»  National Review Online

February 11th, 2003

  More Wrestling Than Dancing


Sometimes the truth is like a dash of cold water in your face. In 1886 the English literary critic Sir Edmund Gosse wrote a letter to Robert Louis Stevenson. This was in response to a letter Stevenson had sent to him: "a very serious and philosophical epistle" (according to Aldous Huxley, from whose Collected Essays, Vol. III, p.180 I have taken it). Sir Edmund:

I do not know how it is that you and so many others — indeed, it seems to me most people except laborers and maidservants — have a gift entirely denied to me, the gift of thought. If I can be said to think at all, it is flashingly, along the tip of the tongue or the pen; and when I hear people talk of the sustained exercise of thought, it is of things unknown to me. We learn to be very hypocritical about the attitude of our minds. If I am strenuously honest, I should have to confess that when I am not working my mind is absolutely idle. I have no anxiety about my soul — I am infinitely and sufficiently amused by the look of people, by the physical movement of things; out of doors, I stare at the girls — one of the pleasures of life which I had always expected to cease or change, but which shows no signs as yet; at home, I think of my meals, of my little personal ambitions, of what my children say and do, little palpable things that carry me over the pleasant blanks of non-working time.

I would not myself go quite as far as Sir Edmund here. "The sustained exercise of thought" is not entirely "unknown to me." The number of times I have experienced it, though, is so small I believe I can remember every one of them. I think there have been around six. They ranged in length from one to about five hours — say a lifetime total of twenty hours. The rest of the time, I have been pretty much on cruise control, or asleep, or having, like Sir Edmund, small, unconnected, inconsequential thoughts about "little palpable things."

These rather depressing reflections came to mind — no, I didn't really think them; they just bobbed up to the surface of my consciousness, hung out there for a minute or two while I looked at them, then went away — while I was watching Joe Millionaire the other night.

Joe Millionaire, in case you're not aware of it, is one of those "reality TV" shows. The "Joe" of the title is a young man named Evan Marriott, a rather obvious male model, but billed improbably by the producers as "a $19,000 a year construction worker."

[Where does one start with this nonsense? I never saw any man that looked less like a construction worker than Evan Marriott. I worked construction all through my college summer vacations, and am very familiar with construction workers. Your average construction worker is 40 years old, has a double hernia and a bad back, smokes two packs of cigarettes a day, and drinks fifteen pints of beer every night. And only $19,000 a year? I worked as a college-graduate professional for several years before I was able to make as much money as I made on construction sites. All right, that was in England, and perhaps things are different here. They can't be that different, though, can they? Oh, well, this is only TV …]

Joe has been kitted out by the show's producers with a French chateau and a nice wardrobe. Twenty beautiful young women were invited to the chateau. They were all told that Joe had recently inherited $50 million, which is not in fact true. Joe had to entertain these girls, get to know them, and week by week eliminate a certain number of them, till he is left with Miss Right. So the interest of the thing is:

At the point at which Sir Edmund Gosse showed up inside my head, there were just three women left in play. During the course of the one-hour show, Joe had to date each of them in turn, then eliminate one. This was all done on-camera, of course.

I admit I find this show absolutely riveting. Why? Well, in the first place, it makes me feel a bit better about myself. Like everyone else in the Western world, I did a certain amount of dating before I got married. From up here in the comfortable status of Old Married Guy, I am ready to confess that I loathed the entire miserable business. You know what I'm talking about. I think the horrors of dating have been pretty well aired — TV sitcoms have been milking them for decades.

Were they worse for me than for anyone else? I have always thought they were, a bit. For one thing, I am not physically attractive. My nose is too big, my chin is too small, my shoulders are too narrow and somewhat rounded, I have poor posture and flat feet, my teeth are terrible and my ears stick out. I have done my best with all this, as one must, but I am coldly aware that no woman ever swooned when I walked into a room. Lack of physical appeal can be offset by other qualities, to be sure. We all know seriously ugly guys who are a big hit with women, and even the converse — ugly women who appeal to men — is not unknown. Alas, I am not one of those guys. I have no small talk, and don't have the essential knack of making a woman feel that I am fascinated by her. I lack this latter art so comprehensively, in fact, that I was often not able to convey to a woman that I was fascinated by her even when I actually was fascinated by her.

If you have got your hankie out at this point, let me hasten to say that I was not a total failure in the dating game. On the whole, I think I did not do much worse than average. Talking with other guys across many years, it seems to me that most of us nurse a lot of insecurity and self-doubt in this area. The number of men who can honestly say that they find it easy and painless to strike up acquaintances with women is, I feel sure, pretty small. And those guys are all shallow, contemptible cads — everybody knows that.

In any case, one of the things I remember most vividly is the problem of finding anything to say to a new female acquaintance. Once you get past name, rank, and serial number, some creativity is called for. This, however, leads into treacherous territory. "Creative" can all too easily slip over the edge into "weird." The party of the second part is at this point looking for a certain quality of reliability — for some assurance that this guy she has agreed to spend an evening with is normal, sensible, solid, capable, and respectful. She's not looking for a stand-up comedy routine. I never really felt that I mastered this skill set. My small talk, I felt, was below par.

Now I have seen Joe Millionaire, I feel much better about myself. This guy makes me look like Cary Grant. Sample exchange:

Joe:  I heard of a guy, he got like an ingrown toenail, or something like that. Well, he had some kind of fungus in his car, and he got a staph infection and died.
Melissa:  Really?

Joe was firmly into family-doctor mode on that date, in fact. Later we got this:

Joe:  You ever heard of putting super glue on your cuts?
Melissa:  No.
Joe:  Yeah, you put superglue on a cut, heals it right up.
Melissa:  Really? Good to know.

Real good. On another of the three dates, he committed one of those Freudian slips I remember so-o-o well:

Joe:  Did you bring that breast … that, uh, dress with you, or … uh …?
Zora:  Did you want to finish your sentence?

(I actually did worse than that. On one first date, I started telling the lady about my favorite childhood recreation — playing with an erector set. Unfortunately I got the word "erector" wrong …)

Joe has a number of things going for him, of course, that I never had. A lot of things. He brings to mind, in fact, the old joke about a man listening to a woman tell him what her ideal mate would be like. When the woman has finished, the man says: "If a guy like that shows up, let me know. Sheesh, I'll marry him!" Number one, Joe is gorgeous, with an open, friendly face, perfect teeth, and a body that must have cost him thousands of hours in the weight room. Number two, he is a natural gentleman: considerate, restrained, good-natured, and polite. Number three, he has a decent conscience, and when out of sight of the girls spends most of his time agonizing about the $50 million deception that is fundamental to the whole show, but which he is going to have to confess to the final lady after he has selected her. Joe is a hard guy not to like. It is true that, as Sara expressed it with exquisite delicacy: "He doesn't seem to be extraneously intellectual." This hardly notices though. They didn't call the show Joe Millionaire Superbrain; and none of the ladies really gives the impression she wants to discuss The Critique of Pure Reason over a game of chess, either.

The deep appeal of the show, though, is in its banality. Meaningless small talk is exchanged. Expensive objects are admired, and occasionally consumed. People fret, in a clueless sort of way, about their appeal and their prospects. Some clumsy emotional fencing is engaged in. We are in the world of instincts, hunches, and, as the saying goes, "chemistry." There is not much connected thought taking place: but then, as Sir Edmund Gosse pointed out, there hardly ever is. Joe Millionaire is a useful reminder that while we may indeed be the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals, in apprehension like gods, et cetera, et cetera, we are at the same time very closely related to chimps.

"Reality TV" is right. This is reality, this is life. People stumble and grope blindly hither and thither, wondering if they did the right thing, occasionally knocking something over and hoping no-one noticed, striving for illusory goals, addled with guilt and insecurity. And, as with most things in life, this one won't work out. Whoever Joe ends up with after all the agonizing and winnowing, it will be the wrong person. Joe Millionaire is, in fact, the case for arranged marriage. It exposes the wretchedness, embarrassment and confusion of the dating charade — of the most common process, in modern societies, for finding a mate.

Boswell:  Then, Sir, you are not of opinion with some who imagine that certain men and certain women are made for each other; and that they cannot be happy if they miss their counterparts?
Johnson:  To be sure not, Sir. I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.

Life, said Marcus Aurelius, is more like wrestling than dancing. Too true. We thrash around in a fog. In a fog within a fog, actually: our own private fogs, and larger public fogs that envelope them. We hardly ever think, the majority of what we say to each other is polite nonsense, when we actually try to communicate we generally fail, and most of what we attempt we get wrong. Does anybody have a clue what's going on? I sure don't.

Now excuse me. I am going out of doors to stare at the girls.