The Magazine

Instant Sex

And the sad demise of romantic love.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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If you are Stephen Dedalus you write a gorgeous villanelle with the reader looking over your shoulder. ("Are you not weary of ardent ways? / Tell no more of enchanted days.") If you are the great 20th-century American artist Joseph Cornell pining for the young Lauren Bacall, you build her a beautiful, mysterious microcosm--a "Cornell box." And if you are Orlando, you perform the quintessential act of romantic homage: You repeat your love's name wherever, whenever you can. Orlando carves "Rosalind" on tree trunks and posts her name in love poems all over the forest. Granted, he is so much in love that "neither rhyme nor reason can express how much" (act 3, scene 2); but his desire to proclaim his love's name--to "hallow your name to the reverberant hills, / And make the babbling gossip of the air cry out 'Olivia!' " (as a different lover puts it in Twelfth Night, act 1, scene 5)--is thoroughly normal.

But if you are no poet, composer, or artist of any kind, you nonetheless prick up your ears and open your eyes and see, think, and feel more acutely than you ever did before. (Hence Orsino-in-love hears and feels music differently than he used to.) Your reactions to art now will shape your relation to art for the rest of your life.

To be in love underlies some aspects of religion too; if you have never been in love (living as you do in this age of instant sex), there are aspects of Judaism and Christianity you will never understand. The virgin in love with higher things than man is a powerful symbol in Catholicism; we know that, being a virgin, she can fall in love. In Judaism the picture is different--the "holy woman" is never the virgin, always the bride; and as it happens, no woman is honored and loved by practicing Jews to this day more than Rachel herself, the bride of Jacob. Yet "being in love" is a rabbinic model for many fundamental relations--between Jews and the Sabbath, Jews and the Torah, a prophet and his God, the Jews and their God. For both Judaism and Christianity, father and son, the brief biblical book called the Song of Songs--a masterpiece of erotic Hebrew folk-poetry--has been astoundingly important. But that's another story.

I have mentioned the explosive change in consciousness that romantic love creates. Jane Austen shows us a different facet of the same phenomenon. Her novels center, mostly, on prolonged romantic love that is one-sided at first but finally wins through--Darcy's for Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Fanny Price's for Edmund (Mansfield Park), Knightley's for Emma (Emma), Catherine Morland's for Tilney (Northanger Abbey), Anne Elliot's for Went-worth (Persuasion). Such prolonged, one-sided love is hard to endure, but eventually the spiritual forces it brings to bear are so enormous, they can actually twist a human personality into a new shape. In Persuasion, her last and greatest novel, Jane Austen writes of Captain Wentworth that Anne Elliot's character "was now fixed on his mind as perfection itself . . . ; but he was obliged to acknowledge that only at Uppercross had he learnt to do her justice, and only at Lyme had he begun to understand himself."

Of course the cost of romantic love runs high. "Love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame" (Song of Songs 8:6). Hamlet gives "the pangs of despis'd love" (act 3, scene 1) as one good reason so many people wish they had the nerve to kill themselves. The most haunting reckoning-up might be (fittingly enough) in Twelfth Night (act 2, scene 4), the celebrated passage where Viola (disguised as someone else) describes to the duke her lovesick "sister"--but is actually speaking about herself. She has fallen in love with Orsino, who is still in love with Olivia, who still can't stand him. "What's her history?" Orsino asks Viola about this imaginary sister. The answer is,

A blank, my lord. She never told her love,

But let concealment, like a worm I' the bud,

Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,

And with a green and yellow melancholy

She sat like patience on a monument,

Smiling at grief.

Love is a brutal business; but you knew that already.

Finally, qualifications. Romantic love is not dead, and God willing never will be; it is merely gasping for breath. Even instant sex cannot eliminate it altogether. A couple who sleep together can still be in love. Picasso was a modern Orlando, in a way; he repeatedly wrote his girlfriend and sexual partner Eva Gouel into his Cubist paintings, by including the words "Ma Jolie," referring to her--"my own pretty girl"; and once he included the phrase "J'aime Eva." But this kind of being-in-love compares to the real thing as a candle-flame to a forest fire. It can't possibly have the volcanic intensity of presexual love because it lacks the huge power of blocked passion.

Experience suggests (fair is fair) that a few casual, premature sexual encounters at the whorehouse level, with persons you couldn't possibly love and never count on meeting again, can't do much damage to your capacity for romantic love. (I am speaking only about aesthetics and psychology, not morals.)

And of course there are dissidents nowadays, young men and women--heroes and heroines--who refuse to be part of the instant-sex world. They still have a crack at the thing itself, undiluted. But the cynical nihilism of modern life, especially on campus, is a grim, pelting rainstorm that makes it hard to light a fire and keep it going.

Will we ever get our old world back? Never. One of the first lessons the Bible teaches is that forbidden fruit once tasted can never be untasted. (And the "Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil"--Genesis 2:17--might well have more to do with sexual knowledge than the textual surface lets on. Consider what Adam and Eve do first as soon as they are exiled from Eden. Consider, as many commentators have pointed out, the Hebrew word-play between arum, clever [as a talking snake] and airum, naked.) But at least those dissidents who refuse to heed the talking snake will grow in number and confidence; and we will hear from them.

Am I a hypocrite to write this piece? Back in the 1970s and early '80s, matters now taken for granted were not treated quite so casually. (Not quite.) So things were different. But those are weak words. We had fun, and never thought twice about where this society was headed. Nor would we have acted differently if we had. We who now have children in high school or college are as guilty as any other party to this tragedy; perhaps guiltier. We thought we were opening a window and letting in some fresh air. What we actually let in was more like the Black Death.

So we turn to the end of Romeo and Juliet.

Heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.

And I for winking at your discords too

Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish'd.

David Gelernter, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of computer science at Yale.