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♪ The Nature of Love in the Work of Leonard Cohen
by Jiří Měsíc

What is love according to Leonard Cohen?

“It is in love that we are made; / In love we disappear,” Leonard Cohen sings after having been abandoned by the “Crown of Light, O Darkened One” with whom he experienced a momentary union (“Boogie Street”). Love is seen as a force which chooses the singer to serve it (“Love Calls You by Your Name”); it is a scorching power in which he extinguishes [End Page 1] his existence (“Dance Me to the End of Love”); a purely divine phenomenon which unites both masculine and feminine forces inside him (“Joan of Arc”) and gives meaning to his earthly existence (“There Ain’t No Cure for Love”). “Love Itself” is seen as the light coming “through the window, / straight from the sun above,” a kind of transforming power that opens the door towards the Divine (“Love Itself”).

In an almost liturgical language, as we shall see, Cohen describes the receiving of love through prayer, repentance, and bodily pleasures. Yet he is also afraid of love, as he sings in a cover version of Frederick Knight’s “Be for Real,” “I don’t want to be hurt by love again.” Moreover, Cohen presents himself as a slave to both Divine and Human love, a man who continuously fails in his faithfulness to each. His work propounds that the profane does not exclude the sacred in the language of love and that the human body, and lust for it, may anticipate the attainment of Divine love (“Light as the Breeze”).

Divine Love and Mysticism

In the song “Love Calls You by Your Name,” the singer implies that love arrives when one is between two unspecified states: “But here, right here, / between the birthmark and the stain, / between the ocean and your open vein, / between the snowman and the rain, / once again, once again, / love calls you by your name.” According to him, love is a force that is revealed neither when one is alive or dead. It is somewhere between, in the liminal space, on the margins of daily life. One receives it in loneliness when “you stumble into this movie house, / then you climb, you climb into the frame.” It appears when we are able to leave the human existence behind, or when we are capable to forget our self and let the soul escape into some “other frame.” Then love comes and calls us by our “name,” which means not only that it recognizes us, but also that it recognizes us as worthy of love.

Here one may ask, but where is the other person to give and accept love? Cohen does not portray love in such a way. To Cohen, love is not limited to the relationship between two partners. Indeed, in the very same song, he sings that he has to leave the woman for some other kind of love: “I leave the lady meditating on the very love which I, I do not wish to claim.” He even describes the “bandage,” the symbol of healing, loosening and calls: “Where are you, Judy, where are you, Anne?” which sounds as if he was trying to address the women who had hurt him and who can no longer hold him back from his thirst for the spiritual form of love. (This is one of the reasons for ending the relationship with Marianne Ihlen, described in the song “So Long, Marianne”).[1] However, the song “Love Calls You by Your Name” suggests that the physical love prepares the singer for the attainment of the Divine love. The chorus then reveals that this attainment is temporary and that the whole experience will repeat and thus prove its cyclical nature: “Once again, once again, / Love calls you by your name.”

Throughout Cohen’s work, the word “name” signifies earthly human existence. (It is distinct, therefore, from “The Name,” which is a traditional Jewish term for G-d.) As in many Biblical stories, from Abram / Abraham and Sarai / Sarah onward, a change of name in Cohen’s work thus implies a change of self, a new existence, and perhaps therefore a new relationship to love, both human and divine. In the song “Lover, Lover, Lover,” for example, Cohen presents a dialogue between himself and the Father G-d in a variety of religious and [End Page 2] mystical idioms, in this case with both Biblical and Islamic (Sufi) references, and much of their conversation concerns the singer’s history and future as one who loves and is loved.

The first verses of the song go: “I asked my father, / I said, ‘Father change my name.’” As the subsequent lyrics reveal, in order to have his “name” changed, the singer has to overcome his bodily desires and the “filth and cowardice and shame” that they have brought him. This is corroborated by the Father G-d responding to the singer: “I locked you in this body, / I meant it as a kind of trial” (“Lover, Lover, Lover”). Understanding this, we see that Cohen’s plea for the new name is, in reality, a plea for letting his soul escape and return to the Father G-d. Sufi teaching refers to this version of repentance as tawba, which entails regretting of the past sins and the return to G-d and to that which is inherently good (cf. Khalil). As Sylvie Simmons attests, Cohen studied the Sufi poet Rūmī (303), and the use of “lover” in this song’s chorus to name both G-d and the human singer, each of whom sings “lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover come back to me” to the other, echoes Sufi thought. Although the Sufis in general distinguish between the lover and his Beloved―the lover is a human being, Beloved represents G-d— this dichotomy is to be overcome once the lover and the Beloved become one. The repetition of “lover” in this song invokes this overcoming of the dichotomy, and the rhythmic, incantatory quality of this refrain, when sung by Cohen, recalls the chanting of “La ilaha ilallah,”[2] one of the creeds of Islam, just as the ecstatic music of the song resembles the musical accompaniment for sama, the ritual ceremony during which the Sufis of the Mevlevi order perform their whirling dance. The dance results not only in the re-enactment the death of their ego and rebirth, but also in the attainment of Divine love and wisdom through the union with the Creator on the vertical axis spanning between the Earth and Heavens (cf. Friedlander). (On a more Judaic note, the seven-times repeated word “lover” may speak of the seven days in the creation of the world, with emphasis on love as a creative force characterising each day, and finally the seventh day celebrated as Sabbath.)

Such a union and the subsequent rebirth is also portrayed in another song, this time using Christian imagery: “Joan of Arc.” The song insinuates that the soul qualifies itself to accept divine love only after the trial period of unfulfilled longing and solitude. The soul is portrayed as a lonely “bride” represented by the character of Joan of Arc, while G-d is the bridegroom represented by the “flame” pursuing her.[3] In a poem from the collection The Energy of Slaves, Cohen acknowledges that he is “the ghost of Joan of Arc” (32), and hints at the possibility that the soul described is his own. In addition, on the back cover of his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, there is a picture of her engulfed in flames. Ira Nadel says that Cohen found this picture as a postcard in a Mexican magic store and felt that he was this woman looking for an escape from “the chains of materiality” (154-155). The Christian concept of anima sola, a soul burning in purgatory and waiting for salvation is quite apt for this description. Therefore, the song portrays a purifying annihilation in the arms of the Lord represented by the flame. [End Page 3]

Image of the head, arms, and shoulders of a naked woman with brown hair surrounded by red and orange flames. Her wrists have chains around them.

Anima Sola, Prayer Card. Public domain.

Joan of Arc, the soul, is tired of the war; in other words, she is tired of living a solitary life seen as a kind of warfare against love and her body because she is a virgin. Now she is longing for “a wedding dress or something white / to wear upon [her] swollen appetite.” Her solitude and pride are to be abandoned before she will be consumed by love and born once again.

However, Cohen does not rely only on Biblical and Islamic symbolism in order to portray the soul’s purification process. In the song “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” we may see how Jewish symbolism collides with Cohen’s Zen practice and other mythical motifs. As Ira Nadel points out, the journey which the cowboy undertakes to find his mare follows to some extent an old Chinese text, “Ten-Ox Herding Pictures” (225-226), which illustrates ten stages of Zen practice.[4] In this song, then, the soul is not a woman longing for purification nor a man longing to return to his Lover / Father G-d, but rather a mare pursued by a cowboy: a spiritual seeker looking for an elusive, redeeming Beloved who is ultimately an aspect of himself.

As in the traditional Ox-herding narrative, the seeker in Cohen’s poem is an Everyman trying to attain enlightenment—a completion of self that is also, paradoxically, a loss of self—through taming the animal. For us, the most important of the series is the eighth picture in which the tamer and the bull both disappear in their union. Yet Cohen changes the narrative, both in its imagery and in its plot. First, he turns the image of a masculine bull into a mare: a shift that does as much to Westernize the parable—the soul is represented as feminine in most Western traditions—as his displacement of the story to an idyllic American setting. Having made these shifts, Cohen can retell the “Ten-Ox” story as though it were a love story. Unlike the first picture in the “Ten-Ox” series, in which the bull is wandering the plains and cannot be tamed, Cohen signals that the cowboy once kept the mare close to him and is about to depart to find her again.

As the song begins, the cowboy is injured, and his loss makes him solitary and repenting: a motif familiar from the songs I have discussed so far. Then, suddenly, the mare grows tamer, standing “there where the light and the darkness divide” (“Ballad of the Absent Mare”). This liminal space recalls those listed in “Love Calls You by Your Name,” but with this difference: where Cohen once again speaks about the threshold between the life and death, [End Page 4] he does so here by invoking Biblical imagery, specifically from the creation story in Genesis, as though we had returned to a moment outside of space and time. This biblical echo is reinforced by Cohen’s having the cowboy quote from the Book of Ruth to declare his love for the mare. “He leans on her neck / And he whispers low, / ‘Whither thou goest / I will go’” (KJV, Ruth 1:16). Unlike Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law Naomi, however—and very much in keeping with Buddhist teaching―the singer indicates that this union will be impermanent, which is one of his most consistent statements:

Now the clasp of this union
who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
the very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare (“Ballad of the Absent Mare”)

We do not know whether the union will be broken by the cowboy or the mare, but we know that, as the Zen series portrays, the rupture begins a new circle in which the cowboy will once again be alone, and the initiatory experience of the annihilation / rebirth of the soul will repeat.

In another song that fuses Biblical and Zen imagery, “Love Itself,” Cohen explores in close detail the experience of solitude as a necessary means to attain Divine union. After his return from the Zen Monastery in 2001 he commented that this song portrays a “rare experience of dissolution of self”:

I was sitting in a sunny room, watching the motes of dust, and accepted their graceful invitation to join in their activity and forget who I was, or remember who I was. It’s that rare experience of dissolution of self, not the careful examination of self that I usually work with. I played it for a couple of brother monks and sister nuns and they said it was better than sesshin—a seven-day session of intense meditation (rpt. in Burger 484).

In the lyrics, an entity Cohen calls “Love Itself” comes unexpectedly and is compared to light. “Rays of love” enter the singer’s “little room,” which implies, with regard to Cohen’s output, one’s heart. The light coming into this room makes little particles of dust visible and, in a moment of enlightenment, the singer sees them dancing in the air. Out of this dust, he sings, “the Nameless makes / A Name for one like me,” which implies that love resurrects him from “the dust”—recreates him as in the biblical story of Adam’s creation (cf. Genesis 2:7)—and thus gives meaning to his existence. In a more peaceful version of the scenes described in “Love Calls You by Your Name,” the singer becomes realised in such a love, so that love may call him by his “real” name. As in the “Ballad of the Absent Mare,” this recreating of love is an initiatory experience which lasts for a while and then disappears. “I’ll try to say a little more,” the song concludes: “Love went on and on / Until it reached an open door – / Then Love Itself / Love Itself was gone.”[5]

The album on which “Love Itself” appears, Ten New Songs (2001), returns to this Zen experience and the momentary union described above, often giving them a more Cabbalistic touch. In the first verses of the song, “Boogie Street,” for example, Cohen sings: “O Crown of [End Page 5] Light, O Darkened One, / I never thought we’d meet. / You kiss my lips, / and then it’s done: I’m back on Boogie Street.” In his commentary on the song, Eliot Wolfson assumes that the singer depicts a state after being unexpectedly struck by “the primordial light so bright that it glistens in the radiance of its darkness” (135). This certainly carries connotations of the revelation of light in Kabbalah, which springs out from its hiding place and is only to be seen thanks to its “concealing and clothing itself” (Cordovero, qtd. in Matt 91), just as Cohen’s names for the divine here—“Crown of Light, O Darkened One”―call to mind the highest Sefirah in the Kabbalistic system: Keter or Crown, the infinite, boundless or Ein Sof. Each verse of the song offers an initiatory and ephemeral experience of love taking place outside the ordinary world, and each returns the speaker to that ordinary world of “Boogie Street.”

One final instance will show the complexity of Cohen’s use of Jewish, Sufi, and Christian symbolism all at once. In the song “The Window,” Cohen speaks of a spiritual journey of the soul in three stages: solitude, suffering, and the final union in which she is annihilated. “Why do you stand by the window,” the song begins:

Abandoned to beauty and pride
The thorn of the night in your bosom
The spear of the age in your side
Lost in the rages of fragrance
Lost in the rags of remorse (“The Window”).

The soul depicted is in the state between two worlds: the primordial darkness of creation and the secular world. The window symbolises the threshold between the two worlds. The fact that the soul is described as having a thorn in her bosom and “the spear of the age in [her] side” gives the song a Christian cast, as this may echo Jesus’ Crown of Thorns and the spear of the Roman soldier piercing the side of Christ. Yet the soul is further described as “lost in the rages of fragrance,” which calls to mind the Havdalah Ceremony performed in the end of the Sabbath, during which observant Jews smell fragrant spices in remembrance of the departing Sabbath Spirit. In this imagery the soul would seem to be suffering from the loss of the Sabbath’s peace and the extra Sabbath soul called Neshamah yeteirah—although this perhaps also recalls Christ’s sense of being abandoned by the Divine when dying on the Cross (cf. Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). In both cases, we can see the song as describing the return of the soul to the body as something painful and difficult.

The singer then pleads for Love the Saviour to come and gentle this suffering soul, but Love, too, is described in bewildering series of ways:

O chosen love, O frozen love
O tangle of matter and ghost.
O darling of angels, demons and saints
and the whole broken-hearted host—
Gentle this soul (“The Window”).

First, Love the Saviour is portrayed as “frozen love” which means that his love is constant and unchanging—but “frozen” also suggests something cold, or at least not yet flowing. He is also described as “a tangle of matter and ghost,” which could be transcribed as “a tangle of the flesh and soul,” which points to the fact that the singer is a human being harbouring [End Page 6] the Divine soul—but also suggests Christ (born of matter and the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost). “The whole-broken hearted host” likewise stands for the “host” in the Eucharist, Christ, but also all of those who suffer, since G-d is said to be close to those who have a broken heart (Psalm 34:18).

The following stanza (which includes some of Cohen’s alternate lines, discussed below) is an invocation for the soul’s ascent from the bodily confinement, which enables it a more advanced form of existence:

And come forth from the cloud of unknowing
and kiss the cheek of the moon;
the New Jerusalem glowing          [the code of solitude broken]
why tarry all night in the ruin?       [why tarry confused and alone?]
And leave no word of discomfort,
and leave no observer to mourn,
but climb on your tears and be silent
like a rose on its ladder of thorns (“The Window”).

The “cloud of unknowing” is a clear reference to a 14th century book of Christian mysticism called The Cloud of Unknowing. The book is, in reality, a manual for a young adept who embarks on a spiritual journey. Entering the cloud means to lose any notion of one’s self and sensory perceptions. Only in this state caused by deep meditation and prayer one may leave the notion of one’s self behind and allow the soul to depart from its body.

The phrase “kiss the cheek of the moon” seems to be referring to the ascent and union with the lunar / feminine power. Here, it is apt to mention the masculine and feminine qualities of the G-dhead. Jewish, Christian, and even Islamic mysticism in general speaks about the nature of G-d as both masculine and feminine.[6] Without going deeper into these issues, one may simply state that G-d is not dual but its nature is masculine and feminine at once, at least to the mystic poets.

“The New Jerusalem glowing” symbolises the union of the soul with the Lord and its complete annihilation and rebirth. The reference could also imply that this “New Jerusalem” is the fulfilment of the covenant that manifests itself in one’s heart. The “Book of Revelation” says: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from G-d out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (NLT 21:2). Therefore, this “Jerusalem” might stand for a purified soul that is to descend back to the Earth into the human body.

In a complementary verse appearing in Cohen’s Stranger Music collection, the “New Jerusalem” is exchanged for the word “solitude,” which means that the solitude such as that lived by “Joan of Arc” is to be abandoned in order that love may be attained (299).

The soul is urged to climb on its suffering like a rose which climbs on its thorns before it blooms.[7] The “thorn” in the poem epitomizes human experience which, actually paves the way for the higher ascent and the appearance of the bloom. The “rose” symbolism in Christianity represents the drops of Christ’s blood during his ascent to the cross. Its contemporary notion stands obviously for passion and the fire of love. However, most importantly, it stands for life and death as it implies annihilation in love and rebirth. The descent of the soul is described as its rebirth in the body: “the word being made into flesh.” [End Page 7]

Then lay your rose on the fire;
the fire give up to the sun;
the sun give over to splendour
in the arms of the High Holy One
For the holy one dreams of a letter,
dreams of a letter’s death—
oh bless the continuous stutter
of the word being made into flesh (“The Window”).

In order for the rose / soul to bloom, she must pass through the period of solitude and longing and give herself to the fire, as in the song “Joan of Arc.” Therefore, the whole song might be seen as the instruction to the soul not to linger in the worldly realm but to ascend into the arms of the High Holy One, which echoes Kabbalah. The rest of the stanza indicates that the purified soul will be returned back into the flesh. That is why “the continuous stutter” is mentioned. This process is never ending because love triggers continuous rebirth, even as each individual instance of rebirth (each syllable in the stutter) also ends at some point.

Rūmī, the medieval Sufi mystic whom Cohen studied (Simmons 303), comments on the continuous rebirth by saying:

In the slaughter house of love, they kill
only the best, none of the weak or deformed.
Don’t run away from this dying.
Whoever’s not killed for love is dead meat (trans. Barks 270).

In other words, love and the willingness to “die” in love is the prerogative of “the best,” the elect, not of “the weak or deformed.” The Sufis encourage us to be part of this elect: to die for love and thus strive to have our souls purified. Cohen’s songs show this aspiration put into action.

In the above analysis of a few songs lyrics we have seen how Cohen portrays the union with G-d through various religious systems and how he uses symbolism coming from these religions in order to describe this divine phenomenon, which is not normally to be expressed in words but revealed to the initiates in sacred rites. Such is the case with the attainment of the new name, which, every time after being bestowed, stands for a renewed life which is one step higher than the previous existence. The next part of the essay will focus closely on the soul, its bodily sojourn, and the metaphor of its ascent through the imagery coming from the Kabbalistic and Alchemical teachings.

Kabbalah and Alchemy

Leonard Cohen has dedicated a great deal of work to portraying a man whose self and soul are divided and tormented, struggling against one another. This theme appeared in full in the book of psalms called Book of Mercy. In psalm III, Cohen offers a parable in which his [End Page 8] soul is singing against him and the effort of the self to reach that singing soul is painful and in vain:

I heard my soul singing behind a leaf, plucked the leaf, but then I heard it singing behind a veil. I tore the veil, but then I heard it singing behind a wall. I broke the wall, and I heard my soul singing against me. I built up the wall, mended the curtain, but I could not put back the leaf. I held it in my hand and I heard my soul singing mightily against me.

Although this particular psalm does not specify the soul’s complaint against the self—“this is what it is like to study without a friend,” the piece concludes—the Book of Mercy repeatedly describes vain efforts to reach the soul by our own effort and volition, rather than through the sort of patience which would prove our worthiness to receive love. Comfort and reassurance comes in those few psalms that show Cohen on more amicable terms with his suffering, willing to accept the fact that the preparation of the soul entails an almost unbearable degree of solitude and seclusion. I think here of psalm XVII, in which he addresses G-d with these words: “How strangely you prepare his soul” (referring to the loneliness before any union could take place); later in the volume, in psalm XLI, G-d responds that He is already present in the heart of the singer. “Bind me to you, I fall away. Bind me, ease of my heart, bind me to your love. […] And you say, I am in this heart, I and my name are here.” In Cohen’s theology―a synthesis of all the religious schools that Cohen studied, and perhaps one that comes out of his own experience―we see that G-d is present in the heart of the believer and to reach Him involves both self-criticism for one’s failures (“Blessed are you who speaks to the unworthy,” psalm XLI concludes) and the aspiration to be purified, the ascent of the liberated soul.

In the Sefirotic Tree, liberation is the outcome of reaching Da’at, a point in which other Sefirot unite or merge. This level allows the human soul, still perceiving itself as a soul, to receive the Divine spark and leads it to the most profound state of existence. According to Gareth Knight,

Da’at is the highest point of awareness of the human soul regarded as a soul (or in other terminologies Higher Self, Evolutionary Self, etc.) for awareness of the supernal levels can only be possible to the Spirit or Divine Spark itself. It is the gateway to what is called Nirvana in the East, and thus represents the point where a soul has reached the full stature of its evolutionary development, has attained perfect free will and can make the choice between going on to further evolution in other spheres or remaining to assist in the planetary Hierarchy (102).

In “New Jerusalem Glowing,” Eliot R. Wolfson quotes from Robert Charles Zaehner, a British scholar of Eastern religions, who describes the path of the mystic and his soul in terms of a bride who is annihilated in love of her Lord. The soul in such a state of existence is, according to Zaehner, very much aware of its “feminine” nature:

Zaehner describes the soul of the mystic in relation to the divine as the bride who passively receives from the masculine potency of God. The soul [End Page 9] recognizes its ‘essential femininity’ in relation to God, for in her receptivity, she is annihilated, which serves [. . .] as a paradigm of the mystical union whereby the autonomy of self is negated in the absorption of the soul in the oneness of being. Zaehner remarks that in this state the soul of the mystic, limited in his remarks to the male, is comparable to a ‘virgin who falls violently in love and desires nothing so much as to be ‘ravished’, ‘annihilated’, and ‘assimilated’ into the beloved (Wolfson 132).

Both of the above quotations seem relevant to the work of Cohen, who in 1974 employed an engraving from an alchemical tract called Rosarium Philosophorum (published in Frankfurt in 1550) for the cover of his album New Skin for the Old Ceremony. The tract describes the alchemical process of transmutation of the human soul and the concrete picture depicts the union between the King and his Queen, or symbolically between the seeker and his purified soul.

Stylized illustration of a male figure embracing a female figure. Both figures are winged, naked, and wearing crowns. They are positioned horizontally against a blue background.

The front cover of Cohen’s album New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Columbia, 1974). The original engraving was adapted by Teresa Alfieri.

The whole tract contains 20 engravings and an accompanying text describing the process of spiritual transformation by the means of the physical union. Milan Nakonečný, a Czech [End Page 10] scholar, claims that the act depicted aims to portray the union of opposites (coniunctio oppositorum) on the physical and also spiritual planes (152), but I would argue that it can also be read as depicting the return of the purified soul into the body blessed by the Holy Spirit, as in the third picture of the series, whose text reads “Spiritus est qui unificat.”

Black and white line drawing of a naked male figure on the left standing on a stylized sun facing a naked female figure on the right standing on a stylized moon. There is a bird between them, and ribbons of text coming from the moths of all three.

(See Nakonečný 159). Reprinted by permission of Vodnář Publishing House, Prague.

Paul D. MacLean, who is quoted in Nakonečný’s book, sees Rosarium philosphorum as a process in which the soul leaves the body in order to be purified, causing the body to decay, but which ultimately leads the soul back to the body: a reunion which restores harmony between the masculine and feminine divisions of a being (Nakonečný 153), reminding us of “the New Jerusalem glowing” mentioned earlier. Nakonečný compares this process to the “death” of a grain out of which develops a new ear of wheat (164);[8] he sees it portrayed in picture no. 6 of the series, in which the soul is being prepared for the leaving from the body and its subsequent return.

A black and white line drawing of a naked figure that is half male and half female lying on a platform.

(See Nakonečný 164). Reprinted by permission of Vodnář Publishing House, Prague.

[End Page 11] The return of the purified soul into its body can also be seen in picture no. 10, described by Nakonečný as lapis philosophorum, which portrays a hermaphroditic being that has overcome its own death (as the dragon and serpent suggest) and represents the unity of the solar and lunar powers.

A black and white line drawing of a naked winged hermaphroditic figure standing on the moon, holding a serpent in one hand and a cup containing a dragon in the other.

(See Nakonečný 170). Reprinted by permission of Vodnář Publishing House, Prague.

Here, we may remember the notion of the invisible sephirah Da’at, which means that the soul at this stage has reached the limits of its evolutionary possibilities. However, Cohen, by using the eleventh picture of the series for his album cover, suggests that he wants to go further. According to Nakonečný, this continuation of the ascent of the soul symbolizes transpersonal love towards one’s family, nation, or G-d (172). Hand in hand with this, Cohen portrays two angelic figures which are not going to undertake physical coniunctio because the Queen does not allow the King to lie between her legs. Although naked and lying on the top of one another, no penetration seems implied; rather, they seem primarily a reflection of one another. Eros in the picture is transmuted into another form of love, characterised by quenching bodily desires and nourishing the spiritual ones. Both represent the harmonic relationship between the purified soul and its reborn body.

With all of this in mind, the title and cover image of New Skin for the Old Ceremony become available for a variety of complementary meanings. From the Jewish point of view, the “old ceremony” implied in the very title of the album might be circumcision, that physical sign of a bond between the (male) Jew and G-d. The presence of “new skin” for this ceremony presages a new pact: one based on the human experience with love, betrayal, and [End Page 12] surrendering to G-d’s power as detailed in the songs on the album, rather than on the Biblical covenant. The songs themselves—which include “Lover, Lover, Lover,” discussed above, along with the famous “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “Who By Fire,” and “Take This Longing,” among others―speak by turns about love between two partners, carnal love and a complete abandonment of one’s own self and willingness to serve to G-d, but all are framed by the single image of the album’s cover, which casts them as aspects of or stages in a single process that includes both the spiritual and the carnal. In the next section we will see how Cohen acknowledges his own desire for the female body and what happens to love when he succumbs to it.

 Human Love

Love portrayed by Cohen has for the ultimate goal to reach Divine union. However, he does not attain this union only through the spiritual exercise, but also through the sexual act. With regard to the union of opposites that we saw in Rosarium philosophorum and its physical description of spiritual processes, we may interpret sexual love and the subsequent “decay” of the body to be a precursor to the spiritual form of love and love for humanity which characterizes it. However, the work of the singer has not been consistent with this theme, as the spiritual exercise and sex interchange one another in a regular, cyclical way.

In the Key Arena in Seattle in 2012, Cohen, when introducing the song “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” acknowledged that sexual desire has been always winning him over:

I studied religious values. I actually bound myself to the mast of non-attachment, but the storms of desire snapped my bounds like a spoon through noodles (“Ain’t No Cure for Love”, live, YouTube).

“Ain’t No Cure for Love” is a song that was inspired by the spread of AIDS in 1980s. The story goes that Jenifer Warnes was walking with Cohen one day around his neighbourhood and they were discussing the fact that people would not stop making love with one another. Cohen ended the conversation by saying that “there ain’t no cure for love” meaning that there is no cure for people wanting to make love. Several weeks later he finished the lyrics and Warnes recorded the song for her album Famous Blue Raincoat in 1987 (Nadel 244). Cohen released his own recording of it on I’m Your Man the following year.

The fact that this song portrays longing for the woman, rather than for Divine love, is supported by the following verses: “I see you in the subway and I see you on the bus / I see you lying down with me, I see you waking up / I see your hand, I see your hair / Your bracelets and your brush / And I call to you, I call to you / But I don’t call soft enough.” The feminine character to whom he addresses these words is unresponsive. Then the singer wanders to an “empty church” and realises that his longing for the woman is of the same greatness as his longing for G-d (“Ain’t No Cure for Love”).

Cohen sings that he longs for nakedness, not only of the body but also of the soul: “I’d love to see you naked / In your body and your thought.” He refuses a brotherly form of attachment (philos): “I don’t want your brother love / I want that other love,” and repeats that he is not going to give up on his longing. However, in this song a longing for physical [End Page 13] union and the longing for union with G-d do not exclude each other and, if our supposition about the rebirth of the soul is right, we see a circle of constant purification and rebirth of which the sexual act might indeed be the first step. As discussed above, the sexual act ends the physical or interpersonal longing and commences the “decay” of the body in order that the soul could ascend and be purified. The end of the song contains the verse “And I even heard the angels declare it from above / There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love,” thus ensuring us that the longing for the body of other person may be sanctified by G-d Himself (“Ain’t No Cure for Love”).

“Dance Me to the End of Love” can be read in the similar fashion since it describes not only the union of two lovers but also the ascent of the soul to G-d. The song is explained in this way through two accompanying videos. The first video, directed by Dominique Issermann in 1985, emphasizes the way that interhuman love works as a stage in the soul’s progress. It depicts, in a rather disconcerting manner, a woman who comes to the hospital to say the last goodbye to her male lover, played by Cohen himself. Only a moment later, Cohen’s ghost pursues the woman, both physically (by following after her through various wards in the hospital, and then, in a dream-like leap, watching her pose like a classical statue in a white shroud on a stage) and through his pleading voice. In the last part of the film, as Cohen sings, the woman disappears behind her shroud, as though breaking the bond of desire that held the singer to her, freeing him to move on to the next stage in his ascent. While this video emphasises love as a mystical union, the second piece―made in 1994 to promote the live album Leonard Cohen in Concert―is concerned with a sentimental depiction of romantic love between men and women. Featuring a multiracial set of couples at various ages—some older couples waltz in front of oversized portraits of themselves in their youth; one older woman waltzes alone in front of the picture of a man we assume is her lost lover, and other solitary figures gaze sadly at an empty chair—the video repeatedly cuts to a dapper, suited Cohen singing with his band and backup singers, a lady’s man and crooner rather than a spiritual seeker. Inviting these two contrasting visual interpretations, the song itself can be seen as portraying both divine and physical love, as though there were no necessary contradiction between them.

On the other hand, Cohen has criticised unrestrained human love that does not lead to the purification of the soul and which is characterised by inordinate lust and satisfaction of the basest instincts. He presented this criticism in the song “Closing Time,” which depicts a reverie in a country-like setting, with “Johnny Walker wisdom running high.” The feminine character of the song is described as the mistress who is “rubbing half the world against her thigh.” The whole binge is going to lead to its end sooner or later but before it happens, Cohen sings: “all the women tear their blouses off / and the men they dance on the polka dots / and it’s partner found and it’s partner lost / and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops / it’s CLOSING TIME.” Each stanza ends with the symbolic “CLOSING TIME” warning that this reverie is going to end soon. We do not know what happens later, whether the end will be revelatory or whether it will be a fall to an even profounder mire of bodily desires. Cohen speaks about the liminality, the threshold that we mentioned before, on which the whole event takes place: “I just don’t care what happens next / looks like freedom but it feels like death / it’s something in between, I guess / it’s CLOSING TIME.” Taken alone, “Closing Time” seems a portrait of frustration, since the singer seems trapped in the moment when “the gates of love they budged an inch” but “[he] can’t say [that] much has happened since.” In the context of the full album on which it appears (The Future), however, the song reads [End Page 14] differently. The bleak present and future that the songs here sometimes describe, in which “the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul,” is what affords us the opportunity for and the drive to seek redemption. As Cohen sings on the album’s central track “Anthem:” “Every heart, every heart / to love will come / but like a refugee.” Love (divine Love, in this case) will be always there waiting for us, but we turn to come to it when other bonds and connections, romantic or political, have failed: when, like refugees, we do not have any other option.

The celebration of the union between two human lovers is a distinctive feature of Cohen’s oeuvre. Among the canonical songs that we have quoted so far one merits a special attention: the song “Hallelujah,” which portrays secular love between two partners as holy. The song addresses a “you” inspired by the Biblical King David (with touches of Samson mixed in) who in his piety let himself to be conquered by desire for the female body. In the chorus, Cohen consoles us that “There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah,” meaning that G-d may be reached through sacred meditation or through sex as both lead to the union with Him. In the last stanza, the singer confesses that when he could not “feel”—feel the divine love—he had to “touch” the female body: “I did my best, it wasn’t much / I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch.” Even if he fails in his devotion to G-d and later to his female partner as he confesses, he will be summoned by the Lord: “and even though / It all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” The song suggests that there is no difference between attaining Divine love through spiritual exercise or physical union. In one of the verses that Cohen occasionally sung live, he made this supposition quite clear: “remember when I moved in you / And the holy dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was hallelujah.”[9]

Order of the Unified Heart

Although he is better known as a songwriter, poet, and novelist, Cohen was also a visual artist. In order to promote the concept of a union between Divine and Human forms of love, Cohen created a symbol for his imagined “Order of the Unified Heart”: the Star of David made out of two intertwined hearts. These hearts stand as opposites to each other and are mutually dependent. One points to the Heavens while the other one points to the Earth. This motif first appeared on the cover of the collection of Psalms Book of Mercy. [End Page 15]

 

Dark blue book cover with the words "Leonard Cohen" at the top in red block lettering, a design of intertwined hearts in gold outlined in red in the middle, and the tile "Book of Mercy" in red block lettering at the bottom.

The front cover of the Book of Mercy (1984). Used by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

It is also mentioned in the song “Come Healing,” where Cohen sings: “The Heart beneath is teaching / To the broken Heart above.” The singer even made the two intertwined hearts the focus of the Priestly Blessing which the Jewish priests bestow upon the community and which he himself bestowed officially on September 24, 2009 at the Ramat Gan concert in Israel to an audience of around fifty thousand spectators.[10]

A circular logo on a white background. The circle is black with white text around the rim reading "Leonard Cohen Old Ideas world Tour 2012". The interior of the cirlce contains a white design of two interlocking hearts and two hands.

Merchandise accompanying Cohen’s world tour. Private collection.

[End Page 16] The above picture of Cohen’s latest seal contains moreover the word Shin, which represents another name for G-d, Shaddai. Shin is formed by the priest’s hands when giving the Blessing and stands in between the two hearts. Therefore, the whole image represents the profane and sacred form of love at once blessed by the priest and proving that Cohen saw their intersection as the place where the Divine is made manifest.

Conclusion

“I don’t know a thing about love,” Cohen said in the interview with Pat Habron in 1973 (rpt. in Burger 50). More than twenty years later in 1997, when being interviewed by Stina Lundberg Dabrowski, he commented on the full realisation of the human existence in love and the possibility that it reconciles the opposing forces of our selves and paves the way to the liberation of the soul:

SLD: What is love to you?

LC: Love is that activity that makes the power of man and woman [. . .] that incorporates it into your own heart, where you can embody man and woman, when you can embody hell and heaven, when you can reconcile and [. . .] when man and woman becomes your content and you become her content, that’s love. That as I understand is love—that’s the mechanics (rpt. in Burger 420).

We have seen that Leonard Cohen portrays receiving of divine love through solitude and meditation and sexual intercourse. Love thus attained has the power to purify the soul and reunite it with its body in a greater spiritual existence. With the help of religious and mystical motifs, Cohen attributes sacred qualities to the Divine as well as Human love and, finally, consecrates it in his seal.

Love portrayed in such a way has, of course, been the subject of many medieval mystical books and appeared even visually in alchemy. Cohen’s acquaintance with religious and philosophical thought across cultures and continents is unsurpassed among the singer-songwriters in the English-speaking world, and his lyrics and choice of visual art for covers and merchandise show that he is keen to bring these enduring traditions to the attention of his audience.

As I have argued at length elsewhere, Cohen’s work draws on and gives new life to motifs that appeared in medieval love poetry, making him in every sense a “modern troubadour.”[11] Like the medieval poets of Provença and Al-Ándalus, he blurs the division between the sacred and profane, between the Divine and Human, and between the high and low forms of art and situates his work in the popular culture.

May this essay contribute to his honour.


[1] “Well you know that I love to live with you, / but you make me forget so very much. / I forget to pray for the angels / and then the angels forget to pray for us” (“So Long, Marianne”).[End Page 17]

[2] The full Shahada (testimony) goes: “lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh.” (“There is no god except for Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of G-d”).

[3] A similar motif can be found in Christian mystical poetry. One may think only of San Juan de la Cruz (1542 – 1591) and his texts such as “Noche escura del alma,” “Cántico espiritual,” and “Llama de amor viva.”

[4] For an illustrative example, see, for instance, Ten Bulls, woodcuts by the Japanese artist Tokuriki Tomikichiro (1902 – 1999) in Shigematsu 6-23.

[5] I have written about love as a phenomenon initiating the singer into the sacred mysteries elsewhere (Měsíc, “The Song of Initiation”).

[6] This very ancient idea about non-duality of G-d may be found in the texts as old as Plato’s Symposium, for instance, from which many mystical schools drew. Important for the Jewish mystics is the verse from Genesis 1:27 “So God created man in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them.” (ESV). Therefore, the male and female beings are the image of G-d because He is male and female at once. The Christian mystics refer to the same verse and some of them even go so far as to give preferences to the feminine atributes of G-d, such as Julian of Norwich (1342-1416) in her book Revelations. Muslims do not assign a gender to Allah. We should keep in mind that although the religious texts often address G-d with the use of masculine pronouns, verbs and nouns, G-d is regarded as gender and sexless. In Sufism they avoid using the grammatical gender by using the words Hu or Huwa to speak about the One.

[7] The rose is a very common symbol in Persian poetry, standing for Paradise and love (Baldock 142).

[8] This supposition, which appears in Alchemy, seems to be taken from the New Testament, and is seen in verses of John 12:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (ESV). The death of Jesus brings fruit in the form of a new life multiplied by the number of grain on the ear: a metaphor for his followers.

[9] It can be heard, for instance, on the 2009 Live in London recording.

[10] For the full report, see Jeffay. The video of the blessing may be seen on YouTube: cf: “Leonard Cohen Finale in Israel – Priestly Blessing.”

[11] This theory was developed in my PhD thesis (Měsíc, “Leonard Cohen: The Modern Troubadour”). [End Page 18]

Bibliography

“Ain’t No Cure for Love.” Perf. Leonard Cohen, 2012. YouTube, uploaded by Arlene Dick, 10 November 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4R2-GlBd-c. Accessed 14 May 2015.

Baldock, John. The Essence of Rūmī. Chartwell, 2005.

Barks, Coleman, and Jalāl Ad-Dīn Rūmī. The Essential Rūmī: New Expanded Edition. HarperCollins, 2004.

Burger, Jeff. Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters. Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. 1966. New ed. Blue Door, 2009.

—. Book of Mercy. McClelland and Stewart, 1984.

—. Death of a Lady’s Man. 1978. New ed. Andre Deutsch, 2010.

—. Selected Poems: 1956-1968. Viking, 1968.

—. Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs. Vintage, 1994.

—. The Energy of Slaves. Cape, 1972.

Friedlander, Shems. The Whirling Dervishes. State University of New York Press, 1992.

Holt, Jason, editor. Leonard Cohen and Philosophy: Various Positions. Open Court, 2014.

Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Tyndale House, 2004.

Jeffay, Nathan. “‘Hallelujah’ in Tel Aviv: Leonard Cohen Energizes Diverse Crowd.” Jewish Daily Forward, Sept 25, 2009, http://forward.com/articles/115181/hallelujah-in-tel-aviv-leonard-cohen-energizes-di. Accessed 14 May 2015.

Julian. Julian of Norwich: Revelations, Motherhood of God. Edited by Frances Beer, D.S. Brewer, 1998.

Jung, C. G. Osobnost a přenos. Tomáš Janeček, 1998.

Khalil, Atif. “Ibn Al-‘Arabi on the Three Conditions of Tawba.” Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, vol. 17, no. 4, 2006, pp. 403-16.

Knight, Gareth. A Practical Guide to Qabalistic Symbolism. S. Weiser, 1978.

“Leonard Cohen Finale in Israel – Priestly Blessing.” Perf. Leonard Cohen. YouTube, uploaded by Amit Slonim, Sept 29, 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4imJ7wWB9FU. Accessed 14 May 2015.

Lumsden, Suzanne. “Leonard Cohen Wants the Unconditional Leadership in the World.” Winnipeg Free Press [Winnipeg], 12 Sept. 1970, p. 25. Newspaper Archive, http://newspaperarchive.com/ca/manitoba/winnipeg/winnipeg-free-press/1970/09-12/page-93>. Accessed 1 July 2014.

Matt, Daniel Chanan. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. Harper San Francisco, 1995.

Meier, Allison. “Drawings by a Ladies’ Man: Impressions of Leonard Cohen.” HYPERALLERGIC: Sensitive to Art and Its Discontents, 7 April 2015, https://hyperallergic.com/197029/drawings-of-a-ladies-man-impressions-of-leonard-cohen/. Accessed 19 April 2015.

Měsíc, Jiří. “The Song of Initiation by Leonard Cohen.” Ostrava Journal of English Philology, vol. 5, no. 1, 2013, pp. 69-93.

[End Page 19]

Měsíc, Jiří. “Leonard Cohen: The Modern Troubadour.” Dissertation, Palacký University, 2016. https://theses.cz/id/ksff70/Leonard_Cohen_The_Modern_Troubadour.pdf

Nadel, Ira Bruce. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen. University of Texas, 2007.

Nakonečný, Milan. Smaragdová deska Herma Trismegista. 2nd ed., Vodnář, 2009.

Robertson, Jenny. Praying with the English Mystics. Triangle/SPCK, 1990.

San Juan. San Juan de la Cruz: Poesía. Edited by Domingo Ynduráin. Cátedra, 2002.

Shigematsu, Sōiku. A Zen Forest: Sayings of the Masters. Weatherhill, 1981.

Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. Jonathan Cape, 2012.

Spearing, A. C., trans. The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works. Penguin, 2001.

The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments Authorized King James Version. Thomas Nelson, 2011.

“The Window” Perf. Leonard Cohen. 1979. YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejzXh0DDe0w. Accessed 12 April 2015.

Wolfson, Eliot R. “New Jerusalem Glowing: Songs and Poems of Leonard Cohen in a Kabbalistic Key.” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts, vol. 15, 2006, pp. 103-53.

Discography

Cohen, Leonard. Songs of Leonard Cohen. Rec. Aug. 1967. John Simon, 1967. CD.

—. “So Long, Marianne.” Songs of Leonard Cohen. Columbia, 1967. CD.

—. Songs from a Room. Rec. Oct. 1968. Bob Johnston, 1969. CD

—. Songs of Love and Hate. Rec. Sept. 1970. Bob Johnston, 1971. CD.

—. Live Songs. Rec. 1970, 1972. Bob Johnston, 1973. CD.

—. “Love Calls You by Your Name.” Songs of Love and Hate. Columbia, 1971. CD.

—. “Joan of Arc.” Songs of Love and Hate. Columbia, 1971. CD.

—. New Skin for the Old Ceremony. Rec. Feb. 1974. Leonard Cohen, John Lissauer, 1974. CD.

—. Death of a Ladies’ Man. Rec. June 1977. Phil Spector, 1977. CD.

—. Recent Songs. Rec. Apr. 1979. Leonard Cohen, Henry Lewy, 1979. CD.

—. “The Ballad of the Absent Mare.” Recent Songs. Columbia, 1979. CD.

—. “The Window. Recent Songs. Columbia, 1979. CD.

—. Various Positions. Rec. June 1984. John Lissauer, 1984. CD.

—. “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Various Positions. Columbia, 1984. CD.

—. “Hallelujah.” Various Positions. Columbia, 1984. CD.

—. Dear Heather. Rec. 1985, 2002 – 2004. Leanne Ungar, Sharon Robinson, Anjani Thomas, Henry Lewy, Leonard Cohen, 2004. CD.

—. I’m Your Man. Rec. Aug. 1987. Leonard Cohen, Roscoe Beck, Jean-Michel Reusser, Michel Robidoux, 1988. Vinyl recording.

—. “There Ain’t No Cure for Love.” I’m Your Man. Columbia, 1988. CD.

—. The Future. Rec. Jan. 1992. Leonard Cohen, Steve Lindsey, Bill Ginn, Leanne Ungar, Rebecca de Mornay, Yoav Goren, 1992. CD.

—. “Anthem.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. CD.

—. “Be for Real.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. CD.

—. “Closing Time.” The Future. Columbia, 1992. CD.

—. Ten New Songs. Sharon Robinson, 2001. CD.

[End Page 20]

—. “Boogie Street.” Ten New Songs. Columbia, 2001. CD.

—. “Light as the Breeze.” Ten New Songs. Columbia, 2001. CD.

—. “Love Itself.” Ten New Songs. Columbia, 2001. CD.

—. Old Ideas. Rec. 2007 – 2011. Patrick Leonard, 2012. CD.

—. “Hallelujah.” Live in London. Columbia, 2009. CD.

—. “Come Healing.” Old Ideas. Columbia, 2012. CD.

—. Can’t Forget. Rec. 2012-2013. Mark Vreeken and Ed Sanders, 2015. CD.

—. Popular Problems. Rec. 2014. Patrick Leonard, 2014. CD.

—. You Want It Darker. Rec. 2015-2016. Adam Cohen and Patrick Leonard, 2016. CD.

[End Page 21]

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“Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

The “story of romance” is the guiding text offered by contemporary American culture, and more generally the culture of the modern West, on the subject of how women and men (should) relate: find your One True Love—your one-and-only—and live happily ever after.[1] To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites: Disney princess movies consumed by three-year-olds, the wedding industry, Hollywood, pop music lyrics, advertising, popular magazines, the diamond jewelry industry, and more. One of the most important of these sites, where romance is taught, re-told, and—a crucial point—experimented with in new forms, is in the literal “romance story” of mass market genre fiction.

While there are clearly significant differences—among these media forms and certainly among the diversity of the immense romance readership, as well as in the variety of subgenres and plots within the romance publishing field—nonetheless there are significant similarities across these categories as well. The basic plotline of the romance narrative holds true despite subgenre variation, which, as we’ll see in the case of erotica and paranormal, can serve simply to highlight the core genre message. As such, likening readers and novels and considering the phenomenon of romance narrative as a whole allows important insights to emerge. More specifically, in this article, I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.[2]

Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work, we will see, involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves. Furthermore, I argue that the industry subcategories of erotica (including gay/lesbian and “slash” romance) and paranormal—both areas of strong recent growth within the overall genre—offer new and highly effective literary means for women to use romance fiction as a way of working out their position within the culture. Indeed, the mainstream growth of erotica in particular signals important changes in American cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality and perhaps, finally, a loosening of the patriarchal knot of allowable sexual expression.

This article forms the initial part of an ongoing monograph project on the romance narrative in popular culture, focusing especially on popular romance fiction. I seek to understand how this romance narrative functions and how it is currently changing, both as a genre of popular literature and as a form of human relationship. Unlike some lines of previous academic inquiry into romance fiction, my goal has little to do with either critique or defense of the genre, nor do I aim for close literary reading of individual authors (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). Like Tania Modleski, I seek to read “symptomatically” (2008, xix), not intending by this metaphor for romance fiction to be taken as illness or pathology, but simply as a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality in America today. I seek to place romance fiction in the broader context of the romance narrative in popular culture; and to adopt a framework of cultural studies, religious studies, gender studies, and sex-positive feminist theory to ask questions about meaning, fantasy, fear, and desire in how the romance narrative plays out in the realms of both popular and high culture in which this story holds such vast sway.

Love as God: Healing and the Religious Eschatology of the “Happily Ever After”

What fascinates me is how, even with the possibility of new and more open twenty-first century norms for gender equality and sexual experimentation, the romance narrative continues to thrive and endure. The power of the story does not die. In fact, romance sales show new dominance in the market; for example, yearly growth in number of new titles rose from 5,184 in 2003 to 10,497 in 2007 (Romance Writers Report 2009). According to industry research compiled by Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels constitute, by far, the largest segment of fiction publishing, with $1.4 billion in yearly US sales and half of mass market paperbacks sold.[3] We chase romance—even when it is to our detriment—we structure our lives around it, we fashion much of our art and pop culture from it. There is a mythic and even religious nature to this endless quest for love, this search for our “One True Love,” this desire and yearning for happily ever after.

Although the romance narrative finds one of its major contemporary expressions in the publishing industry of popular romance novels, more broadly speaking, the story of romance is perhaps the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture and, since its ascendance in the nineteenth century, may well be the most powerful narrative in art and culture in general (Coontz 2005, Polhemus 1990). By calling romance a “cultural narrative” here, I mean a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life.[4] According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

Part of my jumping off point here is Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27). John Keats, for example, in a recent movie dramatization, proclaims, “There is a holiness to the heart’s affection” (Bright Star 2009). Polhemus’s point is that we have faith in love, a reverence for it. Starting in the late eighteenth century with the growth of secularism springing from the Enlightenment, in the art and in the marriages of  western Europe and North America, people increasingly fell in love with the idea of being in love. This faith in love has become a new form of faith, to “augment or substitute for orthodox religious visions” (4), but with such close psychological functionality between the two forms of faith that “religious feeling and eroticism run close together” (10) and “love and theology may be surrogates for each other” (19).

Erotic faith takes on story form in what I’m calling the romance narrative: spun out in prose in the novel, be it the literary high fiction of Pride and Prejudice or the popular mass market fiction of The Sheik and the Vixen; or in advertisements, Hollywood flicks, and pop lyrics; or again as mythic or archetypal template to make sense of one’s own relationship practice. In all cases, the shared and underlying mythic conviction is in the idealizing power of love to make the world, in reality so often harsh and even tragic, a better place. In line with the promise of orthodox religious faith, love offers the promise of redemption and even salvation. In novels, the love plot is the story arc by which characters mature and, the novel teaches, is the means by which real-life people can mature as well. Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness; it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger and wiser person. In all these ways, erotic faith is the conviction, explored in the ups and downs of the romance narrative—girl and boy meet, fall in love or lust, suffer through internal and external conflicts, break up, get back together, and then live happily ever after—of the healing power of love.

But to go further and flip the equation: while the romance narrative is “religious” in its faith in the healing power of love and in the scope of its mythic quest for love, the central religious narrative of western history is also “romantic.” Christianity, that central religious narrative, is easily read as a love story. In the context of  western culture, wherein the artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific heritage are all strongly shaped by the Christian religious tradition, the narrative core of that tradition is essentially a romance story. The mythic narrative of Christianity follows the pattern of the romance narrative, with a guaranteed happy ending (for well-behaved believers or the “saved”), wherein all works out and you live forever after. “Find your one true love and live happily ever after” is one way to describe the narrative content of Christian theology, of the ideal relationship between the believer and the One True Love of Christ the Son or the Christian Father God, and then the believer’s reward of life everlasting. “Are you the One?” the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, as many a lover has pondered early in the game (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20). “God is love,” asserts a key New Testament passage (1 John 4:8, 16), a theological notion that erotic faith easily flips into its own central dogma that “Love is God.”

This two-directional religious analysis allows us to see both the romance narrative within the Christian religious story, thus highlighting the omnipresence and cultural power of this narrative, as well as the religious aspect of the romance story itself, thus highlighting the mythic work of healing and salvation carried out by this story.  The point I seek to make through this parallel is the deep-rootedness of the cultural belief that there is a resurrection power to love. The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith,  western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.

To make this argument clearer, we need to consider one particular aspect of the romance novel: namely, the ending. In romance, the ending is crucial. Romance novels, as well as the romance narrative more generally, are defined by their “HEA”: the happily-ever-after ending, or what RWA calls the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Web), wherein the protagonists resolve their various internal and external conflicts and commit their lives lovingly to one another. Stereotypically, this ending involves the hero and heroine solving the problems that kept them apart, declaring their mutual love, getting married, and often conceiving or bearing a child. Increasingly in contemporary romances, the protagonists may not marry and reproduce, but still make some sort of deliberate decision to be together, a decision that brings to their lives a sense of fulfillment, joy, and the ongoing promise of hot sex.

This ending is important because it highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly (“for all eternity, and even beyond” promises Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl [386]). This fantasy is the idealized version of reality that Northrop Frye (1957) sees as the central characteristic of the romance myth.[5] Authors I’ve interviewed talk about the ending as a contract they have with their readers: no matter how wounded are their characters at the book’s beginning and how further tortured are those characters by the plot conflicts in the book’s middle, all will be well by the end. The HEA is a sacred guarantee in a romance novel: the author will not let the readers down by failing to provide the emotional resolution in the reading experience of love conquering all, healing all wounds, and leading to the promised happily ever after.

The true significance of this HEA, I submit, lies not in its presence at the end of every romance novel, but in its presence in the larger culture. The Christian mythic narrative and the romance narrative both highlight eschatology. Both are narratives concerned with the eschaton, the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of the characters involved (from the Greek eschatos for “last” or “farthest”). A romance, from the very beginning of the story, promises its HEA; the end of the story is inherent from the very beginning, as part of its very narrative structure. The romance story is narrative eschatology. A romance is a story about how to get to a healing end—an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed. To be human is to desire and quest for love. This is what is both wonderful and foolish, even dangerous, about the human condition. The romance narrative tells this story of love and the human condition, in all its vulnerability and risk and wonder and foolishness.

To connect this analysis back to the context of patriarchal culture—true to eschatology, this HEA ending is not just the ending of a particular book nor of a genre of popular literature. The ending of romance novels—in which the heroine and hero will love each other well, for all their lives, and their love binds up their wounds—is not just the conclusion of a story. The romance ending, like the Christian eschaton, is the end of all endings, the ending beyond endings. It is the foundational premise of hetero-normative masculinist culture: that a woman must be under the protection of a man, yoked to him and to at least some extent in his control. But here’s the rub: as evidenced by the enormous female readership of romance novels, this premise is foundational as well to much female fantasy life: that a woman will be protected, yet also pleasured, by the perfect love of a good man.

Lust, Loins, and Literature: Romance Novels as Mirror of Changing Sexual Norms for Women

Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?). Much scholarship has prodded, and continues to prod along these lines, as variously nuanced feminist critique and/or apologia for the genre (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). From a feminist perspective worried about romance novels’ take-away message for women, there is room for concern. However, while readers may sometimes consume these novels in voracious quantity and with great attachment to the genre (reading “religiously” in another sense of the term), they by no means read uncritically. The advent of online readers’ communities exposes the rich interplay among readers, texts, and authors; far from accepting characters’ choices and any views implied by authors, readers often argue back (Wendell and Tan 2009). They post comments deriding the “too stupid to live heroine” along the lines of “why would any sane woman act like that?” or “why would she fall in love with a jerk like him?” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume readers, perhaps especially young adolescent girls, do derive something from their reading experience in terms of a “moral of the story,” and that this moral may well have some sort of ramification in the lives of women. In the books’ complex and ambiguous nexus of women’s imagined fear and desire, shame and pleasure, hurt and healing, vulnerability and protection, pleasure and anxiety, risk and reward, bondage and freedom—what lessons then emerge for readers?

Contemporary romance novels do feature, almost universally, strong and empowered heroines in storylines bucking patriarchal convention mandating male leadership and female submission, but they also, by definition, pretty much always end in monogamous pair-bonding. In contrast to the second-wave feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to live happily ever after in a romance novel, a woman does need a man (and a man needs a woman). To the extent that romances push a vision of women’s lives as incomplete unless they are with a man, a vision of women’s happiness and mature fulfillment necessarily achieved through monogamous, heterosexual marriage and motherhood, this would remain a rather limited, traditional, and patriarchal vision of a woman’s life possibilities. In this regard, I am heartened by the growth of erotica, paranormal, and the new lines of gay and lesbian romance with their ménage stories; non-“vanilla” sex scenes; and heroines who even after pair-bonding remain kick-ass vampire-killers, or vampires, or some other form of strong female alpha or high-achieving professional. Although romance fiction can sometimes seem to offer a narrower vision of women’s lives—perhaps even create false expectations and impossible goals—on the other hand, judging by its massive readership, this vision is hugely appealing to women. So, why, and is that a problem? Just what is at stake in the romance novel? What does happen in reading it? What work does it do for its women readers, and does this work have any feminist liberatory potential?

I want to take a new tack on these issues by focusing on the recent rise of erotica, which I argue allows us to probe this paradox differently, by picking up the lines of inquiry I’ve laid out in regards to the HEA and its central motif of the healing power of love. I grew up reading romance novels (indeed, an important part of my motivation in this project is the chance it offers to interrogate my own fascination with the genre). I used to call the books—with amused affection—“trashy novels.” My friends and I, and my mother and some of her friends all bought, read, traded, and discussed our trashy novels. Were I to parse this descriptor now, I would see in it, on the one hand, a fondly-intended denigration of the genre as lowbrow (not the “good” literature I read for school), and on the other hand, a somewhat titillated adolescent sense that I was getting away with something naughty. I wouldn’t have been allowed to read Playboy or watch porn videos in the house, but although these stories were equally sexually explicit, and thus in that sense “trashy” or smutty, they were acceptable because they were both “romance,” with its legitimizing married HEA, and “novel,” thus still better than reading nothing at all. The genre has developed in many ways over the thirty years I’ve been reading it, but one of the most fascinating developments is the rise of the entirely “trashy” subgenres of erotica (which doesn’t necessarily end with monogamous pair bonding) and “romantica” (which generally does).

This rise is a controversial one, and benefits from a brief contextualization within the recent and equally controversial rise of sex-positive culture and sex-positive feminism. Kayla Perrin is a USA Today bestselling romance novelist who wrote this speech for her character Lishelle in the erotic romance Getting Some (2007, 133):

See, this is what I don’t understand. If guys fuck a hundred women, they’re heroes. They feel no shame in bedding a woman they’ve just met. But if a woman has a one-night stand, my God, she’s a dirty whore. How dare she like sex? This is the twenty-first century, honey. It’s high time we women embrace our sexuality and bury the shame. We have needs, the same as men do. Why do we feel so friggin’ bad about going after what we want?

Lishelle’s passionate endorsement for women to embrace their sexuality highlights how the story of romance is rapidly changing, especially for young women today. A new era is opening up wherein women can write or read such erotica, “hook up” with multiple partners and different types of partners, post images of themselves on altporn sites like Suicide Girls, attend Tupperware-style sex toy parties, wear porno-chic fashion, work as strippers, or simply revel in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, yet still be “good girls” (“Good Girls Do,” reads one recent newspaper headline). The gay rights movement (LGBTQ) is an important part of opening up this narrative; “romance,” including in publishing, no longer means only heterosexual, female-virginal, monogamous, deeply-in-love pair-bonding. The category of what is culturally acceptable in love and romance has—at least in some quarters—grown much bigger. To use Polhemus’s term, our faith in what legitimately counts as the erotic is expanding. This phenomenon of potentially liberating new attitudes toward women’s sexuality is what commentators and scholars characterize in various forms as “sex-positive culture” or “sex-positive feminism” or “striptease culture” (Nagle 1997, McNair 2002, Johnson 2002, Roach 2007). We see its boldly playful echo in such romance groups and blogs as History Hoydens, Smart Bitches, Word Wenches, Historical Hussies, Rip My Bodice, and the Smutketeers.

This effect is further seen in the recent publishing rise of erotica and romantica, and the concurrent intensification of sexual content in much of mainstream romance fiction. Romance novels, like the wider romance narrative, are in the midst of a sea change as they become affected by this sex-positive culture—indeed, I would argue that many romance novelists today are doing sex-positive feminism in their writing. How can we evaluate the complex implications of this change as a current large-scale cultural experiment, both potentially liberatory and at risk of re-inscribing tired patriarchal norms of women’s erotic desire, fantasy, and pleasure? Does today’s romance fiction help move women’s sexuality from margin to crossroads to center, or simply re-marginalize it anew? How are romance novels affected by—and also responsible for shaping—new societal changes about what’s acceptable sexually, in terms of the novels’ level of graphicness, underlying attitudes toward sexuality, treatment of pregnancy and STD protection, etc.? And how does this new trend toward more explicit sexuality in romance novels and more sexual choices in lifestyle relate to such apparently opposite cultural trends as, for example, the premarital abstinence movements of “True Love Waits” and father-daughter “Purity Balls,” as well as the rise of inspirational romance novel sales (with little to no explicit sexuality)?

I take the rise of women’s erotica as indicative of an important cultural moment of change and counter-resistance. Romance authors are opening up restrictive sexual taboos in ways that have true potential to lessen social injustices (for women, sexual minorities, and men too long restricted to a narrow macho role). These new romance narratives can unchain young women from an often destructive and desperate sense they have to find “Mr. Right” early on and not let go. They can give people permission to explore love and sexuality, and ultimately themselves, in new liberatory ways, but these ways are, admittedly, at the same time clearly fraught with risk and danger. Part of the risk is women turning themselves into what author Ariel Levy (2005) termed “female chauvinist pigs” through the internalization of a sex-bunny sensibility that simply gives flesh to every boy’s wet dream fantasy, and then those women experiencing the type of losses Laura Sessions Stepp laments in her book Unhooked (2007) about the campus hook-up culture. Another part of the risk is the early sexualization of the “porno-tot” phenomenon and the loss of innocence and health risks feared by the abstinence movement. In all of this, there is a daunting challenge for the “new erotica” to pull off, but—perhaps—real potential as well, to help us live in ways that are richer and, ultimately, more loving.

Getting a Good Man to Love in Patriarchy: “Come Back to the Bed Ag’in, Alpha Honey!”

We arrive finally at the crux of the tension, the paradox at the heart of the romance narrative. If romance is one of—or even the—central cultural narrative(s), with roots stretching into the culture’s foundational religious story, and if this narrative is being experimented with in new and potentially liberatory ways for wider sexual justice, then romance novels are doing deep work for their readers and for the culture. By “deep work,” I mean that this work is partly unconscious (Modleski 2008), operating at the level of both individual psychology and larger socio-cultural dynamics. The purpose of this work, I argue, is to assuage the drag and rub of patriarchy, to try to make up for the costs to a woman’s psyche of living in a culture that is always just a little, at least potentially, in certain ways against her. As Frye says, “Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (1956, 136).

Let’s put it this way: if, to at least some extent, it’s still a man’s world out there, if the name of the game is patriarchy, then a woman is safer from the dangers that game poses to women—rape and other physical attack, diminished pay rates, employment discrimination, abandonment with children, restricted travel and other life options, general infantilization, misogyny, a life-long low-level anxiety over her sexual vulnerability—to the extent she is in committed relationship with, and thus protected by, a good man. The notion of “good man” here is represented by the romance hero possessing the unlikely profile of high alpha traits that both guarantee he can protect the heroine, and that render him immune to the predations of patriarchy—for patriarchy is a system of violent control and power-over that victimizes lower-caste males as well—in combination with the high sensitivity of the most enlightened pro-feminist lover. This good man/alpha hero is a fantasy, an illusion, in the sense of a powerfully-appealing figure based in wish-fulfillment. As Freud (1927) said, an illusion may have truth to it—for certain lucky young girls, their prince really does come; think Grace Kelly, for example. The story of the alpha hero does have such truth to it—in that love does heal wounds, romance does offer sweetness, most people do seek such and generally find such, to at least some extent—but it is also a fantasy, or illusion, and in the sense of a wish-fulfillment, is highly unlikely to be literally and wholly true. Such is the power of fantasy to offer both truth and illusion. I suspect the resonance of romance novels lies in the central paradox of this interconnected fantasy power of deep truth and of wish-fulfilling illusion.

Romance is fantasy in the sense of pleasure and escape from reality, where true love does not always conquer all nor heal all wounds—key premises of the romance narrative. But more specifically, romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy. According to Frye, one of the central and climactic images in the romance is that “of the monster tamed and controlled by the virgin” (1957, 201). In my reading, this taming is the central dynamic of the romance novel as well. Apart from any realism imparted by rich details, these novels essentially represent a mythic fantasy world in which Woman: the Virgin, the Maiden, the Princess Warrior, Everywoman, tames and controls the monster, Man: the patriarchal alpha hero, who has the power to easily harm her, but who will not, because she has cracked open his frozen patriarch’s heart and taught him to love (Frantz 2002).

These are large claims that must await full unpacking and exploration in future research and writing, but as an exemplar here, I want to focus on the HEA and healing in a final argument that both the subgenres of erotica and paranormal (often combined) highlight or intensify the dynamics of the HEA and of its central reparation fantasy of redemption, salvation, and wholeness. Both erotica and paranormal are highly effective at doing the deep work of the romance novel HEA and thus can more clearly reveal this deep work. The messages to women here are three: you can’t fight patriarchy, you must fight patriarchy, and patriarchy will end. All this is encapsulated in the complex HEA promise: you will get a good man to love. Vignettes from three recent romance novels illustrate these messages.

Maya Banks’s Sweet Persuasion (2009) is a BDSM romantica tale, featuring Serena, a successful business woman whose fantasy is to be a sex slave to Damon, the charismatic owner of a sex club. This, and similar plot lines, allow for exploration of a submission and surrender theme to the erotic desire and possessiveness of a powerful man not widely seen since the “bodice-ripper” domination and rape plots of the 1980s (Wendell and Tan 2009). BDSM romantica allows for a more politically-correct exploration of this dynamic, as here the heroine surrenders willingly, in a fantasy power game, and Damon’s complete authority over her—“I want the security of knowing I am … owned,” Serena says (70)—is ultimately benign. While he puts her in bondage and takes a crop to her, Damon also feeds, clothes, and bathes her—literally by hand; fully supports her professional ambitions; puts up charmingly with her meddling friends; buys her a wardrobe; and sends her to the spa. He demands total control over her, but he’s also a good man, who loves her well and devotedly. “I wanted to own her. I wanted her to own my heart” (253), he says of a previous failed relationship, when explaining his desire to Serena. The lesson Serena learns in the end: “it takes someone strong to give up ultimate power, to allow a man to take care of her, to make decisions for her” (284). Patriarchy is literally the name of the game here: Serena wants to play sex-slave to a strong alpha master. Thus, the message: you can’t fight patriarchy, lest you be a bad slave and displease your master; but you must fight patriarchy, in the sense of holding out for no less than this perfectly egalitarian master. For while the master here rules, no matter—by the time of the HEA, it’s clear he rules to serve and to cherish. And so patriarchy ends. Although he’s in charge, she has him: she owns his heart. Through identification with both the heroine and hero, the female reader experiences her subordinate and vulnerable position within our still-patriarchal culture as one that nevertheless promises her safety and pleasure, precisely because this particular patriarch has capitulated to her, fully and completely.

In Joey W. Hill’s BDSM romantica novel Natural Law (2004), the power dynamic is reversed between two under-cover cops; instead of patriarchy ruling, here it’s the “matriarch” or Mistress in charge. Violet is petite, a “pixie,” yet formidable: a dominant Mistress born. Patriarchy is already overturned here, in that the deep fantasy work of this story is that of resisting and rejecting male rule for a matriarchy where man is the subordinate, required to obey the woman’s every command, and wanting nothing more than to fulfill her will and satisfaction as his own. Yet although Mac is a willing male submissive, he is still the alpha through and through: physically much stronger, a seasoned detective, no weakling who would leave you prey to harm (he in fact takes a bullet for Violet by the end of the story). Like Serena and Damon, Violet and Mac finally find each other after a long and painful life quest of loneliness and self-doubt; these couples complete each other and find healing and wholeness through surrender to their special form of love. Violet, unlike Serena, upends the patriarchal dynamic; she is “someone strong” in a different sense than Serena, but not in any sense that emasculates Mac. He enjoys “serving a Mistress’s pleasure,” he says self-confidently, as much as he enjoys “being a cop, or watching a Buccaneers game, or spending a day out in the Gulf on my boat. Being a sub doesn’t make me less of a man” (277). The female reader fantasy here is one of overt power, but although she’s nominally in charge (you must fight patriarchy), he’s the strong alpha male all the same (you can’t fight patriarchy), perhaps even more so—because if it takes a real man to eat quiche, wear pink, and drink Chardonnay, surely it takes a man on the archetypal level of a romance novel warrior-king to accept bondage and open himself to the pleasure of anal penetration by his Mistress (patriarchy will end).

The warrior-king becomes real, and becomes vampire, in my last example: J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover (2005), the first book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. In paranormal romance, the hero can be more alpha—bigger, stronger, more deadly—than in non-paranormal: he can grow fangs, possess supernatural strength, teleport, heal miraculously fast, etc. While “Wrath” is all that—indeed, his name says it all—he, like all males shaped by patriarchy’s “tough guise” or mask of emotional straight-jacketing, cannot love. He can only disdain erotic faith as the religion of women and weak men. He is the über-patriarch: violently aggressive against all enemies, an arrogant macho hardass toward the brotherhood, “six feet nine inches of pure terror dressed in leather” (3). Yet he’s immediately drawn to Beth, a beautiful woman thrust into his keeping, about to turn into a vampire herself. He gives into lust, but fights love. For a man to open himself to love means he’s weak, “pathetic … pussy-whipped,” Wrath goads a happily-mated brother (186-87). But by the end, as Wrath and Beth find peace and completion in their love bond and a new life mission together to rebuild vampire civilization, Wrath is a changed man. Still the ultra-violent patriarch toward any who would dare hurt his queen, he has literally had Beth’s name carved into his back; kneeled at her feet; offered his body, heart, and soul as hers to command; and then asked, with head bowed, “Will you take me as your own?” (333). The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love.

All three of these examples have in common what I am calling a reparation fantasy in the HEA’s work of imagined healing. One of the Latin etymologies for the term “religion” is re-ligare, “to re-bind” or “re-tie” (the term “ligament” has the same root). From this perspective, religion represents a threefold sense of original unity, recognition of loss or wound, and attempt to repair and reconnect sundered parts back into a whole. Plato’s Symposium dialogue famously casts this threefold sense as an origin story of humanity and humans’ rather foolish yet poignant endless quest for love. In the dialogue, humans began as four-footed symmetrical beings, then were cut in half by the gods, and now are forever on a quest for their missing other part: our better half, our soul mate, our one-and-only, our One True Love. In the Symposium and the three romance novels above, love renders us whole, heals and completes us, resolves life’s quest, brings true peace. From this perspective, both romance and religion are reparation fantasies, deep mythic stories of the powerful healing that comes about through meaningful and intimate relations.

One last idea: for Leslie Fiedler, the American literature critic of the mid-twentieth century, American fiction is driven by the dream of interethnic male bonding and the “myth of the dark beloved,” in which people of color forgive and love white folk, despite the predations and horrors of racism. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) is his controversial essay on Huckleberry Finn and also The Last of the Mohicans, two iconic American stories authored by white males about a “dark beloved:” an African-American or Native American male other who shares an adventurous quest with a white male protagonist. Fielder’s essay is essentially about the literature of white male America as a reparation fantasy for racism, offered with remorse and affection on the part of the racists. Romance fiction is a different, reverse type of reparation fantasy, one centered on sexism and patriarchy and offered not by those who perpetuated the discrimination (as in Fiedler’s formulation), but by those subjected to it. Instead of a myth of the dark beloved, we have a myth of the “alpha beloved.” Women readers/authors/fictional heroines, like Jim in Huck Finn and in Fiedler’s provocative title, bear no grudge and invite the master, “Come back to the raft”—or the bed—“again, honey.” A woman can proffer this invitation because she has taken her stand against patriarchy, and though the system remains, so too has it ended. The romance fantasy, in other words, is that the hero will come, in all his fierce and possessive patriarchal warrior-king glory, but that he will also forever stay: emotionally vulnerable, devoted unto death, serving his mistress with his sword and with his heart. The fantasy is that patriarchy overall remains in place—he remains a ruling alpha, and so can protect her—but this system, and he as its representative, never threaten or diminish the heroine.

She gets a good man. And she gets him to love.[6]


Works Cited

Banks, Maya. Sweet Persuasion. New York: Berkley Heat, 2009. Print.

Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Apparition, 2009. Film.

Coddington, Lynn. “Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa 3:1-2 (1997): 58-77. Print.

Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.

Fiedler, Leslie A. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” Partisan Review. June 1948. Print.

Frantz, Sarah. “‘Expressing’ Herself: The Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power.” Scorned Literature: Essays on the History and Criticism of Popular Mass-Produced Fiction in America. Eds. Lydia Cushman Schurman and Deidre Johnson. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2002. 17-36. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. The Future of an Illusion. Trans. and ed. James Strachey.  New York: Norton, 1989. Print.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957. Print.

Goade, Sally, ed. Empowerment versus Oppression: Twenty First Century Views of Popular Romance Novels. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007. Print.

Hill, Joey W. Natural Law. Akron, OH: Ellora’s Cave, 2004. Print.

Johnson, Allan G. The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy. Rev. and updated ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Johnson, Merri Lisa, ed. Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002. Print.

Levy, Ariel. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. New York: Free Press, 2005. Print.

McNair, Brian. Striptease Culture: Sex, Media, and the Democratisation of Desire. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-produced Fantasies for Women. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.

Nagle, Jill, ed. Whores and Other Feminists. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Perrin, Kayla. Getting Some. Don Mills, Can. Spice, 2007. Print

Plato, Symposium. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989. Print.

Polhemus, Robert M. Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. Print.

Roach, Catherine M. Stripping, Sex, and Popular Culture. Oxford, UK: Berg, 2007. Print.

Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers of America. Web.

Romance Writers of America. Romance Writers Report. April 2009. Print.

Stepp, Laura Sessions. Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love, and Lose at Both. New York: Riverhead Books, 2007. Print.

Ward, J.R. Dark Lover. New York: Signet Eclipse, 2005. Print.

Wendell, Sarah and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2009. Print.


[1] In my use of the cultural descriptor “modern West” here, I draw on Stephanie Coontz’s (2005) history of marriage, with its central thesis that starting in the later eighteenth century, a “gigantic marital revolution had occurred in Western Europe and North America during the Enlightenment” (5). The ideal of the sentimental and passionate love-based marriage—in radical contrast to the more economically and politically pragmatic notions of marriage that had predominated before that time and that continued as the norm in other parts of the world—came to dominate in  western culture through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[2] By “patriarchy,” I adopt Allan Johnson’s definition of a cultural system that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered” and that valorizes violence and control (2005, 5). High rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and violence against girls and women form a central part of such culture, as well as high rates of violence against men. I share in Johnson’s analysis that contemporary American culture remains marked by such patterns, although these patterns have clearly lessened through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of human rights and the influence of the successive waves of the women’s movement and feminism. To the extent that both patriarchy and popular romance fiction reading are phenomena with global reach, this analysis could be broadened beyond contemporary America as well, but for now, I confine my analysis to this cultural complex.

[3] Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US-based professional writers’ organization devoted to the publishing genre of popular romance fiction, with a membership of approximately ten thousand published and aspiring authors. For publication and sale statistics, visit the organization’s website at rwanational.org.

[4] Northrop Frye’s (1957) archetypal criticism in his classic theory of myths is useful here as well, where he lays out a theory of generic plots or mythic narrative structures: “In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

[5] Although what Frye (1957) means by “romance novel” differs from the popular women’s fiction under consideration here, there is significant continuity between these forms of prose fiction as well. This issue of the historical lineage of contemporary women’s romance novels in terms of the long-established literary forms of both “novel” and “romance” bears further study.

[6] I thank two very astute anonymous peer-review readers who helped me see my text more clearly with excellent suggestions for revision and expansion. I am grateful as well to the College of Arts and Sciences and New College at the University of Alabama and to the Romance Writers of America for academic grant support that made this research possible. Academic audiences at the Popular Culture Association 2009 annual conference and a Women’s Resource Center talk at the University of Alabama provided useful feedback as well in working out my ideas. Finally, I thank Eric Murphy Selinger for leading me to Robert Polhemus and colleagues Deborah Weiss, Fred Whiting, and Ted Trost for helping me think through key ideas in this paper.

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