One difference between me and Desiree Hartsock, this season’s bachelorette, is that I'm cursed with the inability to fall in love with someone who mistakes verbs for adjectives. Des, to her credit, is more forgiving. And maybe if I were being courted by Brooks, I'd forgive him too. Sweet, gentle, pretty Brooks, Brooks of the prominent cheekbones and shampoo-commercial hair. What I wouldn't give for hair like Brooks'. Thick, shiny, luscious, undulant—adjectives don't come close to doing hair like his justice. Brooks has hair you want to make a home in.
He and Des were cruising in a Smart car convertible through the subtropical forests of Madeira Island (“a hidden pearl in the Atlantic,” as Zak W., another contestant, put it), just laughing, having fun, being themselves, and living in the moment. This was Brooks’ second one-on-one, so he knew Des was into him—but how into him? Back at the villa, there were four other dudes doing chin-ups, drinking smoothies, and hoping to end up Des' husband. They all had prominent cheekbones, too, and Michael and Drew both had hair almost as beautiful. Brooks needed to know where he stood with Des. He knew she liked him, but did she love him? “We need more adjectives,” he said, meaning verbs.
It was a moment that reminded me why I continue to watch The Bachelor(ette), even its weaker seasons—and this season is one of the weakest in recent memory. Des is a lousy bachelorette. She's too reserved, too unsure of herself; her speech is too effortful. In conversation her reactions are weirdly delayed, as if she has to tell herself, “Someone said something: React!” Her response to anything tender or flattering or sincere is to say, “Ohhhh! That's so cute!”—not because she's patronizing, it seems, but because she doesn't know what else to say. You get the sense she doesn't feel she really deserves to be the bachelorette, which is fatal: Every bachelor and bachelorette should feel, deep down, that their whole lives have been merely a preparation for these few awful and wonderful weeks during which they are privileged to choose their wives or husbands from a pool of 25 eager candidates. Des doesn't project the requisite pathological self-confidence.
Here's why her season—and any bad season of The Bachelor(ette)—is nevertheless worth watching: No other cultural product today so consistently and entertainingly dramatizes the inadequacy of the English language in the face of love, or whatever it is that without fail seems to actually develop, despite our skepticism, between the show's star and one or more of its contestants. Brooks, while grammatically confused, is right: We do need more words to talk about how we feel. There should be nameable gradations on the spectrum between like and love. “I lurve you,” says Woody Allen's character to Annie Hall. “I loave you, I luff you.” He's got the right idea.
Bachelor(ette) viewers are liable to experience multiple sensations of déjà vu over the course of a season—not only because every season is structurally and aesthetically identical, but because most of us have acted out some version of these scenes ourselves.
Which is to say, when it comes to love talk, we mostly resort to stammering nonsense and clichés. “I just, you're so, I don't know, it's just that, never mind, I just think, I just think you're really great,” is the kind of dumb thing I sometimes hear myself saying to my lovely girlfriend. (My girlfriend, I should say, doesn't regularly watch The Bachelor(ette), in part out of fear of it ruining our romance, in part because she wrongly believes she has better things to do.) And here's a quote from a recent contestant on The Bachelor: “I'm like, god, you know, is he, am I not, is that, he's not gonna pick me, because he feels like maybe I'm not emotionally weak enough to be able to, you know, be so needy, you know, and om, it scares me because I'm feeling like, I'm feeling for you, really and really strongly, and I want you to make me feel comfortable enough so that I can fall in love with you, and I'm just, I'm, I don't know, I'm not used to feeling like this, I didn't expect to come in and feel this way.”
The more we see the bachelors and bachelorettes in ourselves, the more we see ourselves in them. They are more attractive and better socialized and cheerier than we are, but we're comrades in romantic ineptitude. They, like us, have no idea how to talk about love. The only difference is that they're on a TV show on which they're called upon every episode to do little else besides talk about love.
Who cares that Brooks doesn't know adjectives from verbs? We all know what he means. Later in the date, after he and Des have ascended in their Smart car to a mountain ridge overlooking vast pastures of cumulonimbus clouds, after they've raised their held hands to the sky and shouted, “We're on cloud nine!”, they settle in for an intimate dinner in front of the cameras on a torch-lit Madeira balcony. Red wine, flickering shadows, untouched food. Brooks dutifully explains how he's all about family, then brings up his “adjectives” suggestion from earlier in the day. “Oh, I have some!” Des exclaims. These are the “adjectives” Des has come up with to signify levels of affection between “like” and “love”: “stepping,” “skipping,” “running,” and “finish line.” Des thinks she and Brooks are “running.”
Traditionally, our culture has turned to poetry to express the inexpressible, transcend outmoded forms of speech, and, in the words of Mallarmé as restated by Eliot, “purify the dialect of the tribe.” Des, a bridal stylist by trade, is also an amateur poet—as is Chris, a mortgage broker and former professional baseball player, and another of the three finalists in the quest for Des' heart. On their Madeira one-on-one, they co-wrote a poem, three quatrains in loosely metered rhyme and slant rhyme:
Experiences we share together
keep the memories close to heart,
so that with time
our love never parts.
No matter the distance
or the hours away,
know that I'm somewhere
thinking of you.
Just as the waves
crash into the shore,
I long for the day
that I will be with you forevermore.
Better, in my judgment, are Des' impromptu free-verse poems (so they seem to me), like this one from last season's Bachelor, on which she was a contestant (line breaks mine):
No, you know what I do have,
I do have a deeper side, though, like,
I'm very like, you know, I'm very spiritual,
I'm very emotional, I'm very like—
I think differently, I think, than a lot of people?
So I don't just think like on the surface,
I kind of like, I enjoy life,
and I enjoy the beauty of life,
and that's why I'm happy every day.
And I can know that what I have
may be what you want,
and I don't worry about anybody else.
You know what I mean?
That put me in mind of one of my favorite love poems, Robert Creeley's “For Love.” My girlfriend gave me a copy of it not long after we started dating; these days, I'm happy to report, we're “at the finish line.” Des should try reciting it on one of this season's remaining episodes to Chris or Brooks or Drew. “Yesterday,” I imagine her beginning,
I wanted to
speak of it, that sense above
the others to me
important because all
that I know derives
from what it teaches me.
Today, what is it that
is finally so helpless,
different, despairs of its own
statement, wants to
turn away, endlessly
to turn away. ...
And after Des recites the rest of the poem, Chris or Brooks or Drew will nod or smile or embrace her or say, “That was lovely,”—or maybe just be silent for a little while.