Sunday, November 1, 2015

Double Infidelity - Marivaux

When I was 6 or 7 a friend came over to play while her older brother sat in the dining room and did homework. Dress-up eventually evolved into something involving princesses and after a while we came to the logical conclusion that we needed a prince to vote on our beauty contest.

(Disclaimer: I usually hated this type of play and when volunteering to be the dog was no longer age appropriate would volunteer to be the prince so I could go do whatever I wanted for the million hours it took the girls to curl their hair and put on makeup. If I played my cards right it would be time to go home before I had to a chance to decide on the winner of any pageants and we would wave goodbye and I would cross my fingers that next time it would be warm enough to play outside where I could spend the entire time building a house out of twigs or leaves or vines...)

Anyway, on this particular occasion, we were all dressed up and the older brother was called in to be the judge/prince. Somehow I had a crown in my hand when the boy asked if he could have it and I said "no"...maybe it was stage fright? Maybe it was the sheer overwhelming nature of being talked to by a cool older boy...for whatever reason I froze and as he pleaded with me for the crown, saying he would pick me as the winner (which even at that age I could tell had a bit of disingenuousness about it...) I felt this little prickling sensation of power. The power that comes from being desired...or in this case being the one with the thing being desired... Eventually my luck ran out and the boy went back to his homework and the girls, who were now annoyed at me decided to play something else.

In a nutshell "Double Infidelity" is about the power that comes with being desired.

(Side note: This play gave me major anxiety and I'm not sure if it's because I'm about to have a little girl in three weeks and everything at this point gives me anxiety, or if it was an unwelcome throwback to my days as a Critical Theory groupie, where free will is held suspect and the sinister Proteus of conspicuous consumption is our maniacal puppeteer....more on that later.)

A simple maiden, Sylvia, and her betrothed, Robin have had an unwelcome intervention in their
anticipated blissful fate: the Prince, after crossing paths with Sylvia a couple times has decided that out of all the maidens in the land he wants Sylvia. At first this comes as horrible and unwelcome news, and as both Robin and Sylvia find themselves in the palace to work out their destiny, they have sworn fidelity to each other, whatever the cost.

Sylvia: Is this Prince in love with me? That's not my fault. I didn't look for him, and he needn't have looked for me. Is he young and attractive? So much the better for him; I'm glad. Let him keep himself for his equals, and let him leave me my poor Robin, who is no more the fancy gentleman than I am the fancy lady; who is no richer, no vainer, and no better lodged than I am; who loves me without frills, whom I love the same way, and for whom I'll die of grief if I don't see again.

Very rarely does grief over the loss of a suitor result in death. I'm not saying it can't happen...but as we are to see, "love" is very easily exchanged for lots of other things, such as status and emotional conspicuous consumption.

For some reason, Flaminia, a woman of court, has taken it upon herself to "destroy the love that Robin and Sylvia bear each other." As she hatches her plot, the lackey offers his doubts, Sylvia is too pure and loyal, it's not every day that a woman so carelessly rejects offers of wealth and luxury. The lackey, Trivet, is sure Sylvia will remain faithful.

Trivet:...This creature belongs to a species unknown to us. No mere woman would give us this much trouble. There's a warning here; we're dealing with a prodigy. Let's stop right now.

But Flaminia is not impressed. She knows her sex too well and counters that the only "prodigious" thing about women is their propensity for vanity.

Flaminia: Sylvia is not ambitious, true; but she has a heart; therefore she is vain; and that's all I need to bring her down to where we women live.

I guess this is the part that stresses me out. From the beginning a plot has been hatched to destroy Sylvia's "love" for Robin...but the test seems unfair because the villain essentially is her own nature.

So within the first act we have numerous outpourings of Robin and Sylvia's love for each other and oaths of fidelity and such, while Flaminia puts her plan in action with a little good cop bad cop scenario. Lisa, another woman of the court shows up to taunt Sylvia and flirt with Robin. Her antics are too obvious though and Robin, disgusted, stands even more firmly committed to his sweet vision of beauty.

What Robin is not prepared for is the proffered friendship of Flaminia, offering herself as a compatriot and friend and willing ear to listen to Robin's woes and sit quietly and dutifully in a posture of commiseration. She agrees with everything he says, while subtly stroking his ego. You can almost see him giving her a fist bump as they part ways, as they become "friends" she becomes indispensable and slowly the pinprick of relational need is imbedded and begins to fester.

Next Flaminia preys on Sylvia's vanity, she suggests that the people, while perhaps jealous, have been ridiculing her, saying that she has a bit of a clumsy gait, eye issues, maybe a weird mouth, and an awkward appearance in general.

Sylvia is apoplectic. If any of these slandering lies were true than why would the Prince have chosen her above all others? Even though at this point she "despises" the prince, he is a good form of social capital and Flaminia, the master puppeteer, exploits her vanity. This plan is almost too easy. Vanity transforms  Sylvia from a simple maiden, sworn to fidelity to a catty woman deriving her street cred from throwing other women under the bus. A new refrain becomes "I'm rather sorry to be as good-looking as I am, and I'm sorry you're not quite pretty enough." Gag.

In "Why Women Compete With Each Other" (Emily Gordon, New York Times, 31 October 2015) the author references a literature review by Tracy Vaillancourt that suggests that women express indirect aggression as a combination of "self-promotion," making themselves look more attractive, and "derogation of rivals", being catty about other women. Check and check.

Gordon offers a couple theories of why women behave this way.  Theory one is evolutionary psychology, which would suggest that a woman's prerogative is her womb and therefor will do whatever is necessary to ensure she has the best partner. This "best" is confusing, because unlike birds of paradise that just show off their exemplary plumage (plumage = good partner for procreation and potential to offer a life of joy and stability), human "plumage" is much more complicated. As we see with Sylvia, she initially hates and despises the Prince for coming between her and Robin. Her value at this point is in her chaste fidelity. But when she realizes that the Prince has societally desirable "plumage"...she is at biological odds with her predetermined nature.

Theory two: She has ingested the patriarchy, and according to Noam Shpancer (Psychology Today, Emily Gordon, New York Times, 31 October 2015) "As women come to consider being prized by men their ultimate source of strength, worth, achievement and identity, they are compelled to battle other women for the prize. In short: when our value is tied to the people who can impregnate us, we turn on each other."

Just for reference, this play was first presented at the Theatre Italien on May 3, while modern feminists might have some pretty good definitions and theories, this cattiness has been the subject matter of literature and plays for at least 300 years.

It is not surprising then how quickly Sylvia begins to defend her attachment to the Prince when this attachment is brought into question. All Flaminia has to do is suggest someone said she was ugly and that another is in the wings to take her place and the quiet Sylvia turns into a frothing monster, demanding that her beauty is unequaled and that the Prince's love is uniquely for her. Before long she is saying that poor old Robin used to follow her about like a dog and the only reason she ever loved him was out of feelings of compassion and the logical outcome of proximity. (That's basically a recipe for true love according to Claude Levi-Strauss...)

Although Sylvia at this point has never knowingly met the prince, with each barb at her pride and vanity his love becomes more and more concrete. At one point when Flaminia offers to try her hand at captivating the prince, Sylvia says "Believe me, you'll never cure him; it's beyond any remedy of yours." The next step is to throw Robin under the bus, saying he wasn't really good enough for her any way and she always knew he had a problem with gluttony and drink.

Is this where we as women sit at baseline? Are we this simplistic? All we need is someone to point out a desirable guy who wants us and with a poke or two at our vanity and pride we throw our scruples aside and chase after the next best thing/guy? Obviously Sylvia is the worst feminist heroine on the planet...but even her foil for the everyday woman is disturbing. While in this play the antiheroine is plotting and devising ways to prey on her the modern woman just needs a little FOMO and a couple unrealistic romantic comedies to make her see her Robin sitting next to her as an obese drunkard. Without even the power that comes from being desired, the fear of sticking it out with an oaf or worse, someone society thinks is a little lame, is enough to make her ditch the guy and go looking for the next set of "plumage"...

Obviously the play ends "happily ever after" with Sylvia and the Prince deciding they are in "love" which at this point is a vague and somewhat obscure feeling rather than anything of substance, and Robin, who is now unable to be apart from Flaminia for a nanosecond decides - what the hay, fidelity shmedelity, he was young and foolish when he said all that stuff about's actually Flaminia he wants/loves. And with a little pecuniary help from the prince, he is able to offer a recently titled hand and as the curtain closes both couples have found their...something resembling true love?

I'm not really sure who the winners are here. Flaminia definitely gets the award for destroying someone's fidelity...but then she goes after the guy...which seems to be inconsistent. Does everyone really lose because they have defined love as this temporal status regulating emotion? Or does everyone win because they now have someone they will be tethered to while they together realize that the basis of a relationship is fundamentally more than good looks and outlandish poetic utterances?  

One can only hope that years down the road, when their posse of toddlers are running around demanding constant unnegotiable attention, and the women, in their third trimester of pregnancy are bloated beyond humanoid recognition, that both couples are able to remember what they meant by the word "love" and have learned in their own ways to anchor themselves to fidelity.

...but more than likely since they're gentry and nobility they will all just have affairs and end their days with some good old fashioned venereal diseases. One can only hope.

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