Men Like Him
The Lawrence Seldens of today.
“He was too much in earnest now to feel any false constraint in speaking his mind.”
In 2018, let us beware of Lawrence Selden, one of the great intellectual bachelors of American literature, the unmarried man whose friendship is the catalyst for the beautiful and unattached Lily Bart’s tragic fall in Edith Wharton’s 1905 The House of Mirth. Let us beware of men like him, the men who feel no social constraint, the authentic, the earnest, the men who imagine themselves as existing outside of society. Let us beware because they are, in fact, fake-ass fakers, and we have to get better at spotting them. Lily Bart is attracted to Lawrence Selden, an unsuitable match, but the true tragedy is that she believes his bullshit, to great cost.
The costs of believing a Donald Trump or a Harvey Weinstein—men with great power who use it in vulgar, obvious, and dangerous ways—are pretty clear. Less clear, though are the effects of the Lawrence Seldens: the bookish men, the leftist men, the “radical” thinkers, the “let us live lives of desire” kind of men. The men whose bachelor libraries we dream of living amidst. The men to whom the costs paid by women trying to survive inside patriarchy are invisible.
He calls it “the republic of the spirit.” On a fateful afternoon, Lily Bart has made a bad choice. She is expected, by the others attending the fashionable weekend estate party, to make an appearance at church, the better to solidify her chances at marrying the altogether slight (in intellect and appearance) Percy Gryce. Instead, she goes off to meet Selden for a languorous summer picnic. Her choice has the immediate effect of tanking her chances with Gryce, but the more longstanding effects of poisoning her own mind against herself. The complexity of the novel is that it makes it hard for readers to see both of these things at the same time. That is, Lily Bart’s “germ of rebellion” in this moment is intoxicating and we want it for her. Who doesn’t want to have a romantic picnic on a beautiful day with a handsome gentleman! But the real tragedy, it turns out, is not her momentary weakness; it’s that Selden so fully exploits her weakness by taking the opportunity of it to colonize her entire sense of self, to plant the flag inside her: his values, his view of the world, his system of governance. His, his, his.
Oh my God, I hate Lawrence Selden so much!!!
When I teach The House of Mirth though, my students rarely see Lawrence Selden as a villain. Because they identify with Lily Bart, and by “identify with” I mean what we really mean but rarely say: they find in Lily Bart the chance to hate themselves and the bad choices they so want to make. So they see Lawrence Selden just as Lily Bart does, because they are just as susceptible to Selden as Lily Bart is. They see him as a beacon, a model, the contrast that helps throw Lily Bart’s tragedy into relief: if only Lily had been born male, she too could have enjoyed a life of the mind, a life of beauty outside the confines of society.
Also, they see him as pretty damn hot. He’s got the perfect bachelor pad with books everywhere. He strolls the streets with only his hands in his pockets (no corsets, no umbrellas, free as a bird). He shows up at the best house parties and leaves socially and emotionally unscathed. He hangs out in the corner and observes all the other people running around subject to society. But Lawrence Selden feels no false constraints; he speaks his mind. What’s not to like about Lawrence Selden, the twenty-year-old women in my classes wonder? If only Lily Bart had truly listened to him, he was trying to show her the way out. Isn’t the real problem here that we are all so falsely constrained? Isn’t it so great that Lawrence Selden, with his devil-may-care attitude about the social, shows us how to be “real”?
But Lawrence Selden’s “way out” is Lily Bart’s suicide. By the end of the novel, as Lily has fallen in social rank and financial security, she can no longer even see herself except through Selden’s eyes. On her way to try to blackmail her former friend, the married Bertha Dorset, whose scandalous love letters to Selden Lily has in her possession, Lily makes another bad choice. Instead of going through with the blackmail, she goes to see Selden one last time, and under his “earnest” eyes, is compelled to throw into the fire the letters that could rescue her. She chooses, that is, Lawrence Selden’s “republic of the spirit,” because “she seemed suddenly to see her action as [Selden] would.” Looking at herself through his eyes, she sees that her planned blackmail would fall short of his belief system, and thus she consigns herself to death. Lawrence Selden, as one of my beloved doctoral committee members liked to vividly claim, kills Lily Bart as surely as if he held a gun to her head.
But he is handsome, and seductive, and the thing about the “republic of the spirit” is that it really does sound nice. No matter how much I yell at my students about the “gun to her head”, they generally demure. Which is wise in their way. Somehow, in their youth, they seem to viscerally get how the only way out, in this world, runs through men’s fantasies about freedom and desire, through men’s violent insistence that their fantasies do no actual violence in the world.
The maze that entraps Lily Bart, and which she cannot find her way out of, recalls the one that Dayna Tortorici recently wrote about in n+1, describing the regressive reality of so many leftist men right now. The maze, she claims, is a good metaphor to capture the complexity of our current moment. We may have thought that we were somewhere along a line of incremental progress toward a shared set of ideals about social, political, and interpersonal equality, but we were mistaken. There was never a line to follow. And now that we find ourselves at a dead end in the maze, it seems that one of the major obstacles is women: how much our society hates us, how much we all still think of women as the rules always falsely constraining us. If only women would just fucking lie down and take it, we could continue our “progress” toward the republic of the spirit! A little laudanum might help!
When I first read Tortorici’s essay, I initially really felt for all the twenty- and thirty-something women who have had to deal with the leftist young men of Brooklyn in 2017. Like, imagine dating during all of this, jfc! Imagine having to regularly make conversation with young men at a bar! But, of course that initial response was me willfully mistaking my own scenario, my own fantasy that I’m somehow outside of the maze, or that women in general have no role in maintaining its confusions and violence.
The truth is, I’m as fully in the maze as anyone; my professional and social world is full of progressive men (they write about radical politics and prison abolition and social justice; they have informed opinions on Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson and Harriet Jacobs) who talk first and dominate the conversation; men who don’t do their share of the committee work; men who are shitty caretakers; men who believe that their commitment to the republic of the spirit excuses all; men who hoard resources and real estate and prestige; men who never, ever give up their seats on the subway. Men who do not see themselves, not really, as a part of society, because they secretly (or not-so-secretly) continue to believe that society itself is a bunch of false restraints of their always deserved, fundamental personal freedoms (think of dumb King Philip on that dumb boat in The Crown fantasizing about being “men alone”; think about Huck Finn chafing against the “sivilizing” force of his aunts, think of Matt Damon, horrors!).
What to do with all these Lawrence Seldens, I don’t entirely know. But I do know that if we got better not just at identifying them when we encounter them, but also at identifying how deeply we’ve incorporated Lawrence Selden’s ideals into our vision of freedom, progress, justice, and pleasure: that would be a start. The republic of the spirit admits no real, live women. Women are most real, most valuable to the men who govern the republics of the spirit, only when they are dead. Lawrence Selden would tell you that this is as “real” as it gets; Lily Bart’s dead body at the end of the novel finally makes everything “clear” to him. But we need not honor Selden’s “spiritual fastidiousness.” We can see him for what he is. Lawrence Selden is a fake, and the easiest way to tell is that he keeps insisting to everyone that he isn’t.
Sarah Blackwood is co-editor and co-founder of Avidly and associate professor of English at Pace University.
FAKES is The Awl’s year-end holiday series for 2017. You can read the whole collection here.