I've read a lot lately about modern love, Perhaps you have too. Across the country, newspaper columnists write about modern love and the way it is conducted by everyday mortals like you and me, but also by politicians, who apparently are able to practice modern love without understanding it any better than I do.
Memoirists describe their own encounters with modern love, often with heartbreaking or at least puzzling outcomes. Either way, they resort to therapy.
Fiction writers, most of whom would prefer to regard themselves as post-modern practitioners of that ancient art, nevertheless explore the landscape of modern love, accepting that they must travel backwards in time to do so.
Although one doesn't seem to be able to escape news of modern love, no matter how one tries, the concept eludes easy comprehension. In an expansive moment a while back, a column in this space was entitled "The love doctor." I dispensed what I thought was some pretty good advice about married love, its ups and downs, and how to live through them. But, I was operating on basic principles of love, as it was understood for years, even decades, before modern love took over. I realize now that if love is not what it was, if it's been modernized, if the rules have changed, if it's more about colliding than entwining, then anyone who holds himself out as the love doctor had better get on board, in what Updike called, "the confusion of this fallen world, where sins lie intermixed with the seeds of being."
I studied the following excerpt from one of these modern love memoirs. It was written, first from the woman's viewpoint, then from the man's.
Here's Audrey: "I met Tommy at the bar, one evening a few days after Desi and I broke up. I was there with my girlfriends, but we had agreed that if anything hot turned up, it was every girl for herself. This guy Tommy was looking at me off and on for about an hour before he asked me to dance. He was hot. Not such a good dancer, but hot. I said, 'We could get out of here', and we went to his place. We hooked up the first time in the elevator, then again in his room (he lived with two roommates, one of which was really, really hot). We had a great time, but he hasn't called and it's been two weeks. I think he was a stock trader."
Here's Tommy: "I met Audrey at the bar, one evening a few days after Desiree and I split. I was there with my posse, but we had agreed that if anything hot turned up, it was every man for himself. Audrey was looking at me off and on for about an hour before she asked me to dance. She was hot. Not a great dancer, but hot as hell. She said, 'We could get out of here', and we went to her place. We hooked up the first time in the elevator, then again in her room (she lived with two roommates, one of which was a gay guy and the other, Julie, who was really, really hot). So, anyway, we had a great time, but I don't think I'll call her. I might wait a while and try Julie. I think Julie is in medical school."
If this is modern love, you may say, what's love got to do with it? Ah, but you may, as I did, have in mind pre-modern love. That's where you are struck by someone - maybe he or she is cool, not hot - and the soaring, irresistible result is an unquenchable longing for the other's company. And, I don't mean in the elevator. It's not about you, you are surprised to discover, but about her. (For my purposes, ignore gender here; XX, XY, YY, XY, all inflate and, sadly sometimes, deflate similarly.) It's what C.S. Lewis calls a "delighted preoccupation with the beloved." Incidentally, post-modern writers generally concentrate on the early exultation or the concluding despair - the trajectory of these affairs is almost always parabolic - never on the placid, comforted, human landscape in-between, which is, after all, the best of it, and the point of it.
It may be that our 21st Century understanding of all this is distorted by ageism, rather than sexism or feminism or libertarianism. Perhaps, we cannot comprehend that "delighted preoccupation" or the placid landscape in which the lovers dwell because we associate such mild imagery with old age, the 80 year olds who've been married 50 years and claim the foundation for their loving, lasting union is his deafness and her failing eyesight. And, who can say it's not a struggle to rise above this image?
But, try this, as Marquez said, describing Fermina and Florentino, at the end of his heartening story, "they no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less like belated lovers. It was as if they had leapt over the arduous Calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love."