All romance is tragic

Dear Hannah,

In my last letter I told you that I was born with a certain set of inclinations.  What I didn't tell you is that not all of them have changed.  I stopped dreaming about war when I was about sixteen years old.  My dreams about romance have only gotten more complex.  Truth be told I would have preferred it the other way around. 

Nearly every woman I've told about my childhood romantic antics thinks they're adorable.  They think it's cute that a little Romeo spent his days dreaming about someone and then cried after church when he wouldn't see her for another week.  They think it's cute that any young man could become so interested in any woman that he'd lose 120 lbs in a year just so that he had a chance at getting her attention.  To value a woman's love more than food and comfort and sleep seems to be the hallmark of romance.  Every woman wants someone to fall madly in love with her, and so they read books about imaginary lovers and the whole world enjoys the story of Romeo -- everyone except Romeo.  Romeo could never really handle being Romeo.  Romeo was too romantic to handle a romance, which is why he eventually killed himself.  Quite frankly I don't blame him.

The unfortunate fact of my childhood is that I never outgrew my fits of passion.  I've merely learned to not express them directly.  But since I'm stuck with them, I've spent a lot of time thinking about them, and wondering whether God's been cruel to me specifically, and whether I'm all alone and a freak of nature, or whether romance itself, something which nearly everyone hates to love by the time they're 25, is meant to gnaw at your soul your entire life and nobody is talking about it.  I also wonder whether an age of romance might mercifully pass us by and leave us to enjoy other things when we're older.  I was betting on the latter.  I'm glad, at the very least, that I didn't put any money on it. 

Wondering whether romance is a curse after first love has left me a lot of room for blaming.  I've spent lots of time wondering whether Someone out there might have done a better job designing us -- or whether, if nature is responsible for churning out a romantic monstrosity like me, who has never taken these things lightly and never been able to let go, that I might be living the best of possible circumstances.  I wonder, more than anything else, whether it might have been possible to have two people fall in love and stay there until death do them part -- not by social convention, but by instinct: like certain kinds of voles.  It seems that whatever way you look at it, romance is something that happens in time, and like everything that happens in time, it has an end in life or by death.  In this sense, however it feels to be in love, romance is just as bitter as it is sweet.  Even supposing things work out for the best, all romance is temporary, and few ever really stop wanting to romance.  To make things worse, one person always falls out of it before the other.  The very thought of who it will be should be the foremost anxiety on every lover's mind.

But let's suppose, for one instance, that people never fell out of love, and they stayed magically romantic until the day that they died.  The first question on my mind is whether many people would survive the death of a partner, or whether, like Romeo and Juliet, they'd be more interested in killing themselves.  Or -- even more importantly -- supposing one person fell in love with another and found himself rejected, I wonder whether he'd be able to fall in love with someone else.  My guess is that the human species would die due to inflexibility: a permanent romance might make two people's lives very enjoyable, supposing things actually worked out, but it would make everyone else who didn't miserable.  We would be so focused on our partners forever that we would forget the other things that make our lives worth living, like science and religion and making books about history.  Children screaming during what would otherwise be an intimate dinner would lead to a good deal of frustration, which would ruin parenthood.  In short, I wonder whether an undying romance wouldn't kill us in some other aspect.  It might have even kept most of us from surviving to the present day at all. I'm glad we have lots of boring people who are more interested in agribusiness than romance.  The older I get, the more I wish I was one of them.

On the other hand, I wonder whether an ability to have frequent romances of a consistent quality would be any less helpful.  Suppose, for instance, that every romance could be had equally -- that our first love never left a mark so incomparable that we were left looking backward until the day we died, and we could instead fall in love for the first time every year.  That would mean that every breakup would be as bad as the first -- we're left a new ruin every January, and probably without any hair by the time we turn 25.  Supposing every time we fell in love we would fall more in love, so that the last person was forgotten entirely, we'd be stuck in an even worse circumstance, because every year would be worse than losing your first love.  And perhaps everyone eventually caught on that next year's romance would be better, I wonder whether we could really love anyone at all, knowing that someone else was on the horizon.  First love is the most tragic love of all, in the sense that whoever it is is probably your last love -- or, worst case scenario, they never stop being your love after they leave.  But a world in which everyone had better than last year is a world in which, eventually, nothing would really matter.  We never value the things of the moment so little as when we see something better is guaranteed somewhere down the road.  Our self-discovery would be our ruin.  We might in losing both the pain of desperation and the surprise of fortune forfeit the concept of romance altogether.  Aside from this, if everyone was changing partners, not only would everyone have to go through frequent heartbreak, but they wouldn't have any home or parents.  Instead, they would have AIDS and an orphanage.  A perpetually-increasing romance would be a murderous joke: it seems either Mother Nature or God Himself has done us a favor in not going with either extreme.  Whatever we have lost in adults has been charitably spent on children.  And we are all at some point children.

Since this mess we currently have seems to be the best of possible situations, the most reasonable thing to do is to learn how to deal with it.  I've spent a lot of time wondering about men like Origen, who've ended their problems by cutting "themselves" off -- maybe a bit extreme, but these days to me understandable.  But I'm not convinced that, if ridding yourself of your balls and moping around like a sad dog helps you survive yourself in any way, that you were dealing with romance in the first place.  It sounds a lot more like you were dealing with lust.  I read a story, contained in one of Montaigne's essays, about a man he met who was born without any gonads who still eagerly sought the company of women.  He loved them to death without even having any balls.  It's possible he just wanted to be normal.  But my guess is that he was an actual romantic: the kind of man who loved women not for sex itself, but because he was enamored with them, and wanted to lose himself in a maiden's eyes and forget about everything else.  I don't believe there's ever been or ever will be an escape for the romantics, aside from death.  Some people just love to love.

The most popular suggestion I've heard lately, for dealing with the current fiasco, is to never get married.  But I have a very difficult time understanding how never pledging your devotion to anyone can be more romantic.  It's too cold, this prophesying that everything will go wrong and the mutual understanding between "lovers" that they could very well end up with someone else tomorrow.  Chesterton was right: no man can really love something temporary; he has to love an eternal thing temporarily.  If we're not caught up in the moment enough to think it's forever, of course we'll never end up in a marriage.  And if there is no marriage, then what is romance?  If nobody ever tells a woman that he belongs to her forever, then what's the use in any romantic profession at all?

I've also heard some people suggest an open marriage, which seems useful, at first glance, since it attempts to combine the stability of marriage with the novelty of girlfriends; but this completely ignores the nature of romance altogether.  Whoever thinks that you can romance someone other than your wife without any danger of falling more in love with your lover is in for a surprise.  And what of the mistress?  Are her feelings meaningless? Does she have to be resigned to always be the woman on the side?  This seems to be a good deal for an unthinking man, a bad deal for a faithful wife, and a worse deal for a healthy mistress -- unless none of them really cares about the other too much, which I believe makes everything pointless.  It would be truer to our humanity to just have a passionate and secret affair than to lose our sensibility altogether.

The horrible truth of the matter is that all romance is tragic.  We simply have to choose whether we want something more tragic or less.  The most manageable way to end a romance is in the midst of a marriage; to stop yourself before you end up cold and jaded and lonely -- to slide from the heat of a passion into a comfortable marital bliss -- to ease yourself, without any fear of losing your lover, into other things only possible with a lifelong partner.  It would be to hear the sound of children playing, and to grow old, and to build a home where you may not be able to hold on to temporary things or keep reaching for an ever-cheapening experience, but in which you can enjoy the things you can keep -- and keep them so long as you both will to keep them.  To chase a lifetime of romance is to chase your own ruin.  To be a real Romeo is to court suicide.  How any romantic can convince himself of this before it's too late is a mystery.  That he absolutely and under any circumstances must convince himself of this before it's too late is a necessity.

I have only told two women in my lifetime that I loved them -- both of them sincerely, and since I'm incapable of letting go when I've passed a certain point, both of them permanently.  Risking a bad reputation in saying it, my foolish and youthful and incorrigible hope wishes there might someday be a third.  Experience and my conscience believe, not only that two is enough, but that if anyone else is harmed in the pursuit of a third, it's better I'd died sometime after the first.  I ask myself, what is the dream of an aging romantic?  The uncomfortable answer is that he'll someday stop dreaming and remembering at all.

Your father,

P.S.  After I read this letter to your mother, she wasn't happy -- not about everything.  But she was happy to know why I'd been having trouble eating and sleeping and why it seemed I'd checked out these past two months.  I have a feeling she's the only woman in the world who can deal with a man as emotionally difficult as I am; and this makes her either very strong, or very soft.  Or maybe we've been thinking about softness and strength wrongly all along, and it actually takes a lot of strength to do something extremely charitable.  Either way, we love each other more since my reading this, and we're staying together.  I'm just going to learn how to live while caught between my passion and my conscience.  So wish me luck.  I'll need lots of it. 


  1. I'd love to know what parts your wife was not happy with.

    1. Specifically, the part where I said I was hoping for a third love. This essay was written in a time of extreme trouble -- what's commonly referred to as a "mid-life crisis." I had just lost my religion and was experiencing, at the same time, an unusual surge in libido. I was able to keep myself from getting a girlfriend, but only barely. At least one was getting very close. It was a dangerous time. This essay was an attempt to convince myself that the best I could hope for, as soon as a romantic passion passes, was what I already had with my wife -- who is the best lady I know. I kept her, and in doing so I saved myself. But I was on the verge of despair here, and my wife knew our marriage was in great danger.


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