Christina Patterson: She may be silly, but never dumb


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a little light distraction.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a little light distraction. In Jane Austen's day, it was single men and wives, of course, but single men went out with the dinosaurs and wives are things you leave at home, or on honeymoon, while seeking your pleasure elsewhere.

Do powerful men just wait for the silly season to strike before dropping their trousers? Is it too hot to keep them on? Or do "friends" get a weird, allergic reaction to the sun and suddenly find themselves phoning up Max Clifford, or indeed The Sun? Who knows and, frankly, who cares? What's more interesting, in as far as anyone's clumsily conducted private life is interesting, is who or what they choose. In the recent spate of revelations, the objects of desire have been (in order of appearance in the papers) a personal assistant, a receptionist, a secretary and a prostitute. Profession, even if it's the oldest, is, of course, no indicator of intelligence or the lack of it. And in one of these cases, at least, the woman's education and linguistic skills far exceeded those of her part-time man. No, it's not about intelligence. It's about power.

The stories, as they have appeared in the newspapers, have been comedies of manners. The key note has been farce. As if in thrall to the simplified narrative tropes of the one-minute news story, the characters have cast themselves in a series of crude stereotypes: Wronged Wife Seeking Dramatic Revenge; Man Threatening Legal Action and Suddenly Withdrawing It; Bit-on-the Side Denying All and Then Selling Story and Soul. It starts with power and it ends with it, too. Rich, powerful men are among the tiny minority who might feasibly choose rich, powerful women. You'd think they might want the challenge. But they don't, of course. It's the age-old Mills & Boon transaction: of youth and beauty for power. Relinquish that imbalance and what would you have left?

In the Holy Trinity of money, sex and power, it's power that rules the roost, power that's the butterfly wing that unleashes the whirlwind. Humiliated partners seek to recapture it in the media. If they can't control the plot, they can at least have a go at controlling the stories. Humiliated mistresses seek new careers as "celebs". If they can't have the man, they'll have the money. Cheating partners are a bit torn. I never said I did, but I never said I didn't. Or I did, but it's true love. Or perhaps I did, but she's just a slag and it didn't mean anything.

Clearly, what's needed is a trip to the theatre. Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is a gripping demonstration of the sad truth that farce and tragedy may be two sides of the same coin. The taboo-breaking premise of the play is one to provoke nervous titters. Intelligent, glamorous New York wife thinks her husband's jacket smells a bit odd. A few days later, she receives a letter from his oldest friend. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, is the gist of it, but your husband is having an affair. I'm even more sorry to tell you that the object of his passion is a goat.

It's hilarious, of course, but the laughter soon fades. Like a Metaphysical poet, Albee takes a surreal conceit and stretches it until it nearly snaps. But it never does. Not even at the end, when the bloodied corpse of the goat is lying on the stage among the wrecked artefacts and lives.

It's the simplest of ideas, but brilliantly sustained. The symbol of male randiness since classical times, the goat is here also a symbol of impotence and self-delusion. Not sexual impotence, unfortunately. It's made all too clear that Mr Successful Architect is suffering no problems in that department, not even in the smelly straw or the fields. No, it's the powerlessness of the dumb creature who cannot withhold or protest. It is also a blank slate for the projected fantasies of the deluded man, who insists that his love is reciprocated. In the grip of that loss of power - the painful, heady, delicious drama that we like to call "falling in love" - he abuses his position and destroys the lives of the people he loves.

Women are not dumb creatures. In most situations, they can say "no". And love - that's necessary here to keep a delicate conceit afloat - is often not part of the equation. The Goat is not a perfect metaphor for the average infidelity or even the ones that hit the news. But what it does brilliantly, and extremely movingly, is to dramatise the terrible, incremental correlation between thoughtlessness and damage. Sometimes, ruined lives can be repaired. Often, they can't. If you have itchy feet, or itchy anything else, go and see it. You might even get a group discount.

The Atkins Diet as metaphor: discuss

We're all obsessed by diets now. Even the London Review of Books, that august journal of the literary elite. In its current issue, it devotes three whole pages to a critique of the Atkins and South Beach diet books. As someone who reads diet books for pleasure - who, in fact, skim-read Dr Atkins' New Diet Revolution in the bar of Waterstone's, Piccadilly while knocking back a glass of sauvignon and a huge bowl of Japanese rice crackers - I was gripped. What you get in the LRB, of course, isn't Diet Secrets of the Stars, or even a deconstruction of the prose style of American dieticians. Instead, the author, Steven Shapin, embarks on a detailed analysis of diet as "a moment of ontological transformation", "a late- modern salvation story" and a metaphor for current conceptions of the self. Fascinating stuff. But what else would you expect from a journal where even the lonely hearts ads (clearly all by nutters) are mini works of art?

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