In "My Lost City," Fitzgerald wrote, "I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage." He was referring to the life and the loves that he and so many others had enjoyed in New York when it truly roared in the 1920s.
It was a giddy mirage, an imagined impression across the distance of a desert; a time of the swirling, singing nouveau, the sultry and seditious slipping off of Victorian repression, of skyscrapers and millionaires and railroads that seemed to be able to leap over mountains, of planes that hurled themselves through the air. It was the era that led to the consummate American hero in 1932 with the birth of Superman. It was an era of romance that made people feel they could finally catch up to the horizon, and -- better yet -- go beyond it to a life never imagined before. The possibilities were limitless. They were limitless.
Until, as all great romance must eventually, it crashed.
And all the wild speculation encouraged by big business at the time came tumbling down like a torn party dress around the ankles of the people who could afford it the least. Farmers, small businesses, dreamers, and desperate immigrants were swindled into sinking their lives' savings into high-risk real estate investments, even though it was plainly evident that the need for space was almost nil, production schemes, even though growth was slowing and consumer gimmicks even though they were as shady as an unregulated economy had ever been.
Sound familiar? Seems we have neither changed nor learned much since then.
It was heartless scheming. It was ruthless capitalism. It was cronyism at its worst. All true. Yes. But it was the romantic vision that allowed and perpetuated it. It was the insistence on the impossible and the belief in the limitless self that made people easy prey.
When I speak of romance in this sense, it is not just a reference to that flurry of the heart when we are falling in love. It is there then, as well. But it is more than that.
When Romance Is Good
In "The Four Loves" (1960, Harcourt Brace), C.S. Lewis talks about romance as eros and distinguishes it from lust by defining it as the rapture of the divine, the emotional foreplay of the gods within us.
When we are moved by this sort of romance or eros to "fall in love," what we are actually doing, he says, is seeing the divine in the other. When that happens we are inevitably guided by the impression that "Love conquers all" or that "In love all is possible." It was the guiding principle of the late 1800s and has been, in one form or another, one of the American four basic philosophical food groups since then.
He says, rightly, I believe, that this willing self-deception is both necessary and good for meeting and wooing the beloved:
By eros I mean of course that state which we call "being in love"; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are "in"... Sexual desire, without eros, wants it, the thing in itself; eros wants the beloved. The thing is a sensory pleasure; that is, an event occurring within one's own body. We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he "wants a woman." Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition (one does not keep the carton after one has smoked the cigarettes). Now eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.
This state of heightened awareness and ecstasy is precisely what allows us to become blissfully unaware of the beloved's imperfections and to begin a relationship which we might otherwise too quickly dismiss. For a relationship in which perfection is no longer necessary, we must move past eros into friendship.
To the extent that romance allows us to struggle through obstacles, hold out hope when it is truly needed and helpful, and imbue our lives with both promise and purpose, it is good. Meaning, when it serves us -- when it helps us to build relationships, conceive of such miracles as airplanes, anesthesia or cell phones, or push through malevolent military blockades to rescue the innocent -- it is a blessing.
When it leads us to see ourselves as somehow beyond the laws of nature, as capable of controlling what is not controllable, as immune to the inevitable draw of gravity, it is a curse.
When Romance Is Not So Good
All things must ripen or fall off the tree too early and die. It is the way of things. Often it brings terrible sadness to us. Sometimes, shock. It is never easy to see the sun come up after the revelry and delight of dancing gods and goddesses; even harder to see what the brighter light reveals about who we've been dancing with.
But for us to have the lives and loves we long for -- both individually and collectively as a culture -- it is absolutely necessary for Eros to be replaced by a more sanguine and subtle understanding. For deep and satisfying love to flourish, romance must die. If it doesn't, we wind up like Fitzgerald, lost in a lost city, besotted by booze and benumbed by grief. And our society winds up in the same position we found ourselves in '29 and in '08, bereft of our fortunes, throwing ourselves out of windows in despair and shame.
Eros cannot tolerate bright light. It must either die or flee or be reformed by a new reality. If it is reformed, we will be transformed.
We will stand ready to see clearly and know the Other. We will stand ready to be seen. Not for who we might be, who we represent (Venus or Mars), but for who we are. Easier said than done.
We are surrounded by forces -- economic and cultural -- that will do anything to keep us from making that transformation.
If you look carefully at what happened in the twenties, you may notice a profound connection between the rise in advertising as a broad medium of communication and the rise in a sort of cultural far-sightedness, in which we could only see that which was far away and nearly out of reach. ("You, too, can have this X, Y or Z when you just send us... ") We became in many ways the nation we are now--consumers and climbers, always waiting on line for the next version or the newest sensation that will somehow make our lives what they "should" be.
This is the romanticism that is sold on Madison Avenue, not the romance of the gods.
And, I believe, it is the one that has shaped us as a country and kept us from that which we long for most: love, joy, gratitude, companionship, a sense of belonging, purpose. So long as we exist for the revelry of eros, dance only in the dark, and shield ourselves from the morning's truth by turning our faces inside out so we can only see our own ideas, we are trapped in a lie. We may become mortals without morals, but we cannot become humans without limits.
The irony is that we are so much more.
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.
-- C. S. Lewis, from "The Weight of Glory"