“In which we continue with the theme of love and loneliness, for a while longer. Pull up a beanbag and make yourself comfortable.
Thursday 9 September
“I say we will have no more marriages”, says Hamlet to Ophelia (Hamlet; Act 3, Scene 1), refuting any hope of them getting married. Well, look how that turned out for them.
There is, perhaps, something to be said for rushing headlong into marriage when young, when you are at the peak of your beauty and vigour, and in your most courageous, hopeful, and innocent state.
It was only recently in history that doing this became optional. It was obligatory in most known cultures for women, certainly, and for most men too (unless they had some exemption, like going on some government-appointed mission or joining the priesthood) to get married young. Many people still do. This is what my parents did, in the early 1960s, when it was still the most typical thing for young people to do (and not exactly obligatory). You’re attracted to someone – they’re attracted to you – you get on all right – why hang about?
There had always been those who played the field, as the saying goes – usually men, of course, and men of the more privileged strata of society – characters such as Alec Stoke-d’Urberville from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbevilles (1892) or Mr Mackenzie in Jean Rhys’s After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie (1931) are fictional representations of the type. But until the arrival of the “sexual revolution” of the late 1960s, most people got married at least by their early twenties. Even after the “free love” era, it seemed as if, after a certain amount of playing the field, most young people got married by the time they were thirty.
It was only actually my generation, it seems (“seems”, I say – I am working from personal memory– I am not a sociologist) where the idea of “doing your own thing” for as long as possible took hold. This was the generation sometimes called, excitingly, “Generation X” – the generation defined as being born between 1965 and 1980. I remember, in the decade of the 1990s, when I was in my twenties, that the focus of our generation seemed much more “self-actualization” than “belongingness and love needs” (see discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in “Leaving Tricase, Part 2”).
One of the best (that is to say, most interesting) popular romantic films of the 1990s, Before Sunrise (1995) seems representative of the romantic equivocation of many young people of my generation. Two people in their early twenties, Jesse (Ethan Hawke), an American, and Celine (Julie Delpy), a Frenchwoman, are travelling around Europe by train when they encounter one another. They are well-educated and cultured and have a voracious appetite for experience of the world, and for knowledge.
The whole film is about watching these two people revealing their thoughts and becoming attracted to one another. At the climax of the film it is clear that they are experiencing a feeling of love for each other, but – they have their itineraries, and go their separate ways, making a haphazard plan to meet again at the same train station in six months’ time. In other words, although the film leaves the possibility of romance open (allowing there to be two follow-up films about this pair, in 2004 and 2013), this seems a case where “self-actualization” has won out over “belongingness and love needs”.
This is how I remember the 1990s, a decade where the young were presented with an idea of the world as being at one’s fingertips for the price of a low-cost flight on one of the new budget airlines. There was so much to experience, so much to learn, so many ways to realise potential in yourself that you didn’t even know was there – love? Love, of course, was one colour in the kaleidoscope but as for settling down with one person for the rest of your life – are you kidding? There’s plenty of time for that later.
The problem is, when exactly should that time be? At thirty? Thirty-five? Forty? Later?
We like to think that at any age we will still be attractive to a potential relationship partner. The movies help sustain this delusion – we see film stars who don’t appear to age at all, or hardly at all, over the decades (thanks to a lot of expensive maintenance, not to mention the magic of film lighting and make-up) – but here in the real world, time takes its toll. As we get older, we get less physically attractive; it’s a harsh but inarguable fact. Meanwhile, our own standards of physical attractiveness are probably still the standards formed in our youth by movies, pop music and fashion magazines – standards that we generally only live up to ourselves between the ages of say, eighteen to thirty.
If this is not a difficult enough barrier to love beyond the salad days of youth, there is also the element of character. It could be argued that as we mature and develop character, it gets more difficult to relate to other people, even of our own generation, on a more intimate level. We become more ourselves, and we got there without that potential relationship partner (and they also got there without us). We have our tastes, routines, attitudes, beliefs, areas of expertise and experience, fears, hopes, regrets, vanities, emotional scars, and so on – so much ground we covered that the other person wasn’t there for. It is no wonder that, when older people of the same generation go on a date they often turn the conversation, in an effort to connect, to era of their youth, where they hope to find some passion or interest, no matter how trivial to them now, in common. In a way, such reminiscence is a way to turn back time and discard those aspects of character which are such a formidable armour in our lives, and for the same reason such a formidable hindrance to trust, understanding and love.
I don’t want to say that romantic love is impossible after the age of thirty, but it is certainly more difficult as time goes on. It seems to me as if our youth is the port from which we all set sail. Some of us find a relationship partner to sail together with, and others of us choose to sail alone. Those of us who sail alone can come into port later, but we may find the difficulty of making a connection as arduous as that faced by the Ancient Mariner, delaying a frightened wedding guest with his “glittering eye”, in Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834).
“To every thing there is a season,” as The Byrds sang (quoting Pete Seeger, who in turn, turn, turn, was quoting the Bible). There is a season for marriage, or more broadly-speaking, commitment to a relationship, and that season is Spring. It could be argued that it is the tragedy of the so-called “Generation X”, that we got sold an illusion of infinite deferral of tough decisions and infinite discovery of new places and new revelations. We came to believe that there were always options, always a chance to come back later and get what you left behind, when in fact, your options are dwindling from the moment you take your first breath, and whatever you leave behind will probably not be there when/if you return. I take responsibility for the choices I made in my youth, and would agree they are probably largely a result of personal environment and psychological factors, but I also feel that I, and many of my generation, were given a false impression of life as something we could live with less regard for the seasons than preceding generations.
If that sounds kind of unimportant to you, a “first-world problem” as they say, you should remember that we are all susceptible to the spirit of our particular time, and that it has led some of us to a lonely place. As a footnote, it’s interesting that one of the actors that really defined that generation in film, Ethan Hawke (an actor I admire, I should perhaps add) played Hamlet, the great hesitater , as a Generation X-er in Michael Almereyda’s quite inspired and enjoyable 2000 film version of Shakespeare’s play.
Of course, making your decision on a relationship partner early does not guarantee you lifelong happiness, or even an escape from loneliness. Many couples separate or divorce, or remain in relationships where the love has died – for the sake of their children, for instance. I suppose that the revelation of all this (we members of “Generation X” are hot for revelations) is that one must ignore the siren song that tells us there is always time for another bite of the cherry.
“Hamlet” – Michael Almereyda film version
“Before Sunrise” – film (1995)