March 7, 2014, by Helen Lovatt

Love is a bourgeois construct: the view from Rome

A few weeks ago I asked if you believed in love: now I’m thinking about the ways that ideas of love affect the rest of life, and are implicated in class structures.

The title of this post comes from a Pet Shop Boys song in which they refer to a David Lodge campus novel Nice Work (1988).  In this novel a Marxist English lecturer (young and female) has to participate in a work shadowing scheme, following a middle-aged male factory owner. Of course, opposites attract and he ‘falls in love with her’ – to the soundtrack of Jennifer Rush’s hit ballad The Power of Love (1985). But she tells him as she leaves him that ‘love is a bourgeois construct’.

The Pet Shop Boys song laughs at the ways that educated people struggle to come to terms with emotions. The central character claims that since his lover left, he now understands that love is a fantasy of the middle classes, a ‘blatant fallacy’. Like the elegist, he spends his time exploring ‘the outer limits of boredom, moaning periodically.’ He’s a ‘full-time lonely layabout’, ‘digging through his student paperbacks’. Refusing to work and courting criminality are ways of claiming authenticity.

But at the end of the song this discourse of disillusionment, too, is revealed as empty. Love is a bourgeois construct: until you come back to me. Latin love elegy, too, and particularly that of Ovid, plays with its own insincerity.

What does it mean, though, to say that ‘love is a bourgeois construct’? It suggests that the discourse of romantic love functions to pen us into the expectations of society: to have a monogamous, exclusive, one woman one man relationship at the centre of a nuclear family. If you don’t care what society thinks of you, you are not bound by the expectations of how romance should work. Or is it that romantic love is a luxury funded by middle class incomes?

Of course there isn’t really a middle class in Rome, and Propertius, like other Latin poets, is a member of the elite. He could read and write, for a start. But the difference runs deeper than that. For Propertius the life of love is a life of resistance to dominant societal norms: he refuses to get married, he refuses to go abroad with his patron and have a military or political career, he refuses to write poetry in a more high-brow genre. Instead he watches Caesar’s triumphs from the lap of his beloved.

Is it ever really possible, though, to get outside the discourse in which you grew up? The more Propertius protests, the more obsessed he seems by his relationships with other Roman men. Books from university can’t stop you from falling in love at the most inopportune moments. Love may well be a bourgeois construct, but it doesn’t feel like one when it happens.

Pet shop boys: Love is a Bourgeois Construct on youtube. 

Interview with David Lodge about university life then and now.

Image credits: Propertius and Cynthia at Tivoli by Auguste Jean Baptiste Vinchon.

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