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April 2, 2012 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Actual Love After Love Actually

The Story of one Boy’s Broken dreams

Love Actually told me she’d answer my phone calls. She didn’t. Shakespeare suggested I try my hand at poetry to woo her; turned out to be a lame idea. Notting Hill even assured me that I could one day meet and marry Emma Watson. Yet I’m still alone in Wellington studying public law. Literature has forever tarnished my perceptions of romance. Novels and films throughout history have plagued our understanding of love, distorting our expectations of relationships and how to act within them.

I grew up confused. I watched Love Actually and came to the sensible conclusion that the woman of my dreams would bump into me any day now. The film gave me options. I could fall in love with a Portugese women who had a hopeless grasp of the English language; a soulful singer who, at the age of ten, sang better than Beyonce; or even a maid with “tree trunks” for thighs. I knew it didn’t have to happen tomorrow. I had time to wait. But I was certain that when I met her that would be it. It would be a feeling: a gut sensation of absolute devotion that would never leave me.

So that was one side of the romance spectrum: the classic, true love, idealist side. However, there was a murkier side to love engendered by generations of writers. Books which espoused the frivolous; relationships of apathy, where sex was the goal; love non-existent, an after thought, which lasted only until the motel key had to be handed back. These relationships were aggrandised by Hemingway’s idyllic, The Sun Also Rises, where romance strikes at bullfights in Spain; or Kerouac’s On the Road, where the immortal Dean Moriarty’s relationships last as long as the American town life keeps him busy. Love was nothing more than a stupid catchphrase used by conservative parents to legitimise their painful marriages.

Literature has set up a false dichotomy of relationships. No one wants to read about the banal so romance becomes polarised. Thus, if, as I did, you were sheltered from the reality of romance, then you become perplexed by two opposing lies. Love is idealised and forever or it’s meaningless and an irrelevancy.

No matter what I try, I am utterly hopeless at sparking a relationship. I blame literature for this deficiency. I am consistently bombarded with self-reflective questions, otherwise known as a pathetic hindrance at making decisions. Do you offer her a drink? Will I be considered a chauvinist sleaze for doing so or a man of old school chivalry? I still don’t know.

Shakespeare tells me to be cute and chivalrous: to write her poetry, letters and sing to her. Be like Cesario in Twelfth Night, even Romeo if you are serious about wooing her. This traditional style of courting wouldn’t have allowed commonplace questions such as if she’d like a drink; only godly prose would be enough to even catch a glance of the girl.

If I can’t rely on Shakespeare as a role model, I turn to superheroes. But they have it easy. They’re able to save the world and get the girl as a mere side effect; a delightful coincidence of their already perfect lives. For lack of combat ability, I can’t be reliant on vigilante justice to be successful in romance.

Literature often promotes extreme acts of devotion, especially where courting is the one sided affair of Shakespeare’s world.

It leaves its readers in the dark to the actual ramifications of these embarrassing incidents. For unlike Batman, I generally fluff acts of chivalry. Writers enjoy using the examples of success at courting, skipping out the background: characters who fail, who get rejected, who decide to buy a drink for Germaine Greer. That’s the problem.

We’re the minor characters. Plebs in Shakespeare. People who are pushed out of the way by Bruce Wayne, but due to our arrogance and the flattery of writers (mockingly inserting fallible characteristics into protagonists, the bastards) we assume the role of protagonists, quixotically preparing ourselves for the world outside our bedroom.

If only it stopped there. Unfortunately, the persuasive nature of literature forces you to judge your romance against that in fiction. You start to hate yourself, realising the crude, tragic nature of your own attempts at starting relationships. You ‘investigate’ someone on Facebook before meeting them and then you can’t be with them because it’s not ‘right’; not the correct way to fall in love; meeting someone in a gross bar wouldn’t sit well when you tell the grandkids so you stop; end it, politely decline coffee and it’s all your fault. You didn’t do it like Hugh and Julia so don’t even bother.

Literature openly lies to you about your chances in romance. Notting Hill not only convinced me that true love existed but even worse than that, I was made to believe that social status was not an impediment to success. I could own an average travel bookstore in an average area of London, be pretty boring, not have many friends or skills or talents or extra- curriculars or degrees or stories from the OE I never went on; I could be hopeless and still charm anyone. Celebrities were just waiting for me to comfort them and their arrogant insecurities; help them deal with the trauma of success, fame and wealth.

Perhaps Notting Hill got it right on this one; but I doubt it. Even if I did happen to live in North London (a disclaimer here; I did actually grow up in North London. My selfish parents stole me away from the place when I was ten.); so even if I still lived there and went to the right College and attended the ‘cool’ parties, they’d still have snobbed me. Social barriers, unfortunately, still exist in the world of romance. Directors need to realise that the Civil Rights movement forgot to focus on my love life; unlike them, I don’t spend my day surrounded by celebrities.

There has been an attempt at a counter culture to these distortionary perspectives of romance. 500 Days of Summer sought to prove a certain complexity to love. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity portrayed its grittiness. They both failed. They maintained the stereotypes but just changed the names and applied different makeup. Summer, after everything, meets her man because of the book she is reading in a café. The film is just as hopelessly didactic as Shakespeare. Rather than helping my love life, it has just made me self-conscious over my book choice while lounging in cafes. Will they like the book? Is reading poetry a bit pretentious? Will they even be well read enough to have heard of this Dostoevsky epic? Zooey Deschanel screwed all hopes of the rom- com revolution.

Similarly, High Fidelity ends in love even though the man cheated on the girl, told her they should see other people and made her abort her child. He’s certainly a flawed douchebag, yet his life still completes itself: he gets the girl and still owns a record store and a record label and is a DJ. Well done, Hornby. You really made his life seem tough.

Literature has to generalise; to abstract; to hyperbolise; or it gets forgotten. Readers don’t want to read about themselves. They want to read of people similar to them, doing it better. Literature entices us in its mendacious ways. I’ll admit: I love the stories while I’m on the journey; while I read them and watch them and imagine myself doing it as well. It’s truly heartwarming. But the come-down is even worse. The realisation that your life is normal; that she didn’t just forget to call back but actually didn’t like the Ode you wrote her. It fools us into thinking we’ll be the exception, when we most certainly are the rule; It makes us feel bad for the good life we seek; constrained by social norm and custom that isn’t Shakespearean. I loved every minute of Love Actually, but it affected me in ways that will leave me forever disappointed by romance and love. I don’t want literature to leave me alone. I just want it to stop being so damn convincing.


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