Friday, April 30, 2010

Tax Day

It's tax day in Canada. I had corporate taxes due yesterday and personal taxes due today.

Sense and Sensibility will have to wait until tomorrow.

I'm now going to make an:

Old Fashioned

Pour a little puddle of angostura bitters
Place two cane sugar cubes in it until they have absorbed the bitters
Put into an old-fashioned glass (that means a low tumbler)
Put in a couple of orange slices and pineapple chunks*
Gently muddle
Add three ounces of Bourbon or Rye and ice
Top with a maraschino cherry and enjoy

*NEVER ever use lemon in an old fashioned.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Great moments in censorship

Apple's iTunes store carries a collection of Duke Ellington songs called "the Ultimate Collection". Track #92 seems to be called "Pussy Willow".

I say seems to be called because the listing on iTunes is, I kid you not, "P***y Willow".

Now why would they do that? Just think how deeply degraded a culture has to be to reach this level.
What's next?
C**k of the walk.
Lunch b*x
By the pr**king of my thumbs
Mystery writer D**k Francis
Santa c*mes but once a year
The stockings were h*ng out with care.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The virtues of Mad Men

The Hobo Code

Dropping his Gs
Roger Sterling makes no appearance in this episode but the ghost of something he said last episode does. When Don claimed that he swam in a quarry growing up, Roger spots it as a lie right away and says the way Don drops his Gs, he figured Don grew up on a farm.

And here we see it clearly, when Don stands up and says,
Listen, I'm not here to tell you about Jesus. You already know about Jesus. He either lives in your heart or he doesn't.
The reactions of the others, particularly Cosgrove, to this are perfect. This isn't some crap fake authenticity about tapping Maple trees, this is real hardscrabble Protestant heritage coming to the surface here and it sets us up for the coming flashback.

I think one of the best things about Don Draper—one of the reasons we admire the guy—is the way he uses his own past. He has no interest at all in authenticity. He knows where he comes from and he remade himself. The stylish ideal we see here is the result of a series of choices he made to make himself a new man.


I bought the latest issue of Esquire. I shouldn't waste my money or, more important, waste my time on it but it was such a good magazine when I was a kid. It's such crap now.

Anyway, one notable thing about this issue is a four-page advertisement that begins on the inside cover. Here is how the text on the first two pages runs:
Whatever happened to style?

Where has the glamour gone?

It wasn't too long ago. America had it.
Looking and feeling like a million bucks
was practically our birthright.

We didn't race from A to B. We cruised.

Going for a drive was A BIG DEAL.

People took notice.

We turned heads.

and when we arrived somewhere,
It's an awful let down to flip the page and find that it's an ad for Chrysler.

In my town, the guys who listen to hip hop really loud and think that "pimp" means "role model" drive Chrysler's.

That said, those are very good questions. it reminded me of this quote I ran earlier from Vincent Kartheiser:
“There is a large portion of America that doesn’t feel about America the way we did in 1960, and I think we want to know why we don’t,” said Mr. Kartheiser, 29. “We want to know what went wrong.”

What did go wrong? Something did.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What's wrong with being "cool"?

Short answer, is "nothing" I suppose. The longer answer is that there is something more I am looking for.

If you check the earliest reference books on slang, you will find that the word "cool" does not appear.

It comes in later and right from the beginning there is a drug association with cool. My first experience with coolness was in high school.

Here is how it would work. You'd go somewhere—a trip to the Stratford Shakespeare festival, for example—and find yourself surrounded by a group of people from other high schools, people you didn't know. And pretty soon you'd see some people starting to work their way around. They had this combination of boldness and paranoia about them. They were the dope smokers in the crowd and they were looking for others. Separated from the circle they knew, they were looking for a new circle to buy and share dope with.

It was touchy business for them. On the one hand, they had no interest in getting stoned alone. On the other hand, they could get in trouble with the teachers or even arrested. Someone cool was someone who could be part of this. It was never particularly social it was about fear of being alone and fear of getting caught.

The not aloneness was never particularly about friendship. The alacrity with which dopers will sell out other dopers has always been and remains astounding. To repeat, it was quite simply about not wanting to be alone. It was driven by a deep fear of being alone.

Here is another example of how it worked. When you went to buy dope in the late 1970s, you were expected to light up some of what you had just bought and share it with the dealer. This was meant to display your good faith. It was assumed that no undercover officer would do this. Plus dope dealers were lonely losers and didn't have many friends. Finally, they were con men always looking to get more out of you. All of that made them put this odd pressure on you not to leave.

It was this sort of nonsense that saved me from getting very heavily involved in the dope scene at my high school (probably the single largest cultural influence at that not-terribly-august institution).

BTW: A joke that sums up my experience;
Q: Did you ever try any of the hard stuff?
A: No, we always got someone else to roll them.
Anyway, cool will always mean lonely loser. It will always mean some druggie like Chet Baker selling out his wife to score. Or it will always mean someone, maybe a good person at one time but no longer, who didn't so much fail at love but always held back a little bit and never made it work. No matter where you find coolness, it always come wrapped in fear.

The thing I am looking for isn't that. Cool isn't a virtue.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The virtues of Mad Men

This is the new heading for the Mad Men thread.

Red in the face

 Rarely do we get an example of an episode which is irredeemably bad as this one: all the show's vices distilled into one episode. It starts off trying to be deep and that is just not this show's strength. It does better when it stays on the surface and leaves it for us to do the deep thinking.

In the opening shot, Don is speaking to the psychotherapist who is seeing Betty. (I won't say, fraudulent or bogus psychotherapist because that would be redundant.) Dr. Wayne tells us that Betty has "not been particularly forthcoming yet" but then says,
Mostly she seems consumed with petty jealousies and overwhelmed with everyday activities. Basically we are dealing with the emotions of a child here.
Now the problem here is that we have had lots of opportunities to see Betty in action and we know that no matter how forthcoming she is it won't get any more profound than that. She is consumed with petty jealousies and overwhelmed with everyday activities. She is childish. This ought to be obvious to Don too.

But he just says that Betty hasn't always been like that. Should we believe him? I don't. Anyway, then the good therapist becomes the mouthpiece for the very tritest sort of feminism:
We're finding that this kind of anxiety is not uncommon in housewives.
My mother was a housewife during this period.  Eventually, she got bored. So she started as a volunteer for the local symphony orchestra, she worked her way up to the board and then headed a committee that had a  new Arts Centre built. After her youngest entered Junior High School, she went back to work. She did not become a child.

I think some people like being housewives but no one should be obliged to be. That's the legitimate feminist point. Full stop. The only thing that has infantilized Betty Draper is Betty Draper.

Changes have been made

Yes, I've changed the title of the blog again. I was doing this Mad Men thread and I got so fond of the title I'd given it that i gave it to the whole blog.

In self-promotional terms, this is unquestionably a bad idea but then the blog is called "Studiously Uncool" isn't it?

The appeal of Don Draper

One of the great things about coming to Mad Men so late in the game is that I can pick the low lying fruit from other people's commentary. Not stupid people being stupid—which is predictable and boring—but smart people missing the boat in the same way over and over again, which is a lot of fun.

Take Peter Suderman and Katie Baker, for example. Two very clever people so deep in denial their brains are addled by lack of oxygen. Here is Baker:
Why are we so wild for Draper? By any measure, the character's a cad. He constantly cheats on his wife. He skips town for weeks and won't write or call. He doesn't talk much, and anesthetizes any feelings with copious amounts of booze. He's an enigma, a locked box of a man who resists, maddeningly, easy explanation. And yet he excites an attraction among women—particularly ones my age, women in their late '20s and '30s who were born after the era that Mad Men portrays ...
And here is Suderman's reply:
The fact that Draper is a high-powered, serial-cheating workaholic with crude, old-fashioned notions of gender roles might play some part in why he's so attractive, but it seems to me that this post overthinks the question. Draper isn't sexy so much because he's a cad or a lout or a sexist; he's sexy because he's a fictionalized, idealized fantasy of an iconic form of masculinity.  Draper's womanizing and crude beliefs aren't what make him appealing so much as his impeccable suits -- always carefully pressed and form fitting -- and his posed cigarette smoking, his immaculately lit surroundings and the elegant way he holds a glass of scotch.
Now, that may seem like a rational response but it won't remain so after you read Baker describe the responses that got her so wrought up about the issue in the first place:
When I told my friends about the sighting, their reactions were similar. "I don't get excited about celebrities," one said, "but if I saw him, I'd tear off my clothes." "He is so sexy," said another. "I love him," said a third. "He looks like he would know how to throw me to the wall and do me right."
Now a good suit and flattering lighting will do a  lot for a man but these things will never be enough to make a woman think, "He looks like he would know how to throw me to the wall and do me right."

There is another way to ask the question. Rather than saying, why do women like him despite his negative qualities, Suderman and Baker might well ask what positive qualities the guy might have.

If you are joining me here, this series starts here.

The next post in the series is here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

There is no purity

In tuning systems. There is a rather complex and courageous piece over on Slate about tuning systems for musical instruments. Complex because tuning is one of those things that can make your head hurt. Courageous because writing on this subject is like issuing an open invitation to every music geek in the world to tell you how wrong you are.

Anyway, what I loved about it was this line:
There is no perfection, only varying tastes in corruption.
That is true of a lot more than tuning. (It's not a problem, as I have said before, because purity is not a moral concept. It can look like one but it does no real work in morality. That's a subject for another day.)

Another bit stuck out for different reasons. Discussing the limitations of an earlier system called meantone tuning, author Jan Swafford writes:
In fact, those temperaments left only a few keys that were well-enough in tune to be usable: the keys between two flats and three sharps. 
That would be the keys of Bb, F, C, G, D and A. That covers about 99 percent of popular music and folk music. I wonder if anyone has tried using meantone tuning for that stuff and would it make much of a difference?

The tinwhistler

There is a guy here in town who plays the tinwhistle. He plays it all day long in various parts of town with his hat on the ground in front of him.

I have long been curious about the guy because he plays several hours a day every day and he is just awful. Yesterday I saw him playing in front of a building where there was construction work going on. The workers were operating power tools, including a stone saw, that were so loud that not only could we not hear him, the guy couldn't hear himself play. And yet there he was with his hat and people putting money in it.

A sense of enitlement? (Updated)

The Canada Council is an organization that steals from the poor and gives to artists. They celebrated their fiftieth anniversary two years ago and produced some promotional material for the occasion featuring, among other things, material from their beneficiaries.*

Here is Margaret Atwood displaying her sense of entitlement:
Being short of funds and knowing that I needed to be in another country if possible in order to write, and that I needed not to be teaching in order to write a novel, I applied for and received a Senior Arts Grant of $7000.
Emphasis added by me.

Later in her blurb, Atwood writes:
... the taxpayers' investment in me through this tiny $7000 grant is possibly the best investment they ever made.
According to the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator, $7000 in 1969 had the buying power that $41,927.46 does today.

Earlier in the piece Atwood discloses that she was only working part time at the time.

The novel she produced with the help of this grant is Surfacing. One of the themes of that novel is emerging Canadian nationalism. That Atwood needed to be in another country to write about Canadian nationalism tells you just about all you need to know about it. ("Canadian nationalism" by the way, really means Canadian anti-Americanism".)

* Update: I originally wrote this based on a magazine article I found at a coffee shop in Rockliffe Park. I assumed the magazine was new but  I now see that it is a couple of years old. That doesn't make Ms. Atwood any less foolish.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Everything happens to me

Back to Sense and Sensibility
There is an interesting encounter early in the book where Marianne finds out that Sir John Middleton knows Willoughby and begins to ask him questions. She is quickly disappointed as he cannot provide the sort of information she seeks. He cannot understand the sort of things she has feelings for. But the reverse is also true. When Sir John talks about hunting, Marianne quickly bores. If it doesn't matter to her then it doesn't matter.

We see the same here with Mrs. Jennings. Granted she is a boor but Marianne is just as bad a judge of Mrs. Jennings' feelings as Mrs. Jennings is of hers. And that works against Marianne more than it works against Mrs. Jennings. Unable to see Mrs. Jennings efforts for what they are, Marianne can't even appreciate them as kindness. She suffers more.

And we cannot doubt the quality of Mrs. Jennings information. She knows all about the woman whom Willoughby is engaged to. She also successfully predicts how the rest of the story of Marianne will play out. She doesn't have finer feelings but she knows how things work.

The love child
The most chilling thing in the book is Colonel Brandon's account of his no-good brother's marriage with the beloved Eliza. And Austen's account is so powerful because of what it doesn't say. She does not, for example, draw our attention to the incredible injustice of a woman being forced into a marriage she does not want and then losing her fortune to her no-good husband when she divorces.

Neither does she stop to connect the dots on how this fortune figures in the Colonel's current circumstances. We may remember that we were told early on that the Colonel's family estate had once been heavily in mortgaged but now isn't. We now realize that it was this poor woman's fortune—and not hard work by the Colonel or anyone else—that cleared the debt.

But when we connect the dots for ourselves, well, I shuddered when it hit me. Austen doesn't run about crusading against moral injustice. She just paints a picture and lets the injustice show itself.

And consider how blunt the sexual issues are here, however delicately raised. The Colonel's brother mistreated the beloved Eliza because "his pleasures were not what they ought to have been." Now, that's a phrase. Was he gay? Perhaps. Whatever the cause, he didn't give her what she needed. Come with me and put our Mrs. Jennings junior detective hats on a read this sentence:
But can we wonder that with such a husband to provoke inconstancy, and without a friend to advise or restrain her,  she should fall?
I've cut a parentheses out of that sentence for clarity. Think about what the Colonel is saying here. Without a husband capable of loving her properly, she went elsewhere for her love. That is what he is saying! And he doesn't mean she went elsewhere for cuddling and kind words. he means she went elsewhere to satisfy her sexual wants.

What is more, he thinks this understandable.

There is no lay-back-and-think-of-England nonsense here. Women in Austen want sex. They want it a whole lot and it is an awareness of this sexual appetite in women and girls that underlies the entire structure of proprieties and manners of that era. And neither is Austen unaware of the vast prostitution industry that exists to take care the wants of men. She—and her era— treated women differently because of one thing only and that was pregnancy. It is even pregnancy that explains the concern with virginity.

Don't believe me? Consider David Hume who lived just a few years before Austen. When it came time to explain why women should be chaste the only justification he can think of is—you'll want to sit swallow any liquids in your mouth before you read this—property rights! Hume thinks it very important that a man know that his heirs really are his heirs.

Everything happens to Marianne
No matter what news she gets, Marianne takes it as a crime against her.  When she learns that Willoughby has been a cad towards others as well, for example, she suffers for the loss of her hopes rather than feel relieved at her narrow escape.

We might have hoped that things would start to get better at this point. She has had her heart broken and now she can get over it. That is what Mrs. Jennings expects. It is what Elinor hopes for. It is neither what Marianne hopes for nor what will happen.

All of which raises what I think is an interesting question. Suppose Willoughby had not been a cad and he and Marianne had been married. Would she have been happy then?

If we understand Austen properly, the answer is no. This is true of all the Austen novels. It isn't the circumstances that guarantee happiness but the moral understanding of the character. Marianne would be miserable if she married Willoughby in her current state. She has to understand her own sins and do something about it.

That's the other thing. Like sex, Jesus may not get a lot of explicit mention in these stories but he is crucial to understanding what is really going on.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Something that could only interest me

Jazz that is.

Actually, lots of people seem to enjoy reading about it. I was just looking at my local library's on-line offerings on the subject and an amazing number of books are out. All three copies of West Coast Jazz, for example are out. Maybe something is up culturally.

Anyway, I was thinking last night of exactly when things went really wrong with jazz. There have been great jazz records the last few decades but there haven't been an awful lot of them.

I think things started to go wrong in 1961. That was the year that Downbeat supplemented their readers' poll with a critics poll. I don't think it was the cause so much as the symptom. The second we start feeling the need for that sort of authority we're in trouble.

I suppose you could say the same loss of confidence signaled the end of rock music with all these 100 best X of all time lists that Rolling Stone began publishing a few years ago. That felt different. I like rock music a bit and used to like it a lot. But it doesn't feel anywhere near the loss that end of jazz represented.

On not caring

I gave up news media for Lent this year, as I have done for a number of years now.

The odd thing is that I've been back at it for a few weeks now and I just don't care. I don't blog about politics so I won't go into details, but I am amazed at how very little politics matter to me anymore. I care about the results of politics, I know what policies I want to see succeed and which ones I want to see fail.

But the spectacle of it. Keeping track of who is saying what and why suddenly just doesn't matter anymore. What is it about the current crop of politicians that makes them so insufferably boring?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Studiously Uncool (9)

One thing you read over and over again in commentaries about Mad Men is how good it is at getting the details right. It isn't particularly good at it.

But, how good are the critics saying this at getting details right. Consider two examples.

Here is Julia Turner from Slate:
I'm dying to find out what became of isolated, pregnant Betty, whether Joan is still engaged to the loutish doctor who raped her (I'm betting yes), and what (if anything) Pete did with that shotgun he was left holding after Peggy spurned him in last season's finale.
 The "shotgun" in questions was a rifle. A bolt action .22. It's a boy's gun—that Pete bought it tells us a lot about him.

And here is Jessica Winter:
And when she strolls onto her lawn one weekday afternoon with a rifle—clad in nightgown and shades, cigarette dangling from her lip—and starts shooting at her neighbor's pigeons, she looks like she's just walked out of an A.M. Homes story.
 This "rifle" is a BB gun. It's a toy. A toy that has to be used carefully (much like a bicycle or a chemistry set) but a toy nevertheless.

This says a lot about the culture that produced these critics. It also explains a lot about why the world of Mad Men is so appealing.

If you are joining me here, this series starts here.

The next post in the series is here.

Studiously Uncool (8)

I think this one of the more daring episodes in that it has an unresolved quality about it. Unlike music—where leaving things unresolved leaves the hearer hanging—unresolved in fiction invites us to comfortably draw our own conclusions. And that is a daring thing to do with the early 1960s because we just might draw the "wrong" conclusions.

Speaking of which, a number of people I have read commenting on this episode see it as presenting the female perspective after the very male 5G episode. I think that is just projection.  What we really have here is an episode about how men see women. This is a very male show. That, more than anything else, is what makes it stand out in the otherwise very female land of television.

The title picks up on a theme that we has been building quite steadily for some time now and that is the identification of Don Draper as a Moses-like figure. In episode 2 he told us he was a like Moses, "a baby in basket" and we will eventually learn that this is literally true.

Babylon is a land of exile but it is not the land that Moses led the Hebrews out of. That leaves an interesting question for us here: What is Babylon in this story?

Hallmark world
We start in the perfect suburban world that Don lives in with a scene in which it is slowly revealed that Don is making breakfast to take up to Betty because it is Mother's Day. I think we are supposed to take it as an indication of what Don thinks of Betty's intelligence that he takes only the colour comics section of the paper up to her.

And he falls down the stairs breaking all the crockery and we get an odd flashback. Odd because Don does not flashback into the world of his childhood. Instead people from his childhood get flashed forward into his dining room.

It's a great scene. A new baby has been born and Don—like any child but particularly as an adopted orphan—needs to be reassured that he really belongs to this family. Instead, he is told that the child has been named Adam "after the first man."

Yeah, you're really part of this family. In a sort of second class way that is.

"Mourning is just extended self pity"
Don says this to Betty when she goes on an extended riff about aging leading into a discussion of her mother. A number of people have picked this up as a sign of Don's coldness and emptiness. And you could do that if it weren't a dead-on accurate description of Betty here. A more self-pitying shallow twerp would be hard to imagine.

Again, I think Jane Austen had Bettys number, she is just another "one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them."

We get an odd little bit next in which Betty goes on about anticipation. About how she does nothing all day but think of Don coming home and how much she wants him. But ase her words say one thing, her actions say another. It's hard to imagine a more determined mood killer than Betty in this scene, first breaking a kiss to ask Don to turn the light off and then to deliver this utterly unconvincing line about how she thinks of nothing but how much she wants him while her actions say the opposite.

So what are his alternatives?

We get two deliberate parallels. First there is Midge in the previous episode who delivered a similar monologue on anticipation only hers was actually erotic. She delivered wood, Betty delivers wooden. More importantly, she actually does eagerly anticipate rather than just claim to as a manipulative ploy the way Betty does here. Second there is Rachel. While in Bed, Betty demonstrates that all she learned from her degree in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr was how to be shallow. Rachel's time at Barnard, OTOH, was obviously better spent as she is able to talk about history and culture in a profound and intelligent manner.

Roger Sterling Esq.
Who is the irreplaceable actor in Casablanca? It's not Bogart. Bogart makes it a better movie than it would have been had the part gone to George Raft but the movie still would have worked. The guy it wouldn't have worked at all with out is Claude Rains.

Without him the character of Louis Renault would not be perfect and he has to be perfect for this movie to work. He has to be the lovable cad whose presence we enjoy so much that we don't think too much about the actual hero. Because, on close examination, the hero isn't really all that desirable except as fantasy. You'd like to have known Rick Blaine but you'd be better off married to Captain Louis Renault.

The same is true here. John Slattery as Roger Sterling makes this show. Like Rains in Casablanca, it's pure magic every time he is on screen and the parallel life he makes to Don's is what makes the former worker.

Remembering Zion
Don and Rachel have lunch. In response to Don's saying that the people he is dealing with are Zionists, Rachel says, "Zion just means Israel. It's a very old name." She's right. And then she talks about not wanting to visit Israel but it being very important that it should be there.

This is an episode of being estranged from your roots. Of wanting to go home but really having no home to go to. No mother to go home to. That's what Don and Rachel have in common.

A long fuse
There is a subplot about lipstick that starts the progress of Peggy from secretary to copywriter. Peggy and Pete aren't exiles so much as expatriates. They both wnat to leave the culture they grew up in. They are haunted by it like Don and Rachel.

Anyway, the important thing to remember is that it is Freddy Rumsen who spots Peggy's ability. Don is oblivious to it.

Character parallel, Rachel's mother died having her.

And we finally get to Babylon
Which, surprisingly, turns out to be Midge's bohemian beat world. The episode ends with Don still firmly ensconced in this exile but we can tell it won't last.

The funny thing—if you buy the New York Times version that this series justifies why the sixties had to happen—is that the Beats come off so utterly unpalatable. To really believe the 1960s are a good thing you have to trust what the NYT wants to tell you and not your own lying eyes. For here, before our eyes, we see a very stylish age being replaced by an age that has no style at all.

There is a nice outro song though. It's a setting of a few lines from Psalm 137 repeated over and over again. As we here it, sung as a canon, we get a montage of shots. We get Rachel handling a tie and thinking of Don. We get Betty busy teaching her daughter to be another appearance-obsessed airhead just like her. And we get Roger and Joan dressing in their hotel room and leaving separately. The final shot is the two of them in front of the hotel pretending not to know one another in a  composition that could be by Cartier-Bresson. It's all hauntingly beautiful.


Some times are good times to be a reactionary and I can't help but think this is one of them.

And what is a reactionary? It is to be modern without being modernist.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Bitter Pills (continued)

Timothy Reichert is not the only person to forget that maybe young women and even girls really love sex. My all time favourite essay about teen sex is by Caitlin Flanagan. It's a brilliant and insightful piece and can be found online here.

What Flanagan sets out to try (essay means to try) to explain is why teenage girls have gotten so much more willing to perform oral sex. I have some qualifications to make but I think she describes the situation accurately and I think her explanation of why this is happening is right.

That said, nowhere in the article does she recognize how much pleasure some women (I'd guess more than fifty percent of women) get from performing oral sex.

Austen announcement

I'm going to slow down on the Austen blogging a bit. From now on there will be only one post a  week on Friday. The posts will cover longer parts of the book and, I hope, be more meaningful and coherent as a result.

The bitter pill?

There is an interesting and deeply flawed piece on the economics of contraception over at First Things.

The good stuff first, author Timothy Reichert asks some fascinating questions about how contraception may have changed our relative bargaining positions on sex, love and marriage as men and women. Even if you don't like his answers—and many people will hate them—you have to take his questions seriously enough to come up with serious answers to them. And if there is one thing our culture tends to do these days it is to avoid serious answers about the challenges of sex, love and marriage.

Reichert's piece has two huge failures common to a lot of Catholic thinking in this area. The first is its managerial approach. He talks about trends and behaviours as if the only solutions to the problems that concern him is to change the market conditions such that people will pay a huge price for not behaving the ways he thinks they should. This is a little like arguing against bankruptcy protection on the grounds that people took debt more seriously when the consequences of failure were ruin and slavery.

The second problem is funnier.

Here is how he sets it up:
If the arguments above are true, why do women agree to use contraception? More pointedly, why are so many women so vocal that contraception is a necessity—indeed, that it is their birthright?
Leave aside what the "arguments above" are for now (you can go read the piece later and decide about them). Let's just imagine we share Reichert's perspective and are looking for a solution and we'll also conveniently forget that we know that much of the impetus to develop the pill came from women in the first place.

So how does Reichert solve the problem? He uses the prisoner's dilemma. He thinks that women collectively chose to enter into contraceptive use solely because they believed they would lose more if they didn't enter. Here is how he sums it up:
Imagine, then, that chemical contraceptive technology is invented, and women suddenly face the choice of using contraception or not. Imagine the situation faced by younger women. Younger women who choose to use contraceptive technology now find themselves able to enter the sex market wherein they are the “scarce resource” and can command a high price for their services, relative to men. By contrast, young women who do not enter the sex market find themselves unable to benefit from the higher prices paid in the sex market and face a decrease in their share of the gains from marriage because they now are in relative oversupply in the marriage market.
That all sounds like fine reasoning but don't you think it leaves something out? Don't you think that it leaves out something rather important?

Just imagine another condition that might effect this "market". A condition that Reichert and Catholic thinkers on this subject seem to have a hard time imagining. Let's just suppose that most* women actually really enjoy sex. Enjoy it so much that they spend a lot of time craving it; enjoy it so much that they dream about it, scheme about it and fantasize about possible couplings. Wouldn't that also change the calculations above?

* The "most" here is very important. Some people (both men and women) don't like sex much.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Studiously Uncool (7)

What actually happens?

Years ago, before fame went to his head, David Suzuki did a brilliant analysis of some film of male baboons posturing. He showed the film and then read us some of the typical analysis done by people show study animal behaviour. These analyses all emphasized the violence of baboon society.

Suzuki, without denying that male baboons are capable of violence, then asked us to look at the film again and ask ourselves, "What actually happens?"

Studiously Uncool (6)

There will be probably another post coming on Mad Men later today but I wanted to deal with some personal disclosure before that.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Further proof ...

... as if any as needed, that Microsoft is the beast of the Apocalypse:
An Australian publisher is reprinting 7,000 cookbooks over a recipe for pasta with "salt and freshly ground black people."

Penguin Group Australia's head of publishing, Bob Sessions, acknowledged the proofreader for the Pasta Bible should have picked up the error, but called it nothing more than a "silly mistake."

The "Pasta Bible" recipe for spelt tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto was supposed to call for black pepper.
Anyone who has dealt with the horrible auto-correct function in Word knows exactly how this happened. Someone was typing "pepper" and accidentally hit the "O" right next to the letter "P" and Word did the rest.

That said, I don't think the publisher is doing himself any favours with this response:

"We're mortified that this has become an issue of any kind and why anyone would be offended, we don't know," he told The Sydney Morning Herald for a story printed Saturday.

"We've said to bookstores that if anyone is small-minded enough to complain about this ... silly mistake, we will happily replace (the book) for them."
Yes, it was just a silly mistake and you meant no harm Mr. Sessions but if you honestly can't see why others might be offended then you need your head examined. Harm is not just a matter of intention but is also a matter of result*. What you meant to say is that you are mortified that this happened and you hope everyone will understand that it was just a silly mistake and that you want to assure anyone who has a copy that you will cheerfully replace it if they are offended.

*This sentence has been improved a bit since I first posted.

Concupiscence (3)

So, what to do about "concupiscence"?

Well, I'm not sure I know any better than anyone else. I don't have a definitive answer you can take away  like I do if you asked me how to poach an egg. I have an answer more like the kind of answer I'd give if someone asked me about driving safely. That is, I have a general attitude that has worked pretty well and a few hints to go with it. But I could not in all honesty guarantee you that I won't hurt someone very badly tomorrow through my own negligence. I don't intend to but it could happen in a  way that was entirely my fault and that I ought to have foreseen.

So, if you are looking for a sin-free approach to sexual desire, I don't have it.

I do have some basic reminders that are useful though. The first one is about vocabulary. There is nothing wrong with inventing or introducing new terms. All the words we use had to be invented and introduced at some point. But a new term has to earn it's keep. It has to have a use and it has to be useful enough that others pick it up.

Any time that a term—especially a moral term—gets introduced but lays around unused that is a powerful signal to us that this term serves no real purpose. "Concupiscence" is such a  word. It was introduced to the language because some people felt that existing words didn't do the work they wanted them to do. The problem isn't just that others disagreed. There would be a point in keeping the arguments running if there were people on one side saying beware of concupiscence and others disputing that or even ignoring them. No, the problem is that the word has no use. It never even got a toehold in our language.  It does no real work in moral arguments.

And simply acknowledging that strips Alice von Hildebrand's argument and leaves it naked for everyone to see. Here is some of her argument where she leans heavily on the word "concupiscence":
“In paradise there was perfect harmony between Adam and Eve. There was no concupiscence.”

“After original sin, not only were we separated from God and condemned to losing eternity. On top of it, every single human faculty was affected. Our intelligence was darkened. Our will was weakened. And all of a sudden, we had the dreadful experience of something called concupiscence.

Before the Fall, there was no inner temptation to impurity between Adam and Eve even though they were naked, she explained. After they sinned, the two started to look at one another with concupiscence.

The Fall had consequences that are “so serious” that it was only the Redemption and the grace of God could remedy.

The fight against concupiscence is “not an easy process,” Dr. von Hildebrand continued. “It is something that calls for holiness, which very few of us achieve. It is a sheer illusion to believe that by some sort of new technique we can find the solution to the problem.”
Okay, now read the thing again only here I will replace the word "concupiscence" with "lust".

“In paradise there was perfect harmony between Adam and Eve. There was no lust.”

“After original sin, not only were we separated from God and condemned to losing eternity. On top of it, every single human faculty was affected. Our intelligence was darkened. Our will was weakened. And all of a sudden, we had the dreadful experience of something called lust .

Before the Fall, there was no inner temptation to impurity between Adam and Eve even though they were naked, she explained. After they sinned, the two started to look at one another with lust.

The Fall had consequences that are “so serious” that it was only the Redemption and the grace of God could remedy.

The fight against lust is “not an easy process,” Dr. von Hildebrand continued. “It is something that calls for holiness, which very few of us achieve. It is a sheer illusion to believe that by some sort of new technique we can find the solution to the problem.”
 The problem is that lust is too ordinary a thing. We all know what it means.

It isn't that lust isn't dangerous. We all know it is. But we also know that lust is controllable just like anger, gluttony and jealousy. We also know that these things aren't necessarily evil in themselves. We know anger is sometimes justifiable as is appetite for food. We know that gluttony is a bad thing but we also know that an appreciation for good food and good wine is not gluttony. And we know that sometimes being completely carried away with sexual desire is a good thing.

That sort of moral reasoning won't work for the good doctor. She needs a dark force called "concupiscence" that works on us all the time.

Sinfully delicious
I think "sinfully delicious" was originally a slogan used to sell chocolate to women.  Google doesn't know because, unlike "concupiscence", this expression has become very popular. All sorts of people use it nowadays. It's a reaction against  Alice von Hildebrand and her ilk. At some point, a lot of people began to suspect that what she and others like her really don't like is pleasure.

An even darker suspicion is that what is really objected to here is other people's pleasure.

I don't know about that. I'm pretty sure some people argue against a strong appreciation of sexual desire—even in marriage as Alice von Hildebrand certainly does—because they themselves have some sort of psychological problems with sex. I don't like labeling particular people this way, however, because I don't think it serves any purpose. Far better to treat Alice von Hildebrand's arguments as arguments than to attempt to psychoanalyze her.

And they are interesting as arguments. Because she cannot be saying anything like the following: "It's okay to enjoy sex with your spouse, just don't enjoy it too much." To say that would be different from saying that we have a sinful nature, which is true. To say that would be to say that we were created in a form that our basic pleasures are set up to sabotage us.

And, as I said at the start, the really interesting thing about the prophets of great sexual freedom is that they don't seem very happy.

I think that we can find the beginning of an answer in the Bible. Books like Leviticus (one of my favourites BTW) separate sex from God fairly consistently. God being eternal, doesn't do sex because he does not procreate. Therefore, human devotion to God is separated from sex. You do not go to the sanctuary after sex because you are unclean.

Sex, on this view, is not sinful. It's just not holy. It has a place and it should be confined to that place.

This Leviticus view strikes me as remarkably sensible. Sex is an intimate thing. It is the thing we associate with the intimate bond of marriage. We do not bring sex to public worship of God.

That is an important thing because one of the things that people always seem to want to do with sex is make it a sacrament. You get it from guys like Christopher West who argues that every time a couple has sex they are reconsecrating their marriage and therefore have to strictly follow certain rules and observances. It should trouble Christopher West a lot that you get this same sacramental attitude towards sex guys like Henry Miller. I like Leonard Cohen but he also is one of the offenders here:
And remember when I moved in you
The holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.
No Leonard, sex, even really, really, really good sex, is just sex.

At the same time, though, the Bible uses this image as metaphor for union with God. Hosea likens the correct form of Israel's union with God to a faithful sexual union. Saint Paul uses marriage as a metaphor to explain Christ's union with the church.

Sexual infidelity, OTOH, is the a regular and powerful metaphor for betraying our covenant with God in the Bible. 

And then there is the Song of Songs.

The Jane Austen point
There is a fairly consistent message here. The right kind of sexual relationship is a foretaste of our relationship with God. At the same time, the Bible is consistent that having sex is not a form of worship so don't go down the Christopher West road either. Have sex and be grateful for it. But don't make it into more than that. Don't make it into a sacrament.

But, as Austen insists, it is all about the right kind or relationship. Go ahead have all the concupiscence you can muster just do it in a way that  fits the relationship you want with your spouse. If you really treasure the relationship you have with this person you wouldn't sully it by doing it with anyone else either right? Sexual desire, properly understood leads to exclusivity.

Does that seem fogeyish to you? We all know that some would say "yes" but be honest here. When you're madly in love with someone do you feel good about the idea of their sharing the same intimacy they have with you with others? Is that what you really want? Don't worry about what others might say because I'm talking to you, is it what you really want?

Maybe having a deep and meaningful and loving sexual relationship with another person means nothing to you. But I bet it does mean something you. I bet it is something you crave.

Is it bad news or good news to you to learn that actually having and keeping such a relationship takes a lot of hard work?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Concupiscence (2)

I saw a book the other day that had a picture of a woman in black lingerie squatting on the front cover. Naturally, I picked it up. It was in the literature section. The back cover talked about a couple who decide to explore their fantasies. The end result was "a dark journey".

This happens over and over again. Watch a movie like Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut for example and the message is that sexual desire leads us to the dark places of the heart.

Given this, you'd think the other side of this debate—the side that believes in faith, hope and love—would have no trouble winning. Well, you'd be wrong because the other side also relentlessly teaches that desire leads to the dark places of the heart.

Only they don't talk about desire. They talk about the wrong kind of desire to which they sometimes attach this rather odd word "concupiscence".

Christopher West
 My Serpentine Friend called my attention to a story featuring the word just yesterday. The story concerned Christopher West. He is apparently taking a five-month sabbatical to reconsider his positions. My first thought was hooray for that as I have wished for years now that West would just stop talking.

West, for those who don't know about him, is a Catholic thinker who writes and talks about sexuality and marriage. West represents something of an attempt to save desire from the bad guys. Unfortunately, he tends to come off as a bit of a goofy guy trying hard to prove that Jesus is cool with sex.

When I looked up the story myself I found that West's positive sex talk had gotten him in trouble with the church's moral harridans. In an interview last September for saying that Hugh Hefner may have got some things right.

What to say? I guess the main thing is that if you aren't hip, don't try to be. Really, crediting Hugh Hefner with starting the sexual revolution is like crediting Guy Lombardo with inventing jazz. It was a clumsy, stupid interview and West deserves every bit of criticism thrown at him.

The Blue Meanie
As if that wasn't bad enough, his clumsy remarks opened the door for one Dr. Alice von Hildebrand. She, seems to have led the attack against West.

And she is a charter member of the purity squad. Here is a taste of her thinking
Women have the key because they are the guardians of purity. This is already clearly indicated by the structure of their bodies, which chastely hides their intimate organs. Because their organs are "veiled," indicating their mystery and sacredness, women have the immense privilege of sharing the sex of the blessed one: Mary, the most holy of all creatures.
That is to say that women are the ones who should be providing the leadership on sexual morality and the model for all women to follow is, wait for it, a woman who never had sex. And women are to do this because they are supposed to have moral power over men.

You can get a notion of what she has in mind reading her analysis of what went wrong with the world.
The poison of secularism has penetrated deeply into our society. It did so by stages. Men were its first victims: They became more and more convinced that in order to be someone they had to succeed in the world. Success means money, power, fame, recognition, creativity, inventiveness, etc.

Many of them sacrificed their family life in order to achieve this goal: They came home just to relax or have fun. Work was the serious part of their life.
Innumerable marriages have been ruined by this attitude. Wives rightly felt that they were mere appendixes -- a necessary relaxation. 
So the guys came home wanting sex not love.

Although she says here that this "evil" is caused by secularism, elsewhere she attributes it to original sin.
“The tragedy of original sin is that all the beautiful male qualities of strength, courage, objectivity, nobility, a chivalrous attitude towards women, degenerated. The danger created by original sin is that many men use their strength and become brutal and abuse women or look at women as mere objects of pleasure.
 It's hard not to read things like this and think that Hildebrand has a bit of a problem with men and sex. A suspicion that is not helped much by this afterthought:
“Eve was also profoundly affected by original sin,” she added.
 Let's take a moment here to consider the kind of evil that the good Doctor here describes. Can we think of places in the modern world where this sort of thing exists? Places where men go out into the world while women are confined to the home and then men come home demanding sex and treat women as "mere objects of pleasure"?

We can imagine such a culture for it exists in Iran and Saudi Arabia. The odd thing, however, is that it is also in those countries where we find precisely the model of humility and modesty that Dr. Hildebrand suggests for women. In fact, it seems to be a fairly dependable occurrence that where men are given the power to oppress women they demand humility and modesty from women.

(A quick aside, does this match your experience of the word? When you look at women with their "veiled" sexuality, does that make you more or less likely to desire them? It should come as no surprise that recent research indicates that even women respond to other women.)

The Holy Family
One of the best things ever written about theology was the work of an atheist and materialist named Feuerbach. He said that religion takes human qualities and sublimates them. It takes ordinary human virtues and projects them up into a heavenly sphere. This impoverishes human beings by taking these virues away from us and projecting them onto perfect figures we can never live up to.

Fortunately, Feuerbach is right. He has given us a valuable test of good theology. Anytime we find ourselves taking human qualities and projecting them upwards, we are making a mistake.

It ought to be odd that Feuerbach's critique was ever applied to Christianity. To other religion's yes, it makes sense. But the message we find in the Gospel is actually the reverse of Feuerbach. Christ is not a projection of humanity, he is God's Son. He comes down and assumes our human form in order to give us dignity and purpose thereby redeeming us.

It's people like Alice von Hildebrand who make Feuebach's critique of Christianity credible. Note that she focuses not on Jesus but Mary. Mary ceases to be a human being like the rest of us who is redeemed by Christ but becomes instead "the most holy of all creatures".
Not surprisingly, the next step is one of denial. Mary is great not for what she did for what she did not do. The supreme example of sexual virtue is not to have sex at all. Those who do have sex do it right when they most approach this "ideal". That is to say they deny themselves virtually all the time.

This isn't sexual morality, it's anti-sex views being passed off as morality. And it's not pro-life either. 

Friday, April 16, 2010


I just love that word. I can never see "concupiscence" in print without thinking that it sounds like a good thing. It doesn't sound particularly sexual though even though "concupiscence" means desire.

Is desire a good thing? That's a very good question. The two dictionaries closest to me as I sit here at the keyboard are both Oxfords. The Oxford Canadian says it means "sexual desire". The Oxford Concise says "lust". The old Gage dictionary a little further down the shelf gives both "sexual desire" and "lust" as definitions.

The Latin root seems to mean to begin to desire.

Anyway, a few random thoughts about desire.

In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
I was reading Will Friedwald's book on jazz singing. When he gets to Sinatra he notes an interesting contrast between Sinatra and Crosby:
Film critic Ethan Morden once described Bing Crosby as a "healer". His function in depression and wartime America was to soothe and to reassure. Frank Sinatra's mission has always been just the opposite. Sinatra shocks. Sinatra Jolts. Sinatra arouses our anger and passion by expressing his own.
And then there is this:
His egotism, certainly, contributes, because so much of what he sings is about himself, and he doesn't try to hide his arrogance but instead makes it part of his performance: his casting of himself as the romantic lead of every love song he sings, for instance, and his dwelling on desire and want instead of self sacrfifice.
I should note here that I love Sinatra and own about twenty hours worth of his music. That said, something has gone wrong here. The Serpentine One says that, although he does all sorts of things well, Sinatra doesn't do joy very well. Any happiness in his songs seems transient.

What he does well, is this:

There is something good and beautiful and true about that. (This is my very favourite Sinatra recording.)

The funny thing is that there isn't much to choose in the private lives of Crosby and Sinatra. Both have been subject to vicious attack jobs in print so you can think the worst of them and find "evidence" to back that if you want. That said, both are exemplars of virtue compared to most rock stars.

But there is something sad—necessarily sad—about desire when it is separated from love. Sinatra doesn't seem to have had any trouble seeing that. The problem was that he didn't know what to do about it.

Here is another song from his great record In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. There is something religious about this performance:

As someone I read once put it, there is moment towards the end when the music seems to hint that it has thought of an answer but it's too late, he's gone.

Going Gaga
To head from the sublime to the ridiculous, Lady Gaga sings about desire and does it better than most of her contemporaries. That's not saying much but it is saying something. I recently found myself trapped ina  room where I had to listen to a lot of contemporary dance music. None of it was exactly awful and some was even good. None of it was memorable.

But here is the thing, the one time I found myself actually paying attention I was surprised to find it was a Lady Gaga song called "Pokerface". I won't link, it's not that good. But the lyrics are fairly clever. It has only one trick, and it repeats it over and over again. The person at the telling us the story is bragging about her ability to veil her sexual desire but the very act of veiling it is increasing that desire such that ... well, something is going to happen. If that sort of scenario doesn't appeal to you, then you don't like sex.

Which is why it is sad to read this:
“I’m bluffin’ with my muffin.” Do these sound like the words of a chaste woman? Despite the sexually explicit images Lady Gaga conjures up when she sings about wanting to “take a ride on your vertical stick,” the singer recently announced that she’s celibate: “I’m celibate. Celibacy’s fine…It’s not really cool anymore to have sex all the time. It’s cooler to be strong and independent.”
 Much as I hate to be a pedant, this is one of those times when it's necessary. Chastity does not mean celibacy. To be chaste is to think and act in virtuous way about sex. Nothing about being celibate will make you chaste. Nothing at all. So, to answer the question, no it doesn't sound like the words of a chaste woman because they aren't the words of a chaste woman.

But something has gone wrong here hasn't it? And isn't it strange that the very advocates of sexual freedom seem to provide the greatest prrof of it?

More to come ...

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Talking about the weather

Sense and Sensibility, Book 2, Chaps 5 to 7 (or Chapters 27-29 in crappy editions)

"I can hardly keep my hands warm even in my muff."

Marianne makes this, at the time purely innocent, comment. She is hoping it will get colder so Willoughby will stop shooting on his estate and come to the city.

We see at some length that her unrestrained feelings have made her a bit of a weather-vane. The most trivial things will flip her from hope to despair and back again. She has a propensity to hope though and that may seem like a good thing to us at this point. Hope is a good thing, right? Saint Paul says so after all.

But hope in what? And there lies the big question: are they engaged? We have an interesting pair of mirror images here. Elinor knows that Edward is engaged to someone else but she feels certain he does not love this other person. OTOH, Elinor knows that Willoughby and Marianne are in love but isn't sure they are engaged.

With no hope of marriage at this point, Elinor looks for other things for solace and inspiration. Marianne has invested everything in Willoughby and we have to wonder on what basis she has done this. We, along with Elinor, tell ourselves that he must have said something to lead her to believe they will be married .

 Austen has a lovely way of dropping little hints that we should be paying attention to if we want to grasp what is at stake. Sir John arrives and immediately hosts an impromptu dance. Lady Middleton does not approve. This is interesting enough gossip but it is her reason for not approving that should matter to us.
In the country, an unpremeditated dance was very allowable; but in London, where the reputation of elegance was more important and less easily attained, it was risking too much ....
 Different standards apply in London and we should start to worry a little about Marianne about this. Impromptu responses and a disregard for elegance are exactly what we should expect from her.

And she delivers by promptly making a fool of herself at a party which was carefully planned with elegance in mind. The very next day, the novel reaches its climax.

With a  great thud, we learn that Willoughby is engaged to someone else, that there was never even a  declaration of love from him never mind an engagement.

Elinor tries to convince Marianne to make an effort to cheer up with this rather grim thought:
"Exert yourself, dear Marianne," she cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself."
 And Marianne replies in her predictble, self-centred way.
"I cannot, I cannot," cried Marianne; "leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me; but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! 
We know better of course. And Austen is almost ready to credit us with this. I wouldn't deprive anybody of the pleasure of figuring all the angles and curves to the problem out for themselves. All I want to note here is that Sense and Sensibility is unlike later Austen books in that we get the story mostly from Elinor's perspective. That weighs it down as she is too intelligent. It's a little like reading Emma from Mr. Knightley's perspective instead of Emma's.

Elinor, as I have said before, is the greatest of Austen heroines. No one else will ever match her high standards. Fanny Price may be constant but she is not the paragon Elinor is. Mr. Knightley is a paragon (Darcy is not) but we see him through Emma's flawed vision and not through his morally superior persepctive.

Why does Austen do this? Who knows? Perhaps it wasn't until Pride and Prejudice that she figured out that it was more effective to write from the flawed character's perspective. That changes everything because, seen from Elizabeth Bennet's persepctive, Elizabeth Bennet is a more sympathetic character.

I have another theory though. My guess is that there is a more than passing resemblance between Marianne Dashwood and Jane Austen, that the novel we are reading is more than a little autobiographical. More on that as we go along.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Studiously Uncool (5)

New Amsterdam
This episode starts off with some sexist humour from Bob Newhart who makes fun of women drivers.

Up until the late 1960s, this sort of humour was common.  There were hundreds of jokes that started, so this cop pulls over this lady driver .... What I'm not so sure of is that makers of Mad Men fully appreciate just how sexist the Newhart routine was. If they do know, they forget to let enough play that anyone unfamiliar with the whole sketch could figure it out.

Anyway, Trudy pops in to see Peter Campbell and to show him an apartment. Trudy is an adult and Peter is a child. It's not that she is necessarily better or smarter than him but she is a grown up at least.

They need to borrow money for the apartment and so Peter heads off to see his parents. They're preppies so load up the clichés: cold, distant people with a place out on Long Island and a boat. We're supposed to hate him and laugh at her and we will end up doing that because the scriptwriters mean for us to. Still, Peter's father has much better taste in clothes than he does.

At one point, Peter's father mocks his son's work calling it,  "Taking people out to dinner, wining and whoring." The problem, as we shall soon see, is that is pretty much exactly what Peter does. We can hate his father all we want but when he is right he is right.

He also refuses Peter the money. We are given to understand here that Peter is a disappointment to him. Later, much later, we learn otherwise. This is one of the show's great strengths, BTW, it lights fuses that set bombs off next season.

In any case, Peter's parents are old New York, thus the title.

Two spoiled children
This is the Peter Campbell-Betty Draper show and the similarities between them are rather stunning. I think the episode was meant to fill their characters out a bit. I think it was meant to  explain their behaviour. They are still both feebs but we are supposed to realize that they have reasons for being like this.

 As a believer in virtue ethics, I think this is hogwash. Moral weaklings like these two do a lot of damage and we get good examples of it from both this episode.

Peter goes to work and gets into a testosterone battle with Don Draper. Well, of course, his father has hurt his pride so it's perfectly understandable. In a five year old maybe. In any case, he picks on the wrong guy and gets slapped down for his trouble.

One great line, though. Peter says, "You tell me I'm good with people. Which is strange because I never heard that before." Got to give him this one. He isn't much good with people.

And he is right, he is very good with ideas. But isn't being good with people what a human being is supposed to be? You can have all the other skills you want but a human being who is as bad with people as Pete Campbell is is like a lifeguard who can't swim very well. Which is to say almost useless.

 The babysitter from hell
But Peter is a walking definition of maturity compared to Betty Draper. She agrees to watch Helen Bishop's kids while Helen stuffs envelopes for the Kennedy campaign. First problem, she can't say no and so she gets used.

Anyway, while Betty is sitting for Helen, Helen's son Glen walks into the bathroom and watches her. And I mean, watches her.

Betty acts normally enough at first. She rushes him out but she is ineffectual and she knows it.

Almost immediately things start to fall apart. She has no authority and it shows. She immediately starts the "all I'm trying to say" gambit beloved of moral weaklings everywhere. Her having shown this weakness, even a little creep-in-the making like Glen Bishop knows how to capitalize on the situation. He asks her for a lock of her hair and she says yes. Then she hugs him.

I'm sorry but how childlike and helpless do you need to be to not realize that this is not a good idea?

I need you to get a  cardboard box and put your stuff in it
Peter pitches an idea of his own to a client. The client tells him to shut up because he is too interested in the prostitute Peter has gotten for him. We know from the context that Peter has been pimping for this guy for a while now. His father may be a shit but he is right about his son.

Next day, though, the client likes the idea. Little wonder, it's a good idea. But Peter is such a dickhead he can't do anything right. Not only is he not humble, he actually uses the occasion to try and exercise power over Don. Earlier, he told Trudy's parents that Don is not his boss. Well, now we learn different because Don fires him.

And then there is Betty Draper. I don't think I can do any better than to say go watch the scene on the psychiatrist's couch yourself. She takes self-absorbed twit to new depths. The only thing to note is that she also tries to compensate for her weakness with arrogance. It's a different sort of arrogance but that is what it is.

"My real concern is the children. I mean, the baby won't know the difference but that poor little boy." Yeah sure Betty, and dealing with  an adult like you who is such a feeble loser that she seeks approval from confused little boys is sure going to help. You were on the road down to child molesting.

As I say, moral weaklings cause a lot of hurt.

We do it because it's what men do
But they can't fire Pete Campbell because of who is mother is. They need him on staff as an entrée to certain social circles.

This is a really nice touch. Suddenly we see that Pete's father is not that much different from him. he married influence. One weakling produces another. Again, we're lighting a long fuse here.

So Roger solves the problem. Pete promptly reverts to the sycophantic child he is being when he isn't being a date rapist.

One of the things the creators clearly did not see was the importance of Roger., You can see it right in the first season credits: "And special guest appearance by John Slattery". They didn't plan on keeping him around. The whole first season is an unsuccessful attempt to write him out.

I'm guessing that the original idea of writing him out him tested really badly in audience response. But here's the thing, this guy is a man. The real thing. Yeah, he does stupid things, he cheats, he drinks he does it all. But, for all that, they created a virtuous man here and they need him. In the end they don't need Salvatore or Betty Draper.

But Roger Sterling they need. And it is painfully obvious going through from the beginning again. It's pure magic every time Roger and Don are in a scene together. There are other great moments but these two are the heart of the series.

One of which happens soon after Pete is reinstated. This isn't one of the great episodes but watch it again for what happens at 40:25. The screen goes black. We might think the show is over only we are panning up behind the desk in Don's office. As we clear the top, we see Roger sitting in exactly the pose that ends the opening credits. Only it's the mirror image of Don. Watch it!

And then watch the brilliant portrayal of sheer manliness that follows. The style of this show is every bit as great as the critics say but the male virtue is even better. Men haven't seen anything this good from the entertainment industry since .... well, since the early 1960s.

From the first episode of Season 2, John  Slattery is a full cast member. They keep trying to write him out but they can't. This is going to be a nightmare for them.

He says to Don, "You shouldn't compete with Pete Campbell." When Don denies this, he says, "Yes you are. Not on a personal level but for the world."

The Pete Campbells and Betty Drapers  are going to take over just like they did in real. That's the story of the 1960s. That is slowly unfolding cultural tragedy unfolding before our eyes. But who'd want to watch a show dominated by characters like that after we've seen the style of Don Draper and roger Sterling?

If you are joining me here, this series starts here.

The next post in the series is here

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Is it a sin to tell a lie?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

Everybody knows this as everybody tells lies sometimes and continues to tell lies. There are certain kinds of moralists who get incensed at the suggestion that it is ever okay to tell lies but even they are usually hypocrites about it. In this case, hypocrites where it would be better to do as they do and not as they preach.

The most infamous hardliner on lying was Immanuel Kant who insisted that if Bill asked if he could hide in your basement and then an obviously crazed person showed up a little later holding a big hunting knife and asked you if Bill was hiding in your basement, you shouldn't lie. We laugh at Kant about this but he is just being consistent. If you think morality should be defined by rules, that's where you end up.

A lot of Christians end up in the same stupid place Kant did even though there is no commandment forbidding lies. The commandment is quite specific: it forbids bearing false witness. You can interpret false witness in various ways. It need not mean just in court. It could include giving a recommendation, for example. But no matter how we define it, bearing false witness does not mean lying.

I understand why some might balk at this. No matter how carefully you define "bearing false witness" it isn't going to be enough to exclude all the mean and nasty ways you can hurt someone by telling untruths.

To which, I will simply say, that's fine with me. I think it just proves how limited an idea rules are. Now you go ahead and define "lying" so specifically that it doesn't include any of the necessary lies you need to tell to live.

Rules (and consequences) will always have a place in morality but they can't be the basis of our morality if we want it to be workable.

Two liars

Having satisfactorily determined that Edward is indeed guilty of something but forgivably guilty and that he cannot truly be in love with Lucy Steele any more, Elinor plans her course of action. She has no real reason for hope at this point. At least none that she tells us of but one slim reason for hope will reveal itself as we go along.

So what does she decide to do? She decides to lie to Lucy. Not just for the pleasure of fooling Lucy—although Elinor does enjoy doing that—but to solicit information.

Now, a bit of a digression on morality. If you believe that morality consists of dutifully following rules—and most people do—this will come as a bit of a shock. That ethics, which is formally called deontology is the dominant way of thinking about ethics in our time. Jane Austen's ethics are virtue ethics. That ethics is based on performance and character.

So let's look at the performance. Elinor doesn't just lie, she lies really well.
"Thank you," cried Lucy warmly, "for breaking the ice; you have set my heart at ease by it; for I was somehow or other afraid I had offended you by what I told you that Monday."

"Offended me! How could you suppose so? Believe me," and Elinor spoke it with the truest sincerity, "nothing could be farther from my intention, than to give you such an idea. Could you have a motive for the trust that was not honourable and flattering to me?" 
 "Elinor spoke with the truest sincerity." And she did. Nothing could be further from her intention than to give Lucy reason to believe that she was offended. It's a nice trick BTW. If you need to lie, emphasize any phrases you speak that are actually true.

And then this beautiful dig: "Could you have a motive for the trust that was not honourable and flattering to me?" But of course Lucy did. She only mentioned her engagement to Elinor to open up a wound in Elinor that she now plans to rub salt in.

It's not that Lucy is a bitch and Elinor isn't. To the contrary, Elinor is much better at being a bitch than Lucy. Quite frankly, we have good reason to believe she is better at everything than Lucy; and and is going to be be better at everything she undertakes if you catch my drift.

And on we go. In the course of a chapter in which neither of the women stops lying for even a second, Elinor learns want she wants to learn. She confirms that Lucy is self-serving and has a weak character. And she demonstrates her own strength of character. Do go and read it again. It is is something of a measure of Austen that she shows us more with lies than most writers can do with truths.

Off to London
And then we get the manœuvering to get the two sisters off to London. There is a bit of story telling going on here.  I mean by that that I'm reminded of certain action movies wherein the hero deplores violence even though he is a great martial arts expert. Luckily for him, his opponents keep putting him in situations where he has no choice but to reluctantly use his power. And so poor Elinor, who only wants to stay at home and do needlepoint and read to her mother, is reluctantly obliged to go to London where she will be in her very element.
Elinor submitted to the arrangement which counteracted her wishes, with less reluctance than she had expected to feel. With regard to herself, it was now a matter of unconcern whether she went to town or not; and when she saw her mother so thoroughly pleased with the plan, and her sister exhilarated by it in look, voice, and manner, restored to all her usual animation, and elevated to more than her usual gaiety, she could not be dissatisfied with the cause, and would hardly allow herself to distrust the consequence. 
With "less reluctance" indeed. Had this been a martial arts movie—and it bears more similarity than some Austen fans might be willing to admit—this would be the moment when the hero quietly packs his or her Ninja gear. Elinor's Ninja gear doesn't need packing, however, because she carries it with her all the time in her character. Like any person of real virtue, she thrives on using her virtue to achieve things. (And not, I will point out for the umpteenth time, by sheltering it like Pamela and her virginity.)

We also see a brief glimpse of something positive in Marianne in this paragraph. Now that she is going to London, where she might see Willoughby, Marianne is again hopeful.

Unfortunately, hope for Marianne is just a feeling and it is focused entirely on her goal. Pretty soon we see her at her old selfish ways, caring only for the things her sensibilities validate and otherwise treating opther people as conveniences.
They were three days on their journey, and Marianne's behaviour as they travelled was a happy specimen of what her future complaisance and companionableness to Mrs. Jennings might be expected to be. She sat in silence almost all the way, wrapt in her own meditations, and scarcely ever voluntarily speaking, except when any object of picturesque beauty within their view drew from her an exclamation of delight exclusively addressed to her sister. To atone for this conduct, therefore, Elinor took immediate possession of the post of civility which she had assigned herself, behaved with the greatest attention to Mrs. Jennings, talked with her, laughed with her, and listened to her whenever she could ....
Okay, Austen does rather lay it on with a trowel at times. The first part here describing Marianne's selfishness is perfectly apt. We rebel a little, and rightfully so, at the description of Elinor atoning for Marianne. This writing is bad enough to be something by one of the Brontës—and for the same reason—Elinor is being a  demure little romantic victim just like the insufferable Jane Eyre or the even more insufferable Agnes Grey will be.

What redeems her, however, is her sense; something no one would accuse a Brontë or one of their heroines of having . I mentioned up at the top that Elinor has little reason to be hopeful—an issue she dwells on herself during a quiet moment. But she does have reason to continue to esteem Edward even if it now looks as if her chances of marrying him are minuscule.

And she continues to esteem him for the very quality that she worries that Willoughby lacks, constancy. Edward, and Brandon as we see when he appears, has constancy. And so does Elinor. If we read Austen well, we will recognize that the actual outcome matters little at this point. Elinor's life will be one of virtue whether she marries Edward or not.

That, by the way, is the big reason Austen's comedic endings are so successful. Her endings would be less pleasing if the heroine did not get the right kind of marriage for her troubles but they would still be convincing from a moral perspective either way

Monday, April 12, 2010

Studiously Uncool (4)

The Marriage of Figaro
The story-telling conventions Mad Men uses come from two sources—soap operas and comic books. That isn't surprising because the audience for this show grew up on soap operas like  Dawson's Creek and movies based on comic books like Batman and Spiderman.

They also grew up on a steady diet of 1960s mythology from their parents and their university professors.

Retcon, for example, is probably the most common literary device. The context of facts is constantly being retroactively defined or redefined. Comic books and soap operas use this technique over and over again because they are making it up as they go along. They have characters and plot lines but—unlike a novel, movie or even a mini-series—they aren't headed for an ending. As a result, they tend to chew the same mythological ground over and over again. Retelling their own stories in new contexts.

Are the creators of Mad Men making it up as they go along? To some extent, yes, but not completely.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Time to dump your behavioral economics holdings

Most really crazy ideas start life off as sensible notions. That human choices are not rational exercises of our ability to calculate is a sensible move.

Mr. Interlocutor

This is the second in what will be a series of attempts to explain what was right about Minstrel shows. I know, I know, it's an incendiary subject. But difficult issues are part of any genuine examination of virtue. 

Here is a verse (there are many variations) from the song most of us know as "Careless Love". 
Once I wore my apron low,
Once I wore my apron low,
Oh it's once I wore my apron low,
You'd follow me through rain and snow.
Now some things are obvious. Like the story: he loved her until he got her pregnant and then he disappeared. Not so obvious is that this song is of British origin. It's obviously been tweaked into a blues song along the line but we can see the British origins in the four line with threefold repetition rather than the three line with double repetition typical of the blues. But that's a subject for another day.

The thing I want to hammer on here is that songs like this—and there were hundreds telling this basic story—were originally always sung by men. Yes, by men!

This is one of those things that needs explaining and, not surprisingly, lots of people have explained it. The most common explanation is a feminist one that the songs worked as a form of social control. Men sang these things to scare women into conforming to expected behaviours. There is probably something to that.
It breaks a little, though, if you listen to the actual songs. In "Careless Love", for example, the sympathy is entirely with the woman. These songs also added a certain glamour to what these women did.

The reason why songs like "Careless Love" were sung by men is that assuming a role, any role, is a dangerous thing because people will take you for the role you are playing. If you play the role of being an easy-going guy at work, for example, it won't make any difference that you actually work hard every day. People will assume you don't.

And thus the reason a woman couldn't sing a song like "Careless Love". (An aside, the problem with a lot of feminist explanations is not that they are "feminist" but that they are simply wrong; there is usually an equally feminist explanation that has the extra virtue of being right.)

Every culture needs a performance genre that allows actors to put on some sort of mask and freely assume roles. "Freely" meaning that role won't stick to them. A man singing "Careless Love" didn't worry that that role would stick to him. The roles in the Minstrel show—which included all sorts of impersonations including female impersonation—offered that freedom. My point here is not that there wasn't lots of racism in Minstrel shows. There was. But that wasn't all there was. In fact, virtually every aspect of modern American culture owes huge debts to the Minstrel show.

And we still need it because, oddly enough, when we separate the role from the performer as happens in the Minstrel show, those roles become public property. It is like putting ways of living beside one another in a store. You can sit in the dark and imagine yourself in these different roles. Like clothing on the rack at a store, the roles don't belong to anyone.  They are there for you to take as your own.

That the roles are hollow caricatures is actually a strength in this regard. The more filled out, the less appropriate they are for wide use.

Don Draper—whether his creators realize this or not—does the same thing to a certain idea of male virtue. He didn't create the role. It was hanging around on the rack in the back because no one thought it had any attraction for modern buyers. And it is a bit of a hollow caricature.

It turns also out that it is a lot more appealing than anyone expected.

There is a challenge here, tough. He can't get too real. The role was only possible for an unknown like John Hamm. The guy himself has to remain anonymous because the second he gets too closely associated with the role, it will lose its usefulness. He seems to recognize this. He grows beards off season which has much the same effect as washing the blackface off.

Oh yeah, the role he is playing is derived from Mr, Interlocutor.

If you are joining me here, this series starts here.

The next post in the series is here.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Vimy Ridge and WW1

Although Quebec is my home, I am trapped in Ottawa for professional reasons. And Ottawa is not a  bad place to be trapped in especially from about August 15 to October 15 when it is at its best.

Today, downtown is all clogged up because there is a special ceremony to commemorate the battle of Vimy Ridge. It's a worthwhile thing to celebrate so it seems a little wrong to carp but carp I must. This stuff is beginning to acquire an aura of compelled worship.

Seeing this stuff, it isn't hard to imagine how we  could slip back into having official state religions.

Not unrelated
I remember about twenty years ago now being at the war memorial (one of Ottawa's few genuine architectural treasures, along with The Langevin Block, the library from the original Parliament Buildings and the New Train Station). Anyway, a group of young men had been dressed up in WW1 uniforms for the occasion. At the end of the ceremony these guys marched away and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause.

Behind them, a small group of old men in blue blazers and grey flannels collected their canes and walkers and shuffled off ignored. They're all dead now. They deserved better.

In the privacy of our conscience?

It's a familiar expression, "the privacy of conscience". Sometimes we even speak of this "privacy" as a right.

Before Holy Week, I left off the discussion of conscience with a discussion of Greek and Jewish notions of conscience. That seems a lifetime ago now and I was tempted to just give up on Linda Hogan. I'd lost direction on that project.

But then yesterday I was rereading the first chapter of book 2 of Sense and Sensibility and something hit me. I wouldn't say I know exactly what it's about right now and I might never know but there was something typically brilliant in the way Austen showed Elinor's moral reasoning play out.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Stoicism revisited

Here is an opening sentence to ponder:
However small Elinor's general dependance on Lucy's veracity might be, it was impossible for her on serious reflection to suspect it in the present case, where no temptation could be answerable to the folly of inventing a falsehood of such a description.
And we're off into book two. Try to imagine what it was like for a contemporary reader to read this. Most likely, you would have just returned Volume one to your lending library and paid a fee to pick this one up. It would be a lot like watching a television min-series. You'd break from the action a while and you need to be reintroduced.

It's hard to imagine how anyone could do the job better than Austen does above. We are reminded of the big finish at the end of Book one and put right back into the action. The place we are put back in is right between Elinor Dashwood's ears. Austen is going to spend an entire chapter showing us how Elinor Dashwood's moral reasoning works.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Studiously Uncool (3)

Ladies Room
This episode will end with a modern song called "the Great Divide" by the Cardigans instead of some vintage selection. Is this the only time this happens? It might be. In any case, it tells us that this episode ended up somewhere it shouldn't have gone. A show whose strength is getting the style right, should not use music that doesn't fit.

And Matt Weiner has no one to blame but himself that it does. He wrote it.

The title is obviously intended to recall Marilyn French's novel The Women's Room. That novel begins, "Mira was hiding in the ladies room." Getting out of the ladies room into the women's room is her first big step into freedom; this thanks to someone has crossed out the word "ladies" in "Ladies Room" and replaced it with "Women's Room." This change is meant to indicate her becoming aware of a change in attitude brought about by the women's movement.

By calling the episode "Ladies Room" we are meant to understand that this show will give us a picture of what things were like before things changed. And therein lies the problem because although the series creators have no problem creating male characters from this era who are admirable and worthy of emulation, they clearly do not want to create any such female characters.

The other problem with taking this particular ideological approach is that it requires the creators to portray Betty Draper as a victim rather than as a independent human being. She must be molded to fit the  Betty Friedan view  that smart college girls who became housewives were being smothered in meaningless lives.

The result isn't a ghastly mistake like the Salvatore Romano character. It's more of a slow moving failure. You just can't like Betty Draper. We're supposed to pity her but we end up laughing at her for being such a feeb.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

To the end of Book one

The rape of the locks
When Willoughby procures a lock of Marianne's hair—and we never really know whether she actually says yes to his doing so—Elinor takes this as proof that the couple are to be engaged.

This sort of interaction seems ambiguous to us today. Perhaps we might sense something special about a woman willingly handing over something that was once part of her but that sort of signal seems to have no place in our modern exchanges.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Studiously Uncool (2)

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

NB: I think that the fairly obvious goal of the creators of Mad Men, to, as the NYT put it, explain "why the 1960s had to happen" will not be met.  I think that the narrative got away from them and it got away right from the beginning. However, I think in failing, they have inadvertently done something else very right. 

The very fact that the NYT felt the 1960s needed to be justified tells us that something has begun to unravel. What I think the series does is to track a cultural tragedy. It does so successfully because it gives us two prime representatives of male virtue who by their very style expose the emptiness of the boomer moralistic fantasies about themselves. 

At this point, there are two Mad Men. There is the pathetic shallow failure it most likely will end up being or there is the potential triumph it might pull off against all odds.

Falling Man
The credits are perfect. The reference to the Falling Man is audacious but spot on. And it tells us something very important about the show to follow. This is not just a series about the 1960s. It is a looking back to try to make sense of events. No matter what the creators think they are doing, Mad Men is and only can be an attempt at theodicy. Like Chronicles and Kings in the Bible it is an attempt to give moral meaning to a catastrophe. Far from justifying the 1960s, it has to tell us how our culture went wrong beginning in the 1960s. If it doesn't do this, the series will fall apart.

The guy who plays Pete Campbell summed it up perfectly in this quote to the NYT:
“There is a large portion of America that doesn’t feel about America the way we did in 1960, and I think we want to know why we don’t,” said Mr. Kartheiser, 29. “We want to know what went wrong.”
I don't know where the "we" comes from here as Vincent Kartheiser wasn't born in the 1960s, but he is right. That is what the show is about: Why did God allow his chosen people to be slain by barbarians?