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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.”

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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.

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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?

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Written by tomtomrant

24 September 2016 at 1:05 pm

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

The Parthenon: Context and Interpretation

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How does the historical context of the Parthenon influence the way in which we ‘read’ the building and its decorative program?
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Our interpretation of the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens is coloured by our understanding of the historical context in which it was built. The period in which Pericles was the leading statesman of Athens is characterized as a period of Athenian dominance and prosperity in which the city became practically the seat of an empire, as it led the Delian League of Greek city-states, set up to resist the encroaches of the Persian Empire. While possibly considered little more than a treasury and a home for the statue of Athena Parthenos by the ancient Greeks, we cannot help but interpret the site, probably incorrectly, as a ‘temple’. Undeniably though, it was a monument to Athenian hegemony, articulated through architecture and sculpture which drew upon a blend of mythology, history and politics in its imagery, expressing, among much else, the many successes the Greeks, particularly the Athenians, had over the much more numerous and powerful Persians in various armed conflicts, such as the battles of Marathon and Salamis.

The significance of the Persians wars for Athenians lies in the very large role that Athens played in these precarious victories, at least in the version of events that has come down to us in Herodotus. The victory at Marathon in 490 B.C.E. was largely an Athenian victory. Athens was mostly fending for itself in this battle which marked the first time that a Greek city-state had effectively resisted the Persians. The earlier Persian threat of 492 B.C.E. was met with little resistance from Thrace and Macedon, and in 490, before arriving at Marathon, the Persians burned Naxos and Eretria. Through all of this, Sparta, for example, made promises of assistance to the Athenians, but delivered in only a perfunctory manner. When Persian forces returned in 480 B.C.E., the battles at Thermopylae and Salamis involved the forces of a consortium of allied Greek city-states lead by Athens and Sparta. A similar consortium defeated the Persians again the following year in Plataea and Mycale.

Athenians were in the thick of these wars in a number of ways. Geographically, Athens was centrally located on the Greek mainland and in relation to the islands in the Aegean Sea. Sparta was well defended to the south and inland; Athens did not enjoy such a convenient geographical position and so could not afford the same isolationist attitude as the Spartans. As a result, Athens was involved in these conflicts to a greater degree, reaping the benefits of victory, and paying the price in defeat – Athens was sacked and burned twice during the Persian wars, during which the old temples on the Acropolis were effectively destroyed, along with an earlier Parthenon. The Athenians did not rebuild immediately, not until they had taken a more proactive approach to their defenses. The Persian Wars ultimately brought the disparate city-states of Greece together against the common enemy. Athens was at the head of the Delian League, a confederation of Greek city-states set up in 477 B.C.E. to defend Greece from any future Persian aggression. As the Persian threat receded, the Athenian statesman Cimon began to transform the contributions city-states paid to be part of the League into something resembling tributes paid by subject-states to a dominant empire-state. Cimon began to bully and lay siege to city-states who were not part of the League or wished to leave it. This caused frictions with Sparta, leading to the First Peloponnesian War.

By 446 B.C.E., Athens had formed peace agreements with Sparta and with the Persians yet was still quietly receiving tribute from many city-states. Under Pericles, the Athenians continued centralizing power and dominating both economically and culturally, taking on legal administration, standardizing currency, weights and measures, even making political decisions without directly consulting the city-states involved. This was a period of huge economic growth in Athens as wealth from the city-states flowed into the city. Athens became a cosmopolitan hub for the arts – sculpture, painting, theatre, and philosophy flourished. It was in this context that it was decided to begin rebuilding the monuments on the Acropolis including the new Parthenon in 449 B.C.E.

Importantly, the building we know as the Parthenon was apparently built primarily to house the statue of Athena Parthenos. The name Parthenon simply means ‘unmarried women’s apartments’ (presumably the goddess’s) and may have only referred to part of the building originally. The building receives surprisingly few mentions in the surviving literature, ancient writers instead seeing the statue of Zeus at Olympia as one of the wonders of the ancient world. Also, ancient writers do not refer to it as a ‘temple’; there is little evidence for ritual practice in the building. This is another reason why we tend to interpret the building as having a specifically Athenian ‘nationalistic’ rather than a general religious significance. The building was used as a treasury, a storehouse of much of the wealth of Athens – it became the treasury of the Delian League when this was moved from Delos in 454 B.C.E.

The design of the building resembles temple designs of the past, but is on a monumental scale and has many unique features. One of these is the combination of Doric and Ionic stylistic features. The inner frieze, originally forming an uninterrupted band around the inner building as one continuous figured sculptural work, is a Ionic feature. Given our understanding of the context and purpose of the building, we can interpret this as recognizing a unity if not a dominance over the Ionian Greek city-states which were officially part of the League and empire. The building is also distinctive for not being strictly straight in any of its dimensions – it is subtly curved, supposedly to counter optical illusions which make straight lines appear curved on this scale. We could also interpret this as exhibiting Athenian ingenuity, even crafty duplicity, or as simply another element lending the monument an impressive effect. The profound sense of graceful balance in its measured proportions may also be interpreted as reflecting robust Athenian democracy.

Of course, much of the sculptural decoration has been weathered, defaced or destroyed in the Parthenon’s long history, but ancient and modern historical sources contribute to supply us with a general idea of the scenes depicted on its pediments, metopes, and inner frieze. The west pediment is believed to depict Athena and Poseidon in a gift-giving contest for ownership of Athens. Given the context, we would interpret this as documenting a significant Athenian event; not exactly the founding of Athens but the event that led to its gaining Athena as its goddess. Athena gave the gift of an olive tree whereas Poseidon provided a natural spring which disconcertingly issued forth salt water (since Poseidon was a sea god). Presumably, Athena won the contest because the ancient Athenians were farmers and not seafarers. Poseidon was reportedly furious and so flooded Athens. However, in light of the fifth-century context, we know that Athens had since become a great naval power; its fleet was after all its most powerful force against the Persians and the basis of its continued power in the Delian League. We therefore tend to interpret this pediment as something more like a friendly contest rather than a war between Athena and Poseidon. The Athenians probably chose this myth to include and appease not exclude Poseidon.

The east pediment portrays the birth of Athena from the head of Zeus, another scene significant for the goddess’s city. The metopes around the outer building depict scenes of war: we see Greeks versus Amazons, Trojans, and centaurs, and the Olympian gods fighting the giants. We may assume that not only do these scenes symbolize the cultured self-control of the Athenians over primitive, inferior forces, but, given the context, we may note the link with the Persian wars and even the Delian League in relation to the Trojan War, a famous mythological instance of another victorious Greek alliance. The inner Ionian frieze appears to depict the Panathenaic festival in which the Athenians took part in a procession to the Parthenon in order to present the statue of Athena Parthenos with the peplos, a special robe made by the women of Athens. Some scholars have questioned whether this scene actually is a Panathenaea as depictions of non-mythological scenes in friezes is extremely rare, instead suggesting it is a depiction of the sacrifice of Athenian King Erechtheus’s daughter. Either way, this event seems to draw together all the threads of our interpretations from the historical, cultural and political context: the event celebrated the power and glory of Athens. Athenian colonies sent gifts and sacrifices for such a ceremonial procession, reinforcing the nationalism of Athens. It brought together Athenian citizens and, through ritual, linked them to their goddess Athena.

In conclusion, our interpretations of the Parthenon and its decorative program are perhaps not overly specific, the sculptures and friezes do not reference the Persian Wars or the Athenian Empire directly, but what we know of this historical context indeed forces us to posit a general nationalistic program, especially considering the size and location of the Parthenon. We may also garner further interpretive insight by also considering what the Parthenon is not. It is not a monument to a particular king or leader, at least not outwardly. There is no giant statue of Pericles, for instance, even if the sources suggest that he was the main instigator of the building work. Instead we see a respect for the gods, and the impressive artistry of the masons and sculptors of antiquity. We cannot help but interpret this as exhibiting a respect for craft, for the gods, and, in the graceful ease and balance of the monumental architecture, for democracy.

Written by tomtomrant

20 March 2014 at 2:31 pm