Of Love, etc.THEODORE DALRYMPLE
We are in revolt against ‘the limitations imposed by our mortality, genes, social and physical environment, and chance,’ as Satan was in revolt against God.
Paul Hollander's new book, Extravagant Expectations (Ivan Dee), is not only about the personal, but about the personals, those small-ads in various publications in which people seek what used to be called a lover, paramour or consort, but must now be called a partner. With the eye of the true sociologist, he uses these brief messages to peer into the soul not only of the individuals concerned, but of western, and particularly American, society. What emerges is both funny and melancholy, and by no means reassuring: but perhaps society has always been one of those things that, like death and the sun, cannot be stared at for too long, for it is never reassuring.
The few words of the personal do not allow individuals easily to distinguish themselves from others of their type, so it is particularly suitable for examining the types that resort to them. Perhaps, indeed, these advertisements would be better designated as the impersonals. It was clever of Professor Hollander to spot this; like Autolycus the Rogue he is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, but he is also a master of extracting deep significance from apparently trivial phenomena. He sees a whole world in a grain of sand, while there are all too many of us who do not see a grain of sand even in a whole world.
In modern society, people are supposed to shift for themselves, to develop their own lives according to their own conceptions, and to experience what is known as 'personal growth,' a process incapable of definition that is supposed to last until five minutes before death. People are no longer born into a social role that they are assigned to fill until they die, simply by virtue of having been born in a certain place to certain parents. In theory, at least, every man in modern society is master of his own fate. Where he ends up is a matter of his own choice and merit.
In so far as modern society actually conforms to this ideal, it obviates the frustration of the man of talent who can get nowhere because of a rigid caste system that keeps him in his place, which is to say where he was born. Not only his, but every career is open to all the talents. The problem with meritocracy, however, even in its purest imaginable form, is that few people are of exceptional merit. The realisation that the fault lies in us, not in our stars, that we are underlings, is a painful one; and in the nature of things, there are more underlings than what I am tempted to call overlings. A meritocracy is therefore fertile ground for mass resentment.
Our system is founded on our inalienable right to pursue our own happiness in our own way, a right that is supposed actually to result in happiness, or at least in more happiness than if we did not enjoy such a right. When it comes to choosing a mate, we have to consider only our inclinations, and not such things as obligations to society or parents. And when the marriage no longer suits, when the immortal beloved begins to bore us in a way incompatible with the chronic ecstasy we have come to expect as the only worthwhile state for a man (or woman) to be in, we dissolve the marriage and go off in search of another potential source of undiluted and everlasting bliss.
Unfortunately, the pool of candidates has in the meantime contracted. Gone are our student days, when the field seemed so ripe for the harvest. The field has thinned out like the hair on a man's head. It is time to advertise.
Needless to say, the self-presentation of the advertisers depends on the type of publication in which they advertise (increasingly on the internet, of course), though they also select the kind of publication according to their own predilections. The funniest, but in some ways the saddest, of the chapters in this book is about the advertisements in the New York Review of Books and in the alumni magazines of great universities. Here, taken at random, is one:
The mixture of ordinariness on the one hand (baseball and Clint Eastwood), and preternatural sophistication on the other – no New Hampshire tomatoes for her, she would gag at the very thought of them – is absolutely typical. All the people advertising are Renaissance men and women, capable of appreciating all that the world has to offer; they are both as nature made them and highly cultivated. 'Nature-lover but can do black tie at the drop of a hat.' They throw in their liking for fine Bordeaux wine, or the Umbrian countryside, as markers of their class, but also their liking for the Moody Blues and roast chicken, to demonstrate that they are not snobs.
Because of the restricted number of words in which they must be couched, the personals are written in a kind of code; and yet, at the same time, one suspects that if the advertisers had an extended space in which to describe themselves, they would be at something of a loss to know what to say, and nothing much more individual would emerge about them. They are individuals without individuality.
In India, where advertising in newspapers for spouses had long been perfectly normal, a technical code has been elaborated, but it attaches to very definite or tangible qualities. The word 'wheaten,' for example, is used of the complexion, and represents a darker shade than the word might appear to imply to the western reader (in India, a dark complexion is no asset, and is even an impediment to marriage that can overcome any number of other advantages, such as a good income). There is a hard-headedness or ruthlessness to the Indian code that is mostly missing from the American personals, which partake of all the specificity of psychobabble.
What is one to make, for example, of the Alabama teacher who says of herself in her advertisement:
One could sit next to her on a bus and not realise that it was she; for how does what she says about herself distinguish her from anyone else? Clearly, she is less sophisticated than the advertisers in the New York Review, and I doubt that she could tell a Burgundy from a Bordeaux, but there are probably ten million young women who could say 'I am up for whatever.'
Whenever I sit on buses or trains I like to listen to the conversations of the people around me. Mostly people talk of themselves, but rarely in such a fashion that you (or their interlocutors) can get any concrete idea of their lives. Their words lack any clear denotation. They are like a confession of having sinned in general, without any details as to the actual occasion when the sins were performed. It is self-exposure without self-revelation.
People who think of 'eye contact' as a 'presentation tool' are destined for superficial and unsatisfactory relations with other people, all the more frustrating because they are looking to those relations to fill their own inner emptiness, to perfect their highly imperfect and lonely lives. When the presentation tool has worked, the person upon whom it has worked is soon found to be unsatisfactory; it must soon be employed again. Mr or Miss Right never appears.
It is wrong to laugh because the suffering that these manuals of human relations reveal is very real. One has only to imagine someone poring over them with close attention to appreciate this. Who but someone genuinely unhappy and perplexed could believe in 'Your defined product' (Dr Phil) as a possible solution to loneliness?
At the root of the problem is our belief in the perfectibility of life, that it is possible in principle for all desiderata to be satisfied without remainder, and that anything less than perfection, including in relationships, not only is, but ought to be, rejected by us. We cannot accept that we might at some point have to forego the delirium of passion for the consolation of companionship, that Romeo and Juliet is fine as catharsis but not very realistic as a guide to married life at the age of 56. We cannot have it all.
We are in revolt against what Hollander calls 'the limitations imposed by our mortality, genes, social and physical environment, and chance,' as Satan was in revolt against God. Extravagant Expectations is an excellent illustration of how the examination of a seemingly minor social phenomenon can soon lead to the deepest questions of human existence.
Theodore Dalrymple. "Of Love, etc." The New English Review (October, 2011).
Reprinted with permission of the author, Theodore Dalrymple.
Copyright © 2011 The New English Review
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