Modern Love

February 14, 2009

Romance cannot be dead because in the modern age it is for sale. That’s not a euphemism for prostitution, but a point about the high streets of the western world. Some point out the shallow nature of Valentine’s Day, but then we all go through with the charade anyway, just like Christmas. So there must be something in it?

Bizarrely, in the midst of an economic downturn, a news channel broadcasts a report titled “Valentines On A Budget”, giving couples genuine cheap date advice like “taking a walk on the beach”, “eating a romantic dinner at home” and “cuddling,  or more!”. Apparently, idyllic symbols of antiquated romance are now something to rely on when your wallet is empty. Ordinarily then, to be a romantic on Valentine’s Day – or any other day – you must have the money to afford a restaurant dinner-for-two; the exotic flowers; the cinema; the wild weekend abroad. The commodification of romantic love is perhaps inevitable: we spend money on ourselves by purchasing clothes, perfumes and other accessories, cultivating what we deem to be an attractive proposition, in preparation to attract and be loved by someone else.

It seems that whatever once constituted “romance”, and the public imagination of it, has been permeated by modern living and is mixed into public consciousness with historic ideals from classical novels and chocolate box costume dramas. “Saying it with flowers” still thrives every February 14th, but the Victorian art of floriography – the language of flowers – has wilted.  The giving of a red rose has survived to imply passionate love perhaps, but the coded message of “fidelity” inscribed in an ivy is long gone.

Technology and industry have transformed romance and the “love space” for us. Cinemas, nightclubs, restaurants and holiday resorts have increasingly become private places perfect for being together, at a price. A prime example is the car. Few teenage rom-coms exist without some obligatory “making out in the car” – scenes of “romance” which reach far back into American cinema. There is also J.G. Ballard’s more extreme interpretation of the relationship between sex and the automobile in Crash, though perhaps not an ideal that fits into most people’s idea of romance.

So what is it? For the philosopher Robert Solomon, love is a changable emotion like happiness or anger, but the modern conception of “romantic love” is a western construction built by capitalism. Modern romance is the pursuit of individuals with money, essentially, despite there seeming not to be much “essence” to it.


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