http://www.chicagotribune.com/features/ ... genews-utl
A lost art: Romance in the age of irony
By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic
February 14, 2007
Don Juan is disgusted. Cassanova is crushed. Pyramis and Thisbe are beside themselves; Romeo and Juliet are inconsolable. Eloise and Abelard? Aghast.
Dante? Don't ask.
We have failed them all. We have sold the hopeless romantics down the river. We have taken the fragile, tender blessing that those blissful souls once bestowed upon us and we have crushed it like a rose petal beneath an Ugg boot.
Don't pretend you don't know what we mean.
Love in the 21st Century is a joke. It's a scam. It's a punch line in a sitcom. It's an e-mail with a lame smiley face in place of an original phrase. It's a hasty text message (LUV U) with a hieroglyph where your heart ought to be. When it comes to love, nobody knows what to say or to write anymore.
Are we too busy? Too preoccupied? Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but these days that just sounds like more multitasking.
Or could it be that this age of coy cynicism and corrosive sarcasm has finally managed to yank the rug right out from under eternal passion? Has the arch irony of "The Daily Show" and films by the Farrelly brothers finally done in the idea of romantic devotion?
Valentine's Day cards tell the sad tale. They're either lousy with crude sexual humor or, what's maybe worse, as damp with sentimental cliches as a soggy cocktail napkin.
Here, plucked at random, are samples from this year's V-Day card stock:
"It's Valentine's Day and my heart's all aflutter!" asserts the cover of one card. Open it, and the deflation comes fast: "Stupid coffee." Or there's the one with the tiger whose big eyes roll around while he growls, "Rowrrrr! -- you STILL got it!" -- adding inside, "And I STILL can't keep my paws off it!"
Or this: "Q.: How beautiful can you get? A.: So beautiful, whole bouquets get jealous."
And then there are the cards that seem to be designed exclusively for the partners of con artists, serial killers or President Clinton: "I love that you married me, knowing that it wouldn't be simple, that living with me was unlikely to be a walk in the park." The card's interior text is a study in oblique understatement, praising "all the fun and struggle and change -- this sweet complicated togetherness of ours."
Thus for Valentine's Day missives, one apparently is forced to choose between messy mush and smart-aleck one-upmanship, which is really no choice at all.
Not to mention the Internet sites that offer to provide you with an instant, personalized greeting for your sweetie, a service eerily reminiscent of the wares of those online firms selling term papers to harried undergrads. Can you really plagiarize your way into someone's elusive heart? Cut-and-paste your subcutaneous desires?
What happened, we are forced to wonder, to such fresh and glorious love poetry as that penned by those 17th Century British rhymesters Robert Herrick or Andrew Marvel? To sparkling sonnets and idiosyncratic cravings? To lines such as Marvel's "Had we but World Enough, and Time,/This coyness Lady were no crime . . . " or Herrick's inimitable "When what is lov'd is present, love doth spring;/But being absent, love lies languishing"?
These are questions we are forced to ponder on Valentine's Day 2007, as computers and complications ensue, as romance recedes ever further from our glimpse and our grasp.
We want to love as in days of old -- but this is a new world, and a cold and hectic one. We want to find words that make us burn and suffer the delicious torments of unbridled affection. Instead, we just stand there in the card aisle at the bookstore, before those steeply raked rows of manufactured sentiment, and we sigh and pine for what's not present.
We want what poet Mary Oliver is talking about in her book "White Pine":
There isn't anything in this world but mad love. Not in this world. No tame love, calm love, mild love, no so-so love. And, of course, no reasonable love. Also there are a hundred paths through the world that are easier than loving. But, who wants easier?