It’s much more romantic to remain at a slight distance from some things, don’t you think?
Up close, or from too far away, some things lose their luster or their appeal, and we long for that view, perched halfway between detached objectivity and subjective, phenomenal experience: the romantic distance.
Take a mountain, for example. Looking out of your bedroom window and seeing one peeking out over the tops of clouds? Yes, please. Excellent.
But, close-up to it, or living on it, you don’t experience it the same way. It’s too chilly at this elevation, you might think. The view’s nice, but I’m too far from the necessities.
From further away, the mountain is lovely. But of course you don’t want to be so far that you can’t see the mountain at all.
This is the romantic distance.
The sound of a train. At night especially, some mornings and some long, dusky summer evenings, the sound of a train’s horn is incredibly lulling and evocative, a welcome note some blessed cities strike. It’s the sound of a powerful anachronism steaming through the evening — the call of past eras to our own.
A train’s call, when it lolls its way to me from a distant hill, carries tremendous romantic weight — but only because it maintains that distance.
If you live down the street from the train tracks, the experience is very different. You hear, besides the train horn — which is now ear-splittingly loud — the rumble of the cars, the crack of the wheels on the tracks, the clanging train-crossing signals, and the sound of traffic paused in its purpose by the passing caravan. The aesthetic is entirely dissimilar.
It works the same way for the rain, too; lovely to hear fall, but somewhat less pleasant if heard out from beneath any decent shelter, under the rain itself. And better at night, when it doesn’t drown our days or rain on our parades.
Even the rumble of a jet has a romantic hint to it: cloudy, low, slow, rolling like thunder, all great qualities — but it possesses them really only when it’s at a real distance; a substantial one.
Church bells aren’t subject to the romantic distance, in part because they’re designed to sound pleasant at any distance (except perhaps Quasimodo’s).
There’s a romantic distance in our common conceptions of many places: canyons, deserts, crowded downtowns, lit-up carnivals, the snake of a highway running over hills, tundra, even jungle — like in the action-adventure movie when the heroic couple scale the plateau rising high out of the humid jungle below and look out over the wild and deep green valley beneath them, and perhaps a few birds fly out of a tree a good half-mile away. They can breathe a sigh of relief and take in the view, unmolested.
Deep in the sweaty, humid living forest, caught in its fragrant embrace, the experience would be quite different.
I can personally vouch that Yellowstone’s “Old Faithful” geyser is much more awe-inspiring (and less injurious) viewed from a slight distance than if seen close-up.
Moreover, it’s not just sights and sounds that carry the DNA of the romantic distance within them; growing up downwind from Gilroy, CA, the “Garlic Capital of the World,” brought welcome smells every morning to our house in the southern part of the Santa Clara Valley.
It is unknown whether I would have felt the same way if the scent of garlic had not simply clung to the air, hanging as it did, come from such a long way to be there, but to our clothes, our things, and our very selves, emanating from a farm and processing plant, say, down the street, rather than down at the edge of the fertile valley, a 30-minute drive away.
Viewing people from afar, as they pass in front of a cafe or restaurant on a well-walked street, for example, induces a similar feeling of the romantic distance to that which some locales conjure.
It’s fascinating, the stories and lives which the imagination wraps around the form of a stranger, a strange weave of curiosity and snap judgement overlaid upon the new face.
Or even how the imagination, spurred on by a sense of the romantic distance, sometimes fits ill-fitting clothes upon an acquaintance: how many times I’ve met someone interesting-looking, the vagaries filling in for substance, and the excitement growing…
Of course, eventually either this new person disappoints or exceeds the qualities which the romantic distance has foisted on them, but it’s the romance in the distance itself which is uniquely stirring; for a moment, looking at them as they smiling pass us by, or just beginning the first few seconds of conversation, this person is everything we want them to be.
The romantic distance: investment of every worthwhile quality, exception of all to be abhorred. Reality, abridged.
Like soft lighting when two people fall into each other’s arms after a long, wearing-down day, and neither look at their very best.
Like vaseline on the lens.
Sitting suspended between knowledge and fantasy is a bit like being punch-drunk and wistful; the romantic distance calls forth from the depths every exceptional flavor and trait in the subject of study, skirting around the harsh truth playfully and coating it in a sheen that evokes mystery and familiarity equally.
So, before rushing in towards something, or fleeing from it, stop and take a moment to look over your shoulder or raise your eyes: the romantic distance is there.