Laufey's “Bewitched” and the Sublime of Romantic Love

#sublime #CasparDavidFriedrich #romanticera #art #music #GeorgesBataille #aesthetic #theology #religiousexperience

Yesterday, I listened to Laufey’s brilliant new jazz album “Bewitched.” It simultaneously captures the power of Ella Fitzgerald’s love ballads, Nat “King” Cole’s heartfelt spirit, and the reflective sadness of Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours of Morning.” I was brought to tears. Laufey has managed to penetrate into the depths of human emotion, showcasing the sublime beauty and heartache of falling in love. The album is astonishingly passionate, and it refuses to compromise or tame itself, reaching into the extremes of sadness (”California and Me”) and love (”While You Were Sleeping”). Like a breath of clean air after years of a polluted environment, Laufey’s words, instrumentation, and vocal cadence are an unapologetic, full-throttle sincerity. Her music — simultaneously angelic and concrete—puts to shame the trollish and ironic dispositions of our current milieu, where authentic human emotions are obscured for non-committal niceties. In short, the album is a testimony to the depths of the human spirit for an age in which it feels like our souls have been ripped from our bodies. “Bewitched” is not merely a once-in-a-lifetime artistic achievement, it is a spiritual masterpiece.

To expand upon the spiritual reality Laufey was able to capture, I will turn to an explanation of the Romantic era, the sublime, and the link between romance and religious experience.

Romanticism and the Sublime

The Romantic era of art, which spanned from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, was a period characterized by a profound shift in artistic expression. It emerged as a reaction against the rationalism and restraint of the Enlightenment — instead embracing emotions, nature, and mystery. At the heart of this movement lay the concept of the sublime, a powerful and often overwhelming aesthetic experience that evoked both terror and awe. As I've said before, it's like looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon. The sight is overwhelmingly beautiful, but it is simultaneously terrifying because the canyon is so deep that one could fall to one's death if not careful.

Caspar David Friedrich, a prominent figure in Romantic art, expertly exemplifies this connection between the Romantic era and the sublime. Friedrich's works, such as “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” and “The Monk by the Sea,” are quintessential examples of the sublime in art. His landscapes are vast and majestic, depicting untamed nature in all its glory, but saturated with deeply spiritual themes and undertones. In these paintings, human figures are often minuscule compared to the grandeur of the natural world, emphasizing the finitude of humankind in the face of nature's (and, for Friedrich, God’s) sublime majesty.

The Romantic artists sought to capture the sublime not only in nature but also in the human spirit. Emotions, often intense and tumultuous, were celebrated in their works. Friedrich's use of symbolism, such as the solitary figure gazing into the abyss or standing on a precipice, conveyed the individual's quest for self-discovery and spiritual connection with the sublime. Furthermore, Friedrich's manipulation of light and shadow created an atmosphere of mystery and transcendence. This technique intensified the emotional impact of his paintings, inviting viewers to contemplate the vastness of the universe and their place within it.

The term “romance” in the Romantic era originally referred to medieval tales of chivalry and adventure, often involving heroic knights and heroic deeds. These stories were marked by a sense of wonder, idealism, and a focus on individual passions and quests. The Romantic era drew inspiration from this idea of individualism and the pursuit of intense, personal experiences, which is why it came to be associated with the term “romance.” However, I believe that this artistic movement also sheds light on the romance of falling in love, and the qualities of sublime love are captured quite powerfully in Laufey's album. During its prime, the Romantic era often linked sublime beauty with masculinity and grandeur. But in our contemporary age, Laufey brings a much-needed feminine perspective. And although the album has moments of grandeur in which the music builds and the symphony swells, her music is also able to capture the spiritual and sublime moments found in the calm and quiet. Laufey does this by focusing on falling in love.

The Spiritual Dynamics of Falling in Love

Falling in love is both the greatest catastrophe and purest ecstasy. Hence, someone overcome with romantic emotions is said to suffer from lovesickness. One wants to cry bitter tears when on the mountaintop of joy and sing joyous melodies when in the valley of sadness. A romance into which one fully surrenders oneself is vulnerable, raw, and terrifying — but it is the sacrifice necessary to most intimately glimpse the divine light in the Other. It is, in short, sublime.

Moreover, similar to the spiritual themes saturating Caspar Friedrich’s paintings, the feeling of falling in love is akin to a religious experience. It is rapturous and overtakes us without us necessarily preparing for it, such as looking over a mountainside and suddenly recognizing our own finitude and contemplating the Infinitude of the Divine. Or, in Laufey’s case, her album begins with a song (”Dreamer”) in which she promises to not open her heart again— “And no boy's gonna be so smart as to / Try and pierce my porcelain heart.” But the album ends with her experiencing a rapturous pull into the beauty of love once again:

I try to think straight but I'm falling so badly

I’m coming apart

You wrote me a note, cast a spell on my heart

And bewitched me

The rapturous power of falling in love is perhaps why many religious persons wish to shun the passion of romance, fearing that the ebb and flow of infatuation will replace God in one’s life. However, if we look to the artists of the romantic era and the philosophy of Georges Bataille, we can see why romance is religious without needing to bring charges of idolatry.

The romantic artists understood that instances of the sublime brought about a keen awareness of one’s own finitude. The overwhelming beauty cascading over oneself — as beautiful as it is terrifying — has a way of breaking one’s consciousness. However, this breaking is by no means traumatic. Instead, it is the necessary expansion of one’s awareness to perceive new depths of truth. A whole new reality is opened to oneself in such moments.

Georges Bataille recognized the link between beauty, terror, and the loss of self in his work “Erotism: Death and Sensuality.” Within this book, he develops a theory of limit experiences. To quote what I have written in my previous post, a limit experience can be created through an experience of the intense combination of the erotic (not necessarily just sexual) and that which is terrifying. This is because limit experiences entail a loss of self and a dissolution of individual boundaries. In these moments, individuals transcend their individuality and merge with a larger whole, experiencing a sense of continuity and connection with the universe. Bataille associated limit experiences with a kind of sacred or mystical state that disrupts the everyday order and opens up possibilities for profound transformation. He notes that both erotic encounters and moments of terror (especially witnessing death) bring about this loss of self into the broader world, like pouring water into the ocean. For Bataille, such limit experiences provide a means for understanding religious experiences as well — especially the mystical and rapturous experiences reported by many saints. Such moments are the loss of self into the divine.

Thus, we can see that true romance — the catastrophic joy of falling in love — bears structural resemblance to the sublime and to limit experiences, and hence, to religious experience. Romantic love involves the boundary-breaking, vulnerable expansion of self into the realm of the Other. And we find examples of this moving beyond oneself both in the love songs of the great poets and in the deepest ecstasy of the mystics, for even a casual reading of the mystics will thrust oneself into a romantic spirituality full of passion, rapture, and the sublime.

Of course, things depend to some extent on context and the individual, but I disagree with the de facto charge that one falls into a passionate romantic love merely because one is too immature to keep his or her emotions in check. The truncated immanence and secular materialism of our culture often discourage higher forms of spiritual rapture. But the vulnerable strength it takes to risk pain for the sake of love reveals something deeply true about reality that one cannot learn in the abstract. Falling in love might instead be a sign that one’s soul is alive. Moreover, from my own Christian perspective, enduring vulnerability and even pain for the sake of love is at the heart of Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection—which is the ultimate statement about the character of Being Itself (God).


Through her music, Laufey was able to allow us to experience a real human soul once again. “Bewitched” is powerful because it is so vulnerable. It is coherent because it is emotionally contradictory. Laufey has pulled back the curtain and shown us once again what it means to be a spiritually alive human— to fear, to hurt, and to love simultaneously beyond the boundaries of self.