In the Company of Women (a long one)
I recently joined a book club. Last night we met to discuss The Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters. This is the first in the series of "Amelia Peabody" stories, about a proto-suffragist in Victorian England. I say, "proto-suffragist," but really, I think Amelia is more a model for suffragists - a capable woman, able to adapt in difficult circumstances, like the preferred Victorian bloke - than she is a political idealist herself. Progressive in deed; not just progressive in thought.
Six of us assemebeld in an apartment in downtown Davis. I was the only male. And how wonderful to be surrounded, as I was in this case, by five so very lovely women. Mostly unavailable, but still, oh God, so attractive. What luxury! Does this sound "sexist" to say? Oh well. Let me amplify: Ah, girls, girls, girls! How they wink and giggle and flirt ... adornments on my life. Cream in my coffee.
Disclosure of some psychoanalytic reflection:
When I was young, and some occassion would bring my extended family together, the men and boys would typically huddle together, usually in back yards and garages. They would talk - I swear - about guns and hunting trips, about engine repair and plumbing, about things that are fixed and improved. The women would populate living rooms or migrate to kitchens. And they would talk about people. They would gossip, and they would scrutinize the desires and motives of anyone who came under discussion. In those days I used to start out with the men, stay quietly around their fringes for the sake of appearance or something, and eventually, but invariably, drift into the circle of my female relatives, where the atmosphere and the conversation was always warmer, prettier, and inifnitely more interesting. I was always a little self-conscious, a bit embarrased by my desertion of the fraternity to join the sorrority. But, thank goodness, I gradually got over that.
The last book of the recently deceased philosopher Richard Wollheim is set for publication this month by Waywiser Press, and titled Germs: A Memoir of Childhood. An extract appeared in the August edition of Harper's. He describes his early discovery of something like what we might call the feminie mystique - strength in vulnerability, power in beauty, passion in sympathy, potential in curiosity. Wollheim writes:
I had come to the conclusion that the only way, though not
an easy way, in a world in which women love women, a man might come to win a woman's love was to try, in thought, in speech, in gesture, to become as like women as nature would permit, in much the same way as, within religion, which was only just beginning to lose its command over me, or perhaps to exchange one form of command for another, the believer tries to come closer to Christ through the imitation of Christ. The way to a woman's heart, I had come to believe, was along the hard, stony, arduous path of effeminacy.
This seems a remarkable insight for a young boy. It may have been something more like intuition, a feeling that the grown man would be able to articulate later. It stands against most current convictions that women, as a rule, worship naked power and obvious success; that they are attracted to men with aggressive characteristics who stand alone and aloof from others. I have known women who have told me, quite taken with their own candor, "look, don't believe us when we say, 'oh, we want men who are sensitive.' That's all bullshit. Nothing turns us off more than when some dude breaks down to cry. We like men to be in command. We want y'all to be strong, not blubbery."
This of course is grossly unfair to men. Why should our options be so limited in this manichean way? I think Wolheim's intuition is that strength and weakness are closely intertwined. The Christian illustration in the passage I've quoted is more apt than may first appear, isn't it? Think of the symbol: Christ naked on the cross. Nobody could be more vulnerable. No act more corageous. Nothing more effeminate.
Traditionally women have been regarded collectively as the flower of civilization. The chivalrous role of men has been to protect and defend it - from, as it turns out, other men. So it has been our dual role, I guess, to destroy and defend women. But ultimately it has really fallen to women to contend with their own considerable adversity, when the masculine line of defense gives way. The chief lament of ill-fated Hector was over the terrible burden in store for his wife Andromache once the Trojan warriors were to be defeated. Women have had to be much stronger, being so weaker. Be much quicker, being so precarious. Iron is at the core of their beauty. [Forgive all these generalities of mine, please. But look at individual women you know, look at particular cases, and see if I'm not right.]
To illustrate Wollheim's point: I'm thinking of the film On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, the faded boxer and jaded strong man for corrupt union bosses on the Hoboken docks of New Jersey, and Eva Marie-Saint as Edie Doyle, the sister of a man whom Terry unwittingly sets up for murder (he was about to sing, the canary, and jeopardize the union racket. Edie doesn't know about Terry's part).
In one scene Terry, who has started to fall for Edie, brings the girl, who has started to fall for Terry, to Friendly's Bar, the dockside gin-joint. Edie has been hoping, fruitlessly, to discover how her brother was killed. She knows it was union business, but nobody penetrates the code of silence on the docks (and so Joey, her brother, was killed in the first place). She tries to appeal to this man she's falling in love with, but he is impassive. They have the following dialogue.
Edie: You don't believe anybody, do you?
Terry: Listen, down here, it's every man for himself. It's keepin' alive. It's standin' in with the right people, so you got a little bit of change jinglin' in your pocket.
Edie: And if you don't?
Terry: And if you don't - right down.
Edie: That's living like an animal.
Terry: All right, I'd rather live like an animal than end up like -
Edie: Like Joey? Are you afraid to mention his name?
Terry's "philosophy" of life is 'do it to him, before he does it to you.' It's a kind of outlook where the answer to aggression is more aggression still. Where resentment is a coping strategy that helps alleviate turmoil and pain by spreading more of it around -- purging yourself of tension through redistribution. Where doubt is considered deadly and sensitivity tantamount to weakness. On the other hand, this an outlook reinforced by the code of silence - almost codified by the dock bosses, and certainly ratified by the oppressed workers.
See, this film was directed by Elia Kazan, a couple of years after he testified before the House Unamerican Activities Committee and famously "named names." Kazan was a "reformed" Communist who had come to embrace I think the, again, manichean, worldview that socialism was a Godless evil in historic battle with Christianity. There's a sense in which Man's best intentions are laid bare in the attempt to create heavenly utopias on earth. Socialism and unionism, he would say, are ripe for corruption. Because humans are finite creatures of such short sight, they cannot possibly forestall the endless contingincies that will create avenues for real bad men to come along and place their boots on the necks of their bretheren. Terry's "philosophy" of life is an example of genuine weakness: the rationaliztion of a downtrodden coward.
But the scene with Edie in Friendly's Bar marks a turning point. We see this coward transformed. Brando, the great method actor, registers with every facial flicker, Terry's growing tenderness toward Edie. In each instant he seems more sensitive to her pain and isolation, and absorbs, and keeps more of that pain in himself. The dialogue continues:
Edie: Help me if you can, for God's sakes!
Terry: Edie, I'd like to help, I'd like to help, but there's nothin' I can do.
Edie: All right. I shouldn't have asked you.
Terry: Here, come on, have a little beer. Come on, come on. (He puts the glass to her lips, but she doesn't drink)
Edie: I don't want it. You just stay here and finish your drink.
Terry: Oh, no, no, listen, don't go. I got my whole life to drink. (pause) You sore at me?
Edie (innocently): What for?
Terry: Well, I don't know, for not, for not bein' no help to ya.
Edie (intensely): You would if you could. (She strokes his face gently)
From here Terry Malloy embarks on that hard, stony, path of effeminacy. He tells her, significantly, that she's making him crazy. What he means is that she has shaken him. That she has brought him the kind of agony that is simply inextricably bound up with love. The kind that comes with caring. The kind of agony a person guards and keeps and which drives him (or her) to do ... just, more. [Because he aches, in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, "just like a woman."]
So Terry Malloy becomes a hero. A sensitive hero. An emotional, caring, iron at the core hero, ready to hang himself on the line. Ultimately responsible for facing his own adversity. Unabashedly arduous.
Anyway, I love being in the company of women.