Paul Hollander, who has previously studied evil, now sets his focus on modern love, or at least the self-centered self-delusion that sometimes passes for love. Our expectations are too high, too unrealistic, he concludes, in the new book Extravagant Expectations: New Ways To Find Romantic Love In America. He talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about what he found when he started reading the personals.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: “Throughout my life and scholarly career I have been interested in — indeed morbidly fascinated by — the conflict between illusion and reality, the apparent and the real. Not surprisingly, this interest has also been linked to the phenomenon of deception and self-deception, both at the individual and the collective (or institutional) levels.” And that led you to write a book on personals ads?
Paul Hollander: As I wrote in the preface, romantic love also involves a combination of illusion and reality (sometimes self-deception) since the love object is idealized — especially in the early phases of the relationship. This interest by itself didn’t lead me to write this book but it contributed to my interest in writing it.
As I also discussed in the preface, the most direct stimulant to writing this book were the “personals” in The New York Review of Books, about which I wrote an article several years ago. I called this interest “morbid” humorously — implying that my reading these ads was a bit like a bad habit, because they are really not worth reading except for sociological or social-psychological purposes. They are extremely repetitive and predictable.
A further incentive to writing this book was my discovery of an anthology of “personals” published in The London Review of Books with a short introduction. I felt that if there was a market for an anthology, then an analysis of the whole phenomenon (including Internet personals) would also be of interest, and my publisher agreed.
Lopez: “Romantic relationships promise the dramatic alleviation of loneliness while gratifying the individualistic desire for self-fulfillment.” Why is this an important point, especially in an American context?
Hollander: Loneliness or social isolation is a major problem in modern societies, especially the American; therefore it is understandable that romantic relationships are considered a solution of the problem.
The preoccupation with self-fulfillment is another characteristic of American society — that is to say, preoccupation with the self, its presumed uniqueness and numerous needs which demand gratification. To be sure, romantic love is not the only source of self-fulfillment.
Lopez: How does “the gratification of romantic impulses face obstacles”? Doesn’t it always? Shouldn’t it, on some level, in a civilized society?
Hollander: Romantic love has always been associated with some obstacles to be overcome — physical or social distance, social-cultural norms which regulate and restrict the expression of emotional and sexual needs and impulses. Sometimes romantic yearnings are intensified by the “forbidden fruit” aspect — as in a secretive, adulterous relationship depicted in the novel Madame Bovary, or in Goethe’s Werther, who falls in love with a woman who is already engaged and has no interest in breaking her engagement.
Lopez: Why did you find personals in The New York Review of Books so fascinating? That’s a limited, elite, mostly liberal look at the dating world.
Hollander: True enough, the people who advertise their availability in the NYR of B are mostly liberal, middle-aged, or older (many of them academics) — an elite group — but they personify certain trends and values which are influential outside their circles as well.
I found these notices fascinating because they struck me as eloquent and likely misrepresentations of reality, as well as contradictory. (My typical reaction was: If such people exist they would not have to advertise.)
For example, in these ads women of ostensibly feminist persuasion begin with a description of their good looks and fine body parts before moving on to their impressive intellect, abundant spiritual resources, and other attractions
There is a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) bragging in these personals that goes with people trying to sell themselves in what seems to be a highly competitive market.
Another contradiction appears in the highly standardized recurring ideals, aspirations, and personal attributes of people who think of themselves as unique individuals.
I also found these personals interesting because they so clearly mirror certain social-cultural values which can be traced to the Sixties.
Lopez: How is online dating different?
Hollander: I examined only one major online-dating site, match.com, therefore my generalizations have a limited basis. It seems to me that the authors of the online messages I read did not display the kind of illusions — and pretensions — about themselves the authors of many NY Review of Books personals entertained.
Personals in the Harvard and Yale alumni magazines were very similar to those in the NY R of B.
In turn, personals in The Village Voice were different because of their brevity and frequent reference to sex.
I had the impression that aspiring online daters were somewhat more realistic about themselves. They were also constrained by the format: They were expected to provide certain information about themselves.
There is certainly room for a major comparative study of different online-dating sites and their clients.
Lopez: How is online dating different in Massachusetts, Nebraska, Alabama, and California?
Hollander: Again, this is based only on match.com.
The notices reflected familiar social-political attitudes and preoccupations we associate with these states and the regions where they are located. People in Massachusetts and California were more liberal, less traditional, less religious, and more of them went to college and graduate school than those in Alabama or Nebraska.
The smallest proportion of respondents interested in long-term relationships were the Californians. There was more interest in romantic relationships in Alabama than in the other three states.
Religious compatibility was required by far more people in Alabama and Nebraska than in Massachusetts and California. “Spiritual but not religious” was an attitude most popular with Californians.