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Fascination Versus Enchanting

June 13, 2013

Marlene2                       Garbo1                                           Fascination                                                    Enchanting

Romantic and attractive 20th century women were frequently either too subtle or too complex to be merely cute or simply charming. 

(This post is a companion piece to “Cute Versus Charm”

Nobody ever invited Mary McCarthy or Susan Sontag to a Greenwich Village party expecting they’d end up around the upright piano singing Broadway show tunes.

Yet, internationally, nothing else said “USA!” louder than our cute small-town girls and charming big-city women. In the CinemaScope movies, they might be Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day, or Katherine Hepburn. “Straight white teeth, flawless skin, big knockers!” The whole war-wrecked planet envied these perfect embodiments of our nation’s popular vision of itself as free, open, energetic, and wholesome.

But what about depicting all those other American girls from coast to coast who were, by the standards of their time, either too smart or too complicated? Hollywood’s reply was to import. On-screen, German-born Marlene Dietrich specialized in portraying too-smart, and Swedish icon Greta Garbo owned too-complex. Dietrich fascinated, but Garbo was enchanting.

Fascination and enchantment coolly differ in body-temperature from charm and cuteness. Young Dietrich’s premature weltschmerz fascinated movie-goers, and the allure of Garbo’s soulful aloofness became legendary. They were Hollywood’s European minority-report on “The Glorified American Girl.”

Dietrich and Garbo both played lovely romantic introverts who walk around constantly being distracted by either intense inner echoes of a drastic private history, like Dietrich, or else, Garbo-esque, by the subtlest promptings of her own tremulous soul. Their similar acting styles during famous love scenes — a ceaseless signaling of  mysterious private selves — challenged male co-stars, who found themselves being up-staged by a phantom third female presence to whom the star is reacting more ardently than to his big-screen love-making.

Cuteness and charm draw people closer by brightly denying that, right at this special moment, any personal or social barriers could possibly exist between us two. Both bring into being a spontaneously amorous democracy where everybody votes Yes, yes, yes!

But, whatever their physical beauty, both more subtle and the more complex women hold you off at a nearly aristocratic distance — a distance measured by the exact vantage point from which they hope to look their shattering best. So, unlike the spontaneous assent of charm and cuteness,  fascination and enchantment say Maybe, yes, no, oh, I don’t know! 

So, neither type of woman will draw strangers into a vital intimacy because both these personalities fail to offer what the 20th century called a “love interest.” Love requires the touching warmth.

Enchantment is a signal but not a summons. And fascination is slightly fiercer, if no less distancing an emotion, because I am being, not softly plucked at and beguiled, but compelled by this sudden odd beauty. Not  love, not even fondness is necessarily involved. I am simply unable not to take a personal interest — for as long as it lasts. Because, self-sealed and unrevealing, fascination is always a surface effect, a trick of the light, with nothing remarkable behind it after all. 

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