Sunday, November 25, 2007

Women In Love

This is something I've been meaning to write about for a while, but I've been reluctant. Mostly because haunted by a suspicion that what I see as a phenomenon is only my own little rorschach test, reflecting back my hopes and fears.

The topic is this: How often a discussion of a famous woman of the past involves her unhappiness and failures at love, usually of the embarrassingly unrequited variety. If I were a certain kind of person, I might have clipped and copied the articles and books and so forth that struck me as bringing this home, but mostly I just read them with a certain amount of discomfort and worried what it said about me that I was so struck by their failed and unhappy love lives, rather than their triumphant achievements.

But this is the data set that I'm thinking of. Nancy Mitford, whom the Wikipedia article describes as carrying on a "largely one-sided affair." Emily Dickinson -- at least according to my recollection of an introduction to her poetry which dealt heavily with her embarrassing enthusiasm for some local worthy. Charlotte Bronte's love for that Brussels teacher. Emma Goldman: there's a book out covering one of her relationships and showing that, according to one review, "[d]uring this passionate and stormy relationship, Goldman lectured in public about free love and women's independence, while in private she struggled with intense jealousy and longed for the comfort of a secure relationship." New Yorker articles on Lucinda Williams and Sylvia Plath (Al Alvarez, who I think turned it into a book, castigates himself for not fucking Sylvia Plath when, he says, she wanted him to, blames himself for her suicide, and talks about how disgustingly dirty her hair was) and Simone De Beauvoir (the crucial quote: "Though her affairs, for the most part, were love affairs, it is plain from almost every page she wrote that she would have given them all up if she could have had Sartre for herself alone").

There are probably more I could think of. Even so, it's a scattered and random group, hardly even deserving the term "data set". Possible thoughts: as noted earlier, this is my private psychological issue and my own prurience is responsible for my alarm at these articles and books and coverage. Or you could say yes, these particular woman had issues with love and desire and stability and the fact that those aspects of their lives are covered and discussed is just our natural fascination with the inner lives of our culture heroes -- the same articles would be written in the same tone if they were men. Or you could say that the fact that all these women had these issues suggests that some kind of odd pressures exist on women, pressures that drive them both towards and away from domestic happiness in striking ways.

Or you could say that we as a culture are particularly obsessed with the successful domestication of women, that we see that as a central focus of any woman's life in a way that we don't when looking at men.

(But maybe this is all me. Maybe Henry James is treated as much as a cautionary tale as Emily Dickinson; certainly his failure to partner was discussed in some pretty goddamn prurient ways.)

I don't know. I've talked about it with friends, but mostly only female ones, I think it's a real thing.

Even if I'm right, I don't know what the thing that I'm looking at is; I don't know what it shows. There's some kind of uneasiness there, about women and their private lives and their public lives and their more or less successful domestication, I think. Even if it's all in my head, we can at least establish that I personally am uneasy about those issues, and I, like Mrs. Pearce, am a woman, which could be the start of another data set.

I don't know.


Anonymous said...

this is a totally correct, well-observed articulation of a grisly set of issues. We love (not us per se, but our culture) stories of powerful women getting dumped, or yearning unsuccessfully, and we tell the stories in such a way as to make the women seem incomplete and silly, pathetic. Whereas, I think (with even less of a data set than yours) men in comparable situations are tragic and romantic (Yeats, Nietzsche, etc.) and the focus is on the superior, intense, thrilling work that resulted from their noble unhappiness.

Captain Colossal said...

That's exactly my feeling about it. That if you (you in the general, cultural sense) think of Yeats, you think of the women who failed him as blind and ignoble and trivial, whereas in the reverse situation, you see the yearning woman as ridiculous.

But I do wonder whether it would seem the same to me if I was a guy; I was talking to a male friend of mine who was saying that he thought the current state of Hugh Hefner was sad and a little silly, in that these young girls wanted his money and status, whereas to me Hugh Hefner seems like an absolutely triumphal story.