Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Flirtation; or Let Us Sport Us While We May: An Assay and Manifesto

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Flirtation; or Let Us Sport Us While We May: An Assay and Manifesto

Article excerpt

Sin autem longo nox una aut altera lusu Consumpta est, non me crimina parva movent.

[But a night or two of long-drawn amorous sport--Never suppose that I'm upset by such peccadilloes ...]

--Propertius, Elegies II.32.29-30

But if you really want me, move slow ...

--Britney Spears, "Sometimes"

I. First Glances

FLIRTATION EXISTS ONLY when discerned yet unacknowledged. Its baseline characteristics are generally understood, but it evades restrictive definitions, for it is solely by sneaking across boundaries and disguising itself as other things that it survives. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, for example, Lady Bertilak is dearly coming on to Gawain when she questions his identity and attacks his chivalry:

   But our guest is not Gawain--forgot is that thought.
   So good a knight as Gawain is given out to be,
   And the model of fair demeanor and manners pure,
   Had he lain so long at a lady's side,
   Would have claimed a kiss, by his courtesy,
   Through some touch or trick of phrase at some tale's end.

(lines 19.93-1301; Abrams 1: 269.)

Her beguiling roundabout approach provokes physical reciprocation: Gawain kisses her immediately. In the meantime, the poet is cannily toting with his audience by challenging their norms of masculine propriety, a preoccupation we'll return to below. For now, it is sufficient to recognize that like the serpent, like a computer virus, our quarry is subtle and shifty. Comprehending flirtation will call for close observation.

In any of its habitats (toga party, Musee des Beaux Arts, holding cell), authentic coquetry must be held aloft by an innocent conspiracy (the same natural law that keeps cartoon characters suspended in mid-air until they realize their gravitationally challenged position). Progress is fatal. The breakdown typically follows one of three formulae: (1) the refusal to continue (Chaucer's "I wol no lenger pleye with thee"); (9) the decision to proceed to physical enjoyments, a venture little different than the mergers and acquisitions of greedy multinational conglomerates, and so requiring no further comment here; or (3) and most uncivilized, the clumsy statement that explicitly refers to the open secret at hand. "Art, if hidden, avails," Ovid declared (Si latet, ars prodest), and if anyone knew the ins and outs of hooking up, it was the aquiline-nosed Roman (Ovid, The Art of Love, II, 313). In nearly all instances, to ask, no matter how seductively, "Are you hitting on me?" bursts the bubble. The equilibrium being maintained by gentle buffering shifts too abruptly, and the connection fractures (Le Chatelier's principle in action, we recall from Chemistry 101). The exchange might go on pleasantly enough, and might even pave the way for future sport, but it will no longer be flirting exactly. Too much aggression, too much passivity; a premature revelation, a delayed comeback: any imbalance may tip the canoe. This elusive and endangered creature, then, expires easily--as easily as the temperamental instrument of male potency when quelled by worry over failure; at least, Montaigne thought so.

Though dalliance can serve serious purposes and lead to adult outcomes (e.g., love, marriage, lawsuit), it should be played as if absolutely inconsequential, no more than a moment's diversion. Effortlessness is all. You may feel that half-blinded by sun, sweat, and fear, you're combating a wily Achaean warrior on the Phrygian plains before Troy, but it is best to affect a detached or languid air. Practice by running through dialogue from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (a serious comedy about trivial things) as deadpan as can be. For instance, witness Jack Worthing: "My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!" (Abrams 2, 1697). Aim for the sprezzatura effect. …

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