Love's labours lost

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 February, 2004, 12:00am

Falling in love, western style, is one of the strongest feelings a person is likely to experience in his or her lifetime. Women are generally considered its chief custodians - or victims, depending on your politics. No longer. Romance has been pronounced dead by the chick-lit industry. Now, a glut of self-help guides is working on the post-mortem examination.

The tone of blockbusters such as Sex and the Married Girl, The Programme: 15 Steps to Finding a Husband After 30 and The Rules registers somewhere between a business plan and a military campaign. So, there is plenty to dismay the thinking reader. But this does not include, in my view, what appears to offend critics most: the notion that love involves a series of trade-offs.

Of course, that is the last thing that needs to be said in a place like Hong Kong. Eligible foreign men here never tire of testifying to the relative lucidity of Chinese girlfriends in this respect, when compared to the girls back home. As harsh as the analogy sounds, all single people have a market value. Bargaining chips can include issues like family, property, prestige, earning power and physical appearance. Take the most immediately obvious: appearance. Singles rarely make a play for a stranger, studies show, unless they match themselves in attractiveness - as assessed by other people. In other words, models do not fall helplessly in love with fat, out-of-work plumbers, no matter how romantic they are.

So why don't today's empowered women recognise the duality involved and balance both? Why not accept the implicit rules of negotiation with grace and then embrace a passionate romance? They want to, I believe. But they are still upset about having been sidelined for so long. They are awkward, reluctant and often unrealistic suitors. Men, meanwhile, are still processing their social demotion. The power balance is in flux.

You never know, these Machiavellian love manuals may herald the disappearance of the notion of romantic love from the western social radar screen - maybe to be rediscovered by anthropologists in future centuries in an isolated African tribe whose gospel is enshrined in a mouldy boxed set of Ally McBeal reruns. Women without romance might whip up Barbie-burning riots, form armies and maintain harems of George Clooney clones staffed by castrated slackers.

Alternatively, what may happen is the sociological equivalent of hedonic levelling. This is a psychological term describing how people experience episodes of extreme joy and misery in their lives, but ultimately fall back into their usual place along the happy-unhappy continuum. As post-feminism societies mature, things may settle into a new, harmonious blend of the practical and the illusory. Falling in love, let us not forget, is all about illusion. It is like a promise, wrote eminent French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan 'to give something you haven't got to someone who doesn't exist'. Generally speaking, illusion is one of the reasons life is worth living. Managed well, it is more inspiring, energising and fun than bare pragmatics.

Feminists promoted disillusionment because they saw romantic love as a trap - the opium of the housewives, if you like. But this does not exclude romance in a form better calibrated to the times. I believe men want to be (willingly) enslaved by romance as much as women do - providing the practical fundamentals are there.

Illusion, like so much else in life, is a question of balance. For example, personally, I would be willing to give a little on the tooth fairy, but Santa Claus is non-negotiable. Ditto my version of Love (note the capital). It is worth noting that despite their shallow, cynical behaviour, self-absorption and unreflective competitiveness, the women in Sex in the City and Bridget Jones's Diary still dream of romantic love - they are just not sure they should.

It has only been since the 18th century that romantic love has reigned as the ideal starting point for a lifetime of ostensible monogamy. People did fall in love before then, of course, just as they do in China today. But for a constellation of social, economic and political reasons, the feeling is ascribed a different emotional meaning and considered too ephemeral to build a future around.

An outworn western ideal is in its death throes and, as someone else once said, there are few things as sad to witness as the disappearance of something dear to you that you know in your heart to be obsolete. Glass slipper romance is dead, or dying. But it was such a hit, there's bound to be a sequel.

Jean Nicol is a psychologist specialising in issues of cultural identity and change in an era of globalisation


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Love's labours lost

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