The words that echoed constantly in the back of my mind as I read this book were from Paul Simon’s song ‘Train in the Distance’: ‘the thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains’.
The words that echoed constantly in the back of my mind as I read this book were from Paul Simon’s song ‘Train in the Distance’: ‘the thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains’. Paul Hollander’s thesis is that modern America’s ultra-individualism has led its citizens to expect perfection in every aspect of life, relationships included. Which means that Uncle Sam and Auntie Samantha are in for a few disappointments. Your neighbour’s grass is always greener — so his wife sunbathing on it looks curiously attractive …
Hollander differentiates his fellow countrymen from people on this side of the Atlantic. Americans’ ‘popular romanticism does not follow the European idea that finding the perfect soul mate is outside the control of the individual, that it is something mysteriously pre-ordained, a matter of fate or providence.’ Instead they believe, go-getting positive thinkers that they are, ‘that there are many individuals out in the world who may be ideal long-term partners, provided that the appropriate methods are used to locate them.’
Hollander’s study of these methods concentrates on personal ads and internet dating sites. There are fish in the barrel — let’s shoot. ‘Me: beautiful, slender …’ runs one ad, ‘I have a weakness for Bach’s English Suites, the beach in the later afternoon on a summer day … cutting dahlias for the dinner table, cooking the perfect roast chicken, Chopin nocturnes, making love in the moonlight.’ As Hollander himself asks, ‘do such people really exist, and if they do, why would they need to advertise their overpowering, self-evident attractions?’ He compares the Stateside listings with British ones: ‘Bald, short, fat, and ugly male, 53, seeks shortsighted woman with tremendous sexual appetite.’ There’s also a chapter on relationship advice books. ‘The problem is not you,’ advises famed expert Dr Phil. ‘I believe, to the absolute core of my soul, that you are about to discover a huge secret … YOU.’
Potential readers should be warned that this is an academic book, for the simple reason that Hollander is an academic. ‘I was a student of Communist systems and later a sociologist of ideas,’ he tells us, ‘becoming eventually what may be described as a sociologically inclined intellectual historian.’ Oh dear. But while the book is a slog, it’s not without rewards. Hollander often sets his assertions in interesting historical context: ‘Because colonial America never had a system of arranged marriage, the ideal of free, individual choice is more deeply rooted in American society than in many other modern cultures.’ And he freely admits that his conclusion — namely anyone looking for the perfectly satisfying relationship is doomed to fail — is a ‘melancholy’ one. As an examination of one of the fundamental truths of the human condition, this book works well. It could remind Americans that the pursuit of happiness enshrined in their constitution is more about pursuit than it is about happiness.
That Paul Simon song is about the singer’s own divorce. ‘Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance,’ he notes. ‘Everybody thinks it’s true.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 3, 2011Tags: Academia, America, Book review, Culture, Sociology, Study