It’s not uncommon for a woman to feel offended if she believes a man is interested in her only because of her looks. We like to think of ourselves not as mere objects or receptacles; we like to feel a semblance of worthiness that goes beyond our outer appearance. But why should we internalize how men feel about us? After all, they’re the ones with the simplistic, predictable mindset, not us. If only we could detach feelings of low self-worth and a man’s lust for our appearance, we might realize that, in heterosexual relationships, we have all the power.
The most honest depictions of a woman’s power over a man can be found in literature, as Clive James argues in his book Cultural Amnesia. He gives the example of “the first thing that happens in literature”: “Troy burned because Paris was smitten by Helen’s beauty.” Alexander Pope, too, used satire as a way to mask his intense and unrelenting desire for women he couldn’t have. James writes, “Pope’s poetry might seem to scorn courtly love, but the poet’s mockery of trivial young ladies is a clear attempt to offset the boggling effect of their beauty on a mind deprived of the bodily means to do anything else about it.” William Butler Yeats was so taken by the initial and overwhelmingly powerful effect of a woman’s beauty on him that it compelled him to attribute favorable qualities to them that they didn’t even have. And James mentions Goethe’s infatuation with Ulrike von Levetzow too, “The most intelligent man of his time was obviously in the grip of a soul-consuming passion that had not much to do with the intellect, which was an accomplice—he thought her mind as beautiful as her face—but scarcely the instigator.”
Present in all of these men’s words is evidence that, for a man, there is nothing more forceful or intoxicating than the initial sight of a beautifully captivating woman. It will lead them to disloyalty, to lose concentration on their work, and even to insanity. James mentions two relevant and poignant lines spoken by Lenny Bruce: “A man will fuck mud,” and “A man will have sex with a venetian blind.”
What perhaps looks conspicuously dim-witted to us (“fucking mud,” for example) seems entirely reasonable to an enamored man. And in a sense it is; the feelings are not an illusion, they’re real. And, as James argues, this seemingly convoluted attitude towards love and lust seems to only increase with age. Regarding George Balanchaine, the late choreographer of the New York City ballet, James writes, “The older he became, the more consuming his love affairs with his young ballerinas.” Balanchaine had seen how detrimental the Nijinsky and Diaghilev love affair had become, wherein Diaghilev grew increasingly jealous and eventually threw Nijinsky out of the ballet company, effectively ruining his career forever. Balanchaine KNEW that kicking a ballerina out of the company over personal reasons was despicable, and yet in his enamored and aging state—in his vulnerability—he went ahead with it anyway. “Acumen,” James writes, “is no protection [for a man’s infatuation], because the initial effect is not assembled from particular judgments: it happens all at once, with the holistic suddenness of a baby reacting to its mother’s voice.”
As women, if we could just accept the absurdity and senselessness behind men’s approach to love, we might all be a little bit better off. James also mentions Albert Camus, who, in the week before his death, confessed his love to 5 different women, addressing each woman “as the love of his life.” It’s erratic and a bit impulsive to the naked (female) eye, sure, but most importantly: it was abundantly true. As James confirms, “He probably meant it every time.”
I’m not arguing that we should be happy and content with a loving husband even if he does have 4 other wives; no, what I’m arguing is that men have the capacity to love—sometimes more so than women—and we shouldn’t dismiss it as bogus just because it doesn’t resemble our approach to love.
Peter Altenberg was a German intellectual from Vienna who lived during and partook heavily in Vienna’s café life. One time a young lover of his complained, through tears, that he only liked her because of the sexual satisfaction she provided. To which Altenberg replied, “Was ist so nur?” or “What’s so only?”