(Review of Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar. Readings on Courting and Marrying. Edited by Amy A. Kass & Leon R. Kass. University of Notre Dame Press, 2000.)
I’ll just go ahead and say it: I have never understood women. Not the perfectly coiffed grade school queens who were always polite enough in class, but teased me mercilessly at social events for being too preppy (for a guy, that is). Not Anna or Shannon, the two cute-but-dumb girls from the junior high era who both took me on as a “boyfriend” because they liked my sartorial style — until they realized my attitude didn’t fit my look and so summarily dumped me because I wasn’t as “cool” as they had initially thought. (What is it about clothes, anyway?)
Smart girls weren’t much easier to figure out. Usually — and I’m not kidding, this happened three times in high school — it would go like this. A passionate, dreamy, ordinarily assertive poet or actress type would develop an intense crush on me and yet wouldn’t bother even to so much as speak to me, not once — until months, sometimes years later, by which time she was completely over me, had a regular boyfriend, and I had a crush on her.
College relationships? Two basic models seemed to present themselves: the drunken libertinism of the fraternities and my actor friends, or that bland-sounding off-campus cohabitation more mature acquaintances opted for (“we’ve been together since sophomore year.”) Let’s just say I had little interest in either model.
Until very recently, I was always inclined to think there was something innately wrong with my psyche, as if my mating genes had somehow been misshapen in my mother’s womb. Was I a “hopeless romantic,” as I would often defensively claim to some curious female inquisitor, by way of explaining my chronic inability to find a steady girlfriend? Or simply clueless in affairs of the heart?
After picking up Amy and Leon Kass’ Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, though — and this is the most wonderful thing about the book — the thought has occurred to me that perhaps my experience of lifelong romantic confusion and frustrated longing has not been so strange after all. Strange in certain circles of contemporary American life, to be sure, where (in the Kasses’ unforgiving description) carefree and seemingly effortless “serial monogamy” (or “rotating polygamy”) is the norm, and expectations for love and marriage are low. But in the general run of human experience, the delicate courtship dance between men and women has always been fraught with ignorance, uncertainty, and razor-sharp emotional peril.
The difference today, the Kasses argue, is that an explosive cultural nexus of unprecedented prosperity available to both men and women, easy geographic mobility and consequently loosened family ties, contraception and abortion-on-demand, along with a “general erosion of shame and awe regarding sexual matters,” has de-stigmatized all of the old problems relating to sex and deadened our once-mystical appreciation of its social importance. Why worry about the imperatives of modesty (from the woman’s angle) or the consequences of casual sexual conquests (from the man’s) if there are no stigmas attached to any of the old sins?
Some of us, though, are still old-fashioned (or, in my case, merely confused) enough to devote lengthy thought to such matters. And the Kasses, frankly and unapologetically, have set themselves the task of helping us out, by assembling an astonishingly rich array of essays, novel excerpts, and poems which seriously explore the problems presented by love and the mysteries of married life.
Collectively, the effect of the readings can be stunning. Beth Bailey’s historical essay “From Front Porch to Back Seat” brings to life the lost world of our grandparents, where hopeful young gentleman callers would meet virtually a girl’s entire extended family before she might so much as entertain the thought of kissing him — a world that already seemed hopelessly quaint to our parents, whose own courtship system of on-the-town “dating” seems ever quainter to us with every passing year. What would our grandparents make of the casual couplings of the current college scene, so acerbically described by Allan Bloom here as the “passionless” sex of “souls without longing”?
Nowhere is the scale of our current impoverishment more evident than in the debasement of language. Where the ancient Greeks had, as the Kasses point out, close to a dozen words to describe varieties of love and friendship between men and women, we are stuck with a soul-deadening phrase like “relationship.” So unerotic has sex become that we describe it with metaphors suggestive of an industrial process (“hooking up”), a law office (“my partner”), or of corporate drones drudging along in their cubicles (my own personal favorite, “getting busy.”) Worse still is the sterile jargon of pop psychiatry and sex-ed, which, as the Kasses complain, reduces the transcendent longings of eros to a banal, and incredibly boring, “story about pleasure and safety.”
How, exactly, did we reach this depressing state of affairs? Clearly our dilemma is rooted in the very freedoms that have allowed us to become so prosperous, to unshackle ourselves from economic want and oppressive social obligations. As Tocqueville once observed on the American frontier, “no men are less dreamers than the citizens of democracy.” So busy are we all in striving to further our careers and “improve” our myriad institutions that the imaginative leap required of romance seems only an unwelcome distraction. Feminism, one thinks after re-reading Tocqueville in the context of this collection, is only the latest chapter in the development of American individualism, which allows us to prosper and (in the current jargon) “fulfill” ourselves at the price of estrangement from our families and community.
But in another sense, feminism has been decisive, the final blow to the romantic ideal. Love and marriage, the assembled essays in this volume make abundantly clear, have always required an unequal sacrifice, in the sense that a man has more both to give and to lose. As sexual beings, men are not naturally inclined to monogamy as are women; nor is there any conceivable economic advantage for a man who commits to support a woman and the children he has with her. Marriage civilizes a man precisely by demanding such renunciations of ego, asking him to forfeit independence and carnal freedom and assume countless social burdens in exchange for a woman’s consent to love him and no other.
Avowedly “independent” feminists, by contrast, seem to expect very little from men, and by all appearances, that’s what men are giving them. Why court (or “woo”) and wait patiently for sex, if women demand sexual pleasure as a right? Why work and save to provide for the mother of your children, if she refuses to let you pay for anything? Why forego indulgent male pastimes like drinking, gambling, and brawling for the more civilized pursuits of mixed company, if all you expect out of female conversation is to be demonized and blamed for women’s problems? Why bother with flowers, compliments, opening doors and so on, if by doing such things you will be snickered at or labeled a “chauvinist” or “reactionary”? If men increasingly prefer the easy pleasures of looking at gadgets and babes in Maxim to the hard work of romance, you can hardly blame them. As Edmund Burke once said of the French Revolutionaries, our feminists “have been punished by their success.”
I have been brooding over the various consequences of the war on chivalry ever since I began spending time in Russia, a country where feminism has never existed. There isn’t even a word for feminism in Russian, nor even, properly speaking, a word for political “equality” (ravnopravie, literally “equality of rights” is close, but this is not a phrase you’ll ever hear anyone using, let alone getting excited about). If you try to explain feminism to Russians, and believe me I’ve tried, it comes out sounding like “lack of difference” between men and women, which sounds patently absurd to them. Why, an utterly baffled Russian girl asked me once, would I want to be like a man?
In so many ways, post-Communist Russia is a throwback to a bygone era, from its extreme social inequality to the tight-knit extended families that serve to protect both the young and old from the all-too-real dangers of the outside world. Nearly all Russian girls (and you’ll have to forgive me here, you’re not allowed to call a girl a “woman” in Russian, it’s like calling her an “old hag”) live at home until marriage. Due both to the strength of tradition and to a somewhat accidental legacy of Communism — ridiculously small apartments — most girls are also extremely close to their parents and grandparents, both physically and emotionally, and whether or not she works, a girl is expected by everyone in her extended family to marry, and marry well, by her early 20s.
The effect of this traditional social arrangement on the dating scene will be familiar to anyone who has read the great romantic novels of Jane Austen or Lev Tolstoy, which are smartly excerpted in the Kasses’ book. When a Russian girl emerges from her warm familial cocoon into society, any encounter with an eligible man — especially with a foreign man such as myself in these times when so many Russian men are impoverished — is fraught with intense expectation. Moscow simply pulses with female desire, of a kind that would be incomprehensible to “emancipated” western women raised to expect sexual gratification on demand. I have been consistently astonished by the intensity of the Russian female gaze. Without apology, a girl will publicly scope me out from head to toe before we have even been introduced, sizing me up as marriage material.
This intensity does not dissipate after the initial romantic encounter, either. First and second dates in Moscow can be gut-wrenching affairs, as a girl continues her merciless evaluation. If she is shrewd, by the end of the first week she will have ascertained your current and future earning power; your relative social status in Moscow society and the country from which you come; your degree of chivalry, or inherent capacity to make her feel beautiful and precious and irreplaceable; and of course your ability to entertain her, make her laugh, make merry with a crowd, and share your accumulated wisdom of the world. If, after all this, she likes you, she will present forthwith you to her parents, and if you pass muster there, well…this is the part I’ve had a bit of trouble with. By this point, it seems she wants you to marry her.
Many American acquaintances who hear my dating war stories from Moscow mock these marriage-ready women for being desperate, but I think that only illustrates their own spiritual emptiness. What I have concluded from my experience in Russia, rather, is how much a truly romantic, non-feminist woman expects from a man — and how poorly my culture has prepared me to give it to her.
But is it too late to learn? Is it possible to overcome the defects of one’s romantic education through a crash course such as that the Kasses offer in Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar? To acquire by intensive, belated study the kind of informed literary sensibility about love I or someone like me might have acquired more naturally, as if by osmosis, in another time or place?
Clearly such a crash course won’t make much difference if one is not already inclined to think about love and marriage in serious terms. I can’t imagine most of the people I went to college with curling up voluntarily with the Kasses’ book and converting en masse to the romantic doctrines of lifelong ego-renunciation and “till death do us part.”
For those of you who do still wish to court and be courted in a manner more meaningful than the current norm, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar can undoubtedly help, although not all readers, of course, will benefit from the anthology in equal measure. My guess is that few men who have voluntarily picked up this anthology — and still fewer women — need to be convinced of the utility of marriage, a subject covered here by rather abstract arguments in its “defense,” by Aquinas, Erasmus, Darwin, and others. Likewise, many readers will already have encountered Shakespeare’s most famous sonnets, Romeo and Juliet, and the celebrated passages from Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, and so on.
My one substantial objection is to the inclusion of Rousseau’s Emile, which the Kasses excerpt no less than four times. Whatever that book’s (anyhow arguable) literary merits, I just can’t stomach love-and-marriage advice coming from a man who was not only a deadbeat dad, but who, due to poisonous jealousies and social complexes I won’t go into, willfully shunned polite society and the company of women. Reader, in this case, beware!
That being said, the breadth of the Kasses’ selections assures that there will be something for everyone in this anthology, and I invite you all to find your own treasures. My own favorite passages were the essay of C.S. Lewis on the difference between eros (romantic passion) and venus (animal sexuality), two sensations which, I can attest from extensive personal experience, can easily be mistaken for one another; and Rilke’s elegant “Letters on Love,” which provides “beginners” like me a sense of the serious effort required to forge a lasting marital bond. “Whoever wants to have a deep love in his life,” Rilke counsels, “must collect and save for it and gather honey.”
If you want such a love, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar is a good place to start. But the advice you find here is only the beginning. The real work lies ahead. Good luck to you all. I know I, for one, will need it.
Copyright 2000 Sean McMeekin. All rights reserved.