Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Don't Fear the Reaper

Romeo and Juliet,
together in eternity...
we can be like they are,
come on baby,
don't fear the Reaper 

If you're anywhere near my age, you remember that Blue Oyster Cult song pretty well. I'm reminding you of this timeless FM hit in order to prove that...

(ominous guitar riffs, please)

Romeo and Juliet is the most dangerous work of literature ever written!

I know, you think this is hyperbole. But I am totally serious. Devoid of irony. Okay, probably I'm not capable of that--but only a teeny bit ironic. This play, I really believe, has done more psychic and cultural damage than just about any other single work in the Great Books Tradition. Well, maybe The Iliad was as bad--it made war so glamorous that millions of young men lined up for short glorious lives as cannon fodder. Or spear fodder. But in the modern era, no text has done as much to twist up people's heads about intimacy and social ethics than this play, in my view.

Let me lay out my argument here. The first part is historical, and the second is cultural/psychological.

The historical argument:

When romance got started as a genre, in the medieval period, its thematic emphasis was on restoring a balance between the public world of duty and war, and the private realm of emotions and intimacy. This opposition, then as now, broke down along gender lines. A man went out to have chivalric adventures, met a fair damsel, and had to somehow maintain his reputation for valor while still keeping a high-maintenance aristocratic woman happy. No mean feat, considering that communications and travel times weren't what they are now. Maintaining your rep could mean spending months, even years, away from home fighting some senseless war. But if you stayed home and cuddled with Lady Whatever, you'd be a wimp, a recreant, a craven coward.  Now this was a literary problem, mind you. Most real aristocratic women knew their husbands had better things to do than whisper sonnets in their ears.

Nevertheless, you can see the vestiges of this idea in Romeo's worry that Juliet has made him "effeminate"--it's the motive for his murder of Tybalt, really. In the twelfth-century romances of Chretien de Troyes, (the literary father of modern romance), love helps the hero realize his obligations to society. It doesn't demand that he abandon society altogether. In the end, he's a good husband and a better knight. Romance, as I think I mentioned in an earlier post, is first and foremost an ethical genre, oriented toward social inclusion, the synthesis of public duty and private desire. It's a win-win.

Of course that's romance in the comic mode. There are earlier models for tragic romance, too--most obviously the story of Troilus and Criseyde ("Cressida" in Will's version). This story, like that of Antony and Cleopatra (another tragic romance) was embedded in history. It was a digression, a side-story, if you will, that was attached to the larger narrative of the Trojan War. Troilus and Criseyde, in Chaucer's famous narrative poem, were separated by history--she was traded to the Greeks, Troy fell, end of story. 

Personal aside: I published a lot of nonsense about this poem in my past life as an academic. Don't bother looking that stuff up, though--those articles are pretty worthless. Full of pretentious, obfuscatory academic jargon. They, along with about 99% of academic writing on literature, ought to be tossed down the memory hole. Thanks to Google and acid-free paper, unfortunately, we're probably stuck with this drivel for decades to come. Hopefully they will be lost to posterity owing to their sheer irrelevance.

Anyway, my point is this: Romeo and Juliet was a novelty because it took romance out of history. This gave it its "chameleon" allure--as I pointed out earlier, you can set it in pretty much any period or culture and still get basically the same story. Great, right? Wrong. What this did was remove the larger purpose of the genre, which was to showcase life's most vexing questions:  how do we as nations, communities, and individuals reconcile public and private notions of "the good?" How can we live together as a society without sacrificing our own personal happiness? When must our individual desires take a back seat to society and community?

This play isn't the least bit interested in those questions. Romeo and Juliet are at war with society from the word go. Their parents don't understand them--worse, their parents are stuck in the past. R and J are modern. They know that love is more important than tired old ideas like family, heredity, custom.  When Juliet finds out her cousin Tybalt is dead and Romeo banished for his murder, she spares a few words for her cousin, and even considers blaming Romeo for his death.  But the poetry is of the old, oxymoronic kind that the play has already devalued, shown to be false and empty:

O serpent heart hid with a flow'ring face!
Did ever dragon keep so fair a cave?
Beautiful tyrant, fiend angelical!
Dove-feathered raven, wolvish-ravening lamb!
Despised substance of divinest show!
Just opposite to what thou justly seem'st--
O nature, what hadst thou to do in hell,
When thou didst bower the spirit of a fiend
In mortal paradise of such sweet flesh?
Was ever book containing such vile matter
So fairly bound?

This brief moment of doubt is full of tried-and-true Renaissance stuff--Neo-platonism ("despised substance of divinest show") Petrarchan paradoxes ("fiend angelical," etc.), and, specific to this play and several others (e.g., Love's Labours Lost), contempt for bookishness. We're supposed to remember Lady Cap's book report on Paris's charms, from Act 1. When Juliet starts sounding like mom, you know she's momentarily lost her sublime teenage edge. A few lines later, she gets with the program:

...that one word, 'banished'
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts. Tybalt's death
Was woe enough, if it had ended there;
Or, if sour woe delights in fellowship
And needly will be ranked with other griefs,
Why followed not, when she said "Tybalt's dead,'
'Thy father,' or 'thy mother,' nay, or both,
Which modern lamentation might have moved?
But with a rearward following Tybalt's death,
'Romeo is banished'--to speak that word
Is father, mother, Tybalt, Romeo, Juliet,
All slain, all dead. 'Romeo is banished'--
There is no end, limit, measure, bound,
In that word's death. No words can that woe sound.

She'd rather have lost her whole family than suffer Romeo's banishment. This is crazy stuff for that era. In the aristocratic world, family and heredity were everything. Family gave you a place in society, an identity, a past and a future. Without it you were unanchored, unnamed, or just...common. Will was speaking to and for a newer world of status based on merit, not family--a middle-class world. Hence the radical notion that names are arbitrary--Romeo is more than Montague, he has an essence that transcends his family and its history. But this idea was still in its infancy, and Juliet's hasty abandonment of her entire world for the new limitless cosmos of love would have seemed wild, irrational, and destructive.

But great theater, for sure.

When Juliet claims that "no words can that woe sound," Will's arguing for a mystical notion of love that's beyond language, that "beggars description," to borrow from Antony and Cleopatra. A love that's beyond reason and knows no rules. This kind of romance is a wild ride on the outskirts of society. It's almost--criminal.

Romeo, for his part, has no remorse for killing Tybalt, and spares not a word about his dead best friend Mercutio. His self-pitying lament to Friar Laurence is all about how even dogs, cats and insects can now see Juliet, and he can't.  He's such a pathetic whiner that both the Nurse--who arrives in the middle of the scene--and the Friar have to admonish him for his lack of manliness. But what interests me in both these scenes is the ease with which first Juliet, then Romeo simply turn their backs on society, family, and friendship. Their only ethical responsibility is to one another, and the love that they've made into a mystical/ontological ideal.  When Juliet wishes for the night, imagines Romeo leaping into her arms "untalked of and unseen," she rejects the daylight world of duty, family, city, nation. She's in the hortus conclusus of private, erotic life.

And that's reason one why this play is so dangerous. It rejects social responsibility, collectivity, and family completely. It's radically anarchic and fundamentally pathological.

Which brings me to the cultural/psychological argument:

When I was a novice assistant professor at Midwestern Big Ten U, one of the female grad students in our (English) department was murdered. The killer was a former boyfriend who, refusing to admit the relationship was over, packed up and drove out from California (Stanford, I think) with about thirty guns in his trunk. He wanted to make their love eternal, so he shot her dead in her dorm room, along with a guy who tried to intervene. Then he shot himself.

We can be like they are
Come on baby
Take my hand
Don't fear the Reaper
Baby I'm your man...

Sounds different if you imagine it as a one-sided fantasy, doesn't it?  Of course this terrible event got me thinking about romance, and the whole "together in eternity" thing. In the romance world where language is inadequate, where love transcends all law, it's not all that hard to make a "pathological leap," into the moral abyss.  If you're, you know, mentally unbalanced. But many of  these men (and women--although they're less likely to go homicidal) started out sane, just needy. Soon, however, their fragile identities got tangled up in what I call the Theology of Romance. The idea that through romantic love--which has very little to do with its object, ultimately--you can get to that place where there's "no end, no limit, measure, bound" to intimacy. The place where you can lose yourself utterly.

And I'm sorry, but that's just sick.

This fantasy doesn't inevitably lead to homicide or suicide, of course. Sometimes it just leads to serial divorce. Because that feeling, the one Romeo and Juliet have for their few days of bliss, isn't real. It's poetic, it's magical, it's erotic--most of all, it's theatrical. But it's not what love really is. If you can't make it through that phase without resenting the fact that it's over, your relationship is doomed.

Romance is a hot commodity, however. Has been ever since Romeo and Juliet made the intellectual and moral darkness more alluring than the light of reason. Musical and (quasi-) literary careers sustain and are sustained by this fantasy. In a sense, vampire romances are so successful because they allow you to have your eternity and eat it, too. Everyone's dead, or wants to be--but you can still have sequels!

Romance sells because people want to experience that intensity, that mystical moment of radical unknowing. They want to be outside history and immune to the predations of time. Who doesn't want that? It would be an amazing feeling if it were real.  It's a powerful idea--that there's someone out there who's going to look at you and see Eternity. I mean without the death. If self-help books, plastic surgery, song lyrics and romance novels can give me that feeling, even vicariously, why wouldn't I go for it?

I repeat: because it's not real.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the people most invested in this feeling are also profoundly disappointed other aspects of their lives. They want out of the public world, with all its compromises and obligations--and in to the private, theatrical one, where the footlights never fade.  But love shouldn't be something that alienates you from your community--even if your family is a disappointment, you're still a social animal. Still embedded in history, with all the moral responsibility that entails. It shouldn't  make you forget to mourn your best friend, or wish your parents (however lame) would disappear. This ideal of love sets us up for disappointment at best, disaster at worst. It asks way too much of another person. It asks way too much of The Emotional Life. It's anti-intellectual, irrational, and fundamentally amoral.

Love of any kind should make you more yourself, not less. It should make you embrace the light, not hide in the dark. It shouldn't turn death into an alluring metaphor.

But theater, on the other hand, should do all that stuff. It should make you forget yourself for awhile. It should make you love the darkness. It should make scary things into beautiful metaphors. It's okay to love this play. It's just not okay to live it.

So don't fear the Reaper. But don't chase him down, either. You've got more than three days to find happiness.


  1. This was a superb post. The R & J love story is adolescence dramatized. Unfortunately, I see so much of it playing out in my daughter's life. I think she may finally be past the self-immolation stage, thank God. That adults continue to search out and rationalize their bad relationship choices based on these adolescent impulses is just so repulsive. Maybe, I've finally lived long enough to see the absurdity in the self-abnegation that plays out in young women in the throes of "romantic or erotic love."

    I also think you put your finger right on the psycho male romantic killer-button.

    Great post, Gayle. I don't know about your academic-era writings, but this essay deserves wider dissemination.

  2. Thanks, BL. I'm actually happy to have just a few smart readers like yourself.

    Re: bad relationship choices--yes, we've all been there. It's all so seductive, the romance thing, and it has the full weight of culture and capital behind it, so it's hard to see through the false consciousness, even if you're smart about other things.

    It was actually cathartic to write, because I've been having trouble with this play--not as literature, but as ideology. Not because I was a romance addict--I only had a couple (very) early bouts of Bad Boyfriend Disease. My bad romances were with ideas...but that's probably another post about another play...

    thanks for reading--I do like dialogue better than monologue!

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  4. Great post - a tour de force