January 2, 2023
Years ago, I read a wonderful book called “How the French Invented Love.” The author, Marilyn Yallom, traces nine hundred years of French literary history in an attempt to explain how and why French attitudes toward love and sex are so different from those of the English-speaking world and, frankly, nearly every other culture. Most anyone who has visited France or who has at least seen a movie from the French New Wave, such as Eric Rohmer’s “Claire’s Knee,” cannot help but perceive “la différence.” How and why this difference should exist, however, is a mystery to me. France is every bit as much of a Catholic country as Ireland or Spain, so why should the French, seemingly alone among Europeans, have sidestepped Catholic guilt to pursue illicit love affairs with gusto? I cannot explain it, but perhaps a re-reading of “How the French Invented Love” would help.
One reason that does seem evident has more to do with pragmatism than romantic passion. As in every other European society, French marriages over the span of centuries took the form of arranged “alliances” designed to assure the economic well-being of both families. Since this made love purely a secondary consideration, it was only natural that a recourse for repressed lovers had to be found. “Voilà:” enter the role and the institution, really, of the mistress. If, in England, Jane Austen busied herself imagining how well-born country-women could have it both ways, finding a suitable husband who was also an enticing lover, the French presumably resigned themselves to the more practical conclusion that “les liaisons dangereuses” should be recognized as inevitable.
If the reasons why the difference between love French-style and love American-style cannot entirely be explained, at least the underlying philosophy can be outlined. As Yallom’s book shows, these underpinnings boil down to seven basic rules that contrast with Anglo-Saxon assumptions:
- Non-monogamy, the attraction and seduction of multiple sex partners, either serially or simultaneously, is completely normal human behavior. As the Countess de Lave puts it in the campy 1939 American film, “The Women,” “L’ amour, l’ amour, toujours l’ amour!”
- Therefore, societal mores must accommodate non-monogamous relationships without judgment (I call this the ‘make-room-for the-mistress’ rule.)
- Flirting is a highly complimentary, even flattering behavior, but it does not necessarily indicate an eagerness on the part of the flirter to go to bed with the flirtee. (I call this the ‘safety-valve-for-lust’ rule. Since flirting can obtain advantages for the flirter when deployed strategically, such as a job offer or at the very least tickets to the opera, it could also be called the ‘manipulation-is-useful’ rule.)
- Love affairs between older women and younger men are every bit as normal as those between older men and younger women. (Just look at French president Emmanuel Macron, whose wife is his former schoolteacher. Move over, Mary Kay LeTourneau!)
- Since young boys are just as sexually inexperienced as virginal girls, it is wise for mature women to initiate boys into sex – in fact it is quite possibly the best favor a woman could bestow on a boy. That’s because when the boy goes on to seduce a girl of his choice, he won’t act a fool — he will at least be experienced enough have a fair chance of satisfying her. (I call this the ‘Mrs. Robinson rule’ in deference to Ann Bancroft’s seduction of Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate.”)
- When cheating on the part of one half of a couple is uncovered, the pain experienced by the other half is inevitable. Even the French don’t dispute this. However, romantic love as a value is placed so highly that the cuckolded partner’s pain has to be seen for no more than what it is – collateral damage. (I call this the ‘love-conquers-all’ rule.)
- Romantic love does not end with youth; it’s important to stoke the fires of passion for your beloved over the decades and into old age. Keep flirting with your partner even decades after meeting him, her or them! (This could be called the ‘silver fox rule.’)
One fascinating thing that Yallom describes in “How the French Invented Love” relates to ‘Rule #2: make room for the mistress.’ What the French call a “five-to-seven” is the practice of secretly visiting one’s lover between the hours of 5:00 (when you get off work) and 7:00 (when you go home to dinner.) A married woman, for example, would have plenty of time to get it on with her secret paramour, perhaps in a lovely apartment overlooking the Seine, before joining her husband and children at home. She might even have time to cook something not too time-consuming like crêpes or a soufflé for “dinner at eight.” As the French convention would have it, as long as she shows up on time, smiles, kisses her husband and caresses the children’s cheeks, her husband is expected to be well-behaved enough not to ask where she went after leaving work. This means that Rule #2 could be renamed the ‘don’t-ask-don’t-tell’ rule for straight people. Everybody is happy: she gets her nut and he gets his “soupe.”
I’m convinced that I witnessed an instance of the “five-to-seven” in Nora Ephron’s charming film, “Julie and Julia,” about Julia Child’s life and how a New Yorker named Julie Powell later committed herself to cooking every one of the 524 recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” within one year. (Yes, she gave herself that unfortunate deadline. Poor Julie experienced exhaustion and most likely sacrificed a lot of sex since, after working a full-time job, she was up all hours every night cooking and then blogging about it, thereby displaying a tragic Anglo-Saxon attitude toward love, but that need not concern us here.)
Anyway, on one typical day in the life of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), Julia is as usual busily trying out a recipe with her two co-authors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. Beck and Child are already displeased with Louisette due to the insufficient enthusiasm she has displayed for the project, when all at once she puts on her coat and says to the other two, “I need to go home. I don’t feel well,” or something to that effect. However, the camera plays momentarily on her face as she runs out the door and skips down the steps. A telltale smile is lodged there, tipping the audience off that she might have other plans; perhaps she is not sick after all.
Rule #4, condoning love affairs between older women and younger men, has perhaps the most collateral damage. In the April 11, 2016 issue of “The New Yorker,” I was fascinated to read an article by Ariel Levy about the French artist Niki de Saint-Phalle’s artistic triumphs and romantic entanglements. When she met her lover (later her second husband), Jean Tinguely, she discovered that “his wife had a teen-age lover who lived with them—an arrangement that impressed Saint Phalle as enticingly creative.” Yet Saint-Phalle’s children suffered enormously from her hands-off mothering style and her tempestuous relationships. This hit home with me because my French cousin, Nicole, a contemporary of Saint-Phalle’s who was more like an aunt to me, had a long-term relationship with a man only a few years older than her three children by a marriage that ended in divorce. Needless to say, my younger cousins had complicated feelings about the man who assumed the role of stepfather in their lives.
In my own life, I have always preferred monogamy, mainly because upholding my love for my partner and my respect for his well-being are grounding for me, but also because I don’t relish the instability, conflict, and chaos that multiple partners inevitably invite. That said, there is something truly life-affirming about the French attitude toward love. If you can get beyond the collateral damage, you can applaud the French approach as a celebration of our infinitely variable attractions and the many creative ways we can arrange our lives to accommodate them. Taking a mistress, having an open marriage, exploring bisexuality with equal compassion for your opposite sex and same sex partners, these are some of the many ways to accept and affirm sexual desire. As the French have shown, given a lot of tolerance and a little imagination, you can have the birds and the bees.