Tuesday 05 March 2002

Gone, but not forgotten

Burningbird isn’t sure “if romance, or I should say Romance, will ever show itself again”:

Did we lose Romance when we burned our bras and marched for equal rights for women? Did we as women slap one too many men when they moved to open the door for us, creating whole generations of men who are hesitant to display anything even remotely resembling a gesture that can be construed as sexist?

In a comment, Tom Graves replies:

In my case the answer’s yes. At 50, I’m only just beginning to get past that hesitancy, and trust that simply expressing polite respect to a woman won’t merely get me yet another acid-in-the-face putdown from her but risk job dismissal or even a jail sentence. That’s how bad it’s been for men in the past few decades; that’s how bad it still _is_ for men, by law, in most Western cultures. Genuine feminism - _genuine_ equal-and-different, with genuine equality of responsibility - is vitally important; but state-feminism has been the West’s Taliban, and, worse, lives in our minds, corroding our hearts, and poisoning _everyone’s_ lives with exported fear.

Abie Hadjitarkhani adds:

It’s got nothing to do with gender or power or sexual politics. It’s about thoughtfulness, selflessness, grace, and a sense of humor—all of which can be expressed simply and beautifully in tiny gestures. Attentiveness to detail and creative implementing of those tiny gestures is part of knowing how to love.
There IS a burden of grace on the recipient too. That’s part of know how to BE loved, and it doesn’t always come naturally.

When I read Tom’s and Abie’s comments I thought immediately of Andrew O’Hehir’s response to Germaine Greer’s characterization of Tolkienian literature as a “flight from reality”:

This is true enough if you understand the ideological content of her terms, so that “flight” means “thoroughgoing rejection” and “reality” means “the accepted liberal narrative of material and political progress.”

In Ms Greer’s “progressive” narrative, a tight-knit crowd marches resolutely towards the future harboring an ill-disguised contempt for the past. Yet no-one seems to notice the mood or behavior of their companions: that the women are harried and discontented, the men alienated and resentful, the children troubled and neglected. Feminism promised women they could “have it all”—family, career, love, romance, material success—and, best of all, that these riches, this new reality, would come at little or no cost.

You’d have to be lunatic to assert that a narrow elite of Western women hasn’t benefited substantially from the triumph of feminism. And yet, why do so many women, despite all their successes, remain discontented?

Charles Frazier writes in Cold Mountain:

Ada could hear in Ruby’s breathing that she was yet awake, and so she said, Do you remember that song of your father’s about the mole in the ground? Ruby said that she did, and Ada asked if Ruby thought Stobrod had written the song. Ruby said there were many songs that you could not say anybody in particular made by himself. A song went around from fiddler to fiddler and each one added something and took something away so that in time the song became a different thing from what it had been, barely recognizable in either tune or lyric. But you could not say the song had been improved, for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride.

That passage floored me, crystallizing beliefs I’d held unconsciously for years:

  • Everything has a cost
  • Our gains rarely outweigh our losses
  • The past is precious
  • Progress is an illusion

The Romance that Burningbird yearns for—the romance of long dresses, waltzes, smoldering looks, passionate kisses (no tongues or groping!), plucked roses, secret notes, long moonlight walks, the look, the gentle whisper light touch—has largely vanished. Burningbird admits as much when she says:

Shannon, I think in some ways you’re right—today’s society just isn’t the hearts and flowers and moonlight society it once was…good and bad.

Good and bad. The good disappears with the bad. It happens every day.

One of my favorite novels is Tanizaki Junichiro’s Sasame yuki (The Makioka Sisters), which depicts the daily life of four sisters from an upper-middle-class family—three in Osaka-Kobe, the fourth in Tokyo. First serialized in a magazine in 1943, Tanizaki’s story was almost immediately suppressed by the Japanese military censors. In Volume 3 of his History of Japanese Literature, Kato Shuichi explains:

The novel does not however go further to touch on the wider issues of the government, the army, the war and the other parts of the historical conditions of the times. Thus there is no criticism. Why then did the army censors ban this novel? Why did Tanizaki write such a novel during the war? And why is this chronicle of the minutiae of middle-class life not tedious for the reader? The answer to all these questions is essentially the same.

During the war Tanizaki must have had a bitter awareness that the life and society to which he was so attached would soon be completely lost and that no part of it—the buildings, the tableware, the cadence of local speech, the taste in kimono and the elegant countenance and deportment of the women—would ever be revived, nor would the life style that unified them. There was only one way to bring alive again these lost times and that was to write this novel. He therefore wrote, not of the ideals of sexual love which had long been his central concern, but of an entire and tangible small society, transforming his idolization of women into a celebration of all of this microcosm…

The major significance that The Makioka Sisters has in the history of the Japanese novel does not come from its defiance of tradition but from its superb realization of the possibilities of tradition…

The poignant clarity with which Tanizaki expressed his heartfelt desire to return to the world of yesterday could not have been lost on the censors. Yesterday meant a world without militarism and it was the evocation of this world, not criticism of militarism, that the authorities could not tolerate.

The movies of the 30’s and 40’s that Burningbird yearns for were based on a belief, similar to Tanizaki’s, that women are magic. The French New Wave filmmakers, who learned their craft from those Hollywood films, believed it too.

Truffaut made film after film in which the women, in James Monaco’s words, “are fuller and more sophisticated as characters, and wiser, more powerful, and more human as women, than the huge majority of women characters in films of the sixties and seventies. Godard’s cinematographer, Raoul Coutard, said about the film Contempt: “I’m positive that… he’s trying to explain something to his wife. It’s a letter that’s costing Beauregard [the producer] a million dollars.” What else is Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating but a hymn to the power of feminine magic?

The New Wave films blended romanticism and an appreciation for tradition with rigorous politics and a genuine respect for women. Hardly anyone watches them now. If women themselves do not believe they are magical, how can they expect Romance from men?

Pockets of Romantic behavior still exist: they remind me of the booklovers striding back and forth in the snowclad forest in Fahrenheit 451, learning by heart the texts that will soon be consigned to the flames. Truffaut made a film from Ray Bradbury’s novel:

I wanted to make the movie because I wanted to show books in difficulty, almost as if they were people in difficulty. I wanted the audience to suffer as if they were seeing animals or people burning.

These days, the books are fine; it’s the people who are burning. If our concern is for Romance, it wasn’t always like this. To paraphrase Talleyrand:

She who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.

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Beautifully put, Jonathan. Thank you. As you say, "Feminism promised women they could 'have it all' -- family, career, love, romance, material success -- and, best of all, that these riches, this new reality, would come at little or no cost." The crucial point was that it was believed that there would be little or no cost _to themselves_: the costs were real (and some of them were known beforehand, given the crude Marxist win/lose models many 60s and 70s feminists used), but it was assumed that they'd all be borne by others - primarily by men, later by other women outside of that 'narrow elite' you so accurately described. But 'progress' doesn't work that way: as you say, there's always a cost, and what goes around comes around... Inventing a 'war' has only ever had one result: everyone loses, and there is misery for everyone. Inventing a 'gender-war' where none existed, and deliberately setting out to hurt as many people as possible - as many of those early feminists did, to conceal from themselves their own self-centredness and greed - has left us, as a society, exactly as you described: "the women are harried and discontented, the men alienated and resentful, the children troubled and neglected".
Romance, as BurningBird described it, has little chance of flowering in such an environment; and perhaps will never flower again unless women re-learn to respect others beyond themselves, and that they too - just like men - have not just 'rights' but real responsibilities for creating and maintaining a world worth living in.

Posted by Tom Graves on 5 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathan, Well done! I think you've hit the nail on the head with the idea that everything has a cost. "Progress", in historical terms, has always come at the cost of something, yet has always been promised to us at no cost. Unfortunately, our grasp of history is such that we continue to go forward without stopping to count the costs, and only wind up hurting ourselves in the end, most of the time.

Posted by Mike on 5 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Romance survives best in the soft haze of moonlight rather than the striking white light of discourse. It does seem as if romance lives, but Romance is dead. And I can't help feeling that we're all a little less for this.
But then, I am a Romantic -- last of a dying breed...

Posted by Burningbird on 5 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I have addessed some of this on my blog, but let me add that I believe that women must -- and can -- be considered equal to men intellectually and creatively, while still being different from men in our quirky, sexual, nurturing natures. In my vast years of experience, I have found that men find it very easy to be romantic when they are in the process of seduction. After that, they lose the motivation. Except for men who ballroom dance. Non-sexual romance is part of that whole scene. It's why I love it.

Posted by Elaine on 7 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Elaine, by quoting Monaco on the qualities of the female characters in Truffaut's films, I took it as a given that women are equal to men, intellectually and creatively. But allow me to say that it takes two to tango. While I agree that men can be at their most romantic during the process of seduction, all around me I see women who lost the motivation years ago.
As let's also admit that within women's "quirky, sexual, nurturing natures," there's a fair quotient of manipulative bullshit. The romantic man understands the difference. The romantic woman is ecstatic when she encounters a man who celebrates her existence without tolerating her nonsense.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 8 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour