The Nonsense of Romance

I have been deceived. This is a hard thing for a man to admit, girded as we (men) are with our kevlar egos. But I acknowledge it freely. I have been sold a bill of goods and it’s time for a reckoning.

The dawning came as I read something astounding in Dorothy Sayer’s Introduction to Dante’s Purgatory, (which naturally I left until after I had finished the book itself). In expounding on the significance and uniqueness of the feminine figure of Beatrice in the story, Sayers says the following: “The great love-lyrics, the great love-tragedies, the romantic agony, the religion of beauty, the cult of the Eternal Feminine, the entire mystique of sex is, in historic fact, of masculine invention. The exaltation of virginity, the worship of the dark Eros, the apotheosis of motherhood, are alike the work of man.” Sayers remarks just before that passage, “Lovers, husbands, children, households–these are major feminine preoccupations; but not love. Women are not interested in sex, but in love-affairs; not in passion but in people; not in man but in men.”

Wow. And again I say unto thee … Wow.

Some few years ago I was completely re-educated by Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand with regard to gender priorities in real life, an education I recommend for every male especially, and less so for women, who know a lot of it already (Sayers also mentions that women are a puzzle to men, but emphatically not the other way around.) Well, I thought I was completely re-educated. Sayers points out a massive gap in my rehabilitative understanding.

The great romantic literature of the Western canon. Think about it. It’s almost completely male created. I’m not talking about the stuff that’s emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries, though a study of how female-authored romance may differ from male-authored romance might be insightful.

My limited experience of what women care about in matters of love tends to support Sayer’s thesis. And if it is true, then it explains a lot of our romantic miscommunication these days. Bottom line, women tend to care about relational quality (“she is a friend, but he is a friend-friend”) and relational status, (“So, where are we on a scale of 1-10?”). Men are the ones who care about the package it’s all wrapped in, from the poetry to the host of things men feel compelled to do to impress the female.

It’s not that women don’t care about romantic tragedy and the abstract male agonies of love, etc. They do profoundly seem to care. Which is the root of the problem: they care for completely different reasons than men care. Men care because in the mind of a man, suffering is a rite of passage, a gauntlet to be run, a glorious sacrificial achievement that must be crowned with some sort of reward or pay-off, or it’s all meaningless. So the knight fights the dragon or the wicked witch or the horde of demons and, when it is all over, he get the girl, like the guy who shaves with the right razor gets the girl in the commercials. If it all goes sour and he loses the girl, the man commits suicide. Why? Because his struggle was in vain. He has nothing more to live for.

The woman, on the other hand, sees suffering as an acute point of contact, a cup of strong wine to be shared with another–or several others. So women read or watch the tragedies with others and share the box of Kleenex all around. And they identify with the suffering they see, and commiserate with it and reveal their own sufferings and how they have felt the same. And they all know in their heart of hearts that the reason the girl commits suicide in the tragedy is not because she has despaired of all hope, it is because she loves the dead hero and if she cannot live with him, then she will die with him. (Sigh). And the women rejoice.

Women care so deeply about lovers and husbands and children and households because they represent the never-ending balancing act of relational maintenance. And it’s never balanced the way it’s supposed to be. About the time you get your lover where he needs to be, his priorities shift away from you. About the time you get the children where they need to be, they start developing relationships of their own and begin to drift away. The husband is relentlessly clueless, and the War of the Roses is a perpetual battle with Jekyll and Hyde. The household is where all this happens, and symbolizes the entire equation on some visceral level that becomes the conversational currency of wives and mothers.

The man views courtship as conquest. Romantic literature reflects the heights and depths of the male metaphors regarding courtship–unscalable mountains, unapproachable castles, fiery moats, larger-than-life villains–a never-ending catalog of obstacles between the man and his “true love.” And it is with the greatest convenience that romances end when the man has finished running his many gauntlets and clasps the woman in the embrace of marriage. The wedding bells chime and the credits roll.

And then the man shifts his focus and finds a new gauntlet to run.

Now I’m not writing all this to depress anyone. I am writing it so we (myself included) can undeceive ourselves and perhaps do something about it. I have spoken necessarily in broad generalities. We all know people, male and female, who don’t subscribe to the general rule, either because they are approaching sainthood or because they are so beyond caring one way or the other they live a life as motivated as mildew.

Men can put a leash on the current dragon in their lives and choose to invest in relationships. And they can discover just how rewarding they can be. And women can stop going crazy trying to balance all those relational platters on sticks and learn to take time for themselves. It’s not evil, you know.

I still have a lot of thinking to do on this, but this is too long already. And there’s a lot more of Dante to talk about. My next topic, I think, will be sin.