JAMES SALTER WROTE THE COVer piece in the March Esquire. This is noteworthy because Salter is a noteworthy writer, although this particular article, an essay of sorts, was described to me as slight. I found it anything but. It is called "Younger Women, Older Men," and next to those words on the cover is a picture of a beautiful young woman -- beautiful, young and nude. The essence of Salter's article is that he wants to make love to that young woman, never mind (this is me talking now) her relative ignorance or her tendency to say "psyched" or, for that matter, that almost everyone (including all women) would disapprove. Never mind all that. He wants her. And so do I.
I think of Salter as brave. He is not brave in the way he set out to be (he was a career military officer), but brave as a writer. The book for which he is most admired, A Sport and a Pastime, is almost entirely about sex and its power. It concerns the imagined love of a man for a woman with whom he cannot carry on an intellectual conversation, a woman who is ignorant in many areas, the notable exception being men and how to please them. This she knows in the same way a foal knows how to walk at birth.
A Sport and a Pastime is a brave book, and so, in a way, is this piece in Esquire. At a minimum, it is not politically correct. As I understand PC (Does anyone understand PC?), it involves the inappropriate (my qualifier) extension of drawing-room manners into politics and ideas. Thus, just as you would not tell your aunt that her dress is ugly and her roast beef leathery, so you would not characterize people or their beliefs in a way that would offend them, even if what you'd say is true (or is it especially if it's true?).
When it comes to men and women, some of these beliefs amount to wishful thinking. One of them has to do with aging, which men do better (PC: differently) than women, and another has to do with this strange and powerful attraction that older men feel for younger women, an attraction that is strange if only because it is often reciprocated. It's a bit different from the attraction women might feel for younger men. The latter are not usually boys, while Heloise, Salter says, was a mere 16 when she began her affair with the 39-year-old Abelard, and Melanie Griffith was only 14 when she first lived with Don Johnson, then 22. This is the stuff of countless cautionary tales and movies, some of them tragedies, some of them farces, but many of them just too ordinary to warrant any characterization at all. This is just life.
But what's striking about the Salter piece is its reluctant, bittersweet quality. The pursuit of young women by older men is something neither to laugh nor cry about, but merely something to wonder about. It is a perversity of nature, like an awful drought, something whose original purpose (if there was one) is now obsolete. We would all, would we not, want to grow old together, age together, grow closer and closer as the years go by. But nature intrudes, and the man, against his better judgment and all his political beliefs, feels the tropism of lust. He bends in the direction of youth, putting a premium on a quality he is not supposed to value, does not want to value and yet finds that he does value. Salter recognizes this for the injustice it is: "It is a perversion of the state that nature intended of amity and understanding between men and women . . ."
Maybe. But I think nature is a reactionary. It does not allow these yearnings, these attractions to conform to political and ideological beliefs. Instead it mocks them. If you asked a certain sort of man, a man like myself, if he valued learning and sophistication in a woman, he would say yes, certainly. If you asked him if he wanted an equal for a partner, he would say yes. But Salter knows better. "There are few things more gratifying than being in the company of someone younger who admires you for your knowledge and is avid to have it shared. If you are lucky, it is a woman."
"If you are lucky"? I'm not so sure. But Salter has identified the exhilaration, and I can't quibble with it. It is a dumb pleasure, like smoking, which is spoiled by the realization that the consequences may be awful. It's a fool's pleasure in which the fool knows he's a fool. You cannot even dabble in it without feeling preposterous, oddly James Masonish as he played his role to the hilt in "Lolita."
I have written in praise of older women. I did so once when a certain government official was quoted as praising "the young Lauren Bacall." Reading that, I leaped to the defense of the older Lauren Bacall. But, deep down, I knew what he meant. At 19 or 20, which is how old she was when Bogey met her, she was stunning. Still, I was being honest because I was talking about a different kind of attraction. Women (like men) are more interesting as they age, and interesting, to me, is attractive. I did so also because some older women are attractive, even at a glance, but I did so mostly because I want women to be equal to men when it comes to aging. In other words, I want for women what they want for themselves, but I want it mostly for my own sake: I want to find the older ones as attractive as the younger ones.
A younger woman to a mature man is a provocation, like a squirrel to some apartment-bred dog who's been told to sit. Maybe a dog is man's best friend because they have something in common: the veneer of domesticity. Salter wrote: "Men's dream and ambition is to have women, as a cat's is to catch birds, but this is something that must be restrained."