Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What I saw at the (sexual) revolution

This will be the last of the relation-ship based stories, for now anyway. Like all the others, it is based on real events with some veiling to protect identities. I've left one name—Stephanie—unchanged because I feel a certain admiration for her. She and "Ted" are the only ones who could possibly figure out which Stephanie.

There are no turning points in life. There is just a time when things that seemed confused and uncertain suddenly seem no longer to be so. We sometimes call this the turning point when, if such a thing were possible, any actual turning has already happened. If there was a turning point on sexuality, it must have happened in the 1980s. If it happened, I didn't notice it; I don't know anyone else who did either.

But things did turn and I do remember the shock when I realized that things had changed and that people playing by the old rules had been left behind. It was a shock because with a subject like women, men and sex, I'd always assumed that it was the way it was and that it would never change.

There had apparently been a sexual revolution starting before I was born and over before I hit puberty but that seemed to me to be a mostly about things that had always been happening in the shadows coming out into the light. What happened in the 1980s was different and I think far more significant than the sexual revolution. The very basis of sexual relationships between women and men changed.

I noticed it talking to a guy named Ted. We reconnected a few years after university and just a little while before Ted moved to Paris. I'd met Ted in 1980 at university. Ted was a romantic. At the same time he was being so romantic, there was a lot of sex around the university. There were really only two sexually transmitted diseases in those days and both were curable. Besides which, nobody you knew ever got them. That would change, of course—in just two years time herpes would be the Time cover storyand it was our fault it changed. In those days you could walk into the university library and if you caught something in a girl's expression, a girl you had never even met before, you could invite for tea and oatmeal cookies followed by sex on the couch. You wouldn't mention the sex in your invitation, of course. It wasn't reasonable to expect the girl to commit herself that quickly, or, more to the point, that openly, but you both knew where things were likely going.

A lot of us did things like that back in those days. A doctor who worked at the university's health centre once told me that she spent the first two months of every year doing nothing but prescribing the pill to one woman after another: five appointments an hour, seven hours a day, five days a week. And there were a half dozen doctors on staff. "Anyone who showed up with an actual health problem, we'd send to emergency." These women, girls really, were away from home and away from their family doctors for the first time. They'd maybe had one lover in high school and maybe not even that but now they were free to do what they wanted and they meant to make the most it.

In that sort of atmosphere you could almost feel sorry for the poor sods, especially the male sods, who wanted love. Even if you found a girlfriend, she'd cheat on you. It seemed easier and safer to just go with the flow. I did and so did did Ted at first. It never bothered me; it did bother poor Ted. He was a romantic, as I say, and he wanted love.

And he found it when he met Marie. They met around the end of our second-last year and got serious at the start of final year. And for a while they lived in bliss. They'd spend entire weekends in bed together. Ted went to her place at Christmas and they'd snuck down from their separate rooms in the middle of the night after her parents were gone to sleep and had sex in front of tree and ate Santa's cookies afterward.

Ted thought he'd done us all one better. He had all the sex we did and love too.

He had it for six months. Then things got tougher. Ted didn't talk about it with me. He wasn't the type to talk about it. Most men aren't. But I didn't need to be told because I could see it. When Ted and Marie were in the room with me there was a tension that hadn't been there before. And it felt to me like a bond that used to exist between them was now missing.

They went on being boyfriend and girlfriend though. And that cold period was a lot longer than the six months of warmth had been. Ted persisted—he was in love and he wasn't going to abandon love. Neither would Marie. They started to talk about getting married. Then they were engaged. They both were thrilled and things seemed to get back to what they had been for a while.

And then they cooled off again.

University ended that year and I moved back to the town I'd come from and lived with my parents in the suburbs for a while. Ted, romantic that he was, couldn't imagine leaving either Marie or Québec, so he moved into her apartment in a beautiful old house of the kind you dream of living in. Marie had a roommate named Stephanie.

I eventually moved back too. I guess I had some romance in me after all. I worked at a bistro in la vielle capitale and one day I ran into Ted again and we went for a beer together down in the lower town. For some reason I quite clearly remember ordering a Dortmunder. We covered all the old stuff but I didn't mention Marie for a long time. I'd expected an invitation to their wedding and I was hurt I hadn't gotten one. It never occurred to me that there might not have been a wedding.

Finally, I did ask. "How is Marie?" Ted said, "I have no idea." Then he told me they had broken up quite some time before. I said I was sorry to hear that. And then, although I hadn't asked, he told me how they broke up.

One night he and Marie had an argument. They'd gotten so they argued a lot. After it died down, unresolved, Marie fell asleep. Ted was so discouraged that he could not sleep. He got up and watched television but was so unhappy he decided he needed to get out out of the apartment. He got dressed and headed out into the winter cold. It was just before sunrise and he figured he'd find a coffee shop or something.

He was on his way down the street when he heard Stephanie call him in a loud whisper. He turned and saw her on the sidewalk in the snow wearing a flannel nightie and her boots and he rushed back to try and get her to go back in where it was warm. She refused. She wanted to tell him something. The two of them stood there in the cold morning air while she talked.

Stephanie had been listening to their fights for a long time. She'd had no choice in the little apartment. She'd often been waked by the sound of Ted and Marie talking. She knew their argument from start to stop. She knew it so well because, as she told Ted that morning, it was always the same argument. And then she said the words that set Ted free. "It's her body Ted. She's been living with it for 23 years now. If she doesn't know how to make it work, it's not your fault."

Ted didn't know how to respond to that and he was getting quite nervous about Stephanie out in the cold. He got her to go in but it took a while. She kept insisting that he acknowledge what she'd told him. "It isn't going to change Ted—she isn't going to change." He really didn't want to acknowledge it. She really did want him to. He finally said he did but it was more to get Stephanie to go in than anything else.

Then he went and found a coffee shop. It was while he was eating his pain au chocolat that he finally accepted what Stephanie had said. It wasn't easy. He really loved Marie and wanted to marry her. When he thought about the times they were happy together, and they had lots of these, he couldn't imagine anything he wanted more than to be married to Marie.

He didn't leave Marie that day. It took him a few months. He kept imagining what he'd say to her. He always had to do that with difficult issues with Marie. Anytime he'd tried to raise them, he'd always felt tongue-tied and she always seemed to be able to argue circles around him in the subsequent discussion. He had to formulate everything ahead of time or else she'd overwhelm him. This time, he couldn't even make his argument in his imagination. "I kept trying to say it in a way that she wouldn't turn against me and I couldn't."

The problem was that he kept trying—in his imaginary conversations—to convince her that it was best for both of them. And he had no trouble seeing how she would turn that on him. She'd say he was trying to make it sound like it was good for her when it was really what he wanted. He'd gone through a lot of variations on that argument and had come to dread them. The only thing he dreaded more was having the actual argument.

One day, he found an apartment on Cartier. It wasn't at all romantic. It was upstairs from a store and Cartier was a busy street. He took it anyway. Then he took a day off work, rented a van and moved his stuff out. The only big things he owned were his bed and a kitchen table and chairs that he'd promised his parents he'd return to them some day. Everything he could carry himself he took. He left the big furniture behind.

He called Marie that night and told her it was over. He just told her; he didn't explain or try to justify. He called from a payphone because he didn't have one in the apartment yet. The conversation lasted about forty five minutes and most of it was her hating him for what he was doing. He didn't dispute one word she said because he didn't feel any need to anymore. He was going and it didn't matter that much to him if she hated him now. And somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that Stephanie would quietly tell another story to some of their female friends. That made it easier.

"The only thing that got me thinking about it later was that she'd threatened to leave before. I never had. I was the one who always begged her to stay. Sometimes—more and more often as time went on—she'd interrupt one of our arguments and say, 'I give up,' or 'Let's give up.' That used tear me apart. I'd cry and she'd look at me with these cold eyes. But when I actually did it, I was some sort of monster."

He stood it though. "Because she was right," he laughed as he explained this. I laughed with him and then laughed again for real a few moments later when I realized he meant not the real Marie but the one he'd been having the imaginary arguments with. What she was right about was that he was doing this for himself. "I finally faced it. I couldn't live like that. I couldn't go through that for the rest of my life."

So he left.

After we'd said goodbye, I went back to my place and thought about it. And it hit me that everything had changed. I'd never taken Ted very seriously and I still didn't. But that was what made it so impressive. If Ted had noticed this change, it had to have really happened. Sometimes you see people who seem to be riding some new trend but it fades because it never was a trend; they were just trendy. But not Ted. He was always behind a little. If he'd turned, everything had turned. And he'd needed Stephanie's help to see it. He never could have without her. She was the real heroine of the story the way Ted told it.

Ted never stopped being romantic. It was a little while after that he announced he was going to move to Paris. I don't know if he found love and happiness there. I doubt it somehow.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Moving the plot along

A sort of syncopated approach today.

Willoughby leaves
And what to make of it? Well, that's what all the characters are also trying to do, so let's just leave it until we know better.

Marianne's reaction to the departure
Now, this is interesting. 
Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it. But the feelings which made such composure a disgrace, left her in no danger of incurring it. She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it. She got up with an headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough! 
Some have read this as proof that Marianne is just acting the part but I think that is wrong. Note first the sentence: "But the feelings which made such composure a disgrace, left her in no danger of incurring it." Then note the last sentence: "Her sensibility was potent enough!" The exposition here is, I think, a glance inside Marianne's head but it doesn't show her acting the part it shows her doubting her heroic status. Luckily, her feelings are potent enough.

The question we might ask ourselves, however, is how exactly does her heroism differ from narcissism? Let's go back to the contrast between feelings natural and feelings heroic from Northanger Abbey:
Feelings rather natural than heroic possessed her; instead of considering her own dignity injured ....
Doesn't Marianne do the exact opposite here. That is to say, isn't her own dignity the first, second and last thing she thinks of? She is possessed by feelings heroic rather than natural.

[And, as I have suggested before, we should keep Hamlet and Ophelia in mind when we think of Willoughby and Marianne.  How exactly does the romantic hero differ from a narcissist?]

The arrival of Edward Ferrars
Now, here something fascinating happens. We get a  scene that ought to feel heavy-handed but does not. I mean the scene where Elinor says that wealth is important and Marianne claims she would be happy with only "a competence". Marianne's competence, as Elinor predicts, turns out to be the exact amount of Elinor's wealth.

While this is going on, however, Austen slips an interesting revelation into the mix. Let's flash back a bit. Remember how when Marianne criticized Edward's lack of sensibility and Elinor responded that she and he had been "a good deal thrown together" and that, therefore, she knew his opinions on art and literature, better that Marianne? Well, we suddenly learn ow that Marianne and Edward have a whole history of talking about these things. He knows her opinions, he knows her favourite authors.

Now, we might be tempted to think that he knows these things because Elinor and he have discussed Marianne but there is a very good reason to conclude not.

The picturesque
As I have said before, there is a discussion of the picturesque in every single Austen novel. When it comes up here, in Chapter 18, we learn that Edward has a whole series of defence mechanisms in place to use against Marianne.
"You must not inquire too far, Marianne -- remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold! surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country -- the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug -- with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility -- and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque."
"I am afraid it is but too true," said Marianne; "but why should you boast of it?" 

The crucial detail here is that Edward is lying in the emphasized text. He says he has no knowledge if the picturesque but goes on to show us that he knows it very well. he uses all the correct vocabulary in the correct way while supposing to demonstrate that he cannot. And Marianne misses it entirely.

There is an implied backstory here that Austen leaves up to our imagination. Marianne obviously made some attempt to shape Edward's sensibilities just as she did with Willoughby. But Edward rebuffed her. Did she try to win him over in love too? My guess is yes. And Edward rebuffed her.

And how like Marianne to see a man's rejecting her as evidence of his lack of sensibility!

The rape of locks on Thursday.

Oh yeah, before moving on, catch this:
 "I wish with all my soul," cried Sir John, "that Willoughby were among us again."
This, and Marianne's blushing, gave new suspicions to Edward. "And who is Willoughby?" said he, in a low voice, to Miss Dashwood, by whom he was sitting.
She gave him a brief reply. Marianne's countenance was more communicative. Edward saw enough to comprehend not only the meaning of others, but such of Marianne's expressions as had puzzled him before; and when their visitors left them, he went immediately round to her and said, in a whisper, "I have been guessing. Shall I tell you my guess?"
"What do you mean?"
"Shall I tell you?"
"Well, then, I guess that Mr. Willoughby hunts."
Marianne was surprised and confused, yet she could not help smiling at the quiet archness of his manner, and, after a moment's silence, said, "Oh! Edward! How can you? -- But the time will come, I hope... I am sure you will like him."
"I do not doubt it," replied he, rather astonished at her earnestness and warmth; for had he not imagined it to be a joke for the good of her acquaintance in general, founded only on a something or a nothing between Mr. Willoughby and herself, he would not have ventured to mention it.

Interesting, isn't it, that Marianne is suprised and confused to find that Edward was able to figure this out? She has no notion of how easy it is for others to read her behaviour. She is so focused on her feelings that she can't see that the very people she disdains have no trouble understanding her.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Grace and virtue

Note:There is one more relationship story and related unsolicited bit of  love advice coming next week. After that, I'm going to move onto more general cultural subjects. 

Since knowing Grace, I have often thought of making her a character in a novel. I think one of the reasons no one ever hated her was that she was such a charismatic person. Like Hamlet, she had the blessing and you watched her fascinated and admired her; perhaps did so even against your will.

How could you write the story of Grace (and I am conscious that readers know only a little of the story) so that she doesn't screw up? Without changing her character that is. Without simply making her into a different person. How could you make a story that would still have her be the young woman with sexual power who gets a bit intoxicated by that power and puts a lot of effort into making it work for her but tell it so that she credibly ends up with an ending that isn't sad?

For what, if anything, is wrong with what Grace did with her life?

I think the problem is more complicated than it looks at first.

For starters, I think we have to be honest enough to admit that we cannot pat ourselves on the back for not doing what she did for the truth is most of us couldn't have done what she did. The amount of sexual power she had is not something most of us ever have. We don't honestly know that we would have done any better if we'd ever been through the heady experience of being able to turn heads.

I have two teen-aged neighbours going through this experience right now. One is fourteen or fifteen and just budding. She has the power to reduce boys (and not a few men) to drooling idiots. Watching her from the distance I can see that she quite enjoys this power. The other is 19 and is starting to lose that power. I don't think she has consciously noticed that she is losing it but she is conscious of having to make greater efforts to keep the attention she has come to love and she exposes a little bit more every day. Come the height of summer it's going to be something else.

And she is not the only one. I have to say I can't get very upset about this. I like seeing women's bodies especially young women's bodies. The question here is what should they do for themselves?

In any case, neither of these women has what it takes to be a Grace. Grace still had them drooling well into her thirties and that is the other aspect that makes it difficult to judge her. It's hard, hard work being Grace. There was real virtue in Grace. She showed wisdom, prudence and temperance. She had to because she could not have been what she was without these. It is precisely those virtues that my two teen-aged neighbours lack and it is because they both lack them that I know their moment of glory will pass relatively quickly.

I didn't list justice in Grace's virtues and, truth be told, she didn't show any special strengths there. I'm not sure that alone would be enough to criticize her life choices. I'd say Grace's weakness with regard to justice was her tendency to go along with whatever was going. If most people around her supported the Turquoise Party she would vote Turquoise. If most people supported the Violet Party, she would vote Violet. In other words, she was no better or no worse than the people around her. Yes, she could have been better, but we always can be better.

To finally answer the question, I think what led Grace to where she is was the direction she picked. She was quite happy being popular and admired, with having a job that paid her well enough to support her desired lifestyle, and with having adventures in love. There was never any higher commitment than that and she didn't feel the need for one.

Jumping around a bit here, look at this line from Carrie Bradshaw: "Sometimes I wonder if we're just sluts." The "just" in that question does an enormous amount of work for us. If Ms. Bradshaw were to ask, "I wonder if we're sluts?" we might be too polite to say yes to her face but there is only one truthful answer to that question.

As there is for most of us. Very few people can honestly say they don't have some sexual sin in their past. Most of us have shamelessly exploited whatever sexual power came our way. And most of us have cravenly surrendered to our weaknesses at least once—we have done stupid degrading things either in pursuit of our own sexual desires or in the way we tolerated and put up with ( or put out for) other people's sexual cravings.

And that is the thing that seems to really jump out about Grace now. It is this ridiculous Cougar with implants that she has become that we sneer at.We didn't see anything wrong with what she was doing only ten years ago but now it seems ridiculous and it is ridiculous.

Here we can see why there is something enormously correct about the emphasis on sexual morality. Sexual sins are the sins most people have. Very few people kill or steal or bear false witness (bearing false witness does not mean "lying" by the way). If you want, dear reader, to grasp your nature as a sinful being, the most likely way is to begin with a cool, honest appraisal of your sexual history.

But redemption comes not from imagining how you might have avoided your sins. And it doesn't come from living in a society where the culture makes it very difficult to sin in the first place. It comes in imagining how you can continue to aim at something higher, to seek God, despite your sins. How you can, to get back to Carrie Bradshaw, be something more than "just a slut". [And here there is some hint of why DH Lawrence's criticism of Benjamin Franklin was wrong and shallow.]

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Go Duke

Being hated by bad people doesn't make you good. That said, one of the more reliable signs that someone is just a jerk is if the hate Duke's basketball team.

And Duke are in the final four. This is a good day.

Grace, a sequel

An uncle of mine went silver in his twenties. He aged overnight the way Marie Antoinette is said to have done, but without the trauma. He was a corporate lawyer and it hurt his career for a while. Starting in his forties, however, things turned around for him in a big way. He became the silver-haired eminence of a big corporate law firm and they kept him around until he was seventy-five.

He left his first wife and got remarried in his early forties to a significantly younger woman. He had the money and power to attract such a woman. She'd worked at his office. When he died, he left her a wealthy woman.

At some point in his thirties, he'd given up trying to hide what happened to him in his twenties and began cultivating the sort of presence that went with age. By the time he was in his early forties, he really had it down. I think that is very important. He was a lot like Grace in some ways. It's not enough to have the silver hair or the big breasts. You have to succeed at being the type and both he and she succeeded.

And a corporate law firm that has a convincing silver-haired eminence has a competitive advantage because for centuries, particularly in oral societies, the presence of wise old people was a healthy sign for a community. It suggested stability and continuity and we are all genetically programmed to feel good when we find ourselves in a group that contains a convincing silver-haired eminence.

My Uncle Stirling was the perfect embodiment of that. He even had the perfect name. I think that when we look at guys like him we forget how very hard it is to be what he was. Going grey in his twenties was a fluke to be sure but his life could have been very different. We might be inclined to say life gave him lemons and he made lemonade. But lemonade is easy: juice two lemons into a cup of sugar, add water, slice another lemon in and chill. Do you want pink lemonade? Add some red colouring; I use a little grenadine.

Stirling put years hard work into becoming the silver-haired eminence. Grace was the same. It takes hard work to be her. Don't believe me? Pick out a few hot young women between the ages of 15 and 18. Pick at least five. You don't need to get to know them or anything but you should be able to track their lives without being a creep about it. Follow them until they hit 21 to 23 and ask yourself how many are still hot. Then do it two years later and two years later .... for a woman to stay hot into her late twenties and early thirties is hard, hard work. That's why women who succeed at it it sometimes  inspire such hatred.

My Uncle Stirling made some enemies by the way. His presence was a barrier to other ambitious types. Much the way the talented musicians in a band will sometimes resent the front man the fans really come to see, so too the guys actually doing the grunt work and in some cases the ones actually having the brilliant insights that Stirling spoke so convincingly to the clients sometimes resented him. I was talking to one of the young partners once and he loved the man. He owed his career to Stirling and had been mentored by him. But he said to me that, as much as he loved the man, he wouldn't have wanted to have had Stirling represent him in court nor would he have gone to him to understand difficult points of law. Neither of those things were his forte.

His gift was presence. That is a gift we under rate.

I know because I did it the wrong way once. I met a woman I'd known in high school once and she was thrilled to see me. I was pretty pleased to see her too. Caroline had been just one of the kids high school and university but had really blossomed since then. Some women get hot later and she was one of them. While we were together, we talked a lot about high school. Her recurring theme was that she'd been a loser in high school. Every time I tried to reassure her that she had never appeared that way to me, she told me that I didn't understand because I'd been socially successful.

I wasn't so sure but I couldn't see any reason to disabuse her of the notion. I'm sometimes really stupid but I figured out pretty quickly that the affair we were having was her way of reliving those years only doing it right.

I did okay for a while but then I blew it. Over Saturday Night Live of all things. One day Caroline made a pretty clever remark and I laughed. I told her she was funny and she said no she wasn't and it was just a line she'd stolen from Saturday Night Live. I was surprised because I never thought the show was that funny.

Caroline, instead of arguing the point, said, "That's because you had a life in high school and you weren't at home watching television every Saturday night." And I, without thinking, told her that no, I just preferred watching old movies and reading and I really didn't think Saturday Night Live was all that funny. And she resisted that and I kept arguing until I convinced her otherwise.

And then she lost interest in me. It was a stunningly abrupt transition. My whole value to her had been as a certain kind of presence. She felt good around me because being with me reassured her that she was now one of life's winners. I don't think that poor Caroline ever really grasped the basis of her then current success. Sitting around alone, she hadn't just watched television. She'd also read and studied a lot and now she had a career in a competitive field. She'd learned new manners and dress from her new peers and she was doing well.

The sad truth is that most people just watch a lot of television. Sometimes some old show will come up and you can watch people recounting every single scene in detail. If you think about it, these people are really telling you how much of their life has been spent as passive observers. That they are, as Caroline would have it, losers. A guy I knew once could do a  pitch perfect Letterman routine. People thought he was hilarious. They were surprised when he didn't remain the social success we'd all thought he be when we left university.

It's okay to be a loser if you do it in a socially acceptable way. If you live in a social circle where watching a lot of television or doing a lot of shopping is acceptable, then you will be accepted for doing these things. You will also be accepted for walking around with buds in your ears playing loud music all the time. That doesn't change the future consequences of those actions. The loud music in your ears will make you go deaf whether that is a socially acceptable thing to do or not. It also doesn't change the fact that the sort of person who cuts themselves off from everyone by listening to music when out in the world is a loser.

All that reading Caroline did back in high school was, of course, a sound investment in her future. My Uncle Stirling also invested in his future. Not far in the future; just in the future, Whether we think ahead or not, we all decline and die. Stirling did and it wasn't pleasant. His wife doesn't remember him well now. She talks about a guy who was obsessed by his work and never was that interested in taking her out.

Grace invested in her future too.  If you're in a community with attractive and sexually potent young women, then you're in a community with a genetic future. As a consequence, we feel reassured when we look around and see women of that type. Every company—as well as every political party, every restaurant or club—will have a competitive advantage if it has a few such women. If you are sitting in your local coffee house and you see an attractive young woman who smiles and is friendly to males, you'll feel just that much better about the group you are in. (And notice how anti-social, seemingly anti-sexual women are not appreciated—or even hated—no matter how attractive they might be.)

Not surprisingly, there is a counter-reaction too. We all understand the resentment and hatred of hot young women even if we don't feel it ourselves. Certain options in life were, as young Jenkins' Uncle Giles liked to say, closed to me at birth. The mistake we make is to assume that because it takes certain genetic gifts to become the sort of young woman who can trade on that we start thinking that is all it takes.

Yes, the future was limited for Grace but don't think she lacked prudence. The rest of us get a little dowdier with every year because we lack prudence. We don't think about the consequences our lifestyle will have for our body.  Grace always had that prudence and people loved her for being what she was as long as she could manage it.

Stirling was no different. After he died, his wife did all the things she ever wanted to. She traveled all over the world. She bought clothes, furniture and a vacation house. She bought so much that she had to liquidate it all at one point. Now she lives in a condo her son bought for her. He lied to her and told her it was an investment and told her that she was doing him a  favour living in it while it appreciates in value.

She believes him too. Either that or she hasn't asked herself any really hard questions because she knows she wouldn't like the answers.

Now when I think of Stirling and Grace I think of the virtue both had. Grace worked out all the time. She knew how to dress. Both knew how to behave in a social situation. They never met but I think they would ave understood one another if they had.

Grace was named for a virtue. Or she was named for a divine gift. It all depends on your theological perspective. Either way, she and Stirling had presence. We might even say they had charisma. For a while anyway.

We don't name men for their virtues or divine gifts. We cherish them just as much for it though. While they have them that is. And what are we supposed to make of our lives then?

Lenten reflection: Ite missa est (7)

Passion Sunday

There is a surprising freedom that comes with being hated. I don't mean to say that being hated is a good thing but ...

Suppose I go to meet some friends and Alice, whom I don't know particularly well, is there and it becomes obvious from the moment I walk in that she does not like me. We've met before and have gotten along just fine. This time, she is clearly displeased with something about me.

How do I respond? Well, I know from past experience that I will try to make things right. I may even get a little frantic about it. I want to know what she thinks I have done and I want to convince her, show her that she should not hold this thing against me or, if I really have done something shameful, I want to make it right again somehow.

But suppose she has no interest in reaching any accommodation with me. She has decided that I am irredeemable and she hates me. Well, now I don't need to reach any accommodation either. Her very inflexibility has set me free. I can even embrace the thing that caused the tension more freely than before. If she is upset, for example, because she has discovered I am friends with someone she disapproves of—and someone I was maybe a little ashamed of being friends with myself—I can now embrace that friendship more freely because the price for my shame has been paid.

Christ paid the price for my shame. If the world refuses to accept Him, doesn't that just make me free of it?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Greek and Jewish notions of conscience

When Linda Hogan reviews the ancient traditions for notions of conscience my sense that she, and not just she, is expanding the concept beyond its proper bonds is reinforced.  For example, she tells us right of the bat that the ancient world used the word conscience in a way that was wider and less deep than ours. For starters the primary word in Greek meant something more akin to what we mean by consciousness.

When we get to early Christian texts we find that the word doesn't come up enough so we have to start pretending that the words "heart", "wisdom" and "prudence" also mean conscience in some contexts. How to put this, how about no they don't. People use different words to mean different shades of meaning and we should respect that.

Greek notions of conscience are, well let's quote Hogan:
From the fifth century B.C.E. on, the term syneidesis appears in sporadically in Greek literature but with no consistent meaning. Many of these instances speak of conscience in an explicitly moral sense, and most of these refer only to bad conscience.
The added emphasis is what seems most important to me. My experience of conscience matches this and I am wary of those who want to make more of it.

She goes onto talk about Socrates Daimon which sometimes prevents him from doing things. In the Phaedrus, for example, it prevents him from leaving Phaedrus until he has undone his earlier glib defence of sex without love. Hogan says that she agrees with those who say this daimon is not conscience "... since it does not judge past decisions it cannot be regarded as identical with conscience."

But so far the notion that conscience judges anything at all is unproven. Also the assertion that a notion has to be identical to be talking about the same thing seems a bit stretched to me. It seems particularly stretched as Hogan has said that in other contexts she is willing to treat discussions of heart, wisdom and prudence as implying conscience. I get the sense that she is willing to apply what ever vocabularies and strategies it takes to get the meaning she wants.

The Latin tradition of conscience does not seem worthy of note enough to comment on here to me. The Jewish tradition, however, is very interesting.
As a result, the self-knowledge to which the term conscience refers occurs in a different way. Knowledge of self arises, not through probing the depths of one's being, but in remembering and keeping God's law revealed in God's word. It is God's word that makes self-understanding and hence a good moral life possible.
I have to say that something about this seems very right to me. How could we have conscience at all without some content that comes from outside us. Otherwise consulting our conscience would be, as Wittgenstein puts it, like buying a second copy of the morning newspaper to see if the first was correct.

In addition, note this phrase "the self-knowledge to which the term conscience refers". Really? Conscience refers to self knowledge? Where did that come from?

Knowledge is not active. It doesn't do things. Self-knowledge cannot be conscience.

In any case, Hogan's whole notion here is confused. What does Hogan mean by "probing the depths of one's being". Here we tend to picture someone closing their eyes tightly and scrunching up their face. "I'm probing the depths of my being." "To probe' here is a metaphorical expression and we cannot mean by it that we have any special access to our "heart" than another being could.

And, perhaps not surprisingly, the very next example of Jewish conception of conscience Hogan talks about is the request in Psalm 139 that God would examine us to know our heart and keep us from doing evil. Hogan is not altogether happy with this because, she says, "The rational autonomy that is characteristic of later understandings conscience is nowhere present in this thinking."

Rational autonomy? This is one of those expressions that we tend to automatically confer approval on. Who could disagree with rationality? Who could disagree with autonomy?

And yet we don't tend to think rational autonomy is good thing when doing mathematics. I can't say, "That's your way of doing division, I have my own way that gives a different result. If I try this in math class, my teacher will bluntly, and correctly, tell me that I am doing math wrong.

It's not that I deny autonomy. But if "moral judgment" is to mean anything at all, there must be agreement at its heart. There must be judgments that we all agree about. Where does freedom lie then? Well, let's just say that we don't know for now (although we do know).

For now, I'd just note that Hogan is stealing bases right left and centre here. She can barely write a paragraph without introducing all sorts of concepts to conscience into the discussion without justifying them. It's hard not to think the whole book is itself predetermined by certain desired outcomes of hers.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Making sense of sensibility

Is it possible for me to describe an experience someone else has not felt in a way that makes sense to them?

In some sense, the answer is yes. People who were born blind can come to have some understanding of colour. They can, for example, use expressions such as "red hot" or "cool blue" in a meaningful way. They can even grasp a whole lot of the meanings for "black" and "white" such as meaning opposites, a clear distinction or in racial terms.

But we would still say, for all that, they cannot know what it is to be conscious of redness.

So I can imagine meeting someone whose ability to experience things is more profound than mine and still have a meaningful conversation with her about her experiences. But what is that ability? The Serpentine One can hear nuance in music that I cannot. I know this because she will sometimes say something about a piece and I will go look up the score and find out she is right. I trust that sort of claim by her and others because I know there is such a thing as musical expertise. Maybe if I'd been a more determined student of music I might have developed a similar expertise.

But is there anything else? I mean, is there general quality called consciousness that we can speak of in degrees. Everyone can be conscious of course and some people can be conscious of things that others are not. But does it make sense to say that one of two people looking at the same red blanket experiences it more profoundly because of their greater consciousness?

If we could then it would make sense to say the following, as Harold Bloom does:
Hamlet appears to immense a consciousness for Hamlet ...
I read that and I keep thinking, how could this be? What is an immense consciousness? And isn't this just appalling vanity on Bloom's part? How could he know this unless he too had an "immense consciousness"?

And this is important because it is Hamlet's consciousness that justifies the man in the eyes of Bloom (and others). As I've said before, if we judge him the way we would judge anyone else, Hamlet is villain.
  1. His treatment of Ophelia is appalling.
  2. He stabs Polonius in a fit of mad rage and later feels no remorse for having done so.
  3. He abuses all sorts of minor figures he runs across for no reason other than because they toady up to him when they don't have much choice but to do so.
  4. He not only wants to kill Claudius, he wants to do so at a time that will ensure his damnation.
  5. He jumps into Ophelia's grave and fights with her grieving brother because, get this, he is unhappy with the way Laertes is expressing himself.
  6. He not only has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed he insists that they be killed before they can make any confession of their sins. Not only does he have two people whom he has no reason to believe guilty of anything killed, he has it done in a way that is calculated to ensure their damnation. And when he tells us of this, he tells us that they are nothing to him.
And there is more that I could cite. And yet Hamlet is seen as a hero. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't just nothings to Hamlet, they are nothings to modern audiences. Some productions have the men playing two characters switch roles confident that no one will notice.

It's not just Hamlet by the way. We all take Achilles to be a hero and yet if you list the actual acts of Achilles he is an appalling villain. Don't believe me? Well, read a summary yourself and see what you think.

You could do an equally damning chronology for the Bible's Kind David.

So, to get back to Sense and Sensibility, in what sense could the greater sensibilities of Marianne and Willoughby justify them given that both do things normally would be taken as moral evils. Does their greater sensibility someone change the significance of these acts?

We should keep an eye out for the words "significance" and "signify" by the way, particularly signify. Only two characters in the novel use the word signify but every time they do use that word it is terribly important. And yes, one of the two is Mrs. Jennings. No, the other one is not Elinor.

The Annunciation

The Feast of the Annunciation is today. I like the Burne-Jones portrayal below. It is one of a very few paintings of Mary in which she clearly has actual breasts. Most portrayals have them disappear into the folds of whatever she is wearing.

 Image: Wikipedia Commons

Even Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who you would think capable of delivering some actual sensuality, lets us down badly on this by painting Mary as  sickly little consumptive. Anyone not knowing the subject would assume that the angel in this painting is an angel of death not life and that the girl in it is about to die not to become pregnant. This is not a hortus conclusus but a hospital ward.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Given all that, it is some of a minor miracle to come across Fouquet's Madonna Lactans  and Caravaggio's death of the virgin. Neither of these is a picture of the Annunciation but looking at these two highly unrealistic portrayals you get a real sense that there are real events behind these pictures,  which cannot be said of most other paintings of Mary.

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Image: Wikipedia Commons

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Alternative" identity shopping

My observation that we try and buy a sense of identity is not a terribly profound one.

Where it gets really interesting is when we try to rise above this either by not entering into the marketplace at all or by going to alternative marketplaces.

The first option is mostly an illusion. We can always enter a Trappist monastery, assuming they would have us, but otherwise any identity at all we pursue in a western nation we will pursue by purchasing things.

It's odd that we complain about this because most people who have lived had no choice about their identity. That we can form an identity is a tremendous freedom and something we should rejoice in. Instead we complain and protest.

Or we adopt the strategy of pursuing an alternative identity, like alternative music aficionado. It's an odd choice because alternative music isn't better than popular music. Typically, it's worse and the alternative music of my youth—bands such as The Violent Femmes, Television and Killing Joke for example—is now mostly deservedly forgotten. Neither the musicians nor the music they played was memorable or accomplished. It's only virtue was what it was not and that is a foolish reason to choose to be a fan of something. There are few better examples of pure vanity than seeking to embrace an alternative lifestyle.

And it's odder still to set off to get to some place that is supposed to be remote from the larger culture only to find that an entire industry already exists to serve you when you get there. And that is the case with alternative anything you can think of.

Which makes me wonder if it would really be so bad to pick a popular icon—say Don Draper, at least as he appears in the first season—and buy that identity. I mean, why not? Morally it would be no different from being "alternative". You'd have to see a set of values in him that you thought worth pursuing but—unlike the wine nerd or the alternative music fan—you wouldn't be doing it just to make yourself stand out as different.

Buying a sense of identity

I was recently talking to a teacher for a writing project I am doing in my paid work. One of the many interesting things he said was that a huge part of a teacher's job is helping kids establish an identity for themselves. I take it that he knows what he is talking about as he has a really impressive track record helping kids turn their lives around.

And it is one of those things that we spend an amazing amount of time and money on in liberal society. A sense of identity is something we have a burning need for.

Consider buying wine. The law of diminishing returns tells us that while a fourteen-dollar bottle of wine may be twice as good as seven-dollar bottle, it is less likely that a twenty-eight dollar bottle will be twice as good as a fourteen-dollar bottle and so on up the scale.

Of course the "law" of diminishing returns isn't a law in any meaningful sense. It means a generally observable phenomenon here with no more scientific basis than a stitch in time saves nine. That said, there is something to it. As you spend more and more money the increment of improvement shrinks. At some point the variations become so subtle that it isn't worth spending more. For me that kicks in at about twenty dollars a bottle.

This raises an interesting question: why continue to insist on the extra expense when you know you can't tell the difference? The answer, I think, is that after a certain point what we are really buying is a sense of identity. We are buying the right to tell ourselves and others that we are the sort of persons who can appreciate subtle differences that others might miss. And the odd thing about that is that we usually know we are faking it somewhat. Very few of us would willingly submit to an honest blind taste test with a real chance of public shame should we  fail.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Austen's Classicism

Back in the saddle again. Real life got me a bit too busy to do much blogging for a while there.

One of the things that I think is really important when reading Jane Austen is to have a good edition. There is a really easy test to determine whether your edition is or is not. Check to see if it is split up into three volumes. Because, outside Northanger Abbey all the Austen books were originally written in three volumes. If you went to a lending library in the early 19th century—and this is where most people got their reading—you would have gotten not all of Sense and Sensibility but one third of it. When you were finished that one third, you would have returned it and then paid to borrow the next third.

Now that may seem like so much artificial nonsense now. We don't do that and, damnit, I want the whole book.

But Jane Austen wrote her books with this structure in mind. She didn't write until the page count hit a hundred and twenty and then pack that off as volume one. She constructed each volume as a unit with a story that builds up to a crucial turning point and then works its way towards a significant ending. Only the last volume is meant to have a satisfying ending such that we can put the book down contented but the others have endings. It may not seem like much but having an edition that shows you where the volumes begin and end tells us how the action flows. If we just have all the chapters consecutively numbered with no volume breaks, we can miss these transitions.

[I wish this weren't the case, but the worst offenders here are American publishers. And it's not just Jane Austen books, in reading almost any great English novel, Americans are better off if you spend the time and money to get a good foreign edition. That is also true of French novels by the way. Even if you are reading in translation, try and get a quality British edition.]

In any case, we have just passed the climax of Volume 1. The very centre of this first volume is all about Mrs. Jennings the sleuth. It is about her need to uncover what Colonel Brandon's business in town is and to uncover what Willoughby and Marianne were up to when he whisks her away in his curricle.

If we read Volume 1, Chapter 13 again, in a dispassionate way, the stunning thing about it is that Mrs. Jennings gets more lines than anyone else. Recall it in your imagination and you will think about the visit to Allenham or maybe Colonel Brandon's departure. But all three of these characters are determined to keep their lives as secret as possible.

What really happens here is that Mrs. Jennings very determinedly, and successfully drags the feelings of Colonel Brandon and then Marianne and Willoughby out  into the light. She doesn't get all the facts (not yet anyway). We don't know what the Colonel's business is and we don't know what did or didn't happen on the threshing room floor at Allenham. But the sensibilities—the things that Marianne and Willoughby believe to be the source of their superiority over anyone as crude as Mrs. Jennings—she gets at with no troubles at all.

And she isn't here as a plot device. That is to say, she isn't in the story merely to provide a convenient way for us to discover what otherwise would be a secret. We couldn't replace her with exposition or with the camera. No, the whole point of the chapter is to show us how the world really works. No matter how little Willoughby and Marianne think of Mrs. Jennings, she is a formidable character.

And now, dear reader, I want you to consider a rather unattractive proposition. Who else in this story resembles Mrs. Jennings? Who else is a crude voyeur hungry for the juicy details of these people's lives?

Why yes, we are. No matter whom we might fantasize about being in this story, Mrs. Jennings is who we are most like. And that is telling, no?

And let's not content ourselves with the notion that we are interested in the finer things, that our curiosity is not, after all, pornographic. Because neither is Mrs. Jennings' curiosity.  She doesn't wonder what the couple did at Allenham, she is interested in the path of the relationship just like we are.  There is no more accurate portrait of a devoted Jane Austen fan than Mrs. Jennings.

Be honest, when you replay this in your mind, don't you minimize her? Wouldn't you rather focus on all the elements that are most fun to watch, to dream about and to imagine? But we also minimize ourselves don't we? We want to disappear in the face of the story. We want to forget that we are leering voyeurs hungry to learn the intimate details of these people's lives. Jane Austen won't play ball with our fantasies, however and she determinedly forces Mrs. Jennings on us.

At the climax of Volume 2—and the climax of the whole book—when Marianne's letters to Willoughby are revealed to us, Mrs. Jennings will be there. At the climax of Volume 3, Marianne's dangerous illness, Mrs. Jennings will be there. We can't say she is the most important character because the story isn't her story but it is very much about her.

And she has to be there because—make sure you swallow any liquids before reading further—because Mrs. Jennings is the voice of sense in Sense and Sensibility. Any time we might get tired of all these people going on with their feelings and we want to ask ourselves but what is the real meaning and significance of this, Mrs. Jennings, and not Elinor Dashwood, is our guide.

And that is important to remember lest we make the crude and ignorant mistake that critic Jane Nardin makes. She thinks that Elinor Dashwood's standards of propriety are "excessively rigid and stoical". Jane Austen doesn't have any illusions about standards of propriety because, for her, they grow out of the facts of life. Like Margaret Thatcher, Jane Austen is quite willing to accept that the facts of life are blunt and brutal things and it is this understanding that made both women conservative. Ms. Nardin correctly notes that Elizabeth Bennet's standards of decorous behaviour are easier to swallow than Elinor's but forgets that Elizabeth comes to see that her standards are not good enough; forgets that she comes to accept the more rigid standards of Mr. Darcy as superior.

Manners are never a perfect reflection of truths about character and moral truth in Jane Austen but it always turns out to be the case that attempts to throw manners aside and just "get to reality" fail. (And the most spectacular of these failings is Captain Wentworth. He has to be humbled before he can be happy.)

In this respect, it is worthwhile noting what a philosophically sophisticated writer Jane Austen was. There is always an entire world of sense outside our sensibilities but Jane Austen would never descend to the crude and vulgar realism of a Voltaire. We, rightly, see Austen pushing away the excesses of Romanticism here but she is also pushing off the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism. (I almost said crude Enlightenment rationalism but there is no other kind.)

She also never forgets that neither stories nor reality have an independent existence.  She always knows that the story has to have readers to exist and she is always right there reading it along with us.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Grace, a story

I'll call her Grace.

There was a time when we drove to a big party in another city together. Not wanting to wear her dress in the car for several hours, she hung it from the hook in the back seat. She looked not awful but considerably less than what she could be wearing jeans and a sweatshirt and no makeup. When we got to town, I pulled up in front of a stately old hotel and, much to her irritation, went in with her.

She walked into a bar attached to the hotel and, after quickly surveying the room, flashed me a malicious smile and said, "I hope you will be comfortable waiting," and then disappeared into the washroom with her garment bag and makeup kit.

I sat down and noticed that I was getting some rather unwelcome looks. It took me a minute or two to realize that it was a gay bar. It was nine o'clock so the bar was still relatively quiet, there might have been two dozen guys there, all shooting quick glances at one another. They treated my presence as an act of aggression.

It was a little like being in a porn theatre as most of the clients present had obviously come seeking gratification not a chance to socialize. Most were sitting by themselves and were waiting for the chance to make something happen; they were waiting for that opening that no one knows how to create but most know what do do about when it does happen.

The only exceptions to this were some middle-aged queens at the bar. Clearly out, they openly advertised their sexual availability in their dress and behaviour. In doing so, they made themselves less attractive for the effeminate display necessary to remove all doubt as to their sexual interest is not attractive to anyone. Hardly anyone likes effeminate men. Even effeminate men seek partners who aren't effeminate.

By sitting in a group and comfortably chatting with one another, they had made themselves even less approachable.

Gay friends of mine almost always seem to have become more effeminate after coming out of the closet. Grasping that this is not helping their appeal, many put much effort into looking and acting straight but this always came off a little too polished. I almost said "a little too polished to be convincing" but that of course is the rub. They didn't want to appear convincingly straight; they wanted their interest in attracting partners of the same sex to be obvious enough that others would know to pursue them.

I digress because I want to say something about my friend Paul who once told me that he often missed the days before he'd come out of the closet. There were long, slow tortuous manoeuvrings around other men who were just as reluctant to acknowledge what they were doing as he was. There were magic moments when other men just seemed to figure him out and moved in on him like wolves after prey. Other times there were men whose desire was so strong they made blunt overtures having no notion of Paul's interest and risking reactions ranging from agonizing rejections to violence. No matter which of these scenarios he found himself in, the feeling of accidentally finding a magic kingdom was intoxicating.

Paul cherished the memories of his days as a "secret slut". He had not, he told me, come out of the closet in any dramatic way. His friends were embarrassed when he started to tell them not because they were uncomfortable at being told but because they had all suspected as much for years. Oddly, they were relieved at finally getting it out and the anticipatory shame he had felt had been pointless.

Unexpectedly, he felt some disappointment in no longer needing to be furtive about seeking partners. He could walk into actual gay bars like one I was sitting in waiting for my friend. But he missed that feeling of uncertainty that came with his undeclared interest. He didn't describe it that way. That "feeling of uncertainty that comes with undeclared interest" is my way of explaining it. It's something I have seen on the faces of women I have watched interacting with men and I sometimes am coldblooded enough to see it on the faces of women interacting with me. I prefer it when I am so wrapped up in similar feelings so as to not notice.

As a man, I keep my interest undeclared by declaring it. I show an interest in all women comfortable that most will take this as me "just being a man". This is a good thing because the truth is that I would want to gently extricate myself from almost all if they responded too eagerly. A couple of of times that it did happen I went through with it seeking to avoid insulting the woman involved only to cause her even more pain by seeming to lose interest in her very quickly afterward. I want them to leave their interest undeclared and take it as their due that I will continue to show interest without getting any admission of actual interest on their part. I want them, in turn, to enjoy the feeling of uncertainty that comes from knowing that all men have some interest in them and so they therefore cannot be certain just how strong my interest is.

What I really want in women is that they should be genuinely interested in being womanly for its own sake. I like to think that they would make all this effort, develop all this womanly virtue, even if there were no men around. That may seem selfish to women but it is exactly the way heterosexual expect men to behave in the company of other heterosexual men. We expect one another to be good at being men. We want women to work at being good at being women in a similarly disinterested way. Which is not say that we don't realize, and in fact hope, that women will compete with other women.

It was just that effort, that display of womanly virtue, that my friend had denied me by showing up for the drive down having made no effort at all. Now that we were in town, she was about to make the effort for a group of people who had not reliably shown up and driven her here.

All that resentment soon disappeared when the middle-aged queens at the bar suddenly burst into applause as she came out of the washroom. The transformation was amazing and had been achieved in remarkably little time. One of the queens compared her to Grace Kelly because of a scene in Rear Window where she pulls off a similar transformation in Jimmy Stewart's apartment. The comparison was apt even though my Grace was physically unlike Grace Kelly being brown and curvy instead of blonde and willowy.

Grace could turn on sexual power at will like that. She was always good looking but, when she wanted it, she could turn on an erotic power that everyone—male and female, hetero or homosexual—could feel. The funny thing is that no one hated her. Everyone I ever met in those years who knew her spoke well of her.

Even I could never hate her although she had too often shown me that she no longer believed I was worth the effort of her turning that power on. She'd done it plenty when we'd first met and I, like Paul, had intoxicating memories of those days of concealed interest.

There was a connection between that power and actual sexual arousal for her for she too was intoxicated by that uncertainty and I knew that a few hours of her flirting with men at the party would pay off for me later. Using her power and having it responded to always got her desire flowing. She didn't seem to mind if the actual sex wasn't with the guys she had had help her prime the pump. That's not unusual and, at the risk of being obnoxious, I think most women are like that.

I didn't feel comfortable in that relationship despite the benefits. Eventually, I let her leave me.  That was a long while ago now.

I found her on a professional networking site the other day.

Her picture is on her page at the networking site. It's a sad picture. It's not that she looks old. She looks her age and she looks attractive. It's that she looks like someone trying hard. She looks like someone who is trying too hard, because the look she is struggling to achieve—that of a sexually powerful woman—can only be achieved by women who can project an air of effortless grace and she is, as I say, obviously really working at it.

 She is, for example, standing at an angle to the camera and sticking her breasts out. This makes her  look ridiculous. She looks even more ridiculous to those of of us who knew her back when because we can see that somewhere along the line she has had a breast augmentation. Her already largish breasts are now huge and her body looks disproportionate in a Pamela-Anderson way.

They were, as I say, already largish, 32 C. I suspect the motive for the surgery was not primarily to increase their  size but to counteract the effects of age and gravity. Just as a dying her hair to conceal gray required going a shade darker than her natural brown, so too concealing the effects of gravity required going a cup size or so larger. The result is to make her look cheap and stupid. Even the guys who have sex with women like that laugh at them. It's most definitively not the look you want to project to people you are hoping might hire you.

Sadder than Grace's picture is her career record a few lines below it. That record doesn't go all the way back to when she first graduated from university but I remember that part. Her first career job (as opposed to waiting tables) was a money loser. She had to borrow money from her parents to cover expenses through the three years she had that job. But it was a well-picked entry level job; it just didn't pay well as is also true of a lot of good entry level jobs. Among other things, this keeps most people who don't come from the class that can afford to squander a year or so on internships, whether officially declared as such or not, out of certain fields.

In any case, Grace worked hard and she learned on the job. She worked as hard as the most ambitious of her peers and she dressed noticeably better than them, albeit thanks to her parents' generosity.

From there, it was a steady upward path. By the time she was twenty-seven, her picture and profile appeared in a couple of buiness journals. She didn't really belong there. You only had to read the profiles next to hers to see that, as good as she was, she didn't have the extraordinary talent or achievements they had.

Grace's steady upward path ends in the aughts. She not only stops moving upwards, her stay in positions gets shorter. And, as you go on through her CV, you start to see the sorts of filler jobs and fake jobs that people resort to when they're trying to make it look like they're working through what are actually blank spots on their resumé. It's particularly pathetic that this is all online because Grace is apparently unaware that she is advertising her decline far and wide. If she'd really been as capable as those peers who appeared beside her in those  journals long ago, she'd know how to make herself look better.

It's funny to type the words "she'd know how to make herself look better" now because, as I said above, she was really good at making herself look really good. She had the skill, and it is a rare skill, of looking sexually powerful plus (this is the rare part) sophisticated and intelligent. Like Grace Kelly before her, she was actually neither of these latter two things—or, rather, she was only sophisticated and intelligent about being a certain relatively rare kind of highly desirable woman. She could have been sophisticated and intelligent in other ways too but she didn't work at those other things.

The special skills she did develop—and her career was built on them—made her very accomplished at being the sexually attractive but sophisticated young woman that everyone wants to have around. In the 1960s, she would have only been a secretary but in the 1990s, she made a real career out of it. Her presence at the board room table made others feel like winners because they were in the presence of someone who looked like one of life's winners. And while she might not have made any original or profound observations, she was always polished enough that the people who had hired her could feel confident she would never embarrass them. What often happened was that she would repeat other people's insights at the table and they just seemed better insights because they were in her mouth.

Her future now looks bleak. Her professional life is on the wane, her love life has been an unmitigated failure. I won't go into it in detail but she has started enough serious relationships and failed in every one of them that it is now obvious that she doesn't have what it takes to make a marriage work. Her one shot at actual marriage lasted about five years and her ex-husband quickly remarried after she left him. Since then she has drifted into and out of several relationships each time with a guy who had less status than the previous guy. All of the men who once loved her before that failed marriage are now happily married to other women. Grace herself will probably be single the rest of her life.

Grace's life is now, and will most probably continue to be (as Ford Madox Ford would have it) a sad rather than a tragic story. I pray it's not tragic and hope it's not any sadder than it has to be.

Of course, some people really do win lotteries. There was a real Grace Kelly and she really did marry Prince Rainier. It says a lot about the kind of game that Grace Kelly played that the American Film Institute placed her in their list of the top twenty-five female movie stars. Grace Kelly could act just as I can wash the dishes, which is to say she did it well enough. Her primary asset was her ability to be Grace Kelly and she did not have any ability to act parts that weren't variations on being Grace Kelly. If you look at the rest of the list, both the recipients and the current stars who presented the awards, you can see that she is not the only female star in this category.

Just about everybody else who buys lottery tickets loses. We might even wonder about those who seem to win. Neither Grace Kelly nor my Grace ended up happily. I wouldn't want anyone to hate either of them for doing so, although I know that some of Grace's friends from those days when I knew her would style their current attitude as deceived or disillusioned.

I do think, however, that we should be able to acknowledge that Grace's current unhappy state is entirely her own fault.

Friday, March 19, 2010

10 books (plus 3) that influenced me the most (update)

While walking with Montmorency, I decided to not be bound by the number ten. I've now rewritten going to thirteen. One book for every person at the Last Supper.

 Worked all day yesterday on the speech and then had a meeting that took all morning, so I'm slow with Austen and Conscience. I'm trying to think of a clever way to combine them.

Anyway, Tyler Cowen has challenged bloggers to list the ten books that most influenced them. You can see his list here. Like him, I'm going more on gut feeling rather than over-analyzing the thing.

This sort of writing is always easier than the kind that requires real thinking. My list is below in the order I discovered them. I had to cheat and go to eleven thirteen. Interestingly, I read all of these but two before leaving university. The exceptions are numbers 12 and 13 below.

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I got very sick at the start of Grade 2 and missed several months of school (had to repeat as a consequence). They thought I might die. I wasn't sure I cared whether I lived or not I was so tired of always being in pain. My father sat beside the bed and read me Huck Finn. This is the paragraph that made me feel like living again:
This second night we run between seven and eight hours, with a current that was making over four mile an hour. We catched fish and talked, and we took a swim now and then to keep off sleepiness. It was kind of solemn, drifting down the big, still river, laying on our backs looking up at the stars, and we didn't ever feel like talking loud, and it warn't often that we laughed -- only a little kind of a low chuckle. We had mighty good weather as a general thing, and nothing ever happened to us at all -- that night, nor the next, nor the next.
 2.  Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. Read this when I was twelve and I still like it now. It has a very unfashionable world view now but an absolutely correct one. I have to be very careful about picking this up because if I read so much as three paragraphs I will have to sit down read the whole thing again. PS: When you buy books like this or Huck Finn, be sure to get a good illustrated edition!

3. The Best Times by John Dos Passos I found this book on a shelf in our house and read it the year I was fifteen. I read it so many times after that that it fell apart. I was so inspired by it that I read every single book Dos Passos mentions in The Best Times.

4. Phaedrus by Plato In Quebec we all go to these colleges called CEGEPs. Mine was a very old-fashioned one where we had to do the old Quebec classical curriculum. That meant studying Philosophy, Classics, Mathematics, French, English and History (tragically no Music otherwise it would have been perfect). I did this book in first year Philosophy. It was like someone handing me an éclair after a  lifetime of oatmeal.

5.  Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad Another book I read at CEGEP. I remember finishing it and understanding why the doctrine original sin was right for the first time in my life. PS: Chinua Achebe needs to get over himself.

6. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome. A German girl named Ulrika I met when I was in university was reading this as part of her English as a Second Language course. It was an absolutely insane choice because humour is lost on a second-language reader. She left her copy in my room and I started reading it and loved it. Years later I gave a copy to a woman I was working with and the Serpentine One and I will be celebrating our fifteenth wedding anniversary this year.

7. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein. The hardest book I ever read. All through university, the Tractatus was my Bible. I completely internalized it.

8. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. I had so completely internalized the Tractatus that I simply projected it onto the Investigations. It took me a long time to see just how different it is. And then one day I saw the light and got the Investigations. Wittgenstein blows apart Enlightenment rationalism and modernism. My writing style owes so much to Wittgenstein that I should be paying royalties.

9. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. I was saying to a friend just the other day that I think this is Chandler's response to Mickey Spillane's vile I, the Jury. For, vile as it may be, Spillane's book accidentally posed a very profound question: How much difference is there really between the character of the romantic hero and a that of cold-blooded vigilante/executioner? In this book, Chandler is reluctantly forced to conclude that the answer is, "Not much". (Hamlet too! List the objectively knowable facts about Hamlet and he is every bit as vile as Iago or Macbeth.)

10. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre. I said quite a bit about my relationship with this book back in an early post. Suffice to  say here that this finished off modern ethics and liberalism for me.

11. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. When I was in university I thought people who watched Masterpiece Theater were shallow. So I read this book I had never heard of just so I could feel superior to all the people who were raving to me about the television miniseries based on it. Like a lot of people, this book brought me to Catholicism, in my case back to Catholicism. It was the first novel I'd ever read that seemed to have been written by someone who lived in the same world I did. Everything made sense and I started going back to church again because now I could see the connection between loving people and loving God.

12. Emma by Jane Austen.When I put my first pair of glasses on it was an incredible jolt to suddenly see the world in crisp, clear focus. I'd been going who knows how long without realizing that my vision was poor. The difference was so amazing that I walked all over downtown seeing all sorts of things clearly for the first time in I didn't know how many years. Emma had the same effect on me.

13. The Reef by Edith Wharton. I read this just last year. It has a flaw—that is flaw singular—there is a minor character who gets mentioned at the beginning who reappears in the last chapter, by which time you have forgotten why his name is significant. OTOH, that gives you and excuse to go back and read it again. I reread it three times in a row. Then I put it down for three months scared to read it again just in case I would be disappointed. I wasn't. This is, in my unorthodox view, the very best of a very good writer's work. BTW: As good as Henry James is, Wharton is better.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jane Austen tomorrow

A client called and said we're in big trouble we need a big speech by tomorrow and we really need it badly.  And I said, but of course, and stepped out of the room while my representative Mr. Lucifer Wormwood negotiated terms. They agreed to what he proposed so now I am too busy to post anything today.

Alas, Marianne and Elinor will have to wait 'til Friday.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Enlightenment rationalism

To paraphrase Wittgenstein: If someone tells me that he is an atheist, I can respectfully disagree with that. If someone tells me that it is his deep commitment to Enlightenment rationality that made him an atheist, then I know he is a fraud.

Mad Man

Most people I talk to about Mad Men think the show is setting us up for the big transition into the 1960s. That decade, oddly enough doesn't begin until 1964 (as is clearly evident in the show). 

Does it end in December 1973? Well, it felt like it at the time but I was only 14 so what do I know.

The crucial fact is this. If you think of the sixties as the period from 1964 to 1967 you can think of it in relatively positive terms. It isn't self-evident that it was actually positive but no one could call you crazy for thinking so based upon events from those four years. But if we include the six years from 1968 to 1973 then the 1960s are a failure by any reasonable objective measure.

But we also have, competing with the actual 1960s, a mythological 1960s based on a selective handling of evidence and the importation of all sorts of pseudo-religious mysticism.

Lots of people are heavily invested in the mythological view. James Cameron, for example, has made a lot of money repackaging 1960s mythology in Titanic and Avatar. For a long time, until 1995 at least, a lot of people believed that mythology was representative of the actual 1960s. To suggest otherwise would have been to surrender membership in the club of right-thinking people.

In fact, if Mad Men had been made anytime between 1980 and 1995 it would have been branded hate literature because of Don Draper. That may seem odd because you get the distinct impression that makers only created Don Draper to have him fall. This is telegraphed by the opening credits. In the recent past, however, a guy like Don Draper would have only been accepted if he had been presented as a heavy parody.

But Draper is an admirable guy and—much like Patton in the 1970s and Alex P Keaton in the 1980s and Bart Simpson in the 1990s—a much more admired guy than the people who made the show intended him to be.

Don Draper is from that odd, deeply cynical generation who were still babies in the depression and were too young for WW2. Those who went to the Korean war, as Draper does, tended to have an experience that falls far short of glorious. These guys—in the popular imagination and not without some justice—lived lives of cynical escapism knocking back Martinis. They were hated by the 1960s generation, probably for not getting out of the way fast enough. My father is from that generation.

Sometime in the1980s, however, opinions started to shift. Not overnight the way things were supposed to have happened "between the end of the Lady Chatterly ban and the Beatles' first LP". Ever so slowly, however, we have started to think differently about the Eisenhower era. (I remember seeing a movie at the end of the 1970s wherein a simple mention of that era was shorthand for everything that was an affront to good taste. Watching Mad Men we see the opposite as there is a clear decline in taste as the 1960s progress and we know where this is headed in the early 1970s.)

Watching Don Draper now a lot of us see him as someone worth emulating. And yes, I include myself in that. Call it a backlash or whatever you want. I watch the show because I really like Draper and because there is something in me ready to despise both Pete Campbell and Peggy Olson. (Both name choices are brilliant, BTW, especially Peggy Olson and the way it echoes "Jimmy Olsen".)

And therein lies the rub. The entertainment industry seems to be the only place where there are still people stupid enough to believe in the 1960s anymore. And James Cameron has to create an imaginary world on a planet far away to make it credible to a paying public. A movie or television program that tried to set the 1960s mythology against the actual events of of 1964-1973 would be unintentional comedy now.

So how are they going to get out of it. Matthew Weiner has already used the highly ambiguous ending shtick in The Sopranos. Would he do that twice?

Comic reality

One of the odd things about comedy is that it often has to be more honest than non-fiction does and frequently more honest than the comedian intends. In interviews, the writers for The Simpsons say they admire Lisa more than Bart. The show admires Bart more than Lisa.

The following joke graph has a similar reversal of intention:

The immediate truth—and the point of the joke—is that the people represented by the blue line are insane. And while the thing is fictional, we all know such people exist. So if you want to be rational—remembering that rational is not a synonym for right—you want to be in either the green group or the red group.

But here is the odd thing, the lie in the joke as it were. There are lots of polls on American attitudes towards global warming claims and average American opinion is actually very slowly shifting and stable and not at all like the blue line. So who exactly does the blue line represent? It isn't the people the comedian responsible for this thought they were aiming at.

We can see the bias of the comedian in the green line being labeled "everyone else". We are clearly meant to think this is what sane, rational people think. But if the label on the blue line is a lie, then so is the label on the green one. The green people don't exist. We might wonder if the comedian hasn't inadvertently made their joke funnier and more pointed than they intended by representing the conservatives with red and the "other Americans" with blue.

The graph is from a site called GraphJam and I learned about them courtesy of James McGrath.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What is sense?

A bit more about the conflict between Elinor and Marianne.

Last night I was at a course for people who provide care for people with serious and incurable illness including those dying of these illnesses. The facilitator was making some very good points but at one point she said something quite jarring. She said "feelings can't be wrong."

In context, what she meant by that was "You can't be wrong about your own feelings." I didn't debate the point because what she wanted us to learn is that when a person in need of caring talks about their feelings you should let them and you should pay attention to what they say about those feelings. That's true. That said, you can be wrong about your feelings. You can determine that you feel cheated when you really feel threatened, for example.

It is also often maintained that feelings cannot be wrong in a logical sense. Whether or not Bill is actually being neglected, the argument will go, he can't be wrong about feeling neglected.

Part of the problem here is the vocabulary we use. If we take feelings as reporting facts about ourselves, then the notion of their being wrong seems crazy. But let's expand our vocabulary a bit. Feelings, very "real" feelings, can be inappropriate. Feelings can also be premature, unjustified, unrestrained, self-defeating.

As Elinor tries to convince Marianne (and Willoughby) to respect sense, she runs into the flip side of that problem. Because sense also does not tie neatly with binary notions of truth and falsehood. So when Elinor says that Colonel Brandon is esteemed by others, Willoughby can simply reply that those others—Mrs. Jennings and Lady Middleton—are boors. Why should he take their judgments seriously?

Marianne learns this lesson from him and when Elinor later tries convince Marianne that she has caused scandal by going to Allenham alone with Willoughby, Marianne uses the same response.
"If the impertinent remarks of Mrs. Jennings are to be the proof of impropriety in conduct, we are all offending every moment of our lives. I value not her censure any more than I should do her commendation. I am not sensible of having done anything wrong in walking over Mrs. Smith's grounds, or in seeing her house. They will one day be Mr. Willoughby's, and" -- -- 
 And what exactly? We all know what Marianne is assuming will happen.

In any case, her argument is interesting in two regards. First, she also takes it as a given that feelings cannot be wrong. She is not sensible of doing anything wrong, ergo she didn't do anything wrong.

Second, though, and maybe more significant here, Elinor does not have a slam dunk reply either. For, as Pilate might say, "What is sense?" It's not synonymous with truth in that truth can imply a moral significance. Nothing about Mrs. Jennings, however, inspires great moral awe and Marianne is well within her rights to refuse to take her judgments seriously. So far anyway.

What can Elinor say? Well here is what she does say:
"If they [meaning Allenham and its grounds] were one day to be your own, Marianne, you would not be justified in what you have done." 
Notice that the objective sense of what Elinor is saying is that the impropriety is sexual. If Marianne were engaged to Mr. Willoughby, it would still be wrong. We can't ignore sexuality here. It runs through everything that happens in this book.

And Marianne's reaction is fascinating.
She blushed at this hint; but it was even visibly gratifying to her; and after a ten minutes' interval of earnest thought, she came to her sister again, and said with great good humour, "Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham; but Mr. Willoughby wanted particularly to shew me the place; and it is a charming house I assure you. ...
Elinor can get Marianne to recognize that she has done something wrong but she can't get Marianne to feel the wrongness of it. (Note also that feelings aren't private. We forget so easily but others can read what Marianne is feeling right off of her face. Even things that she is feeling in   .. how to put this about they can even read things she is feeling in an intimate way from her facial expressions.)

Suddenly it is beginning to look like sense and sensibility aren't opposites even though they are different things. We might even begin to wonder if they aren't a little like pitch and rhythm. To make music, you need both. Marianne is a lot like someone who has only listened to pop music all her life. She is aware, although not profoundly aware, of pitch and harmony but she only feels the rhythm. She hasn't developed any feeling for the rightness or wrongness of the notes she is striking.

Some final thoughts on "social justice"

There is a very nice summation of why this term is so very slippery—I'd say slippery to the point of being worse than useless—here. Go read it all if you really want to discuss the Glen Beck stuff intelligently.

Beyond that, we should note that capitalism has done infinitely more to alleviate poverty and suffering than "social justice". We might also note that ideas stemming from social justice—most notably corporatism, have been the foundation of fascist economic ideas.

It is also the case that "social justice" often conceals political interests.

Taken together, let's just throw the term away. It isn't necessary—other language can cover all we need mean by Christian charity—and keeping it around just provides cover for a lot of nonsense.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Twenty-five years ago

Not reading the mainstream press during Lent, I don’t know if anyone else has made anything of this juxtaposition. I only know of the news events that matter enough to get incidental mention in conversation so the following may be a cliché for all I know.
On March 7, 1985, “We are the World” was released to tremendous fanfare and celebration. Barely anyone in the press bothered to challenge the celebrities' claim that they in some sense were the world or their claim that they would make a difference. In practical terms any difference they made was so small as to be incapable of measurement.
On March 15, 1985 “” registered the world’s very first commercial domain name on the World Wide Web. The event got virtually no coverage at the time. Twenty-five years later the web has changed our lives as much as radio and television did.
As always, capitalism has done more to improve people’s lives than charity.