Our self-image that is more flattering than the truth

We all have a self-image that is more flattering than the truth: we think of ourselves as more generous, selfless, honest, kindly, intelligent, or good-looking than in fact we are. It is extremely difficult for us to be honest with ourselves about our own limitations; we have a desperate need to idealize ourselves. As the writer Angela Carter remarks, we would rather align ourselves with angels than with the higher primates from which we are actually descended.

This need to idealize extends to our romantic entanglements, because when we fall in love, or under the spell of another person, we see a reflection of ourselves. The choice we make in deciding to become involved with another person reveals something important and intimate about us: we resist seeing ourselves as having fallen for someone who is cheap or tacky or tasteless, because it reflects badly on who we are. Furthermore, we are often likely to fall for someone who resembles us in some way.


Should that person be deficient, or worst of all ordinary, then there is something deficient and ordinary about us. No, at all costs the loved one must be overvalued and idealized, at least for the sake of our own self-esteem. Besides, in a world that is harsh and full of disappointment, it is a great pleasure to be able to fantasize about a person you are involved with. This makes the seducer’s task easy: people are dying to be given the chance to fantasize about you. Do not spoil this golden opportunity by overexposing yourself, or becoming so familiar and banal that the target sees you exactly as you are. You do not have to be an angel, or a paragon of virtue—that would be quite boring. You can be dangerous, naughty, even somewhat vulgar, depending on the tastes of your victim. But never be ordinary or limited. In poetry (as opposed to reality), anything is possible. Soon after we fall under a person’s spell, we form an image in our minds of who they are and what pleasures they might offer. Thinking of them when we are alone, we tend to make this image more and more idealized.


The novelist Stendhal, in his book On Love, calls this phenomenon “crystallization,” telling the story of how, in Salzburg, Austria, they used to throw a leafless branch into the abandoned depths of a salt mine in the middle of winter. When the branch was pulled out months later, it would be covered with spectacular crystals. That is what happens to a loved one in our minds. According to Stendhal, though, there are two crystallizations. The first happens when we first meet the person. The second and more important one happens later, when a bit of doubt creeps in—you desire the other person, but they elude you, you are not sure they are yours. This bit of doubt is critical—it makes your imagination work double, deepens the poeticizing process.

In the seventeenth century, the great rake the Duc de Lauzun pulled off one of the most spectacular seductions in history—that of the Grande Mademoiselle, the cousin of King Louis XIV, and the wealthiest and most powerful woman in France. He tickled her imagination with a few brief encounters at the court, letting her catch glimpses of his wit, his audacity, his cool manner. She would begin to think of him when she was alone. Next she started to bump into him more often at court, and they would have little conversations or walks. When these meetings were over, she would be left with a doubt: is he or is he not interested in me? This made her want to see him more, in order to allay her doubts. She began to idealize him all out of proportion to the reality, for the duke was an incorrigible scoundrel.

Remember: if you are easily had, you cannot be worth that much. It is hard to wax poetic about a person who comes so cheaply. If, after the initial interest, you make it clear that you cannot be taken for granted, if you stir a bit of doubt, the target will imagine there is something special, lofty, and unattainable about you. Your image will crystallize in the other person’s mind.


Finally, if your targets should see you as elevated and poetic, there is much to be gained by making them feel elevated and poeticized in their turn. The French writer Chateaubriand would make a woman feel like a goddess, she had such a powerful effect on him. He would send her poems that she supposedly had inspired. To make Queen Victoria feel as if she were both a seductive woman and a great leader, Benjamin Disraeli would compare her to mythological figures and great predecessors, such as Queen Elizabeth I. By idealizing your targets this way, you will make them idealize you in return, since you must be equally great to be able to appreciate and see all of their fine qualities. They will also grow addicted to the elevated feeling you give them.

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