Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Just in time for my birthday

What is probably the best edition of Lord Jim available comes out today, my birthday and the feast day of Saint Andrew. And for more than $90 a copy it damn well better be. I have a great personal story hat goes with this novel but I won't mention it here as I am using it in something I am writing elsewhere.

A very special tune by a very special singer is called for. This one goes out to me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Wings of the Dove

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

Yes, I know, the book blogging has not been coming fast and furious. I'm reading very slowly. This is a hard to follow book and james doesn't help with subordinate clauses that lead you away into the desert and leave you there and enough uncertain antecedents for pronouns to wear out a army of editors. The last is a huge problem and is, quite frankly, bad writing on his part. You can read whole paragraphs thinking "she" is one person and then, three pages later, realize you have to go back and read these paragraphs again because "she" was probabaly some other person than the one you took her for.

I haven't been mentioning all the religious language and mentions of sacrifice in the book as I go along because there are too many of them but I do think there is one from a few chapters back that cannot go unrecorded This takes place at the end of the conversation between Susan and Milly about Maude Lowder's concerns about an unspecified "something" between Kate and Merton.
"You're not—and it's vain to pretend," said dear old Susie, who had been taking her in, "as sound and strong as I insist on having you."

"Insist, insist—the more the better. But the day I look as sound and strong as that, you know," Milly went on—"on that day I shall be just sound and strong enough to take leave of you sweetly for ever. That's where one is," she continued thus agreeably to embroider, "when even one's most 'beaux moments' aren't such as to qualify, so far as appearance goes, for anything gayer than a handsome cemetery. Since I've lived all these years as if I were dead, I shall die, no doubt, as if I were alive--which will happen to be as you want me. So, you see," she wound up, "you'll never really know where I am. Except indeed when I'm gone; and then you'll only know where I'm not."

"I'd die for you," said Susan Shepherd after a moment.

" 'Thanks awfully'! Then stay here for me." [P 149 in my edition, chap 9]
There is a nice bit of inflation and reduction at the end of this where, immediately after Susan's extravagant offer of self-sacrifice, Milly makes such a prosaic request.

Only, is it? There is an awful lot going on here. Unless I've missed something, we've never seen any direct evidence that Milly knows she is dying. It's becoming more and more evident that she knows or suspects something but the key event—the moment when some doctor presumably told her she only has a while to live—has taken place offstage and it seems that Henry James means to leave it offstage.

Even when Milly visits a doctor in London, no actual discussion of her impending death is explicit. They talk around it.

The thing that is most prominent in this discussion is that the doctor won't answer her directly and that he wishes to give her moral advice. The gist of what Milly says is, "Will I live?" and the gist of the doctor's replies is, "I don't know, will you?", and he means by this, you won't unless you start now.

There were, for me,  two telling moments that come out of this meeting with the doctor. Well, three if you count how utterly unconvincing it was as a report of a discussion between doctor and patient.

The first was the fact that the doctor challenges Milly about Kate. She has insisted that she has told no one but he remembers that she visited with another woman whom, as she confirms, she also told she was secretly seeing this doctor.
Hadn't there been a lady with her on Wednesday?

"Yes—a different one. Not the one who's travelling with me. I've told her."

Distinctly he was amused, and it added to his air—the greatest charm of all—of giving her lots of time. "You've told her what?"

"Well," said Milly, "that I visit you in secret."

"And how many persons will she tell?"

"Oh she's devoted. Not one."

"Well, if she's devoted doesn't that make another friend for you?"
Well, there's a question? It's one of my favourite questions. It's a question that rarely arises for modern men; we generally know that our closest friends are also our rivals. But for modern women, this is always a tricky issue. We've seen a growing lack of respect for Susan Stringham from Milly and the question of whether she will be replaced as her closest friend by Kate Croy is in the air. Kate's undeniable sexual power, even though it is exercised on Merton Densher, will, as we see, make her more and more attractive as a friend to Milly.

The second thing that jumps right out for me is Catholicism. On the way out from her first visit to the doctor, Milly was accompanied by Kate. And in describing how she feels to her, Mily says,
"Of course I like it. I feel—I can't otherwise describe it—as if I had been, on my knees, to the priest. I've confessed and I've been absolved. It has been lifted off."
Is that a good thing? I don't think so. This is my first experience with the late period James but the early James is very anti-Catholic. That Milly puts it into these terms must, I think, be a bad omen.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Would you like to read these?

There has been a lot of talk about a student who has accused her human sexuality professor of harassment because of the assignments she was given. I have to say that I see her point especially as this was a mandatory course for her degree; although I think she will have a hard time proving her case because she was not singled out but, rather, the entire class had the same assignment. It puzzles me, however, that the press is so stunningly incurious about some aspects of the story.
The term paper for the course requires students to write a 12- to 14-page sexual case study on themselves.

The project begins with a sex history -- including a directive to reveal any instances of abuse -- and continues through sexual values, arousal patterns and atypical issues such as fetishes.
Can I confess something? If someone left me alone in  a room with a stack of those assignments, I would read all the ones written by the women in the class. And I'd make a note of the really "interesting" sexual histories so that I could check out to see what the women responsible for writing them looked like.

Another assignment from that year (this is the one that the harassment charge concerns) for the students was to masturbate and then write about their experiences. A question I'd have for the professor is, Do you ever masturbate after or while reading these assignments? No, I don't know what he would say or what he actually does but I'm stunned that no one else seems to have worried about this. No one who has spent much time at a university would entertain, even for a split second, the notion that academic professionalism would be a serious barrier to such a thing happening.

Another thing about this case that would be interesting would be to find out if there is any correlation between the sexual attractiveness of the men and women who write these assignments and the marks they get. I mean, you'd worry if the hot-bodied 19 year girl who wrote about her secret desire to be dominated by another woman got especially high marks while another woman who wrote, equally if not more honestly, about her lack of interest in sex got poor marks wouldn't you?

Today, Ann Althouse highlights a similar  story about a professor who likes to take photographs of himself with his students.

Imagine unicorn sweat Pt 2

As has often been pointed out, the press sin by omission; they lie by choosing not to emphasize things they should emphasize. You can see it in the story below with some added emphasis from me:
An Ottawa city councillor says bullying was part of the reason his 15-year-old son took his own life last Friday.

Coun. Allan Hubley says in a statement that his son Jamie had been suffering with depression and was receiving care from doctors and counsellors.

Hubley says these professionals, along with family and friends, were trying to help him cope with his depression and his sexuality.

Hubley says his son was a championship figure skater for years and was just beginning to excel as a singer and enjoyed acting.

Hubley also says James was bullied.
It's pretty obvious, or should be, that the story of Jamie Hubley was a story about mental illness. But that wasn't the story you read about. The story that got played up around the world as the story of a gay teen who committed suicide because he was being bullied for being openly gay. As you can see above, however, his father was very careful not to say that bullying was the prime factor. And he was very careful not to say that because it wasn't true and Allan Hubley is one of those wonderful people who really, really doesn't like to say things he knows not to be true.

The primary cause of Jamie Hubley's suicide was, in fact, depression. Not depression like you or I feel on a bad day but crushing depression that never goes away; a depression that smothers every chance at hope. The truth finally came out in the press in a quiet little story that few people read two weeks after the initial hoopla.

So why did the press get it so wrong? Mostly because a bunch of their favourite narratives coalesced around this one little nugget. Bullying and gay teens being the most prominent of these. (As an aside, it's rather telling, don't you think, that the media are so terribly interested in the plight of gay teens and girls below the age of consent; the press doesn't take nearly the same voyeuristic interest in the lives of gay seniors or post-menopausal women. Do they not suffer too?)

But let's stop and think about bullying a moment. Were you bullied? I was and particularly so in Grade 7 and then again in Grade 9. Both times, and this is not a coincidence, when I had just moved to a different school and was a vulnerable target as a consequence.

The guy who bullied me in Grade 9 was an older and gay teen (but not openly gay, that would have been suicide at my school) who tried to force me into having sex with him and, painful irony, one of his threats as that he was going to tell others I was gay unless I gave in. It was a serious threat even though I was not gay. Perhaps it was more credible because I wasn't. He didn't, as you've probably guessed, use the word "gay"; his preferred word was "fag"and even by the standards of a high school in a mill town, he managed to get a special degree of hatred into the word.

And he followed through on his threat. And I toughed it out. I tried denying his claims but it did little good. Eventually the other kids forgot about that and moved on to some new humiliation for some other kid. It probably took only weeks but it felt it like it took all year.

Poor George, like a lot of first-class swine he never changed his modus operandi. He did it to others and eventually he got caught and disappeared from school. A little while later I had one of those experiences you never forget when I was home sick on garbage day and the garbage truck came through our neighbourhood and the guy who swung off the back bumper to throw our garbage into the truck was none other than George. At the time I felt it as a powerful incentive to finish school. I also remember feeling very sorry for the guy when I saw that.

In Grade 10 I made the football team. The coach asked me to try out after my gym teacher told him that I had run the second-fastest 100 metres of the boys in my year. I was lousy at catching and handling footballs so they tried me at defensive end. Coaches praised me for being fast that year and by graduation they were praising me for being big and fast.

You might think that bullying stopped then but it didn't. Even now I have to face bullies. There are, in fact, more bullies in the workplace than you find in your average high school. Workplace bullies can actually do you more damage than school bullies can. I worked for a client once whose joy in life was disrupting mine. I think the biggest charge he ever got in his miserable life was the day he spotted a mistake I made that he knew he could really hurt me with. I still remember the gleeful sound of his voice when I took his call.

The difference between being a boy and being a man is not how much the bullies can hurt you but your ability to cope with it.

Bullying is a fact of life. Bullies, because all they care about is wielding power over others, are very good at spotting your vulnerabilities. And they will. Every time.

What bullying is not is an unprecedented evil that has to be fixed right now. It wouldn't be worth fixing even if we had gallons of magical unicorn sweat to do the job with. For that is flip side of the people who tell us that problems must be fixed even though they have nothing better than unicorn sweat to propose as a cure: they bully others into treating the problems they care about as matters of life or death.

Imagine unicorn sweat Pt 1

That title was inspired by a great line from Walter Russell Mead:
... greens shrieked hysterically and furiously that the world’s house was on fire.  That may be true, but the greens were suggesting that all we had to do was collect enough unicorn sweat and then we could use that to put out the fire.
He's writing about global warming but the line applies to all sorts of political issues. To take just the great protest of the day, think of how the Occupy protestors resisted putting up any coherent list of demands. They thought it was enough to point at a problem.

As I've said before, this movement is anarchistic in spirit: it is driven by a magical belief that if we destroy the thing we don't like something we will like will most wonderfully grow in its place. All we have to do is care enough. The global warming crowd are no different. Mention nuclear power—which is pretty much the only viable way to produce lots of power without CO2—and they protest even louder. Virtually all contemporary leftist protest movements work on this sort of irresponsible logic.

It's not an accident. For generations now, well-meaning people have taught kids that imagination and will are all it takes. Do you remember the adult who told you that, "You can be anything you want to be, you just have to set your mind to it". Imagine there's no problems, it's easier than working for a living. Students go to university intending to learn job skills but their professors teach them that it is more important to learn to question authority and be critical of social values than to learn how to write well. After several generations of this, we have hit the point where many university professors couldn't teach students how to write well even if they wanted to for the simple reason that no one taught them in the first place.

I remember, way back in the 1980s, hearing gay activists say that the only reason a cure for AIDS had not been found was that governments didn't care about gay men. Similar arguments are made about breast cancer and women. The implication being that all we have to do is care enough and we'll cure these diseases. With it goes the corollary that any failure proves ill will.

The protestors have no intention of fixing anything themselves or even of indicating what they think will solve the problem. Someone else who is somewhere else is supposed to already know how to solve the problem. This has to be the case because, in the protestors' view, the problems only exist because of ill will.

And thus the reason why these protests always end in violence and disorder. That's not an accident but the intended result. The point is to keep attacking and tearing down until someone else makes all the things you don't like go away. Oh yeah, just one more thing, the solution, whatever it is, will not involve nuclear power, corporations, pesticides, guns, non-organic foods or men.

As you were.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Wings of the Dove

I'm reading David Lodge and he discusses the opening paragraph of the book which begins as follows:
She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him. It was at this point, however, that she remained; changing her place, moving from the shabby sofa to the armchair upholstered in a glazed cloth that gave at once--she had tried it--the sense of the slippery and of the sticky.
David Lodge tells us that this writing is about "consciousness". He goes on to say that "in real life we can never assert such things about anyone other than ourselves, unless others report them to us."

That's nonsense. Come with me and let's hide in a closet in the room where Kate Croy's father has kept her waiting. Can we tell that she is impatient and irritated that she finds the touch of the fabric on her father's furniture unpleasant without asking her? Of course we can. All we have to do is watch her. And Henry James knows this:
... there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation ...
There is nothing she can see in the glass that we couldn't see by looking at her face and James well knows this because he describes the face as "pale with the irritation".

There are behaviours that go with impatience and irritation or touching something that feels unpleasant and we know them well.

The temptation is to say that only the person who feels these things knows for sure. But that isn't true either. Sometimes others figure out the way we really feel before we do. We can deny that we are irritated with someone we feel responsible for and we can deny that we love someone.

The question is, does David Lodge know what consciousness is? You get the feeling that he things consciousness is some special private container that only the person having it can see. But look at another person, any other person. Can you tell that they are conscious? Or, to put it another way, could you make yourself believe they weren't given what you can see?

Consider my last post that talked about Milly entering into a conspiracy of secrecy regarding Merton Densher before Kate does.  Okay, but what is going on "inside" Milly's consciousness? Is some complicated internal manœuvering taking place where psychological forces are battling inside Milly's brain? Is the important thing something we could only see if we were inside?

If this were a certain kind of French novel or something by Dostoevsky then that would be the case. In those novels people suddenly do things that make no sense because of complicated internal psychological forces but no such thing happens in Henry James. The important thing here is the context these things are happening in and that context is social not psychological. Milly is being drawn into a culture. She is being drawn into a culture where this sort of conspiring is normal. And she is being drawn in willingly. We might even say she is jumping in with both feet.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Two passages

The two passages below are both cited by David Lodge in an essay first published in 1966. The first he gives as an example of modernism and you may well have already read it as it is a hard to dodge piece from James Joyce. The second is given as an example of then-contemporary writing being from John Braine's Room at the Top. Lodge notes that the two are similar in one aspect: "Both passages describe a crucial moment of awareness in the life of a young man". But he thinks that something has been lost in the shift from the "modern" to the merely contemporary. He sees a huge loss in the quality of the language.

At the risk of being declared a heathen, I think the exact opposite is the case. Although Joyce is praised far and wide as a great writer of beautiful language, the passage given here strikes me as everything the language in a novel should not be. Compared to the Braine writing, it strikes me as not just overwrought but also as dull and boring. I want to find and read the Braine book whereas the Joyce stuff fills me with horrid memories of once having had to read it in school.

Here is the Joyce passage:
A girl stood before him in midstream, alone and still, gazing out to sea. She seemed like one whom magic had changed into the likeness of a strange and beautiful seabird. Her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane's and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh. Her thighs, fuller and softhued as ivory, were bared almost to the hips where white fringes of her drawers were like featherings of soft white down. Her slateblue skirts were kilted boldly about her waist and dovetailed behind her. Her bosom was as a bird's soft and slight, slight and soft as the breast of some darkplumaged dove. But her long fair hair was girlish: and girlish, and touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, her face.
Blechh. I once saw a bit on public television on Joyce. When they got to Portrait they had some actor read this out but for the visual they had found a beautiful Irish girl and dressed her as in the passage above and had her stand in the water. The effect was to render Joyce pointless and bloodless by comparison.

Here is the Braine bit:
Parked by a solicitor's office opposite the café was a green Aston-Martin tourer, low-slung, with cycle-type mudguards. It had the tough, functional smartness of the good British Sports car; it's a quality which is difficult to convey without using the terms of the advertising copywriter—made by craftsmen, thoroughbred, and so on—I can only say that it was a beautiful piece of engineering and leave it at that. Prewar it would have cost as much as three baby saloons; it wasn't the sort of vehicle for business or for family outings, but quite simply a rich man's toy.

As I was admiring it a young man and a girl came out of the solicitor's office. The young man was turning the ignition key when the girl said something to him and after a moment's argument he put up the windscreen. The girl smoothed his hair for him; I found the gesture disturbing in an odd way—it was again as if a barrier had been removed, but this time by an act of reason.

The ownership of the Aston-Martin automatically placed the young man in a social class far above mine; but that ownership was simply a question of money. The girl, with her even suntan and her fair hair cut short in a style too simple to be anything else but expensive, was as far beyond my reach as the car. But her ownership, too, was simply a question of money, of the price of the diamond ring on her left hand. This seems all too obvious; but it was the kind of truth which until that moment I'd only grasped theoretically.

The Aston-Martin started with a deep, healthy roar. As it passed the café, in the direction of St Clair Road I noticed the young man's olive linen shirt and bright silk neckerchief. The collar of the shirt was tucked inside the jacket; he wore the rather theatrical ensemble with a matter-of-fact nonchalance. Everything about him was easy and loose but not tired or sloppy. He has an undistinguished face with a narrow forehead and mousy hair cut short with no oil on it. It was a rich man's face, smooth with assurance and good living.
That is everything good novel writing should be. The narrator speaks like a real human being we can care about and want to learn more about. In addition, this is good manly writing.


Irony is a tricky thing. And it serves some arguments better than others: it's not an accident that Austen was a genius with irony while Wollstonecraft was a clumsy ironist.

The photo below is of an Occupy protestor. The thing is, is the irony intended? That part is you're call. But, no matter what his intention is (that is whether he said the stupid thing knowingly or without realizing it was stupid), the thing blows up in his face. It's very hard to make irony work for a radical cause.

Posing pt 2

Back in the 1970s a band called Roxy Music put out a series of album covers that had feminist critics steaming with anger. And those feminist critics were absolutely right to be angry. In the entire history of rock and roll, a music form that is not exactly pro-woman, these covers were probably the worst.

Here is their first cover:

Notice that the woman is posed as if thrown on the ground. Her face looks pained and her make and clothing have been messed up. This photo makes this woman an about-to-be rape victim and puts us in the rapist's point of view.

The really odd thing is that this cover was actually the work of one of the very few pro-feminist rock bands at the time. Roxy Music were the art-rock band. So how did it happen? Well, mostly because it was all meant to be a put on. That photo isn't meant to be erotic, it's meant to make fun of other people's idea of eroticism by exaggerating it.

And that all seems fine until you ask yourself if you can be entirely sure everyone is actually going to get the joke. What does a man who really hates women think when he sees that? (Or, for that matter, what does a woman who really hates women think?)

But we use that excuse a lot, here h/t Pastabagel, is a shot of Wonder Woman,

The important difference being that this isn't supposed to be a joke. It's make believe, to be sure, but the people who read this stuff are actually much more serious about it than Dostoevsky readers are.

At a site site is named "Bleeding Cool" (good name), Rich Johnston thought it would be fun to draw a bunch of male superheroes in that pose. Here is what he got:

It's quite telling to look at what things that are supposed to be only make believe reveal.

Roxy Music made four or five album covers on the line of the one above but it eventually got to them too. So they made a cover that responded to their critics. Here it is:

And you can see the difference right away. These women are actually doing something. And they are not trapped by our gaze because their interest is somewhere else, they are looking where they are about to throw those javelins. No, they don't look like they are very good at throwing javelins, they are just models after all, but it's light years different from the poses above. We are looking at these women because they are beautiful but the pose they are striking says, "I exist for myself first".

It didn't catch on though. In fact, the exact opposite happened.The really disturbing thing, as Pastabagel notes elsewhere, is that a lot of women who read comics rather like it that Wonder Woman poses as she does. They find it empowering. And Google Angelina Jolie or Beyonce and you will find both these stars specialize in presenting themselves as static, frozen sex objects in awkward poses as if ready for consumption by men.

He blames the art form. And there might be something to that. Taking the sexism out of comics and pop music might be like taking the violence out of football; it would still be a game but it wouldn't be football any more. But the deeper problem is this: women really like this stuff. An awful lot of young women look at the photo below and they don't see a victim of male sexism sacrificing herself up to our gaze. No, they think, I want to be just like her:

Not all the time but sometimes. In another indictment of the way comic heroines are presented, Laura Hudson writes:
Why is she contorting her body in that weird way? Who is she posing for, because it doesn't even seem to be Roy Harper? The answer, dear reader, is that she is posing for you.
And that reader, dear Laura Hudson, is you. You keep reading these things and while more men than women read comics, Beyonce specializes in posing that way for her audience who are mostly women. You might say Beyonce is a comic superheroine for people whose attention span is so short they can't even follow comics. Why does she contort her body the way she does in the video below? Because she wants to strike a pose that says, "I don't exist for myself, I exist for you". And millions of girls willingly embrace her as a role model. Stop blaming men because this is what lots of girls and young women really want:

The lyrics tell the viewer that Beyonce doesn't care what we think but everything else about this video tells us that she cares very much. She wants to exist for the man she is singing to and she wants to exist for us.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I'll grant you that the Daily Mail isn't much of a newspaper but this is still pathetic

In an article about Rolling Stone voting Jimi Hendrix "the greatest guitar player of all time" we get this gem:
He famously bought his first guitar at the age of 15 in 1957 for £5, astonished fans by playing with his teeth while out of his mind on hallucinogenic drugs and headlined Woodstock at the peak of his powers in 1969.
Actually, he pretended to play with his teeth while actually playing with his left fretting hand*. It's a trick fiddle and banjo players figured out decades before Hendrix was born. And it probably wasn't original with them. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Vivaldi used to amuse audiences with this trick, it really is that old.

And no, Hendrix wasn't that greatest anything of all time. Baby boomer rock fans may have produced the most empty, shallow culture of all time though.

* I briefly forgot that he was left-handed.

The Wings of the Dove

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

Another gross simplification we find in the movie is the way Kate finds out about Milly's interest in Merton. In the movie, Kate keeps her interest in Merton a secret and sees Milly's interest in her reaction to him. Later, Milly tells her in so many words that she is interested. And, now knowing this, Kate sees an opportunity to exploit her secret knowledge.

In the book, Milly knows Merton from before meeting Kate. And Milly learns that Aunt Maud is concerned about a possible relationship between Kate and Merton and Milly decides to keep her knowing this a secret from Kate! The desire to conspire begins with Milly not Kate.

This all begins because Milly's companion Susan has been speaking with Maud and, when Merton's name came up, she began to immediately play games. Conspiracy does not begin with Milly but is already all around her and it is brought to her by Susan. Here is what Susan says,
"I luckily remembered in time that I had nothing whatever to keep--which was much simpler and nicer. I don't know what Maud has, but there it is. She was interested, distinctly, in your knowing him--in his having met you over there with so little loss of time. But I ventured to tell her it hadn't been so long as to make you as yet great friends. I don't know if I was right."
I love that opening, there she is talking to Maud and Merton's name has come up and Susan "luckily"  remembers she has no secrets to keep about him. Does anyone much worry about keeping secrets without having any to keep? Think about that for a while. Of course we can see by the end of the excerpt that, well, maybe she does have a secret to keep. She is being terribly coy and, as people tend to do with young women, encouraging Milly to be coy as well. And, like a lot of young women, Milly doesn't need that much encouraging.
Whatever time this explanation might have taken, there had been moments enough in the matter now--before the elder woman's conscience had done itself justice--to enable Milly to reply that although the fact in question doubtless had its importance she imagined they wouldn't find the importance overwhelming. It was odd that their one Englishman should so instantly fit; it wasn't, however, miraculous--they surely all had often seen how extraordinarily "small," as every one said, was the world. Undoubtedly also Susie had done just the plain thing in not letting his name pass. Why in the world should there be a mystery?--and what an immense one they would appear to have made if he should come back and find they had concealed their knowledge of him! "I don't know, Susie dear," the girl observed, "what you think I have to conceal."
Well, Milly, how about you tell us?

And then Milly next sees Kate, she immediately begins playing the game on her:
It was accordingly on Mrs. Lowder's recommendation that nothing should be said to Kate--it was on all this might cover in Aunt Maud that the idea of an interesting complication could best hope to perch; and when in fact, after the colloquy we have reported, Milly saw Kate again without mentioning any name, her silence succeeded in passing muster with her as the beginning of a new sort of fun. The sort was all the newer by its containing measurably a small element of anxiety: when she had gone in for fun before it had been with her hands a little more free. Yet it was, none the less, rather exciting to be conscious of a still sharper reason for interest in the handsome girl, as Kate continued even now pre-eminently to remain for her; and a reason--this was the great point--of which the young woman herself could have no suspicion.
And thus does Milly step into the abyss.She is not, as the movie makes her, a passive victim.

All the above quotes are from chapter 9.

When "alpha" isn't

Manly Thor's Day Special
We have a newspaper here in Canada called the Globe and Mail. It's not a very good paper—there are no good papers in Canada—but it has good parts. One of the good parts in this paper is the weekly fashion advice column from Russell Smith.

Here is last week's question:
I’m confused about what men really think of lingerie. The only time I ever put it on for someone, the guy I was dating laughed and said it was pointless since it was going to come off anyway. Do most men feel this way?
Are you getting a feeling about this guy? Yeah and you, me and Mr. Smith are getting the same feeling. Here's what he wants to do:
Wow. I want to slap that guy. I want to take away his guy licence. I want to ban him from all future contact with women.
Mr. Russell Smith is kinder and gentler than I am. Here is what I have in mind for that guy:

Back to Mr. Russell Smith:
He was trying to make you insecure because it gives him power over you. 
That's right. And if you've read any of the PUA (pick up artist) literature that strategy should look familiar. I doubt the PUA guys would use it in this particular instance as I suspect most of them would want a woman to wear lingerie. But it's the same move, gain power over her by cutting her down.

And I have to be honest, it works. Not every time but often enough that, if you really devote yourself to it, you'll get laid often enough to make it worth your while if that is what you really want.

And women have no clue how well it works. The woman who swears up and down that none of this crap will work on her will fall for it. And it isn't that hard to figure out how to identify the sort of woman it will work on pretty consistently. Here's a hint on how to do it from Mad Men:
Peggy: Say something to her. Make her feel beautiful. You know, the confidence that comes with beauty.
Ken: Peggy, a woman who looks like that will never sound confident because she never is confident.
 Ken's right, a woman whose sense of self worth derives from her beauty can always be cut down and she will respond by trying harder to please you. Been there, done her.

But you don't want to do that sort of thing right? Well, except maybe once or twice in your youth? That it works isn't good enough right? The right answer should already have occurred to you by now. If it hasn't, I have bad news for you: you're a narcissist.

The PUA community talk about alphas and betas in a way that is specific to themselves. That's a polite way of saying they don't know what the words mean. PUAs think the words mean "guys who get it" and "guys who don't get it". Getting it for them means being so clever to "know" that there are no moral rules so whatever you can get away with is okay.

Here's the thing: there is only one alpha in any group. Alpha is not a measure of worth. Alpha is not a comfortable or secure position to be in. Alpha is always temporary. Who is alpha tends to get sorted out the same way that Mr. Edison found the right material for the filament of his electric light bulb.

And then you die.

Here is another thing: Women are special; they are God's greatest creation. Any man who is a man will figure that out by his early twenties. If not ... see the video above.

Back to Mr. Smith:
... the beauty of the coyly covered and exposed female form and by the frisson of recognition that comes from years of exposure to the whole fetishistic myth of the secrecy, intimacy and luxury of female undergarments, but also by the head-spinning idea that a woman might want to present herself like this for us ... that she would go out of her way to dress herself in a deliberately erotic way ... is so romantic and ego-inflating for us that it is closely bound with the idea of love itself.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Woke up this morning to a miracle. What was threatened as freezing rain and rain came down as snow.

That's a new screen by the way. It's meant to hold the roses you can just see arched over the the left and right sides of the picture.

Reading the writing on the wall

A lot of common expressions come from Bible but we've forgotten the context. For example the expression that someone could read the writing on the wall, meaning that they may have gotten away with being stupid and irresponsible up until now but they can see at least that things are about to change and that they should prepare for that.

The origin is from today's reading from the Book of Daniel:
King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his lords,
with whom he drank.
Under the influence of the wine,
he ordered the gold and silver vessels
which Nebuchadnezzar, his father,
had taken from the temple in Jerusalem,
to be brought in so that the king, his lords,
his wives and his entertainers might drink from them.
When the gold and silver vessels
taken from the house of God in Jerusalem had been brought in,
and while the king, his lords, his wives and his entertainers
were drinking wine from them,
they praised their gods of gold and silver,
bronze and iron, wood and stone.

Suddenly, opposite the lampstand,
the fingers of a human hand appeared,
writing on the plaster of the wall in the king's palace.
When the king saw the wrist and hand that wrote, his face blanched;
his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook,
and his knees knocked.
Interestingly, in the original story Belshazzar cannot actually read the writing on the wall but knows enough to find someone to interpret it for him.

Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How we hate being tested!

I found the speeches I will produce below by a character in the movie Separate Lies fascinating. The first is spoken by a woman to her husband while they are trying to get their marriage back on track. They need to get it back on track because she has had an affair. She has further complicated matters by driving her lover's Land Rover while drunk and killing a man. This has brought the affair to light and forced her husband to cooperate with her lover in an attempt to keep her out of jail, not least because her actions threaten to disrupt his career by causing a scandal.

He asks her why she did it? He wants to know what was missing to cause her to do such a thing. At one point in the discussion, she says, "He's easy to be with. He doesn't seem to want anything from me." Her husband says, "And that's good is it?"

And then she gets angry. Consider the context. She has really screwed up—so much so hat someone has been killed—and she admits it is entirely her fault. Despite all this, she is angry that her husband had expectations of her. Ask yourself, How did we ever get to the point that talk like this seems reasonable?

Here is how she goes on in speech number one, in her angry tone:
Yes, it's good! It's very good!

You have such standards James. Whatever I do, I always feel that I'm letting you down in some way, that I'm not measuring up, that I'm getting it wrong, that I'm disappointing you.
As he points out, she killed someone. But this is taken to be reasonable talk from women today.

So she leaves her lover and tries to make the marriage work and things go fine until the husband learns that her now-former lover is dying of cancer. Being the sort who always does the right thing, he tells her. And she leaves him to be with her dying lover. The husband asks her, as she is packing her bags, if she thinks it would have been better if he hadn't told her. And here comes the second speech:
Oh James. Good? Better? Bad? Worse? I'd still have been with you. As it is, I'm going away. You know me, I fail every test you set me. But you keep setting them. Why?
The fact that this woman keeps failing is never her fault, it's the fault of the  man who keeps "testing" her by daring to have expectations. But why does she always feel that she is failing, that she is letting him down? She feels it because she does keep failing.

It's not the movies' fault. Quite the contrary, it is almost inevitable in our modern moral climate that someone who disappoints or hurts you will accuse you of always setting tests for them thus making it your fault that they failed.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Public and private variables

Sort of political Monday
We have signs designating a "gay village" in Ottawa. We have these signs at the behest of a city councilor who pushed to have the signs even though the most of the residents and businesses of the place now designated the gay village didn't want them.

I might further add that while there are a two gay sex shops and one gay book store in the area that it is not, in fact, a gay village. There are three massage parlours, four or five sex shops and who knows what else serving heterosexuals in the area along with what is probably the highest concentration of drug dealers in the city of Ottawa in the area.

There used to be a gay village in Ottawa back in the 1970s. It was a few blocks east of the location presently designated. It disappeared because most gay men have moved upscale and are no longer much interested in risking their lives running around dark and dangerous streets looking for a temporary partner now that they live in nice houses in nice neighbourhoods with a more permanent partner.

But we're told it's important to make the statement.

The most prominent of the two gay sex shops embodies this perfectly. It has window displays designed to rub the fact of gay sexuality in your face but the owners have covered up the windows so that their customers can have privacy. Oddly enough, one of the reasons for this privacy is that many of its customers are now heterosexual as it can no longer get by selling only to gay men.

But we're told it's important to make the statement.

That's the liberal side of the private/public divide. You can also see it in my neighbourhood which is very liberal. Canada's Conservative Party runs candidates here but only for the sake of appearance. The candidates typically skip  any candidates meetings as not worth their time because they are only going to be mocked and attacked if they show up. Anyway, the residents here also feel it is very important to make the public statement. They will all support the councilor who insisted (who is forcing) the residents of the non-gay village to accept designation as such.

But the private lives of liberals are socially conservative and often painfully so. They all get married and stay married while talking about the decline of marriage. They all teach their children to behave in socially conservative ways. They, as lots of others have noted before me, know perfectly well that social conservatism is the key to personal happiness. This is not news—generations upon generations have of the wise known this and called the attitude "prudence".

But there is a flip side to this as well. Conservatives I know practice a public rectitude but privately let their hair down. It's not that their social conservatism is a sham but rather that they understand it as an outward behaviour. My conservative friends typically have private lives that are more exciting than those of my liberal friends.

And this is also not news. But it is a more recent idea. The ancients did not see this private excess as a virtue and neither do most modern liberals. But it is very much a part of our modern life. It is a bourgeois value.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Inequality is complicated

 Because of legal decisions that have opened boys' sports to girls, boys in Massachusetts are now getting access to places on girls' swim teams. And—surprise—they're beating the girls at competitions.

So how does the New York Times headline the story?
 Boys Swimming on Girls Teams Find Success, Then Draw Jeers
Think so? Actually no—it's the girls that are suffering. Let's let Sarah Hooper, a senior at Needham High explain what the New York Times headline writer is too stupid to see:
"It's really frustrating to see how athletic directors and school administrators aren't doing anything," she said. "They aren't advocating for us. ... the boys are taking recognition away from girls who have worked hard and deserve it."
Yeah, but the headline says the boys are being jeered? Hey you guys in the media, you know why we hate you? Because you're a bunch of lying jerks.

Here is a paragraph to ponder:
Kim Goodwin, the Norwood Coach, said she was an opponent of boys competing with girls before she had boys on her team. Then her opinion changed. She saw the boys, who did not participate in other sports, develop self-confidence and mature.
Which is to say that these are not particularly athletic boys.

Dare I suggest that any boys who are really good at swimming would be more likely to find a non-school team to compete on. I know, how sexist of me but have a look at how well these non-athletic boys are doing at girls' swimming:
Higgins's winning time of 23:96 was a personal best by one second. He broke the girls' sectional record, set in 1985 by Cynthia Kangos of Wellesley, by 14 hundredths of a second.
 A boy who does not participate in other sports not only beat the girls, he broke a record that had stood for 26 years! And if that isn't bad enough, consider the sting in this parenthetical comment the NYT puts at the end of the paragraph:
(The boys' sectional record is 21:40.)
Over the same distance—and this is only a fifty yard race!—the boys' record is a full two and half seconds less. If he'd had to compete against boys, Higgins would have finished way at the back of the pack. That would have drawn jeers. Over only 50 yards swimming two and half seconds is a long, long time.

Cynthia Kangos can see the real point.
"There's a reason these records are girls' records. If there was no difference in boys' strength, then it would be a unisex record. It's really not fair. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn't believe it."
Why is not fair? Because boys are better at sports than girls are! They're not just a little better, they are a whole lot better. Even boys who don't do not participate in many sports tend to be better than girls who take sports very seriously.

Let's let a boy explain this. Here is Anthony Rodrigez, one of the boys on the girls' team,
"If people hear that you set a record, they're like, 'Oh my gosh, that's awesome,'" Rodriguez said. "But if they knew you were competing against girls, they wouldn't have as much respect for you."
 Well yeah.

Ann Althouse, commenting on a the story says "Equality is complicated". I assume she is being ironic here because the salient fact, the one Kangos and Rodriguez have no trouble seeing is that girls are not equal to boys when it comes to sports. There would be no problem if girls were as good as boys. It's inequality that is complicated.

PS: Let's make it really equal and have everyone use the same change room to suit up before the game, that would be really equal and really fair.

Women don't know how to manage their feelings

More than one in four American women took at least one drug for conditions like anxiety and depression last year, according to an analysis of prescription data.
I don't want to sound like a broken record but remember this the next time some woman or male wimp tells you that men need to talk about their feelings more. Women are not very good at managing their feelings and they aren't a role model for men seeking to manage their feelings. Don't emulate women and sit around talking about your feelings. Repeat after me: be a man and suck it up, don't cry, don't talk about it, just deal with it. If you need to unwind, go do some exercise or pour yourself a drink.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Message for a girl on a train

Can you guess what made me think of this?


Womanly virtues Friday
This is the first in a series.

So let's do some decoding on this little annoyance that came up when I was browsing some site yesterday.

It's a funny question because if she is looking at you like that you don't really need to ask.

Except that she's a model and she's posing. We think, maybe what she really wants is for this photo session to end so she can get back to organizing her teacup collection.

When we look at a picture like this, the sincerity and authenticity questions seem like real questions.
  • The sincerity question goes like this: She looks interested but does she really mean it?
  • The authenticity question, which is not quite the same is, What is she really feeling?
And what I hope to convince you of is that neither of those questions ought to concern us.

Think of what happens when we teach a baby to smile. It's one of the very first things we teach a baby to do. As soon as the little wonder can see far enough to make out our facial expression, we smile at her. That's all it takes. She looks back at us, then we see a look of intense concentration on her face as she works it out, and then, like the sun rising on a perfect morning, she figures out how to smile back at us. And then she laughs.

That's an amazing thing. The smile we teach a baby is perhaps the most human thing there is. And the baby can't see her own face when she does it. As Wittgenstein says, we don't take account of the fact that we can imitate someone else's facial expression and know we have it right without looking in a mirror.

Another thing we fail to take account of is that smiling that first smile makes the baby happy. We think we smile because we are happy but that first smile makes the baby happy because she smiled. It isn't the expression of some "inner" happiness. No, she feels good "inside" because she has made this thing happen "outside". And we can do this all our lives. Need to cheer up? Try smiling.

Something similar goes on when a woman makes the facial expression the model is making above. We sometimes talk as if the "inside" and "outside" of her experience were independent of one another. As if she could be thinking of her favourite puppy that died while she was a little girl inside and giving us this expression outside. But she can't do that. She may have had sad news the morning of the shoot, but she has to put it out of her head to conjure up that expression.

And just as a baby learns to be happy by learning to smile, every girl learns to be aroused by learning how to put that expression on her face. And girls and young women spend billions of dollars every year on magazines, books and movies featuring erotic shots of women so they can learn from models and actresses how to put on the relevant expressions. Fashion magazines don't just show a girl what  clothes she could wear, they show her the ways she should stand and the facial expressions she should have while wearing them. It's one of the huge differences between boys and girls that boys don't do that. Boys don't need to learn how to be aroused any more than babies need to learn how to cry.

Yes, it can be faked but we put too much weight on that. That's why the sincerity and authenticity questions come up. But faking it is difficult. Which is why most people don't or can't do it. Most models don't fake it but get themselves into the mood for a photo shoot.

There are external tricks of course. Make-up is one. The photographer helped a bit in the shot above by centering the focus on her panties so the wrinkles in the silk show clear and crisp and her face is slightly blurred, making her look a little more aroused. But tricks only get a woman so far.

A woman can lie to us or to herself but the facial expression is not the lie. The lie is not a specific thing but the whole context. She lies by making the effort to get aroused early in a relationship and then not trying anymore after she has you hooked. Or by giving the impression that she only makes this efforts for you while loving someone else too. But the moment when a woman poses, she is telling the truth.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

She doesn't need you, she needs a man

Manly Thor's Day Special
Every time you think feminism has reached an absolute nadir, it digs deeper. Check out Hugo Schwyzer, a "gender expert":
The fewer genuinely good men there are, the greater the bargaining power they have in relationship — and the more concessions women (at least those who are eager for marriage) are told they must make.
The title of the piece this insight pops up in tells us everything we need to know: "It's not Your Fault You're A Mean Girl" . Well, no, of course not, because nothing is ever a woman's fault! That is the thing that Schwyzer wants you to believe. The larger context of his argument here is that it's men's fault that so many women turn into backstabbing bitches towards other women.
... perhaps the most painful repercussion is the alienation that comes from competition. For young women in particular — including a great many of my students who have nothing to do with the modeling business — the pressure to compete with other women seems to be worsening.
That women have been writing novels for three hundred years now and that these novels have always featured women in competition of the type that Schwyzer insists is something new and awful apparently means nothing.

Of course, the real "innovation" here is the crazy belief that women are morally superior beings who have this special kind of relationship called "best friends forever" that is ever so superior to anything we men are capable of having with either women or other men. And we're all supposed to believe the theory and not our own lying eyes that have seen girls and women doing nothing but undermining one another since Grade 1.

But let's forget all that for a while and go back to that first quote again:
The fewer genuinely good men there are, the greater the bargaining power they have in relationship — and the more concessions women (at least those who are eager for marriage) are told they must make.
Because there is a rather shocking admission implicit in that: Women need a man.  Hugo Schwyzer—who has so completely internalized feminist mythology that he has become a walking argument for more bullying—believes that women need a real man to be happy. Peel away all the political correctness here and what he is saying is that to reach her full potential as a woman, she needs a good man. Otherwise, she is going to turn into a mean girl.

And the thing is, he's (almost) right. The thing he gets wrong is that she isn't going to turn into a mean girl: she either already is a mean girl or she is the victim of mean girls. What she needs to change is a genuinely good man.

Which implicitly raises a question: what is a genuinely good man? That's a (very) long answer and I only know part of it anyway. Clement 1 gives a good hint as to what the answer is not:
Love is neither servile nor arrogant.
In other words, neither Hugo Schwyzer (servile) nor Heartiste* (arrogant) have the answer. Sadly, simply picking the point midway between the two doesn't work either. Sometimes Heartiste is right on the money and I'm sure Schwyzer has his good days too.

But the payoff is this, the world is full of women who need a genuinely good man. I saw this recently with my father after the death of my mother, the speed with which women latched unto him when he became available was stunning. All any of us has to do is to be a genuinely good man.

* If that name means nothing to you, you're probably better off leaving it that way. If you really need to know, Google away but don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Wings of the Dove

Yikes, it seems to be six days since I last posted on this. Time flies.

(To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.)

I just picked up the movie version, which has long been unavailable, and it is fascinating to compare. The most notable difference is that the movie was created by drastically simplifying the story. In the movie, Milly is innocent and Kate exploits her. In the book, Milly is not so innocent.

When, for example, Kate becomes aware of Milly's extreme wealth and the way she takes it for granted, she accuses Milly of lacking imagination:
It was not moreover by any means with not having imagination of expenditure that she appeared to charge her friend , but with not having the imagination of of a conscious dependence on others. [P 130 in my edition]
The important part is what comes after the comma (and if James has a general fault it is of saying too much before the comma). It's a fair charge. With qualifications, but James never fails to make qualifications.

And thus we can see that James is describing a very complex interaction here. Consider, for example, the way he describes a week early in their friendship:
A week of her society in these conditions—conditions that Milly chose to sum up as ministering immensely, for a blind, vague pilgrim, to aid and comfort—announced itself from an early hour as likely to become a week of presents, acknowledgments, mementos, pledges of gratitude and admiration that were all on one side.
Okay, first we need to decipher this for this is bad writing. People complain about the length of James's sentences but the real problem is that so many of them are badly constructed. In this case "her society" means a week in Milly's society for Kate meant getting showered with gifts and kindnesses. But although it felt that way to Kate, Milly talked about it to her as if Kate were doing an act of charity. (And it is not insignificant here that Milly cals herself a pilgrim.)

Now that we have the picture, we shouldn't be entirely surprised that Milly gets used in the end. By the way, I don't think we should assume that because Milly sums up her relationship this way that she actually believes this. Not yet anyway.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The freedom to choose their own future

Sort of political Monday Tueday
My prediction is that we'll start seeing more people attacking the Millennials. The New York Times has already published a piece by William Deresiewicz pondering the issue (his answer is that they are too nice). Cracked magazine has done a satirical take. The reason this is happening of course is Occupy Wall Street has turned out to be the most pointless, ineffective, and downright embarrassing protest ever. If you support the general thrust of the protest, that is if you are on the left, this is a huge problem.

And it gets worse if you consider the history of left-wing youth protests. There have been hundreds if not thousands of these since the 1960s and never before has one fizzled quite so badly as Occupy Wall Street. Faced with that, there are only two possible conclusions,
  1. either the era of effective protest is over, or
  2. there is something really wrong with kids these days.
Not surprisingly, some are picking option number two.

So what went wrong anyway?

Well, a little pull back first. It isn't just the Millenials. This has been coming a while now. There was an odd glimpse of it at the Remembrance Day ceremony here in Ottawa last Friday. The Chaplain General of the Canadian Armed Forces, Karl McLean was speaking. One of his key points was that we honour those who died fighting for our country by honouring the values they fought for. So far so good. But then he said that one of those values was that we should maintain a country where young people have, wait for it,
... the freedom to choose their own future.
I wonder in what alternative universe people ever got to choose their own future? It certainly was not the world that those who fought and won two world wars and endured the depression grew up in. They lived in a  world where sacrifice and service were not only required but pretty much defined life. And, as anyone old enough to have known that generation can testify, they did not fight in order that others should be able to choose their own future. When I was a kid, members of that generation hammered home the importance of sacrifice and service relentlessly.

They certainly believed that you should try to be happy but they tended to phrase their belief more along the lines of, "Suck it up and make the best of what you've got".

So how did we get from there to where we are now? How did we get to a place where the the chaplain general of the armed forces can stand up on a solemn occasion and spout not just nonsense but nonsense that betrays what the veterans who won two world wars really fought for while pretending to honour them?

You might, and I know people who have, blame the world war two generation themselves. Mose Allison did that in his song, "Young Man's Blues":
Well a young man
He ain't got nothin' in the world these days
I said a young man
Ain't got nothin' in the world these days
He's got nothing in the world but the chance to live in peace and freedom in a time of great economic growth that was purchased by the blood and sacrifice of others.

And it gets worse. In the second verse, Allison gives us a taste of the violent arrogance of the gangbanger:
In the old days
When a young man was a strong man
All the people stepped back
When a young man walked by
In other words, give us respect or we'll hurt you. Allison taught the lesson and the Who and other rock bands and later rap artists passed it on to millions of others.

The Occupy protestors do indeed have an over-developed sense of entitlement and a disturbing tendency to see others as full of hate while they themselves are acting destructively but they didn't invent that crap, they learned it all from their parents from the "peace" and "love" generation.

Errand Day

I have a long list of them this morning so no posting until this afternoon.

Meanwhile, one of the things I love about is they have this service that sends you an e-mail telling you when new books are coming out from authors you liked in the past. It produces unintended comic results when you tell Amazon that your favourite books are classics by long-dead writers.

This morning, for example, I got this:
Customers who have purchased or rated books by Homer might like to know that The Iliad of Homer will be released on November 15, 2011. You can pre-order yours by following the link below.
 Good to see that the old boy is still cranking them out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The allure of secret rules

This is a bit of a state of the union piece in which I review some part where the search for virtue has gotten me. It's probably only of interest to me and maybe two other people on the planet. Perhaps. It's also long. I wrote it earlier this week as I will be out for the morning on account of it being Remembrance Day here in Canada and I want to remember the many brave men who fought for the freedoms and security of my country.

For my mother, the moral life was largely a psychological thing. She talked about people competing with one another and responding to what others did in terms of competition and being threatened. There were two, and only two, kinds of moral failure for her.
  1. You could fail to control these psychological forces in your own life.
  2. You could fail to allow for the power these psychological forces had over the lives of others.
She wasn't blind to the dissonance here—that you were supposed to forgive others for being subject to psychological forces that you yourself were supposed to master. She could live with that, though, because she felt that she had found the secret rules that life really ran on. The world divided into two groups, insiders who knew these rules and outsiders who did not. The higher standards that insiders were held to were required of them for being insiders and the compensation that went with that was the feeling of being an insider.

For my father, the moral life is largely a managerial project. He believes that our ultimate purpose is to successfully manage the people and challenges before us. If things go wrong, they need to be fixed according to the best managerial principles.

In Conrad's novel Typhoon there are a bunch of Chinese labourers going back to China from working building a railway overseas. They each have their collected earnings in the form of gold coins that they carried in little boxes. At one point. the storm destroys all the boxes and all the coins end up in a pile against the lee rail. And there is a huge moral problem in that each man had different amounts of wealth and there is now no way to determine how much they had so each can get back what he deserves. The hero of the novel, Captain MacWhirr, simply orders his officers to divide the money equally among the labourers. My father admires that sort of managerial approach and it is a good example of his belief of how, when push comes to shove, managerial considerations should trump all others in moral decision making.

As was the case with my mother, the key thing here is that my father believes that the foundation of all morality is a series of secret rules that life really runs on. The world divides into people who know this (the managers) and those who need to be managed because they don't know the rules.

Please don't read any anger into those characterizations. There was some anger when I hit the age of about seventeen or so but I quickly realized that lots of people see the moral life the way they do. And both psychology and management have a lot to do with moral success and they both did more good than bad living as they did and, in my father's case, as he continues to live.

At seventeen, I fell into a third kind of belief which was that the moral life is an aesthetic project. I saw a girl of about seventeen or so the other day who clearly believes this now. She was dressed in a garish pink dress and torn black fishnet stockings. Her hair was magenta and it was an open question whether the colour of her hair clashed more with her dress than the stockings did. But the point, for her, is that the ensemble makes an artistic statement. If she goes to university she may learn how to use a specialized language that will allow her to talk about what she is doing in moral terms but she doesn't need to do that for the intent here is clear enough: she is using all the tricks other girls use to look sexy in order to make a statement that is artistic and not driven by anything as basely pragmatic as the need to attract attention from boys.

This way of seeing the moral life is also based on a belief that there are secret rules that life really runs on. And as with the two ways of life above, it tends to divide the world into insiders who are supposed to know the rules (aesthetes) and outsiders who, whether they realize it or not, are of a lower order.

Interestingly, the aesthetic life no longer has anything to do with the love of beauty that drove aesthetes up until the early twentieth century. And one of the things that obviously distinguishes the aesthetic life of our day is that it is so much more obviously a fraud (to the point of being a pathetic embarrassment) but the other two are fraudulent too. And aesthetics do have something to do with the moral life and they matter just as much as psychology and management do.

And just about all modernist moral thinking is driven by the belief that there is a secret set of rules that need to be discovered along with a belief that modern people are better positioned to figure out what these rules are than the ancients were. In many cases, moderns believe that it was impossible for the ancients to figure out the secret rules. One of the many ugly aspects of twentieth century modernism was that it was always and everywhere an elitist phenomenon.

Because modernism failed, there is an alternative (and it failed really early, its failure was already obvious to some in the 19th century). This alternative is to believe that there are no secret rules, that success in the moral life is a matter of contingency and fashion accompanied by a willingness to act boldly in the knowledge that there are no ultimate rules. Curiously, people who believe this also divide the world into insiders who know the rules are just contingent and that real success is a matter of what you can get away with and outsiders who really believe in the rules and are, therefore, inferior.

There are writers who exemplify each of these beliefs.
  • Henry James, Proust and Dostoevsky are all psychologists and it is no accident that aesthetes are often the antogonists in their stories. (Jane Austen could be made to fit here too.)
  • Ian Fleming, Patrick O'Brian and John Grisham—the sort of fiction that a lot of men like to read—are exemplars of the belief that life is largely a management problem—and it is no accident that the antagonists in these stories are psychological manipulators.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert, Azar Nafisi, Rebecca Wells and others too numerous to list—the sort of  fiction and non-fiction that a lot of women like to read—are exemplars of the belief that moral happiness is largely an aesthetic issue and it is no accident that cold-hearted managers are often the antagonists in these stories.
Joseph Heller, Patrick Süskind and Woody Allen are writers who exemplify the post-modernist school of the secret rule being to know here are no rules. Woody Allen is probably the most popular writer (although he writes movies not books) who exemplifies the post modern morality that the insiders are the ones who "know" there really are no rules. The movies this is most evident in are Crimes and Misdemeanors and  Match Point. The antagonists in these movies are people who believe that there are moral rules and push the hero to live up to them.

By the way, you can get some insight into how Allen and his fans really think by reading the following story line summary from IMDb:
Chris Wilton is a former tennis pro, looking to find work as an instructor. He meets Tom Hewett, a well-off pretty boy. Tom's sister Chloe falls in love with Chris but Chris has his eyes on Tom's fiancée, the luscious Nola. Both Chris and Nola know it's wrong but what could be more right than love? Chris tries to juggle both women but at some point, he must choose between them...
Got a picture of the movie? Sounds rather anodyne? Okay, here is another, more accurate, story line written by me:
Chris falls in love with and gets engaged to Chloe who offers him a chance to move up the social ladder but also has an affair with Nola who has more erotic power (consisting mostly of her having really big breasts). Nola, however, gets pregnant and threatens to expose Chris thereby ruining his chance with Chloe so he murders her. Will Chris's guilt trip him up and expose his crime or will he get away with it.
Now ask yourself, what sort of person can watch the movie I have just described and then write a summary like the one at IMDb? Pretty chilling thought isn't it? "[H]e must choose between them" is pro-choice with a vengeance.

 My belief is that nowhere is the dictum of Wittgenstein that nothing is hidden more important than in living the moral life. Everything we need to know is right on the surface. One writer who exemplifies this view is Evelyn Waugh and that is why he is a favourite of mine. Some other examples are  Joseph Conrad (especially his early books), Hemingway and Anthony Powell.

The Giller winner

Womanly Virtues Friday
If you don't live in Canada you've never heard of the Giller prize. Be thankful for that. Suffice to say, it's yet another literary prize designed to fool people into reading books they wouldn't otherwise ever want to read.

This year's winner is Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan. Edugyan is a Canadian and her parents are from Ghana. Here is the Amazon blurb for it:
Paris, 1940. A brilliant jazz musician, Hiero, is arrested by the Nazis and never heard from again. He is twenty years old. He is a German citizen. And he is black.

Fifty years later, his friend and fellow musician, Sid, must relive that unforgettable time, revealing the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that sealed Hiero’s fate. From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris – where the legendary Louis Armstrong makes an appearance – Sid, with his distinctive and rhythmic German-American slang, leads the reader through a fascinating world alive with passion, music and the spirit of resistance.
What I'd suggest that this book is anti-realist. Without being naive realists, I think we safely say that this sort of writing and the people who like are driven by a powerful need to prefer fantasy to reality. And I'd further say that this need is driven by a desire to validate a series of moral beliefs that are not sustainable.

Leonard Cohen once joked that his exposure to the communist songbook at the red-diaper baby summer camps in the Laurentians his parents sent him to left him with the curious notion that the war had been won by song. It's not just him. Gunter Grass and Michale Ondaatje have similar delusions.

This desperate and pathetic need to believe that the cultural life was central during the war is an ugly phenomenon. The very existence of our culture, of any culture, depends absolutely on the willingness of some men to be soldiers. It is their willingness to fight and perhaps die to preserve our way of life that makes it possible. Books like Half-Blood Blues are just a desperate attempt to live in denial of this.

Male soldiers aren't sufficient to have civilization but they are absolutely necessary to it and any woman or man of virtue will recognize this.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


We buried my friend Harold yesterday. He was 94. He was a navy pilot during the second war. If you asked what it was like, he'd tell self deprecating stories about being scared to land on a carrier deck. Scared he might have been, but he did it over and over again.

He was unfailingly a gentleman, always elegantly dressed, steady as a rock emotionally, and he was almost always positive and upbeat. He faced life and death the way any real man would hope to do.

We can wish and hope and pray, but we're not going to see his like again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Wings of the Dove

To make this a blog exclusively about the Wings of the Dove click here.

Okay, pay dirt. We're in Chapter seven and we are seeing the world through the eyes of Milly Theale. It's an experience much like Maisie's: Milly is innocent (not quite as innocent as Maisie) and only partly grasping the significance of what is going on around her. She is in London at a dinner party hosted by Maud Lowder. Sitting to one side of her is Lord Mark. He tells her she is "a success".

And here is poor Milly contemplating all this. There is an erotic quality to her experience. Lord Mark knows at least one significant secret about Millie and is suggesting that this secret makes her a success. He won't say what the secret is in so many words but hints at it in a way that is teasing. And Milly is not so sure she wants to enter into society in this way. She wants to enter into London society, there is no doubt about that, but perhaps not on these terms.

And she looks at Lord Mark and imagines how he might answer her question to Susan Stringham from the previous chapters:
Should she have it, whatever she did have, that question had been, for long? "Ah, so possibly not," her neighbour appeared to reply, "therefore, don't you see, I'm the way." [Italics in the original, page 118 in my edition]
Yup, the reply invokes John 14: 6 "I am the way, the truth and the life". And I think James's intention here is obviously to suggest that Lord Mark's implied offer is a bit of a travesty of the original. Lord Mark represents temptation.

Next page we get the first bit of text that relates directly to the title. Bear with me for this is complicated. Milly looks at Lord Mark and at Kate Croy as the dinners goes along. She sees that they have some quality that is intriguing and desirable although perhaps not good. Certainly a part of this is the sexual power of Kate Croy, which Milly perceives to be an order above her own.
Kate Croy, fine but friendly, looked over at her as really with a guess at Lord Mark's effect on her. If she could guess this effect what then did she know about it and in what degree had she felt it herself? Did that represent, as between them, anything particular, and should she have to count with them as duplicating, as intensifying by a mutual intelligence, the relation into which she was sinking? Nothing was so odd that she should have to recognize so quickly in each of these glimpses of an instant the various signs of a relation; and this anomaly itself, had she more time to give to it, might well, might almost have suggested to her that her doom was to live fast.
Put yourself in Milly's shoes ... well, shoes won't do. Put yourself in her dress and all the various layers she is wearing for being dressed that way would change the way a woman held herself and moved and would change her entire experience of a moment like this. She doesn't know anything but, as Minnie Pearl used to joke, she knows enough to have always suspected something and suddenly what had been like invisible radio waves of sexuality are now visible to her. Heady stuff.

Okay, but in Henry James nothing is ever simple. This is actually a pretty good thing to read if you've always hated Henry James and wondered what others see in him because he actually states outright what he is trying to here. he is trying to get us to see that Milly's mind is doing a whole bunch of things at once. No one, least of all Milly herself, can really be expected to fully gasp the significance of what is "just a part" of what is going on in her consciousness.
These were immense excursions for the spirit of a young person at Mrs. Lowder's mere dinner-party; but what was so significant and so admonitory as the fact of their being possible? What could they have been but just a part, already, of the crowded consciousness? 
The "crowded consciousness" is what Henry James is all about. It is because he wants to talk about this fact of human experience realistically—that there are always lots of things going on at once—that makes him write the way he does. And his desire to make us see that this new awareness of Milly's is  "just a part" is what leads him to bury it at the bottom of a great long sentence (122 words worth). It comes in four sections:
And it was just a part likewise that while plates were changed and dishes presented and periods in the banquet marked;

while appearances insisted and phenomena multiplied and words reached her from here and there like plashes of a slow thick tide;

while Mrs. Lowder grew somehow more stout and more instituted and Susie, at her distance and in comparison, more thinly improvised and more different--different, that is, from every one and every thing:

it was just a part that while this process went forward our young lady alighted, came back, taking up her destiny again as if she had been able by a wave or two of her wings to place herself briefly in sight of an alternative to it. 
All this stuff is going on and, just for a moment, young Millie almost takes flight.

And I said, Oh, that I had wings like a dove ...

Type out a book?

Courtesy of Ann Althouse comes this great anecdote about Hunter S Thomson typing out The Great Gatsby:
He'd look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece. He was so hungry, yeah. Innocent, and yearning.
I wonder if that's true. It's one of those stories people tend to tell about themselves to try and prove something about themselves to themselves and others. "I copped a feel of the breasts on statue of Marie Antoinette in the church at Saint Denis just to see what it would feel like." Actually that's true*. I did. Maybe he did type it out.

Althouse goes on to suggest that it might be a good idea:
I'm thinking maybe that would be a good practice for all of us who presume to write. Pick one book, the book that exemplifies the best writing for you, and type it out, to see how it feels, to learn something elemental in that mysterious eyes-to-fingertips interplay.
Intriguing. I can't imagine doing a whole book. When my father was in school, one of the brothers who taught him used to make students write out chapters from books they hated as a punishment for not doing their homework. My father got stuck writing out huge sections of Thackeray for his sins.

But I like the idea of trying it for maybe a chapter or so. My first choice, as will be obvious to anyone who reads me regularly, would be Brideshead Revisisted. My second choice would be Edith Wharton's The Reef. And you?

* Since you ask, it felt really exciting to do it. And, hey, she practically gave me permission by doing it first as you can see below. (I wouldn't try it today, they probably have video monitoring there now and, besides, I thought of it first so you have to think of your own thrilling transgression damnit.)

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The New York Times catches up with me

The Wings of the Dove

I mentioned that there were a couple of examples of religious language in Chapter 4 that I hadn't blogged and meant to get back to them. Here they are.

The first is pretty mild but worth noting because we have that woprd "sacrifice" popping up again. Merton Densher is in Aunt Maud's drawing room awaiting an audience with her. And we get to listen in on Merton's thinking about the possibility that he might fail through the miracle of free indirect speech:
It was not indeed that he thought of that disaster as, at the worst, a direct sacrifice of their possibilities; he imaged it—which was enough as some proved vanity, some exposed fatuity, in the idea of bringing Mrs. Lowder around. [Page 57 in my edition]
Pretty mild, as I say but it sets the mood for what follows where Maud Lowder uses Merton's own desire not to be vain as a means to make him deny the validity of his own claim all leading up to this fascinating observation just six pages later. First Merton makes the following self-debasing claim:
I thoroughly understand what I'm not, and I'm much obliged to you for not reminding me of it in any rougher way. [Page 63 in my edition]
Other than licking the bottom of her boots clean, I don't know how he could have been more humble. The important thing, though, is that his own morality drives him to this. She leaves this comment untouched and watch in amazement what he reads into that:
She said nothing—she kept that up; it might have been to let him, if he was capable of it, in the way of poorness of spirit. [Page 63 in my edition]

To make this an all Wings of the Dove blog, click here.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Tuning out the experts

Sort of political Monday
A disturbing trick we can play on ourselves and others is to narrow a question while answering it. Here is a simple example, Caroline is missing eight dollars and comes into the room and asks me did I take her eighty dollars and I reply, "I didn't take any money out of your wallet". That sort of answer would worry her and she'd be entirely justified to be worried.

Phillip Jenkins pulls just such a trick on us in a piece called "9/11: Did the Qur’an really make them do it?" You can see the move in the excerpt below (with some added emphasis from me):
After 9/11, many commentators went beyond focusing on the particular ideology of the perpetrators to speak in terms of a broad clash of cultures and civilizations. They focused intensely on Islam, trying to determine just what features of that faith led its adherents to violence and bloodshed. Many writers have presented Islam as a stark contrast to Christianity and Judaism, and portrayed a struggle of darkness against light.

The Qur’an, in this view, is something like a terrorist manifesto: the book oozes violence, with so many verses about battles, swords and blood. Fanaticism seems hard-wired into the faith. Are the core texts of Islam so repulsive that they will prevent Muslim societies ever evolving to civilized and democratic communities? Why can’t they learn to be like us?
Notice how he has moved from a general consideration of the culture of Islam to considering the text of the Koran in specific. (By the way, when we are writing in English we can spell "Koran" the English way.)

Jenkins is no fool, he knows full well that no text is self interpreting. More to the point, he cannot be so stupid to have noticed that violent interpretation of biblical verses is a fringe phenomenon widely condemned by religious leaders whereas leading Clerics in Islam tend to sometimes support violent interpretations or tend to ignore or condemn violent interpretations in mealy-mouthed fashion.

On a broader scale, Jenkins must also be aware of the plight of women in Muslim countries and of the general lack of success such countries have had in adopting liberal rights and freedoms. These are not matters intelligent people doubt. So why do experts continue to insult our intelligence with moral equivalence?

Experts don't deserve our respect, they have to earn it and they haven't done much to earn it lately.