When I was sixteen, I wrote a romance short story by stringing together clichés from Jean Kent and Candace Shelton’s The Romance Writers’ Phrase Book, a kind of thesaurus for expressions such as ‘his strong hands roamed like carefree mustangs over the melting softness of her body.’
Now, as I reread ‘The Dark and Stormy (And Writhing with the Raw Sensuousness that Pressed Them Together like Soldering Metals) Night’, the story sings with supercilious delight at my own cleverness. You can tell I felt no stake in this story. It was not about me, or for me.
This reminds me that romantic writing is more than just a genre narrating erotic love. The romantic is a powerfully subjective literary register, a mode of writing in which identification feels like surrender, and even like suffering.
The writing world today is grappling with a discourse we could dub ‘representativity’. This is the idea that writing should seek to represent the broadest possible range of human experience and in so doing enable more people to see themselves in it. Representativity is a progressive, recuperative discourse because it aims, through the act of representation, to restore to prominence those human subjectivities that were historically suppressed under capitalism, colonialism and heteropatriarchy.
In modernity, anglophone writing has naturalised the worldview of straight, white, cisgender men from the global north, leaving writers and readers constituted as other to identify with a perspective that holds them in contempt. WEB Du Bois called this cognitive dissonance ‘double consciousness’; Antonio Gramsci theorised ‘hegemony’; Laura Mulvey saw ‘the male gaze’; Susan Sontag noted ‘camp’.
Cross-identifying with writing is partial, oblique, contingent and subversive. By contrast, the representativity discourse is radically mimetic. Mimesis is the Aristotelian concept that literature is most successful when it powerfully evokes the reader’s own life experiences. Representativity, then, immerses a reader completely in their own subjectivity, freeing them from the need to quest for themselves in a story that is not ‘for’ them.
This is romantic: it is powerfully seductive to feel a writer has expressed your ‘true self’. In his 1992 book The Transformation of Intimacy, sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that the modern ideal of romantic love ‘presumes a psychic communication, a meeting of souls which is reparative in character’. For Giddens, it is no coincidence that romantic intimacy arose in tandem with the novel; both are narrative templates through which an incomplete, wounded subjectivity makes sense of itself through being seen, understood and accepted by another.
Because romantic intimacy depends on free and equal emotional communication, it democratises human relationships by insisting upon, in Giddens’ words, ‘respect for the independent views and personal traits of the other’. Storytelling, therefore, does not mimetically represent pre-existing conditions of life, but rather actively determines how we see ourselves and each other.
Let us return to the feelings associated with the romantic: not just intimacy (the feeling of being seen and understood) but also adventure and passion. In pre-modern Europe, chivalric romance was a genre of allegorical literary fantasy in which knights embarked on marvellous quests to prove their devotion to the married women for whom they burned with remote, spiritual eroticism.
Medievalist scholars are still debating whether ‘courtly love’ was a real set of historical social values, or simply a literary device in the songs, poems and stories enjoyed by European nobles. But it fascinates me to consider it could be both: the polysemous subjectivities of chivalric romances opened up multiple ways for audiences to imagine themselves.
When a troubadour addressed the female subject of his poem as midons (‘my lord’), any female listener could imagine herself as the secret beloved. Furthermore – as those falsetto bards the Bee Gees would later sing – she could taste the power of being more than a woman. Men could identify their desires for social advancement in the knight’s quest, while also imagining themselves as objects of desire. ‘In this way,’ literary scholar Meg Bogin has observed, ‘the sexual expressed the social and the social the sexual.’
It was this pre-modern entwining of emotions, aesthetics and subjectivity that led eighteenth-century artists, writers and philosophers to reach for the term ‘romantic’ when championing subjective intensity of feeling over ‘classical’ Enlightenment intellectualism. Romantic literature was interested in passion – the emotion that had been absent from medieval marriage, and sublimated in chivalric romances.
In its religious sense, ‘passion’ implied suffering, but in Romantic literature it was closer to the sublime: the scary exhilaration of feeling unbounded by the self. In the literary context, Roland Barthes distinguishes between plaisir, the pleasure of reading in order to enjoy and know one’s own identity, and jouissance, a bliss that allows the reader to escape their own subject position.
I am often struck by the destabilising use of synecdoche in erotic writing. In sex scenes, the sovereignty of specific body parts and gestures breaks down into swooning generalities; the lovers become pure pronouns of feeling (‘then he was inside me’). At orgasm, the self explodes and drifts away, settling softly back onto the body.
In these fraught times, wanting to be ‘swept away’ by what we read is often couched as irresponsibly apolitical. But romantic writing ties emotions to subjectivity in inescapably political ways. Through acts of love, acts of writing and reading, acts of identification, the romantic register allows us to see ourselves completely, even if only for a brief, ecstatic moment.
Image: Howard Ignatius / flickr
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