Manti and the mating game
As we wring our hands over the impulsive hookups and Internet hoaxes of modern romance, let us pause a moment and travel back to the days long before text messages, Photoshop and all other manner of digital bedlam. Let us return to a halcyon world of agrarian ways and contemplate the unflustered situation of a fertile lass on the cusp of womanhood centuries ago.
What options she had! They were culled from the burg she lived in and maybe from the next village over, so that her total population of potential suitors — men in an acceptable age range, with discernible pulses and a majority of their limbs — was five if she was lucky, three if the burg had just emerged from a period of savage smallpox. And while her eye might be drawn to the lad with the least rotted teeth, Ma and Pa knew better, not so much nudging as commanding her toward the one whose family had the most livestock. They understood that meat, not mirth, would sustain her and her brood over the harsh winters to come, and that love meant never having to say you’re hungry.
Are we really worse off now? In the annals of mating, are the straits we’re in so dire?
From the commentary about Manti Te’o and from the angst vented in news reports and on blogs, you certainly get that sense. “The End of Courtship?” lamented a recent headline in The Times; the story with it traced the waning of wining and dining, the triumph of Facebook updates over face-to-face heart-to-hearts. Apparently the avenues by which lusty millennials come to grope and perchance know one another are brusque, confused and rife with deception, and probably aren’t reliable precursors to unions of enduring bliss.
Which is to say: They’re as imperfect as they’ve always been. While we Homo sapiens have paired off in diverse methods across disparate epochs, we’ve seldom done it with ample information or any particular finesse. There was no saner, better yesteryear: just a different set of customs, a different brand of clumsiness.
And where there’s sex, there’s subterfuge, a truism that runs from “Cyrano de Bergerac” through “The Crying Game.” It’s what the makers of Spanx depend on and the peddlers of Botox profit from. All is fair in love and the eradication of unwanted bulges and creases.
True, cyberspace and smartphones have ushered in such present-day distinctions as the fully fictional avatar, the wholly disembodied relationship and the instantaneously arranged mashing of genitals. But illusion, assumption and haste have had starring roles in our amorous escapades before.
Think about war brides and wartime romances, about couples from the greatest generation who met just before D-Day or traded glances at the USO and then did their tortured wooing almost entirely by post. What they took wasn’t an accurate measure of each other but a leap of faith.
And as vessels of self-revelation, were letters much more trustworthy than tweets? Couldn’t their authors labor mightily over the flaunting of an invented wisdom, the flashing of a borrowed wit? Beth Bailey, a historian at Temple University, told me that during the 19th century, when such missives were considered “an essential way to get to know people,” there were how-to books that provided not only letter-writing templates but also “phrases for how to communicate your true self.”
Until the dawn of cars and greater mobility, there wasn’t dating as we came to understand it; there were visits on porches and in parlors, often under the intrusive gazes of nattering relatives. “It was very limiting,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.
And there weren’t all that many visits, either. Cherlin said that a person back then might meet his or her spouse just 10 times before marrying, and that this minimal contact enabled you to “present yourself much differently than you will later on.”
In the 1950s, with its drive-in diners and back-seat fumbling, teenagers in lust finally had quality time away from meddlesome parents, going off to sock hops and going steady. But the choreographed roles they played and the chauvinistic rituals they obeyed didn’t necessarily tease out someone’s real personality and definitely didn’t give young women anything approaching full autonomy.
There’s no ideal stratagem for figuring out whom any one of us should be with and how to chart a course to that person, no fail-safe process for determining whether a twosome will endure. The act of getting together, whether brokered by yenta or Yahoo, is one of willed credulousness and wishful thinking as much as anything else, the triumph of optimism over morning breath.
And it’s a wager, because people have hidden layers, hidden intentions. Your beloved could switch political parties. Your hookup could insist on a soundtrack of Celine Dion. Not knowing what’s in store is the very soul of romance: what makes it so scary, and what makes it so thrilling.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.