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February 1999

The Liberation of Love

A Brief History of Romance

by Jonn Salovaara

Nearly 2400 years ago, Aristophanes, the Athenian playwright, gave a memorable speech. According to Plato, in the course of a discussion among distinguished Athenians about the nature of love, Aristophanes created his own myth. In the beginning, said the playwright, there were three types of human creatures, one all male, one all female, and one half male and half-female. At some point, these strange-looking creatures, each with four legs and arms, two heads, etc., were split apart, and ever since, they’ve been trying to get back together. When they are lucky enough to find the part they were split from, they experience a sense of wholeness and are overjoyed. Those couples who were originally all one sex become gay couples in love, either lesbians or male homosexuals, while the originally mixed-sex creature once "rejoined" is a straight couple.

In Aristophanes’ Athens, as so often happens, there was a wide gulf between the vision of the poets and philosophers and the social arrangement of everyday life. The institutions of marriage and family were not geared to couples happily finding each other. Women were second-class citizens, slotted by Aristotle into the same political category as slaves, used as pawns in father-arranged marriages. Meanwhile, in the wealthier segment of society, sexual relationships between married middle-aged men and adolescent boys were part of the norm, considered beneficial to the upbringing of the boy, who was introduced into society by his older lover. For men, at least, Athens was an openly bisexual culture, but it was not a culture of equal romantic opportunity.

The Roman Empire showed a similar divide between love on an epic scale and love from day to day. For the mythmaker, there was the dramatic, ultimately tragic, love between Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, who left her at the gods’ command to become the founder of Rome.
For the homemaker, love was nothing so essential. Women and men were more like business partners than lovers, and women were still far from equal partners. By the time of Seneca, a wife’s official status had increased from that of servant to that of friend, but love in marriage would be a bonus, and an unexpected bonus, at that. Wives were expected to be obedient; husbands to be faithful, and the marriage bond a strong institution to support Roman society.

Nor did the advent of Christianity mark much of a change. Early Christian Europe inherited the Roman institution, with new proscriptions against sensual and sexual pleasure. Church teaching reflected the New Testament notion that celibacy was ideal and marriage was preferred to freelance sexe. But, even within marriage, sex must not become a primary object. That would put pleasure above reason and passion above God. Strict moderation was the rule of the day; and by the way, homosexuality, commonplace in Athens, and tolerated in early Rome, officially became an abomination to God.

Century upon century, marriage continued to be a business proposition, an opportunity to protect, gain, or augment wealth. A father and mother would work diligently to make sure that their first son, at least, would marry the daughter of a social and economic equal, if not a superior. Love, a feature of storytelling and gossip, was still socially irrelevant.

Many writers on the topic of romantic love point to 12th century France as the birthplace of "the couple," that is, of a socially-sanctioned male-female relationship that bears some resemblance to Aristophanes’ vision. Practical, passionless marriage still predominated, and the times were marred by rape and conquest of naive girls. Yet the songs of the troubadours, perhaps inspired by European contact with harem life during the crusades, helped to create and promote a new romantic ideal. These songs included the image of women as objects of veneration and even worship, an image eventually incorporated into a sort of code of love for the knightly class. According to this code, then, women were neither the subservient partners in a property-oriented marriage, nor victims of rape or seduction, but rather a worthy, even paramount ideal.

At first, at least, this romantic ideal was a code for adulterous love, not love within marriage. The paradigm prescribed that a knight should fall in love with a married lady of his class or higher, and that he should pine away for her in silence for a long time before revealing his feelings to her, and that he should prove himself worthy of her by performing some feat in her honor, before conummation at last took place. This somewhat incredible pastime for grown men and women was developed at the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter, where there were also debates about different kinds of love.

Though a new language about women in the songs of the troubadours seems undeniable, some scholars argue that texts which elaborate the code later referred to as "courtly love" should be taken ironically: those persistent knights are just deluding themselves into sin. The implication is that the social acceptance of Christian mistrust of sexuality and women never wavered even this much. Certainly, for centuries after the appearance of these songs and other works, marriages continued to be arranged by parents with an eye more on the rational, sensible, economic consequences of it than on the son’s or daughter’s romantic wishes.

Nonetheless, it does seem that notions from this so-called courtly love were in some cases incorporated into marriage and that they also filtered down through the various levels of society. By the time of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it was not considered absurd that marriageable children from two bourgeois Italian families should express the same kind of passionate feelings for each other that were earlier confined to knights’ effusions for their ladies.

If there was a trend in favor of romantic love beginning in the 12th century, it ran into a definite roadblock in the 17th, in the shape of the Puritans, those charming folk, who, when they weren’t closing the theaters where Shakespeare’s plays had been performed, were busy colonizing Native American territory. No matter how much one may applaud the virtues of these persistent opponents of church ritual, it does seem fair to say that at least as far as their ideas of love and marriage, they were a throwback to the early Middle Ages. Puritans believed in tenderness and kindness in marriage, but they were wary of what they called idolization, or putting love for the spouse above the love of God.

Anyone who’s read The Scarlet Letter can tell you what the Puritans thought of romantic love outside of marriage, or at least what Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing in the 19th century, thought they thought. It was bad enough to wear a badge of shame, but adulterers were lucky if they avoided execution. And you may remember that Hester Prynne’s marriage to the elderly Roger Chillingworth had been arranged by her parents back in England, out of economic necessity. Though the Puritans were not a dominant power for long, their notion of marriage, really a much older Christian notion, continued, and still continues, to color thinking in America and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, much of Europe was untouched by the Puritan ideal. The Age of Exploration inspired a sense of adventure, and that came to include amorous adventure. Lovers influenced by the troubadour tradition seemed to show greater respect for women. Still, romance between equals was rare throughout Europe, and it carried a negative connotation, as it seemed to suggest both extravagance and brevity of feeling. Also remaining was a conviction that romance was one thing, marriage another.

Not everyone became a Puritan, though, and not even all Americans were opposed to romance. Ben Franklin, for example, enjoyed the love life of a French aristocrat. For most Americans, though, an agrarian life didn’t leave enough time or energy for adulterous romance, even if a religious conscience could somehow manage it. And marriage still was, by necessity, a practical matter; more than half the work of the family farm was done by women.

And, in marriage, women still were second-class citizens. They could not vote, of course. In most cases, their property reverted to their husbands. And they often could not seek divorce. Their trapped condition was conducive to obedience, perhaps, but not ecstasy.

Those who escaped the Puritan revolution soon met with another set of narrow ideals. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the English aristocracy gave up its mistresses and socially sanctioned adultury; in combination with various evangelical religious movements, they launched the Victorian period. The image of Victoria as the good, faithful wife and mother, within a large, stable family, came to dominate the private life of England and the United States. And certainly, if ever a wife was in love with her husband, it was Queen Victoria.

It is now commonplace to point out the hypocrisy of the Victorian ideal. Alongside the wholesome family, with the angelic mother and the strong, kindly father, there remained a vast array of secret sexual outlets for "respectable" men, including, at least in Paris, brothels, bordellos, street-walkers, courtesans, and mistresses.

Still, as pointed out by American Literature scholar Vicky Olwell, of the University of Chicago, by the 1830s Americans were writing in their diaries as if romantic, erotic love for a spouse was now a legitimate feeling. They began to think of marriage as the "sphere where you gain your full development as a person," through romantic love. Not only this, but parents began to think that their children should be looking for this sort of love when they considered marriage. Olwell adds that beginning during the 19th century, "Romantic love [was] thought to be most authentic when...divorced from consciousness, thought, and agency."

In our haste to remember the numbing sanctimony and the male hypocrisy of the Victorian era, we often overlook its eroticization of marriage. Explaining this development is not easy. Maybe the image of the English queen did have something to do with it. Maybe the increased urbanization of America made marriage less of an economic unit. Maybe the fiction of the era influenced women’s thought.

Its early appearance in America, as opposed to Europe, may have to do with the more realistic education of girls and the more democratic fatherhood noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835, which gave women a larger role in selecting a husband. Tocqueville also commented that adultery was less common in America because men could use the excuse of class difference as a reason for not marrying any women they seduce, as they did frequently in France.

But, even in France, this same eroticization of marriage eventually took place. By the end of the 19th century, again according to Olwell, and on into the 1920s, sexuality, and a good marital sex life, was thought to be not just a sign of romantic love, but its foundation. And, without it, opined the new social philosophers, a marriage would not succeed.

Not too long after the Second World War, Americans seemed to be settled in a mock-Victorian, nuclear family stability. The neo-Victorian father drove off to the office, leaving the neo-Victorian suburban housewife at home. Almost immediately, however, a revived women’s movement led by Betty Friedan, asked "Is this all?"

Women, especially those who were well-educated, began rejecting the one-sided nature of their role as "the heart of the home."Armed with effective birth control, they began to experiment with sexuality divorced from love and love unfettered by domestic responsibility. For a time, in the‘60s and‘70s, young women and men explored without much physical risk both the confluence and the independence of romance, eroticism, and love. "Free love" was born; so was gay liberation. Both men and women could actively pursue Aristophanes’ program of finding their "other half."

Still, the question remains how to organize one’s life once this "other half" is found. For those who attempt to set up a household along the lines of a traditional marriage, the tension between the demands of tradition and the demands of equality can create an almost intolerable strain. It’s easy enough to say, "50-50" for everything: housework, career, childcare; it’s another thing for two people to work that out successfully in practice, especially when the whole attempt is haunted by the old image of the father going to the office and the mother staying at home. And if physical exhaustion put a damper on illicit affairs of the founding fathers, it doesn’t do anything much for socially sanctioned householders today. On the other hand, those who create their own alternative arrangements must invent their own rituals, rules, landmarks, and supports. They forge their love relationships with little or no help from the larger world.

Aristophanes’ story still rings a bell with us; it resonates because romantic love has that quality Aristophanes describes. It feels like the chance discovery of a whole new piece — of life, or love, or our very selves. No matter how rational we might like to be, no matter how hard-headed and self-sufficient, we still experience crushes, and love at first sight, and inexplicable passion, and a longing to unite with another.

Some of us meet the challenges of love within the confines of socially sanctioned marriage, while others struggle to make our own way. Those of us who live independent and alone strain to hear the tantalizing refrain, "there’s somebody out there for me." And all of us travel an unmapped terrain when we find ourselves in love.

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