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When Harry met Jerry

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 29 July 2016


"When Harry Met Sally" (1989) is one of the great romantic comedies of our time. It shares a similar brand of comedy as Sienfeld that ran from 1989 to 1998. I am not sure whether there was cross-pollination between Harry and Jerry Sienfeld but they were both nurtured by the same zeitgeist. Both central male characters are smart, pragmatic and rationalistic. The comedy comes from how previously socially accepted behaviours are examined from the point of view of what may be called blank rationalism, a rationalism that insists that complex issues are readily reduced to the concerns of the individual. There is a shallow self-centeredness that is shocking to us and hence funny. You may remember that Sienfeld ends with all of the characters going to prison, whereupon Julia protests that she looks terrible in orange. They go to prison because they fall short of what we accept as human.

Both the Seinfeld and Harry are about the post sexual revolution landscape in which sex has been cut adrift from the creation of families. Children are completely absent. There is a moment in Harry when Sally relates playing "I spy" with a child and the child identifies a family and Sally breaks down. She had wanted children but her fiancé he did not and the relationship had ended. This was the only clue in the movie that raising a family is the end result of romantic involvement.

Take the family out of the picture and "having sex" (that graceless construction) is reduced to the pleasure principle and details relating to "good sex". It is remarkable that in both Seinfeld and Harry the principle male character poses the problem of after-sex etiquette: how long do you hold a woman after sex?

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This is a good indicator of our sexual terrain. Something that would be spontaneous and natural becomes problematic. It is an indication that we have been untethered from our deepest nature, that we have become so shallow in our relationships with others that all is subject to rational investigation. This is where the comedy comes from, what used to be a given is now a problem.

Harry is about how the mating game has become a minefield. The genius of the film is that old couples relate how they got together and remained married for a long time. These couples, from a pre-sexual revolution time, represent what we have lost, the solidity of marriages that presumably were satisfying not because they had good sex but that they raised families and hence lived in a network of family life. The fact that some families turned out not to be nurturing to all its members does not invalidate the concept.

The outcome of the sexual revolution in which we were given permission to indulge ourselves with strangers as a kind of adventure, is that sex has been removed from the long term intimacy that marriage creates and from the network of family and friends that surround the couple. "Good sex" is reduced to the orgasm that can, disturbingly, be faked.

Both Seinfeld and Harry demonstrate to us the emptiness of the sexual freedom that we have won for ourselves. Harry eventually draws the right conclusions, that marriage is the desired state, even though the characters have to find out that truth for themselves, they cannot any longer receive it from a tradition. They have to learn the hard way and that way incudes multiple agonies for lost partners, false starts, empty years and delayed fecundity.

We have arrived at the perfect freedom of the individual who claims the right to learn from scratch and must count the cost. Marriage now does not unquestioningly mean the nurture of children but a quest for the perfect mate who will give us great sex and fulfil all our other needs. No wonder it is fragile and flies apart at the first bump in the relationship.

Of course, marriage has always been difficult. There has been no golden age before the sexual revolution in which marriage was unproblematic. But at least there was the recognition of what the state of marriage meant. There was more to it than individual happiness with the "right" person, at times an almost impossible requirement, as Harry demonstrates. In traditional marriage the focus was not so much on the individual and more on the home that the couple produced that was a haven for children and extended family and friends. It was the place of sociability and nurture.

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Marriage depends on the maturity of individuals. The role of the Church is not to lay down the rules governing marriage but to produce grown-ups who realise that it is not always about them, that differences and disappointments in marriage can be born patiently and in a good spirit. The central sacraments of the Church, Baptism and Eucharist direct us away from ourselves and towards the other. This is not petty moralism that insists that we be nice to everyone in our own determination, but a lifelong realisation that in order to live we must die. The ego must be decentered. Without this training marriage is very difficult indeed, one could say impossible.

The opening scene of Harry is of Harry kissing a woman who declares her love for him and he, on queue, tells her that he loves her too. They part and never see each other again. Romantic love is a mixed blessing. We need it to get us started but it must fall by the wayside and love must be transformed into something more robust to fit the task ahead. It is in the joint task that we find out who we have married and that has little to do with falling in love.

The emphasis on romantic love is a sign of our times that places the experience of the self at a premium. This is why we can now talk about "great sex" which was unthinkable in previous generations. The most intimate sexual transactions are now up for public comment and scrutiny. Technology has given us the means to indulge in voyeurism as never before. We can now share our sexual experiences with the whole world, literally!

We have lost something here. In our rush to expose all, we have crossed a boundary. In Harry's enthusiasm for discussing sex with a woman he has just met (Sally) he scandalizes her and degrades lovemaking. Perhaps the deepest mystery that exists between men and women is reduced to "humping" and is open to inspection and even criticism. We are shocked, but we are also amused, but the fruit is spoiled. What had been a deep sharing has become a thing of calculation. There is now good sex and bad sex.

It could be said that since, for all practical purposes, God is dead, we have become our own creator. Life is not a gracious gift but a thing to be grasped and made. Everything is used in this task, especially sex. Our despair comes from the realization that the creation we have made does not nurture our lives, leaves us as children and condemns us to shallow lives that make no sense.

The sexual revolution gave us permission and we rushed out like enthusiastic children to the new age of freedom. What we found was confusion and obstacles to maturity.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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