Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 13, 1995

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
     "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
     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
     "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
     So maybe you shouldn't give up on your search for the
perfect pair of silk boxers just yet.

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