What is Romance?
A Knight with his lance?
An errant glance?
Or a hand down your pants?
There is a stanza in John Keats’ poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” that reads:
“I saw palekings and princes too,/ Pale warrior, death-pale were they all;/ They cried—‘LaBelle Dame sans Merci/ Thee hath in thrall!’” And in the re-Raphaelite painting, the knight (symbol of reason) has literally been “un-horsed” by his passion for the fairy-like woman who has now assumed the upper hand and rides the steed. He is “in love,” enthralled by her beauty and mystery. This is the great stuff of romance, no?
Well, actually, no. If you are trying to be politically correct, Keats’ poem is the dying gasp of the patriarchy that depicts women as helpless, preyed upon or, alternately, evil vixens who plot men’s demise. Any good critic worth their (note the gender-neutral pronoun!) salt will tell you that this depiction of chivalry is rotten to the core as are, by and large, all men who use the concept of romance to subjugate women. After all, the origin of the word chivalry is from the French chevalier, meaning “knight”.
Romance, said Marx, is a bourgeois fallacy, pundits are quick to point out. Hence, holding a chair for a woman, helping her into her coat, or carrying a young lady’s books home from school are not gestures of caring and respect but rather a means to demean and degrade a woman, implying that she is weak. Some of this criticism is certainly true, for in Victorian times when women went out to social gatherings, they had to use toilets discreetly, so as to deny that they had actual bodily functions. During courtship, men had to present themselves at family interviews where they sat uncomfortably across a room facing a woman who was invariably surrounded by two or more dowager aunts at a great distance from the males lest their spunk fly across and impregnate the chaste virgin. Euphemisms like “I’m going to powder my nose” meant going to the bathroom, yet another way to deny women’s rights to have bodily functions. I wonder if there could not have been a similar sensitive-male rejoinder in the case of having to answer the call of nature: “I’m going to powder my hose?” No wonder this hypocrisy about sex and sexuality led to some of the greatest erotic porn of that era.
So, what is a man to do in these politically charged, post #MeToo times? Is a man automatically to be thought of as a rapist, and must he forever apologize for his desires? What to do on a first date? Establish only eye contact and never let one’s eyes drift south towards (gasp!) your date’s breasts? Talk only about neutral topics and never flirt? And what about paying for dinner? Could this not be construed as a chauvinist ploy to compel the woman to yield her favors at the end of the evening in repayment? And what if the evening is going well? Is a chaste kiss and hug acceptable, or will the “victim” cry RAPE at any attempt at such physical violation?
Look, I’m all for women’s rights, and sexual abuse is unfortunately rampant in our society, but haven’t we gone a bit too far by trying to be so desperately politically correct? Is an expression of ardor and a show of romance so terrible and wrong? Is buying someone flowers on Valentine’s Day with an amorous tag to it a violation of someone’s rights? Would it really be better to write gender-neutral lines like:
Roses are red
Violets are blue,
I’m gonna get cancer
And so will you.
Ah, yes! And what about the consummation of desire? Can one be cisgender (hey, I read up on all the correct terms!) and not have to apologize for that? Does it mean that one is against gays or transgender people and their particular sexual inclinations? Does believing in a consensual sexual act between two people of the opposite sex preclude the possibilities of procreation?
After all, the great poet, Walt Whitman, himself gay, wrote in “Song of Myself”:
Urge and urge and urge
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals
Advance, always substance and
Whitman knew that this “urge” was an essential part of life, not to be questioned but only acted upon.
Strangely, despite all our rethinking of gender roles, lust, desire, and maleness, the media still depicts clichéd sexual stereo-typing of males, and articles about having earth-shattering orgasms abound in women’s journals, and pleasing your man and driving him wild is required reading for most. Montreal’s Salon Marions Nous, fills an exhibition hall to the rafters where future married couples go to gawk and shop to have their fairy-tale $50,000 wedding.
When I was teaching in college, I used to challenge my students by telling them a story that had been in the news about a young fundamentalist Christian man who was a virgin and who was kidnapped and raped by a woman. He was sedated and taken to a hotel room where he was tied up and the woman who had done this then had sex with him multiple times. I told this story to try to explain to them that our concepts about rape were not always one sided, thinking that they, who were brought up to view sex in a politically correct fashion, would agree that this, in fact, was also a violation. Instead, something interesting happened: while I was telling this story, the entire class started to laugh, men and women alike. The thought of a woman taking the initiative and a man not enjoying sex and feeling violated was inconceivable to them. “So, how did the dude become hard, sir, if he wasn’t getting off on it?” one student quipped.
Was the fact that I had a devilish smirk on my face while telling this story a giveaway?
And herein lies the moral to this tale: maybe, just maybe the idea of sexual pleasure and arousal is different for men and for women. Maybe for males it is more the“procreant urge,” above all, and is that necessarily bad or wrong? I’m not justifying rape here by any means, but I am saying something about the nature of desire. And maybe, just maybe (and feminists may scream at this and call me a chauvinist pig) women also have profound desires that may not be only for acceptance, but also more physical ones (perhaps even for biological conception?), though their needs may be subtler and perhaps (dare I say it?) more romantic as well.
My son’s best friend, a hugely charismatic young man, brilliant, a sailor, a poet, and an all- around charming rake once told me a story of how he would court women. Not unlike the Corso character in the poem “Marriage”, he would take them on dates to cemeteries and wax poetic about the transience of life. He may even have read them the poetry of Donne and Marvell, and, finally, in the greatest romantic gesture of them all, he would slip pieces of paper into their purses that contained lines from Pablo Neruda’s love poems while they were unaware. He banked on the fact that they would find these notes and read them. And remember.
He, my son, and a few others are perhaps the last of the great Romantics in our troubled post-modern times. Unfortunately for interested readers, they are both spoken for by brilliant women who understand these lines from Montreal’s own son, Leonard Cohen: “I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat.”
May they and their kind always abide!