Saturday, August 18, 2007

What's Love Got To Do With It?

I watched a documentary mentioned on the blog Tokyomango called "The Great Happiness Space" about "hosts" from "host clubs" in Japan. These "hosts" are young men who get paid by the hour to create the illusion of a relationship for women who come to the club. They talk, and sing, and drink mass quantities of uber-expensive champagne, all the while acting like the women who are paying them are the loves of their lives.

These attractive, well-dressed young men make staggering amounts of money being good-time boys- up to the equivalent of $50,000 a month.

The movie gives a very intimate view of the goings-on at the clubs, as well as some candid questioning of the hosts and their clients. You slowly start to understand that most of the women who are the big spenders in these clubs are themselves the female equivalent to hosts or prostitutes. The business of "love" is sapping the female sex workers, who come to the host clubs looking for release, and the hosts are made miserable by the grueling demands placed on them while at the club. Both sets of people are miserable, yet they continue to engage in this dance of deceit and simulation, chasing happiness they never quite find.

Obviously, this was a powerful look at a subculture in Japanese society, with larger implications for that society as a whole. Upon further reflection, however, I feel "The Great Happiness Space" has a lot to say about relationship dynamics in this country, too.

After reading bell hooks' All About Love: New Visions earlier this summer, I have been thinking about the difference between cathecting and loving. (Cathexis is emotional investment in someone/something.) hooks would have us see love as a more active thing than cathexis, a willful lifting up, an active caring for and about the object of our love. I have struggled with the separation of the emotional from the active, as a conceptual construct, but "Happiness" gave me some unexpected clarity in this area.

The thing that was being sold in the host bars was an illusion of love that emphasized the actions that we interpret as signs of cathexis- the thing we most often call being "in love". The romance, the play, the deep and exclusive interest in a love object-- these are the material "things" of love, the signposts we look for as confirmation of the loving state. In Japan, there is apparently great interest in creating elaborate romance rituals and an almost gamesmanship ethic of love. Perfect form is held up as the ideal. In theory, this makes a great deal of cultural sense in Japan-- a blending of Eastern emphasis on form, aesthetics, and ritual with voluptuous, decadent Western ideals of romance. Form, however aesthetically pleasing, is ultimately only an empty shell if actual cathexis, and the caring work of love are absent. The profound sense of loneliness, sadness, and despair communicated in the movie seem to stem from the disconnect between societally created pictures of "perfect love" and the emptiness of the reality of the emphasis on form. Whether you are a host caught in the cycle of illusion with your client, or a woman or man caught in the cycle of illusion with your significant other, in the end, you find yourself doubting the sincerity of the other, even as you feign sincerity yourself.

Far from being an exclusively Japanese phenomenon, I believe the same sort of disconnect is functioning in the US today, with much the same result. Without the same culturally embedded emphasis on form, American expectations for love have settled on the myth of marriage instead as the sought-after ideal. In our country, while we do place value on the giddy romanticism of newly minted relationships, the ultimate expression of love is seen as the joining of two people in lifelong, monogamous partnership. The final, logical goal of all romantic love for all people is marriage. Even love that has been traditionally seen as taboo, such as same-sex pairings, seeks the cultural sanction of marriage in this society that holds marriage to be the ultimate end-game of romantic love.

The problem with that idea is that marriage is NOT the traditional standard-bearer of fully realized love. As a matter of fact, prior to the nineteenth century, love was often seen as an ancillary product of marriage, not the main goal or concern, and was by no means seen as a sure thing. It was understood, even expected that many marriages would never develop into love. Love was often posed as a stumbling block for fools rather than a cultural good, and was certainly never seen as a goal in and of itself. Marriage was a social contract, designed to enhance the productivity of individuals, and create a home economy. It required work and investment from both parties, and was never designed to be a vehicle for creating or enhancing emotional connections. Marriage was fueled by production, not cathexis. That cathexis sometimes occured was largely incidental.

The problem with us, like the Japanese, is that we believe love is the answer, instead of the question.

We want to fix love as an ideal (romance! marriage!) and strive with all of our might to get there. If we do, we feel a sense of disappointment, because the reality doesn't match the hype. If we don't meet the goal, we feel bad and defective. And either way, we feel so very alone. The Japanese do all of the hard work, with the expectation that it will create emotional payoff, and the Americans expect the emotions to make the relationship work.

Neither group, it would seem, ends up very happy. Does love make a person happy? Is there a formula for love? Does love even really exist? Watch "The Great Happiness Space" online.


Christina said...

To answer your three questions, in order, and from my pov:
1. No.

2. Work, work, work and then lots of luck.

3. Yes.

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