Chautauqua serves as a nexus for comparing points of view and broadening discourse lecture-by-lecture and week-by-week. Once in a while, a well-supported argument dismantles an entrenched perspective.
David Shumway, professor of English and literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University, may have come up with just such a head-turner.
In his book, Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy and the Marriage Crisis, he claimed romance and intimacy are cultural constructs. The predominant Western discourses in which people have projected the “natural” course that their lives would take — particularly narratives about falling in love, overcoming obstacles, marrying and living happily ever after — might be misleading or even dangerous in some respects.
As part of the Professional Women’s Network series, at 1 p.m. today at the Chautauqua Women’s Club House, Shumway will give a talk titled “From Romance to Intimacy: A Brief History of Love.”
“Love and marriage are culturally inculcated,” Shumway said. “There are many historical differences in these things. For much of the history of the Western world, marriage was understood as a property relation. Passion, if understood at all, was considered antithetical to marriage.”
According to Shumway in Modern Love, a shift from marrying for property and alliance to marrying for romantic love occurred in the 19th century. As capitalism eroded social bonds, more people began seeing themselves as individuals with an inner life and psychology as well as a soul. In Europe, the Romantic era gave rise to literary and pulp novels, which spread throughout society.
Crossing the Atlantic and fast-forwarding to the 1980s through the early 2000s when Shumway was working on-and-off on Modern Love, romance was becoming the most popular modern literature genre in North America.
Now in 2015, the romance genre has become a massive industry. During the first week of this season, Chautauqua offered a Special Studies course titled, “Beyond ‘50 Shades’: Writing the Romance Novel and Women’s Fiction.” Its focus on women aligns with consumer trends. According to Romance Writers of America, females accounted for 78 percent of romance readers in 2005 and 82 percent in December 2014.
In Modern Love, Shumway wrote: “Love stories permeate our lives. Novels and films so predictably include a love story as at least a subplot that most people don’t think to inquire into the significance of this repetition.”
During the 20th century, advice columnists, relationship self-help books and some films focused on marriage and intimacy, Shumway said.
“I was in a difficult marriage in the 1980s and 1990s, and I found I was reading self-help books,” he said. “They didn’t save the marriage, but I saw them as an interesting phenomenon. There were connections among them that began to emerge that stood some ideas on their head. And some Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky movies did not end happily.”
According to Shumway, marriage had become a subject for investigation rather than a natural course of life.
In writing Modern Love, one of Shumway’s challenges was figuring out which films and texts to focus on because there were so many to choose from. The point of the Modern Love was to explore their complexities.
“My argument is that love and intimacy are discourses rather than ideology,” Shumway said. “Neither discourse tells you one set of rules. They don’t instruct you in a way a catechism would. Some texts are self-help instructions more than others. The best ones are not. They are more open-ended, and show complexities. Intimate Partners by Maggie Scarf is an example. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus [by John Gray] is a very limited, very prescriptive, anti-feminist tract.”