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Love in the Land of the Free

by Mary Eberstadt
Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America, by Paul Hollander (Ivan R. Dee, 264 pp., $27.95)

Here’s something genuinely new under the summer sun: a book that can be enjoyed simultaneously by anyone with an interest in modern sociology — and by anyone who has ever read or placed a personals ad. Put differently, it’s a book for everyone interested in understanding how, and why, the pursuit of love and sex today differs so radically from what came before.

The author, sociologist Paul Hollander, is hitherto best known for an academic résumé that includes the London School of Economics, the University of Illinois, Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; and 14 books and many articles on sociological and historical subjects. His fearless and erudite writing during the Cold War about the seduction of so many Western intellectuals made him a hero in all the right precincts, and a well-deserved scourge in all the wrong ones. As Jay Nordlinger noted in these pages almost ten years ago, on the occasion of Hollander’s Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist, he is “an idea man, a logic man,” one who “has always been underrated, or perhaps underadvertised.”

Now Hollander brings his powers to bear on the one and only area of life where more lies are told even than under Communism: namely, matters of the heart. He boldly imports Emile Durkheim — along with heirs such as Christopher Lasch and Robert Nisbet — to the hitherto virgin territory of love, contemporary American–style. In so doing he exposes without flinching the contradictions of today’s pursuit of romantic happiness. Readers cannot help but enjoy Hollander’s reflections, as he surveys sources as disparate as pop sociologists, real sociologists, and classical European romantic novels — and engages in what has to be the closest examination ever of personals ads by anyone not scanning them for the obvious reason.

Different though this turf may be from that of Hollander’s previous books, Extravagant Expectations is nevertheless a logical outcome of the author’s fascination with the varieties of deception and self-deception, particularly in his adopted homeland of America (he hails from Budapest). “Loneliness,” he observes, “is a modern idea and state of mind. I have been well aware that there are many lonely people in America, along with a bewildering array of efforts devised, or improvised, to alleviate loneliness.” What intrigues him, he writes, is the seeming paradox between romantic expectations and romantic reality — particularly in a country founded in part on the radical notion of the pursuit of happiness itself. “Clearly,” he observes, “idealistic and benign socio-political intentions and arrangements have been compatible with a great deal of individual unhappiness.” It is this paradox that spurred his current book.

Why that dramatic contemporary gap between romantic expectation and romantic reality? One force, the author argues, is the blurring of the line between the marketplace for goods and the marketplace for people — what might infelicitously be called (by me, not by him) the consumerization of romance. “Both printed personals and Internet dating services,” he notes, “are emblematic of modern consumer society: They offer a bewildering abundance and variety of choice, raise questions about the truthfulness of claims made on behalf of the ‘products’ or ‘services’ offered, and stoke the expectations of potential consumers.” Accustomed to chronically shopping for stuff, many Americans unthinkingly take the next step and shop for people.

Hollander is surely correct in observing that the language of the marketplace, of selling oneself, has come to litter modern love — even in precincts whose inhabitants consider themselves to be free of any taint of commerce, such as that of the readers of and personals advertisers in The New York Review of Books. Noting how often women describe themselves as “stunning,” “attractive,” “very attractive,” and so on, for example, Hollander asks: “How many ‘stunning’ women such as those described . . . could be out there awaiting eager partners?” Such is not to focus unfairly on women; “men too,” he notes with the dry wit frequently on display in the book, “are capable of implausible self-presentations.” Again, to judge by the personals ads, there is apparently no shortage of men who are well-off, sensitive, thoughtful, handsome, adventurous, sophisticated, and otherwise the answer to many a single woman’s prayers — though there is also, as is proven by the ads’ existence, an inexplicable system-wide failure of such women to have recognized these stupendous gifts in real life.

Hollander believes that there is something peculiarly American about the “extravagant expectations” of those and other souls. In a particularly fascinating passage comparing ads in The New York Review of Books with their counterparts in the London Review of Books, he depicts the contrast between the societies as mirrored in their personals ads. Unlike the Americans, he observes, the Brits aren’t even trying to sell themselves — at least not in the same way; there, irony and self-deprecation rule instead. Witness as exemplary, “Bald, short, fat, and ugly male, 53, seeks shortsighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.”

How did Americans come to this difficult romantic pass? Modernity, observes Hollander alongside his fellow sociologists, has frayed the bonds that once joined individuals to clan and communities quite beyond any ability to knit them back together. One consequence has been an increased reliance on the bonds to others that do remain in the hands of modern men and women — primarily, romantic bonds. And so romantic love is made to pull more weight than it ever had to before, or indeed than wiser souls ever would have assigned it. “Modernity,” summarizes the author, “intensifies expectations and the quest for intimate relationships which, it is hoped, will compensate for the loss of community and a stable worldview.”

These are wise words, and similar insights abound in these pages. Yet while Hollander’s book exhibits the boldness of applying modern sociology to an area of life left largely untouched by it before, it also demonstrates some of the limits of that approach. The problem with Durkheim and the rest of the distinguished pack is not that they are insufficiently broad. It is rather that they are all too much so. In particular, the sociological lens is insufficient to distinguish clearly between the two largest armies clashing by night in all those ads and Internet lists: men on one hand, and women on the other.

To understand the way we live now is to see, yes, that modernity has shredded the ties that once bound us to one another. But it is also to see that that shredding has been different for the different sexes. Consider those selfsame personals ads, through which sex differences come loud and clear. It is almost always men, and almost never women, who advertise for an emotionally neutral sexual relationship. It is almost always women, and almost never men, who stress the desirability of financial security in a partner. Women sometimes mention families; men, not so much. And so on into every cliché ever penned on the subject, “post-feminist” age or no.

The enduring truth of two different sexual natures makes one wonder whether the fundamental force behind today’s often bewildering mating game is not so much the disparity between commercial and romantic life — though Hollander is surely right in drawing attention to that fascinating paradox. Perhaps there is a more prosaic force that has loosed a thousand untold consequences on the world, including perhaps some of the loneliness charted in this book: the Sexual Revolution.

As the author notes, for example, aging is particularly hard in an America that is youth-obsessed and exposed ubiquitously to “standardized beauty” — a sound phrase covering everything from commercials for cosmetics to Internet pornography. But, one is forced by the example to wonder, is it equally hard for all people? Are women who are surrounded by children and grandchildren in middle and old age as likely to feel lonely and shut out as some other women — namely, those who bought the revolution’s promises and ultimately denied themselves the rewards of family; and who are now aging coquettes embittered by their competitive disadvantages against any woman years or decades younger?

The questions seem to answer themselves. It is no doubt true, as Durkheim observed, that (in Hollander’s paraphrase) “the rise of expectations is integral to having choices and options,” and that having too many choices runs the risk of enervating the consumer, whether one is hunting for laundry soap in Walmart or for a foot fetishist on Craigslist. But is it indeed the mere fact of so much choice that overwhelms the modern romantic mind — or is it rather that so many adults have bought the revolution’s lie that their natures are interchangeable, effectively making an ignorant army of both sides in the battle of the sexes?

In sum, it may be the Sexual Revolution — its seismic severing of human nature from human nurture — that best explains the “increasing amount of confusion and conflicting desires and preferences” that Hollander correctly ascertains. Surely submitting this addendum to his fascinating account will be taken as a friendly amendment. In the end, he is among the few lately to have looked into the tea leaves of modern romance and found something new to say. He has said it, moreover, with a fresh eye, new insights, and a humane and at times even humorous heart. Fans of his previous work will not be surprised by having their high expectations met. But they will be pleased to see that this latest book is not only informative and interesting, but also entertaining as real sociology rarely is — in all, an extravagant accomplishment.

– Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author, most recently, of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.

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