It is February 6th. These days, image matters. At the time I am writing this, people are taking a few extra seconds to choose which sweater to wear in the morning. They are swiping on one more layer of mascara. They are going to great lengths to make sure their breath doesn’t stink. There are toothbrushes in backpacks. When the current circumstance of social life (it’s a B-word which I refuse to honor in print) concerns image, suddenly, it seems, everything does. Even lecture.

Take the image of my professor. He is sweating through his polo shirt. He is so excited about truth and dissimulation and anger that he must stop every few minutes to catch his breath. Occasionally he sits on the desk and kicks his legs out, anthology in lap, while he reads a quote. He hovers his hand in front of his face because he’s just accidentally spat. He is talking about the disappearance of the self. This man is unabashedly happy.

I think it’s because he’s cracked the code of selfhood. He says that the self, when concealed, doesn’t just hide—it vanishes. He doesn’t know it, but he’s striking resounding chords. After class, some of his audience will march down Prospect to participate in a decades-old tradition that involves editing the self in subtle ways. The contrarian might choose to eat alone, but she never wants to be forced to, much less in a college dining hall. But enough of that. My point, inspired by my professor, is that Francis Bacon was right on when he said that proper conduct hinges on the proper balance of concealment and exposure.

In a self-soothing tactic, my friend and I say of those of us (all of us) who are awkward, at times accidentally brusque and not a little inept, that we didn’t get The Manual, an imaginary book of how to act. Perhaps this negotiation—between revealing and concealing—is the true substance of The Manual. In other words, to construct the image we all envision for ourselves—one of competence, ease, and maybe even warmth—we must keep some secrets.


But are we really all that capable of secrecy? Too many secrets, Bacon thought, rot the soul. Just as we must expel diseases of the body, we must release secrets of the mind. Cue friendship, or better yet, perceptive friends. You’re compulsively vacuuming the rug—I almost think you got dumped; You think she’s an idiot—I can see it in your eyes; Have you been sleeping okay? Your outfit is uncharacteristically boring. Perhaps my examples exaggerate the wisdom of friends. Perhaps true friendship is simply the failure of concealment.


In any case, if covering ourselves up proves futile in friendship, the technique is fatal when it comes to seduction. Sexiness, my professor observed, is partial concealment. Evidently the same rules apply to attraction as to social conduct: reveal just enough to inspire intrigue. Hide the rest to preserve mystery. Again, my sage professor: this is why nudist colonies are so depressing! They have destroyed eroticism!


Those in the business of romantic coaching—a field, when you think about it, couldn’t not exist—agree. There’s a book I won’t recommend called Why Men Love Bitches. It’s the kind of cover you hide under your anthology of Bacon. It’s also the kind of cover you can’t forget. The title makes the answer to a stupid question irresistible, and one suddenly can’t go another minute without knowing: why do men love bitches?


The author, Sherry Argov, is kind of famous. In addition to understanding why men love bitches, she also knows why they marry bitches. The masses demand and she delivers, doing some strong work in transforming women from “doormats” to “dream girls.” Don’t sacrifice your friends and passions for him. Don’t go out of your way to see him. Don’t wash his socks. Remember: he’s no Park Place, just one of those forgettable purple properties. She almost redeems herself as a vaguely feminist author of seduction guides until she crushes you with the predictable conclusion: do these things for yourself—and he’ll like you even more. He’s a hunter. Men love to fix things. It’s enough to make you throw the book across the room if you weren’t laughing instead.


Selin, the protagonist in Either/Or, a novel by Elif Batuman, might have a word with Argov. All the women in her family are too virtuous to engage in the nonsense Argov prescribes. Being honest about your feelings is always better. Turns out Pushkin thought the same. Selin says, “I loved Pushkin for calling out the kind of people who conflated discretion and virtue.” Discretion might be a business strategy, but it is no hill to die on. Those who read Argov and begin to believe dissimulation merits love, please turn to Selin. She counters, “If there were rewards you got from lying, I didn’t want them.” Selin doesn’t want to play games, at least not the ones that involve concealing the self and, if Bacon was right, minimizing it to oblivion.


Yet Argov insists she’s not playing games. She’s empowering women to leverage romance to their advantage. All this so you don’t have to feel like a doormat. All this balancing of restraint and affection, all this crafting of intrigue so that you don’t ever have to do the hard work of saying out loud, “I’d rather not be a welcome mat, please and thank you.” Instead, choose wisely what you share. Do favors sparingly. Don’t make requests so he knows you’re self-sufficient. In other words, calculate. And what is a game, if not the calculation of risk and reward?


If that’s what love is–a game–then I think we’re better off as friends. If the self disappears when we cover it up, then I commend the nudists, but I’m more interested in saving the self without having to freeze. It’s February 6th. My professor wore shorts today. He seems to have figured some things out.