Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

‘The Sixth Sense’: more than a twist ending

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9CF7B57C-9DCC-483B-A35E-3B59A7852032The Sixth Sense was for me a memorable film from the late 90s, largely for its spooky ghost scenes and its notorious twist ending. I had occasion to rewatch it again last night for the first time in 20 years and I have to admit it is far more complex than I remembered it.

Far from being a clever movie about a kid who sees “dead people”, it is really a meditation on loss, social isolation, love and trust. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist, tries to help troubled 12-year-old Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), while simultaneously dealing with loss and lack of connection with his own wife. It becomes clear (from the trailer at first) that Cole is scared and disturbed as he can see the often horribly disfigured ghosts of dead people all around him, who “don’t know they’re dead”. Through their sporadic therapy sessions, Malcolm and Cole learn to garner the trust to talk about and, finally, the courage to confront their intimate troubles. Each discovers what they are denying out of profound hopelessness and fears of rejection.

This is my kind of film mainly because this extremely serious and emotionally potent core is expressed through what is, on the face of it, a completely ludicrous story – I mean the kid sees dead people. Furthermore, I have friends who are child therapists and, while some of the practice in the film is credible enough, a lot of Crowe’s processes are a little simplistic with a few dubious lines. However, a movie centred on the therapeutic process undergone by a realistically troubled child would not, I think, interest me unduly. It is the combination of the whole ghost-seeing fantasy with the realistic emotional reactions which make this story such a gem. Indeed, the blending of genres here is so unique that, as the director (on the DVD special features) remarks, the film was a hit with teenage boys *and* elderly women – usually two completely separate demographics.

What would a realistic “traumatised child” movie centre upon? Inevitably, abuse of some kind: violent, sexual or psychological. None of which would be much fun to watch, in my view. Yet I would argue that many of the vulnerabilities and complexities involved in this kind of story are expressed so powerfully through this ‘spooky story’. In this way the film approaches myth or fairy tale, with the fantasy elements serving as the instruments for the communication of some deeper wisdom. The religious themes involving life after death also contribute here.

913E3D9A-C4CF-4DDE-8DC8-073E3C9F615CI also admire the film’s craft – the aspect that I think most engages an audience: using the elements of cinema in specifically dramatic ways. The filmmakers do this throughout often in subtle ways from the complex scenes of multiple realities occurring simultaneously (e.g. Malcolm’s anniversary restaurant scene with his wife both seemingly reacting to his presence and yet there on her own as well) to the extended handheld shot following Cole’s mother around the apartment concealing the simple effect of all the cupboard doors suddenly being open. As is often the case, it is manipulation of point of view which is so powerful on film. I was particularly impressed with an early scene in which Malcolm attempts to gain Cole’s trust. He says that he will predict what Cole is thinking and, if he is right, Cole can step towards him, and, if he is wrong, Cole can step away from him. Use of Cole’s point of view at various points throughout this scene represent their relative closeness and distance through tracking forward and backward in line with Cole’s footsteps. This is a highly dramatic and emotive use of cinema in what could have been a less involving stagey dialogue scene. And of course, the cinema contributes most powerfully to the impression of Cole’s horrific world as we become more immersed in it later in the film. The effects are so powerful while being so simple. Even the confusion between the horizontal of Malcolm’s bed at the beginning and the vertical of his leaning against the wall at the ending reflects the disorientation he feels visually, especially as we cross-cut between them. This is unusually excellent craft, in the dream-like idiom which cinema does best.

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Written by tomtomrant

9 May 2018 at 9:30 pm

Posted in cinema, myth, the arts

Tagged with , , , ,

The Internet: democracy reset ?

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I open my iPad and click on an app. An unfamiliar screen opens advising me that my privacy is safe due to some new policy or other. I am reassured, apparently, and click to make it go away.

Many have been outraged recently regarding revelations about Cambridge Analytica meddling in the political process of various nations around the world and concerns about the personal profiling undertaken by advertisers on Facebook and elsewhere on the Internet. I’m not so much outraged as perplexed.

B14684EC-87D3-44BC-8CF8-BE1DE59A8EB9The objection to personal data harvesting doesn’t seem much of a problem on the individual level, at least in term of commerce. The general idea of surrendering some morsel of personal detail so that advertisers can more readily entice me with products I might actually want to buy isn’t to me objectionable. I have almost never purchased anything anyway, but it’s nice to think that maybe it might display something less loathsome than an ad for a gas-guzzling CRV or endless gambling. Similarly, I’m not too concerned about other people buying too much bullshit on the Internet as a result of being taken in by expert marketing. It would presumably be a problem if whole swathes of the population followed up every ‘penis enlargement’ scam with hard cash, but the prospect of this seems unlikely.

Of course it is in a political context in which data harvesting is most worrying. It does feel extremely wrong when large swathes of the population vote differently in an election on the basis of, apparently, expertly targeted lies. I’m assured by what remains of responsible journalism that the problem is ‘echo-chambers’ inciting ‘political polarisation’, enclaves of the Internet where trolls and fake news paddlers feed off each other, and the likes of xenophobia and anti-vaxxing is rife.

However, as far as I understand it, I’m not sure that much of this has to do with privacy. Those fake news articles are shared on newsfeeds of course, but I was under the impression that users did this voluntarily.

Going further, I can’t help feeling it’s not the targeting that is the problem but the complicity and stupidity of the people who believe the obvious lies. The horror of all this is in human gullibility. Previously, before the advent of the Internet, when news reached us only via newspapers, radio and a handful of free-to-air TV stations, it was easy to believe that crackpot opinion, unsubstantiated claims and racist drivel did not constitute a risk to democracy because the mainstream media acted largely as gatekeepers keeping such material on the margins (with the occasional public scandal being the exception which proves the rule of course). I can only speak for myself, and maybe I was naïve, but this gatekeeping allowed me to believe that if such warped views were somehow broadcast, the populace would see them for what they are, dismissing or repudiating such dangerous, hysterical opinions, so democracy was reasonably secure.

I’m not sure on what basis I assumed the public would be so critical, of course. Good schooling? I doubt it. Our teachers try their best but beyond high school few people have any compulsory need to undertake refresher courses in critical thinking. I think I just assumed a kind of natural human reason would prevail. The recent concern about online security has exposed the naivety of our democratic process, or at least, my understanding of it.

The democratic process (or ‘myth’ if you like) involves a belief that society works best when the excesses of power are tempered by elections conducted every few years in which preferential voting allows a majority of the public to choose their representatives in parliament. This process is said to work most effectively because the public has some kind of say in who their leaders are. Bad leaders, here defined as those which the public don’t like, can be thrown out of office. The crucial belief seems to be that the public are selecting their leaders according to some reasonable understanding of how their leaders will behave in office and, finally, that when their own interests and wellbeing is being served or harmed by such representatives the public – can somehow recognise that…

So the prospect of voting for someone because they spout xenophobic bile or perform as a largely fictional character in an inane reality TV programme shouldn’t be on the cards, or at least, no majority, surely, would select a representative whose credentials were obviously so, to put it mildly, poor. Yet this happened and whether some dodgy analytics continue targeting us or not, apparently we are easily duped, even corrupted.

The shock for me is that I think all this does is reveal how democracy doesn’t work so well after all. I mean if democracy worked well enough without the intensive communication channels of the Internet couldn’t it be said that democracy works best when certain ideas – xenophobia, anti-vaxxing, etc. – are censored? I mean, that is largely what the old pre-Internet media used to do wasn’t it? Which leads to the question: If censorship is necessary, who should have the right to do so? Surely censorship of certain ideas should be antithetical to democracy. The question of who could have the moral authority to censor ideas is moot anyway since the more pertinent question today is: how would you do it?

Censoring the Internet is no easy task. Perhaps the Internet is the monster here. Maybe it’s not so much that the Internet provides “intensive communication channels” as I wrote in the previous paragraph but that it really provides “poor distorting improper communication channels”. The Internet is not a place of deep interpersonal connection – its anonymity is infamous. It is also not a place of complex discussion of ideas – how often have you read *this* far in an article on the Internet? I suggest the communication is distorting because a discussion between two speakers who are forced to use a limited number of words and means would indeed be restricted and therefore distorting. Such communication could be considered improper in that it seems unlikely that such large numbers of humans beings are properly equipped to be in distorted contact with each other and still be coherent. Maybe we are all wasting our time online, hypnotised by the distorting glimpses of coherency – no one can honestly say it doesn’t often feel like it. It is also improper communication insofar as it is unmonitored. Free-to-air TV back in the pre-Internet days couldn’t support “Info Wars” because space was limited so many eyes were always on anything produced. Today, thousands of people can view content made by someone in his own bedroom (or, more likely, concrete bunker) yet it is also true that almost no one knows about it, let alone any kind of authority, malicious or benign. So any old bile can percolate. (Maybe we’re in “Lord of the Flies” territory?)

2BDF2B31-04BE-44CB-B2C4-9DD9DA6B3BE1This sounds like a bad idea for democracy – not to mention justice, truth, honesty, etc., etc. It’s kind of like everyone is involved in highly addictive covert conversations under the bedclothes whispered incoherently in Morse code to a network of several thousand anonymous secret operatives spread out like one of several hundred million clandestine organisations across the globe. This sounds both horrifying (the description also seems to align with terrorism) and too cool to expect anyone to voluntarily stop doing (our “virtual reality” really).

In which case, maybe the Internet isn’t the monster – maybe democracy is just a political system that simply isn’t very well suited to its functioning nearby. Democracy without the semblance of reason certainly is beginning to look more like, if not fascist populism, at least demarchy: government by random allotment. The system certainly seems to have a virus with no obvious cure. However, destablised democracy “infiltrated” by the Internet is all we have at present and is slated to be the next ‘worst system except for all the others’. Instability, insanity, paranoia are, finally, all relative terms. “In my day,” we’ll carp to our great-grand-kids, “we used to just read good honest newspapers, have good honest conversations with humans present in the room in which we actually were physically present also, and all the newfangled time we didn’t elect none of them celebrity fascists – for if you read no Internet, you’ll be told no lies. Now wash your hands, there’s a good girl, dinner’s nearly hydrated.”

Written by tomtomrant

28 April 2018 at 9:51 am

Love, Simon: not a great love story

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Reflection on the movie “Love, Simon”. Spoilers but honestly I think the joys of this movie aren’t in its plot anyway.

img_0552“Love, Simon” is a super-typical teen romance flick – with a twist: the generically white middle-class male protagonist is secretly gay. I know – what a bombshell, in this day and age. He is cute though, played by the generically “hot” but utterly loathsomely characterless older boy in the recent “Jurassic Park” remake. (Almost unrecognisable here since his “Jurassic World” role involved little more then constantly ogling at teenage girls and telling his younger brother not to cry (even when pursued by velociraptors) because only girls cry. Simon is a character pretty much the opposite of that.)

Me and the 17 teenage girls in the cinema enjoyed “Love, Simon” well enough, although I had my misgivings from the overly cute trailer portraying the typical American high school with its corridors of lockers, stereotypical social cliques, the suggestion of the usual bullying scenarios and the casting of overly pretty young actors whose faces resemble airbrushed plastic (give me the repulsive, smelly, zit-covered teenage reality of a film like “Gregory’s Girl” any day). The film does reflect these features from the trailer, however they are all toned down a little: Simon is pretty but portrayed moderately realistically; his peers are cliquey but not to any extreme; his school is typical in appearance but his middle class environs have tempered the extremes of bullying scenarios (one of his friends even comments that a schoolyard argument at her previous school would have led to violence – but not here). The teachers in particular are not ignorant forces of power and injustice but charming, poignant and carefully compassionate human beings, tending their flock of students with caution and care. Which may be a tad idealistic, but at least it’s not the cliche.

Into this world of privileged, picket-fence, white ordinariness, Simon agonises over his gayness, sharing his secret anonymously via email exchange with another closeted gay boy from his school. The fear is emphasised; Simon feels he is not ready to come out to his loving and supportive family and friends and his correspondent feels similarly. Most of the film is comprised of Simon trying to figure out who his anonymous gay contact is. This of course provides lots of desire, intrigue and suspicion, as Simon tests out eligible men in his social circle for signs of telltale email correspondence details or simply gay tendencies, amusingly represented by visual sequences in which Simon imagines the various characters in ‘gay teen’ typical scenarios. The plot gets more complicated when Simon is blackmailed by a dorky straight guy through an ‘Oops I forgot to log out of my email on the library computer’ scenario. He therefore spends much of act 2 trying to hook up one of his female friends with this dork under threats of exposure. I didn’t mind this so much as I love a good ‘moral choice’ scenario, with our protagonist amicably making wrong decisions and digging himself deeper into webs of lies and manipulations to escape the revelation of his own awkward hopelessness. Eventually, of course, his secret is exposed, his lies uncovered, and his friends, betrayed, leave him just at the moment he most needs their support in coming out to his family. All of this is a trifle melodramatic but entertaining enough.

My issue with the film is really the happy ending, in which friendships magically seem to repair themselves, and his frightened gay email correspondent is revealed to be his hot black Jewish friend and they kiss and stuff. I don’t know whether my own experience of gay romance is just unusually bleak, but in my experience, I think it is highly unlikely that his network of heteronormative straight friends would ever make up with him. This isn’t because his betrayals (lying to them about who likes whom, etc.) aren’t forgivable. It certainly isn’t because one of his girlfriends had a straight crush on him either. It is simply because he is now exposed as different from them in a way significant enough to place a permanent uncomfortable distance between them. Leaving aside the fact that many teenage friendships stand on shaky ground anyway – based on superficial liking for certain sports, brands or TV shows or just “being cool in my clique” – this exposure of Simon’s sexuality instigates a reassessment of prior intimate conversations and connections and casts a shadow of suspicion or at least uncertainty over all. (Well, this is my view; I’m open to the possibility that Australians may also be unusually heteronormative or have flimsier friendships as well.) I don’t think remaking the friendships is impossible, just that I can’t see how that distance of difference would not engender a certain coldness and the film does not seem to acknowledge this. Add to that in the context of the movie there are barely two weeks left of high school after which no one needs to see each other again anyway so why make the effort?

As for the final denouement of the romantic subplot, this is total popcorn fantasy. Consider Simon’s crush, the seriously closeted gay teen boy who is so scared to expose himself that he must create fake email accounts to correspond anonymously. This boy sees Simon outed at school in front of friends and relatives, is shocked and appalled, and cuts off contact out of fear. He then sees a public post from Simon on an online forum saying that Simon will be on the Ferris wheel at such-and-such a time and he hopes to meet him at last. Then on the night in question, Simon rides the Ferris wheel alone around and around while a huge number of his friends and classmates stand around nearby expectantly waiting, essentially, for this guy’s very public outing. Why the heck would this frightened closet-case appear?

Here, I feel the film fails to reflect another aspect of real homosexual social relations in my own perhaps overly depressing experience. Gay men are pretty hopeless – not that I blame them exactly. Our minority position amongst normative majority leads to isolation and distance even amongst our own kind as not just prejudice and normative expectations but simply the indifference of the majority has socialised many of us away from even the most basic communications of who we are let alone communicating intimately in a healthy way. Simon should have been riding that Ferris wheel alone all night until the place closed down. Even without a humiliating audience in attendance the spineless closet-case probably would not have appeared, even if he had indeed still fancied Simon after knowing who he was (also unlikely given the improbability that any two randomly connected people share anything significant in common). The film should have exposed the isolation of being different – even just a little bit different, which is what is so sad really.

And yes I know this is exactly why a teen romance flick like this cannot possibly be allowed to end this way. My misgivings are really that the film isn’t a teen romance film – it is a teen coming out film. The movie spends more of its running time on Simon’s identity crisis and outing than it does on navigating the social interactions and character compatibilities of finding a gay man to date. As a result, the actual romance portion is tacked on at the end of act 3 as an overly simple happy ending – we’re both gay so we must be compatible hey? (Just in the way you straight readers naturally pair up compatibly with the first heterosexual you meet.) You could make the ending more realistic by having the closeted gay boy improbably turn up at the Ferris wheel but then turn out to be someone whom Simon considers insufferably incompatible – another downer of an ending.

mgid_ao_image_logotvAs a coming out film though, the movie isn’t bad in itself. I was grateful to see such an ordinary protagonist rather than portraying all gay men as feminine or somehow stereotypically liking fashion or something (not that there aren’t plenty of real gay men like that out there who are lovely people). I particularly liked the scene where Simon and the more public and ‘fem’ gay boy Ethan from his school meet in the principal’s office and their lack of connection with each other is obvious. Yes, they’re both gay men but this does not mean their personalities are aligned. Simon, the freshly outed ‘straight-acting’ gay dude is awkward in the presence of, apparently, one of ‘his kind’ and Ethan mocks him for his obsession with hoodies. This rings truer than the film’s romantic subplot.

Ironically, I feel the only genuine (non-familial) intimacy revealed in the movie is when Simon comes out privately to one of his friendship group earlier in the film. She accepts and supports him saying, “I love you, Simon,” and she means it in the sense of loving your friends, the people you hang out with everyday and laugh and talk rubbish to, not the high-falutin, bonded-forever, holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes business. This is more valuable as it is more difficult to find especially among romantic prospects, and even among friends, who often achieve this type of relationship but rarely acknowledge or appreciate it, particularly among men, let alone gay men. Most of us are too busy trying to find “the one” or the next fuck. This movie has some good stuff in there, and it’s reasonably entertaining, but it reveals little about romantic connection. It is a generic teenage coming out movie probably at least 20 years after its time.

Written by tomtomrant

25 April 2018 at 12:56 pm

Learning and mystery

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Just a journal entry excerpt.

Learning is a great mystery.

My story: I’ve always been alone.

Through childhood’s adventures: Thomas the Tank Engine, Mary Poppins, Narnia (NOT friendship), magic numbers, Read All About It, Koyaanisqatsi, troubled teenage fantasies, short films, film club, Mr. Slook, wrangling people – bend them to my vision, aspirations unmet, myth from Campbell, theatre, uni essays of pointlessness – domestic relationships are an aberration or perhaps he was a crossing over between the fantasy and reality (which is not what he wanted of course).

The movie makes me think of teaching and the mystery that is not just learning and the dubiousness of research but the mystery of what is happening in a classroom – not time travel but so many perspectives they are infinite to perception. Like a whole planet of interpretation. The joy on the confused faces, keeping their social disputes at bay – then the tangled web of the contrast between the back of the book and the front. Recaps are what we really know – who we truly are. The front is just that, our fronts – and high-stakes test results are a kind of dealing of cards, a mystery, a major “world” event, reading tea-leaves: alien interpretation.

Yet their lovely faces, messy spirit brings me joy in contrast with my singular home life.

It is all mystery.

But maybe my communication is not so hopeless. If that sort was not my objective, not my way.

My story: I’ve always been reading mythologies of perspective.

All this coming off the bat of watching “Arrival” again.

Written by tomtomrant

11 March 2018 at 10:03 am

Posted in myth, philosophy, teaching, the arts

Tagged with ,

Grimacing at love

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It doesn’t cry, it doesn’t bleat
No longer does it stamp its feet
My love is ordinary, grey, and tired
It’s shut up shop, its agents fired
Our words are flat, our habits pall
No longer does it work at all.
You’re miserable, quite lost and broken
Your judgement harsh, your friendship token
Yet nothing’s changed: the world’s grown older
The embers do not die but smoulder
You mull at time and tide and affection
You beat out mothballs, utter perfection
And in these ordinary times I love you
Still – it can’t be helped
Your desertion unfelt,
Not mad, not bad, not dull, not wicked,
And still I love this knotted man, this dickhead.

Written by tomtomrant

28 September 2016 at 10:49 pm

Posted in poetry

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The Myth of Romantic Love (and what to do about it)

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Forgive this rant in the true sense of the word – this could all do with much more of a polish but alas time is short. My point here is paramount – take a sword and slash through the thicket of thoughts as they occurred to me and I hope you make it out the other side…

It begins with an Auspicious First Meeting – the first day of class in a busy lecture hall, the new work colleague with the sense of humour, the eyes that meet across a crowded room, the friend-of-a-friend you strangely get along with, that electronic message that pops up all of a sudden. Then comes the hanging out, the spending time, the getting-to-know, the ‘having fun’ that passes for the modern ‘Courting’. Then the Declaration one way or anything, the confession, the question-popping, the quiet even tacit agreement – and exhilaration of Consummation. These are the hallmarks of western romantic love. Indeed, ‘hallmarks’ is not strong enough. These are the dramas, the mysteries, the adventures, the bliss of those fraught but passionate experiences that, for many of us, are the most meaningful undertakings, even the bedrock of our lives.

This idea or narrative is so pervasive and socially conditioned in westerners, more or less explicitly encouraged as the norm through popular culture, religion, art, social structure and, less obviously, law, economics and history. We forget that it is constructed. It is not only an unrealistic fantasy but an incomplete one, a passageway or path leading through a fabricated wonderland which promises transcendence and release but quickly falls apart, abruptly abandoning the gallant traveller in the lurch. Why do we keep perpetuating this myth in our culture and how can we escape it? How might we live happy lives without this inflated fantasy? Where did it all begin?

The European middle ages seems responsible for a great deal although we cannot say so with precision. The argument, put forward by C.S. Lewis and Morton Hunt for instance, that romantic love was ‘invented’ in the middle ages tends to be met with opposition. However, this is because the concept of romantic love is not being properly discriminated. If you equate love with marriage or family or child-rearing, obviously the concept is far older if not fundamental to human life itself. However, nowhere in ancient literature – in the Bible, in Classical literature, in the Upanishads or Native American myths – do we conclusively find proof of the unique, individual, mutual, uneconomic sense of western romantic love. Psychologist James R. Averill argues that before the European middle ages “love was conceived largely in terms of sexual desire (eros), brotherly love (philia), tenderness (storge), or, in its purest form, an altruistic, God-like love (agape).” Romantic love was a new socio-cultural construction, a “fusion of sensual and spiritual.”

tristan

Tristan and Isolde

Mythologist Joseph Campbell proffers the story of Tristan and Isolde, particularly the versions by Gottfried and Thomas of Britain as the foundation myth of romantic love. In the story, a prince and knight, Tristan, is sent from his uncle’s kingdom in Cornwall to court the princess Isolde of Ireland. Tristan woos her for the king, but Isolde and Tristan fall in love with each other on the journey home. Isolde is married to King Mark who, the tale suggests, hardly knows her personally and has no such passionate connection. The remainder of the tale involves intrigues as Tristan and Isolde make love in various ways as the king tries to and eventually does catch them at it. It becomes clear that the lovers cannot continue this way – their passion remains but the king is getting madder and madder and society has shut them out. Tristan takes a wife to try to get over Isolde. This other wife is simpler and more ordinary, but is devoted to him. She is known as Isolde of the White Hands. However, Tristan ultimately rejects her to return to his idealised beloved and eventually dies in her arms.

Campbell interprets the story as a celebration of personal and passionate individual love against the backdrop of shallow obligation-based and prudish conventions of medieval times. However, Jungian analyst Robert A. Johnson reads the same story as a cautionary tale against the thoughtlessness and self-destruction of modern romantic love. To find a more mature exploration, Campbell turns to another medieval High German myth, the Parzival of Wolfram von Escenbach. However, this tale achieves its playful, mutual love theme through a kind of romantic distance. The lovers in the Parzival myth uphold civil and graceful courtship conventions largely determined through medieval courtly conventions. They meet auspiciously but little is said about their personal connection. You sense the lovers are deeply mutually affectionate and respectful of each other. Their bedroom consummation is loving and mature but hardly passionate. The majority of the tale concerns Parzival’s maturity rather than romantic love. In the end, one gets the impression that the romantic values this tale advocates are merely the conventions which the Tristan tale rejected as shallow and pragmatic. However, in the world of Parzival these conventions have been renewed, relived, rejuvenated so that they can remain the same but with greater awareness of their purpose and limitations. These conventions therefore become facilitators of love and social connection rather than hollow conventions.

wolfram_von_eschenbach

Parzival

The conclusion reached by both Campbell (through Parzival) and Johnson (through critique of Tristan) is that true romantic love, in maturity, involves an acknowledgement of balance, compassion, convention as convention, of lovers as imperfect human beings. The focus of romantic love should not be upon passion or rejection of society, or upon beauty for beauty’s sake, or on perfect achievement of every wish and desire. Instead, the benefits of romantic love are the simple genuine connection between two unique individuals who know neither is perfect but love each other all the same. I can understand and believe this sentiment. However, there are huge problems with this more mature, more positive conception of romantic love as well. These problems concern the mismatch this conception of love has with the popular conception, and its extreme difficulty of achievement.

First, the mismatch – rereading this ‘mature’ formulation, the lovers that come to mind are not the passionate heroes of romance but two elderly people in rocking chairs, dressed simply, living perhaps even in poverty, living the simple life, even perhaps with 2-4 adult children, a cat and regular Sunday church attendance. In other words, this conception simply does not match the passionate lovers of the ‘Tristan’ variety. Trying again, we could say that the more youthful conception of these lovers would be the playful school lovers, innocent and rather naïve perhaps, who take the unimaginative path of holding hands in the school ground, getting conventional jobs at the bank upon graduation, marrying at 19, taking out a mortgage, working full time while popping out kids as an excuse to buy a CRV. This is not a popular conception even if it is a popular reality. That popular reality is blatantly undermined by the romantic conception, however, as we also associate these lovers with unhappiness, frustration, even underdevelopment (having skipped the period of globe-trotting and sexual experimentation celebrated as the proper modern maturation practice of the 20-something). Indeed, this sounds like Parzival without his Grail quest. Perhaps they do go on their globe-trotting – just staidly or only briefly before returning to their matrimonial domesticity. My point is that the image is not one most romantics aspire to.

Second, the difficulty of achieving mature romantic love is immense. The acknowledgement of the imperfection of the lover is the key point here. This realisation is fundamental to mature romantic love yet it is a big ask for most people. We are taught to expect our romantic partners to be at least decently goodlooking, interesting, conversant, employed, happy, healthy, respectful, considerate, social, enterprising, and great in bed. This is naturally unrealistic. All of these things are of course highly possible, but no one can be all of these things all of the time. However, if you thought being this perfect for your partner is impossible, noticing the imperfection of your partner and not being at least somewhat disappointed by it is an even more impossible task. In fact, this even slight disappointment pops the bubble of the romantic myth for most people, dispelling much of the magic of the honeymoon period in the process. This is why most western romance myths end with the point of consummation – “and they all lived happily ever after”, an unbelievably optimistic generalisation masking the complex and very unromantic truth. That love, at least in the romantic passion sense of the myth, never lasts, even if the relationship does. Few of us really aspire to the level of intimate relations between, in the best sense, parent and child, or between your immediate and your extended family. Yet this is the closest match to what a life-long imperfect human love actually is. “Darling, let’s make out – because you would make a great Uncle Jim or Aunt Clarice to have around at Christmas.” This is what we should really be thinking and expecting when engaging in mature romantic love.

There are nicer ways of conceiving of this mature romantic love of course. We’ve reviewed the “conventional loving old couple”, “the boring school-met young couple” and the “Aunty Clarice who lives with me” scenarios. Couldn’t we think of a more positive spin? How about the “open relationship couple” or the “arty alternative couple”? Or even the original conception of beautifully balanced compassionate graceful pairing between Parzival and Condwiramirs in the original myth? These are all distinct and far more positive conceptions of mature romantic love, I agree. However, they are all damn near impossible to achieve. The myth is just that, a fairyland world of magic stones, gracious rulers, and playful tournaments. It does not and never did actually exist. The “arty alternative couple” living a more creative perhaps ‘off-the-grid’ existence often are plagued by exactly the same romantic expectations as everyone else, despite their alternative facades. Another factor is that the pressures of being creative often take their toll in the form of endless anxiety or lesser abilities to function on the everyday maintenance level of existence. The best that can be hoped for is simply a more refreshing less cliché version of the elderly couple – friends or relations that essentially live together (with all the unromantic distance and slight background irritation involved). The “open relationship” variety hardly needs my critique – most people are willing to dismiss this as simply a romantic relationship in decline already or a dangerous breeding ground for jealousy and STIs. This too could work though, except that again it seems to be separating the passion, novelty and forbidden nature of the romantic love myth from the mature personal connection and the “happily ever after” ending. Indeed, the “don’t ask don’t tell” conception of this relationship divides the two versions of the romantic love myth pretty explicitly.

The real difficulty of the mature romantic love myth, I think, resides in the difficulty of being truly happy with the imperfection, not just of your partner, but with existence in general. It may be all very well to love your flawed partner in his/her idiosyncrasies and annoying habits, but another thing to put up with these same flaws when you have just been unfairly fired from a job, or priced out of the housing market, or diagnosed with something unpleasant. And this isn’t all – you also need your partner, since this is what makes a relationship a relationship of course, to feel the same way. So not only must you remain compassionate toward the imperfections of your partner, the popped bubble of romantic love, and the ‘whips and scorns of time’, but also somehow have happened to have partnered up with someone else who can and does do this as well. This, I believe, is highly highly improbable. In fact, this, I suspect, doesn’t ever happen. Instead, what occurs is a constant painful rollercoaster of tacitly, somewhat unsatisfied ‘putting up with’ imperfection interspersed with downright loathing and brief instances of passionate romantic delusions which might still pervade you at certain moments when the sun sets prettily. If you’re lucky, you might also happen to get into the zen-like world-acceptance of mature romantic love – but then your partner probably won’t do so at the same moment, or at all. Your partner may even just up and leave you in the lurch as their anxieties about not having lived up to the love myth, or about life’s imperfections, become too much for them.  I’m not sure those brief moments of transcendence are worth it frankly and it would be much easier to achieve this kind of happiness outside of the obligations and expectations of a romantic relationship.b_n-garnett-and-mandelker

So there we have it – our society is enthralled by the unrealistic and deluded Tristan-like romantic myth, while the Parzival option remains obscure, mostly uninviting and devilishly difficult to achieve. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is, if you think about it, a retelling of these myths in its two main subplots of Anna (Tristan) and Levin (Parzival), with Oblonsky as the confused and adulterous unhappy unenlightened ‘ordinary’ couple. Not surprisingly, Levin’s tale seems to us rather old-fashioned, preachy and unexciting, and is usually edited out of most adaptations of the story. Our passionate romantic expectations remain the most publicised and well-known. So what are we to do about it?

This is where I get personal as I’m sure the myth is so powerful that most of you won’t agree with much of what I’ve just written. Also, everyone will have their own ideas of what needs to be done about it. My own inclinations are to accept part of the mature romantic ideal. The passionate romantic ideal is clearly a recipe for disaster in that the message is powerful but unrealistic, as both Tristan and Tolstoy clearly show us. However, the mature romantic ideal seems to be realistic but all too disappointing. As we’ve seen, the prospect of being tethered to Aunt Clarice or Uncle Jim for eternity, however genial they may be, doesn’t sound inviting at all. However, people need people (loneliness isn’t a good), and these are some aspects of mature romance we can use. The simple appreciation of others as imperfect human beings is one. The mutual respect and bonds formed of personality is another.

It seems to me that what we need to do is to remove the obligations and expectations of romantic love from mature romantic love and keep the central good – the human connection. This is finally the connection of an intimate friend rather than of what we conceive, over-romantically, as a “lover”. We should also keep the longevity and stability of our romantic expectations without the exclusivity. It is the pressure, instigated by passionate romanticism, of “the One”, the exclusive partner, that sours many relationships. However, no one objects to having more than one intimate friend. Indeed, most of us have intimate friends already. I suggest that the reason why we are less satisfied to just leave it at intimate friends is that, in this modern world of urban anonymity, singular living, family disconnection, and transport congestion, we don’t see them often enough. I’m not suggesting we should overstay our welcome with our intimate friends but we need to reconceive of our living situations. The ideal I think is the school playground or the medieval village lifestyle. Both involved seeing your best friend every day but not for more than an hour or so at a time. It was easy to find and get to where your friends lived or hung out and you could call in or depart at leisure, as well as mix with others. We have our own space and our own lives but we have also our friends, our people, our “lovers”. This conception is rather like a sharehouse or dorm with distinctly separate and private but also communal spaces, with respectful rules and conventions for effective

90s-sitcom-quiz

The unlikely inspiration of sit-com “families”.

communication rather like Parzival’s rules of graceful courtly conduct. The setup ideally produces the familiar setup of most sit-coms and TV shows – a group of personalities, all different but much loved, who turn up every day for half an hour or so and express themselves and joke around and get into adventures then venture home again.

And what of sex you ask (as if love fundamentally is about this)? Every other question you ask about conventional married life – sex, finance, law, Ikea shopping, etc. – is answered similarly. Do it under the model of friendship. Playful, intimate, trusting, safe, and conducted under the rules of mutual agreement. Ridiculous you may say? Idealistic? Perhaps. But romantic love with its violent passion and tired marriage with its persistent disappointment is better, is it?

Written by tomtomrant

24 September 2016 at 1:05 pm

“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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the-course-of-love

Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm