The Charming Bullshit of Romance

Like many of you, when I read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, I take it as a merciless farce attacking courtly pomp and the institutions of Medieval romance. All that unrequited longing and hopeless, doomed, one-sided love simply reeks of a well-penned “would you look at this shit, already?” He’s right, too. It’s ludicrous, isn’t it? Pining on like a twonk like that. Some manky git fritters his life away for a bird he knows damn well he’ll never so much as catch a whiff of her dirty knickers. Preposterous. And it took this blobby Teutcher to point it out.

Sir Blobby Teutcher

Amusingly, most English language readers appear to have gotten the exact opposite message from it. I’m not sure if it’s still taught in middle schools anymore, but I have a dim memory of reading it sans irony when I was maybe 12 or 13 and thinking it a proper swashbuckler. I was, forgive my trespasses, still enamored of romance. Only upon re-reading it in my 20s with a more cynical eye did I appreciate Scott’s scathing, scornful wit. These days, with the ire of youth dulled, I find a bit more melancholy in there. And not just in this one particular instance, but true of romance in general.

It might help to explain what I mean by “romance.” On the Twitters dot com, Adam accused me of writing about love in my previous post. I wasn’t writing of love though. I was writing of romance. There is a difference. A big difference. Big differences, in fact. Plural. Love, at least if you ask the Scholastics, is a primary virtue. The greatest even. Corinthians 13:13, right? But romance isn’t primary. It’s a composite virtue, if it’s even a virtue at all. There is affection, surely. Eros even, at least in some varieties. But romance, unlike plain vanilla love, necessarily contains an element of hope. It’s prospective, yeah? It’s all fancy and imagination, innit? Most of the time, the object of fanciful lust is some mental homonculus of the person you might like to mash gentials with, but I think we’d all agree that it’s hardly limited to just that. We’re romantic about vacations in far-flung parts of the earth. We’re romantic about revisiting our childhood home. I get plenty of secondhand reports of new nurses whose romantic notions of health care that get dashed the moment they end up in the middle of a chaotic emergency room situation.

Voters. Holy hell, but voters are romantic creatures.

Romance is all around us. At least it is among the heirs of Brave Knights who Slay Foul Dragons. It might surprise you to learn that there are alternatives. Modern societies—democracies even—exist, organized with a marked deficit of romance. Try asking a typical Russian what he thinks about romance, and he’ll look at you like you’ve got your head screwed on backwards. It’s a bloody waste to swan about, wasting your time and talents for something you’ve no claim on. The Russian Revolution was aggrieved students incinerating the tsar. Peasants couldn’t be arsed to give two shits. This habit was even more notable among the Baltics, whose bloody aristocracy couldn’t be bothered to claim royal title, despite ol’ Grand Duke Gediminas holding dominion over lands that rivaled the kingdoms to the south. But the English? The French? Romance is mothers’ milk there, right? And the colonies are the red-headed stepchildren who took the pants-on-head nutbar stories seriously. Go ahead, Fitzy: take transport. Make a life for yourself in Hamerica. It’s in our bollocks-out lyrics, after all: purple mountains’ majesty, amber waves of grain. It’s our national mythos: streets paved with gold. Except when you get there, the mountains are cold as a witch’s tit and the cornfields smell like horse shit for weeks on end twice a year.

Ah, but there is gold in the streets. And it’s there because we will it. Romance lets us dream big, take stupid risks, expose our fantasies to the gullibility of others. Tilting at windmills is dumb…if you’re the only one doing it. But it’s ecologically rational to be a romantic when among the romantics.

The trouble of course is when romance sours to outright delusion. Or when fantastical promises that can never possibly be met butt up against hard reality. Excessive romance implies excessive disappointment. I submit to you that if this election cycle doesn’t resemble a bad breakup, then one is surely coming soon.

Get ready to have your car keyed, people. A constituency scorned can act in less than entirely predictable ways.

Temperance in everything, but especially in romance.

4 thoughts on “The Charming Bullshit of Romance

  1. “Modern societies—democracies even—exist, organized with a marked deficit of romance. Try asking a typical Russian what he thinks about romance, and he’ll look at you like you’ve got your head screwed on backwards.”

    I don’t dispute that Russia is a modern society, but it ranks #153 on Heritage’s Economic Freedom Index and is listed as “mostly unfree.” Or, if you prefer, #111 on the Fraser Institute’s freedom ranking.

    So, to the extent that societies are more modern and more democratic when they experience more widespread freedom, I think Russia is a bad example here.

    1. spivonomist

      That’s sort of my point. Done right, romance can be liberating. Romance stretches the frontier of what is possible. Its absence can lead to a moribund constituency. An unromantic culture is more likely to be a hidebound culture. Tradeoffs, right?

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