After my sister left for college she changed. She used to be this shy but smart girl. Now she’s one of these girls with stupid words written on the butt of her pants and acting like an idiot. Really, like an idiot. She hides how intelligent she is and acts like her greatest ambition in the world is to lose five more pounds. I know she had a hard time in high school, not feeling like she fit in, never getting much attention from guys. I tried to tell her that guys that age are stupid, that things would change when she got into the real world, that she would be appreciated for who she is. But I don’t know, maybe she gave up when she saw college is a lot like high school. I don’t like this version of her and we barely talk anymore. Do you have a book that will fix her?
The moment in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” that Nathaniel loses interest in his beloved Clara is the moment she contradicts him. Actually, no, she says, probably your father wasn’t killed by an immortal sorcerer, and probably that same sorcerer did not show up at your apartment fifteen years later to sell you a barometer. Probably you thought you saw something the night your father died — you were a kid, after all — and you turned it into a horrible fantasy.
After that Nathaniel goes off and falls in love with someone else.
It’s a lie in our culture that all men want the same thing, and that thing does not in any way include complexity in their women. (It’s a lie men fall prey to as often as women, as a male friend noted while we watched a Friday night bar fill up with young women in short skirts and frightened-looking young men in grimy t-shirts.) They do not like to be contradicted, corrected, or challenged. They do not like women who are smarter than they are, more successful, or funnier. It’s a lie, but it’s pervasive, and when you have waited a while for a man to see your inner beauty, the depths of your being, the intricate mosaic of who you are, but none seems to have the requisite acuity of vision, and then you start to notice who around you is getting male attention, well… (It’s not the quality of that attention that is important when the difference in quantity is so hulking.) It’s understandable for a girl to start experimenting with outer simplicity.
In Hoffmann’s story, Nathaniel quickly forgets Clara when he meets Olympia. He falls madly in love, despite the fact that some of the other men think she seems a little wooden. Despite the fact that the only words he ever hears her say are “Ah! Ah!” and “Good night, my dear!” This woman whose beauty is so uncannily perfect must be the one. He reads his poetry to her and “she did not sew or knit, she did not gaze out the window…she did not find it necessary to stifle a yawn with a little forced cough — in short, she sat motionless, her gaze fixed on the eyes of her beloved.” Olympia, of course, turns out to be an automaton, all clockwork and wood, and even that discovery does not break the hold she has on him. Nathaniel’s love is a confirmation of what a lot of women might secretly think, that they have to scrape themselves down to a shiny, bland core to capture a man’s attention. But that gets so boring after a while.
The problem your sister might face is figuring out how and when to regain what she is voluntarily giving up now. It’s hard to know when it’s safe to start returning to those complexities: Poses can harden into habits, and habits can harden into characteristics. But you might have better luck in reaching her by engaging her on an intellectual level she may think she had abandoned, rather than just scolding. Because of course there is a library of feminist literature from Wollstonecraft to Despentes that you could drop on your sister’s doorstep. You could stand outside her window and read Andrea Dworkin through a megaphone. That’s not really going to help her satisfy whatever longings she has right now. But you might offer her Hoffmann’s dark little fable instead: images like his have a way of burrowing down and do their work over time.
As for the men of the world, they (most of them) would prefer their women not to be automatons. After the scandal that Nathaniel creates at his university, “to be quite convinced they were not in love with a wooden doll, many enamoured young men demanded that their young ladies should sing and dance in a less than perfect manner…but above all that they should not merely listen but sometimes speak too, and in such a way that what they said gave evidence of some real thinking and feeling behind it.” Hoffmann, the greatest of the Romantics if you ask me, knows a bit about the hearts of young men, and Clara turns out fine. Nathaniel, on the other hand, comes to a less successful end. But then what do you expect from a person whose soul mate is a dummy?
If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Thea Brine.