Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Romantic Ideal and the Reality

I read a biography of Charlie Chaplin some months back. In it, the author commented once more upon Chaplin's taste in women, particularly talented women much younger than himself. The Little Tramp seems to have relished his role as wise mentor to promising actresses and the benefits that went along with it. A former lover, Louise Brooks, remarked, in typical acerbic fashion, that he had no confidence with women unless it came down to wielding some degree of power or authority over them. As a brief aside, I know many men who try the same tactic. As a musician, I know the immediate attraction of live music and have reaped the benefits myself from time to time.

But returning to the subject with which I began, some, like Lita Grey, Chaplin's second wife, had a far darker opinion altogether. Complicating matters was the film genius's predilection to seduce or be easily seduced (depending on the source) by teenage girls slightly below the legal age of consent. Assigning fault and placing blame could be equally distributed. The difference between user and used is often only a matter of degree. Such things often tend to shift with time. Mutual parasitism, much like co-dependency, is a difficult puzzle to solve.

The biography in question postulated that, in his pursuit of the fairer sex, perhaps Chaplin may have been living out a fantasy from earlier in life. When both were teenagers themselves, the future actor/director fell in love with a local girl. A lack of money and his own completely understandable youthful ineptitude proved to be the deciding factor as to why it never really got off the ground. As the theory goes, in his desire for adolescent women, Chaplin was trying to recreate an early episode in life. Another, rather Freudian interpretation believes he was influenced by his mother's stories that told of being a young, vivacious Vaudevillian. Both are plausible, but neither is provable. Whatever the case may have been, the noted screen talent had a supreme weakness, and many sought to exploit it over the years.

The auteur's first two wives were all of sixteen at the time. Sad to say, Mildred Taylor and Lita Grey saw Charlie as little more than a meal ticket. Grey's mother deliberately positioned her daughter in front of Chaplin, deliberately seeking to bait the director of the film, wherein her daughter played a small role, into beginning a relationship with Lita, sexual or otherwise. To be sure, he obliged, and in so doing created much more trouble for himself by successfully getting her pregnant. This resulted in a quick shotgun marriage to avoid the moral outrage of the film-going public. The union itself was a disaster, which swiftly terminated in a publicity-heavy divorce proceeding that cost Chaplin dearly in the pocketbook and overall reputation. His first wife, Mildred Taylor, had not been much better, lying about pregnancy so that her former protege would marry her, then taking him to the cleaners with her own lucrative divorce settlement.

Having set the stage, I'm more interested in exploring how life experiences influence to whom we are attracted. Charlie Chaplin is a fascinating study, but writers much better than I have done a sufficient job of exploration. The tawdry details of the life of a man who might or might not have had a Lolita obsession make for interesting speculation, but they are not the purpose of this post. They are important inasmuch as they point back to a larger past event in the life of a human being. I would not say that I am anywhere near Chaplin's stature as a great talent, nor do I share his weakness, but I do relate to having once been a sensitive, emotionally overwrought teenager. Often I have wondered what factors go into what could be called a relationship ideal, both for myself and everyone else. I ask these questions for any who might be curious.

You're a tall man, my mother would say, so you're going to want a tall woman. Perhaps, but I am now with a woman who is several inches shorter than me. Love comes in many forms, as I have gathered, and I'm not complaining in the least about my partner. I'm mainly still marveling that I have finally found someone with whom to spend the rest of my life. For years, I tried to force romance, often out of the dread fear that I wasn't working hard enough to achieve it. I recognize now, in hindsight, that it has its own schedule and its own pacing, but that once achieved, relationships come together of their own accord. Something beyond us sets it on motion, and once achieved, we are all but actors on stage. Though we have some control over the script, the roles we play and the way we proceed are out of our control. Like Chaplin, I've regularly assumed that perfection in romance was required most of all, and with it a kind of incredible effort that took take after take.

Even now, I am still attracted to tall, slender, tomboyish women, the sort I assumed I'd always end up with eventually. The best way I know to describe in few words is that it is the volleyball player's build. I know I always will find it appealing. But I also know that fantasy alone is insufficient in the face of what we need. I met my fiancee as I was still actively searching, and at that instant, the idealized notion of measurement that had been my metaphorical measuring stick was rendered utterly useless. The process of getting to know each other was incredibly fun and exceptionally powerful, but now, the honeymoon period long since over, we have settled into something more satisfying. I pray this gift lasts.

For more about Charlie Chaplin, go here.

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