Valentine's Day is upon us.
Every year -- in fact, every day -- I think there is nothing new to say. Love has been analyzed, satirized, idealized, intellectualized, and dramatized since time immemorial. It pops up in Greek myths, Shakespearian plays, and analysts' couches. It has inspired music, painting, sculpture, literature, and architecture (think: Taj Mahal, that palatial monument to a lost love). It has also inspired crime and suicide and murder.
So what's new about it?
I'll tell you what's new: over in France, President Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni have gotten married, after a whirlwind three-month courtship. This was not your typical romance, even for the supposedly (notoriously) romantic French. This did not follow the traditional pattern of boy-from-a-good-family meets girl-from-a-good-family and they get married. This did not even follow the accepted pattern for public figures to have secret liaisons and parallel love lives. The Sarkozy-Bruni affair was an in-your-face, devil-may-care, prime-time scenario. And the French have been amused, shocked, indignant and outraged in about equal measure.
Of course, the kings of France always had their mistresses....but they were kings. Napoleon had Josephine and Marie Louise, consecutively, and a number of illegitimate children....but he was an emperor. Charles de Gaulle, as far as I know, was a faithful husband to Yvonne, but Giscard d'Estaing was an insatiable womanizer. (He once flirted with me at a press conference!) Chirac, before leaving office last year, admitted he had loved "many women, but discreetly." Mitterrand, also a womanizer, eventually admitted that he had a daughter with his long-time mistress. When the question was raised publicly, after 20 years, he just shrugged and said, "So what?"
And the French let it pass.
But "Sarko" is another case. He is not dashing, like his predecessors, but he is pushy and persistent. He was involved with his second wife, Cecelia, while still married to his first wife. He was divorced from Cecelia last October, and by November he was dating Carla, who is known to be pretty persistent herself. (Her string of lovers includes Donald Trump, Mick Jagger and Kevin Costner.) He took her on high-profile trips to Egypt and Jordan and Italy (he was miffed that the
Pope wouldn't receive her), and he installed her at the Elysee Palace one month before actually marrying her. Rumors have circulated that this "shotgun marriage" was hastened by Sarkozy's scheduled visit to Queen Elizabeth next month, for he couldn't possibly have shacked up in Buckingham Palace with a girlfriend.
For the French, who don't generally mix business and pleasure, the Sarkozy-Bruni saga was just too much. Besides, it took all the charm and mystery out of a romantic relationship, hitting the tabloids like a cheap Hollywood tale. I think this is the crux of the problem. For while it's true that Sarkozy showed a lack of dignity and discretion by flaunting his love affair, he and Carla were also challenging the French ideal of l'Amour. Personnages like Madame Bovary, Cyrano de Bergerac, Edith Piaf, have embodied the passion and pathos of Love (capital L). Carla, an ex-model and pop singer, does not, and neither does Sarko.
Of course, the American ideal of love has changed radically, too.
Serial marriages have become the norm: I never meet anyone these days who hasn't been married two or three times. Long-distance marriages are also on the rise, and internet relationships are booming. And weird new gadgets are being designed to ease the stress of physical separation. Someone in England has invented a Hug Shirt that vibrates when your distant partner (also wearing a Hug Shirt) wraps his arms around himself. A contraption similar to an iPod will soon transmit palpable kisses across the miles. Other inventions to promote virtual intimacy are sure to appear.....I shudder to think.....
Perhaps in an age of Instant Messaging and YouTube and Match we should no longer look for mystery and passion in our relationships.
Then again, maybe we should.
Happy Valentine's Day!
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