The other woman | Le Point Magazine


This is part of a series of chronicles on public philosophy by Agnes Callard; read more here.

Tolstoy was a moralist. He wrote a novel …Anna karenina—Where infidelity ends in death, and another—War and peace– in which his characters endure a thousand pages of political, military and romantic turmoil to finally win the reward of domestic marital happiness. In the epilogue of War and peace we meet his protagonist Natasha, unrecognizable transformed. Throughout the main novel, we had known her as temperamental, beautiful, and thoughtful; as independent, sometimes to the point of selfishness; as easily overwhelmed by unhappy romantic passions.

Marriage and motherhood prove to undermine Natasha’s interest in music, parties, dancing, her appearance; in fact, they seem to undermine his interest in having his own interests. In her new life, she willingly and willingly subordinates her mind to that of her husband and finds the accomplishment of her domestic duties both very rewarding and quite absorbing. All of this makes her, in Tolstoyan ethics, “an exemplary wife and mother.”

There is only one moment in the epilogue where we see the old Natasha. Her husband Pierre has just returned from a trip and Natasha embarks on a speech that begins with a conscientious assertion of the benefits of marital stability over simple romance.

“How stupid,” Natasha said suddenly, “may the honeymoon and the first time be the happiest. On the contrary, now is better. If only you didn’t go. Remember how we argued? And It was always my fault. Always. And what we argued about, I don’t even remember.

“Always the same thing”, said Pierre smiling, “jealous …”

“Don’t say it, I can’t take it,” Natasha cried. And a cold glint of anger lit up in his eyes. “Have you seen him?” she added after a pause.

“No, and if I had, I wouldn’t have recognized her.”

They stopped talking.

The reader has not heard of “her” – the events in question must have occurred in the years the novel was not documented – so the reference could be anything, from an affair full-fledged to a craze existing mainly in Natasha’s imagination. All we know, watching this scene, is that an early break-up continues to reverberate through their relationship. Is Natasha’s continued jealousy the only flaw in their otherwise perfect union? Or is it the spark of life that keeps the relationship from flattening out in death? Could it be both, one way or another?


Jealousy is an unappealing emotion, but unlike hatred, contempt, or resentment, it is not a forbidden emotion. If we knew that Peter had cheated on Natasha, we would find his jealousy intelligible and even reasonable. We would understand. Or, at any rate, we would say, to ourselves and to her, “I get it.” We are very quick to find such “justified” jealousy intelligible, so rapid that the very speed of our response testifies to our reluctance to delve into the question. But let’s do it anyway.

Our comfort zone when it comes to jealousy is the righteous anger of the betrayed spouse. He seems to speak to us in the rational language of rights, violations and justice. So Natasha’s attitude towards Peter is that he “was to be held to belong entirely to her, to the household.” But the execution of the contract is not the real concern of the jealous spouse; infidelity is not really about property rights.

It is true that marriage is a contractual relationship, but how many marriage vows actually specify sexual exclusivity? I have never attended a wedding in which the couple explicitly promised not to sleep; certainly I did not promise it. And yet, when it comes to the many things that are explicitly promised – to love, honor, obey, care, etc. – people rarely end up insisting on their contractual rights. Every divorce is a violation of the “as long as we both live” clause, yet neither spouses nor bystanders are inclined to be outraged by this fact. Even if someone were to include a “non-infidelity” clause in their marriage vows, that wouldn’t mean that the main problem with infidelity lies in breaking that agreement.

It is the jealous man who understands all this better than anyone. She may speak (in a calmly furious manner) of property, but she has a very fair and precise understanding of the limits of such claims. You cannot own another person; one has no “right” over his body, nor, for that matter, over his affections, interests or attention. The wedding ceremony may include my saying, “I am yours,” but the truth is that I am and never can be anyone else’s, and none of my proclamations can change that fact. Jealousy is this knowledge, combined with his intolerance: to understand that I do not have, and to need to have. But it is more the second than the first. Jealousy is often mistakenly referred to as a negative attitude, misclassified in the family to which fear, anger, aversion and denial belong. To see why this is a mistake, think of Natasha again.

In the excerpt cited above, we see Natasha living the opposite of denial. She is haunted by something that happened years ago; plus, she keeps herself actively haunted – fueling the fires of her own ancient passion. His question – “have you seen her?” Her sudden cold gaze and angry voice connect her to an incident the details of which we don’t know, but which she seems unable to let go. This woman, whoever she is for Pierre, is for Natasha a kind of link with a past self, or, more likely, with an alternate version of her present self: someone she could have been but is not. not. Whether or not Peter is telling the truth when he says he wouldn’t even be able to recognize it, I imagine it means a lot more to Natasha than to Peter.

You can object that I read a lot in these few lines. It’s true. I can imagine all of this with a certain vividness, because I held both positions: I was the other woman, and I was also the other-woman-ed. In both roles, I felt an intense jealousy, wanting with my whole being to take the place of my counterpart. There is nothing more desirable for the Other than the established and sure position of the woman who was there first; to whom, in turn, there is nothing more attractive than the spontaneous and carefree love that she imagines having with the Other.

The primal scene of jealousy is this: I see a mark on my lover’s body, and my mind draws it back to Her. How to respond? You imagine that I feel angry to be stripped of what is mine; Where fear to lose it completely. But these are not my real feelings; these are just the faces my jealousy wears when I’m trying to get you sympathy. The inner truth of how I feel is so much more infuriating than anger and so much more violent than fear: it is desire. Desire of desire. I just want to have been desired with the desire that She was, at that time, wanted with. Not the same type Where degree desire, but with this token, past act of desire. Jealousy desires love intended and directed towards another, the very love that one can be sure of never obtaining. Jealousy hunger for this desire in an impossible, inaccessible, unsatisfying way. Like everything that is truly erotic, he seeks the inaccessible. Jealousy is a positive emotion. Jealousy is a form of lust.

Lacan, commenting on Plato Symposium, tells us that eros “gives what we don’t have”. Think about how often, in a romantic relationship, the image of a romantic gesture will be precisely the act that the loved one is reluctant to perform. If you’re not in the habit of complimenting my clothes, then this is what I need from you, “for once!” If you never fold the laundry, then that’s it. The harder and more improbable it is, the more romantic the prospect of you doing it will seem to me; and yet, if you really rise to the challenge, it will still be a little disappointing. The romance lies in the fact that it is undone and infeasible. Once, in a furious lovers’ quarrel, I was pointed out that “nothing I do can ever count as what you want; as soon as I did, it wouldn’t count! It was perfectly true. I wanted him to show me his love, but not just any love. I wanted to see the love he didn’t have.

The love that a person does not have is, on the whole, invisible because it is not there. But in the particular case that he loves another, the love that he does not have for me becomes something concrete and embodied – he is embodied in His body, he is clothed in His flesh. And it is finally the moment when the laser beam of my erotic passion locates the impossible love that he was born to covet, namely his love for Her. Jealousy brings eros into hers; jealousy makes the invisible visible.

As long as the invisible remains invisible, we can tell ourselves a series of noble lies: that there is a romantic gesture that counts; that all the love I seek from him is the love that is or could be Mine; this romance is a two-body problem. Most of the time, Natasha lives in the space of these noble lies, a space in which she can say “my husband ”, and think it – or at least imagine that she does. Jealousy exposes the presence of the sometimes fleshy third party, sometimes ghostly, always intrusive and never completely eliminable in the relationship. Jealousy is a form of attraction that pushes us away.


I’ve never understood how polyamory is supposed to outlive erotic rivalry, but I have the exact same objection to monogamy. The point is, the two only diverge in the specs of the relevant contract, and that difference seems ridiculously superficial when faced with an issue deep within the soul’s molten lava. If erotic passion means wanting what is not and rightly cannot be yours, then how can it ever be stable? Jealousy is the thread in which romance is woven, and the thread that unties it.

Is there a solution to this erotic situation? The Portuguese poet, philosopher and literary genius Fernando Pessoa offers one. His Worry book includes a set of sex tips for a group of people he calls “unhappy married women”, although he specifies that “unhappy married women include all who are married and some who are single”. Pessoa addresses all women who find themselves in an erotic situation, and he says to them:

Imagine your husband with a whiter body. If you are good at it, you will feel its whiteness on you.

Kiss the husband above your body and replace him in your imagination – remember the man above you in your soul.

Substitution is less difficult than you might think. By substitution, I mean the practice of imagining an orgasm with man A while copulating with man B.

All pleasure is in the mind; all the crimes that occur are committed in dreams and in dreams only!

Pessoa understands that the triad is the unit of eros, while stability calls for the dyad. His solution – to squeeze three into a space for two out of infidelity of the mind – reflects an almost perfect understanding of the problem. Almost perfect. Pessoa’s only mistake can be attributed to his masculine perspective or, at least, his failure to successfully abstract it. Any woman with a sufficiently erotic temperament could have explained to Pessoa that the good advice to a “Unfortunately Bride” is not to tell her to imagine having sex. with a different man, but like a different woman.


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