Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

I've Loved You All My Life and That's How I Want to End It

Reading: Frank Mort's Dangerous Sexualities, a history of medic-moral politics in England after 1830.

So, everyone I know in hipsto-intellectualster land is semi-convinced, with Jenny Holzer, that romantic love was invented to confuse and manipulate women. This thesis, more or less, stems from the intriguing thesis put forward in 1956 by Denis de Rougement, a student of Cathar literature, who claimed that 13th c Provence was responsible for importing a diseased, criminal obsession with the other sex into religion, and so creating the hunger and thirst for romance that has plagued natural human relationships.

The statement is questionable: we have ancient love poetry from Greece, Rome, and Persia; there are lovers who die for each other in every tradition. A general characteristic of the hero in the ancient world is his charismatic pull on members of the opposite sex, a sinister relationship with seductive enchantresses, and a devotion to one domestic female equated with his home, territory, patriotism. We all understand the implications of these female roles for women: a female hero torn between men in the same roles has never been invented, and there have been plenty of evil seductresses and home-bound housewives. But the issue under discussion remains. Love, how about it?

What Mort and more recent historians have made clear is that around 1890, following the first flushes of 1860s purity-based feminism and the sexuality researches of Havelock Ellis, a new vision of romance emerged: love and sex as the vulcan mind-meld of consciousness. It was more intense, more scientific, and more medicalized than any former vision of romance. It got a hold of a lot of people and created a lot of hysterics.

So last night I was watching the tango-dancers at Cell Space, circling one another, pressing gently on sholder and palm, gliding across the room in a single impulse, communicating instantly and effectively in a shared somnambulism: the tango is a dance that could have only evolved out of the medicalized world of romance circa 1890. It is a beautiful dance.

Back to the future. Some of us are products of 1890. Some are products of the individualist reaction that pitted Freud against the Viennese hedonism he wrote against, a critique that emerged around 1960. Those of us who crave and suffer in loneliness and decadence will just have to learn how to deal with those of us intent on living their own lives, and vice versa.

One thing the historians and anthropologists can tell us is this: regardless of who values romance and how and when, all human societies have depended on some sort of family structure, some dependence on others for security and shared promise, some kind of nation of sacrifice that accounts for the fact that individuals die and their works are pretty petty, and yet the people they had relationships with will live on after them. Every society has enshrined these social structures in protective layers of reverence and ritual, until ours. We have an acquisitive society of individuals out for themselves. No one suffers more in this than the meritocracy, because no one is more driven to succeed. Freaks, Geeks, and Queers are experimenting with alternatives -- tentative tribe structures, marriages of convenience between groups of friends. Will they have the durability and reliability of other family structures? That depends on what rituals they establish.


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