Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Romantic's Paradox

An interesting mix of categories, hmm. Anyway, though I forget the details, I once came across a quote to the effect that the romantic ought to be disillusioned whenever the object of his desire settles for so lowly a creature as himself. Now, the obvious solution is to reject the sort of idolizing romanticism that places others on such high pedestals. (That's probably good advice for independent reasons.) But just for fun, let's try to help out the romantic here.

I can think of two ways for him to avoid misery. The first is to adopt a relativized notion of perfection. That is, rather than holding his goddess to be perfect simpliciter (which would presumably entail being free of bad taste or other cognitive defects), he could instead hold that she is perfect for him -- where this includes her having a highly specific cognitive defect which causes her to like him! (There's something quite amusing about this option, I think.)

Alternatively, and perhaps more in the spirit of idolizing romanticism, one could opt for a humble faith-based approach. That is, the romantic starts from the premise of his goddess' perfection, and his own comparative imperfection, and so concludes that he has no right to second-guess her judgment. If her choices seem incomprehensible to him, that must be attributible to his own flaws and misjudgment. If she likes him, she must have good reasons for doing so, no matter whether he's aware of them. (Note the interesting parallel here with a common response to the problem of evil.)



  1. I like your second solution. The first solution, I think, is less compelling, in part because most romantics do want perfection simpliciter. Even accepting relativized perfection, this approach is especially problematic for two specific types of romantics:

    1. The Aristotelian romantic, who believes that the virtues are interconnected, so that a single gaping hole in one's wisdom would not leave perfection intact elsewhere

    2. The Bayesian romantic (or Humean romantic), who recognizes that the prior probability of a person having such a highly specific cognitive defect is much lower than the prior probability of having some other type of imperfection which leads to a similar pattern of judgments, so that the pedestaled person who settles for him is unlikely to be perfect for him.

    It is interesting to compare the romantic's paradox with the similar Marxian paradox (that is, Groucho's paradox): "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would have me as a member." My sense is that, in this case, your second solution is weaker, your first approach is perhaps slightly stronger, and it seems more acceptable to suffer the dilemma and remain alone and unattached.

  2. "Bayesian romantic" - sounds oxymoronic to me ;-)

  3. Another solution is to deny that it is a problem at all. The dilemma, I presume, arises from the fact that, on the one hand, the Romantic will be disillusioned if the girl settles for him, for the reason he gives; and, on the other hand, he will be disillusioned if she does not, because she is the “object of his desires.” But I am not sure that the latter part holds, or at least not for Romantics. The whole point of the Romantic conception of things, as I understand it, is not to attain the object at all, but to romp around in an agony of hope and despair and self-loathing and to enjoy all of this feeling simply because it is rich and varied and intense; and perhaps to enhance the experience by making art out of it, art being the sort of activity that justifies itself, and gives pleasure whether it is inspired by gratification or despair. So when the Romantic “suffers his dilemma by being lonely and unattached”, he is not really suffering, and he might even say that he is not really lonely, because it is in these intense meditations that he knows himself and the girl most vigorously, and it is in his art that he recreates her for himself.

    Also, there is always something to say for “Romantic idolisation”, I think, as long as it is backed up by some measure of sound judgement. The identity of a person, you see, is a nebulous sort of thing, and we have many ways of giving certain parts of it special attention, and ignoring other parts, of seeing different shapes in it, and of seeing how it is different and similar to other people's identities, which are themselves nebulous and yield to the same pressures. One of the ways we can do this is to imagine what the nebulous object is like when we are not looking directly at it, when the person is not in full view (and of course it is not very often that a whole person, all of their mind and their movements, is in full view) and by imagining them as something we can as often as not find that thing in them, in the same way that we can find the shapes of arbitrary animals in clouds, and find the shapes of deities in constellations. And so, if we imagine a person as perfect, and if the actual person does fit that image reasonably well, we can easily see this perfection in them, and by doing so (Romantics, even mild ones, want to believe) we have found something better than the person who does not imagine anything and does not dare to wonder what perfection might mean.

    If that is not very plausible, one can always twist the quote a little bit to get something that accords better with common experience: “we should never settle for anyone who cannot make us better than we already are.” This gets rid of the dilemma while keeping some of the idolization.

  4. But Richard, I don't see why a romantic has to be a frequentist. ;)

    Mike is right that there are alternative solutions, which is especially true for a romantic who can be creative and not worry too much about little things like internal consistency. Getting the girl may not be essential, as in the tradition of courtly love, which (I've heard) was based on the premise that the truest love is unrequited. If a relationship is formed, the goddess's decision to settle for you could be attributable to many other factors besides a cognitive defect - perhaps it is the work of the gods (praise the Lord!), perhaps a sign of her kind and tender nature. Or maybe she is responding, not to your lowly self, but to the one perfect thing about you: your love. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww. Now that's romantic.

  5. Wow blair you should write bubble gum movie endings...

  6. Where'd you find the quote? I remember Nietzsche saying something like this, but I doubt he was the first.


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