Dear Robert on Romance

Sometimes my dear friend Robert lets his half of the correspondence be published.

Here’s Robert on the topic of Romance. His missive needs no prelude from me, so I won’t give one.

Do you have thoughts about this thoughts? Please weigh in in the comments.



Dear Trent,

I spent this afternoon recording my thoughts on romance, to remind me of where my honor lies, and maybe to help you. These ideas may change over time as my understanding grows. But by expressing my understanding as it is now, I will be better prepared to understand better tomorrow.

(I don’t care for ‘integrity’ as it’s normally used, by the way. Much prefer honor, or incorruptibility, or truthfulness, or whatever is really meant. Integrity denotes self-consistency, but someone can be consistent and yet wrong about what is good, or they can have integrity and yet be knowingly, consistently immoral. At the fullest degree of human flourishing, integrity is an appropriate description: the person is completely in harmony with his created nature and his rational-passionate aims. But that is not what we normally mean when we say someone has integrity. It’s of a piece with the stature of integrity that the only crime in this era is to be hypocritical.)

I can foresee a couple temptations that arise through romance, temptations which follow from its essential character. The fact that I couldn’t tell you much about Charlotte’s history or inclinations or purposes, or her eye-color, points to that essential character.

It’s oriented to the present moment. No matter what anyone says about dating being a search for someone compatible, its special excellence (telos) is not in that – you can find compatibility without dating – but as an extended dance, a play of personality governed by sexual trust and tension. So I invite Charlotte to the dance floor, as it were, knowing little about her other than that she has good taste, and that means we’re in for a great dance.

Of course good taste is an indication (though not a proof) of good character, as Jane Austen goes lengths to prove, and also I’ve already seen examples of her good character. But the point is that to me Charlotte is distinctly other. She is feminine in a way that is unusually charming to me. What I find myself looking forward to is not so much knowing her, that person which is now and may forever remain inscrutable to me, but the ballet.

Now one of the legal tenets of a Christian romance is that there must be no intercourse, because there is no marriage. Where there is no family, it is better that there not be children.

(Nota Bene: I will continue to try to call it romance; dating is another word I can’t stand — it is romance without a soul. It sounds childish, and also it makes me think of writing events into calendars, suggesting that the relationship is a discontinuous leaping between points of contact rather than a continuous development. There is something to the discontinuity, but only if the pauses are conceived as orchestrated rests – crotchets, breves, and minims! – rather than voids.)

That means the tension never relaxes, never finds a satisfactory cadence. The two of you are forever looking at one another, but from a distance, and never down together in the same direction, to a mewling baby (and the child is true meaning of the text in Genesis, ‘the two shall become one flesh’). Bach is the most refreshing, reasonable music ever written, the finest musical expression of Reason I know, but imagine the torture listening to a Bach fugue that never ended. It would be possible to listen to the Gregorian modal chant forever, but that is because that music is an expression of divine unity, not human variety.

The difficult question I am forced to ask then, right at the beginning, is how to conclude the movement. No one ever asks this question thoughtfully. Either people conclude that it is impossible, and therefore one shouldn’t start in the first place, or they say that other factors make the question not worth asking, or they give the very unsatisfactory answer that the relaxation is a relaxation of desire, that the fancying simply dissolves, and what a pity for the person whose desire was still strong while the other’s dissipated. But I take particular pleasure in solving insoluble problems.

The problem lies in the nature of the relationship: what is the future of a love that is anchored to the present moment? How do you jump into the future? The future holds two possibilities:

Marriage. There is a seed of marriage in romance, but it is unlike it, and may not sprout. For me, courtship with marriage in mind is the most satisfactory path to marriage; for marriage to spring unlooked for out of dating signifies a lack of self-knowledge on the part of the couple, and opens the path to divorce springing up in the same way. In a sense, Courtship is a surveying of the ground and a laying of a foundation, disciplining the couple in the harmonies of obedience and sacrifice. A marriage that springs out of dating is like the house built on the sand. The foundations have to built after the family has already moved in. That’s expensive and takes a great deal of effort, and the couple may not have the gumption for it. Measure twice and cut once.

Separation. This is the most common, and least satisfactory. If it doesn’t end in grieving, what was the point? And if it does, where was the sense?

There is another solution, which is not a leaping into the future, not a betrayal of the present, but an expansion of the present. (“Not less of love but expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation / From the future as well as the past“):

Friendship. One must learn to love the other not only as other, but as the person him or herself. This must be done deliberately. I suppose people do this naturally, but why then do so many relationships break up over mutual misunderstandings? Some of the desire must be reserved from passionate expression and saved for mutual regard (“to become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern”). This way, if the desire fades, you can part in love, because you understand why the other person no longer desires you. But now, you have a lasting friendship, something better than what you began with, and a friendship with a special poignancy because of your memories.

I haven’t discussed kissing. Everyone realizes that kissing changes things. I suspect it changes things for the better; if done rightly, even a better friendship. The dance changes suddenly, the distance between the partners collapses. The dance itself is momentarily forgotten. It is a kind of transfiguration of pleasure, an intimacy that has contempt for propriety. No one in the West feels that they could outlaw public kissing, but simultaneously we all feel that seeing a kiss in public is an invasion of privacy. Some people like that. I can’t stand it personally. But the kiss is a kind of imperialism of romance. It makes a claim of right on a public arena.

The kiss is in a way more intellectual than intercourse. It is a mixing of mouths, which are the organ of speech. To kiss is to exchange languages, for a moment to receive the language of the other as your own and all that that entails, without any interpretative filter — the verbal and mental education, the familial tradition, the intellectual habits, the lilts and mannerisms. All that means that kissing is a very dangerous thing (at least for a philosopher). You are briefly infused with a new spirit. And you infuse someone else. It is no surprise then that it increases desire. And if the biologists can find chemical reactions that occur after kissing that explain the increase of animal desire, I will ask them, “but why the mouth, and not some other part of the body, and why kissing, and not some other compression?” and they will never have a good answer.

I don’t know what to do with kissing yet, but maybe I will learn.

There are temptations in romance, key among which have to do with treating the other person as a means only, not an end, as Kant would say, or as Aristotle might put it, making the friendship one of use. Normal relationships of use are fine per se — the merchant and client, the business partners, political alliances, the networking relationships common to DC, etc. But a romance that’s devolved into a friendship of use is a tawdry thing.

Obviously one can use people in many ways. But how may I be tempted?

To do it merely for status. That Charlotte would reflect well on me. That I would be glad of her work, achievements, and knowledge not for her sake and for their own sake, but because of the glamour that would reflect on me because someone with those attributes was dating me. Also the very fact of dating carries a certain status.

Flattery. Personally this is not a huge problem, but it’s something to watch for.

Indulgent physical attention.

An elaborate sort of procrastination. An excuse not to deal properly with my other duties.

So I must be on the watch against those things.

Well this wasn’t easy to write. I don’t mean I was hesitant to write any of it, but it is difficult to make a philosophical inquiry into love and not sound ridiculous and lose your grip on the topic. It is difficult to find robust metaphors and similes that carry forward the argument and are faithful to reality.