Thursday, July 31, 2014

Willoughby was sincere

If we wish to make something of sincerity as a virtue we must have a way to evaluate it. I won't say "measure it" because that suggests something like science. But there is something to be said for wanting to measure it for we don't just wonder if someone is sincere, we also wonder how sincere they are. The implied claim is that someone could be sincere but not sincere enough; that being sincere is not like pregnancy in that one either is or is not but rather that there are degrees of sincerity just as there are degrees of courage.

Someone might be courageous enough to kill spiders but be at a complete loss when dealing with bats. I'm not suggesting that there is a unit of courage but we all understand that some people might be brave enough for some circumstances but not for others.

Courage can also be learned and trained for: if you practice facing small things bravely, you will prepare yourself for facing the big ones.

It doesn't seem to me that you can discuss sincerity in  those terms. I think to talk about sincerity as being more or less strong is nonsensical. I fact, I'd argue that sincerity has nothing to do with strength at all—you can be the very worst sort of moral weakling and be sincere.

I don't mean to say that sincerity is nothing. I don't think it is terribly useful for building or evaluating character.

Is he or isn't he?

"Is he sincere," seems a natural enough question. Bill says he will love Janice to the end of time and she wonders if he is sincere. But is it really? If Janice really has to ask, then she obviously has little knowledge of his character. If she knew Bill to be a good, caring and responsible person, she wouldn't be asking the question because she would not only know him not to make such a statement carelessly, she would also have some notion of his ability to carry through on his promises.

For someone can make promises, both explicitly and implicitly, and be absolutely sincere in making them and yet fail miserably in keeping them. This is where John Willoughby comes into the picture for his love for Marianne Dashwood is sincere. This is not a matter of interpretation but a plot point. When Willoughby shows up while Marianne is sick late in the novel, the whole point of the conversation he has with Elinor is to bring this fact into clear light; Austen wanted to make it clear to the reader that there was no room whatsoever to doubt Willoughby's sincerity. For Marianne, it is some comfort to learn that her judgment of his sincerity was not wrong. But, having acknowledged that, we are left with another problem for if he was (and is) sincere in his love and yet behaved the way he did, what good is sincerity?

The early American pragmatists were brought face to face with this problem by the civil war when it turned out that some of those who held sincere anti-slavery views were cowards in action while some others who cared little for the plight of the slaves distinguished themselves by fighting very bravely.

Children of alcoholic parents often have the uselessness of sincerity driven home in particularly brutal fashion. Their alcoholic mother or father will make declarations and promises that are absolutely sincere and then fail to come through with heartbreaking regularity.

For Austen, the virtue that really mattered was constancy. Constancy isn't enough by itself: a constant racist is not a virtuous man or woman after all. But constancy, unlike, sincerity, can real work in a moral life.

By the way ...

A fascinating thing about Willoughby as a character in a novel is that he has failed as a man before the story even begins. Nothing he could do could make him a worthy husband for Marianne because he has already poisoned things by having sex with the 15-year-old Eliza. He'd be a better man, if he would accept his Aunt's conditions and do right by Eliza after having gotten her pregnant but he would still be less than a whole man because he no longer loves Eliza after having met Marianne.

I knew a guy who was much like Willoughby in university. Dave was very successful with women. He wasn't a pick-up artist, by which I mean he didn't run up great numbers of conquests. But he was always with a beautiful sexual partner and there were always other women vying for the chance to replace whoever his partner of the moment was.

After graduation, he got a job at the Bamboo Club in Toronto and carried on in his ways. I hadn't known him terribly well at university and had assumed that Dave was a cynical man who cleverly exploited women's emotions to have sex with them. I got to know him in those later days, however, and found that he was anything cynical: he was sincerely loved by the women who fell in with him and he sincerely loved every woman he ever was involved with.

Ultimately, though, the women all gave up on him. They didn't hate him . One of the most trying things for those of us who wished we had a quarter of Dave's attractiveness for women was that they spoke of him admiringly but regretfully even after the break up. They still seemed to wish that their relationships might be rekindled and actually work out the second time. He had everything they wanted for love but not what it took to make a marriage.

Dave, like Willoughby, was immensely attractive as a sincere lover but not much of a man in the final analysis and "constancy;" is a good word to describe what was missing in him. . I recently finished the Sylvie Simmons biography of Leonard Cohen and reached the same conclusion about him.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Entering an unreal world

Let's ramble all over the place for a while considering Joseph Campbell's monomyth. Not all of it but mostly the notion that the hero must begin by being separated from his normal world and enter what I call an unreal world. Why? Because it's something I've been thinking about lately.

Campbell is a guy I usually have very little sympathy for. A lot of what he did seems like yet another reinvention of Plato. That said, every generation seems to reinvent Plato and perhaps that is because it is important to reinvent Plato. Another objection is that monomyths in general, never mind Campbell for a moment, tend to produce an empty formalism in story telling. The seemingly endless parade of superhero stories that Hollywood cranks out for children (think Pixar), single young men (think of any comic book made into a movie) and young women (think of any of those awful romantic comedies).

All of these movies begin with a character in a comfortable world and push him or her into a new, unreal world. Okay, that sounds just fine until you consider a movie like Return to Me. Here is the set up: a man's wife dies suddenly and she is an organ donor, man later meets another woman and falls in love with her, she is the recipient of a donor heart and ... please tell me you've already guessed the big "surprise". And the thing to get here is that this isn't a misapplication of a monomyth but rather a very slavish following of it.

Action changes your world and it changes you. I can easily come up with activities that I might be tempted to do and I bet you can too. But here's the thing, to take any activity is to live in a different world. Golf is a fun game; I've played it and enjoyed it. But to play golf regularly would be to become a golfer and there is a whole world that comes with that: clothing, attitudes, behaviours, and even beliefs. And that just might make you hesitate. As a kid I looked at my uncles who played golf and thought, "I don't want to be like them." It's odd because I liked them, one of them I liked a whole lot, but I didn't want to be like them.

That may have been a mistake. Golf is a male world and I cut myself off from a world of maleness that undoubtedly would have been very good for me by not playing. As an adolescent, I was driven by a desire to be different from other men and that definitely was a mistake. (The hows and whys of my having that drive are a subject for another day.) All I accomplished was to cut myself off from a male world that would have helped me in all sorts of ways.

The thing I want to emphasize now is that even something as simple as being a golfer requires us to change.

As does falling in love or, perhaps more challenging, falling in love again. The heart transplant story isn't completely crazy. If your first wife died and you met another woman, there would inevitably be similarities that would haunt you. Not at first. At first they would charm you. But then you'd make the connection and ... . And to love a new woman is to enter an unreal world.  All worlds have to have a whole lot in common with the world you already live in. Why do I say that? Because you couldn't recognize it as a new world if that weren't true. Dorothy knows she isn't in Kansas anymore but she knows she is somewhere. That "somewhere" actually has a lot more in commonalities with Kansas than it has differences from it. We tend to focus on the differences but the sameness is what matters.

Anyway, back to the heart transplant. Reverse the story and there is nothing to it; it isn't even a story anymore. A man's wife has an accident and nearly dies but is saved by a heart transplant. Would anyone watch a movie in which he now struggles to love his wife because she now has some stranger's heart? No they wouldn't because the heart is just a metaphor and the metaphor only works in the other story.

It seems to me that Return to Me is very much a movie of the divorce age. It's really for daughters getting used to the thought that there father is going to marry another woman. The ickiness factor that seems to go with the heart is perfect for the job because it helps the daughter of a divorced or widowed father face the ickiness of imagining her father with another woman without having to think of other body parts than the heart.

Don't believe me, then watch this painfully romantic girl who likes to imagine she's cynical try to convince herself that her mom would love Return to Me. If Hollywood could pack as much lack of self awareness into a romantic comedy plot as she gets into 13 minutes they'd make a gazillion dollars.

Notice also that Nostalgia Chick rails against a kind of monomyth in these movies. She sees that monomyth as originating in Pride and Prejudice but steadfastly refuses to see what P&P is really about. She thinks the problem is getting by the misunderstanding whereas the real problem is being unwilling to enter a new world that is going to make you a different person. The really odd thing about the story is that Lizzie, and it's mostly a story about Lizzie, has to leave behind her own prejudices and accept what might well be described as a different set of prejudices for the grim truth is that Darcy's doubts about her family are really quite justified as Lydia demonstrates. But to accept the Darcy's prejudices as sound judgments is to enter a new world. (As I've written elsewhere, Darcy's pride is singularly unconvincing and not very perceptively handled by Austen but that's okay because it really doesn't matter.)

Of course, the big difference between romantic comedies and the sort of male mythology that Campbell focuses on is that the heroine of a romantic comedy enters a new world in order to stay there whereas the male story trajectory is that a boy enters an unreal world where he learns to be a man and then returns to the old world where he applies the lessons he as learned.

Hmm. A girl leaves her fathers house to get married. She leaves her familiar world to enter a new world where she stays. A boy leaves his home, has adventures and then returns home by settling down and gets married. This is the sort of thing that drives feminists crazy.

And I'll just stop here. Yup, all I did today was wander around an idea and reach no conclusions. That's the way it is sometimes.

Bonus thought: I've never done it, but I bet you could apply Joseph Cambell's monomyth structure to Brideshead Revisited and get amusing results.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Three dead ends

I stole that subject line from Brett McKay. It goes with a great post, he writes a lot of great posts. What I am going write here is more or less the same thing only I will be less specific.


Irony is supposed to mean saying one thing while meaning the opposite. There is more to it than that but that is the base notion out of which all other understandings of irony come from.

At some point, I don't know when, irony became a debating position. A debating position is a view you don't believe but adopt because it's defensible in debate. Agnosticism and deism are both debating positions. No one ever held either with anything even vaguely resembling passion but they are easily defensible  positions, safe harbours you can hide in while waiting for a war to end knowing that your positions is so difficult to assail and of so little strategic value that no one would bother.

"Irony" has come to mean taking stands you clearly don't really believe in "ironically". It is to say, "I know this all bullshit and you can tell because I'm just playing at it." Hipsters are hated for holding this position but it's commonplace since it was sold to the mass market by the two Davids (Letterman and Byrne) in the 1980s. The position is unassailable because there it never allows an argument to go to the final step.

Here is crude example of how it works. A friend of mine was a top student in philosophy in the early 1980s and she was being courted by big schools. One day a philosopher from Oxford tried to convince her to go there. Tatiana had just been talking to someone from the Sorbonne a short while before and said she was tempted to go there. The Oxford guy started to bad mouth the Sorbonne saying that it was living on its reputation and that it hadn't been a leading school in decades. Tatiana said, "But couldn't someone say the same of Oxford?" And the Oxford man, rather than argue the point, immediately conceded that the school had declined a lot in recent decades but added, "But at least we know it." Tatiana waited for him to go on and say something about what they were doing to reverse the decline but the man said nothing. Somehow, he thought that being full of crap but knowing that you were was better than being full of crap and not knowing it.

And if you can do that you never have to answer for being full of crap.

It's closely related to the Alinsky position by the way. It allows you to criticize others using their moral standards while having none yourself.

[If we look at McKay's first position, we can see how it is ironic. "Accept that masculinity is a cultural construct and choose to live a “re-defined” masculinity (or eschew masculinity as a goal altogether)." Right from the get-go, this position states that there is no such thing as masculinity. What a person who holds this view adopts as their masculinity will be, therefore, always something of an inside joke. Pushed, they will say not only that they don't real mean but that this some how grants them some sort of moral superiority because they know they are full of shit.]


The authentic view is that we already have the thing we need to become inside us and that what we need to do is strip off the various accretions that prevent us from being it. Like irony, it seems to have no core. In The Authentic Swing, for example, Steven Pressfield has his hero try to shake off all distractions even treating his conscious efforts to swing the golf club correctly so that his authentic swing, the one he came equipped with naturally, will be able to come out. In his famous essay Sincerity and Authenticy, Lionel Trilling describes authenticity by pointing to a character in a Wordsworth poem who is so overcome with grief that he is utterly unaware of anything around him.

Not surprisingly, this strategy of arriving at what is most legitimate by subtracting things is pretty much useless in real life. Again, this can become just a debating position, you criticize what you don't like but avoid having to defend what you do  like because it is defended entirely in terms of what is absent. Unlike the ironist, however, the believe in authenticity claims to have a position they cling to but claims that it can only become clear by removing the obstacles that keep it from being realized.

[In McKay's essay, the authenticity merchants blame feminism rather than advance a view of masculinity to follow: "many men who take this stance, though they say that manhood isn’t about women, are consumed with thinking about them! The focus of their lives is all about women – why they’re angry at them, why they’re not as good as they used to be, and how to pick them up and have sex with them (because while women are awful, they’re still good for one thing). Though manhood should be all about men – how men test and sharpen each other, what men need from each other in dire times, what men respect in each other – for these men their pursuit of manhood revolves around women."]


Sincerity, according to a recent book, is where all the problems begin. It's author argues that authenticity is really a form of sincerity. I'd argue that, paradoxical as this may seem, so is irony.

Sincerity is an attempt to solve a problem not unlike Dr. Johnson arguing that he really knows a rock exists by kicking it. You can get a sense of the strategy by imagining that someone is asked to prove that he really loves a woman he has just fallen in love with. A year ago he said he was in love with another woman and now that is over. How can he prove this time is different? He has no history he can appeal to because he has just fallen in love with her. All he has is a feeling"inside" and all he can do is keep reasserting that feeling more and more forcefully.

Wittgenstein used to illustrate this by scrunching up his face somewhat like someone passing a difficult stool and saying, "See, I really mean it now." It's a strategy that occurs to every twelve year old who asks for a puppy and promises his mother that he will take care of it. She, quite reasonably, asks how she can be sure he will keep that promise and he screws up his face and says, "Because, I really, really, really, ..., really mean it!!!!!"

People who push sincerity rarely realize how ridiculous they are because they are certain they have something "inside" that they can refer to. Bill never doubts that he loves Lisa because he knows that love is inside because he can feel it. It never occurs to Bill that what really drives him is a desire for sex, a fear of being alone or a combination of the two because the "it" is soooo strong. But the only strong thing is the forcefulness with which he declares this.

Wittgenstein would say, and he would be right, that sincerity arises because it looks like we can go straight to the place we want to go to. I'm here and it's right there in plain sight so I should be able to go straight there. But any attempt to do so fails because there is no road from here to there. All we have is the feeling that it must be possible.

[In McKay's essay, the sincere are the men who hold the fight club position, those who are willing to go even to the end of civilization to demonstrate how real their position is. "Recognizing patriarchy’s incompatibility with the modern, techno-industrial world, these men offer another more radical solution: blow up civilization (like in Fight Club) or try to hasten its demise by opt-ing out of contributing to it, and return to a stateless, dangerous world in which primal manliness is once again needed." Hiding in that view is sincerity, a belief that what they hold to is so strong that even after everything else is destroyed it will still be real. (And you can see how sincerity morphs into authenticity here). The difference between the two comes in terms of implied forcefulness: "Ha," says the sincere man, "authenticity guy just wants to ditch feminism but I'm so sure of what I have inside me that I'm willing to destroy civilization."]

Monday, July 21, 2014

Losing an unreal world

I won't pretend to know why Tiki culture rose to such prominence after the second world war or why it was revived early in this century. What I'd like to suggest instead is one reason why some people, myself included, were and are so attracted to it. In short, the thing about faux-Polynesian culture is that it is a lost world.

Lost? Yes,  because  it was a fantasy world for so long. This was the land of faraway accounts, a place you might read about but never hope to go to. For a long, long time, the culture of the pacific islands was sold at second hand. It became a place that people read about and their imaginations filled in the details. You were very unlikely to go so you read about it as an armchair destination. At most, you might go see a musical about it. That unreal world was the least of the things that were forever destroyed by war but it was destroyed.

The second world war and the economic and technological boom that followed it made it realistic to think that we might go there. Even if you never do go, simply knowing that you could has forever changed the way we see such places.

Back when travel in Japan was severely restricted, people used to make gardens that were designed to evoke famous landscapes. Most of the people who saw such gardens, and even their creators, would never see the sight that the garden was meant to evoke. Think of how that changes the way you conceive of a place.

European medieval culture had similar imaginary lands, think of Lyonesse. It was a place that was not real and yet that you could imagine as real. Lyonesse would have none of its attraction if you couldn't imagine Tristan and Isolde as really existing. Outside of science fiction, we have nothing like that any more.

One reason, then, for the appeal of Tiki culture was that it offered an imaginary paradise. No one really thought the Polynesian islands were anything like what you saw in a Tiki bar; realism wasn't the attraction.

An unreal world is a very important thing for some us. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tiki modern

By strange coincidence, the very week I declared that I wanted to blog more about Tiki culture and Exotica, Wired chose to declare that this stuff died long ago:
By the mid-1960s the horrors of Viet Nam made the prospect of remote beaches less idyllic. A growing sensitivity to the poor treatment of indigenous people made many uncomfortable with the idea of drinking from a glass shaped like a native girl. And by the time a cursed tiki caused Greg Brady to take a spill on his surfboard in 1972, the fad was finished.
That's from the very end of the Wired piece, which is called "The Bizarre Rise and Fall of the Tiki Bar". It's neither well-researched nor well-written piece. It casually credits Don the beachcomber with the invention of the Mai Tai, which is an arguable position but a deeply controversial one. The piece is a review of a Taschen book and it is quite possible that everything the reviewer thinks he knows about Tiki.

But let's focus on that paragraph I cite above for a moment. The opening claim is one of those statements that is so confused it cannot even be wrong. To be able to say that with authority, you'd need to be able to read millions of peoples' minds and somehow process their thoughts through a zeitgeist meter or some such thing. What we really have here is a collection of prejudices passing themselves as thought.

That said, the article accidentally blunders into the truth a couple of times. These bits, for example, hover on the edge of profundity.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Tiki phenomena was how it developed alongside the more austere school of mid-century modernism. While the Eames were experimenting with materials of the future, Kirsten believes tiki designers were trying to recreate Eden. As more and more people spent their days in soaring glass and steel skyscrapers, the tiki lifestyle allowed people to enjoy a bit of paradise on their patios.
Despite ending up as a kitschy architectural footnote, the Tiki aesthetic has a surprisingly cosmopolitan and intellectual provenance.
For a long, long time, fans of French modernist painting from the end of the 19th century used to dismiss the PreRaphaelites as nostalgic throwbacks who had nothing to do with the modern world. At the same time, they had to admit that the people behind PreRaphaelitism were surprisingly intellectual and cosmopolitan. Now you may think that comparison is rather lofty. Go ahead and think it, I won't be hurt.

I think there is room to treat Tiki culture and Exotica not as a kitschy footnote but as a different way to be modern without being modernist, a laudable goal in my opinion. More to come ...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A man should be strong

The very first post I made on this blog was about strength.
I was rereading Alasdair MacIntyre the other day and something that had never seemed terribly significant or controversial jumped out at me. This: 
  • At least some of the items in a homeric list of the aretai would clearly not be counted by most of us as virtues at all, physical strength being the most obvious example. (After Virtue p181) 
I should preface this by saying that MacIntyre is surpassed by only Jane Austen in my personal pantheon of moral thinkers. 
That said, I still think he is wrong. Physical strength isn't the most significant virtue but I think it is a virtue and I think we all know it is.
I am more convinced than ever of this truth. A man should be strong. I appreciate that there are men who are limited in their ability to become strong for genetic reasons or because of disability or disease. Otherwise, if you are a man, you should be strong.

I don't mention that as a moral imperative, although it is. But forget morality: you will be better and you will have a better life if you are physically strong.

The temptation at this point might be to say that we value moral or emotional strength more than physical strength. Perhaps, but here is the thing, you will have more moral and emotional strength if you are physically strong.

That has really been hitting home for me as I get older. I feel swelling emotions sometimes—most recently it happened while listening to The King Sisters sing "Aloha Oe"—and this tells me that my hormones are getting out of whack. I need more muscle and less fat or else I'll become more and more emotional and that is not a good thing in a man.

A big part of my self-improvement project is going to physical training. I'm going up my strength training for starters. And I'm going to work on running, nothing too long, up to 5k with lots of intervals to build speed.

I've also been reading about diet modifications that will help with hormones and I'm going to start doing that too.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Tiki or get out

I'm back with a brand new MacBook Air to replace the one I accidentally spilled water on two weeks ago. This is perhaps a good time to think about the basics that drove me to set up this blog in the first place and to get a fresh start on it.

In the meantime, I've also gone on retreat to the Marian Shrine at Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Being the guy I am, I went of devotion to Mary Magdalene. I have nothing against the BVM, I just like the Magdalene. The church there that later got so closely associated with the BVM and the rosary was originally dedicated to Mary Magdalene (in French, Magdalene = Madeleine). That aspect is now completely obliterated, there isn't so much as a statue or a stained glass window in the place. That's pathetic.

These days there is an immense amount of nonsense peddled about Mary Magdalene but the Catholic Church has nobody to blame but ourselves for this having happened. One of the charges the Magdalene fantasists level at the church is that we have minimized her role. Well, we have. Her feast, which is next Tuesday is only a memorial in Canada. That she rates a full feast ought to be self evident and that she is not so honoured justifies the feminist criticisms levelled at the church. The apostles James and Thomas get feasts, the Magdalene ought to as well.

There are a number of perfectly good hostels run by different religious orders as well as a campground immediately adjoining the shrine but I chose to stay at The Coconut Motel because it has a perfectly preserved Tiki bar from 1962.

Contrary to the impression this may give, I have an old-fashioned view of retreats. Everyone I mentioned that I was going on retreat to said they hoped I would find enlightenment. Now, I'll take enlightenment if God decides to give it to me and hope I'll be grateful and make good use of it if I get it but I don't go on retreat to seek enlightenment but to retreat by going someplace where no one knows me and spending a few days in prayer. Getting away from all the distractions of life and reconnecting with my faith is the point. And I think that ending each day by drinking a Zombie in a beautiful Tiki bar before heading back to my room to say Compline and go to bed strikes me as a good way to do that.

Does that make you roll your eyes? Don't feel bad if it does; most of my Catholic friends respond that way. It doesn't matter to me because I don't care.

That relates to the theme of my retreat by the way. I went to prayerfully consider a question that may initially strike you as morally irresponsible: If I did not care what people thought of me, how would I live my life differently? I didn't think of that myself—it comes from Robert Glover's No More Mr. Nice Guy. I found myself recommending it to a person who commented on one of my posts and that got me rereading it myself and I decided to go through the life-rebuilding process he recommends and to do it in a very serious way. And doing so has convinced me that a major self-improvement and re-centring project is what I need to do right now.

Now, before I set about justifying this seemingly irresponsible question I set for myself, let me make it even more difficult by acknowledging that Glover is not sympathetic to religion in the book. I don't know that he is anti-religion. What I do know is that every time Christianity comes up in one of the case studies he gives it comes up in a negative light.

Okay, so why do I think this question is a morally responsible one to contemplate while on a religious retreat? If the point of the project was to turn around and start living as if I didn't care what others thought of me. But that's not the point. The point is recognize which of moral behaviours are really driven by a need for approval rather than moral principle. And there are a lot of them. I don't mean to list them here. What I think I will do is use them as a launching point for thinking about virtue. The URL here includes the line "Jules' search for virtue" and that will become literally true.

A quick note, I have not forgotten my promise to reorganize the Brideshead posts. I will do that bit by bit and will post notice here of where readers can find it. I will also create some sort of permalink so people coming here can easily find it. Expect some action on this beginning next week.

I also plan to do some posts on Tiki culture and Exotica. I love this stuff and always have. It's also decidedly uncool right now.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Fried computer

After years of scolding other people about have drinks on the same surface as a laptop, I fried my own last week. A new one is being assembled for me in some third world country and will arrive sometime next week. Until then, no new action here.