Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Women and Reality

All of my life, since fourteen or so, I've read myself into the pursuer's role in love. I've never thought of myself as a hunter or exploiter, but I *did* identify with Dante and Abelard themselves, rather than Beatrice or Heloise.

Most of all, I identified with Shakespeare's Viola of Twelfth Night: the cross-dressing heroine, who becomes a page in order to win the affections of her long-suffering Sebastian, mad for love for the proud heiress Olivia: all of the long-suffering, long-waiting, sweet-speaking single heroes who waited to be recognized by their objects of desire.

I understand Viola, waiting for Sebastian. Comfortable as his companion, I wait while he pursues harlots and harpies, Cleopatras and shepherdesses. I do not understand why Sebastian goes where he goes; nor do I resent it; nor do I understand why he doesn't think of me as an object of desire. Nor do I understand those who think that I should turn to them simply because of my being the object of their own desire.

Viola is the prototype of another age: as historians of sexuality like Tom Laqueur have pointed out, the Violas who love silently at a distance and woo and win like men belong a Renaissance mentality more susceptible than ours to the concept that gender is a performance, a dance put on, not the simple DNA of birth and life and death into which we are born.

There is surely no real feminism or belief in the freedom and individuality of a woman's soul until we have room for Viola.

It's been quite a week. I've just been through a breakup with my best friend of 2005, and it may be a while until we speak again; my best friend of 2004 isn't speaking to me because I wouldn't go out with him and had the stupidity to argue with him about why; one of the men I admire most right now wants to woo me, and, less interested by far, I foresee it ending in tears; I've just gone out for a drink with the man whom I admire most in the world, and he is brilliant and lovely and yet more interested in someone whom he himself deems mostly unsuitable. God bless us all.

I dislike the 90's addiction to dragging one's personal life into political discourse. I hesitate to even bring up this constellation of sordid events. But it reminds me of something long in my heart, something longing for a voice. I'm sitting in the middle of warring egos and warring loves: every character in this bizarre drama is an intelligent, loving creature, begging the universe for his or her own just deserts in the form of another human being. None of us are getting what we truly want. All of us are reaching some grim reconciliation: some by yelling at God, some in anger, some by not speaking to someone else, some by pining wistfully, some by existential incertitude, some by accepting Providence.

I don't want to preach about the faults of romantic love, or the valor of suffering through long denial. I don't want to draw a lesson about longing or my imperilment as a woman from this. All of these points seem equally artificial, and equally mute to the dumb, worthless, stupid suffering of us all -- creatures who admire each other and yet look past each other at something else.

And yet: something in my heart is saying that if ever there was a lesson about gender, a lesson is here. How often we've watched movies about heroes longing eternally for heroines who turn them down. I watched one last night: The Fisher King, seen for at least showing number six in my short life; my roommates quoting every line of the movie as the film rolled on:

The much longing homeless Latin teacher Parry at last has his chance with the frigid Lydia. Lydia freaks. Parry persists:

We just met, made love and broke up,
all in the space of seconds.

I don't remember the first kiss,
which is the best part.

The audience swoons. He understands that the object of his desire is hesitant! He grants her that liberty! What a kind and understanding man! See how much he deserves her? The audience, from this very moment, knows that Parry will win in the end. From this one blossom of generosity, it is clear to us all that he has, in every way, deserved, and therefore, won her.

A meditation on the limits of gender in contemporary discourse long overdue, and yet so irrelevant to so many things in politics today. And yet: here's where I am. How many stories have we heard where the hero pines for the heroine, and after long discernment or frustration, he at last says the right thing, and she breaks down? How few stories do we have when the itinerant heroine, a stranger who knows herself and her mind, meets him, speaks sweet words, waits for the him, and he gives in at last?

The Fisher King offers a prototype more typical of our age. Anne, the long-suffering, lasagna-baking girlfriend, has nurtured Jack all along. She waits for his affection, rants to thin air, coaxes, coerces, and is left, before Jack eventually comes to his senses and returns to her. Woman in a relationship must wait. Man in a relationship leaves and then returns.

Lydia, the single woman, ambles like an inchoate doe through the labyrinth of New York skyscrapers. Single woman, blind in the world, waiting to be made a woman by the initiatory exercise of some man's affection. Single man, like a hunter, capturing woman and melding her to him. Dating woman, loyal to the core, employing innumerable tactics to keep her man's attention. Dating man, ever looking to see if he can do better.

In the twenty-first century, our love-stories are primitive stories of apish men wooing and conquering the strange woman, of the woman who cooks and makes love winning back her husband : they are not stories of the new and courageous woman who wins her equal by talking and wooing and feeling equally to him.

Until we have more such stories of Viola, I reckon glumly that I'm in trouble.

Smart women are doomed to be pursued by creatures who feel themselves worthy and will prove themselves until they're exhausted.

Smart women will be expected to prove themselves over and over again to the men who are ostensibly wedded to them.

And the equality of the sexes, the kind and equal relationship where woman and man both talk and love and struggle?

That waits for us in an alternative time, or, perhaps, in the seventeenth century, where we abandoned it for other things.

Man of my dreams: listen when I tell you my stranger's admiration of you. Don't reckon your own worth or passion enough to make you deserving of any other creature, even as I don't deserve any one by mere fact of admiration. Hold me when I'm crying. Let us both be honest and courageous and cheerful and loving, even when turned down, even when moving on. Man of my dreams: you have, you do. God bless you. Then accept and consider my stranger's admiration with all the weight you might give it if you were Beatrice and I Dante.


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