08/23/15

Always A Happy Ending

Roman Orgy At Caesar’s Time, Henryk Siemiradzki,1872.

Roman Orgy At Caesar’s Time, Henryk Siemiradzki,1872.

The Sultanette Summer Reading Guide is here!

Too late for a summer reading list, you carp? Really? The Sultanette is willing to wager you’ve been more committed to polishing off pitchers of Margaritas than The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Besides, what I have to offer you, my discerning orgiasts, gives new meaning to the term, plot climax.

Clayton Cubitt’s Hysterical Literature is not so much a read as a voyeuristic read-to. A chance to sit back, plug into YouTube and make a dent in that literary bucket list. There’s Whitman’s Leaves of Grass read to you by Alicia, A Clockwork Orange (Amanda), American Psycho (Stormy), and Sleeping Beauty (Margaret).

Nude reading, Jiri Ruzek, 2010.

Nude reading, Jiri Ruzek, 2010.

There are nine readers in all – you my recognize some from their day (or night) jobs. But don’t count on them making it to the epilogue. About three pages in these diligent readers are done in, not by the mighty power of penned words but by the Big Buzzy. Out of sight below the reading table and manipulated by the unseen Katie James, this seditious sex tool puts a new spin on the narrative arc.

Hold on to your rosary beads, Holy Rollers! Before you jump to the conclusion that The Sultanette is exposing you to pornographic filth, a word about Hysterical Literature’s creator, Clayton Cubitt. An internationally exhibited photographer and filmmaker, Cubitt’s clients range from Nike to Microsoft, David Yurman and HBO. His editorial can be found in Vogue and Rolling Stone, WIRED and Smithsonian. Sanctimonious impulse satisfied?

Beyond playing nice with the establishment (he assiduously follows YouTube’s Community Guidelines) what qualifies Cubitt for this sly articulation of erotica must be found in his philosophy. As he explains to Toni Bentley in her profile “I’ll Read What She’s Reading,” in this month’s Vanity Fair: “I became interested in subverting people’s increasingly sophisticated images of themselves.” An agitator! Now we’re talking!

At a Book, 1882, Marie Bashkirtseff, Kharkiv Museum.

At a Book, 1882, Marie Bashkirtseff, Kharkiv Museum.

From the two readings I watched purely for research purposes (maybe it was three readings, all right five!) the stratagem Cubitt employs couldn’t be more basic or less lascivious: Woman sits at table in Charlie-Rose type black background with literature of choice, camera rolling. She has complete freedom over what she wears, hair and makeup.

In perky polka dots and librarian glasses, Stormy is cheerily earnest. Alicia is bare-shouldered and impish with a gamey curl to her upper lip. Amanda’s braids fall over ample breasts but all she reveals is her tattooed arms. Except for the tattoos peaking from the sleeves of Margaret’s white T-shirt, her only accessory is a kindle. Like the good Girl Scouts we are wired to be, they primly introduce themselves and the recitation begins.

Julie Nixon Eisenhower with Girl Scouts, 1969, Nat’l Archives.

Julie Nixon Eisenhower with Girl Scouts, 1969, Nat’l Archives.

Soon things go awry. There is a sucking up of air between syllables. A sudden “whoot” interrupts a prepositional phrase. Hands flutter to forehead. A surreptitious grin concludes a stanza of Leaves as if the reader shares an inside joke with Walt Whitman. Our readers forge ahead with the assignment. Stormy wrestles with sentences between gasps and laughter. Margaret resorts to speed reading Sleeping Beauty so she can get the job done before Mr. Buzzy has his way with her.

With each reading, the tension builds. You begin yearning for the defining moment. Not so much to watch an orgasm – leave that to punctilious porn – but to revel in that moment of psychic release. When desire trumps responsibility. When required reading is irrevocably eclipsed by uncontrollable, inescapable pleasure. Yes!

I realized a little late, while watching the series on a steamy Manhattan afternoon near an open window in my apartment, that I’d be wise to turn down the volume as each reader reached ecstasy. (Is that why the retired curmudgeon across the hall give me a foxy smile at the mail box yesterday?)

Passion Flowers & Hummingbirds, c1880, Martin Johnson Heade, Mus Fine Arts, Boston.

Passion Flowers & Hummingbirds, c1880, Martin Johnson Heade, Mus Fine Arts, Boston.

Hysterical Literature is engrossing because it teases us, in a full frontal world, to imagine what’s under the table. Because it reminds us that sex remains one sultry, torrid jungle we have been unable to effectively tame. Is this why 45 million viewers have logged into the series on YouTube since its debut in 2012? (Counting the pirated versions in 200 countries, the number could be closer to 100 million.) Why, as Bentley reports, the alt-porn star Stoya got more hits reading Necrophilia Variations then her X-rated clips on free porn sites?

Tools for Women, Sears Roebuck Catalog, 1918.

Tools for Women, Sears Roebuck Catalog, 1918.

Reading from her “dog-eared Penguin edition” of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (not viewable in the series), Bentley takes participatory journalism to a new high. “I never really understood the point of vibrators,” she admits in the VF piece “particularly if there was an able-bodied man around.” The Sultanette concurs: Why do your business at the self-serve island when a woman can always find a volunteer to man the pump.

MSH80_eruption_mount_st_helens_05-18-80But watching these intrepid readers expose their private joy of sex and books is an empowering celebration of the feminine mystique. A happy realization that in our superb individuality, there are as many orgasms as there are women. That our form of erotica is not a projectile vomit but a molten spring from the center of the volcano. Not a marking of territory but a leap into abandon. Not an ego skirmish obsessed with the size of weaponry but a sensual reconnaissance whose victory is sheer elation.

The Hammock, 1884, Henri-Pierre Picou.

The Hammock, 1884, Henri-Pierre Picou.

Bentley’s post-orgasm sensation is as thrilling as when she is “spun open” reading Portrait of a Lady. “Once I regained my breath,” she says, “I collapsed into a very particular laughter, a deep, rich laughter that is the spontaneous denouement of every Hysterical Literature session: a woman delighted, a woman who cannot believe she did what she just did, felt what she just felt. A woman drenched in joy.”

Still think it’s too late for a summer read? Before you hit the farm stand for that last batch of limp basil, shuck the final harvest of sweet corn, or marinate one more chicken teriyaki for the grill, why not head for the hammock with the handheld device of your choice and fill the denouement of August with some Hysterical Literature? Even the dog days of summer deserve a happy ending.

 

07/14/15
One Life to Live, ABC,1972.

Why Men Lie

One Life to Live, ABC,1972.

One Life to Live, ABC,1972.

Dishing with my colorist one day while getting a dose of honey blond highlights at a Mad Ave salon, we got on the subject of why men cheat on women. (I always build his invaluable gay man Male Harem advice into the extortionate cost of age-defying maintenance there.)

Joey’s brilliant take on men’s hot pants surprised even The Sultanette. Men cheat, he said, not because they can’t keep their dicks idle or because they can’t help from snacking on a pair of ripe melons or beefy buns. They cheat, he said as he foiled me up like a Christmas tree, because they like the intrigue.

Spy by Lockedo.

Spy by Lockedo.

So! It’s the thrill of subterfuge that fires up the male libido? The titillation of collusion that fuels those stockpiles of testosterone? “What did he see in her?” we ask after the cad is laid bare. Forget the horny dude helplessly drawn to the femme fatale. It wasn’t her cleavage or canny vamping that got him. He was seduced by his own reckless maneuvering. How very … male.

If men can be so maddeningly self-involved in the harrowing business of cheating on their beloved no wonder the rest of lying is as effortless as flossing. Oh! sorry to be a spoiler, if you’ve harbored an opinion to the contrary. Yolanda the Sultana (RIP mum) spelled it out when The Sultanette was still in training bra. When I asked for her take on the species, this woman who was coddled by Adoring Dad for over half a century replied without hesitation, “Men lie.” It was as irrefutable as her recipe for apple pie.

Many years and ex’s later, those resonating words inspired a tenet to The Male Harem philosophy (see “rules” in The Male Harem FAQs) that has seen no exception. Case in point, Ivy League, Esq. looked me straight in the eye one evening and told me unequivocally that his divorce was a done deal. A few months later, having added up some contradictory timing factoids, I floated out the notion at dinner one night that perhaps the divorce wasn’t finalized after all. As casually as if I’d asked him to pass the truffles he answered, “Did I say it was?”

An Edwardian and his bitch.

An Edwardian and his bitch.

Battle-weary and on guard for snipers, Ivy gave me the answer he thought I wanted to hear – that he was baggage-free. How would he know that The Sultanette cares less about the relationship status of harem members than that they treat the women who inhabit their lives, be they daughters, wives, Labradors or emerging exes, as generously as I expect them to treat me? Ivy had simply applied the most expedient answer, i.e., the one that would let him get on with other things like getting into my pants.

Which brings us to another reason men lie. It’s just too much of a pain in the ass to tell the truth. Why distract an efficient scenario with the facts? The only tedious part is keeping the deceptions straight when they’d rather take a nap which is why they so often get caught.

The foolhardy deceive themselves along with the intended. There’s the Soap Opera Liar who is hooked on his own doleful melodrama. The Serial Liar who’s been spewing the same tired narrative since his frat boy days. The Clueless Liar who can’t separate his truth from life’s fiction. And the Binge Liar who periodically conflates his heroic self-image with no follow-through. Know any? Deny it and who’s the foolhardy one?

Come Fly With Me,1947, Gottlieb, Pub Domain.

Come Fly With Me,1947, Gottlieb, Pub Domain.

On the other end of the spectrum I had a truth collision with Hizzoner, a silver-haired lawyer, oozing with street smarts and shrewd candor. He invited me to dinner at my favorite kind of New York restaurant, a neighborhood Italian holdover featuring beefy guys parked at the bar, a chandeliered dining room with acne-faced busboys imported from Sicily, and Sinatra piped in the bathroom.

The evening began with truly dazzling tales of his scrappy childhood and hard-won successes as a litigator and political activist. But with each refill of pinot noir the script became more bombastic. By the tiramisu, I knew more than I’d bargained for including the status of his rocket libido, the babes who had succumbed to it, and the many whose advances had been spurned out of his respect for womankind.

Sensing my dampening ardor he became more zealous, unleashing a torrent of revelations. His intimate affiliations with rock stars and their VIP retreats. His average nightly hours of sleep (three) and cholesterol count (HDL/LDL). His devotion to children, deceased wife, army of siblings and their offspring. I had the sudden eerie feeling that while every syllable of the soliloquy was true, it was pouring forth from someone who had long ago ceased to exist.

At last, the mobile perched beside his plate came to the rescue, lighting up like a prison alarm system. He glanced at it, registered the caller and ignored it. Again It flared. Another glance and he mumbled, “That’s my daughter” before tapping off a text.

What I would have done for some foxy half-truths, otherwise known as seduction – the mastery of the Elegant Liar who makes you feel so divine, who cares if it’s true or not? I’ve yet to meet an American man with the panache to pull that off.

Scheherazade and Sultan, Ferdinand Keller,1880.

Scheherazade and Sultan, Ferdinand Keller,1880.

Have we become so obsessed with full disclosure, we’ve abandoned the notion that deception can be sexy? And if that’s the case, why should men have the corner on it? Along with breaking through the glass ceiling, isn’t it time that women claim their equal right to be liars, too?

The Sultanette offers the inscrutable double agent, Moura Budberg, as torchbearer. Born to a Ukrainian czarist family in 1892, she was contracted to marry an Estonian aristocrat. After the revolution he holed up on his estate and she took up with a British diplomat and began playing off the Cheka against the British Secret Service.

B. Russel w/ Keynes & Strachey, 1915, Natl Portrait Gallery.

B. Russel w/ Keynes & Strachey, 1915.

“It seems that Budberg had a flair for intrigue,” Elizabeth Lowry writes in her Wall Street Journal review of the biography, A Very Dangerous Woman: The Lives, Loves and Lies of Russia’s Most Seductive Spy by Deborah McDonald and Jeremy Dronfield. “Charmingly devious” she helped her British lover escape the Cheka by bedding its deputy head. Her “perilous sensuality” captivated Maxim Gorky, Bertrand Russell, and H.G. Wells who remained enamored until his death.

In 1921 Moura married eligible Estonian noble bachelor number two (it was rumored that she’d colluded in number one’s death because she didn’t like his politics) and became a baroness. When she died in 1974 at the age of eighty-two, she fessed up to “sins of all shades from the blackest transgressions to the most scarlet.” Lowry questions the sincerity of Budberg’s late-life mea culpa “in light of the rackety disregard for ordinary loyalties she displayed.

Baroness Budberg at 80 in her London apt,1972, Allan Warren.

Baroness Budberg at 80, her London apt 1972, Allan Warren.

But who did she betray? Some may lie for the intrigue and others for ideologies. Some lies are lazy and others brilliantly bold. But in the end, even Moura Budberg knew that the most treacherous lie is the one you tell yourself.

This above all – to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst then be false to any man.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3

06/14/15

I’ll Have The Snippy French Waiter, S’il Vous Plaît!

Waiter at Marly, Sultanette fave Paris haunt, Zoetnet.

Since when did it become impossible to enjoy lewd verbal foreplay at lunch, or a nooner if you’re getting technical? At a snazzy New York watering hole with The Impresario one afternoon, you couldn’t get a smutty word in edgewise between the fanfare required to introduce each course and the endless queries to see if everything was okay.

Like a virgin who has memorized the sex manual, our waiter – or “server” –  had all the right moves and all the wrong timing. I began to feel that I was responsible for his happiness rather than he for mine. Might he plunge into despair if I reported a soggy cheese croquette? He obviously hadn’t picked up on the cue that this lunch was but a snack before the main event – a detail any French waiter would not have failed to miss.

Oysters Aphrodisiac, Javier Lastras via Wikimedia Commons.

Oysters Aphrodisiac, Javier Lastras via Wikimedia Commons.

So why does the French waiter get such a bad rap? Instead of bemoaning his arrogance and snippy indifference, The Sultanette suggests that he could teach us a thing or two about sex.

EXHIBIT A: Christina Nehring’s WSJ piece, “In Defense of the Notoriously Arrogant French Waiter” (February 21-22, 2015). Below the prickly exterior of these maligned maestros, Nehring writes, is “their oddly expressed eagerness to please; their expertise; their agility, and the beauty of what they provide and the way they provide it.” Now that’s a good lover!

Bemelman’s waiter, NY Historical Society.

Bemelman’s waiter, NY Historical Society.

No worries about performance anxiety among these garcons de café! One evening, ex-pat Nehring observes the waiter at her local brasserie “balancing eight wine goblets, a dozen stacked dinner plates and two water pitchers on his barbell-heavy silver tray” while stopping at one table and “plunging his free hand into his pocket to count out change, and at another table to crack open and pour a bottle of beer, his tray still perched on his upturned palm.” When she asks him how he pulled off this “virtuoso performance” he replies, “Il faut le faire amoureusement.” You’ve got to do it with love.

Like seasoned paramours, the French waiter and I want to please each other. I will appreciate his acute sensibility to my preferences and his experience in serving things up hot. He will enjoy my appetite for each new course, the way I sometimes defer to his suggestions du jour and other times demand extra sauce.

His notorious arrogance? My insolent requests? If dining – or sex – doesn’t come with a little power play, some experimenting, and a few luscious surprises – it can become as banal as pornography or as boring as eating the same meal every night. Where is the desire?

My loyal followers have previously been introduced to Christina Nehring on this blog. (See The Male Harem post, In Praise Of Being A Loser In Love.) In her book referenced there, Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century, Nehring celebrates the  shift of power between lovers. “This liaison in which power is constantly being renegotiated,” she writes, “is a force field alive as the ocean tides.”

Theater of Operations, Photo CourtneyPrice.

Theater of Operations, Photo Courtney Price.

Are we denying the tides of erotic tension when we tick off a checklist for a lover as if we’re choosing an apartment? (Sunny. Comfy. Safe. Lots of closet space for the baggage.) Whether it’s a one-night stand, a romantic fling or a lifetime lease, a liaison that isn’t open to the precarious thrill of uncertainty is a wet blanket between the sheets. “My French waiter and I? We keep each other guessing.

I was weaned on the art of it. Yolanda the Sultana, (RIP feisty mum) was forever baffled by my father’s inability to follow the script. Yet beyond the occasional tiffs until death they parted, I remember the sense of mischief that prevailed between these strong-minded souls to the last breath of their five-decade marriage. At the end of the day,” writes Nehring, “few of us want to feel that our passion is simply fair exchange.”

Read my lipstick, Photo Tiffany Bailey via Wikimedia commons.

Read my lipstick, Photo Tiffany Bailey via Wikimedia commons.

When the Good Ex and I were living in Paris, he hosted a business dinner one night at a culinary shrine along a grand avenue in Paris. The occasion was to celebrate the launching of the latest campaign featuring the latest New York super model selling the latest lipstick so girls in Lyon could get laid. I was the only woman among a cadre of bigwig businessmen who all looked like Francois Mitterrand. No doubt their wives were off with their lovers.

The Sultanette Serviette, Photo & Design, Courtney Price

Feeling adventurous, I ordered the baby pigeon. (Leave it to the French to turn an air rat into a delicacy.) When the waiter who looked like Charles de Gaulle triumphantly presented the petit oiseau crowned like a little Caesar in a wreath of rosemary, I panicked. What was the proper method to jump its precious bones?

The men politely waited for me to take the first thrust. As I assessed the arsenal of cutlery at my place, our waiter, who had played his haughty role to the hilt, leaned over and discreetly whispered in my ear, “You may eat it with your fingers, Madame.” I don’t know that The Sultanette has ever gotten a better offer. Service compris.

05/19/15

Vienna In The Nude

Photo: TheSultanette

“A place of pleasure for body and soul.” Mozarthaus

They still dress up in Vienna! At the Musikverein, the gilded Neoclassic Greek temple to sound inaugurated in 1870, The Sultanette was put to shame among the goddesses that showed up on a random Thursday night for Mozart, Verdi and Puccini.

I was in Vienna last week on a fact-finding tour solely for your benefit, worldly followers. So join me as The Male Harem achieves what the Ottoman Empire and TripAdvisor could not – invade and conquer this illusive town of lusty charms. Now back to the threads at the temple! …

There was a Doris Day matching dress and coat ensemble, a Tina Turner-worthy number in a symphony of black leather strips falling from neck to stilettos – and lots of black lace in between. Lipstick was red. Bling was rampant. Making an entrance with museum shop bags after a day of  tourist schlepping, I went straight to my seat fearing the peacocks would have me banished for wearing ballet flats.

The Imperial Napkin Fold.

The Imperial Napkin Fold.

Quelle relief I wasn’t invited to a state dinner at the Chancellery where I would have been outdone by the napkins. Since the Hapsburgs ruled over Austria-Hungary, the Imperial Napkin Fold has been accessorizing the royal plate like a fascinator at Ascot. And if you learn the secret they’ll have to kill you because only two people know the technique which they pass on when they die.

I observed the Imperial Fold at the Sisi Museum, enshrined in a glass case surrounded by acres of silver, porcelain, and crystal for every courtly occasion. Sisi is the nickname of the Empress Elizabeth whose trademark diamond star jewelry, I snatched up in Swarovski at the gift shop for a less imperial price.

Photo: TheSultanette

“Sisi, can I come in?” The bell the emperor rang for entry in SIsi’s chamber privé..

Known as Austria’s Lady Di, Sisi was a captivating beauty and fearless horsewoman. Or was she the defiant wife who deplored her evil mother-in-law, ignored her husband the Emperor, and neglected her royal duties after the murder-suicide of her son the Crown Prince? Or was she the obsessive narcissist who favored a uniquely bodice-strangling “tight-laced” corset that constricted breath and blood flow.

Like Sisi, the beauty of Vienna is exquisite and asphyxiating. Voluptuous and haughty. Resplendent and sad. But just when you feel constricted in the tight-laced manners, officious smiles, and patronizing gentility, all the clothes come off.

"Hold Me Anyway" Tracy Emin at the Leopold.

“Hold Me Anyway” Tracey Emin at the Leopold.

There are nudes galore at the Leopold Museum – embracing, fucking and full frontal. At the exhibition “Where I Want To Go” (April 24-September 14) artist Tracey Emin, referred in an FT review as the “new generation of feminists” credits her inspiration to brilliant bad boy Egon Schiele, who exposes himself on the walls in self-portrait.

Though separated by one-hundred years, Emin shares Schiele’s “fondness for the spontaneous moment” and his “fragility of being.” A series of her black and white sketches titled “Hold Me Anyway” throb with the tentative thrill of the erotic present. Schiele’s semi-clothed portrait of a woman suggests a caught interlude of passion on the run.

Photo: TheSultanette

Love on the run? Egon Schiele at the Leopold.

The Viennese pretend it’s easy to find where you want to go.  “Just take a left and two rights and you’re there,” they assure. What they don’t remind you is that the city is a circle, so there is really no left or right, only tacking and jibing. When the kindly maître d’ at Purstner, home of the ultimate Weiner schnitzel, pointed this out I was especially grateful since The Sultanette had just consumed a slice of breaded veal the size of a Frisbee and was preparing to waddle back to the hotel.

Photo: TheSultanette

Bed check, Hotel Imperial.

For the rest of my stay, I tossed the map and applied a life lesson: If you go in enough circles you eventually get to your destination. So when the concierge at the Hotel Daniel told me that the Belvedere Palace was just out the door to the right, I was dubious. How could that ponderous edifice share the same hood as my hotel, a cheery slice of eccentric chic and global goodwill? Travel Tip: Unless you’re lucky enough to have a night of sin at the sumptuous Hotel Imperial (The Sultanette cannot live on schnitzel alone!) there is no smarter spot than the Daniel for its friendly vibe, cheeky atmosphere and comfy digs.

The Kiss, 1909, Gustav Klimt, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere.

The Kiss, 1909, Gustav Klimt, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere.

But on to the Belvedere which appeared just around the corner as predicted. I fired up the museum’s audio device and began the trek along its gilded walls, cavorting putti, and marble halls documenting Napoleon’s treachery and demise. (Speaking of dressing up, the Austrians love their armor, on display at the Bibliotek.) Nearly numbed by military regalia and missing the unembellished passion of entangled flesh at the Leopold, I wandered into the next gallery and there it was. Man embracing woman. The primal swoon. “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt.

Photo: TheSultanette

Sigmund at the MAK Museum.

I joined the crowd gathered around it like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and punched in the audio device for some edifying art speak. But this city where Freud, Kafka and Wittgenstein parsed the meaning of sex and life in cafés that celebrate them to this day, was not about to spoonfeed predictable romantic pablum into a museum recording.

This Kiss, said the voice, represents sexual ambiguity. The woman’s face is turned away from her lover, not in ecstasy, but in conflict between submission and rejection. Say what? How could this love icon reproduced on notepads, tote bags, refrigerator magnets, scarves and umbrellas symbolize rejection! It wasn’t just a painting, it was a brand. And forget about the rest of the world, we Americans don’t like our brands tampered with.

Even the French treat us better in their City of Love! Unlike the Paris café where you are left alone to people-watch or read the Herald Tribune, the Viennese café demands due diligence. Choosing one begs a knowledge of which philosophers, writers, artists or profligates hung out where. A degree in military history is helpful when selecting your pastry, as in the Sacher Torte, created by Franz Sacher for Prince Metternich in 1832. And ordering coffee – brown or strong, milk steamed or frothed, cream on top, bottom or side –  requires cracking a Napoleonic code.

On my last afternoon, tired and hungry after taking in the ruins of Ephesus and four centuries of harmoniums at the Bibliothek, I limped past a shop window filled with fancy pastries. It was the Gerstner, appointed imperial court confectioner in 1873. While I yearned for Yankee comfort food that didn’t have a 200 year pedigree, I needed a sugar fix.

Photo: TheSultanette

See, Hear, Taste, Touch, Smell. FIve Nudes, Hans Makart, Belvedere Palace.

I entered the polished marble and varnished interior and took in a confounding display of museum-quality confections in a glass case. Too exhausted to discriminate, I chose a pink petit four for the price of Sisi’s crown jewels. Back out on the street, I peeled away its pleated paper doily and bit into the marzipan shell. The sensation was immediate and astounding. Between my fingers was a mini-wedding cake. Three tender layers of vanilla separated by three layers of creamy sweetness crafted to sensorial perfection for an emperor’s royal palate.

Vienna’s rigidity rankles. Its elegance intimidates. Its stunning beauty is always just out of reach. I had pursued it with cognoscenti, paramour, and incognito. I had invaded its concert halls, churches, castles, cafés, galleries and museums. Yet it had remained maddeningly unyielding. And then in one spontaneous moment of desire satisfied, I found Vienna melting in my mouth.

04/3/15

The Things We Do For Love

Cruel Mrs Tyrants Bondage School, Eric,Stanton,1962.

Cruel Mrs Tyrants Bondage School, Eric,Stanton,1962.

Pretzels anyone? Or have you already twisted yourself into one over that romance you can’t live without? Relax and unwind. In case you missed Jo Ellison’s FT Fashion piece a few Sunday’s ago, “intimate is so last season.”

Okay so she was referring to the selfie-snapping rabble at the parties privé for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty spectacular at the Victoria and Albert. Nothing to do with our subject. But The Sultanette will never shy from gratuitously poaching popular culture to trick you into dealing with life’s important themes. Are you with me?

I was reminded of intimacy’s underbelly while dining the other night with a long-married couple at a trendy New York aerie overlooking Columbus Circle. As hubby ate his pricey burger, she treated me to a sotto voce serving of his shortcomings. It wasn’t so much the critique that surprised me but her angry resignation.

Perils of Pauline (and male harems), 1914.

Perils of Pauline (and male harems), 1914.

After my breakup with One&Only, this friend had firmly advised me against establishing The Male Harem on the grounds that it would lead to heartbreak, shame, and the company of feckless creeps. To that, I offer a three year harem-in-progress report. Heart: Whole. Dignity: Reasonably intact given unspeakable sexual conduct. Creeps: Need not apply.

Sure I have my lost and pissy days. I’m not parting with my existential angst as easily as I did my virginity. But why is it assumed that long-suffering couples are doing the noble work of polishing their unhappiness and regret to a fulfilling luster while we loners are living tarnished half-lives doomed to pain and shame?

Chinese boats, Lai Afong, circa 1880.

Chinese boats, Lai Afong, circa 1880.

In my tireless research for the sole purpose of improving the quality of your lives, devoted followers, I’ve just read from cover to cover, Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming. This meaty book by Victoria Cass, who holds a Berkeley PhD in Chinese language and literature, was even worth missing a few rapturous nights with the male harem to share timeless relationship advice I dare you to get from Oprah.

So come back with me a few hundred years to Suzhou of the Ming Dynasty, Venice of the south, a lattice of canals built along the Yangtze Delta from which flat boats delivered silks to northern Beijing via interlocking rivers and even a Grand Canal. A buzzing metropolis where commerce, art, theater, architecture and publishing flourished. Their “women were more beautiful, geishas more noble, and men more artistic.”

Couple spied on in a tumble, Wellcome Trust website, UK.

Couple spied on in a tumble, Wellcome Trust website, UK.

Both more cultured and frivolous than the fusty, pragmatic northerners, its citizens enjoyed poetry gatherings and social clubs, raucous festivals, and a robust salon society where radical ideas and indelicate rumors festered. Cass tells of a scandalous manuscript of sexual intrigue that circulated in Suzhou long before its publication, no doubt fifty shades more licentious than grey.

They were sophisticated urbanites like you and me but without smartphones. Yet along with their elaborate social network of lavish entertainments and passionate liaisons they were after something more. Or less. They practiced, as Cass puts it, “a cult of solitude.”

These gadabouts, bachelors, geishas, and power couples weren’t packing up for the Hamptons on weekends. They were heading for caves, huts and mountain retreats. Some created urban sanctuaries called shi yin or “in the city, hide away” – fashioning gardens with “miniature mountain ranges, small forests, watercourses, lakes, caverns and grottoes.” More than escapists, says Cass, “these urban recluses were iconoclasts who had a corrosive disdain for the common.”

Home alone, Yashima Gakutei, circa 1820, bequest Cora Timken Burnett.

Home alone, Yashima Gakutei, circa 1820, bequest Cora Timken Burnett.

Solitude-seeking couples became known as “mates in excellence.” Pursuing their particular artistic passions alone together, “they altered the connotations of intimacy,” says Cass. “I close my gate,” the poet Lu Qingzi wrote (before “setting boundaries” was de rigueur) from the mountain retreat she shared with her husband, “I rely on suiting myself.”

The prosperous southern milieu allowed more bandwidth for single women to cultivate private worlds. Some swore off marriage and escaped to write, paint and practice magic. Some were geishas who traveled solo and published their adventures in popular anthologies. Many were immortalized in folklore as poets, artists, warriors and mystics. “Where feminine solitude in the West often suggests abandonment,” says Cass, “in the Ming it suggested an acquisition of vividly sensed space.”

Isadora Duncan, Abraham Walkowitz circa 1915, Brooklyn Museum.

Isadora Duncan, Abraham Walkowitz circa 1915, Brooklyn Museum.

I’ve learned something about intimate spaces from my Male Harem, take it or leave it: Men have a private place where wives, children, girlfriends and even Sultanettes can’t find them. They want love and companionship. But sometimes they just want to be left alone.

With all the clamor for intimacy, I’ve come to know more about them from respecting their privacy than invading it. And when I’m not traipsing off with one I spend time, like my Ming sisters, discovering the unsung pleasures of cultivating my own shi yin. “Reclusiveness of the Ming,” Cass concludes, “was a grand passion.”

I’m not suggesting you can import mores from one culture to the next like shipping silks to Beijing. Nor do I now claim to be a Ming aficionado. But what if we took just a page from the playbook of those southern swells? What if we devoted as much attention to cultivating the art of solitude as the things we do for love? Maybe if we were better loners, we’d be better lovers.