Civilization and its discontents
|Ever optimistic, heady with love's utopianism, most of us eventually pledge ourselves to unions that will, if successful, far outlast the desire that impelled them into being. The prevailing cultural wisdom is that even if sexual desire tends to be a short-lived phenomenon, ''mature love'' will kick in to save the day when desire flags. The issue that remains unaddressed is whether cutting off other possibilities of romance and sexual attraction for the more muted pleasures of mature love isn't similar to voluntarily amputating a healthy limb: a lot of anesthesia is required and the phantom pain never entirely abates. But if it behooves a society to convince its citizenry that wanting change means personal failure or wanting to start over is shameful or simply wanting more satisfaction than what you have is an illicit thing, clearly grisly acts of self-mutilation will be required.|
...But even sans thinking, it's hard not to be aware that all is not so peachy in the land of love and romance. As love has increasingly become the center of all emotional expression in the modern imagination-the quantity without which life seems forlorn-anxiety about obtaining it in sufficient quantities and for sufficient duration has increased to the point that that anxiety suffuses the population, and most of our cultural forms. With the central premise of modern love the expectation that a state of coupled permanence is achievable, and as freighted with psychological interiority as we all now are, uncoupling can only be experienced as egocrushing crisis and inadequacy. Even though such uncoupling is increasingly the norm, not the exception, the grief of failed love is exacerbated by inevitable feeling of personal failure, because the expectation is that it should be otherwise-even though technically everyone knows that as the demands put on the couple form escalated, so did divorce rates, and even knows that given the current divorce rate, all indications are that whomever you love today -- the center of your universe, your little Poopsie -- has a good chance of becoming your worst nightmare at least 50 percent of the time. (Of course, that's only the percentage who actually leave unhappy unions, and not an accurate indication of the happiness level or nightmare potential of the other 50 percent who don't.) Marriage historian Lawrence Stone suggests -- rather jocularly, you can't help thinking -- that today's rising divorce rates are just a modern technique for achieving what was once achieved far more efficiently by early mortality.
...This modern belief that love lasts shapes us into particularly fretful psychological beings, perpetually in search of prescriptions, interventions, aids. Passion must not be allowed to die! Frequent professional consultation and attempted cures are thus routine, seized on with desperation regardless of cost or consequence. At least this has an economic upside: whole new sectors of the economy have been spawned, an array of ancillary industries and markets fostered, and massive social investments in new technologies undertaken, from Viagra to couples porn: late-capitalism's Lourdes for dying marriages. Like dedicated doctors keeping corpses breathing with shiny heart-lung machines and artificial organs, couples too, armed with their newfangled technologies, can now beat back passion's death. Of course the penchant for keeping things alive through technology does have a ghoulish underside: witness the nursing homes crammed to capacity with our rotting and abandoned corpse-like elders, who spend their days aimlessly shuffling the hallways-those who can still walk, that is-muttering, "Enough already." We've all seen more than a few couples in the same condition, hooked to their weekly therapy sessions like a joint respirator, and have probably wondered how long it can be before the coroner arrives to pronounce the body dead, or whether a dignified and humane ending (someone grab a pillow) wouldn't be preferable. (New Yorker cartoon: husband and wife at marriage counseling. Husband to therapist: "No heroic measures.") Is beating death really worth any sacrifice? "Yes!" say the technocrats in their starchy lab coats: if every other aspect of nature can be tamed and transformed by technology, why not desire too? Desire may not have lasted a lifetime back in the old days ("The one obstacle love can't overcome is time, " Denis de Rougemont says acerbically in Love in the Western World), but that was then and this is now: a brave new world of love.
-- Laura Kipnis, Against Love