that it is more about mental illness than it is about love. Fair as that assumption may be, the stories have an origin where love and/or desire/lack thereof, was the trigger and hence, is still very much about love as it is about obsessions, addictions, delusions, narcissism etc.  I found some scenes overdramatized, and It got me to question the credibility of some detailed happenings or simply assume the language was altered for fictional pomp.

Related: 10 Most Recommended Autobiographies of All Time

There is a continuous suggestion that anyone can fall off the rails in the snap of a finger, and though falling into mental illness can go deeper than that, I am inclined to believe that the right –or rather wrong- circumstance can break a man’s will such that his life remains altered indefinitely. “What next?” you will find yourself asking as you read through each unnerving story. Unfortunately, even the story-teller does not always get his answers. Sometimes patients cancel their appointments and stop going for sessions altogether, leaving both writer and reader drifting in a realm of wonder going, “I wonder what happened to that guy.” As Tallis says, psychoanalysis and therapy often fail when it comes to resolving certain problems but what they do is offer new insight into the problems they try to cure.

“If as a society we agree that love is the most important thing in life,” he asks, “shouldn’t we prepare young people for love and help them make the most of it?” He urges people to consider more seriously the negative side-effects of love (especially unrequited) and find a way to enlighten the young and often confused yet groin enflamed, emotional teens. High schools provide sex education, so why not love education or relationship education?

By looking at the philosopher Lucretius’s definitions of the terms love and lovesickness, the conclusion is that, for nearly two-thousand years, those definitions have not changed. Love makes people go mad is as common a saying now as it was in archaic times. Every lover of psychology and curious wandered of the human nature should find The Incurable Romantic a worth read.

A quote worth taking away:

Ultimately, the selflessness of ordinary mothers makes the whole of civilization possible.

Conclusion: The parts, in this case, are more intriguing than the whole.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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