Pascal Bruckner’s musings on seduction come just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Earl McCollough
A Sorting Machine
Seduction, like grace in Calvinism, is a sorting machine. In the most common learning experience in the world, I learn that I am not always desired by those I desire, loved by those I love, and that I enter this universe as a potential reject. A wallflower: the range of this expression is not limited to ballrooms and parties. Some people are wallflowers all their lives, while others are adored from the start and don’t know how to deal with all their admirers. The miracle of being preferred: a favor that fulfills us and excludes everyone else. Being attractive is as inexplicable as being unattractive; why do some people follow us around while others hardly deign to look at us? (Sade resolved the problem in his own way: everyone who attracts us has an obligation to grant us his favors immediately, just as we have an obligation to grant ours to those who desire us. For him, desire was a debt, while for Fourier it was a gift that attractive people agree to grant the rest of humanity.)
The success enjoyed by a writer like Michel Houellebecq, with his combination of black humor and pessimism, can be explained in this way: he has created a sort of international federation of losers in love, and revealed the lie of hedonism, which is one form of feudalism among others. He has provided a voice for those without a voice, just as Woody Allen had done in his early films that show the unattractive taking revenge on playboys. Contrary to a boastful expression, in love we cannot “have whomever we want,” but only whomever we can or whoever is willing to have us. When the two coincide, it is a miracle. But “everything precious is as difficult as it is rare” (Spinoza). Some people think themselves irresistible and are convinced that they have mobs of admirers following them around, so that they interpret your refusal as an error of judgment, almost a lack of taste.
Everyone is supposed to have fun amid Dionysian crowds, but the bids are so high that they often look more like punishments. In this great fair of narcissisms, some people get excessive exposure because others, who are in the majority, applaud them.
Consider exclusive clubs and night clubs: selecting their clientele on the basis of notoriety or youth, they are temples of the stock market in bodies, directly governed by the laws of competition against the background of deafening music and affected laughter. People go there to see and be seen, and judgments are made on the basis of a single glance. In theory, all that matters is having fun, enjoying oneself, and the gathering together of hundreds of individuals bound together by rhythm and movement. But clubs also control the modes of encounter, if only by the decibel level, which makes conversation difficult. There is little kindness in these pleasure palaces, which are for many people places of torment, and resemble personnel offices in large companies. (That is also the spirit of “speed dating,” in which you have seven minutes to make yourself interesting.) A world of pure artifice, instantaneous infatuation: youth is displayed as a spectacle for itself, devotes itself to the adoration of perishable things. A hallucinatory vision of certain creatures whom we watch dancing the way we would look upon the impossible. Total glories of the flesh, absolute enchantment. The magnates display themselves before the plebeians who applaud them and ask for more. A universe that owes nothing to intelligence or merit but only to flashiness, affluence, and showing off; you are what you seem to be, nothing more. Everyone is supposed to have fun amid Dionysian crowds, but the bids are so high that they often look more like punishments. In this great fair of narcissisms, some people get excessive exposure because others, who are in the majority, applaud them.
It is in the name of liberated desire, which has been freed from the prisons in which priests and morality had confined it, that the most profound forms of segregation take place. To desire is first of all to exclude, to measure faces and bodies by the standards of the code of stereotyped beauty. An individual’s talent then consists entirely in discovering a way to circumvent the laws of this selection, to find, as the French say, a shoe that fits his foot. It is a miracle that in the end even the least favored are able to find someone and to penetrate the immense wall that bars their access to others. More intriguing than the classical attraction to beauty is the incomprehensible attraction to ordinary creatures. That unattractive, even very ugly men or women arouse intense feelings, mad transports of passion—that is the real miracle.
The Revenge of the Eclipsed
Some people have made seduction a way of life. Incapable of resisting opportunities, they give priority to the nascent state; they are collectors of beginnings. They become infatuated with unknown persons whom they leave as soon as another appears on the horizon. For them, the amorous sequence is short: the end almost coincides with the beginning, excitation has to be followed by execution, presto. What is a man-eater? A skirt-chaser? People who like digressions. They prefer the hunt to the capture, sensation to emotion; certain romantic places call imperatively for an affair, it matters little with whom. They are equally moved by an ugly woman or a fat man; they care little about the appearances because the only thing that matters is the shock of the new. How long it lasts or what kind of exchange is involved does not interest them; they find their joy in furtive contact, the whirlwind of rendezvous. Although they generally settle down before they’re fifty, they have the feeling, justified or not, that they have lived better than most people. They like the perfume of love more than people, they are happy buccaneers who exhibit their trophies to attract others. Their calculated nonchalance protects them; no affront knocks them out of the saddle, they merely attack again. Whereas the lover stammers, the seducer swaggers: he shows off his skill, his gold and scarlet, and goes straight for his target, infallible. (The male cruiser is the plebeian version of the worldly charmer; preferring slaughter to subtlety, he endures endless snubs and has a tried and true line from which he never deviates. As they age, the sidewalk seducer and the pleasure-seeker with a face-lift sink into the same pathetic repetition of worn-out, threadbare recipes.)
An impossible equation: the more I am seduced, the less I succeed in seducing; I am petrified by inhibition.
Anyone who lacks this skill mourns missed opportunities: what might have happened but didn’t—the word that was not uttered, the gesture that was not made. Cruising for sexual partners leads to aggression; you speak to a stranger in a public place, you accost him or her (accosting was originally a pirates’ term). But if you find someone attractive, how can you get her attention without accosting her? This kind of question can take a lifetime to answer. There are now coaches to teach you the delicate art of approaching a desired person, the witty remarks that never fail to bring a smile to the most severe of faces. As it always has, desire requires us to dissimulate: if we no longer say “I love you” straight out, neither do we tell a woman that we just want her luscious breasts, her ample ass. We have to equivocate.
An impossible equation: the more I am seduced, the less I succeed in seducing; I am petrified by inhibition. In a very high-tension climate, I should be amusing, brilliant, thoroughly relaxed. Totally flummoxed, I am struck dumb, dulled by my desire to be inventive. To court someone is first of all to blow one’s own trumpet, to engage in self-embellishment. Even the most paralyzed lover has to pretend to be a lady-killer, to make use of the stratagems of flashiness. The adoring lover used to be a strutting beau who was able to shine and yield to the excitement of bidding at the risk of falling into virtuosity. But there is also a seductiveness in the refusal to seduce. There are strategies of silence and simplicity that captivate more than gratuitous volubility. Not to mention the figure of the charming, dazed lover who wins hearts by making one blunder after another. The really fine encounter is one that is unexpected and unaware of its value, and thus escapes the obligation to produce a result. If something happens, it is like the denouement of a story that was not premeditated. The obligation to proceed with verve is suspended for a freewheeling conversation that develops at its own pace because there is nothing at stake. A divine stroke of luck has held out a helping hand; it is up to us to seize it or forget it.
There is nothing more beautiful than the stubbornness of two people who have exchanged a look in a bus or on a train and want at any price to see each other again and put classified ads in the newspapers. (The personals in the Paris newspaper Libération are the quintessence of contemporary romance.) It is on the Internet that these bypassing strategies are flourishing: people try their luck with kindred souls, concealing themselves at first if necessary and misrepresenting themselves with their photos. Thus the terror of the preliminaries is avoided; for those who don’t dare approach girls in the street or declare their love to a stranger, there remains the second chance on the computer screen. Sometimes people remain skeptical faced by these encyclopedias of lonely hearts calling out for help. But here there are no intermediaries; the websites bring together consenting adults who develop relationships in accord with their affinities and desires. These sites are vast sorting centers that pair up masses of people, whereas matrimonial agencies are small provincial operations run by supervisors who know their clientele. In them, seducers have multiple flings, and sentimentalists seek a lasting relationship. Every day, many thousands of agreements are made and unmade. The Internet is a formidable accelerator: every whim, even the most ludicrous, finds its home there. Many people are more interested in searching than in finding; they are dazzled by the number of possible adventures and wander like sultans through this virtual harem and only seldom if ever give their appetites material form.
Every shy person thus nourishes two contradictory dreams: that of an immediate accord of epidermises and that of an instantaneous communion of souls.
Especially because cybernauts can disappear with a click of their mouse: the other is at my disposition, whenever I want. On websites like Meetic, Match.com, and Netclub, people construct themselves as ideal partners, smoothing out all their asperities, and offering their best profile. One shops among the candidates but is oneself part of the market. The same people who complain loudly about violations of privacy display themselves in their blogs, exhibiting themselves in daring positions; the desire for recognition wins out over the concern for prudence. Whence the delightful mix-ups that take place on the Internet, very much in the tradition of libertine novels, where a wife tracks down her husband and sets up a rendezvous with him, passing herself off as a mysterious stranger. Computerized browsing does not evade encounters, it delays them, prepares them under the best auspices. The same implacable laws will be in force as soon as the persons involved are in contact. Unless the filter of the computer screen sanctions a phobia about contact. The philosopher of science, Dominique Lecourt, has coined a nice neologism, cyberia, to designate the Web addicts who let themselves be caught in the great universal net in order to escape their contemporaries.
Every shy person thus nourishes two contradictory dreams: that of an immediate accord of epidermises and that of an instantaneous communion of souls. The dream of a desire that is not ostracized, in which bodies achieve sensual pleasure without examination: homosexual cruising, back rooms, and swingers’ clubs incarnate this communism of pleasure in which no one is supposed to be excluded from the banquet of the flesh. And the opposite dream of a transparency of hearts, of a consonance of minds that avoids superfluous chitchat and allows one to enter into symbiosis with the chosen person, beyond all the liturgies of gallantry. Neither of these two procedures could be raised to the rank of a solution; the fluidity of exchanges is still limited by the density of individuals. There will always be men and women before whom we remain speechless. Hence we long for the security of home, where we don’t have to prove anything, where in theory we are not subject to constant evaluation. But even the most ovine conjugal life needs movement, and the couple—like the nation, according to Renan—is a daily plebiscite. No one is excused from the duty of having to please, even after twenty years of marriage. There is no place beyond seduction.
THE PARADOX OF LOVE by Pascal Bruckner. Copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. Originally published in France as Le Paradoxe Amoureux © Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris, 2009