Lately there’s been much talk about trigger warnings on college campuses. Some professors now feel pressured into putting cautions on centuries-old works of literature that include scenes that could be upsetting for an ever-growing list of reasons.
I modestly propose a new category of trigger warning, as I represent a marginalized minority group especially vulnerable to emotional trauma.
I’m among the 8.5 percent of people born when the planet Venus was passing through the constellation of Scorpio. This predisposes us, once or twice in a lifetime, to the kind of all-consuming, star-crossed infatuations that literature teaches us are destined to end in tragedy. The variety of bad endings is myriad and includes, if the obsession is mutual, death by sexual exhaustion. We are part of a larger emotional diaspora of Hopeless Romantics (henceforth referred to as HRs, or HR Syndrome), who are disproportiately prone to trauma from required literary survey courses.
For if the Western Canon teaches us one thing, it’s that a love that is excessively impassioned and idealistic is doomed. I majored in English 20 years ago, and I’ve been in one of Byron’s “dark moods” ever since.
Had the university had better resources, such as a Commitee For Coddling or faculty advisor sympathetic to my disposition, I might have been encouraged to chart a different path and swap Goethe’s “Elective Affinities” — a novel about two couples who meet and fall desperately in love with each other’s spouses — for the elective affinities of the emotion-free chemistry department, where the term simply refers to the interaction of compound molecules.
Imagine the legions of sensitive students quivering on the cusp of adulthood, filled with dreams of fairy-tale romance, repeatedly taught in the classroom that their deepest longings are very likely to bring about their own demise. Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde’s firey passions are thwarted by the cruelty of fate. Emma Bovary is reduced to disgorging black granules of arsenic and then dying a slow death. Werther puts a pistol to his head over romantic disillusion, and Anna Karenina is ground up like a rodent beneath a train. Then there’s poor Humbert Humbert, hero of what some have called the 20th century’s greatest love story, who has the pathetic misfortune of finding his love-object in the guise of a prepubescent.
Still others, like Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s “The Age Of Innocence,” suffer the protracted agony of unfulfillment. Having found true love but unable to possess it, they live out the every-graying decades of life in stifled mediocrity, a heart denied its full potential.
It’s all horrible, horrible stuff.
Wilde went so far as to say “Each man kills the thing he loves.” Thanks for that comforting thought, Oscar. These ideas don’t just make students with HR Syndrome feel depressed in the classroom, it makes them not want to bother with living. Doesn’t teaching works of literature validate suicide as a legitimate response to unrequited love, glamorized in cloaks of crystalline prose? Sure Balzac wrote “Lost Illusions,” but what about those of us who’d rather go through life blindly deluded?
One poisonous tome, thankfully obscure, should not just come with a trigger warning, it should be banned from university libraries, for it features a veritable mass-extinction of starch-collared HRs. In Max Beerbohm’s 1911 novel of undergraduate life at Oxford, “Zuleika Dobson,” an entire school class falls hopelessly in love with the title heroine and commits collective suicide lemming-style by drowning themselves in the Thames.
I am a survivor, metaphorically speaking, of that cold and biting plunge into the icy waters of heartbreak. A survivor of the soul-wrenching, stomach-churning classics of Western literature, to which I can only say: “Stay away.” — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD