Wednesday, November 14, 2007


The choreography of attraction:

Another mystery solved, or maybe just validated through some scientific rigour. We are informed in the Seattle PI that:

Psychologists have shown for the first time that you are more likely to find a happy-looking face that looks directly at you as sexually attractive than the equally smiling face of someone who is averting their eyes. The findings support the theory that both men and women use the direction of a person's gaze as a signal of whether that person finds you interesting enough to look you directly in the face -- and that sign of interest is, in itself, seen as attractive to the observer.

There is nothing more captivating than another person's genuine interest in us. I knew that. Do you want to know how I got wise to these subliminal games, even before these psychologists gave it their stamp of approval? Because I read. And what's more important, I read Jane Austen. And she knew all there is to know about the choreography of flirtation, attraction and captivation between the sexes.

Here is one example:

"She was assured of his affection; ... for, though Henry was now sincerely attached to her, though he felt and delighted in all the excellencies of her character and truly loved her society, I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own."

(Northanger Abbey, ch. 2:15)

Or, when Elizabeth Bennet tries to make sense of her own feelings to Darcy, she thinks along the lines of gratitude, reciprocity, interest:

" there was a motive within her of good will which could not be overlooked. It was gratitude. -- Gratitude, not merely for having once loved her, but for loving her still well enough to forgive all... Such a change in a man of so much pride excited not only astonishment but gratitude -- for to love, ardent love, it must be attributed; and as such, its impression on her was of a sort to be encouraged, as by no means unpleasing, though it could not be exactly defined. She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him; she felt a real interest in his welfare; and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power, which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses."

(Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 44)

But still neither Austen nor the modern psychologists manage to provide the ultimate answer to the very first question: where does the initial interest come from? Person A meets person B. Person B responds with augmented interest to Person A, because A had been looking directly at B with an open smile, and signaling interest. But we are still left with the enigma: what made A direct that smiling look at B? What was the stimulus, the fountain of positive energy that caused a bubbling of responsive feeling?

Here is when Darcy awakens to something in Elizabeth which he finds irresistible:

"But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness. "

In other words, her intelligent stamina, her sense of humour, her natural grace, captivated him even if he found some aesthetic faults with her beauty. He found her sexy, desirable. That's where it started. With this sexual attraction, the love cycle begins . . .

What about Colonel Brandon? When does he fall in love?

Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste.

(Sense & Sensibility, Ch. 7)

Apparently, his interest is provoked by Marianne's playing on the piano. Something about her he finds irresistible, again, a sort of vital energy, which translates into her music.

What is this sudden rush of erotic flow of good feeling? What causes it?

It is, I think, a kind of beauty that awakens our senses. As Anne Carson admits, shamelessly:

Loyal to nothing
My husband. So why did I love him from early girlhood
to late middle age
And the divorce decree came in the mail?
Beauty. No great secret. Not ashamed to say I loved him
for his beauty.
As I would again
If he came near. Beauty convinces. You know beauty
makes sex possible.
Beauty makes sex sex.

(Anne Carson, "The beauty of the husband")

So, have we come a full circle here? Are we back to the conventional wisdom that mere good looks stirs our loving instincts?

No quite. In each of these cases, there was some quality which appealed to the future lover before the realization of beauty is made. Elizabeth's lively intelligence, Marianne's emotional vulnerability as expressed in her music, Henry Tilney's affectionate teasing and humour. Even in Anne Carson's poem, she suggests a quality she was responding to: his fickleness which came with his great physical beauty. Not the first time we heard of very good women falling for bad boys. . .


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