The Truth About Romantic Love

Romantic love has never been what it’s cracked up to be. That’s why we have always needed two things: an ideal of romantic love in popular culture and a more sober, chastened picture of it in high art.

At first glance, it might seem that today we need the ideal more than ever. Nowadays if you want to meet someone, you get onto the mobile app Tinder, pick out a few people the way you would pick out some nice things at a store, and then swipe on their images as if you were buying shoes.

What a far cry from that anthem of our national holiday of love, “My Funny Valentine.” Will anyone ever again write a song as loving as that again? No. Way. “My funny valentine/Sweet comic valentine.” Lorenz Hart’s lyrics are so tender:

You make me smile with my heart

Your looks are laughable


Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek

Is your mouth a little weak

When you open it to speak

Are you smart?

Actually, now that I see those words in print, they seem humiliating. Maybe you have to go back to the greatest movie about romantic love ever made: “Casablanca.” They sure don’t make them like that anymore. A man. A woman. Paris. Morocco. Sultry, dangerous nightclubs. He sacrifices the greatest love of his life and gives up Ingrid Bergman for…Claude Rains, transparently dishonest card games and lots of secondhand smoke. Jeez.

No, for true romance, we have to go way back, to the primal myths and stories of Western Culture: Cupid, Paris and Helen, Romeo and Juliet. Yes, Cupid, the illegitimate son of heaven-knows-who, with the maturity of a 5-year-old, sporting ridiculously tiny wings from the ancient world’s equivalent of Dollar Tree, shooting arrows tipped with dangerous narcotics into random pedestrians while sometimes wearing a blindfold.

Or beautiful Helen of Troy, kidnapped and probably raped by narcissistic Paris; or Romeo and Juliet, the maladjusted products of an angry environment; or Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde, the judgment-impaired Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice of the Middle Ages…. In other words, although we might seem to have lost the romantic ideal altogether, it was never that ideal to begin with.

Of course, there used to be a fairly clear line between romance in popular culture and its depiction in high art. Since America is a place of hope and reinvention, it gave birth to modern popular culture, which tells the story, again and again, of hope and reinvention. For 42 years, starting in 1960, “The Fantasticks” played at an off-Broadway theater, with newspapers and magazines summing up its plot more or less like this: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl again.”

This was the very formula that American popular culture honed to perfection, especially after World War II, in a kind of pincer attack on two fronts: movies and song. Think of the romantic movies of the time: “Waterloo Bridge” (“Every parting from you is like a little eternity”), “Holiday,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Philadelphia Story, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Splendor in the Grass,” “An Affair to Remember” (“There must be something between us, even if it’s only an ocean”).

The romantic comedies might have had a screwball element, and the romantic dramas might have jerked the tears with all the subtlety of milking a cow, but they defined the official picture of romantic love, which corresponded to the postwar national self-image: optimistic and unbeatable.

Alongside the immortal movies ran the gorgeous, unforgettable songs, like this, also from Lorenz Hart:

I didn’t know what time it was

Then I met you

Oh, what a lovely time it was

How sublime it was too

I didn’t know what day it was

You held my hand

Warm like the month of May it was

And I’ll say it was grand

From Rodgers and Hart, to Johnny Mercer, to Jerome Kern, to Johnny Mandel and beyond—for all the almost infinite variety of lyrics and moods, every song portrayed a world in which everything depended on, and was reduced to, the romantic relationship between a man and a woman.

Then, as night needs day and earth needs sun, there was the contrasting idea of romantic love that you found in high culture. This reflected what the adult experience of love has always been—an amalgam of spiritual kinship, physical attraction, hope for the future, biological compulsion, psychological need and egotistic passive-aggression, all of which tends to fade to one degree or another, for one reason or another.

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Until modernity made it extinct, the wry ribaldry of folk culture sometimes hinted at this complexity, too. The prince who sees the seemingly dead Snow White and asks the dwarves if he can have her corpse is not falling in love but succumbing to a pathology. (Or maybe he just likes passive women.) But such tales were sophisticated exceptions. There has always been a division between the bright popular image of romantic love and the darker image projected by serious literary artists.

When Shakespeare took up the subject in the late 16th century, the story of Romeo and Juliet had been around, in many different varieties, for hundreds of years. Ovid tells the story in the form of Pyramus and Thisbe and does so with straightforward pathos about their fate. Other versions no doubt stressed the melodrama of the story that culminates in the two lovers’ false belief that the other had perished, which leads both to suicide.

But it was Shakespeare who connected the lovers’ fatal misunderstanding at the end of the play to their puerile misunderstanding of each other, and of the nature of love itself, in the rest of the play. It was Shakespeare who put rich, soaring rhetoric in the mouths of the two lovers, which we find romantic, but whose absurd bombast Elizabethan audiences must have simultaneously been touched by and laughed at.

That must have been Shakespeare’s intention because, at the beginning of the play, he shows Romeo obsessed with another woman named Rosaline. A few scenes later Romeo is obsessed with Juliet. He is in love with love—and with himself loving love.

Lancelot and Guinevere together for the last time, in an early 20th-century illustration by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale for Tennyson’s ‘The Idylls of the King.’


Mary Evans Picture Library/Everett Collection

Or jump ahead a few hundred years and compare the film version of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” to the novel. In the movie, the American ambulance driver Frederic Henry’s doomed love for the British nurse Catherine Barkley in Italy during the World War I is portrayed with unremitting sincerity and emotional intensity.

The novel couldn’t be more different. Hemingway implies, again and again, that Frederic’s interest in Catherine is strictly sexual, depicting them in what amounts to a series of debauches. He portrays Catherine as using sex to assuage her grief over her young fiancé’s earlier death in the war. The two of them do fall in love, but you are left wondering just what love is. Frederic’s affair with Catherine seems to have been just another skirmish in the war, an episode that begin and ends with biological finality.

Sometimes a single artist has expressed both the popular and the more complex idea of romantic love. The poem by Lord Byron that begins, “She walks in beauty, like the night/ Of cloudless climes and starry skies” is the epitome of romantic feeling. It is what most of us have felt, at one time or another, when we fell in love with someone—or thought we did—an event that is the wellspring of the popular idea of romantic love.

In his epic poem, “Don Juan,” however, Byron breaks romantic love down to its bare constituents of lust, obsession, projection of the lover’s tortured psychology. He has his high-minded lovers in the poem, too, but the moral of the poem is that the true human being is the one who, like Don Juan, follows the laws of physical nature. The woman who inspired “She Walks in Beauty” was in fact the wife of Byron’s first cousin.

You can blame

Sigmund Freud

for stripping romantic love of its stirring beauty by reducing it to a bunch of cravings and tics and making falling in love about as enjoyable as a colonoscopy. But Freud hit the nail on the head when he wrote that “we are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.” Right there you have the reason that we escape into the romantic dreams of popular culture and, at the same time, console ourselves with the sobering truths of high art.

Long before Freud, people knew that underneath love lay lust, that biology was as responsible for romantic attachment as were lofty emotions. They went to high art to keep things, you might say, in perspective. But they returned to popular art to sustain their hopefulness and to re-enchant their mundane lives. The popular romantic ideal is the stuff of office daydreams and Sinatra ballads:

Ever since that night we’ve been together

Lovers at first sight, in love forever

It turned out so right for strangers in the night.

The disillusioning truth of romantic love is the stuff of nocturnal reflections, as in W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby”:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm…

We are now living through one of those radical shifts in culture when people start to look at reality in a different way than they did just a half-generation ago. Nowadays the harsh disenchantments of high art have become the stuff of popular culture. No one is in love forever after one night, or wondering how high the moon, or declaring what kind of fool he is. In love as in the culture generally, transparency and full disclosure carry the day. You say you want to fly me to the moon and play among the stars? Yeah, right. Agree to the “terms and conditions” here, and click “next.”

A Brickdale illustration of the scholar Abelard embracing his student Heloise from ‘The Golden Book of Famous Women.’


Mary Evans Picture Library/Everett Collection

Random meetings, tender and clumsy first dates, shy first kisses have gone, it seems, the way of melody in music and plot in movies and television shows. Everything is hyper-rationalized, quantified, and conducted on the (relative) privacy of your own screen.

To which I would like to declare a guarded “Welcome!” As the father of a young girl, I don’t mind all the new advanced defenses against the suffering caused by romantic love (and by the time she is older the 20-minute-stands of Tinder and its ilk will hopefully have evolved into something a little more time-consuming). If Romeo and Juliet had been on Facebook, Juliet would have known about Rosaline and the two young people, instead of killing themselves, would at the end of the play still have been living with their parents and looking for jobs.

Aretha Franklin once said a little prayer because “to live without you/ Would only mean heartbreak for me,” and Gloria Gaynor declared that she would survive “as long as I know how to love.” But it was Beyoncé who shrugged that “the truth of the matter is/ Replacing you is so easy… So remove your bags, let me call you a cab.” I want my daughter to have Aretha’s soulful tunefulness and to swing with hopeful power like Gloria. But I hope she goes at life confidently, like Beyoncé.

Part of the change in our new disillusioned way of thinking about romantic love is that women have come into their own. The man was usually the one who called the cab after a breakup, into which he gallantly placed the weeping discard. Now, from Beyoncé to Lena Dunham’s HBO series “Girls,” women are telling their side of the story. It is less hysterical than the male narratives, more disillusioned and less sentimental.

That hardly means romance has been extinguished. Adelle Waldman’s novel “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P,” about a Brooklyn cad, for all its mordant disenchantment never doubts the possibility of romantic love. The 2003 film “Down With Love,” written by a man and a woman, mocks just about every convention of romantic love found in film, punctures the very idea of self-surrendering romance—and then affirms it.

The official picture of romantic love is now so variegated and diverse that people are free to follow their hearts—or glands, or nerves, or egos—along whatever path makes them most comfortable. So despair not if, while you fumble in your pocket or bag for that gift you bought your Valentine, he or she is held captive by that modern-day dragon known as the smartphone. For every 50 shades of gray, there are a few hues of blushing crimson, and the fundamental things, for better and for worse, still apply.

Mr. Siegel is the author of four books. His latest, “Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence,” will be published this fall.

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