Francesca and Paolo: Special Love and the Narcissism of Small Differences

In Dante Alighieri’s epic 13th-century poem The Divine Comedy, he meets entwined lovers Francesca and Paolo in the second layer of hell. Here we find people condemned for ‘carnal sin’, those who ‘made reason bow to their instinctual bent’.

Francesca and Paolo (along with other characters Dante encounters on his journey through the hell realms) are based on well-known figures in 13th-century Italy. Francesca da Rimini was a noblewoman of the time, married to Giovanni Malatesta. She fell in love with Giovanni’s younger brother, Paolo, and the two lovers were killed by a raging Giovanni upon finding out about the affair. 

What strikes the reader in Dante’s poem, are Francesca and Paolo’s intense feelings for each other. It strikes Dante as well, who can’t help but empathise with the lovers’ predicament: They are in hell because they refused to release themselves from each other and from the tormented anguish of their forbidden love. Dante, who at one stage enjoyed a career composing lyrical love poetry in homage to such passionate romantic entanglements, knows intimately of the bitter-sweet pull that makes all other considerations fade into insignificance.  

The Divine Comedy is an allegory for a psychological and spiritual process Dante experienced after being exiled from Florence for his political beliefs, much as Saint John of the Cross’s poem The Dark Night of the Soul depicts his process towards mystical union with the Beloved. At the hell-level of carnal sin, Dante is confronting his own need to let go of romantic ideals in which ‘two become one’, in acknowledgement that they are blinding, even spell-binding. When he asks Francesca how she and Paolo came to be so attached, she recalls how one day whilst reading a book of Arthurian legends together, they were entranced by the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. As they read how Lancelot ‘was taken in Love’s palm’ at the sight of Guinevere, and how Guinevere’s ‘longed-for smile’ elicited Lancelot’s kiss, a spell was cast, their own eyes met and they kissed. After recounting the episode to Dante, Francesca curses the author of the book for seducing them into a love impenetrable to reason.

Islands in the Stream

In terms of A Course in Miracles, we can view the nature of Francesca and Paolo’s relationship as one of ‘special love’, a Course term for relationships based on the fulfillment of emotional needs, the intensity of which stem from ego identification. These needs relate to approval, affection, power, feeling complete and secure, and as long as they are met, the relationship maintains its special love status. However, a perpetual honeymoon period is a double-edged sword. Special love contains significant dependency on something outside ourselves to fulfill needs that can never satisfactorily be met this way. Who and what can make up for our sense of vulnerability and incompleteness based on a belief in separation from God? By seeking outside ourselves for idols of special love to feel complete and secure, we inadvertently reinforce our sense of weakness:

‘Seek not outside yourself. The search implies you are not whole within and fear to look upon your devastation, but prefer to seek outside yourself for what you are’ (T-29.VII.4: 5-6).

Underlying special love, is hate for our dependency. We hate the object of special love because they remind us of our dependency, and therefore of our identification with littleness. Added to this aspect of shame, is the guilt associated with choosing not to identify with the wholeness of our spiritual Self. Yet, to the outside observer, there’s ‘a lot of love in the room’ when in the presence of these relationships. A lot of doting consideration and co-championing. So, where does all the hate go if each partner is wedded to fulfilling the special love needs of the other?

Quite simply, the hate is projected onto people outside of the relationship — they become the reservoir for the hate underlying special love. You could say that the scales of special love and hate need to balance. A similar line of thought is found in the following extract from Sigmund Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents:

‘One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders. It is always possible to bind quite large numbers of people together in love, provided that others are left out as targets for aggression.’

Freud’s ‘love’ is special love (to Freud there is no other kind). And the advantage, says Freud, of a ‘small cultural circle’, or a special love relationship, is that aggression can be directed outside of the circle, and as we communally attack someone or something out there, we feel a strengthening of our special love. That’s because our communal thoughts, goals, and responses make us feel right, supported, and superior, thereby masking our shame and guilt.

I heard a comedian say the secret to a good relationship is hating the same people. ‘If you think I’m wrong’, he said, ‘try sitting next to your partner while they complain about someone they really hate, and see what happens if you say, ‘I think they’re nice. I like them.’ We all know where that would lead.

And we don’t have to find people vastly different to ourselves to attack as ‘other’. As Freud noted, even small differences can serve as a target for communal hate, thereby strengthening special love, or what he referred to as ‘narcissism’:

‘I once discussed this phenomenon, the fact that it is precisely those communities that occupy contiguous territories and are otherwise closely related to each other — like the Spaniards and the Portuguese, the North Germans and the South Germans, the English and the Scots, etc. — that indulge in feuding and mutual mockery. I called this phenomenon ‘the narcissism of small differences’ — not that the name does much to explain it. It can be seen as a convenient and relatively innocuous way of satisfying the tendency to aggression and facilitating solidarity within the community.’

To Freud, special love and aggression were inevitable aspects of being human. To the Course, they are inevitable experiences if we identify with the ego. But Freud’s thoughts are interesting because they show how emphasising differences maintain special love. And there’s no better way to try and establish someone as absolutely distinct from ourselves than to say they are ‘dead to us’, cutting them off from our lives and thoughts completely. However, the relationship remains very much alive within our psyche, perhaps all the more so for the effort to keep it at bay, or ‘dead’.

The Turning Point

Francesca and Paolo were in hell because they didn’t repent. In Dante’s poem, souls that had repented made their way to heaven via Purgatory Mountain, a place where their sins were purged in a cleansing process. Pain is often the impetus for change. In the words of the Course, saying ‘there must be a better way’ motivates us to repent or otherwise open our mind to reason, and this turning point is usually arrived at through pain:

‘Tolerance for pain may be high, but it is not without limit. Eventually everyone begins to recognise, however dimly, that there must be a better way. As this recognition becomes more firmly established, it becomes a turning point’ (T-2.III.3: 5-7).

Even the most dedicated of special love relationships will fail to provide what we yearn for. Yet, if that isn’t enough to get us to the point of asking for a better way, then the shift can be forced upon us through a change in circumstance. This is the meaning behind the following from Carl Jung’s Aion:

‘The psychological rule says that when an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside as fate. That is to say, when the individual… does not become conscious of his inner opposite, the world must perforce act out the conflict.’

In many special love relationships, partners compensate for what the other finds anxiety producing in themselves. A shy person might find someone’s confidence appealing, spell-binding; an impulsive go-getter might seek for someone steady and caring with whom they’ll have a secure base. When things fall through for one reason or another, resentment and hate creeps in as we’re forced to give voice to our repressed opposite — the partner within. The following lines from the character of Jacqueline Kennedy in the television drama The Crown (Series Two, Episode Three), though fictional, provide an eloquent account of how the compensatory ‘match made in heaven’ often goes wrong:

‘I’ve often wondered how someone who hates attention as much as I do, ended up in a goldfish bowl like the White House. But I realise there is actually a perverse logic to a cripplingly shy person ending up in this position… a shy person will seek out someone strong to protect them. And a strong character’s often one who enjoys public life; thrives on it. And then, before you know it, the very person you’ve turned to in order to protect you is the very reason you are exposed.’

Special love turns to hate when the very person we turned to for protection from our anxieties becomes the one who elicits them.

When someone isn’t able to fulfill our special needs anymore, we can feel abandoned and let down, as if there’s been some dereliction of duty. The silver lining is that when the outside doesn’t give us what we want, we are called to turn inward, and that’s where the treasure lies.

In terms of A Course in Miracles, the turning point is one in which we de-invest from what bodies can give us, and reinvest in our spiritual Self. In terms of our personality, this will involve giving voice to aspects of our character that have been hung out to dry because expressing them makes us anxious. The painfully shy person might need to step out a little, discovering their strength; the impulsive go-getter called to take on a more nurturing role. Whatever our challenge is, forgiveness will play a major part in helping us let go of experiences from the past that have made these things anxiety-producing.

Cast No One Out

Returning to the balancing-scales idea of special love and hate, the broader ramifications of seeing the hate underlying special love, is that we no longer find someone who stood outside the relationship as ‘Other’ so intolerable. If the special love aspect of one relationship diminishes, then the hate aspect of another becomes less intense because it no longer serves a compensatory or protective function.

This means that someone who was once ‘dead to us’ or otherwise a special object of hate can seem more approachable in terms of forgiveness — not that we literally feel like approaching them, but are willing to approach our thoughts about them, opening them up to correction via the Holy Spirit’s perspective that sees the call for help behind someone’s attack, the shared need in our diversity. This is how all relationships and encounters become holy instead of special: we use them for the same purpose of forgiveness, remembering that true security lies within, and together:

‘Holiness must be shared, for therein lies everything that makes it holy. Come gladly to the holy circle, and look out in peace on all who think they are outside. Cast no one out, for here is what he seeks along with you’ (T-14.V.11: 6-8).

Image: The Kiss, by Rodin, via Wikimedia Commons.

Books by Stephanie Panayi

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

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