Tuesday, July 03, 2012

These Things Called Love (1)

When I was a boy, I was awfully fond of a couple of bits I still quote from the British comedy series Benny Hill.  There's the poetry recitation, where Benny gives a perfect, parodic twist to the end of Edgar A. Guest's folksy poem "It Couldn't Be Done," turning this--

But just buckle in with a bit of a grin
Just take off your coat and go to it.
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That "cannot be done," and you'll do it.

--into this rather more memorable quatrain:
They thought that it could not be done,
Some even said they knew it,
But he faced up to what could not be done...
And he couldn't bloody do it!
A stanza which my children have now heard enough times to say it right with me, though they've never seen the show.

The bit that's on my mind today, though, involves the ditsy actress who mis-emphasizes her lines, turning "What's that in the road ahead?" into "What's that in the road? A head?"  and asking (her eyes on the leading man's trousers), "What is this thing called, love?"

I've been thinking a lot about "this thing called love" recently, in large part thanks to TMT contributor Jonathan Allan.  He sent me an email musing about how the nature of "this thing called love," or at least the thing called "romantic love," seemed  curiously under-explored by popular romance scholarship.  "The popular romance novel, we are told, consists of a central love story and an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending," he wrote me then (well, in an attachment):
Developed further, the RWA explains that “the main plot centers around two individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work” and that “the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.” Popular romance scholars often accept this definition of romance. What “unconditional love” and “falling in love” are, however, seems unclear.  [...]  Maybe the challenge that popular romance scholars must confront is the nature of love itself rather than its representation in fiction or film. 
Now, I'm not sure that we "must" do this, any more than science fiction scholars must necessarily confront the nature of science itself, or even of the particular science at play in any given novel.  There's a lot of good scholarship out there now, and still to be done, about any number of topics.  Still, since I came to the study of popular romance from the study of love poetry, I've always thought of it primarily as a subset of the culture of love, rather than as, say, a subset of popular culture or popular fiction.

What I want to do, then, in some upcoming blog posts here, is to post about and / or link to some ideas about "love itself" that currently interest me, and ones that I've found useful over the (many) years I've been thinking about the topic.  No doubt these will end up including posts about some of love's representations outside of popular fiction, since I'm not sure that love exists, really, except as mediated by cultural representations, a topic I'll return to.  Some will be long posts, some just little quotes and ideas to throw into the intellectual rucksack.  We'll see how it goes.

In any case, I hope you'll forgive any wandering off the popular romance path this may entail in the months ahead.  Consider it a summer vacation, of sorts:  one that will return me to our original topic, tanned, fit, and rested, at some point in the future.

More soon, then!


  1. Oh, mating love exists, Eric. If you haven't read Dr. Helen Fisher's Why We Love, do. Her description of the hormonal pathway of the monogamous mating bond could be the "formula" of the romance novel.

    Seen at from that angle I wonder why it's so often considered complex and mysterious, though to me it explains the necessity of conflict and the popularity of the forced or arranged marriage. They break the pattern because the problems fight against the natural forces,which left alone would be too simple. Very sweet, but simple.

  2. Thanks, Jo! I haven't read it, so I'll add it to my list. Next winter I'll be teaching a new course on "The Nature and Culture of Love," and it sounds like that would be a good fit for the "nature" portion of the syllabus.

  3. Point taken on "must," although even I seem hesitant about the urgency of my claim, "maybe." At any rate, I've been thinking quite a bit about "love," and thus look forward to these posts, Eric. I keep returning to the same questions (as I read, research, write), "but is this love?" or "what is love?"