Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Perils of Romantic Love

You remember Romanticism.

In the late eighteenth century a group of Romantic poets emerged, especially in Great Britain. The names are familiar: William Blake, William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Lord Byron and so on.

They proclaimed their revolutionary radicalism for all to hear, but their true impulse was reactionary.

Elizabeth Kantor suggests that they were reacting against the Enlightenment, but they were also reacting against the Industrial Revolution.

They yearned for days of yore when life was simple and natural, uncomplicated by modern conveniences, when people were in touch with their more primal impulses and free to appreciate the beauty around them.

In their minds civilization had been built on repression, repression of libido, repression of creativity, repression of everything good and natural.

In this sense Freud was one of the great heirs to Romanticism.

For all their pastoral drooling the Romantic poets were not a bunch of naïfs.

They adored the French Revolution. They loved the high drama, the grand mythic quality to the events in Paris. Blood in the streets, drama without end, passionate intensity that brooked no compromise… it was catnip to the Romantic sensibility.

Obviously enough, British Romantic poets did not fall in love with the American Revolution. Some of them must have seen the French Revolution as a way in which Europeans could show the Americans the right way to do it, on a grand scale, drenched in blood, full of grand operatic drama.

After all, the American Revolution produced the American Constitution; the French Revolution produced the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic wars. The leaders of the American Revolution sat down and went to work. The leaders of the French Revolution murdered each other.

Led by George Washington the leaders of the American Republic were studying etiquette. Their French counterparts were perfecting the art of the guillotine.

To say that the French political drama was intoxicating is an understatement. For young poets it validated their life work.

It makes good sense to say that Romanticism was a cult of emotional intensity, the kind that thrived in futility. Romantic passion had found its apotheosis in the disease that took John Keats, consumption, aka tuberculosis.

Being consumed by passion seemed to be the highest Romantic calling, almost a secular martyrdom.

Romanticism wended its way through Western civilization as a counterweight, a counterculture shadowing the dominant British and American culture.

While the Romantic poets and their successors were flailing at the machine, Anglo-American culture was adjusting to the disruptions caused by the Industrial Revolution by creating new codes of social conduct. They valued gentility and decorum,  propriety and respectability. They devalued mad passionate intensity in favor of temperate emotions and sagacious judgment.

The denizens of the Romantic counterculture abhorred the ethic of British gentility as a dire threat to human freedom… especially to the ultimate freedom to consume oneself in a futile passion.

When lived in Romantic style true love could only burn itself out.  It refused to be domesticated in a vile institution like marriage.

Kantor summarized it well:

The Romantics somehow managed to sell the idea that prudence in relationships was a terrible mistake. People came to believe that thinking practically about the future would only ruin the spontaneity of authentic love. Compared to the agony and the ecstasy of Romantic passion, lifelong happiness started to look really boring. Romanticism gave us something different to aim for - not happiness, but liberation. Instead of a love that promised you happily ever after, you looked for a passion that would upend your life and break you out of conventional living.

Ah yes, prudence, that outmoded virtue, practiced by nearly no one. We, however, live in a world defined by imprudence, recklessness, coupled with advanced impudence.

We have inherited these values from the Romantic poets… by way of the therapy culture, of course.

As I was trying to explain yesterday, looking for love is not the same as looking for marriage. If young people are merely looking for a romantic relationship they will not be manifesting the kind of prudence that they would exercise if they were looking to marry.

And if they are persuaded that marriage must be postponed they will be choosing lovers they are less likely to marry.

How you develop a relationship has a great deal to do with how you define the goal of that relationship. If you want a relationship for the sake of having a relationship, for the thrill of it all, you will not be choosing the same person you would if you were looking for someone you could bring home to your parents.

Yesterday, I was trying to explain that when women gained a greater say in their choice of a husband they were expected to exercise their judgment judiciously. Having the freedom to choose a spouse does not mean having the freedom to defy all custom and convention. It was a freedom for responsibility, not a freedom from responsibility.

Today it seems like a bygone era. Given that marriage is a very distant goal young women are more likely to find themselves in intense relationships that go nowhere.

Still, they devour the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps nostalgically, or perhaps because they want to be able to plan for a time when they too will be able to choose their own husbands sagely and prudently.

Elizabeth Kantor explained the conflict between the Romantic ideal and Austenian practicality.

Unfortunately, Romanticism slammed into love at a particularly delicate point in the history of romantic relationships. In northwestern Europe for several hundred years leading up to the late 18th century, pragmatic arranged marriages had been yielding ground to love matches. Women had more say in choosing their mates. They got to go with the guy they loved, not the one their family picked. Young people were increasingly free to find each other. Only they were expected to act like grown-ups about it, not like children. They weren’t supposed to behave like irresponsible Romeos and Juliets, giving way to every impulse, never thinking beyond the adventure of the moment. They were expected to keep in mind that the choices they made in youth would affect their long-term happiness. That’s the lovely ideal we can still see in Jane Austen’s novels: Young women arrange their own marriages in the most delightful way possible - by falling in love with men they approve of, admire and can reasonably trust with their future happiness.

In a time of hookups Jane Austen, perhaps singlehandedly, keeps hope alive.


Deadman said...

I recommend the novels of Thomas Love Peacock. He was a friend of Shelley, and his executor, part of the Romantic set, but also a mocker thereof.
He too shews successful love based on good character.

african woman said...

I totally agree with @deadman-- I already read that novel and it really inspired me. It really shows the true beauty of love. It's one of my favorite romance novels.

Anyways,thanks for sharing this nice post of yours!

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