The word “wooing” doesn’t get used very much anymore. Not just because the word itself sounds outdated, but because the relationship scene has changed a tad over the last hundred plus years.
Newfound social flexibility has taken a lot of the ritual out of love, which is great if you don’t want to be exchanged to the neighboring villager for a goat but less great when you’re trying to figure out how long to wait before you call someone back. Or what to say when you do call. Or whether there’s anything to call about in the first place. OR, dare we speculate, if the call might somehow result in marriage, children, and a fixed 10/30 mortgage.
Suffice it to say that the relationship between modernity and love is “complicated.” If you struggle with today’s mating rituals, raise a toast to these awkward wooers across the twentieth-century: J. Alfred Prufrock, Holden Caulfield, and Kurt Cobain. In addition to being tongue-twisted, evasive male lovers, all three figures arise during particularly fat and happy times in American history – which certainly doesn’t help if you already feel like a loser.
J. Alfred is the original guy awkwardly crushing on the girl at the party. His entire 132-line “love song” is a speculation about whether or not to approach his love interest, whose identity he doesn’t even have the guts to divulge. There are several alternate interpretations of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, including the following:
- Prufrock approaches the woman he loves, loses his nerve, and gives up without saying anything.
- Prufrock wanders through the city streets imagining approaching said woman, then anticipates rejection and gives up without saying anything.
- Prufrock spends the entire poem at home, where he imagines wandering through the city streets imagining his fantasy self approaching said woman, being rejected, and then giving up without saying anything.
- Prufrock isn’t even in love with anyone specific and just likes to torture himself.
Folks, welcome to modernism. It doesn’t get any easier from here.
Fast forward thirty years to The Catcher in the Rye: the heyday of Ford Mustangs, drive-in burger joints, the nuclear family, post-war purposelessness, and an unbelievable pressure to conform. Then imagine trying to date.
Although Catcher might not strike you as a love story so much as the disillusioned ramblings of a naïve seventeen-year old, once you strip away all the criticism of phonies, meanness, adulthood, and popularity, you’re left with… not much of anything. Which is why we can’t ignore the fact that the two areas of Holden’s life that remain unscathed are his (deceased) little brother, Allie, and his (absent) crush, Jane. These are the rulers by which Holden measures everything.
Of course, Holden never works up the nerve to go through with calling Jane – any of the times he tries – but he does violently attack his roommate after suspecting him of “giving her the time” (possibly by coercion). As far as Holden goes, that’s quite the display of knight-in-shining-armor-ness. Unfortunately, the fact that the book ends with Holden in some sort of institution gives us the distinct impression that things with Jane never quite work out.
Jump ahead another forty years for the disjointed, jilted love story of the breakout 1991 hit Smells Like Teen Spirit. In it, Cobain describes a woman – “over-bored and self-assured” – that automatically makes his mind jump to “a dirty word.” He then says “hello” several times before asking, “how low?” You smooth talker, you.
Next comes the chorus, which assures us that “with the lights out, it’s less dangerous.” In case you’re not already feeling uncomfortable, Cobain then rattles off the following items like they somehow belong together: “a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.” Yup. Nothing puts a gal in the mood like a pejorative racial term, a pigmentation disorder, a blood-sucking insect, and talk of the ol’ sex drive. We can’t say we’re surprised that the song ends in a famously repeated “denial.”
For someone so romantically inept, it’s only fitting that Cobain be dubbed the “self-hating icon of the inarticulate generation” by the UK Telegraph. Then again, if they think the 1990’s were the only inarticulate generation, the joke is on them.