In an article from Sunday's New York Times Magazine about the effect of newfangled communications technology on adulterous relationships, Virginia Heffernan argues, "By removing the body from relationships, electronic communication makes romantic love less animal. The lovers' discourse becomes simultaneously more childlike and more intellectual, more spiritual." Problem is, she makes this case three paragraphs after providing the unfortunately indelible image of a BlackBerry recently used for illicit e-mails as "hot and even damp, as if it had been inside a human body." Yes, she did. And just in case you're one of those people who doesn't know what people mean when they say, "If you know what I mean, and I think you do," she adds, "Lots of erotic energy was going into that thing." Pretty sure that phone was set on vibrate, if you know what I mean, and I think you do!
Sorry, I just had to get that part out of the way. Heffernan's thesis is that people carrying on electronic affairs are more in love with the technology -- with the ability to communicate so rapidly, via so many new devices -- than with the recipients of their impassioned txts. "Probably the pundits are wrong: there's no special problem with marriage or romance in this country right now," she says. "Instead, our current bind is with offline reality -- real life. We've been cheating on it, all of us, for a long time, living in a wireless fairyland where we r all so giddily hot." I agree that the pundits are probably wrong about marriage, but I'm not convinced by the second part. Sure, the Internet and smartphones allow us to avoid being fully present at a particular place and time, but forbidden love and its attendant fantasies and yearning have always done just that. Longing for someone who's not around -- the cornerstone of affairs since time immemorial -- checks you out of the moment whether you're writing a sexy e-mail or just daydreaming. And as Heffernan points out, it's not as though the mash note is strictly a product of the Internet age: "Epistolary romance seems to have existed as long as romance itself." If Mark Sanford and María Belén Chapur fell in love with e-mail, not each other, wouldn't it follow that Anais Nin and Henry Miller were really just hot for pen and paper?
But that kind of communication was more literally sensual, says Heffernan. "[W]asn't writing paper always being supplemented with dried flowers, locks of hair and wafts of perfume?" Digital tokens of affection, on the other hand, might "only amplify how nerdy and how platonic digital romance is." Eh, I'm not buying it. Nerdy, yes; platonic, no. [Note: that link goes to a College Humor video that will immediately begin playing, so turn your speakers down if you're at work.] Just like affairs carried on primarily by post or telephone or carrier pigeon, e-relationships are about what's going on in the brains of the two participants -- the promising delight of a still-idealized partner, the thrill of taboo emotions, the adrenaline rush of infatuation -- not about what, specifically, pops up on one's throbbing BlackBerry. It's not technology that makes us want to step out of the present moment and into a fairy land sometimes; it's being human. Wireless devices may make it more obvious to others that we're doing it, but who hasn't been distracted by incessant thoughts of a new amour -- illicit or otherwise -- while pretending to be fully engaged in real-world conversation? If the entire Internet went down tomorrow, lovers everywhere would still pine for one another and be annoyed by having to talk to other people.