You fly down a street on the chance that you'll meet,
And you meet -- not really by chance.
-- Oscar Hammerstein II, "Hello, Young Lovers"
. . . his heart was going like mad and yes I said Yes I will Yes.
-- James Joyce, Ulysses
If you'll forgive these songs for having been written by men, perhaps you can forgive me also for offering the pair as a bracket of romance, not only as it was but as it is proposed to become. Both fictional singers are women describing their true love, in a time when the lover or the love is dead. One song describes the beginning of romance, and the other enacts its end (the consummation described in male poetry as death: "Let me shipwreck in your thighs," cries Thomas's Captain Cat.) After that fulfillment love must be rediscovered, again and again, and that is why the lovers do not always live happily ever after. Love must be rediscovered because the lovers are changed by their love; they are different people now. Though asking that this continuing rediscovery last a lifetime is asking a lot, it can happen.
There is no death in either incident, and no compulsion. I wish for you, whatever your age, gender or sexual preference, that at some time you have had or will have both experiences, for they bestow life. What happens in both cases is, to use a hackneyed phrase, ardently desired by both parties. Though the primary application of both images presents encounters of a man and a woman, the experience is generalizable.
Isn't this what it's supposed to be, and seldom is? what we look for out the window, our fancy lightly turning? the hope that lifts us through a hundred disappointments, tediums, deadly obligations and crushing catastrophes? the thing that when it happens can't be stored in the larder or held in reserve, and burns its recipe? that demands pursuit from two sides and eludes that pursuit? And yet it happens.
It's hard to see how even in the paradise to come, when there will be no more tears or fear or awkwardness or miscalculation or misunderstanding and we shall all be transparent to each other, there could be objection to either of these tropes. Joyce's Molly is physically aware of her lover's desire, and her assent is in the most utopian way enthusiastic and repeated; she and Leopold are both arriving where they want to go. And Hammerstein's Anna and her Tom as well, in the beginning of their love, arrive exactly where they want to be, and in the most symmetrical way -- in the open street by mutual unprofessed desire.
And here is what we're fighting about these days: how do we move from unprofessed desire to professed desire and then to consummated desire? On whom falls the burden and the penalty? And what is the penalty? Tom and Anna have come together, knowing in their pulses and their shallow breathing and their idiotic speech that they have met "not really by chance." So what comes next? The utopian solution of Molly and Leopold is not what comes next. We have to get from here to there.
We are deciding what courtship shall look like. Though its forms have changed and will change again, courtship will happen. Some of its discontents are socially conditioned, but most are eternal. There will always be in some form bad dates, fear and angst and regret for things done and not done, joy and tears, immoderate rage and foolish mercy, Faustian hope and Wertherian despair. The stakes are passionate rather than intellectual.
I have used the gentle word "courtship" for this tumult -- a word that comes from Eleanor of Aquitaine's troubadour courts. We forget that courtoisie, though it restrained a lot of wholesale violence, normalized what we now call infidelity, and deflected libido toward the rape of lower-class women. Though I speak with gentility -- another troubadour word -- courtship is not a research proposal but a caldron of life and death from which, despite the overreaching promises of marriage, no one emerges in perfect safety. We cannot, by law or shaming, confer perfect safety on our lovers.
I doubt that, in the present wave of revolution, we have truly understood mutuality. Because of the criminal and/or shameful actions of some powerful men in the workplace, the workplace is now a main site of suspicion, where predation and injustice are to be hunted, in a design for perfect safety. But the workplace -- heavens to Betsy! aside from individual abuses, can be one of the safest and best places to meet people. You get to observe a person over time, in different situations and different company, doing real work. You see them on good days and bad days, in joy and sorrow. You hear how they speak to others, how they groom themselves, what they choose to wear -- of if you all wear uniforms, you get to see how that person carries the uniform. Is it not at least as true to discover love in a workplace as in a bar, or by face-swiping on a smartphone? And that's why there always will be workplace romance; we can face it, or ignore it at everyone's cost.
The agency I work for, a not-for-profit where every workday I hope to do some good in the world, takes a moderate position on workplace romance. It should be reported to management; public displays of affection are discouraged; transfers are considered to prevent apparent conflicts of interest. I have seen people meet, fall in love, marry and raise children, while still in the employ of my agency. What's wrong with that?
Let us return to Tom and Anna, who have met by chance but not so in a street whose name they will always remember. Think of it: your subconscious has outwitted what you thought was your mind, your heart is racing, everything seems clear, and nothing has been said. Will something be said, and by whom? and it is fearful to speak, for your hunch though tyrannical could be wrong, and if you are wrong you are a fool or worse. I can never forget the chilling dismissal of Prufrock's Love Song, measured out in coffee spoons: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."* So many Toms and Annas let the moment go by -- the heart beats, the moment passes, the boat sails, he thinks tomorrow I am bound for India, and she now I must accept the proposal of Cludbucket, who will support me and my children, die soon and leave me wealthy. For both of them the name of that street will be a lifetime's key to regret. There are real consequences to what we never say.
Now some of the world's biggest corporations propose that the person who asks, if refused, must never ask again. I am learning these days about the horrors of being asked. Let me propose a parallel research: the horrors of having to ask. (And in the present social/political climate there's no doubt that the proposers of this policy expect that men will ask, as they were supposed to ask in the long-gone world of Tom and Anna.) As a nerd growing up ashamed of my body and lacking the social skill to leave my private world, I remember many youthful evenings when I wished God had made me a girl, so I wouldn't have to ask. Let us remember that for many men the title of designated asker is not a ticket to limitless joy and world domination. That's why the real criminals of the present crisis don't really ask -- they demand and take. That's their way of avoiding the horrors of the ask. They're cowards. And they leave the rest of us to live with their disgrace, heroic idiots and clumsy gentlemen in the making as we are, who must now confront not only the risk of the ask but its finality. Such policies will either be generally ignored and then selectively enforced, or rigidly enforced and drive passion out of open places into darker corners and hiding-places, along with creativity. Come now, I don't think this is what we want.
Perhaps there will come a time when all of us, Toms and Annas and Leopolds and Mollys, women and men, askers and asked alike, will hear the torments of the other. This is a risky business, and requires compassion.
*T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York; Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), p. 6.
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