Personal Best: Mating

"Mating" by Norman Rush

By Cynthia Joyce
Published September 30, 1996 11:49AM (EDT)

i had just turned twenty-two when I first read Norman Rush's "Mating," and I remember feeling something like gratitude. After existing in an echo-chamber of irrelevant ideas for four years (an experience commonly referred to as "higher education"), here I'd found a story that debunked most academic theories as fundamentally useless -- save of course for the few espoused by the narrator, a young American anthropologist who finds herself in Southern Africa with a botched doctoral thesis on her hands and no idea of what to do next. Independent, intelligent, reasonably ambitious but suddenly directionless, she does what most women I know would do at a similar crossroads -- she follows some man, and then beats herself up about it the entire way. Having recently made a similar default decision myself, I had a vested interest in whether she would fare better than I had.

It came as no small consolation, then, when she found a potentially perfect mate in Nelson Denoon, a renowned political philosopher who has founded a solar-powered, matriarchal, utopian society in the middle of the Kalahari desert. He is perhaps the only man on earth capable of fulfilling her quest for intellectual love, an idea she is committed to even as she suspects it's futility: "Why can't every mating in the world be on the basis of souls instead of inevitably and fundamentally on the match between physical envelopes?...This is equivalent to being irritated at photosynthesis, I am well aware. Still, it distresses me."

It was this point that was made most painfully clear to me in "Mating": That over-intellectualizing love is like trying to apply the rules of chess to a checkers game -- while you're busy putting all the pieces in the right place and plotting a long-term strategy, your opponent has already jumped you and declared himself king. While not exactly an uplifting lesson, it was an invaluable one.

For a time, it seems that the narrator's quest is complete. "For me love is like this: you're in one apartment which you think is fine...You're happy there and then you go into the next apartment and close the door and this one is even better. And the sequence continues, but with the odd feature that although this has happened to you a number of times, you forget: each time your new quarters are manifestly better and each time it's breathtaking, a surprise, something you've done nothing to deserve or make happen."

But as she senses herself losing control, she devolves from a seemingly self-actualized woman into an increasingly self-absorbed one. In the end, she is forced to admit that her idea of utopia has nothing to do with Denoon's: Hers has to do with "equal love between people of equal value," a theory that, unlike his, has no practical application that she can find. "Why is it so difficult? Why even in the most enlightened and beautifully launched unions are we afraid we hear the master-slave relationship moving its slow thighs somewhere in the vicinity?"

The reason it's so difficult, she -- and we -- learn, is that life isn't made up of clean little co-existing belief systems that only intersect at single prescribed points; it's made up of a whole mess of overlapping ones that we claim to want to understand, when what we're really looking for is control. It's this cognitive dissonance that leads her to reject love based on purely physical attraction but still obsess about her waistline, and that causes her to resist vegetarianism not because she thinks it's wrong, but because she is "not prepared to concede animal protein to the striding-around master sex while I nibble leafage."

I had just about given up on finding answers -- any answers -- when I read "Mating," and the experience didn't convince me to do otherwise. But what it did do was remind me that I was still interested in the questions, and I have yet to read another novel that has raised more relevant ones.

Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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