Of Love, Hollywood Heroes & Harlequin Romances

My friend Carol is a writer of medical romantic fiction. This does not mean that she writes warm hearted prose about anatomical procedures; she does not pen sugary sagas about surgery or candlelight accounts of cardiac attacks. No, she writes ‘female fiction’–known in the trade as Harlequin romance. She writes about nurses who are in love with doctors, physiotherapists who fall for family physicians and pretty technicians with crushes on a chiropodists. Carol produces salable, sentimental entertainment for females. She writes unashamedly about the search for love, and her books sell.

It is easy for the tasteful to turn up their fine tuned noses at Carol’s craft. They scorn her common turn of phrase. They disdain the Harlequin romance. They throw scorn on Carol’s  heart-throbbing heroines with their happy endings. The literati smile condescendingly at her gift to write for hoi polloi, and chuckle at the simple sentimentality of her stories. “These are comfort books for sad, fat, abandoned women who consume them as fast as they do a box of chocolates. The women and the books and the chocolates are all alike: they are gooey, sweet and have soft centers.” The aesthetes and literati may keep their tasteful snobbery to themselves. I am on the side of Carol and all her readers, for together they keep alive in this cruel and cynical world the glorious tastelessness of romance.

They are similarly snobbish about another genre of popular romance–the heroic Hollywood movie. The critics sneer at superheroes and simplistic plots. They deride the fact that the the knight always slays the dragon to rescue the damsel in distress. The cowboy always rides off into the sunset with his woman, the hard hearted hero finds love, the good guy always gets the girl, and the good woman always stands by her man. Popular movies are simply heroic, romantic tales for men. They are for the guys what Carol’s books are for the girls: romance for the rabble.

The Caramel Centered Hero

The soft-centered lovers of popular romance remind me of Cyrano de Bergerac’s soft centered friend, Ragueneau– the poetical pastry chef. An extravagant connoisseur of both poetry and pastry, the fat chef loves not only sweets for the stomach, but sweets for the heart and mind. He combines sonnets with sugar icing and terza rima with a raisin twist. This poet with a pain au chocolat is Cyrano’s sidekick, a French Sancho Panza– a Samwise Gamgee of the patisserie.
The hero’s sentimental sidekick often plays the part of a wise fool. He is himself a jester, a harlequin and a clown because he holds out for his ideals. He fights for the right in the face of defeat. He does not bow to the wise and mighty, but stands at the side of his hero, knowing that to do so is foolishness, but that the wisdom of the world is always confounded by the foolishness of God. I am the defender of the readers of romantic novels, the movie going male, the soft centered sidekicks, who are usually  pleasantly plump. I defend the pudgy Sancho Panzas, the rotund Ragueneaus and sentimental Samwise Gamgees of the world.
They are a commonplace of romantic literature, and if they are a commonplace, then they are common, and if they are common, then I salute them, because they stand for the common man. If they love sentimental tales, romantic fiction and movies with a tearjerker ending that is only because they have large and tender hearts. They believe in something called love, and they know that the search for love is the one great romantic quest of them all, and if they do not succeed in that quest they have not succeeded in life.
The other reason I salute the common man and woman who love sentimental stories and romantic tales is that they are in the majority. As a rule, I am suspicious of majority rule. I doubt whether the majority are right about many things, but I don’t doubt that they are right when it comes to matters of the heart. The fact that ordinary women buy millions of copies of medical romances, and ordinary men flock to movies where the hero always kills the bad guy and embraces the beautiful woman reminds me that the search for love is a universal component of humanity.
I am for the ordinary soft-centered sidekick because  he stands for that  passionate and pudgy soul who stands at the side of every romantic hero. Indeed, he stands at the hero’s side as a kind of alter ego. He stands at the hero’s side because he is the other side of the hero. In fact, he is not only the other side of the hero, he is the inside of the hero. That is to say, he stands for the soft center at the heart of the hero himself, for underneath the swagger and the swordplay, the romantic hero swoons. Beneath the bluster is a blossoming flower. Underneath the tough exterior is a tender heart.

Hearts and Hot Pants

This is the puzzle at the heart of the romantic quest: that the romantic quest has a heart. This is a mystery that very few people have stopped to examine: all of us assume the existence of this thing called ‘love’ and that it is a great good; a prize to be won; a gift to be given; a reward to be earned. We take it for granted that our stories will be about brave men who endure great ordeals to win the hand of their lady. We accept without question the romantic tales of windblown women on rocky cliffs and dark heaths will be swept up into the arms of men named D’arcy, Rocky and Heathcliffe. But why should there be such a thing at all? Why should humanity be gripped with such a yearning to belong and such a longing for love?
The atheist or anthropologist will no doubt find a simple biological answer: the infant remembers the warm embrace of the mother’s womb, and seeks for a similarly secure embrace. The child remembers the warm sweetness of suckling the breast, and seeks a similar sweetness. “Love” argues the psychologist and sociologist, “is no more than the desire to be loved, and the desire to be loved is no more than the innocent desire to be sheltered from the dark and stormy night, to be nurtured and looked after. Love is simply the thrill that someone will give me supper.” It would seem to be true: what I thought was true love turns out to be cupboard love.
Then there is the erotic explanation for love: it is not only the desire for someone to give me supper and tuck me up tight in bed: it is also the desire to be tucked up with someone else in bed. The desire to be embraced and to embrace is really the desire to embrace another in the sexual act. According to this theory, my love for the girl in hot pants is really no more than my own hot panting. In other words, love equals sex. No more. No less.
Both of these explanations are variations on a theme. They both explain this desire we call ‘love’ as projected personal desire. I don’t love another person. I love the pleasure that other person represents. I do not love the person, I love what that person can offer me. I do not love that other person. I love sex and my supper. While this is a conclusion with which many a jaded wife might agree, we must not let them get away with it, for love is something more.
While many emotions perceived as ‘love’ can be explained with these crude theories, a problem remains, and the problem is this: everyone everywhere who believes in love believes that whatever love is, and wherever it comes from, what it  most expressly is not, is naked self interest. All the great poets and preachers, all who have sighed and swooned and died and crooned about love believe that love is not self interested, but self sacrificial. The most sublime lines on love have not been written about what the lover can get, but about what the love can give, and the greatest line on love of all is, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.”
Without doubt this self sacrificial love is debased into self interest, but this is not love. It is lust. We have simply misunderstood a distinction in terms. If there is such a thing as love, then it is defined as being interested more in the welfare of the beloved than oneself, and if such a virtue exists, then the mystery of love becomes even greater.
Suddenly this great ideal lies at the heart, not only of Carol’s medical romances and the superhero movies, but it lies at the heart of humanity itself. The mystery deepens, for when we truly long for love we do not long for someone else to give themselves totally in love for us, we also long to give ourselves totally and completely to another. We want to be lost in love. We want to be submerged in love. We want to be overwhelmed by our own self sacrifice and self giving to the beloved. We want to die for love.

The Riddle of Sacrifice

Here is the puzzle: if the cynical unbeliever is right, how can a quality that is (by its definition) self sacrificial, have become the most sublime and foundational desire for a race of beings who, (the evolutionist tells us) have survived by being the most viciously self interested brutes in the jungle? In other words, how did the drive to survive by devouring others evolve into the overwhelming desire to give ourselves in sacrifice for others?
The anthropologist would offer a complicated attempt at an answer along the lines of, “Well, you see, individual early humanoids began to establish themselves in packs or tribes, and it soon became evident that it was better for the individuals if the whole tribe survived and so the self interest of each individual became subordinated to the overall survival of the tribe and roles began to be differentiated and prioritized so that an ideal of individual self sacrifice to the good of the whole tribe became the most highly prized trait.” Balderdash. Why then did chieftains still battle with chieftains for superiority and why did they despise the weak and the frail and kill them whenever they could?
No, the need to sacrifice oneself in love for another is so radical and revolutionary that it must be reality. In other words, the desire to sacrifice oneself for love is so otherworldly that it must have come from another world. It is so alien to the tooth and claw of natural selection that it must be the result of a supernatural selection.
Humanity is mystified by Love. All humans experience it. None can explain it. The mysterious genesis of this strange gift, the wondrous beginnings of this bizarre quality within the human heart prompts the greatest quest of all: the quest for Love. This is a quest not only to find true love, but to find where such love comes from and to understand such a great and bewildering mystery. Why, when all my animal instincts drive me to self preservation, should I reach out to rescue another? Why, when every child like desire for pleasure and safety controls me, should I long to give myself to another? Why when the jungle beast within snarls at every threat, do I wish to calm the monster and seek to sacrifice myself for love?
This mystery is at the heart of the romantic quest, and this is why in all the great romances there is Romance. In other words, at the heart of all the great stories there is a love story. The greatest heroes have hearts that are smitten. They do what they do for the love of their lady, but not just for the love of the Lady, but for the love of Love. The hero dies for love because he knows that this quest leads him from earthly love to heavenly love.

The Sacred Heart

To get a glimpse of what this means we need to stop for a moment and ask what it is that drives all things and keeps all things alive. This force may be called Energy.  Heraclitus called it ‘Fire’. The Hebrews called it Wisdom. The Greek philosophers called it Logos. Christians call it Love. Divine love is the energy by which all things were created, and by which all things consist. Divine Love, as Dante sings, is “The force that drives the Sun and the other stars.” Could it be that at the heart of Carol’s medical romances where the girl gets the guy, at the heart of the Hollywood movies where the guy gets the girl there is a sacred heart–a heart that stirs the force that moves the Sun and the other stars?
If such a precious idea is true, or even if one believes it to be true, then we can see why all the worlds’ heroes bear a sword. This most precious gift of love is the greatest treasure, and is worth the most dangerous quest. If earthly love connects us with eternal love, then it connects us with eternal life, and that most precious gift is something that is not only worth a long journey, it is also worth a fight. It is worth a fight because anything so precious must be surrounded by many thieves. Anything so good must be surrounded by much evil, for evil (be definition) wants to destroy what is good, and that is why the hero bears a sword–because love must be fought for, and to win the love of the fair maiden the dragon must first be slain.
This essay is an excerpt from Fr Dwight Longenecker’s upcoming book, The Romance of Religion. Follow Fr Longenecker’s blog, twitter and facebook pages by connecting to his website at dwightlongenecker.com


  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Fr. Longenecker’s autobiography/conversion story, There and Back Again, is published by Ignatius Press. Follow his popular blog, browse his books, and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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