Thursday, May 31, 2012

Portrait: On Retreat

I'm not convinced that many people read section three of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with much care. I think mostly because the prospect makes them a little queasy. They know what they want to believe so they skim it looking only for clues to back that up. What they are looking for is evidence to back up an anti-Catholic view that says poor little Stephen was brutalized by a horrific priest who terrified him with visions of hell.

But there is very little evidence for that view and quite a bit of evidence for something else. Actually, there are great piles of evidence to the contrary. So much that one of the things that troubles critics is why the retreat and vision of hell is sooo long. And that is agood point because if all Joyce wanted to do was portray a cruel priest needlessly scaring children, he could have done so in much less space and have done so more effectively too.

 The biggest problem with the claim that the priest needlessly scared Stephen and his students is that no one but Stephen seems particularly worked up about it. We don't actually get much of a look at the others, this being a solipsistic little book, but what we do see suggests that they laugh it off.

Now the natural question at this point would be to ask why poor Stephen is so vulnerable. But we don't really have to ask: he is vulnerable because of his sexual pathologies.

For Stephen doesn't need to be told he has sinned. He is, on the contrary, loaded to the gills with guilt about seeing prostitutes. At the same time he has had opportunity to kiss girls he knows but is unable to carry it out. One suspects they thought him an odd little boy and quite possibly gay.

Consider, for example, the rather odd entry of "Emma" into the story. We don't know much about Emma other than her name. She hardly seems to exist outside Stephen's fevered imagination.
The image of Emma appeared before him, and under her eyes the flood of shame rushed forth anew from his heart. If she knew to what his mind had subjected her or how his brute-like lust had torn and trampled upon her innocence! Was that boyish love? Was that chivalry? Was that poetry? The sordid details of his orgies stank under his very nostrils. 
The key phrase here is "if she knew" for she doesn't know. She doesn't know of any connection between herself and Stephen for the simple reason that there isn't any. Stephen has defiled her without anything happening between them. How?  Most probably by going to prostitutes instead of living up to what her "purity" (at least as Stephen imagines it it's hard not to suspect that the actual Emma soaking her mind and panties with lust as most teen aged girls do).

But watch what happens next. Stephen moves to a  sort of Garden of Eden fantasy of he and Emma together:
In the wide land under a tender lucid evening sky, a cloud drifting westward amid a pale green sea of heaven, they stood together, children that had erred. Their error had offended deeply God's majesty though it was the error of two children ...
In some ways that makes sense but in other ways it is odd. For how did Stephen's sin against Emma (and God) become the error of two children? She has done nothing. Everything that concerns her and Stephen exists only in Stephen's imagination. Which is why, of course, it's all so flexible but it should trouble critics one hell of a lot more than it has that he makes her, and other women, into sinners so easily. Stephen has a problem with girls: he cannot imagine sex with a woman he could love and he cannot imagine love with a woman he can imagine having sex.

And it is after that little imagining of Stephen's that the Preacher brings up Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Stephen doesn't need his mind perverted by and fire and brimstone slinging preacher, he is already quite sick enough of his own volition than you.


Also of note in this section is that the Preacher brings up Satan's rejection of God:
What his sin was we cannot say. Theologians consider that it was the sin of pride, the sinful thought conceived in an instant: non serviam: I will not serve. That instant was his ruin.
Stephen himself will make that exact move later.

 Finally, we get a moment in the exact centre of the novel when Stephen tries to go to confession:
No escape. He had to confess, to speak out in words what he had done and thought, sin after sin. How? How?

—Father, I ...

The thought slid like a cold shining rapier into his tender flesh: confession. But not there in the chapel of the college. He would confess all, every sin of deed and thought, sincerely; but not there among his school companions. Far away from there in some dark place he would murmur out his own shame; and he besought God humbly not to be offended with him if he did not dare to confess in the college chapel and in utter abjection of spirit he craved forgiveness mutely of the boyish hearts about him.
Notice that it is shame holding Stephen back. He really wants to confess but he cannot do it in his own school.

Shame is not guilt. that seems to me to be the very important distinction that Stephen doesn't get. Does Joyce?

Manly Thor's Day Special: Her crisis and yours

When cats feel threatened and angry they wag their tales in wide arcs moving more quickly just before they strike. When dogs want you to love and trust them they wag their tales back and forth moving faster the more intensely they feel the need to win your love.

Now you can see why cats and dogs have communications problems.

For a woman, a crisis is an opportunity to race her emotions the way a young man might want to drive a car fast and hard.

Before I go on, stop a moment and think about how men compete at sports and games. There is s a lot of suffering involved. For starters, someone has to lose. But even before that there is pain and stress. And yet most men keep doing it. We see it as a worthy discipline, an opportunity to learn and grow morally and a way to bond with others. And no matter how much it costs, we keep doing it.

And most women treat emotional risks the same way men treat physical ones.

This leads to serious problems of communication between men and women. At the height of an emotional crisis she will tell you, with absolute sincerity, that she hates it that this has happened and wants to change things so this never happens again. And you'll believe her and get pulled into the plans. Oftentimes these plans will mean sacrificing activities and things you like or love. At the very least it will mean changing a routine you have gotten used to.

And then, sure as night follows day, the exact same kind of emotional crisis will recur with the same talk about how she wants to stop this from happening.

It's not that she wants it to happen. At the same time, however, she has no intention of making the changes that would actually prevent this crisis from recurring. She is like an athlete about these things: she doesn't want to lose so she plans to win but she'd rather risk loss or even a fiery crash than stopping racing her emotions. No matter how much she says she hates the crisis at home, at work or in love, she will continue to behave in exactly the ways that make it inevitable that she will have another emotional crisis at home, at work or in love.

And, odd as this will sound, you don't want to stop her. Truth be told, she'd be miserable if she wasn't allowed to run the risk of emotional crisis. She'd be far more miserable if forced to give this game up than any of her crises ever make her. (Another thing you don't want to do is get roped into her plans to "prevent" the next crisis: those are really plans to make sure you are in just as deep as she is.)

She doesn't want emotional failure. She wants emotional success just as you want to win when you compete. She wants to throw herself into whatever it is she throws herself into with abandon and come out triumphant.

I knew two sisters once who hated one another. They had nursed long grudges against one another all their lives. And yet they couldn't resist the opportunity to get together at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter so they could bring about a repeat of the same emotional conflict (which was always a replay of a conflict they'd had since they were children). And it would always turn out badly. They knew one another inside out and they both knew exactly how to deeply wound the other. There was zero chance that either would come out triumphant: they'd always both lose. But they could not stop.

After each holiday they'd rail for days, if not weeks, about how they'd just had it with the other. But never once did either go for the obvious solution of simply not going to Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter with the family this year. They kept doing it even after both their parents had died and there was just the two of them and their husbands and children, all of whom grew up dreading and hating the holidays. (The two husbands had different ways of dealing with it. One would wait a while and sneak away to find a television and watch some sports program. The other would start drinking whisky at noon.)

Yes, we men have our contradictory traits too. The difference is that everyone talks about those nowadays. It's no longer allowed to point out that women tend to do the same irrational things over and over again.

I could say a lot about this but today I want to focus on why a woman will often be useless at helping you with your crisis and why, no matter how much she claims otherwise, she doesn't really want to hear you talk about about your feelings.

A very instructive thing for a man to do is to watch a group of women interact; a gaggle of teens, sisters or "best-friends forever". Don't participate. Just listen. The conversation will move from pleasantries to what might be called unpleasantries very quickly. These friends will spend a lot of time wallowing in unhappy things. And you will notice that no one will offer any solutions to the problems discussed. To the contrary, they'll help one another amplify the emotions.

And then they will take turns trying to match or beat the crisis described by the others.

Most women have done this with other women all her life and it is a deeply embedded trait. And that is why telling a woman that you are unhappy will so often fail. You go to her because you want to stop being unhappy but she responds by jumping right in. She thinks this is great—she can finally play with you the game she loves playing with her girlfriends. 

Next, she'll have a crisis of her own. She'll do that because that is the way the game is always played. Girlfriend number one tells about her crisis with her boss and everyone will nod sympathetically and then one of the group will try and match if not beat the story with one of her own. So too a woman will often respond to your emotional crisis, by promptly having one of her own.

In its most perverse variation, she will sometimes have a crisis because she has hurt you. You go to her to tell her she has hurt your feelings or neglected your needs and she will initially respond by listening sympathetically but rapidly get so consumed with guilt and self-hatred that any chance of her apologizing and changing her behaviour will rapidly vanish. To you, this will feel like a passive-aggressive avoidance strategy: every time you have crisis, she has one too thereby undermining you. You get the feeling that she is punishing you for having problems and daring to bring them up with her. And you're not crazy; it often is a passive-aggressive avoidance strategy and she really doesn't want to hear about your problems, especially your problems with her. Another part of the problem is that you are not playing the game the way she's always played it. She sees this as away to connect with you through a shared activity the same way a bunch of guys will sit around talking about sports instead of playing sports together.

Sometimes she will see you are unhappy and come to you to "Talk about it". But the thing is, she doesn't really want that sort of relationship with a man. She can get that with her women friends any time she wants. She is attracted to you because you are different. You are emotionally solid and different from her. You are the rock in her life while her emotions run rampant (and if you are not, you should man up and become that).

And you don't want that sort of relationship with her either. For starters, she doesn't have sex with her friends and you want a relationship with her that involves sex or, even better, that involves a lot of sex. And take a close look at how she treats her friends and you will quickly figure out you don't want her to treat you that way.

There is a problem here, though, and I'm sure you can see it: What happens when you aren't feeling so solid? What happens when you really do have a crisis? I wish I knew the answer to that. I can tell you what isn't the answer though: don't talk to her about it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Meta-meta: Who deserves contempt?

Patrick Radden-Keefe at Slate writes:
How appropriate that it is Ginsberg who diagnoses the pathologies gripping the firm. Ginsberg is an old soul himself, who is both fascinated and repulsed by the sex-and-violence decadence of his era. What inspired his breakthrough on Jaguar? It was Megan’s actor friend, performing an impromptu audition for the campaign by crawling, panties bared, across the conference table—another nod at the conventions of striptease.  “I could be in a bikini,” she brainstorms lustily, “and you could paint my body with spots.” Knockoff the grabass, indeed.
As his horny colleagues gather round the spectacle, Ginsberg does not mask his contempt for them, or for the intended audience of the campaign. 
Okay, but consider this. Here is what the guys in the boardroom are seeing:

And here is what we the home audience are seeing:

Ginsburg says, "I kept imagining the asshole who is going to want this car." Radden-Keefe says "he does not mask his contempt for the "intended audience". Fine, but what about the intended audience for, as the Internet creeps like to put it, the upskirt shot above? How "appropriate" is it for us, the assholes who want to watch this show, to feel superior?

Consider this dialogue between Pete and Joan about the Jaguar representative who wants to have sex with her in exchange for his good word.
Joan: Which one is he?
Pete: He's not bad.
Joan: He's doing this.
To which the obvious response should be, "So are you, honey." Pete wouldn't, couldn't say that but I'd feel a lot better about the episode if I thought the irony here was intended. I'm not convinced that the show's creators get it; Radden-Keefe sure doesn't.

As I said in my first commentary on the episode, I think there is something morally hollow about it. And it is characteristic of the entertainment industry to imagine it is "diagnosing" pathologies that are actually typical of shows like this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bluffin with her what?

Here is a wonderful version of Lady Gaga's Pokerface by a band called The Leftover Cuties. The lead singer has a great voice and an even better nose.

But here is the thing, notice how utterly conventional this song sounds once you strip it of all the gimmickry. It sounds utterly conventional because it is utterly conventional. This is a song that could have been written any time in the last six or seven decades. An unkind person, say me, might venture to say that gimmickry is pretty much all Lady Gaga has got 'cause, well, it is all she has got.

Sorta political: The worst possible thing

Here is how the George Zimmerman case could go as badly as possible.

The prosecution has not presented anything that looks like a compelling case in its pre-trial documents. That continues as the trial begins with a weak case for conviction being made at trial. Courts are not good in general in bringing out the truth, being only places where it is tried to prove that someone did something beyond a reasonable doubt. As the trial goes on, divisions in public opinion get stronger and stronger.

 The press, rather than accepting responsibility for its own malfeasance, plays less and less attention to the actual substance of the evidence presented and reports the divisions, thereby heightening them. And when the jury is unable to reach a verdict, the media report this.

In the immediate aftermath of the report, some violence breaks out in the streets of Florida's cities.  This escalates sharply when it is reported that the jury split along racial lines. Then a black member of the jury accuses the white members of being motivated by racism.

All hell breaks loose. Cities are in flame.

But it's worse than that for now everyone is trying to seek clarity and truth but all anyone is succeeding in doing is yelling at one another. The case becomes a dividing line which people use to define themselves and it is used stir up anger and hatred for at least two decades.

I really, really hope not but it could happen. You'd like to think that a divisive case like this will produce clarity is pushed but they almost never do.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Meta-meta: One of them cannot be right

Matt Zoller Seitz and Allan Sepinwall sat down to watch what was ostensibly the same episode of Mad Men last night. Here is what Seitz saw:
"The Other Woman" focuses on its three lead female characters (sorry, Betty!) at critical junctures, moments when they can retreat or advance. Astonishingly, and at great personal cost, they all advance, and exit stronger than they entered. 
And Sepinwall:
It's an hour about women being viewed as a commodity to be bought and sold, or simply owned, spelled out bluntly, horrifically and yet beautifully by Don delivering Ginsberg's "At last: something beautiful you can truly own" tagline just after we've seen Joan slipping uncomfortably out of the Jaguar exec's bed.

Sepinwall has the more interesting take on the show by a long shot. Seitz, however, is an interesting example of a post-feminist quandary. The primary issue is that nothing can ever be a woman's fault in a post-feminist world. So if a woman sells her body then it has to be either because some evil pimp of a guy manœuvered her into it or because she has made a wonderfully brave self-affirming decision to control her own body and her future. Although I say either, Seitz seems to want to be able to condemn Pete for being a pimp and praise Joan for taking control.

Either way, his position is a morally ludicrous but not uncommon one: pimps bad, whores good. Unless, of course, a black hip hop artist raps about being a pimp and says degrading things about women, in which case the morality doesn't quite reverse but it all becomes "understandable".

Even Sepinwall, however, seems unwilling to criticize Joan directly. Over at Slate, Julia Turner is willing to go a little ways in that direction. Her remarks are worth reading at some length:
Joan, meanwhile, has finagled a place at the partner’s table, by way of a sordid assignation with Herb from the Jaguar dealers’ association. The incident smeared muck onto everyone who came in contact with it, including Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, and various sultans of Araby. It made Pete look bad, for pushing the idea. (How Pete-ishly slimy was his initial insinuating approach?) It made Bert look bad, for ineffectually saying “Let her know she can still say no,” and washing his hands of the matter. It made Lane look bad, for pretending to be Joan’s friend—urging her to ask for a 5 percent partnership, rather than cash—when in fact he was serving only himself, hoping to conceal his financial skullduggery a few weeks longer. It made Roger look horrible: “I’m not going to stand in the way, but I’m not paying for it,” he said, marking nothing but his first refusal to pay for something all season. And, finally—and not to get all judgmental about it—it made Joan look bad.
Why not get "all judgmental" about it?  She has no trouble getting all judgmental about Pete. Is there some doubt about making "judgments" selling your dignity and your body for personal gain? Or to put  it in an old-fashioned way, about being a whore? Well, yes, there is in the era of the sex-trade worker of Babylon.

By the way, the guys at Slate have yet to respond to Turner as of 2:20. I'm not sure whether that is because they are too busy licking the polish off of Lena Dunham's shoes or whether he moral quandaries posed by last night's episode are too daunting.

Turner is also of mixed feelings about Peggy's departure. My sister had the same reaction and Sepinwall also wouldn't want her to just go. All argue that it is Peggy's character is what they will miss. I wonder. Or is it the Peggy-Don connection they will miss?

Mad Men: The Other Woman

"I'm talking about business at a very high level."
I loved that line. Pete says it to Joan when making his pitch that she should have sex with a client to help secure a sale.

Let's start with the bad

This was an exceptionally entertaining episode. Every second was gripping. But hollow. It was morally hollow. Maybe that's okay. Maybe it's because some otherwise good people acted in a morally hollow way. We'll see how they redeem it next two episodes. But for now it feels empty.

Here is what I think the problem is. I think a bunch of people in the entertainment industry foolishly assumed that advertising works just like their business. Last night's big plot twist is something people in the entertainment industry would do quite regularly. (It's pretty clear that Katherine Hepburn, for example, used sex to assure that she could star in a movie version of The Philadelphia Story.) It might happen in advertising but not so easily.  It's not that such things couldn't happen. It's the routine quality of them. The way four partners sat down and discussed and outrageous proposal and approved it.

I loved Pete's line because it was so extreme, so incredibly over the top. It struck me as the sort of thing he would say. It didn't seem right that Roger would go along with this.

Let me put it another way, when Pete puts the proposition it seemed right because Pete is this odd, damaged, shriveled little part of a man trying to pass himself off as an entire human being. I don't have any illusions about Roger, his moral standards are often outrageous, but he is still every inch a man not a little homunculus like Pete.

I'm sure that everyone noticed that as Peggy walks away, Joan looks over and sees. And, hey, here we are back at the beginning with the two of them in their standard roles. Thanks to Don, Peggy didn't become Mimi Alford but Joan is Judith Campbell Exner. (UPDATE: It just occurred to me that the "other woman" in this episode is not a man's other woman but a woman's other woman.)

Okay, the good

The whole thing with Peggy leaving was perfect. I loved the way Don kisses her hand at the end, the hand he wouldn't let her offer him in the first episode.

That's important because it wasn't Don who first saw Peggy's creative ability. It was Freddy Rumsen who saw that. Don was the guy who told Peggy she didn't have to offer herself sexually to make it. And Peggy was more than ready to do it. He told her, as he tries to tell Joan this episode, that she is too good for that. He saw in her what others, including Peggy herself, didn't see.

Can I take you back to a moment everyone forgets? The very first episode, in the bar, Don sees the humanity in Sam, the black man working as a busboy in the bar. Later we find out that he is leading a  double life. Everyone remembers that on their way to condemning him as "a bastard and drunk". But the first thing we see from him is a kind of manly virtue you don't see so much anymore.

Peggy's clinching argument is when she tells Don that he would do the same thing in her shoes. That was her way of saying that she, unlike Lane, wasn't negotiating. That was virtue.

By the way, I called it folks. The tension between Don and Megan is obviously influenced by the Sinatra-Farrow one. It ended in divorce in 1968 by the way.

Final though for now. I suddenly thought,
This is the end
Beautiful friend
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I'll never look into your eyes...again
That album would be released just the year after the Christmas that the partners will not be getting bonuses for. I thought of it because it popped into my head that Weiner was heavily influenced by the contract negotiations for this year. He knows this could be the last year so he wants to end this season in a  way that will stand as a worthy whole should he never get to make another episode.

Only two more episodes folks!

And I always sleep with my guns when you're gone.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Portrait: Heresy

On a certain Tuesday the course of his triumphs was rudely broken. Mr Tate, the English master, pointed his finger at him and said bluntly:

-- This fellow has heresy in his essay.

A hush fell on the class. Mr Tate did not break it but dug with his hand between his crossed thighs while his heavily starched linen creaked about his neck and wrists. Stephen did not look up. It was a raw spring morning and his eyes were still smarting and weak. He was conscious of failure and of detection, of the squalor of his own mind and home, and felt against his neck the raw edge of his turned and jagged collar.

A short loud laugh from Mr Tate set the class more at ease.

-- Perhaps you didn't know that, he said.

-- Where? asked Stephen.

Mr Tate withdrew his delving hand and spread out the essay.

-- Here. It's about the Creator and the soul. Rrm... rrm... rrm... Ah! without a possibility of ever approaching nearer. That's heresy.

Stephen murmured:

-- I meant without a possibility of ever reaching.
It was a submission and Mr Tate, appeased, folded up the essay and passed it across to him, saying:

-- O... Ah! ever reaching. That's another story. 
The key words here are "It was a submission". A submission that appeased Mr. Tate. But does Stephen really renounce his heresy? We already know from his response to the boy who asked him if he kissed his mother that Stephen has a tendency to say the the thing his interlocutor wants to hear.

I mention this because this isn't Stephen's last brush with heresy. We get two more early in Section 3. Stephen has just thought about his devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and his participation in the little office. First, a bit of explanation. The "office" is a series of prayers that all priests, nuns and monks say every day. A lot of regular Catholics say it as well. (I do.) The "little office" is an unofficial and parallel set of prayers devoted to Mary.

Okay, here is Stephen's first heretical statement:
His sin, which had covered him from the sight of God, had led him nearer to the refuge of sinners.
That's exactly backwards. In Catholic teaching, sin can make it harder for us to see God but nothing can cut us off from God's sight or his mercy.

The second bit of heresy is already appearing in the above for Stephen means Mary when he says "the refuge of sinners". As he continues,
Her eyes seemed to regard him with mild pity; her holiness, a strange light glowing faintly upon her frail flesh, did not humiliate the sinner who approached her. If ever he was impelled to cast sin from him and to repent, the impulse that moved him was the wish to be her knight. If ever his soul, reentering her dwelling shyly after the frenzy of his body's lust had spent itself, was turned towards her whose emblem is the morning star, bright and musical, telling of heaven and infusing peace, it was when her names were murmured softly by lips whereon there still lingered foul and shameful words, the savour itself of a lewd kiss. 
Mary is a saint and she is the most special saint but she remains a human being. She is not the refuge of sinners. Jesus is. Mary can help you find the refuge of sinners in her son but she cannot (the fervent wishes of a lot of misguided Catholics aside) be that refuge herself.

But this is a familiar move for Stephen. Confronted with real women, he prefers the idealize fantasy woman and gravitates between thoughts of her and prostitutes. He makes the same move with Ireland, which he likens to a woman. Again he prefers his idealized fantasy to the real thing.

The problem here is not that Stephen prefers fantasy to reality, although that is not exactly healthy. The problem is that Stephen relentlessly plays tricks in his thinking that make it impossible for any real woman, real country or real God to ever satisfy him.
It was strange too that he found an arid pleasure in following up to the end the rigid lines of the doctrines of the church and penetrating into obscure silences only to hear and feel the more deeply his own condemnation.
Is Joyce willfully constructing a character or is he haplessly loading Stephen down with his own failings? Or to put it another way, Is Stephen Dedalus just James Joyce?

I think he isn't. I think Joyce has created the character and created the flaw that goes with it. Stephen shares a lot of Joyce's failings but Joyce knows this and has some distance on it. Why do I think this? Three words: Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Section 3 opens with Stephen in the classroom thinking of sex with prostitutes while he is supposed to be working,
The equation on the page of his scribbler began to spread out a widening tail, eyed and starred like a peacock's; and when the eyes and stars of its indices had been eliminated, began slowly to fold itself together again. The indices appearing and disappearing were eyes opening and closing; the eyes opening and closing were stars being born and being quenched. The vast cycle of starry life bore his weary mind outward to its verge and inward to its centre, a distant music accompanying him outward and inward. What music? The music came nearer and he recalled the words, the words of Shelley's fragment upon the moon wandering companionless, pale for weariness. The stars began to crumble and a cloud of fine stardust fell through space.
What fragment of Shelley's? (By the way, notice the "outward and inward", does he really do both or is it all just inward?) For the answer to the Shelley question, we have to go back to section 2 and  how poor Stephen reacts when he is forced to see his father's ineffectual pride in the face of financial failure:
Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them. His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasure of companionship with others nor the vigour of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys, and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.
Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Wandering companionless...?
He repeated to himself the lines of Shelley's fragment. Its alternation of sad human ineffectiveness with vast inhuman cycles of activity chilled him, and he forgot his own human and ineffectual grieving. 
That fragment is an interesting choice for it is a lot like Stephen's "accidental" heresy of believing that he can never approach God. It is also interesting in that Shelley not only committed heresy in a pamphlet he wrote at university, he was expelled for it. Further Shelley, like Joyce, ran away from home to live with a woman. Shelley, unlike Joyce, also ran away from an existing marriage but we might say that Joyce ran away from Ireland.

Joyce is not simply turning his life into autobiography. He has created a sort of alter ego that allows him to confront his personal demons. Ultimately, I think that is a less interesting or useful project than most modernists took it to be but it is conscious on Joyce's part.

An aside for fans of Brideshead Revisisted, notice how Stephen's sin is the same as Julia's:
What did it avail to pray when he knew that his soul lusted after its own destruction? A certain pride, a certain awe, withheld him from offering to God even one prayer at night though he knew it was in God's power to take away his life while he slept and hurl his soul hellward ere he could beg for mercy. His pride in his own sin, his loveless awe of God, told him that his offence was too grievous to be atoned for in whole or in part by a false homage to the Allseeing and Allknowing. 
I don't think that is an accident. I think Waugh was answering Joyce with Brideshead which is also a portrait of an artist as a young man. And although many will regard this as heretical, I think Waugh surpasses Joyce as a novelist and that Brideshead surpasses Portrait.

A little light culture: Women and porn

I want to revisit a tiny bit of the Mark Regnerus piece I blogged yesterday. The bit that interests me is the bit in parentheses below with added emphasis:
Finally, as my colleagues and I discovered in our interviews, striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they'd prefer or mimicking porn (being in a dating relationship is correlated to greater acceptance of and use of porn among women). 
That is fascinating. I've blogged a fair bit about women and porn and how many more women are using porn today but that correlation is potentially really big news. Or not. I report, you decide.

Before we get into that, a few caveats about the word "correlate". It's a confusing word and the dictionary definition doesn't really help. If you look it up in the dictionary, you will find that "correlation" means there is a relationship between two things. But that is overstating it when we speak of it in terms of research. A better way of putting it is that "correlation" means there is numerical evidence that suggests two things might be related that is strong enough to make it worth our while to do further research. There probably is a relation but there may not be a relation. It may also be the case that the relation is complex or requires other factors to be in place to exist.

Okay, let's go back and look at that parenthetical statement again:
... being in a dating relationship is correlated to greater acceptance of and use of porn among women.
What that means is that women who are in a dating relationship are more likely to treat porn as a normal thing not worthy of condemnation and that they are more likely to sometimes use porn themselves than women who are single.

So what do we do with this? Regnerus is of the opinion that this tells us that women are under pressure to accept porn if they want to be in a relationship. That is clear from the context of the sentence where it is grouped with women having sex more often than they would like and having to do sexual acts they are unenthusiastic about. That's not crazy.

On the other hand, however, there is the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey and research that suggests that women make up a substantial portion of users of internet porn. And if you scan the reader reviews of Fifty Shades on the internet you will discover that a lot of women advise other women to read it because doing so will make sex with their husbands better. That suggests that Regnerus may have it backwards: that these women don't accept porn because they  feel pressured to do so to remain in a relationship but that they are more likely to be in a relationship because they accept porn.

Again, there are caveats to be made all over the place. How strong is the correlation? Because I can tell you even without looking it up that there will be some women who hate porn who are in successful dating relationships. And I can similarly assure you that there are probably women who use porn regularly who are perpetually single. I'd even go so far as to bet that women who are heavy porn users are probably more likely to be unsuccessful in relationships with men than other women just as men who are heavy porn users are more likely to be unsuccessful in relationships with women than other men.

To cut to the chase, I suspect the porn itself is not the essential item but that acceptance and use of porn is a marker for other things that do make a difference. These things:
  • Acceptance of porn tells us that a woman does not de-legitimize male sexual desire. She is not disgusted or alienated when confronted with the discovery that most are turned on by porn (and even men who never use porn tend to be turned on by it).
  • She also is not offended by the fact that her man gets sexually aroused by people other than herself, is not troubled by the fact that he stimulates himself when she is not around and has generally made peace with the fact that his sexual drive is more consistent and persistent than her own.
  • If she willingly watches porn tells us that she is curious and attracted to things sexual.
  • If she is a user as opposed to merely watching, that tells us that she is eager to find sexual satisfaction. (This, by the way, is a well-established phenomenon, women with the happiest sex lives have a selfish streak about their own sexual pleasure*.)
These are all things that a man craves in a partner. Now the crucial thing here is that porn is not a necessary part of this. You can have all those things and never glance at or read porn even once in your life. No woman has to go out and consume porn in order to be happy in love.

OTOH, if you spend your life crusading for the abolition of porn and being revolted by the thought that men use it, your chances probably aren't so good. And I'd say with absolute certainty that being possessed of the attitudes that acceptance of porn is a marker for is sine qua non for any woman who wants to have a happy relationship with a man.

Relevant disclosure: I was never a regular or enthusiastic porn user but I've looked at, read and yes "used" the stuff. To this day, I will look at porn if it is easy enough and I have nothing better to do. If, for example, I find myself alone in a  room with a dirty book, pictures or video, I will almost certainly look out of curiosity. That said, my interest in porn declined sharply some time in my early twenties, mostly because none of it could do the job as well as my own imagination and actual experiences could.

* CS Lewis wouldn't appreciate my paraphrasing his dictum this way but when a woman regards sex as something she does for her man, you can tell who her man is by his miserable, unhappy expression.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Manly Thor's Day seconds

Poor Jesse Bering, what's a metrosexual-emo-nice guy going to do when science comes up with a politically incorrect result?
Ask a straight man, “How do you like your women?” and it’s unlikely he’ll answer, “Dumb and sleepy.” But according to new findings, these characteristics—and any other traits suggesting that the lady isn’t particularly alert—are precisely what the human male has evolved to look for in a one-night-stand.
Bering calls that an "inflammatory hypothesis" and further whines that the language used by researchers doesn't help. The language that troubles him is a suggestion by the researchers that men respond to signs that a woman is sexually exploitable.

But here is an impolite question: Have you ever watched a woman's face when she was very highly aroused? Say the last minutes before she comes? Would you describe the expression on her face in those moments as "intelligent"? Me neither.

And don't take just my word for it. Here is what happens to women's brains when they watch porn:
Their results showed that far less blood was sent to the primary visual cortex, while the women were watching the most explicit porn. The same thing happens in the brain when a human conducts a non-visual task—like memorizing a list of words—while being shown some sort of visual "distractor" stimuli. Interestingly, when watching normal, non-smut films, extra blood is sent to the visual cortex. 
Sexual arousal makes women less, how to put this in a way that won't trouble Jesse Bering, shall we say, "less focused on processing data".

Here is an inflammatory line of thought for you. A while ago Christopher Hitchens argued that men are funnier than women because they have a greater incentive to make women laugh than men.
"I won't try and do it for you on camera but there is an attitude: the head thrown back and the mouth wide open and the horseshoe of lovely teeth and tongue on display and so forth. That is, well, it's a bit of a surrender. Ahh, it's worth it for it's own sake and it's a simulacrum of something even more worth it."
(It starts at 4:16 in this video if you want to check for yourself.)

Lots of people got heated up about Hitchens saying men are funnier than women but notice that he also implicitly said that men seek to have women surrender during sex. For the simple reason that that is what happens when sex is good for both of you. It doesn't have to be that way but that is the way the vast majority of men and women want to do it.

The reason dominatrices get paid so well as being dominant is the thing women like doing least in bed. They prefer to surrender. I know, today's independent women are different and all the rest of that jazz but it isn't true.

Anyway, if you want to attract a man, one surefire way to do it is to signal sexual arousal by acting a little dumb and sleepy. Like everything else in sex, it can be done too obviously, and anyone who went to high school can remember the girls who did it too obviously. But even guys who like sharp, witty Rosalind Russell types still ultimately hope to make these women surrender and adopt an "attitude" with the head thrown back and the mouth wide open and the horseshoe of lovely teeth and tongue on display and so forth".

Especially the "so forth".

Manly Thor's Day Special: Tumbling idols

Here is a claim for your consideration:
If women were more fully in charge of how their relationships transpired, we'd be seeing, on average, more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying going on. Instead, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which collects data well into adulthood), none of these things is occurring. Not one.The terms of contemporary sexual relationships favor men and what they want in relationships, not just despite the fact that what they have to offer has diminished, but in part because of it.
I would guess that a lot of people will find that easy to agree with with. At the risk of angering more than a few people, I'd suggest that that claim is not only wrong, it's insanely wrong.

For starters, what was the point of feminism. Before feminism there was a time in our history when there were more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter (so short they were usually non-existent) cohabitations and more marrying going on. And that time was precisely a time when women had far less control over pretty much everything in their lives including how their relationships transpired.

I'd add something that I and others keep repeating over and over again to little avail which is that two thirds of divorces are instigated by women. If women really so desperately want marriage, someone ought to tell them because they sure don't act like it.

The quote above is an essay from Slate's "Double X" section by the way. That section is intriguingly subtitled, " What women really think about news, politics, and culture".  And that is kind of funny because we get something more or less the opposite of that. The simple fact is that the more control women have gotten over their relationships, the less common those things have become and I'd suggest there is a very simple reason for this: women don't want these things nearly as much as a lot of people would like to believe.

The essay in question is called
Sex Is Cheap: Why young men have the upper hand in bed, even when they're failing in life
As I have said many times before, it's funny how the people who claim to be the strongest proponents for women keep telling women that they are still losing. In this case the proponent is a guy named Mark Regnrus* and he is making a familiar argument that sex has gotten too cheap for men. Meaning not that it has been robbed of its human and dignifying qualities (although that has happened) but rather the related point that it is too easy for young men to get:
 ... despite the fact that women are holding the sexual purse strings, they aren't asking for much in return these days—the market "price" of sex is currently very low.
And that should sound familiar because it's a point I've made many times myself.
Regnerus, however, is keen to blame pretty much anyone but women for this.
There are several likely reasons for this. One is the spread of pornography: Since high-speed digital porn gives men additional sexual options—more supply for his elevated demand—it takes some measure of price control away from women. The Pill lowered the cost as well. There are also, quite simply, fewer social constraints on sexual relationships than there once were. As a result, the sexual decisions of young women look more like those of men than they once did, at least when women are in their twenties. 
That point about the pill ought to look familiar by the way. It was advanced by a Catholic economist named Timothy Reichert  two years ago in a publication called First Things (Reichert's argument is considerably more rigorous and better researched than that of Regnerus by the way). But both men's claims  suffer from the same problem, which  I identified in response to Reichert, and that is that they don't take female agency seriously. The bottom line is simply this: if sex has gotten cheaper then women have to have played a role in driving the price down.

Why do they hold back on this point? Quite simply because we tend to cling to a myth about men and women that says that women are morally superior creatures especially when it comes to sexual matters. Regenerus comes very close to the truth when he continues the argument I cited above about why sex has become cheaper,
The price of sex is low, in other words, in part because its costs to women are lower than they used to be.
But he won't follow the logic through. Let me help by restating what he has said here in different terms:  Once birth control and abortion became easily available, the apparent moral differences between men and women disappeared. Which is to say, they never were moral differences to begin with.

So long as babies were a likely result of sex, women demanded "more impressive wooing efforts, longer relationships, fewer premarital sexual partners, shorter cohabitations, and more marrying". The second that connection was severed, women stopped demanding these things. (It also made a difference that parents and other authorities had far more control over women's lives and it harder for them to give away sex cheaply.)

How to solve this? Well, one option would be to turn the clock back but I doubt many people will like that. Instead, I'd make two suggestions: that women stop de-legitimizing men's sexual desires and that we all stop discounting women's moral agency by always treating them as perennial victims of every change and start recognizing that they are largely responsible for their own fates.

You get a hint of the how my first suggestion might apply in the following remark from Regenerus:
Finally, as my colleagues and I discovered in our interviews, striking numbers of young women are participating in unwanted sex—either particular acts they dislike or more frequent intercourse than they'd prefer or mimicking porn (being in a dating relationship is correlated to greater acceptance of and use of porn among women). 
Let's turn that one around, what about all those poor men who are having sex less frequently than they would like? Are you inclined to sneer at that? Why? Why is it a problem that women are having sex more frequently than they would like and having to do things that don't appeal to them but not that men have sex less frequently than they would like and don't get to do things they would like to do? Are men children who need to have sex doled out to them the same way children are given treats whereas women's desires are sacrosanct therefore there is no need for them to compromise and meet men half way when it comes to sex?

I guess another way of putting is that what is presented as a problem here is not a problem at all. The simple fact is that women who want relationships nowadays have to take men's desires seriously. That's a good thing.

The second suggestion is like unto the first: If this is a problem for women then why can't we leave it for them to solve it for themselves? If they have moral agency, creativity, independence and all this university education then they ought to be able to figure out something. And if they can't it's nobody's fault but their own. 

* The spelling of Regnerus' name has been corrected. And earlier version had incorrect spelling. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Portrait: Solipsism?

Published in 1963, Sendak’s book is in may ways the bridge between old-fashioned children’s stories in which kids battled with real-world demons and new-fangled children’s stories in which they largely do battle with their own inner demons. It’s the perfect fairytale for our psychobabbling, navel-gazing age, in which tackling one’s own psychological foibles counts for far more than going out into the world and actually doing stuff.
That is from a rather good  trashing of Maurice Sendak by Brendan O'Neil.  I'm not sure that he's right in identifying anything special about it as it seems to me that te same charge could be leveled against Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh and The Wizard of Oz. As I beat my way through  A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I find myself wondering if Joyce is any better or is he just another incidence of a modern disease in thinking.

I'm going very slowly reading and then rereading every section. As I go along the question I keep asking is how different is Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce. It seems to me that that question will ultimately decide whether this book really is as important as the critics think it is. If Stephen Dedalus is just a proxy or projection of Joyce's then I think we should treat this book as amusing but unimportant.

Here is how O'Neil winds up his dismantling of Sendak
Strikingly, Where the Wild Things Are has no adults in it. Well, almost none. We never actually see Max’s mum in the book (though we hear her words once) and in the film she’s fleshed out as a divorcee who is too busy canoodling with her boyfriend to pay any attention to her child. That’s probably the most telling thing about Sendak’s story: the absence of adult actors to shape or guide Max’s behaviour. He’s all alone, feeling his way through his own anger towards some kind of mental balance.
Portrait is a lot like that.  Adults only enter into it to the extent that they can represent Stephen's demons. His father, who probably has the largest presence of any adult in the story, seems really to be there to represent Stephen's own nightmares of how he might turn out: a blustering, impotent bankrupt.

Joyce is not unaware of the problem. He writes as if Stephen were dealing with both the inner and outer demons but I'm more and more convinced this is a cheat.
How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interest and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the waters had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbled mole.
Both sides are acknowledged here. There is the outer:
He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him  ...
and the inner
... and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interest and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him.
The problem as I see it is that these two sides are just Stephen's (and Joyce's not incidentally) inner demons dressed up to try and look like two different things. The first is just Stephen acting out the demon he has first represented in his father and, like his father, spending himself into poverty in the attempt. The second is a fraud for where are his parents in this story. Do we ever get a picture of them as separate human beings? We don't. All we get is what they mean to little Stephen who doesn't like when his mother cries and doesn't like it when his father cries. And they fare better than his siblings who are nothing but faceless, nameless blob.

(Even his masters at school, the girls he falls in love with, the prostitutes he goes to and his friends seem only to exist as ways to draw out Stephen's inner demons. Any independent existence they might have is not recorded here.)

This is not unique to him. A I noted last summer, Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It completely expunges the author's five sisters and significantly distorts his brother in order to fulfill Maclean's solipsistic moral vision.

Portrait shares something else with Maclean and that is that it combines apostasy with a powerful sense off loss. Maclean was an apostate of both the family religions: Protestantism and fly fishing. Stephen Dedalus is an apostate of both his family religions: Catholicism and Ireland. But even as they issue their non serviam they mourn their "loss" and try to recreate the thing they have lost in fiction.

And that makes sense for what is modernism but a desire to have our cake and eat it too by both rejecting and mourning the loss of the ancient worldview?

And that is all fine but if all we do about it is to immerse ourselves in ourselves we are just frauds. We are just replacing one kind of mythology for another.
He saw clearly too his own futile isolation. He had not gone one step nearer the lives he had sought to approach nor bridged the restless shame and rancour that had divided him from mother and brother and sister. He felt that he was hardly of the one blood with them but stood to them rather in the mystical kinship of fosterage, fosterchild and fosterbrother.
 From here we go to Stephen's religion.  And we should ask the same question of it: Does Stephen's Catholicism have any real existence outside of his mind in this book or is it just a projection of his inner demons too?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sorta political: "dumb as a bag of hammers"

I know Canadian politics are boring to non-Canadians. Heck, they are boring to most Canadians. But stick with this one.

That quote—"dumb as a bag of hammers"—comes from Stephen LeDrew who was president of the Canadian Liberal Party from 1998 to 2003. He was responding to a proposal from then Prime Minister Jean Chretien to pass a law that so severely limited corporate donations to political parties so as to render corporations' influence in politics insignificant.

The immediate effects of this law, as LeDrew predicted, were to destroy the Liberal party's huge fundraising advantage. Today, the Liberal party faces possible extinction. You'd think that people would be praising LeDrew for at least correctly assessing the consequences of Chretien's move. Instead, LeDrew is a forgotten man.

Which brings us to Cory Booker. The reason that LeDrew gets no credit is because he dared expose the hollowness of one of liberals favourite bits of mythology. Liberals love to accuse the right of being the servants of big business but the fact is that the liberal party in Canada always got far more money from big business than the conservatives did. The same is true of the Democrats who are far more beholden to big business than the Republicans.

And that is why Cory Booker is nauseated. He sees Obama playing what seems to Booker to be insane game of attacking big business directly. Using big business as a club to beat the Republicans is playing the game, directly attacking businesses that make huge donations to the Democrats is "as dumb as a bag full of hammers" or "nauseating" depending on your preferences. But is that right?

By the way, if you go to the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, one of the biggest rooms in the place is the Railway Committee Room. That tells you a lot about the history of Canada. This country was bought and paid for by a bunch of big business people who built the Canadian Pacific Railway. Interestingly, just this last week the Canadian Establishment lost a huge proxy vote battle with a shareholder right's guy for control of Canadian Pacific. They didn't just lose the battle, they only got about ten percent of the vote. They were crushed and humiliated.

I suppose I should correct myself and say, the former Canadian Establishment lost a battle. Because that is what they are now.

And that tells you a lot about the delicate game that Obama is playing right now. One of the unexpected results of a globalized economy was to undermine the role of the big metropolitan centers. Cory Booker, as Stephen LeDrew did before him, may be more aware of the risks to the Democratic party that come with biting the hand that feeds them but Obama, as Chretien did before him, instinctively grasps that the power of the big financial capitals is declining. New York City is now what Chicago was in the 1920s—it is being bypassed. Increasingly, its real importance is for nostalgic reasons.

Therefore Obama is making a risky play but it's not nauseating or dumb. Of course, he is making this risky play because he knows he might lose in November. But whatever else Obama might brag about, he can't brag about economic success so it may be worth it to do what he is doing.

One thing we can say for sure, though, is that if he loses, his party loses as well and it will, as the Liberal Party did in Canada, pay a huge price for that gamble.

Sorta political: Why David Weigel deserves our contempt

David Weigel appears to be a nice guy. Whatever he appears to be, however, he is unquestionably biased. I mean that in the old fashioned sense of someone who is incapable of seeing the world aright. He does not distort the truth. No, he is so heavily invested in certain beliefs that he is incapable of seeing the truth in the first place.

And we can see that right from the first sentence of a piece he recently wrote on the Zimmerman case.
Alan Dershowitz takes a respite from hectoring Democrats about Israel to hector Democrats about how they ganged up on George Zimmerman.
If you go to the link Weigel provides above and search for the word "Democrat" you will notice it doesn't appear even once. So note right way that Weigel sees the Zimmerman case as a partisan dispute and not as a question of, for example, justice and truth.

Second we might ask what Dershowitz's views on Israel could possible have to do with George Zimmerman. Again, this is the way Weigel sees the world. It's not about examining individual cases in light of the evidence and arguments for them but a matter of being on the right side of a partisan struggle.

Moving on, I'd suggest you'd have to look far and wide to find a paragraph as detached from reality as this one from Weigel's piece:
Problem: Dershowitz is missing the reason why this became a national story in the first place. Had Zimmerman been arrested on the fateful night, this current discovery/autopsy process would have begun immediately. Benjamin Crump, the main attorney for the Martin family, has said that he only got involved in the case because he expected Zimmerman to be arrested, and he wasn't. That's how this became a national debate about "stand your ground" and the standards of the Sanford PD. That's why ABC News and other news outlets drip-drab-dripped out the details as they reported them. That's why the police chief resigned and the city distanced itself from the department's work. 
Notice how Weigel assumes the thing that needs to be approved. He says the whole thing became a national story because Zimmerman wasn't arrested. But the issue at the heart of this has always been whether or not Zimmerman should have been arrested. Weigel fails to see that there is a case to be made that the police did the right thing. Not, I hasten to add, that the police argument was airtight. No, Weigel doesn't even allow that maybe it wasn't crazy for the police to believe that there was not sufficient evidence to convict Zimmerman of a crime.

Not surprisingly, Weigel fails to see is that Dershowitz is arguing that the latest evidence suggests that Zimmerman should never have been charged in the first place. It's important that we now know that Trayvon Martin had THC in his bloodstream because that supports the claim that Zimmerman made to the 911 operator, and that anyone can clearly hear if they listen to it, that Martin was acting as if he were on drugs. Second we have injuries to Zimmerman's face and the back of his head which supports the claim that Martin attacked him.

Further, Dershowitz notes that the prosecutor knew this evidence existed when she filed her affidavit but didn't include it.  That's a really serious problem for a prosecutor has a responsibility to present not the best case for conviction but to present all the facts as she knows them.. That, combined with her statement that she wants to "do justice for Trayvon" does suggest, as Dershowitz argues, that the prosecutor is not living up to the professional and ethical standards she ought to be upholding.

And note that Dershowitz's point is not that Zimmerman is innocent. He doesn't know that and doesn't claim to know that. His point is that, legally speaking, the justice system is not supposed to be in the business of avenging Trayvon Martin and he is absolutely right about that.

Dershowitz doesn't mention, presumably because he thought he shouldn't have to, that there is also an eye witness who reports seeing Martin sitting on Zimmerman and punching him. A claim that is backed up by evidence that Martin's knuckles were scraped which is consistent with his having punched Zimmerman. And there do not seem to be any other injuries on Martin's body beyond those and the gunshot wound. (Which, incidentally, is a contact wound, also supporting Zimmerman's story.)

It's really odd that Weigel thinks Dershowitz doesn't understand "why this became a national story in the first place", as Dershowitz isn't talking about that but whether Zimmerman should have been charged. Weigel, like a lot of media figures, thinks what the media does is what really matters.

That said, this is somewhere Weigel really shouldn't go as the media behaved appallingly in this case. For the problem is not that the media drip-drab-dripped details out but rather that they rushed to judgment on the case. Worse, they made shit up by editing the 911 call so it looked like Zimmerman had pursued Martin ion account of his race, they used photos of Martin from a time when he was younger than he was the night of the incident making it look like a fight between the two men would have been very one-sided in Zimmerman's favour, they used audio tapes to suggest that Zimmerman had made a racist slur he had not made and they used the hitherto rarely used expression "white Hispanic" to describe Zimmerman who is, in fact, of mixed race. In short, they imposed a narrative on the facts from the very start.

It is, I should say, quite possible and even likely, that Zimmerman made serious errors of judgment that night but, and this is Dershowitz's primary point, all doubt here should go to the defendant. The legal system's job is not to determine the truth but to see if there is evidence to prove Zimmerman guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. At this point, we have not seen anything that even remotely suggests that such a case can be made. It could be, of course, that such evidence does exist and will come out during the trial, but we don't have it yet and the media have acted as if we did have it.

A further point that Dershowitz makes and Weigel doesn't respond to is the possible fall out from the media's shoddy behaviour here. Having stirred up such passions in the case, there is now a real possibility of a "not guilty" verdict should the case go to trial could lead to race riots.
As many see it, her additional job is to prevent riots of the sort that followed the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King.

Indeed, Mansfield Frazier, a columnist for the Daily Beast, has suggested that it is the responsibility of the legal system to “avert a large scale racial calamity.” He has urged Zimmerman’s defense lawyer to become a “savior” by brokering a deal to plead his client guilty to a crime that “has him back on the streets within this decade.”
And that is a very real possibility. It's not hard to imagine the worst case scenario here. But if it does happen, the blame lies on the media who ginned this thing up in the first place.

Even crazier, as noted by Dershowitz, is the notion that Zimmerman's lawyer should forget about his client's interests and broker a deal whereby Zimmerman goes to jail to "avert a large scale racial calamity". Again, notice that the possibility that Zimmerman might have told the truth and the police initially reacted correctly isn't even on the radar screen for Frazier just as it wasn't for Weigel.

Go ahead and hate the media, they deserve it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mad Men: What is Lakshmi up to?

Some more Meta-Meta commentary. Over at the Vulture site, Matt Zoller Seitz loved the episode except for one scene:
I loved the coffee shop scene so much that it made me almost (but not quite) forgive the scene between Lakshmi and Harry in Harry's office, which is hands-down the dumbest and most incoherent scene in season five of Mad Men, and the one that most lends credence to the notion that this is ultimately a male-centered show that understands many of its female characters in an academic rather than intuitive way. Lakshmi was there to …
And he goes on to make the point that  Lakshmi's actions don't make much sense on the surface.

Well, how much sense do we expect from someone who is into Kozmic Krishna Konsciousness?

And Lakshmi is named for a Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity so we should be cued to see contradictions in her character. (This, incidentally, is a bit of a theme this episode with Don and Megan and Roger and Joan also having disputes over wealth versus "spirituality" in which the woman is in a very ambiguous position.)

Seitz assumes that her purpose was, as she seems to say at one point, was to use sex to keep Harry from saving Paul. But, if that is her purpose, her actions, as Seitz points out, don't make sense. Seitz also notes that they don't make sense to Harry either. So what is she doing?

I thought the receptionist had a useful clue, when she calls to tell Harry Lakshmi is there, she says, "She's got a whole story." That rang a bell with me. Back in the 1980s, I'd meet these young "downtown" women who were lost and confused on the one hand and hard as nails pragmatists on the other. They'd feed you a "whole story" but they also tended to know exactly what everything cost.

They were runaways who lived downtown and got by by hook or by crook. That was how they got that way. There are still thousands of girls like that about.

Lakshmi strikes me as charter member of that club. Notice that she comes on to Harry in a very sexual manner right from the get-go. She is used to using her sexuality to get what she wants. And Paul tells us that when he gives Harry, and us, her background.

I don't think we should discount the possibility that she was hoping to recruit Harry to the Krishna movement in this way. It's probably how she got Paul into it, as Harry surmises.

My final thought here is that Seitz has it exactly backwards in saying that the "show that understands many of its female characters in an academic rather than intuitive way". One of the most refreshing things about Mad Men is that it understands its female characters in an intuitive manner rather than an academic one. There is zero feminist theory at work here. These women behave like women tend to do. Sometimes their actions make sense and sometimes they don't.

I shouldn't have to stop and make this qualification, but the same is true of men. But depictions of men have always been like that—no one expects fiction about men to correspond to some academic theory.

Thus we have the wonderful portrayal of Joan and Lakshmi who both define themselves in terms of their sexual power and will do things that, otherwise, make no sense to display that power to themselves and others. For a woman who thinks this way, and there are a few, the validation comes not from the fact that the guy wants sex with her but from the sense that those guys she does give sex to are so impressed by the experience with her that they keep coming back for more.

On a related note, at the bottom of his piece Seitz wonders at the lack of Dawn since her earlier integration into the show. The fascinating thing here is that the producers handle black characters exactly the way Seitz, falsely, accuses them of handling women: that is academically rather than instinctively. And that is why the black characters who do appear are always so boring.

Mad Men: Commenting on the commentary

Not just meta but meta-meta.

What do they teach kids these days?

In discussing this week's episode, Patrick Radden Keefe writes:
It seems that her Majesty’s Tax Man has come calling, and Lane has turned for assistance not to H&R Block, as you or I might, but to a suave but insistent British gentleman who puts on a tuxedo to make a transatlantic call.
It used to be that people with double-barreled names kept up a double-barreled front to go with. Not anymore apparently. Here is that "tuxedo":

Now, it might actually be a tuxedo but I doubt it very much. First hint, that is a patterned bow tie. Second hint, his shirt has plastic buttons and not studs. He's just a well-dressed solicitor wearing a bow tie with a suit that was cut to flash a little cuff.

UPDATE: We can see this quite clearly when the same character appears wearing a different colour jacket that shows up better:

Does this matter? I mean, does it matter a lot as it obviously does matter? Well, that will be a subject of some discussion over the week. I have promised to go on a lighter note for summer and this is the beginning. I'm going to be looking at the recap community a bit this week.

To answer my own question, yes it does matter. If you are going to be a cultural critic, you should be possessed of some culture and my point this week will be that these people aren't. They are Google and Wiki fiends but they don't have much cultural depth and that is why most Mad Men recaps are so pathetic.

Mad Men: Christmas Waltz

That was a treat.

It's only the second really good episode this year. On the other hand, it was the best show this year so far.

Do you know why it was so good? Because Harry really cares. He feels uncomfortable, lustful, confused and lost but he really cares. And so do we ... about Lane. You can feel this horrible disaster coming but you care for the man. Well, we do. There are other sites where they will cackle with glee.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, this show is at its very bets when it does intimate little miniatures. The moment with Don and Joan in the old-fashioned bar was perfect. I loved the way Don evoked Sinatra because that is the way real people did it.

No, they don't solve anything. Not for Joan anyway. It's hard to see what, if any, future she has. She is starting to get a sort of Judith Campbell Exner vibe about her.

Nor Lane.

I know, it breaks my heart to type that. But the world is passing her by and it's about to crush him.

Did you notice, by the way, that no one has anyone they can really talk to about their problems. Don and Joan could talk because they are characters. I mean that in two senses. They, as I said way back at the beginning of season one, operate like Minstrel show characters. They represent stock parts. They can be good or bad at what they do but they always have to stay in character or else, as Pete notices, everything falls apart.

Every era, every culture has such characters but they really mattered in the late 1960s. You can rebel against them, as the students in Quebec are doing right now, but your worst nightmare is that they might join the rebellion. If the government leaders suddenly showed up on the barricades beside the students screaming "smash the state" there would be this awful empty feeling.

Characters also have "character" in the sense of moral character. They have to inhabit their parts with a certain integrity or else we'd stop believing in them. And we have to believe in them, even the people who hate them. There is this wonderful existential thrill that goes with contemplating them. If they suddenly stopped being who they are, we'd be lost.

This is particularly relevant to the 1960s because so many people did drop out of their expected characters.

A much mocked event in 1967, which is now right around the corner, was the 25th Amendment. It's the one that establishes who gets to be president if sitting president dies, resigns or becomes incapacitated. I remember listening to drunken adults at my parent's parties joke about where in the list of who becomes president they were. "If the postmaster general succeeds and dies, then they have to turn to me." A lot of people thought the whole thing was just silly. But it matters and not just in political terms. These people are keystones for whole ways of life.

Mia Farrow
 I keep thinking of Mia Farrow. She was such a perfect 1960s icon. And she is someone who dropped out of her expected character over and over again. She becomes  a star in Peyton Place, then she marries Sinatra, then she is connected to Roman Polanski through Rosemary's Baby, then off with the Beatles to see the Mahafraudster and it keep on right through the Woody Allen years and the celebrity charity stuff. She manages to touch every single trend that seemed significant at the time only it turned out to morally empty.

And that seems to be Megan. I know, I know, "But you hated Betty too!" And I did but she just isn't right. Not in terms of the part. She's almost too perfect for the part. But people like Megan never establish a real moral character. They just flit from scene to scene.

I think they'll keep her though for a while. She serves a function in that they can use her as a way to connect Don to all the weird New York stuff that went on at the the end of the1960s. Ultimately, though, I think Don will dump her.

(Unless, of course, you believe in that great fantasy invented in the 1970s and still popular today of "reinventing yourself". I don't and I don't think Matt Weiner does either.)

A big historical event?
What this show mapped out for last fall? Here we are watching the Christmas show in May.

Anyway, the question I have now is will the show tie itself to some big historical event? They did that for the first three seasons. Last year, however, everything turned around Don's letter about "quitting tobacco". Okay, there was a real historical even that inspired that but it was not a really big event.

I don't know what but something big should start looming as of next episode. Some opportunity to change the conversation.

By the way, on the subject or reinventing yourself, here is what Pete said in response to Don's tobacco ad:
"Don't you realize the clients are all going to think that you could turn on them at any minute?"
And here is the way Ed Baxter breaks it to Don at the end of the Codfish Ball
"He loves your work, they all do. But they don't like you. This crowd, they'll bury your desk in rewards, but they'll never work with you. Not after that letter. I mean, who would they trust you."
Is there a way out?

Friday, May 18, 2012

A little light culture: That anal sex question

We have a mini-scandal going here in Canada about a sex exhibit at the Museum of Science and Technology. Yes, I know, which category does sex fit under? Science or technology? It's aimed at teens and apparently features animated clips showing boys and girls how to masturbate along with much other info. The age of admission was originally twelve and up later raised to 16 and up in response to public outcry.

There is a lot that could be said but what really jumped out at me was this detail:
There are listening stations with pre-written questions and push button audio answers.

Next to a printed question asking, 'Why do many boys always want to have anal sex?' sexologist Jamy Ryan responds that not all boys want to do it, but: "If you are comfortable trying that activity, go ahead and do it. It could be fun for you, but if you are not, you don't really have to do it."
That isn't a real question but one the creators of the exhibit chose. I'm sure some girls really ask why some boy in their life wants anal sex. ("Sexology", ah science!) But where do we get the claim that "many" boys "always" want it? Is the implication here that teenaged girls have already had so many partners that they know that "many" boys want this. Or is it that the desire to have anal sex is so universal that most girls' boyfriends would have asked for it?

We'll get to some actual numbers in a moment and you will see that neither of those possibilities is very likely. Meantime, I ask you to consider that possibility that the question and answer are intended to normalize anal sex. The question tells girls that many boys want it and then the answer tells them, first, that "some" don't and, second, that you should go ahead and try it "if you are comfortable with it". Well, that doesn't put any pressure of peer sensitive teens now does it?

Think how different the tone would have been had the question been asked the other way around:
Why do so many girls refuse anal sex?
That would change things a bit.  It would also be accurate. If we look at the numbers from the latest US National Survey of Sexual Health and Sexual Behavior (I don't have any good Canadian sources on this) for example, we see that
  • 4 percent of girls 14 to 15 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
  • 5 percent of girls 16 to 17 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
  • 18 percent of girls 18 to 19 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
  • 23 percent of girls 20 to 24 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
 That last group is the highest percentage of any age group, after age twenty four fewer and fewer women do this. Any anal-craving boy reading that would quickly conclude that the odds of his getting to try this before university are slim to none and even then a long shot. And note how low the bar is here, "at least once in the last year". That would include all the girls who did it once because their boyfriend pressured them but they didn't like and never did it again. If we are interested in giving teens an accurate picture of what sex is like, we would tell them that.

Putting the question the other way would also have opened up other subjects such as, to pick one crazy option, that a girl should be allowed to say no to anything she doesn't feel comfortable with and doesn't need to justify herself when she refuses sex. Our helpful sexologist's phrasing kinda works the other way here: "you don't really have to do it". He doesn'y say "you don't have to do it" but rather "you don't really have to do it" which suggests that she sorta does have to do it or, at the very least, that she is being a bit of a stick in the mud by saying no. (I know, "stick in the mud" conjures up an unfortunate image here.)

And it's not like unwanted sex is an issue for girls right? We don't have to worry about girls being pressured into doing things they don't feel comfortable with 'cause that would never happen.

And notice that our sexologist never answers the actual question, "Why do boys want this?" Well, no, the whole point of the question was to normalize anal sex. But suppose you were a teenage girl being pushed to agree to anal sex, you might wonder why, given three other easy options to have his penis stimulated, he is so keen to insert himself into her anus—a variation that requires purchase of lubricants, takes a long time to get started and requires him to stop frequently during the act. Why would he want to do that all of a sudden?

I know, I know, because he has seen it in porn, which, incidentally, usually presents anal sex as achieved easily without lubricant or any stop and start—on screen all you see is the guy plunging in. Try that in real life and you will really, really hurt the girl. (Again, if we really want to make sure teens have good information about sex, correcting the false impressions they will get from watching porn on line would be useful thing to do.)

But that is only part of the answer. Another part is that boys like to push girls, to see how far they can get them to go. And that oftentimes pushing her past her comfort zone just might turn him on.

Plus he wants to try this so he can feel competent and experienced, an important thing for boys. Of course, that is only true to the extent that anal sex has been normalized, which, I remind you, is a phenomenon this exhibit is encouraging. Feed guys the information that most guys want anal sex and most will start thinking they should want it too. Always on the "giving" end of course.

Speaking of which, I know you are just dying to learn how many boys succeeded at making their anal sex fantasies come true.
  • 3 percent of boys 14 to 15 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
  • 6 percent of boys 16 to 17 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
  • 9 percent of boys 18 to 19 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
  • 11 percent of boys 20 to 24 reported having anal sex at least once in the last year
There is a gap between the guys on the giving end and the girls on the receiving end wouldn't you say? And some of those guys on the giving end of anal sex have to gay. One obvious hypothesis, of course, is that the girls on the receiving end are getting it from older guys but for that to be true the guys have to be quite a bit older. Another possibility is that a few aggressive guys are getting a lot. The most likely possibility is that young women between the ages of 20 and 24 feel a lot of pressure to be liberal in their attitudes about sex and therefore lied to the pollsters and claimed to have had more experience with anal sex than they have actually had.

But the inescapable conclusion is that most guys never get and most girls never give anal sex at this age or any other age. The exhibit doesn't quite lie to girls on this point but it does mislead them.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Donna Summer RIP

TMZ is reporting. Only 63.

Here is the original masterpiece that made her famous. All 17 minutes of it! Why that's long enough to .... The disco era was a great ear, don't let anyone tell you different.

Manly Thor's Day Special: Are women stronger because vibrator sales are soaring?

Teri Hatcher, 47, also from Desperate Housewives, said: 'To be honest, I don't know what I want a male for. I have some fabulous electronics to use instead. And any woman who tells you she doesn't is lying.'
Oh well, send us off to the glue factory then.

That's all from a story that tells us that sales of sex toys are set to catch those of smartphones. But, journalists being journalists, it also comes with this additional narrative that women are getting stronger and more independent.
Suddenly ordinary women weren't afraid to talk about their sex lives and their use of sex toys.
The word "ordinary" is doing a lot of work in that sentence. Without it you might doubt the narrative. I'm not saying I know it's not true. It might be for all I know. But it might not. Huge sales of vibrators or even sales of huge vibrators for that matter, might also be a sign of lack of fulfillment among women. We might just as reasonably wonder if women watching celebrities' glamour filled lives and feeling that their own lives are comparatively empty are rushing out to buy vibrators in a desperate attempt to rid themselves of their feelings of emptiness. (Yeah, I know, it's pretty much impossible not to make double entendres here.)

Here is a contrary indicator for your consideration. The guy who does the clean up work for the television show Hoarders recently did radio interview where he said this:
The network doesn’t really like me talking about this… in every hoarder house I’ve ever been to, underneath the bed or somewhere else, are like… 600 dildos. Or vibrators, I guess is technically what they are. Once you get to underneath the bed, it’s basically nothing but batteries and vibrators all the way back…. They just use them till they burn out, and get another one. 
Okay, that doesn't prove anything either but it gives us an alternative image. Instead of winner we have lonely loser who lies in bed compulsively masturbating when she isn't out compulsively buying things she doesn't need.

And did Mr. Paxton really check every one of the vibrators so he can conclusively say that they were all burnt out? These are hoarders after all, we don't know that these vibrators even get used more than once or twice each. These women may be making the same mistake over and over again of buying a vibrator thinking it will make her feel good about herself, using it once or twice and then forgetting about it and later buying another.

And don't think that hoarders are weird people completely unlike the rest of us. They simply tend to do what we all do a little more compulsively. How many pieces of sports equipment are out there that were bought by women and men keen to exercise, then used a few times and forgotten? How many musical instruments were purchased because someone really wanted to learn and then abandoned? How many teach yourself French books and CDs are collecting dust in the closets of the nation? How many unused vibrators are cluttering the bottom of women's underwear drawers?

Let's consider sentence number two from the story:
Experts believe the willingness of stars such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Jane Fonda to divulge their bedroom secrets are behind a recent surge in the sales of 'pleasure goods'.  
I hope and pray that women are happier and more fulfilled but I'd be more inclined to read the explosion in vibrator sales after celebrities endorse them as a sign of significant levels of dissatisfaction in women's lives.
'It all started with Sex In The City - which was incredibly liberating for women, especially after Charlotte became a virtual recluse after buying a rabbit vibrator at New York's famous Pleasure Chest sex story. 
Charlotte became a virtual recluse? Hmmm.

I don't have any issue with women using vibrators but ask yourself this, how would the media have played that story if it had been about a fictional character named Charles rather than Charlotte? Do you think "Charles got so busy masturbating with sex toys that he became a virtual recluse," would be played as a sign of his mental and moral health? Me neither. Do you think that a storyline like that would be described as incredibly liberating for men?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Portrait: What is it with Stephen Dedalus and girls?

There was a punk tune in the late 1970s that is so obscure that I can't find it on You Tube. It really exists because Amazon has it. Anyway, the chorus of the song was,
Let's face it, the boy can't make it with girls
Every time I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I think of that song. Stephen Dedalus just seems to be one of those guys who is hopeless with girls. In Chapter 2 of the novel we get a series of impressionistic sketches of Stephen having various encounters with girls. The most telling of these is his encounter with "Mercedes", a girl who doesn't exist. This is worth reading at some length.
When he had broken up this scenery, weary of its tinsel, there would come to his mind the bright picture of Marseilles, of sunny trellises, and of Mercedes.

Outside Blackrock, on the road that led to the mountains, stood a small whitewashed house in the garden of which grew many rosebushes: and in this house, he told himself, another Mercedes lived. Both on the outward and on the homeward journey he measured distance by this landmark: and in his imagination he lived through a long train of adventures, marvellous as those in the book itself, towards the close of which there appeared an image of himself, grown older and sadder, standing in a moonlit garden with Mercedes who had so many years before slighted his love, and with a sadly proud gesture of refusal, saying:

—Madam, I never eat muscatel grapes.
He has created this imaginary ideal only to reject her. And this ideal seems to be at the heart of his vision of art:
He returned to Mercedes and, as he brooded upon her image, a strange unrest crept into his blood. Sometimes a fever gathered within him and led him to rove alone in the evening along the quiet avenue. The peace of the gardens and the kindly lights in the windows poured a tender influence into his restless heart. The noise of children at play annoyed him and their silly voices made him feel, even more keenly than he had felt at Clongowes, that he was different from others. He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured. He would fade into something impalpable under her eyes and then in a moment he would be transfigured. Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall from him in that magic moment.
Regular readers will know that I don't put a lot of weight on feminist criticism but this passage aclls out for one. Notice how much responsibility this puts into the woman's hands. She has to do for Stephen what God the father did for Christ on the mountain top. What woman could meet this standard?

The answer, of course, is none. Young Stephen has an encounter with a nice girl riding home from a party on the tram but can't actually kiss her. (Joyce wouldn't appreciate this compliment, but it is a good enough scene for Meet Me in St. Louis.) But he can't kiss her even though he can clearly see that she wants to be kissed. Instead, he goes home and tries to write a poem and fails.

More importantly, Stephen wants this transformational connection to take place outside  normal social channels. The actual reality of Ireland (and "woman" and "Ireland" tend to be interchangeable in Joyce) depresses him. He can only write about an idealized Ireland from afar. He seems to feel almost the same about women except for the woman who can just come across with sex without all the social niceties and complications that get in the way.

This is a pretty standard teenage boy fantasy. What makes Stephen different, although not unique, is that he takes this typical teen boy fantasy and projects it up into the heavens. In the process, he impoverishes real women who can only pale next to the idealized woman and impoverishes Ireland which can only pale next to the ideal Ireland.

So next he goes to hookers. Only he doesn't really. The Stephen who ends up with the hooker is a bizarrely will-less creature who just gets pulled in. And notice how the hooker seems to fulfill the vision Stephen had for the imaginary Mercedes but that he wouldn't let the girl on the tram be.
With a sudden movement she bowed his head and joined her lips to his and he read the meaning of her movements in her frank uplifted eyes. It was too much for him. He closed his eyes, surrendering himself to her, body and mind, conscious of nothing in the world but the dark pressure of her softly parting lips. They pressed upon his brain as upon his lips as though they were the vehicle of a vague speech; and between them he felt an unknown and timid pressure, darker than the swoon of sin, softer than sound or odour.
Look, I'm a man and I have done my share of sexual sinning and would take back shockingly little of it but never have I seen sex as a transfiguring experience. 

The question is, Who believes this? Stephen obviously but what of Joyce? By the time we get to Ulysses, Joyce gives us a picture of Stephen the sinner which is more clearly condemnable. Stephen's refusal to kneel at the bedside of his dying mother is clearly a heinous act and his resistance to attempts to reconsider the matter are telling.

In Portrait we will also see Stephen try and face his sins and repent for them but something goes very wrong? I'll be honest, I don't know. And I haven't seen anyone else answer the question either.