Friday, November 27, 2009

What's Smarts Got to Do with It?

My mother, a professor, leads a rather fabulous lifestyle when it comes to pleasure travel. She has the time and just enough money to do it, and she often spends months at a time gallivanting across the world. Lately, after having lost a lot of weight and transforming her wardrobe, my seemingly asexual mother has attracted the attention of several men. The fact that this occurs often leaves me back in Montreal worried to death about her! In these travel flings, she has only started romantic relationships with what our society would label as ‘uneducated’ people--an unskilled, unemployed Moroccan illegal immigrant in Italy and another uneducated Algerian in Paris. My mother being a professor, and myself holding various degrees, I’ve always held elite standards with regard to who I think deserves her romantic companionship. It should be someone educated and eloquent, or at the very least a man with a highly stimulating intellectual flare. Anything less simply will not do--he needs to be able to blow my mind before I approve. Thus, you can imagine my frustrations, the great sighs of consternation that only a child scorning a parent could do. How could both an unsuccessful and uneducated man deserve the fond attentions of my mother, who is herself rather successful and educated? Even beyond the world of first judgments (as described in the post “Overcoming Asexualization”), doesn’t she deserve better?

I suppose these assumptions, that intelligent people should be with other intelligent people, is inherent both in the academic environment in which I’ve grown up as well as in the broader North American society, which puts intelligent people on a separate pedestal from the ‘hoi polloi’ or ‘joe/jill six pack.’ From my perspective, I know I'm always drawn to people when I feel like they have something interesting to share, and I quite frankly despise conversations lacking intensity or real depth. The problem: I often mistake ‘interesting’ for ‘intellectually rigorous,’ ‘superficial’ for ‘mindlessly pointless and stupid,’ and hence I tend to do far more flexing of my brain when I’m talking to other people than is warranted for most social situations (most recently, reciting Sappho and Alkman from memory during a dinner party, to the open mouths of the other guests). Isn’t it possible to have an equally intense and non-superficial conversation with someone who is not ‘intelligent’ in the traditional sense of the word?

After recently expounding on this topic, a gay acquaintance asked me “why is intelligence important to you in a romantic relationship?” It is a fair question: I may wax poetic on the beauty of intelligence, but what does it really mean to have a relationship with an intelligent person, and it is really the standard that I should hold myself to? Furthermore, isn’t the perception of intelligence also something of a social construction? In reality, just as there will always be someone more beautiful than we are, there will always be someone more intelligent. So where do we draw the line? As a counter to my comment on the importance of intelligence, my acquaintance argued that it would be wonderful to be with a ‘simple’ person, someone who lives more fully and happily true to themselves in a state more grounded in reality. But should simple really be contrasted to intelligence? After all, I lead a relatively simple lifestyle (no real ‘baggage’ to speak of), even though the life of my mind is anything but simple. If we were to restrict our definition of simple to just the life of the mind, suggesting that we would like someone who only has the simplest and most basic of thoughts, as if a child, wouldn’t these people also in many cases be more interested in the simplest and most basic of satisfactions? Furthermore, in having to constantly face their own simpleness, wouldn’t they not become, in time, rather complex individuals, from learning from various mistakes they make when they fail to comprehend a more complex situation with their simple thoughts? In other words, when life happens to us, don't we stop being simple when gaining life's experiences? And if they continue to remain grounded and don’t learn from these mistakes, aren’t they also missing their reality more than someone who lives with his/her head in the clouds but cognizant of the complexities of life? Intelligent people may be unhappy out of a lack of contentedness in their life and the world they see around them, but aren’t ‘simple’ people also unhappy out of a lack of knowledge and understanding of things that they don’t know but ought to, which often limits their lifestyle and opportunities? Are any of us, simple people or intelligent people, really all that happy or tranquil, as my friend suggests?

Accepting that a romantic relationship with a ‘simple’ person is not necessarily any easier or more satisfying than with an intellectual person, should it really be a deciding factor in romantic relationships? Can romance and interpersonal relationships ever really be simple, even if the people are? I don’t honestly think so.

I asked my mom why she did get involved with men who were not, as I might so haughtily put it, intellectual firestorms. Discussing her last such boyfriend, she said that he was a “good man,” tender, and perhaps most importantly, he didn’t hesitate to embrace and enjoy her own intelligent thought and accept her independent nature. According to her experience, in order to be madly successful and likeable to the masses of men out there, your best bet is to be an attractive young bimbette, better yet a damsel in distress. Apparently, it’s better to be a project a man can work on, so he can share his own manly experience and know-how (or even brute strength) to the benefit of his fawning partner. I sometimes see these tendencies in myself as well, such as when I offer to rush out into the night to the rescue (with medication and food) of any of the guys I seem to be courting for friendship (or more) when they fall ill. With similar motivations, I offer my own editing services to people who need help writing or speaking in English. There are few things more rewarding than feeling needed, wanted, and useful for something other than our souls. How can men be both self-sufficient and independent (the attractive trait of masculinity in our culture) as well as damsels in distress, when it comes to homosexual relationships? And which is more important in this type of relationship, dependence or independence? These are probably the complicated questions du jour that I won’t continue to discuss here. The problem my mom has: as an intelligent, self-sufficient bastion of independence, men don’t feel like she needs them (and she doesn’t, not directly anyway), and as a result men seem to gravitate away from her toward the younger, more-dependent damsels in distress.

My attitude, however, has always been to embrace the intelligence I see in other people. I like to nurse and feed the knowledge gained from a man's mind, using my conversations with him to help drive new intellectual passions that might come about as a result of our discourse. That’s the thing I like most about dating or forming friendships with an intelligent man (or woman in the latter case)--I see what’s lacking in my own thoughts, and it leaves me seeking more in my own life. Physical Eros readily turns philosophical for me, and vice-versa, with little barrier between them. That’s what I felt with the man I described in “The First Date” experience described here in a previous entry. However, in that particular case I flexed my own intelligence a bit much. It became clear that I knew the history and geography of his home country better than him, and instead of being intrigued or engaging these points to learn more, he'd rather shut down. This is the problem with intelligent egos: they are often as sensitive as they are large. Being humbled or having their own knowledge or assumptions questioned is not something intelligent people always particularly enjoy. In such cases, intelligent men really would prefer, as my mom would argue, to pursue adoring, charming, sociable, simpler-minded partners, ones that they can eclipse in intellectual finesse as needed to establish their individual prominence. This is particularly true when it comes to manly fields of knowledge (yes, it seems certain spheres of knowledge can be viewed as gender roles by themselves). For example, rarely is a heterosexual man envious of his wife’s knowledge of sewing. It eventually became clear to me that, in my first date experience, there was little interest from my date because he felt threatened my own openly-enthusiastic curiosity. It’s also possible that he perceived my specialization as more ‘manly’ than his, which could have also been menacing for a man lacking real confidence in his own masculinity or masculine knowledge. The few times he did have the opportunity to sternly correct me, such as when I said “impulsive response” instead of “impulse response” (a jargon distinction in his discipline), I could tell he enjoyed it.

Suddenly, my own ideas about the importance of intelligence in romance were blurred. I may find intelligence attractive (my first date was quite obviously intelligent), but intelligence, just as simple-mindedness, can be transient, illusive, and perceived/judged through unreliable social constructs (such as formal education level and career experience). When we are seeking 'the good’ in another person, is that ‘good’ always intelligent, and can we really assume that intelligence is necessarily part of ‘the good?’ This is a question that my mentor Plato would have taken on with great rigour, undoubtedly defending ‘knowledge’ as ‘the good.’ However, even this great philosopher faltered on the definition of ‘knowledge’ (in the Theatetus) and its fundamental relationship to intelligence. After all, doesn’t it stand to reason that someone can be more knowledgeable than intelligent, as well as vice-versa: more intelligent than knowledgeable?

Recently, I found myself applying these questions in a less philosophical, more direct way. Pietro (discussed at the end of my last entry) lost virtually all interest not long after we had that obligatory ‘sexual philosophy’ talk, in which I found out he is a ready ‘bottom’, and he found out that I was a quite happily a virgin outside of love. Much later I found out that he had found someone else. Coming on the heels of Pietro’s rapidly-dwindling interest, I started talking to Jean-Marc, a wonderful, good man, who I have little in common with on intellectual grounds. He is a college dropout with only a completed high school education, someone I might have formerly, without further consideration, deemed as an ill-advised romantic choice. Suddenly, I found myself in my mom’s situation, which I had judged so harshly before (and since realizing this I have apologized to her!). In recognizing that I had perhaps failed to assess my mom’s position from a less theoretical, more human vantage point, I didn’t yield to my base assumptions and conclusions about his personality. After an incredibly long, intense and intimate exchange, I was actually interested and intrigued, not to mention flattered and truly appreciative of his elaborate prose to me. While I am rather attracted to his physical appearance--his beard, slightly-chubby face, and what a voice!-- I found his writing to be one of the most beautiful things about him; in it he revealed to me many lovely, subtle nuances in the French language. He was no less diligent in contacting me as I him, clearly both of us filled with a certain kind of Eros for each other. This was most obviously expressed in the way he embraced our differences just as much as our similarities. He was able to stretch my mind in new ways as well, in particular with regard to indirectly challenging my own perspectives (whether it be alternative medicine, spiritual philosophy, or transgenderism as a kind of comic relief). Another quality I find attractive in him: he is unflinchingly honest, true to himself, and modestly admits to his own weaknesses without being prompted to do so.

I also was quite surprised to learn that he is an extrovert who frequently parties (it’s sometimes his job), and yet he still retained a pronounced interest in me, despite the fact that I am his opposite in this regard. It seems like, in some deeper way, he understands and appreciates my introverted ways and ivory tower, while not partaking of these himself. There’s just something about the way he treats life, filled with real joy, and his comprehensive openness, understanding, and acceptance of the world around him. And I can’t help but be charmed by his directness, how he explicitly stated that he loves complicated, esoteric, intelligent guys, something he says he’s found in me. Imagine my surprise, a man who isn’t threatened by my complicated thoughts and my love of thinking, but rather embraces them!

What about from my perspectives on Jean-Marc regarding the importance of intelligence? Would I describe him as a cunningly intelligent individual, an academic, an intellectual? Certainly not, and I don’t think Jean-Marc would hazard or care to take on these identities. It’s true that his thoughts do not strike me as particularly profound; his conversation points are not outstandingly intelligent (nor often are mine, quite frankly), but neither are they are superficial or lacking in intense thought. In discovering this, I began to see something deeply beautiful in his soul that fills me with enthusiasm and joy. I am reacting to the goodness that I see in his person, realizing in turn that my definitions of intelligence and educational attainment really aren’t adequate considerations in the world of romance.

In closing, there’s really no easy answer to the question of intelligence. How it plays out in the complicated and often difficult interplay of minds as a relationship evolves depends strongly on the people engaging each other. Calculating intelligence is certainly nice to have in a partner, when possible, just as I’m sure it is quite pleasant to be in love with a beautiful body. But neither situations are always advantageous at the end of the day. It seems more important to have a warm person who truly appreciates you and who you truly appreciate in return, embracing each other’s humanity, lovingkindness, and companionship above all else. Suddenly, one thing the gay acquaintance I mentioned earlier told me rings true: “After being celibate for 34 years, when I came to Montreal I wanted to understand my love for men, despite being met by deception and frustration as I tried to do so. Love doesn’t make any sense, but I have learned that what a man says doesn’t matter as much as who he is as a person.”


  1. alright, so i skipped a few lines of this long post... sorry it's late and i'll be going to bed soon... while your mother need to show caution in her "encounters", just like anybody else, you need to take example on her, & show generosity of the ehart. you're too rationalizing things. you meet a guy, embrace him him for what he's got to give, not what you think he should have.
    find the man that does,
    and cope with what he is...
    there are always compromises in life.
    just know where to draw the line.

  2. as i punched in the verification code, i saw a typo. i'm sure there's more then one...
    i never re-read myself...
    you'll get use to it!!!

  3. Salut Ticklebear. C'est encore un plaisir de découvrir ton commentaire. I think you've captured the moral of this blog head-on, and I think that's what my friend Amir was really trying to get at (the quote in the last line). Basing a romantic choice on what you think he should have leads inevitably to disappointment, but keeping an open mind (the Jean-Marc example) may lead to new discoveries and a revision of former, superficial standards.

  4. standards are good, as they define your comfort zone. but you should keep it large, not too narrow, without compromising on the basics.
    me thinks!!