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From Kafka and Milena to ‘love-sexting’: in defence of romantic love in the twenty-first century

paperllull.  Barcelona,  28/06/2020
JUANA DOLORES ROMERO CASANOVA

Is love a binomial or collective concept? What space does polyamory occupy in our reality? Poet and actress Juana Dolores Romero reflects on romantic love in this article.




The absence of love does not consist of it not appearing in episodes, in passions, but of its confinement within those narrow limits of individual passion discredited as a fact, as a rare event. And then it comes to pass that even individual – personal – passion ends up confined in a tragic form, because it is subjected to justice.
Dos fragmentos sobre el amor (Two excerpts on love), María Zambrano

Don’t you dare tell me I’m not in love
‘Brazy’, Andromicfms 4, Yung Beef

You’re there sending her WhatsApps and she’s there leaving you on read
‘Daniela Bregoli’, Andromicfms 4, Yung Beef

We have spent years of feminist struggle persevering and striving to deconstruct romantic love – often reluctantly. It seems that we have understood it, we understand it, we have felt it, we feel it, we have experienced it, we experience it, as a system that idealises and materialises affective and/or sexual relationships to the advantage of the dynamics of heteropatriarchal violence. Meanwhile, faced with the dearth of passion which characterises our current era, which infiltrates not just our understanding, our feelings and our lives, but also our ideologies – understood as the precipitation of the ideal into the real and, therefore, as the pinnacle of thought, regardless of its object and its ethics and/or morals – some of us feminists have fiercely criticised, still fiercely criticise, even now, the supremacy of reason over feelings. And I want to emphasise the ‘still fiercely criticise, even now’ part because this criticism is intrinsically romantic, in that Romanticism emerged as a rejection of the scientism characteristic of the Enlightenment, transfigured today as the strange, perverse insistence on managing our feelings appropriately and healthily.

The historical, intellectual and artistic validation of Romanticism, on one hand, and the naively contradictory feminist desire to free ourselves from pain, on the other, are testament to the mediocrity of ideologising inertias and the complexity of establishing dialectics around love which, far from submitting it to politically correct value judgements, should measure up to its boundless power. While postmodern activism misjudges the romantic, the hierarchisation of affections, the objectification of feeling and emotion, and the standardisation of desire are some of the mechanisms articulated by the capitalisation of our ability to feel in order to achieve the optimal neoliberal systematisation that establishes power relations as the only, immovable possibilities for relating to the other, for loving the other.

In the midst of a health and socio-economic crisis, from the perspective of the privilege of having a home, generally, and of having a connected home, more specifically, the virtualisation of many of our romantic realities has culminated as affectionate cybercorrespondence – often sexual and affectionate or exclusively sexual – which has somewhat eased the emotional consequences of social distance. Because, as Rita Rakosnik tweeted, ‘Everything can be postponed, except the heart’. The nature of love, in the context of a global pandemic, has highlighted that individualistic neoliberal (il)logic starts to wobble as soon as isolation is openly imposed. The digital platforms that have contributed and still contribute to skin hunger have adapted to the exceptional situation in exchange for, of course, virtually and materially continuing to do business with our affection and mental health: from ‘Here for you’ by Snapchat, a set of measures to offer users psychological support, to Tinder’s international match feature.

There is endless correspondence out there by artists and writers that documents the amorous impulse and its heterogeneity before the immediacy of emails, WhatsApps and Instagram DMs. Then, only letters shortened distances, eased absences. The sender and the recipient were the only protagonists in this shared intimacy, and there was no data broker reducing it to goods for sale. Marina Tsvetaeva’s Letter to the Amazon, and those of the summer of 1926 between her, Rainer Maria Rilke and Boris Pasternak; Vladimir Mayakovsky’s love for Lilia Brick that would end definitively with the suicide of the poet of the Russian Revolution; June Mansfield, Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller; Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey, or Vita Sackville; Gustave Flaubert and George Sand; Antonin Artaud and Génica Athanasiou; Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan; Ferran Soldevila and Rosa Leveroni; and so many other letters. These are just some of the testimonies – some closer to the nineteenth century than others – that embody the romantic absolute, in the strictest sense of the term, through their exaltation of feeling, of eroticism, of fantasy.

‘[You tell me] you’ve received a lot of letters and you’re getting into a muddle, all of which is encouraging. Why don’t you tell me, honestly, that you’re tired of them or that they no longer interest you? That you have other, newer, more interesting things to think about? Tell me, tell me once and for all, and maybe I’ll be able to tear myself away from this love that obsesses me, that is my life and my death! But don’t tell me, love. I couldn’t stand it. Have compassion for me, if the memory of your past affection for me is still pleasant to you, lie mercifully… But no, it’s impossible, if it were true, if my love was just an episode for you, I would die…’ [1]

 Nonetheless, even though the tyranny of the internet has us heading for melancholy and nostalgia for stories without digital intermediaries or interference, love spills over and can take forms as trivial as a subtweet or a Facebook post, or transfer the intensity of the relationship between Franz Kafka and Milena Jesenská to our virtual experiences through love-sexting. Perhaps, like them, for better or for worse, we will manage to materialise these interactions into a meeting, or more than one, or more than two, which will probably end up, sooner or later, as another relationship doomed to the sentimental failure of our generation, starved of passion and marked, therefore, by heartbreak. It is impossible to argue, then, that love is a sociocultural construct that benefits a certain ideology. What is, though, is the struggle to love while assuming the responsibility of all of love’s complexity within a contextual framework of hypercontrol and emotional blockage, of the simplification of affections.

‘You’re always wanting to know, Milena, if I love you, but after all, that’s a difficult question which cannot be answered in a letter (not even last Sunday’s letter). I’ll be sure to tell you the next time we see each other (if my voice doesn’t fail me).’ [2]

‘Am I really kind and patient? I don’t know about that, but I do know that such a telegram does the whole body good, so to speak; still, it’s just a telegram and not a proffered hand.’ [3]

‘Apart from whatever might be underneath – under such things as “fear”, etc. – and which nauseates me, not because it’s nauseating but because my stomach is too weak; apart from all that, it may be even simpler than you say. Something like: when one is alone, imperfection must be endured every minute of the day; a couple, however, does not have to put up with it. Aren’t our eyes made to be torn out, and our hearts for the same purpose? At the same time it’s really not that bad; that’s an exaggeration and a lie, everything is exaggeration, the only truth is longing, which cannot be exaggerated. But even the truth of longing is not so much its own truth; it’s really an expression of everything else, which is a lie. This sounds crazy and distorted, but it’s true.

   Moreover, perhaps it isn’t love when I say you are what I love the most – you are the knife I turn inside myself, this is love.

   Incidentally, you say the same thing: “they lack the strength to love”, shouldn’t that suffice to distinguish between “beast” and “man”?’ [4]

Anti-capitalist feminism will be romantic or it will not be. It will never come to be, anyway, if we don’t reconquer our right to passion, so criminalised and trivialised in the name of freedom, equality and sisterhood in a society where sentimental censorship rules, whether with drugs, with slogans, through duty, through guilt, or, in the worst cases, through ideological inertia. Problematising love is pointless because it is already essentially problematic. To try to substitute it with an aseptic spectre – socially, culturally and politically – is to dehumanise it, to condemn it to confinement, to protect and save ourselves even though, disobediently, we want to expose ourselves to experiencing the slightest sting that makes us feel like we are subjects with agency and not manageable objects to be categorised in terms of affective productivity.

One of the key non-correspondences from our century is undoubtedly Angélica Liddell’s with God, maintained throughout most of her theatrical work as though the only freedom enjoyable by the postmodern subject, who is fragmented and forced to watch the spectacle of their own fragmentation, was to appeal to mystery, to address it due to lack of instinct when life is reduced to phases.

‘How can it be that there aren’t mad people walking on the current of the river, how can it be that there aren’t mad people rolling around in puddles, how can it be that there aren’t half-naked mad people leaning over bridges, how can it be that the woods aren’t full of mad people running around terrified, dead because of love... How can it be, Lord, that we’ve not all gone mad because of love?’ [5]

Against the feeling of permanent state of alarm, which argues that we are polyamorous by default and virtue; that here lies the conciliation between the individual and the community; that love is not a binomial but a collective concept; we must defend our condition as mortals, our spiritual and carnal fragility, and overcome our great fear of feeling defenceless. Just like Camille Paglia fought for her right to risk being raped, I demand the right to run the risk of falling in love.

 

 

--------------

[1] Cartes d'amor i d'exili, Ferran Soldevila, Rosa Leveroni, Viena Editorial, 2009.

[2] [pàg 161, Praga, 3 de juliol de 1920, divendres] Cartes a Milena, Franz Kafka, traducció de l'alemany i notes de Clara Formosa Plans, Quid Pro Quo edicions, El Gall Editor S. L., 2018. 

[3] [pàg 187, Praga, 7 d'agost del 1920, dissabte] Cartes a Milena, Franz Kafka, traducció de l'alemany i notes de Clara Formosa Plans, Quid Pro Quo edicions, El Gall Editor S. L., 2018. 

[4] [pàg 250-251, Praga, 14 de setembre del 1920] Cartes a Milena, Franz Kafka, traducció de l'alemany i notes de Clara Formosa Plans, Quid Pro Quo edicions, El Gall Editor S. L., 2018. 

[5] [pàg 38, 3. Preguntas a Dios, 'Primera carta de San Pablo a los corintios, Cantata BWV 4, Christ Lag in Todesbanden'] Ciclo de las Resurrecciones, Angélica Liddell, La uÑa RoTa, 2015

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