It’s interesting how rapidly, but also how subtly, things change in the world. It struck me the other day, for example, that I hadn’t been in my bank—or any bank—for weeks and weeks. There was, of course, a time when I went to the bank all the time. We all did, I think…but those days somehow vanished almost without me noticing. My salary is direct -deposited into my checking account. So is Joan’s. I pay all my bills on-line. I deposit checks by opening my bank’s app on the phone and then taking pictures of them with my phone’s camera. In fact, when I actually did go to the bank the other day, it was specifically to deposit a check drawn on a Canadian bank in U.S. dollars which, for some obscure reason, you’re not allowed to deposit through your phone. When there start to be fewer and fewer branches to visit, I’ll probably complain just a loudly as I did when I began to realize that there were no more music shops or, other than Barnes and Noble, bookstores on Long Island. That too was my fault, at least in the sense that I am one of those people who switched early on to buying both music and books almost exclusively in on-line stores, but it was somehow still something I at least partially regretted having been slightly responsible for long after it was far too late actually to do anything about. I suppose that’s how the world morphs forward to new versions of itself: occasionally undergoing alteration by individuals who adopt grandiose schemes to change things in a big way (like the mayor of New York dramatically outlawing the Big Gulp), but mostly by regular people simply adopting new habits or novel ways of doing things and then, suddenly, the tipping point being reached at which the new way becomes the norm.
All these thoughts came to me the other day as I was reading, not so much the story about the bizarre way Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o—the most decorated college football player of all time—was duped by someone with whom he thought he had established a kind of on-line romance, but the comments that story engendered among the readers of the story who posted their responses in the Times’ on-line forum, readers whom I think it is reasonable to suppose represent a random cross-section of society.
The story itself you all probably know. Last September, Te’o announced that his girlfriend, a woman named Lennay Kekua, had died of leukemia. Compounding the tragedy, he also said, was the fact that his grandmother had also died that very same day. But now it turns out that Kekua not only didn’t die that or any day, but that she also never lived. After the story surfaced on the internet, Notre Dame reported that its own private investigation had determined that Te’o had been duped, that someone had used a fictitious name “[to ingratiate] herself with Manti and then [to conspire] with others to lead him to believe that she had tragically died of leukemia.” Te’o himself released a statement saying that he was the victim of “someone’s sick joke,” which he labeled as “painful and humiliating.”
I’m not much of a sports guy in general, but I am particularly uninterested in college football. But what did interest me was neither the discovery that there are creepy people out there who take some sort of perverse pleasure in making others look foolish (I certainly knew that already) nor the realization that love can make a fool out of anyone at all (I knew that too), but the comments that the story engendered. Basically, they fell into two categories: those who felt it was entirely reasonable for a young couple to pursue a romance that is exclusively on-line and those who held fast to the more traditional concept of romance involving physical nearness and actual, rather than virtual, contact.
This is not much like on-line banking. Why would I want to have to drive to the bank to deposit my salary check when it can automatically appear in my account at 12:01 AM on payday without me having to go anywhere at all? I can’t think of a reason why I would, which is why I am pleased to have my pay direct-deposited into my account. But I can think of all sorts of reasons to want to pursue a romance in person rather than virtually! Has Facebook really engendered a generation of young people to whom relationships are virtual by their essential nature and only occasionally transcend their inherent etherealness actually to exist in physical space? Is physical nearness—which I would have thought to be the sine qua non of romance—only a stage to which relationships grow nowadays after they’ve been established in the ether by people who know each other solely through Facebook or who meet at some on-line, thus waterless, watering-hole? It seems to me that the answer to that question has to do with how moderns have come to understand the concept of friendship as much as it does with the way they understand romance.
When I was growing up, friendships were presumed to have natural lives. You liked your friends, shared experiences together, helped each other through life’s rough spots…but, with the exception of the handful of truly life-long friends you managed to acquire along the way, these relationships had shelf lives that rarely outlived the context in which they first materialized. I feel no specific reason to justify having lost contact, for example, with the boys I went to summer camp with as a child. I couldn’t have liked camp more, and I remember my bunkmates all very fondly as part of that larger picture. (The fact that I can still name almost all the other boys in my cabin at Camp Oakdale surprises even me, given that the last summer we all spent together was when I was twelve years old.) I’d even like to know what happened to all of them, partially out of residual affection and partially to see how well I really did know them, but I’d never refer to any of them today as my friends. Former friends, maybe. Ex-friends sounds too harsh. Inactive friends, too peculiar. Defunct friends sounds to my ear worse than either. Simply put, we were friends when we were in close contact the course of some very formative years of our childhoods, then grew up and went our separate ways. Without ongoing contact, our friendships moved into the near, then eventually the distant, past. Surely there’s nothing wrong with remembering former friends fondly. But I’m old enough to want the people I actually think of as my friends to be present in my actual life, not only within the realm of memory.
But that’s me. And most people my age too, I suspect. A younger generation, on the other hand, has come into existence that considers friendships to be untethered to ongoing reality, thus in a sense permanent, and that finds it entirely reasonable to have on your list of hundreds upon hundreds of virtual “friends” people you haven’t seen since junior high school (if they still had junior high schools, that is) or summer camp. And also that considers the fact that a given personality from the past has no physical reality in your life in the present is not anything like a good enough reason not to think of that person as your friend.
And so we move onto romance. Sex, you clearly have to have in person. (I heard that. Let’s move on.) But romance, in its guise as the most tender and affective version of friendship, can apparently exist in the minds of many fully virtually, thus entirely outside the context of physical proximity. Clearly, even the most physically fit football players cannot move a romance to the stage of physical intimacy without physical proximity. But that the possibility exists of having a girlfriend you’ve never actually met…that idea would once have seemed far more unlikely than it seems to some today.
The long, complicated debate among the Times’ readers about whether it’s possible reasonably to think of as a girlfriend someone you’ve never actually met fascinated me. In some ways, it reminded me of the stories I read in the courses I took as an undergraduate in medieval French and German literature, stories featuring the concept of chivalrous love founded solely on unilateral affection and often focused on the beloved, always a woman, from a great distance by an admirer of whose very existence she was totally unaware. That kind of unrequited yet fully emotionally realized love formed the basis for the chansons de geste that featured courtly love—always unrequited at first and only eventually, if ever, consummated in physical reality—that were the bread and butter of the troubadours of the High Middle Ages. The concept seemed so odd to me at the time that I remember wondering if people like the knights and dames in the stories ever really existed, but in retrospect I believe I found it all so interesting precisely because it seemed so romantic and attractive, yet also failed to correspond to any aspect of dating or courtship I recognized from the world in which I actually lived.
Who knew that if I only waited long enough people would end up debating the concept of the virtual girlfriend and arguing about the legitimacy of romance conducted solely from afar? I suppose most college football players date women they actually know personally and I can’t imagine Manti Te’o doesn’t regret the whole incident now that the whole world is in on its details. I’m sure I would too! But the more interesting part of the story to me is how many people who contributed to the on-line forum surrounding the story appeared to find it reasonable for romance to be pursued solely through the ether…and, in a day in which sexual intimacy seems to function more as the starting gate than the finishing line for most relationships, how many people seem more than willing to accept the reasonableness of dating someone one has never actually met. Could courtly love be poised for a come-back? Maybe the world really does need more troubadours!