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The Loved & The Lost

Katherine Streeter

What's Wrong with Romance and Why Pursuing Happiness Won't Help

By Stephen Kessler

WHEN MY LOVER Natasha* and I split up a couple of years ago, I thought I'd die of sexual deprivation. It wasn't just the jealousy attacks--the knowledge that she was trying out a series of new suitors--but the understanding that we'd never again share the bliss of erotic union, the oneness of intense connection that marked the highest and deepest hours of our love.

I wondered how or where I might ever again find such perfect intimacy and despaired when I thought how unlikely it was that I, already well into my 40s, would encounter such exquisite chemistry in any available woman. After six years together it was hard to get used to sleeping solo, and every throbbing signal in the surrounding culture bombarded me with messages of mating.

Though our numbers in this country are larger than ever, people who live alone are often regarded by our paired peers--and often regard ourselves--as somehow defective, subnormal, less than complete. One look at People magazine proves that the only Beautiful People who count are the ones who are currently coupling. More than just sex, which in the present moral climate is looked on with some suspicion, joining forces with a partner gives one a certain respectability, gives others the impression that you must be ... well, together, no matter how miserable you actually are.

It was in fact the unbearable unhappiness of most of our days together those last couple of years--the fights, the rivalries, the jealousies, the resentments--that finally drove Natasha and me apart. Still, it's hard to get over not only the loss of a companion but the redemptive notion that somewhere, somehow, the ideal mate will save us from ourselves.

Classical Agonies & Romantic Myths

THE IDEA OF LOVE as consolation for the difficulties of existence was not invented by Smokey Robinson. The fatuous longings of popular song, the aches and pains of romance and the imaginary happy endings of movie comedies can be traced back in our collective consciousness to eras way before Shakespeare's.

Denis de Rougement in his illuminating study Love in the Western World identifies the source of our romantic obsessions in a medieval religious cult called the Cathars, who worshipped the Virgin Mary as an object of spiritual desire. Out of the Cathars came the troubadours and the conventions of courtly love, and from the troubadours evolved the Romantic poets, and from the Romantics eventually came the blues, and so on through rock & roll up to the present.

Desire is biological, not literary, but culture being what it is--one step removed from nature--it's in the written record that we find the most eloquent testimony to desire's power. In the poets of the Greek Anthology, who predate the Cathars by more than a thousand years, and especially in the fragments of Sappho, who wrote in the sixth century B.C.E., the pleasures of sexual love and the agonies of its absence are pervasive. With his venom, writes Sappho (in Mary Barnard's version),

    and bittersweet
    that loosener
    of limbs, Love
    strikes me down

Sappho wasn't looking to get married--she was the original Lesbian, attracted not only to a great range of lovely girls but also to beautiful young men--yet the aching need for sexual connection, the yearning and hunting for the ultimate erotic embrace recorded in her poems are among the pinnacle poetic expressions of pure lust.

If love is consolation for the sufferings of life, Sappho's lyrics are balm for the wounds of love. The only voice I can compare with Sappho's in its power to express this feeling is Billie Holiday's. These forms of singing persist, alongside the myths of romantic happiness, because we need their solace for the disappointments those very myths make inevitable.

The Pursuit of Happiness

THOMAS JEFFERSON really opened a can of worms when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence of our "unalienable rights" to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Is there any other culture on the planet where happiness is proposed as a realistic ambition for human beings? Maybe that's what's great about the United States, the notion that happiness is attainable, which may account in part for Americans' historically optimistic outlook as well as for our epidemic anxieties. Happiness is that endlessly receding promise just ahead that keeps us hustling.

As historian Page Smith has pointed out, this somewhat abstract quest was early translated into the pursuit of money, a more concrete and therefore achievable proposition. Money as a means to material security remains a primary motivator in U.S. culture, a principle most vividly epitomized by the waves of immigrants continually arriving in search of economic opportunity.

But for many Americans since the prosperous 1950s and '60s, money and all the goodies it brings with it--the cars and the clothes and the high-tech toys, and even the homes and the immigrant help who assist in raising the kids--don't quite add up to happiness. Indeed, the pursuit of material security for most people doesn't mean entrepreneurial adventure in the great American open-frontier tradition but the heartless demands of a job that affords very little time for what Jefferson called Life.

For those unyoked to the full-time work of family, or who as single parents would like some relief from that nonstop responsibility, it isn't money but love that often embodies the slippery notion of happiness. The personals section of any newspaper pulses with the desperation of happiness-seekers in search of the lover who'll provide what's missing. I wonder how many of these earnest searchers realize that happiness is as elusive as a mirage and that love as often as not creates more problems than it solves.

It seems as if half the psychotherapy industry is sustained by the romantic unhappiness of single people, and the other half by the unhappiness of couples. Yet the expectation that we can or should be happy in any abiding way is pure home-grown and media-reinforced mythic American fantasy. If we aren't happy we feel there must be something wrong with us, and that makes us even more depressed, and for depression there are various treatments ranging from compulsive consumerism to pharmaceutical chemistry, each "cure" bringing with it a whole new syndrome of problems.

Renunciation of desire, including the desire for happiness, is taught by many religious traditions as a step toward wisdom or enlightenment. Jefferson, who personified the 18th-century Enlightenment in its American manifestation, would have made a lousy Buddhist.

A Befuddled Bachelor

BENJAMIN, A SUCCESSFUL software engineer, has rediscovered religion after many years of a rather bohemian young manhood. He tells me now that he wants to be married but just hasn't found the right woman. He envisions a wife and family as a path to spiritual union, a way of getting closer to God and living a righteous life.

Meanwhile he's "dating," which, at 40, isn't so much fun. He meets women through his temple and through his professional associations and has even taken out personals ads and answered a few. But not one woman he's gone out with thus far feels to him like wife material. Whenever we get together, he complains of how ridiculous it is for a man in his position to be going through these transient emotional skirmishes with women equally eager to find a man but obviously not compatible with him. He knows he can't just settle for anyone who happens to be nice and Jewish; she has to be a person of impeccable character, spiritual depth, psychological self-awareness and intellectual substance--and naturally it wouldn't hurt if she was really good-looking.

"I set out on a devotional quest," Ben said to me recently, "but I feel like I'm stuck in a Woody Allen movie."

"Maybe," I suggested, "God is trying to tell you something."

A Biological Time Bomb

GRACE, A FRIEND and former lover of mine, is an alluring woman in her mid-30s. For reasons I'm not sure even her shrink could explain, she remains unmarried despite the fact there's nothing she wants more ardently than to fall in love and settle down and have babies.

Gorgeous, intelligent, professionally accomplished, financially stable, witty and a great kisser, Grace mysteriously hasn't yet met the man with whom she would ride off into the sunset. She keeps on having these half-baked affairs with the most ridiculous characters--noncommittal self-involved academics, married men she meets through her corporate job, adoring suitors who fail to provide the brilliant banter that turns her on, quick-witted jokers who lack the moral character she requires--while she grows increasingly desperate to find the special one with whom she might procreate.

What Grace doesn't seem to realize is that the perfect man does not exist, so she may never find one who measures up to her exacting standards. I fear that her ovulational volatility may drive her into a marriage she'll regret. In her desperation to plunge into the bliss of domesticity the odds are that she'll end up, a few years hence, divorced from some shmuck who'll refuse to pay child support because she can afford to raise the kids herself.

Legendary Marriages

GREAT MARRIAGES are definitely possible. I've known a few couples who met when young, formed permanent amorous unions and stayed together all their lives as if the gods intended it that way. These are the exceptional models most of us imagine as ideal. They seem effortlessly harmonious, less a matter of work than of perfect chemistry, intuitive understanding, sympathy and mutual support.

Other good marriages start later, after a divorce or two, or after each person has come into their own professionally and is able to bring to the other a wholeness, a centered maturity that provides balance. The couples I know who aren't yet old but whose marriages seem most rich are paradoxically the same ones whose lives are overloaded, utterly driven by children and/or work, so that they rarely have a spare moment to savor what's supposed to be Happiness.

In letters and conversations with my friends in such fulfilling partnerships, I'm always hearing lots of moans and groans about how they wish they had just a little time free of the relentless everyday demands. They vicariously enjoy or vaguely envy the liberty of those of us who have remained independent, just as we may admire from a safe distance the frenzied but fertile chaos of their family lives.

There is no "having it all." The choices we make require sacrifices. Whatever we do, we're always missing something. The key to not feeling cheated is to settle for less than everything while making the most of what's in front of us. This may be what the much-divorced Saul Bellow meant when he wrote, in The Adventures of Augie March, of "the refusal to live a disappointed life."

Self-Loathing & the Single Woman

RACHEL, WHO HAS an interesting if necessarily stressful job, wonderful friends and a rewarding spiritual practice, confesses to being hung up on a guy who will never commit to her. Every so often she gives him an ultimatum, but he always ignores it, so she calls it quits, can handle being without him for a while, then can't stand it anymore, so they get together, go to bed, and the cycle starts all over again.

Like Grace, the biological time bomb, Rachel wants a baby and can feel the demands of her body to find a mate. She also says she feels a certain contempt for herself as some kind of loser when she's alone. Of course when she lets her boyfriend come and go at will, she feels lousy about that, too.

Janet, an artist, was celibate for four years before she got together with Walt, whom she recently married. She told me the secret of her ability to remain solo and sane for those four sexless years was to channel her energy into creative work. By cultivating herself and her individual vision through painting and sculpture, she found a kind of erotic fulfillment that kept her sexuality alive even while its carnal manifestation remained dormant.

There's something in art that enables its practitioners--I think of Emily Dickinson, Joseph Cornell, Marianne Moore, Glenn Gould and other solitary eccentrics--to harness erotic energy for esthetic purposes, returning to the artist not only a sense of beauty and embodied mystery but also dignity and self-respect. However lonely and miserable you may be as a poet or painter or musician, you can always pour your soul into the work and it gives you back something akin to the reflected radiance of a lover.

The Joy of Celibacy

ONE OF MY FAVORITE philosophers, Lin Yutang, calls celibacy "a freak of civilization." Dr. Lin is neither the first nor the last to assert the supremacy of marriage and family life over the dubious pleasures of autonomy. Social historian Christopher Lasch, in his great book The Culture of Narcissism, excoriated a whole generation of Americans for abandoning the commitment to home/family/community as concentric centers of the universe, and as far as I know Lasch wasn't even a Confucian, much less a Republican.

But some of my friends who have chosen the path of celibacy--not out of principle but just because that's the way things have evolved in their personal relations--appear to be far less angst-riddled than either their uncoupled peers still hunting for a mate or the happily married parents whose lives are virtually controlled by their kids.

My own parents didn't have that problem; they were out building their business while I was growing up, so they weren't around too much, and maybe that, for better or worse, is the source of my self-reliance. During those periods when I'm unattached, I relish the freedom of my eccentricities, all those quirks and habits that can so easily annoy or alienate a partner.

Veronica, a graphic designer and organic gardener, has told me she's far happier since she quit a difficult relationship and decided to be herself without the intervention of a man. Her life is no longer at the mercy of her hormones, and she feels emotionally liberated, free to focus on things that give her a steadier kind of pleasure.

Jackson, a handsome entrepreneur and reformed ladies' man who finally realized he didn't want to marry his six-year sweetheart--so she left him--reports that despite the presence in his life of a number of attractive women, for now he much prefers the peace of sleeping alone to the complications of emotional entanglement.

The chosen bonds of mutual commitment can be wonderful, but so can the openness and clarity of being wholly your own person. Good sex feels great, and combined with love can make for the profoundest alliances, but I've witnessed enough desperate and temporary pairing to recognize the limits of the mating instinct. The people I know who proceed with reserve, resisting rather than seeking romance, seem to me much more grounded in a reliable reality.

The Drug of Love

EVERYONE KNOWS that being "in love" is one of the all-time highs. Endocrinologists tell us that the endorphins released by vigorous exercise, presumably including sex, are what pump our minds and bodies full of those euphoric feelings.

When the initial high wears off, however, love can be as dangerous as any other drug in its revelation of what it succeeded in masking or suppressing for a while--not just the dreaded Human Condition but those nasty interpersonal incompatibilities and insecurities our sexual pleasure seemed to render irrelevant. Surely sex is an excellent cement for holding lovers together, but without the sustaining presence of other essential adhesives, one can expect a crashing letdown.

Lewis, divorced for a couple of years and hungry for sexual fulfillment, fell in love with a woman who was raising two teenagers by herself. He wanted to sleep with her every night, so he moved out of his tidy little cottage, where he had the tranquillity to pursue his work as a poet, and into the more complex dynamics of her larger home.

Every so often, when Lewis and I get together for lunch or a beer, he laments the difficulty of doing his writing amid the demands of his lover's kids, and her own need for attention and her lack of comprehension of his need for periods of peace and quiet. Yet he craves the intimacy he has with this woman who gives him the sexual sustenance he also needs.

I wonder how he'll be able to resolve these irreconcilable addictions.

Is Sex Necessary?

MARRIAGE WAS DESCRIBED by Immanuel Kant, another titan of the Enlightenment, as "the union of two persons of different sexes for the purpose of lifelong mutual possession of their sexual organs." More recently and only a bit less cynically, Charles Bukowski wrote, in his grueling novel Women, "Sex is like money. It seems more important when you don't have any."

The underlying theme of both these witticisms is their shared understanding of the insecurity most of us feel when we're without a steady sexual partner. Marriage is like an insurance policy that guarantees we'll get laid--even though things don't always work out that way.

Last spring, when I was visiting New York, two casually dressed middle-aged couples were sitting near my table in a restaurant. One of the couples was clearly having problems; the woman was very upset with her mate and kept getting up as if to leave. After gently persuading her to stay, the other man put his arm around his wife and said reassuringly to his companions across the table, "We may not have the best sex life in the world, but I love her." To which his wife added cheerfully, "You know what? I'm not even interested in sex anymore."

Then they all ordered another round of drinks.

Contentment & Its Discontents

SOME YEARS AGO Maria married her best friend, a guy who couldn't be more reliable, accommodating, devoted, compatible, securely employed, sensitive, intelligent, kind--the sort of person any girl's mother would love for a son-in-law. And for a while there, Maria felt she'd found the right formula for the balance of companionship and independence she required. Her work as a veterinarian received the unconditional support of Eugene, her understanding husband, and their life together seemed a model partnership of equals.

But after four years Maria began to become uneasy with the smoothness of their domestic life; something was wrong, or missing, some essential tension, not necessarily conflict but energy. She needed more resistance than she was getting, more give-and-take. Contentment, the perfect marriage, was not exactly constricting, but it was dull.

Since moving to her own apartment a few months ago, Maria has perked up. Life seems interesting again, not because of any desire to pursue some new and exciting romance--she remains close friends with Eugene and has no lover--but because the boundaries of her situation are not so clearly defined. I wouldn't go so far as to say she's happy--Maria cultivates a certain tragic resignation--but she's evidently less miserable than when she was happily married.

The Happiest Man I Know

RAY, A RETIRED high school Spanish teacher, is in his early 70s but looks about 50 and is one of the most vitally energetic people I've ever met. Gay, unattached, fit and still sexy, when asked how he is, he invariably answers, "Terrific!"

I have no way of knowing how sexually active he is, but he has plenty of friends, both gay and straight, and a busy social life as well as a continuing interest in books and ideas and politics. But what seems to give Ray the most satisfaction is service: He volunteers as a courthouse interpreter, works with homeless people at a community garden and takes care of men who are dying of AIDS, cooking for them and delivering meals as well as being present as a companion.

Because he comes from a line of long-lived ancestors, Ray is sure he's going to live to be at least 100, and so, despite his senior citizen status, maintains the forward-looking enthusiasm of someone in his 20s.

He's told me of one great love in his life, a handsome dancer who, after their years together in San Francisco, eventually returned to his native Spain. Whatever suffering this breakup may have caused him at the time, Ray now seems anything but nostalgic about the relationship. The photos of Emilio on his wall, alongside pictures of more recent boyfriends, appear to be points of personal reference not to love lost but life gained, happy reminders of a richness even time, the great eradicator, can't negate.

The Love of Comrades

IN MY EXPERIENCE sex has served as a beautiful bonding agent between long-term or even one-time lovers who gradually evolve into friends, or as a tantalizingly flirtatious possibility between friends who never get sexually intimate, maintaining a certain erotic tension that charges the friendship to a higher voltage of affectionate intensity, as if not having sex were sexier than having it.

If not quite agape--the famously chaste Christian brotherly/sisterly love--perhaps this is something like what Walt Whitman meant by "the dear love of comrades," that adhesive longing, consummated or not, that draws companions together. Kenneth Rexroth used to speak of "erotic comradeship," an anarcho-utopian concept of sacred sex, not to be confused with the so-called free love of the 1960s and '70s; comradeship implying solidarity, an ongoing spiritual and practical affinity that is neither the randy randomness of indiscriminate intercourse nor the Super Glue bondedness of wedlock.

Friendship, as I've known it, is a far more reliable and lasting form of interpersonal relations than romantic attachment. Those I've loved most dearly and longest, male and female, carnal lovers and platonic sidekicks alike, are almost without exception individuals I wouldn't want to live with.

Happiness Happens

WHILE I SUBSCRIBE to the Nietzschean notion that we create our lives and are responsible for how we live them, I doubt that any self-respecting existentialist would buy the idea that happiness can be had.

What happens with happiness is, it has us, whenever and for however long it likes. A colleague compares it to the unexpected current of warm water one may sometimes move through for a few pleasant seconds while snorkeling. We can't even plan for its presence, much less possess it.

Etymologically speaking, the word means luck, chance, happenstance. When, in " My Last Affair," Billie Holiday sings "My happiness is misery" in an incongruously perky tone of voice, the ambiguity of the line resounds in the heart that knows how the feeling can cut both ways: the strangely delicious misery of losing the happiness one had in the rapture of romantic passion, and the perverse happiness some thinkers thrive on, that it is immersion in sorrow out of which the deepest truths of existence may be lifted.

The catharsis of tragedy, the terrible encounter with our human limits revealed at best through the beauty of art, the fact of our inevitable losses transformed into something that gives pleasure even as it lays bare our desolation--like Lady Day singing of ruined love, or Van Gogh painting a tormented landscape, or Thelonious Monk seducing a piano, or Sophocles putting Oedipus through the wringer--these are the gifts of misery that somehow make happiness possible.

When I behold such a work, or am given a glimpse of a hawk on the coast or a flash of human grace in the urban landscape, or am lucky enough to pull from myself and reveal on paper some private grief that's been eating me--like the loss of a lover whose body and soul I had hoped to hold forever despite the pain of our relations--I have a taste of that serendipity no self-help manual can teach.

As William Blake so neatly put it in a four-line poem he called "Eternity":

    He who binds himself to a joy
    Does the winged life destroy;
    But he who kisses the joy as it flies
    Lives in eternity's sun rise.

*All names in this story have been changed. To protect privacy, some individual portraits are composites.

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From the June 26-July 2, 1997 issue of Metro.

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