Friday, June 26, 2015

Songs of Summer: "innocence", now with added soft core porn






If you click on that YouTube will probably ask you to sign into prove you are of age. There is some 35 minutes worth of music there but the bit I am concerned with starts at 32:20. This link should take you right there. If you remember Je t'aime moi non plus from a few weeks ago that should strike you as very familiar. It's the Louie Louie riff in the Hang on Sloopy variation with an organ bit over it that is very similar to Je t'aime, moi non plus". Extra bonus points if you recognized that the organ line is clearly inspired by this teenybopper hit from 1969.

I won't belabour the point; the mix of innocence and not so innocent here is quite rich. What I think is worth noticing is how much of our reaction to a piece of music or an image is driven by previous associations we have with it. Once Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin and Julie London had tied slow groove versions of kiddie pop to erotica we could never not think of sex when we heard these things again.

The same thing happened with the visuals by the way. If you look at Sylvia Kristel sitting topless in that rattan throne in the video and notice the clothes she isn't quite wearing, you'll notice how similar they are to what David Hamilton had the teen models he photographed wear. And notice this lingerie ad photo from the same era by Aubade:



And then there is this cover from Penthouse magazine.




These images are like religious icons in that while the faces may change the symbols establish the subject as the same in some way. And if you were to watch Emmanuelle and listen to Leonard Cohen's Suzanne and read a whole lot of 1970s Penthouse magazines while drinking Harvey Wallbangers it would all somehow make sense. Not because these things go together but because, like Fortnum & Mason, they have been linked together so often that anyone of the elements will bring the others with it.

Final note, contrary to what you might guess, softcore porn came after hardcore. You can find hardcore porn going all the way back to the 1920s. Softcore is a product of the pate 1960s and early 1970s with its soft focus and lack of really explicit detail.


It's been a quiet week ...

... here at the blog. I've been very busy in my real life. Here is some stuff I'm working on:

1. "That nasty today"

It was not only in Nazareth that the "today" of the Gospel was not accepted. Later also, in the course of the church's history, it has again and again been denied or rendered toothless. The reason was the same as in Nazareth: apparently it goes against the human grain for God to become concrete in our lives. Then people's desires and favourite notions are in danger, and so are their ideas about time. It can't be today because that would mean our lives have to change today already. Therefore God's salvation is better delayed into the future. There it can lie, hygienically and snugly packed, at rest, inconsequential.
That's from Gerhard Lohfink's book Jesus of Nazareth, What He Wanted, Who He Was. It's not an unprecedented observation. In a sense, it's all to familiar; we've heard this before. Many times.

2. Apocalypticism?

Related to the above, there is an almost universal belief among bible scholars using the historical-critical method, that Jesus and Paul both believed that the end times were imminent. That not a crazy conclusion. Much of the text can be read that way. But, if so, why was the early church able to so easily adapt to the end not coming. Faiths based on predictions of the end of the world tend to evaporate.

Jesus taught that the kingdom (Lohfink says "reign of God" would be a better translation) has come near. One way to read that is that the end is coming soon, as it is undoubtedly coming eventually. Another is to see the reign of God as already accessible. If Jesus taught the second, it would be easy to mistake that message for the first. Early Christianity, as I say, not only didn't fail when the end times didn't come, it thrived. Perhaps because the main message was always a way of living right now. Perhaps Paul's messages about the end times in, for example, First Thessalonians, weren't the main message but rather reassurances for those whose faith is weak, that is to say, they were reassurances for those who could only understand the message about the reign of God being very near as meaning the end times were imminent. If I'm right, the majority of early Christians would have believed not in an imminent Apocalypse in the modern sense of the end of the world, but of something that could transform their present lives. Paul, as we know, was ready to taylor his message to meet the needs of those whose belief was more superstitious than profound.

3. Book review? 

Having mentioned Gerhard Lohfink's book Jesus of Nazareth, What He Wanted, Who He Was, what do I think of it? I don't know yet. I'm only on the second chapter. So far, it is promising.

4. The demands of "love"

I think most men have had the experience of telling a woman they loved that she was beautiful only to have her dismiss the claim. It's a disorienting experience because we say these things because we mean them. The words come out when we look at her and think how beautiful she is. We're not stupid—we know she isn't a fashion model—but what we see is beauty.

Sometimes, the message is received with pleasure and even gratitude but there are other times when a woman will rush to pour cold water on the suggestion that she is beautiful to you. I think part of the reason is that women seek to control men's emotions just as we do theirs. That's a subject I'll return to below. Most of the issue, though, is that love comes with demands. Being beautiful—along with being brave, honest, caring—requires effort. If you tell someone that she is beautiful  when she feels she has that part of her life that goes with being beautiful in control, then she can accept the compliment with joy. If she's struggling, or just doesn't want to make the effort anymore, then it is a demand. If I praise you for being beautiful I am implicitly saying that you should keep on working at being beautiful.

If God loves us, and Catholics and other Christians, believe he does, then there are demands that come with that love.

5. If you want to be part of this family ...

One of my mother's expressions was, "If you want to be a part of this family you need to stop/start [insert behaviour under discussion]." I had an argument recently with some family members about this. I believe that is an inappropriate thing for a mother to do. They didn't agree.

My mother did it all the time. I'm aware that there are far worse things in life. A friend of mine grew up with a mother who regularly beat her children savagely. But acknowledging that things could have been worse doesn't even come close to getting my mother off the hook. The need to belong is intense in children and it is a cruel and manipulative thing for a parent, or any other family member, to behave this way.

As psychologists say, the point should be to name not blame but nothing is worth naming unless it is potentially worth blaming. Naming is a strategy here; it's a way of training our emotions. I could get angry and I'd be completely justified in doing so. It would not, however, be tremendously useful. My mother's dead. Even if she weren't, what would I achieve by getting angry with her? Quite frankly, she never attained the emotional maturity it would have taken to understand that what she had done was wrong.

I do want to reach that level of emotional maturity.

6. Controlling others' emotions

I've often said that we live in a narcissistic age and that, therefore, we are all narcissists.

The Last Psychiatrist (more on this further down) describes narcissism as the tendency to think we are the stars of a romantic comedy and everyone else is a supporting player. I don't that's quite right because that's everyone. We all start life as egoists and we all tend to revert to being egoists. And we all get regular reminders that other people are not just supporting players in our star vehicle. And it is here where narcissism begins to distinguish itself. I'm no psychologist but I think narcissism is a collection of strategies we use to avoid accepting that others have separate lives.

Probably the most notable of these is the tendency to dismiss others' emotions as illegitimate when they don't harmonize with our own. And if they are illegitimate, then they are open to being dismissed or manipulated. And it gets easier to effectively manipulate others' emotions if you don't recognize them as legitimate in the first place. That's the moment when a parent can turn to a child and exploit their desperate need to belong by saying, if you want to be a part of this family ...".

7. To be loved just as we are ...

We all want that, or think we do which amounts to the same thing. But nobody really believes that love is completely unconditional. Hurt me and I may be able to bring myself to forgive you but I'm not going to love you, or love you again, unless you damn well earn it.

Weird leap now, I've quoted The Last Psychiatrist on narcissistic injury approvingly before:
Fat George Clooney discovers his wife has been cheating on him-- and he never suspected. That's a profound insult, a narcissistic injury, and no, people who complain I talk about it too much but haven't actually learned the lessons, you don't have to be a narcissist to experience a narcissistic injury, it's built into the way we relate to other people. It's jealousy AND an existential beat down: look at the limits of your power, look at the limits of your reach, she is able to have a whole other existence that had so little to do with you you didn't even notice, nor did she feel any need to tell you. At least if she had done it to hurt you you'd still suffer the jealousy but your place as main character in your own movie would be secure. Maybe you're only supporting cast in hers? "Screw that. I'm changing the script."
Having been in a deeply committed relationship and being cheated on, I know all about narcissistic injury. TLP does a very good job of describing the ways we react. But there is a crucial moral point to face here and that is that the woman who cheats on you has done you a serious wrong. I focus on women here because we don't feel the same way about men who cheat. Don't believe me? Tell me that you honestly believe that this movie could be made with the sexes reversed:




When my ex cheated on me, I had friends who came t me and told me that I wasn't treating her well enough and that was why she'd done it. Really! And TLP is doing something like that here. It's the male character's fault that he couldn't see that his wife had a whole existence separate from him! If you made a movie about a group of men who discover that a woman has been having sex with all of them and giving them the impression that each was the only man in her life and they got together and tried to destroy her it would, rightly be describes, as misogyny. Do the same thing with women and you can pass that hatred off as comedy.

Now, we could stamp our feet and scream about double standards but, I think,  as men we just have to accept that this is the way it is and adjust our attitudes accordingly. TLP is quite right that we experience a narcissistic injury when someone we've committed to cheats on us and whole lot of unhealthy responses come with that. But it is equally wrong to act as if there was no injury at all.

To return to what TLP says in the quote above, do anything about the following strike you as odd?
It's jealousy AND an existential beat down: look at the limits of your power, look at the limits of your reach, she is able to have a whole other existence that had so little to do with you you didn't even notice, nor did she feel any need to tell you. At least if she had done it to hurt you you'd still suffer the jealousy but your place as main character in your own movie would be secure. Maybe you're only supporting cast in hers? "Screw that. I'm changing the script."
That's mostly good but it ignores a key moral fact: they're married and married people aren't supposed to have a whole other existence their spouse doesn't know about. That's a real injury and  deserves a response. Just not a narcissistic one.

Don't change the script, but do change the conversation.

Anyway, I'll now make another weird leap back to the topic I started with: To be loved just as you are you have to work hard to make yourself into someone who is beautiful and good. That won't guarantee anything. It's a necessary condition not a sufficient one. But the lesson is that the best revenge is to live well and living well means to make something beautiful and good of yourself.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Song of summer: "innocence" with bubblegum on her knees

Bubblegum music was probably called that because one of the leading purveyors of the music was a band called The 1910 Fruitgum Company. Most critics describe it as a dumbing down of rock music with innocents made innocent so as to not offend the parents of young adolescent girls. That's not really true. Rock and roll, which had been kiddie music, was getting decided adult in contend and this was music that tried to maintain an innocence that was in danger of being lost.

But it's all in the delivery. Take a bouncy bubblegum pop song with painfully innocent lyrics do it with a slow groove and let Julie London give it her patented oral stimulations on it and you you'll get a whole different set of ideas.



The people who hated it, and they were legion, thought that Julie had failed to pull off rock music here. What she really did, in conjunction with other oldsters like Serge Gainsbourg and Leonard Cohen, was to create something brand new. It's a masterpiece of its type.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Whose "heavy price"?

Here is a serious argument that is worth a serious response.
The Mater et Magistra dispute led to many ironic consequences. In defending National Review’s capitalist Catholicism, Buckley and Wills had provided a rationale for social liberals to ignore church teachings on sexual matters, which was especially pertinent after the Vatican released the encyclicalHumanae Vitae (1968), reiterating opposition to birth control and abortion. Wills himself moved to the left in the late 1960s, breaking with Buckley over the Vietnam War and civil rights. About the core issue of the Mater et Magistra debate, Wills argued in his 1979 bookConfessions of a Conservative that “[t]here is something about laissez-faire individualism that is historically at odds with Catholic tradition—but this is a matter not reachable by papal fiat or by those who challenge the sincerity of their fellow believer’s religion.” 
By the late 1960s, as Wills also noted, the two sides had flipped, with “‘liberals’ now denouncing encyclicals rather than using encyclicals to denounce others, ‘conservatives’ sticking with the Pope even when he had issued his disastrous encyclical on contraceptives.” One lesson from theMater et Magistra contretemps is that almost all Catholics are cafeteria Catholics. 
For National Review, the sophisticated arguments they used to wiggle out from having to grapple with church teaching in Mater et Magistra came at a heavy price. The magazine became disengaged from Catholicism as a living intellectual tradition and lost much of its Catholic ambience.
That's from a piece by Jeet Heer called "The Last Time Conservatives Dismissed a Major Encyclical, It Ended Terribly for Them". Headlines in political advocacy publications have a tendency to undermine the article below and that one is no exception. Mater et Magistra was promulgated in 1961; to call the subsequent decades a disaster for conservative Catholics is a little odd. The next two decades saw conservatism go from being a fringe movement that was historically at odds with American tradition to the Reagan White House. It was also a period when Catholic conservative intellectuals rose to a level of influence that would have been unimaginable before. A more accurate headline would be "The Last Time Conservatives Dismissed a Major Encyclical, It Exposed Inconsistencies in their Views", which, while accurate, is not terribly compelling.

Those caveats aside, there is a lot that is right about the argument:
  • A Catholic conservative cannot dismiss Catholic social teaching and then take umbrage at those who disregard Catholic teaching on sex and sexuality.
  • Laissez-faire individualism really is at odds with Catholic tradition.
  • If you denounce Encyclicals, you cannot reasonably reverse direction and start using Encyclicals to to denounce others.
All of these are reversible:
  • Catholic liberals who describe Humanae Vitae as disastrous can't tell Catholic conservatives who question Catholic social teaching to shut up.
  • For a long, long time, monarchy fit right in with Catholic tradition.
  • If you use encyclicals to denounce others, you cannot reasonably reverse direction and begin denouncing encyclicals.
The simple conclusion to draw from this is that Jeet Heer is far too wrapped up in the liberal-conservative ping pong game to see that it is just ping pong and, therefore, ridiculous. A deeper point is that too many popes have written too many encyclicals that fit right into these ping pong games. The moment encyclicals become useful paddles for anyone on any side of a political argument, not only that encyclical but encyclicals generally lose a lot of their luster. The big losers in Laudato Si, no matter how you spin it, will be the Catholic church and the office of the papacy. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 7

I asked earlier what's the difference between structure and formula? We take formula to be a bad thing but one of the big surprises that comes with looking at classic pieces of literature is just how formulaic they tend to be and Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby are both good examples of them. In both the hero follows the orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr path common to just about every Hollywood action movie you've ever sneered at.

What the writers of these two novels have done is to write in a very formulaic way but to disguise that formula. The trick for doing so is unbelievably simple: Gatsby and Kurtz, which is to say that the novels pretend to be about someone other than the real hero. The real heroes are Nick and Marlow.

It works because this simple device makes what what Robert McKee calls miniplot look like classic archplots. In a classic archplot, the important action is external: you could film it all. The hero will really goes places, the action will really come to a climax, there will be blood and we can measure success or failure in terms of external results such as corpses on the ground or battles won or women married. In miniplot the hero tends to be more passive, the climax is a psychological event and the measure of success is some sort of personal growth that the hero achieves or fails to achieve leaving the end result ambiguous and open to interpretation.

The clue that opens the books up, I think, is the way the two heroes relate to other characters. There is a weird disconnect throughout. Never does either narrator make any real connection with anyone. Their presence in their own story is minimal and yet it is very much their story. Retell either in third person or, as has been proven the hard way more than once, try to make a movie out of these books and the everything thing falls apart. Edith Wharton thought that Fitzgerald didn't make enough out of Gatsby and she was, in a sense, right; Gatsby barely exists as a person because the really important thing is the guy telling the story.

Anyway, true to the formula, our two characters have been orphaned. Marlow has no ship and has been forced to call on an aunt to get him a command on a river. Nick left his family to come east where even the man he had planned to share a house with bails on him. Both stories linger on the wandering stage. As they do, we're impatient to meet the guys we've been told the books are about but the story is moving the real hero through an absolutely classic formula.

Friday, June 12, 2015

In my relentless effort to get a Mad Men angle on everything ...

... even now that the series is over and we're all supposed to stop talking about it, I was thinking about the story of the day. You know, the local NAACP leader who turns out to be a white woman pretending she is black. Along with everybody else, I've been wondering why it's just fine to appropriate someone else's gender sex and utterly wrong to appropriate their race. The argument, of course, is that transgendered people aren't appropriating anything but merely assuming their true identity. But that just moves it back one level for why couldn't there be a white or black person who really believed hat their true race was something other than the body they were born in? Once we allow the move for gender, we need a good reason if we're not going to allow it elswehere.

And that got me thinking about Don Draper having "stolen" another man's identity. As I've argued countless times, he didn't. He escaped his old identity but he hardly stole a new one. He, in fact, made rather more of the name than the dead Don Draper would have done. In any case, the point was that he didn't feel he was the man he'd been born into. And why should he be forced to accept that identity if he doesn't want it?
Ain't you heard? I'm a whore child.
Anyway, this whole question of authenticity is really a purely random thing.  That's the takeaway here.

Songs of summer; "Innocence" NSFW

Suzanne shows a Jewish poet and an English photographer where to look ...

My theme this summer is a kind of erotic "innocence", the scare quotes are very appropriate here, that was evident everywhere in the 1970s just as I was coming of age. The first two posts focused on Serge Gainsbourg. Now I want to shift to Leonard Cohen. He and Gainsbourg have a lot in common. They both are Jewish. Both were older men than most of their pop music contemporaries. Both men, though no slouches at music, were much better with words than music. Most importantly, both men made huge contributions to the sort of erotic imagery I've been discussing.

Cohen got some very-much-unwanted help in this from a photographer named David Hamilton and that unwitting collaboration is the subject of today's post.

The Jewish poet

We'll start with Cohen. The song is "Suzanne". Here is how he described it:
I wrote this in 1966. Suzanne had a room on a waterfront street in the port of Montreal. Everything happened just as it was put down. She was the wife of a man I knew. Her hospitality was immaculate.
That "immaculate" is a very ambiguous term. With no context, it sounds like she gave him sex. But the song blurs the lines between Suzanne the hostess and our Lady of the Harbour who is Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Good Hope in English) whose statue as Stella Maris (the star of the sea), is visible on the very street where Suzanne lives. She is the one whom the sun pours down like honey.

If you know your Catholic Mariology, you will know that Mary, aka "Our Lady", is also known as "the Immaculate Conception". Now that refers not to the conception of Jesus but to the conception of Mary as being immaculate, which is to say, without original sin. But Mary's conception is not without sex. Unlike Mary herself, her parents conceived through sex.

On the other hand, a man and a woman can not have sex and still be the opposite of innocent.

So ... well, you decide. We could go in circles here all day long, which I suspect was Cohen's intention.

At the same time, Cohen was mining a well-established genre here. It goes back at least as far as "It Happened in Monterey" from the 1920s and was carried on by dozens of other songs and books. The story was always the same, guy goes somewhere exotic, meets local girl, falls in love, loses local girl, she haunts him still. The exotic place could be a foreign land or it could be the bohemian part of town; in the end it was an imaginary exotica so it wasn't that important. In 1954, Jackie Gleason released a concept album called  Tawny that hit almost all the same themes as Cohen only he set it to swing jazz with strings.

Cohen's innovation was to really play up the suggestion of innocence and sexuality together that comes from the troubadour tradition via Catholic teachings about Mary and a new kind of music. At the time, the music was called "folk" but it has no connection with any legitimate folk music you'll find anywhere on this planet. It's actual roots are French chanson and country, both of which were very much a part of the popular culture of Quebec where Cohen grew up.

The English photographer

Cohen foolishly signed away the publishing rights of the song and new owner of the rights agreed to allow the German magazine TWEN to use the lyrics along with a photo spread published in 1969. Now, that may mean nothing to you but, trust me, this was one very influential magazine.
Is the Twen magazine the most influential magazine of all times? This question might sound pretentious but it is not far from the truth. Why was this magazine so influential? It was the groundbreaking design ideas, innovative usage of photography and full use of the advanced printing methods that made Twen a leader in magazine layout and design.
Cohen gave exotica a new music and TWEN gave it a new look. They commissioned a fashion photographer named David Hamilton to provide a photo spread to go with the lyrics. And he delivered.

Hamilton gets a lot of criticism nowadays, when people pay attention to him at all, because he specialized in erotic photography of girls, as in under legal age girls. And maybe he deserves it. I'm inclined to let him off the hook but thousands of others aren't. But, whether you think the end result is pornographic or art, the achievement is impressive.

He didn't have much to go on.
she is wearing rags and feathers
from Salvation Army counters
That's all the song says about her appearance. Hamilton took that and a vaguely Pre-Raphaelite bohemianism combined with Belle Epoque aesthetic and shot it all in soft focus to give it a sort of impressionist feeling and ran with it. There were only four photos in the original spread abut it was so popular that Hamilton spun dozens of books and, most famously, an ad campaign for Nina Ricci perfume out of it. Here is a sampler, warning nudity.




In a David Hamilton photograph, the subject is almost always innocent. You on the other hand, may not be. She is either alone in her bedroom or with  a trusted girlfriend or, if in public, unaware of what she is showing.



And a whole lot people built a career on that look, from designers, to models, to actresses, to clothing stores. (Added March 21, 2016: Also Penthouse Magazine.)

You might even say, although I'm he sure wouldn't, Leonard Cohen. Hamilton is now mostly forgotten but I think we'd understand Cohen's words in a very different way if Hamilton hadn't given us the images he did to go with it. Between them, they created a new kind or erotic art that was everywhere in the 1970s. Listen to the song and while looking at the photo above.






Thursday, June 11, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 6

Why do we read The Great Gatsby? Why isn't it just a period piece the way so many other books from the 1920s are?

You might be tempted to say that it's because The Great Gatsby is a great novel, perhaps the great American novel. Well, it is now but it wasn't when I was a high school student. It was recognized as something pretty special and it was a standard novel for high school students along with Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men, A Separate Peace and others. But it was seen as something just equal to them. And Fitzgerald's novel was taken as a poor second when compared to Hemingway.

It's really quite jarring to think of how much author's reputations have changed since I was in high school. Hemingway doesn't have nearly the stature he did in the 1970s. Likewise e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, and John Dos Passos. All of these are still held on considerable respect, Eliot much more than the other three, but none has the godlike status they had in the 1960s. Their halos were all somewhat tarnished by the time I got to high school but no one would have guessed how much they would decline.

And no one would have guessed that The Great Gatsby would ascend to the heights it has. Everyone could always see that Fitzgerald could write incredibly well; there was something Mozart-like about him. But many people wondered what all that genius was being used in service of—some, like my Grade 11 English teacher, would sneer that it doesn't matter how well you can write if you have nothing worthwhile to say (a criticism that I, like Dos Passos, would be more inclined to level at James Joyce).

The other thing that tainted Fitzgerald in the eyes of critics was his popularity. He was a pop culture writer and the critics of the 1950s disdained popular culture. And here I turn to Waller Newell:
... I will argue that pop culture can provide important clues to our repressed longings. Through pop culture, we often experience the guilty pleasure of vicariously enjoying ways of life that are forbidden to us by our prevailing social orthodoxies. These longings may begin as frivolous or trivial, but they can, surprisingly, furnish a more direct path back to the profound teachings of the Western tradition than what sometimes passes for scholarship in our centers of learning.
WARNING: Outrageous claim coming: Gatsby is a great novel because it warns us of the dangers of eros. It has a lineage that goes back to Plato and Saint Paul. Eros, we would say "love" is a virtue only when balanced by others. Taken by itself, it is no virtue at all.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 5

I'm going to make a weird leap right here and talk about "The appeal of Don Draper". For many (most?) people, this would be an insane way to go but it's my search for virtue and Don Draper touched something deep within me and, so, it makes perfect sense for me to pursue this.

If you search that subject line, Google will give you 430,000 results. They range from A to B. That is to say, all the answers given are variations on two themes: 1) because women, or feminists, secretly love jerks no matter what they say to the contrary or 2) it's all because of his manly looks and his Brooks Brothers suits. I've even written on the subject before, and I'm happy to say that my post makes the top twenty of those 430,000 on Google. I didn't have a lot positive to say in that post beyond criticizing others:
Now a good suit and flattering lighting will do a lot for a man but these things will never be enough to make a woman think, "He looks like he would know how to throw me to the wall and do me right." 
There is another way to ask the question. Rather than saying, why do women like him despite his negative qualities, Suderman and Baker might well ask what positive qualities the guy might have.
And those would be? Well, a lot of my other posts, too many to link, touch on the subject but I've never tried to answer the question in any thorough-going way.

There is a reasonable comparison to be made between Gatsby and Draper. They both leave family behind, adopt a new name and achieve great success with the help of mentors.  Dan Cody and Wolfsheim in Gatsby's case and Teddy the Greek and Roger Sterling for Draper. Both showed a remarkable capacity for starting over from nothing and both had a dream that kept driving. To which we might add that both also inspire others to launch into attacks on the American dream.

None of that is true of Kurtz. Kurtz is a dark, dark man an anti-hero seen through the eyes of a man for whom the primary lesson is don't become what this man has become because you have this same propensity for evil within you. Neither Gatsby or Draper is an anti-hero. To the contrary, there is something both that goes way back to the ideals of classical masculinity and that is what makes him appealing.



Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Can second-generation feminism survive after Caitlyn Jenner?

For many that question will seem ludicrous. Most people will, I think, wonder why it's even an issue.

It is an issue and has been an issue for a number of years now. Transgender people in feminist circles have started to complain that some issues—most notably, abortion—don't apply to them. These transgender people want to be considered women and feel they have a right to be considered women and, therefore, they have been arguing that claiming that abortion is a feminist issue excludes them as women. More trivially, there was an Australian add for tampons a few years ago that featured a young woman and a transgender person competing in front of a mirror. The woman won the competition by pulling out a tampon. The ad was withdrawn after many complaints were received.

Most recently, there is a fascinating piece in the CS Monitor that attempts to solve the problem in a purely rationalist fashion, as is typical of that publication

Ultimately, though, the debate cannot be resolved because it is based not on any rational arguments about what it does or does not mean to be a woman but rather on competing denunciations of what ideologies that are condemned for imposing unfair notions of womanhood.

Radical feminists argue that Caitlyn Jenner values precisely the unfair standards imposed on women in the name of ideology, which is to say they are culturally imposed values. But the consequence of arguing only against what you feel is imposed and not for what you believe is defining is that it's now open to transgender people to argue that pregnancy, and therefore abortion and menstruation, are merely ideology, social constructs, culturally imposed notions of what it means to be a woman.

Second generation feminism, as Joan Didion noted long ago, was founded on the belief that women could be a revolutionary class. The idea, derived from Marx, was that an oppressed group could, out of their shared experience, come to see themselves as having a common class consciousness that would motivate them to act collectively to change society. On this model, the distinctions between classes would disappear after the revolution. As Didion also notes, most women, especially white university-educated women in the west, remain firmly committed to the ideals of liberal individualism in their personal lives and this causes deep tensions within feminism.

That is hardly unique to feminists. One reason western liberals have consistently failed to see why socialism is always brutally soul-crushing oppressive regimes is that fail to see that it just isn't compatible with individualism. The issue of transgender women drives this issue home with a vengeance.
“These societally defined traits of sex do not define a sex,” wrote Libby Emmons and David Marcus in a piece on the conservative culture site “The Federalist” last week. “Feminists have been fighting for decades, since the suffragettes, to vocalize the non-feminineness of females. We can vote, we can fight, we can wear pants and flats, we can boss a whole room of employees without demurring. To allow the trans movement to objectify women is to accept the oppression of the female sex by the male sex, and to further accept male definitions of what it is to be female.”
To which, the transgender advocate Cristan Williams replies
In many ways, this is a valid critique of culture, says Williams, and perhaps even a valid analysis of ideas of gender. But it’s not really a critique of who transgender people are – since, like biological males and females, there is a wide-ranging diversity of how people express their notions of gender. 
“I don’t take issue with a critique of this specific person, or this specific behavior,” Williams says. “As long as that critique is made of non-transgender women who engage in the exact same behavior.” 
In fact, she says, there are trans women who are very traditionally “fem,” like Jenner, and trans women, like herself, who ride a motorcycle and everything in between. “Somehow, in some way, if I ride a Harley then I’m colonizing dyke culture,” she says of the lesbian subculture that she might be associated with – and accused of culturally appropriating as an outsider. “If I wear a dress, then I’m just a caricature of a woman.”
Both these arguments are, as Alasdair MacIntyre would cheerfully point out, easily recognizable types that are very in our culture and they both appeal to sets of criteria that preclude there ever being any end to argument. All that can happen from here on in is that both sides keep repeating their arguments only more and more shrilly with each iteration.

Ultimately, they who shout loudest will win and I'd bet good money that second generation feminists will very soon learn they are heavily outgunned in this debate. And Williams obviously grasps this as indicated by the remark, "As long as that critique is made of non-transgender women who engage in the exact same behavior." Williams knows it probably won't be because the women to whom that critique might fairly be applied constitute the overwhelming majority of women.

To answer my own question, I think this is the final nail in second generation feminism's coffin. And I further think there is not really anything one could call third generation feminism. There could be such a thing but, as of right now, there are just a bunch of ideas that haven't really gelled. And so long as being a woman is pretty much anything anyone who feels they are a woman want it to be, there cannot be any such third generation feminism.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Songs of Summer: "Innocence"






Serge Gainsbourg, also the subject of last week's song of summer, was frighteningly clever. Was he anything more than that? No. Just very, very clever.

On the one hand, that's nothing to sneer at. 9999 out of 10,000 pop artists are just clever. On the other hand, there is no real depth here.

The joke, for those of you who don't speak French, is that after several scandals caused by his sneaking sexual content into seemingly innocent songs, here Gainsbourg has produced a song that seems overtly sexual but has lyrics that say that sex is not love. It's a love song of a sort.

Except that Jane Birkin is simulating orgasm in the background and that tends to contradict the lyrics in the foreground.

Birkin had been married to John Barry, of James Bond fame, before hooking up with Gainsbourg. As such, you might say that this song represents the pivot point between the sixties and the seventies. There is an undeniable change of attitude that comes with it.

It wasn't a pivot for the kiddie set but for adults. The adults had made it through the sixties still making updated versions of the easy swinging style that Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra had established in the 1950s but the clock had run out on that. Some sort of compromise with rock music had to be made and this showed the way.

Gainsbourg's pop career is pretty much an extended commentary on pop music by a man who simultaneously a) made a lot of money out of it while b) hating it. The opening riff, for example, is obviously derived from The lineage of Louie Louie but Gainsbourg can't help improving it as he steals it. He's married that to an organ line clearly inspired by Whiter Shade of Pale.

(For any purists reading this, it's not quite the Louie Louie Chord progression. That one goes I-IV-v-IV and this, like Hang on Sloopy, is a more straightforward I-IV-V-IV. Most listeners couldn't tell the difference and there is no good reason to care.)

On top of all that there is Gainsbourg's almost spoken vocal and Jane Birkin's inimitable contribution. His vocal is almost a cliché of French chanson but, for obvious reasons, no one was going to notice. Birkin did a full frontal nude in the movie Blow Up that I'm told was the first in British film history. She was, and is, extremely beautiful, talented and rich, so she didn't have to worry about shame much.

Donna Summer later did a version of this which is rather a shame as it seems a little too much, sort of like Caitlyn Jenner doing a sex tape.

In any case, this really set the style for what was to come as we'll see. 

Gatsby and Kurtz 4

A couple of precisions to wind up the first week. I've been arguing that The Great Gatsby uses a structure drawn from Heart of Darkness. I don't mean to suggest that they tell the same story. They are very different stories. What I mean to suggest is that just as Hollywood movies are often written on a formula such as the hero's journey, so too it is with Gatsby which takes its structure from Conrad's novella. (structure aside, the story in Gatsby has more in common with Madame Bovary than it does with the story in Heart of Darkness.)

Second precision regards Gatsby's character. Some may have thought my description of Gatsby as a whore unfair. It isn't. Think of how Wolfsheim describes his relationship with Gatsby. Nick asks if he started Gatsby in business (and "business" is an interesting word choice here). Wolfsheim says, "Start him! I made him." To which Nick says "Oh." Wolfsheim goes on,

I raised him up out of nothing, right out of the gutter. I saw right away he was a fine-appearing, gentlemanly young man, and when he said he was at Oggsford I knew I could use him good.
No pimp would describe women he exploits any differently.

I heard a gay male hooker who claimed to be the highest paid prostitute in New York once. He claimed that the key to his success was that wealthy Johns could take him to the opera and be sure he wouldn't embarrass them. That's what Gatsby made of himself. And if we look at the program for self-improvement he wrote on the flyleaf of Hopalong Cassidy as a young man, we can see how he got to be that way.

Rise from bed. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . 6.00 a.m.
Dumbbell exercise and wall-scaling. . . . .. 6.15-6.30 ”
Study electricity, etc. . . . . . . . . . . . 7.15-8.15 ”
Work. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8.30-4.30 p.m.
Baseball and sports. . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.30-5.00 ”
Practice elocution, poise and how to attain it 5.00-6.00 ”
Study needed inventions. . . . . . . . . . . 7.00-9.00 ”

General Resolves No wasting time at Shafters or [a name, indecipherable] No more smokeing or chewing Bath every other day Read one improving book or magazine per week Save $5.00 {crossed out} $3.00 per week Be better to parents
There is a seeming innocence here. I wonder how you'd go about studying "needed inventions"? Well, you couldn't because that's some child's fantasy. But if you're goal was to become the sort of male prostitute who wouldn't embarrass a John if he took you to the opera, or if you wanted to be a front for a sleazy character like Wolfsheim or a pretty boy to have around the yacht for Dan Coady, that wouldn't be a bad way to set about doing it.

Of course, it wasn't Gatsby's goal to become the whore he became. And the overwhelming majority of the thousands of boys who sketched out similar self-improvement plans didn't become whores. So, why does Gatsby end up as one? Two things do him in.

The first is that his goals aren't really practical, as indicated by "study electricity, etc." and "Study needed inventions". He'd have been better off paying more attention to his school work. and working hard on the farm instead of running away and loafing on the shores of Lake Superior.

The second failing was his desire to have Daisy. If James Gatz had set about making a solid middle-class existence, a little better than his parents, for himself, which is what the American dream is really about, he almost certainly would have succeeded. He would have met another woman and married her and she would have been a better woman than Daisy. I'll come back to this but there is a moment in the novel when Gatsby trades his high and pure dream for the trash that is Daisy. For now, let's just acknowledge that just about every man falls in love with an illusion at some point but not every man devotes the rest of his life to pursuing her.

Final thought going into the weekend is that Nick has a lot in common with Gatsby. Yesterday, I quoted Nick describing his own self improvement plan:
I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Macenas knew. 
That's just the start. If we read on, we can see how this practical goal rapidly gets set aside by a plan to become the sort of prostitute a John wouldn't be ashamed to take to the opera.
And I had high intention of reading many other books besides. I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the "Yale News"—and now I was going to bring all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the "well-rounded man".
And suddenly, all this studying of finance sounds a lot like studying "needed inventions".
But that's nothing compared to the very next sentence in the paragraph:
This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all.
Really? Of course not. Fitzgerald didn't put such a stupidity into Nick's mouth by accident. If you're a careful reader, that's supposed to wake you up and start you paying really close attention.



Thursday, June 4, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 3

What, when discussing writing, is the difference between structure and formula?

The cynic in me is tempted to say that we talk about structure when we mean to praise and formula when we mean to condemn. Perhaps it's more that structure implies artistic freedom whereas formula suggests something more like painting by numbers. Basilica-form churches share a similar structure but a huge variety of buildings have been produced using that structure. A huge variety of beautiful buildings have been produced. Harlequin Romances, on the other hand, are all the same drab story with only the characters names, clothing and locations changing.

But that doesn't work either. When you step back and look at it, a great novel like Pride and Prejudice shares a lot of structural similarity with cheap romance novels.

In any case, structural elements that we find in Heart of Darkness show up in The Great Gatsby with astonishing regularity. The next two I will discuss are the job search and mythic geography.

If you were going to tell a story, any story, you need a push. It's not unlike rowing, paddling or sailing a small boat. You push away from the dock to get her moving and then you ship the oars, dig in the paddle or sheet home the sails. That little push matters. In both Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby the narrator's pursuit of a job is the push. Marlow needs a new ship to work on and Nick needs a career.

There is also water for the story to be pushed across. That is to say, there is a geography that this push is set against. Both these stories are very much about geography and a heavily symbolic geography.

What I mean by that is that the geography isn't so much a matter of real places on a map as it is a medium for the story. I started off using the metaphor of a boat pushed away from a dock. But which dock? It doesn't matter. The Iliad starts on a beach. What beach? It doesn't matter. All that matters is that there is a beach that the assembled warriors are waiting on prior to beginning their story.

Marlow is stranded in London. He wants a ship and he thinks about freshwater for a change. Why? We never really get an answer to that. What we get is a a lot of mythology about the river that starts at the sea and goes back into the depths of uncharted country. That's backwards, by the way. Rivers actually start in the middle of the land and end at their mouths. Conrad deliberately has Marlow make this mistake about beginnings and ends all the way through.

Fitzgerald plays a similar trick with American geography. Nick is from the heartland of America but, coming back from the war, "the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe". And so he goes to the coast which, like all coasts, actually is the ragged edge of the mainland.

Our two narrators rapidly invest the geography their stories are set against with a lot of meaning without ever telling us a lot about it. The section that describes the East and West Egg villages in Gatsby, for example, is magnificent writing but try and draw a map of the land he describes. You can't do it. Draw to eggs with flattened ends with water between then and you will have nothing that looks like any actual land mass anywhere in the world. You get a very accurate description of the moral and cultural geography but you learn nothing of any real use about the physical geography.

Why are our two narrators making their respective trips? We don't know. To have something to do is as close as we get to an answer.  The stories both seem pointless and both narrators dwell at some length on their pointlessness. As they wander about, and both spend a long time not getting to the point, they traverse a mythic landscape where the navigation aids seem to be designed for the straightforward pursuit of wealth.
I had no difficulty in finding the Company's offices. It was the biggest thing in town, and everybody I met was full of it. They were going to run an over-sea empire, and make no end of coin by trade.
Says Marlow. And Nick tells us.
I bought a dozen volumes on banking and credit and investment securities, and they stood on my shelf in red and gold  like new money from the mint, promising to unfold the shining secrets that only Midas and Morgan and Macenas knew.
But both our narrators are ironically detached from the stuff that concerns everyone around them and that would be fine except that we might well wonder why they are bothering to make a voyage that apparently means so little to either of them. Why? Just so the story can be told. I won't answer that now because we'd need to know what the story is about in order to answer it.

I leave you with another question. Both these stories make a lot of implied differences of geography. The average Englishman reading Heart of Darkness when it first came out, would have made a lot of the differences between Britain and Belgium and their respective empires. But what, beyond the fact that Britain's empire was established and the Belgian one a newer thing, really distinguished them? The British thought of their empire as a noble thing but what, beyond establishment, gave it this moral standing? The same goes for the fictional villages of East Egg and West Egg. East Egg is old money but does that give it any real moral standing?

Chinua Achebe, famously, saw that Heart of Darkness was really a novel about Europe and Europeans and not about Africa. He was right about that (and wrong about pretty much everything else). And, to hammer on my favourite issue regarding Gatsby, everyone says that this is a novel about the American dream but the story is not about ambitious Horatio Alger heroes humbly making their way through hard work and discipline. There is a nice feint telling us that he is towards the end but, if we pay attention, the novel gives us more than enough evidence to see that Gatsby is really a whore and Wolfsheim is his pimp. Gatsby and Nick are just sycophants in the courts of enormous wealth and nothing could be further from Benjamin Franklin than that.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz 2

I've been talking about common features at the openings of Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby. Another one is that we get a sort of blanket condemnation of humanity followed by a thin slice of redemption, a slice so thin it isn't really there.
The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a slightly different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look at it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to ..."
Notice that this isn't even halfway convincing. I don't think it's meant to be. Marlow may well mean it but Conrad doesn't. What we have here is an intentionally bad argument. It's partly here to hide an esoteric claim that British colonial practice was every bit as ugly as the Belgian practices that will get a thorough going over as the story goes on. But that's not all it is.

What Nick tells of Gatsby is just as unsatisfactory an argument.
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt I wanted the world to be at moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction—Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right in the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.
To which we should scream, "What?" Nick may really mean it but Fitzgerald doesn't. It's not just that, as I'm sure you know, Gatsby actually turns up, not "all right in the end", but dead in a swimming pool. It's that everything Gatsby does has a sordidness about it; he's a bootlegger who tries to steal another man's wife.

In both Marlow's and Nick's tales, the side of the story we sympathize with is the side we are encouraged to take and the two novelists are challenging us to see just how long we're willing to go along with this. Just how much immunity do we think we are entitled to by virtue of being readers of these stories and not participants in them?

Bonus point:

Yesterday, I was saying that the commonplace criticism that Nick is, despite his claims to the contrary, very judgmental, doesn't hold. The long quote above is an example of what I mean. Nick tells us that Gatsby represents everything he has unaffected scorn for and yet, despite this, he doesn't condemn him. Whatever is going on here, it's nothing we can simply condemn Nick for.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Gatsby and Kurtz

I don't know that anybody wants or needs yet another discussion of The Great Gatsby. Just about everyone has read it and you've probably heard that it's some sort of critique of the American Dream. I doubt that. It has something to do with the American Dream but it's about something far more fundamental than that.

I thought it was about the American Dream when I was in high school. I thought that largely because my Grade 11 English teacher, Sister Dodd, told me that was what it was about. A modern nun with all that comes with that, she saw Christ as a person who had come to warn of the dangers of middle class complacency and materialism in late twentieth century America.

I loved the book anyway and read it many times. I read the whole thing out loud to my girlfriend at the time because she was too lazy to read it herself. And then I got to CEGEP and did the English literature survey course. The second volume of the Norton Anthology of English Literature in those days included Heart of Darkness. It may still. Anyway, I read in order to write an essay. And when I did, I made two discoveries that changed my life. The first was that the Conrad novella is a male masterpiece. Like many men, and not a few women, reading it changed my life for the better by teaching me important lessons about what it is to be a man. The second, equally life-changing discovery, was that Fitzgerald was very much influenced by this book. For all intents and purposes, he used it as a template to create Gatsby.

I'm not going to even begin to try and prove that. I'm just going to go with it. I blog, you decide.

If we begin at the beginnings, there are four points of similarity that should really strike us.

  1. In both we have a narrator who tells the story of a seemingly extraordinary man. I say "seemingly" because it gets harder and harder to decide where the narrator leaves off and his subject begins as these stories go on.
  2. Both stories are mythic. That is, they read like mythology and not like a story we might be expected to believe actually happened at any time in history. Every attempt to make a movie out of either has failed for the simple reason that the stories don't work like stories. They're oft-told tales that we might believe their respective narrators have worked over and over again to create myths to make sense of life. I say "we might believe" because both narrators are themselves fictional characters.
  3. Both start with a philosophical proposition, a moral proposition.
  4. And both start with a hermeneutic suggestion telling us how to interpret the tale we are about to hear.

I'll deal with just the last two for now.

The moral proposition at the start of Heart of Darkness is this:
"And this also," said Marlow suddenly, "has been one of the dark places of the earth."
The moral proposition at the start of The Great Gatsby is this:
"Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had all the advantages that you've had."
The first thing I think is worth noting is that neither of those moral propositions is terribly profound. The only thing that saves them from being truisms is that we have a tendency to forget about such things even though they ought to be obvious and a timely moral reminder can be a good thing. That said, both have a pseudo-profound feel about them in the mouths of their respective narrators.

What saves both is the hermeneutic claim. We are told not to look for direct simplicity in either story.
The yarns of seaman have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted) and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
Fitzgerald's Nick gives us the same warning, albeit in a more plainspoken way.
He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me but also made me victim of not a few veteran bores.
The trite commonplace Nick's remarks occasion is to say that this proves that he is an unreliable narrator because he makes all sorts of judgments and therefore en garde. He thinks his judgments but is remarkably reticent about expressing them or acting on them. I think the point in both cases is that we should not treat these stories as anything like mystery stories. They are more like film noir in that the story is really about human nature and not a particular set of human events and we might say that the genre starts here: Conrad invents the form and Fitzgerald gives it its American setting.