Scoffers may deride the proposition I find instinctively plausible, that the consonants and the vowels of speech are its masculine and feminine constituents, though the same scoffers would not think to keep a professor from speaking of male rhymes or an electrician of female plugs. Yet the role of women in many societies, historically considered, is reminiscent of the function of vowels, which are there to enliven a word rather than to carry the burden of its meaning.
In some languages unrelated to ours, such as Hebrew or Arabic, many of the spoken vowels are merely hinted at in transcription, as if femininity were a crossword puzzle which the wise can solve using certain clues. But in our languages, too, when in the course of a phoneme’s Indo-European migration a consonant mutates, this is big news for etymologists, with a whole new Law to go with it and a celebratory picnic on the outskirts of Marburg in honor of the jolly good fellow Jakob Grimm; yet the defloration of an alien vowel, in a word’s transition from one language to another, hardly draws notice. On other occasions in this space, I have likened women to sacramental wine, to Roman spectacles, to tantalizing mirages; may this fresh flight of fancy be forgiven me.
Everybody knows the mauvais quart d’heure occasioned by the interaction of recognized beauty and presumptive brain. Of the five or six people who have been invited to the talk-show studio, two or three are academic graybeards; perhaps two are actresses, in delectable décolleté and elfin jewelry; and then the invariant joker in the deck, the woman. She may be a teacher, a politician, or a banker—that is of scarce importance; what is important, and what the organizers, the participants, and the spectators all secretly know is important, is that the woman has been asked on the show because she is a woman, a synthetic alternative and a foil to the potbellied masculine, on the one hand, and to the flagrantly feminine, on the other. She is a kind of golden mean, a vital sign of the civilization as it would like to be depicted on the cover of an annual report to the shareholders.
She may not actually be dramatically ugly, though that is hardly the point. The point is that she is there as the omphalos of the civilized world; inelegant, protruding, scarcely aware that, in their biologically attentive heart of hearts, the distracted listeners feel her to be an aberrant presence remarkable only for the intensity of their culturally suppressed contempt. She may speak wise words, and certainly what she says is seldom less wise than what is proffered by the graybeards; she may blab silly things, which nine times out of ten are as inane as the preening chirrup of the femmes fatales; but no matter what she says, it is her heart-rendingly unfair position as a vowel in place of the consonant that will determine the final meaning of the utterance.
Both the inevitable outcome and the basic hopelessness of the woman’s predicament stem from her having been taken in by the culture’s cardsharps, played for a fool, used for sport. She is the patsy neutered in a game of three-card monte, lured to the soap-box by professions of equal opportunity and cries of bon chance, who walks away without understanding what it was that’s hit ’im. All round, bystanders smile, or wince, or else offer sympathy and wish him better luck next time; but deep down, they all know the truth, that he’s ridiculous and a loser and that’s all there is to it.
A man who prowls the perfumed purlieus of the feminine may not be to every woman’s taste, in the very worst case an anomaly, evoking Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis and the dawn of clinical psychiatry of the 1890’s. Indeed, such a man may expect to be derided by members of his own sex, a fact to which a wide variety of schoolyard insults bears witness; but such a man is almost never regarded by women with the contempt reserved for his opposite number, a woman foolhardy enough to trespass among men; never more profound than when she does so in the realm of social appearances, in a misguided pursuit of social acclaim, because if a Polish bluestocking wants to discover radium, or a New England spinster to beat the pants off the Metaphysical Poets, that’s their own private affair.
This does not necessarily mean that women are generally more tolerant, or better than men at countenancing transgression; merely that the consonance of human life is more broadly functional than the assonance. One may well use an ornamental dagger to open a bottle of beer, yet one would balk at the thought of using a scarf of embroidered organza to tie up an apple-laden bough.
Should a woman of the south, clad in nothing but the silk of her muliebrity, trespass on the hard, wheat-farming north, she would seem out of place and everybody would point. “’Twas in vain you swathed in sable your nightingale throat,” as a Russian poet said of an Italian diva who had died of pneumonia in St. Petersburg. But if a northerner were to arrive in the almond-scented south, all he would need do to fit in with its boudoir warmth is to lose the uncool wolf-hide hat, the squirrel-fur gloves, and the ancestral bearskin. And what if he keeps them on? Well, that’s fine, too. Par kostei ne lomit, goes the Russian proverb—warmth breaks no bones.