Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Authenticity and category mistakes

Authenticity is a legitimate value in some places. Can it be applied to art? Well, again, in some ways yes: Is that an authentic Rembrandt? Is that authentic Limoges? You can even apply it to human beings. Is this person an authentic representative of the group he claims to represent?

A few years ago there was an ad for a major corporation, I think it was IBM, that started with a shot of a very good looking man in a suit and a voice-over that said, "This man works for a large corporation." A friend of mine was in the room when the ad came on TV and said, "Yeah, he works for them as an actor." I don't know if that was true—IBM no doubt had some employees with male-model good looks—but it raises a tricky issue.

If the federal government hires a porn star as a spokesperson in a campaign about STDs, then she is employed by the federal government in some sense. Is she a public servant? How would you resolve that? You might be tempted to say that she is a contract worker and not full time and that would get you somewhere but not very far for the federal government has lots of contract employees.

And what about folk art? s it still folk music if it's sung by Ben Heppner? If it's sung by Ke$ha? Suppose it's sung by a poor person from the rural south but the only reason they are singing this folk song is because they think it might make them more money than the pop music they love the most? That last is not, as we shall soon see, a hypothetical question.

The following is from a review of Inside Llewyn Davis by someone named Todd Alcott. It's interesting in that he opens by saying that the question of authenticity is essential to our understanding of the movie and then proceeds to prove that authenticity is meaningless in this context.
To put yesterday’s question differently, “authenticity” is a key concept in Llewyn Davis. Who is authentic, who is not, who “means it” when they perform music, and who is faking it, who is willing to prostitute his or her talents for the sake of commerce, and who is not. Authenticity wasn’t an issue in O Brother Where Art Thou, the songs performed belonged to everybody. “Old-Timey Music” was a pop-culture fad of the day, and it was used as both a commercial and political tool, but it also rose up out of the very soil under the characters’ feet. The songs of O Brother were being sung whether anyone was listening or not. No such freedom is put forth in Llewyn Davis — all the songs (but for one crucial exception) exist on the commercial stage.

(The subject of American musical authenticity is a tricky one. A while back I read an article in the New York Timesabout how there is evidence to suggest that Robert Johnson, the King of Delta Blues Guitarists, enjoyed playing pop songs and show tunes in his live sets, but recorded his protean blues numbers “because there was a market for ‘race’ records” at the time. If Robert Johnson was motivated by commerce to sing the blues, then there is no authentic blues voice — it’s all show business. Which is also the subject of Llewyn.)
 To which the obvious response is: Then why bring up authenticity in the first place? It does not, and cannot, do any real work in this discussion. (What is true of Robert Johnson is also true of dozens of supposedly authentic artists by the way; not least of whom is Dave Van Ronk who took up folk music when it became obvious there was no market for the traditional jazz that was his first love; being bad at commerce doesn't make him any less commercial than Lady Gaga.)

Another thing that makes Alcott's argument fascinating is that he keeps making harsh criticisms of Llewyn Davis that should necessarily also apply to Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan but trying to deflect the argument to protect these two icons.
So we meet Llewyn onstage at the Gaslight, singing a song onstage. The song is “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” by Dave Van Ronk. Now, the reader should be aware, that when a song like this is “by” someone, in this venue, what that generally means is that the singer-songwriter has built on a much older song, sometimes a song that has been through a dozen previous permutations. In the case of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” it’s based on a much older song called “I’ve Been All Around This World.” The point I want to make here is that “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, at first glance, as sung by the bearded hipster Llewyn Davis with no introduction, seems a little bit pretentious. Is this guy, the viewer wonders, really equating himself with a condemned man?
Let's just pretend that argument is legitimate for a moment (it isn't even close to legitimate but let's pretend). If it is, then the criticism should apply even more to Dave Van Ronk. Alcott doesn't think so. Why?
It’s been bandied about that the character of Llewyn is based on Dave Van Ronk, “The Mayor of Macdougal Street,” a mainstay and centerpiece of the Greenwich Village folk scene. This is nonsense. Llewyn shares one or two biographical details with Van Ronk, but has none of his personality. More importantly, he has none of Van Ronk’s expansiveness, his desire to reach out, to promote, to connect. Llewyn is a very inward singer, up in his own head. He demands that the audience comes to him. That demand, in fact, is, I think what the protagonist wants. Llewyn Davis wants success, craves it, but insists that it be on his own terms. Like Bob Dylan (and the movie will continue to draw comparisons to Dylan), Llewyn refuses, absolutely refuses, do do what is expected of him.
The answer is that Alcott approves of Van Ronk and does not approve of Llewyn Davis. Of course, in defending Van Ronk, he seems to be setting up Dylan but he also lets Dylan off the hook. I know you are dying to know how he pulls that one off. The answer is that Dylan is a "genius".

All art, including folk art, is artifice. It has to be. You don't have to be a rape victim to play one in a movie. You don't have to be folk to play folk music and you can play folk music with the intention of becoming a billionaire thereby and it doesn't change the status of the art. What makes something folk is its being adopted as part of folk culture. If the Oscar Meyer Weiner song and Frosty the Snowman aren't folk songs, then nothing is.

But here is a question: Why is Alcott working so hard to prop up these bogus distinctions? That, I think, is the real point of Inside Llewyn Davis. The movie is making a point about the narcissism of the fan as much as that of the artist. It's not interesting that musicians should be narcissists. Who else but a narcissist would subject themselves to the horrors that even a failed musician needs to go through? What is more interesting is that we, the fans, so willingly invest ourselves in other people's narcissistic fantasies.

Without meaning to, I think Todd Alcott answers the question. For one of the things about authenticity is that the ability to recognize it in others implies a claim to have it ourselves. How would know how to distinguish between the real folk singer and the hipster poseur unless there was something "authentic" about my way of understanding the world? For that is what authenticity really boils down to: I am the real thing and everyone else is just a supporting player in my story. What Alcott doesn't see is that he blows his own credibility to pieces in trying to maintain these distinctions. But he shouldn't feel bad: art is either bad or good, authenticity is irrelevant.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday round up

1. It's called "acting out".

This is an old comment but I thought about it related to something that someone who is not Lena Dunham did last week:
You could say a lot about a college girl who posts a YouTube video of herself in a bikini taking a bath in a public fountain: that she’s dumb, cute, narcissistic, asking for it, amateurish, a confused product of our pornified age. But you would also need to call her ballsy. Dunham—who created said video while at Oberlin College—has developed a signature career move that involves trying out many things in public, at the expense of her own dignity, to see how people react.
I remember one of the first interviews I read with Dunham she talked about having done this fountain video for YouTube and all the comments about how fat she was. In the interview she said that a lot of the comments were about whether she had "any right to do this". That is what Dunham represents for her fans. The right of every woman to do nude scenes and be thought sexy for doing so.

I'm of two minds on this. Dunham has a boyfriend. Did you ever notice that no one mocks him for being sexually attracted to her? That's because the women who attack Dunham know that they aren't any sexier than she is and the men who attack her know their dates aren't. We have a real problem in North America in that we don't let women be publicly sexual unless they have really beautiful bodies and faces. ("We" here meaning that both women and men.) If there is one good thing the millennial generations have done, it is to stand up for the right of all women to do this.

On the other hand, I'm not sure why Dunham keeps doing nude scenes. What is the point this is making? Does she even know? Does she grasp that she has to make an effort? That even Betty Page wouldn't have looked sexy if she, as Dunham does, had an expression that suggested that she was preparing for a root canal? That the tatoos were a bad idea? The problem, it seems to me that what Dunham is doing is neither ballsy nor original. We have an expression for it and the expression is "acting out".

And it's going to end badly for her.

2. Liberal Catholicism

Liberal Catholicism has no future—like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation. The children of liberal Catholics will either want their liberalism unvarnished by incense and holy water, or they will rebel and ask if there’s something more challenging, disobeying their parents by “reverting” to Catholicism. While “liberal” Catholicism will appear to be a force because it will continue to have political representation, as a “project” and a theology, like liberal Protestantism it is doomed to oblivion.
That's right. Liberals are not putting bums on pews and they are not producing vocations. That is worth keeping in mind when you read about the, "Francis Effect". I suspect that the people who use the expression hope/imagine that there are millions of liberal Catholics who have been waiting for the pope who would make the church safe for them to come back. I doubt very much that will happen. Then what will liberal Catholics do?

(I suspect the answer is that they will go out for brunch on Sunday morning.)

3. The revolution that wasn't

Obama's 2008 campaign scarcely deserves to be called a "cause." It was more a cult of personality. "His entire political persona is an ingeniously crafted human cipher, a man without race, ideology, geographic allegiances, or, indeed, sharp edges of any kind," observed Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi in 2007. "As far as political positioning goes, his strategy seems to be to appear as a sort of ideological Universalist, one who spends a great deal of rhetorical energy showing that he recognizes the validity of all points of view."
His slogans were vapid even by the standards of political sloganeering: "Yes, we can." "Hope and change." "We are the ones we've been waiting for." He was often called a "rock star"--a celeb, not a cause. It's as if the Beatles came to America in 1964 to run for president rather than to sell records, and got elected on slogans like "Let it be," "Please please me" and "I want to hold your hand." Half a century later, the Beatles' tunes have an enduring appeal to their once-youthful, now-elderly fans. Had they been forced to face the exigencies of governing, it's unlikely a Lennon-McCartney administration would be remembered much more fondly than Johnson-Humphrey is.

I can't improve on that but want to add that Taranto is going too lightly on the Beatles. Yes, they were  trying to sell records, but  they weren't just trying to sell records. It shouldn't surprise us that the culture that thought youth and music could change the world would produce an empty suit like Obama.

4. How many raisins are there in two scoops?

That's a reference to an old ad for Raisin Bran that bragged that there were two scoops of raisins in every box. The problem is that a "scoop" is not a standard measure. They might be big scoops or very little ones. Really, all you can safely conclude on the basis if the claim is that there will be at least two raisins in every box as a scoop has to hold at least one raisin.

"Generation" is a term just like "scoop". It's not a standard measure of anything. Consider the term "Millennials". Any time you see it, you can be pretty sure what you're reading is just wheel-spinning.

5. Businesslike

By supporting the political uprising that toppled Ukraine’s president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, the United States and Europe crossed “a red line,” Mr. Putin said, forcing him to act to protect Crimea’s population from what he called “Russophobes and neo-Nazis” that had seized control in an illegal coup abetted by foreigners.
Wittgenstein once shocked his friends by saying that Hitler was businesslike while his critics were not. This was before the start of World War Two. The expression you should notice in the above is "red line". Notice that when Putin says it he means it. When Obama said, he didn't. Any bully can figure out the practical implications.

6. Criminals hate you. No, they really do hate you.

Theodore Dalrymple writes about a well-meaning French liberal who wants the boy who punched her in the face while wearing brass knuckles to be reformed. 
I was alarmed but not altogether surprised to read that Marie, referring to the culprits’ current trial, did not want them to be locked up but rather that they should receive a punishment “so that they understand.”

Understand what, precisely? That hitting a defenseless woman in the face ten times with a knuckleduster isn’t a nice thing to do? But they understood this already, only too well: It was precisely their understanding that impelled them to do it. What they lacked was not understanding of their inaction’s consequences for others but something much, much deeper, something that is unlikely to be taught, or at least learned, except by the passage of a very long time (and even then is not certain).
He's right. Criminals are people who want to hurt you. That's why they do it. They don't fail to see that their crimes cause others pain; that is precisely the thing that makes crime attractive to them.

I know I've said this many times before, but that is precisely why anti-rape campaigns fail. Rapists feel justified in forcing women to have sex. They don't miss the point that this other human being is saying, "No". They are fully aware of it and do it for that reason. The people who create educational campaigns to explain a word that every two year understands are just narcissists.


7. Shouldn't women be allowed to decide for themselves how they should "own" their sexuality?

When are men asked to justify their sexual exploits? Rarely do we see single men onscreen bemoaning their sexual freedom and describing their conquests as shameful or sinful (Shame is very much the exception). No amount of high-minded metaphors will erase the fact that the burden of sexual shame almost always falls on women in our society. If anything, these metaphors only reinforce the fact that women are continuously denied the right to own their sexuality in the way men own theirs.
Leaving aside all the gesturing, the above makes a factual claim that women tend to be ashamed of their sexual acts and men tend not to be. And that is all you can reasonably conclude.

This doesn't just happen on the silver screen. I don't know a single man who regrets the sex he had in his youth. I know lots of men who regret missed opportunities for doing so. On the other hand, I know lots of women who will express regret at things they did. 

The article I cite above, not incidentally, was written by a man. I keep seeing men arguing that women should have more sex with more partners and not be ashamed of it. (And here I needlessly point out that that is a very self-serving thing for a man to say.) Meanwhile, I also keep seeing women resolutely determined to shame themselves and, this is important, other women for past sexual behaviour. They are doing this for reasons of their own and if we really want women to own their sexuality we must allow them their reasons.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis Pt 2: Jazz

In the first part I suggested that the Coen brothers spotted something in Elijah Wald's biography of Dave Van Ronk that Wald himself hadn't noticed. This something had to do with the shame that comes from thinking of yourself as a loser.

Which is why it's time to talk about jazz.


Take a look at that excerpt from Van Ronk's Wikipedia page that shows up in the movie as the bio for Llewyn Davis's dead partner (remembering that Van Ronk was Wald's dead partner in writing the book that inspired the movie):
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" But the trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. 
Notice the self deprecation? Of course you did, it's kind of hard to miss.  What you might not know is that this spectre of inferiority ran through Van Ronk's entire life. Here is a piece that Wald wrote about Van Ronk almost ten years ago:
"Without that training I got from Jack and hanging around with other would-be jazz musicians, all the other things wouldn't really mean much," Van Ronk says, and he means it. In terms of musical knowledge, he has often felt like Gulliver in Lilliput beside the unschooled folkies around him, but he can remember his days in Brobdingnag, playing rhythm guitar at jam sessions that could occasionally include giants like Coleman Hawkins or Johnny Hodges. Asked what they thought of his efforts, he grimaces and says "They were always very polite."
That phrase, "other would-be jazz musicians" tells you a lot about the man who said it. It's sort of like the guy who lumps himself and his wife's ex-boyfriend together as other would-be studs. Van Ronk wanted to be a jazz musician more than anything and he failed at that. That failure haunted him all his life; the problem is that when he gave up on jazz he moved to the genre that later came to be called folk but rather that he carried with him a sense of worthlessness.

Go to any well-attended classical music concert, any jazz concert and, indeed, any folk music concert in the land and you will find in the audience a significant number of people who play musical instruments or who sing and get enjoyment out of doing it but know that they could never be good enough to headline the show they paid to see. They have no trouble adjusting to that. Van Ronk did have trouble; he spent the rest of his life being incapable of internalizing his own considerable achievements. Like Llewyn Davis, who can't see that Jean loves him because he secretly hates himself and can't quite believe that anyone would love him even though he wants to be loved more than anything else.

The Coen brothers picked up on this spectre of jazz that haunted Van Ronk and it haunts Llewyn Davis as well. You can see it right from the opening in the Gorfein's apartment which has pictures of jazz greats on the wall. Meanwhile, Llewyn is their "folk music friend" and the ambiguity that goes with that is further underlined when Llewyn visits them later and another of their guests plays Early Music, which is to say music that, unlike folk, has something that vaguely resembles a claim to authenticity behind it. The point is further underlined when Llewyn gets on the elevator and we see, on the wall behind him, a painting based on a photograph of the semi-mythical jazz musician Buddy Bolden and his band. (I say semi-mythical because, while he actually existed, virtually every other thing claimed of him is found in self-serving stories told about him later by others.) Finally, when Llewyn makes the trip to Chicago that becomes a visit to the underworld in his imagination, the man who torments him on this trip is a jazz musician.

The folk singer with imposter syndrome

All of which wouldn't amount to much if this were JUST a story about a guy with a case of impostor syndrome. There are lots of such guys about: the relationships I had with my first two girlfriends were both driven by my imposter syndrome. You have your story too. What makes Van Ronk interesting is that he became an icon for guys like Elijah Wald:
I first saw Dave Van Ronk perform at Boston's Jordan Hall, sometime around 1972. He remembers the gig as well, because there were about 15 people in the theater. I don't remember anything about that. All I remember is Van Ronk's incredible stage presence He seemed to grow and fill the whole room, singing with a hypnotic intensity that made it impossible to think of anything else.
Notice the contradiction between "Van Ronk's incredible stage presence" and there being "about fifteen people in the theater".  There were some 800,000 people living in Boston at that point and many hundreds of thousands more in the suburbs around and yet hardly anyone showed up to see a man with "incredible stage presence"?

The problem is here is not that Van Ronk wasn't talented. He was very good at what he did. The problem is that Van Ronk himself was never satisfied with his own success because he could never quite believe in it. And he passed that unbelief on to his disciples. The puzzling question is, "Why did they lap it up?"

Folk music's bizarre obsession with authenticity

There is a great scene in the classic Frank Capra movie It Happened One Night. A spontaneous sing along breaks out on a bus and the song the passengers sing is "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze".  It's an entirely credible scene as the song had been the subject of a hit movie two years earlier. More than that, however, it was an old song written some 70 years before the movie. People already knew it. Why isn't that song a folk song? It was actually known by and popular among the folk.

Any rational person would say that yes, it is folk. Folk music aficionados, however, say no. The reason they say this, in so far as there is a reason, which isn't very far at all, is that "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" lacks authenticity. Yes, people like it and they actually know it, which is more than you can say for most folk music (indeed, more than you can say about most folk culture).

"Authenticity" is a slippery word. You can see the problem in the last sentence of the excerpt about Van Ronk  I cited from WIkipedia above:
Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context. 
What is the original context? That is an expression with no meaning. The actual original context was that this was music created by people whose ancestors had been kidnapped and sold into slavery and then brutally oppressed for many generations and who, living in extreme poverty and entirely without rights, created this music because they needed entertainment and nothing else was available. And Van Ronk—a man who lived in an era so prosperous that he was able to leave his day job and make his living as a singer and guitarist even though he himself believed that he wasn't nearly as talented as some of his peers—somehow duplicated this authenticity in his performance? How?

The study of folk culture began in the Romantic era and, tellingly, it began fraudulently. The romantics wanted to believe that music was made by two kinds of people: isolated geniuses and "the folk". When they didn't find it, people made it up. Eventually, others came along and did the work more diligently but no one ever found any folk culture that was terribly popular with actual folks. They tended to find folk culture that is actually practiced by the folk in places that were so poor and isolated that they couldn't get access to or didn't like what was available from commercially produced popular culture, which, not incidentally, is also where you tend to find it today.

Which isn't to say that we don't have stuff that might legitimately be called folk culture today. Fan fiction should be called folk culture as should blogs, FaceBook, YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest. Our folk music culture consists of people sharing digital recordings and not making their own sounds. Not incidentally, one of the interesting things these modern folk cultures all have in common with more ancient examples is a disregard for copyright. Folk culture can't thrive where someone owns the rights to melodies, phrases and stories. In that sense, the Romantics were right. But they also missed something even more important about it.

That something is that folk culture doesn't care where it comes from. Real folk culture is about anything but authenticity. Oppressed peoples cheerfully pick up the culture of their oppressors. To take one painfully incorrect example of this: a huge part of what came to be known as American folk culture in the 20th century came straight out of a 19th century travesty called the minstrel show.

The minstrel show is rightly called a travesty because its purveyors took what they partly believed and partly imagined to be the folk culture of American blacks. But, however it began, it became a huge part of actual American folk culture. In fact, Van Ronk's project of doing authentic performances of folk music was really just updated minstrel show without blackface.

The problem isn't that some people like to take up the cultural products of other ethnic groups. That is what folk culture is all about. The problem comes when someone does this because they are searching for "authenticity" to fill an empty spot in their souls brought about by a sense of imposter syndrome.

Why this matters, or should matter, to men

The really important thing about folk music and trad jazz before it, is that this is guy music.These genres are examples of the sort of music men like to listen to for our own entertainment. Pop music almost always tends to be girl-driven and we men tend to listen to that because it gets us close to girls and not because we like it.

Trad jazz is a good example of this. College boys ate it up starting just before the 1920s. There was a lot of popular music of the sort girls liked in the 1920s called jazz but young men went after something particular they liked. That music never became really popular. It was rapidly eclipsed by swing in the 1930s but there were enough men who liked traditional jazz to keep it alive for four solid decades.

As I say, folk culture doesn't care where it comes from and Trad Jazz was male folk culture for a long time. Van Ronk's real achievement, and this is something very substantial, was to make a new kind of male folk culture out of the remnants of Trad Jazz, ragtime, blues and other genres. He was concerned with "authenticity" and thus he focused on what he took to be black music but we don't need to take up his pathologies when we carry on male folk culture.

Hell, it doesn't have to be folk. But, as men, we need a culture of our own, a culture that isn't driven by the sexual agenda of wanting to be near girls. Wanting to be near girls is the only reason we pay attention to bestsellers in pop culture.

But we shouldn't be like girls. Girls are obsessed with peer approval and social policing. They need to believe that their interests are approved by other girls; no girls is ever happy swooning over Bieber or whomever unless she believes her peers do as well. Men have different needs and the culture that is going to attract girls is useless to us. We like culture that gives us a project. The project might be learning to play the music we listen to, it might be studying it, it might be getting good at making distinctions so we can tell one sax player from another just by hearing them. It might not be music at all; it could be watching and discussing Coen brothers movies. It could be making and playing folk instruments or it could be building a boat. It could be singing madrigals. It doesn't really matter, so long as we have a project to go with it.

In closing, an example. This is Lil Rev. He is firmly in the tradition that Van Ronk established and he's having fun with it. He's having because he is also (probably unconsciously) part of a tradition that grew out of college boys playing and singing music that had nothing to do with them just because it was fun to play at it. The most famous example of this is "My Darling Clementine" a song whose sad subject matter became a joke for the college boys who sang it. That is the attitude a healthy person takes to culture; they have enough of a sense of themselves as men that they can treat culture as something that exists for fun and not to give us an identity.

Bonus: Listen and learn from der Bingle. He does it straight for 1:18 and then makes it fun.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Affairs that ended badly because they started badly

It's Patti (Patricia) Boyd's birthday. Named after the saint whose day she was born on. If you believe the story, Eric Clapton destroyed his life over her. She was married to Clapton's friend George Harrison and Clapton fell in love with her and she rebuffed him. Clapton's life then went to hell and heroin addiction.

You can read that version, with more details, in all sorts of places. It's pure lies. Clapton was going to ruin his life anyway and set about doing it in a very systematic way. It takes hard work to get addicted to heroin—the average addict is using the stuff for 18 months before they get hooked. And it's not like the realities of addiction are some deeply guarded secret. No one drifts into heroin or alcohol addiction unawares.

And the same is true of affairs. Patti Boyd was just another symptom of Clapton's problems and not their cause. There are hundreds of steps on the road to an affair and you have to consciously choose to take each and every one of them. So why does anyone do it? The same reason others do heroin. They think it will make them feel better right now.

The fantasy is that you will feel better about yourself because the affair will prove that you are desirable.

We need to give that thought more credibility than we normally do, especially in women. It might seem self-evident to us men that women, especially some women, are attractive but it's more complicated than that. Jean has beautiful breasts and all the guys check her out. But they also look quickly away any time Jean looks back at them so she doesn't know what they really think. Jean also says things like, "I don't want to be valued just for my breasts," and that is true but she also really wants to know just how powerful they are.

Two interesting examples of perversity
  • In my lifetime I've seen more than a few women ruin their lives by allowing the sex in their marriage or other long-term relationship run dry and then had a purely sexual affair with a man just to prove they are sexy.
  • And I've seen men let all the affection drain out of their marriage or other long-term relationship and then had sexually unsatisfactory relationships with rather pathetic, damaged women they saw as fixer-uppers because they wanted to feel needed.
One way to find out for sure is to play with fire. Let a little flirtation happen; take a chance. But she never really knows ... so maybe she lets things go one step and then another and another and ...

All of which sounds fine in theory. The problem is that the person she is having an affair with also has an agenda and that agenda is not to make Jean feel good about herself. Read the "seduction artist" guys all over the web and you'll notice that the move they recommend at just the moment when a woman like Jean makes her potential availability known is to diss her and ignore her. Why? Because her needs will make her try harder. And, yes, it works.

At the very least, the guy after Jean wants to prove to himself that, "I can have this." "This" meaning not Jean in particular but what Jean represents to him. Because Jean means so little to him, he tends to drop her rather hard when they are ready to move on. He may be a nice enough guy to want to let her down gently—meaning, he's actually a total shit but wants to hide it from everyone including himself—but the inescapable fact is that he wants out after he's had enough of this to feel better about himself only, and this is the really perverse thing, he wants the end to hurt her only have it not appear as his fault because her still wanting him after he's gotten what he wants proves something.

Eventually, Patti Boyd left George Harrison and got together with Clapton. His life didn't change even a tiny bit. The substance abuse, mostly alcohol, proceeded unabated and he continued to have lots of affairs with women. This was pretty much exactly what had gone on during her time with Harrison too. She's seventy today.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday round up

I have no idea if I'll keep this up but this post is inspired by the "Seven quick takes Friday" popular among Catholic mommy bloggers. I'll have some quickish takes but won't aim to always have seven. (Seven is a number of completeness and I'm not complete.)

1. Five biblical women

Geoffrey Morin of the American Bible Society lists five biblical women and draws some life lessons we might learn from them at Fox News. He picked his five based on frequency of searches using the ABA's Bible search tool. They are (starting with the most-searched) Eve, Mary, Martha, Sarah, and Rebekah. I find it rather unfortunate that so many people searched Eve as it seems to me that any cultured person ought to know who Eve is and also, should they want to know more about her, should be able to find her in the Bible without a search engine as her story comes up at the very beginning.

I'd go so far as to say that it is an indicator of the pathetic lack of culture of the people who use the ABA site that these five women would make it to the top.

I wonder, by the way, how they differentiated searches for Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethesda, and Mary Magdalene?

2. Five other biblical women

Whenever I think of biblical women I think of Tamar who committed incest, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth the seductress, Bathsheba the adulteress and Mary who conceived outside of marriage. All five make it into Matthew's genealogy, which otherwise mentions no women at all.

It's interesting that five scandalous women are essential to the salvation of the human race.

3. "Scandal"

Some will no doubt insist that there was no scandal surrounding Mary the mother of Jesus. That's not true. You can make an argument that the scandal was not justified but you can't argue it wasn't there.

I was taught as a child, by the way, that I should act so as to avoid causing even unjustified scandal because that scandal might lead others astray. I might, for example, enter an apartment with a woman and be acting perfectly innocently in doing so but someone may see us doing this be scandalized and lose their trust in Catholic morality because they incorrectly think this guy, who otherwise passes himself off as in agreement with church teaching, makes an exception for his sexual desires.

That sort of thinking was abused in a systematic way by women in my family who figured out that they could control others lives by imagining scandal any time anyone did something they didn't like. My mother, for example, would insist on rigid controls to avoid even the tiniest suggestion of scandal when one of her children was dating someone she didn't like. When she approved of a boyfriend or a girlfriend, however, she'd cheerfully overlook anything short of overt discussion of their having sex together.

That said, it isn't a completely crazy principle.

4. Mary Magdalene

Biblical interpreters these days go to great lengths to remove any suggestion of scandal related to Mary Magdalene. That seems extremely unlikely to me. Just the fact that she traveled with Jesus  would have been occasion for some scandal in the antique world.

Jesus did not seem intent on avoiding scandal. Then again, he is Jesus.

5. Elisabeth Moss's breasts!

You want to see them don't you? Here they are. I think the preferred internet term for what you get is "side boob". I hate the word "boob".

 There is an interview attached that is all about how she is the real star of the show. That's why she has to flash her breasts for everyone.

I suspect that is right in the sense that she has to inherit the future. That's the only outcome that could possibly satisfy anyone.

6. Mad Men prediction

Speaking of which, the final (not really) season is going to suck. AMC aren't doing well. They scored two big shows and then couldn't repeat it. As a result, they're going to stretch the final season of Mad Men over two years. I suspect this is going to be really awful.

That said, none of these big series have had very satisfactory endings: Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad had finales that are pretty underwhelming. The problem is the medium: for all the comparisons with the novel, TV just doesn't lend itself to a satisfactory story arc,

7. Girls on film

Indeed, Ms. Lauzen said, the percentage of female speaking roles has not increased much since the 1940s, when, she said, they hovered around 25 percent to 28 percent. 

“We think of Hollywood as a very progressive place and a bastion of liberal thought,” she said. “But when you look at the numbers and the representation of women onscreen, that’s absolutely not the case. The film industry does not like change.” 
 "The industry does not change."

The piece starts off with the sad news that, despite having three movies in the top ten with female protagonists, 2013 was a bad year for women in film. Of the years 100 top-grossing films, only 15 had women in leading roles. That is, in fact, a decline since the 1940s.

Notice the easy assumption that the industry could simply have switched things around and put women into more top-grossing films. You can imagine the script meeting:
Shall we write a big woman's part for this?
No, it's going to be a top-grossing film.

It's sort of like saying,
 Be especially careful delivering this baby doctor because she's going to be a great scientist when she grows up.
 By the way, the three top grossers with women in lead roles? The Hunger Games, Frozen and Gravity. That's two princess fantasies and Gravity just happened to costar George Clooney.

 "The industry does not change."

Well, it's easier to say that than to face the possibility that human nature doesn't change.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The key to Llewyn Davis

There are spoilers everywhere in this post. If you haven't seen it but plan to, stop reading right here. It's also long, long, long. And, as if this isn't long enough, I'll have another post about the role that jazz plays in the story next week.

                   … Come, my friends,
     'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
     Push off, and sitting well in order smite
     The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
     To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
     Of all the western stars, until I die.
     It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
     It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
     And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Dave Van Ronk was collaborating with Elijah Wald to write a book about Ronk's experiences in the heyday of the New York City folk scene. They were a team. Then Dave Van Ronk died and Wald ended up finishing the book. It started off being a book by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald ended up being a book about Dave Van Ronk by Elijah Wald.

The Coen brothers bought the rights to make a movie based on the book and then made a movie, not about Dave Van Ronk, but about a fictional character named Llewyn Davis who has a lot of the same experiences Ronk had.

That is what this movie is about. I'm serious. That first paragraph I wrote above is not the background to the movie, it is the subject of the movie. The story is about a musician named Llewyn Davis who had a partner named Mike Timlin who has died. In one of the opening scenes, Davis is wandering around a friend's apartment and he finds a copy of a record he and Timlin made together. He flips the album sleeve over and looks at the back cover. He looks at a picture of Mike Timlin. Underneath that picture is a "fake bio" for Timlin. Only it's not fake. It reads:
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" But the trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context.
I didn't transcribe that from the screen. You can't see it all on the screen. It's straight out of the Wikipedia page on Dave Van Ronk. Which isn't to say that it's original to Wikipedia. There is so much plagiarism in Wikipedia that I wouldn't be surprised to find that is lifted word for word for somewhere else.

But the parallel should be clear. Elijah Wald and Van Ronk were partners and Van Ronk died. Llewyn Davis and Mike Timlin were partners and Mike Timlin died. It's a movie about the ways we remember the past and how that influences our future.

The Coen brothers, it turns out, weren't nearly as interested by Dave Van Ronk as they were by Elijah Wald's historiography. I know, big word to be using so early in the day. It's this: historian's don't just tell us stories about the past, they also have theories about how these stories should be constructed and how a historian figures out what is history as opposed to the past.

Elijah Wald's historiography

Elijah Wald faces an interesting quandary. He doesn't just face it; he lives it.

The history of popular music, as he, correctly, argues in his book. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll, tends to be written by losers. What he means by that is that pop music tends to have two kinds of fans. There are the people who treat it as background for their lives, mostly adolescent girls who like to dance or swoon to these songs. They are the people who make popular music popular. Meanwhile, there are a tiny number of socially unsuccessful boys who get absolutely obsessed with this music, sitting around for hours analyzing every detail and every nuance (including not a few nuances that exist only in their imaginations). It is the most obsessed guys from the second group who write histories of popular music.

These guys who obsess about popular music don't get the girls who make it popular. Don't "get" them in more than one sense of the word. They have every reason in the world not to get the story right. They'd prefer a version of history in which unsung heroes got the credit rather than the pop stars who did. They'll give you chapter and verse on why Little Willie John's (remember that name) version of "Fever" is better than Peggy Lee's and how you are racist if you, like 99 percent of the people on this planet (including 99 percent of the black people on this planet), insist on preferring the Peggy Lee version anyway.

But there is another kink in the loser's worldview and it is that sometimes one of the losers becomes a "winner". He doesn't get girls in high school so he spends hour after hour practicing guitar instead and then, magically, he becomes a huge star and thousands of girls dream of getting him. That's the theory anyway. It's also called narcissism because the loser sitting in his basement obsessing about music lore has this fantasy in which he is the star and everyone else is a bit player and that is why he imagines this fantasy.

The interesting thing about Wald is that while he is one of the losers, he recognizes that the winners, the girls, are the ones who really drive history. At the same time, he knows full well that adolescent girls do not buy books about the history of popular music. They'd rather pour over an interview in which Selena Gomez talks about how she is completely over Justin Bieber now and she is ready to face life bravely and the proof of this is that she has had a daring new makeover. Meanwhile, guys like Wald research and write histories of pop music for other guys like them. There aren't enough of these guys to make anyone rich but there are enough to make a living, especially if you tried and failed to make it as a musician yourself first.

And the degree of Wald's own loserdom is important here. He is a guy who pores over music lore. He even tried to live the life, hitchhiking all over the world with his guitar, trying to make his living playing traditional music. Then he actually succeeded at making a living by writing about it.

Which is also Dave Van Ronk's story, by the way. The folk music that actually became popular passed him by. He ended up being a keeper of the mythology. This story features layers upon layers of losers.

Losers aren't really losers

Here is another twist. None of these losers had to be losers. I was careful to say that the losers are the guys who didn't get the girls. If you got them drunk asked them, they would insist that they were the guys who couldn't get the girls. Their entire life is driven by the fear that there is something deeply wrong with them and that they need to hide this thing from everyone because everyone would hate them if they knew.

And here is another secret: the loser did get at a girl. And then he lost her. That was also true of the winners. Pretty much everyone got and then lost a dream girl once upon a time. Most people then proceeded to move on and forget about it.
Forgetting trouble is the way to cure it. (Letter 94, Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca)
The difference between the winner and the loser is not that one faced defeats that the others didn't but that the loser is still analyzing their defeats and humiliations decades after they happened, imagining that these things only happened to them (they happen to absolutely everyone) and that they hold the clue to everything that has happened to them since.

Think about the name I told you to remember for a moment. Think about all the implications of "Little Willie John". I'll wait. ... Have you spotted it yet? That's the way losers think about their own loserdom. They imagine there is some hidden quality, over which they have no control, which really makes the difference. They imagine that had the guy actually been Big-willie John, his version of Fever would have succeeded and that is just the (unfair) way the world is.

And the theory isn't completely crazy. There are Big-willie Johns ... and Daves and Franks and Micks and Gregs and Miltons out there and women do care about these things, even the ones who say they don't (although it is only one factor among many). It makes it worse that they lie about it. They tell you it doesn't matter but, if you pay attention, they will give themselves away. But here is the thing: do you sometimes wish your girlfriend had a better body? Do you tell her that it doesn't matter to you that she doesn't do certain things while secretly wishing that she would? Do you sometimes think of an ex-girlfriend whom you ultimately decided wasn't for you but boy did that girl know how to ... ? You love your girlfriend, so you keep these things a secret from her. (It actually makes things worse for her, just as her doing the same does for you, but you both tell one another that you are doing this out of a genuine concern for the other—unaware that the message you are actually but unconsciously sending is that they should be scared and that is why you are keeping a secret.)

I saw an interview with Madonna once where she was talking about her then-ongoing relationship with Warren Beatty. Beatty was famous for having had sex with more than 900 women. The thing that jumps out at you when you read that interview is how insecure Madonna was. She thought, you could tell that she really believed it, that she might lose Beatty because he would think she didn't stack up compared the hundreds of beautiful and famous women, many of whom were more deservedly famous than Madonna, whom he'd had before her. What his having had had more than 900 women ought to have told her was that he doesn't hold the women he has sex with to particularly high standards.

Ultimately, Beatty dumped Madonna for Annette Benning who was not nearly as famous as Madonna but who gave up her career and got pregnant and had babies for him. He was really looking for a woman who was willing to be a wife and mother and Madonna failed because she thought he was looking for a sex goddess.

The truth is that even Madonna can't be a convincing sex goddess unless the man she is with is willing to see her that way. So where does that leave the rest of us? (It's important to remember that the vast majority of Madonna fans are other women here. Women have complementary but different insecurities when dealing with men.)

This is a song about Alice Jean ...

Oh yeah, the movie itself. The most important thing to grasp about the story is that Jean loves Llewyn. All the time she is calling him a loser and an asshole who has screwed up her life by screwing her and getting her pregnant she is secretly hoping that he will tell her he loves her and wants to marry her. Jean tells Llewyn that she wants to abort her baby because she can't be sure whether he or her husband Jim is the father. She wants Llewyn to answer by saying that he doesn't care whose baby it is because he really loves her and that he is willing to do whatever it takes to build a life with her.

Okay, maybe they're both crazy and no sane person would have proposed to her.

But here is a question: Have you ever dreamed about having a girl like Jean? Maybe you've even pursued her, and like Llewyn, even actually gotten her because girls like Jean are never as hard to get as you imagine. (Been there, done her.) She is a girl who is morally and emotionally unstable. Perhaps she is that in a normal way—call me a sexist jerk if you want but most women are somewhat like that. Then again, she may be completely wrong not just for you but for anyone who wants to live a happy and stable life but she is pretty hot and you thought it would change something about you if you could, just once in your life, have sex with a pretty hot girl. Then you wouldn't have to think of yourself as the sort of loser who never gets the hot girls.

Never mind that celebrities with huge dicks who get hundreds of girls don't seem to be exactly over-brimming with happiness. Never mind that if the sex is underwhelming, especially if she doesn't seem happy with it and you, you're going to leave this experience worse off than you started. Never mind that (worse) she may fall in love with you and might even use a pregnancy to try to get you to declare your love for her because it turns out that pretty hot girls have a hard time finding happiness too. Even aside from all that, how is getting her going to make you happy given that you secretly think you're a loser and nothing is ever going to change until you stop thinking of yourself that way?

The key conversation in the movie takes place between Jean and Llewyn in a bistro called the Café Reggio, She asks him if he ever thinks about the future and he says, "The future? You mean like flying cars?" That's the way lonely nerds think. The future is always a mythological concept for them and they are either the hero (in their fantasies) or the loser (in their fears).

Llewyn consistently treats people who see music as a way of making money as careerists who are "a little square, and a little sad," missing that he is a little square and a lot sad.

Jean gets mad and says,
"You're the one who isn't getting anywhere. You don't want to get anywhere, me and Jim try."
Llewyn protests ineffectually. Jean comes back with,
"You know, you don't want to go anywhere. And that is why the same shit keeps happening to you—because you want it to."
And she's right. But she also loves Llewyn and she wants him to succeed and she even does insane, self-destructive things like having sex with the owner of the Gaslight Club so he can get another gig there. Llewyn is surrounded by people who want to help him but, because he sees himself as a loser, feels guilty about exploiting them while, simultaneously, treating them badly.

A descent into the underworld

At the very beginning of the movie, Llewyn gets beaten. And then we follow his story. We don't know why he got beaten but we stop worrying about it after a while because Llewyn has lots of bad things happen to him and the beating starts to feel like just one more example of the seemingly random and unfair things that happen to this poor guy.

Not long after the conversation with Jean, there is a moment where the screen suddenly goes black. We hear a rhythmic thudding sound. Then the screen lights up and we realize that we're in a  car. Llewyn gets into the car and rides to Chicago where he auditions at a club called "The Gate of Horn". He is rejected. Then he gets in another car and rides back to New York. This whole sequence ends with the screen going black and when it lights up, Llewyn is on a subway sleeping and finally he wakes up in his nephew's bed at his sisters house.

Oh yeah, the guy who drives the car to Chicago says hardly anything almost like he was the boatman taking you across the river Styx. Because that is who he is. And who is Llewyn in this scenario? The temptation is to say that he is Ulysses going to the underworld to see brave Achilles, whom he knew. Well, that's what he wants to believe. It turns out Ulysses is a cat. (I can't spoil every single detail, you'll have to watch it yourself to figure the bit about the cat out.)

Once upon a time, when every school boy actually had something vaguely resembling an education, every schoolboy knew the significance of "the gate of the Horn". Nowadays, a particularly geeky schoolboy might know that it was the name of a famous folk club in Chicago managed by Albert Grossman. Long before that, however, it was one of two gates in Greek mythology that come up first in, wait for it, The Odyssey, which is to say the story of Odysseus aka Ulysses.

The two gates distinguish dreams that are false and, therefore, not worth pursuing from dreams that are true and therefore worth pursuing. The gate of the Horn signifies truth. The gate of ivory signifies falsity. There really was a club called "The Gate of the Horn". I suspect Ethan Coen nearly fell off his seat laughing when he saw the name and realized what a gift he had been handed.

In a scene in which Albert Grossman, the owner of the club and, ultimately, the manager of Bob Dylan is clearly set up as Satan, Llewyn fails because Grossman doesn't see much money in his act. The real function of this sort of mythology is that Llewyn gets to preserve his imagined purity. He thinks it was Satan who rejected him! It's the same story as his conversation in the Café Reggio only with a more clear-cut morality, so clear-cut as to be, well, mythological, and, therefore, serves Llewyn's narcissistic purposes.

Now, we might reasonably ask ourselves if this trip to Chicago is a dream sequence. It's not. It's a myth. It comes out of his past. so it's real enough; it's the way the story is told that makes it mythology. It's Llewyn's/Van Ronk's mythological re-telling of the history of folk music—a myth in which they both think they deserve to have been the major player they missed being in real life. That Llewyn fails to pass through the gate of Horn tells us that he is actually a bit player in that story.

And the conversation with Jean (along with some revelations about a previous girl he got pregnant)  tells us is that he was a non-participant in the story that he should have been a part of.

Then he goes back to New York and plays one more night at the Gaslight, which gig Jean got him by putting out for the owner because she loves Llewyn.

A digression, Llewyn sees a sequence of other acts at the Gaslight. The most telling is the first one. Troy Nelson, a guy Llewyn has only met the night before. At the end of his set, he announces that there is someone special there that he wants to invite up. Llewyn immediately assumes it is him and is genuinely taken aback when it turns out to be Jim, husband of Jean.

But it gets worse. When a trio made up of Troy, Jim and Jean sing 500 Miles (later a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary) the entire club joins in the chorus. Llewyn is shocked that anyone could like this. And he keeps making this sort of mistake. When the act who are clearly meant to suggest The Clancy Brothers appear at the Gaslight, Llewyn can only make a snide comment about their cable-knit sweaters. This is Wald's theory about pop music history being written by losers in action. Ninety bazillion girls bought Peter, Paul and Mary's version of "500 Miles". Nine bazillion of them (fewer but still a lot more than ever bought Dave Van Ronk's music) bought guitars and learned to sing the song themselves. Guys like Llewyn just can't see why anyone would like this stuff.

And then a woman playing an autoharp gets up and sings. Now, if Llewyn is really the guy he wants to believe he is, he would recognize this woman as a a genuine folk artist playing and singing much like Mabel Carter. He can't see that though. All he can see is his own narcissistic fantasies and she becomes the victim of his ineffectual rage.

The next night he plays again. With a jolt, we realize that we are back at the beginning. This is the gig where he goes out back and gets beaten up. The difference is that now we know why it happens. More than that, we know why he deserves the beating he is about to get. As Jean says: "the same shit keeps happening to you—because you want it to."

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The advice they give: Abbie Cornish

I have no idea who Abbie Cornish is. Her sole qualification for giving advice seems to be that she is smoking hot and that she is, apparently, some sort of celebrity. She is doling out relationship advice at the request of the editors of Men's Health in their March 2014 issue.

Before getting into the meat of the matter, how pathetic is this? Fawning over babes is not what a man does. Never mind that Abbie has zero qualifications for dishing out advice beyond winning the genetic lottery, are you so unobservant that you can't figure out a woman from, you know, actually observing her behaviour? Okay, you've made mistakes, we all have, but are you incapable of learning from those mistakes? And if you aren't, trust me, no amount of advice will help.

Anyway, here is the bit of Abbie's advice that leaped out at me:
If you're going to dump her, she wants a truthful explanation
"Do it face-to-face, gently, and with honesty. So many people look back on past relationships and feel they messed up or something went wrong. It's nice to look back and go, "That's what this relationship taught me , and now I know how to make my next relationship better."
First thought: Abbie is telling us a lot more about herself here than she realizes and one of the things she is telling us is that she is morally and emotionally insecure. I know I'm not the first person to say this, but please do note how little happiness (meaning eudaimonia) being a smoking hot babe has purchased for Abbie. She's just another insecure girl-woman.

Second thought: notice how self-centred all this is. I'm going to provide this information so her next relationship can be better than the one she had with me? How very selfless of me.

I can grasp how I might want to be kind on the general principle that it is good to treat other people well. I'm not sure why I want to invest a lot of effort in her personal growth after I've decided to dump her. To tell you the truth, I can't even think of a reason to invest any effort in her personal growth project while we're still together.

I don't mean that I won't support her if she decides that she needs to work on her personal growth. But that is her project. I wouldn't even be dating her in the first place if I didn't think she was good enough just as she is.

The blunt truth is that if she doesn't know why you are dumping her, then she either didn't deserve you in the first place or you having been sending her such confused signals all along that she has no idea what you want and need.

I'll take the second point first. There are, of course, guys who don't know what they want or aren't willing or able to express their needs and, therefore, don't send clear signals about their needs and desires before and during a relationship.  Know what? These guys rarely dump anyone; if anything, they get dumped; more likely, they spend years, and maybe the rest of their lives, in frustrating, difficult relationships because they won't express their needs.

If you are not one of those guys and she has been paying attention to you and what matters to you, she should have been able to see what the deal breakers were without any help from you. She should have seen it coming. If she didn't, it's somebody's fault and it's unlikely that your efforts to provide an explanation when you dump her are going to help because one of the two following explanations must apply:
  1. either she didn't care enough about you to meet your needs after you expressed them (and that expression need not have been verbal),
  2. or you were so bad at making them known that she couldn't figure out what they were in the first place.
If the first applies, then explaining now isn't going to help. If the second applies, you aren't going to be any better at explaining now than you were during the relationship.

Now a woman reading this might say, what if I don't want to be the kind of woman he wants? To which I say, then you should be with someone else. And so should he.

(That said, perhaps the problem is that you have never found a guy who wants the kind of woman you really want to be. In that case, I feel your pain and good luck with your problem. I would point out, however, that no one is busying themselves feeling sorry for men who are determined to be the sort of man they want to be and never mind what women want. As Homer says, life is tough in any case but it's hard to feel sorry for the people who make it worse.)

Final thought:, Abbie says,
It's nice to look back and go, "That's what this relationship taught me , and now I know how to make my next relationship better."
If you are in a relationship with the sort of ditz-brain who says "go" when she means, "say", you need to dump her right away and, no, the fact that she is a smoking hot babe is not even close to good enough reason to overlook this problem.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Sport and Pastime con't

Reading my scandalous post of last Friday over again, it seems to me worth repeating that the story is intentionally a story about fictions: it is not just that this is a story and not reality but that it is a story whose function is to make us think about the way we tell stories about ourselves when we sit down and fantasize about what might have been.  The book is layers of fiction on top of fiction all the way down. These are imagined events. It's a book about what we imagine and the moral significance of those imaginings. The scandal is not in these events having happened or not happened in whole or in part. The scandal is in remembering that you wanted to do these things and punished yourself for even thinking them. Who and what made you do that?

This is nicely drawn out in the story in the way the narrator talks about Dean. He keeps drawing our attention to Dean's selfishness but, at the very same time, he recognizes that these things don't happen unless someone actually is selfish enough to make them happen. And when he thinks of Dean that way, our narrator is honest enough to show that he feels inadequate by comparison.

You may say, "To look at a woman with lust is to have already committed adultery in you heart." Perhaps. A lot depends on how we interpret Jesus here. But here's my question: suppose you spend your teens and twenties suppressing these thoughts (not the actions but the thoughts) as evil and the result is that you grow up to be a man who 1) feels there is something deeply wrong about him that he must always hide and 2) wakes up one day full of resentment and pain that he wasted years of his life suppressing himself and now feels life slipping away from him?

Women, some women anyway, will say they don't want to be thought of this way but why should we care? For starters, they are lying and every single study ever done of women's sexual fantasies confirms this. What the women who complain about these things really want to do is to be able to control what men think. (And all the ridiculous hand-wringing talk about a "rape culture" is just an attempt to control men's thoughts.)

Fight it.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Uses of nostalgia: A Sport and a Pastime

 If someone starts off by insisting he is telling the truth, the effect is usually the reverse of what he intends. That's not even close to an original thought. But what about the reverse? When a guy insists he is lying, do you tend to think he is really hoping to hide something? Do you think, "Maybe this story isn't a factual account of anything that actually happened but there is stuff here the story teller doesn't want to reveal about himself"?

And there you have the genre that A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter fits into. It's a genre in which a man lets his fantasies run wild and thereby manages to express some rather aggressive and frankly male truths that otherwise might not get said. We don't seem this sort of novel much these days but I think it's a legitimate genre and a very male genre at that. The most famous example is Huck Finn.

It's also a very American genre. Despite having Shakespeare and his poetic heirs to draw on, the English don't write novels like this and neither do the French or Russians. The other thing about it is that there is Eros between men at the core of it. It's a peculiarly American thing to write novels that are intensely homoerotic without being gay.

The feminist critique writes itself and isn't completely beside the point. The love interest, she isn't distinct enough to be an actual person, is a fantasy figure in a genre that used to be called exotica back in the 1920s and 1930s. The plot is always the same. Upper middle class (or even plain middle class) American goes to another country where standards of living are considerably lower than they are at home. That enables him to hang around for a long time while living a pretty rich lifestyle by local standards. He meets a girl and falls in love but, alas, he cannot stay forever because, well, just because, so he leaves her.

Our heroine, Anne-Marie is, as you would expect, given what was a-cliché-and-then-some by the early 1960s, a remarkably convenient girl. She is eighteen, she is easily available, she is highly excitable, she is agreeable to anal sex and apparently likes it, finally, and probably most important of all, she is skilled at not getting pregnant because, get this, her mother has instructed her on the matter. Ah, those French mothers, so unlike the mothers of nice girls at home.

As damning as all that sounds, the male love interest, and he is very much a love interest for our narrator, isn't any less a fantasy figure. Indeed, to complain that these two are fantasy figures is to miss that that is what they are meant to be. Our narrator, a francophile photographer who has gone to a small provincial city in France hoping to become famous, fantasizes them into existence. He doesn't care whether they live or die.

CAVEAT: Spoilers and some vulgarity uncharacteristic of this blog start here

In fact, he kills one of them off and the effect is staggering for the lack of difference it makes. The character is named Philip Dean and no one ever shed a tear at his death for he is a fantasy from the get go. He is 10 years younger than the narrator of the story and he shows up in a  Delage that he has sort of borrowed and sort of stolen that is ten years old!

A Delage is a real car but it is, as you can see from the image below, also a dream car; it is the car every man of a certain age wishes he'd been able to drive into the places one would like to drive a car shaped like this:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar but there are other times where the phallic imagery is blunt enough that the only comparison blunt enough to count is, well an erect penis. So when a man in his mid thirties gets a crush on a boy in his twenties who drives a car that a man in his thirties fantasizes about but a man in his twenties would think silly and old, you should be able to figure out that the story is next going to involve a girl of the older man's dreams who is going to let the younger man park the car that isn't really his in her garage.

Dean, and he is referred to as "Dean" more often than Philip, drives the Delage expertly and, usually, fast. The car starts to rust and age over the time that Dean stays ...

... because he stays too long. He stays until his money runs out and then he stays some some. He takes advantage of others, including women, to make ends meet. He is clearly abusing the hospitality of our narrator, whom he stays with, and the man who was foolish enough to lend him the Delage. Most of all, he is abusing the trust of Anne-Marie who thinks this very rich (as compared to her) young man will marry her.

I found myself wanting to complete every mention of "Dean" with "Moriarty". Salter's character has a lot in common with Kerouac's. You know you shouldn't trust him but you do because he does stuff that you want to do, stuff you don't have the courage to do because ...

Well, why don't we have the courage to be men anymore?

Here is the Dean situation. He's with Anne-Marie. He can see that he is going to have to leave. He knows that he'll tire of her. He knows they aren't really compatible. He knows that she is hoping for more than he will deliver. But he stays. What, against that barrage of good reasons not to do this, convinces him to stay? He stays because, "Her — is sopping."

I know, I usually eschew that sort of language but I think it has a genuine artistic purpose in the novel and that is why I quote it here. Sometimes, quite often actually, you find yourself torn between something you really want to do and a lot of good reasons not to do it. The problem is that they're the sorts of good reasons that your teacher, your priest and your mother always hit you with. Even after you start to see that prudence really is a virtue you will continue to resent those people and their good reasons. You will think, and rightly, that while it would be a bad idea to pull a Dean now that it wouldn't have been such a bad thing to have done it back when you could have, back when they were most determined to stop you. And, now that it's too late, you want to turn around and hit them in the face with, "Because her ... was sopping, that's why!"

The whole thing is a fantasy just like Huck Finn lighting out from sivilization. It's the sort of fantasy you might have actually puled off but you didn't so it's just a story you tell yourself now. The thing that I loved most about the novel is the great lengths Salter goes to the drive this point home and the equally extreme lengths some critics go to miss the point. The only real thing in this story is the narrator. The fantasy really is his fantasy and that is the scandalous thing. That's the thing that men feel and we are increasingly made to feel like we aren't allowed to feel.

"I want you to express your feelings," says the woman. Okay, you think, here are some ... . Silly you, you didn't realize that the feelings you're supposed to express are the ones she gives you permission to express. No, it's worse than that: you are required to express the permitted feelings even if you don't actually feel them.

To return the fantasy point. There are a few scenes set in Paris where our narrator interacts with a couple of rich American expatriates who are so utterly fictitious that Salter may as well have cut and paste them out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. He did that on purpose. Almost all the rest is set in small provincial French city that doesn't exist. In the unlikely event that a high school class put this on as a play, a couple of simple painted backgrounds would be all that would be needed to invoke the two places. They don't have any real existence beyond what they can evoke. It's telling that our narrator is a photographer because photographs of the places would be all you would need.

A related point: reading the criticism, I see that Hemingway is often invoked and that is odd because there is nothing of Hemingway in this book. The Paris scenes are a Fitzgerald pastiche, they are like Daisy and Tom Buchanan do Paris. The most important stylistic echoes we find in this book are a mixture of Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. If you'd given Miller the draft of Justine and asked him to do for Durrell what Pound did for Eliot's Wasteland, you'd have gotten something close to A Sport and a Pastime.

There is a great touch towards the end of the novel when our narrator has to drive the Delage. Up until now, at the hands of Dean, this car has been a magic carpet, always moving smoothly and easily; with the narrator at the wheel, it drives like a truck. And of course it would. The dream sports car of your youth can barely keep with traffic now.

The narrator of the story is often described as an unreliable one in the criticism but that is the opposite of the truth. He's an absolutely reliable narrator of his own fantasies and thereby tells us more than he realizes. When he tells us that,
In his clothing he conceals, like an assassin, a small tube of lubricant
we get the point. The trick isn't getting Dean to talk Anne-Marie into anal sex. The thrill comes from narrator/author letting himself have the right to think this way. Try it. What small tube of illicit desire do you have hidden on your person? Imagine talking your girlfriend, your wife, or that woman two tables over at Starbucks into doing it. You're allowed to think of these things and your girlfriend or wife should be woman enough to deal with your thinking them and expressing them, which is not to say she will agree to let you do them. It's 100 percent okay to look at a woman, even a friend, and think, "I'd love to ..." You're not a monster for having the thought.

Men who came back from various wars in the mid 20th century had the courage to confront this. (Salter flew 100 missions in Korea!) Lately, we men have allowed ourselves to be whipped into being submissive little boys about this. This book is a healthy antidote. What you actually do with your sexual feelings is a more complex question but trying to pretend they aren't there will only bring you regret and pain. There isn't one ounce of regret for Dean or Anne-Marie in this book but there is the pain of an old wound that goes with the suppressed fantasy, the chances  that were never taken.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Artistic narcissism

A friend of mine brought this up. He was talking about a movie that I missed in the theatres and that is coming out on iTunes in just a few days. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. So much so that I'm not mentioning the title of the movie just so that no one who has seen it can spoil it for me.

My friend thinks that one of the themes of the movie is artistic narcissism and that has me looking forward to it even more.

Anyway, the thing that makes artistic narcissism so interesting is that it has spread to the rest of society. I'd go so far as to say that the high cultural value we place on art goes a long, long way to explaining why we live in such a narcissistic culture and that we'd all be better off if we stopped caring so much about art and artists.

Here is an example of what I mean. Last year, there was some graffiti, competent but not exciting work, on the wall of a commercial building about ten minutes walk from my house. After it had been there about three weeks, the owner of the building painted it over. The very next day some very angry graffiti, by a different person as this second contribution showed no skill whatsoever, appeared on the same spot that said,"This was art."

As the days went by, our second graffiti artists added some more lines expressing his (and you have to know it was a he) feeling that some act of barbarity had been committed in the painting over of this art.

Most art is worthless and even most of the stuff that is any good is of so little good that no one need feel bad about its disappearance. Even the greatest masterpieces, while it would be a shame to lose them, are not indispensable. Pretending otherwise makes it appear as if the people who make art and, this is the real trick, the people who appreciate art appear like important figures; it makes them into the star of their own show.

Graffiti artists aren't actually particularly important to anyone beyond their mothers but they don't want to know that. So they buy spray paint or sharpies and put ugly art on other people's property.

Once upon a time the guy who painted the painting had no more social status than the guy who painted the wall it hung on. It wouldn't hurt to go back to that.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent starts tomorrow

A while ago I admitted that I had underestimated Pope Francis. In retrospect, this is typical of me: to underestimate him simply because every one else is overestimating him.

Anyway, this bit from Evangelii Gaudium has really struck me.
Just as organic existing among virtues means no one of them can be excluded from the Christian ideal, so no truth may be denied. The integrity of the Gospel message must not be deformed. What is more, each truth is better understood when related to the harmonious totality of the Christian message; in this context all of the truths are important and illumine one another. When preaching is faithful to the Gospel, the centrality of certain truths is evident and it becomes clear that Christian morality is not a form of stoicism, or self-denial, or merely a practical philosophy or a catalogue of sins and faults. (Chapter 1, section III, #39)
I mention that because: I am guilty, guilty, guilty. I do it in a polar sort of way. For much of the year, I tend to lapse into behaving as if Christian morality is merely a practical philosophy that fits easily into contemporary culture. Come Lent, however, and I start behaving as if Christian morality is a form of stoicism and I must toughen myself up to be the lone standard of virtue in a culture gone hopelessly bad.

Monday, March 3, 2014

From now on, I'll be Socrates

A friend of mine encouraged all her Facebook friends to do one of those dumb Buzzfeed quizzes. This one was to determine which philosopher you are.

Okay, waste of time.

But it turned out to be useful in an unexpected way. I answered the questions by picking the options I thought a good person would (meaning the person I thought I should want to be) the first time through and got told I was most like Kant. Words cannot say how little I want to be like Kant. So I did it again and decided to answer the questions as I would if I didn't care about anyone or anything. My answers are below. They are provided without context because the context in this case is meaningless (but if you must know, click here and do the quiz for yourself first).
  1. I decided chastity was the most over-rated virtue because getting rid of it would be very convenient. 
  2. I picked Bree Van Der Kamp as desperate housewife because her facial expression in the photograph the quiz provides makes me want to hate her so I figured she deserved to be desperate. 
  3. I picked “vegetarians are annoying to be around” because they are. 
  4. I picked mayonnaise as my favourite condiment as a way of doubling down on those irritating scolds who tell me what I should or shouldn’t eat. 
  5. I picked "I’m never bad" because I don’t [suppressed gerund] care what you think of me. 
  6. I picked Gossip Girl because I wish more women were like Serena and I damn well don’t care if that makes anyone feel threatened. 
  7. I picked cooking for Saturday activity because it’s true. 
  8. I picked Barcelona because I thought the girls there looked hotter than any other European city. 
  9. I chose to make an excuse to not see my grandmother. 
  10. And I picked “feeling cheeky” for reasons that shouldn’t need any explaining. 
And for that, the quiz tells me that I am most like Socrates. It says,
If you don’t understand something, you’re not afraid to ask questions about it. You try your hardest to be a moral person and don’t value material possessions very highly.
And it got me thinking, why not approach all life's challenges like this? If it has so little effect on the results, why not just do the things and express the opinions I would if I didn't care what anyone thought of me? You know, I think I've just decided what to give up for Lent.

I kid you not.