Recently in Humiliation and love Category

Scoring with awkward courtship

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Julian_Sands&Helena_Bonham-Carter.jpg
What passes for masculinity is a fashion, at least as much as it is innate.  Rhett Butler doesn't fumble in his pursuit of Scarlett; Ben Stone does nothing but fumble with Allison Scott (in Knocked Up, not quite the culture icon that Gone with Wind has become) - call it the difference that seventy years makes in our mythologies of gender relations.

Maybe it's my generation, but I've always been more interested in male fumbling.  (Granted, I haven't seen much non-fumbling; cultivating an interest in it strikes me as akin to obsessing over unicorns.)  Male fumblers make good in my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, and have a nervous breakdown in my third novel, Waiting for Love Child.  Indeed, I'm so interested in male fumblers that a previous agent told me that I "channel" men and that I need to stop doing it.

Well, the male fumbler may have been banished from my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, but my interest hasn't abated.  Indeed, E.M. Forster piqued it with this passage from A Room with a View:

[George's] awkwardness went straight to [Lucy's] heart; men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help.  To one of her upbringing, and of her destination, the weakness of men was a truth unfamiliar, but she had surmised it . . . .
(p. 178.)  Forster, after all, was writing during an era when male fumblers were not the rage.  To the contrary, the decisive man, ordering the world and his woman's place in it, was the ideal.  As George protests to Lucy about her fiancé, Cecil:

I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for you to settle whether you were shocked or no. . . . He daren't let a woman decide. . . . Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly.
(p. 194.)  All very sensible condemnation today, but not 103 years ago when A Room with a View was first published.  Cecil is the respectable man; George, please remember, is a freak.

That Forster defied convention to allow the fumbling freak to prevail in romance suggests a perceptiveness and sympathy about masculinity that transcends fashion.  (Of course, as a closeted gay man, Forster might have had particular insights into fumbling courtship of women; but I think his empathy was more universal.)  "[I]t is impossible to rehearse life," he writes in A Room with a View:

A fault in the scenery, a face in the audience, an irruption of the audience on the stage, and all our carefully planned gestures mean nothing, or mean too much.
(p. 154.)  The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding to the world around him.  He is unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it; he is too defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection.  He is, in fact, playing at living, but not really living.  Forster teaches that, if you want to rehearse, you condemn yourself to the stage; and if you want to live, you have to fumble.

I don't think men - or women - are yet entirely comfortable with this truth.  Seth Rogen, after all, is nobody's idea of Clark Gable, and Knocked Up is a comedy.  I'm not sure we've (that is, "we" as a culture, have) yet worked out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time.  As old, as uneven, and at times as implausible as it is, A Room with a View may remain our bellwether of this realm of human behavior.      

(Image of Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View from The Guardian)

Sonnet XX: WTF?

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Tilda_Swinton_as_Male_Orlando.jpgShakespeare's Sonnet XX confounds me.  It praises a person whose gorgeous face, heart and personality - with its absence of womanly faults - captures the narrator's passion . . . though this same person's cock checks the narrator's impulse for sexual consummation of his love.  Here's the poem:

A woman's face with nature's own hand painted,
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion:
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created;
Till Nature, as she wrought thee, fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love and thy love's use their treasure.

I first encountered Sonnet XX at a vulnerable moment, just before bed time, and I naturally assumed that in my exhaustion, I'd lost track of some critical explanatory phrase in the poem.  But an immediate reread suggested that the eyebrow-raising implications weren't a function of my readiness for slumberland.  Indeed, a basic Google search revealed countless others with raised eyebrows.  So provocative is Sonnet XX that Prince might have done well to set its verses to music instead of expending effort to write "Controversy."

Interestingly, more than one commentator seems to think that the poem is an admission of Shakespeare's homosexuality.  Personally, I find that theory absurd.  For starters, such speculation superimposes a patina of modern norms on Shakespeare's Elizabethan consciousness (e.g., that loving another man makes a man gay).  We barely understand how gender and sexually are socially constructed today; to project our incomplete understanding backwards 400 years is at best arrogant and at worst idiotic.

But more importantly, Sonnet XX isn't so much homosexual as it is weird.  For gay men, the love object isn't womanly; a gay male pin-up is hot because he's masculine.  Sonnet XX, on the other hand, idolizes a man with a womanly appearance - or, at a minimum, an Orlando-style androgynous appearance that appeals to men and women ("Which steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth"). 

Moreover, unlike a homosexual man, the narrator of Sonnet XX is decidedly against sex with his beloved: the narrator is "defeated" by his adored's prick; it brings the narrator's purpose "to nothing."  Instead, the narrator urges his beloved to make love with women, while giving his heart to the narrator. 

This model of love isn't homosexual; rather, it seems to lack a modern analogy.  Same-sex love affairs in modern society aren't typically sexless.  Nor do we usually idolize the looks of one gender when they appear on the other; quite the opposite, especially in the case of men.  From Boy George, to Michael Jackson, to Jaye Davidson (who played Dil in The Crying Game), men who look like women tend to make folks uncomfortable nowadays.

In fact, the very eagerness of modern readers to class Sonnet XX with homosexual literature reflects a variety of discomfort or insecurity with the prospect of a same-sex love relationship beyond our comprehension or experience.  But while the impulse to tame the scary, irrational potentialities of sex by naming, categorizing and analyzing is a positive one, we lose the chance to recognize, explore and appreciate the breadth of human experience if we insist on incorrect classification.

Human love is vaster, more capricious and more irrepressible than Harlequin romance.  And our capacities for loving in multi-faceted and bizarre ways is among our species' the most remarkable and admirable traits.  As G.W. Bowerstock observes in a New York Review of Books review of two books exploring Greek pederasty:

The sexual life of the ancient Greeks was as variegated and inventive as its resplendent culture. It was neither consistent nor uniform.  To this day it stubbornly resists all modern ideologies and prejudices, and yet it had its own principles of decency.  In sex, as in so much else, the ancient Greeks were unique.
Sonnet XX tantalizes with its glimpse of a variegated and inventive sexual life, one neither consistent nor uniform, one that resists modern ideologies and prejudices, for Shakespeare and his Elizabethan brethren.  We might consider to what extent their sexual openness made the Greeks and the Elizabethan not merely unique, but also great.

(Image of Tilda Swinton playing Orlando from Sally Potter's website)

Scarlett and Emma

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Notwithstanding the tremendous differences in style, setting and story between Gone with the Wind and Emma (as well as the 121 years between their publications), Scarlett O'Hara and Emma Woodhouse are remarkably similar.  They are both strong-willed and rich.  They are both treated by society as beautiful, but handled by their authors somewhat less deferentially.  (The first clause of Gone with the Wind is, "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful."  And Emma, though pretty, is second in beauty to Harriet Smith.)  They are both quick witted but narrowly focused in their interests.  They are both selfish and lack self-awareness.  And, perhaps most importantly, at the time we meet them, they have -- neither of them -- been in love.

"I never have been in love: it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall," says Emma (at page 75).  The fact that, by the end of the book, she has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley is what salvages her from perpetual bratdom.  In gaining self-awareness of her own heart, she grows up.  Most significantly, she ventures beyond the safety of her self-sufficient life, willing to risk the ever-present failure that lurks when any of us trades our solitary satisfactions for the hope of greater bliss in pairs.

Scarlett, on the other hand, thinks she's in love with Ashley, but her love for him has always struck me as false.  Ashley doesn't possess any of the qualities -- pragmatism, forthrightness, gumption -- that Scarlett prizes most highly, and perhaps it is for this reason that she can't comprehend him.  Ashley's function is not as the love of her life, but as the shield to protect her from ever truly falling in love.

For all the horror that Scarlett confronts, the one thing she fears is falling in love.  Scarlett, who reacts to the atrocities of war by committing passionately to survival, equates that survival with self-sufficiency.  She can envision (indeed, tolerate) a survival that burdens her with dependents for whom she must provide; but she cannot fathom a survival in which she is dependent -- even in a situation of mutual and reciprocal dependency, as (presumably is possible) in marriage.  Falling in love would deprive her of the independent self-sufficiency that she feels is necessary for her existence.

A woman who doesn't want to fall in love is a challenging character.  Jane Austen remarked that Emma was a character that only she could like, and Scarlett is far from sympathetic.  And yet both characters are compelling, both books masterpieces and -- not incidentally -- popularly acclaimed. 

Perhaps that combination of tough character and popular appeal arises from the humiliation both women endure.  Emma is mortified when Mr. Knightley criticizes her sharp treatment of Miss Bates.  Scarlett is humiliated so profoundly and so frequently that Margaret Mitchell appears almost sado-masochistic. 

That audiences can endure strong female characters as long as they get their comeuppance is received wisdom.  But maybe audiences are also warming to an uncomfortable truth fundamental to both tales: openness to the humiliations and tribulations of dependency is a prerequisite to falling in love; but a refusal to countenance such indignity is no protection against it.   

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