April 9, 2024, 5:54 Apr

Reinventer l'amour de Mona Chollet

I know I said I would stop doing book summaries since my meticulousness in writing them was tiring me. Or maybe I didn't - if so, now you know. This started off as a quick reaction rather than a summary or review but then ended up as a... well, whatever this is. That personal reaction in brief: I initially interpreted Mona Chollet's criticisms in her book "Réinventer l'amour" as absolutist, black and white and was irritated. Upon further reflection, I realised that these criticisms did not resonate with my personal experience and was less irritated. This is a very personal reaction and I hope you do not interpret it as the typical "Not all men" anti-feminist response, but of course that is up to you.

First of all, let me be clear that I am very grateful that I picked up this book on a whim. I see this as part of a longer self development journey of seriously engaging with (pro)feminist ideas and critiques. Many of the topics that Chollet addresses were either new to me or welcome reminders of what I have already heard in the past, and I am confident that these will help me better relate with women (though not only). I have no desire to be exhaustive in proving this point, so here is just one passage that I found insightful among hundreds:

Les sociologues Jean Duncombe et Dennis Marseden le faisaent remarquer en 1993: si une femme tombe sur un homme qui est réellement prêt à vivre une relation égalitaire, "elle lui sera toujours structurellemt subordonnée du fait de son statut de rare exception, tous deux sachant qu'il pourrait "trouver mieux" en termes patriarcaux."

(Aside: an ex of mine expressed exactly this while we were breaking up.)

However, as a guy who does not benefit from shitbuckets full of self-esteem (particularly in the last 6 months, which have been quite rough), I realised that I needed to be on my guard when reading this book. I easily easily started questioning myself in an unhealthy way, descending into a spiral of "Oh shit, I think I might have reproduced a systemic oppression, aaarrgh!!". This is a fairly well documented reaction - in anti-racism circles it goes by the name of "white guilt" or "white shame". It is problematic when:

  • it paralyses you and/or
  • someone from the community who you feel guilty towards (in this case, women) then spend all their energy appeasing you to get you out of your paralysis.

The phrase "sounds like a you problem" comes to mind, and indeed it is. On the other hand, I know other men who exhibit similar reactions. I also know that such a reaction can result in anti-feminist beliefs and behaviours as a way of propping up one's own self esteem. This situation, is, well, a bit shit, so I think it's worth engaging with this reaction to overcome it. Having justified myself to the point of boring any sane reader still with me, let's look at two examples of what I'm talking about.

Consider the following quote, an example of how men do not like to be with women who outshine them:

bell hooks, elle, se réjouissait d'avoir trouvé un homme qui comprenait et approuvait ses aspirations intellectuelles, qui l'avait soutenue tout au long de ses études. Mais ce soutien, il lui a retiré le jour où elle a obtenu son doctorat et où elle s'est vu offrir un poste dans une des meilleures universités des Etats-Unis.

Of course, Chollet here is using an example to talk about a general pattern. She is not talking about all heterosexual relationships and elsewhere in the book she takes pains to remind the reader of this. However, I, as a doubtful and self-questioning male, read this and wondered whether I had been guilty of doing this with my romantic partners and started beating myself up about it. After further thought, I realised that I often compares myself to others and am unable to celebrate their successes with them. I know that this is not healthy or enjoyable behaviour and I am working on it. I do not think that the gendered aspect applies to me, or at least not to a great extent.

(Aside: My current tactic to attenuate this behaviour is to pretend that "we" achieved something when I am feeling jealous of someone, in the same way that football fans say "we won against so and so" when they did bugger all.)

Here's another example of a passage that "triggered" me, which then made it difficult for me to digest Chollet's message:

Si les hommes subissent eux aussi la pression du "il faut baiser", ils espèrent en retire le prestige du nombre, de l'accumulation, mais je ne crois pas que toute leur identité soit pétrie du regard des femmes comme l'identité des femmes l'est du regard des hommes.

I don't think this should be interpreted as "Men cannot and do not suffer the pressures of having to shag left right and center", but if I'm not on my guard I may interpret it as so and feel that my experience is being minimised. I felt particularly touched by this since I worried seemingly incessantly about sex from the age of 14 to 20, craving the validation that gave me of my own self-worth (or at least that I thought it would). Furthermore, it seems to me that Chollet glosses over the phenomenon of incels in the above quote.

If I were to criticise Chollet at this point, I think it would be that she pays relatively little attention to the damaging effects that the patriarchy has on men. Often she summarises these effects with just a sentence or two, sentences where she also stresses that the effects are less damaging or problematic for men than for women, as the previous quote illustrated. Another example from the chapter on sexual fantasies:

Il n'est pas sûr que les fantasmes des hommes soient plus authentiquement les leurs, ce qui peut aussi les contrarier. Mais, au moins, leur imprégnation par la domination masculine n'implique pas le même élément de masochisme que pour les femmes.

That being said, the following passage on affective (as in "affection") dependency, though a rarity, does elaborate more on how men suffer patriarchal norms:

La souffrance affective dont elles [les femmes] lui [Penelope Russianoff, une psychiatre] semble envahissante, car elle s'étend à tous les secteurs de la vie. Les hommes, eux, se sentent légitimes sur le marché du travail et pour ceux des classes supérieures, sont armés pour faire carrière. Pourtant, Russianoff souligne qu'on aurait tort d'en déduire qu'ils ne souffrent pas de dépendance émotionnelle, eux aussi... "J'ai reçu assez d'hommes célibataires en consultation pour savoir que le personnage du playboy insouciant est largement un mythe."

On the one hand, I believe my criticism is valid since this book is about heterosexual relationships, so I would have expected more attention paid to how men (who, fun fact, represent 50% of the people in a heterosexual relationship) suffer patriarchy. On the other hand, I realise (because Chollet illustrates this in the book) that all too often society attends disproportionately to the suffering of men. Chollet describes how this happens most often in mediatised femicides, where, grotesquely, the public is invited to empathise with the murderer and his troubled past and not the victim. So I don't want to stress this criticism further.

I have gone on long enough with my quibbles. Let me propose a healthier way of interpreting feminist criticisms: they expose patterns or behaviours that are prevalent, systemic, painful for those who suffer them and which you need to know about in order to determine whether you are reproducing them or not. To complicate matters, two opposing patterns may exist! For example:

Pour ne rien arranger, conformément à cette règle délicieuse et bien connue selon laquelle les femmes sont stigmatisées pour un certain type de comportement, mais aussi pour le comportement inverse, on s'expose à être méprisée quand on vit librement sa sexualité, avec un minimum d'implication affective, mais aussi quand on se montre "trop" sentimentale.

This is what I appreciated most about Chollet's book, the nuance she brings to the topics she addresses. This is reflected also in her style of writing. It flows, exploring an area of interest from one point of view before contrasting it with another, that contrasting opinion leading you very naturally to another topic that you are never quite sure is a digression or not, only to return with a contradictory stance on the initial subject. To call it a stream of consciousness would be inappropriate since it is nonetheless structured and pleasant to read. A review in Marianne puts it better than I could:

... sa démarche part toujours d’elle-même, d’une réflexion intime qui débouche ensuite sur un approfondissement à travers des ouvrages plus théoriques, mais aussi des objets culturels incontournables qui font partie de notre horizon (plus ou moins malgré nous). Le résultat est un mouvement de balancier dans lequel chacun s’y retrouve : la petite voix de l’intime, l’élargissement à des supports (films, livres, musiques), des paroles de chercheurs, des débats… Avant de retourner à soi et à ce que ces réflexions ont déclenché : discussions avec des proches, changements et évolutions que la narratrice nous rapporte…

I found this way of writing a breath of fresh air compared to other books, such as Doughnut Economics, that I judge well-written but sterile. I like to imagine that they stink of diligently attended creative writing classes.

As I came to the end of the book, I came to the conclusion that Chollet and I are remarkably similar. Not only in her writing style, but also in how she thinks, her sources for references, and in her explicit and honest use of personal experiences. This was a bit unnerving, since my appraisal of the book would be "Very interesting, but not as great a pleasure to read as Grahame Greene or Ursula Le Guin". Do I not like my own writing style, even if it were greatly refined? I'm probably jumping to conclusions too quickly. Anyway, 9/10, would recommend.

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