The word seduction comes from the Latin seducere or to lead away. From this we might easily think of to lead astray, a pejorative connotation to the word which conjures up the siren, the sea nymph, luring sailors onto the rocks, or the sirens in Homer’s Odyssey who try to lure Odysseus and his sailors to death. We think of the femme fatale, Salome, for example, doing her dance of the seven veils in order to obtain the head of John the Baptist.
And it is true, of course, that we are often seduced by someone different from us, exotic, someone slightly out of reach, someone who seems somewhat aloof and removed. Great beauty, of course, great power, and wealth attract us, and we wish to bask vicariously in the glow of someone else’s fame and fortune or to use it in some way for our own advancement. Intelligence is also, or so it has always seemed to me, a great source of attraction, and I remember as a girl saying I would not marry anyone who did not like Dostoevsky.
Yet if we ask ourselves what is the most seductive element in another person it is not always a leading away or a leading astray, but rather the opposite: someone who leads us to understand ourselves better, someone who seems to understand us and recognize our uniqueness and what we have to offer to the world, someone who encourages us in our endeavors. Seduction so often lies in someone’s interest in us, a seemingly sincere interest, someone’s understanding of our dreams and desires.
I remember the heart-breaking question my deaf daughter once asked me. She was in the bath, as I remember it, and she looked up at me with her big brown eyes and asked, as though I must know the answer, “ What makes someone popular? What do I have to do to be popular?”
I knew the children at school often left her out. She was different, did not always understand what they or the teacher had said. She was not invited to their parties, and sometimes the other children slipped her notes saying “You are stupid!” which she is certainly not. So I caught my breath, thought for a moment, and then said, “Ask them questions about themselves. Take an interest in them, help them if you can,” hard lessons for a nine year old to grasp. Yet she certainly grasped them and ironically became one of the best listeners I know, despite or perhaps because she is reading lips.
So perhaps this is the most important element in a seductive person: the ability to make us feel special, and ultimately at ease. Someone who does not hold forth about his/her accomplishments but modestly listens to ours. Someone able to really listen to what we have to say and to seem to understand; to laugh at our jokes, to share his/her life with us freely, someone who is eager to share time with us to make us feel loved. We bask in that glow.
I remember meeting my husband for the first time and one of things he said to me. “I’ve never heard anyone say something quite like that,” he said, shaking his head in wonder, wily man that he is, staring at me in astonishment after some very ordinary statement I had made!
With a beautiful drawing by Jean Marcellino
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.
She will be teaching at the Center for Fiction a class called: "Writers on Writers", For the 17th read The Blue Flower by P. Fitzgerald