Commentary Magazine

He Said, She Said

In its efforts to redress sexual, social, political, economic, artistic, and religious inequalities, the new feminism has thrown into question all those institutions under whose auspices men and women through the centuries have sought to combine their lots or join their fates. Marriage, the family, child-bearing and child-rearing, even the man-woman thing itself, are being subjected to such harsh scrutiny and challenge that it is now difficult for some people to take for granted anything about life between the sexes. At the heart of the dissension, I believe, is a failure of dialogue between man and woman—a failure that to some degree, with notable exceptions, has always existed, and now, with our present self-consciousness, is being experienced with greater anguish. I shall not use the term “dialogue” again—for the reason that the word has become so debased in the last few years that it is used to identify almost any public or private babble. Instead I shall talk about talk—real talk—between a particular man and a particular woman. Be it contentious or amicable, playful or serious, such man/woman talk requires a forth-rightness on each side that represents the experience of each, and at the same time is addressed to the experience of the other without duplicity or evasion. Its medium is language, a problematical medium that may obscure as much as it may reveal; yet no other medium will serve.

Man/woman talk has been neglected, even disparaged, in philosophy and psychology, largely because it was deemed inferior to the friendly talk between two people of the same sex—usually male, in the writings of the past, more recently female in the urgings of the new feminism. Because of the commonality of their past experience and the relative absence of erotic strivings, two friends, it was held, could achieve a purer, more honest, more illuminating back and forth. The implication of such notions was that friendship was impossible between men and women, or, if this seemed too bleak, it could be said that men and women had something together, by no means inferior to friendship, but still something different—a something which replaced the necessity of talk with a shared domestic and sexual world. The logic of this replacement stemmed from the premise that all real talk between a man and a woman, no matter how carefully disguised, was sexually flirtatious, and if an ongoing sexual life together were agreed upon, talk was no longer necessary except for the exchange of factual information about their shared world. Should the hunger for man/woman talk now arise, men and women both must seek their flirtatious satisfactions outside their life together, and for talk turn to friends of the same sex.

What is flirtatious talk? According to the Oxford English Dictionary definition, and according to our modern understanding, flirtatious talk is a contradiction in terms, if by talk we mean something forthright between equals. The OED speaks of “playing at courtship,” still a relatively bland description compared to our modern pejorative view, wherein flirtation is a form of double-talk, all seeming subject matter being bent to the possibility or actuality of sexual union through seduction, real or imagined. “Courtship” is by now an old-fashioned, if not obsolete, form of life between a man and a woman; at best it represented a rather stylized manner in which two people could come to know each other before sex and/or marriage. A young man and a young woman today are more apt to begin with sex, and for the kind of knowing which follows between them we have no ready word. Clearly, “courtship” is not it.

The problem with the term “flirtation,” as I see it, is that either it must be restricted to describe seductive double-talk, in which sex itself is the overriding object, or else it must be enlarged to include talk where sexuality is present in the sense of acknowledged attraction between a man and a woman, without the intervention of actual sex as motive or compulsion. Unfortunately, even “sexuality” is apt to be reductive in the latter description, in that it suggests merely an instinctual magnetism. Certainly it would be foolish to disown this portion of the attraction, yet equally important, perhaps more important, in real man/woman talk, is the exciting possibility of receiving and offering a range of perception and sensibility whose otherness can be uniquely and surprisingly illuminating. Because playfulness and frivolity are thought to belong to flirtation in the reductive sense, I want to stress that man/woman talk of the order I am attempting to describe, and regardless of how seldom it may be achieved in these times, is not necessarily a somber, soul-searching affair. So long as equality and honesty prevail, and so long as each person tries to imagine the other’s reality without dishonoring his own, the manner or mood of such talk can be various: humorous, serious, philosophical, concrete, abstract, gossipy, and so on. Employing Martin Buber’s terminology, and at the same time shifting its focus from friendship between people of the same sex, I would maintain that such talk contains the supreme potentiality of confirming the other, not only as a particular human being, but as a particular man or woman, and, of course, of being confirmed in the same way.

There are basically three different male-female contexts or modes within which this real talk may take place. In each one the experience of sexual attraction, the quality of it, the acknowledgment of it, will be different. In the first mode, the man and woman talking have a current, on-going sexual commitment to each other. A common or traditional shorthand term for this arrangement is “marriage,” although needless to say it does exist without marriage, and, conversely, there is nothing about the marriage ceremony itself which automatically confers these verbal pleasures on its celebrants. In these committed relationships, the issue of sex having already been settled, as it were, the specter of sex will, ironically, be normally less present than in other categories of encounter, since the couple know that, convenience apart, the conversation can at any point be interrupted—or climaxed or celebrated—in bed, and then, or later, resumed.

In the second mode, the man and woman talking are both sexually committed, but not to each other. (I am aware that the whole idea of sexual commitment—always a fragile reality, often an embattled principle—has undergone some strenuous challenges lately; but neither these challenges nor any defensive responses I might offer are to the point in my effort here. I am speaking about a way of life in which commitment, fidelity, temptation, and betrayal are all real possibilities.) In this second mode, then, both conversationalists have sexual loyalties elsewhere, and do not wish or intend to betray them. Still, a lively ingredient of the talk between them will be an awareness of—and appreciation of—the “otherness” of the other: each will respond to, and take pleasure in, the “otherly” attractiveness of the other, which may in fairness be called sexual attraction, so long as it is understood that it does not focus on—or aim at—an explicit sexual conclusion.

In the third mode, the talkers are not—quite yet, or, only just—involved in a sexual relation; their talk, in addition to its subject matter, has another—usually quite pleasant if not intoxicating—burden to bear, namely that of exploring the sexual possibilities that may lie before them. Should these two not be committed to others, this adventure may most delightfully combine the pleasures of real talk with the pleasures of real flirtation, without disservice to either. When the outcome of these explorations would result in the betrayal of a third or fourth person, however, I think that the issue of bad faith constitutes a threat to the honor and forthrightness demanded by real talk.

One of the risks I run in choosing to talk about talk between men and women is that I may be thought to be describing conversation between beings with vocal cords and ears but without bodies, just as someone talking about sex may seem to be describing beings with sexual organs but without voice and hearing. Let me say as quickly as possible there is no sex without talk, although pornography is a male venture one of whose purposes would seem to be to render the woman speechless, except for certain obligatory cries of gratitude and admiration. And, on the other side, my talkers are blessed with bodies, clothed and unclothed, assisting, questioning, or contradicting what is said. Most of us, I imagine, can recall the times when we talked rather than had the sex we wanted, such talk concealing our true desires, and, in the same spirit, the times when the poverty of real talk provoked us into sexual consolation—or, to put the matter simply, when the lust for talk was obligingly transformed into sexual lust. Even the most unregenerate seducer cherishes the secret hope of real talk with his conquest, although that is precisely what he cannot abide, what he knows would most compromise his entire career as seducer.



My early discussion, which must have seemed utopian, of the privileges of real man/woman talk must now give way to a consideration of the failure—the reasons for the failure.

Allowing for all exceptions to the contrary, I nevertheless have the impression that women generally are more disposed to talk than men, that men for the most part are more guarded and secretive in their talk with women. This disparity is epitomized by a scene enacted daily in all areas and at all levels of our society. It comes in several versions. Two will give the idea. Version A: He comes home. She is making dinner, diapering the baby, and so on. He greets her affectionately, asks her casually, How’s it going?, or Well, what’s new?—and she tells him. She talks about the children, appreciating, deploring, concern about Bobby’s this, delight at Billy’s that, she recounts her entertaining—or boring or outrageous—experiences at the supermarket, she does not omit mention of the malfunctioning vacuum cleaner, and, stirring away at the soup, wiping children’s faces and spilled desserts, she discusses her response to an item of general public interest she saw on TV. She also recalls the few free moments in which she read an article called “Radical New Approaches to Being a Woman,” and more speculation, philosophy, and self-scrutiny flow freely until, the children more or less bedded down, or banished to homework and/or TV, dinner cleared away, and a quiet moment descending over the last cup of coffee, she turns to him, flushed, expectant, as one who has unstintingly contributed her full share of the sharing, and says, Well? How was your day? Does he start off with who called him first thing at the office that morning, and how that call caused him to doubt a decision he’d made the day before, and does he pursue momentarily the problematic nature of the kind of decision-making he’s required to do and his capacity or incapacity for it, does he respond to her notions about the TV event or engage her reactions to the article she read, being reminded of something he read on that most recently well-publicized of subjects and his response to it, does he. . . . But why pursue this? Once in a while he does. More often he does not. Perhaps he says, Oh, nothing much happened, just the usual rat-race. Perhaps he recites some dry, factual resumé of his activities. Perhaps he grasps at some domestic thread she dangled and addresses himself to an issue concerning her or the children, or even the vacuum cleaner. Perhaps he shrugs and is silent. In any case, more often than she cares to think about, she asks with some bitterness why there must be this inequality, why she is open about her life, her thoughts, and he remains closed.

Version B. He comes home. Pretty soon she comes home. The housekeeper is seeing to the children and making dinner. He (or possibly she) fixes a couple of cocktails and they share a quiet interlude before a family (or possibly a solitary adult) dinner. Well, he says, how did it go today?—and she tells him. She talks about her secretary, or co-editor, or senior research assistant, or cameraman, she appreciates, deplores, analyzes, questions, wonders about the nature of her work, of her place and performance in it, tells of other, more private thoughts and concerns that popped in and out of her day. Eventually she pauses . . . and asks . . . and does he. . . .? Well, once in a while he does. More often he does not. He does something else. And more often than she cares to think about. she asks with some bitterness why there must be this inequality, why she is open about her life, her thoughts, and he remains closed.

In whatever setting this scene occurs, his reply to her complaint may be that there isn’t much to be said, that nothing interesting happened, that she is more articulate and more observant than he, but beyond or beneath his talk about not talking there has to be some uneasy recognition of his inclination toward reticence. There may be no deliberate concealment: all he may experience may be a familiar blankness following her invitation or demand that he talk. He can stand on his right to have nothing to say, or he can willfully invent a facsimile of talk, but in either case he is left with the aftertaste of an old inferiority in the realm of real talk with a woman.



In order to pursue the nature of this reticence, I shall turn to an old memory of my own. During the Depression, when I was in my late teens, my college roommate and I spent a Saturday evening prowling around the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, searching for sexual distraction of some sort. An actual sexual adventure was what we most wished for, but for reasons of timidity and poverty such a culmination seemed most unlikely. As physical fatigue began to set in, my friend mentioned, no doubt in desperation, that he had heard of a display of rubber goods at a drugstore in the heart of the district, where, on the pretense of being potential customers, we would be allowed to examine a rare and extensive collection of erotic and/or contraceptive rubber devices. Very shortly we were standing in a back room of the drugstore, staring into a large glass case, containing each specimen with name and price beneath. My recollection is that we both tried to assume the demeanor of the casual museumgoer as we inspected the display, while hoping the clerk would not badger us into making a purchase. In fact, I remember our attempt at sophisticated detachment more than I remember what was contained in the case. Except for one item called a French Tickler. This was a rubber condom to which was attached a filigree of thin rubber strands that stood out from the surface of the condom like the bristles of a hairbrush.

From my present perspective I wish to make two different, though related, points about that occasion. First, about our plight. There are a number of common expressions that could identify our condition that evening, but all I know of, though splendidly concrete, lack generalizing power. I shall therefore characterize our state by a term I first found in an article by Midge Decter, namely undifferentiated lust. By undifferentiated lust I mean the surgings of sexual excitement—usually chronic, often acute—that first begin to possess the young man in his adolescence. In terms of the world about him, this excitement seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, and to be directed at everyone and no one, as it presses for bodily release. Obviously there is pleasure, or at least the possibility of pleasure, in this lust, but just as often it is experienced as an affliction in its obsessive claims on both the body and the imagination. In time the nonspecific, unfocused nature of this lust may give way to differentiation, as actual relations with actual women develop, the attendant discriminations depending critically on real talk in these relations. But such a passage is a shaky one, for undifferentiated lust can never be wholly banished; it may be transcended, or, more often, deliberately withstood. Every man knows he can be subject, if he so chooses, to undifferentiated sexual arousal, and it should be noted that there is a pornography industry dedicated to the arousal of this undifferentiated impulse.

To return to the subject of man’s inclination toward reticence. It is when undifferentiated lust begins to capture the adolescent young man that he perceives a radical difference in terms of sexual urgings between himself and a young woman. He comes to know in his own heart that this form of lust is his, not hers. And how can there be frank talk, given this difference? To admit simply that he is driven by a sexual hunger for anyone or everyone would, he believes, deprive him of release with a woman who does not share this extreme hunger. Of course, with the help of the equalitarian fiats bestowed by the sexual revolution, he may convince her or she may convince herself there is no difference: undifferentiated lust is not only the lot, but the right, of both of them. But more often, he will develop the habit of disavowal, pretending differentiation when there is none. Needless to say, in this simulation of real talk, he may be as deceived as she about the nature of their tie together. At first, before there can be said to be a habit, the disavowal is relatively uncomplicated. The lust that constitutes an overwhelmingly important portion of the young man’s experience must, so he believes, be concealed or dissembled in his dealings with women. But if disavowal persists and remains uncorrected it soon spreads, almost by contagion, to include all manner of experience, both pleasurable and painful, that has little to do with undifferentiated lust. At this point there may be said to be a habit of disavowal. It is frequently misconstrued by both man and woman as his special need for privacy, his need to handle whatever is important in his life by himself. If he asserts that talk will only interfere with his concentration on what is pressing, he in effect resorts to his earlier conviction that talk about his lust would deprive him of the satisfaction he desires. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not questioning the legitimate need for privacy that both men and women have, but rather the illegitimate claim to privacy which is not privacy but rather disavowal, and which stands as enemy to real talk.



The second point I want to consider in relation to the episode in the San Francisco drugstore concerns the rubber object in the glass case, the French Tickler. My response to this object at the time was no doubt a mixture of embarrassment and fascination, but this hardly explains why it remains in my memory. It remains, I think, because it was and is constitutive of an inferiority that man feels before woman. What I am saying is that there was something in me that found this object not remarkable but unremarkable. I seemed to accept without question its assertion that man in his nakedness is simply not enough to contend with a woman. And the French Tickler in its complicated manufacture metaphorically represented the proliferating web of measures he would adopt to redress his insufficiency and prove he was enough. With this image we are brought to that aspect of the man/woman problem that has received the bulk of attention in the press. Which words are used to designate the issue will depend on the sympathy or outrage of the individual writer. Without exhausting the list, I might mention the male ego (intransigent or wobbly), male chauvinism, machismo, male fragility or vulnerability. But let me return at this point to the seeming inferiority represented by the French Tickler. However much my democratic prejudices may be offended by this sensation of inequality, I still believe it to be a fact in every man’s experience of himself. So I must ask the question, How did it come about? I ask the question, knowing it is baffling and knowing there are many theories, cultural and psychological, that address themselves to it. With what is to follow, I do no more than add my own theory to the lot of explanations, without, however, dissipating my own bafflement. Though the French Tickler seems literally to refer to that later period in man’s life when he is sexually active, I prefer to see the object as a constitutive symbol. This is to say that I believe the feeling of inferiority much precedes puberty, going back to a time when the male child first perceives his mother to be a different order of sexual being from himself. Were I to be more literal here I would refer to incestuous strivings and their attendant castration anxieties as my causative theory. Such strivings may or may not occur, but I do not believe them crucial so far as the issue of inferiority is concerned. I am more inclined to think of them as early attempts to alleviate the experience of inequality through some sort of vain and crude wish for sexual or bodily fusion. With his early apprehension of the difference between himself and his mother, the little boy tries to comprehend a mysterious and awesome complexity having to do with both sexuality and child-bearing that is, by its very nature, hidden from him. Since his own sexuality (and that of all males, including his father) is external, visible, objective, circumscribed, he cannot comprehend a sexuality whose most formidable powers are concealed. What he cannot know, in his way of knowing, impresses and attracts him—and at the same time frightens him. Comparing his explicit sexuality with his mother’s, he finds his own body wanting. Envy and fear conspire to tempt him to exalt the female body and devalue his own, although it will not be long before the same conspiracy will tempt him to exalt his own sexuality at the expense of the female body. Yet even if he tries to settle for the latter, he will never wholly obliterate his feeling of inferiority. Actually, over the course of his life, both temptations will nag him, each suggesting an inequality he fears and yet believes he does not deserve. Envy is no stranger to the human condition, be it male or female. But Freud, because of a misunderstanding of the nature of envy, was wrong, I believe, in his famous formulation of envy between the sexes. It is not literally the body or any specific part of the body that either man or woman envies in the other, in the sense of wishing to possess it as part of his or her physical nature. The primary experience of man before woman is awe, which in turn leads him to envy her mysterious inner complexity. And insofar as women envy men, and I think they do, they do not envy man his penis. Barring the occasional morbidly literal-minded exception, what women envy are the prerogatives and privileges of manhood that they believe or suspect are superior to those of womanhood.



Out of the background I have described, man comes to dread that in his life with women he will be found wanting. The irony is that whatever devices his will or history’s will may contrive to protect him from exposure, these devices paradoxically serve to enforce his apprehension. In the light of this predicament it is understandable why the male ego remains vulnerable to all manner of womanly challenge. To the degree that a man regards his inferiority as a constitutional or physical fact, rather than a feeling or apprehension, real talk will elude him, for real talk can exist only between equals. Without it he will fall subject to those domineering and apologetic maneuverings, both institutionalized and personal, with which we are so familiar.

To recapitulate, I have stressed two aspects of man’s experience that are obstacles to talk with women. When the habit of disavowal associated with undifferentiated lust is joined to the apprehension of inferiority, forthright talk with a woman can be seen as perhaps the most perilous venture known to man. Still, like other ontological necessities, this venture would be refused only by a fool or madman on the ground that it is not his birthright or will not yield to easy prescription.

Though I suggested earlier that women generally are more disposed to talk than men, this disposition is more questionable and more double-edged than is immediately apparent from the example of the man who cannot respond in kind to the woman’s talk about her day. To begin to describe woman’s disabilities in the realm of talk, let me return to the matter of man’s vulnerability stemming from his habit of disavowal and his feeling of inferiority. While it is true that his vulnerability is, so to speak, of his own making, it nevertheless finds its fruition in his life with women who, in a sense I shall presently describe, choose to exploit this condition rather than engage it honestly and imaginatively. To judge from the current indignation over the male ego, with its weaknesses and excesses, we might be inclined to think we were witnessing a revolutionary new discovery about the nature of man. Not so. Consciously or unconsciously, explicitly or implicitly, women have always known in their bones about male vulnerability. In the failure of real talk between man and woman, she is guilty, too, although her complicity is of a different kind. When real talk is failed, guilt is incurred, in that there is an injury to the human order. When guilt is not acknowledged—and such acknowledgment being indeed painful, it often is not—the guilty one is tempted to seek refuge in contempt for the other. Since both parties can be guilty for the failure of talk, it is easy to see how men and women come to have contempt for each other that is otherwise undeserved.

To return to the nature of woman’s complicity, take the issue of man’s undifferentiated lust. Are his attentions, in their mixture of blandishment and obfuscation, so convincing that she is blind to the particular demon driving him? Hardly. She is, I believe, as aware of her difference in this regard as he is of his. What she experiences that corresponds to some degree to his undifferentiated lust is an undifferentiated desire to be desired by anyone and everyone. Although lust may be one of its consequences, this desire of hers is not to be confused with his undifferentiated lust, nor does she make this confusion. She knows that he is driven in a way she is not, and it is this perception that gives her an edge in the negotiation that may, she hopes, support the achievement of her own aims, whatever they may be. Gradually, or even suddenly, in a manner that has little to do with who she thinks she is or what she thinks she is entitled to, she realizes she is the object of a consuming hunger that may be complied with, opposed, or manipulated, depending upon her own needs and wishes. In other words, she senses, dimly or not, that her sexuality is not only a source of pleasure for herself as well as procreation, but also a negotiable item in her own endeavors in this world—with the provision that its negotiability will depend on the deceit of non-negotiability. Compared to the deviousness necessary to this enterprise, prostitution is a fairly simpleminded, frank business arrangement in which payment is made for services rendered. At any rate, to the extent this power of negotiation predominates in a woman’s dealings, she assists in the sexual objectification of herself that is already the perceptual form of his undifferentiated lust.

Despite her recognition that his physical and verbal overtures are at the mercy of his undifferentiated lust, she may, because she is flattered or excited or encouraged in her own designs, pretend there is a differentiation to his lust that there simply is not. When rather than terminate the negotiation she instead protests, “All you want is my body!” she is being disingenuous, for she knows how eagerly he will, with his capacity for disavowal, lend elaborate support to her pretending. On the other hand, if her response is seemingly more emancipated, such as “Well, why not?,” she still dissembles her own experience with its difference from the man’s in favor of easy agreement. All this negotiating and dissembling on both parts is ruinous to real talk, since, romantic prejudices notwithstanding, sex, like housework, is to some degree subject to negotiation. Talk is not.



As I have already mentioned, man’s recurrent fear that he will be found wanting makes him peculiarly vulnerable to challenge. And that fear, as life proceeds, becomes vague and amorphous in his experience, imposing its painful claim not only on sexual performance itself but also on intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual realms. In his compulsion to allay, rather than contend with, this fear, his gestures will be, in a general way, either self-assertive or self-negating or both. The woman who heeds her imaginative sense of the origin of these gestures will be less inclined to take them literally. But should she fail that heeding, should she see no more than the gestures themselves, she thereby grants herself her own license for self-assertion or self-expression—a license extending to all seasons. If she need fear no real talk from the man that might limit her license, her self-confidence can reach such outrageous proportions that she need no longer attend to any response.

There is a potential background for such an unhappy turn of confidence, having to do with her own relation to her inner mystery that eludes man’s objective searchings. Her recognition of essential difference, like the man’s, begins in childhood, and with puberty she has intimations of how vast that difference is. For her there is a rush of a hugely complicated intermingling of sexual and procreative possibility, of which she will be periodically reminded for most of her adult life. Though her experience of this possibility will widen and deepen with time, as will her discriminations about her experience, still she will not be a knowledgeable master of her own mystery, in that it will persist as an enigma to her, and, needless to say, to man too. Nevertheless, she will come to appreciate the scope of this enigma. And in this light, man’s nature may seem simplicity itself when compared to the unfathomable variety of her own nature. Besides its appearance of simplicity, man’s nature can seem almost peripheral to her fulfillment. The danger for her lies in the manner in which she deals with her own enigma: unless she respects what must remain enigmatic she will be tempted to assume more than she knows. This is not to say that she will merely give in to the arrogant assumption of superiority, for that conceit spares no one. Her hazard is worse than that—namely, that she will mistakenly assume for herself a completeness, sufficient unto itself. As I have said, man’s vulnerability stems from his fear of being found wanting. Woman may fear she will be unwanted, but not that her inner parts will be wanting. Her parts, indeed, are Nature’s marvel. She is, literally, the embodiment of the miracle of life. What is conferred on her is no less than—and also no more than—the distinction of being Nature’s vehicle for the eternal renewal of life. That this distinction is also a privilege, and also a burden, and also a mystery—that she is the vehicle of creation, not the Creator—these realities may blur as she yields to her besetting, in some ways overweening, temptation to experience her own physical nature as somehow primary, inviolable, complete. She is of course vulnerable in many ways, but not in the particular ways I have indicated for man. Her prideful temptation is toward a belief in her completeness—a completeness to which man can make no more than an incidental contribution, reduced to a mere footnote to her existence. Her sense of completeness begins with a misreading of the enigma of her physical possibility, but if she indulges—and is indulged in—this delusion, completeness will soon include far more than physical possibility.

Let me be childishly explicit about this extreme situation: completeness is complete, meaning that intervention is not only not needed but will no longer be tolerated, At this stage, man’s failure to speak his mind, which has already collaborated in her sense of completeness, is now met by her repudiation of the need for further talk.

Man’s sense of inferiority and woman’s sense of completeness—both may be regarded as the particular vulnerabilities each brings to the occasion of the possibility of real talk between them, each vulnerability implying in its nature the different ways the two people may betray the occasion. For, in truth, man is not inferior to woman, and woman is not complete.



My concentration on the difficulties of man/woman talk should not be interpreted to mean that man/man and woman/ woman talk are not without their own dangers. Although the latter form of talk has not been my subject in this essay, let me say briefly that the commonality of experience between man and man and between woman and woman yields, in the realm of talk, both advantages and disadvantages. Because the talkers have their gender in common, and therefore much of the nature of their experience, they begin with a kind of agreement that facilitates a probing of this shared experience, so that there seems to be almost a shorthand for covering issues quickly and yet incisively. On the other hand, such commonality entails the risk, simply because it is never confronted by a wholly other response, that insofar as the speakers confirm one another, what they confirm are simply previously held presumptions and prejudices.

For man and woman there is no such shorthand, nor should there be. Moreover, where there seems to be a previously agreed-upon shorthand, I would suspect it serves evasion more than convenience. Real talk between a man and a woman has a hard-won, even laborious quality when compared to the easy intimacies between friends of the same sex. If I designate the tempo of man/woman talk as adagio, I certainly do not mean that less is said, for an adagio tempo, though its beat is slow, allows for rapidity and subtlety and a varied texture of expression. The reason for this tempo lies in the fact that for man and woman each is other to the other, no matter how much knowledge they may gain about each other over the course of their relation. And being other to the other, there is an element of startle to the back and forth, of being continually and surprisingly Caught off balance. I am of course now talking about talk at its best, in which honesty, equality, and imagination of one’s own and the other’s reality prevail. Real talk of this order, I must insist, is no permanent state of bliss: rather does it come and go, scrutiny of its wonders being the surest way to dispel it. But even without such scrutiny it falls back or withers into meaninglessness, so that the ground must be won and rewon. Early in a relation both sex and talk give powerful help to the restoration of meaning when it has been lost. But as the relation endures and the years pass, the balance between sex and talk shifts. Sex may still offer brief reconciliation, but unless meaning is restored through talk as well, the sexual consolation will become increasingly barren, even yielding to bitterness and despair. Language is now of the essence, and real talk assumes a heavier obligation. The words that broke through the last impasse and the impasse before that linger in memory and will no longer serve. Verbal habits have become familiar, and expressions that once carried deep personal meaning repeated use has rendered empty. What is needed now is not mere variety or novelty, but a precision of speech that can be inspired only by a more vigorous, more courageous imagination.

Toward the beginning of this essay I suggested that in real talk men and women could confirm and be confirmed not only as particular human beings, but as the particular man or woman each was meant to be. But this is a rather highflown way of putting the matter, so let me conclude in a more modest fashion that is at the same time more appropriate to my calling. Real talk between a man and a woman offers the supreme privilege of keeping the other sane and being kept sane by the other. As we look about us, it is obvious this privilege is not often fulfilled, and I suspect this has always been true. Nor is it the only way of staying sane. But it will remain, I believe, one of our best hopes.



About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.