Friday, November 30, 2012

A little light culture: Moral mythology

Most of us imagine that we would have been the ones to have been different had we lived "back then". "Transport me back to 1831 and I would have grasped the human dignity in everyone and spoke out against racism." The truth is, almost certainly not. If you had been alive in the 19th century, you would have been a racist. If you'd been an adult in 1954, you would have had all the sexist attitudes of the era. If you'd been either a Protestant or a Catholic in the 17th century, you would have been baying for the blood of the others.

Which is all another way of saying: If you and I had been present at the crucifixion of Jesus, we wouldn't have done a thing to stop it and might well have cheered it on.

It's so easy to forget this and to transform history into an occasion for dividing the sheep and the goats. You can see that attitude at work in a post about the American South following Civil War that Ta-Nehisi Coates has up today. It's not any particular argument or factual claim that is wrong with it. It's the deep need to cling to history as the justification of current political attitudes.

Coates writes:
When Kushner says the Ku Klux Klan came out of an unwillingness to forgive the South, I don't know what he means. The Klan was founded in 1865. Johnson was still president. There was nothing "unforgiving" about his posture to the South.
Well, yeah, I can sorta see that. But I can also see how the Reconstruction could easily have been more generous and how that might have made a big difference. Kushner is perhaps wrong but her isn't crazy and the level of outrage Coates displays here tells us more about him than anything else.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Manthly Thor's Day Special: The monthly movie

This month's feature is not neo noir. It's a full-blown chic flick called Your Sister's Sister. No, the title isn't explained during the film. It centers on two women who are half-sisters, sharing the same father but different mothers.

The plot is complicated and not very credible. It features far too many scenes of people sitting down and having heart-to-heart conversations like people just don't have in real life along with some ridiculous twists and turns ultimately winding up with a happy ending that would have made Walt Disney puke but that many critics loved because it has two sisters, one straight, one lesbian and one wimp living together living happily ever after.

If you are an upper-middle-class white person, you will recognize the set up. A guy is still depressed a year after his brother's death. His best female-friend ( but not girlfriend) suggests he go up to a vacation home that she describes as "my father's". Now this is a situation rich with potential for unusual couplings and that is exactly what happens for he arrives at the cottage to find the second sister, a lesbian who has just broken up with her lover, and a bottle of tequila. Tequila is consumed and the two end up in bed.

The guy is a complete dweeb. He is angry, bitter, unemployed and he finishes in less than 40 seconds. It wasn't good for her. She seems surprisingly comfortable with this however.

The problem though is that it is impossible to see why any woman would find this guy attractive. When his bike breaks down later in the film, he has a temper tantrum that would shame a three-year-old boy.

Let me make a wild suggestion, though, that this movie isn't really about what it appears to be about. Just as a lot of teen horror movies are really about sex, this is really a movie about women remaining friends even in the face of sexual relationships which challenge best-friend-forever friendships because they are so much more intimate. There is a whole lot of complication and other stuff camouflaging the thing, but that is the real subject. And that is why it is such a pack of lies. In real life, best-friends-forever are always rapidly surpassed and supplanted by sexual love.

You can see why it hurts. When one ceases to be a child, one puts away childish things but it isn't easy to do so. It's not that you can't still be friends but the nature of the friendship changes. And it is that which this movie sets out to deny.

It's not a movie that attempts to confront any deep issues about this. It pretends to be doing so by creating all sorts of awkward moments but it never shows how people get over awkward conflicts. It simply says that this can happen and that then everything can somehow be made okay somehow. Exactly how that is is hard to say but it apparently involves lots of walking around the beautiful scenery outside the vacation home while acoustic guitar music plays on the soundtrack.

It's one of the marks of chic flicks that there is no real moral responsibility. The guy is not in a relationship with either sister. He's just a friend so there is no reason for the other sister to hold back aside from the obvious awkwardness that would come from such a situation (well that and her being a lesbian). So when the upset comes, it isn't result of any betrayal, for there has been none. No, the upset is because the first sister has long been in love with this man but has never said so out loud to anyone. This is tough on anyone but, on the other hand, we've all done something like this at least once and the relevant moral lesson is: you snooze, you lose.

Further complicating the thing is that the second sister broke up with her ex because this other woman wasn't interested in having a child. This fact trickles out only accidentally late in the movie because this second sister has been lying to everyone about everything. She, in fact, is responsible for the sole genuine act of betrayal in the film. She sees our wimp guy as a potential sperm donor and doesn't ask him to use a condom. When he brings the operation to a halt because he doesn't have one, she says she thinks she knows where to find one and slips off and then comes back and slips on. She won't let him put it on himself because she has taken a moment to poke it full of holes out in the hall.

If anyone has the right to be genuinely angry, it's the guy. But he isn't. Instead he goes to the first sister and tells her that the most important thing the relationship between sisters. He assures her that he simply does not matter and is so horrified at the thought that he might have been the cause of tension between the two women that he cries. Then he rides off on his bike and cruises around the island where the vacation home is located.

Sadly, he does not run into a gang of Hells Angels who do the world a favour by stomping his sorry ass to death and then feeding the carcass to crows. He does however have the aforementioned spittle-flecked nutty because his crappy bike breaks.

Meanwhile, the girls make up and the first sister offers to help the second one raise her child if she is indeed pregnant. (As always seems to be the case with chick flicks, the movie is pro-choice in the abstract but adamantly anti-abortion in practice.) The movie spends an entire fifteen minutes running time on this reunion. There is no real apology or any real facing of moral facts and there could not be because there isn't anything to apologize for. The only person who has actually been betrayed is out riding his bike around like he wasn't important enough to be allowed to speak or get involved. The two women, meanwhile, are not upset because of anything either has done to the other but because, well, because they are very upset.

They eventually calm down to the point where they can stand to be in the same  room with one another, although not speaking. And then, after a lot more acoustic guitar, the second sister apologizes to the first by saying, brace yourself, "Sorry". And that's it.

It ends with all three blissfully happy together watching the second sister pee on a stick and and they all wait to see if it turns blue.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates on misogyny in Raymond Chandler

Over that the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been reading Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. I think it's safe to say that Coates doesn't get Chandler but that is not necessarily a bad thing as he makes some really challenging points about other issues, particularly manhood and sexuality.
I think to understand misogyny one has to grapple with the conflict between male mythology and male biology. There is something deeply scary about the first time a young male experiences an erection. All the excitement and hunger and throbbing that people is there. But with that comes a deep, physical longing. Whether or not that longing shall be satiated is not totally up to the male.
That's a good place to go and Coates does a good job of drawing out the pain that comes with getting an erection when you don't want to have an erection. Read the accounts of boys who are molested by older men or women and you will begin to grasp the full horror of it.

That said, I think Coates goes a little off track:
Laugh now at the boy at the middle school dance, who gets an erection on the slow number (God help him if he has orgasm.)
Well, no. Because you always do get an erection when your thirteen years old and you have that first slow dance and, provided you haven't made poor wardrobe choices, no one need know.

Except the girl, of course. She always knows. She isn't stupid and when she feels the boy's erection grow against her stomach, she knows exactly what is happening. And I can't speak for everyone but I can tell you that in the slow dances I had in the years in middle school, I always got an erection and not once did any girl pull away or leave the dance. They all pushed more firmly against me once they were aware of it. The only ones who did not where the ones who never got close enough to cause an erection in the first place.

This is one of these things that most people know about but no one talks about. There were teachers at these dances who saw it as their job to separate couples who were a little too close but those teachers never let on they knew anything about any actual stimulating going on. And neither did the girls. That was one of the rules, you could do the slow dance if the girl said yes. Then you could get closer if she allowed you. And then ... but you could not mention the erection that you were both so aware of. That was right out.

The ultimate thrill was if she parted her legs so you could slip one of yours between hers and feel this intense heat on your thigh when it pressed against her crotch. And that, given that this was all you got in those days, was about as intense an experience as a young man could imagine.

(One of the things that was really intoxicating and really educational when you were learning about girls in those years was that the vast majority of girls would push back against your erection while slow dancing but never admitted it to anyone. This is a valuable lesson because there are always sexual things that most women do but that they don't let on to others, especially to other women. Sexual relationships trump all other relationships for intimacy with spectacular ease as a consequence.)

Now, the point here is not just to linger on some erotic memories, although it is amazing the way these furtive experiences stay with you for decades. No, the point is that this whole game gets played out without anyone admitting it's going on. No boy in grades 7-8-9 could possibly admit that he had an erection while dancing with a girl and no girl in those years could possibly admit that they had willfully caused a boy to get an erection while slow dancing and that she enjoyed having this power.

But here is the thing, already in those years there are boys and girls who don't get it. Some are grossed out by it, some are so shy they are humiliated by it, and some never get asked to dance or accepted to dance with because they don't have the social skills to be accepted in the first place. (And that experience, not the getting of erections, is the source of most misogyny, as well as most man-hating coming the other way.)

And that is tremendously important. You are supposed, as I've already noted, to figure out that you don't acknowledge what is happening. But you are also supposed to grasp that when the dance is over, it's over. You don't, as some boys do, follow the girl like a lost puppy because you are so overwhelmingly swept up by what has happened. You also don't, as some boys do, brag about what happened. (And you live with the very real pain that sometimes follows without complaining too.)

Even more than that, you need to know how to play the give and take. You need to read her responses well enough to grasp just how far you can go. And when you misread her and she stiffens or moves away, you are supposed to pick up the hint right away.

Back to Coates,
Masculinity's central tenet is control—and perhaps most importantly, control of the body. Nothing contradicts that edict like erections. It unmans you, it compels you through sensations you scarcely understand. And it threatens to expose you, to humiliates you, in front of everyone. 
That's only partly true.  Masculinity's central tenet is control (and notice how Coates isn't at all bothered that he is being sexist here) but erections don't unman you. You can't control when you have an erection and you can't control when you don't. No, what unmans you is your own lack of self control after your erection has been stimulated by someone else, in this case by a young girl pushing her stomach up against it. That's the real test of control.

At that age we are all working out the game whereby we allow others to play games that get us heated up and the tricky social manœuvers that go with completely losing control. And even then it gets tricky. I knew both men and women in university who went gaga over their first sexual partner and proceeded to make complete fools of themselves because they were so wrapped up in their own feelings that they failed to see they were not reciprocated. (Which, if you think about it, is the lesson you are supposed to start learning back in middle school when the slow dance ends and the girl thanks you and walks away.)

But what about the other side? What about girls then women? Are they supposed to be learning any lessons about self control and about reading men's responses? Again, I remind you that Coates was not at all bothered by the sexism implicit in his claim that, "Masculinity's central tenet is control". As if femininity doesn't have to worry about these things. (One of the things that drives Chandler is that, already in the 1930s, our culture was liberating women from old strictures but failing to hold them morally accountable as any free being should be. The Sternwood sisters who run wild with no self control, while a little camp, were highly prophetic.)

The problem with the way Coates sees these things is that it's so atomic. Men, are like elementary particles brushing up against women and neither is supposed to have any understanding of how the other thinks. But that's nonsense, you can figure out what the other person is thinking without talking about it. Let's go back to that slow dance in middle school. You will earn a girl's contempt if you don't pick up on body language that is meant to tell you to back off a bit. But do you what is also true? You will earn the same, and quite possibly more contempt, if you fail to recognize and act upon signals to push a little further.

You can figure what is going on in other people's heads from observing them. And you can predict how they will react to you. You can't do it as consistently as you can predict , say, the response of billiard balls when they are hit by other billiard balls, but you can read people and respond to them on the basis of non-verbal clues. And that is a huge part of being a sexual adult when you consider how often the verbal clues you do get are simply not true.

Chandler's portrait of the two Sternwood sisters is a misogynist but it's misogynist in a way that Coates might find hard to criticize if he teased it out a bit more. We see this right from the opening of the novel when Marlowe goes to meet General Sternwood who lives in an orchid room. The general has to live there because he has been unmanned:
'You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple paralyzed in both legs and with only half his lower belly. There's little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider, and the orchis are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?'

'Not Particularly,' I said.

The General half closed his eyes. 'They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.'
This is perhaps a good opportunity to remind you what orchids look like. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a white orchid:

If you don't think of a diminutive term for a cat also used to refer to female genitalia when you see orchids , there is something deeply wrong with you. You may not choose to say it, for example if you are with your mother and grandmother at the orchid show, but you will think it and Chandler is counting on your making that association.

Coates correctly notes elsewhere that Chandler also trades in anti-gay remarks, although he fails to note that these are pretty mild by the standards of the era. I've been reading Death by Ecstasy by Dame Ngaio Marsh, published three years before The Big Sleep in my sick bed and she makes Chandler look gay-friendly by comparison.

And what should not surprise us as there is a huge homoerotic streak in Chandler. He keeps it safely sanitized of actual sex, but this fiction is all about male-male bonds. Over and over again these stories comes down to some relationship between two men and that relationship is an intense one with erotic overtones. (If you read the book as opposed to remembering the movie, the sexual tension between Marlowe and Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep is more convincing than that between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood

They are also about war and that will seem even odder because Chandler hardly ever mentions the war. Anyone reading his books would never guess that Chandler fought in the first world war and experienced the sort of horrors that would make most of us crawl up in a fetal position and cry the rest of our lives. But, although he never talks about it much, that experience is what his writing really springs from. It's about the bonds that form between men doing difficult things together and there is an unmistakeable homoerotic undertone that goes with these interactions. The thing about Chandler is not that he makes anti-gay statements but that, in making them, he protests too much.

Jasmine's basement
A girl this time, not a flower. Back in grade eight, a bunch of us swam until dark then we went down to Jasmine's basement and danced. And a girl named Joanne Roberge agreed to slow dance with me. That was pretty much the sum total of our relationship but I'll never forget her. She had all the social skill necessary to make the interactions work. And she had other skills too ...

This was the song that was playing that night when I danced with her:

It sure beat trench warfare.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Going Galt with Country Life

Sick day today. I feel like crap and am confined to bed. The Lemon Girl has very kindly brought me the latest issue of Country Life.

You, or I in any case, can easily forget what a great magazine Country Life is. It's very well-written, chock full of good content.

It's easy to mock given that virtually no one can afford the country estates advertized on the opening pages and the tiny segment of the population who do buy such places are unlikely to go looking for a new house in a magazine. But this magazine, like most, is aspirational. The people who buy and read such things see the image that goes with the magazine as something to aim at. I suspect the vast majority know they will never have a large country estate with hunting and fishing rights for two thousand acres and most probably don't really want that in the sense that they woukld spend the money on other things if they had the money which, in any case, they don't.

But there is a style here and it is a style worth emulating, this second point is something that could not be said of The New York Times, People or Vanity Fair.

The owners of houses, meanwhile, get the pleasure of seeing their wealth and status advertized in a magazine. That, oddly enough, is actually at odds with the country-life life, which is private and dignified. The person who puts twelve million pounds to buy the place on page two would not want to advertize that they own it once they do but they will get some pleasure out of knowing that the place was listed in Country Life before they bought it.

For the rest of us, the life style offers a way of buying out of a degraded politics and culture in favour of something that is elegant and sophisticated and yet manages to not take itself too seriously.

My favourite bit so far is a write up about Archbishop of Canterbury had forced his workers to do penance for having the temerity to deliver straw in sacks instead of open on carts. This apparently offended the Archbish's aesthetic sensibilities and he forced the offenders to march about carrying the straw on their own backs. The editors show a fine sense of irony by including a sentence that begins,
The Archbishop's behaviour was evidently regarded by some as unforgivably high handed ...

Monday, November 26, 2012

Another image: Nude is naked

Yes, that is shameless bait for Google.

Here is the image for your contemplation. This man is neither naked nor nude but he is trying to make a statement about nudity. He isn't making the statement he thinks he is making.

That is a tine crop from a much larger picture. I think it constitutes fair use. This is the safe for work edition. If you want to see the whole enchilada, go here. I have a sneaking suspicion he didn't have to borrow the outfit for the day, that he actually owns that outfit.

San Fransisco has banned public nudity and this, naturally, has inspired a protest. Ironically, the protestors succeed in making a case for the ban in that there are so few of them and they are so obviously exhitionists.

I want to make another point, however. Remember the topless protests of a few weeks ago. Most of the women in that protest wanted the right not to flout their sexuality but the right to hide it. They just want to treated the same as men and they hoped to be ushering in a  world where women could walk about without bras and no one would look at their breasts in a sexual way.

This puts them in an odd position of arguing that their breasts are not sexual even though it was painfully obvious that they knew that they are sexual. The irony was that the only woman who looked comfortable in the photographs was the one who was obviously an exhibitionist.

But look at our friend above. Notice how he has to be in a role to do this. He is in costume and wearing make up. And not just any role but he has to be a in a sexual role. If he'd worn a clown suit with a cut out to expose the right bits the message he would be sending about his sexuality would be far different. Likewise, if he had just stood there naked.

Nudity works for him because it is sexual just as it worked for the exhibitionist at the topless protest because it was sexual for her too. There are, of course, other reasons to get naked but they are pragmatic reasons—medical exam, take a shower, change clothes. To get naked to express yourself is to express yourself sexually. Which is why laws against public nudity make perfect sense. Once you allow public nudity, you allow public sex.

And you may say, "And what would be wrong with that?" Well, you don't have to agree with me but pause to consider the larger social consequences of taking intimate things and making them public.

Friday, November 23, 2012

A little light culture: Stir-up Sunday

This Sunday, November 25, 2012, is Stir-up Sunday, that is to say it is the Sunday on which you make your Christmas pudding.

Christmas pudding dates from the era before central heating. I read somewhere once that in 1900, the average male spent 11 hours a day outside. Not outside the home but outside. And he generally spent it doing physical labour in the cold and often working while wet.

And all this in a day before modern insulating materials. Back then a winter coat was made of the same but a thicker cloth than a summer one. It was much heavier.

If you think about that a bit, it's easy to see why plum pudding is so rich.

Nowadays, we don't need that richness. But we make and eat Christmas pudding as an act of communion with all the generations of our families who celebrated Christmas before us. Christmas, like any feast that deserves to be called a feast, is a conversation between the living and the dead. It's not a time to be making up new "traditions" because we want something that "speaks to us".

Think about your grandmother and her grandmother and what they did and saw and what they enjoyed and suffered. Do it even if you didn't or don't particularly like them. Then stick a wooden spoon in the pudding and stir it along with them. It's hard work, plum pudding batter is thicker than concrete mix.

The "stir up" part comes from the proper collect of the last week of the liturgical year. We never hear it on the last Sunday anymore because the last Sunday of the year is now always Christ the King which has its own proper collect. It is heard at the regular mass during the rest of the week.

The word "Collect" has an old meaning "gathering". We gather together and we gather ourselves. If you've read enough novels from the late 18th century and early 19th century you will have read a passage where someone loses their cool and is advised to "recollect" themselves. That may not make sense to you because we now use "recollect" to mean "remember" but it meant "pull yourself together" back then.

The collect is a pulling together and it is part of the introductory rites of the mass. It is, in fact, the last part of the introductory rights, which is to say that it is the end of the beginning. And this particular collect begins with the words "stir up" in which our ancestors had the courage to see a divine plan. They concluded that this was a sign that we should make that day the pudding with which we will celebrate the la vita nuova, the new life, a few weeks from now.

As a sign! Think of the courage it takes to see a sign and recognize it as a sign to change your life. You could just dismiss it as coincidence that the words "stir up" appear just at that moment. If you want to live in a world where such things don't happen that is.

Here is the translation of the collect we use today.
Stir up the will of your faithful, we pray, O Lord,
that, striving more eagerly
to bring your divine work to fruitful completion,
they may receive in greater measure
the healing remedies your kindness bestows.
That is the new translation but the prayer goes back centuries. Dante, Frances of Assisi, Paul Claudel, Jane Austen, and Evelyn Waugh all hear this prayer. So did your great grandmother. And then she went home and made her pudding and made everyone in the house come and stir it.

She did that because it was considered good luck. And it is. Not in the sense that you may win the lottery or find love but because you will connect yourself to others both living and dead by doing it.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Saint Cecilia

Today is the memorial feast of Saint Cecilia.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
he would be roundly mocked.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Overheard on the bus

We live without a car so we ride the bus a bit. Not as much as you might think. The Lemon Girl and I both prefer to walk places given the choice and it's amazing how quickly you can get used to walking three to five miles to get places. (If Lizzy Bennet does it ...)

I also overhear a lot of conversations on the bus. Well, shamelessly and voyeuristically eavesdrop is more like it. The other day I rode downtown and heard a boy and girl from the university discussing careers. This was a cheering subject as most kids from the university tend to discuss alcohol, shopping and politics (in that order).

The less cheering aspect was that the thing they focused on most in their discussion was benefits. Sense of achievement? Not mentioned. Creating jobs and wealth by starting a business? Dismissed as too risky. Finding a vocation where you can contribute something meaningful to the community? Not mentionned.

No, what they talked about was pension plans, the possibility of early retirement and dental plans.

Student advocates often argue that we should care about students because they are our future. Well, if these two are anything to go by, we don't have a future.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sorta political: "Everyone should be free to, you know, like make their own moral choices."

Mollie Hemingway has a great piece up about the media response to Marco Rubio's response to the question, "How old do you think the earth is?" You really want to read the whole thing so I won't steal her fire by repeating all the best bits here.

One thing that particularly struck me as the starting place for something new of my own was this bit:
You know who was the last “journalist” to ask President Barack Obama when he believes human life begins? It was that Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Warren. Do you remember Obama’s response? At the Telegraph: Tim Stanley has thoughts on this:
More importantly, if it’s okay for Barack Obama to say that abortion is “above my paygrade” and refuse to offer a guess as to when life begins, why is it not okay for Rubio to dodge a bullet when asked a question about the origins of the Earth? Considering that the question posed to Obama back in the 2008 election had serious moral consequences and Rubio’s does not, I can’t understand why Obama’s evasion is heralded as a victory for common sense but Rubio’s is treated like a declaration of war on science. The hysteria and hypocrisy are tiring at best.
While I agree with Tim Stanley, as quoted by Mollie H, that there is both inconsistency and hypocrisy at work here, it's important to see that, for the new clerisy, that is those of us who learned in college that ethics is an abstract subject, that inconsistency and hypocrisy is a good thing. As the cliché from a few years ago had it: It's not a bug, it's a feature. We are fully aware that they are inconsistent and want to continue to be.

Or, to put it another way, it is precisely because there are serious personal moral consequences related to questions regarding abortion that we in the new clerisy think it's okay to dodge the question.You may think the really important questions here are political and they are important but the new clerisy mindset is first to dodge the personal moral choices. The urban and urbane utopia we imagine is one in which no one would ever have to live with guilt at the thought that something they did was morally wrong. It's a world in which no one is going to harsh anyone else's mellow by asking them to consider that maybe certain things they have done are morally wrong.

Now maybe someone is now thinking, "But what about racism? The new clerisy has no trouble telling others that racism is wrong!" And we might add, or genocide. Except that the modern mind is remarkably inconsistent about this. When racist attacks are launched against Condoleezza Rice, and they were, the new clerisy doesn't approve of them but they don't exactly run around calling anyone's attention to them either. "Condemning racism" is a fun thing to do when every head in the room is bobbing in agreement and the only people who are hurt are the ones who wish they had thought about getting up and pontificating about this first. But condemning racism that actually might cause you to defend the candidate that all good college-educated people hate is not nearly so much fun.

Similarly, while genocide is obviously "wrong" when it's historical, it's another thing altogether if condeming genocide means committing the UN to intervene militarily in Sudan right now or when bring it up just might piss off the Turks.

A similar attitude applies to the hard-cases argument. Someone might say, well, what about sexual acts involving cannibalism and, therefore, murder? Surely we're not going to say those are just a matter of personal conscience? Again, if you, as I do, come from the class that learns about ethics (always learn "about ethics" and never "to be moral") your first instinct will be to brush this one away. The unexpressed view is that this is too clear-cut a cause. It's so obvious that this is wrong because everyone knows it is. Confronted with the fact that some people actually want to and do do these things, we dismiss them as crazy people  who need to be treated for their own or others protection and, if that fails, locked up.

What we dodge, and keep dodging no matter how hard we are pushed, is the notion that there is a level at which morality needs to be taught with authority. That there are things that are just wrong and the full authority of Mummy and Daddy, society or the state might have to be used to enforce this morality as morality.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Molto Marcel Monday

The day when I post something inspired by Proust.

Yesterday was the anniversary of Proust's death.

Just a few days ago, I commemorated the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. If we do the arithmetic, we can see that Proust had just nine years to finish his masterwork following the publication of volume one.

The temptation is to think he didn't know this but the truth is that he did. Always a sickly boy, he knew he wasn't going to have a long life. As he wrote The Novel, he grew increasingly convinced he would die. If anything, he may have been too aware of his coming death.

The other day I was writing of the modernists desire to make certain modernism was not just a  style. They wanted to change the culture. Ironically, the explosion in the popularity of modernism in recent years has been precisely because people like it as an historical style. Looking at Proust and his ill health and his constant awareness of his coming death, we can not only easily understand but also easily sympathize with his desire to be more than a stylist.

But should we? Wanting to do more than contribute to a style is a very ambitious thing to want to do. Perhaps too ambitious. I mean that both prudentially and morally.

I have, as I have noted elsewhere been reading What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici to prepare myself for rereading all of À la recherche du temps perdu beginning  next year (I think this will be my third time of reading the whole thing through, although I have read certain volumes and parts of volumes many times more often). One of the points Josipovoci hammers when he discusses The Novel is that Marcel the narrator is a better person than Charles Swann. And you'd have to say that if you were, as Gabriel Josipovici is, an unreconstructed modernist.

Josipovici's argument is worth reading at some length:
Our existence is radically contingent. And yet the story of Swann himself, placed by the author near the start of his novel, demonstrates that despite the the uniqueness and contingency of each of our lives, there are general laws of existence as well, which make us all behave in similar ways: the story of Swann's love for Odette parallels that of Marcel for Gilberte and then Albertine. At the same time the novel shows us it is possible to react to similar experiences in very different ways, to learn or not to learn from what one goes through. Swann, with that slight coarseness of spirit which characterizes him, says Marcel, dismisses his affair with Odette with the remark" 'To think that I gave up the best years of my life to a woman who was not my type.' Marcel, on the other hand, more intelligent, more dogged perhaps in his desire to understand, comes to see that suffering and joy are not to be dismissed like that, but form part of the fabric of existence, the exploration of which becomes the theme of his life as a writer. All this makes nonsense of the claim, sometimes still heard, that Proust is merely the exquisite chronicler of the upper echelons of French society in the years leading up to 1914.
I'll start with the last sentence for the word "merely" along with some rhetorical sneering is doing a lot of work here. For while Proust certainly is not only an exquisite chronicler he most certainly is an exquisite chronicler and a lot of people read him solely for that reason. Who are we to prevent them from getting the enjoyment they get out of reading it the way they like to read it?

Next, let's return to the first two sentences and particularly to the expression "radically contingent". What can that mean? Does it mean anything that isn't, on more careful analysis, trivial? And how does the second sentence, with it's claim "there are general laws of existence as well" coexist with "radically contingent"? When someone make those two claims one after another is there any reason to believe that they are using words in a meaningful way?

Obviously, I  meant those questions as rhetorical. I think the expression "radically contingent" is just jargon for a modernist like Josipovici. It's the modernist's version of the consultant con, the lit crit version of "applying creative solutions in today's business environment", which is to say, it's a case of throwing words that sound impressive together with the intent of being obscure so was to impress the rubes.

I'm skipping a lot of steps in a long argument here but I think that if we peel away all that consultant con talk, we might ask some very old-fashioned questions about the relative moral stature of Swann and Marcel. For Swann does achieve marriage and his marriage lasts until his death. Marcel achieves no such union. His relationships are either obsessive and yet failed, as is the case with Gilberte, or they are obsessive and creepily possessive as is the case with Albertine. For all Swann's supposed coarseness, if we had to pick between his life and Marcel's, I don't think many of us would pick Marcel.

Ask yourself the heartless question. Here is Proust lying in bed at the end of a life that he has largely wasted on social climbing and the pursuit of crude sexual experience and looking for something to redeem it. Looking at Charles Swann, we can see how the urge to draw parallels between their lives would be tempting can't we?

I'm not sure we should go the next step, though, and imagine that Proust himself saw Marcel the narrator as a better person than Swann. I think that if we read The Novel more carefully than Josipovici has, we will see that the implicit criticism that Proust makes of Marcel is far harder than the explicit criticism our narrator levels at Swann.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Speaking of how old "modernism" is getting ...

Du côté de chez Swann, the first volume of THE NOVEL, was published ninety-nine years ago today, which explains why next year is the year of reading Proust.

Some people argue, by the way, that Proust isn't really a modernist but a late romantic. I don't think you can really make that argument stick but you can read him as if he were and get a coherent reading out of the book. I do.

A little light culture: conversatio morum

An essential step forward is the development of a fitting order of the day: a division of the day that gives a rhythm to the day, with a reasonably fixed pattern of exertion and relaxation, of spiritual breathing in and breathing out, of ordering one's environment and moments when one is in touch with something beautiful.
The Rule of Benedict for Beginners by Wil Derkse
In touch with something beautiful. I read that and thought, Exactly! That is what life is all about.

I've made a tiny change in my profile: the word "libertine" has been replaced with "aesthete". (Subsequently unchanged so we're back to "libertine" and hoping people get irony.) I'm not sure anybody else will or should care but I have been drifting in a direction that is less libertine and more aesthete-like for a while. I want to live a much more ordered life than I used to and, quite frankly, I am an obedient Catholic to degree that quite shocks me. That wasn't the plan but, like Charles Ryder, my old ways stopped making sense at some point.

But being in touch with something beautiful does matter. I've been reading a book called What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici in preparation to reading all of Proust again next year. It's about as eloquent a defence of modernism as you can manage. Unfortunately for Josipovici, I think the answer to his question is a simple one, modernism was passed by and it was passed by because it failed. The thing modernists set out to do—to fundamentally change the culture—they failed to do.

Josipovici claims that modernism is not a style but, while modernists certainly wanted to create something that was more than a style, that is all it is now. The word modernism refers to a style associated with a particular historic period running from the last years of the the 19th century to the 1950s. Because their aims were so ambitious, we're saddled with a name that feels a bit clumsy when applied to the past but there you are. In my neighbourhood there is an antique store that specializes in modernist antiquities. I'm sure the language can adapt, either by adopting a new word for "modernism" or a new word for "modern".

Although I don't agree with him, Josipivoci has helped me to see things with a new clarity. Although there was a time when I read Prufrock, and thought this was the way of the future, I ultimately have come to reject modernism as an ideology based on lessons I learned from Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell and Philip Larkin. I don't mind some modernism as a style but too much of what modernists produced is just ugly and when the public didn't get modernism, modernists blamed the public for not working hard enough instead of themselves for producing pointlessly obscure art. But the extra thing I see now is just how important the notion of an disenchanted world is to modernists. You cannot be a modernist unless you really believe that we live in a disenchanted world and I don't. I live in a world haunted by God's beauty. Thus the word change from "libertine" to "aesthete".

(The crypto-Catholic can remain as its irony always has been, or always should have been, obvious. Announcing yourself as "crypto-Catholic" is like announcing yourself as "in the closet" the second you say it it ceases to be true.)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Women's need for novelty

So I am sitting at the barbershop waiting for a shave and a haircut and I find a women's magazine in the rack. I begin to leaf through with the firm intention of reading it for the pictures and not the articles when I trip across an article by my old friend Alexandra Molotkow. As with all her stuff, there is clearly a deep intelligence at work along with some immaturity. I doubt I was much different at her age.

In any case, what really jumped out at me was some research she cited beginning with this sentence:
While men are stereotyped as the ones who tire of monogamy, research suggests it isn't so.
And she goes on to cite three separate studies showing that women actually are. I won't quote all three here (the article is in the December 2012 issue of Flare magazine beginning on page 134 if you want to read more) but here is one example:
In a 2012 University of Guelph study of people aged 18 to 25, female respondents reported that their desire dropped slightly—but steadily—for each month they stayed with a long term partner. (The men's interest remained largely unchanged.)
That result should not surprise us. Any man who has been in a long term relationship will have noticed that women unfailingly do this. There are a number of reasons why you might miss it though. The principal one is that when her interest dropped she probably blamed you and you probably believed her. You then made all sorts of efforts to improve things. You asked her what she wanted and tried to make the things she said she wanted happen.

More often than not, these things not only fail but actually make the problem worse for the simple reason that women feel uncomfortable talking about the things that make them hot (and therefore sexually vulnerable); they prefer to talk about the things that make them feel loved which is not the same thing at all.

No matter what, there is very little chance that you will succeed because the person who needs to succeed is her. And if she does make an effort she has to make an effort at sex not at closeness or "love"; those are results of the effort but the way to get there has to be making herself sexually excited (and, yes, vulnerable) so that you can make things happen for her. In the same way that one of you going out in the cold to walk the dog, cleaning the kitchen, paying the bills and so forth is a way of loving the other, her making extra efforts to get herself hot and bothered and ready for sex is a way of loving you.

The second reason why the above study might surprise us is, as Molotkow notes, that men are stereotypically believed to be the ones who tire of monogamy. The truth is, men never fully buy into monogamy in the first place and that can make it look like we "tire" of it. A man is looking at and thinking of sex with other women from day one of any relationship. The studies cited by Molotkow don't show that men don't tire of monogamy; they actually show that men never tire of their partners, which is quite a different thing. But if we could have five or six sex partners concurrently without moral condemnation and without losing the woman we love most, most of us would jump at the chance.

That we don't do this is part of the deal. Everyone wants love and commitment and getting love and commitment means not getting everything you want. As men, we control (well most of us do) our desire to pursue multiple partners in exchange for a relationship. Forsaking all others is a way of loving her and any woman worthy of being a woman should understand that this is not easy or natural for you and should see your efforts as something they should be grateful for rather than, as women often tend to do, as something they should be able take for granted.

Women, on the other hand, want novelty. It's not an accident that serial monogamy has risen with women acquiring greater freedoms in our culture. As I've said before, I know quite a few women who have fallen in love, lost interest in the sex, broken up, moved on to another guy and repeated the process until they ended up bitter and unhappy and single in their forties.

A while ago, I said that most men manage monogamy even though we are not predisposed towards it. Currently four out of five men remain faithful for the duration of their marriages. Some might argue that one out of five failing is still quite a lot and it is but we should also consider that that one in five will contain men who only slip up a little but otherwise manage.

Now all we need is for more women to grasp that if they want love and commitment they have to tame their tendency to seek a new partner or simply give up on sex when their interest wanes and to make extra efforts on the sex front. Quite a few already have figured this out. They have, after all, nothing to lose and quite a bit to gain in terms of pleasure, intimacy, trust and closeness if they do. Quite a few others, however, don't and they either move along or, more typically, give up on sex in their relationship.

Again, as I have mentioned before, I know all about this once having spent about a decade with a woman who didn't make the effort for the simple reason that she never saw it as her responsibility to do so. If you find yourself in a  similar situation, giver her a good chance to get it right but dump her if she doesn't.

If, however, she does make the effort, any man worthy of being a man will understand that this is not natural or easy for her and should see her efforts as something they should be grateful for rather than, as we often tend to do, as something we should be able to take for granted.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Election further thoughts

I've been reading a certain amount of election follow up by other people. The reaction on the right has been all over the map. Most "analysis" is of the if-only-they-had-listened-to-me variety. There are a few truths I have culled elsewhere that I think are worth repeating.

I think Ramesh Ponnuru is correct in arguing that the problem was that the party dragged Romney down more than that Romney was such a weak candidate. And the reason the party dragged Romney down is because it shows no obvious concern nor does it have any message to the average voter.

I think Ralph Benko is correct in arguing that Bushite technocrats are a huge problem for the Republican party and that they have used and abused their control over fundraising to keep Reaganite candidates from rising to the top.

And I think that I am right that the culture war and the Catholic intellectuals pushing it has become an albatross around the Republican party's neck. I did not think this before the election and do not accept this without reluctance but accept it I must. There are some great further points on that line made by John Hindraker:
It seems obvious that the evolution of social issues from crime and welfare to abortion and gay marriage has hurt the Republican Party. Crime and welfare were serious public policy issues that could be, and were, debated from empirical premises. Abortion and gay marriage are moral, largely religious issues, and are less amenable to public policy debate. They are, for reasons that are entirely understandable, governed more by emotion than by empirical data. A great many people are heartily sick of these issues and wish they would go away, while others view them as matters of moral duty that are key to the ultimate survival of our civilization. Whether you agree with the latter perspective or not, it seems clear that contemporary conservatives have reached a dead end in their approach to the social issues. If we want to do better in future elections, we need, I think, to recalibrate our approach–by which I do not mean adopting liberal positions.
You want to read the whole thing. I'd add that while I agree that it would be a mistake to simply adopt liberal positions, it also seems to me that we Catholics need quietly go away until we can prove we are capable of arguing constructively on the matter.

In any case, I believe those are the three lessons to take home from this election.

The new clerisy cont'd

Picking up from yesterday's post let's talk about the way Ta Nehisi Coates talks about Rihanna.

Rihanna, you may remember, was so badly beaten by Chris Brown that she was hospitalized. Now she and he are playing bizarre games about it. You really want to read this thing for yourself [link fixed]. I'm serious, you need to have a grip on the moral character of Rihanna to appreciate the moral conclusions Coates draws from the situation.

Okay, if you've read it, read his take:
I don't know that Rihanna owes anyone anything. I think what bothers me is the willingness to  trivialize the behavior of men who like to put women in the hospital. Most of those women will not have the resources of a Rihanna.
There you have the new clerisy exceptionalism at its  purest.

Let's start with: "I don't know that Rihanna owes anyone anything." Seriously. He doesn't "know" if Rihanna, a public figure whom millions of people admire, has any moral responsibilities to anyone at all? He doesn't think she owes it to herself or to society or to God to be morally serious? I know lots of people who are completely unknown outside their family and workplace who manage to shoulder that responsibility. Why can't we expect the same of Rihanna?

Now, keep that in mind and read the next sentence again, "I think what bothers me is the willingness to trivialize the behaviour of men who like to put women in hospital." I don't know if you could pack more wishy washy moral weakness into one sentence than that. "I think what bothers me ..." Are you kidding me? We're talking about two people who have exploited violence against women for fun and profit and you only think you know what bothers you?

But it gets worse, he's already told us he doesn't know that Rihanna owes anyone anything. Okay, so who is he blaming in thus utterly passive sentence? Who is doing this trivializing? If it's Rihanna then the first sentence is nonsense. If what happened between them is not subject to any moral obligations to anything bigger than her current whims, then what is subject to? If, on the other hand, he isn't blaming Rihanna for this, then who is he blaming. Did this trivializing just happen or are there people with names that could and should be named who are doing it.

Finally, notice how stupid Coates, a man who is rarely stupid, is being about violence against women. Does he seriously imagine that this sort of violence happens because the men who do it "like to put women in hospital"? If it really were the case that only men (and women!) like that were responsible for domestic violence, then domestic violence would be a very rare thing. Domestic violence is a larger problem because a lot of men and women who can tell their partner they love them and care for them and mean it, and who can also swear they never would want to hurt them and mean that too, will, in moments of emotional turmoil (often fueled by alcohol or other drugs), turn around and demean, degrade, hit or savagely beat the person they love.

The thing that drives this wishy washyness in the new clerisy is a deep fear of any politically enforced morality. There is a desire to leave all moral questions in the "individual" realm except to the extent that they might cause social problems (and even then ...). Coates can't state a simple truth here that I am sure even he can plainly see and that is that Rihanna is a jerk. She is just a self-centered jerk with a lot of money and influence and the class of people who have the most influence over which entertainers get to have the sort of money and influence Rihanna has are terrified of moral judgment.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Pulling a Woody

I have been thinking of Mr. Allen again.
Woody Allen has started filming “Fading Gigolo,” director John Turturro’s movie starring the “Manhattan” director and sexy leading ladies Sofía Vergara, Sharon Stone and Johnny Depp’s ex Vanessa Paradis.
It's interesting, and must be a source of some pain to Mr. Allen, that he is remembered primarily for a movie he considers his worst effort. In any case, he is wrong. Manhattan is by far his best movie. The punchline to the whole story is that he is cast in the Turturro movie as a pimp.

But back to Mr. Allen and his odd moral stature among the new clerisy. The term "new clerisy", which deserves to catch on, comes from a brilliant article by Joel Kotkin and refers to
“new hierarchies of technical elites” that Daniel Bell predicted in 1976 in The Coming Of Post-Industrial Society. For that group, Bell wrote, nature and human nature ceased to be central, as “fewer now handle artifacts or things” so that “reality is primarily the social world”—which, he warned, “gives rise to a new Utopianism” that mistakenly treats human nature as something that can be engineered and corrected by instruction from their enlightened betters. This approach, although often grounded in good intention, can easily morph into a technocratic authoritarianism.
I would add, however, that although this group believes that nature and human nature can be overcome, they also have a tendency to accept fate and a tragic explanation of life.

Consider the classic problem of "falling" in love with one person when you're married to someone else. What do you do about it? The tragic worldview accepts this falling in love as fate. The non-tragic view says you can, with God's help, transcend this. Let's read a little reaction to such a case. The following is Keira Knightly and an interviewer from a piece in Interview magazine giving Newt Gingrich some well-deserved mockery. But the fascinating bit is how Knightly simply cannot see any sort of transcendent forgiveness or justice as anything but a joke:
CRONENBERG: Well, I've heard from Newt Gingrich that open marriages are the thing now.

KNIGHTLEY: That's what Newt Gingrich is saying?

CRONENBERG:Well, apparently his ex-wife says that Newt came to her and said, "I've got this mistress, and I think we should all sort of just accept that this is an open marriage." Of course, he probably wasn't thinking of his wife taking advantage of the privileges of an open marriage, but he thought that it was quite all right for him to have a couple of ladies and that they should both accept it.

KNIGHTLEY: Well, that is a problem. If you're a Republican in America and then you're also sort of shagging anything that moves—I think that's always difficult, isn't it?

CRONENBERG: Except he's got the right-wing Christian out: "I asked god for forgiveness and he said okay." [laughs] If you're a Christian right-wing Republican, then that might make it okay. But the thing is, Newt was the guy who was attacking Bill Clinton for his Monica Lewinsky moment while he himself was having an extramarital affair. So the hypocrisy is rather thick at that point.

KNIGHTLEY: Absolutely extraordinary . . . If only I wasn't an atheist, I could get away with anything. You'd just ask for forgiveness and then you'd be forgiven. It sounds much better than having to live with guilt.
As is so often the case, Knightly doesn't seem to understand the difference between "guilt" and "shame". Guilt is the thing that Gingrich obviously did not have. If he'd been aware of his own guilt he'd have had some regard for human frailty* in others. Knightly neither knows nor cares much about guilt. What she understands is shame and she wants Gingrich to be burdened with tons of it so that he, or anyone who thinks like him for that matter, will be unelectable. She wants to drive him out of polite society.

The important difference between the two is this: guilt is something you would feel even if you weren't caught. If Gingrich or Clinton were the sort of men capable of feeling guilt they would have been torn by it long before their behaviour was exposed. Shame is something that is only felt at the thought of the greater society you live in knowing and condemning what you have done.

You can, of course, have anticipatory shame. That is you could have cheated on your spouse and have gotten away with it but be constantly dreading the shame would come with getting caught. Someone in such a situation will be motivated to keep their behaviour a secret but will not be motivated to atone for or ask forgiveness for what they have done. They might wish they had not done what they did in the fate of possible exposure but the practical effect is that they are only motivated to try even harder to avoid getting caught.

In two Woody Allen films, Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point a man who finds himself in the position of desperately needing to avoid shame for an affair actually murders the woman he was having an affair with in order to keep what he has done a secret. And then he is racked with "guilt". For a while. Eventually this anticipatory shame that Allen mistakes for guilt goes away. The following is Woody Allen musing about it all in two parts, part one:
I feel that is true—that one can commit a crime, do unspeakable things, and get away with it. There are people who commit all sorts of crimes and get away with it, and some of them are plagued with all sorts of guilt for the rest of their lives and others aren’t. They commit terrible crimes and they have wonderful lives, wonderful, happy lives, with families and children, and they have done unspeakably terrible things. There is no justice, there is no rational structure to it. That is just the way it is, and each person figures out some way to cope….
This is obviously deeper than Keira Knightly (not a tall order, Barbie dolls are deeper than Keira Knightly). But while Allen has obviously thought of it longer, notice that he, like she, can only think of guilt and/or shame as a negative thing that needs to be made to go away. It's sort of like acne: "If I could get rid of these pimples then I could get girls to put out and I'd be happier". The guilt (which is really anticipatory shame) is something that stands in between me and a comfortable, easy life.

One gets the feeling that neither Knightly nor Allen appreciate the degree to which their elite stature in our society is a result of either colossal fluke or the workings of grace. In some abstract sense they get it but they clearly go through life comfortable with their elite status and privileges. It doesn't trouble them to think that millions of other people couldn't dream of such a thing and millions more suffer in ways that neither of them could bear every day and yet manage to "cope" better than they do.

Here is part two of Allen's musings:
Some people cope better than others. I was with Billy Graham once, and he said that even if it turned out in the end that there is no God and the universe is empty, he would still have had a better life than me. I understand that. If you can delude yourself by believing that there is some kind of Santa Claus out there who is going to bail you out in the end, then it will help you get through. Even if you are proven wrong in the end, you would have had a better life.
Again, notice that Allen only sees faith as a way of getting bailed out in the end. Even the views he projects onto religious believers are antinomian; it's always about avoiding suffering for your moral failings. There are of course, brands of protestantism that are antinomian and even some Catholics like Newt Gingrich who behave as if they think that their religion gives them a get of jail free card, but Allen never confronts the choice to believe in a God who is a source of justice; a God who might well, almost certainly will for most of us, cause us to suffer for our sins and, further, weird as this may seem, would do so because he loves us.

The Woody Allen interview I cite here ends with a discussion of Shane and Allen says the following about the character.
I didn’t see him as a martyred figure, a persecuted figure. I saw him as quite a heroic figure who does a job that needs to be done, a practical matter. I saw him as a practical secular character. In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is. It sounds terrible, but there is no other way to get around that, and most of us are not up to doing it, incapable for moral reasons or physically not up to it. And Shane is a person who saw what had to be done and went out and did it. He had the skill to do it, and that’s the way I feel about the world: there are certain problems that can only be dealt with that way. As ugly a truth as that is, I do think it’s the truth about the world.
Now I don't think Allen understands Shane at all but I want you to feel the full chill of what he says here: " In this world there are just some people who need killing and that is just the way it is". Now that might seem acceptable in the limited context of the movie Shane where the men the hero kills are a corrupt cattle baron and a professional killer who are threatening to kill innocent people to get there way. But in this interview, the whole issue arose because of a discussion of Allen's in which a man has his mistress killed because she threatens his ordered, married life. That is the larger context of "some people just need killing".

In conclusion, notice how bourgeois Woody Allen is. He isn't the sort of guy who'd actually take a hit out on his mistress (Crimes and Misdemeanors) or kill her directly (Match Point). No, he's the sort of guy who'd sit at home imagining such a thing and could convince himself that it's all okay at a certain distance, just so long as none of it rubs off on him. That would be intolerable because it would be shameful.

* I've shamelessly swiped the construction "some regard for human frailty" from The Philadelphia Story:
Tracy: You seem quite contemptuous of me all of a sudden.

Dexter: No, Red, not of you, never of you. Red, you could be the finest woman on this earth. I'm contemptuous of something inside of you you either can't help, or make no attempt to; your so-called 'strength' - your prejudice against weakness - your blank intolerance.

Tracy: Is that all?

Dexter: That's the gist of it; because you'll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you've learned to have some regard for human frailty. It's a pity your own foot can't slip a little sometime - but your sense of inner divinity wouldn't allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact. There are more of you than people realize - a special class of the American Female. The Married Maidens.
Tracy Samantha Lord's foot does slip of course and she learns something from it. When Woody Allen's foot slips, he, with the help of his analyst, convinces himself that he just needs the bad feeling to go away so he can live a comfortable, bourgeois life. That is the personal morality of the new clerisy. It's a personal morality in the sense that that is what they apply to themselves; they wouldn't let anyone they disapproved of get away with it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Elmo and the gutter press

UPDATE: Elmo's accuser has recanted. I would guess that there was some sort of lover's tiff at the base of this—most likely that the accuser was dumped and retaliated with this story. We'll never know. That does not, I believe, invalidate anything that follows.

What is it about Elmo the Muppet and sex? Do you remember the Tickle Me Elmo craze? I'm sure you remember the year parents paid outrageous sums to get the doll but do you remember the Elmo sex craze? There was one in the mid-to-late 1990s. Young women have decorated their adult beds with childish toys since time immemorial but there was something different about Elmo. Most such plush toys get pushed aside when more adult activities took place but for some reason it became a big thing for a woman to to do outrageous things with her Elmo while naked. Put him in between her breasts or upper thighs and squeezed until he'd made his famous sound for example. When between the upper-upper thighs, the reaction after the third squeeze was particularly stimulating for all involved.

Fortunately for Elmo all this happened before the craze of girls willing putting up incriminating photos and video of themselves on the Internet really took off. But now it looks like Elmo's lucky streak has run out:
It’s not a sunny day on “Sesame Street,” as the show revealed Monday that the puppeteer behind Elmo has been accused of having a sexual relationship with an underage boy.
That's the New York Daily News, God bless them. People who hate the gutter press imagine that it's easy to do what papers like the Daily News do but it isn't. That is brilliant writing. The New York Times writers and editors couldn't do that.

But it's not just what they write, it's also the stuff they have the good sense to let you figure out for yourself. For the puppeteer in question will now be leaving the show even though the people who make the show claim he has been vindicated!
“We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action,” Sesame Workshop said in the statement. “We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated.” 
But he is till off the show:
 “Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation did reveal that Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding internet usage and he was disciplined,” Sesame Workshop said.

In light of the incident, Clash will be moving away from Sesame Street for the foreseeable future.
“Kevin insists that the allegation of underage conduct is false and defamatory and he is taking actions to protect his reputation,” the Workshop noted. “We have granted him a leave of absence to do so.”
No doubt Stalin liked to insist that he'd "granted Trotsky a leave of absence" too. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at the meetings where the exact terms of Kevin Clash's departure were negotiated.

But here is the thing, the news story doesn't tell us anywhere the real reason Kevin Clash is leaving the show nor does it tell us the simple truth that Kevin Clash cannot protect his reputation because it is now irredeemably trashed.

Here are the two most important facts in the story:
  1. This was a same-sex relationship. You can pretend all you want but society isn't fully accepting of homosexuality and it never will be. The most gay men can hope for is tolerance and tolerance always comes with limits, which brings us to the second crucial fact.
  2. Kevin Clash is 52 and his accuser is 23 and the relationship seems to have started a number of years ago. 
Presumably the evidence suggests it did not start more than six years ago because the Sesame Workshop say they found no evidence of an underage affair. On the other hand, it must have started at least long enough ago that his accuser feels the claim was credible.

We can start to wonder can't we? But I want to focus on the writing style because there is something about this gutter style journalism that makes for great writing. Not in Proust, even though the relationship Clash had here is very much like one that Charlus has in The Novel. He never had the knack for this sort of touch.

But Evelyn Waugh sure did. Notice in the following how he never tells us what makes the scoutmaster naughty or what the instrument was being used for* and how that makes this writing so powerful.
"Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic."

"Does it make much difference to you?"

"Of course. All the time."

"Well, I can't say I've noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don't seem much more virtuous than me."

"I'm very, very much wickeder," said Sebastian indignantly.

"Well then?"

"Who was it used to pray, 'O God, make me good, but not yet?'"

"I don't know. You, I should think."

"Why, yes I do, every day. But it isn't that." He turned back to the pages of the News of the World and said, "Another naughty scout-master."

"I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?"

"Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me."

"But my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all."

"Can't I?"

"I mean about Christmas and the star and the three knights and the ox and the ass."

"Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea."

"But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea."

"But I do. That's how I believe."

"And in prayers? Do you think you can kneel down in front of a statue and say a few words, not even out loud, just in your mind, and change the weather; or that some saints are more influential than others, and you must get hold of the right one to help you on the right problem?"

"Oh yes. Don't you remember last term when I took Aloysius and left him behind I didn't know where. I prayed like mad to St Anthony of Padua that morning, and immediately after lunch there was Mr Nicholas at Canterbury Gate with Aloysius in his arms, saying I'd left him in his cab."

"Well," I said. "If you can believe all that and you don't want to be good, where's the difficulty about your religion?"

"If you can't see, you can't."

"Well, where?"

"Oh, don't be a bore, Charles. I want to read about a woman in Hull who's been using an instrument. Thirty-eight other cases were taken into consideration in sentencing her to six months – golly!"
As I write this, a married public official has had to resign because of an affair he was having. The interesting thing about it, from our perspective, is that he was found out when the woman he was having the affair with started sending harassing e-mails to people she considered his enemies. Think of how stupid that was! But for her, in love, it probably felt just fine. The power of erotic love is such that we all feel like we live in some protected sphere of inviolable purity when we are basking in Eros' lap.

The point of the above is not just that sin is banal but also that it only can be so because we are so unaware of ourselves as sinners. And thus a woman having an extramarital affair harasses others for what she believes to be there sins and Sebastian, who claims to be aware of his own wickedness, delights in that of scoutmasters.

A bonus point for Catholics: Notice the point Waugh makes here about human nature and its fallibility. Waugh thinks sexual sins are not something other people do but something we do. That is an important issue given the nature of the relationship between Sebastian and Charles. That is an aspect of Waugh a lot of Catholics have a hard time swallowing.

 And not just Catholics. The modern secular view is that the sexual relationship between Sebastian and Charles is just fine and should be accepted if not glorified. Proust couldn't bring himself to say such a thing and perhaps couldn't even quite believe it himself but he sees love differently. One of the odd outcomes of this, as Waugh himself seems to have realized, is that it was much easier for Waugh to create gay characters who were happy and well-adjusted than it was for a writer like Proust.

And we cannot say that that is because Proust really knew what it was like to have a loving sexual relationship with another man and Waugh did not. If anything, the reverse was the case.

* For those who didn't know, the instrument was used to induce abortions.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A little light culture: The Power of Love

Here folks, is what six million pounds will buy you:

(If that embedding doesn't work, you can also watch it here.) I'll be honest,  I don't think they got their money's worth. They should have spent less on production and  more on the script.

That said, let's stop and think about what is going on here. I know, it's tempting to brush it off by saying, "Cheap emotional manipulation, that's what is going on."And it is. Any grade Grade 6 class in the land could come up with something like this.

The power of love
A force from above
Cleaning my soul
The power of love
A force from above
A sky-scraping dove

Flame on burn desire
Love with tongues of fire
Purge the soul
Make love your goal

But here is the thing, it works. You may say, "It didn't work on me," but that will only be because you saw it coming and chose to put up barriers. This sort of stuff will always work on some and, even if you choose to be cynical, one day something like this will catch you off guard and you'll be swept away by it. And then you'll be a little bit embarrassed because you won't be able to explain it to anyone else. They might laugh at you.

The song is old enough now that you may never have heard it. The original was by a group called Frankie Goes to Hollywood who had very, very brief fame in the mid-1980s. Their biggest success is the song "Relax" which has been aptly described as instructions for how to do anal sex. Yes, really. You can see it here if you want. By contrast, the original of "The Power of Love" video featured a Christmas Nativity theme played absolutely, if you'll pardon the expression, straight.

This is only one of a number of songs called "The Power of Love" and it isn't the crassest by a long stretch. That honour goes to a song by that name by Jennifer Rush. Most people will be more familiar with the version by Celine Dion. It's much loved and DJs at weddings get asked to play it for the couples first dance all the time.

It's a song about a girl losing her virginity. No, I am not making that up. Read the lyrics and weep. The key moment begins at 2:49.

Actually, "losing her virginity" is too kind. It's really a song about a girl putting out for the first time and I put it that way because we know this won't the last guy she puts out for.

I love the line, "Whenever you reach for me, I'll do all that I can," because it's such a transparent lie. Yeah, Saturday morning when you feel like sleeping in and you're mad at me because of something I said that embarrassed you in front of all your friends last night and, besides, you have a headache and you're not in the mood, but you'll do all that you can just because I reach for you? There isn't a pick up artist anywhere on the planet, crass, cheap or unoriginal enough to spring a line like any of the lyrics of this song on a girl and yet millions of women bought this single and ate that steaming pile of horseshit up like it was chocolate pudding.

It's a funny contrast. Here is what the guy who wore leather, did poppers and had sex so casual it was anonymous says about the power of love:
I always felt like The Power Of Love was the record that would save me in this life. There is a biblical aspect to its spirituality and passion; the fact that love is the only thing that matters in the end.
Here is the climax of the Jennifer Rush song:
The sound of your heart beating
Made it clear
Suddenly the feeling that I can't go on
Is light years away 
Who ya gonna choose?

I think the key question is that if you really believe that love is the only thing that matters in the end, you also want to ask, "Whose love?" and, on that point, I'm going with Jesus myself.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Tristan Chord

A little heavy culture and a heavy chord. It's the notes F-B-D#-G# played together. It appears in Tristan and Isolde. It is much discussed.

If you take the hype seriously, the thing about the chord is that it leaves you utterly confused as to what key you are in. Here is the thing, though, it was used in music before Wagner did it without raising any hype at all. So why did this particular use of the chord cause such excitement?

The short answer is because of the duration and emphasis it receives.

A little more theory. There are a lot of pieces of music that are not at all bewildering to the ear that have some truly wonky chords hiding in them. These chords generally occur in between other familiar and solid sounding chords. The music is going from one chord that is as solid and familiar as an old barn to another one as comfy and cozy as afternoon tea. But barns and teas, however comfortable they may be by themselves, rarely appear side by side. So to get you from one to another, the author of the piece has inserted some harmonic moves that all by themselves would be a little disturbing.

And the music comes down with emphasis on the comfortable barn and tea chords and not on the wonky transition harmony so you barely notice it. The emphasis is on what is solid and the more jarring chords are not accented or prolonged.

But what if you did it the other way around and emphasized the wonky transitions? Well, then you'd have something like what Wagner did. And your audience would be left uncertain as to where exactly the music was coming from or where it was going.

It seems to me that there is a lesson here about living a virtuous life. There are parts of your persona that are like solid, comfortable chords. They send clear and easy to understand messages to everyone about who you are and where you are going. And then there are the things you do to smooth out the connections, to get through the night and so forth, especially the and so forth.

It seems to me that the proper thing is not to emphasize these things. Let them do their business of making connections but don't emphasize them so the whole world knows.

Moralists will immediately object that this is just the usual hypocrites papering over of things. And, yes it is. Furthermore, if you think you can get through life without any odd harmonic moves to back you up, then you should just go right ahead and never be a hypocrites. I'll be the first to take my hat off to you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

More election followup

I think this commentary at National Review Online is very perceptive:
Yet here is something that’s pretty clear, even as the dust settles. Men would have elected Gov. Romney President by a wide margin. Women, who cast about 53 percent of the votes, gave President Obama about a ten-point margin and another four years in the White House.

This should be a wakeup call for everyone on the Right. I count myself among those who assumed — clearly wrongly in hindsight — that the “War on Women” rhetoric wouldn’t work. From my perspective, the Democrats’ campaign for women was flatly insulting, treating women as sex objects (appealing to them to vote with their “lady parts”) and helpless wards of the state (Julia). The charge that Republicans want to restricted access to contraception — that is, beyond returning to the pre-ObamaCare status quo when religious organizations were not forced to pay for others’ contraception — is so far-fetched that it’s almost hard to know how to counter, since just engaging in the discussion grants the question a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.
That is written by Carrie Lukas and I will cheerfully admit that Ms. Lukas's name and this comment is the sum total of what I know about her. There is a lot that should be said here.

But first let me say something a little impertinent. Lukas says the Democrat campaign treated women as sex objects and that is true. But do you know who else treats women as sex objects? Women do. A woman who puts on skin-tight leggings, a push up bra and a cleavage revealing shirt thinks of herself as a sex object. And that is only the extreme example. The woman who dresses in an elegant and sophisticated manner is also flaunting herself as a sex object. That's not all she thinks of herself as but it is part of it.

And, as I I keep repeating here, the more freedoms and rights a nation gives to women, the more they dress as sex objects. Both on the right and the left there are a lot of people who have a hard time dealing with this. They keep trying to convince themselves that women are being pressured into this, and us, that they shouldn't trust their own lyin' eyes but the truth is plain for anyone who walks out the door and looks around.

Again, as I have said here before, women tend to value sexual status at least as much as sex itself but they do like sex and most of them like it a lot. Sex is not a risk free activity for them, and they typically pay a higher emotional price for it than men do. And then there is this central fact:
Women get pregnant.
Go make like Bart Simpson and write that 100 times on the blackboard before you go home from school today. Men and women are different from one another and that fact goes a long, long way to explain the differences.

Lukas says that the notion that Republicans want to restrict access to contraception is "far-fetched". Well, it depends how you understand the language you are hearing. As I said in last night's post, a lot of women hear the words of those who would deny abortion even in case of rape a desire to take away from them the right to have sex and not to have babies. That may seem far fetched but if any woman who takes a close look at Catholic moral teaching regard sex will find language about every sex act being open to conception that will justify her paranoia. An awful lot of women heard that talk and they skipped right past the legal distinctions and they heard an intent. They heard an intent to force them to be open to pregnancies they don't want.

And see this as a right. They understand perfectly that the Catholic church has a right to teach that the use of contraception is wrong but they also think that any woman, ANY woman, working for ANY employer should have the same access to contraception as every other woman. If any employers are to pay for contraception, they reason, then the Catholic hospital should as well.

I'm just describing here. I'm not saying that is the way it should be but it is the way it is and if last night proved anything, it proved that the culture war is over. I don't know what the losers do at this point. There are a lot of them, far too many to expect them to load up their wagons and slink away to exile in the wilderness.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sorta political: Election analysis

I write this at 11:12 local time. None of the swing states have been called yet but I think it's over and Romney loses and I'm going to bed now..

What's it mean? I think it means the culture war is over and conservatives lost it. The biggest losing point for the right now is sex and the conservative Catholic-Evangelical alliance is like an anti-sex albatross around the neck of the Republican party. No matter how many votes these people pull in, they will always alienate more.

I know, I know, cultural conservatives don't think they are anti-sex but that is because their understanding of sexual issues is so far from what the rest of the world means that they aren't talking the same language anymore. No matter what cultural conservatives say, most others hear a plan to deny them their sexual freedoms.

ADDED: To put it in one sentence: Women don't want to have babies that they don't want to have. You can parse the question as much as you like but the basic fact of Catholic sexual ethics is that Catholics want to take away the ability to decide these things from women. Look, I'm anti-abortion myself but when Akin and Mourdock and then others said what they said, almost all the women I know started hoping for a Romney defeat.

And I live in Canada!!!

And let's not even get into birth control.

The cultural conservatives also hamper any sort of libertarian case. I don't know that a libertarian argument could succeed in any case but it definitely can't succeed so long as the conservative Catholic-Evangelical alliance is stirring up the pot. For starters, Catholics just don't understand economics and they don't understand economics because they won't abandon their paternalistic notions.

Last question for tonight: Is this a good thing? I don't know. There are some upsides and there some downsides. I suspect the downside is probably a lot steeper than anyone guesses but even if it is, things probably aren't as bad as they might be. They usually aren't. Usually.

How do I feel? I'd like to see greater individual liberty and more freemarket policies along with a scaling back of entitlements. The chances of those things happening just got to be even more remote than they already were. That said, they already were a very, very long shot.

This is the theme song for the day:

Proust: More love

Here is a passage to ponder:
If we believed that the eyes of such a girl were nothing but shiny little discs of mica, we would not be eager to enter her life and link it to our own. But we are well aware that whatever it is that shines in those reflective discs is not reducible to their material composition; that flitting behind them are the black incognizable shadows of the ideas she forms and the people and places she knows ... the dimness of the house into which she will disappear, her own impenetrable projects and the designs of others upon her; and that what we are most aware of is that she herself lies behind them with her desires, her likes and dislikes, the power of her inscrutable and inexhaustible will. I knew I could never possess the young cyclist, unless I could also possess what lay behind her eyes.
There is a sense that all that makes sense. We could read it in certain moods and think, I recognize that sentiment.

It also seems to me that much of it is slightly unhinged. Notice how he starts with expressions such as "enter her life" and "link it to our own" but ends with a desire to penetrate the "impenetrable" and "possess" her. Again, we might think ordinary male attitudes towards love. But how much can these be justified? Especially the second?

And note that there is something here that simply isn't true. We can tell what other people are thinking and feeling from looking at them. No, we can't do it perfectly and we can't actually read minds. But much of the time, we can read people's intentions and feelings towards us from their facial expressions. Well, most of us. There are people who cannot.

The sense in which all the above is most credible is if we imagine these as the thoughts of an adolescent boy.

It is well, well, into the volume entitled A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs that the five girls whom young Marcel finds himself in the shade of make their appearance*. In some ways they are more boy-like than girl-like but I think any heterosexual male can identify with this thought of young Marcel's when he tells us the various things he thought about the girls:
Certainly, in none of my conjectures did I entertain the possibility that they might be chaste.
Not because it is impossible to imagine women as chaste but you tend not to when you are sexually attracted to them.  

Which leads to odd tensions. You sit down and have a pleasant conversation about Proust with the woman you just a few hours ago were imagining what it would be like to dribble chocolate sauce on her nipples, which you have never seen, and watch it form little dark  streams down over her white, white breasts. And you wonder, "Does she know what sort of things I think of her?" and "Would she be pleased or horrified?" All the while you keep up the pretense.

Now, the normal course of events is that you meet a woman and the two of you get closer and slower and get a better and better understanding of your thoughts about one another. She doesn't know about the chocolate precisely but she knows you and gets a good notion of how you are likely to have thought about her and you get a better understanding of her and how she is likely to respond to being told that you have thought such things. And away you go.

But in adolescence such things seem impossible. Girls are older and more knowing than you and, at the same time, your thoughts of them seem so over the top that you cannot imagine connecting.
What sort of world was the one from which she was looking at me? I could not tell, any more than one could tell from the few details which a telescope enables us to descry on a neighbouring planet whether it is inhabited by human beings, whether or not they can see us, or whether their review of us has inspired any reflections in them.
Naturally, you are attracted to girls but, equally naturally, girls whose outward behaviour is a little more vulgar and openly sexual, and who perhaps belong to a new and rising class not so beholden to all the manners and mires that make direct expression between boys and girls more difficult. And thus the five girls who come down the beach at Balbec.

* Why does this second volume take so long to get to the point? Why make your reader beat his way hundreds of pages in, more than 60 percent of the text, before justifying your title? The answer to that, I think, is that the first volume was self-published and Proust was limited in the number of pages he could print. As a consequence, he cut the third section of volume 1 way down. When he found an actual publisher to print volume 2, he revisited at the beginning the stuff he would have liked to have put in Volume1.

I know this is heresy, but I rather wish he hadn't. I think Proust needed an editor and there isn't a single volume of the novel that couldn't have been cut quite a bit and thereby have been made even better.