Thursday, August 25, 2011

In National Review (subscriber-only), Mary Eberstadt reviews Paul Hollander's book Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America:
Hollander is surely correct in observing that the language of the marketplace, of selling oneself, has come to litter modern love — even in precincts whose inhabitants consider themselves to be free of any taint of commerce, such as that of the readers of and personals advertisers in The New York Review of Books. Noting how often women describe themselves as “stunning,” “attractive,” “very attractive,” and so on, for example, Hollander asks: “How many ‘stunning’ women such as those described . . . could be out there awaiting eager partners?” Such is not to focus unfairly on women; “men too,” he notes with the dry wit frequently on display in the book, “are capable of implausible self-presentations.”

. . . Hollander believes that there is something peculiarly American about the “extravagant expectations” of those and other souls. In a particularly fascinating passage comparing ads in
The New York Review of Books with their counterparts in the London Review of Books, he depicts the contrast between the societies as mirrored in their personals ads. Unlike the Americans, he observes, the Brits aren’t even trying to sell themselves — at least not in the same way; there, irony and self-deprecation rule instead. Witness as exemplary, “Bald, short, fat, and ugly male, 53, seeks shortsighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.”

How did Americans come to this difficult romantic pass? Modernity, observes Hollander alongside his fellow sociologists, has frayed the bonds that once joined individuals to clan and communities quite beyond any ability to knit them back together. One consequence has been an increased reliance on the bonds to others that do remain in the hands of modern men and women — primarily, romantic bonds. And so romantic love is made to pull more weight than it ever had to before, or indeed than wiser souls ever would have assigned it. . . .

To understand the way we live now is to see, yes, that modernity has shredded the ties that once bound us to one another. But it is also to see that that shredding has been different for the different sexes. . . .

Are women who are surrounded by children and grandchildren in middle and old age as likely to feel lonely and shut out as some other women — namely, those who bought the revolution’s promises and ultimately denied themselves the rewards of family; and who are now aging coquettes embittered by their competitive disadvantages against any woman years or decades younger?

The questions seem to answer themselves.
Slightly later: Hollander in an interview at FrontPage Magazine:
I think the whole idea of a self-conscious pursuit of happiness is very American and modern (of course it goes back to the Founders and the 18th century and the French Enlightenment as well).

The very idea that human beings have a capacity for happiness, combined with the fuzziness of what happiness entails, is very American and it creates difficulties. The belief that we all have this capacity to be happy is highly dubious. It would be far more realistic to propose – and American society and culture provide endless examples – that human wants endlessly expand, that we have a huge capacity for dissatisfaction.

* * *

[Answering the question, "What are some of the consequences of our extravagant expectations?"] Disappointment, floundering relationships, marital instability, confusion.

Mind you, I am not suggesting that people were happier in the highly unromantic traditional societies where their families made the choices for them. Of course in those societies life for most people in general was far more difficult and survival itself was an accomplishment – ideas of happiness cannot flourish under such conditions.

* * *

I don’t think I can offer anything very original by way of advice. People looking for a durable and emotionally satisfactory relationship ought to know themselves, including their own limitations. Also, people should try to determine what human qualities really matter in the long run. I would not rank looks, money and popularity too high, not that these things are unimportant. The love life of celebrities ought to give us a pause.

Romantic love is a very good thing while it lasts but by definition it involves the idealization of one’s partner. It is not realistic to expect one person to meet all our emotional, psychological needs but it sometimes may happen. Intimacy and compatibility are certainly worthy ideals but difficult to combine with the mundane, routinized aspects of daily life.

Also, individualistic impulses have to be curbed; fantasies of self-realization are often dubious as are conceptions in our uniqueness.