Tuesday, 14 February 2012

In Praise Of Romance (On St Valentine's Day)

Kissing Cousins: Lady Mary Crawley embraces Matthew Crawley at the conclusion of the immensely popular television series Downton Abbey's Christmas Special. But, while millions still thrill to the fantasy of romantic love, does it continue to fulfil its original purpose of transforming men into beings fit for feminine company?

IT WAS ONE of those television moments when millions of viewers across the world exhaled a heartfelt sigh of satisfaction. There, in the portico of Downton Abbey, the two, star-crossed lovers: Lady Mary Crawley, and her father’s third cousin (once removed) Mr Matthew Crawley, finally plighted their troth. She standing, he on one knee, as the pure white snow-flakes swirled about them.

The immense audience for Julian Fellowes high-rating Downton Abbey is proof of the enduring power of romantic love. Whether it be the upstairs romance of Mary and Matthew; the downstairs romance of Anna and Mr Bates; or the combination of both in the romance between Lady Sybil and the Earl’s chauffer, the age-old tale of bliss attained through trial and peril continues to move us – even in the Twenty-First Century.

It is fitting then, on this day dedicated to romantic love, to interrogate the tradition. What does romance look like in the Twenty-First Century? Does it still possess the power to transform the ordinary into the extraordinary? To turn prose into poetry? And, most importantly, does romance still perform its original and most significant function: that of imbuing the relationship between the sexes with something more than lust and greed?

Venturing forth into the streets of our largest cities on a Friday or Saturday night one finds scant evidence that romantic love still has any devotees. The behaviour taking place in pubs and clubs at the end of the working week more closely resembles the bacchanalia of ancient Rome. These are unabashed festivals of the flesh, where intoxication fuels passion – and vice versa. Not so much a case of two souls intermingling, as two bodies – for versatile vice.

Is romance anywhere present among these drunken midnight games of musical beds?

In the case of far too many young (and not-so-young) men I fear the answer is ‘no’. After all, how many young men today have even the slightest acquaintance with the romantic tradition? I grew up on Malory’s medieval tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and Tennyson’s rendition of them into romantic Victorian verse:

He rode between the barley sheaves,
The sun came dazzling thro’ the leaves
And flamed upon the brazen greaves
Of bold Sir Lancelot.
A redcross knight for ever kneel’d
To a lady in his shield.
That sparkled on the yellow field,
Beside remote Shalott.

The callow swain of 2012, if he is acquainted with King Arthur at all, knows him not via Tennyson and Malory, but via the HBO television-series Camelot in which swords, sorcery and sex are intertwined in ways that would make Tennyson blush. Suffice to say that these ‘New Arthurians’ all evince decidedly Twenty-First Century morals, and viewer discretion is advised.

And what of today’s young woman? Has ‘Mr Right’ really been replaced by ‘Mr Right-Now’? When the sun’s come up, the last-man-standing has departed, and the hangover’s at full strength, is she still in need of a “redcross knight” – or just the Red Cross?

The man she’s waiting for is surely the same man that the whole idyll of courtly love, and the tradition of romantic courtship, was intended to create: a good man.

Romance is a conspiracy: a fascinating combination of sensuality and spirituality originally woven together by itinerant medieval troubadours and their aristocratic patronesses for the purposes of transforming the feudal brutes that were their husbands into someone they could talk to when the sex was over. From Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to Aretha Franklin; all women have ever wanted from men is a little “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”.

Romance is about changing men. About teaching them to listen to that part of themselves that rejects the never-ending battle of “all against all”; that ceaseless struggle for ‘honour’ and precedence to which masculinity, unmediated by feminine power, inevitably descends. The thwarted, stunted version of masculinity that spawns the horror of “honour killings” in those parts of the world where the traditions of feudal patriarchy still hold sway.

And surely, it was a world free of such murderous patriarchs that even the staunchly un-romantic feminists were seeking? Their argument was that by climbing down from the pedestal upon which chivalrous men had placed them, and mixing-it with their brothers as equals, the revolutionary social changes they were seeking would be hastened. Has the strategy worked? Which sex do you think has become more like the other? Male, or female?

Romance, chivalry, courtly love: these have always been revolutionary ideals. Their power to transform our ordinary, workaday world is undeniable – and overwhelming. Lust is transient and greed’s disfiguring, but romantic love can turn the humblest suburban doorstep into Downton’s stately portico; every man into a redcross knight; and every woman into a lady – at whose feet a changed man at last surrenders the power he no longer needs.

This essay was originally published in The Press on St Valentine’s Day (Tuesday, 14 February) 2012.


Gem said...

Chris - have a look at this article about MPs' perspectives on Valentine's Day. Hone Harawira is clearly a romantic at heart: http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/valentines-day-2012/6409903/MPs-share-Valentines-Day-plans

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chris, for this very satisfying, and somewhat reassuring read. Don't you love it when some clever bastard puts into words what you've been thinking all along?

The boss said...

How about tidying up the grape vine then if you really want to make a good impression?

Anonymous said...

All good Chris, but remember, a little bit of lust is essential for romance, just like the wee bit of grit required to kick start the pearl.

Anonymous said...

We can do romance today, no sweat.

He rode his ute across the stream
the sun came dazzling thro’ the fern
And flamed upon the camo pants
Of bold Tame iti
A concealed copper carefully kneeled
to point a lense at his windshield.
That sparkled on the videoed field,
Beside remote Uwerewa

Anonymous said...

Well, Chris in your quest for romance, you just mangled one of my favorite poems by leaving out the best line.
the guy actually wrote:

A bow-shot from her bower-eaves,

He rode between the barley sheaves,

The sun came dazzling thro' the leaves, 
And flamed upon the brazen greaves 
Of bold Sir Lancelot.

A red-cross knight for ever kneel'd 
To a lady in his shield, 
That sparkled on the yellow field,

Beside remote Shalott.

Cactus Kate said...

Good god you are making it so hard as usual Chris. It's not about changing men it's about accepting them.
It's all quite easy.
Find someone who likes you as much as you like them.
Until then, stay single.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Words Spike Milligan put into one of his character's mouths. "Tha'll never stop fookin in Bradford" Romance is an invention of the troubadors. It NEVER applied to lower class women who could be abused at will. Wake up Chris.

Anonymous said...

Tennyson's all very well, but if you want soppy romantic verse why not get into a bit of Richard Lovelace?

Victor said...

This exalted prose about gallant knight crusaders and blushing demoiselles reminds me of the following lines, popular in my boozy student days:

I stand at your portals,
My heart is a bleeding.
A prisoner of love,
I'm unable to sleep.
I can't seem to find
The love I am seeking.
Oh, let down your drawbridge,
I'll enter your keep.

Enter your keep,
Nonny nonny,
Enter your keep.
Let down your drawbridge,
I'll enter your keep.

Oh, Sir, I deceive you
For I am no maiden.
I've married Sir Oswald,
The cunning old Celt.
He's gone to the wars
For twelve months or longer
And he's taken the key
To my chastity belt.

Chastity belt,
Nonny nonny,
Chastity belt.
He's taken the key
To my chastity belt.

Fear not, gentle maid,
For I know of a locksmith
To his forge we will hasten,
On his door we will knock.
And we will inquire
Of his specialized knowledge
And see if he's able
To unpick your lock.

Unpick your lock,
Nonny nonny,
Unpick your lock
See if he's able
To unpick your lock.

Alas, sir and madam,
To help I'm unable.
My technical knowledge
Is of no avail.
I can't find the secret
To your combination.
'Cause the cunning old bastard
Has fitted a Yale!

Fitted a Yale,
Nonny nonny,
Fitted a Yale.
The cunning old bastard
Has fitted a Yale!

I'm home from the wars
With sad news of disaster.
A terrible mishap
I have to confide.
While my ship was passing
The Rock of Gibraltar,
I carelessly dropped the key
Over the side!

Over the side,
Nonny nonny,
Over the side.
Carelessly dropped the key
Over the side!

"Alas and alack,
I am locked up for ever!"
When up spake a page boy,
saying "Leave it to me!
If you will allow me
To enter your chamber
I'll open it up with
My duplicate key!"

Duplicate key
Nonny nonny,
Duplicate key.
I'll open it up
With my duplicate key!

Victor said...

Anyhow, all this Tennysonian Lancelot stuff leads ultimately to bloodshed and the destruction of the supposed Arthurian utopia.

To the extent that it's based on fact, the ensuing carnage represents the overthrowing of civilized Romano-Britain by the grunting Saxons,Jutes et al from across the North Sea. Ultimately, that's hardly inspiring.

And maybe that's the problem with reverential, idealised love of the sort trumpeted by Medieval Troubadours. It's short on beneficial consequences.

That Renaissance original, Bill Shakespeare, gave us a much better ideal, viz: Beatrice and Benedick.

So go, young man, and find your Beatrice! Your mind will be kept perpetually engaged, your heart perpetually delighted and your ego ever so slightly shrunk.

And perhaps your laughter too will echo down the centuries!

Chris Trotter said...

Oh, Victor, sigh.

No one with any sense takes the Arthurian romances as anything other than fantasies - or, more accurately, metaphors.

The attempt to "improve" and "refine" medieval European knights (who shaped up very poorly compared to their Byzantine and the Saracen counterparts) was only ever partly successful, but, as Robert Browning wrote: "A man's reach should exceed his grasp - or what's a heaven for?"

Victor said...

Henry VII took the Arthurian myths seriously enough to name his heir (the one who died) after the legendary monarch and to claim descent therefrom.

Of course, he had stuff all claim to the throne apart from that. So the propaganda bilge was understandable.

And, yes, I agree that the Arthurian legends are best read metaphorically. But a large part of their plot is the destruction of the state through passion and betrayal. Call me a philistine, but I don't see how you can get past that.

Did the chivalric cult nevertheless soften manners and lead to greater respect for women or, at least, those of them with an elevated social station.

Yes, probably. But any progress was from a very low starting point.

Moreover, I doubt whether any maiden in her bower did as much for her sex as some of those formidable Lady Abbesses.

But sigh no more, Chris. There are dragons enough stalking the land and requiring despatch!

Anonymous said...

Beatrice was an annoying bitch.