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Opinions of Saturday, 27 February 2010

Columnist: Amenyo, Kofi

Matters of the heart – the enigma of womanhood

I have always wondered why there have been so many witty sayings, epigrams, proverbs, and jokes involving women. Some good male writers have turned out their best lines when they are talking about women and some famous and brilliant women have left us some unforgettable lines about their own sex. Often, it has been about womanhood itself, but also about love, marriage and relationships, and, perhaps, most of all, sex!

Many male writers have been inspired by the beauty of women but how many female writers have found inspiration from men? The Muses, the ancient Greek goddesses of creative writing, seem to have favoured males more than writers of their own sex. Instead, the goddess of discord, Eris, threw down a golden apple for the most beautiful woman. Aphrodite won by subterfuge and women have been bickering among themselves ever since.

That was long before Freud set out to “analyse” them. But even Freud never found the answer to the enigma of womanhood. He wrote at: "The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?'". Freud’s question is still unanswered today.

The brilliant Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, enjoyed a libertarian life. He married and had children but was notorious for his homosexual escapades in an age when such things could land you in jail, as it, eventually, did for him. I don’t know what the women in his life did to him but he had so many witty sayings about them. What do you say about lines like: “A woman will flirt with anyone in the world as long as other people are looking on”; “Every woman is a rebel, and usually in wild revolt against herself”; or “A man can be happy with any woman as long as he does not love her”?

In a time that produced its fine writers, many of them would devote themselves to “analysing” women. In CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, Dostoyevsky had a character say this about women: “[H]uman beings in general ... greatly love to be insulted. But it’s particularly so with women. One might even say it’s their only enjoyment.” The character speaking was a woman’s man who would later talk about the “most powerful weapon in the subjection of the female heart, a weapon which never fails one. It’s the well-known resource – flattery. A vestal virgin might be seduced by flattery.” Our only problem is that, today, there are no virgins left to be seduced, vestal or otherwise...

The one I like even better is when the eldest and most rascally of the Karamazov brothers, “the conqueror of female hearts”, advises his younger brother against asking forgiveness from a woman, especially the woman you love. “[T]ry acknowledging you are in fault to a woman. Say, ‘I am sorry, forgive me,’ and a shower of reproaches will follow! Nothing will make her forgive you simply and directly, she’ll humble you to the dust, bring forward things that have never happened, recall everything, forget nothing, add something of her own, and only then forgive you. She’ll scrape up all the scrapings and load them on your head. They are ready to flay you alive, ..., every one of them, all these angels without whom we cannot live!” Wow! Dostoyevsky was writing more than a hundred years ago, but I bet you, women have not changed one bit on that score. And I tell you, if you want domestic peace, it will be better for you to still apologise and endure all the reproaches in absolute silence. Never talk back. And, anyway, why deny them their moment of glory? Ogden Nash puts it even better in his “A Word to Husbands” (1962):

To keep your marriage brimming With love in the marriage cup Whenever you’re wrong, admit it; Whenever you’re right, shut up.

The Swedish writer, August Strindberg (perhaps Sweden’s own Shakespeare) was infamous for his misogyny. The maverick author of MISS JULIE was known for several sayings against women. After writing a play that many theatres wouldn’t accept, he wrote: “ is now becoming evident that woman is by nature mean and instinctively dishonest, though we ruttish cocks have not been able to see it”. But the fact is that Strindberg actually loved and adored women. It is his frustrations with them that led him to his utterances. All his three marriages were wretched and ended in divorces. But, alone in his old age and almost dying, he still proposed to the maid who was tending him. That is how much he loved women. So when he said his misogyny was only theoretical, we believe him.

“We men are deplorable, dependent creatures. But compared with these women, every one of us is king, for he stands more or less on his own two feet, not constantly waiting for something outside of himself to cling to. They, however, always wait for someone to come along who will use them as he sees fit. If this does not happen, they simply fall to pieces.” That was Einstein talking in 1917 about his first wife, Mileva, who suffered long periods of depression. They had met at the Polytechnic where Mileva was the only female Physics major. Some Einstein biographers think the woman helped him in his major theoretical work. She was brilliant in her own rights. So how come she would fall to pieces without her man? How come? Anyway, throughout his two marriages, Einstein constantly flirted with other women. So, you see, Tiger Woods didn’t start it and I just can’t understand why people have such excessive interest in his philandering.

When Erica Jong (she of FEAR OF FLYING and the “zip less fuck”) wondered in one of her novels why men spend so much time and effort in chasing them (women) but once they get them they lose interest, many men will recognise the situation. The chase, especially when you are a young man, is the thing and it becomes more important than the prize itself. It is the excitement of the fight that draws the adrenalin and when victory is achieved, there is no challenge any more. Every decent girl knows this. Is that not why they play the hard to get? And which man wants to settle with an easy catch, anyway? A quote attributed to Marlene Dietrich aptly expresses the female corollary: “Most women set out to change a man, and when they have changed him, they do not like him (any more)”. Hmmm...

Often, it is men who have said so many wicked and mean things about women. Check out these: “Why haven’t women got labels on their foreheads saying: ‘Danger: Government Health Warning: women can seriously damage your brains, genitals, current account, confidence, razor blades and good standing among your friends.’ Jeffrey Bernard, Spectator, 1984. Or this: “God created man, and finding him not sufficiently alone, gave him companion to make him feel his solitude more” – Paul Valery, 1943. And even this graffito in Los Angeles, 1984: “A man without a woman is like a neck without a pain”. I love that one!

The ladies have had some responses too, to be sure. Remember the Hollywood actress, Mae West’s witty riposte? “It’s not the men in my life that count; it’s the life in my men”. Naomi Bliven said “Behind almost every woman you ever heard of stands a man who let her down”. True? But this is a bit surprising and daring from a lady (Ann Landers, 1968): “Women complain about sex more often than men. Their gripes fall into two major categories: 1. Not enough. 2. Too much.” Is that not as familiar as their constant headaches?

Many men cannot understand why some nice girl will willingly fall for a man who is very ugly. The classic example of such a phenomenon is Julia Robert’s one time marriage to Lyle Lovett. Lovett may be a beloved country music singer but the man is as ugly as ugly can be and PRETTY WOMAN Julia’s face looked so angelic besides his. The aesthetic mismatch of the pair was so odd that the partnership found its way into a US textbook on Evolutionary Psychology. If beautiful girls do not “come down” to the level of ugly strong men, evolution’s twin goals of reproduction and survival may not be met. What will then become of our species? But this doesn’t explain to me the immortal Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth marriage to Larry Fortensky, a construction worker 20 years her junior!

Women will admit (they easily do in such things) that men have been the sources of their most cherished joys, but they have also been the cause of the worst disasters in their emotional lives. Men do not often admit such things but many of them will agree with the old paradoxical saying that they cannot live with a woman, and yet they cannot also live without them.

While trying the uneasy task of stringing all these disparate quotes into a somewhat coherent whole, I have tried to look into my own culture to see what witty sayings our white-haired elders have left us on this vexed issue. Not coming upon any, I called up a few friends to sound them on the topic. The first one came up, without much ado, with “Etw3 koro kum kotie”. Oj, our sages must certainly have come up with something better than that! That is not even a particularly pithy saying but something by males about themselves. What about the Asante proverb that Fela used in one of his songs? “Fefe n’efe, enti na obaa tu mmirika oso nenufo enyese ebete ato nti” in Fela’s own rendition or in his Pidgin: “Na fine fine wey woman dey hold im breast when she dey ron, no bi say de breast go fall for ground”. That may be true but it is not a saying that shows the enigmatic nature of womanhood. Anyway, for many of us, Fela’s all time best track remains “Lady” where he talks disapprovingly of the modern African lady who “go say she equal to man” and who “go wan take piece of meat before anybody”. Oh, forget about the silly anti-female lyrics. The music is simply great and Fela’s love for women was phenomenal – lethally so! What else would make him marry 27 of them at a go? These days, “Obaa nkoaa na onim ne ba papa” is no longer true. What with babies being mistakenly labelled at maternity wards and women taking on multiple partners or having quickies on the side? Research using DNA in the USA and Norway has shown that 20 percent of children could not possibly have been the biological offspring of their present fathers. That is too high a fraction for comfort to many fathers. The field of witty sayings on the subject is relatively poor in our culture perhaps because of our lack of a written tradition. It is not quite like trawling through Western literature which is a veritable treasure trove of such sayings. There are some nice ones from the jokes we all trade with each other through emails but they may be offensive to the prudish sensibilities of the more decorous readers of this piece which is already too long for the average ghanaweb reader. I hope forumers will fill the gaps for me from our own culture.

Let me get back to Oscar Wilde. It is said that he is the most quoted writer in the English language after Shakespeare. And well may he be. Who can fail to see the humorous witticisms in the following quotes all of which remain truisms even today? Men always want to be a woman’s first love. That is their clumsy vanity. Women have a more subtle instinct about things: what they like is to be a man’s last romance. Between men and women, there is no friendship possible. There is passion, enmity, worship, love, but no friendship. The only charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. No man should have a secret from his wife – she invariably finds out.

Oh Wilde, you make me wild with laughter. But I will end with Nietzsche who had his own frustrations with women long before he went crazy embracing horses in Italy. He said: “There are two things a real man likes – danger and play; and he likes woman because she is the most dangerous of playthings”. Surely, we “ruttish cocks” know something about that, don’t we? All these angels without whom we cannot live...

Kofi Amenyo (