Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Romanticynicism: Love in the Irony Age

An argument for romantic pragmatism.

Some people don't feel safe in love unless it's complete, absolute, and unconditional. Others (me, for one) only feel safe in love when it isn't. I feel safest when I, and those who love with me, know that love can never be complete, absolute, and unconditional, that unconditional love is only unconditional under certain conditions. If those certain conditions can be relied upon to last a long time, then love can feel unconditional, but it never really is.

This kind of romantic pragmatism can apply not only to loving relationships but to all the things we love. The question we all face is how to love in a world where everything changes; how to embrace life even though you don't get to keep it. For me the answer lies in "romanticynicism."

Romanticynicism is a commitment to both the romantic's yearning for happily-ever-after and the cynic's detachment and indifference. (Not haughty indifference. That's a recent addition to what started out as a respected school of Greek philosophy that cultivated neutrality.) It's not a hybrid or blending of the two. It's an extended stretch into both the warm fuzzies of the heart and the cool rationality of the head.

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Either romanticism or cynicism alone is dangerous. Romantics are easily hurt. Cynics are readily hurtful. Averaged they're bland. People who are mildly romantic and mildly cynical are mild. But if you can yoga-stretch yourself into a deep commitment to the romantic and a firm commitment to the cynical, even though the tension imposes some pain and un-resolvability upon yourself, the resulting state is bittersweet, vivid, and true.

The Quakers say, "Build to last a hundred years; be ready to leave tomorrow."

The Buddhists say, "Though my heart is on fire, my eyes are cold as ashes."

A New York Times editor said, "Keep an open mind but don't let your brains spill out."

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to act."

Shakespeare ends a dying man's love sonnet to his young lover, "This thou perceivest, that makes thy love more strong, to love that well that thou must leave ere long." Stronger love, not weaker. To burn with love while knowing that it too shall pass.

To me, romanticynicism seems the only way to love safely, sanely, and generously. Generously because sometimes the most loving thing to do is to leave someone alone. True love requires a broad repertoire and the pragmatic flexibility to adapt to what's needed. True love can't be achieved with adoration alone-at least not these days.

These days humanity knows more about itself, more about the long view than ever before. Culturally, we've been around the block a few times. We've seen all kinds of things. Our explanations are becoming more reliable and accurate. And because things are changing faster than ever, there's more evidence that what you love won't hold still for long. It's harder to be a pure romantic these days, believing we can cling to anyone or anything as if it will last forever. Even our sincerest beliefs won't hold still. Our loss of naïveté makes us conviction-impaired. We're naturally surrendering into the cynical, detached from what will soon disappear anyway.

Yet there's also more reason to be romantic. At least in rich countries, we're accustomed to things going well. Our advanced market economy encourages romance, a belief that products, services, and people can make us happy ever after. We've enjoyed reliable technological progress for long enough that we assume the ideal is forthcoming-what isn't perfect now will soon be.

More reasons to hope; more reasons to be suspicious of hope. Our technological success has ingrained in us faith and confidence in the potential for happy endings, while our experience gives us more reasons to doubt that the endings we see will be happy.

Being torn between romance and cynicism is bound to feel unstable, but it's also an admirably accurate way to interpret what life has to offer. It's like irony, the cultural movement whose motto is, "No seriously, I'm just kidding." Like irony, romanticynicism can be turned into glib escapism, as though a baldly stated paradox turns every utterance into nonsense. Stretching to put a foot in both camps can be a recipe for ungroundedness. But firm footing in both makes for an honest, profound way of life.

I'd recommend romanticynicism to anyone, but I suspect that it comes naturally to some of us and not at all to others. Some people simply seem born to either believe or disbelieve. And certainly some circumstances make it harder to be romanticynical than others. I suspect my temperament and circumstances conspire to make romanticynicism the obvious solution.

I know people who also think it is the obvious solution, but don't pursue it because their temperaments won't comply-people who by mid-life recognize the flaws in a purely romantic view of love but just can't help falling and then getting burnt and then falling and getting burnt again. They get sadder but not wiser-and they know it but can't figure out what to do about it.

The jury's out on whether we can adapt to the ironic age we've created. Romanticynicism seems the adaptive frame of mind for it, but one that some of us just can't get to from here.

Here's the full Shakespeare sonnet:

Sonnet 73

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.

In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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