Of Romance?



Ken, after another rejection...

Ah sweet romance! Except that, given the long convoluted history of the word, romance wasn’t always sweet. Plunked right at the beginning of it is “Roman,” meaning a people without a romantic bone in their body. Their chroniclers, such as Suetonius or poets like Martial and Petronius, described sex as a way to power, satisfaction, fun or even foolishness, but not love. Romans viewed art as little more than decoration for feats of engineering. Their armies defeated the proud Greek phalanx by dipping under that graceful line of spears and thrusting up into Greek guts with the blunt short sword. Blunt should be their middle name. Even their speech is known more for compact muscular pungency than any lovelorn descants of fancy. In that respect, Latin is probably the most anti-romantic of languages.

During the Dark Ages when Latin survived as the Lingua Franca of the church and emerging aristocracy, the Roman speech mixed with local dialects in the then isolated lands of Iberia, Gaul and Italy to become today’s romance languages. Funny thing, Spanish, French and Italian can speak with sonorous fervor of passion and love. Yet at that time “romance” meant no more than a linguistic subset.

As the middle-ages reached its peak, something had to be done about the armored thugs who had transformed the protection racket into feudalism. Aha, tame them with the cult of the virgin and the code of chivalry! Tales of Arthur, Tristan and Roland were sung out by minstrels and jongleurs who first rapped in Latin and thus their lyrics of chivalric adventure and platonic love were called “Romances.”

Skip forward to the second half of the eighteenth century when the Age of Reason begins to flounder. My hero Voltaire satirized its fall brilliantly in Candide. Then an ugly little demented sociopath named Rousseau dreamt of a new age based solely upon feeling. Swirling nature must be our god and gnarled gothic be seen as a more reliable guide to human understanding than any frigid temple of the Greeks. Revolution raged, not just in France, but in the arts and literature as well, so that “Romanticism” came to mean a world view, a philosophy, and a whole new style of expression.

Romanticism triumphed with the nineteenth century. Our hearts may thump to the stirring music of Beethoven, the misty seascapes of Turner, or the thrills and chills of melodrama on stage, but it was the novel that best furled the romantic banner. Jane Austen, the sisters Bronte, Sir Walter Scott, Tolstoy, Flaubert, De Maupassant and George Sand wrapped that banner around the new idea that love is more important than property or politics in the making of a marriage. Romance became a synonym for passionate action. It had come a long, long way from simply meaning “of the Romans.”

The existential and soulless twentieth century brought us full circle to the “Torn Bodice” paperback, so many of which seem to me to be unwitting Candides satirizing romantic love. I miss the flamboyant painted covers that best summed them up. Doesn’t anyone in the industry today realize that photographs of steaming bodies, no matter how much the lens is filtered or the lighting tinted, still manage to smack of unromantic realism?

I think the same to be true, only more so, of “Torn Byronic Shirt” M/M romances. Diana Garbaldan’s Lord John is utterly unbelievable to me. Templars swearing their undying love seem giggle-worthy. And centurions swooning in the moonlight betray every caveat of Rome’s original poets. I don’t mean to imply that some men haven’t deeply loved or at least genuinely enjoyed each other from the beginning of time. My book, Here, And Always Have been, is a collection of historical short stories devoted to that concept. But romantic love is a thoroughly modern idea that above everything must speak…no, no, floridly sing…its name to all the world. That openness hasn’t been possible for gay men until very recent times. It seems to me that gay historical romance is naught but an unfortunate oxymoron drowning under the stickiest of syrups.

OK, I’m a curmudgeon, more Roman than romantic. And now I must cease writing and hie myself off to a rehearsal, having been cast in a local production of The Christmas Carol. You can guess what role when I sign off with: Romantic love…bah humbug!

Ken Graigside (or in this case Craigsnide?)

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

To win a copy of Here, And Always Have Been write a limerick about your favorite pair of male lovers from any time before 1900. Send it to me by December 25, 2009, at kenart40@bellsouth.net. I’ll pick out the best, forward them to Erastes, and send a copy of the book to the author of my favorite one. I figure nothing could defeat slurpy romance better than a snappy limerick.

19 Responses

  1. Templars swearing their undying love seem giggle-worthy.

    you’re forgetting the long tradition of “minne” – so there was idealised love around nd powerful it was, too, even though more a courtly sport and a way to win prestige and “make headlines”, but I think this whole “lurv” thing is more complex than that. (But in general, I think the Romans had it right. Took a while before i really *got* them – guess they grew on me as my owbn cynicism advanced 🙂 ).

  2. I would’ve loved to have risen to this challenge by bringing American characters into the mix. But attempting to incorporate names like Ishmael, Queequeg, and New Bedford into a limerick — even with the advantage of cheating by substituting Nantucket for New Bedford — would’ve ultimately made me want to pull a Cato and throw myself upon my . . . keyboard.

    Goddamn, you’re a cynic, Ken.

    • Seeing Ishmaels, Ahabs or Queequegs
      As gay icons? You’re pulling our legs.
      And besides, Moby’s dick
      Is a trifle too thick
      Pequod porno is really the dregs.

  3. That was great. 🙂 I think it’s in people’s natures to fantasize (in this case romanticize) the past and, in many ways, to create our own past when we write about it. I’ve never read a historical novel of any kind where the hero had rotted out teeth.

    Best with your play.

  4. Said Horace to Maecenas, “I swear
    As a friend you are beyond compare.
    When death takes you
    It takes me too.
    Where you lie, bury me there.”

    Romantic trufax 🙂

  5. Hm…

    Lord of my love, to whom in vassalage
    Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
    To thee I send this written embassage,
    To witness duty, not to show my wit:
    Duty so great, which wit so poor as mine
    May make seem bare, in wanting words to show it,
    But that I hope some good conceit of thine
    In thy soul’s thought, all naked, will bestow it:
    Till whatsoever star that guides my moving,
    Points on me graciously with fair aspect,
    And puts apparel on my tottered loving,
    To show me worthy of thy sweet respect:
    Then may I dare to boast how I do love thee;
    Till then, not show my head where thou mayst prove me.
    Shakespeare, Sonnet 26

    “‘Sighing, and sadly sitting by my love
    He asked the cause of my heart’s sorrowing,
    Conjuring me by heaven’s eternal King
    To tell the cause which me so much did move.
    Compelled (quoth I), to thee will I confess,
    Love is the cause, and only love it is
    That doth deprive me of my heavenly bliss.
    Love is the pain that doth my heart oppress.
    And what is she (quoth he) whom thou dost love?
    Look in this glass (quoth I), there shalt thou see
    The perfect form of my felicity.
    When, thinking that it would strange magic prove,
    He opened it, and taking off the cover,
    He straight perceived himself to be my lover.’”
    Richard Barnfield

    Sure sounds like m/m romance to me.

  6. This one is a bit beyond my talents. But it was very fun to read to read what some of my fav. authors were able to come up with. Lisa

  7. Now, see, I have real problems with the idea that romantic love didn’t exist in the past because it hadn’t been invented yet. I don’t believe human nature has changed that much. We’re all still slaves to the same hormones.

    And hey, where was Ann Radcliffe in your list? If she was good enough for Jane Austen to reference (and, all right, lampoon) she’s good enough for me! ;D

  8. Great post, Ken. Off to post you a limerick…


    PS Love the picture – shades of ‘Mr Cellophane’.

    • And I’m printing your limerick here, Charley, for all to enjoy. (I chaged the first line to remove the need for a setup)

      A Hornblower sailor called Archie
      Whose boyfriend was terribly starchy
      He ah’ed and he umm’ed
      ’til at last he succumbed
      In a coach on the road to Karachi.

      The photo is from my stint as a clown two years ago for a Fourth of July Parade.

  9. I’m not entering as it wouldn’t be fair, but here’s mine!

    The Harlequin hero said: “lass,
    I’m afraid i am going to pass.
    Your offer of … hem hem
    I’m defecting to m/m
    Because boobs can’t compare to hot ass.”

  10. Here’s one from Lisa

    Said of Gaveston: pretty but mean,
    And of Edward, the dimmest of beams.
    But sod kindness and wit
    Once the naughty parts hit.
    Said of England: she’s hard on her queens.

  11. I’m so cowed! The posts are so good and the limericks are so funny and my mind is so blank! I don’t have anything romantical or even gay to submit. But I am sure 100% enjoying what the rest are putting up. Go y’all! Meanwhile, I’m praying hard for an idea to strike.

  12. Can’t promise it’s good but…

    Scholars told Michalangelo
    David should not have much to show.
    But if I make him so small,
    No one will look at all,
    At least give him enough for good blow.

  13. Can’t promise it’s good but…

    Scholars told Michelangelo
    David should not have much to show.
    But if I make him so small,
    No one will look at all,
    At least give him enough for good blow.

  14. Here’s mine, about Tchaikovsky:

    Pyotr Ilych wrote his ‘Pathetique’
    While obsessed with his nephew’s physique.
    He finished the job,
    Inspired by ‘Bob’,
    But the poor man was dead in a week.

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