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Instant Sex

And the sad demise of romantic love.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Another famous passage sounds even stranger. "If music be the food of love, play on," says the (admittedly histrionic) Duke Orsino at the start of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. "Give me excess of it; that surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die." Once again there is a beautiful girl in the picture, the Countess Olivia--who refuses to let Orsino see or speak to her, much less touch her. But if Orsino longs desperately to have and to hold and to bed this beauty, what does music have to do with it? Music has long been considered an aphrodisiac; what Orsino needs is a cold shower. In any case, how could he possibly believe that his desire for Olivia could be satisfied (surfeited even) by music instead of by her?

But romantic love is an abnormal state of mind, a state of heightened imagination and sensitivity powered by the rich fuel of adoration plus desire, like kerosene plus liquid oxygen--rocket fuel. As Silvius explains (As You Like It, act 5, scene 2), to be in love "is to be all made of faith and service,  .  .  .  All made of passion, and all made of wishes, / All adoration, duty and observance, / all humbleness, all patience, and impatience." This is romantic comedy, not reality; but it rings true. James Joyce updates the file with a description of Stephen Dedalus in love (Dedalus being Joyce's own image mirrored in the bright surface of prose poetry in his Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1916): "Towards dawn he awoke. O what sweet music! His soul was all dewy wet. Over his limbs in sleep pale cool waves of light had passed. He lay still, as if his soul lay amid cool waters, conscious of faint sweet music. His mind was waking slowly to a tremulous morning knowledge."

In olden times, before the culmination of America's Revolution of the Intellectuals in the late 1960s, not everyone was lucky enough to have the experience. But many were. "They say everybody is in love once in their lives," says Jane Austen's heroine Emma, in a businesslike mood.

Men and women were equally susceptible. Rosalind tells her cousin Celia (As You Like It, act 4, scene 1), "My pretty little coz, that thou didst know how many fathom deep I am in love!" One of the loveliest lines in English. But women in love used to demand more than men did before they said yes to marriage and its consequences. When Rosalind (disguised as someone else) asks her lover Orlando (modern students are sometimes surprised to hear that "lover" did not always mean "sexual partner"), "Now tell me how long you would have her after you have possess'd her"--how long you would be faithful to your wife--she expects and requires the answer Orlando so memorably returns: "For ever and a day."

Some will dismiss this as mere romantic mythmaking and irrelevant. They should look into the attitudes of American women circa 2007. Those attitudes resemble Rosalind's far more than they do those of Simone de Beauvoir.

Of course, Rosalind wielded power over her demanding lover that no modern woman has. (And men can be demanding. "I do know, / When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul / Lends the tongue vows," Polonius tells Ophelia in ordering her to ignore her aspiring lover [Hamlet, act 1, scene 3].) But peer pressure used to support the girl who said no, or said "Marry me first, so I can make a safe home for our children"--not the young man and his burning blood who said "Sex first, and marriage (yawn) when I'm in the mood. Maybe." None of her girlfriends, boyfriends, or elders were telling Rosalind, "Go ahead; everybody does it." Nor could Orlando have told her, "If you won't, Celia will." And no officious busybodies were handing out birth-control pills to young girls in the Forest of Arden.

Modern feminism has driven women out of this old world into a nightmare, an upside-down Arden where men hold all the cards and women are expected to want what men want, see as men see, and do what men do. In the war between the sexes, feminism has decreed unilateral disarmament for women.

What happens when you do fall in love? What is this heightened state "of patience and impatience" good for? If you are Keats you compose odes, "lines," and sonnets to your love. ("Yourself--your soul--in pity give me all, / Withhold no atom's atom or I die.") If you are Schumann, you write the great C major Fantasia. Even Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing (act 5, scene 2), who is in love but "cannot show it in rhyme; I have tried," manages to fashion a "halting sonnet"--for "what love can do, that dares love attempt!" says Romeo (act 2, scene 2), and he ought to know.