Thursday, June 7, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Chivalry

The main hallway of the Sternwood Place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him.
Raymond Chandler
I was reading on some chick site about chivalry. Women have mixed feelings about chivalry: in theory they tend to be against it but a lot of women are for it in practice. (I've noticed that younger women tend to be very much for it but don't really know what it is until they experience it.) I'll probably get into that as summer goes on as I am starting to think of this season as the "Summer of Chivalry". I'll get into those arguments in later posts but it seems to me that someone would write about chivalry from a  male perspective. There is tons of stuff about what women supposedly think about chivalry but very little about how chivalry feels to a man.

This is a first essay so it won't be terribly well focused.

I do the chivalrous thing myself and always have. I don't do it in an obsessive way. It would be impossible to do so. To take a trivial example, here in Canada a lot of public buildings have two sets of doors to keep the cold air out, there is simply no graceful way to hold both sets for a woman. If you grab the first, she will get the second.

And that is the thing first thing about chivalry: it's a kind of style so it has to be done with style or not at all. There is a whole self-presentation that goes with chivalry.

The second thing about chivalry is that it is about how you treat women and there is an ambiguity that goes with that, something Chandler pulls out nicely in the quote at the top. That is from the opening of his very first novel and it tells you not only what The Big Sleep is going to be about but the theme of his entire writing career. If you go back to its sources, writing about chivalry tends to be uncertain whether the point is a life of service to women or something else. "Sooner or later ..."

I think it is about something else myself.

The third thing is that we live in a culturally impoverished era. There is a sort of vague memory of what it is but no one really knows for sure. To take one example, I keep hearing about young women who think the man should pay for dinner even if they make as much or more money than he does. Far from being chivalrous, this tends to cheapen interactions between men and women by bringing dating one step closer to prostitution.

My experience has been that chivalry is a very good way to get the measure of a woman and yourself.

We'll start with her. A woman tells you an immense amount about herself without realizing she is doing it in her response to a chivalrous gesture. Right off, she will be pleased or not. Being pleased does not mean that she will accept. She can be pleased and refuse and you can tell because the refusal will be kind.

If it's not, she is either just an unpleasant person or insecure. Either way you don't want to have much to do with her. Either way, it has nothing to do with principle. Feminists I have know have all tended to accept chivalry pretty easily. Occasionally, a feminist will refuse but always kindly in my experience. Usually, she will just be nice to you in return.

Just a while ago, I had dealings with a feminist whom most people would judged a nightmare and just given up on. She was a hard core activist and lesbian and very much of the opinion that men are the problem. I'd been in her ambit for a while but she had no idea who I was and didn't seem to be making any effort to figure out. Then the opportunity arose and I did my chivalrous thing without even thinking about it and she responded with a pleasant smile, made a note of who I was and gave me a pleasant hello every time she saw me after that.

You might be tempted by the insecure woman. A lot of men are and most "pickup artist" techniques are built on recognizing and exploiting insecurity. And chivalry can be used to that end if you want. The thing that drives her insecurity in the face of chivalry is the fear that she is conceding sexual ground by letting you do this. She fears that if she smiles when you step aside to let her on the bus first, you will take that as grounds to come sit beside her and talk to her. (And if you want to exploit it, the trick is to do the chivalrous thing and then act as if she was invisible. That creates an uncomfortable vacuum that she will feel the need to fill.)

(The other thing pick up artists have correctly identified by the way is that the more sexually attractive a woman is, the more likely she is to be insecure. As sure as night follows day: the more she has invested in her sexual attractiveness, the more insecure she will be.)

There is a lot I could say about that but the crucial point is that chivalry is not a seduction technique, although it can be part of one. If chivalry means anything at all it has to be a way of treating all women, both the babe down the street and her grandmother. If you are only chivalrous to women you hope to nail, you're just a swine and not very effective either.

To go to the flip side, there is the woman who accepts chivalry. Watch how she does it and you can learn a lot about her too. She will tell you for starters whether she is used to this. Chivalry is a lot like a dance and both partners have to know how to do their part.

She will also tell you about how she feels about being a woman; you can tell whether she is comfortable in her skin. She will tell you about her whole history with men. You can tell what her father was like, how well he treated her, how other men have treated her and even get some sense of how many she has let really treat her.

I guess the point is that it really doesn't matter what some writer at a women's website or magazine wants us to believe about what women in general think about chivalry. What a person, woman or man, "thinks" about any issue is a nebulous thing. The really important question is who and what someone is. We tell ourselves that what we think is terribly important but it isn't. (A philosophy professor of mine used to say that, paradoxically, the key to doing philosophy right is to shut out all the noise that thoughts make and pay attention to what actually happens.)

Which leads to you. What kind of man do you want to be? Because the final and most important question is what kind of man do you want to be. Not the kind of man you think you want to be but the one you are actually willing and able to be.

Anyway, this was just an opening essay. There will be more later.

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