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Looking for love in all the wrong places: Philosopher explores difference between romance and real love

Everywhere you look — billboards, magazines, TV, books, movies, the media — you see and hear messages about forbidden love, secret romance, candlelight and wine.

According Martin Dillon, romance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In fact he hopes to expose romance for what it really is: bad. Dillon, distinguished teaching professor of philosophy, has been trying since 1976 to help students understand the difference between romance and genuine love in a course on the philosophy of love. A popular course, Phil 312-Philosophy of Love and Sexuality, is offered every semester and is never under-enrolled. Dillon teaches the course once every third semester while colleague Don Weiss also teaches it regularly.

Now Dillon’s taking his case to the public in a recently published book Beyond Romance (SUNY Press, 2001), in which he offers a critique of romantic traditions of love and an alternative that he calls authentic love.

“Our culture is suffering from erotic malaise,” Dillon explains in the book’s preface. “We do not seem to know how to love well, and that is manifest in the problems we seem unable to handle, the problems of bodily health apparent in the rise of sexually transmitted diseases, the problems of social health apparent in the proliferation of babies born to parents who are still children, and the problems of moral health apparent in our inability to make coherent policy decisions about abortion, commercial sex, homosexuality, extramarital sex, sexual harassment and the like.”

Drawing from the works of philosophers from the past such as Plato to those of more recent vintage, including Merleau-Ponty, Hegel, Freud, Sartre and Derrida, Dillon argues that much of current erotic dissatisfaction is traceable to flaws in the romantic model.

“Romance is seriously bad,” Dillon said. “The idea of romantic love is unattainable. In romantic love you’re in love with an illusion, an ideal. In authentic love you are in love with a flesh and blood person.”

Looking at the history of love as well as the philosophy and psychology of it, Dillon explores how romantic tradition and courtship in our culture impede our ability to develop genuine love, which he argues comes from knowledge and truth. According to Dillon, many romantic traditions, much like candlelight and wine, get in the way of real vision so you see the object of your affection in a flattering light. In romantic love, there is very little in the way of genuine discourse.

“In romantic love, the person is the amorphous object that allows you to discharge your fantasy ideas,” Dillon said. “And the more the real person intrudes, the more that he or she gets in the way of the fantasy. After carnal knowledge he or she becomes less than the fantasy, so it’s doomed to failure.”

Movie plots and romance novels reinforce the idea. “The roadmap for a successful romance novel,” Dillon said, “is: boy meets girl, obstacles are in the way, overcome that obstacle, another obstacle, overcome that obstacle, etc. and when you overcome that last obstacle you pop into bed, or don’t pop into bed, and the novel ends.”

Romantic traditions are not just a thing of the past, as evident in the popularity of cyber sex, an extension of romantic love since most of the interaction takes place without ever knowing the real person, allowing one to keep up the fantasy. Dillon suggests that only through real knowledge of the other person can you develop authentic love. “Authentic love deepens as you get to know the person,” Dillon said. “So the claim is that the cognitive dimension of love is important for the kind of love that I am arguing for. And in that kind of love, the more you know the person, either the deeper the relationship becomes or the end of the relationship happens.”

According to Dillon, people influenced by the romantic ideal are always looking for the infinite high that comes at the beginning of a new affair. He asserts that if that’s what you are looking for then all you’ll get are a bunch of new affairs. Even that will get boring after a while. If authentic love is your ideal, then you might respond to marital boredom in more creative ways, like pursuing common interests together.

“I think boredom is the iterability of the same,” Dillon said. “And I don’t think people are the same over time. I think there are a lot of changes that take place, especially people who are alive and growing. If your partner seems to be the same all the time, it could be that you’re not listening and it usually is that you’re not listening.”

Will exposing romantic traditions of love lead to greater happiness? “Scarred knees are part of the process,” Dillon said. “You can’t get it all from a book. There is a lot of luck involved. But, if you believe, as I do, that love is probably the one isolable phenomenon in life that’s more important than any other as far as happiness is concerned, then the more you know about it the better off you are. The more you understand it, the more you have your goals explicit rather than mystified. That’s when I think you stand a better chance at being more successful.”

Dillon acknowledges that some will contest the solutions he proposes, but he, like other philosophers, does not deal in absolutes. He simply hopes his theories will add to the discussions about love and perhaps bring about some positive change.

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