"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Petrarch, Chivalry, And The New Feminism–Where Have Grace And Gentility Gone?

Those of a certain age feel they have been brought up properly – to open doors for women, to seat them gracefully at table, and to kiss their hands.  This education had less to do with the old-fashioned soon-to-be antiquated patriarchal system of the past than it did with a fundamental sense of grace, manners, and gentility.  Many decades after their childhoods, through and despite the ragged, disassembling feminist 70s, they are still gentlemen.

What does this mean in a modern era whose social reformers had rejected any such signs of sexual propriety, deference, and respect as derogating – the remains of a patriarchal, male-dominated system designed to retain male power at the expense of female independence?  A man should unhesitatingly enter and exit an elevator first, let a woman seat herself, help no one on with their coats, abide by first-come-first-serve, never pull up on insensitive language, and above all, treat women as though they were men. 

Those who grew up in a more respectful if not chivalric age bridle a bit at such challenges to traditional sexuality. Women after all had not changed despite decades of political activism.  They are still physically delicate and appealing in a sensuous, stylish, and dramatic way.  They are still as alluring as they have ever been.  Their coiffure, nails, perfume, dress, stockings, and shoes have always made them different from men.  From Ancient Egypt until now – through Athens, Persepolis, Rome, and courts of Henry VIII, Louis XIV, and the princes of Venice and Florence – female beauty has remained unchanged.  Women still see themselves as quite different from men – the alluring half of the species, the more beautiful, attractive, sexually delicate and desirable half – but this has never been a marginalizing difference.

Despite the claim to the contrary, female beauty is not nor ever has been in the eye of the beholder, and even those who may prefer a woman of less classic, dark looks and more sensuously alluring, will agree that Tuba Büyüküstün is beautiful.  Her type of beauty, with predictable cultural variations over time, is reflective of those characteristics which have always made women attractive. Symmetrical features, luminescent eyes, full lips, and luxuriant hair all express health, wealth, and well-being as well as being pleasing to a natural sense of geometrical order (the golden mean is universally appealing), and sexual appeal.  There is little difference between the women painted by  the artists of Fayum, Pompey; Leonardo and Tuba Büyüküstün.

See the source imageImage result for images tuba buyukustun

Artists throughout history have depicted the female form in the same way – sensuous, sexually alluring, and desirable.  The sculptures of Bernini and Michelangelo, the paintings from Giotto to Bouguereau; frescoes, triptychs, watercolors, and sketches all have portrayed the female form in exactly the same way.  However much men might have admired women for their pluck, savvy, brains, and ambition, their idea of woman changed little over the centuries.  At the same time there was never any disconnect between the powerful women of Shakespeare’s Histories, Tragedies, and Comedies and any of them as attractive women.

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and Ptolemaic heiress, was the most powerful woman in the Roman Empire, having bedded Emperors and pretenders to power, having parlayed the wealth of Egypt into geo-political and personal influence, and having had ambitions to rule.  At the same time Cleopatra was always depicted as the most beautiful woman in the Empire, irresistible, and unparalleled.  She not only represents ‘the sybaritic East’, she is its prize. Mark Antony was the last of Rome’s Emperors to fall under her influence.,  He was enchanted by her beauty, seduced by the opulence of her court, and completely besotted by her charms.  Unlike any friend or enemy, Antony before her was deferential, hopeful, desirous, and led. He was, before any conflict or battle, hers.

Image result for images liz taylor as cleopatra

There is something about women, powerful and strong or demurring and hesitant which attracts men and makes them behave in ways they would never show or admit to with men.  They are courteous, genteel, generous, and caring.  Chivalry, the art of seductive respect, only began in the Middle Ages and promoted by Petrarch.  In the poet’s eyes a woman was not simply a different form of human being, a reproductive necessity, and a sexual complement, but a goddess whose beauty could never be matched.  It was normal, then, for men to worship women on a throne of beauty and sexual sublimity, come what may.  Courtship was a manner of male deference and sexual ambition, the pursuit of the female through the promise of love, romance, and sexual attention. Such chivalry and manners were a means to an end in an idealistically fanciful sexual world.

Image result for images petrarch

The powerful women of Shakespeare were unparalleled in their pursuit of regal power, and desire for wealth and status. Yet as much as Shakespeare wrote of their unholy ambition, he never forgot their femininity. Cleopatra, Rosalind, and Portia were not only women to be reckoned with, but women to bed.  The succubuses of Ibsen – Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Nora, and Hilde Wangel – women who are Nietzschean, willful, and determined win over their prey not only because of asexual will and intelligence but because of female allure.  Miss Julie, the heroine of  Strindberg’s play of the same name, is dynamic, willful, and out of the ordinary, but Jean the Valet falls for her not because of her determination and independence, but because she is an attractive woman.

None of these women ever denied their sex, their femininity, or the sexual character of their male adversaries.  Sexual difference was a given, to dealt with, negotiated, or used to advantage.

In all these works, gender – femaleness and maleness – was ever denied or questioned.  Men would always be one way, women another.  Men had a leg up in the wars between the sexes – a legacy of Paleolithic male preeminence, a role which they have exploited long after necessity faded – but women were never daunted.  It was always a draw.

Jack London's Call of the Wild is close to a more traditional view of maleness and resonates with today's men. There is something even more compelling about the story of Buck – his aggressiveness, and male dominance.  There is a completeness and perfection in the male character of Buck – he has no feminine side – and his will is male, one unmistakably virile, potent, and forceful.  While many men may publicly disavow any such characteristics as primitive evolutionary throwbacks, privately they feel that they have capitulated their maleness, accommodated women far too much, and become neutered.

Image result for images jack london call of the wild

These men who feel they have been unmanned by women, bested by them, and left on the curb as supernumerary have never understood sexual dynamics let alone chivalry as way to the most powerful woman’s heart.  Perhaps the best fictional account of sexual dynamics is Le Clos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. While male pursuit and female receptiveness might be the evolutionary standard, it is the art of seduction which gives dynamism to the sexual equation.  Valmont’s sexual dominance means nothing unless he can seduce women of deep religious sentiment and rectitude.  The fact that he the fact that he attempts to do so in a bet with his aristocratic lover makes his willful, sexually Nietzschean will all the more important.

Image result for images malkovich les liaisons dangereuses

Chivalry, borne out of a romantic idealization of women has become over the ages, a tool of seduction.  Opening a car door, remembering a birthday, flowers on anniversaries, patent respect and superficial deference are means to very satisfying ends.

At the same time, wouldn’t a more romantic, chivalrous, respectful world be a more pleasant place in which to live? Even if means and ends are confounded and transparent, grace and gentility would do a lot to mitigate the crass, bottom line feminism and male retro-patriarchy of the modern era.  Would it kill you to give her a box of chocolates?

Chivalry was borne of an acknowledgement and appreciation of femininity,  Over the centuries it became a means to a male-oriented sexual end and totally discredited as the socially graceful and elegant gesture it was.  What would be the harm in re-instituting it?  Would a little show of deference to femininity, female beauty, and female character be that damaging to feminism and women’s rights?

Chivalry means admitting that men and women are different; that femaleness is a matter of beauty, grace, charm, and allure; and that both such allure and intellectual competence can co-exist. Perhaps as importantly, a return of chivalry would help to restore a general human civility, a simple respect for manners, presentation, looks, and attitude.  What could possibly be wrong with that?

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