Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"On Romantics"

This essay was written a couple of years ago intended for the NYTimes Modern Love Essay Contest. I never really finished it, nor sent it to the New York Times, nor any other publication for that matter. But when I had the opportunity to finish half a paper instead of write a whole new one, I completed it, and used it for the purposes of my Expository Writing class in college. I know it is slightly cheesy, and I've matured slightly over these past two years, but I'm not sure I've changed all that much. I ramble. Enjoy...

As the rain began to beat harder on the New York City sidewalks, my friends and I jumped on the N Train and retreated back to Brooklyn, armed with a bottle of cheap red wine, some sweet vermouth for Manhattans, and the perfect ingredients to make a few mean-tasting burgers. Satisfied to remain inside my friend’s third floor railcar apartment for the evening, dry and safe from the sheets of rain we could hear slamming into the sides of the Brownstone, we made ourselves drinks, set out a bowl of olives, and waited while the George Forman sucked the fat out of our burger patties. Maybe to lighten the dreary mood that the rainy day had cast upon us, or just to take our minds off our impatiently hungry stomachs, the conversation turned to the topic of women, romance, and love.

Before long one of my friends was attempting to explain his pessimism about the potential for true love. Women were more or less the same in his eyes, never to meet his lofty expectations, and so he claimed to be content to find himself in a relationship that fulfilled only his practical needs (sex, money, freedom, relatively agreeable personality, etc), nothing more. The sexist slant of such an opinion did not faze me; I am used to such bias. Instead, it was his cold, stoic practicality that threw me back. His cynicism deeply saddened me, killing any desire, or even ability, to properly respond. Luckily another friend, a roommate of our host, came to my rescue, seemingly translating the rudimentary ideas buzzing inside my skull into eloquent sentences of proper English. To him, such a view, he explained, was not only immature but also incredibly sad, killjoy, and most of all boring. My thoughts exactly!

I have often been called a Romantic. I may well be; but I’m not a sap. I still prefer Mark Twain and Henry James to Sir Walter Scott, as well as Picasso to Botticelli. I enjoy debunking oversimplified historical metanarratives and discussing the never ending complexities of our world. Intellectually I prefer realism and postmodernist thought processes to antiquated romanticism. But realism, like everything, has its limits, its time and place. We should certainly approach our world rationally, but to live realistically, or practically, all the time would be incredibly dull. Yet it seems that our means to abstract ends are becoming more and more practical by the minute.

In search of fun, too many Americans look to amusement parks and cruise lines. In search of happiness, too many Americans look to Prosac, Lexapro, and Paxil. In search of love, too many Americans look to eHarmony and We want our fun, happiness, and love all prescribed, waiting to be picked up and purchased. A practical approach to abstractions destroys not only the individual but also defaces the very abstractions we seek. We see a complex world dominated by numbers, images, and information, and it makes sense to navigate it with internet surveys and preplanned travel itineraries. But this practicality, this business mindset, breeds corporatism and commercialization; it destroys the self and cheapens the ends. As happiness, fun, and love are commodified, they become empty. The amusement park brings us cheap thrills, an adrenaline rush, and hundreds of overweight children chomping on turkey legs. The antidepressant producers bring us hundreds of overmedicated housewives hiding their shallow happiness in the shadows of their sprawling, shoddy mansions and their gated communities. Just as Six Flags can’t bring you lasting fun, drugs can’t bring you lasting happiness; and just as chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesdays can’t bring you healthy, creative, palatable food, a random number generator can’t produce true love.

We must abandon this practical, mindless approach to the world, and we must avoid my friend’s aforementioned cynicism. We cannot let the romantic or the individual, the unique, be drowned in this global world. We must not abandon romance and adventure for the false comfort of brand names or false beauty of the suburbs. Love, beauty, truth, happiness: they are not all together lost. But they do miss us. We must choose to approach the world romantically—to seek these abstractions. We must break the cycle. Seek out mom and pop restaurants and authentic food. Support independent films. Watch the News Hour with Jim Lehr on PBS instead of the CNN bottom line news ticker. Drive, don’t fly. Explore the city on your own, feel out the streets. Patronize the independent bookstore, not Borders or Barnes and Nobles. Open yourself up to real people, not internet profiles. Fall in love. Truth, love, happiness, hope, and peace: they all exist. But they cannot be found practically.


  1. Is it Nick or me you're talking about?

  2. Wouldn't you say realism and postmodernism are basically opposites? I mean, look at "The Call of the Wild" compared to, say, "The Trial". One's a cold, hard world where the strong survive, the other is complex and impossible to understand, and impossible to put a finger on.

  3. I wouldn't say they're opposites, necessarily. Different, yes. And I wouldn't say I adopt entirely, hook, line, and sinker, either. Aspects of each, mixed with other philosophies and ideologies govern my perceptions of the world. Wouldn't you say Josef K's world, while certainly complex, confusing, absurd, and frustrating, could also be described as cold and hard? Stephen, am I not allowed to like the social realism of Dickens and Tom Wolfe, and also indulge in the existential chills of Cormac's Border Trilogy? Tell me, please, before I'm too far gone.

  4. Nope. One or the other, you have to choose. Come to Richmond tonight fool, bring Liz. Also, I've been reading "The 42nd Parallel" by John Dos Passos, it's tight. Check it out if you have time.


  5. I'm liking the blog - keep posting. Hope life is treating you well.