Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Plato in Dialogue with the Romance Genre

It all started out with an advert on the Washington DC Metro which was reported to the Smart Bitches. The resultant furore was reported by both The New York Times and The Washington Post, followed by comments on each article by the Smart Bitches and even more comments as the debate raged on. In the advert 'Greater Washington subway reading' material, epitomised by Plato's Republic, was being contrasted with 'average subway reading', represented by a romance novel. The implication was that Greater Washington's metro travellers, part of 'The nation's most educated workforce', of whom '45% have a bachelor's degree or higher', are well-educated people of the sort who read Plato, whereas less well-educated people read romance. For obvious reasons there were plenty of romance readers who took exception to this. For one thing, according to the RWA's statistics, 42% of romance readers 'have a bachelor's degree or higher'.

Inspired by all this controversy, I thought I'd take a look at the book which sparked all the outrage, namely Plato's Republic. It wasn't long before I came across an issue which, while dealt with only briefly in this passage from the Republic, is of vital importance to the romance genre. Cephalus, an elderly man, recalls
the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles, --are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold. (Book I, Jowett translation)
In both the classical period and in the Middle Ages, love was often seen as a form of madness:
The disease of love, according to medieval physicians, is a disorder of the mind and body, closely related to melancholia and potentially fatal if not treated. In their view, however, lovesickness did not afflict everyone alike: the sufferer was typically thought to be a noble man. (Wack 1990: xi)
If lovesickness was generally thought to result in depression and melancholy in the Middle Ages,
that is not the way it is depicted in the majority of ancient literary texts. Lovesickness, displayed in a violent or manic fashion, receives descriptions in almost all of the periods of ancient literature.(Toohey 2004: 61)
There were, however, believed to be different types of love - eros, philia and agape, and for a more detailed discussion of Plato's ideas on love see, for example, this entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

In Plato's Symposium it is explained that
love is always directed towards what is good, indeed that goodness itself is the only object of love. When we love something, we are really seeking to possess the goodness which is in it. Not temporarily of course, but permanently. And from there Plato gives his first definition of love: ‘Love is desire for the perpetual possession of the good.’ [...] But although all things love, and all men are in some sense lovers, few recognise the object of their love, that which motivates their striving, that which underlies their every desire, that which will ensure ‘perpetual possession’. This object Plato calls the Good or absolute beauty. (Amir 2001)
We may recall that Frye wrote:
We may think of our romantic, high mimetic and low mimetic modes as a series of displaced myths, mythoi or plot-formulas progressively moving over towards the opposite pole of verisimilitude
According to Frye, romances in the high mimetic mode come in for criticism because 'the interest in this sort of displaced myth “tends toward abstraction in character-drawing, and if we know no other canons than low mimetic ones, we complain of this.”' Could it be, then, that romances of this type, which are criticised for having stereotypical, unrealistic characters and plots, are in fact exploring love as the pursuit of 'the Good or absolute beauty'? To take as an example an old but important novel in the development of the genre, E. M. Hull's The Sheik, we find that the heroine, Diana Mayo (her very name recalls that of a goddess) is referred to as 'The divinity' (page 4) and one of her admirers exclaims that 'Beauty like yours drives a man mad' (page 7). In romances of the high mimetic type, the lovers are usually extremely beautiful/physically attractive, and intensely possessed of particular virtues (courage, in the case of Diana Mayo, humility and self sacrifice in the case of many other heroines, bravery in the case of many heroes). They are personifications of aspects of 'the Good' or 'absolute beauty'. Romances in the low mimetic mode, i.e. romances where the characters are more 'realistic' perhaps show how love can be compatible with daily living, without the lovers falling into the dangerous madness warned about by classical and medieval physicians.

Plato told stories, relating his ideas through the characters of Socrates and his interlocutors. Socrates is depicted using simple examples in order to approach philosophical truths, such as when he asks 'When horses are injured, are they improved or deteriorated?' during the dialogue regarding justice. It seems to me that this is not totally dissimilar to the way that romances, rather than discuss relationships or love in the abstract, ground their investigation into the causes and effects of love in a particular situation, so that it may be more easily understood by the reader.

I'd also like to take a closer look at old age, which was where we began when I quoted from the Republic. Do 'the passions relax their hold' in old age? And is this what is portrayed in the romance genre? I think it very often is, in the sense that the majority of romances portray young lovers. Sandy Oakes, for example, states that 'a romance works best when the experience is new—the younger hero and heroine falling in love for the first time'. But passion at an older age is not simply an issue affecting the characters within novels: it is also an issue which affects the perception of the romance readers, as explored in a recent At the Back Fence column at AAR, where Robin Uncapher commented that 'It’s not only younger people who find the idea of an older reader disconcerting. It’s all of us, including those of us who have passed that 40th birthday'. Michelle Buonfiglio articulated the unease that older readers can feel when they realise that they are feeling an attraction to a character who is much younger than they are: 'is it just plain creepy to think guys who are 10, 15, 20 years younger than I are sexy as hell?'. And although many romances only show passionate, romantic love between younger characters, there are some which feature older characters. Michelle mentions Candice Hern's Just One of Those Flings" which has as its hero 'an alpha younger man who's crazy about an older woman. Our heroine's got to convince herself that his attraction to her is real, not some fetish; that her desirablity transcends her age'. Age is also an issue in Jessica Hart’s Contracted: Corporate Wife. The heroine is divorced, and the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl and an eleven-year-old boy:
She was attractive enough, but she had to be at least forty-five, and it showed in the lines around her eyes.
That cool, composed look had never done anything for him, anyway. He liked his women more feminine, more appealing, less in control. And younger. (2005: 6).
Patrick, the character making these observations, is himself ‘in his late forties’ (2005: 10). His opinion of Lou begins to change when she smiles:
Lou smiled up at the barman as he materialised out of the gloom, and Patrick’s hand froze in mid-tap as he felt a jolt of surprise. He hadn’t realised that she could smile like that.
She never smiled at him like that. [...] Not the warm, friendly smile she was giving the barman now, lighting her face and making her seem all at once attractive and approachable. (2005: 10)
The double standard, which generally leads people to consider an age-gap more appropriate if the man is the older of the couple, is directly challenged by Lou:
The boy was clearly trying to impress Lou, Patrick thought disapprovingly, watching his attempts at banter. She had only smiled at him, for heaven’s sake. Anyone would think that she was hot, instead of nearly old enough to be his mother. Just what they needed, a barman with a Mrs Robinson fixation. [...] Patrick glowered at the barman’s departing back. ‘Thank God he’s gone. [...]’
‘I thought he was charming,’ said Lou, picking up her glass.
She would.
‘Don’t tell me you’ve got a taste for toy boys!’
‘No – not that it would be any business of yours if I did.’ [...]
‘You don’t think it would be a bit inappropriate?’ he countered.
Lou stared at him for a moment, then sipped at her champagne. ‘That sounds to me like a prime case of pots and kettles,’ she said coolly. (2005: 11)
As Lou observes, Patrick’s girlfriends ‘look a good twenty years younger’ than him (2005: 12). She also acknowledges that ‘She was a middle-aged woman and it was well known that you became invisible after forty’ (2005: 12). Of course, this being a romance, Patrick eventually loses his arrogance and after that evening he starts to think of Lou in a new way.

Jennifer Crusie is another author who has written a romance about a heroine who is over forty. In Anyone But You, a forty-year-old heroine is paired with a thirty-year-old hero. The heroine's attempts to make her body into the ideal of female beauty are shown to be futile; this is not a novel in the high mimetic mode. Instead she realises that 'I wanted to give him a perfect body, and all he wanted was mine' (2006: 218).
  • Amir, Lydia, 2001. 'Plato’s Theory of Love: Rationality as Passion', Practical Philosophy, November 2001, Volume 4.3: 6-14.
  • Crusie, Jennifer, 2006. Anyone But You (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Hart, Jessica, 2005. Contracted, Corporate Wife (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).
  • Toohey, Peter, 2004. Melancholy, Love, and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press).
  • Wack, Mary Frances, 1990. Lovesickness in the Middle Ages: The ‘Viaticum’ and its Commentaries, University of Pennsylvania Press, Middle Ages Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania).


  1. What struck me about the ad was that it was obviously the same guy who was reading both the lurid romance novel and Plato. So obviously you can be both of average intelligence when you read romances and above average when you take on the Soc.

    I appreciated one of the Bitches honesty when she admitted there's a reason people make fun of romance novels. But then one could also make fun of those who read Nietzsche.

    But if it's true that "love is always directed towards what is good, indeed that goodness itself is the only object of love," then it explains why heroines in romances are such paragons of virtue.

  2. I'd certainly rather spend my time with--heck, I'd rather BE--the person reading romance than the one reading Nietzsche.

    Laura, you're a genius to take the ad up on its challenge and look into The Republic, only to find love there. It's notable that the ad did not choose The Symposium (or "The Drinking Party," as it might as well be called), but rather a text whose title, at least, suggests the sort of weighty matters that folks in the nation's capital take seriously. (Or are supposed to, although perhaps Mr. Foley, he of the latest scandal with a Congressional page, might have learned more from The Symposium!)

    Three more thoughts come to mind:

    1) The Platonic idea that most romance novels cite directly would have to be the notion of love as the search for a "soul-mate" or other half of ourselves that Aristophanes recounts with comic detail in the Symposium. (We're split like filets of fish, you'll recall, and now roam around looking for our missing pieces.) On the other hand, I think you're on to something, jfj, when you mention how crucial some idea of virtue often turns out to be in romance fiction, especially virtue in the heroine. Is this Plato as filtered through Jane Austen, perhaps?

    2) The other place to find that old time Platonic religion of eros--eros with proper object being the Ideal, rather than a mere human being--is...well, no, let me phrase this as a question: do we could find it in Christian inspirational romance? Is there a tension in any of those romances between loving the Creator and loving a created being, like a spouse? (Such tensions go back a long, long way in the history of love.)

    3) Finally, for another relationship between Romance and the Republic, there's always dear Jack Donne ("Captain...Jack Donne," one wants him to say):

    "She's all states, and all princes, I. / Nothing else is. / Princes do but play us; compared to this / All honour's mimic, all wealth, alchemy."

    ("The Sun Rising")

    More on the age thing soon--off to pluck some grey hairs first--

  3. On the other hand, I think you're on to something, jfj, when you mention how crucial some idea of virtue often turns out to be in romance fiction, especially virtue in the heroine.

    That's what I was getting at when I said that 'the lovers are usually [...] possessed of particular virtues [...] They are personifications of aspects of "the Good"'. It ties in with the idea expressed by medieval courtly lovers that, apart from the fact that the beloved was almost divine (and the love poems of the period did sometimes verge on the blasphemous), loving her encouraged the lover to become better himself. The role of Dante's Beatrice, for example, is to lead him towards source of goodness, 'the Good', in Dante's case the Christian God.

    In some romances I think what may happen is that the heroine is made the personification of the 'feminine' virtues, while the hero personifies the 'masculine' virtues. Only together can they most nearly resemble 'the Good'. So in that sense many romances combine the idea that the lovers are incomplete without each other (they need their other half) with the idea that what each seeks in the beloved is 'the Good'. Each is attracted to the other because the beloved is the embodiment of those aspects of 'the Good' which the lover lacks. And as they become 'one body' through marriage, they come even closer to resembling 'the Good' in which all the virtues, both 'masculine' and 'feminine' are present in their purest form.

    I'm not saying that all romances are like this, just that some, at a particular end of Frye's scale, may be. Also what I've said above about the 'masculine' and 'feminine' virtues doesn't necessarily imply that romances of this sort must, by definition, be about heterosexual couples. Plato certainly thought love was most likely between an older and a younger man.

    Re inspirationals, about which you asked 'Is there a tension in any of those romances between loving the Creator and loving a created being, like a spouse?', I think there are sometimes conflicts when one of the pair is Christian and the other is not. That sometimes forms the main 'barrier' (as defined by Pamela Regis) which must be overcome. But there isn't tension between loving God and loving a Christian spouse. A while back I asked Brenda Coulter a question related to this and she replied that:

    To understand the "love triangle" (man, woman, God) in a Christian romance, we must understand it in real life. The woman does not love two "men." God is not on the same plane as the loved one, He is above it. He is the top of the triangle. In Christian marriage, each partner puts God not merely above his or her spouse, but above his or her own self. Christian romance novels reflect that truth.

  4. Fascinating! Among Puritan writers in the 17th century, and indeed among American protestants well into the 19th century, as Karen Lystra has shown (see her book "Searching the Heart," a study of 19th c. American love letters), the fear of loving one's husband or wife more than God was very, very real. Some writers went so far as to blame their own idolatrous affection for the deaths of spouses, as though the losses were a brusque reminder from God never to love creation more than the Creator. Hence Emily Dickinson's mordant poem 1719:

    God is indeed a jealous God-
    He cannot bear to see
    That we had rather not with Him
    But with each other play.

    I must admit that in many years of listening to Christian talk radio (alhtough I'm not a Christian, I'm fascinated by "The Bible Answer Man") I have NEVER heard a caller worried about this particular sin or punishment. Nor have any of my evangelical students mentioned it, although they speak up about other theological topics rather often. It may be that the theology and lived culture of Protestants, at least in America, has left this concern far behind.

  5. Stephanie Coontz has the first chapter of her Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage available online here. In it she emphasises how unusual it is, in historical terms, for romantic love to be the basis of marriage and notes that:

    Some Greek and Roman philosophers even said that a man who loved his wife with “excessive” ardor was “an adulterer.” Many centuries later Catholic and Protestant theologians argued that husbands and wives who loved each other too much were committing the sin of idolatry.

    I managed to find some modern examples of this theological argument:

    All idols kill love and therefore undermine or destroy marriage. When we treat marriage as an idol, we put impossible demands on our spouses to fill the place of God for us. When the state, work, money, power, happiness, children or sex are idols, anyone who gets in the way of those goals is crushed.

    Earlier in the same article romance novels were mentioned, and not approvingly, in the context of a woman who wrote in to an advice column:

    With the exception of a wedding ceremony, all of the elements which anthropologists recognize as universal to marriage and family are already present in this relationship: They are living together, raising a daughter together, working together for the family’s well-being, and (presumably) having a sexual relationship. On top of that, the man’s feelings and actions prove that he loves the woman and her daughter very much. The only thing missing is a feeling of romantic love on the part of the woman. (She wonders herself whether her doubts comes from too many romance novels!)

    or how about this:

    Do we make idols of our love? In an article about being complete as an individual, Fern Horst mentioned that love focused on one particular individual over God is a form of idolatry. [...] She makes a point that's worth thinking about: "Any time we look to anyone or anything other than God to give us meaning, to meet our needs, we are creating an idol." (from this site)

    So the theological warnings concerning excessive love for a spouse being a form of idolatry are still around, they're maybe just not as prevalent as they used to be.