1 – The Truth About Romantic Love
From Shakespeare to Lord Byron and ‘Girls,’ Our Ideals About Love Have Always Needed a Sober Reality Check
By Lee Siegel
Romantic love has never been what it’s cracked up to be. That’s why we have always needed two things: an ideal of romantic love in popular culture and a more sober, chastened picture of it in high art.
At first glance, it might seem that today we need the ideal more than ever. Nowadays if you want to meet someone, you get onto the mobile app Tinder, pick out a few people the way you would pick out some nice things at a store, and then swipe on their images as if you were buying shoes.
What a far cry from that anthem of our national holiday of love, “My Funny Valentine.” Will anyone ever again write a song as loving as that again? No. Way. “My funny valentine/Sweet comic valentine.” Lorenz Hart’s lyrics are so tender:
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than Greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
Actually, now that I see those words in print, they seem humiliating. Maybe you have to go back to the greatest movie about romantic love ever made: “Casablanca.” They sure don’t make them like that anymore. A man. A woman. Paris. Morocco. Sultry, dangerous nightclubs. He sacrifices the greatest love of his life and gives up Ingrid Bergman for…Claude Rains, transparently dishonest card games and lots of secondhand smoke. Jeez.
No, for true romance, we have to go way back, to the primal myths and stories of Western Culture: Cupid, Paris and Helen, Romeo and Juliet. Yes, Cupid, the illegitimate son of heaven-knows-who, with the maturity of a 5-year-old, sporting ridiculously tiny wings from the ancient world’s equivalent of Dollar Tree, shooting arrows tipped with dangerous narcotics into random pedestrians while sometimes wearing a blindfold.
- What the World Will Speak in 2115
Or beautiful Helen of Troy, kidnapped and probably raped by narcissistic Paris; or Romeo and Juliet, the maladjusted products of an angry environment; or Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde, the judgment-impaired Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice of the Middle Ages…. In other words, although we might seem to have lost the romantic ideal altogether, it was never that ideal to begin with.
Of course, there used to be a fairly clear line between romance in popular culture and its depiction in high art. Since America is a place of hope and reinvention, it gave birth to modern popular culture, which tells the story, again and again, of hope and reinvention. For 42 years, starting in 1960, “The Fantasticks” played at an off-Broadway theater, with newspapers and magazines summing up its plot more or less like this: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl again.”
This was the very formula that American popular culture honed to perfection, especially after World War II, in a kind of pincer attack on two fronts: movies and song. Think of the romantic movies of the time: “Waterloo Bridge” (“Every parting from you is like a little eternity”), “Holiday,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Philadelphia Story, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Splendor in the Grass,” “An Affair to Remember” (“There must be something between us, even if it’s only an ocean”).
The romantic comedies might have had a screwball element, and the romantic dramas might have jerked the tears with all the subtlety of milking a cow, but they defined the official picture of romantic love, which corresponded to the postwar national self-image: optimistic and unbeatable.
Alongside the immortal movies ran the gorgeous, unforgettable songs, like this, also from Lorenz Hart:
I didn’t know what time it was
Then I met you
Oh, what a lovely time it was
How sublime it was too
I didn’t know what day it was
You held my hand
Warm like the month of May it was
And I’ll say it was grand
From Rodgers and Hart, to Johnny Mercer, to Jerome Kern, to Johnny Mandel and beyond—for all the almost infinite variety of lyrics and moods, every song portrayed a world in which everything depended on, and was reduced to, the romantic relationship between a man and a woman.
Then, as night needs day and earth needs sun, there was the contrasting idea of romantic love that you found in high culture. This reflected what the adult experience of love has always been—an amalgam of spiritual kinship, physical attraction, hope for the future, biological compulsion, psychological need and egotistic passive-aggression, all of which tends to fade to one degree or another, for one reason or another.
Until modernity made it extinct, the wry ribaldry of folk culture sometimes hinted at this complexity, too. The prince who sees the seemingly dead Snow White and asks the dwarves if he can have her corpse is not falling in love but succumbing to a pathology. (Or maybe he just likes passive women.) But such tales were sophisticated exceptions. There has always been a division between the bright popular image of romantic love and the darker image projected by serious literary artists.
When Shakespeare took up the subject in the late 16th century, the story of Romeo and Juliet had been around, in many different varieties, for hundreds of years. Ovid tells the story in the form of Pyramus and Thisbe and does so with straightforward pathos about their fate. Other versions no doubt stressed the melodrama of the story that culminates in the two lovers’ false belief that the other had perished, which leads both to suicide.
But it was Shakespeare who connected the lovers’ fatal misunderstanding at the end of the play to their puerile misunderstanding of each other, and of the nature of love itself, in the rest of the play. It was Shakespeare who put rich, soaring rhetoric in the mouths of the two lovers, which we find romantic, but whose absurd bombast Elizabethan audiences must have simultaneously been touched by and laughed at.
That must have been Shakespeare’s intention because, at the beginning of the play, he shows Romeo obsessed with another woman named Rosaline. A few scenes later Romeo is obsessed with Juliet. He is in love with love—and with himself loving love.
*This is the first part of the article about the Truth About Romantic Love. More information You may find in the next part of this article.