Prince Charming and Cinderella were infatuated at first sight one enchanted evening, like the leading figures in the musical South Pacific, but the likelihood of such mismatched pairs living happily ever after is remote. In a play, Cinderella Married, R. L. Field examined married life in the castle and decided that the sophisticated Prince Charming, soon tiring of the simple house serf, would seek diversion in affairs with the ladies of his court and break Cinderella's heart.
Social psychologists recently have produced an abundance of unleavened research to demonstrate that the closer the match socially, physically and culturally, the more likely a couple is to stay together.
"The emotion of love, despite the romantics, is not self-sustaining," wrote the political columnist Walter Lippmann, who had opinions on everything. "It endures only when the lovers love things together, and not merely each other."
Infatuation pays no attention to wisdom, to which it is diametrically opposed. Infatuation arrives with a wallop that unseats rational thought. It is one of the most vivid emotional experiences of a lifetime, as memorable as panic or grief. Recollected from a safe distance, however, infatuation has a tender luminous quality that makes one wistful.
"Love at first sight," commented anthropologist Julian Huxley, "is a frequent occurrence, surprising as a fact for scientific consideration as well as to those who experience it."
People who are satisfied with the state of their lives are not overly vulnerable to infatuations, which is why the derangement of the senses is most prevalent among teen-agers and the middle-aged, both of whom are enduring the winds of existential dread and upheavals in their self- esteem. Those who are bored and discontented with their mates also are readily swept into obsessive passions, as illustrated by Romeo at the time he first spotted Juliet. Infatuation is a process of investing the loved person with perfection; loved persons, intoxicated by the challenge, find in themselves pieces of perfection that serve to keep the myth alive for both parties. The addiction to romantic love that fuels pop novels and the perfume industry stems in no small measure from the pleasure people derive from the discovery and cultivation of their submerged capacities to be charming and generous. Infatuation feeds a starving self.
Being mostly a product of imagination, infatuation always dies. The central characteristic of infatuation is instant, excited yearning, in which consummation is devoutly desired. The erotic element in infatuation fires its existence but also burns it out. Infatuation lasted longer in the age when sexual mores made copulation outside marriage impossible or, at best, fraught with the delicious and real danger of severe social penalties. In recent years, however, a good infatuation can have a life span of just two busy weeks.
In the eighteenth century, Valmont murmured to his mistress, "One tires of all, my sweet."
Young women with leftover attachments to their fathers or voids in their lives caused by inadequate fathers are susceptible to becoming infatuated with older men. The flattery of such dewy adoration is difficult for middle-aged men to resist. If the man at the same time is experiencing a waning of sexual interest in his mate, the ingredients for tumultuous delusion are present at hurricane velocity.
Referring to the men in such affairs, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote, "Such persons may be at times very potent, particularly if the circumstances of the act are such that their vanity is flattered, their feeling of omnipotence encouraged." It was Dr. Fromm's belief, however, that the potency wasn't genuine; his term for it was intravaginal masturbation.
Psychologists allow that four or five major infatuations, most of them concentrated in adolescence or the early twenties, are about the right number. People who have a few every year are shallow score keepers suffering from weak ego development. People who have never yielded to infatuation's call to arms need to have their pulses taken; they may be emotionally frigid, lacking sufficient confidence in themselves to trust anyone.
Infatuation is useful, even necessary, in adolescence. It draws the emerging adult into taut pairings that serve as practice for marriage. The distress of puppy love is a subject of hilarity only among parents with short memories. All infatuated people live on the rim of an abyss. Jealousy can make wild fools of them, as witness Othello, and rejection provokes thoughts of suicide. When infatuations go awry, even relatively stable adults suffer an agony that poisons their lives; an adolescent in whom self- worth is a timorous beastie will be devastated to the marrow.
Human existence would be infinitely smoother if infatuation were banished. Infatuation is a counterfeit. It's messy and reckless. It makes mischief, and much worse. But still, these last languid days of summer stir the senses . . . and the country is ripe with longing.