The Financial Times recently published a piece on how fiction has ruined love and I wanted to take a moment to write about why I think the article is utter crap.
The author uses selective bias to highlight films and books that talk about just one stage of love and if you were to look at just those examples and not be a free-thinking person, then I guess literature could ‘ruin’ love for you. I think the quote that people would not have fallen in love had they not heard of such a thing is ridiculous. Love is such a primal thing, from the love a parent has for a child to the first flickering of love we feel as children and adolescents. And although our culture and environment helps to shape our conception of love, I would need to a read a stronger argument that it is art that primarily shapes how we love before subscribing to it.
One stage of love is certainly domesticity but to say that stage must lack passion, excitement, deep bonding and much more is ridiculous. If that were the case, wouldn’t everyone just be running around having affairs or just be terribly miserable? Certainly, both of those scenarios exist, but to think that must be the norm is terribly pessimistic.
The author uses Emma Bovary as an example of someone who has high expectations of love, and then feels burdened and disappointed by the mundaness of domestic life. But the things he describes are all really great things. To be able to cook with your spouse and eat delicious meals together. To talk about your day and reflect on the life you are building together, to experience the miracle of bringing children into the world and then see them grow up. These things can all evoke passion, excitement and deep bonding.
I don’t buy that romance does not exist inherently in modern domestic life. It is dangerous to buy into this line of thinking because then we settle for unhappiness in our lives. Maybe I am delusional but I am incredibly happy in my domestic life. I’m not saying this from a point of defensiveness or of bragging but because I’m sick of hearing the counter culture lie that as we get married or have families that life becomes this oppressive burden without hope or adventure.
To the extent that capitalism is at odds with romanticism, that is a result of our personal choices. There are many studies that show that people who make $75,000 an year reach a peak of happiness that comes from money and beyond that more money does not equate to more happiness. I think most of us can easily find jobs that we make that much money for a reasonable work/life balance. Getting 5-7 hours with your family every evening is plenty of time to enjoy leisurely meals, go on walks, have meaningful conversations and form a deep bond. Or even to sit by waterfalls, if that is your thing.
This presumption that to participate in a capitalist society means being destined to a fate of worrying about petty work issues and work dramas is offensive to our autonomy. We get to decide what careers we pursue, what jobs we take, the types of people we work with and so forth. To say we are destined to misery through our jobs is ridiculous. Sure, if you want to be the CEO of X company or big shot lawyer/doctor/businessmen, etc., you probably will have to make a lot of sacrifices and deal with a lot of crap. But the hope would be that if you value that thing so much, then you value it more than the things you are sacrificing for it. If you don’t value it more than meaningful social relationships, family life or free time, then you should probably pursue another life course. To the extent that you don’t pursue another life course, it is not because of what you read in a book, or what your community expects of you but because of a shortcoming in yourself that you have to own up to. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that you are destined to this life of misery when you are making all the choices that lead you down that road. I feel the great defect of people in my generation is that they are not willing to own up to the choices they make and the consequences they lead to. If you are too cowardly or too lazy to live the life and create the life you want, then you have to take accountability for your own unhappiness or dissatisfaction.
The author notes that when the relationship really begins, the film or novel ends. That is because he is just giving examples of films and novels that depict one stage of love or relationships. That beginning, lust filled stage, which I think is a wonderful stage and I hope everyone gets to experience it. But to want that indefinitely seems so immature and one dimensional. Don’t you want to evolve in a relationship so it is not all discovering but also knowing? Knowing a person’s history, likes and dislikes? Knowing that you have carved a path together?
The author talks about children being missing from stories and then goes on to describe having children as something that puts couples under “unbearable strain”. Although that is a whole different post, I take great offense to this narrative that having children is a great burden that makes people miserable. Certainly, I know many miserable parents, but many of them have no one to blame but themselves for this misery. Whether it was not stopping to have an honest discussion with themselves or their partners about whether they really wanted to take on the great responsibility of being parents or once having children, if they are raising them with awareness and intention.
The example in Before Sunrise is something many of us who have traveled have experienced. You meet someone briefly and the connection can be intense and meaningful and sometimes even goes back to your regular life. It is a wonderful thing and I have many lifelong friends from such interactions. At the same time, you couldn’t and wouldn’t want to live your life at that heightened level of connection all the time. Like with nature, with human interactions, we need an ebb an flow.
Ultimately, love and life are two precious things and to the extent that we want to point the finger of blame on them being ruined, we can only point it ourselves. We are the architects of our happiness… or unhappiness. To say otherwise is disingenuous and self-destructive.