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The Knight in Shining Armor Is Dead -- Long Live the Knight

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During my research for the sequel to Benedetto Casanova, I came across an anonymous 18th-century document, purportedly written by a monk, claiming that "romantic love is an invention to keep women in their place."

The author hypothesizes that men came up with the idea of the knight in shining armor to keep women subservient and docile, to put them in a "state of expectation." It made them wait for ideal men, who would one day appear out of nowhere and love them forever. Meanwhile, they would save themselves for the arrival of that knight and thus be less likely to sleep with the neighbors' son.

Romantic love, in that view, is just one of the devices to keep women subservient to men, no different from veiling or arranged marriage. Women are kept in a perpetual dream state. Even when they finally marry the ugly carpenter or the man at the bank, they are then more easily content with their lot if they can still imagine that "he" is out there after all -- and they might have met him had they just waited long enough.

Our pop culture is full of romantic love. Worthless romance novels in which men are just perfect abstractions of desirable qualities have been the bestselling category for centuries, and they are almost exclusively read by women. Our hero worship of the strong, dominant, morally upright male is emblematic of our time. We don't arrange marriages anymore. She does not have to marry the man her father wants her to marry. She can choose. That means she can dream, and wait for the right guy to come along.

It's an interesting concept. I would go a step further and say that romantic love does not exist at all. There is no "right guy" out there, no "knight in shining armor," and no soul mate. What exists is the chemical and hormonal turmoil when we first fall in love, followed by an arrangement of mutual benefit, where two (or more) people fulfill each other's needs and thus stay together. These needs can be sexual, emotional, even financial. Two people can be so perfect for each other that they end up staying together a lifetime, and we have chosen to call that love.

The twist in the story is that gays also are hopelessly romantic and dream of the perfect guy. We want a knight in shining armor -- but we are both men, so we have to be each other's knights. However, the qualities embodied in the romantic "knight" ideal are a difficult match. We can't both be dominant and caring, selflessly saving the damsel -- or junker, as it were -- in distress. Nowhere is the romantic love ideal so misplaced as in the gay world, then, it seems.

We want that perfect guy so much that we end up being never content with the ones we meet. Thinking that there must be another one to come, one with whiter teeth and harder abs, a thicker checkbook or a bigger penis, we tend to spend little effort on the relationships that are actually in our grasp. We overlook the cute guy at the Starbucks. We often forget that we can just be men and complement each other in many ways. We can be each other's knights, but only if we discard the idealization of the "knight." In order to find love, we need to kill the knight first.

And yet the ideal of the perfect partner, however misplaced, can be helpful. It can inspire us. It can drive us to better ourselves -- to learn more, and work harder, and do an extra set of squats at the gym. So romance serves its purpose: to help us manipulate our own spirits and bodies, to drive us to become better, more devoted lovers. And there you have it. The knight is dead. Long live the knight in shining armor.