Love: Reinventing Romantic Love

  • onNovember 9, 2014
  • Special Edition 2011
  • byEun Heekyung

Romantic love is a historical phenomenon that appeared with the advent of modernism. Today, it is common knowledge that people get married because they love one another. But it was not until after the advent of romantic love that love became a condition for marriage and the causal relationship between love and marriage was established. Before romantic love became the social norm, people were often given the freedom to pursue romantic love after they had fulfilled the duty of marriage. Romantic love, no matter how you look at it, has a commanding influence on the concept and image of love today.

Romantic love was a new freedom that emerged with modernism. An affirmation of individual freedom, along with romantic love, was more widely recognized, and a new order was built on the freedom of sentiments. People started to yearn for purely romantic relationships based on emotional connections, rather than class, power, or other external factors, and in the process a new theory of subjectivity called “affective individualism” emerged, giving rise to the passionate romance -> marriage -> home sweet home model. After romantic love, individual lives became open projects that allowed room for new desires and new anxieties, and love became a fateful process of enchantment on the way to a complete life.

The novel played no small role in establishing romantic love as the modern myth. 17th century French writer François de La Rochefoucauld once said that people could not even have imagined falling in love if they had not read about love in books, and has argued that romantic love is a literary creation in many ways. As numerous stories of romantic love became popularized in the novel form, romantic love became a modern myth and the mass desire for romantic love became structuralized. Here is where we find the reason German sociologist Niklas Luhmann referred to the novel as a form of generalized media on love. If so, what forms of love do we encounter in novels of the 21st century? Let’s briefly examine the meaning of love in contemporary Korean society through a few novels published since the 1990s.

1. 鸟的礼物
Eun Heekyung, 人民文学出版社, 2007

2. Romantic Love and Society
Jung Yi Hyun, Moonji Publishing Co., Ltd.
2003, 251p, ISBN 9788932014487

3. Voleur d'oeufs
Youn Dae-Nyeong, L’Harmattan, 2003

A Gift from a Bird is Eun Heekyung’s first novel. In this book, Eun offers a scrupulous portrayal of Korean lives and customs in the 1960s when Korea first entered the era of industrialization. The novel opens with the scene where people are watching the moon landing in 1969. The first moon landing was a great scientific accomplishment, but it was also the end of mystified and romantic notions of the moon. The romantic belief that a rabbit sits under the laurel tree on the moon was shattered when man landed on the moon and discovered that it was a just a dry, rabbit-less, desolate place. Love in Eun’s novel is not very different from the demystified moon.

The protagonist is a nice, average, 12-year-old named Jinhee who believes: “I don’t have to grow past the age of 12.” For the adolescent girl, life is just a joke. Why does she not feel the need to grow? Beneath Jinhee’s cool exterior are wounds inflicted by her mother’s suicide and her father’s absence. For Jinhee, life is just a succession of scars. If love is a part of life, romantic expectations will also someday become a scar. For her, romantic expectations of love are as clichéd as life is boring. As an adult, Jinhee lives with her uncle’s friend. They’re not married, and they don’t have children together. Jinhee does not see love as an object of desire or a fate she has to follow. It is nothing more than a show that involves coincidence, humor, and cynicism.

Youn Dae-Nyeong’s Beetle Woman is about love in the information and digital era. Yi Seong-ho wakes up at a subway station on Christmas Eve and realizes that he has lost his memory. He happens to meet a woman of short stature named Seo Ha-suk who spends all day on the computer and moves in with her. Ha-suk recommends a memory transplant method for him that connects information by dots, resembling the movement of beetles. Seong-ho gets a memory transplant from a man named Yi Myeong-gu and as proof, he gets a beetle tattoo on his shoulder. Seong-ho is increasingly overcome with the desire to murder Cha Su-jeong, Myeong-gu’s ex-lover. Seong-ho had received Myeong-gu’s memory of wanting to kill Su-jeong for being unfaithful. Later, Seong-ho finds a beetle tattoo on Ha-suk’s shoulder. She had bought Su-jeong’s memory. In Youn Dae-Nyeong’s novel, love takes the form of salvation and fate. Why did Ha-suk buy Su-jeong’s memory when it could have killed her? What she bought wasn’t simply Su-jeong’s memory but also the possibility of love, which gives Ha-suk the sense of assurance that she has a destiny. She’s already too jaded to believe that love can be a fateful process of enchantment that brings one’s life to perfection, but the possibility of love will add new desires and anxieties to her life. The romance of love is gone, but love remains a subconscious desire. Ha-suk’s subconscious desire is that love will be her most basic salvation or destiny.

“I don’t wear lace panties.” This is the first sentence in Jung Yi Hyun’s Romantic Love and Society. The introduction of Volkswagen’s new Beetle in the 90s symbolizes all the aspirations of Yuri, the protagonist. She desires money, fame, and style in life, but all she really has is her body—her virginity, to be exact. Laceless panties represent virginity in this story. She meets various men and allows them her hands, a kiss, or her breasts, depending on their status. She uses her sexuality like currency. But no one gets into her panties. She finally meets the man of her dreams, and they agree to buy her social status with her virginity. But for some reason, she does not bleed. The man gives her a Louis Vuitton bag and leaves the hotel, and she comes home wondering whether the bag is a fake.

The message of the novel becomes clearer if you change the title to Romantic Love and Capitalist Society. Yuri strategically plans to satisfy her desires born of capitalism by taking advantage of the male-centered society. For Yuri, love is a process of cashing in her physical capital. Without capital to maintain it, the romanticism of love falls apart. Romantic love is based on a purely sentimental relationship that is not swayed by factors such as money. But Yuri is aware that the continuation of romantic love and its perfectly happy ending is made possible through capital support. Love is de-romanticized and at the same time re-romanticized by capital.

If novels in the past functioned as a generalized medium of romantic love, novels today are mediums of de-romanticized love. On the one hand, we are continually inundated by TV shows that affirm and reaffirm the myth of romantic love and on the other hand, disillusioned by novels that speak of the impossibility of love in contemporary society. Love is constantly re-romanticized and de-romanticized. Love is fate, salvation, a big joke, and a means of exchange. There are likely many other faces of love. We live in a time when novels about disenchanted relationships are as pedestrian as ones that insist romance is alive. The symbolic chaos associated with love in itself reflects contemporary society. But one thing is sure: humans are incapable of living a life devoid of romantic entanglements. As long as novels continue to reflect human beings, the subject of love will continue to be fundamental to the novel.