For all mathematical abstraction presented in the biographical “A Theory of Everything,” it is not Stephen Hawking’s ideas in theoretical physics that are the most eye-opening but rather his tumultuous personal life. The most heartwarming scenes have Mr. Hawking, with a looming, childish gaze, fixated on the women of his life (or, in their absence, a Penthouse magazine). The serendipitous meeting between Mr. Hawking and his future wife at Cambridge is particularly touching. It seemed like in one deciding gaze, an intractable equality was solved.
This is not the first film about romance afforded to an afflicted genius. In 2002, A Beautiful Mind won best picture for a film about the schizophrenic father of modern game theory. It’s a testament to the curiosity of the general movie-goer for a glimpse into the mind of genius. Although the actual theories and propositions are inaccessible to the viewer, their love lives are.
To the credit of the film, it portrays Jane, Stephen’s first wife, as a heroic figure, dealing without complaint with all the tribulations of having a vegetable husband. Her confidence first shows when after a delirious night of conversation she hands Stephen a napkin with her phone number scribbled inside. He later invites her to a ball, when he adamantly admits his disdain for dancing. Then in a moment of clarity, his degeneration already apparent, they awkwardly embrace and dance a most dashing dance. It was as though, for a fraction of a second, time had stopped. Or as Hawking would put it, they were sucked into a black hole.
I will not pretend to be an expert in sociology, and my own reference of old-world courtship is through the shows and films I watch. This medium will no doubt introduce bias. But shall we begin by noting this exchange between Hawking and Jane occurred in a place not too far from ours in a time not too long ago, between people not too different than ourselves. The past may always seem better than the present, but in this case, is the past not decidedly more civilized, more romantic, more dignified than today. These two participants were university students, like you and I were a few months ago, and met with some liquid enablers in hand as we always do, in places where they could actually hear each other talk. When needed, they could easily find refuge leagues away from anyone else.
It is almost inexplicable how there can be such a divergence in courting practices over the last 30 years. Yes, since then Hawking has published on black hole radiation, computers have been invented and bankers have become the new celebrities (or villains). That would explain the outgrowth of tinder couples, but not the massive turn to the sensory deprivation method of our time. It seems that the objective now is to warp, mask, or disregard reality in an effort to create the largest possible sample size.
Should we note that in the aftermath of WWI, the Brits were sensibly turned to a romanticized form of courtship unseen by aristocrats in the prior period. Faces turned when the widowed Mary Crawley, tested the waters with a potential suitor in Liverpool. Courting in British aristocratic circles is characterized by a clear and weighty forward momentum. Both sides are decidedly honest and straightforward with their intentions. An effort is made to play out the possibility. The basic premise seems to hold from Hawking to time immemorial. At some point between Hawking and the present, the focus turned from getting to know as much about someone to trying to know was little about the other person as possible. It's a phenomenon that seems to have no rational explanation, though admittedly these processes are hardly rational.
The reason for these aberrations, I believe, is the change in the amount of free time we have. Technology has intruded into every part of our lives, giving us unbelievable access to information, and keeps us wired at all times. Wealth has concentrated in a small group of people who can complement technology; all others are losing share. The implications for courtship is twofold: people in the small group will find fewer compatible mates – this is exacerbated by the limited amount of time afforded to each participant. Thus the result is an effort to maximize n.
It is encouraging, however, to find that technology is having an opposite effect to the recent phenomenon. It can be argued that new methods of meeting others, like Tinder, are a direct response to the messy way that is prevalent today. At the very least, participants on Tinder can be briefed on the candidate and proceed to chat with them. It follows a systematic rigour found earlier; it gives participants control. It focuses on getting to know one another first (though that is not always the case).
...to be continued.