Thursday, December 6, 2018

"... so convinced that women need wiles and arts ..."

That is from Le Divorce as quoted in my post from last week. There I repeated a claim I make often, that seeking to be loved for yourself is empty and narcissistic. That is the opposite of what is usually claimed. And that usual claim is at least credible. Isn't being loved for who I really am more honest than being loved for what I can do? To which I reply, only if you think what you really are is so darned good that you are entitled to love.

Suppose we flip it around and ask what we should give others. And here we return to the subject of Isabel lying to herself. She sees all these cultural treasures of French womanhood as mere "wiles and arts" as opposed to ways of becoming someone better, someone who can give attention, approval and acceptance to others that those others will think worth having.

And, surely, we wouldn't want to respond by saying something like, "What about the attention, approval and acceptance that I need?"

After this remark, Isabel starts sharing scenes. That is, she tells the story as if it were a series of scenes from a movie. Isabel, of course, could not have been present for some of these scenes. She tells us how she imagines the scene would be presented in film based on what she was told and what she assumes must have been the case, supplemented, perhaps, with a few educated guesses. The very first scene is Isabel's sister Roxy discovering that her husband is leaving her. And the obvious question, one that Isabel doesn't answer directly, is why?

Roxy we are told, is very American, going about dressed in jeans or "those awful flower-child clothes". But it's more than clothing. Roxy is someone who seeks to be loved for herself.

At first glance, we might think that the issue is whether Charles-Henri is leaving Roxy because she wasn't a good enough wife. It seems likely that this is a question that troubles Roxy herself, although she doesn't have the courage to ask it directly. It soon becomes obvious, however, that Charles-Henri has acted in an indefensible manner. He is an empty man, no one we need take seriously. And yet the question remains, did Roxy fail as a woman? (After all, she married him in the first place; why didn't she see his weakness?)

What does this mean? I think we can approach the issue of "wiles and arts" in two ways.  At first glance we might, along with Isabel, assume these wiles and arts only about pursuing a man. But at a second glance they are really about the art of living rather than the art of seduction. And here we have the real theme of the novel: Isabel, faced with French culture, has to treat the art of living as a serious moral issue and she has somehow avoided that before coming to France.

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