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reading - 29 12 2002 - 12:10 - katatonik

Dating, mating: the voice of the village atheist

“Time passes. Time passes. I have new girlfriends. ÃŽ have student girlfriends. Old girlfriends turn up from as long as twenty and thirty years back. Some are already divorced numerous times and some have been so busy establishing themselves professionally that they’ve not even had an opportunity to marry. The ones still on their own call me to complain about their dates. Dating is hateful, relationships are impossible, sex is a hazard. The men are narcissistic, humorless, crazy, obsessional, overbearing, crude, or they are great-looking, virile, and ruthlessly unfaithful, or they are emasculated, or they are impotent, or they are just too dumb. The twenty-odd-year-olds don’t have these problems because they still have university-based friendships, and school, of course, is the great mixer, but the somewhat older women are, by their mid-thirties, so busy with their work that many of them, I discover, now resort to professional matchmakers to find men for them. And at a certain age they stop meeting new people anyway. As one of the disillusioned told me, ‘Who are the nea people when you do meet them? They’re the same old people in masks. There’s nothing new about them at all. They’re people.’
The matchmakers range in price for what is a year’s membership, during which time a certain number of introductions are guaranteed. Some matchmakers charge a couple hundred dollars, some a couple of thousand, and one I was told about, who specializes in what she calls ‘quality people’, arranges introductions – up to twenty-five over two years – for no less than twenty-one thousand dollars. I thought I misheard when I was told this, but, yes, twenty-one thousand bucks is the fee. Well, it’s hard on women engaging in this kiknd of transaction in order to find a man to marry them and to father children; no wonder they turn up late and night to sit and talk to their elderly ex-teacher, and sometimes, in their loneliness, even to stay over. Recently one of them was here trying to recover from having just been dumped in mid-meal on a first date by a man she described as ‘an extreme-vacation type, a super-duper adventurer into hunting lions and wild surfing’. ‘It’s rought out there, David,’, she told me. ‘Because it isn’t even dating, it’s just trying to date. I’ve stoically accepted the matchmaking,’ she said, ‘but not even that works.’
Elena, kindhearted Elena Hrabovsky, who’s gone prematurely gray, maybe from the matchmaking. I said to her, ‘It must be a huge strain, the strangers, the silences, even the conversation,’ and she asked me, ‘Do you think it’s supposed to be like this when you’re as successful as I am?’ Elena is an ophthalmologist, you see, up from the bottom of the working class by dint of immense fortitude. ‘Life baffles you,’ she told me, ‘and you become a very self-protective person and just say the hell with it. It’s a great shame, but you run out of steam. Some of these men are more attractive than the average Joe. Educated. Most of them are making good livings. And I’m just never attracted to these people,’ she told me. ‘Why is it so boring to be with them? Maybe it’s boring because I’m boring,’ she said. ‘Guys pick you up in nice cars. BMWs. Classical music on the way. Take you to nice little restaurants, and most of the time I sit there thinking, Please, Lord, just let me go home. I want kids, I want a family, I want a home,’ Elena said, ‘but though I have the emotional and physical wherewithal to spend six, seven, eight hours on my feet in the operating room, I don’t have it anymore for this humiliation. Some of them find me impressive, at least.’ ‘Why shouldn’t they? You’re a retina specialist. You’re an eye surgeon. You keep people from going blind.’ ‘I know. I mean flat-out rejection,’ she said. ‘I’m not built for that.’ ‘No one is,’ I told her, but that didn’t seem to help. ‘I’ve given it a fair shot,’ she said, getting teary, ‘haven’t I, David? Nineteen dates?’ ‘My God,’ I said, ‘you more than have.’
Elena was a mess that night. She stayed right through till dawn, wen she rushed off to scrub up at the hospital. Neither of us got much sleep because I was lecturing on the necessity of her giving up on the idea of becoming coupled and because she was listening like the diligent, serious, note-taking student she’d been when we’d first met in my classroom. But whether I helped her I don’t know. Elena’s intelligent, tremendously capable, yet for her the desire for a child is the standard unthinking. Yes, the idea activates the propagative instinct, and that’s the pathos of it, all right. But it’s still part of the standard unthinking: you go on to the next step. It’s so primitive for someone so accomplished. But this is the way she imagined adulthood long, long ago, before adulthood, before diseases of the retina became her life’s passion.
What did I say to her? Why do you ask? You too need the lecture on the childishness of coupling? Of course it’s childish. Family life is, today more than ever, when the ethos is created substantially by the children. It’s even worse when there are no children around. Because the childish adult replaces the child. Coupled life and family life bring out everything that’s childish in everyone involved. Why do they have to sleep night after night in the same bed? Why must they be on the phone to teach other five times a day? Why are they always with each other? The forced deference is certainly childish. That unnatural deference. In one of the magazines, I read recently about a famous media couple married thirty-four years and the marvelous achievement of their learning to bear each other. Proudly the husband told the reporter, ‘My wife and I have a saying that you can tell the health of a marriage by the number of teeth marks on your tongue.’ I wonder, when I’m around such people, What are they being punished for? Thirty-four years. One stands in awe of the masochistic rigor required.
Part of the problem is that emancipated manhood never has had a social spokesman or an educational system. It has no social status because people don’t want it to have social status.
Was she persuaded? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Aren’t you? Why, why are you laughing? What’s so hilarious? My didacticism? I agree: one’s absurd side is never unimpressive. But what can be done about it? I’m a critic, I’m a teacher – didacticism is my destiny.
Look, I’m not of this age. You can see that. You can hear that. I achieved my goal with a blunt instrument. I took a hammer to domestic life and those who stand watch over it. ... That I’m still a hammerer should be no surprise. Nor is it a surprise that my insistence makes me a comic figure on the order of the village atheist to you who are of the current age and who haven’t had to insist on any of this.”

Philip Roth, “The Dying Animal” (Jonathan Cape, 2001; paperback: Vintage 2002, pp. 106ff. from the paperback edition.)

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