Madly in love, or just mad...
'Romance is not dead, but perhaps it should be'
Sunday 30 August 1998
Or some such hooey. Welcome to the glorious world of true romance. It's what every girl wants and what every little boy seeks to provide; right up there with good sense of humour, own teeth and clitoris-identification potential in every list of relationship requisites from Cosmo reader surveys to the Private Eye lonely-hearts column. Now that hard, random shagging (prophylactically enhanced, naturally) is A-OK as the modern girl's weekend pursuit of choice, romance has somehow slipped back into fashion.
As anyone who has been ejected from the bedroom to ringing shrieks of "Why can't you try being goddamn romantic for a change?" will know, it is a complicated business to get right. A polythene-wrapped bunch of carnations still emitting the bluey haze of the garage forecourt has never passed muster, chocolates are a calorific minefield , likewise dinner a deux. Yet a soul can get all of these right and still fail miserably, because as we all know romance lies not in things but in actions; romance is a state of mind. It is the "Surprise me, do something spontaneous!" of Hollywood cliche.
What seems strange is that in everything from big-screen weepies to serious pop music, modern notions of romance seem peculiarly indebted to the wilder edges of 19th-century fiction. I cannot speak for the fantasies of men, but good little girls who read their GCSE English texts still hanker after a Heathcliff. To all intents and purposes our concepts of romantic behaviour have shifted little in centuries; from Wuthering Heights to Titanic, fatal heroes and heroines watch through windows, duel to the death, send anonymous notes, adopt disguise and leap elegantly under trains. The deadly madness of their fictional passion is precisely the element judged to be missing in the straight-talking modern relationship.
A prominent American feminist wrote jealously of the passion that must have existed between OJ and Nicole Simpson; why could she ,too, not taste that fatal heat with somebody, just once? Although she did not seem to make the connection at the time, this envy seems to be the crux of the problem. Romance is not dead; there are a whole host of people out there behaving exactly as the classic novel dictates. We don't call them heroes, we call them freaks, stalkers, phone pests, sexual harassers, obsessives and murderers. Proper romantic behaviour, conducted in the traditional style will land you, at best, on the Jerry Springer Show and at worst, behind bars.
This is not a question of gender; women are also quite capable of following someone around, leaving things on their doorstep and making anonymous phone calls, all in the belief that they are following their heart. In many of these incidents there is some kind of love going on and the whole thing blossoms into a relationship. But just as the lottery winner's "knowledge" that they will win is identical to the belief of the millions of people who don't, the actions of the tragically misplaced romantic feel absolutely rational and justified.
Abusive, domineering husbands, obsessive fans and voyeuristic ex-lovers all find their actions sanctioned by the romantic side of modern culture, and there are thousands of them out there. I was shocked to discover how many of the comedians in Edinburgh have stalkers of some kind, and how many people I knew had at some point been followed around or watched themselves.
There now seems to be an understanding of the difference between fantasy and desire in the realm of sex; we accept that people who fantasise about rape or violence generally have no desire to experience these things. But in the area of romance and seduction, the lines between acceptable and unacceptable modes of behaviour still seem to be dangerously blurred.
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