Oct. 1, 2011
BOSTON — For the French, seduction isn't simply a question of sex. It's a mindset that transcends sexual conquest, relating to how one approaches one's life as a whole. Elaine Sciolino, Paris correspondent and former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, offers a few tips for Americans in her new book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life. She shared some thoughts on the book over email.
Seduction ≠ Sex
Sciolino described seduction in France as omnipresent in everything: From sharing a meal, to the scent of a perfume; from a walk through the Versailles gardens, to a night-tour of Paris — or the elegant hand-kiss of a charming man. "It is an all-encompassing word that can stand for persuasion, attraction, influence; soft power," Sciolino explained.
Sciolino makes it clear that seduction is a force that seems to infiltrate all areas of French life, whether it is present in flirtatious conversation or political debate. "I was fascinated by newspaper headlines that more than often made use of this word, séduction, to qualify situations, people, or even objects. Saying that a politician is 'a seducer' does not necessarily mean that he is physically or sexually attractive, it can mean that he has great charisma, that he is a talented speaker, a brilliant mind," Sciolino said.
In her book, Sciolino describes seduction in France, and in Paris particularly, as being inextricably wrapped up in a strong sensibility of quiet sophistication; much of which is transmitted and translated between people non-verbally throughout the culture. Sciolino explained the foundation of seduction as, le regard, "the look." It is without question, the first step in the art of French seduction.
"'Le regard' is the electric charge between two people. Their eyes lock and there is an immediate understanding. So much of seduction and seducing the other has to do with le regard, it holds promise and mystery, it's much more subtle than words, it has to do with the body without being overtly physical and sexual, but it can be enough to destabilize another, or to form a strong connection," Sciolino said.
I asked Sciolino to boil the game of seduction down to three rules (for busy American readers), or in this case, three acts of the "play." She accepted the challenge.
Act One: Le Regard
"Master the look. You never walk alone on the streets of Paris. (This is not New York!) Someone is always looking at you and you can look back. The look is powerful. There is something chaste and pure about 'the look,' as there is no sullying of the body. But there is also something inherently unfaithful about it, because with the look, you never stop falling in love. Stendhal, the nineteenth- century novelist, said, 'You can say everything in one look, and yet you can always deny the look, for it cannot be quoted word for word," Sciolino said.
This seemed to beg a question. Should "the look" be accompanied by a smile?
"Smiling is complicated in France," Sciolino said. "Avoid it in the beginning. Americans are accustomed to smiling at strangers; the French, particularly the Parisian, are not." That might help explain why some Americans find Parisians rude.
"The reluctance to smile does not indicate the absence of kindness in the French character, but it does signal reserve. A French smile is fraught with too much meaning to be bestowed as a mere pleasantry," Sciolino said.
Act Two: Intellectual Foreplay
"Turn conversation into a verbal caress and learn the pleasure of process. For the French, life is rarely about simply reaching the goal. It is also about the leisurely art of pursuing it and persuading others to join in. How much fun would sex be without the flirtation, or dinner without the bouquet of the wine? What joy is there in words without wordplay, or in ideas without fencing and parrying?" Sciolino said.
Act Three: The Kill
"Where an American might see 'the kill' as the sex act, the French might see it in the moment of pre-consummation. Some of the most unlikely characters throughout French history have valued the sizzle more than the steak. Georges Clemenceau is best known in the United States as a French prime minister. But he was also a novelist. There's a line in one of his novels that I love: 'The most beautiful moment in love is when I climb the staircase,'" Sciolino said.
This idea of anticipation as the apex of seduction is clearly illustrated on the jacket of Sciolino's book. In this case, a well-heeled woman climbs the staircase. One of the things a reader takes away from Sciolino's book is that for many French women in particular seduction = war. But is war a good metaphor for seduction?
"Arielle Dombasle, a singer and actress who is a character in my book, told me that seduction is war," Sciolino said. "So did Moliere's fictional character, Don Juan. Seduction can be war, but it's much more than that. Seduction has so many different facets. It's not simply war, it's not simply persuasion, it's a combination of all these different tactics, skills, emotions, processes. That's what makes it so complicated," Sciolino said.