Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love

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9780670031665: Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love

How did the seductresses of western history love-addle men and keep them in their pockets for life? The surprising answers explode all the myths. Instead of dim blondes or shark-hearted vamps, the top fascinators were nonbeauties, older women, and swanky artists, intellectuals, politicas, and adventurers. Each chapter in Prioleau's bold, inspiring book recounts the sexy stories of these love maestras-some familiar like Cleopatra, Lola Montez, and Wallis Simpson; others less so, like the infamous Violet Gordon Woodhouse, who lived in a menage with four men. With their alpha personhood and their joint mastery of love and work, these seductresses practiced an ancient, long-forgotten erotic art that is 99 percent mental sorcery-a cocktail of wit, eloquence, and joie de vivre.

Prioleau's thrilling, thorough, and engaging analysis of these women supplies all the voltage necessary to upend every regressive how-to primer and shows the women of today-mired in an epic crisis of confidence-how to recoup their sexual birthright and achieve combine romantic and personal success.

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About the Author:

Betsy Prioleau was raised in a Southern belle culture in Richmond, Virginia, before going on to earn a Ph.D. from Duke University. She has been a scholar-in-residence at NYU and a professor at Manhattan College.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

It’s wonderful what a little determined charm can do. —Noël Coward

He that doth play the game best is best loved. —Seigneur de Brantôme

Love despises the lazy. —Ovid

Love must be sought, cultivated, and developed by people if we are to make a better world. —Anthony Walsh


Search “seductress” on the Internet, and you’ll find more than twelve thousand sites, hundreds of starlet and how-to Web pages, and an avalanche of ads for clothes, cosmetics, films, CDs, and escort services. Is there really anything left to say? Haven’t we overworked and commercialized this word into an anachronism and tired daytime TV cliché? A whore of all work?

Almost, but not quite. If you scrape off the cultural debris—superstitions, myths, and media cant— you’ll see a woman to be reckoned with. The seductress is one of the most potent female personas in existence. Though long misunderstood and ignored, she’s the paradigmatic liberated woman, empowered with men and empowered in life. She’s a threshold role model who can reinstate feminine sexual sovereignty and holistic happiness and remap the future. And she’s not the least as we—or the Internet— imagine.

I came to the seductress, like most people, through the imagination. Raised in a southern belle culture, with a mother who was the Miss Valentine of Richmond, Virginia, I gravitated as a child to stories of man charmers in fiction and fairy tales. Much later I taught a college course on the topic “The Seductress in Literature” that changed everything. First I discovered the dearth of research—few unbiased or comprehensive studies—and second a ravenous appetite among young people for knowledge. In my class, students of both sexes avidly analyzed fabled sirens and tried to scope out their secrets. Afterward, the women flooded my office. Over and over I heard the same laments: elusive bad boys, soulless hookups, sapped confidence, wrecked pride, and total mystification about how to prevail in love.

As I looked around, I realized my students reflected a larger crisis in society. Across the culture, women seemed to have lost the plot erotically and entered the “plague years.” Despite equal opportunity sex and babe feminism, guys still hold the whip hand: They have numbers on their side (48 percent women to 43 percent men nationwide); they age better and cling like crotch crabs to their historic prerogatives of the initiative, double standard, promiscuity, mate trade-ins, domination, and domestic copouts. The population of single women, especially middle-aged professionals and first wives, has swelled to one in four, with most wanting and failing to “get married.”

In surveys, women en masse report epic demoralization and erotic despair. We say we’re “increasingly loved and left,” prey to low self-esteem, and “really lonely and really afraid.” The orgasm gap—the 15 to 30 percent female success rate during intercourse—continues to widen, as women clamor for a Viagra equivalent and numb themselves with antidepressants. “No one disputes the evidence,” writes a New York Times reporter, “that many women are unhappy with their sex lives” or that we’re engaged “in a frantic search for a role model.”

By the end of the semester I began investigating actual seductresses in hopes of finding role models to pull us out of this funk. I cast my nets wide. I read hundreds of biographies; I pumped friends and colleagues; I followed up leads dropped at parties, here and abroad. The list burgeoned; notebooks bulged until at last I narrowed the field to the top players. I defined the seductress as a powerful fascinator able to get and keep the men of her choice, men who are good for her. Rarely discarded or two-timed, she successfully combines erotic supremacy with personal and vocational achievement. That automatically eliminated a number of pseudoseductresses: the eaten and colonized Marilyn Monroe, the oft-dumped flunky Pamela Harriman, and such gofers to male genius as Alma Mahler.

Still, I was left with more charmeuses than I could handle, some famous like Cleopatra; others obscure and forgotten, like Pauline Viardot, the “strikingly ugly” soprano who seduced the world: Berlioz, Gounod, and most notoriously, Ivan Turgenev (the literary Brad Pitt of his day), who lived with her and her husband in a forty-year ménage à trois.

In the end I had to limit my study to a mere sample, the world-beaters. Throughout, I encountered unexpected findings. The great enchantresses, for starters, exploded all the seductress stereotypes. They weren’t dim blondes, nothing-without-a-man operatives, shark-hearted vamps, sick narcissists, and comely servile guardians of the hearth. They were myth-busting nonbeauties, seniors, intellectuals, creators, politicas, and bravura adventurers. More dramatically, they shared a constellation of qualities. Androgyny, for example, nonconformity, and Abraham Maslow’s criterion of psychological health: supravitality and self-actualization.

Just as strikingly, they followed similar erotic strategies. These, I discovered, mirrored the historic ars amatoria. This art of love tradition, which includes dozens of texts from Plato to the present, comprises a core set of erotic principles that have changed little through the ages. Sexologists warn us to beware of any absolutes in the realm of desire: Preferences are unique; tastes vary too much. But some women are universally bewitching, and some truths about romantic passion are timeless—especially the craft of enchanting and keeping someone (the hard part) enchanted.

Not all men of course are won by the identical means. Yet whatever the recipe, the basic ingredients of seduction remain the same. They constitute a kind of periodic table of eros. They can be custom mixed to taste, with some elements omitted—such as fashion flair—and still do the job. They’re that potent, rooted in sexual turn-ons that go back to the Stone Age.

Prehistory in fact may hold the key to the whole mystery of the megapower of the seductress and her ancient arts. The best scholarly evidence suggests that a cult of the feminine principle probably existed throughout deep history. Seductresses, I theorize, pack such an erotic wallop because they plug into this ancient archetype embedded in the inherited unconscious of the race. They evoke the goddess, mankind’s first love object, and replicate her Seductive Way, the template of the ars amatoria. Men, in their libidinal depths, want a divinity to serve and adore and a replay of the sexual themes that arose through goddess worship where the erotic impulse, as we know it, took root. They want to be sent to paradise— bowled over, transfigured, and reborn.

That was one reason the swanky sirens were so alluring; they echoed the all-in-one deity, the life force of the cosmos. Another reason was the primal hit of their lovecraft. They deployed the two branches of the ars amatoria—the physical and psychological—the archaic magico-religious way, with all the psychopomp of the earliest cave rites to the sex goddess. That meant shoot-the-works drama in dress, ornament, cosmetics, setting, movement, music, and fireworks in the bedroom.

Their chief artillery, though, was cerebral magic. Seduction is 99 percent mental sorcery, a hijack through the labyrinth to a fifth dimension and the conjuration of a constant state of emotion in motion. Without art, love sinks into stasis and ennui. The seductresses, par excellence, maintained the erotic dynamis, the perpetual light show of alternating solace and anxiety, quiescence and ecstasy, intimacy and distance, pleasure and pain. Like the early eagle-clawed love goddesses, they could be cruelles. At the same time, they delivered the balm of nurture and praise and the intoxicants of speech, nonrepression, festivity, and joie de vivre. In short, they restored the life-death ever-whirling Goddess of Everything to men—her Way and the ongoing rapture and transcendence of her cosmic eros. Whether consciously or not, they took their cue from Ovid’s first precept, “Do as the goddesses did.”

Goddess avatars as they were, though, the love queens were far from perfect. Like all ultravital people, they contained flaws and contradictions and often disported above morality. You wouldn’t, for example, want to cross La Belle Otero, who slugged a woman in a hotel lobby, or Ninon de Lenclos, who skewered her enemies with such savage bon mots they became national laughingstocks. Though sometimes great mothers, relatively few excelled at maternity or domestica. They were a fractious, tough lot.

Often the product of dysfunctional homes and early hardship, they had to fight for their lives and place in the sun. In the process they trampled feminine and cultural norms and usually ran afoul of the establishment. Other women included. Despite their outsider status, however, they tried to wise up the sisterhood. Lola Montez lectured for years on erotic artistry; poets, philosophers, journalists, and novelists, and even a comic like Mae West wrote at length about sexual empowerment.

If we anthologized their love wisdom and let them write the preface, what would they tell us today? First they’d marvel at our advantages: financial independence, legal rights, sexual freedom, and cosmetic options. Then they’d fire our courage. It’s no coincidence love and warfare share the same vocabulary; seduction demands spunk and “daimonic assertion.” “Venus favors the bold!” Next they’d urge us to boost our self-esteem and get high, mighty, and magnificent. And, of course, to discover our genitals, our turbo- charged thrill machines that make us the natural sovereigns of the boudoir.

Finally they’d advise us to tune out the pretty-power propaganda and dial up the neglected psychological arts. They’d direct us to libraries instead of (or along with) gyms, to acting classes, to metacharm schools—whatever it takes to invade men’s heads again and hex them into permanent fidelity and fascination. They’d impress on us that this isn’t the work of a day, but a sophisticated, complex art form that requires, besides self-drama, “extreme tact, skill, caution, and care.” Also antennae, a second sense about tools and timing, and a cool head on the rapids.

This may sound like too tall an order in our already overprogrammed world; the seductresses, too exceptional to emulate. But love mastery is democratic and eminently doable. Not that we need it for fulfillment, as the Hillary Clintons and Martha Stewarts attest. For those, though, who’d like eros under their control, beaux at their bidding, and the upper hand in sex, the know-how is there for the taking. If not a quick fix, it’s a kick nonetheless, a route to power paved with valentines, pleasure, and self-development. Rather than a sleazy revenge ride, it actually benefits men. Unless unrequited passion leads them off a tenth-floor ledge, they achieve their fondest dreams in the arms of a seductress, a goddess to venerate who keeps them interested and ignites their inner hero. She leads them to their best self and restores them to true masculinity, their predestined place in the cosmic scheme.

At the same time, she furthers her own cause. Seduction aids and abets individual growth and ambition. Heterosexual love isn’t supposed to be the stuff of confiscated egos, stunted careers, 4:00 a.m. panic attacks, tears, and ice-cream binges. We’re meant to prevail in sexual relations and cash in on our full gender payoff: erotic primacy and combined success in love, work, and life.

Second-wave feminists of the last century, like their foremothers, labeled seduction a “four-letter word” and reviled seductresses as non-PC sellouts, the “slavish little sisters” of society. As a result, they alienated a generation of women and cast them to the wolves of junk guides and normless, predatory sex. This may have been feminism’s dumbest move.

There, beneath their noses, were the first feminists, with men and the world at their feet. Nothing and no one could resist their charm offensive. “Seduction,” notes philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “foils all systems of power.” And seductresses were the archsaboteurs of patriarchy who infiltrated the hierarchy and upset the applecart. Passé women vs. women rivalries have made them unwelcome too long. They belong at the feminist rally, setting the agenda and steeling our nerves with their silver tongues and big Lady Heartbreaker personas.

If we’re amid a nationwide erotic famine at the moment, there are also signs of a recovery. Everywhere, from L.A. to Paris, sexy supremas of all persuasions are love bombing men and getting it together professionally and romantically. Investigators haven’t yet analyzed this emergent cadre of charmeuses, but if they did they’d see the seductress archetype resurrected and in operation again. They’d see her changeless character and art and the plot lines of tomorrow.

In my book, I’ve tried to provide a rough guide to this brave new world that will get us and keep us there. It’s primitive compared to what will follow and carries no guarantees or promises of earthly bliss. Love resists glib formulas and dot-to-dot diagrams. Some men cannot be had, period. Life’s bedbugs will infiltrate the best-designed boudoir: demonic in-laws, infants with issues, illness, fatigue, debt, and death. Seduction won’t wave a wand and transport us to Hallmark Heaven with Herr Perfect and happiness eternal.

But it will improve the odds. It gives us back our swerve and supplies a program—field tested and anchored in myth and history—that’s win-win all the way: personal individuation and achievement, plus absolute sway in love. Seductresses of course were femmes d’exceptions, privileged by genes, drive, and destiny, but those who rise inspire and chart the frontier. If we let them, they can lead us to full liberation, a third sexual revolution (why not?) that recoups the power advantage that belongs to us by biologic and divine decree. Nancy Friday said in Women on Top that most women fantasized about the “Great Seductress.”

The question now is why retreat any longer into fantasy, that weary strategy of oppressed women for aeons? With a little help from real seductresses and their arts, we can come out of the closet in our shimmering allure and mythic swish and realize our wildest dreams. We can stop men in their tracks, rifle their hearts, addle their brains, and keep them in our pockets for life. We’ll get the other good stuff as well: in bed, in the workplace, and in our hearts, souls, minds, and psyches. We’ll just be doing what comes naturally. Now it’s only a matter of planning—how to prance through the closet door, mastermind the coup, pluck the consorts, stage the coronation, and throw the carnival.

Chapter one

Seductress: The Women and the Art

It is not enough to conquer; one must know how to seduce. —Voltaire

We are all seduced and seducing. —St. Augustine

A woman with fair opportunities, and without an absolute hump, may marry whom she likes. Only let us be thankful that the darlings are like the beasts of the field, and don’t know their own power. They would overcome us entirely if they did. —William Makepeace Thackeray

This strength of the feminine is that of seduction. —Jean Baudrillard


The seductress. She’s a scarlet inkblot, a Rorschach of our deepest sexual fears and fantasies. She’s the blond bimbette in a string bikini; the stacked vamp in Spandex; the Chanel-suited nymphobitch of Sullivan & Cromwell; the servile artist’s muse and maidservant. But we’ve got it wrong. We’ve been gulled by chimeras—sleazy, bogus stereotypes...

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