Always She Will Be Present in My Memory and I Shall Never Cease to Bewail Her

I just do not know what to do about Marie Antoinette.

Yes, I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined.

But she is one of the most polarizing figures in European history, and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even the most casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt like an urgent priority except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman.  Despite the title, it’s an essentially sympathetic biography (and let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly) and based largely on her own letters.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force their uncooperative subject into their narrative mold.  I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch (interesting side note: Antonia Fraser, patron saint of lost causes, also wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette).

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself.  Despite receiving a great deal of very sound, very clear advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was sometimes a self-involved mental midget, she was also complicated.  She loved her children, and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen (and really, who could resist a man with such a name!).  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

He was devastated by her execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

The whole story sounds incredible, I know, but, at least in Zweig’s hands, it’s also moving.  I wasn’t prepared to find so many sympathetic coordinates in Marie Antoinette.  Zweig didn’t talk me all the way around to liking her – the image of her and her bullshit peasant hut in Petite Trianon is hard to shake, and impossible to like.

But most of us are some part bullshit, and some part real; maybe Marie Antoinette was, too.  And I’m disconcerted to feel that I dismissed with prejudice someone on whom I should have spent more careful attention; she was a ditz, and so, like a ditz, I ignored her.  More fool I, it appears – if Zweig hasn’t convinced me that Marie Antoinette was “average”, he has at least convinced me I was wrong.

Image, which is a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens, is from Wikipedia.

You Marry Who You Know

     My grandfather used to say, “You marry who you know”.  When I was young, this seemed blindingly obvious; now, it seems apt.  You do marry who you know, and most people know people like themselves, and so marry people like themselves.  Humans marry assortively, which means that they pick mates that resemble them, and they make this selection along an impressive number of traits, including intelligence, race, religion, class, beliefs, hobbies, personality traits, smoking, drinking, weight, height, even lung volume.

     In 1986, David Buss from the University of Michigan and Michael Barnes from Yale published a study, ‘Preferences in Human Mate Selection’, which examines the characteristics that human select for, and the traits that come along with those characteristics.

     Buss and Barnes interviewed 92 married couples (all heterosexual, from what I can tell), and subjected them to a battery of personality tests.  Their findings confirm many of this author’s private and ungenerous suspicions, which makes them the best kind of findings:

  • Traits that women value more than men include: honest, dependable, fond of children, well-liked by others, good earning capacity, and tall.

  • Traits that men value more than women are: physically attractive, good looking, good cook, and frugal.

  • Men and women who especially want kind-considerate partners are more likely to be emotionally reliant and to score high on the feminine end of the spectrum.

  • Women who “scored high on this preference factor [kind-considerate] tended to score in the neurotic and submissive direction”.

  • Women who value “professional status” in their husbands “tended to score low on CPI Tolerance, CPI Achievement via Independence, CPI Intellectual Efficiency, and Psychological Mindedness…IDS Emotional Reliance and Machiavellianism.”  The authors note dryly that perhaps these women “seek in mates attributes that they themselves do not possess”.

  • Women who want politically conservative husbands tend to get poor grades in college, have bad SAT scores, and to be very feminine.

  • Men who want politically conservative wives tend to be masculine, dominant, and tall.

  • Women who wanted easygoing-adaptable husbands were then surprised to learn that their mates were “unambitious”.

  • The husbands of wives who preferred kind-considerate husbands “appeared to be weak, unassertive, and socially passive”.

  • Women who wanted “socially exciting” husbands got “husbands who are somewhat undercontrolled and underachieving”.

  • Men who wanted artistic-intelligent wives married women who “scored high on…masculinity”.

  • Wives who wanted artistic-intelligent husbands got men who were “somewhat lazy, quarrelsome, emotional, feminine, and arrogant”.

  • Women who wanted husbands with high professional status tended to marry men who had small vocabularies.

  • Women who wanted politically conservative husbands married men who “appeared to be relatively tall and heavy”.

     So, to re-cap: women want tall men.  Men want women who can cook.  Women who marry conservatives are dumb.  Easy-going guys don’t get much done.  Artistic guys are needy and dickish.

     I knew it.

 

‘The Nature of Love’

     In 1958, Harry Harlow gave the Address of the President to the 66th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.  The speech, called ‘The Nature of Love’, outlined for the first time Harlow’s now-famous ‘cloth mother’ experiments.

     “The position commonly held by psychologists and sociologists is quite clear: the basic motives are, for the most part, the primary drives — particularly hunger, thirst, elimination, and sex — and all other motives, including love and affection, are derived or secondary drives”, explained Harlow.  However, he found this explanation, that infants attach to their mothers for the sake of food alone, insufficient to explain the “lifelong, unrelenting persistence” of a child’s affection for its parent.

     Harlow’s experiment was elegant, if heart-rending: he took eight newborn rhesus macaque monkeys, and gave them each a choice.  Alone in their cages with them were two surrogate mothers.  Both had cylindrical wire-mesh frames, enclosed a light bulb to create a radiating warmth, and had affixed to them repulsive croquet-ball faces with bicycle-reflector eyes.  One of the mothers, however, was wrapped in sponge rubber and terry cloth.  This was the ‘cloth mother’; the other mother was left with her wire innards exposed, the ‘wire mother’.  In four of the cages, the wire mother held the food bottle; in the other four, the cloth mother.

Wire and Cloth Mothers

     If infant love is based on food production, Harlow reasoned, the babies should prefer whichever mother held the bottle.  They did not.  The baby monkeys overwhelmingly preferred the cloth mother, spending as much as eighteen to twenty-three hours a day clutching and rubbing her.  If the cloth mother held the bottle, the babies ignored the wire mother completely; if the wire mother held the bottle, the little monkeys would dash over to her to feed, and then dash back to the cloth mother, curling around her for support.  If the babies were separated from their cloth mother, they would “rush to the center of the room where the mother was customarily placed and then run rapidly from object to object, screaming and crying all the while.”  The wire mother could not pacify them.  They would rock and cry, wrapping their arms around themselves: “continuous, frantic clutching of their bodies was very common”.

Open Field Without Mother

     If the cloth mother was replaced, “the babies rushed to her, climbed up, clung tightly to her, and rubbed their heads and faces against her body”.

Baby with Cloth Mother

     Harlow compared the behavior of these monkeys with two babies whom he allowed to stay with their biological, monkey mothers.  He concluded that “love for the real mother and love for the surrogate mother appear to be very similar…whether the mother is real or a cloth surrogate, there does develop a deep and abiding bond between mother and child.”

     He concluded his talk with a persuasive and poignant anecdote.  The first baby monkey intended for the surrogate mother experiment was born a month earlier than they had expected, and they had not yet completed construction of the surrogates’ faces.  The head then placed on this monkey’s cloth mother was featureless; it was simply a ball of wood.  The baby was left with this faceless mother for 180 days, at which point the experimenters replaced both surrogates’ heads with decorated ones.

     “To our surprise the animal would compulsively rotate both faces 180 degrees so that it viewed only a round, smooth face and never the painted, ornamented face.  Furthermore, it would do this as long as the patience of the experimenter in reorienting the faces persisted.  The monkey showed no fear or anxiety, but it showed unlimited persistence.”

She wanted the face of her mother, blank or not.  As Harlow would later put it, “a mother’s face that will stop a clock will not stop a baby”.

Images are all taken from Harlow’s ‘The Nature of Love’ speech, and were shown at the speech itself.

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.