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Review: ‘What We Call Love-From Surrealism to Now’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

20 Dec


by Rhea H. Boyden

As I wandered into the galleries of the Irish Museum of Modern Art that contained photographs by renowned German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans I was reminded of the several times I have seen his wonderful work at various galleries and exhibits in Berlin. I can scarcely visit any gallery or museum outside of Berlin that doesn’t have some reference to Berlin, bringing up memories of my 15 years spent in that wild city. I have now been in Dublin for 15 months and, after settling into a job, I am now, finally in the past months beginning to really discover the culture and art of Dublin.

One institution that I am in love with is The Irish Museum of Modern Art. The IMMA, as it is known, is currently holding a large scale group exhibition entitled ‘What We Call Love- from Surrealism to Now’ and I have been to the fabulous exhibit twice so far. Proposed initially by Christine Macel, head curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the exhibit is co-curated by Macel and Rachael Thomas, senior curator and head of exhibitions at the IMMA. The exhibit contains work by a host of international artists including Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst, Rebecca Horn and many more.


IMMA Brochure showing a photo of Karl, by Wolfgang Tillmans

On my second visit to this exhibit which has engrossed me the past few weeks, I bought the lovely exhibit guide and I read it from cover to cover. I have wanted to sit down and write a review but I have not been able to until now because well, where do you start which such a large and broad topic such as love? I find it very difficult to keep my feelings, emotions and anecdotes from my own love life out of my review. I have no choice but to bring my experience into it. I gain confidence in myself when I look again at Wolfgang Tillman’s wonderful and intimate photos of his subject, a man, Karl and I read in the brochure what is written about the photos: ‘One of the harbingers of a realistic approach to his subject is that the photos lack pretension or conceit, instead depicting moments of vulnerability, intimacy, honesty and intensity’.

Vulnerability, intimacy, honesty and intensity. I think about the weight these words hold. I felt very vulnerable as I wandered through the exhibit. I felt a whole range of emotions. My emotions as I explore the different artists’ work are most definitely intense as I relate their statements to my own love life, or current lack thereof. I am a 40 year old single and childless woman. Despite the fact that more and more people are choosing to live alone, I am someone who a certain sector of our society still eyes with a mix of sympathy and suspicion.


‘Daphne and Apoll’-1943 by Meret Oppenheim – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

When I mentioned to a colleague last week that I was reading a lot about the exhibit and would definitely be bringing anecdotes from my love life into my review he teased me and said ‘You will have twenty blank pages then?’ I laughed. I hope he realises that I was not in the least insulted by his joke about my current lack of love life. As a writer, twenty blank pages signifies hope and possibility. It is exciting and there are many possibilities for ideas and interpretation. I am reminded of what Alicia Knock writes in the exhibit brochure about Surrealist painter Meret Oppenheim’s painting ‘Daphne and Apoll’ (1943) which is on show: ‘Meret Oppenheim’s works escape categorical definitions in favour of open-ended readings. A man, a woman, an androgynous person or the artist herself, the viewer understands that art should be endlessly admired, interpreted and desired, just like love.’ Indeed, there is so much to write about love that the twenty pages would be quickly filled. My real challenge lies in narrowing my focus and writing an essay that readers will read to the end.


‘The Kiss’ 1931 by Pablo Picasso – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

Among the first works one sees upon entering the exhibit is a painting ‘The Kiss’ (1931) by Pablo Picasso and a sculpture ‘The Kiss’ (1923) by Constantin Brancusi. Picasso’s work of this time became filled with pathos as his own love life was an emotional shambles. His depiction of kisses appear painful and he describes love as ‘a nettle that we must mow down at every instant if we want to have a snooze in its shadow.’ I think about the concept of a painful kiss. If a kiss is not good, I will likely end a relationship pretty promptly. No pain, move on. It wasn’t love and there was no chemistry. In my experience it is only the memory of a good kiss that causes pain when you think about it over and over and how you can no longer have that desired kiss. The pain is in the loss and the projection of the sexual fantasy onto the person who bestowed the kiss initially. In his installation in the exhibit ‘Piece Mandala/End War’ (1966) American artist Paul Sharits explores the double meaning of projection. He projects a film of a couple making love onto a wall of the gallery. There are strobe lights and flickering images. High speed splicing of the images leaves an after image on your retina making it even harder to forget. Sharits shows us that film is a good medium to create infinite loops. The full comprehension of his work makes me both embarrassed and sad. The ‘infinite loops’ and the ‘projection’ are a metaphor for the psychological projection of sexual fantasy and obsession, I know only too well what it feels like to have the pleasurable memory of my last lover on infinite loops in my head. The act the lovers are carrying out in the film is also pretty much identical to the one of my own fantasy (a fantasy which is a real memory of a real event, but now rendered a fantasy nonetheless). Do I find any solace in this installation? A little, I guess. My obsession and suffering is pretty much universal. I am not alone in it. I still have very vivid and intense memories of my last lover who I still miss, there is no denying it and this exhibit is undoing any progress I have made in moving on.


‘The Couple’ 2003 by Louise Bourgeois

Another artist whose work is featured is that of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. She has several works on show all entitled ‘The Couple’ (2003). And although I am still nursing the pain of a lost love I feel empathy for Bourgeois as it seemed she suffered a whole lot more in love. She claims to have been incapable of seducing or gaining another’s affection, which is of course, a sorry state of affairs. And yet, love and obsession play a role in her work. One piece by her that particularly struck me was an embracing couple made of fabric and stainless steel underneath a glass covering. The obvious interpretation would be the idea of a couple isolating themselves from the world and finding their love to be all-fullfilling and all-consuming. I was reminded, however, of Anais Nin’s short story ‘Under a Glass Bell’ and Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’. Plath’s bell jar is used to describe her isolation from enjoyment of life’s pleasures and a way of describing the incapacitating depression she suffered: ‘If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe or a round-the-world cruise’, writes Plath, ‘It wouldn’t have made one scrap of a difference to me, because wherever I sat, on the deck of ship, or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’ I may get a little sad with the pain of loss and have a hard time letting go, but I certainly never suffer the kind of depression and despondency that Plath describes in her story and for that I am grateful.

Anais Nin, in her story ‘Under a Glass Bell’ describes how one with an opulent lifestyle and riches in a big house can be then trapped in a marriage that is a farce with no escape. A glass bell covers the whole house: ‘Every day the silence, the peace, the softness, carved with greater delicacy the glass chandeliers, the furniture, the statuettes and laces… under the giant glass bell the colours looked inaccessible….’ This one piece by Louise Bourgeois says it all to me: how love can be isolating and depresssing and how the lure of riches can trap us into a situation we do not love.


‘I’ll Love You Forever’ 1994 by Damien Hirst – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

‘How the lure of riches can trap us into a situation we do not love’ is what I thought of English artist Damien Hirst’s piece for the exhibit entitled ‘I’ll Love you Forever'(1994). Hirst is one of Britain’s wealthiest and highest paid artists and ‘I’ll Love you Forever’ is a blue painted steel cage filled with medical waste containers and a gas mask. It was only the second time I went back to the museum did I notice the padlock on the cage. So, there really is no escape from this suffocating love. According to the exhibit brochure Hirst’s cage filled with explosives ‘condemns romantic passion to its inevitable implosion over time.’ This is a fine interpretation but I find the cage with golden bars to be a more suitable analogy. The cage with golden bars keeping one trapped in a relationship that grows ever more toxic. I have my own experience with this too. I was in a relationship with a wealthy man for a few years and he was happy to pay for everything which in hindsight, I realise, was his way of compensating for the lack of passion in the relationship. Fortunately the cage I found myself in did not have a padlock and I escaped from that situation. I may be a little lonely at times but at least I am free.

Or am I free? Part of what this fascinating exhibit explores is that, in fact, we are not free at all when it comes to love. We desire the freedom to love who we want and we cherish sexual freedom, but as soon as we are in love or infatuated with someone, we are anything but free. If it is a love that is unrequited it is torture. If we are still pining over a lost love we are also imprisoned. One of the most disturbing installations of the exhibit is ‘High Moon’ by German artist and film maker Rebecca Horn. It consists of two Winchester guns hanging from the ceiling and rotating both away and towards each other, two funnels filled with fake blood and a steel gutter on the floor below. On the wall there is a poem. All I can say is that the lovers who were in this scenario are finally free from all the harrowing pain that accompanies love, because they are now dead. Death is ultimately the only way to relieve ourselves of all our earthly confusion over love, as much as we like to live in denial of this and balm ourselves in fantasy. The poem by Rebecca Horn accompanying this piece reads:

High Moon

From the deepest part of the ocean

And the brightest light of the sun

Collected in a pair of identical moon funnels

The full-blown energy of two distinct creatures

Dancing about in abandon

Suddenly face to face with each other

Generating up to their maximum voltage

To meet for a second of equal eternity

Opening their pores and unleashing their bloodstreams

Accelerating each other to the point of near-bursting

Screaming like moon dogs in lost icy nights

When the arrow of Venus taps lightly the funnel

Unleashing the tandem explosion of energies

Transforming the creatures into illuminated fusion

Not missing a drop of each other’s volcanic residue

Flowingly forming a river of passion

Burrowing its way back to the limitless ocean

Bathed in the moon

(Rebecca Horn, New York, 1991)


‘High Moon’ 1991 by Rebecca Horn – photo by Claudia Benedettelli

One especially fascinating part of the exhibit is an interview with British neurobiologist Semir Zeki about recent discoveries that have been made in the neuroscience of love. Accompanying this interview is an art installation by Berlin based Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw who has also worked with Zeki in Berlin probing the neuroscience of love. We are now beginning to understand more clearly what areas of the brain are activated and deactivated during romantic attachment and sexual arousal. Shaw’s work uses images of specific people’s brains as they experience romantic love, maternal love as well as the effect of various recreational drugs in a bid to prove that the same areas of the brain are activated in all instances. Most of us know the feeling of dopamine being pumped into our bloodstream while having good sex and Zeki’s work shows that serotonin levels in people freshly in love are at the same levels that are in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Surrealists ‘Amour Fou’ or crazy love for which they lived in their creative lives, is now all beginning to be understood more from a neuroscientific standpoint. I personally find all of this knowledge very comforting. I like knowing the reason why I pine and obsess. It is interesting to understand it on a deeper level. In the interview Zeki says: ‘The prefrontal cortex, the parieto-temporal junction and the temporal poles constitute a network of areas invariably active with ‘mentalizing’ or ‘theory of mind’, that is the ability to determine other people’s emotions and intentions. It is also a truism to say that most people develop a preference for the kind of person they want to love, and hence a concept of their potential lover(s); their likelihood of falling in love with that kind of person is much greater.’

So when we say we have a dream partner there is a neuroscientic explanation for this. And when we fall in love and can’t stop thinking about the person and we experience feelings of well-being as well as a subsidence of fear, it is the deactivation of the amygdala that we can thank.

It is psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who sums it up most eloquently when he writes the following in his book ‘Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life’: ‘All love stories are frustration stories… To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing- nothing comes of nothing- but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognise them with such certainty, because you already, in a sense know them, and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them forever and yet at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familar, foreign bodies.’


Brain image scans by Jeremy Shaw

Therein lies the reason I pine. I experienced exactly what Phillips describes with the man I still miss and there have been times when I truly think I would have been better off never meeting him at all, rather than have him remind me of a frustration I didn’t know I had. He knows how I feel, and yet, there is little he can do to comfort me as he lives far, far away in another country. I still dream of being reunited with him someday, but I am reminded that that could end in disappointment and disenchantment too in the essay in the IMMA brochure that has intrigued me by sociologist Eva Illouz entitled ‘Against Desire’. She says that when our deepest desires are fulfilled we are then left unfillfilled and she uses a couple wonderful Greek myths to illustrate this. One myth is that of Midas and how everything he touches turns to gold, including his food and his daughter whom he tries to hug. Midas’ deepest desire quickly becomes a misery. ‘One could live in a gold palace’ writes Illouz, ‘but it is the ordinary gestures like hugging and eating that turn out to be the only ones that matter, and these ordinary gestures become unattainable precisely because they evade the logic of desire.’ The second myth is that of Tantalus who is punished for killing his son by being put in a garden near fruit and near a river with water but he can never reach either and so is tortured by the object of his desire being continually out of his reach. ‘Desire’, says Illouz, ‘is an insoluble contradiction. Unfullfilled, it makes us miserable, fulfilled it blocks access to what is essential but not determined by desire in our lives.’

I have had a hard time writing this review about love, considering the current status of my own love life which is the pathetic state of continuing to pine over a love that is lost and continuing to feed the fantasy of that lost love. But I am still full of hope that I will fall in love again at some unexpected point. I will meet another dream man, and I will celebrate the chance encounter in the same way the Surrealist artists and writers celebrated these coincidences of crazy love. And I will write more and be inspired and find a new muse. As Georges Sebbag points out in his video installation in the exhibit: ‘For the Surrealist, art, love and freedom took central stage. Ultimately, poetic expression was inconceivable for them independently of love.’ I would suppose this love has to be real or imagined, because some form of fantastical love or imagined muse has inspired me to write this essay even though I am experiencing a prolonged period of singlehood. The exhibit at the IMMA is immense and I have barely scratched the surface of this topic, but that will have to be dealt with in a second essay. Love is, after all, a vast topic with infinite interpretations and variations.

‘What We Call Love – From Surrealism to Now’ runs at the IMMA until February 7th 2016.

Feature image by Claudia Benedettelli

Caress the Social Media Free Bedroom

21 Feb


by Rhea H. Boyden

Nabokov said: ‘Caress the divine details.’ This is perfect advice for a writer busy at work sculpting a story out of the minutae he sees with a passion. It hadn’t occured to me until now that it is even better advice for lovers. I am working my tongue and hands down the chest of my lover, slowly, kissing and caressing the divine details. Thinking of the similarities between sex and writing is a big turn on for me. In a sense, writing has been my sex the past two years. It has been the thing that has fullfilled me. But now I am breaking my stretch of celibacy and it is divine. I am happy to not be sleeping with my smartphone-my constant companion- for once. I am truly addicted to social media, but when I have a lover in my bed I leave my phone on silent. I turn off my social media when I am writing too. The passionate and all involved act of writing, like sex, is not enhanced in its attention to immediate detail by beeping devices and internet distractions.

My lover returns to me a few days later. We take a photo of ourselves and I ask him if I can post it on Facebook. ‘Absolutely.’ he says with a big smile. We enjoy another night together. He leaves the next day and I post the photo. We look happy together. We have had three fabulous dates and everything is perfect.

‘Wait, did you delete the photo I posted of us from your timeline?’ I ask my lover. ‘I didn’t intentionally delete your photo,’ he tells me. ‘I just have my photos set so that my ‘friends’ can’t post on them without my permission.’ ‘But wait, not to be jealous or anything, but our photo WAS there and it is now gone and there is another photo of you with another girl and she has posted lots of hearts on your photo with her. It’s really none of my business who she is, but I see you are in a lot of photos with her. I also see lots of other photos of you and lots of other people on your timeline. I don’t see why my photo was so offensive especially considering I did ask you if I could post it.’ I say to him, hurt. ‘You shouldn’t read so much into it.’ he tells me. ‘Ok, fine, I will give you the benefit of the doubt, but I hate that Facebook has now caused a rift between us. This is really not the sort of argument people should be having after three lovely dates.’

But Facebook has caused a rift, this cannot be denied. My lover is leaving for another country soon anyway, far, far away so we both knew this romance would be short-lived. But I did not think a spat over social media would be what would cause an argument between us.

I am sitting on the couch with my laptop, reading, writing, googling and waiting for my lover to appear for our fourth date that we are having despite our little upset. Suddenly my internet cuts out. I examine the DSL box and realise that it actually smells of smoke. I still have my smartphone so this is not a disaster. I can easily get my internet fixed. And considering that internet and social media are the thing that caused a problem between my lover and me in the first place, I find it suitably ironic that my internet dies right before he arrives. I see it as a good omen for a nice fourth date without internet getting in the way. The battery on my smartphone is about to die too, and right now I have little will to keep it alive. It can die. Why not?

The following morning I am lying in bed with my lover, caressing and kissing his back and he is typing something into his phone. He puts the phone down and then it beeps again. He picks it up, reads a message, looks irritated and then lies back and closes his eyes. I turn around and withdraw from him. My gadgets are all dead. I am not online. My DSL box went up in a puff of smoke and my smartphone’s battery died hours ago. I get out of bed and march into the living room, abandoning my lover. I get comfortable on the couch and try to read. I love reading real books, snuggled on my couch with a cup of tea. I love taking the time away from the internet. Right now I am not enjoying this moment though, because I am sad. Eventually my lover walks into the room and asks if he can have a shower. ‘You can do whatever you want. I don’t care.’ is my terse response.

He sits down on the couch next to me, looking at me searchingly. He can see that I am upset. ‘What is going on, why are you upset?’ he asks. I just look at him looking at me and eventually the words burst from me. ‘I am sitting out here because clearly you are more interested in texting and emailing in bed than holding me and paying some attention to me.’ I inform him angrily. ‘It just depresses me so much that social media, Facebook, texting and emailing are the things that have caused this argument between us. Can we not just keep the gadgets out of bed?’ I plead with him. ‘My phone is dead, my internet is dead and right now I couldn’t care less about getting them going again. This is all we have.’ I tell him fiercely. ‘These few hours are our last date and then you are leaving and we won’t see each other again. Can we please just enjoy them now?’ He looks at me and says ‘But I am coming back to Europe in a few months and I want to see you then.’ I just look at him and shake my head. He then moves towards me on the couch and stretches himself across the length of my half-clothed body and I embrace him. We hug and caress. I run my hands through his incredible head of hair and down his back. We open up and talk, lying there, holding each other. There are no more beeps from the various devices. At last I feel good and connected in a way all these gadgets fail to connect me. ‘Let’s go back to bed for awhile’. I whisper in my lover’s ear. Remembering Nabokov I caress the divine details once again, with my tongue, with my hands, happy that we have this moment and all the gadgets are silent and removed. For this, right here, really is all we have. This divine moment now.

Bedpost image by Peter Zlatkov


Valentine’s Day post on Slow Travel Berlin

14 Feb

Valentine’s Day post on Slow Travel Berlin

Here is our Valentine’s day post on Slow Travel Berlin. I wrote about Eselsbrücke bar behind the Schönhauser Allee Arkaden which is a perfect place for a first date or an intimate chat. 🙂 

Miss Shine and Mister Black – Part Two

8 Dec

Ruby Mccoy image Juliet

By Rhea H. Boyden

Miss Shine hits the snooze button for the third time. It is a dark, cold morning in late November and she really does not feel like getting up for work. She stands in front of her wardrobe unsure of what to wear. She rummages through her many clothes and eventually pulls out her green mini skirt. ‘I should either throw some of these clothes away or wear them more often!’ she grumbles to herself. She puts on the skirt and admires it in the mirror. It is the skirt she was wearing the first time she met Mister Black five years previously at the Christmas market when the fat snowflakes were falling. ‘I like this skirt. I don’t think I have worn it in two years.’ She thinks, ‘and this is precisely the reason I do not throw clothes away, because suddenly they have new life and I feel like wearing them again.’ This is the only way she can justify having an overflowing wardrobe. She likes her clothes. Wearing the skirt brings back memories of Mister Black. He liked the skirt too.

She has not seen Mister Black in over two years and is finally putting the whole drama behind her. All the vodka she drank, all the misery. The endless phone calls and emails with Mister Black trying to show him and convince him that she loved him and could not live without him. But nothing helped. Nothing moved him. He would date her, he said, but he would not engage emotionally. She was a mess and he would do nothing to console her. Eventually she had to try and move on and make a life without him. Was her life good without him? Eventually it was becoming better and she was beginning to forget him despite not having met another man. She was sober and throwing herself into her career and was doing very well with it. As much as she would like a new boyfriend, her work was very fulfilling and she supposed at some point another man would come along and love her in ways Mister Black refused to.

She wishes she had gotten up a little earlier so she could do her hair and make up and look a little nicer to complement the skirt that she so loves, but her bed was so comfortable this morning. She has one glance in the mirror and notices that she has a bit of facial hair sprouting on her chin and the faint shade of a moustache growing. She really does not like being a hairy woman but what can she do. Is she full of testosterone? She is constantly using tweezers and hair removal cream to keep these annoying hairs at bay. They are not a big deal, loads of women get them, but they are so unfeminine, and just another vexing task one has to keep up with: hair removal. No one else really notices these faint hairs, but she does, and she doesn’t like them. She pulls on her purple hat, puts her headphones over them and skips out the door to work. The hat is not really flattering either but it is cold. No need to be vain.

Miss Shine is sitting on the train and suddenly she looks up sees Mister Black standing there playing with his iphone. He looks up and stares right at her, but does not see her and then stares back at the iphone. She sits there, stunned. ‘Is that really Mister Black standing right there or am I imagining things?’ She composes herself and then gets up and walks right over to him and says ‘Hello’. He just stares at her in amazement and eventually composes himself enough to say ‘I didn’t recognize you with the hat on!’ ‘How are you?’ she stammers. ‘I am fine’, he says. ‘I haven’t shaved!’ he announces uncomfortably. Miss Shine thinks again about her facial her and feels uncomfortable about that. All she can think is that at least he is a man and has a good excuse for facial hair, but she is feeling mortified about hers, which no one else really notices but herself. It’s not like she is Frida Kahlo, for God’s sake. Why are they both so concerned with hair right now? Is this all one can think about after not seeing each other for over two years. ‘Yeah, I just crawled out of bed too.’ This statement is presumably to put them both at ease at being caught unaware and unkempt. ‘I am working seven days a week at the moment.’ She says, ‘Work is full on and I don’t really have time every morning for hair and make up.’

When they were dating they always looked good for each other. Always dolled up and ready for their exciting dates. Now they are forced to look at each other in the morning, on the train, both disheveled and not as they would wish to be seen by the other. The air is tense between them. The chemistry is still there. It never dies. William Faulkner once said that the past was not dead and that it was not even the past. Miss Shine agrees with Faulkner because she is not good at letting the past go.  People are always telling her to forget the past and move on, but this is impossible for a writer. She also agrees with Noam Chomsky who said the following: ‘the highest goal in life is to inquire and to create; to search the riches of the past and try to internalize the parts of them that are significant to you and carry that quest for understanding further in your own way.’ But she really has spent the past two years trying to banish Mister Black from her mind and now here he is standing right in front of her again and he looks even better than he ever did. She likes his facial hair. And they are actually really happy to see each other. She knows very well that she would run the other direction if she encountered certain other exes, but despite how badly it ended between her and Mister Black they are truly happy to talk to each other now. She proudly shows him the flyer to her book launch party. ‘What about the marketing?’ Mister Black quizzes her. ‘Have you got that covered?’ He was always questioning everything and provoking her and he has not changed, she can see that. ‘He is dealing with the marketing’ she responds. ‘Who is he?’ Mister Black demands of with her with great curiosity, staring searchingly into her eyes. ‘My boss at the magazine.’ Miss Shine responds, nervously. Eventually they reach Mister Black’s stop and he gives her a big meaningful hug and then he exits the train. He stands on the platform and they just stare at each other as the doors close. Miss Shine thinks of Emily Dickinson’s quote ‘Parting is all we need to know of hell.’

Miss Shine is happy, stunned, confused and of course, in hell. She is still in love with Mister Black, of that she is sure. Parting with him was always hell. And she can tell by the way he was acting towards her that he still has feelings for her, but she also knows that this is dangerous territory to be revisiting. She must also remember how cold he was at times and how he vexed her no end and how she drank and drank and was miserable with him despite their intense sexual relationship. How he rarely wanted to see her, how she pined for him and missed him and how she drove both him and herself mad with her over analyzing of the whole relationship. Her life has truly improved since she quit drinking and Mister Black is gone. This is the rational side of Miss Shine’s brain thinking. But then there is her heart and the fantastical and obsessive side of her brain that makes it impossible for her to forget this little encounter on the train. Mister Black is once again the leading man in her thoughts. What can she do about it? Everywhere she turns she thinks of him and sees some relevance to him. Once again she pines for him. The writer in Miss Shine is always searching for connections where they did not lie before. Connecting the seemingly unconnected and using her imagination to create stories and articles is what she does, day in day out. She writes down her obsessions and she follows her heart. It is what she is good at. Stories, articles, poetry and diary entries. She constantly writes. She is a big fan of Hungarian- British Journalist Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation that posits that the creative act is being able to link the unlinkable and create new ideas out of disparate ones that previously had nothing to do with each other. She lives and breathes this idea every day in her work, ever searching for connections. Most of the time this is a blessing for Miss Shine. Suddenly, however, it has become a curse.

She thinks again of the skirt. How strange it is that she should put on the skirt again that she wore the first time she met Mister Black and suddenly while wearing it for the first time in two years she runs into him. This is a crazy coincidence and for her. She writes Mister Black an email and tells him how happy she was to see him and how she still cares for him and that it was always her wish to keep dating him and that she is successful and happy in her job now and that she does not drink anymore and that her life is drama free. He writes back and tells her that he is happy that she has found something that makes her happy and wishes her the best with her book launch. He says no more. Miss Shine is disappointed and hurt. She knows he still feels something for her. It was so obvious after their encounter on the train. She has admitted her faults and said sorry for past drama and she has accused him of nothing. But he has not changed. Now was his chance to say he was sorry for treating her badly and he is not doing it. This drives Miss Shine completely crazy. She sits down and writes him a ten page letter telling him that she loves him and wants him to love her and why can they not start again and she forgives him. The letter is written from the heart and it is a good letter. She spends hours composing it. She then deletes the letter and is relieved that she did not send it to him. He doesn’t deserve the letter. She has already told him she misses him and she was happy to see him, there is little point in saying more. She puts the green skirt away and goes to bed and tries not to think about him. Tries not to see connections in everything. She is determined to not write to him again, banish him from her mind and go back to her happy, drama free life.

‘In the dark the mind runs on like a devouring machine, the only thing awake in the universe.’ Miss Shine reads this line from ‘White Noise’ by Don de Lillo and she relates to it completely. Her mind is like a devouring machine once again. Who was it, she wonders who said ‘The mind repeats what the heart can’t delete?’ The conversation with Mister Black on the train is on repeat in her head. The very tension of how she greeted him with a simple ‘Hello’. She repeats the word ‘hello’ over and over, remembering how it sounded and how he reacted to it. She could have pulled her hat down over her facial hair and ignored him and hidden from him but now the word ‘hello’ has come to bear so much weight and meaning. ‘It was the same weighty and meaningful ‘hello’ that he had greeted her with on their first date. She remembers the details. She remembers practically every detail of every word spoken between them on every date. Why does she remember this? Because their dates were so precious and so rare that every act and every word carries its own special weight and meaning.

She goes to an art exhibition to try and get her mind off of Mister Black. While sitting at a table with the curator of the show and some of the exhibiting artists the curator offers her a cookie. ‘The cookies are letters’ he says. ‘Each one will have a special meaning.’ Miss Shine takes a letter cookie from the box. It is an X. She says nothing. The curator then says ‘Oh you have an X! What could that mean? Anything to do with ex boyfriends?’ Miss Shine says nothing. She munches silently on her X cookie. She looks at the artwork in the exhibit and tries not to think of Mister Black. She sees a painting by an artist named Jade MacEwan. The painting shows a distraught woman with a knife stuck in her breast. ‘So can you tell me what you intended to portray with this painting?’ Miss Shine asks the artist with a smile. ‘Yes’ she says ‘It is based on Romeo and Juliet… It is Juliet’s despair at finding Romeo has poisoned himself, so she kills herself with the dagger. And it actually has another meaning behind it’ she says ‘about the general despair women find themselves in over men at times. That is why she is sitting in the poison. It’s symbolic. Pretty much all my paintings rely on symbolism.’ Miss Shine stares at the painting. She can see that the ‘poison’ is a bottle of spilled wine. She thinks of Mister Black again. She remembers how she drank a lot of wine to help her deal with her despair over Mister Black. ‘Arthur Koestler be damned!’ thinks Miss Shine to herself. The Theory of Bisociation is far more subtle than this. It talks about relating the unrelated in creativity. There is nothing subtle here. Everything she sees reminds her of Mister Black in a glaring and loud manner. She moves on to the next painting in the hopes it will reveal something different to her. ‘These paintings are by British artist Kyli John and they are named ‘Collision Series’’ the curator announces. These brightly coloured acrylic paintings portray the mash of feelings that are created when a couple collide. They portray energy and tension between men and women.’ Miss Shine can hear no more of this. She excuses herself and goes home through the wind and rain. She will go home and put on a cheesy movie, think no more about art and journalism. She will eat chocolates and try and forget about Mister Black. She arrives home and does just that only to discover within five minutes that the film is set in Mister Black’s hometown which is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Her heart sinks and she is lonely. The next night she goes on a press pass to the grand opera house to see ‘West Side Story’ which is another Romeo and Juliet themed story. It makes her think of the painting at the gallery and of the long love letter she wrote to Mister Black but did not send. Seeing the young lovers profess their eternally dying love to each other makes her think the love letter is a good idea after all. She loves Mister Black and she wants him to know it. She is reminded of a Mayan Sun King who loved his wife so much that he had both their tombs built just so: every spring and autumn at the equinox, the sun would rise in the east it would cast a shadow of his tomb that would fall on her tomb and then when it set in the west in the evening it would cast a shadow of her tomb back onto his tomb. This has been happening for the past thirteen hundred years and is meant as an everlasting symbol of their love. Miss Shine would love to rewrite the love letter of the symbol of her everlasting love for Mister Black and send it to him, but her pride prevents her. She needs to try and forget him. It is the only thing to do. She also needs to try and forget Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation when she is not working. It is useful for journalism, to be sure, but not in matters of the heart.

Featured image ‘Juliet’ by Jade MacEwan

‘For the (Dis)connected’ (Musings on Modern Gender Relations-Part 2)

30 Jun


By Rhea H. Boyden

Last Tuesday morning I got up at 6.30, had a shower, made a strong cup of black tea and turned on my computer to perform my ritual morning online interactions and reading only to discover that my internet had been disconnected. ‘Crap.’ I grumbled. ‘How the heck did I fail to pay the bill on time?’ I had a mini panic attack but then remembered that I was also in possession of a smartphone, so this was hardly a calamity.  I was also in possession of a press pass to the Schaubühne Theatre to see German Director Falk Richter’s ‘For the Disconnected Child’ that same evening. ‘What a funny coincidence that my internet should be cut off, today of all days?’ I smiled at the irony of it. One of the main themes in Richter’s modern piece is hyper online connectivity and its effects in our modern society.

After paying my phone bill and teaching all day, I then stopped at one of my favourite cafes to have a salad. I had intended to respond to a nice message I had received from a man the day before on my online dating profile, and I discovered upon logging on that he no longer existed and his profile had been deleted. My heart sank. ‘Wow, he only sent me the message 15 hours ago, did I not jump quick enough?’ I thought. Despite my negative experiences with online dating, I still keep going on the odd date. I refuse to give up on it.

After eating my salad, I walked alone in the pouring rain to the theatre and took my seat, notebook in hand, eager to see this experimental piece which brings together for the first time actors and dancers from the Schaubühne and singers and musicians from the Staatsoper. A collaboration, an experiment and a fusion of many different styles of music, acting and song. Will this work? It could fail miserably. The music of Marianne Faithfull, Schubert and Tchaikovsky on the same stage? A chamber orchestra one minute, an electric guitar the next? It did work marvelously, and after the 2 hour and 20 minute performance there were lengthy standing ovations.

One main thread of the performance is the scene from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugen Onegin’ where the leading lady, Tatjana, reveals her undying love to Onegin in a letter and he rejects her. He is unwilling to commit to her (or anybody else) and does not want to give up his freedom. This then becomes the main theme in a modern context throughout the performance of why so many men refuse to commit to women in modern relationships when there is so much to choose from all the time, especially in a modern urban environment. I can completely relate to this topic, and am happy that its relevance is being broached on the Berlin stage. Urban relationships, dating demographics and single life are my favourite topics to write about.

The leading lady Tatjana, is livid after being rejected and simply does not understand why, when she can offer Onegin everything he could possibly want. She screams out loud, furious about his emotional impotence. Another male character in the show says that maybe she was too forward, or too fast, or too honest, perhaps? She should try a little more reserve in future. Reserve, as many of us modern women know, doesn’t really get us very far either. We are well aware that traditional, lengthy courtship rituals are hardly existent in modern urban dating. If a woman is too reserved and doesn’t sleep with the successful alpha male on date three at the latest, well, he will likely just go and fuck the next girl, as he is too much in demand and there aren’t enough of his kind to go around and he knows he holds this power too. I know I have harped on about this topic before, but I am going to do it again, because, well, it is an important modern topic. I live it and experience it first hand in the big city.

I will come to a section in this essay where I heartily defend men and discuss women’s flaws (and my own flaws) so hear me out. It won’t be in the next few paragraphs, so if you are male and feeling a little sensitive, I apologise in advance.

In her depressing article in Salon magazine entitled ‘A New Era of Heartbreak’ Jaime Cone interviews  professor of sociology Eva Illouz who in her book ‘Why Love Hurts’,  discusses how changing cultural norms exacerbate the stress and pain of modern romance. Illouz points out that our modern capitalist society is responsible, in large part, for men’s lack of commitment to women. In the past, men’s power and status were determined in the patriarchal system where he could assert his masculinity by displaying his power over his wife and children (and servants if he had them).

In our modern society, however, a man’s masculinity is measured more by how much power he has in an organization or corporation, how much money he earns, and how much sexual power he can have over many different women. Having a family is viewed as more of a financial burden rather than an asset, especially in the economically unstable times we live in. The large dating pool on the internet also poses a problem; with so much to choose from, many men are unwilling to settle for one woman. Again, in a capitalist system, if one has too many options, one is less likely to commit to a purchase. Men have the significantly larger dating pool to choose from on the internet too, and they have a lot more time than women to play the field and can wait until they are 50 to settle down, if they want to settle at all. Women, ultimately, are the losers in this system and there is simply too much competition for the ‘good men’. Demographics prove it.

In this case, women’s self esteem suffers greatly too. Self esteem itself is a relatively new idea. In the past, when women were rejected, they may have been hurt but their whole sense of worth was not damaged because they knew what their status in society was and they still believed in their basic worth. In her book, Illouz takes Marianne from’ Sense and Sensibility’ as an example. When she is rejected by Willoughby she is hurt to be sure, but her sense of place in society and her basic self worth is not ruined by the rejection. In our modern mixed urban society, however, it is not clear anymore at all what class someone comes from and what their real status is. We all have to fight to prove who we are, what we are good at, what we are worth and so forth, to protect our precious self-esteem(s). Why else would a dating website try and market itself by naming itself Elite Partner and charge a huge price for membership? Call me a snob, but just charging a fee for signing up to this precious expensive ‘elite’ site in no way guarantees that you are going to meet refined, sophisticated people on it. I met the biggest sleazes and players on the site and came away feeling depressed.

In ‘For the Disconnected Child’ this theme of self-esteem is explored in depth in how Tatjana goes mad in analyzing why she is not lovable. ‘This is not my body!’ she wails. ‘What part of me is it, what part is unlovable? Is it this part?’ she cries, clutching at her stomach. She then sings her song: ‘The Island of the Unneeded and Unloved Body’ which I will quote from: ‘I walked and walked and walked. I arrived on the island of the unloved body, an eternity in fog, nothing more to hear, everything is silent.’

Illouz goes on to say in the Salon interview that in the 19th century Western men were far more open about their emotions and they were the ones who chased the women who they desired. It was the woman who held the power to decide who and when to marry. These days, however, many women are driven to become neurotic wrecks as they obsess over what they are doing wrong and why the man who they are dating refuses to commit. (I have plenty of first hand experience here, believe me).

In their bestselling book ‘The Complete Book of Rules- Time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right’ Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider lay down all the things a woman should and should not do when dating a man if she wants to get him to commit. To be honest, the book terrifies me.  It teaches women how they should apply all these manipulative tactics in order to make a man love them. And this is supposed to ensure a happy relationship? They say things like you should stop dating him if he doesn’t buy you a gift on Valentine’s Day, and that you should never see him more than once or twice a week, and that you should never phone him and so forth. Basically the book makes the woman responsible for making the relationship work and she has to make sure she is acting correctly at every move. It sounds like too much stress to me. I think I would rather sit at home reading and writing than go to so much mental effort to ‘secure’ a man. But it does show how things have changed since the 19th century. Women are told not to pursue men, that the men should be the ones pursuing them if they truly love them, but unfortunately as we get a little older we simply do not feel as pursued any more, as many men who we once considered our dating pool start to date younger women.

‘For the Disconnected Child’ talks a lot about internet dating and how women who are a little older attempt to use it. The leading lady Tatjana, who is over 40, a single mother and a successful business woman is constantly on skype with her mother and on online dating trying to find a man. Both give her a connection to the world. In her more frenzied moments, she asks her mother if she truly loves her and when she finds a man, she asks him if he truly, truly loves her. She is very successful in her career, but totally neurotic as she keeps meeting men with whom, in her words ‘the relationship is over before it ever really begins.’ Her self-esteem suffers greatly.  We see, however, that at heart she is a good person, who just wants to be loved. She is not evil, she is just confused.

Another scene in ‘For the Disconnected Child’ shows a woman on her bed making love to her cello. This represents objectophilia, naturally, and I find it extremely amusing, but I know of course that there is a serious element to it. I remember after the attack on The World Trade Center reading an article about a single woman who got herself a set of mini twin towers that she took to bed with her every night and claimed she was in love with them. Can we laugh at this? Don’t we all display a certain tendency towards objectophilia with our coveting of our smartphones and Macbooks that keep us many urban singles connected round the clock? Without this hyperconnectivity we would likely be lonely. I live alone and I sleep with my smartphone every night, and I quite often take my laptop to bed too.

Indeed, connectivity to Facebook, Twitter, Skype and countless other sites make it possible for so many of us to happily live alone these days. More and more people are living alone, and yet there does not seem to be enough dialogue on it, and singles are still stigmatized for it. In his book ‘Going Solo-The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone’ NYU professor Eric Klinenberg discusses the reasons behind the historic rise of single living in the past decades. The rich variety of interaction made possible by the internet is one thing he notes, but he also points out some other interesting ideas. The security provided by the welfare state (especially in Scandiavian countries) and the wealth generated by economic growth have simply made it affordable for people to live alone. Mass urbanization is also responsible for this trend. Many people who live in densely populated urban environments find themselves surrounded by like minded non-conformists who mostly moved to the city to do something else apart from getting married and having a family. Increased longevity is another reason we spend more time alone. Women, especially can outlive their spouses (if they ever have one) by years, so spending more and more time alone later in life is increasingly becoming the norm.

In her article in The Daily Telegraph – ‘Being Single by Choice is Liberating’, Hannah Betts also says that living alone provides busy urban people the solitude they crave and need when dealing with the stresses of every day urban living. The large majority of urban singles in their late 30’s and early 40’s most certainly do not want to live in flat shares, and if they can afford it at all will rent or buy their own flat. And of course there are moments of loneliness, but loneliness is part of life no matter whether you are in a relationship or not. I know that since I started writing two years ago, that I really need my solitude and I feel very fortunate that I am able to afford a centrally located Berlin flat that I can withdraw to to read and write. I continue to go on the odd internet date, but honestly, I am fairly content with my single life at the moment. I rarely feel completely alone as I am constantly on Facebook, Twitter and Skype and I see my students, colleagues and friends in Berlin every day.

In Berlin, one in three people live alone and the number is rising exponentially. Almost a third of Britons now live alone and the number of British people going solo has risen by more than a million in the past 16 years. According to The British Office for National Statistics that number is expected to rise by another 2 million by 2020. People who live alone make up 28 percent of U.S. households, and today an incredible 50 percent of Americans are single. With these statistics we certainly do not need to feel alone in our aloneness. And yet, single living is considerably more expensive than being coupled and thousands of tax laws still favour married couples.  In their article in the Atlantic Monthly, Arnold and Campbell explore at length the many tax laws that overtly provide legal or financial benefits to married couples. The article was so long and so depressing I could hardly stand to read it. Of course I worry about money. I am a freelance English teacher and writing is hardly a job I do for money, but more for the passion and joy of it. Arnold and Campbell quite simply state that ‘marital privileging marginalizes the 50 percent of Americans who are single.’ Married couples save thousands by filing jointly. Will tax laws change in the future as the social structure changes and marriage and family life becomes less and less the norm?

Despite the huge advances made by women in the past half a century we still very much live in a patriarchal society. Berlin may be a haven for non-conformists, but Germany in general is still very much a patriarchy. In barely one in five households in Germany is the woman the main breadwinner and more than half of these women are single mothers. In Dax 30 registered companies (German Stock Exchange) there is a total of only 13 women board members. Enormous subsidies help cement traditional gender roles in place in Germany. German housewives are automatically given free health insurance, and the system of half day schools make it very hard for German mothers to hold down a full time job. There is also a severe lack of day care centre places for children of working mothers.

Leading the international life that I have always led,  traveling between my three homes of Ireland, Germany and the United States, I have pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I will not be getting married and having children. I have a huge family spread across these three countries and I have little desire to get myself entrenched in the German system of child raising which I view as being full of flaws. In one month, I will be 38 years old and I don’t have a man at my side and that is fine for now. I have a mother in California who is suffering from Alzheimer’s who I visit every year, family on the East Coast of the U.S. who I visit frequently too, and going to see my friends and family in Ireland at least once a year is also a priority for me. This is my life and it is the way it is. I have plenty of people around me all the time and presumably I will find another good man to date again at some point. I have been single for well over a year now. I simply do not have a ticking biological clock. I do not feel like having a child. I want to write, even if writing is a lonely pursuit at times. It is the one thing that brings me huge joy. I am fairly good at being alone. I am a very sociable person and I love being around people too, but I have gotten Berlin nightlife out of my system and quite enjoy my own company at this point. I spend most Saturday nights alone reading, writing and editing and for the moment, at least, it makes me perfectly content.

I do feel sorry, however, for the women in their mid to late thirties who still really feel that they would like to have a family and are simply not finding men to help them fulfill this wish. We are still very much encouraged in our society to believe in family values and try to have a traditional family, when this model is now increasingly unrealistic.  It is a fact that one in two children are now born to single mothers and in nearly 40 percent of all American households the woman earns more than her husband. Men only completed 40 percent of Bachelor and Master’s Degrees in 2010 in the U.S. and more than 50 percent of Ph.D candidates are women. A serious change in gender relations is happening right before our eyes, and yet mainstream culture still romanticizes the fairy tale wedding and happily-ever-after model. I am not that cynical, and I still believe in finding love, but I also have realized that I have to be completely responsible for myself and my years of day dreaming that I would find a man to be at my side are over.

In her book, ‘The End of Men’ Hanna Rosin shows us statistics and stories of how difficult men are faring in our modern economy and how women are marching ahead in their careers. She talks about the collapse of industry in the United States and the recession that started in 2008 as being responsible for the huge number of unemployed American men. The new economy jobs are far more suited for women and many women simply do not want to date unemployed or underemployed men. They are too busy with their own careers to bother with it and find having such a man a burden, as harsh as this may sound (especially if they are single mothers with full time jobs). Many of Rosin’s data and anecdotes are interesting and enlightening but my main problem with her is that she is married and has three children, so I really wonder why she thinks she has such a right to make it her topic to discuss mass male unemployment and sexually frustrated career women. I am passionate about writing about single urban life, because I am single and lead an urban life. If I were happily married and had three children, on the other hand, I would probably stop banging on about it and write about something else entirely.

Hanna Rosin managed to upset quite a few men with her book too. One man who read the book after publication said that she completely misconstrued his interview with her. He had told her that although it was challenging at times, he was quite happy to stay at home with his children while his wife held a full time job. Rosin simply said that he found it quite challenging, leaving out the bit where he said he also found it fulfilling. Another man said that yes, he found it rather demoralizing that he lost his full time job in manufacturing and that he now had to depend on his wife, but did Rosin have to use the most depressing photo of him that made him look hangdog in a New York Times article about the book? Rosin shows that she has one characteristic that clever ladies are often accused of having and that is manipulation. Rosin can have her cake and eat it too. In other words, she can be married, have three children and still bang on about how hard a time all these poor women are having finding eligible men. I seriously think a single, childless woman is a better candidate to broach this topic.

On the topic of manipulative women, there is a scene in ‘For the Disconnected Child’ where a man is going completely crazy screaming at his new girlfriend. ‘Why, oh why?’ he demands of her ‘Does your relationship status on Facebook still say single, when mine has said in a relationship for the past 2 weeks?’ He goes crazy with rage at her accusing her of wanting it all and not really loving him. As he screams at her the whole scene reaches a crescendo along to the music of the Staatsoper chamber orchestra. It seems quite incredible that traditional German classical musicians from the German Staatsoper are playing their instruments alongside a man screaming at his girl about her Facebook status. What an astoundingly modern piece of theatre this is.

Of course to be a truly modern piece, ‘For the Disconnected Child’ should have touched on homosexuality. Berlin, like most big urban centres has a large gay population. They somehow overlooked this completely in the performance. I have many gay male friends in Berlin and I would be nothing without them. Some of them are my closest friends who I have known for years. I have closer and deeper bonds to them than to any heterosexual male. A few years ago, I was dating a guy who I was quite into, and one autumn afternoon I slipped on a slimy leaf, fell flat on my face and cracked my front tooth. The guy I was dating didn’t seem to really care about it and offered me no comfort. I knew then that he did not really care about me very much. It was my gay neighbour, however, who invited me over to watch a movie and cheered me up after this incident.

A few weeks ago another dear gay friend of mine who used to live in Berlin and who now lives in Spain visited me for a long weekend. We had a marvelous time together and he took me out to a lovely restaurant and bought me a huge bunch of flowers on the morning he left. It has been an awful long time since a straight man has done the same for me.

Yet another gay friend of mine is one of my closest friends in Berlin and I meet him every week. He is a writer too and we read and edit each other’s writing constantly. We provide each other with constant mutual support and feedback and I love him dearly. Apart from these three guys, I have at least another three dear gay male friends in Berlin who rank very high on my list of important people. I would imagine it is the same for many other single urban women too.

And what of the accusation that we many singles are all incredibly self-centred, narcissistic and solipsistic? Well, what can I say to this? Sure, I am a little self-centred, I am a writer. Aren’t most writers a little egotistical? I am now on word 4,142 of this essay. It is surely self-centred of me to take up all your time and presume you will read this far, but I am very happy if you take the time to do it. In fact, singles are not as self-centred as society would assume. We are well-connected and support each other constantly. We are very busy with interesting projects to help people all the time. I am a teacher, for one thing. Patience, caring and compassion are demanded of me every day. Many singles actually find married couples to be more self-absorbed, especially those who have children. Sure, we get that raising kids is a lot of work and demands a certain amount of tunnel vision for a few years, but my other single girlfriends also complain of feeling completely forgotten by their former girlfriends who are now married or have kids. So, what can you do? Mutual tolerance and respect of each other’s lifestyles and an open dialogue is essential.

Since writing my other extremely long essay on this topic a few years ago which I entitled ‘Musings on Modern Gender Relations’ I like to think that I have matured a bit more and have come to accept more who I am. I don’t beat myself up as much as I used to, and I am fairly content with my life. To be sure, I have my ups and downs and moments of desperation and irritation like everyone, but I somehow realize that I am on my path and still just trying to lead an honest life that makes me happy. Because in the end, I am the one who has to live with me and also learn to deal with long stretches of solitude which is the result of not having secured a man and gotten married. In ‘For the Disconnected Child’ they talk all about how horrible this silence can be in your single home. ‘The silence grows ever louder, oh take away this terrible silence!’ Learning to love the silence and using it productively is surely one of the biggest challenges of modern single life and I like to think I am getting better at it as I grow more and more used to it.

Photo of Schaubühne by Doris Antony

Miss Shine and Mister Black

9 Jun

By Rhea H. Boyden

 Miss Shine was struggling with the awkward zip on her black high-heeled boot which had a tendency to stick. She knew that Mister Black would be waiting for her at the restaurant. They were both extremely punctual, this being one of the few normal, mundane traits that they shared and valued. He would have already had the waiter come over and allow him to choose which truffles they were to dine on that evening and would be pondering the wine list.

 It was a crisp evening in early autumn and the sky was azure blue. Miss Shine was finishing her gin and tonic, served with plenty of ice and lime, and was listening to her current favourite CD which she had on repeat in her obsessive manner. It was house music by an obscure Icelandic collective of djs, one of whom she had met at a late night club. He had given her two copies of the CD. She was excited about giving a copy to Mister Black hoping to turn him on to the music that she so loved.  She had one last glance in the mirror to make sure she looked her best for Mister Black and she skipped out the door and headed to the restaurant.

‘I don’t really like new music.’ Mister Black announced as he studied the CD Miss Shine had just handed to him. Miss Shine put her glass of Chilean red down and glared at him. ‘What do you mean you don’t like new music?’ she demanded of him, hurt. ‘Do you mean you don’t like modern music, or do you mean you have a full collection and don’t need any more?’  Mister Black gave her a wry smile. ‘I happen to agree with Steven Pinker who dismissed music as being evolutionarily useless, displacing demands from areas of the brain that should be used for handling more important and relevant functions like language.’  he replied coldly. ‘With all due respect, Mister Black’ she finally said after she had swallowed the bite of truffle she had been savouring, ‘Steven Pinker is wrong.  As much as I realize that he is a renowned Harvard psycholinguist, I simply cannot agree for one second with that claim.’

Miss Shine was not unused to Mister Black’s contrary manner. He contradicted and provoked her often.  She was sensitive and it hurt her immensely and he drove her half insane, but she also saw that having a good debate was surely a whole lot more exciting and invigorating than being with a man who had no opinion on anything at all. In any case, these debates were all foreplay and the truffles an aphrodisiac, as Mister Black cheekily pointed out.

‘Did you know that Ray Charles believes he was born with music inside of him?’ Miss Shine quizzed Mister Black. ‘And that convincing data have been collected showing  that while listening to music a series of tonal deviations create conflict in the brain that somehow magically create the conditions that we come to perceive as deep pleasure when listening to music we love. Simply stated, it appears that a brain confused by music seems to perceive ecstasy.’ Miss Shine stopped talking and looked at Mister Black. Their eyes locked. She felt a wave of desire well up in her. ‘Shall we go back to mine?’ Mister Black asked slyly. Miss Shine just nodded.  They may have disagreed on many things but their biochemistry was in sync to afford them many hours of luscious lovemaking. There was no music needed. Their bodies were in harmony.

Miss Shine and Mister Black did not meet often as they were both very busy with their separate lives and careers.  Miss Shine suffered because of this. She would have liked to have seen him more often but he refused. He was very secretive and allowed only that they would meet monthly. They never spoke on the phone and all their arrangements were made either by text message or the occasional email. Mister Black despised the phone. They had also had prolonged debates on which type of media was the best to communicate through given all the modern choices. Obviously they were not friends on Facebook. They had never even considered sending each other a friend request. This was an unspoken agreement.  Miss Shine was happy about this as she knew very well how Facebook only provided a portion of what was really needed to experience what had been described by psychoanalyst Barbara Friedrickson as ‘Positivity Resonance.’  Miss Shine had read all about Dr. Friedrickson’s idea that there were three main neurobiological players at work in the brain that make it possible for you to truly connect to your partner. Number one being the levels of oxytocin in the brain (a night with Mister Black sent an overwhelming flash flood of oxytocin to Miss Shine’s brain, of that she was sure) which allowed a sharing of emotions between two people. Number two was a ‘synchrony of biochemistry’ and number three was a ‘reflected motive to invest in each other’s well being that brings mutual care.’

 Online interactions can be intoxicating, and you can stare into the beautiful eyes of your fantasy online dream partner while you chat to them but a true ‘positivity resonance’ is impossible without real eye contact, physical contact, smelling the other person and hearing their voice. There is only so much all these lol’s and xxxx’s and smileys and thousands of other icons can do for you. No, Miss Shine did not, thankfully, indulge in all this intoxicating yet fantastical nonsense with Mister Black as she had in previous online interactions. He would email or text message her and they would meet at the restaurant.

But how Miss Shine pined for Mister Black. Because, despite the fact that she was happy that she was actually able to see him in the real world and taste him and lie next to him and experience every last piece of his manhood in the flesh (even if it was only once a month) she was also painfully aware that her relationship was not much more fulfilling than a Facebook infatuation. For she became, over time, more and more vexed that despite their intense physical relationship, he really did not fulfill number three of Dr. Friderickson’s theory of positivity resonance.  Yes, Miss Shine was forced to admit that ‘a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well being that brings mutual care’ was definitely not being met by Mister Black and this made her deeply unhappy. Miss Shine, in short, did not feel loved. She felt depressed, and suffered from low self-esteem. She nursed her pain in vodka and cranberry cocktails. But she still kept on reading. She knew that she thought too much about everything all the time and that this was bad, and she also knew that she obsessed and this was bad too, but that was somehow her nature and what could she do to change it? It depressed her to read  what Anais Nin had to say about positivity resonance which had now become one of her many obsessions:  ‘People who suffer from anxiety, depression, loneliness or low-self esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly this over alert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance. Feeling unsafe then is the first obstacle to love.’  She much preferred to read Anais Nin’s erotic stories than be reminded of this horrible state that she too readily related too.  It did not help matters that when she berated Mister Black for his lack of real love and care for her beyond the intense physical relationship that they shared, that he would simply reply by saying ‘You worry too much’ or ‘I am not willing to engage emotionally with you, I have too much work to do.’

Miss Shine also knew that she spent too much time wallowing, thinking and over-analysing everything all the time when she might have given her brain a break. She became downright negative. She did try to perk herself up by pondering certain quotes such as one by Shakespeare who said that ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ Or even Buddha who said ‘Our life is the creation of our mind.’ She tried, half-heartedly to lift herself up with these quotes and try and get herself out of the dark caverns in her mind that became increasingly obsessed with why Mister Black refused to fulfill number three of the theory of positivity resonance.

The only thing that helped Miss Shine get her mind off of Mister Black was to keep on reading. She very much loved the literature of David Foster Wallace and related to him greatly as she felt as alienated from the world as he did. There is one story by him that she loved where his character is sitting in a classroom bored out of his mind by the lecture that the teacher was currently giving. Due to this, he had divided the paneled window (that looked out onto the bleak landscape beyond the classroom) into separate frames and scenes into which he could place various elaborate fantasies and stories and back stories and ideas that raced through his skull. Trying to keep all the different stories in order (that played out in the panels of the window) was far more challenging and interesting than listening to his teacher drone on and on. Miss Shine liked this idea immensely and she drew a large square herself on a piece of paper that represented various panels and she drew her own real life and fantasy stories and back stories (and so forth) into the panels. Many of her panels were of course filled with parts of the back story of her and Mister Black. (Of course she had started reading the story to get her mind off Mister Black, but sooner or later he was the front man in her back story).

The first panel was filled with the following back story: ‘The day Miss Shine first laid eyes on Mister Black’. It had been a cold winter day and fresh, fat snowflakes were falling. She was walking with some friends through a Christmas market in the big city she lived in. Suddenly Miss Shine was overcome with a strange feeling of a powerful presence near her.  She looked up and there was Mister Black. He was greeting the friend she was with. Their eyes met and then quickly averted.  But then began the instant dance between Miss Shine and Mister Black. They chatted and enjoyed a nice evening at the market. She then went home to her bed alone. She had a boyfriend who definitely fulfilled number three of the theory of positivity resonance and she must banish all thoughts of Mister Black from her mind immediately.

The next panel in Miss Shine’s back story was filled with the following picture: ‘Miss Shine’s complete inability to stay with the man who she was with and going completely crazy and terminating the relationship.’  She did not even have Mister Black’s telephone number or know if she would ever see him again, but she did not care, the simple thought that someone as exquisite as him existed at all made it impossible to stay in her current relationship but one second longer.

The next panel in Miss Shine’s back story was filled with the following picture: ‘Miss Shine is sitting in a bar six months later, drinking a cocktail with the same friend she had been at the Christmas market with (when the fat snowflakes were falling when she first met Mister Black) and she looks up and the door to the bar opens and in walks Mister Black who walks right over to her and sits down next to her and says hello.’

Miss Shine is now trying to forget about Mister Black again and trying to concentrate on her book. She is in her mid thirties and she knows deep down that if she wants to have any semblance of a normal life with the hopes of maybe getting married and having a family then she should stop obsessing over Mister Black who will never give her more than truffles, wine, heated debates and sex. Apart from reading stories and novels she reads a lot of magazines. She is vexed by an article in a magazine that says that ‘Marriage should be the cornerstone and not the capstone of our adult life’. The article argues that getting married at 19 is a good thing. Miss Shine gets up from the couch to mix another cocktail. ‘How on earth is this article any good to women in their mid thirties?’ she moans aloud. ‘Most of the women reading this magazine are in their mid thirties and single.’ She must also concede, however, that it is, in fac,t true that when she looks around her, she sees that most of the couples who seem to have happy, long- lasting marriages did indeed settle when they were about 19 or 20 and even if these marriages failed, these people were then used to being in a relationship and, indeed, their second marriages or long term co-habitation arrangements were  working and most of these people had children too.

 She is not cynical in this moment, she is simply sad to realize that she has not found a relationship that would have lasted, but then she consoles herself with the thought that despite how much pain she feels with Mister Black she would rather stay alone for the rest of her life with her thoughts and her books than to have missed out on the experience with him. That is how much her whole body yearns for him. Another article she read simply stated that many people who had children regretted having had them, and that being a parent was not all it was cracked up to be. In short, it did not increase the joy in their lives as they had hoped. Miss Shine therefore concluded that one should really not have a child unless one really, really wanted one. She had never really felt that she wanted a child that badly and it certainly would not be with Mister Black anyway. She then recalled another story by David Foster Wallace in which a mommy accidently pours a whole pot of boiling water all over her diapered toddler who then screams and screams for days on end. Both the mommy and the daddy are just beside themselves and they both realize that by having a child and accidently inflicting this much pain on it just made parenting an absolute nightmare. Upon reading this, Miss Shine most decidedly does not want a child. She has enough self-centred pain of her own to deal with, God knows, how would she live with herself should she pour a pot of boiling water all over a child. How could one live with oneself at all if one were to allow such a horrible thing to happen?

Miss Shine likes children, oh yes, she does. She always smiles at children on the street and helps them up if they fall on the ground, and she gives them candy if their mothers allow it, loving the joy it brings to their innocent, chubby faces. She just thinks it might be better if she does not bring one of these chubby- faced beings into the world herself. She just needs to find some way to have Dr. Friedrickson’s third theory of positivity resonance be fulfilled in her life. Somehow she will succeed in this goal, she is sure of it.

Suddenly Miss Shine’s phone beeps. She jumps up and grabs it and reads the text message.  ‘ I have booked a table at the restaurant, they have some great new truffles and I have a wonderful bottle of Pinot Noir at home. 8pm?’  Miss Shine is in ecstasy. Mister Black may not be able to fulfill the third theory of positivity resonance but he sure fulfills the first two beyond her wildest dreams, and for right now that is all she can think of. She mixes herself a fresh gin and tonic to sip at as she dresses up for Mister Black. She pulls on her black high-heeled boots and struggles with the zip once again before skipping out the door to the restaurant. She wouldn’t want to keep Mister Black waiting, for every moment with him is as precious as it is torturous and there is nothing more to it than that.


On Narcissism

12 May

By Rhea H. Boyden

‘We have become fatally entangled in the cocoon coils of our conceit’ -D.H. Lawrence

I was recently sitting in a café with two friends and they were arguing over which was the more narcissistic:  Twitter or Facebook?  One of the friends had quit Facebook because she had had a bad experience with it and was claiming how much she hated the self-centred, show off aspect of it. ‘Twitter is way worse’ my other friend contradicted. ‘It is the ultimate self-promotion tool.’  I am the one who had somehow provoked this argument by telling them that I had now joined Twitter as a method of promoting myself more as a writer, but that I was concerned about precisely that: self-promotion. ‘I certainly don’t want to be retweeting everything on to Facebook,’ I told them. ‘I post enough stuff on there as it is with all my articles, essays and poems. I don’t want to overwhelm my friends with even more of it’.

The whole reason this was a subject of discussion at all was because I had, earlier that very day announced on Facebook to my friends that they could now follow me on Twitter and within two minutes a friend of mine commented on my post and said: ‘So you are a proper twat now, aren’t you?’ He is a good friend and we respect each other greatly, and I know he was only joking, but still I took it as a warning. ‘Yes’ I admitted, ‘I am a twittering, tweetering twat!’

I would be inclined to say that online dating is a tad more narcissistic than either Twitter or Facebook because here we bring the sensitive issues of dating and sex to the fore, and of course we want to make a good impression, go on dates, be admired, loved and so forth. Last year I went on one date with a man, and I knew after our first date that I was not interested in him. I had gotten completely the wrong impression from his profile. There was no chemistry, that was that. We had some mutual friends, however, and somehow we remained friends on Facebook even though I had declined his offer to go on a second date. Over the months, despite my rejecting him, he continued to click like on many of my articles until one day we got into a chat and he then attacked me for being completely self-centred, narcissistic and continually talking about myself in my articles. I was hurt, to say the least, so I went on the defensive. ‘I write autobiography and memoir.’ I told him. ‘That is what I do. I take my life as a starting point, then I do some research and weave the research and statistics through my personal stories and essays, and, I might add, I also reveal many of my weaknesses and flaws in the hopes that people might relate to it.’ My pride was hurt. ‘Well’ he said snidely, ‘I prefer fiction’.  ‘Oh really?’ I retorted, now getting a bit nasty with him ‘You say you prefer fiction, but you read my posts anyway?’ This pissed him off and we ended up throwing a good few poisoned daggers back and forth. I told him that I honestly thought he was attacking my writing because I had declined to go on a second date with him. ‘I have been rejected time and time again by men I am interested in’ I told him, ‘That’s the way it works and I am sorry if you are hurt. Your criticism of my writing is not constructive, but if you have something constructive to say about it I will gladly listen to it’. He did not have anything helpful to say, so I did what I had to do: I defriended him. I had only met him once for coffee. End of communication with him.

I have, nonetheless, taken this little episode slightly to heart. ‘So, am I really narcissistic and self-centred? Is what I write and post on Facebook incredibly conceited and all about me, all the time? Do I irritate my friends with my posts? Surely if someone does not want to read my articles they can just ignore me, or heck they can block me or defriend me if they like! I certainly know that there is no universal audience and some people probably hate what I write and post here. I cannot change that. I am not, and probably never will be a fiction writer. I write about what I experience in the world and I put it on my blog and on Facebook and I am not about to stop.  I enjoy it, it is my hobby, it gets me published and it gives me something to do on a Sunday afternoon when I have again failed to secure any kind of date within the confines of the online dating world. Of course I love getting likes and feedback on my articles, and I love getting published. It’s a kick and it fulfills me. I have some harsh critics who bring me to my knees on style and syntax. I have one critic who recently asked me who on earth my audience was for this topic, as he could not understand at all who would want to read it or find it the least bit interesting. That made me pout too, but it made me think about the importance of a target audience.

The successful autobiographer and memoir writer David Sedaris says that his partner Hugh has also accused him of narcissism and being extremely self-centred in his writing.  He takes it to heart but he keeps on writing one successful and hilarious story after the next. I would imagine as long as one keeps the stories of oneself self-deprecating and is willing to expose oneself, then one can hold an audience’s attention and avoid somehow being accused of being completely arrogant and conceited. Writing about oneself is a way of connecting with the world as far as I can see. See here, I am holed up here at home on my own, in front of my computer trying desperately to connect to you, the listener, reader, friend etc. out there. I am so very small in the grand scheme of things and I know it. Do I suppose I have a very unique and above average destiny/life that is worth reading/pondering/writing about at all?  Well, how can I answer that? Doesn’t everyone have a story to tell? In his short story ‘Mister Squishy’ David Foster Wallace depicts his very important character who holds a high position in a company, as sitting in his office ‘sketching his own face’s outlines as he talked on the phone or waited for programs to run’. The character is indeed so self-absorbed, that his sexual fantasies do not involve fantasising about someone else but rather he fantasises about himself.

There is a wonderful painting by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio that depicts Narcissus staring into his reflection in the lake. He has been doomed to this fate by Nemesis for rejecting Echo’s love. His reflection cannot reciprocate his love and he eventually dies staring at himself.  The narcissus, which is a beautiful flower related to the daffodil is the symbol of vanity in the Western world. Narcissism has become such a buzzword in our me-centred world, but my gut feeling is that it is deeply tied to loneliness and alienation, and that most people mean well and do not want to only think of themselves but are rather struggling to connect to the world. It may seem a naïve assumption and I may seem to be wallowing in self, but writing this essay and expressing these thoughts have made my solitary Sunday afternoon a more joyful and fulfilling one, and I don’t feel as lonely or lost in my own world and self-absorbed neuroses (which I surely have in abundance) as I write.

And on and on with Online Dating

17 Mar

   Rhea H. Boyden
‘It  sounds like you are scared of commitment and are afraid of opening up and letting yourself be loved’ a couple female students of mine said to me last week when I told them I had said to a guy  I had met online that I did not have any time to meet him this week for a third date. ‘Well, it really is the truth that I have very little time at the moment’ I told them. ‘But you should give him a chance, they said, ‘why not go for it?’
They may be right that I am a bit afraid and I may be a bit of a commitment phobe even though I moan a lot about being single, but here is one thing I have learned: Never go on a date with someone because someone else thinks it is a good idea. This is the same with matchmaking. If someone else thinks you are a good match with someone it could be true, but it could be grossly inaccurate too. I have also made this mistake in the past- gone out with someone on a few dates because someone else thought it was a good idea and not me. Oh dear….
But the whole thing is confusing anyway and there is a paradox at the heart of dating in your mid to (yikes) late thirties. On the one hand, you don’t want to blow someone off right after the first date,  because  it is a good idea to take things a little slower as you get older and see where it leads which is what I am trying to do. This is the second guy I have gone on a third date with within a few months even though I had convinced myself after date two that it was not really what I wanted. On the other hand, however, they say you know after 2 minutes of being with someone if you are attracted to them and want to invest more time in getting to know them better. So, I will admit that I am confused by this paradox. Grappling with this leaves me feeling more than a little baffled.
Certain other girlfriends of mine who are in their late thirties talk of the same confusion. ‘The guy I am seeing has a lot imperfections but I am just dealing with it’ a friend told me recently, ‘because I like him and I want to give it a chance.’ To be honest, this terrifies me though. I have gotten too deeply involved in the wrong relationship in the past and then regretted it and ended up breaking up with the guy, so I really don’t want to make that mistake again. I really do want to feel some serious chemistry or mental connection on the first date otherwise it is a waste of my time going on a second or a third date. Or am I wrong? The worst part is that you then get accused of leading someone on if you take it to date three if you think you are not really interested. My intention is to be honest and not hurt myself or others, but date three with the guy today was a waste of my time. It only confirmed what I felt after date two- that I
don’t feel any chemistry. I can only hope that he doesn’t care about me much either and we can just let it go.

‘What’s the Alternative?’ Gloss Magazine, The Irish Times

13 Mar


How do you build a life when you’ve rejected the married-with-kids model? Rhea H Boyden, an Irish woman living in Berlin, chose passion and fulfilling sex over marriage. Now, aged 37, she weighs up the pros (freedom, fun) and the cons (an uncertain future) of the modern single experience

Read more…

Venus and Satyr

18 Feb

by Rhea H. Boyden

The nearer she gets back to Earth, the brighter Venus shines. Having the strength to grasp Earth again after the madness of spending too much time on another planet that was cold, windy and desolate. Poor Satyr does not know the extent of this new birth. Does he know how he has been pulled into fantasy by Venus as she emerges from her shell? Venus loves the water. It makes her feel whole again. As Schopenhauer instructed us with good intention. Water suffices, humans need not drink anything else, he warned. As Venus’ shell grows less hard she learns to love the world again, but poor Satyr does not like water as much as Venus does. Venus has her helpers, the beautiful Nymphs who drag Satyr to the water against his will. But wait! Give Satyr time and maybe he will come to the water willingly. The way cannot be forced. Venus stands spellbound in an empty hall and then she sees herself in a Gustave Courbet painting. ‘Ah, there I am’ she says. ‘The Woman of the Waves’. She spies the madness in herself, her coy and unshaven manner. ‘Does Satyr love this?’ she wonders, ‘Or does it scare him away?’ Venus is shining brightly now and feeling much revived. She emerges from the room and walks out into the bright, hot sunlight and there she sees the passionate kiss. The one she imagines. She looks up and sees the banners that signal that the vast water that separates their love has vanished in a hot, dry day.