Romantic Love is Dead (National Post, February 11, 2004)

Happy Valentine’s Day. Seen or read any good love stories lately? No, I mean where no one was naked, and where your heart swelled and you got goose bumps because you were seeing “the real thing” and you were convinced it would last forever? Oh yeah, and where it was set in today’s world? Time’s up. Seen any great sex scenes, though? I thought as much.

Romantic love is dead. The actors are gorgeous, and the writing is sometimes great, but if the love story isn’t set sometime before 1960, we may as well admit that the sex is all we’ve got left, and what is swelling is no longer our hearts.

Romantic Love is the legacy of Courtly Love, a medieval literary formula. Essentially it involved the forbidden love of a single knight for a beautiful married woman of higher social rank. The wooing process, attended by pallor, anorexia, and swooning on both sides, was a drawn-out affair, but the object was illicit consummation (necessarily followed by death of one or both lovers), not matrimony.

Medieval marriage had nothing to do with erotic love, a passion worth dying for then – in poetry anyway. All star-crossed literary lovers in the western canon (Lancelot and Guinevere the prototypes, later variations Romeo and Juliet, Heathcliff and Cathy, Anna Karenina and Vronsky) pay homage to the courtly tradition.

Eventually Courtly Love morphed into Romantic Love. The vehicle was the novel, the woman was now available, and consummation within marriage the object (think Jane Austen, George Eliot and Dickens). Thus there was no longer any sin against God or society.

Nevertheless, certain defining characteristics of the original convention remained: forced distance from the love object (class, family, economic or religious barriers, mysterious past sin, mad wife in the attic, etc), and therefore exaggerated risk in the pursuit; the escalating passion inherent in deferment of gratification and uncertainty of outcome; and most important perhaps, the uniqueness, the once-in-a-lifetime quality of the experience.

Love in general has had a very long run, as literary subjects go. Heroic tales of doomed love go back to classical times (Paris and Helen of Troy, Dido and Aeneas, Hero and Leander). But with the growth of the novel in the eighteenth century, readers actually began to identify their own lives and values with the heroes and heroines of fiction.

Exeunt the gods and goddesses, kings, queens, barons, and knights in their rarefied castles and keeps. Enter real people as protagonists – the upper and middle classes at first, but eventually working through gentry to the lower classes, the poor, then (post-Freud) a parallel degenerative mental hierarchy: from quirky genius to social misfits/victims of all kinds. When universal literacy created a newly vast and insatiable lowbrow audience, readers began believing that romantic love was not only a real phenomenon rather than a literary convention, but something like ahuman right.

When exactly did this potent illusion succumb to a conflicting reality? Because Love as we thought we knew it definitely died in this last half century, although its ghostly presence lingers on in retro women’s magazines and Harlequin Romances.

It was rather a sudden thing, the death of Love, or so it seemed to me. Everyone believed in love in the fifties when I was growing up. For love was considered to have transformative power then. You could not consider yourself to have experienced life without having surrendered unconditionally to romantic passion. To risk all for love was not an idle expression. And to fail at love implied social penalties, and terrible shame; one felt morally and culturally delinquent amongst peers.

That’s all over, of course. The triumph of individualism (“You’re not the boss of me!” cried two-year old Monica Lewinsky); the sidelining of religion and the triumph of moral relativism; early, socially sanctioned sexual experimentation; serial mating, common law recognition and benefits (hetero and otherwise): they have all conspired to smother the passion and excitement of the Quest. There is no “other half” waiting out there. Timing and compatible ambitions trump kismet. The lover as the soul’s completion is no more, the lover as parallel Self is the new template.

Where nothing is forbidden, a sense of sin and shame are de trop. For guilt ridden malingerers, there is therapy and “closure.” Where there are no irreversible consequences, where there is neither risk nor courage in the coupling, love is just another social construction. We have lost a sense of the transcendent and the inevitable in love. Love – the big, consequential kind, the kind that once defined and shaped our lives – has become a cultural semaphore for kitsch and nostalgia, which is why it now mostly survives, postmodernly, as “love.” Is “love” still “awesome”? Oh sure, in the parlance of youth. But is there Awe in the contemplation of “love”? For better or worse, that’s gone with the wind…

© National Post 2004