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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM KEN CRAIGSIDE
Ah sweet romance! Except that, given the long convoluted history of the word, romance wasn’t always sweet. Plunked right at the beginning of it is “Roman,” meaning a people without a romantic bone in their body. Their chroniclers, such as Suetonius or poets like Martial and Petronius, described sex as a way to power, satisfaction, fun or even foolishness, but not love. Romans viewed art as little more than decoration for feats of engineering. Their armies defeated the proud Greek phalanx by dipping under that graceful line of spears and thrusting up into Greek guts with the blunt short sword. Blunt should be their middle name. Even their speech is known more for compact muscular pungency than any lovelorn descants of fancy. In that respect, Latin is probably the most anti-romantic of languages.
During the Dark Ages when Latin survived as the Lingua Franca of the church and emerging aristocracy, the Roman speech mixed with local dialects in the then isolated lands of Iberia, Gaul and Italy to become today’s romance languages. Funny thing, Spanish, French and Italian can speak with sonorous fervor of passion and love. Yet at that time “romance” meant no more than a linguistic subset.
As the middle-ages reached its peak, something had to be done about the armored thugs who had transformed the protection racket into feudalism. Aha, tame them with the cult of the virgin and the code of chivalry! Tales of Arthur, Tristan and Roland were sung out by minstrels and jongleurs who first rapped in Latin and thus their lyrics of chivalric adventure and platonic love were called “Romances.”
Skip forward to the second half of the eighteenth century when the Age of Reason begins to flounder. My hero Voltaire satirized its fall brilliantly in Candide. Then an ugly little demented sociopath named Rousseau dreamt of a new age based solely upon feeling. Swirling nature must be our god and gnarled gothic be seen as a more reliable guide to human understanding than any frigid temple of the Greeks. Revolution raged, not just in France, but in the arts and literature as well, so that “Romanticism” came to mean a world view, a philosophy, and a whole new style of expression.
Romanticism triumphed with the nineteenth century. Our hearts may thump to the stirring music of Beethoven, the misty seascapes of Turner, or the thrills and chills of melodrama on stage, but it was the novel that best furled the romantic banner. Jane Austen, the sisters Bronte, Sir Walter Scott, Tolstoy, Flaubert, De Maupassant and George Sand wrapped that banner around the new idea that love is more important than property or politics in the making of a marriage. Romance became a synonym for passionate action. It had come a long, long way from simply meaning “of the Romans.”
The existential and soulless twentieth century brought us full circle to the “Torn Bodice” paperback, so many of which seem to me to be unwitting Candides satirizing romantic love. I miss the flamboyant painted covers that best summed them up. Doesn’t anyone in the industry today realize that photographs of steaming bodies, no matter how much the lens is filtered or the lighting tinted, still manage to smack of unromantic realism?
I think the same to be true, only more so, of “Torn Byronic Shirt” M/M romances. Diana Garbaldan’s Lord John is utterly unbelievable to me. Templars swearing their undying love seem giggle-worthy. And centurions swooning in the moonlight betray every caveat of Rome’s original poets. I don’t mean to imply that some men haven’t deeply loved or at least genuinely enjoyed each other from the beginning of time. My book, Here, And Always Have been, is a collection of historical short stories devoted to that concept. But romantic love is a thoroughly modern idea that above everything must speak…no, no, floridly sing…its name to all the world. That openness hasn’t been possible for gay men until very recent times. It seems to me that gay historical romance is naught but an unfortunate oxymoron drowning under the stickiest of syrups.
OK, I’m a curmudgeon, more Roman than romantic. And now I must cease writing and hie myself off to a rehearsal, having been cast in a local production of The Christmas Carol. You can guess what role when I sign off with: Romantic love…bah humbug!
Ken Graigside (or in this case Craigsnide?)
Advent Calendar Giveaway!
To win a copy of Here, And Always Have Been write a limerick about your favorite pair of male lovers from any time before 1900. Send it to me by December 25, 2009, at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll pick out the best, forward them to Erastes, and send a copy of the book to the author of my favorite one. I figure nothing could defeat slurpy romance better than a snappy limerick.