The Other Woman

This is part of a series of columns on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.

Tolstoy was a moralist. He wrote one novel—Anna Karenina—in which infidelity ends in death, and another—War and Peace—in which his characters endure a thousand pages of political, military and romantic turmoil so as to eventually earn the reward of domestic marital bliss. In the epilogue to War and Peace we encounter his protagonist Natasha, unrecognizably transformed. Throughout the main novel, we had known her as temperamental, beautiful and reflective; as independent, occasionally to the point of selfishness; as readily overwhelmed by ill-fated romantic passions.

Marriage and motherhood turn out to sap Natasha’s interest in music, in parties, in dance, in her appearance; in fact they seem to sap her interest in having interests of her own. In her new life, she self-consciously and gladly subordinates her mind to her husband’s, and finds the fulfillment of her domestic duties both thoroughly rewarding and utterly absorbing. All of this makes her, in Tolstoyan ethics, “an exemplary wife and mother.”

There is only one moment in the epilogue in which we catch a glimpse of the old Natasha. Her husband Pierre has just come home from a trip, and Natasha launches into a speech that begins as a dutiful affirmation of the advantages of marital stability over mere romance—

“What stupidity,” Natasha said suddenly, “that the honeymoon and the first time is the happiest. On the contrary, now it’s best. If only you didn’t go away. Remember how we quarreled? And it was always my fault. Always. And what we quarreled about—I don’t even remember.”

“Always the same thing,” said Pierre, smiling, “jealo…”

“Don’t say it, I can’t bear it,” Natasha cried. And a cold, angry gleam lit up in her eyes. “Did you see her?” she added, after a pause.

“No, and if I had, I wouldn’t have recognized her.”

They fell silent.

The reader hasn’t been told about “her”—the events in question must have happened in the years the novel leaves undocumented—so the reference could be to anything from a full-blown affair to an infatuation existing mostly in Natasha’s imagination. All we know, looking on this scene, is that some early fracture continues to reverberate through their relationship. Is Natasha’s continued jealousy the one flaw in their otherwise perfect union? Or is it the spark of life keeping the relationship from flattening into deadness? Could it, somehow, be both?

Jealousy is an unattractive emotion, but unlike hate, contempt or spite, it is not a forbidden emotion. If we knew that Pierre had cheated on Natasha, we would find her jealousy intelligible and even reasonable. We would understand. Or, at any rate, we would say, to ourselves and to her, “I understand.” We are very quick to find such “justified” jealousy intelligible—so quick, that the very speed of our response testifies to our disinclination to look into the matter too deeply. But let us do so anyway.

Our comfort zone, when it comes to jealousy, is the righteous anger of the betrayed spouse. It seems to speak to us in the rational language of entitlements and violations and justice. Thus Natasha’s attitude towards Pierre is that he “had to be kept in such a way as to belong entirely to her, to the household.” But the enforcement of contract is not the real concern of the jealous spouse; infidelity is not really about property rights.

It is true that marriage is a contractual relationship, but how many marriage vows actually specify sexual exclusivity? I have never yet been to a wedding in which the couple explicitly promised each other not to sleep around; certainly I did not promise this. And yet, when it comes to the many things that are explicitly promised—to love, honor, obey, care for, etc.—people rarely end up insisting on their contractual rights. Every divorce is a violation of the “as long as we both shall live” clause, and yet neither spouses nor onlookers are inclined to be outraged over that fact. Even if one were to write a “no infidelity” clause into one’s marriage vows, that wouldn’t make it the case that the primary problem with infidelity lay in the breaking of that agreement.

It is the jealous person who understands all this better than anyone. She may speak (in a calmly furious way) of ownership, but she has a very accurate and precise understanding of the limits of such claims. One cannot own another person; one has no “rights” over their body, or, for that matter, over their affections or interests or attention. The marriage ceremony may include me saying, “I am yours,” but the truth is that I am not and cannot ever be anyone else’s, and no proclamation of mine can change that fact. Jealousy is this knowledge, combined with the intolerability of it: understanding that I don’t own, and needing to own. But it is more the latter than the former. Jealousy is often mischaracterized as a negative attitude, misclassified into the family to which fear, anger, aversion and denial belong. To see why this is mistaken, consider Natasha again.

In the excerpt cited above, we see Natasha living in the opposite of denial. She is haunted by something that happened years ago; moreover, she is actively keeping herself haunted—fueling the fires of her own ancient passion. Her question—“did you see her?”—is uttered not in the voice of anxiety or fear but in the voice of an emotion that launches her backward in time. Her sudden cold gaze and her angry voice connect her to an incident whose details we don’t know, but which she appears to be unable to let go of. That woman, whoever she was for Pierre, is for Natasha some kind of link to a past self, or, even more likely, to an alternative version of her present self: someone she could have been but is not. Whether or not Pierre is telling the truth when he says he wouldn’t even be able to recognize her anymore, I imagine she means much more to Natasha than she does to Pierre.

You may object that I am reading a lot into these few lines. That is true. I can imagine all this with some vividness, because I have occupied both positions: I have been the other woman, and I have also been other-woman-ed. In both roles, I felt intense jealousy, wanting with my whole being to occupy the place of my counterpart. There is nothing so desirable to the Other Woman as the established and secure position of the woman who was there first; to whom, in turn, there is nothing so appealing as the carefree spontaneous romance she imagines he has with the Other.

The primal scene of jealousy is this: I see a mark on my lover’s body, and my mind traces it to Her. How do I respond? You imagine I feel angry at being robbed of what is mine; or afraid of losing him altogether. But those are not my real emotions; they are merely the faces my jealousy wears when I am in the business of eliciting sympathy from you. The inner truth of what I feel is so much more maddening than anger and so much more violent than fear: it is desire. Desire of desire. I want, quite simply, to have been wanted with the desire with which She was, at that moment, desired. Not the same kind or degree of desire, but with that token, past act of desire. Jealousy desires the love intended for and directed at another, the very love one can be assured of never securing. Jealousy hungers after this desire impossibly, unattainably, unsatisfiably. Like all that is truly erotic, it quests for what cannot be had. Jealousy is a positive emotion. Jealousy is a form of lust.

Lacan, commenting on Plato’s Symposium, tells us that eros is “giving what one does not have.” Think of how often, in a romantic relationship, one’s image of a romantic gesture will be precisely whatever act one’s beloved is disinclined to perform. If you are not in the habit of complimenting my clothing, then that’s what I need from you, “for once!” If you never fold the laundry, then it’s that. The harder and unlikelier it is, the more romantic the prospect of your doing it will strike me; and yet if you actually rise to the challenge, that will always be somewhat anticlimactic. The romance lay in its being undone and undoable. One time, in a furious lover’s quarrel, it was pointed out to me that “nothing I do could ever count as the thing you want; as soon as I did it, it wouldn’t count!” That was perfectly true. I wanted him to show me his love—but not just any love. I wanted to see the love he didn’t have.

The love a person doesn’t have is, by and large, not visible—because it is not there. But in the special case where he loves another, the love he doesn’t have for me becomes something concrete and embodied—it is embodied in Her body, it is clothed in Her flesh. And that, finally, is the moment when the laser beam of my erotic passion locates the impossible love it was born to lust after, namely his love of Her. Jealousy ushers eros into its own; jealousy makes the invisible visible.

As long as the invisible stays invisible, we can tell ourselves a set of noble lies: that there is a romantic gesture that would count; that all the love I seek from him is love that is or could be mine; that romance is a two-body problem. Most of the time, Natasha lives in the space of these noble lies, a space within which she can say “my husband,” and mean it—or at least imagine that she means it. Jealousy exposes the presence of the sometimes fleshy, sometimes ghostly, always unwelcome and never fully eliminable third party to the relationship. Jealousy is a form of attraction that repulses us.

I’ve never understood how polyamory is supposed to survive erotic rivalry, but I have exactly the same objection to monogamy. The fact is, the two diverge only in the specifications of the relevant contract, and this difference seems laughably superficial in the face of a problem situated at the molten lava core of the soul. If erotic passion means wanting what is not and cannot rightly be yours, then how can it ever be stable? Jealousy is the thread in which romance is woven, and the thread that unravels it.

Is there any solution to this erotic predicament? Portuguese poet, philosopher and all-round literary genius Fernando Pessoa offers one. His Book of Disquiet includes a set of sex tips for a group of people he calls “Unhappily married women,” though he clarifies that “Unhappily married women include all who are married and some who are single.” Pessoa is addressing all women who find themselves in the erotic predicament, and he tells them:

Picture your husband with a whiter body. If you’re good at this, you’ll feel his whiteness on top of you.

Kiss the husband on top of your body and replace him in your imagination—remember the man who lies on top of you in your soul.

Substitution is less difficult than you think. By substitution I mean the practice of imagining an orgasm with man A while copulating with man B.

All pleasure is in the mind; all crimes that occur are committed in dreams and in dreams alone!

Pessoa understands that the triad is the unit of eros, whereas stability calls for the dyad. His solution—squeezing three into a space for two by way of an infidelity of the mind—reflects an almost perfect grasp of the problem. Almost perfect. Pessoa’s one error can be traced to his masculine perspective, or, at any rate, his failure to successfully abstract it away. Any woman of sufficiently erotic temperament could have explained to Pessoa that the right advice to an “Unhappily Married Woman” is not to tell her to imagine having sex with a different man, but as a different woman.

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