I was sitting on the Tube the other day, with one eye scanning the faces of my fellow passengers - each so stamped with individuality yet so smeared by anonymity - while the other roved from a copy of the Communist Manifesto, which was open on my knee, to the advertisements on the panels above the windows. "It [the bourgeoisie] has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism," thundered Karl and Friedrich, "in the icy water of egotistical calculation." Taking a more emollient line, an ad for an online dating agency suggested: "What if 2011 could be the year you make a meaningful connection? We're eHarmony and we focus on helping people find deep and meaningful love."
But no! For: "The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation." And yet . . . "Last year, 4 per cent of American newly-weds said they met on eHarmony. That's an average of 542 people per day - more people than you could fit into this Tube carriage." Blimey, what a disturbing idea, I thought to myself: a steel cylinder bursting with such credulous and impassioned individuals. And I went on musing on how it was that the rise of computer matchmaking represented the burgeoning of a social group Marxism made no allowance for: sentimental philistines who are also egotistically calculating. Or, to put it in a kinder way, hopeless romantics who are nonetheless rationally optimistic.
On the face of it, there's nothing nuttier than imagining that the dizzying complexities of human interrelationship can be reduced to a few keystrokes. Even old-style lonely-hearts ads are vastly more personalised than computer dating sites. That you and your potential mate read the same newspaper or magazine means you belong to a community of sorts, while the complex codes encrypted in such ads speak volumes about shared assumptions - this is a distinctively socialised interplay of appearance and reality that can never be approximated by the crude metric of "matched" personality tests and photos.
To give just one example: when I lived up in Suffolk about 15 years ago, I used to read the lonely-hearts ads in the local paper (I read all the small ads, lingering with special and tender longing over such terse notices as: "Two MFI shelving units, £15 ONO" - but that's another story) and was struck by how every single advertiser was seeking someone with a "GSOH".
It didn't take long in East Anglia for one to realise quite how humourless its natives are and thus comprehend that this was the public expression of a deep and collective urge to be amused.
When I got home from my bizarre Tube ride, I was predictably in two minds: should I join the Communist Party (assuming there was one available) or go on eHarmony to see what Isoldes were available for a Tristan like me? To begin with, the questions were slightly irritating: why give me an option for a Shinto or New Age life partner, but not someone pagan or Jedi? Having conceded that I wouldn't mind a lover from eight out of ten ethnic groups listed, it seemed churlish - or even racist - not to tick the remaining two.
But when I got into the body of the personality test, I began to find the exercise curiously enthralling. I liked being asked to accede to or resile from personal attributes and revealing statements on a seven-point scale that stretched from one ("Not at all"), through four ("Somewhat") to seven ("Very"). What a relief, after all these years, to be able to admit that I was "somewhat" compassionate; how soothing to concede that I do find controlling people irritating. Even when the questions pointed to the deepest imponderables of human existence - eHarmony people, is any of us truly "rational"? - I experienced catharsis through the mere act of supplying a trite answer.
By the time I reached the end and was confronted by the question, "How far are you willing to search for your lifelong love?" I realised that none of the options - 30 miles, 60 miles, countrywide, worldwide - expressed the exclusivity of my feelings, for the one I sought was wearing the same trousers as me. This is the sort of bourgeois individualism that communists the world over decry - but then, so do dating agencies. l