I’ve sometimes been criticized by my female friends for suggesting that men might be more romantic than women. Women have to remind their boyfriends or husbands to do the little things like remembering an anniversary or Valentine’s Day. Most men don’t want to go for walks along the beach at sunset. And they aren’t interested in dancing or flowers. But that’s not really what I mean by “romantic.”
The history of the term reveals something curious. From about the beginning of the 14th century, at least, “romance” referred to a story about a knight and his heroic deeds. Only from the 17th century did the term begin to refer to the “love story,” and only in the early 20th century was “a romance” used to describe a love affair.
Aloneness and The Primordial:
Contrary to what many think, the romantic vision of men is not based on buying flowers, candy, or dinner for the “pretty woman.” Female romance is about life. Male romance is about death. It is the idea that the woman has to be approached through danger, the risk of self-destruction, and battling against one’s own self. Often, this must be done alone. The knight — if we look at ancient mythology — leaves his home and parents, usually wandering over inhospitable landscapes, to finally find a woman he wants to unite with. In contrast to the knight, she very often lives with her family, and, as such, the knight must prove his worth to the father — who, we might say, represents the knight’ potential or future self.
Seducing the woman means using and displaying his prowess — slaughtering a mysterious enemy knight or battling and defeating a mythical creature — in order to satisfy both the woman and the king. It is possible to see in this an expression of sexism and misogyny, and, of course, many people who are invested in the postmodern worldview — rather than that of the peoples and tribes that created and perpetuated these myths — see it exactly that way, i.e., as an expression of male “domination” and ownership of woman. But that, of course, is to misread the myths of ancient cultures the world over.
Struggle and Initiatic Self-Overcoming:
Separation from the tribe was incredibly risky. In tribal cultures, serious crimes are, or were, sometimes punished by exile. This doesn’t seem harsh to us, of course, because moving from one town or city to the next is relatively easy. Indeed, millions of people move to a different country every year. But exile from the tribe meant, at best, barely surviving, foraging and hunting for food with a weapon that would become worn out over time, and lacking all human contact. Often, exile meant descent into madness and a slow death.
But there is also the initiatic separation, where a boy that has reached the age of manhood is sent into the wild to face some physical, and usually painful, trial. Spartan boys had to survive a period of, effectively, initiatic exile, in which they had to steal food and face physical hardships, before they were accepted as men.
As noted, mythologically, the hero unites with his female counterpart only after he has slain the dragon or committed some other act of incredible bravery. In other words, only after he has passed through the initiatic ordeals of manhood, and, more especially, through the initiatic ordeals of the warrior.
Mythologically, the uniting of the male and female isn’t always explicitly sexual, but, sometimes, a kind of partnership (though the possibility of sexual union is undoubtedly implied). In the legend of St. George and the Dagon — first depicted in Anatolia — the future saint comes across a town, and sees a princess about to be sacrificed to a dragon. Although she begs him to save his own life, and not to risk death trying to save her, he attacks the beast, fatally wounding it. With the death blow dealt to the dragon, the princess leads it into town, as if it were a pet dog. For rescuing his daughter, the king offers to reward George with great wealth — and, often at this point in similar myths, the hero marries the woman he has rescued. (Being a good Christian, George leaves the king with his daughter and money, though he tells him to share his wealth with the poor.)
The Sacred Female:
Beauty has the power to hypnotize us. Most of us have probably experienced this when walking through nature, or into a cathedral, temple, or a similarly grand and ornate religious building. It doesn’t matter if we are the only one there, or even if we are not religious; the aesthetics seem to change us, temporarily. And you’ve probably experienced this when looking at a painting or at a photograph, as well. We need only think of how many times Davinci’s Mona Lisa has been reproduced to see its hold over us even today.
For men, it is the beauty (and femininity) of the woman that hypnotizes. Notably, male environments — locker rooms, all-male workplaces, etc. — are often decorated with at least one “pin-up” photograph of a woman. The sports game, dirty and dangerous work, etc., is a modern, safer manifestation of the mythic battle, and the semi-naked woman a somewhat degraded representation of the princess or mythic female.
There is a story of Lord Sadatomo and his visit to a Zen master in Japan. He had gone there to receive a particular ceremony. In the room where he met the master, there was a painting of a Chinese beauty named Rei Shojo. Lord Sadatomo was struck by the beauty of the image, and commented on it to the master, asking if the woman was in China? The master responded that she was in Japan. “Where?” the Lord asked enthusiastically. “In Lord Sadatomo,” the Zen master responded. Understanding the lesson, the noble bowed and left the room.
The story — and the question “what did Lord Sadatomo understand?” — was later given to Zen disciples as a koan (a riddle that might lead one to enlightenment). The lord was struck by painting, imagining the woman it depicted (Japanese art is typically less naturalistic and more stylized and, in a sense, symbolic than classical European painting). Perhaps he was prepared even to travel to China to find the woman he imagined, but the image — and his feeling for what he imagined — existed within himself.
But this is the power of a beautiful woman over a man: She appears as something ideal, too feminine to be of this world — an enigma, almost semi-divine. She is an opening to a different life and a different world. In a man, her image provokes a desire to leave his old life behind. She provokes, in other words, a death of the self.
A new relationship might help both to cultivate a deeper understanding of the world and what’s truly important. Perhaps the man will respond by redoubling his efforts to improve himself — to work out more and get stronger, perhaps. Or the relationship might mesmerize him, making him abandon his friends and interests. He might disappear from his circle of friends or he might stop training since these take him away from her even for a few hours a week.
I do not think we can say that the man that abandons his friends, training, self-development has sacrificed himself to romance. Very often, he soon feels stifled, trapped, and resentful. He has a sexual and “romantic” partner. They might be planning a future together. But the romance — in an authentically male sense — has gone out of his life.
As was expressed by the term “romance” before its later adaptation to refer to love stories, the romantic nature of men is rooted in a sense of the vastness and strangeness of the world or the cosmos; in fate and destiny; in a sense of danger, impermanence, and death. This is something that has to be experienced each day — in expanding the mind, training the body, in conquering the self — and that must be practiced and experienced when in a relationship and not just in the lead-up to it. We want to have a sense of destiny, and feel ourselves working towards it, and feel it shaping us anew as we move forward towards the unknown.
Previously Published on The Spiritual Survival