Friday, May 15, 2009

Toby Young on Humiliation

From How to Lose Friends and Alienate People:

I first set eyes on Syrie in 1989 in the dining hall of Trinity College, Cambridge. After Harvard, I'd gone on to Cambridge and was attempting to get a Ph.D. in Philosophy. It was the first day of the new academic year and, in keeping with College tradition, me and several other "mature" students were checking out the latest batch of "freshettes." Not that we had any hope of getting into their knickers; in the Cambridge student hierarchy, post-grads are on a par with "natscis" (natural scientists). Lusting after first years -- and knowing that it would never be reciprocated -- was just another exercise in self-flagellation, a favorite post-grad pastime.

As [Syrie] passed the post-grad table, she didn't so much as glance in our direction even though it was perfectly obvious we were all gawping at her. Everything about her radiated contempt, which suited our masochistic mood to a T. This arrogant, full-lipped beauty embodied all that was forbidden to sad losers like us. My misery was compounded when she chose a seat directly opposite mine in the College library, making it impossible for me to concentrate on my philosophy books. For the remainder of that academic year, until I abandoned my Ph.D. altogether, I tortured myself by imagining what her nubile, eighteen-year-old body would look like in the nude. I was 100% certain I'd never find out.

Syrie resurfaced in my life in 1994 when, as a twenty-three-year-old researcher for an independent television production company, she called me out of the blue and invited me to lunch. Aha, I thought. This could be interesting. Instead of an impoverished student living in a hall of residence I was now a fully-fledged media brat and a member of The Groucho Club, London's premier watering hole. I assumed that she remembered me from Cambridge and wanted some career advice -- maybe even a job! Perhaps I would get to see her naked after all.

My hopes were soon dashed. She confessed that she'd been ordered to take me out to lunch by her boss so that she could "steal" any ideas I might have for television programs. I'd been expecting a wide-eyed ingenue who'd hang on my every word and instead found myself sitting opposite an intelligent, confident young woman. After graduating from Cambridge with a major in English she had worked in publishing for a while and, the previous year, had helped organize the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. That was where she'd met her current boyfriend, the novelist Will Self. Had I heard of him? I had, as a matter of fact. He was only the most famous young novelist in the country!

The low point came when I told her I'd been to Cambridge.

Syrie: Oh really? When were you there?

Me: 1988-90

Syrie: But that's when I was there! What college were you at?

Me: Trinity.

Syrie: No! But I was at Trinity.


Me: Yes, I know.

I had sat opposite her almost every day for a year and failed to make any impression. I think I would have preferred it if she'd remembered me as a creepy, starry-eyed post-grad -- anything would have been better than not making any impact at all. I had been completely invisible to her. What could be more humiliating? All the lust I'd felt five years earlier came flooding back, but this time I was determined to do something about it.

. . .

Having sex with Syrie was like being granted a wish by a fairy godmother. It was an opportunity to turn back the clock and do what I'd longed to do at the time but hadn't had the balls for. In a sense she stood for all the unattainable girls I'd lusted after throughout my life. This well of unrequited desire had left a deep psychic would and here, at last, was my chance to heal it. By the time I moved to New York I'd been sleeping with her for about nine months but the damage was by no means completely repaired. Of course, the humiliation caused by sexual rejection can never be fully expunged, but that wasn't going to stop me from trying -- again and again and again. I had no intention of abandoning my "therapy" in mid-stream.


trumwill said...

It's an interesting passage. Thanks for sharing. What are your thoughts on it?

I once had a sort of related opportunity wherein I started sorta dating a girl that was on paper (and photograph!) everything I wanted and could never have. It turned out to be a rather headache-inducing experience and was sort of a turning point in my search for someone that I would actually pair up well with (rather than getting the "most" I can get... seems there's a pretty steep price for that sort of thing, if you can get it).

It also makes me think of one of the novel ideas that I've been batting around in my head the last four or five years or so. One of the characters late in high school gets unexpected attention from a real live cheerleader. Nothing happens between them, but it touches off a series of events where he dumps his moody girlfriend under questionable circumstances and goes off to a distant university to reinvent himself (the novel is him and the girlfriend meeting again ten years later). Mildly related to some odd looks a cheerleader gave me my junior year in high school. She was pretty plain looking, but I'd be lying if I said that the thought "She's a cheerleader! I could ask out a cheerleader!" didn't cross my mind. Never did and in retrospect the looks probably had as much to do with our seating arrangement as anything. Ahhh, but to dare to dream... :)

Φ said...

I'm not sure I have any coherent thoughts. I have occasionally remarked about a beautiful woman, "she reminds me of the girls who wouldn't give me the time of day in high school," in a dejected tone that highlights her unattainability. Partly this is self-deprecating humor, but partly its an expression of sympathy for the attitude of wanting to undo or compensate for all the history of rejection in the manner Toby describes.

Φ said...

I would add that, from my experience, dating a woman obviously out of one's league is never as great as it sounds. I actually did this for two weeks back in '95. On at least two occasions, strange guys came up and gave the girl their phone numbers while I was right there. That was pretty bitter.

PeterW said...

It seems that we hear a lot from men whose sexual value rose over their lifetime - probably because such people are educated and more likely to be online. One wonders what happens to those on the flipside of the equation.

Φ said...

Peter: That's a trenchant observation! Toby Young, for instance, goes on to marry a very pretty woman 11 years his junior. So he has that emotional foundation from which he can mock his own low SMV. Kind of like I do. :-)

Thursday said...

After having a barren love life for most of my life, I have recently been dating some very attractive women, some of them 10-12 years younger than me. Part of me feels like I totally deserve this and part of me feels like a total imposter, especially as I frequently still make rookie mistakes. It feels weird learning stuff in your early thirties that you really should have been learning in your early twenties.

It's a learning process, and learning from hotties is a privilige I am glad to be able to have. You learn to love even the mistakes.