A Cornish legend popularized in various poems in the 12th century, Tristan (or Tristram) and Iseult (or Yseult, or Isolde) rivals the likes of Her and Eternal Sunshine in its modernity. Of course, no matter what iteration of Tristan and Iseult you’re talking about (and, as the many names indicate, there are many, each with varying outcomes), it’s unlikely you’ll see Tristan trying to figure out how to simulate sex with his iPhone — and perhaps for that reason, while other modern romances are timely without being timeless, Tristan and Iseult happens to be both. Unlike many great tragic romances, the forces working against Tristan and Iseult’s love aren’t strictly societal — they’re internal. Or, well… are they? That question is the crux of its genius. Yes, at the core of this great love story is the question of whether there’s actually a great love story at its core. For “love” is not here engendered through a transcendent, ineffable, insuppressible desire — it becomes that for the titular characters, but only after they’ve knowingly taken a love potion.
To summarize: after killing the Irish warrior Morholt on King Mark’s behalf, Tristan is sent by the King (something of a father figure to him) to bring Morholt’s sister, Iseult, back to be the king’s bride. She’s obviously not particularly happy to see Tristan, being that he’s her brother’s murderer. SO, in order to quell those feelings of disgust, the two somewhat inexplicably take the aforementioned love potion (in some versions, it’s accidental, in others it’s a conscious decision). The thing is, love potions make love happen. So Iseult still ends up marrying the King, and even loves the King for the comfort and stability he lends her, and Tristan still entirely reveres and even loves the King, but it just so happens that he and Iseult are having a long-term adulterous hookup on the side. In some versions, the love potion wears off, and they’re eventually liberated from their illicit desire. In others, it doesn’t.
When King Mark eventually learns of their indiscretions, he sentences them to death, but then reneges, instead banishing Tristan and requiring Iseult to come back to him. Interestingly, Tristan seeks a replacement — in exile in Brittany, he marries another woman named Iseult. Between the the love potion and the ambiguous replaceability of the Iseults (does Tristan merely have a “type,” and are all who fit that type equally able to claim his love?), this legend encircles the idea of a “love” with spears and challenges it to reveal, really, what the fuck it’s made of.
Last week, I went to see Kneehigh Theatre’s glorious production, directed and adapted by Emma Rice and spelled “Tristan and Yseult,” at St. Ann’s Warehouse (it runs through Dec. 16). Not only did it strike me as vital because it was an invigoratingly contemporized production — with live Cornish blues-folk music, a slew of contemporary expletives, and a chorus of “unloved” characters who sport everything from beercans to balloons as antennae — but it also happened to be an adaptation of what is, I’m realizing, one of the most upsettingly ambiguous “loves” ever written. Firstly, there seem to be so many contradictory versions that the legend has become ambiguous simply in its own frequent telling. But within all of the versions, there’s the distrust of love, the depiction of love as ingestible, that makes it seem markedly “now.” Of course, it’s a legend that was created “then,” so while the manipulability (and thus the implied inauthenticity) of love and just about every other emotion are now especially being called into question in our era of pioneering psychiatric medicine, notions challenging love’s inviolability, we see, have been around pretty much forever. Perhaps love was never sacred.
Tristan and Iseult doesn’t question the use of substances. Rather, like a biopic actor sporting a prosthetic nose to great accolades, the legend’s key substance’s applaudable imitation (or total embodiment) of something we wholeheartedly want to believe nonfictional, of something we want to experience with unequivocal authenticity, makes us question the actual superiority of “real” to the simulacrum. This has always been the problem with love: love has, whether we knew it or not, always had something of a chemical breakdown. Which means it always had the potential to be imitated, or inorganically induced. Now that psychiatric medication is a force underlying 1 in 5 Americans’ experiences of human interaction, and now that efforts are being made to innovate actual love-focused drugs (as opposed to drugs whose side effects may simply alter our feelings of desire and thereby, perhaps, love), these questions seem more prescient than ever.
To corroborate my feeling of the gripping importance and foresight of Tristan and Iseult, I looked to ethicist Brian D. Earp’s large body of work on the subject. In “The Medicalization of Love,” he speaks of how oxytocin could be used as a love-inducer: “synthetic oxytocin [known as the “love hormone,” it’s a key factor in the neuroanatomy of intimacy, and plays a large role in both orgasm and breastfeeding] can be administered as a simple nasal spray and seems to strengthen attachment-related representations as well as romantic bonding cues, while the modulation of other neurochemicals can interfere with relationship attachments, for example, by diminishing the sex drive.”
Indeed, with SSRIs (Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Lexapro) currently being the most commonly prescribed form of antidepressant/anti-anxiety medicine, a great deal of the population is already walking around with something of a love-inhibitor in their system. Firstly, the very idea of a medicine that quells anxiety — that makes the stakes of everything seem slightly less high — could be seen as a threat to love: love is derived, in part, from feelings of immediacy, of fragility, of, however goofily, wanting to hold onto another mortal because there’s only so much time. With danger and fragility seeming suddenly somehow surmountable, where does love stand? Further, on a less abstract level, the drugs increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates, and can stifle, sex drive and impulsivity. (When you’re drunk, bad decisions — and especially bad sexual decisions — are more likely to be made because alcohol decreases serotonin).
In another article, “Love and Other Drugs,” Earp discusses how medication could be used as a supplement to marriage counseling, to tighten the ever-loosening marital bond in a way that doesn’t make the spouses feel smothered — ultimately, is there a huge difference between swallowing someone’s expensive words and someone’s expensive pills, other than that the pills might actually alter you physiologically, as opposed to just suggestively? A part of me came out of Kneehigh’s Tristan and Yseult therefore wondering if other, less cynical (or perhaps just less realistic) stories’ myth of love as an uncontrollable force is not only entirely absurd, but also paralyzing. It’s one thing to give into a helpful fallacy, but it’s another to give into one that renders the believer utterly helpless.
Is it just me, or is there something almost nice about the idea of controlling one’s own lack of control? Of meeting someone, saying, “yeah, I could see this working,” then collaboratively deciding to take a pill, and having it work with exuberance? If so many drugs out there might, as a side effect, inhibit desire, why then is there not a drug whose main goal is to bring it back? Of course, then I remember exactly what pharmaceuticals are. That this form of love wouldn’t necessarily be ours to control, but a brand’s. That, taking it to its logical outcome, people without good health coverage would have a harder time accessing love than those with excellent prescription coverage; after all, this can already be said for happiness. Or “happiness.” Or, again, is there a difference?
More than any other love story, Tristan and Iseult seems to get closest to the truth. It’s the truth not of love’s falsehood, per se, but of its nature as something biologically alterable. It’s the truth of it not as a bodiless magical force, but as something that can come in the form of a drink, a signal in the brain, a pill, and by that logic, even a commodity. In the 12th century, this legend was already undermining the naturalness of the thing we’d like, as humans, to consider our most natural ability. But it clearly can, perhaps frighteningly, but maybe comfortingly, very much be controlled.