Since the beginning of the postmodern era after World War II, culture has increasingly been oriented toward youth. One of the defining experiences of my own youth back in the fifties, to which I have already alluded a few times too many, was the sudden shift from a popular culture for young adults, as exemplified by Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, to the Rock’n’Roll world directed at adolescents. My generation will be the last to have known a world without Elvis.
But from my present vantage point, the difference between 15 and 25 is no longer terribly significant. As I continue to teach literature, I am forced to recognize that the principals are no longer in my age-group. The typical protagonist of a novel is a young man or woman entering the world. Novels are stories of Bildung, what ritual culture would call initiation. The idea is to live happily ever after by reproducing the species, or as the French say, ils vécurent heureux et ils eurent beaucoup d’enfants. If, as in most French novels, things don’t turn out this way, the failure of initiation is in principle decided well before senior citizen time. Even Frédéric Moreau at the end of Flaubert‘s L’éducation sentimentale is only in his forties. Tragedy had lots of old men, from Oedipus at Colonus to King Lear, but the novel has few in major roles. Most novels are love stories, and romance is for the young. As for lyric poetry, n’en parlons pas.
Today, old people are presumed to have forgotten what it means to be young, whereas in the old days, the passage beyond the age of cultural initiation signaled that one had solved the problems of youth and could serve as a resource for those still at grips with them. Yet in my own experience, aging is neither the forgetting nor the transcending of youth. Life itself is youthfulness; while one still functions, one is always an aging adolescent, moving toward the ever-withdrawing horizon of maturity. What we call maturity in older people is the paradoxical state of having realized, as young people cannot, that the state of maturity does not exist, that one is forever in a state of maturation.
In a number of previous columns ( No. 56: Love and Transcendence; No. 31: Love and Sexual Difference; No. 28: Public Resentment, Private Love; No. 20: Toujours l’amour; No. 19: Amo quia absurdum; No. 6: Resentment and Love; etc.), I have developed a theory of love as tenderness, as mutual caring for each other’s vulnerability. But one might reproach this model its lack of connection with the socio-cultural function of love in the reproduction of the species. Any phenomenon we examine as generative anthropologists must be understood in terms of a minimal model of the human. No doubt, as I have proposed, love of the other has its cultural basis in the peripheral subject’s attraction toward and identification with the central victim. But it is reproduction that privileges the other of sexual attraction in this role.
Men and women are minimally differentiated by the latter’s capacity to experience the internal otherness of childbearing. This difference implies an asymmetry in the couple’s mutual tenderness. Because the woman pays the biological price for sexuality, it is her vulnerability that is given priority, both in the social context (“Women and children first”) and in the intimacy of the love-relationship. When François Villon speaks of the inevitable decay of the corps féminin qui tant est tendre, it is unclear whether he is speaking of a woman’s body or of his own: tenderness and femininity are inseparable. Through the phenomenon of love, the mother’s biological nurturing of the internal other is extended into a reciprocal cultural interaction. As we saw in last week’s column, the very possession of a mortal body makes man as well as woman a vulnerable creature who can benefit from tenderness.In simple Darwinian terms, the adaptive value of the love-relation–as of anything else–is measured by reproductive fitness; the more the man’s tenderness assimilates the woman’s vulnerability to that of the originary victim, the more he will invest in his relationship with her and the more their offspring will benefit from this investment. Much anthropological literature has been concerned with explaining the origin of this phenomenon, to which the late encephalization of the human fetus gives its species-specific raison-d’être.
The point is this: because nothing is more central to the emergence of humanity than the extended parental care without which our big brains could never have developed, human evolution in its crucial phase must have been driven by females’ differential strategies for attracting male care. Aside from what in these times one hesitates to speak of as the esthetic of the female body, the most significant of these is woman’s unique perpetual sexual availability without indication of ovulation. Under these conditions, the male can only insure reproductive success by remaining with the female throughout the month and, presumably, helping provide protection and life support for her children whether or not genetically his own.
Some have sought to explain the origin of the linguistic sign in woman’s need to induce and maintain male presence; I have promised to deal with these theories in a future column. For the moment, I shall continue to assume the validity of the male-aggression version of the originary hypothesis–noting that the hypothesis in the general sense is independent of the specific scenario we construct. The question then is how the assimilation of the female Other to the central Being of the scene might have come about.
In a presumably all-male originary scene, the special prestige of the sacred would not be specifically associated with heterosexual attraction. (Similarly, the first self-conscious idea of love, as elaborated in Plato‘s Symposium, was between men; in order to become aware of itself, culture must oppose itself to biology.) But only what Freud called the overestimation of the [hetero]sexual object is clearly a cultural trait conducive to reproductive fitness. Although any object of desire may occupy the scenic center, and we may love another person, an animal or even an object to which we can attribute imaginary personhood, heterosexual love owes to its conjunction with human biology its role as the model for all other love relationships.
The Other always faces me as the vulnerable image of my own mortality. But it is when the Other’s vulnerability is enhanced by the female capacity for internal otherness (and its prolongation in the child-rearing process) that the tenderness-love provoked by this image is most useful for the species. The bottom line is that whatever either our genetic predispositions or the demands of our specific culture, we are culturally predisposed toward heterosexual love. Toward young heterosexual love. Loving old couples are touching, but it is young love that sets the mimetic juices flowing. The old desire as well as the young, but our desires are no longer culturally significant. A good reason for us to stay home from rock concerts and work on our generative anthropology.