Exploring the Third Wheel: Romanticism

Mmm some intense, cerebral, and emotional music.  How fitting for how I’ve come to understand today’s topic!


Ah, romance.  A tender kiss, a gift of flowers, candle-lit dinners.  But is it still romantic when the intensity of the kiss comes from sexual frustration, and it leads to wild, crazy, monkey sex where he keeps shouting, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ and she can’t get off unless he’s tied up first?  Is it still romantic, if the receiver doesn’t particularly care for flowers?  What is meaningful about candles and loving about digestion?

All of these things seem to come down to aesthetics, and arguably arbitrary ones.  Is one kind of sex more romantic than an other?  Is slow and gentle more romantic?  What if it’s only slow and gentle because involved partners are sore and tired, and one of them falls asleep half way through?  I imagine that the gift could be any thing, preferably some thing that the receiving party actually likes.  Can the candle-lit dinner be substituted for any activity?  Are these things simply symbols for the purpose of shorthand, or is there actually some thing inherently romantic about them?  Well, either way, I can give flowers to any one, gifts to any one, and I guess I’m expected to give them to people of all sorts of relationship types.  What makes one gift-giving romantic and an other not?  Do we have to love each other first?  What kind of love?  Is it called ‘romantic love’ when it is understood that I will routinely give gifts?  What about people who give their parents gifts on a routine, say, every Christmas and birth day?  If they do this, it’s entirely likely that they will claim to love their parents.  Right?  But why do he shy away from calling a parent-child relationship ‘romantic’?  Oooh.  III get it.


The common conception of romance seems to be a pretty structure for sex to hide in.  We call people ‘romantic partners’ so we don’t have to say, ‘They’s fuckin on a regular basis.’    That’s the trouble with the word romantic in modern English.  Like the words love, intimacy, and even attraction, we’ve dumbed it down and streamlined it to only refer to one thing: sexual relationship.  This is most unfortunate for the term romantic, as love and sex are practical, low needs on Maslow’s hierarchy, while romanticism is much more abstract and lofty, residing at the top of the hierarchy, in the self-actualization area.

Wikipedia held a solid quote, saying as follows: according to Isaiah Berlin, Romanticism embodied “a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”

That pretty much hits the proverbial nail on the head in terms of what I have felt was lacking in my understanding of the term for the past four years.  Passages in Sophie’s World got me to really think about it, and also led me to believe that ‘romantic love’ stemmed from the above concept of ‘unattainable goals’, as the first uses of ‘romantic love’ pertain to unrequited love.  To me, this was a mistake of the romantic poets, attempting to inject the romantic in to the (by comparison) mundane.  But it may still be applicable, though deceiving, as romanticism concerns the fantastic and the dreamy, and imagining love that does not exist kind of fits that bill.

To break it down, I have come to understand romance in terms of six elements: knowledge, creation, wonder, passion (general, non-sexual), power, and awe (I have considered nostalgia to fit in there too, but have had trouble making a case for it).  I will attempt to describe these six elements in a way that brings to light their romantic nature.
Knowledge: the search for knowledge is romantic in that it is both noble and everlasting.  That is, true knowledge is impossible; doubt is undeniable, and yet doubt fuels the thirst for more knowledge.
Creation: The romantics considered art to be the central item of romanticism.  I understand that creation through inspiration is as close to a spiritual experience as I am going to get.  It is a means of bringing the non-existent to life, and, though art, it is possible to bring the impossible to life.  Some romantics equated the inspired artist to God.
Wonder: This is a mixture of curiosity and admiration, an attraction to the unknown.  It can lead us toward knowledge and be caused by artistic creations.  Wondering at some thing comes from its true identity being out of reach, tying back to the unattainable.

Passion: Passion is emotional fuel.  It is the height of motivation, as caring about some thing beyond consequence.  In this way it is defying the practical (and causes it to be the most potentially dangerous) in favor of some thing better, which in its own way is a paradox.
Power: Power comes in many forms: over the self, over social situations, over the natural elements, but, like knowledge, it is elusive, always exposing more factors that are beyond our control (and, like passion, it is also rather potentially dangerous).  The challenge here is feeling powerful in our lives when we have no real control over out side elements, and even within our own minds we are subjects to chance in that our genetics are in part to blame, our basic emotions, and then there’s always the issue of determinism
Awe: This is easily confused with wonder, but they are distinct from each other.  Awe refers to the things or parts of things that we understand, and yet are powerfully emotionally moved by.  While wonder targets the mysterious, awe is a humbling response to that which is perceived as greater than us (the appropriate usage of the term epic fits in here).  In this way, some thing can be both awesome and wonderful, in that its parts we know bring us awe and its parts we do not bring us wonder.  The absurdity here is that awe can come from the unreal, a fantasy or a dream, an idea, and yet how can this metaphysical mind stuff be greater than a real, fleshy, human form that has real influence over the world?

As you can probably see, the theme among these six elements is infusing feelings of the unreal in reality.  It is through these that we transcend our base, biological selves, at least for a few moments at a time.  It is these things that can inspire and instill goodness.  They are the tools of adventure and heroism.  They are our weapons against the trivial, mundane, and the dragging down of practical matters.  We wouldn’t have virtue, if we weren’t awed by it, didn’t wonder at it, didn’t seek to know it, didn’t realize its power, didn’t create fantastic examples of it, weren’t able to be passionate about it as an idea.

Now, how does this relate to the subject of love?  Well, as a subject, as an idea, the answer should be pretty obvious, but that’s not the problem.  The problem is this: what is a romantic partner, and what are romantic feelings toward an other person?  To romanticize a person is to give them a fantastic identity, to idealize them.  While this is lifting the real with the unreal, it is going to far, and may be romanticism at its worst.  Similar to the concept of wisdom being used for evil, I don’t believe that it is true romance when applied detrimentally ((by strict definition of romanticize, it is a false romantic situation).  What is a romantic partner?  Following from what I’ve written here so far, I seem to be led to say that it is any one that you are sharing romantic feelings with, that is, sharing in an experience of awe, wonder, creation, et cetera.  In this sense, a romantic partner can technically be a complete stranger, if both of you happen to be on the shore when Cthulhu arises.

That’s the simple answer, but there are two problems with it: One: if two people sharing in passion are a romantic couple, is sexual passion enough to qualify them as romantic?  Two: people want a definition of romance as it pertains to lasting, loving relationships.  The first problem is tricky, as passion is broad and can pertain to many things.  Is there a useful distinction between physical passion and intellectual passion?  I think that the distinction lies between emotional passion and false passion, as I have already decided above that romance is an emotional experience.  ‘Physical passion’ is a deceptive term for lust, so that’s out, and ‘intellectual passion’ I made up to get my self thinking about this!  So what does having passion for a person mean?  Powerful, impractical feelings for them, passionate love then being a grand (seemingly uncontrollable?) motivation to cultivate their well being.  On a lower level, a sharing-type of love, it is that powerful urge to share.  I have often said that my relationship to my close friend Jack is romantic as a defense against misunderstandings, as I’m willing to sacrifice a lot for the sake of his well being, though I’ve no investment in the physical nature of our relationship.

My explanation of passionate relationships helps to explain romantic relationships by nature.  This brings to light that the definition of a romantic, loving relationship is a relationship where two people love each other and experience romantic feelings together- but, given the scope of romance, these feelings will typically not be toward each other (see the Cthulhu example above).  Two people can make a work of art together, and they are sharing in the romantic experience of creation.  Two people can visit the ocean together, and share in a feeling of awe.

In conclusion, romantic partner and romantic love are useful terms, but, concerning passion, they do not exemplify the height of romance, and so are deceptive.  The romantic elements are more effective when they stack, and, if a romantic partner, say, brings you feelings of awe and wonder, the two of you are probably no where near being equals and can not be consistently intimate.  After all, if a person is mysterious and makes you feel small, how can you feel close to them?  When it comes to the intimacies, the greatest romance comes from experiential intimacy and the intimacy of shared purpose (exempli gratia, climbing a mountain together that is so big that its true form can only be imagined, and yet you can touch it, or dedicating your lives together toward the creation of the world’s largest narrative painting) and, having worked through this evaluation, I am inclined to hesitate using the term ‘romantic relationship’ in regards to any thing else.

Other brief thoughts:

The people of the romantic period often said that horror and terror were large parts of romanticism.  I understand this, but would consider them to be the darker sides of awe and wonder- applicable, useful, but detrimental as a focus.

There may be a useful distinction between ‘romantic partner’ and two people that are merely ‘romantically involved’, as the term ‘partner’ implies some sense of permanence, of longevity.   The two people on the shore who just met and then bore witness to the great old one probably aren’t going to live long enough to establish a partnership.

As I have said or implied (I forget) before, the term ‘intimate partner’ is much more appropriate than ‘romantic partner’ in most cases.  It is in intimacy where all of those mushy, gushy feelings of closeness and belonging reside, and yet we may easily be more intimate with our parents than with our sexual partners, by nature of having more in common with them and having had a longer relationship.  Mmm, full circle!

The ultimate partnership, then, I suppose, would be the intimate, loving, romantic relationship.  May be I should come up with a term for that!

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One Response to Exploring the Third Wheel: Romanticism

  1. Pingback: Celibacy - Writing Contemplative life EssaysWriting Contemplative life Essays

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