"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Is Love A Hoax?


The poet Petrarch (1304-1374) is credited with the creation or at least discovery of romantic love.  Petrarch was an Italian scholar and poet in Renaissance Italy, and one of the earliest humanists. Until he was smitten by ‘Laura’, the woman of his 366 sonnets, he contented himself with academic treatises on political philosophy, moral theory, and social order. After spotting her in the Church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon, however, he was never the same.

There is little definite information in Petrarch's work concerning Laura, except that she is lovely to look at, fair-haired, with a modest, dignified bearing. Laura and Petrarch had little or no personal contact. According to his "Secretum", she refused him for the very proper reason that she was already married to another man. 
Petrarch wrote: "In my younger days I struggled constantly with an overwhelming but pure love affair – my only one, and I would have struggled with it longer had not premature death… extinguished the cooling flames (Wikipedia).
Petrarch was consumed by love for ‘Laura’ but guilt and the ponderous weight of his former priesthood and the mores of the times – not to mention that ‘Laura’ was married – prevented consummation. He wanted her and at the same time was repulsed by his immoral desires. “He channeled his feelings into love poems… and wrote prose that showed his contempt for men who pursue women”.



Petrarch’s sonnets all idealize ‘Laura’.  In his verse she became a perfect but untouchable woman – a saint, the perfection of female beauty, and a goddess.  In the following sonnet, Petrarch expresses his ineffable, unattainable love for her and the permanent grief caused by her death.  His was idealistic, unrequited love; and his poems expressed the persistent romantic notion of compulsive, but often unattainable desire.

Those eyes, 'neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair's bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;
Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my sad harp can sound but notes of pain.
Gli Occhi Di Ch' Io Parlai

Shakespeare, who wrote not many years after Petrarch’s death was totally unimpressed.  Except for Romeo and Juliet, none of his characters were really in love. Rosalind, Beatrice, Olivia, Portia, Isabella, and Viola do not love the men they marry. They settle for them, run rings around them, mock them, toy with them, until finally they give in to the times, and marry them.  One always has a feeling after reading Shakespeare’s Comedies – all of which end in a happy wedding, that the couples will separate and divorce within a year.



Take the case of Isabel in Measure for Measure.  She begins the play as a moralistic, principled novitiate in a nunnery, refuses to save her brother’s life to preserve her chastity; finally rescues him from the gallows in a plot of deceit and trickery, and then in the last scene marries the Duke, a weak and inept ruler.  Some directors ask the actresses playing Isabel to drop their jaw and look out stunned at the audience; but others are faithful to the text.  Interesting, complex, passionate women in Shakespeare always marry dunces and keep quiet about it.

There is affection between Portia and her husband Brutus; and between Calpurnia and Caesar in Julius Caesar, and the couples obviously like each other as do the Macbeths, at least before guilt consumes them.  Othello was jealous of Desdemona, but didn’t love her.  He wanted the prestige and honor of a marriage with the daughter of one of Venice’s most respected families.  She would be the jewel in his crown, the one piece of legitimacy he sought; but he was unsure and timid in his reactions to her, never understood her or women.


Hamlet had a serious thing for his mother and this incestuous love and jealous hatred of his uncle distorted his relationship with Ophelia.  He is so cruel and misogynistic in his exchanges with her that she kills herself.  Coriolanus loved his mother and was so dominated and manipulated by her that love for a woman certainly was beyond the question. The idea of love for women in Shakespeare’s Histories was out of the question.  Their lives were all about power and accession to the throne for their children.



Antony was besotted by Cleopatra.  He threw all reason to the wind once he met and bedded Cleopatra.  He wanted one last fling as an older man far closer to the end of his life than the beginning, and who could blame him?  But was it love?

Cleopatra never loved Antony and played him for power, glory, and protection just like she did Julius Caesar.  She jokes about Antony with her servants.  He is her plaything.  She knows that he will do anything she says, and tricks him into stupid military decisions, berates him for cheating on his wife with her, and makes a mockery of his attentions.



After reading all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays, one has to come away convinced that the playwright had no fondness for love or families, and saw marriage as one more gear in the well-oiled perpetual motion machine of history.

The great playwrights of the late 19th Century – Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov – were totally unimpressed with the notion of love.  Women in Europe had not progressed much beyond their traditional subservient roles of Elizabethan times and, like the strong women in Shakespeare found canny and often unscrupulous ways to get what they wanted.  Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel (Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, Rosmersholm) were not just smart women, they were true Nietzschean heroes.  Hedda likes power so much that her only goal is to control, dominate, and destroy others.  Hilde drives the weak architect Solness to plunge to his death from a church steeple, letting him think that he alone has found his backbone.  Rebekka insinuates herself into the Rosmer family, finds a weak and complaisant tool for her personal and political ambitions, and like Hedda advises him that the only honorable end to his life is suicide.  There is no love in Ibsen.


                                                          Diana Rigg as Hedda Gabler

Strindberg’s Laura (The Father) is cut in the same mold as Hedda Gabler.  She poisons her husband’s mind with doubts about the paternity of their daughter, and drives him mad enough to be declared officially insane after which she can have full and complete rights over their child.

Chekhov is not as melodramatic, and the women and men in his plays live and die in a world of frustration and inaction.  Masha, Olga, and Irina (Three Sisters) have romantic notions of love, but they are no more than substitutes for their real ambition to get out of their small provincial town and back to the bright lights of Moscow. There is no love in The Cherry Orchard, a story of loss and social change.

The American playwrights who followed – O’Neill and Tennessee Williams – never wrote about love.  Mourning Becomes Electra is grand guignol worthy of Titus Andronicus; and there is no love in the Tyrone family (A Long Day’s Journey Into Night). The drug-addicted, depressed mother dominates all the men in her family through self-indulgent pity and theatrical suffering.  Alma, Laura, Blanche love no one (Eccentricities of a Nightingale, Glass Menagerie, Streetcar Named Desire) and are only trying to exorcise their demons and/or recapture their past.


   Katherine Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

f George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) love each other, it is twisted mutual dependence which binds them together, not any traditional love.  For three acts they flay each other to bloody pulps, and unmoved by the collateral, irrevocable damage they do to their guests Nick and Honey, come to a final resolution.  The games are over, George says.  No more charades, fantasies, or illusions.  They are ready to begin married life all over again, we are led to believe. There is hope even for these two destructive human beings.

Many critics dismiss this notion entirely.  George and Martha have been at each other’s throats for 30 years and are certain to continue once the dust from this last battle has settled.
Perhaps it is unfair to conclude that love is a hoax only by reading plays; but there isn’t a dot of love in the greatest American novel  – Absalom, Absalom (Faulkner).  Thomas Sutpen gets involved in a tangle of relationships with women, but none of the inter-racial, dark, and suspect affairs could be called love.  Nor is there any romantic love in Ulysses; and Joyce, like other authors and playwrights presents the relationship of Molly and Leopold Bloom as a battle.  As Justin Levenstein (UCSB) has noted:
Marriage in these texts becomes a struggle between opposing forces: love, regret, and superficiality. Ulysses concludes with Molly Bloom�s internal monologue, in which the text quite literally follows her complex thought process and the conflicting emotions that she feels towards her husband, Leopold Bloom. Molly examines the many relationships in her life, weighing her past lovers as well as her current suitors with her strange relationship with Leopold.
All of which leaves us with popular drama – the thousand-and-one love stories that have come out of Hollywood, Bollywood, and beyond.  Looking objectively at American popular culture, any observer has to conclude that not only does romantic love exist, but it is more alive and well than ever. Racks are full of women’s magazines obsessed with love and how to get a man and men’s glossies explaining what women want.  Everyone in America, it seems is falling in love, and spending a king’s ransom on it.  The average cost of a wedding is more than $28,000.  The total cost of wedding is over $40 billion per year.   The Valentine industry’s sales surpass $17 billion per annum.



Yet the divorce rate is so high that love has lost at least some of its credibility.  Love may be infatuation, sexual desire, even Plutarchian longing, but it sure isn’t lasting.  Who is to say, however, that serial ‘love’ is not just as satisfying as ‘true’, lifelong love?

Facebook has recently added to its gender choices on its Profile page.  No longer does one have to check either Male or Female.  There are now fifty-six different categories of sexuality from ‘Genderqueer’ to ‘Two-Spirits’, and the number of love permutations and combinations possible is mind-boggling.

Most long-term marriages hang on for very prosaic reasons. Couples get used to each other, are too lazy to change partners, get hooked on a comfortable two-earner income, and are tied down by children.  Before they know it, they are still together despite what might have been a lifetime of acrimony and spite because they are old, infirm and need each other’s help to get undressed.  So to paraphrase Crosby, Stills, and Nash, love might very well be the one you’re with at the end.

Love is not a hoax, it is a luxury.  Up until the 20th century, men and women coupled and reproduced for economic reasons. It was always nice to have the odd romantic novel on the bedside table, or some of Plutarch’s sonnets, but marriage was a business.  The wealthy did it for reasons of inheritance and title.  The poor did it to survive.  Now we are concerned with neither, so we can afford to be infatuated (the old sex drive dressed up in finery), besotted, and in love many times.

Did I give my wife chocolates this Valentine’s Day? Guess.


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