French passionate over debate on love

May 10, 1993|By New York Times News Service

PARIS -- Weary, it seems, of the Balkans and stirred perhaps by a beautiful spring, the French have turned in droves to an old subject at which they are old hands: love.

The focus of their attention is a new book about men and women, appropriately titled "Les Hommes et les Femmes." Written by a journalist and former government minister named Francoise Giroud and the philosopher-turned-playwright Bernard Henri-Levy, this meandering discourse on sex, jealousy, feminism, fidelity and marriage has become what the French call a "phenomenon" -- that is, something whose success defies even their unusual powers of Cartesian analysis.

Featured on several magazine covers and countless television programs, the book entered best-seller lists last week at No. 1. With more than 80,000 copies sold in less than a week, the publisher, Olivier Orban, says he cannot get enough books into stores. It is too early to tell whether there will be an English-language edition.

"I cannot imagine why the book has had such success," said Mrs. Giroud, who is 76 and declares at the outset of the book that she is no longer "operationelle" -- that is, sexually active.

Both Mrs. Giroud, a co-founder in 1953 of the weekly newsmagazine L'Express, and Mr. Henri-Levy, whose Byronic good looks have made him an enduringly romantic symbol of the Paris intelligentsia since he swept to notoriety 15 years ago in the vanguard of a group known as the New Philosophers, are well known in France.

Conversation a deux

But their sharply contrasting views, rather than merely their fame, appear to lie behind the appeal of a book presented in the form of a conversation. "I was amazed by his views," Mrs. Giroud said.

Mrs. Giroud, who was once married and divorced in the 1950s, argues that "a lifetime is too long for sexual fidelity" and that the longest desire -- and so faithfulness -- may last in a couple is 15 years. Mr. Henri-Levy, despite two failed marriages, sees no reason why desire may not last a lifetime and observes that his desire for a particular woman has never faded; rather it has simply been replaced by another passion.

Mrs. Giroud, who was once a government minister for women's affairs, believes in the possibility of platonic love between a man and a woman, especially in the case where they have once been lovers.

When Harry met Sally?

PTC Mr. Henri-Levy, 44, retorted: "I persist in thinking that platonic love is a joke. Love is never platonic. One cannot love a woman without violently desiring her." He added, "I do not believe in friendship between men and women and, when there is no possible ambiguity, I would say the relationship is -- how shall I put it? -- useless."

For her, truly passionate love is possible only twice or at most three times in a lifetime. For him, this is nonsense. A dozen passions are possible.

On the nature of sexual attraction, their views are equally divergent. She confesses that she could never desire an ugly man. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, although immensely seductive because of his intellect, caused Mrs. Giroud physical revulsion.

Mr. Henri-Levy, by contrast, says he has often desired women who might be classified as ugly. "Every connoisseur knows it -- desire is a weird thing," he muses. "You can be moved by a voice, a silhouette, a smile, a family name, a first name, an image, a phrase, a sudden vulgarity, or even a vulgarity that is not sudden at all. And the result, the sum -- or perhaps the subtraction -- of all that, may well be a woman who, by normal standards, would be judged a monster."

But their most fundamental difference is over the question of whether women have changed in their attitudes and desires over the last 20 or 30 years.

Mr. Henri-Levy is certainly provocative. He says, "Having money does not really suit women." He adds, "A certain type of power, a certain ostentatiousness with power, does not blend happily with the idea I have of the relationship between women and the world. . . ."A woman without makeup always seemed to me to be something rather vulgar."

In a telephone interview, he elaborated: "Sure, the situation of women has changed. But their soul, their reflexes, their way of living love has not changed."

Referring to Gustave Flaubert's novel "Madame Bovary," in which a bored provincial housewife yearns for and then finds passionate love, Mr. Henri-Levy added, "There is still an Emma Bovary in all women, even if they dress in miniskirts and look like executives."

Mrs. Giroud, by contrast, believes that women have been transformed in her lifetime. Above all, she said, they have declared their right to be fulfilled, both professionally and sexually. The pill, by taking away from men the most fundamental decision in life -- whether to have a child -- empowered women in a way that completely changed society, she said.

Women want to be happy

"The writer Francois Mauriac used to say that women like to be unhappy, and in his time he was right," she said. "The model in society was the masochistic woman for whom there was something sinful about pleasure. But now women want to be happy. They are much more demanding. In sex, for example, they are very demanding. They claim the right to orgasm in much the same way as they claim the right to social security."

Throughout the book, there are only two points on which the two writers agree. The first is their shared view that the feminist movement in the United States has become too aggressive, damaging relations between men and women.

The authors' second point of agreement is that sexual love holds a singular place in the French psyche. "Love has a special place in our society and literature, and relations here between men and women are, while imperfect, the best in the world," Mrs. Giroud said.

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