The romance delusion

Many have thrown off the God delusion, but another has us in a firmer embrace
October 12, 2016
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At my own first wedding—as at the first weddings of so many others—the principal Bible reading was from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. You know the one, all about faith, hope and love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Actually, the version read out at our own rather traditional service was from the King James translation, which renders the original as “charity” rather than “love”—a semantic shift of some significance, because what we contemporarily understand as the love between committed sexual partners is quite different to any form of beneficence. When the priest intones—“So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”—we tend not to think of selfless acts of giving. Instead, looking to the couple standing hand-in-hand before the altar, we meditate on the comparative ephemerality of the phenomenon we call romantic love—ephemeral, even by the increasingly short standards of duration of most marriages. We wonder: Will theirs last? Do they love each other enough? Will the memory of that love (if not the love itself) sustain them when things get rough?

A Church of England marriage is an odd thing—true, the modern service has jettisoned the stern injunctions that prefaced my own first (and lamentably brief) union. No longer are the congregation told marriage was ordained firstly for “procreation,” and secondly as “a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ’s body.” Instead, we have a touchy-feely, tambourine-tapping, guitar-strumming substitute: “The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.” A charmingly naive estimation, I’d say, of the ability of us contemporary, spoilt, sexually sophisticated instant-gratifiers to stay the mortal, marital course.

Underlying this shift from a view of marriage as a de jure bromide, to one which joyfully acknowledges human concupiscence are all sorts of factors, not least the changing status of women in our society. However, I’d suggest that still more significant has been the changing perception of romantic love. It’s perhaps a little too trite to suggest that as we’ve lost our religious impulse, our urge for transcendence (and by extension personal immortality) increasingly takes the form of romantic longing, but the parallels between the two states of feeling are legion.

To assert that romantic love has a history at all may seem absurd to many. After all, whatever else we can say about our strange and delusory existence one thing seems certain: human nature. If, by this we mean qualities hard-wired into us, it has no history, given our gross anatomy has remained unchanged for pushing a quarter of a million years. But our perception of that nature constantly, quicksilverly shifts. To say that romantic love is an invention of the medieval era—a culturally-productive mode of human-being carried, castle-to-castle, by the touchy-feely lute-strummers of that time—would seem to deny any of the finer feelings to the myriad who came before. Did Cleopatra not love Antony, and Eve, Adam? We feel it in our marrow, this wild and improbable love we have, on occasion, for one another. And part of that feeling is the overpowering sense that such romantic yearnings are fundamentally constitutive of who we are, and who we’ve always been.

Which brings us, logically enough, to everyman’s psychosis. Freud’s bleak view of romantic love is that it is a delusionary state, perpetrated on us poor phenotypes by geno-typically insensitive and inexorable evolutionary processes. In this he was only following Schopenhauer, who, with his bracing cynicism sees the prettiest and most alluring of women as, furnished with the “weapons and implements necessary for the protection of her existence, and for just the length of time they will be of service to her… Just as the female ant after coition loses her wings, which then become superfluous, nay, dangerous for breeding purposes, so for the most part does a woman lose her beauty after giving birth to one or two children; and probably for the same reasons.”

Any number of sociobiological accounts, from the eugenicists of the late 19th and early 20th century, to the evolutionary psychologists of our own era, will display this elasticised reductionism: snapping the animal facts of sexuality back in our faces, no matter how carefully we try to ease off our beloved’s underwear. But really, socio-biologists are in accord with that traditional, King James’s version of the Anglican wedding service, which also shouts down our billing and cooing with its stern insistence on “procreation” and “continence.” Indeed, a lot of the problems we have with our collective love life derive from our unwillingness to accept our own embodiment. The gossamer robes with which we clothe our love, and the airiness of the sentiments with which we propel it, suggest the dangerously superfluous wings not of ants, but angels.

But Manichean as the Christian analysis of romance may be, dividing us all into fornicating apes and procreating demigods, it at least provides a viable metric by which to regulate our lives. Too much fornication? Better get continent—a few trips to church will probably help keep you in check—unless, that is, you find the idea of Mary’s swollen belly and ghostly donor-insemination arousing. Too much continence? Better get procreating for a few years until natural increase puts paid to her allure…

That sounds pretty bleak, but switching to the perspective of the atheistic Freud hardly lightens the mood. The idea seems to be that romantic love is a kind of fetishisation—dripping our polymorphously perverse drives safely into the parsimonious marital loving cup. Fair enough. But while other neuroses can at least, in theory, be dissolved simply by hauling them to the surface of consciousness, it’s not at all clear that a deep acceptance of our animality will really help us to be more humane. Arguably, the greatest victims of the 1960s sexual revolution were vulnerable young women, forced to be promiscuous in the name of equality, just as patriarchy had sequestrated them in support of its opposite. Freud was particularly taken by the way dogs sniffed each other’s genitals and anuses; if I read him rightly, he proposes in Civilisation and its Discontents that every instance of so-called human progress, from bipedalism to the Brooklyn Bridge, is the result of our overwhelming urge to cease with this awful sniffing.

I don’t know about you, but after a number of years on this broad, green, ceaselessly generative planet, I’ve begun to have difficulty suspending disbelief in sex, let alone romance. Put that in there? Let her do that to this? Make such a noise? I don’t think so… it all seems preposterous, not in the least bit natural.

I’m not saying I’ve developed repression to the proportions of Ruskin, who was so appalled on his wedding night by his young bride’s pubic hair that he recoiled back into lifelong celibacy. But the contemporary fashion for baldness in the youthful female pubis should give us all cause for deep thought. In biology the retention of childlike features into adulthood is seen as potentially adaptive: instead of being hard-wired, individuals have the capacity to learn. What, however, does the wilful and mass retention of pubic hairlessness into adulthood suggest, if not that young women are teaching each other that men, in essence, are all paedophiles?

Maybe that’s right, because when you stop to think about it the entire panoply of behaviours we consider as romantic, from sending little billets-doux, to developing a shared vocabulary of pet names, are equally infantile. What’s romance, then, but a kind of childish make-believe?

I’ve been romantically in love six times in my life, three times with women, twice with a man, and once with a dog. I’ll return to the instructive canine affair, but first, let us try and analyse this “being-in-love” thing a little more intensively. The Ancient Greeks made a distinction between the erotic and the pacific forms of love, between eros and agape. Agape, while referring in the first instance to all affection, also came to mean a sort of unconditional and universal love, and in this respect it sounds pretty close to the charitable form of love praised by St Paul. Neither agape nor eros exactly corresponds to our ideas of either selfless Christian devotion, or madly self-seeking passion. But what I’d suggest is that any kind of clear distinction between agape and eros becomes quite impossible in a human emotional world characterised by multiple shorter-term relationships, whether consecutive or concurrent. Whether, that is, in our modern, dry-as-Tinder world, the Grindr of ubiquitous congress carries an ever-present danger of a friction-induced conflagration. Both eros and agape could go up in smoke.

Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde is often cited as the pinnacle of Romanticism. The star-crossed, and effectively adulterous lovers take their own lives rather than face separation by the bounds of conventional morality. It’s a familiar enough trope. Familiar, then as now, from a thousand different forms of representation—folk songs and ballads and poems, seamlessly merging with pop hits and television dramas. For Tristan and Isolde, their extinction is a matter of little import. In the realm of the night—and death—they’re fated to be together for all eternity, so why not realise and transcend that eternity in a consummation that’s at once their dissolution? The inexorable logic of full-blown romantic love demands nothing else. For just as your life will have been a tragic waste—emotionally, spiritually, physically—if you, and the one-among-the-eight-billion you are fated to be with do not coincide, so it can be accorded the greatest success if you can be assured of their undying love, even if it takes a suicide pact to secure that.

Preposterous, no? It is ridiculous that anyone in this day and age, with its copious amounts of relationship advice, and its rational, cost-beneficial conception of human interactions, should maintain such a destructive and self-sabotaging view of the meaning of life. Can that really be all there is to it? Can it truly be the case that anyone—let alone everyone—was put on earth with the sole objective of finding another, particular individual, ordained obscurely for them, and thereafter, in some equally obscure fashion, merging with them to form a sort of trans-temporal gloop of feeling?

If only this were all there were to modern romance—if only it were still just this Wagnerian self-abnegation shtick, so easy to see through for people raised to understand themselves as the masters of their own fate, then I suspect we’d have been able to shrug off its delusions by now. But romance, like all the best ideologies, has adapted. Romance has globalised. Romance has received its own equivalent of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

The militant wing of the romance party commit what are known as, and half-excused as, crimes passionnel. We would never condemn two lovers whose togetherness was fated, so we find it hard to censure them when they attack anything—from marital bonds to their own pesky and kingly spouses—that jams the clockwork of kismet. The harshness with which we judge those who err in most fiduciary matters is never, and I mean never, extended to adulterers: judge not, lest ye be judged! And the odds are—given the astonishing improbability of anyone ever truly winning the romance lottery—that those in a position to judge will be feeling pretty lovelorn themselves. Still plaintively waiting for their own amorous conflagration, even while they nonetheless enthusiastically fornicate.

So, romance warps our moral judgements in this way: ever requiring us to make and mend the monogamous fences, sectioning off new fields within which new family-crops can be raised. Demography and technology go hand-in-pipette here. With people living longer and longer, while conception can be assisted later and later, we have the difficult task of convincing ourselves that this late-blooming romance really is the one, when more than likely we’ve told ourselves this several, perhaps many, times before. There is no lover but you, and a thousand plays and films and books prophesy your coming.

If romantic love was passionately unprincipled in the past, nowadays it has to be in conformity with human rights legislation. That’s right: you should treat this witch, or warlock, who’s ensorcelled you, with the same slightly aseptic respect with which you treat your colleagues. Wildly passionate and improbable affairs must Kitemarked, so conforming to best practice. It’s often noted that in the age where serial monogamy exists alongside the nuclear family, too much pressure is placed on our partners—we want them to be both continent and abandoned, a good friend and a demon lover. Actually, the situation is far worse even than that. We demand of our intimate relationships that they be both grand enough for eternity and sufficiently paltry to sustain the quotidian. We want our lovers to die with us as we mutually gain the very peak of sexual ecstasy—yet then arise and make us a soft-boiled egg with toasted soldiers.

It’s a recipe for failure, and that’s what I feel: a failure. As I said above, I’ve been in love with three women in my life, two men and a dog. I’ll say nothing of the human relationships—decency demands nothing less. But my dog days were instructive. Obviously the relationship wasn’t physically consummated —except with cuddles—although we slept in the same bed. No, it seems to me it’s precisely because, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, that if a dog-lover could speak, we wouldn’t understand its endearments, that we can remain so perfectly in love with them, and they with us. The species-barrier is all we can erect in lieu of the convent walls that kept Abelard and Héloïse apart. Indeed, I can’t see how anyone facing contemporary terms of endearment doesn’t feel as if they’ve failed. We fail in making our choice, which, given our belief that partner-choice is sidereally pre-ordained is really no choice at all. And we fail repeatedly in the very act of loving itself, which requires us to simultaneously be selfless and egoistic to the point of self-annihilation.
"I've been romantically in love six times in my life— with three women, two men and a dog"
Romantic love has always been the sort of hit-man of monogamy: once the contract on you has been fulfilled, you cannot stray—the chubby demigod with the bow has put an arrow in your heart. After that a ring on your finger seems a mere formality: what’s “till death us do part” compared to eternity? The problem, however, is that the new technologies, and the social media that they support lead us, using a golden thread of machine code, through a labyrinth of possible encounters, towards people who we’re encouraged to feel should be not just compatible but ideal. Rationally, we know in our heart-of-hearts that there are indeed scores, nay, millions, of potential partners who might well become our long-term lovers, and happily so. But if there’s one thing we understand about everyman’s psychosis, it’s that it isn’t remotely rational. Moreover, its very irrationality seems connected to that idea of ourselves as being in a very important sense unique.

I too, believe everyone is unique, but only by reason of occupying unique spatial-temporal coordinates. When it comes to our personalities I’m afraid our individuality is more apparent than real: and the great paradox of the web is that we’re ever-trying to convince each other of how particular we are by sharing information about our mass pursuits. Perhaps that’s what romantic love is really all about. It’s a longing, a desire, a passion, for a state of absolute particularity, a state to which the human condition, with its all too common instinctual drives, doesn’t really obtain. No wonder we’re all either disappointed or unrequited.

Love that’s unrequited is the most perfect as, by definition, it affords no opportunity for disillusionment. I’ve a friend who’s nursed an ungovernable passion for a woman for years now. Repeated sallies have availed him naught—she rejects, and rejects again, but he remains undaunted. After about three years of this he won a concession. She’s a musician, and she allowed him to come to her performances on the strict understanding he doesn’t try and speak to her; instead of speaking he’s permitted to write, once a week, which he does, copiously, although he never gets a reply. I suppose looked at through the lens of contemporary psychologising this is at best neurotic, and at worst looks like a mutually-agreed stalking pact. I’ve no idea what the object of his desire gets out of it. Perhaps it’s simply her way of containing someone she believes to be dangerous. I hope not.

My friend’s predicament, reminds me of the idea in Jewish mythology of the Tzadikim Nistarim, or 36 righteous men. These individuals are not known to us, nor to themselves. When one dies, he is replaced by some occult operation. The role of the Tzadikim Nistarim is to justify humankind in the eyes of God, a task they fulfil merely by the fact of their existence. And we believe in romantic love—believe in it more fervently than we do in the utopia of communism or the hidden hand of the market—believe in it as if there were 36 unrequited lovers in the world, whose role is to justify humankind’s unquenchable longing in the eyes of… Cupid.

Only unrequited lovers will do—why? Why can’t the example of those perfect, loving couples serve to inspire us? Well, for obvious reason: their love for each other is exactly that. They are vessels which ever refill one another without spilling a drop, so there’s nothing there for the rest of us.

But I think it’s a mistake to imagine that the religiously committed can’t make their own accommodation with both romantic and sexual love. Rowan Williams, the erstwhile Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a beautiful essay in 1989 called “The Body’s Grace.” It was his response to conflicts in the Anglican Communion over gay priests. In it Williams advances a view of marriage as the best possible vehicle within which to arrive at a perfect union—spiritual, emotional, and most crucially, physical. Williams writes of sexual love: “For my body to be the cause of joy, the end of homecoming, for me, it must be there for someone else, be perceived, accepted, nurtured; and that means being given over to the creation of joy in that other.” For Williams, allowing ourselves to be made in the image of our lover’s love is a scary business; only long-term committed marriage can give us the confinement within which we can be this abandoned.

It’s an attractive—moving, even—prospect, but of course what makes it truly viable for Williams is that it’s a synecdoche of God’s love for all of humankind. Recall, God loves us completely and unconditionally—that is the nature of the grace he bestows on us. In turn, our lovers, little gods that they are, bestow grace on us by adoring even those aspects of ourselves and our bodies with which we aren’t at all comfortable.

Our problem is that very many of us, myself included, who chose that reading from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, do not believe in God at all; for us it is love alone that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” which is why, I’d wager, that semantic shift occurred between the King James and the New English versions. We worship not at the altar of a beneficent and all-powerful deity, but bow down before a capricious one who taunts us with the very fact of our unassuageable yearnings. There is indeed a rose in the fisted glove and I’m sure you’ll agree: all too often the eagle flies with the dove.

All of which should lead us to conclude: if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with. Because let’s face it, the one you love is just that: the one—the impossibly unique individual, who is nevertheless moulded entirely to the lineaments of your very particular desire. While as for the one you’re with, well, I’m sure you agree—you may not love them that much, but they’re entirely deserving of your charity.