| The Mona Lisa Stratagem |
By Harriet Rubin
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help
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A just-picked plum Jackie Kennedy-fresh and firm and all of thirty-one, new mistress of her husband's White House-developed an obsession for a chubby glamourpuss named Madame de Maintenon who was well past menopause when she secretly married a king (Louis XIV). It is said that to get at a French king, you had to wiggle through a wall of women. All the more extraordinary, then, that at the center one should find this grandmama, as if that word were adequate. At the age of seventy-five Madame complained to her priest that the king insisted on sex with her every day, sometimes several times. Madame had a commanding and seductive presence that was more irresistible than when she was young and lithe. She made herself the central figure wherever she appeared. The king who took as his emblem the midday sun felt humbled and overshadowed by her and suddenly aware of his own mediocrity. In a court of pose and pomposity, she remained modest, spiritual, and compelling.
It's obvious why a person might covet the insights of age and power late in life, but at thirty-one? Jackie wanted to get a head start on the practices of power at its greatest. Power is the most intoxicating thing in the world, and the most intoxicating power comes with maturity and the confidence of having seen and done everything. When one is stirred by a resurgence of creative energy rivaling that of earlier decades, the challenge lies in knowing how to channel that power to the best possible ends.
But a wizened old hen like Madame? Exactly like Madame! She was no slave to manbooze; she had love but was also free. At Madame's age, she could feel like a woman but luxuriate in the full force of her own mind, just like a man. She could be sour when cranky opinion moved her and an enlightened influence when truth was at stake. Her power went beyond having a king fall at her feet. A dozen or more women just like her became the original chattering classes: they opened salons in their homes, shaped the agendas for talk, lured into their midst the bright minds of the time, and used these conversations to move ideas through the society. The ideas instigated by these "vintage" women and impregnated into men in high governmental and political positions formed a society distinguished by its insistence on truth and beauty. The Paris of the eighteenth century salonistes became the center of the world and the inspiration for the French Revolution. Ben Franklin wooed the salonistes for their insight into politics and access to key figures. They had something going for them that had proved impossible even in their own youth, some magic formula that put them at the center like the noonday sun.
Power brokers who came after Madame de Maintenon established themselves at the center of the universe for one hundred years. Men today follow the principles of the Godfather. For a creative, less moneymad time, these women were Godmothers. They formed a loose confederation or matriarchy-circles within circles of power. They talked not only with men but avidly with each other. Their unity, formed of their adroit construction of social platforms, made them figures to be reckoned with. They became an army of women-a Taliban of women-out to reconstruct a society based on the most sublime peace, amor mundi: love of the world. They cherished people outside their families as they cherished members of their families. Because what one man or even one family could con- tain all they had to give? At an age when they might have disappeared into the shadows locked in isolation from a community of purpose, they took to the big stage of social, cultural, and political effectiveness. No wonder Madame captured the attention and admiration of the young Jackie Kennedy, who followed her example to invest herself as America's queen, a position she held for decades, until her death, no matter who succeeded her as First Lady.
Godmothers like Madame were the ultimate strategists. They could focus their attention upon improving the world because they knew who the real enemy was. Time! A young woman may be hooked, her energies drained, by a difficult husband, a paranoid boss, a jealous friend, or her own nasty ninjas of troubled self-confidence. But in age, such minor enemies lose their edge. They no longer confuse and distract. Rather, in age, one may act from a position of strength to confront and then to create a truce with Time. Time is the thief of youth, beauty, and assurance. Anything Time stole from Madame, however, she was happy to let go of: the tiny waist, the smooth neck, and the flock of children off to feather their own nests. She knew where to find compelling substitutes for whatever she lost. Jackie, who could have had herself tutored in power by any of the men in her husband's presidential court, chose her teachers carefully. Her Godmothers had a seventh sense men lack: a sense of timing. Let's put a finer point on it. They had a sense of how to live their lives not frozen in the glory of some distant past or with the promise of some faraway future. These women made the most of every moment. Age was a form of wealth for them, each passing year another deposit into accounts marked Cleverness, Spontaneity, Pleasure, Accomplishment, Ease!
The subject of women, age, and power opens a bold new frontier. The idea that age is increase in anything but devastation is new to us. Women now live longer than ever, and in many of them, much of the world's wealth is coming to reside, the consequence of widowhood and divorce. But power is a late-life acquisition: for female writers, for example, the act of self-creation comes later in life than for men. Men tend to move on a fairly predictable path to achievement; women transform themselves only after an awakening. What is the nature of women's late awakening? What powerful qualities show up late, like latecomers to a party who enliven the whole affair?
One's fifties are said to be one's most creative decade, one's sixties marked by freedom, and one's seventies by a state of nobility. But such talk seems like the myth of the no-calorie cheesecake. People say a bite won't cost anything, but you know it does. Age seems both the opposite of power and its deepest expression. How can it be both a huge gift and a high-ticket item? The answer is that most people don't know how to age, but some people are better in age than they ever were. Age for those who get it right is a metaphysical diet: a chance to lose dead weight like the disease to please, the obsession with status, or the burden to be trendy or fashionable. In fact, everything Time steals means that something more important is restored.
Like Jackie, I set out to find those brilliant maturers, true alchemists of Time, and to understand the means by which they turned loss into tremendous gain. How did they continue walking into rooms and dazzling, no matter how many young women were present? Why did they grow more interesting, immune to disappearing into "the sands of time"? Why were they taken more seriously as leaders yet also considered more feminine than in their youth? How did they manage to work less and achieve more? The secret lay in a lost definition of femininity that is found in maturity.
I scoured hundreds of biographies to find this secret of how some women have aged brilliantly-have made the years between forty-five and ninety the best of their lives. One becomes the sum of one's parts in this second third of life. It is obvious, first of all, that maturity defines itself differently from youth, less in terms of success than in terms of happiness. People claim that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is central to existence. But while there are plenty of defenders of life and liberty, how do we defend our right to be happy, which in maturity we crave? I saw common themes and actions in the lives of those who outsmart Time. They do not turn the clock back to mimic youth. Rather they live by the Stratagem. To do so, they practice the femininity lost to modern time. The Godmothers' Time-resistant feminine secrets as I found them unfold in these pages. They are immortal truths about how to approach being immortal, which is to mature to your sweetest, sharpest, and truest-and to rely on these ultra-feminine techniques for a very long time.
The women discussed herein are players: persons through whose hands the secrets of the whole world had to pass. I dismissed the notion that examples of great women are daunting to the rest of us. Why not have the best guides? Who looks at mediocre paintings for inspiration? Great pieces of art, though we may never fully understand them or how they were made, still invigorate and improve us.
I was interested especially in how in maturity a woman might fall in love with herself as a new experience so different from the plaguing uncertainties of youth. Central to this late-style power is how women negotiate the fear that no one is looking at them or appreciating them. Older, women are not invisible; rather, people look at them with a very different curiosity from that which greeted them in youth. Knowing the ways in which they are visible is a key to their power.
This book, then, is a primer of power. Primer as in basic work of strategy. Primer as in "first coat." Anything, any color, any design you cast over your life, love, and happiness will be brighter and more alluring because of how you keep the Stratagem's basic principles in mind.
Maturity redefines the masculine virtues into a feminine key, which is what makes this a book of advice for both sexes. The wisdom of maturity is best summarized as gallantry. Gallantry is more than simply being good. Maturity shows respect for what is aesthetically appropriate or necessary. Gallantry is typically associated with men's actions toward women, which presumed a kind of delicateness on women's part. Female gallantry is protectiveness, resoluteness, love for ideals, and a maternal regard for the people in our charge, mixed with a light sense of irony, of taking oneself seriously and comically.
Everything about mature power is different from the so-called gold standard, which Machiavelli's The Prince and other classic works of effectiveness define as excitability, indelible action, and bringing events to a tragic boil or outcome, in which someone wins and others lose.
A new sense of Time and of timing changes one's worldview. For the young, the search is for the new- new thing that must catch on quick. Mature ideas may also take on a disruptive quality but veer more toward the traditional: a going against the restless stream of innovation, not a desire for the unique but a devotion to the irreducible thing, that which endures, which is outside of Time and trends. This sounds difficult only because it is unusual. To position oneself beyond Time requires only a small shift in thinking. Instead of thinking of trends, observe how the irreducible is the Timeless element. It dazzles us with sheer beauty and rightness. The nurse Cicely Saunders went to medical school at age forty-five to become credentialed as a doctor because she wanted the respect necessary to establish as a profession the then barely known practice of palliative care-a heresy to mainstream medicine bent on delivering cures at ferocious economic and human cost.
Saunders had seen how medicine often brutalized patients in order to cure them, and when the so-called cures failed, doctors abandoned patients. When Saunders announced her plan, her mother argued against it: "Medical school at forty-five? You'll be nearly fifty when you graduate." "Mother, dear," she said, "I'll be fifty anyway. Why not also be a doctor?" Saunders created the first Western hospice-a philosophy of care and an organization to treat those on whom doctors had given up. In a hospice, the sick would not die uncared for or alone, their pain untreated. Saunders's model of allowing patients to dictate their treatment, to gauge their pain and choose their intervention, has changed the paternalistic model of traditional medicine. She founded the modern hospice movement, establishing St. Christopher's in London-a home for the dying that is as spiritual as a church. It was not a new thing. Hospices had welcomed sick pilgrims since medieval times. But as a challenge to the medical establishment to face its biases and limits, St. Christopher's captured the one thing, an irreducible apprehension about life, which is that no one should die alone or in pain, that death is like childbirth, a passage for which one should be as conscious as necessary. To find the one thing that may transform others means discovering the irreducible quality in the self.
That is what this book describes: finding the essential force of one's life story so that one may become inspired to create things so much a part of the human fabric that Time cannot easily erase them; rather Time will become a co-conspirator in keeping them alive, perhaps forever.
In this Art of War with Time, one confronts Time anew. Much like Picasso, the sculptor Louise Nevelson became a greater artist in age than in her youth. She had feared loss of fertility with menopause, but by age fifty-nine, "I had this energy that was fl owing like an ocean into creativity. Not fertility but fecundity." Fertility is the condition by which one becomes pregnant. Fecundity means making others pregnant: nourishing, overflowing with grain, wheat, flowers: harvest is maturity. Nevelson's sense of her vitality increased with Time. Instead of making decorative objects as in her youth, she became in her own mind a person who imposes herself on the environment. By defeating Time she conquered Space as well. Her sense of scale expanded. Her built environments became "empires" constructed of "a thousand destructions of the real world." Her mature pieces were walls, structures, half shelters . . . places that redefined one's experience of space.
Excerpted from The Mona Lisa Stratagem , by Harriet Rubin . Copyright (c) 2007 by Harriet Rubin . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top