Dorothy Parker said, “I require only three things of a man. He must be handsome, ruthless, and stupid.”
Parker’s line is suffused with the sharp edge of irony that characterizes her fiction. This line, however, is from her biography. Just because a woman can vivisect an unhealthy relationship to perfection—as Parker routinely does in her stories — it does not guarantee that she will be able to see with such clarity the details of her own intimate relationships.
Parker, who married the same man twice (“There are several people at this wedding who haven’t spoken to each other in years,” she said at the occasion of her second marriage to Alan Cambell, “Including the bride and the groom.”), did not seem to herself have been particularly insightful in choosing men who would treat her well.
In fact, she seemed to seek out those who would most obviously devastate her.
It is a cliche that women are more responsive to a man's forgetfulness than to his attentions.
Oscar Wilde wrote “I am afraid that women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters all the time.”
Do women seek men who will colonize their emotions, enslave their passions, and rule over their lives--but while doing so in the name of finding love, find instead what poet Sylvia Plath calls “a fascist”?
In one of her most moving poems, Plath declares that “Every woman adores a Fascist,” who has the “brute heart” of “a brute like you.” Her poem goes on, in painful and careful verse, to describe the “Love of the rack and screw.” The play on words is anything but playful; obviously “screw” is as much a word of torture as it is a description of the sexual act.
In a similar manner, one of Margaret Atwood’s narrator’s suggests that she and her lover go together like a “hook and eye.”
Atwood goes on to contextualize the terms--and they are not the comfortable images from a sewing box. Instead they are drawn from the hunter’s arsenal, and are images of curved steel and pain: “A fish hook. An open eye.”
The reader reflexively blinks, and the transition from believing something is a perfect fit to believing it will be the death of you is swift and shocking.
Novelist Margaret Drabble, for one, locates the responsibility for such misplaced desires in the way we are taught to envision “real romance” as tragic. “I blame Campion, I blame the poets,” fumes Drabble in The Waterfall, “I blame Shakespeare for that farcical moment in Romeo and Juliet where he sees her at the dance, from far off, and says, I'll have her, because she is the one that will kill me.”
Finally, there are those who feel, as one French philosopher put it, “If no one had learned to read, very few people would be in love.”
Does the fault lie, not in our ourselves, but in our books, music and art? Do we create impossible versions and visions of romance and then spent our lives searching for the unfinished and unfindable?
To be continued...
(adapted from Perfect Husbands-and other fairy tales)