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Editor’s Diary: Missed Connections and Magic

Posted on Sunday, October 17th, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Author: Sarah Jaffe

Hey girl in the strobing light
What your mama never told ya
Love hurts when you do it right
You can cry when you get older – Robyn

Last weekend, an old friend of mine was in town.  I jokingly introduced him to people by saying “I broke his heart in high school,” but that’s not exactly true even in the metaphorical territory of broken hearts.

He walked me home from the subway after drinks with a crew of other friends old and new and we talked about all the times we’d really had our hearts broken in the intervening years and at one point I shrugged something off and he told me I sounded like I’d lost the idea of magic.

There’s a scene in one of my favorite films, Before Sunset, where Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are walking through a garden, having just met up again for the first time in nine years, and are talking about the magic in the universe. And essentially, it’s a movie that is about the magic of connections. Of falling in love.

In this scene, they tick off various things: “Do you believe in ghosts or spirits?” “No.” “What about reincarnation?” “Not at all.” “God?” “No… But at the same time I don’t want to be one of those people that don’t believe in any kind of magic.”

[Clip from Before Sunset. Relevant part starts at 6:00.]

The fact that it is still one of my favorite movies probably testifies to the fact that I haven’t lost my faith in magic, entirely. Also my stubborn refusal to countenance internet dating. Rob Horning neatly summed up my feelings about the cheapness, the commodification-process of dating-by-online-profile:

Online dating forces candidates to present a sensitive and receptive self without reference to any specific acts of emotional recognition of any particular other person. One is simply emotionally competent, in the abstract. Thus online dating preconceives any potential intimacy as generic. But in reality, intimacy reveals itself in unpredictable moments that move us unexpectedly — when we suddenly sense that a partner has recognized something true about us we didn’t even know. Intimacy is earned in difficult stretches, in oblique confrontations that prompt fumbling attempts to articulate inchoate assumptions about the other. But we foreclose on those moments when we assimilate love to the internet’s niche-market, on-demand milieu.

A few days after the conversation about magic, I was sitting in a cafe in Midtown Manhattan flipping through a little artsy paper listing shows, gigs, and more.  I started reading out loud from the “Missed Connections” section of the paper to amuse the two friends there with me. (Missed Connections, for those unfamiliar, are personals ads placed for a specific person, someone perhaps who sat across the way from you on the subway or lent you five cents to pay for your coffee.)

I mocked a specific Missed Connection, one that read a bit too much like a hipster dating manual, but then put the paper down.  “Missed connections are like the anti-Internet dating,” I told my friends, both of whom are in happy relationships.

Because Missed Connections are a testament to the idea of something at first sight or first chat. If not love, at least a feeling that one person gives you that most others don’t. A feeling that there’s something intangible about connections, something you can’t describe in a list of bands you like or a thorough (yet word-limited) description of what you’re looking for in a relationship.

I stubbornly cling to that idea, that love is perhaps the one thing we can’t put into a box, wrap in a bow and sell. I believe in the magic in a moment’s connection, the first time you lock eyes with someone. I believe in the million tiny little specific things about a person that make them different, unforgettable. I have wonderful friends who live here in New York, but when one of my out-of-town visitors got in a cab for the airport this week I fought back tears.

In Before Sunset, Delpy tells Hawke, “You can never replace anyone because everyone is made of such beautiful specific details.” And he has written a book about their one moment, his own bigger, more dedicated Missed Connection, an outsize declaration of the meaning of one night. These characters have gotten older, have recognized that some moments are fleeting and others painful, but beneath their early protests, they hide a longing for something more.

Filling out a profile on a dating service says “I want someone to love me.”  Filling out a Missed Connection says “I want to love you.” One is ultimately a selfish declaration, a want to be satisfied, an item on a checklist, an itch to be scratched. The other is an offer, a leap in the dark, a gesture of a weird kind of faith.

Slavoj Žižek wrote recently (and Horning cited):

Love is a choice that is experienced as necessity. At a certain point, one is overwhelmed by the feeling that one already is in love, and that one cannot do otherwise. By definition, therefore, comparing qualities of respective candidates, deciding with whom to fall in love, cannot be love. This is the reason why dating agencies are an anti-love device par excellence.

Horning’s idea of love is a testament to struggle, “the last sanctuary for the idea that struggle can be rewarding.” Cristina Nehring, too, argued for a love that can’t be sold. And for me, despite my philosophical “You’ll get over it eventually, we all do” advice? I salute the Missed Connections page, the romance in each tiny narrative, the desire for that moment not to have meant nothing. I cling to a certain corner of my life that hasn’t been completely caught up in a system of commodity exchange and interchangeable mutual use.

Like Delpy’s character, I too don’t want to be someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of magic.

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