With how many people did people used to sleep? It’s hard to tell. Language changes, and there’s the problem of bragging. Take the French. Stendhal in his treatise on love is expansive on the seduction strategies of his friends (hide under the bed; announce yourself so late in the night that kicking you out would already be a scandal), but in The Red and the Black Julien Sorel sleeps with exactly two women—and for this they cut off his head! A generation later, the dissipated Frederic Moreau hardly does any better in Sentimental Education. Flaubert himself mostly slept with prostitutes. In Russia, one could always sleep with one’s serfs, as Tolstoy did. (He felt terrible about it.) But peers, acquaintances, members of one’s own class? America was the worst. Henry James in his notebooks wonders if he should write a story about a man, “like W. D. H. [Howells], who all his life has known but one woman.” James had known zero women! Twenty years later, there was Greenwich Village. Edna St. Vincent Millay, riding back and forth all night on the ferry, was the most promiscuous literary woman of her time. But her biographer puts the grand total of her conquests at fourteen, and some of these, according to a rival biographer, are questionable—and three were “well-known homosexuals.” So ten. For the modern college senior, this is a busy but not extravagant Spring Break.
But the price for our liberation has been high. It has been: Dating. Has any generation before ever had to go on so many dates? The economies of major metropolitan centers are now almost wholly reliant on the dating industry—in the bistros, bars, nightclubs. At every turn, the dater finds himself flattered: advice books, reality television shows, an infinite selection of white striped shirts to wear untucked over jeans. The contemporary novel increasingly organizes itself around a series of dates.
Every culture produces its paradigmatic social situation, and the date is now ours. We, too, have been dating. In the little restaurants of downtown Manhattan we sit across from our dates, and over the course of a three-course meal make strange boasts (“I got a 1500 on my SATs—old style”), and genuine confessions (“My room is messy”), to set up boasts disguised as confessions (“I love sex! I can’t help it”). We’ve read the dating manuals: “Be happy,” advises Tracey Cox in Superdate. “Who would you rather hang around with? A depressed unhappy mooner or a funny optimistic?” The logic is irresistible.
And then there is the problem of money. Who says the decline of prostitution and the rise of love took the cash-calculations out of romance? If you do a lot of these things, they take time—as does the emailing, and then of course we need to update our Nerve profile. Amortize it: Two hours at $40 an hour (you could have been copy-editing). Then dinner, another $100. Drinks, $30. The cab ride over the bridge to our little room, $15. Coffee the next morning, $8. That’s $233 and on a Tuesday. For Saturday dates add the price of brunch and $4 for the Sunday Times.
Dating presents itself as an education in human relationships. In fact it’s an anti-education. You could invent no worse preparation for love, for marriage, than the tireless pursuit of the perfect partner. Keep Looking, says dating. You’re Not Done Yet. What About That One? And That One? Dating, like the tyrant, seeks perfection (within a certain price range). Whereas the heart, like the eye, can only cling to imperfections: her funny stride, and the way her voice breaks, child-like, on the phone. And so the dater, self-baffling, seeks what the heart cannot understand.
We must stop dating. But we can’t. Because the only way to stop dating would be to date more, and more efficiently, to become more adept at spotting, on the first date, those things that on the fifth or fifteenth date are going to become a problem. Of course that only makes it worse—by that standard, even Abelard and Heloise wouldn’t have made it. The other option is to change yourself. But you’d have done that by now, if you could.
The only way to stop dating is to fall in love. But how, under conditions of dating, would this be possible? You are affected by all the dates you’ve been on, the relationships you’ve had. The pain you’ve inflicted binds you to the people who bore the brunt of it. Won’t your spouse get mad if you call those long-lost dates, just once? But who else understands what made you the way you are? And so you come not only damaged and frightened and imperfect, but even imperfectly free. You are attached to all the people you’ve ever known and hurt and grew up with. The problem with dating is that it ends.
The problem with dating is that it never ends. Not all the perfumes of Arabia, that you registered for at Barney’s, will ever clean those hands.