Books: September-October 2004

October 1, 2004

 

Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of LoveSeductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love
By Betsy Prioleau Ph.D.'80.
Viking Press, 2003. 384 pages.
$24.95.

Women who are not conventionally attractive--that is to say, women who, in coarser times, might have been termed "ugly"--will be heartened by Betsy Prioleau's Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love. The same goes for brainy women, pushy women, artistic women, and old women. A writer and erstwhile associate professor of English and world literature at Manhattan College, Prioleau argues that seduction is "99 percent mental sorcery," and is achieved through a carefully orchestrated sequence of emotional opposites: "quiescence and ecstasy, intimacy and distance, pleasure and pain." Contrary to popular belief, its most accomplished practitioners have not been dim, passive, ultra-feminine, and pretty. Rather, they have been smart, active, androgynous, and often "homely."

The driving force behind seduction, Prioleau says, is the seductress archetype, a mythic figure "incised in the human collective unconscious and resistant to change, despite fluctuations in sexual tastes and mores." This archetype established itself very early in human history, during the 25,000 years in which our forebears channeled their religious impulses into goddess cults. Stone-age Venus figures, the snake goddesses of Crete, the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and the Greek goddess Aphrodite are all incarnations of this archetype. And when a real-life seductress has her way with a man, it is often because the man is beguiled by the ancient archetypal figure embodied in the living woman.

Although the idea for this book, Prioleau says, came out of a college course on the "Seductress in Fiction," it is not a fusty work of scholarship. She has positioned it as a how-to for aspiring mantraps, less crude than, say, The Rules, but informed by a similar ethos. For those who want "beaux at their bidding and the upper hand in sex," she counsels, the "know-how is there for the taking." You just have to analyze the female masters' methods.

Prioleau is a funny writer and a thorough researcher, and I enjoyed her deft recounting of these exemplars' lives. She divides her seductresses into six categories: "Belles Laides" (homely sirens), "Silver Foxes" (old sirens), "Machweiber" (sirens in politics), scholar-sirens, siren-artists, and siren-adventurers. I was most impressed by the Belles Laides, who, despite frightful looks, managed to rack up admirable conquests without assistance from a plastic surgeon. These notables include American philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardener (with her "fisted-up simian face"), Second Empire courtesan La Pavia ("thick waisted and grim visaged), and early-twentieth-century French writer Colette (who "barreled around Paris in Grecian sandals like Hagar the Horrible with a bad perm").

For Prioleau, seduction is about power, of which women, despite feminist breakthroughs, still don't have enough. Men, she points out, continue to "hold the whip hand: They have numbers on their side (48 percent women to 43 percent men nationwide); they age better and cling like crotch crabs to their historic prerogatives of the initiative, double standard, promiscuity, mate trade-ins, domination, and domestic copouts."

Seduction, however, is a way to even the score; it "riles and dismantles patriarchal domination." In the thrall of seductresses, men can be made to do stupid things--such as, in the case of the Duke of Windsor, abdicating one's throne for the cunning likes of Wallis Simpson. Often, men do even worse things when a seductress jilts them. Ernest Hemingway, for example, never recovered from being ditched by the sexually voracious, scholar-siren Martha Gellhorn. "He stalked and harassed her throughout Europe, once hysterically breaking into her bedroom with a bucket on his head," Prioleau writes.

Prioleau has no patience with vamps who allow themselves to be mistreated by the men they have seduced. She calls such women "pseudoseductresses," and has pointedly excluded them from her book. They include "the eaten and colonized Marilyn Monroe, the oft-dumped flunky Pamela Harriman, and such gofers to male geniuses as Alma Mahler."

Despite the cleverness of Prioleau's prose, and her positioning of the seductress as a figure of strength, her thesis was irksome. It was difficult to get beyond certain retrograde assumptions that she brought to her writing. She takes for granted that the whole world is heterosexual and that heterosexual liaisons come about through feminine conniving. Men who don't respond to feminine wiles are somehow lesser; she calls them "siren-resistant, cryptogay, or scared." She also shrugs off the bisexuality of some seductresses because the only relationships that matter are those between men and women. Colette's significant six-year relationship with the Marquise de Belboeuf (known as Missy), for example, is not mentioned in the book; Prioleau dismisses it as an episode during which the French writer "experimented sexually and bisexually."

Yet if one isn't offended by Prioleau's thesis--and doesn't mind that her subjects' lives are cut to fit that thesis--the book can be a lively read. And for aspiring manslayers, it will also be a source, no doubt, for some useful techniques.


The Uses of ImperfectionThe Uses of Imperfection
By Ted McMahon M.D.'72.
Cat 'n' Dog Productions, 2003. 64 pages.
$14, paper.

Ted McMahon has been a physician since he graduated from Duke's medical school. He's been a poet nearly as long, but The Uses of Imperfection is only his second published book of verse. It explores the universality of suffering, which, he points out in an interview, is one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, a subject in which he has a burgeoning interest. The book chronicles the poet's own growth from early intolerance and unrealistic expectations to open-eyed grappling with failure, loss, suffering, and death. These poems spring from injuries and from loves that bring pain along with delight. McMahon, the wounded healer, shows his passionate desire to tend hurt bodies and aching spirits, and he shows loveliness beyond perfection.

The title poem of the book, a cleverly stylized Petrarchan sonnet, depicts the sculptor Auguste Rodin's having "had it/ up to here with nymphs, smooth-limbed cherubs/ the mind-numbing symmetries of the Salon." He chooses to sculpt the janitor instead of sylphs: "the shaggy head of Bibi, with its broken nose," a person "shambling like a bear with a broom, punch-drunk/, prematurely gray."

In "Perfection," McMahon writes that he, too, wearies of anything that has to "be maintained/ at absolute zero/ in a perfect vacuum/ beneath an indifferent moon." Perfection grows tired of itself and "arrives/ back home disguised/in a sleeveless undershirt/ driving a rented convertible." McMahon chooses to make his art from models like Rodin's. For instance, "Pont d'Alma RER" portrays a man with Tourette's syndrome. Children stare at him when he "begins explosive expletives/ in French into his fisted hand." The poem's speaker explains, kindly, to his children, "Boys, it's a man who has a hard time/ controlling himself." He doesn't stop at kindness, though, but continues, "sotto voce/ Hey, buddy, wait up! Wait for me!" This father admits that he, too, has a hard time controlling his own actions. McMahon and the speaker, his near relative, accept the man's affliction--and their own.

The poet-physician (McMahon is clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington) writes frankly about the beginning and end of human lives without embarrassment, sentimentality, or apology. In "Refusing Amniocentesis," he describes a birth: "blue/ and slippery as a fish your child/ twists into sight," an image as beautiful as it is unblinking.

"Silver Fork, American River" uses the image of a fish in a much different context: A woman tells how she embraces the drowned body of her friend, though others have warned her that "The river will have done/ its work on him. And the fish." She grasps the corpse, which has come free of the ropes intended to pull him ashore: "Cradled in my arms, how does he look?/ I do not care. I stroke/ his hair, tenderly caress the forehead/ with its tiny bruise." The woman notices only a tiny bruise--an apparently insignificant mark on this mangled and decayed body--thus signifying her all-embracing and unselfconscious love.

In a later poem, a group of dead bodies have lost their identities. Undifferentiated limbs, "still pink and glistening," lie buried together, and the rescue workers dig them out of the September 11 rubble. The dead are as slippery as the baby in "Amniocentesis," but their "glistening" signifies decay. This poem, "After the Fall," is a modified Shakespearean sonnet, and its classic, almost architectural structure creates a fragile bastion. From its tower the shell-shocked survivors--all of us who remember that fall--can survey the carnage. Some, McMahon says, will choose to "cultivate their bitterness"; others will "refuse, and relax into resignation. Will subsist." All "know that eventually there will be/ tomatoes," that is to say, a return to ordinary pleasures. But, still, each must realize that these quotidian comforts that signal that all is well are imperfect safeguards against further unexpected catastrophe. Pretending that this September will be perfect, as past Septembers have seemed to be, comforts but provides no effective talisman against sudden death or destruction.

Suffering may bring resignation to some, but pain, McMahon claims in "Just Desserts," is integral to art. This ars poetica asks that "at the conclusion/ of each banquet honoring/ poets, that after the speeches/ and the chocolate mousse,/ small shards of flint/ be stealthily placed/ in the winners' shoes." Poets' work can heal only when they share their pain with their readers. How, then, can a doctor be a poet? Patients generally expect perfection from doctors who, in turn, often believe themselves to function on a higher plane than the patients who have to undergo painful and risky treatment. Surely pediatricians such as McMahon must be infallible, since they hold the fates of our children. Everyone knows that these scary diagnosticians live differently, perhaps better, than most of us; they're arrogantly safe in their scientific priesthood.

But McMahon reaches across the divide in his brilliant "Circumcision." This naked, aching poem shows a hurried doctor accidentally inject a baby's penis with epinephrine, a drug that constricts the blood vessels. He meant to use a painkiller before cutting the foreskin, and now, on a Sunday when it's hard to summon assistance, the healthy baby could lose his penis altogether. The doctor cries, "God! Is this/ what patients feel/ when I enter a room/ to deliver bad news?"

The final remedy for human pain is love, McMahon avers. He describes two elderly lovers, both of them poets, in "December and May." Despite the uncertain efficacy of any fortress or of any ritual--"Who has smeared our lintels/ with blood?"--they have come to each other late in life. They "grasp/ each offered cup and drink with gratitude/its full measure." They "caress each other with words/ as if naming fears could banish them." As fragile as poems or cups or lives, their love holds the audience "quiet on the edges of" their seats. These lovers have survived and momentarily found bliss--an image profoundly healing.

McMahon manipulates language with tenderness and skill, seeking enlightenment through compassion for those he meets, both as a doctor and as a poet. He says, in "Dakota Bodhisattva": "I'd settle to have sparked/ a single flash of joy, to have erased/ a single line of sorrow." In these fine poems, he does exactly that.