Think globally, love locally

Taj Mahal, Flickr, 2011
Taj Mahal, Flickr, 2011

At an international conference on popular romance fiction, a member of the logistical team that was hosting us took me aside to ask about the topic of the gathering. “Love?” he smiled, a little bemused. “You know, I came here from Iran—and no one knows more about love than the Persians.” As we chatted, he told me more, breaking periodically into verses from Rumi and Hafez to illustrate his points.

“Someday,” he said, “you must have a conference in the city of lovers and poets, Shiraz.”

I’ll second that invitation—but is that really where we should go?

The longer I work on love and romance, the more of these wonderful boasts I hear about this or that place as love’s home. My colleagues in the Modern Languages department tell me that it’s the French that know love best—except, of course, for the Italians—and they both learned it all from the Arabs, as my friend Nesreen always adds. The Greek-American undergrads in my Comp-Lit “Love Poetry” class came for the Sappho, and they’re counting the weeks until we get to Cavafy. (He wrote in Alexandria, yes, but it’s the language that counts.) My wife and I, meanwhile, have clocked an embarrassing number of hours this year streaming romantic TV series from South Korea, home of gorgeous “flower boy” heroes and heroines who run the gamut from magical nine-tailed foxes to tough-minded business women, cross-dressing would-be baristas, and small town mayors. (Just between us, I’m beginning to think that kimchi is an aphrodisiac.)

Promotional image, My Lovely Sam-Soon, 2005, MBC

My Lovely Sam-Soon (promotional image), MBC, 2005.

Of course, it’s not all fun and games having a national love reputation. In a recent book on Turkish popular music, The Republic of Love, I learn that “a number of influential voices in the country,” notably the bestselling female novelist Elif Shafak, “think that love is in a state of crisis.” This isn’t just a private-life or domestic issue, scholar Martin Stokes explains—it cuts across the divides between private and public, sacred and secular, and various communities and social classes.

Poor people in Turkey, she [Shafak] points out, offer prayers for the lovers on television soap operas. Turkish mystical traditions call those seeking truth “lovers” (aşiklar). “Love” is one of the names that Turkish Muslims give to God. Love provides a shared public idiom for talking about the nation and religion. [. . .] Everybody might be persuaded to agree that love is “in crisis,” and that this crisis touches secularists and Islamists, leftists and rightists, Turks and Kurds alike.

No wonder, then, that Shafak was so concerned—and maybe no wonder, as well, that she counterpointed ancient and modern love stories in her subsequent novel Forty Rules of Love: a Novel of Rumi (2010), letting a tale of the transformative love between the poet Rumi and the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz inform the romantic rebirth of a modern American housewife, 40-year-old Ella Rubenstein. How better to remind one nation of its grand romantic heritage than to play it off against the stagnant, suburban domesticity that typifies, in this novel at least, the life of love elsewhere?

And yet, are we Americans really so romantically challenged? As I listened to my new friend from Shiraz savor those verses in Farsi, I couldn’t help but think of that sermon John Winthrop gave on the Puritan flagship Arbella, somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, in April, 1630. The famous bit, quoted by Ronald Reagan, is the one about needing to be a “city upon a hill,” but the part that I prefer is a wonderful cadence about the colonists’ “duty to love.” “We must love each other with a pure heart fervently,” Winthrop insists. “We must bear one another’s burdens. [. . .] We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.” As far as he knew, of course, Winthrop was born and died a British author—but that just adds another “nation of love” to the list.

Hafez, Rumi, Ibn ‘Arabi, Sappho, My Lovely Sam-Soon: They’re grand, every one of them, and I’d pack in a heartbeat for a conference at the home town of each and every one. But as I pull out the suitcase, I’ll be thinking of Walt Whitman’s invitation, at the end of the “Song of the Open Road.”

Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

That may not be an old time religion of love, but it’s good enough for me.

Eric Selinger

Eric Selinger is a professor of English at DePaul University, co-editor of New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction: Critical Essays, and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Find out more about Eric Selinger.

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