The Sinister Side of Romance in North America

By Elleni Centime Zeleke

What has always worried me about couples in North America is that they replace the work of belonging to the world with the work of belonging to JUST ONE. And as such they take some of the most banal markers of adult life to be markers of maturity and achievement. In my experience, this tends to make North Americans childish in the most sinister way possible.

Another way of putting it is that couples attempt to overcome humanity’s present day alienation from the world by obsessing over the One. But what this means is that they mistake duty to the One as an end in itself instead of a way to open themselves up to the problem of solving alienation. This happens whether the couple means to do so or not. In a consumer based society achievement gets packaged as being able to amass goods for the empire of two (the couple) since survival of the couple must come at all costs. People spend their lives playing house, and what it means to be an adult is to master the game of monopoly for the sake of playing house.

In this case, being an adult gets reduced to satisfying needs–buying a house, clothes, feeding children. But after satisfying basic nutrition and keeping warm, our needs are socially constructed. Instead of investigating the source of the need, couples act like animals, chasing the satisfaction of their apparent needs when those needs in fact arise from elsewhere than their self-critical self–and yet what it means to be human is to be self-critical. Thus, in the name of love they pursue their own alienation and their own animality.

But in this sense then couples agree to guarantee each other’s childishness. After all, in the standard hetero-normative relationship you do not force the partner to take responsibility for the world. Instead, you stare into the other’s eyes and guarantee for the other that while they may feel alienated from the world, in the context of the relationship they will feel bonded with the One. Coupledom as we live it in North America is always a disavowal of the world. The husband or wife might do charity work or even be involved in politics but the structure of the love relationship is already enfolded into immaturity because it centres around protecting the other from confronting the alienation inherent to the world.

It is for this reason that North Americans often confuse their pets with children and lovers. It is because to love here is fundamentally a narcissistic activity. The least thing you want is for the Other to really talk back, and so truly open you up to the world.

But, this reminds me of a time when as a young woman I went to visit a family friend who was a political prisoner in a third world country. The prisoner had been in and out of the prison hospital, and he had been subjected to mild forms of torture and was already quite old. The prisoner was a family friend and he had heard that I was a feminist. He thought gender was not a wise way to organize politically, but all the same he spent the hour we had together engaging me around this question. A few months later the prisoner passed away and in retrospect I realized that the prisoner must have known that he was gravely sick and about to die even when I went to visit him, but throughout the visit he never talked about himself, nor did he complain about his health. Instead we talked about a world that was greater than both him and I but that tied us together as one. In this way he opened himself up to a life of love and generosity that also questioned the alienation that brought us before the prison guard. In this way, too, he insisted on forcing maturity and responsibility onto me.

That romance could always be this touching! For this I would be grateful. On the contrary, when men ask me to marry them here in North America, it seems they mistake the mastery of playing house with love and responsibility. How banal, and sinisterly so.

What this says to me, however, is that romance is the obsessive but failed attempt to overcome the alienation from things we have already made with our ancestors (and can remake). But the ideology that accompanies the invisible hand of market politics insists upon this alienation. Thus, the accompanying cultural concept to the invisible hand is romance, and it is romance as such that is the opium of the people. But in this case, romance is pure political passivity for it hardly contains a whisper of protest against the world as it exists.  More likely, it is accompanied by eternally unfulfilled personal relationships, which is probably why we cheat and divorce as often as we say “I love you”. It is also why I die a little death whenever I hear someone claim to love another, for sure enough the claim of love is soon to be accompanied by the violence of trying to full-fill what can never be fulfilled by romance through romancing some Other or becoming bored and depressed with the One. Turns out our expectations and experience of love tend to replicate our dissatisfaction with playing in the market, and yet we keep on looking for the One, playing make believe that this is the One, asking ourselves if this is the One, etc. All the while never really growing up to face the world that so desperately needs us to take responsibility for what we have made and need to remake together.


15 thoughts on “The Sinister Side of Romance in North America

  1. (Pace to Marx)

    Obsessing over The One is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Obsessing over The One is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    I really hope your criticism of romance isn’t just an attempt to strip the imaginary flowers off that chain so people will continue to bear the chain without fantasy or consolation (because it sure as shit looks like it from this angle).

  2. Well, what does the story of prisoner tell you? It seems to me that the prisoner suggests a different from of solidarity building that both expresses pain and reaches beyond the pain of the world as exists today. To be sure, the confidence of the prisoner’s gesture of love lies in his assurance that we have never not shared the world together. He had nothing to prove in that regard. On the other hand the structure of romance is such that it actively works to undermine the type of friendship and love that the prisoner built with me without saying very much. It seems to me that in North America, solidarity has become so far removed from this type of experience that to even suggest that there are other forms of being together provokes violent anger. Shows me that romance really must be an opiate worse that any religion might be.

  3. Or better put, because romance takes homo economicus as its starting point and end, it is about as dialectical as neo-classical economics. Hard to find redemption there. It is also why as an opiate it does not express the soul of a souless world–it just expresses passivity and agreement with the system. The soul of the soulless world might lie in the cheating and the divorce, and the attempt (but always failed) to break free from hetero-normativity.

  4. OK, you’ve missed the point (like so many people who use that phrase of Marx’s).

    Criticism of religion (or romance in this case) isn’t a problem so long as you have behind it the realization that people who don’t know any better turn to it as a means of quelling the pain that living in a class society creates (not that this doesn’t also prevent it from being used as a weapon to keep people docile). It’s not good enough (and it certainly isn’t fair) just to tell people that they’re wrong and exhort them to stop taking something that dulls their pain (and distracts them from doing things that we both agree really are more important). So long as they don’t see an alternative to wearing that heavy chain with its attendant flowers, they’ll still pay much more attention to the sweet-smelling blossoms.

    I agree with you: romance as it’s typically presented in a commodified form is a distraction from creating a love that really is much healthier, deeper, and just better. But just standing on a pulpit and denouncing romance doesn’t really help.

    As for finding redemption, that depends on context. I don’t see how it’s utterly out of the question for romance to be redeemed in a society where everyone cares about others as well as their own One. The corporate form also can be redeemed, I think, when used appropriately in world not organized entirely around accumulation.

    Re. the story of the prisoner: it’s not impossible to find isolated instances or individuals where the chain has been partially removed by themselves or others, and these instances can serve to get others thinking about what’s under the flowers. But it’s not enough by itself.

  5. You have missed the point that criticism of romance cannot be conflated with religion because the romance has a specific structure that is different from religion. Religion points to something outside of itself which is why it expresses pain and allows for pain to be overcome. This is not the structure of romance in 21st century North America. Not all opiates work the same way, dear. I suggest you pay closer attention to structure of what I am describing rather than showing that you can one up me.

    • Even though romance has a specific structure that’s different from religion, the structure of your argument vis-a-vis romance matches that of the criticism of religion that was itself being criticized using Marx’s famous quote about opium. Like the 19th century critics of religion, you think that just by pointing out how selfish romantic love is, how it prevents people from working on far more important projects, that the scales will fall from everyone’s eyes. Not once do you stop to consider _why_ people act this way and craft your criticism accordingly.

      “Religion points to something outside of itself which is why it expresses pain and allows for pain to be overcome.”

      Except that it typically does so by having people focus on the next life, rather than the here and now. Modern romance, as you’ve pointed out, does cause one to focus on something outside of oneself (albeit in a context of selfishness). Change the context of people’s lives, and they will change their lives to suit.

      “I suggest you pay closer attention to structure of what I am describing rather than showing that you can one up me.”

      >shrug< Sorry, but I wasn't trying to "one-up" you. Your critique looked like it could do with further sharpening since it tries to use imagery that everyone believes she knows how to use, but few really know how to use properly.

  6. Its interesting Todd, but the way you produce knowledge confirms certain ontological commitments that betray your attachment to homo economicus as a trans-historical mode of being. Not that you could entirely overcome that attachment by yourself but the connection between ontology and epistemology and the path to breaking their dogmatic connection to one another (in our day) is what you missed about our prisoner.

    • “the way you produce knowledge confirms certain ontological commitments that betray your attachment to homo economicus as a trans-historical mode of being.”

      Really? Do tell.

      “the connection between ontology and epistemology and the path to breaking their dogmatic connection to one another (in our day) is what you missed about our prisoner.”

      Really? I did all that? And here I thought that whole paragraph was just a melodramatic attempt to shame the reader into a change of mind (“See? Here’s someone who was going to die and knew it, but did he complain about his lot? Not in the least! He cared about others right up until his end!”).

  7. Strikes me that romance today is the darkest side of republican virtue. I keep thinking of those last scenes in Mystic River.

  8. I’m not sure why you limit your analysis to North America, as though other in other ‘third world’ countries, the bourgeoise conception of love and romance are seemingly more communal. The last time I lived in a ‘third world’ country and hung out in apple orchards, the idea of love was charmingly Victorian.

    Your post made me think of this Lefebvre quote: “Why should I say anything against these people who–like me–come home from work everyday. They seem to be decent folk who live with their families, who love their children. Can we blame them for not wanting the “world” in which they feel reasonably at home to be transformed.”


  9. Despite your anecdote, which brought to mind the Bloch quote below, “sinister” is a damning choice of words, which is obviously meant to relate to North America and not the ‘third world.’ You seem to suggest alienation is solely rooted in North American experience–and third world folks are somehow immune to what you describe, as though there is a kind of geopolitics to love which does not take into account colonial education, class, caste structure etc. the indoctrination of bourgeoise values, the recitation of Alfred Tennyson by native elites ad nauseum to this day. What you describe is not simply North American!

    “Even if in the building of mere castles in the air the total expenditure one way or the other scarcely matters, from which misdirected and ultimately fraudulently used wishful dreams then result, hope with plan and with connection to the due Possible is still the most powerful and best thing there is. And even if hope merely rises above the horizon, whereas only knowledge of the Real shifts it in solid fashion by means of practice, it is still hope alone which allows us to gain the inspiring and consoling understanding of the world to which it leads.”

    Good luck on your journey towards healing.

  10. Is this Molly that I know?? I have seen the Lefbvre quote many time. Dale often posts it and quotes it. I think my follow up post responds to your question. But also, North America is of course is not just a geographic space, it is an idea. But even as an idea that many aspire too, it fails. That failure produces real social/political/economic relations that are quite different than what plays out in the narrow confines of North America.

    The other day I read the poem “Counterpoint” by Mahmoud Darwish, which was written for Edward Said, and I thought how beautiful is the love between two friends who have chosen to be companions in struggle and who support each other in the freedom to find a form for that struggle. This is the opposite of coupledom because what shapes the form between the poet and the activist here is not the form of heteronormativity but the commitment to the world. The love develops from a commitment to give one another freedom to be in the world. Coupledom in NA, on the other hand is all about violently severing form from content. But that of course is only ever afforded to the rich and/or the comfortable.

    I am two in one
    like the wings of a swallow.
    If spring is late,
    I am content to be the bearer of good news.

    He loves a country, and travels from it.
    (Is the impossible far off?)
    He loves travelling to anything,
    and in free travel between cultures,
    those who study human essence
    may find space enough for all.

    Excerpt from Counterpoint (For Edward Said) by Mahmoud Darwish

  11. Ahh Molly, I can only say oh deary me to your second comment. But no, I am not on a journey of healing. What ever gave you that idea? What is about my life that you seem to know that i do not know? And yes, when very large segments of a population work outside the formal economy I would say that concrete social relations in the 3rd world are quit different than in NA. Alienation in North America is not an abastract process, it is produced by concrete social relations in which the nuclear family and romance plays an ideological role.

    The point is I have hardly seen the love I have described between the prisoner and myself or Said and Darwish in North America. If it were to exist, people would have to do some serious work to get there, and it would take a political commitment that most are unwilling to make. That is because here, the starting point is always the self. Historically and geographically that does not have to be the case.

    BTW, as someone who received my primary and high school education in the 3rd world I can also say that I can recite Byron and Tennyson no problem, but most of my students in Canada cannot. They are to busy watching the Bachelor– utterly passive, snuffing out all hope for self-critical engagement. The hope for English literature lies in the colonies not with T.V or even Philip Roth (LOL). I love English literature. It is just too bad so many Anglos don’t read much of it anymore.

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