“Nick,” said my editor, “could you write something on female orgasms for Valentine’s Day?” I thought not.
“Could you fake it?”
“I can’t write about sex. Until recently I thought fellatio was a character in ‘Hamlet.'”
“What about romance?”
“I’m free tomorrow evening…”
“A piece on romance. Isn’t your latest play called ‘The Last of the Great Romantics’?”
I’m still not sure I’m the right person for this. Besides a card from my cats, the best Valentine’s message I’ve ever had was from Professor Val Hansen, who e-mailed me last Feb. 14 to say “the History Department has just decided to award you admission to our Ph.D. program.”
“Romance,” concluded a friend back home, “is a chemical imbalance in the brain that reduces my number of drinking partners.” Good line, and the last joke in this article. Romance is a serious business and that doesn’t mean, pace an undergrad friend, that it has to be “really mushy”. He wasn’t alone, merely reflecting a prevailing assumption that romance is feminine, even slightly emasculating.
Strictly speaking, “Romance” is a linguistic term; hence the journal Romance Quarterly disappointingly concerns French and related literatures. Our purposes fall under definition 5b in the OED: “a love affair; idealistic character or quality in a love affair.” Yet romance isn’t mentioned in C.S. Lewis’ “The Four Loves,” although he does inveigh against “treacly tunes and saccharine poems in which popular art expresses Affection … only let Affection pour over us … and all, it is implied, will be well.” That sounds like “romance,” along with hearts and flowers and flights from reality. Happy-ever-after “romantic” novels are a subgenre of wish-fulfillment, a sort of pornography for the emotions.
Cynics — or maybe realists — would affirm that romantics are suffering from IFD: Idealization followed by Frustration and Demoralization. Anyone who believes in true, everlasting love is destined for disappointment. Valentine’s Day — or National Singles’ Self-Awareness Day — is a commercial conspiracy perpetuating the falsehood that love can be valued to the last cent. “Americans,” mused a European grad student, “like the grand gesture. They believe that romance has to be public for it to be genuine.”
Cynicism is easy. Defining romance is not. “Affection,” Lewis called it, not love: and indeed, the cards at the Yale Bookstore separate into “Love” and “Romance.” Some people confuse the two and finish relationships when they begin to fall from the first ecstatic high. But love is far from mushy: it is steely, a product of mind and will as well as emotion. In the most literal sense, love has to be made, created and sustained. Love is not just roses and rainbows and being in love: love is sickness and tolerance and sacrifice. The essence of romance is frivolity, not the practical business of a relationship. Romance isn’t love: we can love our enemies, but hardly romance them. Nobody ever suggested that we “romance our neighbor as ourselves.”
Maybe the chocolates and bears are simply means to an end. Nobody is romantic for the sake of being romantic, says the realist; romance implies either the desire for or the existence of a sexual relationship. While it may have been useful when premarital sex was taboo, romance is now redundant. “Sex,” concluded a friend, “is easier to get than romance.”
But maybe, argued a Comp Lit student, the “point” in keeping romance within the personal boundaries of a relationship is to give it an internal function instead and, in a mushy sort of way, thus making its value reside in the practice of romance itself rather than its outcome (which, by the way, would be close to the Platonic understanding of practice or “techne”).
If that’s true, then romance can stand as a discrete good. Sex IS easier to get than romance. It’s relatively straightforward to sleep with me; if you want me to romance you, you’re gonna have to work a lot harder. Romance only occurs when you’re mentally comfortable with someone. This differentiates it from sex; if romance has sex as its goal, it is not romance but seduction. We may be vulnerable when we consent to sex, but infinitely more so when we consent to love. Romance signals our belief that the latter is, after all, worth the effort.
Nor can romance be engineered. To mark a date on the calendar and promise to be “romantic” is unpleasantly clinical. Romance lies in a moment that is remembered for a lifetime but impossible to arrange. The location may be beautiful, but beautiful because she was there — though not in the sense of “there’s a seagull. Wanna make out?” Eroticism concerns our desire for sex, romance our desire to love. Eroticism is about Me. Romance is about Us.
For Chesterton, romance was “the name given to a love of life which was something much bigger than a life of love … anything from which it has passed is instantly corrupt and crawling with the worms of death.” To be romantic is to love something for no other reason than that it exists. The romantic vivifies; the cynic petrifies and destroys.
Love is not annexationist; it seeks not to control but to share. Romance is slightly different: x is romantic towards y, not because he wants to sleep with her (although that may be the case) but because y is y and he feels that this fact should be celebrated. The romantic wants to halt the universe and focus a cosmic spotlight on the Beloved simply because the Beloved IS. As John Fuller’s poem “Valentine” concludes:
“I’d like to be your only audience,
The final name in your appointment book, your future tense.”
To be romantic is to believe that this terrifying, demanding love can happen, and that we are worthy because someone is with us. To be romantic is not to make sweeping declarations of love, but simply to say, “It was nice to sit with you in the theatre and hear you laugh.” Or, with the greatest romantic lyrics, to gently confirm that:
“Someday, when I’m aw’fly low,
And the world is cold,
I will feel aglow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.”
Nick Baldock thinks that strawberries, cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring are romantic, and will happily go out with anyone who can provide them.