In Praise Of Being A Loser In Love

“I weary in this playground of boys proud and happy in their balls and marbles.”

Margaret Fuller

Joe Mabel.

Joe Mabel.

Full disclosure: The Male Harem was born out of heartbreak and emotional mayhem. More on that after we cut to the chase – the sense of failure, abandonment, and incompetency at not getting it right after love is lost. The Big Ouch. Perhaps most of you have breezed right through that but for those who haven’t, The Sultanette offers inspiration in the life of Margaret Fuller.

Brilliantly documented by Cristina Nehring in A Vindication of Love, while Margaret Fuller’s accomplishments were vast, acknowledged, and esteemable, her love life was a series of train wrecks.

Born in 1810 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, she was the eldest of seven siblings all of whom came under her care at the death of her father when she was twenty-five. She taught, wrote literary criticism and fiction, and mastered several foreign languages. She became the first editor of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The Dial, the first woman in America to report on a foreign war, and authored Woman in the Nineteenth Century, considered the first feminist work in America. Through her public Conversations “designed to encourage women in self-expression and independent thinking” she introduced the ladies of Boston to Shakespeare, Goethe, and Plato. She then moved to Manhattan becoming America’s first full-time female journalist before leaving to cover the Italian revolution for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune.

Not counting all that, her life was a disaster. That is, if living happily ever after with a man counts. Observed from the aerial view of biography, one watches as she ricochets from confidante to intellectual, philistine to sensualist, her generosity and passion ever open to exploring the next iteration, her spirit never surrendering to despair upon each demise.

“I knew myself incapable of feeling or being content with an ordinary attachment.”  Margaret Fuller

Her first love, Samuel Ward, was a painter cum banker who after years of soul-sharing and love declared, married her best friend. She bore it with painful equanimity. Enter Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dazzled by Fuller’s dynamic brilliance, he wrote in their formidable correspondence, “All natures seem poor beside one so rich.”

In his introduction to A Year With Emerson, Richard Grossman describes the force behind the Transcendentalist movement  as “one of the most provocative teachers who ever lived.” At the risk of busting this philosophical titan, he was wimpish when faced with the muscularity of Fuller’s emotions. “Can one be glad of an affection, “he once wrote to her, “which he knows not how to return?”

From The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson, 1899.

From The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Anderson, 1899.

Emerson’s second marriage was anodyne, as described by Nehring, perhaps because he’d never recovered from the death of his first wife. He was a slight 150 pounds on a nearly six-foot frame and often worried about his health. But that was of no concern to Fuller. Upon cancelling a lecture because he’d lost a night’s sleep, her reaction to him was, “Lost a night’s rest! As if an intellectual person ever had a night’s rest!”

She was, he wrote in the Memoir of Margaret Fuller Ossoli after she died, “a foreigner from some more sultry and expansive climate.” While their sparkling intellectual rapport sustained the relationship for years, the man who wrote, “The life of man is the true romance,” was unable to inhabit the world of this “divine mermaid and fisher of men.”

 “I wish that I were a man, and then at least there would be one.” Margaret Fuller

Next, a German businessman. Fuller met James Nathan upon moving to Manhattan as a journalist to cover social issues, the arts and culture.  Described by Nehring as a “sweet-talking opportunist” Nathan spilled on her “his failures and sufferings in love.” Ever the Florence Nightingale of wounded souls, Fuller may have already begun to weary of him when she wrote, “My dear friend … It is a great sin even to dream of wishing for less thought, less feeling than one has.” He left for Europe, promising he’d return. They corresponded until the letter arrived, announcing he was marrying a German girl. Fuller ripped the letter into confetti and moved on.

She was now three for three. But what was it about Margaret Fuller that was allergic to sulking off and licking her wounds? Unlike the men in her life, she didn’t compartmentalize her passions. While caring for her siblings, she fiercely pursued her talents. While intellectually sparring with Emerson, she exposed messy emotions. In a time when it was respectable for a woman to live through a man’s life, had she embraced that love could be more inspiration than obligation? More influence than sustenance?

Coco with friends.

Coco with friends.

“Never did Fuller act as boldly, write as gorgeously, or argue as acutely,” Nehring says, “as when she loved.” The frisson of intellect, empathy and intimacy she felt in every nerve-ending of her relationships became Fuller’s muse, not her savior. In the next century, another brilliant original, Coco Chanel, would declare, “No matter the age, a woman who is unloved is lost – unloved she might as well die.”

The Male Harem began with the deaths of women. (I told you we’d get to this part.) My mother at ninety-six, piss and vinegar to the end. (See Mom’s philosophy in “It Depends On What The Meaning Of The Word “It” Is”) Two months later, my sister of cancer. In the aftermath of emotions, I began to see that One and Only and I were running on empty, and that after losing my family, there was no one there to catch me. By my calculation, counting on nothing was more reliable than half of nothing so I ended the relationship.

Not for the first time I began a new life, but after sixteen years of comforting habit if benign neglect, getting through a weekend was often harrowing. On one of those first solitary Saturday nights, I was walking home up Second Avenue after watching an obscure documentary film with a girlfriend. Couples spilled out of bars in boozy embraces, winding down from a lazy day of brunching and beaching.

I began to have the sinking feeling that I was the loneliest woman on earth. And then I noticed beyond the glare of street lamps, the thinnest sliver of moon in a deep velvet sky. Struck by its pristine beauty in the grimy heat of the Manhattan night, I paused at the gnarled traffic on 14th Street and had a Margaret Fuller moment. It was time to stop relying on the illusion that families live forever, and relationships never self-destruct, and that once I got it right I’d be happy. I started walking up Second Avenue like it was my first, and into the adventure of The Male Harem.

ship_01Fuller’s final grande passione ended in a shipwreck. While covering the Italian revolution she had met Count Giovanni Ossoli, a solder eleven years her junior. More brave than bookish, more virile than intellectual, he got her like no others had. He fathered her child and the Cambridge crowd did not approve. Returning with her family on a stormy night in July, the boat was lost at sea. How apropos that this woman who was never afraid of the flames of passion ended her life just off of Fire Island.

Some losers go down in flames. Some poke around in the ashes and find something to revel in again. Fuller once wrote to Emerson, “You are Intellect, I am life.” To her, even the fleeting passion between men and mermaids was a fine philosophy.

“Happy the survivor if losing his friend he loses not the idea of friendship.” Margaret Fuller

Coming soon … the precarious, gregarious, and multifarious charms of  The Male Harem.