Friday, March 30, 2012

Wrapping up The Reef: Life's just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits

(To read all posts about The Reef click here.)

This is the penultimate post on this. The remaining one will be a bit of oddball speculation about Catholicism in The Reef and in The Wings of the Dove.

It's an interesting twist on conventional plotting that both Book 3 and Book 4 end with a  sense of completion. Typically, the last scene of a middle book leaves at least a sense of something unresolved so you want to keep reading. Not in the case—the novel could have ended with either. If it wrapped up with Book 3 it would have been a happy ending. If it wrapped up with Book 4 it would have been a sad ending. And we go into Book 5 wondering which it will be.

I don't want to spoil it so just a few things you might want to look for.

Pay attention to the larger social picture. In our modern individualist understanding of marriage, it's up to the two people getting married and everyone else be damned. For the characters of this book—like the characters of any classic English novel—marriage is also an issue for first a family and then the larger society.  In Book 3, we saw how George's vision of social order led him to conspire against the marriage of Sophy an Owen. In book 5, one of the big issues for Anna in deciding whether she will accept George after all is the happiness of Owen and Effie.

Does Anna know what she wants? That has been a major, if not the major theme of the book. Here is a simple question: Does Anna ever make a  decision and, if you think she does, can you find the moment where she makes the decision?

There is moment in The Philadelphia Story where Tracy learns that Mike had not, contrary to what everyone had worried, taken advantage of her sexually when she was drunk.  She is both relieved that he didn't and demanding to know why not. Anna never gets drunk nor says anything quite that shocking but the sentiment is there. Watch for the moments when it happens.

The Wings of the Dove makes a big thing of willful renunciation as a way of absolving our sins. Wharton holds out the possibility here too but never allows it. It never works for anyone. Watch for it.

Another parallel with The Philadelphia Story: In the movie, Dexter tells Tracy she'll never be a complete human being until she can understand human frailty. George says something very similar to Anna in Chapter 32 of this book.
What I meant was that when you've lived a little longer you'll see what complex blunderers we all are: how we're struck blind sometimes, and mad sometimes—and then, when our sight and our senses come back, how we have to set to work, and build up, little by little, bit by bit, the precious things we'd smashed to atoms without knowing it. Life's just a perpetual piecing together of broken bits."

She looked up quickly. "That's what I feel: that you ought to----"

He stood up, interrupting her with a gesture. "Oh, don't—don't say what you're going to! Men don't give their lives away like that. If you won't have mine, it's at least my own, to do the best I can with."
"The best you can—that's what I mean! How can there be a 'best' for you that's made of some one else's worst?"

He sat down again with a groan. "I don't know! It seemed such a slight thing--all on the surface—and I've gone aground on it because it was on the surface. I see the horror of it just as you do. But I see, a little more clearly, the extent, and the limits, of my wrong. It's not as black as you imagine."
Anna is hinting here that George could make it right by marrying Sophy. George, who embodies a more modern morality approaching our own, thinks he and Anna should be able to patch it up and thinks she needs to accept—to have more regard for—human frailty.

That last paragraph also includes the closest moment we get towards explaining the significance of the title for the thing George would have gone aground on would be a reef. That's what a reef is, something invisible just below the surface.  But what exactly did George go aground on?

And Anna. She too is aground. She keeps trying to move forward but she is stuck firmly on something. What?

Final thought
As I've pointed out: Wharton's own sexual experience was closer to Sophy's than to Anna's even though Anna's biography and social standing is much closer to hers. There are, of course, obvious reasons why a woman of Wharton's position wouldn't want anyone to identify her with a character who'd had an adventure. But she read this novel to the man she'd had the affair with and he would have known.

What George confesses to having done to Sophy is what Morton Fullerton did to Edith Wharton. He gave her the sexual and emotional satisfaction she'd wanted all her life and, like Sophy,  she could believe it was happening to her and she fell madly in love. And he tired of her. (By the way, it's painful to read the great novelist's love letters to Morton because Wharton is so much his student, as if she knew nothing of life until he showed her.)

Okay, keeping that in mind, could one (hidden) message in the novel be quite the opposite of what everyone assumes. Read it without knowing about Morton Fullerton and you might, as many critics do, see pure condemnation of George. But Sophy gets something loving and losing and so did Wharton. Could this have been Wharton's way of saying, "Anna Leath is what I would have become without you?"

A little light culture

I do pastoral visits on Friday. Most of the time, these visits end with a funeral. Today I made my last visit to someone who is going back to work. She beat the odds and her cancer is in remission and she has recovered enough to start work. I'll be seeing her again as a friend but she doesn't need the visits anymore. It's a pretty good day.

Anyway, here is something unusual: a successful piece of art.  And I should admit that I never would have picked this piece as a likely success. Why do I say that? This mural is in a neighbourhood where anything that stands still long enough gets tagged and it has not been. All the other murals around have, some have been obliterated. I hope I haven't cursed it by saying that.

So let's have a look at it. (Click on the image to see it larger.)

As I say, it's not my taste but it's not for me. It's for people who live in the rather rough neighbourhood where it has been painted and they like it.

How rough a neighbourhood? One day walking through, I saw an ambulance back up to the curb to pick a guy up. Even though the attendants were standing three feet from the door, they locked the ambulance while they put the guy on the stretcher. They have no choice because there are people on the streets here so desperate for drugs they'll try anything.

If you lived here, you notice two things about the people in the mural:
  • They look like people who live here.
  • They don't look like people who live here.
That doesn't make sense so let me explain. Let's have a look at a few of them.

That's what your neighbours would look like. Except that these people all look content and happy. I can tell you from a lot of first-hand experience that if you look contented and smile at people around here, you'll really stand out.

And you'll be approached for money.

Still, I bet a lot of people living here wish they were and looked contented. Idealizing people isn't such a bad thing. Again, look at this:

To be brutally honest, people here can often barely hold themselves up, never mind the world. Even the ones who do well really just exist from day to day. Social assistance in Canada gives people enough money for room, board, clothing and not much else. Every day, people in this neighbourhood wake up in places you wouldn't want to live in and then they go hang out sometimes just standing around on the street all day. There is no work for them, no purpose in life.

I like this touch:

For these people all have or had families. They don't see much of them anymore. It's tough fitting in with your family if you are mentally ill or addicted to something. But you have a family and here is just enough of a memory—no facial details and clearly in the background—that it might help sometimes.

Finally, let's consider this guy. He's an aboriginal Canadian. There are a fair number of guys like him here. Again, they rarely look this comfortable or at home. But does that matter?

Here's the thing though. Look how comfortable he is above and now look at what is in the background.

That isn't a lie. Lots of people around here have demons and they haunt them, and through them, haunt others. It's not a good life. It isn't a life you'd want for anyone if you could help it.

Problem is, you can't. No matter what you do, some people will live this life.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Wear a hoodie?

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master - - that's all." 
Before I begin, two caveats:
  1. Geraldo is a jerk.
  2. I have no opinion on the Trayvon Martin shooting because I don't (as of this date) know enough to have opinion yet (and neither do you by the way).
That said, the most basic bit of advice about how dress if you are a young man is this: don't dress the way anti-social losers dress. Anti-social losers wear hoodies; they especially wear hoodies up over their heads. Wear a hoodie and people are going to make assumptions about you and the problem is not them, it's you!

By the way: all young men get treated with distrust. It happened to me and I was the most complete prep of my generation. But even though I was a white guy with neatly cut, short hair a jacket and tie, I would get treated with suspicion when in stores back in my late teens and early twenties. If I hung around in public spaces too long, the police would come up and ask me what I was doing.

(To this day, by the way, I've gotten a hard time every time I've crossed the border and forgotten to take my sunglasses off before speaking to the border guard. And who can blame them: if you look like your hiding something, people will be suspicious.)

I've told this story before but back in the 1980s I met a skinhead at a concert at my college and he was hurt that other people were avoiding him. I said, as gently as I could, that college students tended to be wary of skinheads because of their racist image. His come back was to point proudly a one of the many buttons he was wearing. It read "Skinheads against racism". As if that changed anything.

It's like saying, "When I say "red" I mean "green". Why can't you people get it?"

Now take a minute and imagine the following:
  • You meet a guy wearing a white sheet over his head and he tells you that he's not a Klan member but that he is a member of an anti-racism group that wears sheets over their heads.
  • Or how about you meet a guy who wears armbands with Swastikas on them but insists he does so as a protest against antisemitism.
Are those two examples too loaded for you? How about this one, you meet a guy in a complete clown get up and he tells you he can't understand why people won't come to his lectures on ethics.

Clothing like words, does not mean whatever I want it to. Clothing comes with pre-established meanings. Show up at a trendy dance club wearing a tweed jacket with elbow patches, grey flannels and a regimental tie and no one will want to dance with you.

Hoodies come with per-established meaning—self-proclaimed thugs wear them. Wearing a hoodie is like carrying a sign that says, "I've joined the thug club!"

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Womanly Virtues Wednesday: What is good for all of us?

Let's start by quoting the exiting archbishop of Canterbury:
Identity politics, whether it is the politics of feminism, whether it is the politics of ethnic minorities or the politics of sexual minorities, has been a very important part of the last ten or twenty years. We are beginning to see the pendulum swinging back… and we have to have some way of putting it all back together and discovering what is good for all of us.
As is typical of the good Rowan Williams, that pronouncement seems terribly profound until you try to unpack it. But he is plugged into the zeitgeist. An empty pronouncement it may be but it is an empty pronouncement that perfectly sums up what the university educated elite think everyone should be trying to do right now.

The hope behind authenticity (and that is where identity politics comes from) is that being what I really am will be good for me and society. It's not, please note, about being who I am really supposed to be because that would open up the question of who it was that decided I was "supposed" to be something. No, identity politics was supposed to be about, well, authenticity.

And it ought to bother us a whole lot that we keep reaching the stage where we just end up sounding like Rowan Williams and saying phrases like "what is good for all of us" and not meaning much by it. There is a vague belief in the background here that things ought to work out best for everybody; there is a belief that there is a way of organizing society where everyone can be happy.

In its extreme versions, this belief even includes the belief that really angry, antisocial people have "needs" and that society could be organized in a fashion that those needs could be met and then angry, antisocial people would stop being angry, antisocial people.

But what this belief does not include is any notion that all of us are meant to serve any higher purpose. That's the great power of authenticity—it's not a higher power, it's not about being made for some purpose, no it's really about ... well, that is where we start to get bogged down.

Okay, let's talk about men opting out as I was last Thursday. Some women have noticed and Lisa Belkin thinks there is a double standard. About a decade ago she wrote an article about women opting out and a lot of people got angry. Now men are opting out and she isn't noticing any anger. And she wants to know why.

Well, a good part of her answer is that she isn't looking in the right places but I think she has a point in a certain sense. The people who aren't getting angry are the feminists and progressives. They see men as lost, perhaps, but they aren't angry at them for opting out the way they were angry at women who did. Women who got first class educations and then decided they'd rather stay home with the baby were seen as letting the movement down. Here is how Belkin puts it:
Probably because, at first blush, one looks like "going forward" while the other looks like "going backward." Women ratcheting back on work to smooth life at home feels like a rejection of everything women have fought for, while men doing the same looks like an embrace of the same. That's progress, isn't it?

Not as much as you'd like to think. 
For Belkin, the women who decided to opt out were challenging the system. It is as if they were saying, "I'm not going to join this so you'll have to change it to meet my authentic needs." And the trump card here is that authenticity. And that brings us to the shocking assumption at the core of Belkin's argument. It's in the next paragraph I cite, see if you can spot it.
Amy Vachon is the author, with her husband Marc, of the book "Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting The Rules For A New Generation Of Parents." They, too, thought that the future would look different than this -- one that looks like their own carefully crafted life, where both men and women find work that is fulfilling (but does not take 70 hours a week) and are reasonably well paid (though not enough to necessarily support a family without a second income) and both partners share equally in chores and child rearing, but also get time for themselves. 
The thing about vague notions of "authenticity" is that somewhere at the base is a very regimented notion of what human life should be. No matter how much you "rewrite" the rules, they are still rules. Amy and Marc Vachon think everyone should live like they do. And no matter how rebellious they seem, they have a lot in common with James Dobson on these matters: they think an authentic life is about marriage, the home and child rearing. They think they have a more agreeable vision of marriage than Dobson has but, in the end, it's still a vision of a world where people get married and raise families. It's not a world where everyone just has fun. (Personal note: Marc Vachon is a distant relative of mine.)

And that is why men opting out is a problem. A lot of young men aren't thinking about improving marriage and work, they are thinking about maximizing their fun. Not because they are against marriage and work but because they just don't think it's worth it—especially with all the easy alternatives available to them.  They don't want to to work any harder because they think they can get enough of what they want without the extra effort. And they seem to be getting "enough" that it doesn't bother them.

So what are you going to do about that?

The obvious choice is to tell them to man up and lots of writers have tried just that approach. But do that and you hit an obvious problem because you can't tell women to "woman up" can you?

The thing about changing the world is that you can't change just your part of it. Women thought they could put marriage off, pursue a career for a while and then be able to get married later and have a child and that there should be a supply of men willing to along with that. And they thought that if, at some later date, they decided the marriage didn't work for them, they should be able to opt out through a "no-fault" divorce and get custody of the child along with healthy support payments from the man and men should just go along with that too. But what if there isn't enough men willing to go along with this? Are women's wants more "authentic" than men's so women should just get what they want? And even if you believe that, how are you going to enforce it?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The beast

I haven't blogged any music for a while so here's something to make up for it. When I was seventeen a friend of mine and I went up to Montreal for the day. We went to a porn film (The Opening of Misty Beethoven) a first for both of us and were both hit with crushing depression afterwards. Wandering around the streets in and around Old Montreal we saw an independent record store—something that didn't exist in West Quebec where we came from—and went in. I bought a record called "Jazz" that had a plain black cover and no liner notes or identifying label and that anyone more sophisticated than me would have instantly recognized as an illegal pressing more commonly known in those days as a "bootleg".

I have no idea why I bought it. I think I thought that jazz was something I should cultivate and it may have been the simple label promising just that that won me over. In any case, it was my introduction to the music and the pieces on it (all recorded in the last years of WW2) have been the very definition of jazz for me ever since.

It was a collection of great tenor saxophone players and it was my introduction to Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Ben Webster. This is Mr. Webster. Note the way it starts with an impressive display of pointless virtuosity by Maynard Ferguson and contrast that with the way Webster handles the music. Webster doesn't have half the technique of Ferguson but manages to do much more with it.

While I'm at it, this cut was the last one on the record. I wore that record out years ago and I haven't heard this since my early twenties. There are three saxophones here, listen especially for the penultimate solo by Harry Carney on baritone. It's followed by a bit of brilliance by Hawkins who, as session leader, is probably entitled to show off. But to what point. Carney is far more understated but better.

The Jesuits vindicated

This morning's must read piece is the Sunday New York Times book review of Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind. You may be tempted to think that Haidt means some other person's "righteous" mind but he means yours because he argues that all minds are righteous. It's just the way the brain works:
The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments
To appreciate how thoroughly subversive a view that is, consider one of the most famous arguments of the modern era. Pascal indicted the Jesuits because they had already decided what they believed and then went looking for arguments to shore up that belief. "How horrible!" we all say. But Haidt shows us that modern brain research tells us that all brains work that way. Pascal was doing exactly what he accused the Jesuits of doing.

The obvious question in response to this is: How do we learn then? Because it must be the case that at least one of the two sides—Pascal or the Jesuits—was wrong and quite possibly both were. We have been trained over and over again to think that the solution to the problem is to "be objective". To step back and see the problem from the outside. Haidt's argument, and he is right, is that everything we learn from brain science and social research tells us that this move to objectivity is impossible. It just can't be done.

Here's the thing though. That mythology of objective thought is relatively recent in human history. Neither Sir Isaac Newton nor Galileo thought such a thing was possible. For centuries upon centuries people functioned just fine without it. Which isn't surprising as it is a myth in both senses: meaning it's a story people us to justify beliefs that otherwise couldn't be justified but it is also not true.

And yet these people argued and used reason and even did some damned impressive science. How did they manage this? They managed it by learning socially. Arguments are resolved by being lived out. You take the high road and I'll take the low and we'll see who gets to Scotland first.

And here is the challenge for moderns. Reviewer Will Saletan writes:
The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don’t start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected.
But he doesn't get it. Saletan's world views don't start with the individual and neither do yours. They couldn't. (The end of Saletan's piece is a great example of what Haidt means as Saletan tries to reassemble the very rationalism Haidt has demolished. Not only does Saletan's brain run on train tracks that he can't get it off of, he keeps imagining that it's really the other guy's brain that is stuck in a groove.)

We had a fascinating reminder of this with the recent rise of gas prices. The press instinctively reported that there was nothing Obama could do about this. When gas prices rose during the previous Bush administration, the press instinctively reported that Bush could and should do something about it. It's a tribal belief. Journalists feel that Obama is one of their tribe and Bush is not. Logic and reason have nothing to do with it.

That doesn't make the press wrong—at least not always wrong. But it should change the way you read the press. Every story you see is an opinion piece.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blogging the Reef: Gaining wisdom

(To read all posts about The Reef click here.)

 Edith Wharton does not spare her female characters, not even the morally admirable ones such as Anna Leath. That is what makes her different from most current fiction. In a current novel handling this subject, George Darrow would be condemned and Anna vindicated even if heartbroken at the end. Wharton doesn't do that.

More than that, the most important theme in the novel is not the moral manipulative George/Morton but a character flaw in Anna. And that flaw has something to do with erotic love.

If we go back to Book 2, we find Anna remembering her youth when she first met George Darrow. She considers some other girls who were involved in sexual scandals and, while thinking them silly girls, still feels inadequate compared to them.
She perceived, indeed, that other girls, leading outwardly the same life as herself, and seemingly unaware of her world of hidden beauty, were yet possessed of some vital secret which escaped her. There seemed to be a kind of freemasonry between them; they were wider awake than she, more alert, and surer of their wants if not of their opinions. She supposed they were "cleverer", and accepted her inferiority good-humouredly, half aware, within herself, of a reserve of unused power which the others gave no sign of possessing.
Okay, it's Book 4 and Anna is a widow witha  daughter. She is no longer a virgin.  But notice what hasn't changed. Here she is meeting Sophy at a  point where she still suspects nothing:
She had always felt a romantic and almost humble admiration for those members of her sex who, from force of will, or the constraint of circumstances, had plunged into the conflict from which fate had so persistently excluded her. There were even moments when she fancied herself vaguely to blame for her immunity, and felt that she ought somehow to have affronted the perils and hardships which refused to come to her. And now, as she sat looking at Sophy Viner, so small, so slight, so visibly defenceless and undone, she still felt, through all the superiority of her worldly advantages and her seeming maturity, the same odd sense of ignorance and inexperience. 
So the mere fact of having sex isn't enough.  The big question is this: Is Anna justified in this feeling of inadequacy? I'd say quite bluntly that she is and, furthermore, that is precisely what this book is about. It is the central theme. Anna fails to be a woman.

My point here is not to let George off the hook. Yes, he has his failings, but the more important failing is Anna's.

And I think we get a very clear picture of what she should be in Sophy, whose name, I remind you again, means wisdom. It's not carnal knowledge that Sophy has that Ann does not. Rather it is an ability to learn from erotic love. (Remember also that Wharton was a huge fan of The Phaedrus.)

Read what Sophy says to George during their encounter in chapter 26. It helps here to know that in French the word aventure, so close to our English word "adventure", is the word used used to describe an affair. When Sophy says "as an adventure", it means something very close to what we might mean in saying "I tried to treat it as just an affair and not love".
He bowed his humbled head, but she went on almost exultantly: "Don't for a minute think I'm sorry! It was worth every penny it cost. My mistake was in being ashamed, just at first, of its having cost such a lot. I tried to carry it off as a joke--to talk of it to myself as an 'adventure'. I'd always wanted adventures, and you'd given me one, and I tried to take your attitude about it, to 'play the game' and convince myself that I hadn't risked any more on it than you. Then, when I met you again, I suddenly saw that I had risked more, but that I'd won more, too--such worlds! I'd been trying all the while to put everything I could between us; now I want to sweep everything away. I'd been trying to forget how you looked; now I want to remember you always. I'd been trying not to hear your voice; now I never want to hear any other. I've made my choice--that's all: I've had you and I mean to keep you." Her face was shining like her eyes. "To keep you hidden away here," she ended, and put her hand upon her breast.
Could Anna Leath say such a thing? Could she look back at  a failed love and tell herself that she had paid a price and won more for it? Of course not and that is why she says, in the bit I quoted higher up:
She had always felt a romantic and almost humble admiration for those members of her sex who, from force of will, or the constraint of circumstances, had plunged into the conflict from which fate had so persistently excluded her.
And she adds:
 There were even moments when she fancied herself vaguely to blame for her immunity, and felt that she ought somehow to have affronted the perils and hardships which refused to come to her. 
Or, as Rimbaud famously put it:
Par délicatesse
J'ai perdu ma vie.
And if we read to the end of Book 4, we get this telling bit of dramatic irony as Anna sees George slipping out of her life:
She felt a mortal weakness, a craven impulse to cry out to him to stay, a longing to throw herself into his arms, and take refuge there from the unendurable anguish he had caused her. Then the vision called up another thought: "I shall never know what that girl has known..." and the recoil of pride flung her back on the sharp edges of her anguish.
"I shall never know what that girl has known." Anna says more than she realizes. It's not that the romance with George will work. That is precisely the sort of pragmatic concern that has always sunk Anna Leath before. What she has never been able to do is to risk what Sophy risked and she never has had the knowledge that comes—win or fail—from such courage.

She has Book 5 to make it right or fail.

Mad Men: The (little) Kiss

Well, it's season five and here we go. I'm expecting the worst.

The two opening episodes were okay by Mad Men standards and that is pretty good. A mediocre episode of Mad Men tops the best episode of Downton Abbey ever. There was brilliant acting, lots of clever references. Megan's song and dance number, for example, was a nice homage to this:

Only it doesn't work out so well for Megan as it did for Laura Petrie.

But let's go back a bit to a nice scene on the train near the opening. The camera comes up the centre aisle and we see the back of a man's head. he is reading the newspaper and we think we've see this before. We know this shot from seeing Don in the same position in season 1. Only it's Pete Campbell and he's on his way to work. A true New Yorker, he still hasn't learned to drive. And Trudy, who does drive, apparently wore her dressing gown to drive him to the station.

We learn all this because a guy Pete knows is talking to him and we think—as we were clearly meant to think—that we are seeing what the missing back story to the failure of Don and Betty's marriage must have looked like.

And that seems to be what the opening of this season is about now: the separation of men and women into separate spheres of home and business that modern urban culture brought about and how it was conquered by brave women like Peggy and Joan. Thus no Betty: she's served her purpose.

But tell me this: If we have progressed so much, then why is Megan, played by Jessica Paré, reduced to dancing around in her underwear to restore good relations with Don after things go wrong as a consequence of the surprise party? Is that all she's good for? You may say that the show is drawing attention to the abuses but it's participating in them.

Even worse was Joan showing up and crying on Lane's couch. This is how women achieved  liberation? By crying about their hurt feelings?

The sets were great, the costumes were wonderful and the music was perfect. The only thing I didn't see was substance. They have the rest of the season to make it up. I hope they do. But my verdict on this year''s opener is: pretty weak tea.

I do half wonder if the problem isn't the double episode. Anyone else old enough to remember record albums will know the concern. Pop groups in the 1970s inevitably put out bad records when they released a double album. All that space to fill didn't just lead to filler, it led to weak writing. If the production team for Mad Men had been forced to reduce this double-show to a single episode, it probably would have been a lot better.

As with previous seasons, I have not read any other comments before posting my own. I'm off to check out what others have to say now.

Postscript: By the way, one nice little touch is that when Megan swears she says "calice".  That is pronounced caw-liss and it means "chalice". That is the way people who grow up in a heavily Catholic culture swear. Okay, but where is the rest of it? Meaning, where is the rest of her Catholic upbringing.

If, like me, you grew up in that culture, that word has some power. But there needs to be a  whole lot more to go with it. Yes, I like seeing Jessica Paré's big breasts as much as the next man but where is her character?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Stephen Dedalus makes a profound point about Shakespeare

No, not some theory on Hamlet. I mean this exchange early in Ulysses. Mr. Deasy proof texts from Shakespeare:
—Because you don't save, Mr. Deasy said, pointing his finger. You don't know yet what money is. Money is power. When you have lived as long as I have. I know, I know. If youth but knew. But what does Shakespeare say? PUT BUT MONEY IN THY PURSE.
Did Shakespeare say that? Of course not. And Stephen make that point only Deasy is too proud to catch it.
—Iago, Stephen murmured.
And that is true of so many of the things that "Shakespeare" is supposed to have said. Track down the character whose mouth he put the words and it changes. Iago does not seem quite so impressive an authority as "Shakespeare".

The same, as I've said before, is true of Jacques (the source for "all the world's a stage) or Macbeth (responsible for the view that history/fate is like the babbling of an idiot).

Blogging The Reef: Book 4

(To read all posts about The Reef click here.)

Sophy steps out
One of the recurring claims you see in criticism of this novel is that it is a pity we are not given any access to Sophy Viners's interior life. Generally the claim is a moral one: that Wharton has slighted poor Sophy by giving the two higher class characters (Anna and George) an interior life and denying Sophy one. But she has done no such thing: Sophy has an interior life, we are just not given special access to it.

If anyone is guilty of snobbery here it is the critics who won't see that a woman like Sophy could have an inner life without a novelist having to tell us what it is.

More importantly, however, the novel simply would not work any other way. This is the case for two reasons.

The first is that we get a surprise from Sophy in book 4. She does something that we might have guessed but couldn't have know for sure. It is a revelation about her feelings for George and her choices as a consequence. And it is magnificently done: Sophy's actions are both a surprise but also within her character. It's a surprise and yet it makes perfect sense when it happens. If Wharton had been telling us what Sophy had been thinking leading up to it there would be no revelation.

The second issue is moral and, I think, one of the central themes of the novel. There are things that are acceptable in love and there are things that are not. George Darrow has behaved in a callous way towards Sophy. What did he do wrong? He has not paid sufficient attention to her interior life and, paradoxical as this may sound, it is absolutely necessary that we not have any privileged access to that interior life ourselves in order to appreciate this.

What I mean is this: we can figure out other people's interior lives without having access to their thoughts. In fact, that is the only access we do have outside of novels. Sit in a coffeeshop and discretely check out someone you don't know. Study their face and their actions and ask yourself how much you know of their interior life.

That is how we deal with other people all the time. As lovers we have to be aware of our loved one's interior life from what we can outwardly observe. To fail to do this is a sin. We can make mistakes, of course, but it is not acceptable to fail to try and understand their secret feelings and desires.

Now you may be tempted to say you can't be sure of anything but that is always the case. But there are lots of things we cannot know with 100 percent certainty that we nevertheless know. And his outward reading is how we decide how to treat people. If we go back and read book one carefully, we will see lots of evidence that George's kindness to Sophy is having a very profound effect on her.

And then he has sex with her. It shouldn't have come as  surprise to him that she has feelings, very profound feelings for her. But it did.

Why? Because George is a consumer of persons. He is someone who treats people as means and not as ends.

He's not a monster. He's a lot like you and me in fact. The depth of Wharton's moral charge here is against modern morality in general as much as it is against George. (And it is, as I have said before, a far more convincing portrait and charge than what Henry James gives us in The Wings of the Dove.

 Part 2 tomorrow whoops make that Monday. Busy weekend.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Did men declare victory and go home?

I want you to consider what might initially seem a preposterous suggestion: that a lot of men got what they wanted and that that is a problem.

I own the 1962 edition of Esquire's What Every Young Man Should Know and it is a nice guide to what men once wanted. For example, there is a section in the book devoted to preparing for military service. And it makes perfect sense because every young man had to be prepared. It was just taken as a given that any man, simply because he was a man, might be expected to kill others for his country and perhaps to die for his country.

No one expects that of us anymore do they.

Guys back then were expected to marry a girl if they got her pregnant too. Now it's her responsibility not to get pregnant. Yes, there is still an expectancy to pay support for any child you've fathered, assuming the mother allows the child to come to term and you have no say in that, but that burden is small beer compared to having to tie your life to hers.

And then there is sex. People have always been doing it and some have always been doing it before and outside of marriage but there was a presumption that it didn't happen and that gave women in a non-married relationship a huge advantage when it came to discussions of whether or not sex would happen. Because the presumption was that it would not, guys back then had a huge burden of proof to carry. Nowadays the burden of proof is with the woman in a relationship who has to explain why she doesn't want sex and she has to accept that the guy might simply choose to leaver her if she doesn't. That's a huge shift in attitudes.

Are you a gentleman? I hope you are but whether you are or not is now your choice. It's not an expected social ideal that everyone from your mother to your school teacher to women you don't even know can foist on you. Nowadays, a man might decide to behave in a gentlemanly fashion it's an ideal he embraces or just because he wants to make a positive impression on others but it's always because of what he wants.

And let's face it, most men don't so decide. Most men are slobs with not even the vaguest notion of how to behave.

Nowadays a man's hobbies can be whatever he wants. Hobbies for men used to come partly as obligations. Did you ever have to kill something, dress and clean it and eat it. Men used to be expected to know how. Not because it was needed but because men were expected to know how to do that sort of thing. Men were expected to know, amongst other things, how to fix a toaster, light a fire, understand how your car worked and how to take care of it, be athletic, and know how to dance and sing.

And then, of course, there was the assumption that men would make the money that paid the bills. All the bills.

You read a lot of stuff these days about men in trouble because so many of them are sitting around in their parent's basement through their late twenties playing video games. But what if that is what they want? What if they aren't failing but succeeding at doing exactly what they want to be doing.

Yes, they'd rather be playing video games in a luxury condo downtown or a big house of their own somewhere but achieving that would mean making sacrifices and doing a lot of hard work they aren't prepared to do. And the odd thing is that guys willing and able to do the things that will get them the luxury condo or big house usually don't like playing video games  much. In other words, the guy in his parent's basement is there because of choices he willingly made himself.

The odd possibility is that maybe getting what you want isn't as good a thing as it appears to be.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What is "a presumed exclusivity right"?

I wrote that this morning when discussing the consequences of a guy paying for some or all of his girlfriend's birth control.
A certain level of entitlement and a presumed exclusivity right would go with payment.
Some people might be thinking, "So what?" Isn't sexual exclusivity still taken for granted in relationships? Well yes but ...

The thing is that there are degrees of exclusivity just as Frederick William Maitland once pointed out there are degrees of freedom. When a woman enters into "a relationship" with a man there is a tacit assumption that neither of them is going to be having other lovers but the door to other lovers, while it may be shut, is still openable. That they aren't getting married, at least not yet, implies that the door might be opened to someone else someday. It's an option.

How much of an option? That depends on the person, the situation, the expectations.
Suppose Jill meets a guy at college and they start dating and come Christmas they both go home to their separate cities. And she meets her ex-boyfriend from the summer before she went back to college.

And things move along until they are in bed together more quickly than she anticipated. And Jill tells herself that she is not cheating on her boyfriend with someone new but with a guy who'd already "been there". "That's different." And it's just about the sex anyway because they have already established that love doesn't work and besides they are both seeing someone else now. In fact, a big part of what got them into bed was that they felt they could talk to one another about their new partners in a  way they couldn't talk to someone else.

Jill's best friend Catherine, meanwhile, sees what Jill is doing and is appalled. She'd never do what Jill is doing. It would be a denial of everything Catherine is and everything she stands for. But not because she couldn't do it, you know? She could, she just wouldn't, but just to say she could means the door is openable.

Jill's mother, meanwhile is married and her door is nailed shut. But a door that is nailed shut can still be opened and if things got really uninspiring with her husband, she might find a handyman to open her door for her.

Catherine's mother is even more rigorous about these things. Her door has been removed and bricked over. She never even thinks about the possibility. But somewhere in the back of her mind she knows that should her husband die or, God forbid, leave her, there are ways of re-opening the door.

Every woman instinctively grasps letting your boyfriend pay for part or all of her birth control changes things. She knows that with this goes the assumption that she is going to put a better lock on the already closed door. A lock that makes it harder for her to open.

And just as letting her boyfriend pay for half the cost of her birth control gives him a special claim on her sexuality, so too will allowing the government to mandate that health insurance will pay for all of it will give society a special claim on her sexuality.

Womanly virues Wednesday: Do you really want someone else paying for your birth control?

Back in the 1980s there was a meme that got going in some feminist circles that men should be helping women pay for their birth control. It was one of those ideas that sounded really good in the abstract. A funny thing happened, however, when guys I knew started to actually make the offer.

Guys talked about that funny reaction they got from their girlfriends a lot. The result was inevitably the same. They'd be talking with their girlfriend and others and the comment would be made—usually something along the lines of men get the benefit but don't help pay—and the guy would think that was fair comment and, next time he and his girlfriend were alone, he'd offer to pay his share.

The tone of the reaction varied but the basic thrust was always the same. The gesture would be acknowledged but then deflected if not outright refused. And there would be much discomfort all around.

The problem that arose is one of those things that seems pretty obvious when you think about it: If he was paying his half then he had some "ownership". A certain level of entitlement and a presumed exclusivity right would go with payment. She would still be able to say "no" when she felt like it but the act of refusing sex because she didn't feel like it was going to be a very different thing if he was paying for half the birth control. Nobody had the courage to spell this out loud but everyone felt it. And some guys were a little miffed when the offer was refused and they grasped that their girlfriend was holding on to her autonomy. And there were girls who "felt uncomfortable" accepting the offer but didn't want to try explaining.

Freedom isn't free
When I was a social worker, and anyone who has worked in the field can tell you this, one of the worst insults single mothers in the projects hurl at one another is "welfare". If you ask them what "welfare" is, you quickly figure out they don't have a clue. Why do you quickly figure that out? Because each and every one of these women relies on welfare for all or most of her income. But they don't see it that way. They see what they are getting as "assistance".

Don't look down on them for this. You'd do the exact same thing if you were in their situation. No matter what euphemisms the government tries to couch it in, it's not social assistance they are getting for they are absolutely dependent on it and the feelings of helplessness that go with that are crushing. So it becomes something else in their minds.

That is what is will happen to all women if birth control becomes a medical service paid for by the others through some sort of universal health care. Yes, Limbaugh should not have said what he did about one individual woman but the general thrust of his criticism was correct. For birth control to become a medical necessity there has to be a tacit assumption that women exist "for sex" and that their birth control is being paid for because they provide sex. Accept this and you are giving up ownership.

Men, all men, will be paying for half the cost of birth control and you can be damn sure that a lot of them are going to start thinking they are entitled to half the benefits. That will change the way men think about women and the way they treat women. They will start thinking, "Hey, I'm paying half the cost of this, I'm entitled to get some."

And be prepared for the government to start thinking it can dictate what forms of birth control women use.

And the way society in general sees women and their sexuality will change too. It has too. Once your sexuality becomes a matter of public interest you begin to lose control over it.

Some search strings that pulled people in yesterday

Looking at the stats, I see that someone is doing some relatively serious web searching regarding me and this blog. I wonder why?

Once I got over my paranoia about that, I also glanced that the search strings pulling people in.Some of these are really intriguing. This one for example:
i couldn't sleep at night tied to all those things
What in heaven's name caused someone to Google that? Turns out it's a line of dialogue form Mad Men.

And then there was this:
is not going to mass worse than masturbation
If the person who Googled that arrives here, the answer is yes, not going to mass is worse than masturbation.  There are thousand of things worse than masturbation.

The more important thing to grasp here is not what is bad but what is good. Going to mass is very, very good. As a Catholic Christian, the most important thing in your life is to maintain a relationship with God and you do that by praying and the most important form of prayer in your life is going to mass. Willingly not going to mass is a serious sin. It's about as direct a rejection of God and his goodness as you can make.  Don't do it and if you did do it, go to confession.

The old slogan here is lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi which means (roughly) the law of prayer then the law of belief then the law of living. This slogan reminds us that the foundation of our faith is that we should pray correctly, our  creed grows out of that prayer and our morality grows out of that creed. Willfully missing mass is to willfully get the most fundamental thing in life wrong.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Getting caught up on The Reef

(To read all posts about The Reef click here.)

There has been a slight break because I picked up another book, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and got caught up in it. Much to my surprise.

Anyway, a few thoughts on Book three of The Reef before moving on.

There is something that looks like the turning point in the novel in Book 3 and something that actually is. The thing that looks like the turning point is the arrival of Adelaide Painter. Adelaide is a magnificent character worthy of Dickens. She seems to turn everything around.

We know better though because book three ends like a Shakespeare comedy with two marriages planned and everyone happy. Why do we know better? Because there is a thick handful of pages on our right still so we know there is a lot of book left. Something will go wrong if only to fill up the rest of the story. It may only be temporary as far as we know now; perhaps we will get hijinks and much hilarity before everything reverts to happiness again? Who knows?

What we do know is that someone has done something that will cause it all to gang aft gley. That someone is our buddy George Darrow and the thing he has done, the more significant turning point, is his conversation with Sophy in which he tried to sow seeds of doubt in her mind about her proposed marriage to Owen. You really want to read this one for yourself. George Darrow doesn't want that marriage to take place but the cards he has to play are extremely limited, What is he going to do? The answer to that is quite chilling.

A solution for society
But why does George want to stop the marriage? For most modern readers that is the real puzzle. We can appreciate that it would make him uncomfortable given his own behaviour but why does he have this righteous sense that it ought not to be allowed? He has no problems with his own marriage going ahead and his behaviour has been at least as bad as Sophy's and arguably worse.

The answer is, or at least seems, obvious. He feels this way because he is committed to some old-fashioned ideas about women and marriages. And that is true enough but it doesn't go far enough. For what makes George and Anna different from you and me is that they both see marriage as involving much more than just the two people getting married. A marriage is a social occasion and its impacts on multiple people need to be considered. And I don't mean here that they just worry about whether other people will object, they also want make sure a marriage is beneficial and not harmful to others.

And thus the root of George's old-fashioned considerations. He thinks that Owen marrying Sophy will harm multiple people in his circle.

And don't think that he thinks this way because he doesn't understand how other people feel. Read the conversation he has with Sophy and think about the tactic he uses to try and shake her away from Owen. It's chilling, as I say, and one of the reasons it is so chilling is because his insight into her character is so penetrating.

What he fails to see, is just how far-reaching his meddling will be just as he has failed to see how much of an impact his having had sex with Sophy had on her in the first place.

And don't hate George. I know, I keep saying this. But George is so much like us. For him morality is ultimately a matter of personal preference and moral argument is just a matter of trying to sway others to his moral preferences. That is the way most people think now.

The flip side is more complicated. On the surface it seems obvious.

In chapter 21, George and Anna have a conversation about the efforts she wants him to make and is making herself to try and help clear Owen's way to marry Sophy. A complex project because Anna wants to do it in a way such that the boy's grandmother will also be happy. George expresses unhappiness that Anna should need to be so involved in other's lives. Now, the irony here is that George is just as involved. The difference is, at lest as Wharton has the story unfold here, the reasons they each have to feel involved. George is involved because it is in his interest to be involved. Anna is involved because she genuinely cares about the happiness of others.
This did not seem to Darrow to simplify his case as much as she appeared to think; and once more he had a movement of recoil. "There's no possible reason for my being mixed up in this affair!"

Anna gave him a reproachful glance. "Not the fact that I am?" she reminded him; but even this only stiffened his resistance.

"Why should you be, either--to this extent?"

The question made her pause. She glanced about the hall, as if to be sure they had it to themselves; and then, in a lowered voice: "I don't know," she suddenly confessed; "but, somehow, if they're not happy I feel as if we shouldn't be."

"Oh, well--" Darrow acquiesced, in the tone of the man who perforce yields to so lovely an unreasonableness. Escape was, after all, impossible, and he could only resign himself to being led to Madame de Chantelle's door.
And we are entirely on Anna's side when we read that. It seems like perhaps Edith Wharton must have been too.  If we remember our Jane Austen, we will know that the most important virtue for Austen is to be amiable. And Austen makes an important distinction between merely being polite and genuinely amiable, the latter requiring us to actually have affection for other human beings. And reading the above we might easily conclude that Anna has genuine amiability and George does not.

But should we be? Is Anna really any better than George? For you can wish others to be happy for all sorts of reasons. We might consider young Effie and ask whether Anna's concern for her is enough. Anna clearly wants her daughter to be happy but she wants her to be happy so she can run away to South America with her soon-to-be new husband. Is her concern for Effie genuine love or is just a desire to make everyone happy so she can do what she wants?

How different is Anna from George after all? And did Wharton herself see that as a potential issue?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sort of political: Remind me why we are paying for these people's education?

It was about the worst case I have seen in recent years of bad ad placement. The ad on the bus was from the Ontario Federation of Students and it said that "Education is a right". By which they meant post secondary education.

What made it bad placement? The fact that the bus was fully of drunken, howling, destructive university students. One of whom, a girl in a torn singlet and nothing else, had passed out. (Except for a moment when she roused herself, looked out the window and gave someone the finger. I couldn't see anyone in the bagel shop she gave the finger to looking our way so she was either a) cursing a former employer or b) angry at the pink elephants running alongside the bus.)

It was ten o'clock in the morning. They'd gotten hammered at Saint Patrick's Day breakfasts. The old rule was no drinks before the sun crosses the yardarm—getting so hammered you lose consciousness by ten in the morning is quite an achievement.

Usually the argument for funding education is that these young people represent our future. Living next to a university and seeing students every day, the thought that this is my future makes me shudder. (At least they didn't riot and throw bottles at police here as students did elsewhere.)

By the way, anyone else notice that having girls become a majority on university and college campuses hasn't exactly improved things?

On that subject, approximately 70 percent of current students will be graduating (assuming they graduate) in fields where there is little employment opportunity. That has actually gotten worse as the number of women at university has increased. The vast majority of that 70 percent are women. And it has gotten worse for a very simple reason: the fields that do offer reasonable employment opportunities require mathematics and women tend to either not pick degrees with a mathematics requirement or tend to drop out of such programs.

If you'll permit a further digression, most people who graduate with STEM degrees end up in jobs or eventually move into jobs that don't actually require the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math skills they get at university. So why are these degrees so useful? Because it's hard to inflate grades in these fields because they require objectively measurable skills so the related degrees actually provide a reasonable measure of the student's intelligence and work habits. A student with straight As in Anthropology, on the other hand, is just as likely to be nice, easily malleable and responsive to her professor's attempts to indoctrinate her into their political views but not very smart as anything else. Employers know this.

CBC reporter Kady O'Malley tweeted on Sunday that the watching girls doing the walk of shame the next day was something else. It's one thing to be going home in the same clothes you wore to the dance club the night before and another thing altogether to be going home wearing "Saint Paddy's" gear when it's no longer Saint Patrick's Day. One combo I saw on a hung-over girl climbing on the bus at seven AM featured skin tight green running shorts with panty-hose and sky-high heels (a bizarre combination that seems to very popular this spring) and a tank top that with "Kiss me I'm Irish" only the "Kiss" has been crossed out and replaced with another suggestion of what you could, and someone obviously did, do to her.

Final digression: I found myself wondering if this sort of phenomenon isn't related to the hypergamy issue. If women already outnumber men on campus and if being seen as too successful further hurts women's chances to get a hook up (never mind a date), then one possible solution is to dress and behave in a way that reassures every man that you are just a stupid ____.

But, to finally get back to the point, why are we funding this? Yes, you can read about wild behaviour by young men at universities going all the way back to the middle ages but their education wasn't paid for by the taxpayer. Do we really need to be giving young people who could be learning on the job a four year vacation from reality so they can behave like irresponsible jerks on the grounds that this will make them better citizens? Our future?

This needs to stop.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The obligatory Fifty Shades of Grey comment

There are three lessons here.

The first lesson is that women are more driven by shame than men are. This book took off because of e-readers. It's porn, by the way, and it is selling in huge numbers to women. But, and this is the really important part, the vast majority of copies sold are for e-readers.

The difference between men and women is not that women aren't any less enthusiastic about getting dirty than men are. What a woman doesn't like is the thought that the everyone else on the bus knows she is getting hot and wet reading porn. Actually doing it doesn't bother her at all.

The second lesson is that a lot of women are turned on by the idea of being dominated sexually. Like or hate it, and I know a lot of people hate it, the evidence is overwhelming. Every single study ever done of women's sexual fantasies confirms this. Which is not to say that every woman wants to actually do it but the percentage of women who get turned on by the thought is probably about the same as the percentage of men who like watching professional sports.

The final lesson is that, to her eternal credit, author E.L James spells "grey" the better way.

"Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful?"

This was referenced on Althouse where today's theme is happiness. The question was originally asked of John Tierney over at a blog called The Happiness Project. Tierney's answer is a good one:
Years ago, when I was researching an article on research into stress, one social scientist passed on a simple tip: “At some point every day, you have to say, ‘No more work.’” No matter how many tasks remain undone, you have to relax at some point and enjoy the evening. 
My own was something I found in article in Esquire in the early 1990s about stress. The line that really helped me was this:
Stress isn't the car that cuts you off on the highway, it's your reaction to it.

A little light culture

As the complacent chronicler of cathedral cities and mildly erring parsons, Trollope has charmed and repelled modern readers in about equal numbers.
That bit of condescending twaddle is the way the blurb on the Penguin edition of The Last Chronicle of Barset begins. But not to worry because modern academics have to come to thee rescue and found a "darker" side:
In recent years critics have discovered in his later novels a gloomier, more profound, less comfortable Trollope hitherto neglected by his most ardent admirers.
Notice the values being pushed here: happy people are complacent whereas gloomy people are profound. I've never seen any evidence of this in real life. Gloomy people actually tend to be bores because they keep getting gloomy about the same small set of complaints over and over again. (The most untrue sentence ever written is Tolstoy's canard about happy families.) Happy people, on the other hand, live varied and interesting lives. And I've never seen ordinary middle class people half as smug and complacent as your typical intellectual. As exhibit one, I give the two sentences above and put it to you that only a very complacent person indeed could write such silly crap and only a very smug person would so casually assume that all those "ardent admirers" weren't smart enough to spot the gloomy profundity that only "critics" can help us find.

In a similar vein let me tell you about the conversation I overheard yesterday on the bus. The bus was packed and everyone standing cheek by jowl (that turns out to be an important detail). A couple of graduate students were discussing some social experiments they had students doing. This experiments required the students to "violate" what the two called "social norms".

One of the two was concerned they might have to modify the experiment, however, because some of the ordinary citizens who were the unwitting subjects of these experiments had reacted badly to some of the things they had been subjected to. What sorts of things you ask? Well, some of the students had been asked to cut into lines ahead of people and others had been walking right up to people and standing very close to them and "invading their personals space". It seems some people took this badly and actually, imagine this, criticized the students for what they were doing and suggested the might act so as to stop them doing what they were doing.

Again, notice the moral values being pushed here. Students at universities are being taught that being a rude and inconsiderate jerk is just "violating social norms".

And it's not just stupid cultural relativism. There is a complete inability to do even the most basic critical thinking that goes along with it. The grad student went on to say that other cultures weren't so touchy about personal space as we were. She particularly seemed to think that Europeans were better about this than we are. This is where I had to resist pointing out that we were crowded onto this bus and that no one was complaining even though everyone was standing so close to everyone else that we were all in physical contact, suggesting that North Americans aren't quite so uptight about this as she thought and that perhaps our notions of personal space are context specific; that maybe people who live in crowded cities are more tolerant of others standing close to them in places where everyone realizes it is inevitable and less so in places where there is lots of room. I wonder for example, what would happen if you went to rural Europe or rural Africa and went and stood right close to people?

Actually, I don't wonder at all—they'd take it badly—for this isn't a social norm at all but a universal value.

This sort of stuff is what you're paying thousands of dollars for your kids to learn folks.They are learning to be so wrapped up in theory that they cannot see what they are actually experiencing.

One related note from else where. James Taranto caught a good bit of nonsense yesterday. Here is the first quote from Roseann Lake writing in Salon who is discussing how hard it is for university-educated women in China to get married:
In China, there's a deep-seated tradition of marriage hypergamy which mandates that a woman must marry up. 
Notice it's a "deep-seated tradition". That means there is nothing natural about this, it's just a cultural value that can be changed. Now read the second quote, which we have discussed before, Stephanie Coontz discussing how difficult it is for university-educated women in the USA to get married:
 From 1940 to the mid-1970s, the tendency for men to marry down educationally became more pronounced and the cultural ideal of hypergamy — that women must marry up — became more insistent. 
Notice that this also is merely a cultural "ideal", and one that should be changed, in Coontz's view. I'll let Taranto field this one:
What are the odds that two so different cultures would somehow develop a "tradition" or "ideal" that is so similar?
Good question. Particularly as you also find hypergamy in Africa, South America, Iceland even, as Taranto notes in answering his own questions, among other species. It's not a cultural trait at all. It's an absolute certainty that human beings will react this way. You know that woman with multiple degrees and still single in her late twenties and early thirties? Be gentle with her because she is probably going to end up single. She and whole lot of other women.

They'll probably also be poorer, a lot less happy and lonelier than they figured too. But at least she won't be smug and complacent like those people who dare to like Anthony Trollope's mildly erring parsons. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

White girl singers who sound black

There is a long tradition of these things. You can, if you are so inclined (I'm not) get upset about this on the grounds of racial injustice. If you do, however, blame the audience not the singers. That these artists got to sound the way they did was a labour of love.

Here are some examples beginning in the 1950s and moving forward to the present day.

The British Isles crank out a fair number of these women. Here is Ottillee Patterson from Ireland back in the 1950s:

Dusty Sprinfield from the 1960s, also Irish: her real name was Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien.

Here is Lisa Stansfield from the 1990s

And here, of course, is the badly over-exposed Adele

And one more not from Britain, here is Madeleine Peyroux from Athens, Georgia

I think there are two things to note here.

The first has often been noted and that is that there is a particular set of role models here. None of these women started out wanting to sound "black" but rather were heavily influenced by particular singers who were black. Ottillee Patterson obviously listened to a lot of Bessie Smith, Dusty Springfield, Amy Winehouse and Adele learned from the Stax-Memphis soul singers and Madeleine Peyroux has listened to a whole lot of  Billie Holiday.

UPDATE June 5, 2012: A lot of people came to this post today. I wonder why? Anyway, rereading it I realized that I'd forgotten to talk about Lisa Stansfield. She obviously grew up singing 1970s disco but  what makes her really interesting is that her primary model is a black male singer, Barry White, and not a woman.

Compare that with Celine Dion who was obviously heavily influenced by Whitney Houston but doesn't sound at all black.

The second point flows from the first and it is that the "black" sound isn't actually black. It's entirely a matter technique, a performance style. It's something anyone of any race can learn to do provided they have talent. Its origins are from a particular set of black subcultures but these things can now belong to anybody who wants them.

Manly Thor's Day Special: The uses and misuses of hypcrisy

This wasn't meant to be hypocrites week but it's worked out that way. In that light, I'd like to take a look at a kind of argument that is peculiarly modern that uses hypocrites—that is to say it uses the hypocrisy of others—to make a point. It's not hard to come up with an example, it is a far too common move in modern argumentation, but I thought I'd use an example from James Joyce.

Here is the set up. A wild argument about Parnell has broken out during Christmas dinner at the Dedalus household. On one side are the adult males of the family who believe the church's condemnation of Parnell when his adultery became known robbed Ireland of it's great chance for freedom. On the other side is Stephen's Aunt Dante Riordan who believes the church did right in condemning immorality and if that had unfortunate political circumstances, tough. In the bit I cite here, young Stephen is thinking about the argument he has just heard:
But why then was he [Stephen's uncle] against the priests? Because Dante must be right then. But he had heard his father say that she was a spoiled nun and that she had come out of the convent in the Alleghanies when her brother had got money from the savages for the trinkets and the chainies. Perhaps that made her severe against Parnell. And she did not like him to play with Eileen because Eileen was protestant ...
You get a picture of Dante here that makes you want to dismiss her side of the argument.

That is, as I say, a favourite move in modern moral argument. The television show M*A*S*H pulled this trick hundreds of times (that isn't hyperbole). The solution was never that one side was shown to be right and the other side wrong but that each and every person who opposed Hawkeye on a moral point turned out to be a hypocrite.

That this is a stupid way to make moral evaluations is easily shown. Ask yourself two simple questions: 1) Do you think there were other people in Ireland who took the church's side who were not hypocrites? and 2) Do you think there were other people in Ireland who took Parnell's side who were hypocrites? And the answer is "Yes, of course there were," in both cases. That the person who preaches a moral view might be a hypocrite proves nothing at all.

The fact that someone is a hypocrite doesn't preclude the possibility of their being right and the fact that someone is a pillar of integrity doesn't preclude the possibility of their being wrong. And we might further ask, who isn't a hypocrite?

In addition to handling this sort of moral argument with suspicion, we should be doubly worried when we see this sort of thing in a work of fiction because the Author has set it up this way; James Joyce's heavy thumb is on the moral scale.

(In the case of Dante Riordan, we might also wonder that Joyce has given her the name of the medieval poet who wrote a great vision of hell and its torments. Why? Because in a section to come in that book young Stephen is going visit prostitutes and then be confronted by a Dante-esque vision of hell during a religious retreat. How is he going to get out of that one? Answer: I don't know yet as I'm at the exact half-way point of the book and the last time I read it was in high school because Sr. Dodd assigned it and I can't remember much about it now. I'll keep you posted.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What lying hypocrites look like Pt2

Womanly virtues Wednesday: Further meditations on the S-word

A comment got me thinking about how we learn these words.  The first time I heard the word "slut" was in Grade 9 and and it was directed at a girl named Kim by another girl. I remember feeling the power of the word even though I'd never heard in my life up until that point.

I didn't ask what it meant and I had no way of finding out. Nowadays, you could just look it up in the dictionary but that sort of word wasn't in the dictionary back then.

I knew it had something to do with sex because it was directed at Kim who had, by a considerable margin, the most sex appeal in the entire school and I don't mean just in Grade 9. All the senior boys had noticed her.

I went to a Catholic school and the nuns made junior girls wear gym suits that were meant to de-emphasize their sexuality. It backfired entirely in Kim's case. The suits  had a little-girl feel about them and the all boys and male teachers who saw Kim's obviously womanly body in a little girl suit tended to walk around holding something in front of the their crotches to try and conceal their reaction to her.

The girl who called her a  slut was Rosemary who was the most popular girl in our year but she was just beginning to lose that status. Rosemary was also very sexy but she didn't have much notion what to do with her sexiness besides sticking her large breasts out. (Kim also had beautiful breasts but her sexuality was about her whole body and about her entire self.) The second Rosemary hurled the word at Kim, I not only knew it was about sex, I knew the word had both negative and positive connotations.

Kim left the school that year because our teachers went on strike and her parents moved her to another school board so she wouldn't miss any school time. She went on to university and a very successful career and marriage. Rosemary got pregnant in Grade 11, married the guy, then divorced him five years later.

I don't say that so that you will make moral judgments about the two women. The point here is about power. Sexual power. You can hate me for saying this if you want, but to be a woman, you have to have sexual power. Both girls had it but Kim had a much deeper understanding of what she could do with it it than Rosemary. That is why their lives worked out the way they did. Morality had nothing to do with it.

And the difference wasn't wealth either. Both girls came from the same working class Irish neighbourhood and both were from families that, while not poor, were less than average by the standards of the neighbourhood they lived in and that neighbourhood was less than average by city standards and the city was less than average by national standards.

What does slut mean? The comment that got me thinking tentatively suggested that it meant a girl who slept with everyone but I've never known a girl who slept with everyone or anything even close to that. I knew a couple of girls who had huge numbers of partners during university but there was something compulsive and pitiable about them—no one was threatened by them the way Kim threatened Rosemary.

To the best of my knowledge, there was no evidence that Kim had had sex with anyone at all when the word was hurled at her. I don't know whether she had or had not had sex (although I would guess not) but whatever she had or had not done was a secret.

When a woman calls another woman a slut, she is almost always talking about a woman who has more sexual power than she does. When a man calls a woman a slut, he is almost always talking about a woman who wouldn't have sex with him.

What Kim did do was present herself sexually in a very effective manner. Her gym suit for example, had been tailored a bit. I'm guessing her mother did this or had a dressmaker do it. This goes on a Catholic girl's schools but you also see it at schools where there are not dress codes, uniforms or gym suits. From an early age, some girls are taught how to present themselves and others are treated as a problem. Some girls are shown how to style their hair and other girls get their hair cut in the way that presents the least trouble for their mothers.

Of course an individual, any individual, can turn things around through personal effort.  A girl who is denied this sort of training in how to be a sexual being by her mother can figure out how to do it herself but that is a tall order and calls for more effort than most girls are willing to make.

A slut, whether you like the word or not, is a woman who knows how to do something. She is famous for what people think she is experienced at. A "good girl" is a girl who doesn't know how to do something. She is famous for not being experienced at something.

Now someone may say, well, "There are some things it isn't good to be good at".  But what is the alternative skill? What is the good girl good at? That is where the thing gets tricky. Because if what she is supposed to be good at is saying no ... well, that's why there was a sexual revolution.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


"Translit" is a term that Douglas Coupland either made up himself or picked up somewhere and, whatever else you might say about him, Coupland has a genius for picking the term that nails a trend.

He also has a bit of a genius for writing stuff that seems meaningful when it comes out but that you will look back at years later and wonder why you ever wasted your time reading Generation X.

Let's start at the beginning where Coupland indulges in some clever word play:
I mention this because it has been only in the past decade that we appear to have entered an aura-free universe in which all eras coexist at once — a state of possibly permanent atemporality given to us courtesy of the Internet. No particular era now dominates. We live in a post-era era without forms of its own powerful enough to brand the times. The zeitgeist of 2012 is that we have a lot of zeit but not much geist.
Isn't that fun? You can tell it's  a steaming pile of it conjured up by a wheel-spinning clever person of no moral depth because the word zeitgeist appears but it's important to pay some attention to what these people are thinking if only to avoid doing it ourselves. And there is something here: the lack of geist (spirit) is a marked feature of modern intellectual culture. A "zeitgeist" or "spirit of the time/age" is always an illusion but geist tout court can be important.

One "solution" that artists have come up with, says Coupland is "translit" and it's worth reading his description of it at some length. I'll split his definition of "translit" into two parts. The first part is just a bunch of meaningless jargon:
This new reality seems to have manifested in the literary world in what must undeniably be called a new literary genre. For lack of a better word, let’s call it Translit. Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present.
Wow. Does that mean anything at all?  Think of the expression "extreme present". Luckily, Coupland lets the veil slip for the the rest of the paragraph and tells us in rather plain, perhaps too plain for the sake of his own argument, exactly what he means:
Imagine traveling back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb. With Translit we get our very delicious cake, and we get to eat it, too, as we visit multiple pasts safe in the knowledge we’ll get off the ride intact, in our bold new perpetual every-era/no-era.
In other words, it's fantasy fiction for intellectuals. Instead of traveling off to some distant and unhistorical Cetic past we travel off into a not-so-distant but completely unhistorical past. A past where intellectuals can pretend that modernism didn't fail: a past where it is always on or about December 1910 and never the 28 March 1941.  It's no small thing that one of the books Coupland cites as an example of Translit is Michael Cunnigham's The Hours.

What Translit really is is intellectuals trying to create art that will replace the religion they no longer believe in. It's a major shift is that they are now trying to do this for themselves. Much of modernism was driven by the fantastic notion that ordinary people had lost religion and needed intellectuals to come up with art to replace it. In fact, ordinary people never lost their religious belief and therefore never needed a replacement. But intellectuals did and they live in a world with lots of zeit and not much geist.

But will it work. We heard a lot about The Hours about a decade ago but does anybody read it now? Or is it just yesterday's fashion?

Monday, March 12, 2012

Blogging the Reef: Speak now or forever hold your peace

(To read all posts about The Reef click here.)

This novel, as many others have noted before me, seems the most classicist of all the Wharton novels. The story arc is symmetrical reaching its peak here in book three; at the centre of the story. And it is a notable trait of classicist fiction that it doesn't pull any tricks on you. When we read the following in the middle of a classicist novel, we know things are about to go badly:
Anna Leath, from the terrace, watched the return of the little group.

She looked down on them, as they advanced across the garden, from the serene height of her unassailable happiness. There they were, coming toward her in the mild morning light, her child, her step-son, her promised husband: the three beings who filled her life.
No one now expects this to end happily for Anna. The mystery is not whether it will go wrong or even, for that matter, what will go wrong, but how it will go wrong.

And it's all up to George for now.

I put the old Anglican admonition to speak now or forever hold your peace in the title. That is quite literally George Darrow's predicament regarding the announcement of the engagement between Owen and Sophy. At first he doesn't speak but he makes this choice from base motives. He is driven by shame.

Here is a question: How would Darrow have behaved if he had been motivated primarily by guilt rather than primarily by shame? Would he have rushed to Anna and confessed all? That would require some real confession from Darrow but it would also put a burden on her to forgive him, or not. It certainly wouldn't make her happy.

Another option would have been for him to gently remove himself, tell Anna that he couldn't marry and make a great renunciation in the name of ... well, in the name of something. But what?

Being a classicist novel, the marriage that Anna wants is about more than just she and George. She wants a marriage that makes a social statement and has social implications just as the marriages of Pamella to Mr. B and Elizabeth to Mr. Darcy do. George could renounce his happiness on the grounds that his own behaviour has made him unworthy of her. In that case the great renunciation would mean something.

Except you can't quite picture our buddy Darrow doing that can you? It's not that he is unaware of the possibility. It just would never occur to him to do it. So all he can do is see the unhappiness that such a thing would cause and think it is better to keep quiet so as to ensure happiness. He behaves like a classical hero in being driven by shame and honour and accepting fate but he is no hero. And, as I have said before, don't dismiss or hate him on those grounds. Are we so different? Would we renounce our shot at a happy marriage on the grounds that our previous behaviour had compromised any real value such a marriage might have?

Darrow cannot, as it turns out, be quite so calm about Sophy's proposed marriage. And that is odd  given how, in Chapter 17, he remembers the affair.
The essential cheapness of the whole affair--as far as his share in it was concerned--came home to him with humiliating distinctness. He would have liked to be able to feel that, at the time at least, he had staked something more on it, and had somehow, in the sequel, had a more palpable loss to show. But the plain fact was that he hadn't spent a penny on it; which was no doubt the reason of the prodigious score it had since been rolling up. At any rate, beat about the case as he would, it was clear that he owed it to Anna--and incidentally to his own peace of mind--to find some way of securing Sophy Viner's future without leaving her installed at Givre when he and his wife should depart for their new post.
Notice the sense that he ought to have made some sort of sacrifice for it but is aware that it cost him nothing and that heightens his shame. The shame he remembers is his own, not hers.

And yet, he cannot accept the marriage. What upsets him? Again, it is honour and shame. In his view, a woman of Sophy's stature cannot marry Owen. He wishes her a happy life but he wishes her this happy life in her own place.

And that is an interesting sub-theme of the novel: men who cling to convention as a greater moral value than the rightness or wrongness of their own conduct. Fraser Leath, for all his anarchist tendencies, was a conventionalist beneath it all. George might be disheartened to realize how much he has in common with his predecessor.

Except that he never will realize for he never asks himself questions about the ends of life. He only cares about means.

He is also, as I've noted before, fatalistic. In Chapter 19, now fully informed of Owen and Sophy's intentions, he tosses and turns wondering what to do. All he knows is that he wants to stop this marriage. He doesn't even know why for, to know that, he'd have to seriously examine ends. The problem, by the way is NOT that he is not self aware enough to notice it. When he first learns of the marriage, he goes fora  walk in the storm:
In respect of his own attitude, he saw at once that the discovery made no appreciable change. If he had been bound to silence before, he was no less bound to it now; the only difference lay in the fact that what he had just learned had rendered his bondage more intolerable. Hitherto he had felt for Sophy Viner's defenseless state a sympathy profoundly tinged with compunction. But now he was half-conscious of an obscure indignation against her. Superior as he had fancied himself to ready-made judgments, he was aware of cherishing the common doubt as to the disinterestedness of the woman who tries to rise above her past.
"Superior as he was" he still resents Sophy rising above her state. And he is half conscious of an obscure indignation towards Sophy. Why isn't he fully conscious? Because he'd never ask the question. As far as he is concerned, he and Sophy are in clear different categories. He remains what he is even though he had an affair with her. She only confirms for him what she always was by having the affair.

I opened this with the suggest that this novel seems classicist. George Darrow behaves like a classical figure. He is the one whom, if this novel really were classicist, we should expect to face the tragic end and would redeem himself by making a great renunciation for the greater good. That is, in fact, exactly what Merton Densher (based on the same real-life model) does in The Wings of the Dove. It is most emphatically not the sort of thing we should expect from George Darrow.

Here is a thought. It is quite likely that Morris Fullerton was the lover of both Henry James and Edith Wharton. Who knew him better?

Or if, like me, you don't like that sort of autobiographical question, who understood the morality of men like George, Merton and Morris better? I'd say Wharton wins that one. In The Wings of the Dove, Henry James reveals himself as an old-fashioned romantic fool when he has Merton make his great renunciation. in The Reef Wharton gets it right. This is what trying to re-embrace that sort of classicist tragic ideal really gets you. Far from being in the thrall of the old master, The Reef is Wharton's refutation of his work.

George Darrow never makes a real moral decision. After he tosses and turns, George embraces fate:
When at last he fell asleep he had fatalistically committed his next step to the chances of the morrow.