Thursday, April 12, 2007

on compatibility

A couple days ago, while a very charming philosophy professor of mine was lecturing about fictional constructs of the self, he alluded to the age-old superpower question: If given the choice, would you choose the power of flight or invisibility? Your selection, he added, is not only revealing of his or her temperament/motivations, but an indicator of whom you're compatible with; ultimately, people who choose the same superpower shouldn't be together.

While I won't divulge whether or not my own relationships have demonstrated such a harmony of differences (erc never blogs about her personal life!), the ideas evoked by such an edict are far more complex than simply saying "opposites attract." Everyone knows that a relationship necessitates some form of variety in order to sustain itself--internal variety between partners, not blindfolding your significant other to "spice things up"--but what this variety entails is complicated. As in, I could never be with someone whose values were completely different from my own (fascists, homophobes need not apply), but I could potentially see myself with someone with different skills and interests (math? good health?) from my own, or at least variant tastes. And, according to my professor and armchair psychologists everywhere, I should be looking for this--the invisible woman marries mister fantastic, after all.

While Nick Hornby books and Yale philosophy professors have taught me that compatibility doesn't reside in homogeneous tastes, I still consistently find myself fetishizing similarity (I think this is a common practice, although I may be projecting). If I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he's training for a marathon, or developing a new, low-cost agricultural system for third world countries, or that he's a neurosurgeon, I'll think, "Ah--what an interesting person." But if I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he loves Guided by Voices and Donald Barthelme, I'll think, "Ah--my next boyfriend."

Pretty screwed up?

I was thinking about this while reading the following passage in Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which occurs when Willoughby (the dashing, rich young neighbor) begin to court
Marianne (the sister who is guided by her "senses"):
"They speedily discovered that their enjoyment of dancing and music was mutual, and that it arose from a general conformity of judgment in all that related to either. Encouraged by this to a further examination of his opinions, she proceeded to question him on the subject of books; her favourite authors were brought forward and dwelt upon with so rapturous a delight, that any young man of five and twenty must have been insensible indeed, not to become an immediate convert to the excellence of such works, however disregarded before. Their taste was strikingly alike...He acquiesced in all her decisions."
Spoiler Alert: Willoughby, who turns out to be a complete cad, goes on to totally ditch Marianne for a wealthier woman, essentially performing the 18th century equivalent of blocking her screen name and defriending her on the facebook.

This account seems to corroborate the superficiality of similarity, or like-minded tastes, as a basis for real romance. But Austen's critique is more complex; she isn't arguing that love cannot blossom from shared preferences, but rather that love, or true human connection, can't form when shared preferences are derived from artifice. The characters' coinciding tastes result from their respective failure to conceive of other people; Marianne's method of examination implicates her desire to transpose her own beliefs and fantasies onto her partner without seeking his true qualities, and Willoughby's passive acquiescence/mimicry reveals his lack of self-knowledge, or his willingness to mirror Marianne's character. Using a device she often employs, Austen applies the general--"any man of five and twenty"--as a means of imputing the specific--Willoughby--as a figure who feigns an interest in books that were "disregarded before."

While I'm hardly a trustworthy peddler of romantic advice, I think Austen's got it right. It may be true that, as a girl who would choose invisibility (obviously) I should seek fly-boys--partners who would bring a different perspective to the table, and who might prove more complementary and less competitive. Ultimately, however, it's more important to view potential mates as individual entities rather than consider them relationally. Instead of looking for someone who likes the same things as I do, or someone who likes different things from me, I should choose some who is perfectly confident in declaring what he likes: Self-knowledge makes for the best company.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jim Stanley knows what he likes.

Anonymous said...

"I could never be with someone whose values were completely different from my own (fascists, homophobes need not apply)"

What does homophobe even mean? Here's one vote for "gaycist" as a replacement. It encompasses the prejudice without relying so heavily on a presumption of fear - and it's so catchy! Gaycism may not be very satisfying etymologically, but neither is homophobia (fear of . . . sameness?).

FJP said...

As I read the latest post, I couldn't help but wonder: is ERC the SJP of the blogosphere?

Herman Furry Paws said...

what about: is SJP the ERC of the realosphere? Or more appropriately, is Carrie Bradshaw the ERC of the cabletelevision-o-sphere?

Herman Furry Paws said...

By the by, I'd say no and no and no. ERC lacks the neurosis, Bradshaw lacks the MLA and is too flighty and predisposed to gloating. Kim Cattrall's characer for sure, at least in spirit.

LT said...

I had roughly the same conversation with my dad a few weeks ago. I told him that I could never consider dating someone that held different political beliefs than I did; I said that a relationship was doomed to failure. He then told me about Jay Carney and Claire Shipman, who--despite differing political beliefs--are apparently happily married.

Isaac said...

Or what about Ah-nold? Although his politics tend to defy traditional classification.

elmrockcity said...

Jay Carney spoke at a reunion dinner I attended last year; he's smoking.

A phobia isn't necessarily an anxiety disorder--it can also simply denotate hatred...

Yeah, I always liked Samantha best.

dc said...

fascists, homophobes need not apply

Yo, whatup ma, I hate fags but I make the trains run on time, yaknowwhati'msayin'? Let me holla atchoo.

dc said...

fascists, homophobes need not apply

Yo, whatup ma, I hate fags but I make the trains run on time, yaknowwhati'msayin'? Let me holla atchoo.

mr. wrongway said...

fascist trains never ran on time.

wilson said...

I love that passage from S&S... One imagines the readers of that passage being split into two groups, one positing the explanation you offer, and the other dreamily idealizing such a companion.

I think it's fairly wise of you to have identified self-actualization as a highly valued trait in a relationship partner.

Has the whole invisibility/flying concept become a pickup line at Yale yet?

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An indicator of whom you're compatible with; ultimately, people who choose the same superpower shouldn't be together.

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If I meet someone at a bar, and he tells me that he's training for a marathon, or developing a new, low-cost agricultural system for third world countries.

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