Romantic Love Not Such a Splendored Thing in Most Societies By Lisa Mastny For some of us, the past week has been spent frantically running from store to store buying Valentine's Day cards, choosing the most expensive-looking box of chocolates, and questioning the legitimacy of "genuine silk" boxers. The rest of us just seem to mope with self-pity as we pass flower shops advertising long-stemmed roses and wonder if our dogs also count as "loved ones." Whether or not we are personally involved in a relationship, we all have certain definitions or ideals of "romantic love" to describe our feelings toward those we care especially about. Many of us scorn love or dedicate our entire lives to finding it, but in one way or another we tend to accept the emotion as fundamental to the shared human experience. But according to Christine Du Bois, a sixth-year graduate student in the Anthropology Department, the romantic concept of love is not universal. In her new course, the Anthropology of Emotion, she hopes to convey the idea that what we would call "emotions," such as anger, fear and love, are in fact expressed quite differently across, and even within, societies throughout the world. "Many, if not most, societies don't define 'emotion' or 'love' in the same way we do," Du Bois said. "Virtually all over the world, people may experience a kind of intense longing for another human being that has a sexual component, but love is often not expressed as overtly as it is in Europe and the United States. Having a Valentine's Day is kind of a weird idea, in terms of much of the rest of the world." While we may associate love with courtship and poetry, in many societies such as the Awlad 'Ali, a semi-nomadic Bedouin group in Egypt, these forms of romantic expression are considered dishonorable, especially to women, and are therefore frowned upon. "The Awlad 'Ali use poetry as the medium to express sentiments that we would call romantic love, but they would never be allowed to follow through with it," Du Bois said. "If two people really were in love, they wouldn't let anyone know because it might prevent them from getting matched together." The expression of romantic love, which in the United States is usually seen as arising from emotional feelings and physical attractions, is often considered dangerous in other societies because it interferes with the arranged marriage, a traditionally prescribed union based on kinship, status or wealth. In the Awlad 'Ali and among many Muslim groups, for example, the preferred marriage is one between first cousins. Arranged marriage is still practiced among some immigrant groups in the United States, including a Sikh community in California where the parents often look to the Punjab region of India to obtain suitable partners for their children. "If people married according to love, it would interrupt unions which are expected to come out of arranged marriages," Du Bois said. "And if the kids, who have gone to American high schools and colleges, complain about not being able to date, the parents just say 'look at the divorce rate and see what a love marriage really does to a relationship.'" While some of us may express horror at the idea of being forced to marry someone we've never even met before, there are many societies that would be equally shocked at having choice. "Dating is a brutal system, and people in other parts of the world can be horrified at what we go through to find partners," DuBois said. "There are women in India who look at our system and say, how terrible that some women are left out because they aren't as beautiful or charming as others. They see our way as competitive and cruel. With arranged marriages they are at least assured of having and raising a family." Some cultures, such as the nomadic Wodaabe tribe of the Niger Republic, seem to get the best of both worlds--if you're a male, that is. A Wodaabe husband may have several wives through arranged marriages, which are not designed to be love matches, in addition to a lover of his choice. If he gets tired of this love partner, he just finds someone else. "Most non-Western societies don't trumpet or herald romantic love the way we do. It happens in the margins. We're the ones who hype it up so much to facilitate our feelings. Look at what we have to go through for a wedding," Du Bois said. She should know_she's getting married herself this summer. According to Norbert Elias, author of Power and Civility, our concept of romantic love developed out of the 12th-century medieval practice of allowing the younger sons of the nobility, as well as men of the urban and rural lower classes, to migrate to the noble European courts to find employment as entertainers to the lords and ladies. By reciting poetry and singing the "minnesang," or song of the troubadour, these men hoped to gain the favor of the noblewoman for whom they often had a secret, unrequited desire. "It created a whole style of relating," Du Bois said. "The men would flatter, long for and pine after these women, but the love was never consummated. After a while, romantic love came to be a celebration of the feeling itself. It's like if you smell something good, but can't eat it, you learn to appreciate the smell and revel in it. The emotion can become valuable in itself." During the Enlightenment, thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau rebelled against the increasing artificiality of court life and celebrated the raw passion and return to "natural" feelings which marked the later Romantic period. Romantic love and the liberty to pick your partner eventually became an accepted part of marriage, as an expression of democracy and infused with Enlightenment political ideals about personal freedom. "Rousseau was revolting against the court and the bourgeois world, but the irony is that this same world co-opted and commercialized romantic love, eventually creating Valentine's Day and Hallmark cards," Du Bois said. "But I think we still have some of the old medieval fascination with unrequited love, pining away, using poetry and songs to demonstrate incredible desire. Americans see 'love' as pathetic yet noble, in a sense a double-edged sword. Many of us definitely see something grand about its being unfulfilled." While the concept of romantic love is still primarily a "Western" phenomenon, its breadth has been expanding in other cultures, under the influence of Western media. "As more and more people are exposed to American movies and TV shows such as Dallas, they are coming in contact with the concept of romantic love," Du Bois said. "In many cases, it sparks a rebellion of youth as the younger generations pick up the U.S. or European style of partnering. It could become an important phenomenon worldwide." While it remains to be seen whether the Wodaabe will become equally enthusiastic about saccharine candy hearts pleading "Be Mine" or whether the Awlad 'Ali will become well-known purveyors of greeting card poetry, we can rest assured as Americans that the turbulent days of romantic love will be with us for years to come. So maybe you shouldn't give up on your search for the perfect pair of silk boxers just yet.
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