Supermodel Gisele Bundchen has 400,000 Google mentions as the world’s most beautiful woman, a reported $400 million net worth, and a football quarterback husband. She’s also unhappy, according to a Fox News report, in which Bundchen spoke of “all-consuming” anxiety and panic attacks which began in 2003, three years after she was named “the most beautiful girl in the world.” Thoughts of suicide plagued her. “I actually had the feeling of, ‘If I just jump off my balcony, this is going to end, and I never have to worry about this feeling of my world closing in,’” the model said.
I do not know Ms. Bundchen and I do not presume to have any more insight into her psyche than she has entrusted to the media. Nonetheless, she represents a type with general significance.
There is no fate unhappier than to be the world’s most beautiful woman. It doesn’t help much to be rich, either. Before I am accused of misogyny, I stipulate that I believe in gender equality. Spengler’s “Universal Law of Gender Parity” (one of many universal laws set down in my book How Civilizations Die) states that in every part of the world and in every time in history, the men and women of every culture deserve each other. The First Corollary to the Universal Law of Gender Parity adds that any insult or injury that one gender inflicts upon the other will be requited in full.
Parenthetically, this explains why the Catholic Church is quite right to exclude women from its priesthood (although that doesn’t necessarily apply to the clergy of other denominations). A priest’s most important function is to forgive people. Women never forgive you for anything.
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) explained why in her “Ballad of Unfortunate Mammals”:
Love is sharper than stones or sticks;
Lone as the sea, and deeper blue;
Loud in the night as a clock that ticks;
Longer-lived than the Wandering Jew.
Show me a love was done and through,
Tell me a kiss escaped its debt!
Son, to your death you’ll pay your due –
Women and elephants never forget.
Solomon instructs in the Song of Songs, “Love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave; the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can all the floods drown it.” According to the standard theological gloss, Solomon sang of love between God and his congregation, rather than erotic love. But the erotic imagery of the Song of Songs suggests a point made well by Michael Wyschogrod: “The truth is that human love is neither eros nor agape [the selfless love translated as ‘charity’ in I Corinthians 13]. Both are caricatures because reality is a combination of the two, which are not different kinds of love but aspects of human love with a constantly changing composition of elements … All this is not to deny that there are loves in which agape predominates and those in which eros does. But none is exclusively one or the other because man is created in the image of God as a being constituted by need who gives and also asks to be given in return.”
He who watches over Israel neither slumbers, nor does he sleep, says Scripture, but women who watch over their men neither forget, nor do they forgive. Henrik Ibsen’s Solveig, who waits a lifetime for the return of the errant Peer Gynt, is a misogynist’s fantasy.
Western culture does not oppress women by mutilating their genitals or keeping them under house arrest, but it does turn them into sexual objects. By the First Corollary of Spengler’s Universal Law of Gender Parity, Western women retaliate for objectification by making men suffer, but in a very specific way, that is, by making men feel inadequate. That, of course, is the opposite of forgiveness, whose object is to make the forgiven person feel adequate. The man on the street mutters to himself, “I will never understand women!” That only goes to show how thick men can be.
The great Viennese aphorist Karl Kraus (“an aphorism is never the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half”) said, “Nothing is more unfathomable than a woman’s superficiality,” by which he meant that men are befogged by their own fantasies about women. He clarified this with the observation that sexual intercourse with a woman is an acceptable substitute for masturbation, but it requires more imagination. He added, “Women at least have elegant dresses. But what can men use to cover their emptiness?”
Apropos of Karl Kraus, a joke used to circulate in which Ms. Bundchen and a sailor are the sole survivors of the wreck of a luxury yacht. Marooned on a desert island, they do what comes naturally. After a few weeks the sailor asks, “Gisela, do you mind if I call you ‘Fred’?” “Whatever you like,” replies the supermodel. “Hey Fred! I’m sleeping with Gisela Bundchen!”
There is no mystery in the so-called feminine mystique. The “feminine” point of view amounts to what we otherwise call paranoia. No one displays more sensitivity or intuition than paranoids, who manage to construct a coherent alternative universe in the absence of or despite the relevant facts. Paranoia, to be precise, assigns meaning to utterly random events. Why did that fellow on the far side of the restaurant fold his newspaper? Was that a signal? Why is the television anchor wearing a green tie? Does he know something? Why are you reading this essay?
In fact, the common stereotype of male-female conversation is explicitly paranoid. The four words most frequently uttered by men are: “What did I do?” Women assign significance to things that men consider random occurrences. Women ask, “Why didn’t he call today? Did I say something wrong? Why did he seem so distracted at dinner? Is there something wrong with the relationship?”
They ask men, “Why did you wear aftershave today? Are you seeing someone? Whom were you talking to when I called?” Like paranoids, women have conversations with themselves and find men at fault. When men ask, “What did I do?” women reply, “If you don’t know, then I won’t tell you.” “Do I look fat?” For the record, “No” is the correct answer to the last question only when it is uttered before the questioner pronounces the word “fat.”
Sexual objectification, in short, makes women paranoid. Whether this is a cultural quirk subject to eventual remedy, or a characteristic of humankind since the Fall, is a different matter. Adolescent girls suffer the most. The therapists talk of “low self-esteem,” but this amounts to uncertainty as to what features of a developing form will attract the opposite sex. If a woman succeeds in manipulating a man by fitting into his fantasy, she never can be sure that another woman will not do (or has not already done) the same thing with greater success.
That is why the most attractive woman in the world is a miserable creature, as Giuseppe Verdi’s Princess Eboli lamented. Beauty is un don fatale, un don crudele (a fatal, cruel gift) because it overwhelms any other perception of her in the eyes of men as well as women. When age eventually destroys her beauty, she will become invisible.
Chemical imbalances in the brain doubtless explain paranoia in many cases, but so can adverse circumstances. Some forms of paranoia represent an attempt to gain power over a world in which the paranoid has no real power at all. Political paranoia, e.g., conspiracy theories, flourishes among the powerless. By the same token, sexual objectification leaves women without direct power in man’s world. Imagine a prisoner in a windowless cell, who does not know of what crime he may be guilty, or who his accusers might be. Every variation in routine, every utterance or grimace of his warders, will loom great in significance.
Franz Kafka created just such a world in The Palace and The Trial, made all the more poignant by the conscious adoption of a biblical narrative style, as Franz Rosenzweig observed. But Kafka’s employment of biblical narrative is ironic. In the Bible everything is significant; in Kafka’s everything may be insignificant. Thus Kafka portrays the paranoid’s world all the more forcefully.
Flesh-and-blood women cannot forgive men because they cannot be sure of them. Doubt never attenuates where men are concerned, such that true forgiveness remains outside the capacity of women. Although the incapacity to forgive derives from relations between the genders, the habits of mind women learn from adolescence are so strong that their capacity to forgive in other contexts remains in doubt. Many women, to be sure, raise themselves above the vicious cycle of sexual objectification. But they probably had the good luck not to be too beautiful.
(An earlier version of this essay was published in Asia Times on April 27, 2005).