Random Readings pt 5

Surprisingly, Rome is not as hung with penises as Florence. Maybe that’s because  so much of the statuary predates the Renaissance, when men and women were presented and their images preserved in marble robes, or charmingly plump fig leaves. Where the Medici crest, a shield with red balls or coins, hangs ubiquitously in Florence, Mary hangs in Rome. On countless street corners her image has been painted or frescoed or sculpted in many guises — virgin wife, young child, mother. She is the ideal – overflowing with compassion and pure of heart.

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The city’s churches all seem to bear her name. That’s an exaggeration; there are churches with other names, but my guidebook lists 24 variations of St. Mary in the list of Rome’s churches and cathedrals. She is and has been venerated for all the qualities that men attribute to womanhood, except sexuality. Rome reveals the male longing for forgiveness from the eternal mother goddess.

And what do men want forgiveness for? For being without all the qualities that men attribute to womanhood. Somewhere in the histories of civilizations, men decided to categorize about half the qualities that humans are capable of cultivating as “feminine” – these are qualities like compassion, kindness, grace, beauty, tenderness, gentleness – and having categorized them as feminine, to evaluate them as “less than”, and to assign them to female human beings. It is the job of woman the compassionate to forgive men for their lack of compassion, and of woman the gentle to forgive men for their lack of gentleness. When men idealize a woman, they are idealizing qualities they have no intention of cultivating in themselves.

And the qualities of strength, courage, self-reliance, etc. that they assign themselves are considered superior and not to be sullied by women attempting to claim them.For women to cultivate these qualities in themselves would lessen the value of these qualities. And then what would men do? Who would they be?

While in Rome I read two books that dealt with the idealization of women. I know, the synchronicity is hard to believe.
Promises Lost by Audrey Howard, the only English language book in the studio apartment I rented just behind the Vatican, doesn’t deserve any critical commentary, as it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is, cheap historical romance. There’s an ideal young woman, Sara Hamilton, who gives her heart to her young man at 15 and doesn’t reclaim it over the five following years when they are separated, or even when eventually she doesn’t know his whereabouts or whether he is still alive. There’s an ideal young man, Jack Andrews, who stays pure in his love and longing for Sara over the same five year period. Nonetheless, as a man, he has “needs” and he gets them met with various women over the years. Sara, meanwhile, develops a beautiful friendship with a man who makes her laugh and helps her have some joy in a life bereft of Jack. In time, this friendship develops a loving sexuality. Gender roles are intact: the man has sex without love, the woman adds sex to affection.

What interests me is that a contemporary woman writer should create a perfect, ideal young woman molded in the historical construction of the “angel in the house”, a two or three hundred-year-old trope that was dishonest from its very beginning. Surely she knows no such things exists? In this case her man is similarly robed in goodness and in the end we can imagine them living happily for 40 or 50 years with nary a quarrel, except perhaps, over what might be the most ethical or compassionate thing to do in some circumstance or other.

Thankfully there are used book stalls in Rome, lined up next to the Tiber River. One of the stalls specializes in English language books. I found Accused by Mark Gimenez there one drizzly Sunday. This turned out to be a detective novel that pretends to be in support of women, but is breathtakingly insulting. Scott Fenney is a lawyer called to defend his ex-wife, accused of murdering the man she left him for two years earlier. At one point she tells him “All women live in a man’s world, so all women lie. They have to. At least all women who depend on a man for their survival”. The real reason women read romance novels, she adds, is that the women in them are financially independent: “Not being financially dependent on a man, that’s a woman’s true romantic fantasy.” These are the comments of a university-educated white woman in America, a woman who could support herself if anyone could. Yet Fenney doesn’t call her on it; rather he accepts this as a new truth that he needs to take account of. At the end, we discover that, although Fenney did get her off, she did murder her wealthy lover and she feels no guilt about it all “because a woman’s life is not lived in a man’s world of truth or lie, right or wrong, black or white; a woman’s life is lived in shades of gray. Rebecca Fenney had simply done what she had to do to survive in a man’s world, what any woman would have done.” Uh huh. Any woman might murder the man she lives with when he threatens to leave her for another woman, taking all his money with him. Are we supposed to believe this? Is this a man’s conception of what ‘woman-power’ is?

It’s clear she hired her ex-husband because she knew that he was still in love with her and blind to her faults. This novel illustrates what a woman is really like when you can get over your idealization of her — a callous, murderous, manipulative danger to men.
The rest of the novel is peopled with a selection of sexually predatory women, particularly a television news anchor covering the case and the judge trying the case. Both had had sex with the victim, both attempted to keep it hidden because of conflict of interest, and both propositioned Fenney before the trial started.  It appears that even women who are not financially dependent on men are manipulative and deceitful. Arrayed against these evil bitches are Fenney and his three male side-kicks who all worship him for one reason or another. And his job, aside from representing his ex-wife at her trial, is to raise two daughters in such a way that they won’t feel they have to lie to men all the time. Clearly raising honest women is a man’s job.
This was a Sunday Times bestseller and a quote from The Times names the author as “the next Grisham”. Yikes, if this is the quality of book reviews then we’re really in trouble.

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