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Depressing Marriage, Depressing Life

Amanda Fortini on the perils of realizing romantic love in marriage:

As with most Americans, my own ideas about love were formed not only by books — “Jane Eyre” and “Pride and Prejudice,” “Emma” and “Wuthering Heights,” yes, as well as the incestuous “Flowers in the Attic” series, “The Thorn Birds,” and the Andrew Greeley books with their fornicating priests — but by soap operas and romantic comedies: the tempestuous on-again-off-again affair of Bo and Hope on “Days of Our Lives,” the jaunty repartee of “When Harry Met Sally.” “Almost everything in modern society militates against our falling in love hard or long. It militates against love as risk, love as sacrifice, love as heroism,” writes Nehring. This is not entirely true. Even if the self-help establishment promotes romance as an “organized adult activity with safety rails on the left and right, rubber ceilings, no-skid floors, and a clear, clean destination: marriage” — and I’m not sure it does — tension exists between the domesticated romance of relationship manuals and the many depictions of outlaw love in the culture around us.

As a result, most people long to experience love, especially love of the wildest, most complicated sort. And I would venture to guess that many have — romance born of mischief, with a co-worker, perhaps, or a professor or student; obsessive love characterized by vigilant waiting for calls and e-mails, or a humiliating inability to stop calling even after the relationship is broken. Most of us have not consciously or categorically banished passionate love from our lives, we just can’t seem to make it fit. Indeed, if being in love is such a stimulating and gratifying state — and it is, of course — why would we do without it unless, in some sense, we had to? One of the reasons that we have resigned ourselves to a certain dearth of passion may be that we can’t seem to afford it economically or temporally. Here is Cathi Hanauer, editor of the bestselling anthology “The Bitch in the House,” describing her typical day: “nursing a baby at the computer while trying to make a deadline; sprinting home from my daughter’s nursery school, both kids in tow, to return phone calls; handing the children off to Dan [her husband], the instant he walked in at night so I could rush off to a coffee shop to get my work done.” And here is Loh, on her inability to cram romance into her life: “Which is to say I can work at a career and child care and joint homeownership and even platonic male-female friendship. However, in this cluttered forest of my 40s, what I cannot authentically reconjure is the ancient dream of brides, even with the Oprah fluffery of weekly ‘date nights,’ when gauzy candlelight obscures the messy house, child talk is nixed, and sexy lingerie is donned.”

When the bureaucratic nightmare that is everyday life has become so intrusive, when both parents work out of the home, the circumstances that allow for intimacy and passion are imperiled. (Sandra Tsing-Loh tells us that her musician-husband traveled 20 weeks a year.) When are we to form deep connections? How and where is this hot sex supposed to happen? You can’t stay up all night when you have to wake up and go to work the next day; no one is going to grant you a leave of absence for passion. (In an interview with the Telegraph, Arianna Huffingon once discussed sleep deprivation as a negative byproduct of love affairs. “So I’ve gotten to be a good breaker-upper,” said Huffington.) We have, you might say, been forced to adapt to a world that is hostile to romance, our lives full of ever-clamoring responsibilities: bills to pay, BlackBerrys to monitor, e-mails to answer. Talk to almost any therapist, and he or she will tell you that the primary reason people don’t have sex is that they’re too tired, or have built up a little mountain of resentments over the difficulty of running a household together. If you want an intense, consuming passion, you’re probably not going to be as productive…

Linked to from the above article, a great article by Don Gillmor about the evolution of the Harlequin romance genre:

It is the vast, barren landscape between these two fantasies that has given rise to separate empires: romance for women and pornography for men. That there is so little intersection between the two helps explain why each has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry. Male fantasies remain inherently adolescent (the paper boy growing into a plumber, the housewife more desperate and inventive), but the underlying premise remains wild sex without responsibility. The Harlequin fantasy is meaningful sex that symbolizes a lasting emotional connection, and often an end to financial responsibilities. The heroine’s only real responsibility is to her man and to love itself, whereas the loveless world of porn is driven by submission and anonymity.

Nevertheless, critics have highlighted similarities between the two worlds. In the Guardian, Julie Bindel recalled the romances of the British publisher Mills & Boon — which celebrated its centenary last year and was an early partner of Harlequin — with alarm. “In every book, there was a scene where the heroine is ‘broken in,’ both emotionally and physically, by the hero,” she wrote. “My loathing of m&b novels has nothing to do with snobbery. I could not care less if the books are trashy, formulaic, or pulp fiction…But I do care about the type of propaganda perpetuated by m&b. I would go so far as to say it is misogynistic hate speech… This is what heterosexual romantic fiction promotes — the sexual submission of women to men.”

Whether it was technically porn or not, Bindel was saying, men came out on top. The late feminist writer Andrea Dworkin, for her part, once wrote that romance literature was “rape embellished with meaningful looks.” But if the romance genre is a form of porn, is it as psychologically enslaving? Certainly the fourteen-year-old paper boy staring glassily at the Drunken Moms website knows, in his dark, pimpled heart, that he isn’t holding the moral high ground.

He ends with a profound question about the role of romance in our society:

You might think the passivity of the women and the Bond-like qualities of the men would work as male fantasy. Yet they don’t. That’s likely because Harlequin narratives are driven by misunderstandings and foggy interior monologues that express, more than any other feeling, doubt. “Why did she want him so? Why? Her brain told her to walk away. To walk away and not look back. But her body whispered something else.” And all this uncertainty is wearing.

How is it, then, that these quaint, patriarchal tropes work so well on a female audience? In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, at the time the most comprehensive study of romance novels and their readers. When she interviewed women for her book, it wasn’t the content of the novels they talked about, but the act of reading them. She argued that though the books may be meticulously unsubversive, reading them can be a subversive act. When the reader picks up a romance novel, she is spending time on herself, escaping the very thing that may be giving her her social identity. For those few hours, she is getting rid of her children, and ditching her husband for a masculine icon who loves her deeply (though he may have difficulty expressing it).

Radway’s study was conducted twenty-five years ago, in the pseudonymous Midwestern American town of Smithton, presumably a fairly traditional society. A majority of North American women were married then, and still worked in the home. So the fantasy offered was essentially quantitative; readers were presented with a fictional husband who was richer and sexier than the one they had. But now most women work outside the home, and a smaller percentage are married. The stated target market for Harlequin Romances is someone in her forties with a college education and a career. What’s in it for her?

It may be that as society drifts further from the norm of a happy, stable marriage, the books have more currency as fantasy. The idea of surrendering to a gravely rich man whose forearms ripple sexily every time he picks up a spatula has appeal in part because it is so far removed from actual aspirations (getting a raise, a promotion), and from the actual middle-aged men women know (paunchy, anniversary-forgetting toads for whom a handful of condoms is a year’s supply). Women can even read the books with a sense of irony, dismissing the stock characters and plots while still indulging in the emotional jolt. Harlequins succeed, in this light, because they are brilliantly forgettable one-night stands that blur, slim 178-page companions that vanish by the next day. Each morning, you wake up a virgin.

(By the way, sorry about the long quote; I just wanted to convey the full thought here).

Here’s an interesting commencement address  by a novelist/philosopher David Foster Wallace:

The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

David Foster Wallace killed himself last September at the age of 46, and the commencement speech he gave at the age of 43. I am somewhat familiar with his fiction (in fact I remember reading his first published short story in 1988 or 1989 anthologized somewhere, which he won in the Playboy fiction contest for college students).

DFW had a wildly successful literary career, received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1997 and had a tenured position at Pomona. These are accolades  wildly beyond my reach; in fact, so few kinds of writers  have these awards thrown in their laps. Ironically, a big break for him came in 1992 when literary editor Steve Moore got him a teaching position at Illinois State University (this was at the same time I was communicating semi-regularly with Steve Moore to do freelance book reviews–which I did for a while). By this time, the Playboy award had already gotten him his first book deal and a good agent.

To call my reaction “professional jealousy” would be insufficient. Wallace took for granted a lot of successes that many writers struggle for years, even decades for. In this speech he talks about the boredom and routine of living, and yet the genius grant gave him substantial free  time not to have to suffer the drudgeries of full time work. I hate to use the man’s suicide act to criticize his fiction or his life, but his critiques of modern life seem unusually brutal; so all we’re supposed to do is to use our brain to entertain ourselves.

Still, we need to separate the person’s life from the imaginary worlds of his fiction. Maybe I will judge Mr. Wallace severely, but I am perfectly willing to give his novels a try. See also D.T. Max’s New Yorker article about DWF after the suicide.

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