Romantic love began to appear in Europe at around the same time or after the Virgin Mary came to be more commonly depicted in art and prayed to throughout the West. It sort of makes sense from a logical and aesthetic perspective if people who were praying for the intercession of a sacred virgin all the time would come to value virginity highly.
But that would be a bit of a mistaken conclusion — virginity tends to be (and tended to be) highly valued almost everywhere, both civilized and non-civilized, throughout history. The particular character of romantic love, on the other hand, is close to unique, with all of its overbearing displays of devotion, exchanges of letters, singing of songs, and occasional self-mutilations.
When people in previous times venerated virginity, they did it in the service of other virtues — namely those of chastity, diligence, patience, prudence, temperance, self-control, and loyalty. It was also connected to religion, as it is today within more pious communities. That’s not to say that in the past there were no people who didn’t live up to those virtues. That’s why they’re virtues and not character aspects which we simply expect from everyone.
It’s common to say that romance is dead — in the real world — at the same time as romance explodes in popularity in the world of fantasy.
In fantasy worlds which are popular today, men are tough knights, space marines, grizzled cops, and Italian plumbers with incredible vertical leaps. In the fantasies of women, they’re virgins in the firm hands of a respectable billionaire pervert. While the stories might be a little odd, stories are always odd.
So, while Romance the genre remains the most popular Western genre of fantasy, romance the concept has come to be widely denigrated, almost universally so. I have trouble even thinking of a contemporary figure who’s not also ridiculous who argues for romantic behavior as it was once understood.
There is a veneration of romantic passion — passion has come to be seen the moral justification for sex — but romantic gestures have come to be seen as outmoded and ridiculous. Mostly, it’s men who are especially slow on the cultural uptake still make them, and they tend to earn mockery for it.
Romance simply makes no sense at all outside of the framework of virtue in which it was conceived, because a moral framework in which absolutely everything is permitted is one in which it loses all of its coherence.
Today, we tend to make fun of people who mistake the vestigial expectations formed by romantic fantasy tales for what should be expected in ‘reality.’ But still, people return to the stories, because they stir their hearts, only to have those same hearts bashed against a wall of indifference to virtue and worship of vice.
Part of the trouble that people have with romance — despite its enduring appeal — is that it tends not to get along with anyone‘s idea of what ought to be good and legitimate. Many romances which aren’t fantasies are tragedies, because they’re more true to life. Romeo and Juliet really can’t be together, and the conclusion of the play depicts the consequences of star-crossed love in a way that encourages pity more than it does imitation. Abelard and Heloise did not go to a good end, but the impression drawn from the story of what happened to them was not really supposed to be that the passions ought to be unleashed to run over every fixed institution.
Today, we tend to emphasize romance and romantic love far more than we do virtue. Some have attempted to tie the experience of romantic passions to the perception of virtue in another person, to limited success — after all, there are plenty of examples of people being overwhelmed by passionate affection for someone who is bad.
Anyway, the point of this wandering post is to say that because the cult of the virgin — and respect for virginity itself — has diminished, so has romance. Fantasy fiction takes on a more urgent role as people fumble at the hole that’s left behind. Their lives become dulled, with only pop fiction to make any sense of it at all.
Women and men alike also tend to want the rewards of virtue without really needing to be virtuous. Chivalrous gestures are inane when there’s no chastity or modesty. The left expends enormous amounts of effort on denigrating both of those things, and making them especially impractical for young people. Conservatives tend to demand extraordinary self-control from young people crammed together in co-educational institutions, and then became enraged when nature proceeds to take its course.
Social Pathologist wrote well on this the other year:
The continual conflation of physiological sexual attraction with moral parameters (either positive of negative) seems to be a problem of Christianity when it comes to an analysis of sexuality. Good Christian men can’t understand why they are not sexually attractive, despite living according to God’s law. Living in the hope that God will send them a good woman who will not be like the “others”. This deficiency in the understanding of the biological dimension of sexuality means that no practical advice is given on how to improve the success rate with the ladies, apart from pray. Most of the other advice is next to useless. On the other hand, due to this hostility to the “flesh” men and women who are sexually attractive are deemed to be morally bad. Amongst weaker minds there almost appears to be an associative incompatibility between being “hot” and being “Christian”. Drab women and grey men.
The Trads seem to be unable to recognise that he attraction a woman feels for a man is involuntary, i.e. it is morally neutral. How she chooses to act on the attraction gives her actions a moral dimension. But they continually conflate the two. The fact that Jessica is attracted to Bill, the bad boy, does not mean she will be attracted to dweeby Ben, who is also morally bad but lacks erotic capital. Morals have nothing to do with the issue, attraction is decided by the flesh.
This tradition of conflation in my opinion stems of Christianity’s aversion to “flesh”. The overtly erotic was simply seen as the express route the Hell and Christianity did all it could to suppress it. As a result, Christianity developed a good tradition of fighting the flesh and neglected to develop an understanding of it or accord it any legitimacy. The result has been that Christianity can’t evaluate sexuality on the biomechanical level and insists to continually evaluate it on the moral one. The resistance to this common sense understanding is perplexing. It’s as if the Trads do not want to acknowledge a carnal nature to our sexual desires and instead continue with their understanding of human sexuality as if the mechanics of sexual attraction did not matter, only its moral evaluation; still, which they nearly always view in the negative.
This historical position has had practical real world sequelae. Admittedly, Christianity is not responsible for the excesses but it provided for a a cultural fault line which was waiting to be exploited.
- For good or ill, the Church was the dominant cultural force in the West till about the end of the 19th Century, it’s suppression of the erotic, not procreative, component of sexuality, meant that as the Church lost power, the pendulum swung the other way. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the absence of any theology of desire the world developed it’s own. Predictably it was stupid. Today’s sluttery is due to yesterdays prudery.
- It has made a meaningful discussion on sexual polarity difficult since the spirit was more important that the flesh. Yet our sexual polarity is intrinsically tied to our carnal bodies. Gender equality/interchangeability is easy when the flesh is irrelevant. Cue feminism.
- It has conditioned people towards evil by making sexual evil fun and virtue boring.
- It has encouraged physical ugliness by neglecting or erotic complementarity. Desire is supercharged in bodily perfection and diminished in dysmorphia. The Fat acceptance movement is based on the idea that we shouldn’t be so “superficial” and judge people on appearances.
I get a lot of heat for taking this position, but here is an interesting question I’ll wish you to ponder: Why has “bad boy” become synonymous with sexual attraction and “good boy” with sexual repulsion? Perhaps it’s because contemporary Christianity lacks the capability to be sexy and good. The flipside to this is the notion that the erotic and good are incompatible. See what I’m getting at?
This tendency hasn’t really gone away. The differences between most contemporary conservatives and liberals in these matters is slight. We see similar tendencies in how they handle ‘supercharged desire’ and dysmorphia.