It’s Still the Same Old Story, Aristophanes Notwithstanding

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, February 11, 2000

The best Valentine’s Day present I ever got was a stapler. I have certainly received more expensive, more elaborate, more romantic, and more typical gifts, but being given a present that made me feel understood and cared for was what took my breath away.

At the time, I was taking a bunch of classes while working at the Duke press, and constantly had to go to my office to staple together my lab reports and papers. I didn’t have a stapler at home; just took it for granted that I’d have to drive three or four miles for a staple.

When Mike, my physicist boyfriend, thought about how to fete me for Valentine’s Day, he really thought. He thought about who I was, what I cared about, what I might enjoy. The ultimate pragmatist, he decided that a stapler would improve the quality of my life.

But he also suspected that, by itself, the gift lacked a little in the way of romance. Knowing that I loved funky earrings — and that I had become, if not an outright physics-geek wannabe, at the very least a groupie of geekdom — he looked around his lab for inspiration. Resistors are wonderful little tubes with bands of color (which allow you to figure out what they do). Mike turned resistors into wearable art. I swooned.

I’m not saying that a stapler and a pair of earrings made from electronics components should necessarily replace Godiva chocolates and long-stemmed roses as the standard Valentine’s Day treat. I do, however, want to suggest something about the nature of love.

Love is about seeing and being seen.

To love someone is to see that person clearly and completely. To see their strengths and to see, too, their faults and weaknesses — and to love them still. You see what is there and understand and accept what is not.

While in college, I developed the First Five Minutes of Love Theory: You know you’re going to love someone in the first five minutes. Actually, that could have been formulated more correctly in the negative: You know in the first five minutes if someone is eventually going to drive you nuts. Five minutes was a metaphor for however long it took for the honeymoon period to be over, for the rose-colored glasses to come off.

The idea of being in a relationship is often more appealing than the particular relationship itself. You go into these things full of hope. Sure, you notice flaws (Gee, he really eats like a pig, but it’s kinda cute! Wow, he doesn’t use deodorant, how European!), but they don’t bug you. They’re part of the package. You like the package.

Until. The initial euphoria wears off and, damn it, he stinks, there’s just no way around it. Those long e-mails that used to charm you? Before, you had noticed the childish grammar mistakes, but you kind of just read over them. Now you get stuck on them. And all of a sudden it hits you: You knew it was never going to work out. But because you wanted a relationship, the relationship (and the person with whom you were having it) took a back seat.

How do we get ourselves into these messes?

We are all victims, it seems to me, of two major, pernicious, and historical myths about romantic love.

Plato’s Symposium takes place at a banquet where a bunch of guys sit around drinking and talking about love. A number of men give speeches in praise of love. When it’s the turn of Aristophanes, he’s already hiccuping from the vino, and he fears that what he has to say is so ridiculous that the others will laugh at him rather than with him.

What he says is, in fact, pretty silly.

According to the comic poet, human beings were originally little round blobs, with four hands, four feet, and one head with two faces looking in opposite directions. They could walk, but when they really needed to move, they rolled. There were three sexes, men, women, and the union of the two (which Aristophanes called “androgynous”).

At a certain point in prehistory, these roly-poly little critters got mighty uppity and foolishly tried to launch an attack on the gods. The gods were not pleased. After much thought, mighty Zeus decided to put the human blobs in their place. So he smote them in two. Whammo! Split, right down the middle.

Humans were ever after condemned to search the earth, looking for their lost “other half.”

The notion that originally we were one, we were whole, and that the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love, is a whole lot of hooey. And it has messed us up in serious ways. The idea of looking for someone else to complete you, whose identity can merge with (and obliterate) your own, is pernicious. Aristophanes’s joke is on us, because we buy into it.

There’s an alternative to that conception of love. Rainer Maria Rilke provides the anti-Aristophanic line in Letters to a Young Poet. He warns us that truly loving does not mean merging with, surrendering to, another person. Young lovers, he explains, tend to glom onto one another until “they can no longer tell whose outlines are whose.”

Rilke suggests that society’s ideas about women have got to change before there is hope for a more real, more mature kind of romantic love. “Someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself, something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only life and reality: the female human being,” he says.

That advance, though not likely at first to be exactly embraced by the “outdistanced men,” he predicted, will completely transform the love experience. Rilke’s metaphor for the more evolved — still perhaps unattainable — ideal of romantic love is that “two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” Two solitudes who touch. How infinitely preferable an image to that of two desperate halves trying to smush themselves into one blob.

But even if society now, almost one hundred years later, views women differently than it did in Rilke’s day, how many of us, male or female, are truly realized, autonomous, independent, self-contained units? It’s so much easier to go searching for someone to fill the gaps to make up for what we are lacking in ourselves; to abdicate the responsibility to complete ourselves and just find someone who might, we think, do it for us.

That brings me to a second prevalent, and perhaps even more noxious, myth: that, as told in the story of Beauty and the Beast, romantic love has the power to transform and transfigure. Since the 18th century, we’ve been saddled with the idea that through an imaginative act of seeing — both what is there and what is not — we can change a person through the power of our love. Thanks to the Brothers Grimm and their version of Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th-century tale, the story is all too familiar (especially since it was recently resold to us wholesale by Disney).

A young girl, whose most notable feature is her appearance, asks her father to bring her back a rose. (That in stark contrast to the desires of her sisters, the Material Girls. OK, so the message isn’t all bad.) Dad gets caught in a storm and seeks shelter in a castle. He walks right into someone else’s house. He snoops around. Makes himself at home and goes to sleep in someone else’s bed. In the morning, on his way out, he steals a rose from the garden.

Out springs a horrible Beast, who calls Dad an ingrate (who could argue?) and threatens to kill him. Dad blames his thievery on his daughter, and once she’s invoked, the two men enter into negotiations for the now-commodified young woman: Dad gets to go free, if he sends Beauty to the Beast. Beauty, whose life has consisted of taking care of her father, willingly volunteers to save the old man’s life.

When she goes to live with the Beast, all it takes is a few kind words for her to succumb to friendship. Encouraged — and no doubt fueled by beasty testosterone — the Beast asks Beauty to marry him. She doesn’t want to hurt his feelings, but without her having to say it, he realizes that she means no, and he backs off.

He gives her a mirror. She looks into it to see that her father is ill. This girl is a caretaker. She wants to go minister to him. The Beast deigns to let her leave her imprisonment for a brief time, if she promises to return. Her response is to thank him and exclaim, “How kind you are!” Stockholm syndrome? The hostage has come to identify rather strongly with the hostage-taker.

Beauty goes home and nurses Dad back to health. Then she senses that her services are needed elsewhere: Dreaming that the Beast is dying, she rushes back to take care of him, too. “Don’t die! Don’t die! I’ll marry you!” Presto, chango — you know the rest.

So what are we to make of this? Beauty leaves her father’s house for the Beast’s castle to keep Dad safe, goes back to Dad to take care of him, and then back again to the Beast when he needs her. A veritable Florence Nightingale.

But who is this young woman, this Beauty? She nurses, she embroiders, she professes her love. She has no needs and offers nothing but the purest of support. Her reward is a handsome and wealthy man. So that’s the goal in love. In the hope of turning them into rich princes, women will hook up with losers, batterers, drunks, liars, and con men. If women only love them enough, those losers will change.

While it is often women who do such creative envisioning, it is certainly the case that men do it as well. The myths that have come down to us on that side, though, are a little different. Think about Pygmalion, or the more recent version, Pretty Woman. If you are a strong and powerful man, you can browbeat, harangue, hector, ridicule, intimidate, pay, abuse, and teach anyone — even the lowest of the low, say, a guttersnipe or a hooker — to become a suitable partner.

It’s been more than a year since I’ve been involved in a Real Relationship. That is the longest time in my adult life that I have been unattached. After an exhausting and vexing entanglement, I broke up with a man a year ago on New Year’s Eve, and I resolved that there would be no dating until after I’d run the Boston Marathon. I did that in April, and found that I kind of grooved on my single state. I had lots of time to read, run, ride horses, write, and hang out with friends. No one made demands on me. I’ve found comfort in my solitude. I just ran another marathon, a lot faster. Repression is good for training, it appears.

And for thinking. I’ve been thinking, in an abstract kind of way, about love. Because of the myths that are handed down to us, I’ve become wary of the ways that we think when we think about love. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that there are only two myths that shape our perceptions of romantic love. Nor do I want to say that all men are beasts (though some of my best friends are beasts).

I want to be in love. I believe profoundly in the power of love to give meaning to our lives. I don’t, however, believe that another person will complete me if I am not already whole; there is no other half I seek. Nor do I believe that I can fundamentally transform — or be transformed — by love.

I once heard good management described as being like an invisible hand: You don’t see it, but you can feel that it’s there, and it helps you to do your job to the best of your ability. When you’re in love, I think, that hand is made visible and real: It belongs to someone who can help, boost, pat, and pet you into becoming your best self.

Loving is seeing. To love someone is to see them — clearly, completely, and, yes, critically. If you’re really insightful, you may even give the person you love a stapler for Valentine’s Day.