Books January 2002

Mr. Goodbar Redux

Illusions. Affectation. Lies. This is the insidious and incapacitating legacy of modern dating books

"I often take a long bath beforehand and enjoy a glass of wine or a cup of mint tea to calm my nerves," Myreah Moore reveals. "While in the bath, take some deep clarifying breaths and start imagining yourself having a good time ... Repeat 'I'm going to have fun.'" "The only people who think dating is fun," Nita Tucker counters in How Not to Stay Single (1996), "are married people who haven't done it in years." She herself found it abominable—but worthwhile, since it secured her a husband.

A strange flip-flop has taken place in Western clichés about relationships: once upon a time marriage was seen as the arduous obligation and dating (pre- or extra-marital) was seen as the easy, free, and romantic pleasure. Look at Casanova, George Sand, La Rochefoucauld—or at Ovid. Not one of the relationships celebrated in his Art of Love is between spouses: marriage, to him and to writers for centuries afterward, involved duty and discipline; dating was where the fun and the liberty lay. If Ovid's contemporaries dismissed marriage, at least they had marvelous visions of affairs. In our day we are moving toward a point where we have positive views of neither—where everything in our love life is grim, everything is work. Dating is hell, we think; but its reward is marriage. Marriage is "stress," but its consolation is the memory of dating. What with our fear of singlehood, our Puritan work ethic, our endurance of game playing, and our knowledge of the high divorce rate, we have arranged it so that eros in all its manifestations provokes fear and trembling.

Is it any surprise, then, that so many of today's ambitious university students have no time for relationships until these explicitly serve their career-and-life-advancement programs? Is it any surprise that by the time they do cast a tentative look around for potential partners, they no longer know how to start a relationship, sometimes already feel biologically "behind schedule," and—with gender wars seething on college campuses—may have assimilated a severe mistrust of the opposite sex? Such mistrust is abundantly evident, time and again, in the very books presumably designed to reduce it in the name of relationship building. Take Nailah Shami's Frogs. Here is a book that proposes to help women find a loving mate but that actually speaks such bitterness against men, and proves so eager to displace them with "teddy bears, a vibrator ... and girl power records," that it accomplishes precisely the opposite.

Off-putting though it is, this book highlights a problem well: On one hand, women feel that they can and should be responsible for their own "power," both professional and personal; for their own self-esteem; and even for their own sexual satisfaction. On the other, they can't help feeling, somewhere down the line, that vibrators and even good careers and friends are not enough. Is it any surprise, then, that they ultimately funnel the same drive, determination, organizational prowess, and even, to some extent, the same willingness to play by "the rules" into relationships which they previously funneled into educational and professional achievement? "My success came," writes the high-end career woman Nita Tucker, "when I ... began thinking of [falling in love] as a project ... I applied the same skills that had made me successful in other areas of life to finding a relationship." Is it any surprise that, conflicted as they are about men, and disenfranchised as they are in many cases by their lack of romantic experience, young women revert nervously to the "hard-to-get" (but easy-to-follow) ploys of their great-grandmothers?

As women reassess their roles in society; as both sexes work together more and more and trust each other less and less; as everyone brings careerish determination to sentimental accident, there is a space—nay, a cry—for intelligent reappraisals of romantic love. What we have instead is fearful repetition of romantic cliché—tired and retired romantic cliché. The great minds of our moment steer clear of the great questions. Once upon a time it was Ovid and Montaigne, Stendhal and Balzac, Hazlitt and Emerson, who tried their hands at treatises about how to love. Now it's aging, self-congratulatory frat boys like Gerstman, Pizzo, and Seldes; failed farmhands like Lyndon McGill; and peevish spice girls like Nailah Shami who hold the floor and set the tone of the discussion. The dearth of commanding commentary gives audience to idiots.

Turn from them back to the ancients. Love, Ovid wrote, "is no assignment for cowards." Safe sex, fine; but safe love is impossible. Love that manifests itself in considerate questions designed to rule out mates with family problems (as we find in The Real Rules)—no. Love as "project," as a kind of postdoc undertaken after our real goals have been attained—no. Let us allow boldness to prevail where rules make cowards of us all. Let us allow magic to reign where we find it, lest we color the world gray.

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