What’s it all about, Arnold?
My father, who loved to sing, had little taste for rock ‘n roll. It was the end of the 1960s, and modern show-tunes were his favorites—songs from The Fantasticks, Camelot, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris—along with the occasional foray into lush, top-40 pop. I can probably still sing you every word of that big brown LP by The Carpenters (The Singles: 1969-73), and I’ve tickled many a class on popular romance by channeling my inner Dionne Warwick in “Alfie”:
What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
. . .
As sure as I believe there’s a heaven above, Alfie,
I know there’s something much more,
Something even non-believers
Can believe in.
I believe in love, Alfie.
Without true love we just exist, Alfie.
Until you find the love you’ve missed you’re nothing, Alfie. . .
The existential threat and comfort in Hal David’s lyric—strung on Burt Bacharach’s elegant, outstretched melody line—was my first introduction to the idea that romantic love was a philosophical, even theological ideal, not just a matter of relationships. “You’re nothing, Alfie”: that’s a scary thought for a kid, or for anyone, really. Where does it come from?
In Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence, Robert Polhemus describes the pop-romance theology we find in “Alfie” as “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love, the kind of love we mean when we say that people are in love.” This isn’t an inevitable or universal conviction.
It emerges out of social revolutions across the late 18th century, making its way into middle-class culture, by the Victorian period, as an authentic rival to Christianity for the hearts and minds of lovers. Karen Lystra puts the moment of change even earlier. “By the 1830s,” she writes in Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America, “the personhood of the loved one. . . had become a powerful rival to God as the individual’s central symbol of ultimate significance.”
It’s easy to see why the religion of love had this appeal. Traditional Christianity was being shaken by new discoveries, but the religion of romance seemed self-evidence, unshakable, secure. No wonder Matthew Arnold turns to his beloved at the end of his famous poem “Dover Beach.” As the “Sea of Faith” withdraws from the shores of life, that other faith surges in:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . .
That’s the world we hear about in “Alfie”: cold, hard, unforgiving, unless love heals it.
No matter their subgenre, most romance novels preach this old-time religion of erotic faith. Catherine Roach’s essay “Getting a Good Man to Love” uses Polhemus’s ideas to illuminate BDSM erotic romances by Maya Banks and Joey Hill and the first of J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood vampire romances, Dark Lover. In another post, I’ll play Devil’s Advocate, and cast a colder eye on this creed—or, rather, I’ll let Francine Rivers do it, via her classic Christian inspirational romance, Redeeming Love, which raises some wise and wary questions about it, and not just from a theological standpoint.
For now, though, “Dover Beach” is such a beautiful poem, and “Alfie” such a lovely song, that it’s hard to say no to their certainties. Love, or life on a “darkling plain / . . . / Where ignorant armies clash by night,” says Arnold. Love, or nothing, Alfie.
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 Journal of Popular Romance Studies. Find out more about Eric Selinger.