Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Revisiting an old favourite

Le Divorce is a good novel that is a little frustrating because it could have been a great novel. The New York Times review when the book first came out 20 years ago sums it up nicely:
As the tension mounts, more and more people get things backward until the plot veers into melodrama that seems a bit outsize for the scale of the events that lead to it. The novel's other minor flaws are too many loose ends and too many false portents, although these may be a part of the paranoia that prevails when two cultures misunderstand each other.

Where Ms. Johnson never loses her touch is in tracking Isabel's romance with the French.
And that is why you might want to read it. The events of the novel are interesting at the beginning but too too much at the end. But Isabel, well, she's a gem.

It's easy to romanticize France all out of proportion. You can even do it with Quebec that is a lot closer to home. The thing that is wonderful about them is an attitude towards sexuality, an atitude towards women's sexuality.

Isabel starts off by not getting it. Here is how it comes up. She meets a woman named Janet Hollingsworth, "a ruined-looking American beauty who told me she was writing a book about French women." And what Isabel thinks Janet is interested in is this, "I gathered she meant things about fascination, sex, arts of seduction, but she did not say so, may have been talking about culinary secrets, or perhaps all of the above." And then follows Isabel's judgment on Janet:
To tell the truth, I was sorry to see an Anglo-Saxon so convinced that women need wiles and arts, and that the only quarry worth hunting was men. I told myself that she had spent too much time on the Continent, and had thus missed the modern mood of self-sufficiency and of being loved for yourself, or not—of being in any case without duplicity.
Johnson has given us plenty of reason not to trust this judgment. That it starts with "to tell the truth" is the first hint and "I told myself" the second. Isabel is no piker when it comes to duplicity. As we shall soon, Isabel definitely thinks men are a quarry worth hunting even if not the only. "Only" only set up a false dichotomy.

The deeper issue, I think, is the notion of being "loved for yourself". That strikes me as an empty and mildly narcissistic pursuit.

More to come ...

Monday, November 26, 2018

On not caring

Contrary to what many people will tell you, two of the most important lessons to learn if you want to be happy are 1) figuring out what not to care about and 2) not caring about those things.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Another image: what is it selling?

The usually sensible Ann Althouse got all worked up about this:

Althouse has two kinds of comments to make about it. The first is that it's "thinspiration". And that it is. Gellar was using the photo to remind herself that staying thin is important to her. Is here something wrong with that? I do it. You pretty much have to in our culture because it is so easy to overeat. There are so many people encouraging us to just let go and take it easy. To stay thin, healthy, fit as well as to keep learning and developing is a struggle; that's why some people are better at it than others and some people are abject failures as men or women.

The argument against it, and it's not clear whether Althouse agrees with this argument or is just drawing our attention to it, is that people with eating disorders also use thinspiration. Uh-huh. Can we pause a moment and consider just how crazy this is.
Don't show pictures that show people drinking because some people are alcoholics.
And how far is from there to:
Don't show pictures of babies in Pampers' ads because it might appeal to pedophiles.
Yes, we are all required to set an example but to whom? You can only set an example to people who are capable of learning from a good example. People with eating disorders are victims of a mental disorder not victims of society.  It doesn't matter what you show them, they will process it as an excuse to not eat. Show a picture of a woman  who is comfortable with her normal body to an anorexic and they will look at it and think, "I'd better starve myself some more so I don't turn into a fat pig like her."

Irrational means irrational. Don't waste your life worrying about how irrational people might interpret  your words or actions.


The one argument that Althouse does take ownership is this one:
I should be clear about what I personally find awful about Gellar's photo and caption. She just doesn't look happy. She looks like someone who's trying to look good for somebody else and is getting no pleasure from it herself. And she's wearing "pleasure" clothes. But she's wearing them for somebody else, not herself, apparently. It's sad.
I can see a tiny bit of that.

Here's the first thing to note about it: it's a posed picture. You can't see into Gellar's soul through this photograph! The picture was taken eleven years ago for a lad magazine. The readers associated Gellar with her role in Buffy the Vampire Slayer so she's posed as if confronted with something scary and challenging. I leave it to you to figure out what male sex fantasy that might feed into.

She's feigning a feeling for the benefit of the viewer. Is that awful? You can reach your own conclusions but you're cutting out a whole lot of good sex if you disallow role playing.

But maybe you're thinking it's okay to role play, dress up et cetera but only when you're doing it for yourself. That seems to be what is behind Althouse's comment, "She looks like someone who's trying to look good for somebody else and is getting no pleasure from it herself." The argument at play here turns on identity. It isn't an explicit argument but an implied one. Let's spell it out. How would it go? I guess something like this:
  1. We all have an inner self. a real identity, that we should be true to.
  2. When we devote ourselves to living up to other people's expectations, we lose our sense of this identity and therefore stop being true to ourselves.
Is that credible. Suppose I really do have an "identity" that I and only I have a privileged access to. If I sometimes act in ways that are not in accord with that inner identity, do I lose it? Is it so fragile, so vulnerable that it must be protected?

Going back a step, do I and only I have access to my real identity? Most of us would not allow that. I can hide what I am really thinking and feeling sometimes but a clever and sensitive person can figure it out. Not, as Althouse imagines she can do, by looking at a single photograph but by studying a person's actions over the longer run. From that perspective, we might ask more questions about this photo. It's not just any old shot but one Gellar did for a spread in a lad magazine. Why did she do that? Well, it might have been just for publicity but she still has the photographs ready to hand eleven years later!

And here we get to the crux of that matter. Looking good for men is important to Sarah Michelle Gellar. Is that a bad thing. She gets joy out of it. Millions of men get joy out of it. Perhaps more surprising, even more women than men get joy out of it. Women who are good at looking good for men are heroes to millions of women. Is that evil? Why?

There are lots of good looking women in the world. But it's bloody hard work to be as good looking as Gellar is and to be that way on command. It's also bloody hard work to run marathons, to lift heavy weights and to become a law professor. Looking good for men is a challenge and it calls for suffering. No one makes women do this but ... well, there is the problem. If a woman is willing to make the effort she will get a lot more attention, approval and acceptance from men than she would otherwise. And she'll get this from all men, including those who have zero chance of having sex with her. And we all crave attention, approval and acceptance. The paradox is that you only get it if you give it. Men give attention, approval and acceptance to women who think men are important enough to be worth looking good for. People who run around seeking attention without treating the people from whom they seek that attention as worthy and important are very tiresome people. We respond to givers. We respond to people who care enough about what other people want to give it to them.

When a woman makes a gift of herself to the world, we men are grateful. There is a woman who catches the bus at the same stop I do just after eight every morning. She is like that. I've never spoken to her. Sometimes she give me a smile of recognition and I love that. If this goes on long enough, it might get to the point where we start saying, "Good morning." Or not. If I were her age, we might become friends or more. But none of that need happen. She recognizes that she has a gift and she shares that gift and the world is a better place for her being in it. That is not a small thing. She doesn't do it just when she feels like like it although I'm sure there are days she schleps around the house in sweats and feels good for not having to make the effort but the only person making her make the effort other days is herself.

The distinction between "doing it for herself" and "doing it for others" doesn't exist. Doing it for myself is an illusion. We are social beings. My real identity is a social fact. It's not a special thing I keep in a lock box that I can open up in private and that everyone else has to accept because I am the only one who gets to say who I am. My identity is a matter of social agreement. I strive for something but my success is dependent on the agreement of others. Which others I look to for confirmation is an important decision. On the one hand, I don't want to pick people who have an interest in tearing me down. On the other hand, people who will prop me up in my illusions are also bad for me. It's tough being a human being. Bottom line: High quality people always think about what others want and need.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

"I know it's crazy"

I’ve been fighting to be who I am all my life. What’s the point of being who I am, if I can’t have the person who was worth all the fighting for?

That's by a writer named Stephanie Lennox in a novel called I Don’t Remember You. I haven't read the novel. I don't know that I will. Perhaps it has a different sense in context. That is possible but not likely. This is a sentiment that is often expressed nowadays. Is it unkind, or triggering, to point out that it makes no sense?

Actually, it's worse than nonsensical. "Trying to be who I really am," is a way of lying to herself about what is going on. She knows what she wants to do but that will have consequences and she wants to live in a world where choices don't have consequences. Having to accept that would hurt.

Craving some sort of self-created identity is something teenagers do. Salinger captured it nicely at the end of The Catcher in the Rye.
I thought it was, "If a body catch a body," Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and no ones around - nobody big I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of this crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they are going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know its crazy, but that the only thing I's really like to be. I know its crazy.” 
There's a lot you could unpack in that. He starts off by admitting he misheard the poem that is the inspiration for his imagined identity. He concludes with, "I know its crazy."* The question that is troubling him is, "What do you want to be?" The current version of that is, "What is your identity?" Lies are lived first and told second. There is a life lie, a contradiction in our desires we're scared to confront, underneath that told lie. We want our identity to be a choice but we also want it to be given to us. We want to choose because it doesn't feel free otherwise. But we also want it to be grounded by being given because we don't want anyone else to be allowed to question our choice; a "choice" that, not incidentally, that is (or feels) forced upon us in our teen years.

Incidentally, you couldn't do it. Even if there were only five or six kids playing in the rye at the edge of the cliff, one of them would get past you and plunge to their death. If there were thousands, well ... And, did you ever notice that land near the edges of cliffs doesn't tend to be arable? That you don't find fields of rye near the edges of cliffs? This may seem like entering into the thought experiment on it's own spooky level but that is what you have to do with a thought experiment. Otherwise you're not really doing the experiment. 

It matters a whole lot that the Burns' poem Caulfield mishears is about sex—that he hears a line about sex and imagines a childish world free of sex. The whole fantasy that Holden has is about avoiding adulthood.

Speaking of experiments, one seemingly obvious solution would be to try an identity and then later reject it for another if it doesn't work out. That's a version of the identity lie that some of my generation embraced. David Bowie, it was said, reinvented himself over and over again. I think he even believed that once upon a time but all Bowie's identities were variations on the same pattern and when you look at his rather unhappy life, the suspicion begins to set in that he didn't particularly like any of the variations.

However we might acquire an identity, it's very hard to change once we have it. Here's a seemingly trivial example. As a teen, I admired and emulated Mick Jagger. I didn't look like him beyond having a similar slim build but I figured out how to dance like him and got to be good enough at it that people in clubs would walk up and compliment me.  On one level, I've long moved past that and yet I periodically get an urge to play "Brown Sugar" really, really loud. I can't unlike the music I loved as a teen. And by saying I like that music, I don't mean I put it on and think, "That's a nice tune." No, I get a visceral response to it. I recognize that Don Giovanni is a much greater work of art than Sticky Fingers but I could easily go the rest of my life without hearing Don Giovanni again. 

Imagine how much harder it would be  to uproot the sexual tastes that were inculcated in you as a teen. (Or not, as there are a lot of people who don't much like sex.) I say "inculcated" because it implies something that happened to you. Your sexuality isn't, or isn't entirely, up to you. The culture around you, the people who accept or refuse you, even your own emotions, are beyond your control. The Stoic/Gnostic claim that there is some "inside" you can retreat to, a place where you and only you call the shots/thoughts is like trying to make a knife proof vest—much of the time it will stop the knife but if the world keeps stabbing you, and it will, inevitably a point will find a vulnerability and the blade will penetrate. It will go deep.

It ain't the knife to your heart that tears you apart;
It's the thought of someone
Sticking it in.
Graham Parker
 Is the problem the notion that you're entitled to an identity in the first place? Maybe we just do stuff for a while and one day we realize we have one. 

Is my identity like my body?  I have some control over my body. I can work at being more or less fit. I can control my weight. These both take a lot of work but they can be done. But I can't really pick my body type. That's a contentious statement in an era when people talk about being assigned a gender. It's actually worse than the people who hate it imagine. For my genes didn't just assign me manhood, they assigned me a particular kind of male body. I can, and did, get to be strong by lifting weights but I could never have been a competitive body builder or weightlifter. I just don't have the body type for either.  I suspect identity works the same way. You have a range of choices but you can't pick your identity. Thinking you can, thinking that "fighting to be who I am" is a coherent statement is a recipe for misery.

* I think he means "it's" as in "it is crazy". I don't know if the grammatical mistake is in the original or the transcription I cribbed off the internet. If in the original, it's presumably Caulfield's mistake. Maybe he's adopting the dialect of the source and thereby committing hate speech or something.