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Posts Tagged ‘valentines day’

Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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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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