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Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Franklin’

Today in the Holocene: Valentine’s Week

Monday, February 8, 2010 @ 04:02 PM  posted by Mark

All this week, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I’ll be writing about romances, so I thought it best to kick off the series with a little background. By romance, I don’t mean the quasi-pornographic bustier-busters you see at grocery store checkouts or the heroic medieval verse narratives of knights like Gawain and Orlando; instead, I mean the middle ground that romance has settled into for most of us, the novels and movies of mainstream Western culture, which form the very heart of what we consider romantic love today. The novels I’ll be discussing—ranging from Pride & Prejudice through Atonement, with stops along the way at Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert and Turgenev—have so thoroughly shaped our personal, individual ideas of “falling in love” that it’s easy to forget that romance is just a Western European invention.

To start Valentine’s Week, I’d like to recommend three entertaining critical books about what romance is, how it developed and how its earliest forms continue to influence our lives. Sandra Bullock‘s romantic comedies, the novels we read to forget our often unromantic lives, and the very assumptions we unconsciously make about our lovers, wives and husbands all began as radical new ideas in the early Middle Ages, though now those ideas are so familiar that they’re nearly invisible.

Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism looks at how Narcissism influences our ideas of love, religion and society. Ever been with someone you’ve just fallen in love with and get the feeling that, when they look deeply into your eyes, they might actually be seeing themselves and not you at all? You’re not alone. Zweig analyzes the work of the medieval authors of Romance (Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chretien de Troyes) to show how Narcissism is built into the very idea of romantic attraction. He also explores how the romantic exaltation of the individual affects our ideas of God, government and art.

Denis de Rougement’s classic study of the origins of Romance, Love in the Western World, describes how all the traditional elements of love came together: the damsel in distress, the shining knight on the white horse, and the forbidden desires that must be hidden from the lovers’ families. He covers everything from the Iberian poetry of Sufi mystics in the 9th Century to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. He also discusses how the basic ideas of love solidified in the popular imagination with the real-life love affair of Heloise and Abelard and the fictional tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Engaging and polemical, de Rougement occasionally makes leaps that other historians have disputed (he connects the chansons of Provençal bards to the Catharist heresy that inspired the first Catholic Inquisition in a way that evidence does not entirely support), but the originality of his insights is impressive and his thoroughness in exploring the implications of his thesis, in literature and in everyday life, ultimately convinces.

Finally, to get even more “meta” on the lit/crit side of things, Northrop Frye‘s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance offers a free-wheeling study of the different forms Romantic literature takes and why the form (epic verse, chanson, play, opera, novel, pop song) matters to the meaning of the work. Our ideas of what Romance means change when the forms of the stories change, and his wide-ranging discussion includes Classical Greek and Roman drama, the stories of O. Henry, William Golding, Benjamin Franklin and The Magic Flute. Frye’s digression into the differences between the erotic and the pornographic is entertaining.

Romance is a complex myth, one of the founding myths of our modern culture, and Valentine’s Day has reduced it to flowers and chocolates and happily-ever-afters. But Cupid still has some poisoned arrows in his quiver, and if you see him coming, you might just want to run for cover.

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