“A prudent cuckold (and there are many such at Paris), pockets his horns, when he cannot gore with them; and will not add to the triumph of his maker by only butting with them ineffectually.”
– Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, “Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, 1753-54 ”
One last, lingering thought on France:
It was fascinating to be on the other side of the Atlantic this summer while Americans were chewing over our latest rounds of slimy political sex scandals.
It wasn’t that the sinning, maneuvering and marital posturing of the Larry Craigs and David Vitters received so very much attention. It was, rather, that their stories seemed so dreary, so tawdry and so second-rate compared with the much more dignified and attractive tableau vivant of family disorder exhibited by France’s new president, Nicholas Sarkozy, and first lady, Cécilia.
In case you missed it, Sarkozy last year greatly entertained France by running a campaign in which his wife was almost entirely absent. Cécilia, a former model whom Nicholas first eyed, in his previous incarnation as mayor of the city of Neuilly, while administering the vows that consecrated her last marriage, left him in 2005, eventually showing up – and being photographed – with her lover in New York City.
The Sarkozys ultimately reunited. But life together remained rocky. Cécilia made major headlines once again last May when she pulled a no-show on the night of her husband’s final run-off race against his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal.
She was rumored not to have voted at all.
Yet by summer, in the press at least, all was forgotten. When I was there, every major magazine featured glowing profiles of the new first lady. They praised her charm, her fashion sense, her break-the-mold modernity.
Could such public forgiving and forgetting of a wanton political wife ever have happened here? And could Americans, like the French, ever elect a cuckold to the presidency?
The question is more relevant than it seems.
I’m thinking, of course — aren’t I always? — of Hillary Clinton.
I spent the end of the summer thinking how remarkable it was that Cécilia’s affair hadn’t sunk Nicholas Sarkozy’s presidential prospects. After all, throughout history, the “cuckold” has typically been viewed as a fool, lacking in wit, power and general masculine wherewithal. It’s believed that the image of a cuckold as horned fool dates back to a legend of European villagers donning horns and parading around to humiliate betrayed husbands.
Although a female version of the word cuckold exists (it’s cuckquean), it’s little used, probably because, as far as the larger sense of the word’s meaning is concerned, there has been no female equivalent of the cuckold. Wronged wives typically have been figures of sympathy, not jest. The difference has stemmed, I think, from the fact that, throughout history, a wife’s infidelity meant that male power and privilege was upended. The natural order of things was usurped.
At least, that’s the way it’s traditionally been.
Sarkozy has made a lot of bold and defiant gestures since winning the election – appointing Socialists to key government posts, vacationing in America – but perhaps one of his boldest, cleverest and most successful has been the fact that, by keeping his head high, standing by his woman and steadfastly, defiantly, professing his love and desire (she is “the only non-negotiable part” of his career, he has said), he has transcended the old role of cuckold. He has instead been something more like a political wife.
As for Hillary – contemplating the Sarkozys this summer drove home to me the gender-bending aspect of her own unfortunate personal history. A formidable woman of real power and prestige, she emerged from the Monica affair much more cuckold than cuckquean. Her husband’s perfidy did, in a sense, disturb the natural order of things; in the post-feminist age, women like Hillary are not supposed to be subject to such indignities.
Hillary has never been, as she herself once put it, “some little woman standing by my man.” Perhaps that’s what made the spectacle of her public humiliation so unique and so unsettling and, ultimately, so unforgivable for the many women who came away from it all despising her.
I think I now understand that particular aspect of the Clinton conundrum in a way I never did before. It comes down to this: nobody likes a cuckold.