Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dangerous Digressions, Part 1

Romance takes time. You have to drop what you're doing when you fall in love--even if what you're doing is fighting a war, or carrying on a decades-long vendetta, or ruling an empire. Love demands it. You have to turn off your cellphone and ignore your Facebook friends and just go dark while you get lost in the dreamy world of erotic obsession. In the meantime, of course, empires may fall, nations may crumble, and evil may take over the world. But you've got the curtains closed, and you just don't give a damn. The earliest romances worried about this a lot. If you're all enraptured of some fair damsel, you might forget all your manly obligations. You might crawl under the sheets with her and just never come out again. You might, for example, forget to Found the Roman Empire.

Romance is dangerous business.

Virgil knew this, and that's why he made sure to get his hero, Aeneas, out of Carthage and packed off to Rome. Don't know what I'm talking about? I'm referring the the Very First Romance, written by Virgil around 30 BCE. Actually, Virgil's Aeneid isn't a love story--it's a war story. In the old days, all romances had their share of bloodshed. Maybe it's more accurate to call it an adventure story, or even a travelogue. Officially, it's called an "epic," in the tradition of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. It's also the most masterful piece of literary propaganda ever written in the West, putting even Will's history plays to shame. Virgil created a whole history for Augustus Caesar's imperial aspirations, connecting Rome to the greatest (secular) Western story ever told, the Fall of Troy. It was all made up, of course. But back then people didn't really distinguish between history and literature.

Come to think of it, things seem to be headed back that way again.

I'm trying to come up with an analogy for Virgil's imperialist project, but it's hard to think of one. Let's see...I guess there are some parallels in the founding of modern-day Israel according to biblical geography, but I don't really want to get tangled up in that debate. The Mormon "translation" (in the literal sense of transference) of Christian mythology/sacred history (take your pick) to the New World would be another possible analogue. When in the business of mythmaking, it's always best to grab onto an existing powerful narrative, and write a sequel.

So what does this have to do with romance? Well, in order to become the founder of Rome, Aeneas--former Trojan prince and demi-god--has to get from point A (burning city of Troy) to point B (hilly country near the Tiber River, eventually Rome). Now along the way he encounters trouble from angry harpies (smelly bird-women) and the goddess Juno, who is a bit harpy-like herself. Juno decides to delay Aeneas's arrival in Rome--Virgil tells us explicitly that she can't prevent it, only postpone it.

There are some analogies to feminine sexuality here, but I'll leave that for you to think about. PG blog, remember.

Juno's delaying tactic is to blow Aeneas and his men off course, so they land in northern Africa instead of Italy. Specifically in the city of Carthage, now modern-day Libya. Aeneas is in bad shape, but the queen of Carthage, Dido, is really nice to him. I mean, really, really nice. So nice that he just doesn't want to leave. If it were up to Aeneas, he'd just scorch up the sheets with Queen Dido indefinitely.

Which would kind of wreck the whole founding an empire thing.

So the gods have to get involved. Mercury (travel god, remember) comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him to get the hell out of Carthage before Jupiter's patriarchal scheme comes to naught. (There's a salacious pun there, for you dirty-minded philologists). Aeneas isn't a very sensitive guy--or else he's just afraid of confrontation, so he sneaks off in the middle of the night, setting sail for Italy.

These days, he'd just change his Facebook relationship status, block Dido's angry text messages, and refuse to answer his phone. Dido's one of those "women who love too much," so she kills herself. With his sword, which he conveniently left as a memento--or a metaphor.

Then Aeneas gets himself a more dynastically-appropriate wife--a nice Italian girl--and founds Rome.

You see the pattern, right? Romance is a threat to duty, to patriarchy, to careers and reputations. The Aeneid influenced lots of medieval romances, from twelfth-century Arthurian tales to Chaucer. It also influenced Will a lot, most obviously in Antony and Cleopatra, where a noble Roman wrecks his career by hanging out in North Africa (Egypt, this time) and mooning over another hot queen. But the same structure applies in Othello. This time the hero is the North African (Moor), but the issues are similar. He's stuck on Cyprus, because there's a lull in the war. He's got too much time on his hands. He falls for Desdemona, and then falls for some slanderous stories, and his reputation is ruined. Lacking any manly occupation, like killing Turks, Othello is seduced by love--and fiction. The opposition between romance/words and war/deeds is the foundation of the tragedy. Once Othello falls for Desdemona, and then falls for Iago's lies, it's

...Farewell the tranquil mind, farewell content,
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell,
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

Farewell the fifty-yard line, farewell the field goals, farewell the Gatorade bath...or, farewell the board room, the hostile takeover, the management bonuses, the thrill of a government bailout. Farewell to the manly, public life. Bonjour tristesse, guten tag Liebestod, hello emasculation. That sound you hear is the bedroom door slamming closed, shutting all your career ambitions and male friends out forever. You're in love, and you're doomed.

If you're a guy, that is. If you're a woman, it's your fault. So you're doomed not only to misery, but also to shouldering the blame for the Ruin of a Great Man. Hopefully he left a sword for you to fall on.

The moral of this story is, keep busy. Don't get washed up on the shore of some matriarchal resort town. If your current wars seem unpromising, start another one. Have sex to ensure your genetic immortality, and that's it. Don't get too into it. Or rather, don't get emotional about it.

Despite these thematic caveats, romance really caught on as a genre. People ate it up, and still do. Why? Because getting too emotional about things makes for much better stories than just, you know, raising armies and founding an empire. Even the good war stories are love stories now. They're just about love between men.

The rise of romance as a genre coincided with the rise of the middle class. Yeah, I know--every historical period I studied in college seemed to claim "the rise of the middle class" for its very own. As a crypto-medievalist (I just invented that label, and I like it), I'm going to claim that the rise of the middle classes started happening in the twelfth century. Right about the time people started thinking about belonging to nations, and not just churches. And, not coincidentally, at about the time they started getting really fed up with shiftless aristocrats engaging in continent-wide wars over tiny bits of land. It's hard to run a business--or a farm--when the neighboring lord keeps taking all your cattle and taxing all your profits so he can buy more mercenaries. It's unfair, and downright immoral.

Middle class people worried about morals, and they thought everyone else should, too. And romance, with its emphasis on the Problem of Intimacy in a Violent World, seemed like a good place to continue that discussion. Now this is not to say that early romances were about middle-class people. Not at all. They were about aristocrats with middle-class sensibilities. Just as, today, there are romances about rich people and celebrities who Just Want to Be Loved for Themselves. They may be billionaires, but what they really want are family camping trips, lawns and gardens, and movie nights with the kids.

How do I know this, you may wonder? Because, yes, I read popular romances! Not that many, because I have this thing about good writing, and some of them are written like bad teenage diaries. But there's nothing like a well-written romance--the happy endings alone are worth the seven bucks. Yes, most genre romances (those sold in grocery stores as well as bookstores) have happy endings now, which reflect the happy cultural triumph of the bourgeoisie.

For those of us who don't have to fight in the Crusades or found an empire, the romance world is still a great place to vacation in the middle of the afternoon. If you like to see the sublime joys of the private life triumph over the fleeting pleasures and enduring injustices of the public one, here are a few recommendations. My very favorite historical romance writer is Eloisa James. She writes Georgian (late 18th century) and Regency (early 19th century) romances. She uses a pen name because she's--wait for it--a Shakespeare professor in her real life! A lot of her stories have "Bardic" elements, and they're all well-written. I also like Suzanne Brockmann, who writes military romances, about special ops guys and spunky women who are, like, sharpshooters and martial arts experts. Someone should do a remake of Othello where Desdemona kicks Iago's ass.

Okay, not really.

Now, if anyone reading this is from the FTC, I want you to know that I haven't gotten a thing from these authors. Not even a free book. So don't even think about fining me, you hear?

On to Romeo and Juliet. I'm just going to set this up, and really get into reading the play next time. Romance is first of all a metaphysics. It's about oppositions: Venus and Mars, love and war, true feelings and sleazy come-ons, humans and vampires...well, you can plug any sort of opposition into a romance frame and make it work. R & J takes this foundational idea and goes wild with it. Love and war, night and day, young and old, artificial-sounding poetry and genuine emotion--theses and antitheses, as far as the eye can see. The play starts with a sonnet, but fancy poetic language gives way to the crude obscenities of the next scene, when two sets of servants--representing the warring houses of Capulet and Montague--mix it up in a public street. Is it a romance, or a civil war?

Stay tuned.


  1. Love it! as one who's career was recently blamed to be the reason "we" broke up...I applaud your observations throughout historical romantic literature--don't give up your day job for a
    B-job. In the end-it's all you'll have left anyway.

  2. On the other hand, as we both know, the public life can also let you down big time. Personally, I'm looking for that elusive middle ground.
    Of course, literature loathes the middle ground. You either live blissfully ever after (comedy), or you end up dead (tragedy).
    That's why you have to keep avoid those "misadventured piteous overthrows" that wreck your day.