The Glory of Love
This is the text of a talk I gave at Federation Square in Melbourne in May 2010. The occasion was the opening night of the Emerging Writers Festival, and the theme of the evening was love.
I am going to talk about love tonight. But first I want to talk to you about the future.
I don’t know about you, but all my ideas about the future come from old movies.
In fact, my idea of what the future looks like is really based on two scenes in one movie – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. In this movie, the future is great. The air is clean, the water’s clean, even the dirt is clean. There’s no more war, no more poverty. Human beings have learned to respect one another and the animals and plants around them. It looks like a cross between ancient Greece and the new Yeasayer video – all cool blues and tranquil, symmetrical spaces. In the distance, we hear triumphant soft-rock guitar solos ringing out over soothing synthesiser washes.
Two dudes from the eighties show up in this utopia in a time machine with their new friend and patron, Rufus. And they say, Dude, how come everything in the future is so excellent? And Rufus says it’s because the civilisation of the future is based on principles derived from the lyrics, music and videos of the band Wyld Stallyns – the very same band formed by Bill and Ted in their Garage in Southern California in 1987. And they’re all like, “whoooah, dude”.
I like this scene because I like the idea that art can transform everyday life. I like this dream of a world where the seemingly harmless pop-metal of the eighties sparks a future revolution in human consciousness, and a subsequent improvement in the conditions of everyday life for everyone. This future where Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet has replaced both the Bible and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of man is my favourite future of all.
Or at least, it was. You see I’ve had to say goodbye to this particular future recently, and tonight I’d like to tell you why. I’ve realised that the soft-rock utopia glimpsed in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is impossible, because the music it derives its ideals from is philosophically flawed.
A few years ago I read a book by a Christian music critic called Rock of this Age, published in 1987. The author, Steve Lawhead, takes a long hard look at rock in the eighties, and concludes that it’s an ideological minefield for young Christian rock fans. Not because of the sleaze, the sex, the drugs the profanity or the wanton perversity. Lawhead idfentifies something much more dangerous lurking at the heart of songs like ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’, ‘The Glory of Love’, ‘The Greatest Love of all’ and ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ – secular humanism.
Streetlight people, living just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night
Don’t Stop Believin’
Hold on to that feelin’
What is it that the singer in ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ is asking us to believe in? Feelings. What is the value of this feeling? It’s presented as being self evident – if you feel it a lot, it must be important. Important for what? Important for you. What’s the value of that in the greater scheme of things? Well, nobody knows, but in the absence of anything better to place your faith in, it will have to do.
This is the scenario presented in countless power-ballads of the eighties. The hero overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles and endures all kinds of trials and hardships. And he did it, he tells us, because he believed. Not in God, not in the greater good, not in his country or the improvement of society, but in himself, and the validity of his own feelings.
But as Lawhead points out, there’s a problem with this – and you don’t have to be a Christian rock critic to see what it is. Our feelings tell us to do all kinds of weird stuff. Some people feel like dancing, some people feel like painting sunflowers. Some people feel like aliens are telling them to build a mountain out of mashed potato or that they need to stage a military coup and rule their country as a ruthless dictator. If you go ahead and do these things – or even just say you’d like to – a lot of people will think you’re crazy. You’ll start to feel like nobody understands you, and that’ll make you lonely, and if you spend enough time being lonely you really will go crazy.
This is something many of the romantic poets of the 19th century discovered the hard way. The romantics believed in themselves because the usual options had failed them. God was disappearing, reason had let them down, revolution had failed. So they trusted their emotions.
But they couldn’t keep it up for long. Like bad emo singers, their lyrics were full of religious symbols in search of a faith – there was light, and hope and there were visions and revelations and signs on the road – but no God. Shaky god-substitutes appeared in their work. They replaced God with things like truth or art or beauty. But mostly, they replaced him with love.
It’s easy to see why. If you believe in feelings, but find that feelings have made you lonely, then the feeling that leads you toward another person, to want that person above all other things and people, must seem pretty significant. You don’t have to be alone anymore. You can reject society – which has rejected you – and place your faith in the one person other than yourself whose existence means something to you. In Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – which is the crowning achievement of this kind of romantic art – Tristan feels he can afford to dismiss the whole world as a bad dream, and move permanently into the dream world of his perfect love for Isolde. This is impossible, and he knows it. He sees that their love is too big and too bold for normal life, and that their perfect union can only be preserved in death. For this, the King and everyone else in the story brand him as a madman.
Which is why he sings, to Isolde.
People say we’re crazy
What do they know
Put your arms around me baby don’t ever let go
Let the world around us
Just fall apart
Baby we can make it if we’re heart to heart
Wagner’s predecessor, the romantic poet Holderlin, had already got there fifty years earlier. He too was faced with an impossible love, a love condemned by society. The woman he loved was married to his boss – she could never be his. And if this happpened to you you might say, oh well that’s a shame – but I guess there are other girls out there – no sense pining after something I can never have. But then you wouldn’t be very romantic would you? In 1797 Holderlin wrote:
Be sure to understand my feeling: to seek this satisfaction would be madness. To die together! Such is the only possible fulfilment. But we have sacred duties in this lower world. We are left with nothing but the most perfect confidence in one another and faith in that all-powerful divinity of love which, though invisible, will go on guiding us forever and will forever strengthen our union.
Later, having been commissioned by a Hollywood movie director to write a theme song for the movie, Karate Kid 2, Holderlin wrote:
I am a man who will fight for your honour
I’ll be the hero you’ve been dreaming of
We’ll live forever, knowing together
That we did it all for the glory of love.
The Glory of Love, by Peter Cetera. I have, in the past, cursed songs like these for making me do stupid things, for encouraging me to believe that my feelings have some kind of moral significance, and that following them will lead to my salvation. Later, I stopped blaming the rock balladeers of the late eighties and started blaming the romantic balladeers of the late 18th century for coming up with this stupid idea in the first place. But I’ve since discovered that this is not entirely fair either.
Lurking behind all romantic lyrics is the idea that feelings are important because they’re basic to human nature. The things you learn in school or the way you’re told to behave at work are only as old as those institutions themselves. And since we all know that institutions are corrupt and that society is shallow and phony, any feeling which seems to go against those conventions must be worth paying attention to. If you follow your heart, you’ll do good.
But this is a bit misleading. It’s probably true that feelings have been around since there were human beings to feel them. But the idea that a powerful feeling for some beatiful girl or boy you hardly know more or less demands of you that you wreck your life in order to woo her, or him; the idea that the obstacles that stand in the way of the consumation of this love – the laws of marriage, society, even the physical laws of time and space – add up to proof that everyday life, and maybe reality itself, is an imaginary construct you can do without, and that your real goal lies somewhere outside of this world of illusion – all this is much more recent.
In the west, it goes back no more than 8 centuries, to the courtly love, or ideal love of the middle ages. Kenneth Clark, in his TV show Civilisation, remarks that it would have been unrecognisable to the Greeks or romans, and concludes that it must have come ‘from the east’. Denis De Rougement goes into more detail in his book Passion and Society. De Rougement explains that the ideal love of the middle ages was the invention of a religious sect called the Cathars, who were forced into Christianity, and made to marry under the church. The Cathar’s pagan beliefs survived in sublimated form – their worship of passion and intensity was hidden in plain sight in poems and songs, and later, in the behavioural codes and rituals of courtly love.
This was the world of knights who spent their lives in hopeless servitude to some largely oblivious princess, who braved terrifying ordeals in the hope that she might one day turn her head ever so slightly in their direction. And these are the distant ancestors of the dudes in the rock ballads who sing about a faraway world where we belong together and how they’ll die for love. And Peter Cetera, lead singer of Chicago, knows this, which is why he sings, in ‘The Glory of Love’;
Just like a knight in shining armour
From a long time ago
Just in time I will save the day
Take you to my castle far away
The medieval worship of passion was taken up enthusiastically by the romantics when they found that God and reason had failed them. It earned a place in the popular novels and songs of the 19th century, and a century later, it was transmitted all over the world by record players, movie theatres and radios. It gained new momentum after the advent of rock and roll, whose heroes are always loners and outsiders, who preach self belief, but dream at night of a perfect love to ease their loneliness and make this big bad world seem less big and bad. Now, we live with this stuff every day. We listen to it over breakfast and hum it to ourselves while we work. It’s in our cars and our homes and our headphones. But what is it doing there?
I have been accused in the past of taking this kind of thing too seriously. But I have my reasons. John Ruskin says that taste – in music, in art, in architecture – is much more important than we tend to think. What we like, he says, determines what we are.
At first, I thought this meant that I was David Bowie. But I’ve since realised it’s much more serious than that. If the ideas that inform classic rock ballads go unexamined, if we never stop to think about what it is that we’re endorsing as we flip the volume up and punch the air in the car, then those ideas will continue to work on us on an unconscious level, and their hold on us will be all the more powerful for that reason.
Sometimes, I imagine that if this goes unchecked, we will end up in a nightmare future, where people take no responsibility for their actions because they believe unquestioningly in the moral significance of their feelings.
Sometimes, I think this might already have happened.
I’m very grateful to my friend Professor Arthur Lawrence for lending me Denis De Rougement’s Passion and Society – if you want to know more about the historical roots of the popular idea of romantic love, this is a great place to start.
Find out more about Romantic love in popular culture here