The Birth of Romance

on August 5, 2015

I’ve been rereading my previous entry and finding it not quite to my liking — so I’m going to start over with a clearer version of what I wrote before and work my way forward from there.

For millions of years after our ancestors started walking upright, they remained apelike in their bodies, brains, and behavior. It was not until around 1.8 million years ago, when they left the trees for good and became full-time ground-dwellers, that they took on more recognizably human characteristics.

That was probably when they shifted from an apelike reproductive pattern — in which the dominant males have preferential access to sexually responsive females but take no responsibility for the offspring — to a system of male-female pair-bonding that was more effective at raising slow-maturing, big-brained children.

However, the newer pattern of behavior has never fully supplanted our more primitive instincts. Even today, we put a lot of our energy into dealing with outbreaks of jealousy and violence, and we’re capable of reverting entirely to ape-mode at times of social breakdown. That may be why our most popular forms of entertainment are action movies and soap operas.

But we also have a more sophisticated way of regulating our social interactions, and that is by appealing to higher moral values. The roots of human morality probably go back at least half a million years, since that is when we see the earliest signs of a willingness to care for the old and infirm, a dawning sense of beauty, and a rudimentary capacity for language.

At the heart of our earliest moral values was a perception of motherhood as sacred, along with a reverence for nature as the Mother of All. Even today, that deep respect for life surfaces strongly under conditions of social breakdown. We can see it in the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and in the outrage over the recent killing of an iconic African lion, as well as in more general opposition to male violence and sexual exploitation.

That same vision of the unity of all life is also present in a more subtle form during periods of stability. It reminds us when we start to grow complacent that there is more to life than worldly comfort. It offers glimpses of the profound mystery of existence. And it helps generates new ideas and attitudes that will be essential for survival during the next time of crisis.

But this is where I see a crucial difference between us and our Neanderthal cousins. We may have shared the same mystical vision of existence, but for them it only served to enrich their daily lives — whereas it inspired us to go out and explore the world.

We were probably already more restless and adventure-seeking by nature, and when life grew dull and routine, the Vision of Everything filled our minds with marvelous images and lured us to discover what might lie beyond the next hill.

Those explorations affected both our bodies and our brains. We developed a capacity to map out the course of our travels and categorize the information we had gained. Our use of language expanded rapidly, as did our ability to recount stories of our adventures to the folks back home.

But we also started encountering people with whom we did not share a common grandmother. That created social stresses which the original Vision of Everything could not resolve.

And then it occurred to some brilliant Paleolithic geek that our talent for categorizing could be extended to human relationships. We could establish categories based on our own family members and apply them to more distant relatives. That made it possible to identify anyone as kin, including our second cousins in the next valley over and even the cousins-of-cousins in the valley beyond that.

At first this expanded sense of kinship was mainly of interest to geeks and wanderers. But during the next major disaster — perhaps the ice age that began shortly after 400,000 years ago — it became essential to our collective survival as a species. And by the time that crisis ended, it had flowered into a transcendent vision of human unity.

At that point, the newborn kinship vision and the ancient Vision of Everything were equally essential to reestablishing a stable social order. But they were so different that it was hard to believe in both at the same time.

The Vision of Everything focused exclusively on motherhood, while the kinship vision traced descent through both parents, which had the important advantage of giving fathers a direct stake in the welfare of their children. The older vision viewed humans as part of the web of life, while the newer one distinguished us from the animals through our possession of cultural norms.

The eventual solution was to embrace these oppositions as the basis of an intellectual synthesis in which existence was governed by a series of dualities — male and female, human and animal, and so forth. That did the job, but it came at the cost of weakening the mystical sense of unity that each vision had enjoyed in isolation.

And that is how things have gone ever since. Each new vision starts off at a high level of transcendence but trades it away in order to harmonize with the visions that precede and follow. This promotes the emergence of a still newer vision with the transcendence the other has lost — until that one is compromised in turn. And so the cycle continues.

I find this scenario satisfying in a number of ways. It accounts for both the deep emotional rhythms of the cycle and the intellectual dynamic of the visions. It also answers a question that has baffled me for years — why every complete turning of the cycle includes four well-defined phases and not just two.

The first phase is a time of crisis — like the present moment or the 1960s — when the established order falls apart. The youngest visions offer radical alternatives, contending factions do battle in the streets with flags and Sousaphones, and finally an aging vision is discarded and a new one is born.

In the second phase, stability is reestablished on the basis of new ideals and new moral standards, innovative solutions are adopted, and art and fashion project a sense of classical balance and self-confidence.

The third phase, which I’ve described as the “romantic break,” is the one I’ve always found most puzzling. In some ways, it seems like a trial run for the next crisis period, since the youngest visions take on greater visibility and start developing the concepts and attitudes that will later become essential.

But it is very different from any crisis period. There is no social breakdown, no collapse and remaking of accepted norms, and only the first faint hints of what will become the next new vision. The alternatives it offers are most apparent in art and philosophy and are typically romantic, nostalgic, and dreamlike rather than practical and action-oriented.

However, all of this makes sense if we see it as the youngest visions pushing back against an established order that has started to become hidebound. It begins at the moment when that order falls into complacency — which is why it appears as a sudden “break” — and it takes the form of a desire for broader horizons and a more meaningful existence, which is what makes it romantic.

These romantic explorations have little impact on major social institutions. Their most obvious effect is a culture-wide shift in interests and attitudes, fads and fashions that restores a degree of freshness and a renewed sense of purpose without bringing about fundamental change.

When I was first working out the pattern of the cycles, I devoted a lot of attention to these shifts in worldview. I found that each one occurs at the tail end of a romantic break and sets the emotional and intellectual tone for the entire era that follows. These changes are largely independent of the interaction of the visions, which is why I eventually lost interest in them. However, I see now that in addition to their stylistic elements, they also mark the point at which the two youngest visions start to impinge on public consciousness.

One such transition occurred between 1951 and 1956 and established the distinctive style of the late 20th century. In those years, ecology was first popularized by Rachel Carson’s bestseller The Sea Around Us (1951), while the modern civil rights movement got under way with Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56).

That was also when Baby Boomer culture was born. Television took over the American living room, rock ‘n’ roll burst onto the airwaves, transistor radios were introduced, and blue jeans and t-shirts became a standard youth uniform.

But although the 1950s linger in the cultural memory as a Golden Age, they were also a time of oppressive complacency and conformity. Dissent was either mocked or demonized and real change remained impossible until the next crisis hit in the early 1960s.

A similar pattern of encouraging but superficial changes can be seen in the mid-to-late 1990s. The internet was altering generational attitudes much as television had 45 years earlier. It was the heyday of the tech bubble and of economic good times that were expected to go on forever. But at the same time, serious discontent was being suppressed and financial deregulation and welfare reform were destroying the ability of the system to respond flexibly to the next disaster.

So now we find ourselves in one more period of crisis. Existing institutions are crumbling. Radical solutions are being proposed and sometimes even adopted. But in many ways we’re only at the start, and we have a long stretch of accelerating collapse ahead of us before we come out the other side.

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