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Books Wooed by Freedom?

Why the young distrust love and fear commitment

by Peter Berkowitz

Readings on Courting and Marrying

edited by Amy A. and Leon R. Kass.
University of Notre Dame,
630 pages,

ONE would have to be glib indeed to draw conclusions about society at large from isolated samples of popular culture, especially when dealing with something as coy and defiant, as fond of and agile with masks, as tantalizingly close and wickedly elusive, as commonly and crazily pursued, as love. Yet given the role the movies play these days, not only in satisfying our appetite for entertainment but also in forming tastes and in supplying cultural reference points from lowbrow to highbrow, one would have to be a fool to ignore the propositions about love that emanate from the silver screen.
Discuss this article in the Politics & Society conference of Post & Riposte.

More on politics and society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Plight of the High-Status Woman," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (December 1999)
Recent fiction, essays, and self-help books (Dumped!, for one) suggest that a harsh new mating system is emerging.

"Can the Government Prevent Divorce?", by Francine Russo (October 1997)
Researchers say that they can -- and some states feel they should -- reduce the likelihood of divorce by altering the course of bad marriages in the making.

"De Sade's Daughters," by Lee Siegel (February 1997)
In the new erotic writing by women, sex is a cruel, even murderous business, and men, for the most part, are brutes.

"The Moral State of Marriage," by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (September 1995)
Scores of advice books on divorce have appeared over the past two decades, but in popular advice literature, as in so many other domains of life, there is a gender gap.

"Divorce and the Family in America," by Christopher Lasch (November 1966)
"Most reformers, when confronted with particular cases, admit that divorce is better than trying to save a bad marriage. Yet many of them shy away from the conclusion toward which these sentiments seem to point."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "What We Owe," (February 1997)
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead discusses the urgent need to end America's "divorce culture."

It is a matter of some wonder that few films have captured the American public's imagination as forcefully and lastingly as Casablanca -- for it is a peculiar sort of love story. It is not exactly a tragedy: neither Rick nor Ilsa dies, nor do fate and character flaws conspire to bring them low or destroy their love. And yet the film is certainly not a comedy either, because no storybook ending awaits the heroes, no happily-ever-after redeems their loss. Wishing to remain worthy, in each other's eyes and in their own, of the love they share, Humphrey Bogart's Rick and Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa give each other up -- he to stay in Casablanca aiding the French Resistance, she to accompany and support her husband, a dedicated and courageous man, in his work as a leader of the underground. This is hardly a Hollywood ending, yet Bogart's last words to Bergman on the runway, which seal both their love and their separation, are enshrined in the memories of generations of moviegoers. Unforgettable, too, is the concluding shot: after he has gunned down the Nazi commander, enabling the plane carrying Ilsa and her husband to depart Casablanca, Rick, with Louis the French police captain, his new friend and co-conspirator, ambles off into the night fog, no trace of a broken heart discernible in his easy stride or wry words. Indeed, these moments belong among the most beloved final scenes in the annals of American movies.

Apparently we are romantics, for Casablanca would not retain the power to make grown men and women weep and then watch it again and weep some more unless we shared a deep conviction that love and nobility are linked, that great love may summon from us monumental sacrifices -- including, when fate is especially cruel, giving up the beloved for the sake of love. Indeed, to be moved by such renunciation we must be romantics of a peculiarly enthusiastic breed.

And yet who could be less romantic than we are today? What could be more out of fashion today than renunciation? Television, along with the movies, is awash in adolescent farce, cheap vulgarity, and the feverish and calculating pursuit of casual sex. The Internet revolution and the stock-market boom enhance our already robust sense of entitlement: be a multimillionaire by the time you are twenty-five, or be a slacker or a drone. Owing in part to VCRs, the Internet, and now DVDs, pornography is flourishing as never before -- affordable, discreet, and available to almost everybody. One of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Seinfeld, created a world devoid of happy couples, in which lasting love, when it came to dating and mating, seldom struck the characters as something interesting enough even to mock. Whereas in the sixties and seventies, at the dawn of the sexual revolution, radical college students referred to one of their newfound freedoms as the now quaint-sounding "making love" (a euphemism that emancipated sex from marriage but preserved its link to romance), and in the eighties we referred to "having sex" (which severed the biological drive from emotional attachment), today students adopt a mechanical metaphor, speaking of "hooking up," like railroad cars and computer docking stations (which may constitute a gain in precision, allowing for discrimination among forms of coupling). Even in Shakespeare in Love, the recent film that perhaps comes closest in spirit to Casablanca, Gwyneth Paltrow sacrifices more for her dream of acting on the all-male Elizabethan stage than for the love she finds with the struggling young playwright, and renounces her beloved -- not, as in Casablanca, embracing duty because of love, but abandoning love in deference to duty.

Of course, for every anti-romantic trend in popular culture one can point to a countertrend celebrating romantic bliss: TV shows such as Mad About You and Dharma and Greg, both about delightful young married couples whose differences and disputes always confirm their perfect fit; the titanic success of Titanic, which owed more to the fairy-tale romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet than to James Cameron's spectacular computer-generated special effects; the renewed interest in the classic courting novels of Jane Austen, reflected in the spate of film adaptations in the mid-nineties (including the clever Clueless); the abiding popularity of When Harry Met Sally..., which dramatizes the slow, fitful growth of love and marriage out of initial animosity, lingering lust, and unexpected friendship; the formulaic Harlequin romances that continue to be among the best-selling books in the United States; and the sentimental odes to broken hearts and undying love that gush forth around the clock from soft-rock and country radio stations across the nation.

But the coexistence of the countertrends alongside the trends is just the point. Apparently we are romantics. And apparently we are anti-romantics as well. Which is not to say that we have somehow, without really thinking about or even noticing it, struck a healthy balance. The competition between these impulses sows powerful confusion in our souls, not least in regard to our conduct and understanding of love and marriage.

WIFE and husband Amy and Leon Kass, who teach at the University of Chicago, are thoughtful romantics alarmed by the anti-romantic tendencies of the time. Indeed, they first undertook work on their "Readings on Courting and Marrying" in response to what they regarded as a crisis in romantic relations among young adults. Their students, they found, were increasingly skeptical of marriage and family and at the same time, especially the women, dissatisfied with what they called (in the instructively abstract and antiseptic term of choice) "relationships," in and out of which they frequently and unceremoniously wandered. Saddened by this state of affairs, the Kasses were also convinced that there was and remains a better way. But our primary access to it -- and this, they point out, is a measure of our loss -- is through acts of recollection and retrieval.

The Kasses' volume is, "quite frankly and unapologetically, a pro-marriage anthology, intended to help young people of marriageable age, and parents of young people now and soon to be of marriageable age, think about the meaning, purpose, and virtues of marriage and, especially, about how one might go about finding and winning the right one to marry." It contains a distinguished array of literary selections whose sources range from Homer and the Bible to Rilke and Robert Frost, contemporary cultural criticism of a largely conservative cast, a brief introduction by the Kasses to each of the readings, and a substantial introductory essay by them on the leading themes of the book. Although this is not its sole or even its principal purpose, the anthology does aim to articulate the features, defend the dignity, and bring out the continuing relevance of an older ideal, according to which the man woos and pursues, the woman keeps her distance and discriminates carefully among suitors, and both play their roles in an ancient dance that seeks to combine sex and love and the rearing of children in a monogamous and permanent union.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

"Flying Solo," by Tamala M. Edwards (August 28, 2000)
More women are deciding that marriage is not inevitable, that they can lead a fulfilling life as a single. An article published in Time Magazine.

Many will find it mighty tempting to dismiss the Kasses as conservative moralists out of touch with the contemporary scene -- old fogies oblivious of the charms and the justice of the new dispensation. But the questions around which they organize their book are fundamental and do not prejudge the issue: What is distinctive about the contemporary situation? Why marry? How does sex bind men and women and set them at odds? How can love be distinguished from lust or friendship? How does one find and win the right love? Why are weddings important? What can married life be like? Nor do they rest the case for marriage -- which they build patiently, question by question, reading by reading -- on an appeal to authority or tradition or religious faith. Rather, the Kasses start from the dissatisfactions they have observed in their students. Their contention is that courting with an eye to marrying and marrying with a view to forever offers genuine goods (so their own experience and studies have persuaded them) that respond to the enduring longings of the human heart.

ONE would, for example, be hard-pressed to detect anachronism or political partisanship in the final reading, Robert Frost's "The Master Speed," written in celebration of his daughter's wedding, whose romantic last line supplies the Kasses' book with its evocative title.

No speed of wind or water rushing by
But you have speed far greater. You can climb
Back up a stream of radiance to the sky,
And back through history up the stream of time.
And you were given this swiftness, not for haste,
Nor chiefly that you may go where you will,
But in the rush of everything to waste,
That you may have the power of standing still --
Off any still or moving thing you say.
Two such as you with such a master speed
Cannot be parted nor be swept away
From one another once you are agreed
That life is only life forevermore
Together wing to wing and oar to oar.

It is a beautiful and timeless image of triumph over the rush and ravages of time: husband and wife side by side, sharing friendly winds or propelling themselves through resistant waters.

Yet the obstacles to the attainment of Frost's sublime vision of marital love are timeless too. Selfishness, greed, lust, pride, envy, jealousy, resentment, and the hankering after power and pre-eminence have ever roiled the souls of men and women and have kept the stage set for spite, deceit, and betrayal. More: the machinations of rivals, the mandates of parents, the dictates of religious authorities, the laws of the state, the vagaries of fortune, the pressures of economic necessity, and the barriers of prejudice forever conspire to drive lovers apart and tear marriages asunder.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University Law School and is the author of Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism (1999).

Illustrations by Dominick Rapone.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Wooed by Freedom? - 00.10; Volume 286, No. 4; page 128-133.