‘Swoon’ will make you dizzy
Seduction theory pop psychology
SWOON: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them By Betsy Prioleau. Norton. 339 pp. $26.95. ISBN 978-0393068375 Betsy Prioleau is here to tell us, at interminable length, that everything we always thought we knew about the erotic appeal of the great male
Betsy Prioleau is here to tell us, at interminable length, that everything we always thought we knew about the erotic appeal of the great male lovers is wrong, wrong, wrong. The popular image of the great lovers from Casanova to Warren Beatty is that they’re stud muffins pure and simple, but Prioleau is having none of that. What makes a man catnip to the ladies, she argues, is not his rippling muscles or his trophy case full of championship medals but his sensitivity, his vulnerability, his – well, if you want to put it that way – femininity.
This would seem to be the stuff of a few paragraphs in Cosmo or Elle, but Prioleau has managed to inflate it into a book of more than 300 pages, crammed with quotes from pop psychologists and footnotes bristling with faux scholarship. Not merely that, but her publisher, a good one that really ought to know better, characterizes Swoon on advance readers’ copies not as Beauty Parlor Reading but as, no kidding, “Cultural Studies,” thus festooning it with a veneer of academic legitimacy that it plainly does not deserve.
On the other hand, too much of what passes for scholarship in academia these days is little more than pandering to one special-interest group or another, so perhaps a breezy, once-over-lightly book about sex written in gushy prose has as much claim to being called “Cultural Studies” as did, in years gone by, the unreadable oeuvres of Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. In any case I fetched Swoon from a remarkably unappetizing stack of advance proofs of books to be published in February 2013 in the hope that it might prove both enlightening and amusing. Sad to say, it is neither.
Prioleau, according to her relentlessly self-promotional website (betsyprioleau.com), comes from “a southern belle culture,” being as she is a native of Richmond, but that hasn’t stopped her from plunging into the steamy world of – after you cut away all the quotes from pop psychologists and the footnotes – bodice rippers.
This is confirmed by the illustration on the dust jacket of Swoon, a syrupy painting that shows an elegant 18th-century swain offering a rose to his inamorata with his left hand while resting his right hand dangerously close to her ample bosom.
This illustration is in keeping with that on the cover of her previous book, Seductress, which comes with a subtitle that positively reeks of the Harlequin Books factory: “Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love.”
Like the manufacturers of Harlequin tales, Prioleau believes that the good old days really were better, at least when it comes to love and sex. Our modern world, as she sees it, is too distracted by technology and too many women are absorbed by work and careerism for matters of the boudoir to flourish as they did in the time of Casanova and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Indeed right off the bat Prioleau leaves no doubt that Casanova is the true hero of her tale. He may have gone down in history as one of those despicable “heartless philanderers and cold-plotting rogues,” but:
“An authentic woman-charmer doesn’t despise his conquests or seek their destruction. ‘The professional seducer is an abominable man,’ Giacomo Casanova insisted, ‘a true criminal who if he has the qualities required to seduce, renders himself unworthy of them by abusing them to make a woman wretched.’ . . . An eighteenth-century Venetian adventurer and man of accomplishments – author, entrepreneur, violinist, scholar, diplomat, and bon vivant – Casanova was one of the world’s greatest lovers. He admired and respected women and made their happiness his life’s work. . . . Casanova had his vices – gambling, petty cons and vanity – but on balance he was a man of character and sensibility who was centuries ahead of his time. His mistake was being ‘born for the (opposite) sex,’ being too good at it, and incurring envy at every turn.”
Precisely how he was “centuries ahead of his time” isn’t clear, since in the closing chapter of Swoon we are made to believe that in this benighted time the art of seduction is in decline, but never mind. Casanova was such a ladies’ man because, well, he was as much lady as man: “Casanova was never a man’s man, although he excelled in daredevil masculine pursuits, like spying and dueling. Coddled by his grandmother and other ministering angels as a boy, he was ‘madly in love with the eternal feminine,’ and preferred the society of women.”
Indeed as Prioleau ticks off the things she believes essential to successful seduction, the list becomes a roll call of characteristics commonly assumed to be “feminine.” Among these are vulnerability (“A hairline crack in a man’s aplomb, a hint of vulnerability – either physical or psychological – can turn a woman inside out”), passion (“as a rule, women like their lovers, real and imaginary, charged up”) and sensitivity (“a radar for other people’s feelings”).
These of course are the same characteristics commonly found in the heroic males of paperback-romance novels, presumably because the authors of these novels understand that their readers want to see themselves – or, probably more accurately, their fantasies about themselves – reflected in what they read.
Littered though it is with footnotes, citing everything from Ovid to Gail Sheehy, Swoon is largely a product of the author’s own rather fevered imagination.