Monday, January 31, 2011

Big tax day

Today is a big tax day in Canada in which all corporations have to remit a sales tax we have been collecting on behalf of the government. (And we do all this collecting and processing gratis because we're such nice people. They'd also punish us if we didn't. As Captain Renaud would say, "That is another reason.")

Anyway, that's what I will be doing, preparing and submitting a report and making a big payment. Blogging will resume tomorrow.

Sunday, January 30, 2011


The Canadian bishops have issued a letter to young people on chastity.

There will be a lot of sneering about this, so let me start with what I think is very good about it and then I'll rant.

The letter is worth reading solely for the following lines from the introduction:
Besides the gift of speech, he gave us our body. This body expresses itself through gestures that are themselves a language. Just as our words reveal who we are, so also does our body language. The Lord intends that we speak this “sexual language” truthfully because it is the way to live our sexuality joyfully.

This truthful living out of the sexual language of our bodies is what the Church calls “chastity.”
That's good stuff. Speaking sexual language truthfully is the way and I say this speaking as someone who learned the hard way how not to live sexuality joyfully. You could really stop reading right there.

Here is basic truth that you won't hear often that goes right to the heart of the matter: Getting good at sex is not like getting good at sports or getting good at music. If you want to play the clarinet well, you need to practice with other musicians. But sex does not work like that. Sexual "practice" with other people does not make you better at it when you get to the person you really want to spend your life with. It makes you worse at it. Sexual love is about connecting with one person and every other person in the mix is a barrier that you have to overcome. And that goes quadruple for previous partners you were in love with as opposed to just having had sex with.

The bishops have put their collective metaphorical finger on something really important here. Speaking sexual language truthfully is absolutely necessary if you want to love happily. It is not sufficient but it is necessary.

Unfortunately, the bishops don't even get one paragraph beyond that wonderful truth before trotting out a lie:
But in reality it is much more than simply the absence of sexual relations. Chastity calls for purity of mind as well as body.
Actually, chastity is not about the absence of sexual relations at all. A chaste marriage is a marriage with sex. The above statement is not wrong so much as it is nonsense. The problem here is that we have two competing notions of chastity.
  • One model has it that chastity is about a committed relationship and chastity is the sort of sexual behaviour appropriate to that relationship. Someone who marries forsakes all others and so does someone who commits their life to Jesus through consecrated life.
  • The other model is based on a cult of virginity. It says that while married people can be chaste that chastity can never be as good as the chastity of virgins. In this view there are degrees of chastity.
The problem here, I think, is that virginity and chastity are clear different things. They have almost nothing to do with one another. At no time in my life have I ever been less chaste than when I was  teenage virgin. I had no sex in those years; I did this entirely out of timidity. My body was untouched but my mind was cesspool. And I'm far from the only one to have had that experience.

I am much closer to chastity as a married man than I was back then.

The key quality we seek in chastity is to be pure and you cannot make yourself pure. It simply cannot be done. Once something is diluted, it is diluted forever. Purity is a not a human achievement, it is a gift from God. And this is where virginity misleads us. Virginity is something that can be lost; it is something we must constantly protect against losing if we are to value it.

Chastity is something that can be gained. When you hit that dark day where everything seems lost and you feel far away from God because you have been living a sexual life based on communicating lies and not truth, you can turn to God and say, "I want to be clean again". And he will not deny your plea. It won't be easy but he will help you as you struggle to open the doors to truthful sexuality.

What the world needs today, and especially young people, is to be told that you can, with God's help, become chaste. No matter what you have done until now, you can become chaste. You can have spent the last five years as a prostitute and chastity is open to you and the chastity that is open to you is every bit as good as the chastity of virgins. Sorry to rant but that is the truth. Purity comes by the grace of God and the grace of God is equally open to everyone. Rant over.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Mike Potemra over at The Corner has put something important about Satan rather well:
Think of Satan, therefore, as the ultimate prosecuting attorney, winning laughs from the gallery with his witty denunciations of the worst shames and guilts hidden in the heart of the accused, all with the goal of breaking their spirit and making them admit they belong with him and not with God. Hee hee hee, you bore false witness! You committed adultery! You coveted thy neighbor’s goods! You did sins X and Y and Z! And that’s the sum total of who you are, all you’ve ever been, all you ever will be!
Pretty good stuff that.

And yet I think we would be well advised to resist going all the way Potemra does here. No reasonable reading of the Bible nor any reasonable reading of the facts of human nature would deny that we do need accusing. We are sinners and we are not worthy of God's grace. There is no disputing that and Satan also sometimes takes the opposite tack of trying to convince us that we are too good to be judged.

Ultimately, Satan's accusations are always against God not us. He makes us think that there is something wrong with God's judgment. If you look at Potemra's example you can see this; it's not really what we are that is at issue but the Judge whom Satan wants us to believe unwilling or incapable of forgiving us.

There was a commenter here a while ago who accused me of trying to set Jesus up as a cosmic policeman. And you can see the fear that Satan works on us in that image. When you're driving along and you see a police car in the rear view mirror and it it just stays there as if following you—and maybe it is, or maybe the officer is running your plates through the system, or maybe the officer just happens to be going the same way you are—but, whatever the explanation for his being there, what matters is the way you respond. If Satan can get you to see God like that police officer, you lose.

And yet, and this is where I kept offending my commenter and is also where I part company with Potemra above, Jesus is judge. He will come again to separate the sheep and the goats.


Watching events in Egypt I have to say I'm not optimistic.

That strikes me as a horrible thing to say, almost like not getting excited about Christmas spirit or young love or something. And maybe some good will come of this but ...

That said, however, I think we grossly underestimate the amount of public virtue necessary for a democratic, federal republic to work. And it takes all three of those elements. We talk as if  all a country such as Egypt needs is democracy. But with out federal arrangement of provinces or states, any central government will be too invasive. And without a republican form—i.e. not direct democracy but elected representatives who get to direct a  government that is understood to be both sovereign and replaceable—the government will never have the authority it needs to retain the people's respect; the government always has to be bigger than the people who currently control ot.

And there is a fourth thing. That is public virtue.

That's a tricky proposition for non-believers and Catholics because the specific form of public virtue that underlies the nations of the west that have set the standard for peace, order and good government that we hope and wish for when we see these events in Egypt, the Ukraine and elsewhere is protestant. And we don't like to admit to ourselves just how important people like Mattie Ross really were to making our civilization work. To the contrary, we feel very superior to her and sneer at her.

She has faults, of course, but so does everyone. But Mattie and protestantism also have deep virtues and it behooves us to not only figure them out but to acquire them ourselves.

I think I won't post about ___ for a while

I'm going to post about safe subjects: square dancing, the rosary and so forth.

The stats feature on blogger lest me look up the actual search terms that brought people to the blog. Yikes. Some of this stuff is scary. Some of the words combined in the searches that brought people here, I read them and I don't know whether to take a shower or contact the authorities as only a really twisted human being could want to conduct such a search.

And an odd mystery: Wednesday Thursday, several hundred people from Romania, Russia and Belarus suddenly descended on the blog, setting a two new records for single day readers. Odd. I can't think what drew them in. They all came to this post and also this one.


UPDATE: This was my 1000 post and I didn't even notice. It seems appropriate somehow.

Friday, January 28, 2011

True Grit reviewed

The Good 
You won’t waste your money going to see this. It’s entertaining and gripping and some of the cinematography is gorgeous. Although, as the Serpentine One pointed out last night, some of the shots have a computer-generated feel about them and that just won’t do for a story whose appeal relies absolutely on its authenticity.

It’s also, for better or worse, very much a Coen brothers movie. There are magnificently constructed suspenseful scenes leading up to violent climaxes that will make you flinch and no one handles this sort of scene better than the Coen brothers.

There are also neatish postmodern touches throughout. When Matt Damon makes his first appearance, everything about him is meant to recall Robert Redford as the Sundance Kid: his hair, his moustache, the way he moves. Except, of course, this being the Coen brothers, he is a travesty of Sundance and the rivalry and partnership between him and Rooster Cogburn is an extended travesty of that other famous western partnership.

So if you are content with a movie that makes its point by referring back not to the old west and the frontier and what that has meant to America but rather a movie that refers back to mythology of the old west as represented in a movie near and dear to the hearts of baby boomers, this movie will amuse. I liked it plenty.

The best thing about it, however, is the spoken language. When this comes out for home viewing, I'm going to buy it and turn the video off just so I can listen to the beautiful language spoken by these actors. If you want to understand just how badly modernity has degraded our language, just listen to this movie and catch a hint of what English could be.

The Bad
There is a rude question about a generation of filmmakers that includes such people as Sofia Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch and the Coen brothers. If they had to abandon their ironic pose and all their postmodern tricks, could they still make compelling movies? Can they actually tell a meaningful story? In the case of the Coen brothers the answer is a definite maybe. Having seen True Grit I can see how they might, with a little effort, figure out how to make a really great movie that doesn’t rely on a little gimmicks to smooth over weak storytelling and character-development.

So far, however, they haven’t quite got it.

The violence is a good example. The Coen brothers have a knack for presenting horrific violence effectively. And that should be a very good thing for True Grit. This is a story that absolutely requires violence and absolutely requires the sort of violence that makes you flinch and look away from the screen. The problem is that it requires this violence at certain crucial moments in the plot and the Coen brothers give it to us in scattered moments throughout.

Imagine a movie where the whole plot builds up to a magnificent moment where a woman has an erotically charged kiss with the man she has always loved. Only, on the way, there are five or six raw sex scenes that aren’t particularly important to the plot. That would rob the crucial scene of some of its impact wouldn't it? The Coen brothers do that with violence here.

There are many beautiful shots of the magnificent west and such shots are, again, absolutely necessary to the story. But a good storyteller tells the story in a way that draws the connections between the two. Here the two kinds of elements just sit side by side without any connection.

The Sublime
You can, however, by squinting your eyes a bit and using your imagination and watch the movie they almost made instead of the one they did and that partly imaginary movie is magnificent.

There was a real wild west; it wasn't just a Hollywood creation. It lasted a very short time between the end of the Civil War and the closing of the frontier. I’d have to look it up, but I think the whole era lasted only 25 years or something. It had a huge impact on our imaginations because it was a period where lawlessness was overcome and replaced by, as Frank Rich (seemingly with regret) put it, “law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage”. And that knife-edge moment when it could have gone either way is irresistible the same way that courtship is a more compelling subject for arts than happy marriage is. In real life, happy marriage is even better than courtship but it isn’t artistically interesting.

The thing that distinguishes the school of western writers of Charles Portis (who wrote the book this movie is based on) and Larry McMurtry is their belief that it was the arrival of women that civilized the Wild West. And the reason that Cormac McCarthy doesn’t fit with them, although he is often grouped with them, is that McCarthy just doesn’t get women.

The story you want to see in this movie is about two themes.

The first is the way Mattie Ross’s changes the men she meets. The second is about the price that has to be paid to make law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage possible.

The Coen brothers don’t quite get that. Here is the way they talked about Mattie in an interview with the New York Times:
“She is a pill,” Ethan said, “but there is something deeply admirable about her in the book that we were drawn to.” Joel continued the thought: “We didn’t think we should mess around with what we thought was a very compelling story and character.” Ethan stepped in: “The whole Presbyterian-Protestant ethic in a 14-year-old girl was interesting to us and sounded fun.”
“Interesting” and “sounded fun” just aren’t good enough for the story that has to be told here.

At the very beginning of the movie Mattie has a vision of justice that is primarily driven by vengeance. There is a moment as she and Rooster pursue her father’s killer when Rooster speculates that the man may already be dead somewhere. Mattie says, “That would be a bitter disappointment.” By the end of the movie she has changed.

The clever story telling trick is a rather simple one in concept and it is that it is the older Mattie who has learned who tells us the story but she begins at the beginning so we are not aware of the full significance of what she tells us at the beginning of the story until the end. The very first thing she tells us is this:
“You must pay for everything in this world one way or another. There is nothing free except the grace of God.”
That feels like a prologue when we hear it but it is actually the coda of the story. The mention of the grace of God is not a weird Presbyterian-Protestant cultural tick. Because the grace of God was achieved through a sacrifice. It is the person who pays the price who achieves God's grace not the person who extracts. In a sense it is obvious all along who that is going to be and yet it is still a surprise. That's a deep truth. We are perhaps too cynical and wise to let anyone tell us that now. We shouldn’t be.

Bonus Canadian political trivia
Here in Canada the nickname for the Liberal Party is "the Grits". Unlike many political nicknames, this is one they gave themselves. It was a compliment for a certain kind of Canadian liberal in the 19th century to call him a "clear grit". The word "grit" comes from abrasives and a "clear grit" was a man who was solid abrasive with no dirt to soften him; this is the exact quality that Mattie seeks in Rooster Cogburn. It was meant to invoke the sense that this guy could do some real and important abrasive work. If you have ever tried sanding with a clogged up piece of sandpaper you will know what it is to want some clear or true grit.

To look at the people who currently make up the Grits and recall that meaning is to weep.

Studiously indifferent 2

Yesterday, I posted about the tendency of priests and politicians to expand their roles beyond what they are really useful for.

Thinking about it, it occurs to me that by far the worst offenders in this manner are lawyers. I have offended more than a few lawyers by saying this, but their job is to help people negotiate conflicts they can't work out in a reasonable manner otherwise. For the most part, neither the law nor lawyers should interfere in human life. For the most part they shouldn't interfere with matters of law: the very existence of law depends on the ability of people to work legal matters out without resorting to lawyers 99.99 percent of the time.

Anytime lawyers and judge successfully expand their realm of influence, our society becomes a little less workable.

One egregious example of this is what I used to call judge disease when I was a social worker. Judge disease is the delusion judges sometimes get that sitting on the bench has given them some special insight into politics, morality or human nature. You can't actually say this to them but you sometimes want to say, "Get over yourself you pompous old twit; your narrow and sheltered life does not qualify you to be an expert on anything but the law."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Studiously indifferent?

This is related to politics but I still like it.

There is a story out today that pollsters have found that only 15% of Canadians are interested in their country's politics right now. This is seen as a huge disadvantage for the leading opposition party's hopes of getting people stirred up for change.

Anyway, the story also quotes a number of pollsters explaining the phenomenon. The answer I liked best is this one:
Ipsos Reid president Darrell Bricker agrees. “Voters are stuck where they are and won’t change until they’re given a compelling reason to do so,” he says. “Yes, voters may be parked, but they will stay in the lot until they are convinced to drive away.”


Mr. Bricker, meanwhile, believes Canadian voters have already made up their minds. What some call apathy, he sees as “studied indifference.”
I like that in a voter. Studied indifference is exactly the right attitude.

Years ago now, one of my uncles used to insist on coming  into church at the last possible moment and leaving soon after mass and he advised others to do likewise. He said, "Priests are prone to preach and you don't want to encourage the man."

That sounds irreverent but I think he had it right. A priest's primary job is to say the mass and administer the other sacraments. Everything else he does is superfluous. He might occasionally also have something worthwhile to say about theology or morality but probably not. Most priests have nothing any more useful or edifying to say on those subjects than any other member of the population. When in doubt, a good priest will do the red, say the back and then stop.

The same is true of most politicians. You might want to tune in to politics three or four times a year but for the other 361 days there are much more important things to deal with and we shouldn't let politicians and their allies in the press convince us otherwise.

Here at the Studiously Uncool we are members of the studiously indifferent party. We want our politicians to do only what is necessary and then, please!, just stop,

Nihilism, sex and marriage pt 2. The gruelling cross-examination

The thing about that Vargas-Cooper article that I discussed yesterday that has attracted the most attention is a rather gruesome little anecdote she tells. And yes, I’m going to make you read it. As she tells it, the point of the anecdote is to provide an example of the “aggressive, hostile, and humiliating components of male sexual arousal”.

A word in Vargas-Cooper’s defense, she does not claim, as some have accused her, that this anecdote in itself proves anything about men. She gives other evidence to that fact and she is just using the anecdote to put some colour and flesh on the evidence as any good writer would. Is that other evidence compelling? I would say “no” (and have said so in my previous post) but you can make up your own mind.

What I would like to do with her anecdote, however, is to turn it around and ask about women. What sorts of things might we be tempted to conclude about women in general and Natasha Vargas-Cooper in particular from this anecdote? Because that is fair? Isn’t it? If we can use this anecdote to make a general point about men, well it’s reasonable to at least wonder if there is anything to be said the other way.

So here is the anecdote:
Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.”
Okay, let’s pause there a moment and imagine we’re in this situation and how we would react at this point. Got it? Okay, now you can continue below and read how Vargas-Cooper actually did react.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Nihilism, sex and marriage

Read the following paragraph and you'd probably feel pretty confident making some assumptions about the author and the rest of the article it appears in. Those assumptions would probably be mostly wrong. But, play the game with me. Read it and imagine the person and the piece.
This isn’t to argue that pornography is harmless or even that it shouldn’t be censored: its pervasiveness clearly exacerbates the growing moral nihilism of our culture. But removing pornography won’t alter the unlovely aspects of male sexuality that porn depicts and legitimizes. The history of civilization would seem to show that there’s no hope of eradicating those qualities; they can only be contained—and checked—by strenuously enforced norms. And given our à la carte morality and our aversion to cultural authority—a societal direction made plain by porn’s very omnipresence—I wouldn’t put much faith in enforcement.
What attracted me to this quote on another site is that word "nihilism". You read this paragraph and you think, here is writer who is opposed to nihilism. She is actually a very unconvincing opponent of moral nihilism and is, I suspect, actually a moral nihilist despite herself. You might also think she doesn't like sex much but you'd be very wrong about that too. The things she doesn't much like are men's sexuality and marriage. Not just the institution mind; she doesn't like the kind of relationship that marriage institutionalizes.

First of all, however, I think she is very much right in two claims she makes that appear in that paragraph;
  1. The problems of modern sexuality do not arise from pornography but from inescapable facts about sexuality. She clearly seems to believe that these are facts about male sexuality but her article reveals, again despite her claims, that this writer knows better than that and that female sexuality also plays a huge role.
  2. I also agree with her that our culture's commitment to individual autonomy and aversion to authority make it impossible to deal with the issue through culturally enforced norms (assuming that would be a good idea, which I doubt).
Okay, you say but who is the author and what is the piece about?

Her name is Natasha Vargas-Cooper and the article is called Hard Core: The new world of porn is revealing eternal truths about men and women. Before you click on that, you will want to know that while the article is completely unpornographic, Vargas-Cooper is very direct and detailed in talking about what sort of subjects are increasingly portrayed in modern porn.

The piece has caused a lot of buzz on the Internet. Some people have attacked the piece for being yet another anti-porn crusade but it isn't that. As the headline says, she is more interested in what she believes modern porn is telling us about human sexuality. Others have zeroed in on something else: although the headline talks about revealing truths about men and women, Vargas-Cooper is actually much more concerned with men and the supposed pathologies of our sexuality.

There are some obvious and real problems with the article. For example: Millions of young women are fans of Taylor Swift but no reasonable person would allow that you can successfully generalize about all young women based on the personal style of Taylor Swift and the lyrics of her songs. And such generalizations would not be any more convincing if I told you about an encounter with one young woman who clearly modeled herself on Swift. Likewise it simply does not follow that because a lot of men use porn and some of that porn portrays something really ugly that every man's or even most men's sexuality fits into this model.

Another huge problem is that the numbers Vargas-Cooper cites are less than convincing:
The Internet has created a perfect market of buyers and sellers (with the sellers increasingly proffering their goods gratis) that provides what people—overwhelmingly males (who make up two-thirds of all porn viewers)—want to see or do.
If two thirds of porn viewers are men, then one third are women and one-third of porn users is an awful lot of women. And when you consider that people use porn as a masturbatory aid and that most men masturbate a lot more often than most women do, this statistic alone demolishes Vargas-Cooper's claim that today's porn tells us something unique to male sexuality. (Something that is also clear reading between the lines of her own piece.)

That said, I think Vargas-Cooper is on to something very important when she writes things like this:
The heated act of sex often expunges judgment, pushing the participants into territory they hadn’t previously contemplated. The speed at which one transgresses, the urge to reach oblivion, the glamour of violence, the arbitrary and shifting distinction between acts repulsive and attractive—all these aspects that existed only in sex are now re-created through Internet porn.
And this:
The manner in which one physically, and emotionally, contorts oneself for sex simply takes sex outside the realm of ordinary human experiences and places it in the extreme, often beyond our control.
Sex is like Huckleberry Finn, it defies sivilizing. It is one of those experiences where we are confronted by our raw animality. We surprise ourselves by responding positively to things we don't think we are going to or that we should like. Interestingly, however, Vargas-Cooper is honest enough to admit here what she is less comfortable acknowledging elsewhere: women are not immune to this reaction. And if that is true, we can't really say that it is all men pushing for this sort of experience that is to blame. And yet that is exactly what Vargas-Cooper wants us to conclude.

Let me give you a mundane, by today's standards, example of how women's sexual responses can surprise women themselves. A woman I have known since high school told me that when she was thirteen years old, one of her friends snuck a sex manual out of her mother's underwear drawer and a small group of girls her age read it aloud to one another. This was in the late 1970s. Anyway, they hit the section that discussed fellatio and all the girls had the same reaction: "Not in my mouth—never, ever ever, ever."

As my friend related it, all she had to do reduce one of those women to hysterical laughter five to ten years later was to remind them of that incident. As she put it, "Women's sense of what we will really want to do when we are really aroused is not very dependable". And we men get a lot of pleasure from pushing women a bit; we get a lot of pleasure from a woman surrendering herself to us by allowing herself to reach that point where that arbitrarily shift Vargas-Copper discusses above takes place. I suspect most men have had the experience where the harsh, ugly little word that a woman has said she hates suddenly becomes the harsh, ugly little word that puts her over the top.

Really good sex is always about surrender
One of the odd things about sex is that allowing the other person to please you is a form of surrender. And it is precisely because that pleasure involves a loss of control. Even to enjoy having your neck massaged requires you to put yourself, quite literally, in someone else's hands. In really good sex you reach a point where you are out of control and the other person is very much in control. And Vargas-Cooper correctly points out that this sex—sex where we surrender completely to another—is the very best sex there is. (She doesn't acknowledge, but we should, that this is a much more significant surrender for women than it is for men and that doing so will leave a woman more vulnerable than it does a man.)

If you don't feel comfortable about that surrender, you have three choices:
  1. You can never lose control by either making sex about the other person's pleasure or simply abstaining.
  2. You can lose control in circumstances where the other person is distanced; that is to say you can lose control in conditions where they are reduced to something like a masturbatory aid.
  3. You can lose control only in the context of a loving, committed relationship wherein you have both pledged to fully give yourself to the other.
And it is here where Vargas-Cooper really gives herself away. Read the following and you'll notice that she is telling us an awful lot more about herself than she ought to be:
But how is sex, as a human experience, anything less than extreme? Not the kind of sex (or lack thereof) that occurs in marriages that double as domestic gulags. Or what 30-somethings do to each other in the second year of their “serious relationship.” But the sex that occurs in between relationships—or overlaps with relationships—where the buffers of intimacy or familiarity do not exist: the raw, unpracticed sort. If a woman thinks of the best sex she’s had in her life, she’s often thinking of this kind of sex, and while it may be the best sex in her life, it’s not the sex she wants to have throughout her life—or more accurately, it’s not the sex she’d have with the man with whom she’d like to spend her life.
Perhaps surprisingly, Vargas-Cooper's preferred choice from my list above is clearly option #2. Lots of women, but not all I am happy to be able to say authoritatively, want exactly what Vargas-Cooper wants. Relevant disclosure: been there, done that, was the man my ex claimed she wanted to spend the rest of her life with and consequently suffered through years of mundane sex and boring underwear while occasionally hearing about how other guys before me got to push her boundaries and that experience does have an impact on the way I see things. And I know I'm not alone here.

And you can see how that just might set up an ugly power struggle. If you cannot, you can read an account of just such an ugly power struggle in Vargas-Cooper's article.

But lots of other women will read what Vargas-Cooper wrote above and say, "Speak for yourself sister." As I say, she is revealing a lot more about herself here than she realizes.

But I would like to move onto the issue of marriage because Vargas-Cooper really reveals herself when she talks about marriage. In the quote above, she not only doesn't want to have her best sex in a committed relationship, she describes marriages as "domestic gulags". Later on, she will respond to another author by writing:
More important, the sort of sex that Dines envisions—where respect, love, and civic connections are merged into erotically rewarding experience—is utopian (and not perhaps all that enticing).
I don't, as I say, entirely disagree. The rewarding sexual experience doesn't come as a result of respect, love and civic connections.  Sex is and will always be something that defies control but is precisely that which makes the respect, love and civic connections so essential. The uncontrollable aspects become something you make a gift of to one and only one other person and you can do that because you trust them. You don't trust them because you know they will always be trustworthy; you do it because you love them and have decided to trust them. Marriage is a promise without a guarantee. But if you read the article, you will see that Vargas-Cooper provides lots of evidence of what happens when you take respect, love, and civic connections away and it isn't pretty.

Because she relentlessly slams the door on marriage every time it rears its head, Vargas-Cooper has to blame something else: male sexuality. But read her own words and there is an undeniable admission that female sexuality complements male sexuality. She is pushing to make sex meaningless and male dominated precisely because she won't allow the kind of relationship that is based on complete mutual giving. In other words, it is her own insistence on a lack of any moral sense to sexual relationships that gets her where she ends up. And that is a funny way to oppose nihilism.

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Justine's question

Way back in volume one of the Alexandria Quartet there is moment where Darley and Justine have hurt all sorts of people through affairs of the heart. Justine muses:
Who invented the human heart, I wonder? Tell me, and then show me the place where he was hanged?
Lawrence Durrell probably wouldn't like this answer but some of us would say the place he was hanged was Golgotha. Because if by "invented the human heart" we mean, Who gave us the capacity to love the way we do?", that is the answer.


Clea is a novel written by a guy who doesn't seem to believe in novels. It is sort of the opposite of books like Brideshead, A la recherche du temps perdu, and A Dance to the Music of Time. In those books, characters keep trying to live lives that have the unity and purpose of art and keep failing at this. In Clea, and the rest of the Alexandria Quartet, art keeps trying to represent life and it keeps failing.

I suppose this sort of stuff goes back to Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford: think of Conrad's Marlow telling the story of his visit to Africa but stopping again and again to say. "It's hopeless, hopeless".

Lawrence Durrell has used that trick in a way that's really quite audacious. He has a story told by a writer named Darley. You might say that Durrell created a character named Darley and then had Darley write the books for him. The audacious thing is that Darley, unlike Charles Marlow, is not a good story teller; he is a bad writer. He aspires to do fine writing and all four books are full of his efforts that don't really add up to much.

Here is an example. This is from Clea. Notice the clichés and awful metaphors here:
How could I help but think of the past towards which we were returning across the dense thickets of time, across the familiar pathways of the Greek sea? The night slid past me, an unrolling ribbon of darkness. The warm wind sea-wind brushed my cheek—soft as brush of a fox. Between sleep and waking I lay, feeling the tug of memory's heavy plumb-line: tug of the leaf-veined city which my memory people with masks, malign and beautiful at once.
Read it quickly—because you are gobbling up the book the way people gobble up the road when they are in a hurry to get somewhere and don't care to notice the country they are driving through—and it might not bother you. But does writing come any more hackneyed than "dense thickets of time", or winds that are "soft as the brush of a fox"? And ask yourself what an unrolling ribbon of darkness is supposed to convey? Or how does a plumb line tug at you? And what does telling us that Alexandria is leaf-veined help us to see? That it has streets that form a regular pattern maybe? Which would make it different from every other city in the known universe how exactly?

That's not unconsciously bad writing. Durrell has put a lot of effort into making Darley like this. And it's very modern. Compare it with the way Shakespeare has characters say stupid things in beautiful language that only Shakespeare could write. Bottom gets love all wrong when he wakes up from his dream but he gets it wrong in ways that are beautiful and profound. Darley just gets love wrong. He gets it wrong the way a fourth rate writer would if he tried to express something too big, too beautiful and too sacred. Pulling that off credibly is a lot harder than it seems.

That's also brave because, obviously, there is always the possibility that your readers won't get the joke and think that it's just bad writing plain and simple. Alternatively, and this is far more common in my experience, they might miss the thing entirely and think that the "fine writing" Durrell means to mock really is fine writing. That's what I did back in university and I knew a bunch of guys who took Durrell as their Hemingway and got wrapped up in silly romantic fantasies about Alexandria.

This ought to have been harder than it was because no one, not even silly romantic young men, could miss that Durrell was playing with us. But you also can't shake the feeling that he is playing with himself too. He keeps playing game after game after game. But it's never quite like peeling an onion in that you never get to the point where you have nothing.

To keep reading you have to believe that the truth is cleverly hidden around the edges like A Heart of Darkness or The Good Soldier. Or, as he keeps hinting, that Durrell is pointing at some sort of gnosticism where the possession of inside knowledge will give you power. In the first volume when Justine first meets Darley after a  lecture he has given on Cavafy, she says, "What did you mean by your remark about the antinomian nature of irony?" That seems like a powerful idea: that irony would free us from moral obligation.

Except that the irony in The Alexandria Quartet is anything but subtle. To recognize it is not to join some small and exclusive club of knowers.

By the time you get to Clea, you're thinking maybe this time he is going to let us get a glimpse of real love; maybe this time he is describing a woman who won't turn into so much vapour at the end. And he seems to do that at first. Except that he starts using the same events to describe his love and she starts to feel like the other women Darley has loved and the awful suspicion that Melissa, Justine and Clea are the same fantasy woman described in different ways starts to bother you.

The party at the end of the universe
Camus, in a metaphor I've borrowed before, compared nihilism to a dead-end alley. When you get to the dead end, you have three choices,
  • you can beat your skull to a pulp against the brick wall at the end of the alley,
  • you can just hang around and think of ways to amuse yourself, or
  • you can do what Cardinal Newman advised and turn around and walk out.
We tend to admire people who take the first option.  Cool Hand Luke is a compelling character if seen from enough distance. Some people can even admire Sid Vicious, Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain. It can look like their horrible ends are the result not of irrational self-destructive behaviour but some special sort of integrity.

In real life, though, being a martyr for nihilism is a grim and depressing choice so we find ways to make the second choice look morally admirable. You sit in the audience and watch the nihilistic movie and then you go to a party where you and a bunch of your friends collectively pretend to be edgy and transgressive and a whole lot of other words that mean a little less every time you think about them. The nagging doubt that you are just being dilettantes is always there but you are still alive and you can even have quite a bit of fun.

The last choice seems underwhelming.

You may wonder why I invoke Cardinal Newman as it doesn't seem like we need to be told that you can turn around and walk out of a dead-end alley. That's because metaphors have limits. In real life, you never would have headed up the alley in the first place if you had really believed it was a dead end. You may have known in an abstract sense, or adults may have tried to tell you, that this alley went nowhere but you thought maybe it would be different for you.

And when you get to the end of the alleyway, you found that it was crowded with other people just like you and they were having a party and it was a good party at first. And there is no denial quite like collective denial.

You can't just turn around because you have paid a price to get all this way up the alley. You had to defy those adults who told you not to go as well as overcome your own sense of doubt. And then you had to earn your way into that party at the end. The cool kids at the nihilism bash don't let anyone in. You have to learn the talk and the ways to act and dress and, not incidentally, it always costs more money to be a nihilist than it might appear. You might think that you should be able to do anything you want but show up at the nihilist party wearing the wrong clothes and you'll soon know about it.To just dump all that investment on the ground and turn around is to abandon much of what your life has been about.

And so you convince yourself that you can't turn around because logic defies you. "Show me proof that walking out the alley will get me to the truth and then I'll go," you shout, forgetting that the brick wall going the other way definitely won't get you any truth. Although you might argue that oblivion is a kind of truth and try beating your head to a pulp against it.

Of course you are right, and this is comforting, that there is no proof that walking back out again will lead anywhere at all. The choice is not between dilettantish semi-nihilism and a life of meaning and truth. It's a choice between nihilism and a life where you have to keep up the hope and faith that there will be meaning and truth.

I think Durrell never got over that party at the end of nihilism alley. He had to leave at one point because he wasn't cool enough to be allowed to hang around too long. But he kept trying to find a way to recreate it. He recognized it was laughable to he dressed it up in irony in the perennial hope that "being stupid" isn't quite the same as being stupid.

But if Clea is supposed to be real love then how does he make her seem like something other than an arbitrary choice? You can go through life having one monogamous relationship after another wondering what is going to make you stop at this one. You'd like to think there was more to it than the feeling that your sexual capital is drying up and the choices are going to get progressively less appealing and then vanish so you better settle before it's too late.

On the other hand, you want the experience. It would be nice to say you lived in Alexandria just before the war. That you lived in this wonderful polyglot city full of romance and despair and with a history that includes Cavafy, Ptolemy, Anthony and Cleopatra and even the great Alexander himself. A city that now no longer exists and maybe it never existed but the sense of a dead end is what makes it attractive somehow. Who cares you think. Damn the expense, feed that cat another goldfish 'cause here we go.

Monday, January 24, 2011

True Grit

Update: I have seen and reviewed the new film here.

No I haven't seen it. I'm tempted which is saying something as the last new release I saw in a theatre was Pride and Prejudice. It was released in 2005!

What has me especially intrigued about it is a Frank Rich column from this weekend. Something about that column linked up with some other stuff I have been treading this week. That something is nihilism. It's nihilism week here at Studiously Uncool.

I don't read Frank Rich very often because he is not only very political but also has a take-no-prisoners style about politics. But the surprise success of the remake of True Grit has him in an introspective mood and that is interesting and revealing. Rich is a polarizing writer—you either love him or hate him—but his opinions remain important because he has a special genius for reflecting and directing the opinions of hip urban people. You may think you've never read Rich but you have because his arguments and opinions have a way of reappearing in hundreds of other columns in the week following their appearance in the New York Times. There are at least three columnists at Toronto's Globe and Mail, for example, who ought to be paying him royalties.

How Frank Rich is like my mother
 He has an approach to handling unsettling events—and this movie has clearly unsettled him—that is a lot like the way my mother counseled me to follow. When I was growing up, my mother taught me to treat every good event as unprecedented: 'This is a uniquely good thing to be appreciated and cherished'. And she taught me to look for precedents whenever anything bad came along: 'Because if it has happened before and we dealt with it this shows that it is nothing to be too worried about; we can remember how the evil was overcome'.

And True Grit represents evil for Rich. It is a reactionary movie:
Yet “True Grit” was warmly received, including by the Times critic, Vincent Canby, who put it in a year-end list of bests dominated by such antiestablishment fare as “The Wild Bunch,” “Easy Rider,” “Midnight Cowboy” (that year’s Best Picture Oscar winner) and the ultimate anti-Western, Andy Warhol’s sexually transgressive “Lonesome Cowboys.” Canby described “True Grit” as “a classic frontier fable that manages to be most entertaining even when it’s being most reactionary.” 
You'll note the contrast. We have this reactionary movie and we have a bunch of others that Rich believes more truly reflected where the country was in 1969.

Before moving on, I wonder just how true that claim about the mood of the country. Because if those movies really did signal where people were at morally and culturally speaking, we should expect them to have laid down deep cultural roots. I watched High Society last night so let's take it as a random comparison point: of all the movies and TV shows Amazon sells High Society ranks at #2920.

Midnight Cowboy rates at #8809. Easy Rider is #1963. The Wild Bunch is at #5552. Lonesome Cowboys, not surprisingly is bringing up the rear at #140,864.

The original True Grit meanwhile, no doubt helped by the remake, is in the top 100 and has been for 33 days now.

So right off the top, we can write off Rich's understanding of history as factually wrong. The cultural impact of the movies he thinks better represented the moral mood society was in back in 1969 does not seem to have lasted.

It's worth noting in passing that Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only X-rated picture to ever win the Oscar for best picture. Now if an X-rated movie had won for the first time last year, it would be reasonable to wonder if this represented a new trend. But if 41 years later it has not happened again, I think it's fairly safe to say that the "trend" petered out.

(By the way, other movies and TV shows old enough to count as lasting influences in the top 100 are the Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice at #47, the Star Wars Trilogy at #48, Beauty and the Beast at #56, Dances With Wolves at #68, Fantasia at #70, The Wizard of Oz at #75, The Sound of Music at #85, The Little Mermaid at #90 and Gone With the Wind at #100. All of which suggests that the "dark vision" and nihilism of Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch and Lonesome Cowboys failed to take root in American culture. The only thing all those old shows in the top 100 have in common is relentless optimism.)

And what is reactionary for Rich?
Frank Rich writes for people who largely agree with him already so he doesn't stop to think much about what counts as reactionary. He just writes as if it is obvious. Whenever anyone does that it is interesting to tease out what counts as significant in this regard for them.

Here is Rich's, I'd say bang-on accurate explanation of the success of the first True Grit:
Ultimately, law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage — which Rooster failed at — had to prevail if America was to grow up. The Matties had to outlive the Roosters. And so they did. For a weary mainstream 1969 audience, and not just a reactionary one, the restoration of order in “True Grit,” inevitably to be followed by Rooster’s ride off into the sunset, was a heartening two-hour escape from the near-civil-war raging beyond the theater’s walls.
And am I the only one to think it a little funny that Rich so casually takes it for granted that "law, religion and domestic institutions like marriage" are reactionary ideas?

Rich's great hope for the future
As I wrote at the top, the rule in these contrasts is that every good thing is new and unprecedented. So what is the new hope for Rich? Why it's The Social Network by Aaron Sorkin.

Now Rich doesn't think that The Social Network portrays anything good. In his estimation, what is good about this movie is its dark portrayal of the world as it is becoming.
Talk about Two Americas. Look at “The Social Network” again after seeing “True Grit,” and you’ll see two different civilizations, as far removed from each other in ethos as Silicon Valley and Monument Valley. While “Social Network” fictionalizes Mark Zuckerberg, it mines the truth of an era — from the ability of the powerful and privileged to manipulate the system to the collapse of loyalty as a prized American virtue at the top of that economic pyramid. 
The thing that The Social Network  as understood by Frank Rich and Midnight Cowboy have in common is a kind of nihilism. You can believe in justice and truth in Rich's world but it's not going to do you a fat lot of good. The only escape from such a nihilism is something like Nietzschean superman who would, by sheer force of will (and presumably political power) impose justice on the world. I find that a rather uncertain prospect, more likely to produce crimes against humanity than justice but no one has to agree with me.

I'm no nihilist but I understand how people get there. What's the answer to nihilism? Well, there are a few and I may hit on them later this week but I thought a line in the new True Grit that seems to have particularly rankled Frank Rich was pretty darn good:
More than the first “True Grit,” the new one emphasizes Mattie’s precocious, almost obsessive preoccupation with the law. She is forever citing law-book principles, invoking lawyers and affidavits, and threatening to go to court. “You must pay for everything in this world one way or another,” says Mattie. “There is nothing free except the grace of God.” 
Those are good words to live by if you ask me.

Now I need to find a woman who is beautiful and has a devastatingly sharp mind who might be interested in going out with me for a movie followed by port and discussion of said movie.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Comments policy

I haven't posted my comments policy for a while, largely because it hasn't been necessary.

But, just to remind people, abusive posts and vulgar language will get deleted as I just did today.

On the upside, this was only the second post I deleted in the history of the blog.

Books worth reading again

I've written about this before. There ares some books that are wonderful first time through but whose real greatness lies in subsequent readings.

I'm well into Anthony Powell's Dance just now reaching the end of volume three, The Acceptance World. This is not my second but probably my fourth, fifth or sixth time through. I haven't kept track. The last time I read it, I remembered feeling a  slight superiority to Powell. Now, like Twain joked about his father, I'm amazed at how much the old guy has learned in the last decade.

And I have to keep reading because there is stuff I need to follow through. There is, for example, a party at which people play Planchette, an occult parlour game related to the Ouija board. Anyway, the board spells out some sentences that deeply upset young Quiggin, a materialist, in fact Marxist, present. But here is the thing: someone has to have fixed the game but who? I'm leaning towards Jimmy Strippling right now, mostly because it would be highly unexpected of him. But who knows. It may be that the question never gets answered—Powell does that a lot. Then again, maybe it's all spelled out in the text and I've just forgotten. It seems like it might be important right now.

I also keep thinking about Hubert Duggan who, as I've commented before, was fictionalized in very different ways by Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell. Having recently experimented with trying to let real life characters inspire fictional ones, I was amazed at how hard it is to do. The real life of the character is always standing there as a challenge saying, "but he did cheat on his girlfriend" or "but she didn't change for the better". I always used to think that people who drew characters on real life models were being lazy but it's actually much harder than you would guess.

I'm going to put him aside briefly after I finish this volume, and go read Lawrence Durrell (an author who gets progressively less impressive on subsequent reading, at least to me). I'm doing this for research reasons

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Absolutely clueless

I have friends who still work in journalism and some of them are a little miffed at the loss of respect their profession has seen in recent years. To be certain, no one ever liked journalists but now they are despised. At times I can feel a certain sympathy, no one likes to be despised after all.

But then I read a sentence like this in Today's Globe and Mail:
Vietnamese students fare better in Montreal than they do in Vancouver, but no one knows why.
Well, we may not know but let's try guessing. A lot of Vietnamese speak French as a second language. And we might also reasonably guess that the families who already speak French are more likely to pick Montreal than Vancouver. And, this is my third guess, just maybe learning in a language and a culture you already understand fairly well gives you a huge advantage over your compatriots in Vancouver who must learn a new language and culture before you can even begin to learn your school subjects.

Those are just some wild guesses.

It's the lack of curiosity that makes this kind of journalism so irritating. (The story is online here.) It begins with the shocking revelation that East Asian immigrants are doing much better in Canadian schools than Caribbean and Hispanic students are. The editors of The Globe and Mail apparently unaware that this variance has been part of the common culture for decades. There are racist jokes that trade on the superiority of these students: for example, the remark that for university students of Canadian descent, "sixpack" means six Vodka coolers while it means three maths and three sciences for students of east Asian descent.

This isn't news.

And then there is lack of courage. For no one wants to suggest that culture just might have something to do with it. We come right up to the edge of the problem:
In most countries, having a university educated father, as Ms. Estrella does, would make her academic success very likely. In Canada, though, parental education is not as good a predictor of academic outcomes among immigrant children as ethnic origin, according to Prof. Finnie and Prof. Mueller. That’s usually because the children of immigrants go on to postsecondary education at much higher rates than the children of the Canadian-born, even when their parents aren’t university educated.
And then we get this opinion:
One of the possibilities suggested by Prof. Gaztambide-Fernández is that Latino families may lack the cultural capital of other groups, the background, connections, community links and institutional knowledge built over generations, that ease the path for their children.
It's hard to see how these two claims can be true at the same time. I'm sure you can see the problem: if having a university-educated father isn't cultural capital, then what is?

Because to admit that cultural capital might not be the problem would require us to look at culture tout court and that would be to admit another one of those things that everyone knows but comes as a surprise to journalists: When it comes to culture, it matters a whole lot which culture! Some cultures mix better with western ideas of political freedom, personal autonomy and responsibility than others do. And anyone who isn't overly worried about political correctness can list the ones that work—East Asian, Cuban, European, Jewish—as well as the ones that don't work so well—former Eastern Bloc cultures, South American, African and Islamic.

So what do we do about it? I don't think selective shopping is the solution. Let me instead remind you of another culture that mixed very well with western ideas of political freedom, personal autonomy and responsibility: protestantism! I mean the kind that came to the thirteen colonies. It didn't just mix well with these ideas, it was east-coast Protestant Christianity that brought all those ideas together in the form that everyone else in the world came to recognize as the best way of living.

Do you know what is weird about our attitudes towards that group? This: anyone who landed from Mars and read the books, magazine articles and saw the popular entertainment produced that refers to that cultural group would think they were one of the big failures in the history of humanity.

Here in Ontario, where I am an immigrant of sorts myself, people talk about the people who made the economy and political system that make this one of the safest, most orderly and prosperous places in the entire world as if their era was one of endless failure from which we were all saved by multiculturalism. But really, if you want people from cultures that don't quite get western ideas of political freedom, personal autonomy and responsibility to figure it out, you have to give them something reasonable to emulate.

No doubt that makes me worse than a Nazi but there you are.

A rare political comment

So we just had a spate of recent stories about Haiti and how bad things have gotten there. Good stuff that people should care I suppose. That's what we always tell ourselves isn't it? That it's really important to care?

But nowhere in the coverage did I see any admission of what should be an undeniable political fact now. That is that charity didn't work. A huge outpouring of western concern and huge pile of political donations didn't help at all.

Which wouldn't surprise anyone who knows the history of the place. Haiti was a disaster before the earthquake.

You can actually see the problem from space: look at satellite shots of Haiti and you can see that it is all brown while then neighbouring and relatively more prosperous Dominican Republic is green. The earthquake didn't cause Haiti's problems it just made the world aware of them. And no amount of aid is going to change things.

Charity used to mean a kind of love. Now it means caring and donating.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The short version ...

... of my last post would be this: one of our most sinful instincts is self dramatization.

It seems relatively harmless because each moment of self dramatization seems like relatively small beer when it happens. But each time we do, we entrench habits that sprawl out and effect others.

We get encouraged to do this sort of thing at every turn in our society.

Even Christians do it when we imagine ourselves to be fighting God's battles for him when all we are really doing is trying to lend some sense of importance to our lives.

Sprawling habits

Three incidents today got me thinking about civility.

The first was at mass. There were maybe a hundred and fifty people in attendance for the 8 AM service. At the Basilica, we receive at the rail and there were enough people present to make a line up waiting for places at the rail.

Ahead of me was a woman who obviously thinks of herself as devout. She was wearing a mantilla. After receiving, she remained at the rail on her knees, actively praying, she remained so long that the priest came back the other way and she had to break her routine to wave him off as he had no idea she had already received and was ready to present her with a second host.

And routine it was. She obviously has a whole series of prayers and devotions she goes through every time she goes to the rail to receive the Eucharist.

When she finished she stepped back and genuflected.

When it was time to leave the church afterward, she caused another line up because she insisted on stopping in front of the crucifix and prostrating herself on the floor.

As I say, she must think of herself as devout but she is, in fact, a selfish, inconsiderate and thoughtless person who doesn't have a clue about the Gospel.

And then I got on the bus and there was this guy who sat in a seat and sprawled so he blocked passage to the seats behind him. But it wasn't just his sitting style that involved sprawling. He spoke to his a guy across the aisle—this guy being sprawled so much that he managed to block the aisle and make it impossible for anyone else to sit in the seat beside him—and he spoke so loudly that everyone in the bus got to follow along.

The final incident took place walking to the bus stop on the way home. Three young men‚in their twenties—were standing in front of a storefront sharing a drink out of the same paper cup. At some point one guy didn't like something the other had said and he swung his hand violently and knocked the cup out of the other guy's hand.

This was right downtown and the sidewalk was packed with people. The contents hit at least a dozen people but I got the brunt of it. Whisky! In the face! Before breakfast!

These people all had something in common. They have a way of living, habits they have let develop over their lives, that sprawl all over the place and cause discomfort and suffering for others. And part of what was driving this in all three cases was a desperate need for recognition. They need other people to see them and notice them.

And then I got on the bus home. And I smell like a distillery. And I have this growing need to start a conversation. I want someone, anyone, to say something to me so I can tell my story and tell it loud enough so that everyone on the bus can hear and so they won't think I'm a drunken businessman who had whiskey for breakfast.

Suddenly, I had my own desperate need for recognition.

I didn't though. I sat there with my head down, my knees and shoulders hunched so there would be lots of room for the person beside me on the bus seat.

Book recommendation and Friday business

If you are at all interested in Saint Agnes and the role of her cult role in history and culture (and that role is considerable), I can highly recommend a book by Margaret Visser called The Geometry of Love. I don't give a link as this site is not monetized so I have no financial interest in directing you to any particular seller. It is still in print and available at the usual vendors. And check your local library as well.

It's a book about a church—Saint Agnes Without the Walls in Rome—but it includes a simply fascinating account of culture, history and theology behind Agnes. If you read it, I guarantee you will come away learning something that will enrich your life.

Today is also the day of my pastoral visit so not much blogging this morning anyway.

The person I visit is awaiting a test result that could mean the difference between life and death. There are. of course, many things to pray about in this world but if you have a prayer to spare, it would certainly not go amiss.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Three prayers

For no reason other than that I want to, I put the three prayers—meaning people who are praying rather than the prayers they said—below.

There are only five certifiably quick beings in this poem: in order of appearance they are the Beadsman, Madeline, Porphyro, Angela and "the wakeful bloodhound". Three of these kneel to pray.

First the Beadsman,

Numb were the Beadsman’s fingers, while he told       
  His rosary, and while his frosted breath,
  Like pious incense from a censer old,
  Seem’d taking flight for heaven, without a death,
Past the sweet Virgin’s picture, while his prayer he saith.

  His prayer he saith, this patient, holy man;
  Then takes his lamp, and riseth from his knees,

Then Madeline,

As down she knelt for heaven’s grace and boon;
  Rose-bloom fell on her hands, together prest,       
  And on her silver cross soft amethyst,
  And on her hair a glory, like a saint:
  She seem’d a splendid angel, newly drest,
  Save wings, for heaven:—Porphyro grew faint:
She knelt, so pure a thing, so free from mortal taint.

And then Porphyro

Upon his knees he sank, pale as smooth-sculptured stone.

  Her eyes were open, but she still beheld,
  Now wide awake, the vision of her sleep:
  There was a painful change, that nigh expell’d       
  The blisses of her dream so pure and deep
  At which fair Madeline began to weep,
  And moan forth witless words with many a sigh;
  While still her gaze on Porphyro would keep;
  Who knelt, with joined hands and piteous eye,       
Fearing to move or speak, she look’d so dreamingly.

What's my point? I don't have any. I just think it fascinating that these three kneel and clasp their hands. There is a progression of sorts from the Beadsman who before the sweet Virgin Upper case and definite article, to Porphyro who kneels before a sweet virgin, lowercase indefinite article. This move from caritas to eros is a fairly common move in Provençal troubadour lyrics so it is nothing new or radical for Keats to do likewise. It's just neat and that is the only reason I mention it.

It is Saint Agnes Eve now. And bitter cold it is where I am. It is minus 15 centigrade or five degrees Fahrenheit, clear and cold. We have no owl but we did have a Sharp-shinned hawk chase some poor sparrow into the cedar bushes beside our feeder today. The hawk flew out the other side so I couldn't tell if the he will be keeping warm on sparrow calories tonight or not.

Anyway, sweet dreams all.

Reading The Eve of Saint Agnes

The good professor over at CUNY suggests that perhaps Madeline is hoodwinked by Porphyro and her superstitions. And, for good measure, she tosses in a  suggestion that Keats may have chosen his characters names with intended irony. Madeline, of course, is a form of Magdalen who was historically believed to have been a reformed prostitute saved by Jesus. And of Porphyro, she says
His namesake, the historical Porphyro, was an active enemy of Christianity in the third century.
And thus this rationalist Porphyro might be a sort of Antichrist achieving an overthrow of religion by fooling Madeline into giving him her virginity and then fleeing with her to a marriage meant to be a parody of the marriage of Christ and his church.  Maybe.  Porphyry was an exponent of rationalism over superstition and he did indeed write a work called Against the Christians.

We should not forget, however, that Porphyro's name might just as easily derive from Porphyrion, who was one of the Giants who fought with the Olympian gods. Porphyrion is particularly interesting in that he tore Hera's clothing off and meant to rape her only Zeus and Hercules double-teamed him and saved her. It is just as easy to draw parallels between that character as it is with Porphyry.

But the bigger challenge is on the other side of the ledger. What are we to make of Madeline and does Keats mean to sneer at her?

And we should remember that Keats is recently engaged when he writes this poem. We can over-read autobiography but it would be odd for Keats to set about mocking Madeline given his own recent experience. And the concerns that Porphyro might be disqualified from marriage to Madeline because he is dying had echoes that were all to clear for poor Keats.

And while it may seem that Madeline's beliefs in superstition are meant to be laughed at, they could just as easily be a stand in for Keats own beliefs about imagination. Consider this from his letter to Benjamin Bailey of November 22, 1817:
I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination - What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth - whether it existed before or not - for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty.
And this from a little later in the same letter:
The imagination may be compared to Adam's dream, - he awoke and found it truth. 
Adam's dream would have taken place when God put him to sleep to create Eve! If anything, Madeline, is the character who most directly embodies Keats own beliefs in the poem: she awoke and found her dream to be truth. (Although we must acknowledge again that, despite Keats' supreme virtues as a poet, no one would call him a deep and profound thinker for stuff like the above.)

Mixed feelings about fairies
Keats was, of course, a huge fan of Spenser's The Faerie Queen in which events in a magical world are an allegory for the real world. When Spenser compares Elizabeth I to a Faerie Queen he means this as a compliment. And The Faerie Queen includes an interesting sequence in which Britomart, a female knight who embodies chastity, falls in love with Arthegall, a male knight embodying human justice, when she sees his image in a magic mirror. Arthegall is freed, by her, from a harsh Draconian justice so that he may be more humane (a familiar theme we see also in Portia in The Merchant of Venice).

At the same time, however, the image of the world of fairies had become by Keats' time a powerful metaphor for the Catholic church and was regularly used by rationalists to mock her. There are hundreds of examples I could cite here but I'm going to go for the gold here and quote one of the most beautiful bits of prose ever cranked out in the English language:
For, from the time that the Bishop of Rome had gotten to be acknowledged for bishop universal, by pretence of succession to St. Peter, their whole hierarchy, or kingdom of darkness, may be compared not unfitly to the kingdom of fairies; that is, to the old wives' fables in England concerning ghosts and spirits, and the feats they play in the night. And if a man consider the original of this great ecclesiastical dominion, he will easily perceive that the papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof: for so did the papacy start up on a sudden out of the ruins of that heathen power.
That is Thomas Hobbes*  from Leviathan.

And therein lies the whole problem of the English Romantic Catholic tradition. On the one hand, the enlightened English thinkers had attacked and, in their opinion, demolished the silly superstitions of Catholicism and the papacy and old wives' tales about fairies and elves. On the other hand, England was forever haunted by these things in places such as Tintern Abbey or in great works of art such as, to pick only one, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The final thought on the subject is this: Keats seems rather enthralled by this superstition.  Here is a rather longish bit from John Aubrey's Miscellanies in which he reports on the superstition regarding Saint Agnes Eve and several other related superstitions:
The women have several magical secrets handed down to them by tradition, for this purpose, as, on St. Agnes' night, 21st day of Jannary, take a row of pins, and pull out every one, one after another, saying a Pater Noster, or (Our Father) sticking a pin in your sleeve, and you will dream of him, or her, you shall marry. Ben Jonson in one of his Masques make some mention of this.
      And on sweet Saint Agnes night
      Please you with the promis'd sight,
      Some of husbands, some of lovers,
      Which an empty dream discovers,
Another. To know whom one shall marry.
You must lie in another county, and knit the left garter about the right legged stocking (let the other garter and stocking alone) and as you rehearse these following verses, at every comma, knit a knot.
      This knot I knit,
      To know the thing, I know not yet,
      That I may see,
      The man (woman) that shall my husband (wife) be,
      How he goes, and what he wears,
      And what he does, all days, and years.
Accordingly in your dream you will see him: if a musician, with a lute or other instrument; if a scholar, with a book or papers.

Is this Keats' source? If so, he has taken liberties here by mixing in all sorts of stuff together to create a new superstition of his own. More tellingly, he has really sexed the thing up. Aubrey says nothing of getting into bed naked without looking back and laying there supine.

I think the right conclusion here is that the world of Catholicism had become, by Keats time, an enthralling thing. Keats does not seem to have been a religious man and we have no reason to believe him interested in promoting any side of religious controversy. But he was attracted, as would be many others, to the richness and beauty of the tradition. In a sense, the very things that made Catholicism seem dangerous to the English—intrigue, ritual, magic, smells and spells—has now become the thing that pulls in young Romantic rebels like Keats.

*If I remember correctly, Hobbes is playing with fire here because that second sentence is a deliberate parody of a sentence from the Bible. I don't have the time to look it up this morning however. I may come back to this later.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Reading The Eve of Saint Agnes

Where is this sex act?
A whole lot of how we understand this poem depends on how we read stanzas 35 and 36. In stanza 35 Madeline, who has been dreaming of Porphyro, sees him beside her bed and is jolted by how pale, chill and unhappy he looks. The entire stanza is her reported speech. She seems to be not fully aware that this is the real guy as opposed to her dream.

 “Ah, Porphyro!” said she, “but even now
  “Thy voice was at sweet tremble in mine ear,
  “Made tuneable with every sweetest vow;
  “And those sad eyes were spiritual and clear:       
  “How chang’d thou art! how pallid, chill, and drear!
  “Give me that voice again, my Porphyro,
  “Those looks immortal, those complainings dear!
  “Oh leave me not in this eternal woe,
“For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.”

Jolted by the bloodless appearance of the man who is the real Porphyro as opposed to the more lively dreamed version, she imagines he might be dying. Not surprisingly, Porphyro's move in Stanza 36 is to show her he really is alive. But what exactly does he do here?

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
  At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
  Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
  Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
  Into her dream he melted, as the rose       
  Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
  Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
  Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.

Just about every interpreter I have ever read sees sex happening here; sees the image of the rose blending its odour with the violet as signifying the penetration of Madeline. Solution sweet! And the last sentence, "St. Agnes' moon hath set", seems to seal the deal. But what is being solved?

Let's forget about poetry for a while and consider this purely in terms of what we know about human beings. This is not a realistic poem so it doesn't have to follow the rules but let's ask, separate from that, "Is this plausible?" In the very next stanza, Porphyro tells Madeline that this is no dream. If he has penetrated her, can we credibly imagine that she doesn't realize what has happened? Has Porphyro fed her the date rape drug?

Okay, but I have already admitted that the poem is a romantic fantasy so it doesn't need to follow the rules. But if we read it that way, meaning we read him as deflowering her while she is still unconscious and unable to consent, I think it loses it's power.

To return to the poem, I think one of the most important things about it is that it's a very voyeuristic bit of writing. I find it odd that more people aren't troubled by Porphyro watching Madeline get naked before getting into bed and by old Angela helping him. For even if Angela really believes that Porphyro has not intention of taking advantage of Madeline in any other way, she has to know that the girl will get undressed on her way to bed and that Porphyro will see this.

It's also voyeuristic in another sense in that it makes us a party of the voyeurism. In some ways it gives us lots of detail. the carvings, the food, the dress, the colours the stained glass casts on her skin (remind me to tell you something funny about that later) are all described so we can imagine them. They are described so well that the Pre-Raphaelites were inspired to paint them. At the same time, however, the poem is voyeuristic in that it helpfully gets rid of any distracting details. The house is full of other people but "These let us wish away". After that we only get the possible menace of their breaking in as described by Angela or by the sound of the music that might wake Madeline.

The whole thing moves the way a suspenseful movie uses voyeurism. We are with Porphyro always. When Angela leaves him to set things up, we stay with him and cheer for him in the same way we cheer for a jewel thief breaking into the suite where the rich and beautiful woman sleeps with her jewels at a hotel on the Riviera. We get sucked into the lead character's perspective and don't question the legitimacy of his motives.

Momentous acts
We know for certain that sex does happen at some point, by the way, because of the publication history of the poem. Keats had originally been more explicit but was dissuaded from this by his publishers who thought, certainly correctly, that it would destroy his career were he to do so. To my mind, however, that is all the more reason to conclude that stanza 36 does not depict sex. It is complete of itself and there is no sense of anything removed or changed.

To read sex into this stanza we'd have to read the long em dash in the last half of the stanza as taking the place of the sex act and the description of the sleet on the window in the same way that the camera used to pan away to a waterfall in old movies as the couple really got down to business.

  Into her dream he melted, as the rose
  Blendeth its odour with the violet,—
  Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
  Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.

But, to return to plain psychological terms, we then have to believe that Keats, a medical doctor by training, would seriously believe that Madeline, her hymen now torn, needs to be told she is not dreaming afterward.

It also doesn't fit with the style of Keats' narrative. Every momentous act has been accorded its full due up until now. Think of how Keats lingers on Madeline's undressing and how much significance is accorded the moment when Porphyro, peering through her bed curtains, presses his arm into her pillow back in stanza 32.

Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm       
  Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
  By the dusk curtains:—’twas a midnight charm
  Impossible to melt as iced stream:

The act of actually getting into Madeline's bed is of immense significance and I'm certain that is all that happens in Stanza 36.

Roses and violets and Greek and Gothic
If this were Shakespeare, we would worry a whole lot about the significance of the particular flowers. For Keats? I don't know. You can decide yourself.

The first question is which is which. Violets are violet or white and "Porphyro" means purple so we might think that he is that. But Porphyro has been rendered colourless here and Madeline has been given colour and warmth so who knows?

We could also approach the problem in terms of the symbolic meanings of the two flowers.

The rose has two meanings depending on whether we choose to be pagan or Christian about it. The Ancients associated the rose with Venus, which is to say sexual love. They also associated it with secrecy; to meet "under the rose" or sub rosa, was to agree that everything that happens there was to be kept secret. Roses are also associated with death and rebirth and with victory.

Christians, as they always did, gave the best flowers to Mary and so the rose comes to be associated with her. Unlike what we might guess, the rose doesn't necessarily associate with virginity however. In Medieval literature it is often associated with love and always with licit love and not with illicit trysts. It is a flower of chastity not virginity.

Colour also matters to Christians. White roses connect to purity and red roses connect to martyrdom.

What matters to the Greeks about violets is that they grow close to the ground and we might read Porphyro falling to his knees here as a connection to the violet. The Greeks also associated violets with death and lovers remember their lost partners with violets. Again, that matches with Madeline thinking Porphyro to be dying when she awakens and sees him pale and cold.

For Christians, violets symbolized humility and modesty.

If Keats is following the rules of parallel structure, then Porphyro is definitely the rose.

Into her dream he melted, as the rose       
  Blendeth its odour with the violet,

In that construction, Porphyro is the rose and Madeline's dream is the violet. Oops. It has to be her dream doesn't it? Could Porphyro be both flowers? The dreamed Porphyro the violet and the live one the rose?

What can we conclude? 
Well, your call really. I think Porphyro gets into Madeline's bed and tells her it isn't a dream. I think she is not entirely taken by surprise at this but that the significance of his crawling in with her, she is completely naked after all, is what moves her to see herself as ruined and not any sex act just yet. Her fear is that he will now just take her as he easily could. And if this were a matter of purely Greek morals, that is what would happen.

In Gothic manners, however, the love has to be pure and justified between the lovers no matter how much it might be abhorred and prohibited by the society around them. Porphyro is not a date rapist. Instead he pleads his troth as a true medieval courtier in Stanza 38:

“My Madeline! sweet dreamer! lovely bride!
  “Say, may I be for aye thy vassal blest?
  “Thy beauty’s shield, heart-shap’d and vermeil dyed?
  “Ah, silver shrine, here will I take my rest
  “After so many hours of toil and quest,
  “A famish’d pilgrim,—saved by miracle.
  “Though I have found, I will not rob thy nest
  “Saving of thy sweet self; if thou think’st well
“To trust, fair Madeline, to no rude infidel.”

And only then, upon her acceptance, do they have sex. Yes, there is room for all sorts of ambiguity here but I believe Porpyhro finds but does not rob her nest. The missing sex scene, I think, would have come after this between Stanzas 38 and 39 like a missing floor number thirteen in a modern apartment building. And then we move to Stanza 39 where they must wake up, as in an Aubade, but escape together.

The funny thing about that stained glass
The stained glass has a funny sequel. Several of the Pre-Raphaelites were moved to paint scenes from the poem. Millais was a stickler for accuracy and when he painted it he had a model stand in front of stained glass window with a full moon shining through in order that he could render the colours as they would have truly appeared. Alas, moonlight is too cold, it does not contain a full spectrum of colours, so it didn't work. There were no warm colours on his Madeline's breast.

By the way, I can't help but notice the significance of number in closing. Even though she is still fully dressed, it's very important that Keats get the number of the object noun correct here:

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
  And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breast,

For the whole thing reads very differently if we pluralize:

Full on this casement shone the wintry moon,
  And threw warm gules on Madeline’s fair breasts,

And right there, we might say, is a key detail in the difference between Gothic manners and Greek morality.