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

Thursday, August 31, 2023

How MeToo Killed Romantic Love - The End Of Passion And Sexual Obsession

Petrarch is considered the originator of the concept of romantic love.  His many poems to ‘Laura’ describe love’s  transforming nature – it is never simply an affection, a simple desire, or a feeling.  It is transformative, epiphanic, and spiritual.

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My Laura, my love, I behold in thine eyes
Twin daystars that Mercy has given,
To teach me on earth to be happy and wise
And guide me triumphant to heaven.
Their lessons of love thro' a lifetime have taught
My bosom the pureness of thine,
They have roused me to virtue, exalted my thought,
And nerved me for glory divine:
They have shed on my heart a delightful repose,
All else it hath barr'd from its portal,
So deeply the stream of my happiness flows,
I know that my soul is immortal.

The idea of romantic love was something new in the Middle Ages, an era of plague, early death, and subsistence.  Marriages were arranged for convenience whether between kings, queens, and courtiers or among peasants.  Marriage was a practical union, a combining of resources, a means of reproducing labor or maintaining power. 

Petrarch suggested that something more significant and much more expressive of God’s love and man’s search for it existed beyond economics, heritage, and duty.  Tales of knights and their fair maidens and the idea of virginal love and the heroic conquests of it were common.

Dante who wrote his love poems to Beatrice a few decades before Petrarch anticipated the new, romantic attitudes that were to prevail through the Renaissance and well beyond.  In this poem the theme of untimely death, a feature of much of subsequent love poetry, is suggested:

To every captive soul and gentle heart
Into whose sight this present speech may come,
So that they might write its meaning for me,
Greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.
Already a third of the hours were almost past
Of the time when all the stars were shining,
When Love suddenly appeared to me
Whose memory fills me with terror?
Joyfully Love seemed to me to hold
My heart in his hand, and held in his arms
My lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.
Then he woke her, and that burning heart
He fed to her reverently, she fearing,
Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

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Shakespeare continued the tradition of romantic love poetry with his sonnets

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Petrarch, Dante, and Shakespeare all wrote of romantic obsession, a benign longing, a happy unhappiness, a desire which relegated all rational thought, delayed enterprise, and left the lover despondent.  Sex was only implied, for it was less important to the poet than the sublimity of romantic love, an expression of the best and highest human purposes and not to be distorted by lower order sexual instincts.

In the 19th century, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote of obsessive sexual love.  Dostoevsky’s A Gentle Creature tells of a man’s obsessive desire to dominate and control the young woman he marries.  Tolstoy’s The Devil tells of a man’s pursuit of a peasant girl, a liaison which ends in death.  Evgeny does not love Stepanida and cannot explain his attraction to her.  She has a devilish control over him, a spell which he cannot resist.  He is tormented by his unwillingness to sleep with her after he is married, and is tortured by thoughts that he will and in so doing abandoning all moral authority. 

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Graham Greene was a master of sexual obsession, and the introduction of Catholic guilt and inflexible moral codes adds a unique dimension to the plights of his characters Scobie and Bendrix.

Emily Bronte, Ian McEwan, Josephine Baker, and especially Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann (Lolita, Death in Venice) were masters at describing sexual obsession – a pursuit that had little to do with romantic love, but with an unnamed and unknowable desire for possession.  Humbert pursues Lolita to relive the love he once had for a girl who died young.  Lolita, a ‘nymphet’, a girl of premature sexuality and an innate, indescribable sense of her allure, is his old love reborn; and he cannot resist her.

Aschenbach’s obsession with the beautiful boy Tadzio, unlike Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, has no known antecedents or psychological influences.  It is an unexplained but irresistible sexual desire for a boy of remarkable beauty and innocence –something unexpected in a man of his age and propriety.  

Aschenbach loses all sense of the social and personal order according to which he has always lived.  He becomes unmoored from the past and from the person he always thought he was.  He cannot help himself. He dies unhappy and alone without ever having made his love known.  He is not unlike Tolstoy’s Evgeny who cannot explain his ineluctable sexual attraction to Stepanida, who cannot resolve how to act with her or with his wife and who ends up badly.

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For the most part, literature is filled with simple sexual combinations – women who love others than their husbands, but who are not compelled to do so.  Their interest is social, economic, and practical.  Emma Bovary is not a Stepanida but a willful woman determined to control her own destiny.  Hedda Gabler does not love her husband or the man she persuades to kill him, and acts only out of an act of supreme, unstoppable will.

George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are obsessed with each other, caught in a marriage that was inevitable but ultimately destructive.  Never in the play do either of the characters want to end the marriage, but continue to flay each other to the marrow for the sake of their intimacy.  It may not have been love which they wanted to preserve, but certainly the powerful, consuming relationship which defined them.

The rest of the world has neither love nor obsession, married with children. The idea of romantic love seems outdated in modern times.  Too much is being made of identity, social purpose, meaning, reform, and progress to allow for anything so diverting and frivolous as romantic love.  Old people holding hands on a tropical beach is definitely wrong.

Sexual obsession seems equally to have gone by the wayside, dismissed as misogynistic, retrograde, and socially inhibiting. Men continue to have affairs but do so increasingly carefully.  An aggrieved wife, now a trial lawyer with serious investments, will dissolve the marriage quickly and efficiently.  Women who put up with dalliances are a dying breed.  Only wealth that matches or tops spouse’s net worth assures quick disentanglements, and easy sailing. 

None of this speaks of obsession, an idea faltering after so many years of Freudian analysis and many more of a Puritanical, censorious era. In fact it is a joyless era overall.  No high spirits can last in an atmosphere of constant, unremitting sanctimony.  Not only love and sexual obsession have gone by the wayside.  Having fun has too.

Of course men think about women all day long – that is the one obsession left.  Not an irrational desire for a woman but for all women, any woman, a universally sexually frustrated desire, the saddest of all.

There may come a time when the pall of political hypocrisy clears, when both romantic and obsessive love are let out again, when men’s desirous pursuit is not condemned, and women’s sexual allure not demeaned and dismissed.  Dante and Petrarch will be back and so will Mann, Nabokov, and Tolstoy.

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