“The personal is political.” If you were sentient in the sixties and seventies, you heard it almost daily. No doubt, you also said it now and then. It still echoes occasionally around the Zeitgeist, but with a less commanding tone.
It’s been a little over a year since I left a decades-long marriage, and I am ready to explore relationship again, which for me means meeting men. The trouble is, I live the life of a writer and speaker whose main subject is culture. In comparison with the normal pattern of going to an office each day, I spend a remarkable amount of time alone with my computer, mostly loving every minute of it. (I’m lucky, I know, to experience bliss in the act of writing, even when the results fail to induce the same state in readers.) In between, I take to the road for work. I’m glad to have had quite a few speaking and consulting engagements this spring, mostly journeying to that corner of the universe known as “the arts,” where I am surrounded by women (roughly two-thirds of the people who work in that field, by my informal estimate) and gay men, with a sprinkling of married men in the crowd.
Wherever I go, I’ve been driving my friends a little crazy with this topic, and their response has been to urge me to register with an online dating site. Yesterday, I let myself be persuaded, which entailed answering a long list of questions about my background and personal tastes and habits. The idea is that on the basis of some algorithm, I will be matched with compatible men (although the first batch of matches has left me feeling skeptical).
Still, it’s good practice, friends say, recounting all the happy couples they know who met online. So I am practicing, and as I practice, I wonder if anyone is paying attention to the politics of mature romance, a subject ripe for exploration.
The 1969 essay that introduced “the personal is political” focused on women’s experience in newly formed consciousness-raising groups, on understanding that talking about personal life and feelings was in itself a form of political action.
When the feminist movement popularized the slogan, the focus was most often ways that matters seen as purely personal—who does the dishes?—had political significance, upholding a hierarchy of value in which “women’s work” enhanced men’s social power at women’s expense.
But before long, “the personal is political” expressed a way of seeing the world in general. It recognized something that now seems so true I can’t quite remember why it was ever contested. From the far right of the political spectrum to its opposite, it is now generally understood that putatively personal matters such as views of sexual identity and reproductive choice, of racial differences and same-sex marriage, make loud and clear political statements.
But there are things we still don’t bring into the conversation, because they conform to our even older and deeper proclivity to treat public issues as private troubles (to borrow C. Wright Mills’ words). The classic example is the common tendency to regard unemployment as a personal failing, even when mere statistics inarguably demonstrate its public dimension. When businesses fail or flee, jobs are lost without regard to the merits of personal performance; but the impersonality of the experience doesn’t seem to have sunk in. Too often, the odor of blame still clings to those whose jobs have been lost.
Love’s many varieties of failure are treated as purely personal, but they too are shaped by social values. When I think of my parents’ generation, my mind fills with images of stoic spouses, sticking it out in marriages grounded in cold calculation or hot desperation: I’ll trade the fact that you see me as furniture for the houseful of overstuffed accoutrements your salary buys; I’ll trade the fact that you feel no desire for me for the way you make me look like a successful family man for the boss, the church, the neighbors.
Then as now, we see happy couples, determined to stay awake and alive, to welcome change in themselves and in their partners, to meet in the sanctuary of loving relationship. Now as then, we see spouses who put parts of themselves away in the interests of coexistence, sleepwalking through the years, shadows of their possible selves.
In my generation, many more of us lately seem to be single, in part due to having finally refused the bad old bargain, trading ourselves away in exchange for some version of security. “Only connect,” said E.M. Forster, and like most human beings, that is our desire. The newer systems devised to connect potential mates may work well for the young, and even for those members of our own generation who evaded the great awakening that imprinted so many in the sixties. But from what I hear, they do not seem to be serving us—the ones who heard “the personal is political” as a newly minted mantra and still hear its echo—because they can’t get past what we do and what we like to the only question that finally matters, who we are.
It’s been a long time since I was last single, and everything has changed.
I was fortunate to be young when sex and danger were not keeping quite such close company as in the age of AIDS. It seemed to me then that the attraction of appearance was a tremendous power source, one I could wield without much care, just for the pleasure of it. I’m not making any claims of superiority for a cultural moment in which people looked at each other, liked what they saw, and leapt into bed without exchanging names. You’d have to be blind not to see the downside. But I was lucky: nothing really bad happened to me; I learned something; and I delighted in the dance of instant attraction and its aftermath.
Now I am a woman of a certain age. I don’t think I have anything new to say about our society’s equation of youth and beauty, of the way it treats women no longer young as less than they were, invisible, and surplus to requirements. Awareness is growing, and with awareness, women can sever their inner sense of value from those social distortions, can remember who they are and not allow a contingent idea of worth to take root in their own minds.
But I have also changed. The intrepid among the young perceive identity as wide-open to question and influence. Part of such a youthful relationship is playing with identity: Who am I in this relationship? Who are you? What about now, and now, and now? Decades ago, I was drawn to men with a fluid, unformed sense of self, learning themselves through adventure and misadventure. I still prize openness to learning, but much more so when it is grounded in the self-awareness that can come through experience and reflection, making identity far richer and far less conditional.
When I was young and time was infinite, relationships could be specialized, like reading different chapters in a big book. I could learn politics from one man, and music or silence or cooking or the names of wildflowers from another. I could spend time with a man I couldn’t really talk to, but who had ways of communicating. I practiced dumbing myself down, or amping up my defenses to get through a passage of not being fully received. But now, I recognize the erotic character of brain-power. The quip that the brain is the largest sex organ has been around for ages; but now that science has given us the capacity to observe brains in action, we know it is true. For a woman like myself, who delights in playing with her brain, no compensation would suffice to trade away the delicious meeting of open and active minds, which is not an easy thing to find.
I don’t mean to repudiate the past. There is no denying the power of youthful animal attraction, the erotic equivalent of the impulse to sink one’s teeth into a ripe peach.
But it doesn’t take long after devouring the peach to feel the need for another. The long-simmered quality of mature erotic energy is something else. My attention is drawn to a beautiful young man as to an object of art, but there is something in a lived-in look, the mature face and body of a man who resides comfortably inside his own skin, that moves me much more deeply. It’s the knowing look that made George Clooney wait so long to morph from minor soap-star to national heartthrob; the tactile sensation of watching Gary Cooper or Denzel Washington in middle age, in contrast to the fragile beauty of their youth; the swooning crowds that fill concert halls to hear the 70-something Leonard Cohen sing “I’m Your Man.”
“The lineaments of gratified desire,” wrote William Blake, capturing it exactly.
Our culture is distorted by ideas about aging ungrounded in physical reality. Sixty-five is still considered the boundary of old age (of course, for some North Americans, 65 equals decrepitude, but not so very many). At birth, the life-expectancy of a white woman who is now close to that age would have been in the high 60s; today, if she has survived past 60, that same woman’s life expectancy would give her another 20-odd years of life. (For white men and both men and women of color, the numbers are a little lower.)
There is a pervasive expectation that after a certain age, we will start to go quietly, deflating as life force leaks away. The young naturally want to move up. The French have an expression: “Pousse-toi de là que je m’y mette“—basically, “Shove off so I can take your place.” Economic concerns exacerbate the trend. In my brief exposure to the online dating site, I’ve already read a dozen profiles of men a few years older than myself whose own words paint a picture of withdrawal into a half-life of vicarious experience and board games. With diminished hopes, it appears to be relatively easy to strike the bad old bargain online: companionate marriage, someone to watch TV with, insurance against finding oneself ill and alone. It is human to want these things; and human to hope they provide the desired satisfaction for those who choose them.
But what about those who were unable to find sanctuary in an earlier relationship, and who now eschew the bad bargain, even at the risk of isolation? The politics of mature romance are intensely personal, but they are still politics, shaped by social distortions concerning age, eros (and Psyche). The generation experiencing them may be gamely treading the paths to relationship now on offer, but I think something different is not only possible, it is required. I want to volunteer for it, but I don’t know where to sign up.
In the meantime, if you meet a highly intelligent, self-aware, comfortable-in-his-own skin single man of a certain age (give or take), point him to my Website, where a lot more than my favorite color is revealed.
I love the song “But Beautiful” by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke:
Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall, you fall,
And I’m thinking,
I wouldn’t mind at all.
I’ve asked for it in more piano bars than I can remember, enough to know that those who can play it by heart can really play. I wanted to share Betty Carter’s version with you, but I couldn’t find it online. Never mind, this sublime rendition by Billie Holiday will do very nicely, a theme song for our cohort.