The Sorrows of Old Brooks

February 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

In his Valentine’s Day op-ed bemoaning the supposed disappearance of romantic love, Arthur Brooks begins with Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther. In that novel, the title character falls in love with a woman who is already engaged to someone else. She gets married. He commits suicide. Got it?

I wouldn’t pitch this plot to Netflix today if I were you, but in 1774 in Europe, it was a huge hit.  “Young men began to dress like Werther. Most alarming, the novel was said to have stimulated copycat suicides among brokenhearted lovers.” It was “Werther Fever.” And, says Brooks, it’s what we need more of in America today. I am not making this up.

What is the opposite of Werther Fever? Whatever it is, we’re suffering from it in the United States today. Particularly among young people, there is an increasing absence of romantic love.

I looked through the General Social Survey for data that would confirm Brooks’s idea about the withering of romantic love. The evidence was hardly convincing (see the previous post). But let’s suppose Brooks is right, that younger Americans are turning away from romantic love. If young Werther is our shining exemplar, maybe we should ask whether romantic love is such a good thing.

To begin with, romantic love has little connection to reality. Can one person satisfy all the emotional and erotic needs of another person? We know that this notion is unrealistic. That’s why romantic love is often likened to a dream state, with a “dream lover,” the “man of my dreams,” and so on. Even more unrealistic is the idea that only one person in the world can work this dream-like effect. For young Werther, it’s Charlotte, and if he can’t have this one person, there’s no point in living. Up close, it seems idealistic. But take a step back, and it looks pretty silly. As Philip Slater says, what would we think of a man who died of starvation because he couldn’t get any Brussels sprouts?

These stories also tell us, inadvertently, that romantic love is unsustainable. The lovers in these stories spend almost no time together. Instead, the plot focuses on the lovers’ struggles against the obstacles that separate them. Once these obstacles are overcome – or not – game over. Can these two people sustain romantic love over the long (or even not-so-long) course of a marriage?  Tales of romantic love dodge that question. They end either with the death of one or both lovers (Romeo and Juliet, Young Werther) or with their union. “They lived happily ever after. The end. Don’t ask what actually happened in that ever-after.”

The “ever after” is hard to imagine because romantic love is based on fantasy. You may fall in love with and pursue the “dream lover.” You may even wind up together. But in a sustained relationship (what is still often called a marriage), you have to live every day with a real person, not a dream.

Brooks is particularly concerned about the “precipitous decline in romantic interest among young people. . . . . While 85 percent of Generation X and baby boomers went on dates as high school seniors, the percentage of high school seniors who went on dates in 2015 had fallen to 56 percent.”

To which I am tempted to respond, “You say that like it’s a bad thing.” Maybe Brooks’s memories of dating in high school are sunnier than mine, but it seems to me that kids dated because there was no alternative. They felt they were required to pair off in some simulation of a romantic couple. Often, neither boy nor girl was comfortable with that arrangement — about what you’d expect with two people more or less forced together having to come up with the rules and roles in this new relationship. My impression is that for most kids, that relationship rarely achieved the romantic love that Brooks imagines.

Much more pleasant were the times I spent hanging around with groups of friends. And apparently that’s where teen-age culture is heading. Less dating, more hanging out and hooking up. It’s not perfect. The “hookup culture” among college students that Lisa Wade describes in American Hookup seems joyless and unsatisfying. But college students do go on dates, and most wind up in pair relationships. It’s just that these often develop out of and follow more casual relations and hookups.

Brooks thinks that this is a change for the worse. Me, I’m not so sure. When those baby boomers went to the high school prom, it was a date; they went as couples, two to a car, and if you didn’t have a date, if you were not paired off, you didn’t go. Today, they clamber into limousines as a group — as many as the limo will hold — some in couples, others not.  I don’t know why Brooks wants to re-impose the rigidities of dating. Maybe he misses those Werther-like sorrows.

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