How Goethe Can Get You Laid
Say there’s someone you’d love to seduce. Or maybe you want to be seduced yourself. Seduction, as we know, almost always involves ploys, feints, disguises, manipulations, even downright lies–and often leaves the seduced feeling manipulated, used or worse. (This occurs even in the insect kingdom: the female praying mantis, for example, seduces her mate without letting him know that she will eat his head in the process, which turns him into an mentally uninhibited sex machine.) Is the thrill of seduction worth the lie? Are we complicit in the lies being told when we allow ourselves to be tricked into bed? (“Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies…”)
I have a friend who, after a date or two, would give the woman he was trying to seduce a copy of Goethe’s “The Sorrows of Young Werther.” “It’s like feckin’ magic, Clancy,” he told me, in his churning Irish brogue (which helped him, I suspect, more than the book). “It’s short enough they kin read it in a night. Da next day they’re straight into the sack, I’m tellin’ ya.” The ploy here is to convince a woman that you believe in a certain kind of love–the desperate, romantic sort–and that even if she’s currently with a man, that man is the everyday, sensible, dull “Albert” sort (like Lotte is condemned to marry in the book), while my friend is the desperate romantic willing to die for love, like Werther.
I wonder how many of the women he seduced this way even opened the book. I told this story to a “Philosophy of Literature” class recently, and a woman raised her hand and said: “If I guy even talked to me about a book, rather than just buying me a drink and asking if he could come back to my apartment to hook up, I’d be pleasantly surprised. Just that could get me in the mood.” So maybe my friend was working harder than he had to. But the point is, his plans were never more than sex, and after that he lost interest–he was a cynic about love, just the opposite of Werther’s desperate romantic.
If we know that we are likely to be lied to when being seduced, and yet still want to be seduced, it’s hard to say what’s wrong about the lie. Nothing’s a greater turn-off than the fumbling, desperate would-be lover who spills his guts in an attempt to be loved in return. And a naked request for sex gets you nowhere, at least while the night is young. So maybe it is not the lie itself that is the problem, but the kind of lie one tells–and perhaps also the kind of lie that one encourages, or let’s oneself believe. The question “do you love me?”–asked too soon–invites a lie of the worst kind, and the only honest response might be the one Meursault famously gives Marie in “The Stranger”: “No. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter, really.” Maybe we are allowed to lie–and ask to be lied to–in little ways, but not the big ones.
Without seduction there will rarely be falling in love, and we all know that the process of falling in love involves countless little lies: ones we tell ourselves, and others we tell the person we are falling in love with. Even Kant, who insisted that it was always wrong to lie, understood that the process of cultivating intimacy and overcoming mistrust requires us to “cover up our weaknesses, so as not be be ill thought of.” And just as our lover (or our seduced) believes the version of ourselves we present, we may come to believe, through our lover’s eyes, the lies we tell about ourselves. As we seduce or are seduced, we seduce ourselves; in being seduced, we turn a trick or two; in seducing, we may provide the possibility of love.
One day, my Irish friend did find his Lotte (fortunately, he didn’t shoot himself over her). The lies we believe are the lies we’d like to be told. The lies we tell are the lies we’d like to believe.
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