Love, sings Carmen in Bizet's opera, is a gypsy child who has never recognized any law. Take guard against him, though it will do no good. Any of us may become his helpless, fated victim, and the old cards of the fortune-teller will alone declare our destinies. Passion leads nearly always to suffering, madness and death. Even the most respectable may grow ardent and reckless, paying no heed to consequences. Who cares about anything else when the sex is hot and sweaty and feverishly intense? There is a cost, though. When jealousy suddenly pierces us like a knife, every affair risks ending up a blood wedding.
Needless to say, Carmen isn't French.
Prosper Merimée, who wrote the short novel upon which the opera is based, set his tale of passion in Spain, not France. Everyone knew then, as now, that sun-baked Mediterranean countries were the places for erotic fatality. Little wonder that Thomas Mann's character Gustav von Aschenbach succumbed to the charms of Tadzio in Venice, not Berlin, or that E.M. Forster's Anglo-Saxon heroines would travel to Italy for a room with a view, and a lover to go with it. But wait: Aren't the French supposed to be the world's most romantic people, just as Paris is almost certainly the world's most romantic city? What of l'amour? What of all those umbrellas of Cherbourg and Chanel No. 5 and Edith Piaf singing "Non, je ne regrette rien"?
In fact, the French tend to be leery of mad passion; they are, after all, a practical, civilized people, brought up on Cartesian philosophy and classical alexandrines. Oh, occasionally when young one might fall into a folie à deux or a ménage à trois, but in general love isn't a matter of flouting the norms of society and flinging oneself with thoughtless abandon into the arms of some deeply inappropriate, albeit good-looking, Latin stranger. No, indeed. Love is one of the cultivated pleasures of life, like good food and wine. It gives zest to the quotidian routine, adds a healthy glow to the skin, encourages one to dress well, stay in shape and keep intellectually engaged.
Obviously, such thoughtful romance is largely impossible for the young. The typical adolescent infatuation may lead to marriage and a family, but intimacy of any sophistication is a matter between mature adults, settled men and women who realize that a well conducted liaison can enrich and refine the spirit like a work of art. At the very least, wit, attentiveness and delicate flattery -- all the social graces -- enhance every encounter, whether over dinner or in bed. Yet though the pleasures of illicit dalliance may be intense, even furtiveness may be sensibly regularized: For many years Parisian lovers traditionally met between 5 and 7, the so-called "cinq à sept." And then went home to their spouses and children. At its best (or its most cynical), the relationship could be less a betrayal of marriage than its safeguard.
Clearly, I exaggerate and over-generalize the polished character of Gallic amour. Ardent Madame Bovary doesn't fit this pattern, nor does Charles Swann when insanely obsessed with Odette de Crecy. Phèdre says love rips her apart, and Racine sums up her agony in the famous phrase: "Venus toute entière à sa proie attachée" -- the image depicting Venus, like a bird of prey, tearing into her victim with claws that will never let go. Nothing civilized there.
And yet if one reads French literature, love is constantly being codified, sublimated into a social grace or party game. Andreas Capellanus, back in the 12th century, laid out the rules in a treatise usually translated as The Art of Courtly Love. In the world of the feudal war-band, the proper lover must suddenly behave not like a Visigoth but like a solicitous Victorian gentleman. He should, naturally, grow pale when in the presence of his lady, and his only aim should be to please her. From the beginning such attachments were of necessity adulterous. After all, marriage, being essentially a political and business arrangement, could hardly allow feelings to interfere with the carefully planned alliances of families or nations. To earn his mistress's favor, then, the aspirant would consequently need to prove his worthiness through rapt obedience and perfect courtesy. The lady would expect her lover to be, as was Lancelot, the very flower of chivalry.
In The Knight of the Cart, Chrétien de Troyes relates how Guinevere was once spirited away to the mysterious land of Gorre, and Lancelot naturally gallops off to rescue her. Early on he loses his horse, but happens upon a dwarf with a cart, really a tumbril, intended to convey criminals to the gallows. The dwarf tells the knight that if he wants to see Guinevere he should climb onto the cart. Lancelot hesitates for a moment, then does so, even though he feels deeply ashamed to be viewed by the mocking populace in such a disgraceful vehicle.
Eventually, after crossing a sword bridge and enduring much suffering, Lancelot reaches Guinevere, who treats him with cold disdain. The poor fellow is mystified. By this point, he's undergone ordeal after ordeal for this woman. Could any lover have shown himself more faithful? Finally, Guinevere explains. She had been locked in a high tower and could observe Lancelot when he encountered the dwarf. So? Didn't he get into the cart of shame? Yes, Guinevere tells him, but no one who claimed to love her would have hesitated for even a moment. It is a long time before Lancelot is restored to the Queen's good graces.
Courtly love, or l'amour courtois, softened the male character, and could only flourish in an urban or courtly society. When Tristan and Isolde finally escape from King Mark's castle, they spend three years living in a cave and soon grow bored with each other. Why, it's practically like being married! Passion requires obstacles, separation and absence to keep up the intensity. As the pitiless 17th-century aphorist La Rochefoucauld observed, "There are good marriages but no delicious ones."
By La Rochefoucauld's time, the aristocratic and well-to-do French were busy charting all the nuances of amorous give and take. The prolific novelist Madeleine de Scudery promulgated what she called "la carte de tendre," the "map of tenderness" that outlined the way to a woman's heart. In The Princess of Clèves, Marie Madeleine de Lafayette examined with microscopic intensity the psychological intricacies of passion -- and the reasoning behind renunciation. The salons of the précieuses established formulae for flirtation, stressing elegant banter and mannered suavity as the preferred forms of foreplay. A bit later, Pierre Marivaux was producing comedies with titles like "The Game of Love and Chance." Pierre Choderlos Lacllos's scandalous Liaisons dangereuses then demonstrated, step by coolly calculated step, just how the predatory might gradually corrupt even the most religious and innocent. Shortly thereafter, the Marquis de Sade turned sex itself into a combinatorial exercise, working out the calculus of every possible kink and coupling among, say, a half dozen or so executants.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the magnificent Stendhal turned his genius to dissecting the emotion that had played so much havoc with his own life. In De l'amour (On Love), the novelist eccentrically tabulates the psychological impulses behind every aspect of eros (not excluding unexpected "failure" or impotence). The most celebrated chapters analyze what happens when we fall in love. A bare branch, Stendhal tells us, may be left in the depths of a salt mine, and after a few months it will be covered with "shimmering, glittering diamonds, so that the original bough is no longer recognizable." A similar "crystallization," he says, forms around an adored mistress, to whom our minds attribute every beauty and perfection. Mathilde may appear quite ordinary to the world's eyes, but to the man in her thrall even her little tics and crotchets are suddenly bathed in a celestial light.
Stendhal's near contemporary, the Swiss political theorist Benjamin Constant, also contributed a bitterly honest analysis of love, albeit focusing on how it dies. In his novel Adolphe, the beautiful Ellenore abandons her children for an ardent young lover. She adores him, lavishes every attention on him -- and slowly Adolphe starts to grow bored. Eventually he wishes to break with this now tedious woman, but can't quite manage to do so. Conveniently, she dies. At first the young man feels liberated, but then gradually falls into despondency as he realizes that he had grown used to his old mistress and that life is utterly empty and meaningless without her.
Much of 19th-century French literature may be regarded as a warning against the consequences of sexual zealotry. Whereas the 18th-century represented love as an elegant fête galante occasionally touched by a worldly melancholy, Flaubert and Baudelaire anatomized the excesses of romanticism. Frederic Moreau, in L'Education sentimentale, finds that the memory of his unconsummated desire for Madame Arnoux poisons his life. Baudelaire compares the lover inclining over his beloved to a corpse embracing his tomb. The naturalist Emile Zola undercuts every form of physical love, from the Edenically innocent sexuality of the amnesiac Father Mouret to the expensive and récherché delights of the courtesan Nana. Early in the 20th century, Proust further reveals that love is nothing but jealousy and possessiveness under another name. Swann in love is just miserable. He was far happier as a mere coureur de femmes, a sophisticated skirt-chaser.
But in the 20th century a more easygoing attitude toward eros re-emerges. In Les nourritures terrestres (Fruits of the Earth) André Gide chants a prose dithyramb to a free and openly pagan sensibility. (Much later Camus will take up this message in his sensuous essays about summer in North Africa.) Above all, the earthy Colette makes love's varieties and mysteries her perennial theme. Throughout her work, whether in Gigi or Chéri, in Julie de Carneilhan or The Pure and the Impure, she recognizes that to ask too much of love is to destroy it. One must be reasonable, and know when to stop, when to let go. Sex itself is a pleasure, but like all appetites needs to be sensibly indulged and cautiously respected.
Readers of Diane Johnson's "French" novels -- e.g. Le Divorce or L'Affaire -- know that Gallic nonchalance may nonetheless embrace true caring. It's all a matter of balance, a willingness to choose moderation over madness, to savor and appreciate the occasional rather than feel oppressed or sated by the obligatory. Such measured delicacy is probably not for Americans, burdened with a Puritan past and an imperialist character that insists on all or nothing at all.
On Valentine's Day tomorrow we will exchange cards and flowers or chocolates, and treat love as a pink little Cupid. But we should be careful: Gods are not mocked. Better perhaps to keep one's distance from mighty Eros, as the French so often and so wisely do, than to see one's heart served up on a salver.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His weekly online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.