To be loved at first sight, a man should have at the same time something to respect and something to pity in his face.
Henri B. Stendahl
Tyler Cowen, on his awesome blog Marginal Revolution, recently linked to an essay from The Point Magazine, a Chicago-based journal. The essay, Love in the Age of the Pickup Artist: Stendhal Among the Seducers is by S.G. Belknap, presumably a pseudonym. His piece really struck a chord with me, as he delves deeply into the question that comes up so frequently about Game – if a man practices Game, is he still his authentic self? If he is, at his core, a lover, then how happy will he be as a PUA? At the end of the day, when a man designed to love has succeeded with his seduction skills, can he find fulfillment with a woman who did not succumb to a lover, but a seducer?
Belknap begins by relating his story of the one that got away, the one he still regrets. Rachel and he had circled one another for a year on campus, clearly attracted, neither approaching. When at last they met, it was she who suggested drinks. Winding up on his back porch at the end of the evening, she eagerly kissed him, to the point that he pulled back and said, “Easy…easy.” Instead of ramping up his desire, this was a boner killer for him, and he found himself doubting the value of his prize after all.
Reluctantly picking her up for another date, he was soon to revert to his true nature, as the sight of her in a white dress with her hair up took his breath away. Up she went onto a pedestal and there she remained. At first things were blissfully romantic, but before long he sensed that she was bored in the relationship. The night he said goodbye for the summer, these were her last sleepy words:
Remember, as you walk home through the night, be bold.
They struck him like a dagger through the heart. He understood that he had failed to provide something she had wanted. She had once told him that the first time she saw him she thought
What a badass!
Clearly, knowing him had destroyed that fantasy. In shifting his role from the Pursued to the Pursuer, he had ceded all control to Rachel, and she had lost attraction for him as a result. It’s a tale most men can relate to, having learned as much from trial and error. Miserable, Belknap picked up Neil Strauss’ The Game:
“The Game is the Great American Success Story for the testosterone-driven, club-going male; it is easy to understand its popularity. But the book has an unsettling and enchanting effect on the more old-fashioned among us as well, and in this the theme of manliness is front and center.
The good-hearted reader struggles as he feels his cherished notions slipping away: “If this is what women really want, then why shouldn’t I? …” Or: “Shouldn’t I get on board, while I am still young? Shouldn’t everyone experience this kind of life once?” Or, most painful of all: “If only I had done some of this when I met so-and-so…”"
Belknap goes on to question the popularization in the media of PUAs as some special breed of super seducers:
“Are the pickup artists really all that far away from our world? Consider for example the PUA principle of “abundance.” The pickup artist never gets hung up on a particular woman—this would be “one-itis,” which almost always leads to rejection; women can smell the desperation and instinctively avoid a pained lover.
But even among non-PUAs these principles apply: everyone knows that it is more difficult for a man to find a girlfriend when he is in a “dry spell”; and, like it or not, women of all shapes and sizes find men more attractive when they know that other women find them attractive. The pickup artist’s practice is only a hyperbolic exploitation of these principles. And even if this practice can still be criticized, precisely because it is hyperbole, there are many cases in which the pickup artists end up on top plain and simple: pursuing the same ends as the rest of us, just doing it better.”
He continues with a discussion of the ethics of the PUA and concludes that as long as there is no overt deception, then aside from the occasional poor, unwitting woman who carelessly falls in love (caveat emptor!), the PUA defense that all is fair in love and war is a sound one.
“The pickup artists defend their theory and its rhetoric by emphasizing that profound gap between what women say they want and what they really want…Up front as they are about their intentions (seen but not heard, of course), they do not operate as so many non-PUAs do, lulling a woman, perhaps a social inferior, into the expectation of commitment—only to discard her after some suitable number of weeks with the usual breakup song and dance.”
What Belknap does question is the value of the prize:
“But even if one accepts all of the PUA rebuttals, even if one is allured again and again by the very real possibility of all the perfume, slender waists and blowjobs one can shake a stick at—even then there is the creeping feeling that something isn’t quite right here, that something must be wrong, that something is missing. And what is missing is: love.
We need to make sure that love can stand a chance against the bounty promised by PUA technology; that love can genuinely quell our anxieties about manliness.”
Belknap acknowledges that one may still find love portrayed in Hollywood films, but he says it’s a “remnant, a leftover in our 21st century jumble of values.” He goes on to trace the history of courtly love, which began with the 12th centry French nobility, and got a further boost in the works of Rousseau, who first bound romantic love to marriage in the 18th century. Of Stendahl, who wrote about Don Juan and owed a great debt to Rousseau, Belknap writes:
To an attempted debunker of love, Stendhal is a terror. Secure in his conviction that passionate love is the only worthwhile activity for man, he is nevertheless deeply versed in the theories and convictions of the other side; it would seem, then, that he has chosen his allegiances for good reason. He is one of love’s great theorists, and one of its most vivid painters.
There was always the archetypal seducer in fiction, and in 1822 the best example was the Vicomte de Valmont, in Laclos’ Liaisons dangereuses. Of course, Valmont is a rake and seduces a chaste woman for sport, immune to the suffering he causes. He is the most hardened of players, practicing Dark Game, to circle back to contemporary PUA concepts.
Belknap gets to the meat of the matter here:
“The great mistake of the pickup artists, of Don Juans, of seducers in general, is to think that the lover is a failed version of themselves. The lover, they say, tries to “get the girl,” but just doesn’t know how—and if he learned their techniques he would. The trouble is that there is no agreement on just what this “getting” is. And, in fact, if the lover were to adopt the techniques of the pickup artists, his “getting” would become impossible. For a woman’s sexual surrender does not count as “getting” for the lover. Nor, for that matter, does her love, if the lover does not love her also. The lover’s “getting” requires his own experience: his own adventure, his road through the mountains and forests. And the reward in the valley is not sexual satisfaction; it is a proof of love.”
Though Stendahl romanticizes the experience of being in love, even when unrequited, Belknap addresses the pointlessness of this:
“There is authenticity in loving when that love is not requited; to stick to one’s guns in this way is to stay true to one’s own desires, a possibility closed off to a seducer. But although this pain might be praiseworthy, although one might decide that living life without the pain just wouldn’t be worthwhile—even then, surely, we can still say that requited love would be better.”
Which brings us back to the original question. For a man who is a lover by nature, rather than a seducer, what can he do to get what he wants? Stendahl provides the answer in On Love:
“According to Stendhal, being natural is not at all, well, natural—it is an art. It takes effort. The kind of thing he has in mind is familiar enough once he spells it out, but an extraordinary thing nonetheless: unaffectedness in conversation is something one needs to work toward, step by step. One must set the stage carefully for the right moment to present itself; and then, when it does, one must speak from the heart. And not too late, either—there is a right time for everything.
One prepares for intoxication; but one is nevertheless intoxicated. One yields carefully; but one nevertheless yields. This precarious mixture of the active and the passive is the middle ground between a yearning, hopeless love and a ribald pickup artistry. It is love mediated through art, an artistry of love.”
Belknap acknowledges the value in marrying the PUA and romantic traditions:
“The lover should take his cue from Stendhal. The balancing act called for must be duplicated at every level and at every moment: always a genuine passion, and always a compensating restraint. If the lover is truly in love, he will be bursting to ask, bursting to tell, bursting to know and to make known. But he must always be patient, always willing to bide his time, to keep his sweet sentiments and his ardent gestures to himself until the time for them arrives. And though the beloved may waver in her affection, the lover cannot let his faith be shaken. Like Stendhal’s ideal conversation with its moments of preparation and moments of naturalness, the love affair as a whole contains moments of distance and moments of closeness; the lover must always adapt, stay ready, and roll with the punches.”
Thinking back on his time with Rachel, Belknap confesses his regret that he didn’t know better as he played the lover, and that Rachel didn’t know better as she loved the player.
“Which is not to say that Rachel was wrong when she gave me that peculiar command, on that last night: “Be bold.” She was right; I should have been bold, and I wasn’t. But the boldness needed was not the excessive manliness of the pickup artists. It was a manliness at once more humble and more daring; it was the courage to face up to whatever is greater than us in love, and the presence of mind to spring into action when the time comes.”
Belknap concludes by proclaiming that he is a passionate lover, which makes him one of a dying breed.
Love is fading fast. Long ago, the world provided much of our eroticism for us, by leaving us few options other than restraint. Were Stendhal to visit us today, this would no doubt be one of his first observations: love has become too easy. Or, rather, love has become too difficult, because sex has become too easy. If you take up love today, then, you take on an extra burden: the burden of creating your own eroticism, of conjuring up walls and limits out of thin air to replace the ones we have lost. You have no choice in the matter. Love was hard enough already; it has only gotten harder. Your love will exhaust you. But it will be worth the trouble.
Belknap is well prepared. He lost Rachel but he ventures into the world wiser, seeking love, with all the collected wisdom of Stendahl and Mystery.