Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Man's Reach Should Exceed His Grasp, or What's an Inflatable Girlfriend For?

Another of the essays in George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? is devoted to Randolph Bourne (1886-1918), a journalist and social critic who opposed US involvement in World War I. Until I read Scialabba's essay, Bourne was just a name to me, but I now think I should read some of his work. It looks like a fair amount of his most important writings are available online, which helps.

One thing about the essay bothered me, though. As you can see from his dates, Bourne died young, at 32, in the influenza epidemic that swept the world after World War I. He "was maimed by forceps during his birth, giving him a disfigured face; spinal tuberculosis at age 4 left him a hunchback," which I guess means he was an unattractive heterosexual. Despite this, Scialabba reports, Bourne "found the 'golden person' he had always … yearned for: the talented, beautiful, aristocratic Esther Cornell. They became engaged a few weeks before Bourne’s fatal influenza attack."

Bourne's biographer Bruce Clayton wrote of Cornell: "Poised and well-mannered, she radiated feminine charm, and though she was a feminist, she had no desire to exclude men from her life." (Yes, male writers still write such things.) I'm happy that Bourne found love, even if it was cut short by his death. But why is it that it always seems to be other people who are expected to look through the unpromising exterior to the beautiful soul trapped inside, who must be (again in Clayton's words) "capable of seeing beyond his deformity to the passionate person he was"? There aren't enough "golden people" to go around for us ordinary mortals, and most of us get along just fine.