In the movie adaptation of Michael Ondaatje's “The English Patient" the character of Hana the nurse, played by the great Juliet Binoche, reads a bit of poetry written by her eponymous patient while he’s convalescing. She reads, “The heart is an organ of fire".
I do not aspire to be a nurse in wartime caring for traumatic burn victims, and I say that with great respect for those who do. Nor do I cast wistful, romantic thoughts into their circumstances, wondering how I might have fared. But in the expression of their wrenching stories, depicted in both the source novel and the movie, I understand something profound.
Many people wake up each morning focused on how they’re going to enhance their profit line, and I don't impugn the thought. Everyone likes profits just like everyone likes to be a winner. But even those who are most focused and determined to rack up winning deals and mounting profits generally find themselves caring about things beyond the next coin, sooner or later. It’s inevitable. Acquisition and accomplishment for its own sake ultimately implodes into meaningless shards. If there’s nobody to enjoy stuff with you, you’re ultimately left with little more than just a big pile of stuff, and it won’t matter one bit if that stuff is exotic and luxurious and cool.
Sadly many people come to this thought late in life, after many of the human connections they could have built are eroded and gone.
Romantic ideals are about getting outside of yourself. They often begin as selfish pursuits, focused on private experience, but once they take root romantic ideals rarely end there. Shortly after germination, romantic ideals often speak to shared ephiphanies, intangible victories, or at their apotheosis, transcendent opportunities. This is why age old adventure stories, in literature and movies and plays and campfire tales, are inherently romantic. They live beyond the moment of their telling. They build connections among people. Most importantly, they offer opportunities for meaningful life beyond accumulations of stuff. A romantic existence, just like a romantic story, deals with extending life into the future. Ultimately the extension of all of our lives into the future is why we invest ourselves in our children, in our values whatever they may be, or in our great creative enterprises big and small. Romance is about transforming a moment or an idea into timelessness.
Don’t miss this, dear reader: romance is all about the great furnace propelling creativity.
My thinking is clear here. Sure, I like gizmos and gadgets. Sure, the whiz-bang aspects of big rockets and cool electronics are kind of neat, and yes, we’re pretty good at turning their cold mechanical bits into narratives that call warm blooded humanity from the cold expressions of algorithms and circuit boards. But what really gets me are the ways that these inherently inert objects can invest implication into culture and humanity’s future. There’s a beauty in a quest to do something that hasn't been done before. Sometimes it’s called adventure. Sometimes it’s called discovery. Sometimes it’s called love.
When Hana the Nurse says, "the heart is an organ made of fire", she’s tangibly located on the edge of a horrific war. One of its participants has been swept into its inferno and burned beyond recognition – – the English Patient himself. The humanity of intimate connection that’s possible between these two people finding themselves on the edge of World War I’s global seizure is the essence of romance. The details of their private experience matter more than the massive traumatic details of the great, big conflagration all around them. Their’s is the moment of discovering something beyond the unique circumstances that have swept them up. They discover aspects of being alive that go beyond a mere recitation of facts and information, and that is the most genuine and profound kind of discovery possible. They connect their circumstances to something beyond themselves, without losing sight of their own intimate perspectives.
Hearts afire, they extend their present into the future. On the surface it may look like romance, but if it were only romance the story wouldn’t resonate. Instead there are universal implications of something else, something intangible extending through time, and that makes the story matter.
It’s more than just romance. It’s that resonance over time that makes it romantic.