Sunday, December 23, 2012

Fifty-Five: Suspects

There are parts of the new culture that I find distasteful and cruel. The world of the gender warriors on line embodies what seems to be known as the "call out culture"---  a culture of deliberately and specifically "calling out" people for anything "problematic" they may have said or done. It's an arrogant culture, and one of bullying. "Calling out" is no more than bullying. It's about finding any perceived flaw in someone's writings or beliefs--- even the most minute or inadvertent vocabulary slip ---and attacking them with a full-on self-righteous fury. It's designed to enforce the most rigid ideological conformity, and it's intended to silence or drive away anyone who might disagree with the most ideologically pure faction. It's not new, of course. Marxist groups did it in the 1930s in Europe and America, and again in the New Left during the later 1960s. The Maoists in China made it into a ritual of criticism/self-criticism and self-immolation during the Cultural Revolution. I'm sure that the Jacobins did it, too, and radical Protestant groups during the Reformation. It's only and ever bullying, though. It's about finding even the tiniest flaw and then destroying or silencing someone.

The woman at the heart of the Dublin elevator scandal last year--- "Elevatorgate", it came to be called ---has apparently done an article wherein she asserted that no one who'd been drinking could ever give meaningful consent and that anyone who'd ever had sex with a partner who was drunk was guilty of rape.

This goes alongside another column I saw on line. Some woman from the Social Justice Mob "called out"--- by name ---a girl at the university they both attend. The author wrote that a male friend of hers had broken up with his long-term girlfriend, but had turned down offers from friends to set him up with someone or find him a girl who'd sleep with him to get him over his depression. He told friends that he only wanted sex in a long-term relationship. Then at a party one night, he took Ecstasy for the first time and ended up having one of those long, X-fueled conversations with a girl and ended up in bed with her. The author wrote about how this was a terrible thing, that she'd spent months convincing the guy that he'd been...raped. She called out the girl by name  in the column and ranted about how the girl had manipulated her helpless male friend and how the girl was no better than a frat dude-bro who violated an unconscious freshman girl. The girl, she insisted, should be punished--- not just thrown out of university, but prosecuted and jailed.

I have no idea what to say about these people and their attitudes. The ranting columnist is easier to deal with. It doesn't take very much in the way of cynicism to just raise an eyebrow and detect more than a hint of jealousy there. She wants to call in the lawyers and the SVU team? Hmmm... Is that because she lacked the nerve to seduce the boy herself? Beyond that, of course, the author knows nothing about Ecstasy. It's easy enough to recall the days when X (X, yes. It was only called E long after my day) was the club and party drug of choice, when long, intense conversations were the currency of the night. I remember how many conversations like that ended up in bed, for me and for others. If you're old enough, you'll remember the joke--- people on X announcing to a bar that "you're all my very best friends!"  The author made no showing that the girl who'd slept with the male friend had done anything other than talk and talk and end up in bed with the boy. She made no showing that the girl wasn't X-ing herself. Or even that the boy hadn't gone to the party after deciding that he did need someone, that maybe it was time to just take X and open himself up to something new. She took months hammering at the guy to admit that he'd been taken advantage of--- she was proud of getting him to see the light...or see things her way. There's no allowance in her story for the boy's point of view, or for the thought that maybe he went home with the girl because of the X, yes, but that he'd taken the X to help him be able to go home with someone.

As for the Elevatorgate woman, well... Her assertion is, well, fanatical and foolish. Can she possibly be serious? Is everyone who's had sex with a partner who'd been drinking a rapist? Can she be serious? If she is, many million people out there are now declared to be rapists? If she's serious about that, then...well...I'll join the ranks of multiple offenders. All through my youth and my university days, some very high percentage of the girls I took to bed had been drinking or taking party drugs. I had, too, of course. In those days, if memory serves,  drinking was regarded as key to any courtship or mating rituals at my university. Girls drank so that they could have an excuse for going home with boys they'd met at parties or at clubs. Boys and girls both drank to lose their insecurities and inhibitions. To go home with someone, to go to bed with someone, while sober was regarded where I went to university as a serious statement, as something that had serious implications about a relationship. In those days, to get drunk a bit and make out at a party or go home with someone was a kind of free pass. It couldn't be held against your reputation, and it wasn't regarded as being something that counted the next day.

I suppose the Social Justice Mob dislike the idea of sex fueled by X or vodka not so much because of the issue of consent, really, but because those things made it easier to have sex just out of desire and play rather than sex being seen as something fraught with ideological meaning.

The columnist called out the girl who took the columnist's male friend to bed as being overtly a rapist.  Called her out by name, which in this case is inexcusable and vile. The Elevatorgate woman called out--- what? Everyone who'd ever had drinks with someone before taking them to bed. I have no idea what to make of it, really. The gender warriors want sex to be stripped of anything that might be thought of as play and ritual, of anything that allows people to let go of inhibitions and insecurities. It's not even danger that concerns them, really. What enrages them is that there might be some area of life that isn't all about fevered structural analysis, or where pleasure itself trumps ideology.

I hate that, and I hate "calling out". Oh, yes, if the Elevatorgate woman has her way, then I'm a multiple offender, just waiting for the SVU enforcers to arrive. If she has her way, then almost everyone from the last couple of generations can be indicted as evil agents of rape culture and the patriarchy. She can call out a whole world--- meaning that she can assert her own moral superiority and enforce her own ideological agenda over and against the morally corrupt rest of the world.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Fifty-Four: Courtiers

I was brought up always to be polite, always to be courteous, always to remember the social graces. That's a regional and generational thing, and one that's stayed with me.  I was taught, too, that courtesy and the forms of politeness are key parts of any courtship, of any date, of any seduction. I've always admired the eighteenth century style in these things, of course. I do admire the forms of politesse, and I like the idea of social ritual. Well-done social ritual makes things easier for everyone. The structure of the ritual lessens having to worry about things, lessens having to feel insecure or uncomfortable. The ritual carries you along. You have to think less, to worry less. That's quite an achievement in human societies.

Needless to say, social rituals have their critics. The rituals have always been held suspect as "inauthentic", and as class markers. Those attacks go back at least to the Romantics. There are other attacks, too, these days, and ones even more bitter than the old Romantic or Marxist attacks on politesse. The gender warriors have happened upon social rituals and declared them a marker for evil.

There's a current designator for evil in the gender wars--- "nice". To be called a "Nice Guy" is to be tagged as evil. "Nice" is not just "inauthentic", it's regarded as yet another element in "rape culture".  After all, the argument goes, being "nice" is a a seduction tool, a way to undermine girls' resistance and make them feel obligated to offer up sexual favors.

There's this much truth in that, that "nice" has its tactical side. I'd never deny that. ("Nice" may well also be what one has as a fallback plan, when one lacks physical beauty or social status) I was brought up to believe that one was always polite and attentive and courteous on a date because those things made it more pleasant for a girl to be around you. (I'm old enough to have been taught to carry mints or gum that you could offer to a girl on a date.) The equation seemed obvious enough when I was very young. If you want someone to be around you, make the experience pleasant for them. And, yes, one is "nice" as an enticement. To be polite and courteous and attentive is a signal that someone is worth your time and effort. A signal, then, and a clear one. It's not that you'd be rude or harsh if you weren't interested; you'd just be neutral in that case. To be seen paying attention is to signal that you're paying court. I have no idea how that came to be seen as evil.

I suppose it's all about the idea of paying court, about the idea of trying to evoke a response. The gender warriors dislike the idea of "nice" because it's about offering up something to a girl in the hope--- or the expectation ---that she'll respond according to the ritual. There's a deep hatred for any ritual that evokes a response, where the point of the ritual is to bring someone in to the dance. Is that based on the idea that ritual is intended to obligate, and that any social obligation is bad? Or is it simply that the gender warriors see all courtship and seduction as inherently corrupt and evil?

I was brought up to believe in ritual and formality, and to believe in social obligations. I was brought up to believe that whatever one's physical flaws, politesse goes a ways towards remedying that. Yes--- these things are tactical. But a mannered and formal way of paying court, and of making someone feel at ease in your company--- how is that ever evil? And how is it evil to create rituals to bring someone into the dance?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Fifty-Three: Essentials

A young friend has fallen foul of the gatekeepers at her university.  She was heard to say (or seen to write) that she intended to frequent lesbian dance clubs this semester to see if she could find a few lovely admirers. She offhandedly remarked in print that having a few girl-girl encounters was something she'd been planning since arriving on campus. A little gender experimentation, she wrote, was a key part of the undergraduate experience,  and especially so at the university she attends. She was under attack from the arbiters of neo-puritan Social Justice morality within hours. The attack was based on the simple assertion that she had no right to experiment with lesbian affairs, or to go to lesbian clubs in search of new experiences. The usual cries of "privilege" were raised, of course, but the gatekeepers also asserted that she couldn't search out sexual delights in lesbian clubs because she wasn't authentic. She had, they said, no right to sex that wasn't part of her "true nature". Girls who were straight and cis and "cis-presenting" should stay with "their own kind" and not somehow devalue the gay world. My friend has taken it all well enough. She thinks so little of the gatekeepers and arbiters that nothing they can say means anything to her. I of course agree with her.

It's easy enough for me to dislike the gatekeepers and arbiters. After all, they despise everything that I am. It's easy enough to mock them, too. One need only imagine the looks on the faces of the lipstick dance club girls I've known when told that there were people trying to tell beautiful undergraduate girls that they were morally forbidden from coming to dance and flirt and be seduced.

The argument that most baffles me here is that argument that "experimentation" is somehow morally wrong, and that one is entitled only to experiences that are "authentic".  Had my young friend announced that she was coming out as lesbian, the gatekeepers would've cheered her discovering her "authentic" self. The experiences--- the physical experiences ---are somehow only valid or moral if they express an "authentic" inner essence. It's the seeking out of new experiences for their own sake, for the pleasure they can convey or purely to see what they might be like that's regarded as someone immoral and false.

Of all things ask, Marcus Aurelius wrote, what are they in their essence? It's a very good quote, and one I've tried to take to heart in many ways.  But the idea that only things that express some fixed inner essence are valid or moral in human life isn't something I can accept.

The gatekeepers denigrate pleasure as merely instrumental, as something valuable only as a way to express some fixed set of essential truths. They denigrate experimentation, too. They have no use for curiosity and play, or for trying on and trying out new faces and new sensations just to see what they're like.  Experience must be reserved for the expression of clear truths and clear identities.

I've been the older lover for Young Companions. I've been an experience and an experiment. In my turn, I've sought out experiences I haven't had before, sought to find out what new or unfamiliar things might be like.  Experiments and bricolage have always been part of my life, and they've been what I've had to offer the girls in my life.

Experiment. Explore. Try parts of the world on for size, try new faces and new outlooks and new experiences. See how it's all different, see what you like. Try, play, enjoy, move along. I never think of the "authentic" as some moral imperative, or as a fixed center.

My young friend arrived at campus planning to explore things she'd read about or seen in films, and she intended to use her undergraduate years to launch out into lives and poses and adventures that made her feel like she was living inside books and stories. I could only encourage her to ignore the gatekeepers and to remember that the world is a stage for stories, a stage filled with props. I hope she will find out what it's like to have affairs with other lovely girls, just as I hope she'll get to do a semester in London or Paris and that she'll read all of "Wings of the Dove" and learn about Indian cuisine.

We are never held to only do things that express some essence, some fixed and "true" self. I've lived through books, through different worlds and characters. I've tried on different faces down the years, and I've sought out worlds as new stage sets. I told my lovely young friend to try everything, to try on new thoughts and new poses and new faces. Don't try to discover a true self--- try to discover all the new worlds and new characters you can be.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fifty-Two: Salon Privé

A friend in London has been writing me about her visits to private sex clubs. She's been taken along to such places by various of the older, moneyed gentlemen in her life, and she's apparently done well there. She's been writing me about the clubs and sending me links to their websites.  I may have to raise an eyebrow about the websites, since I'm not persuaded that a truly elite private sex club would have a website (or at least a semi-public one) or would concern itself with marketing.Wouldn't word of mouth be how the truly elite clubs would operate? 

She began sending me her accounts of sex clubs in London just about the time I ran across articles in the archives of the New York Observer about similar clubs in Manhattan. The Observer  articles were written in 2007 by Candace Bushnell, who wrote the original columns that gave rise to "Sex and the City".  Ms. Bushnell found the clubs she visited to be depressing and charmless. She disliked the marketing--- just as with the London clubs, an extensive buffet was regarded as a major selling point. Isn't that a bit too like the marketing for Indian reservation casinos?

Most people, Ms. Bushnell writes, really shouldn't be at sex clubs. Very, very few people are stylish or attractive enough to be at sex clubs. Manhattan Rules, of course. She always insists on the need for Manhattan Rules--- there should be velvet ropes and door nazis gatekeeping pretty much everything.  She does have a point. Sex clubs are about walking into a fantasy zone, about being on a stage set for fantasy. The actual physical sex is secondary (and should be secondary) to the fantasy. Actual flesh takes away from the fantasy. It's not something Ms. Bushnell says outright, but it's certainly implicit in what she writes: actual flesh is usually a failure, and actual flesh takes away from the fantasy that makes sex really work.

And as Ms. Bushnell points out, naked people and a buffet line just don't mesh. 

I wouldn't go to a sex club in any case. I don't have an exhibitionist side, or at least not a physically exhibitionist side. I'm a gentleman of a certain age, and I don't need to be undressed, to shed the armour that comes with, say, jacket and tie.  It's also true that single males aren't welcomed at such places. Even those clubs that might admit single males do treat them with contempt and suspicion. And I certainly wouldn't go to a place where my flesh would ruin others' fantasies and keep me from engaging in any of my own. 

I grew up aspiring to be part of the world of hidden chateaux and private clubs in Story of O.  It's sad enough that such places probably never existed, and even sadder that trying to create such places would lead inevitably to disappointment and (perhaps worse) to aesthetic failure. 

 I'd never go into a sex club in New York, and not even in London, where aesthetic standards may not be so demanding. Such places should be stage sets for fantasy, for losing oneself in shared fantasy, for being to enact the stories that define one's sexuality. No one has managed to find a way to put together a place where that really works, though. My friend's stories make it clear that the clubs have their unspoken but ruthlessly-enforced class distinctions, and that the buffet line and the open bar seem to be much too important for these to be places where fantasies can really be played out.

I'd never go to any of the clubs I've read about or that my friend has told me about. My own flesh would ruin others' fantasies, and I won't risk mockery. And the clubs themselves wouldn't be places where I could lose myself. There'd be nothing Zen there, no sense of letting go of the self.

Would you go an upscale sex club? If you're reading this, have you ever imagined being in such places, or imagined what they'd be like? Could such places ever meet any of your own criteria? Perhaps more to the point, how much of a failure is flesh, when compared to fantasy? 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fifty-One: Pursuit

The gender warriors hate so many things, and it's exhausting to read through their list of all that's "problematic", meaning morally flawed and evil. Nonetheless, a few things do catch my eye.  They hate romances as a genre, and they hate the idea of romance. They certainly hate the idea of seduction. So many of the gender warriors equate seduction with coercion and regard seduction as no better than sex taken by violence. This is not something I can grasp at all. This is nothing that has any connection to the rituals of romance that I grew up with.

They do hate romances as a genre. Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden--- they hate that as an idea, as the underlying text for romantic comedies and romances. The basic story arc for any romance is to introduce the reader to two characters who should be together, then drop obstacles in the way of them coming together. The story is about overcoming those obstacles. The reader's interest is held by watching one character or the other push through obstacles to an ending where lovers can be together. Families, distance, class, misunderstandings, misapprehensions--- all the standard obstacles, all the way back to Greek comedy. Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden... That's been a lesson of romances these last twenty-five hundred years or so.  And that of course is simply a variant of a key lesson in life: what's worth having must be won through determination and effort. The gender warriors hate that. They champion something called "enthusiastic consent", a standard that holds that at the first hint of reticence or difficulty, a lover (male--- always male) must walk away, must never try to persuade or convince. It's a standard that's based on the insistence that romance itself is "problematic". For the gender warriors, passion is always suspect as dangerous and irrational and demanding. Sexual "intimacy" must be something worked through like a Maoist criticism/self-criticism session or a kind of corporate negotiation between robot lawyers.

To immediately walk away at the first hint of reticence says...what? I've asked that question to girls of my acquaintance, and they've all said that they'd feel...somehow offended. It's not that they wanted a clear No to be disregarded, but that a potential lover who'd just shut down at any hint of reticence or uncertainty is saying to them that sex or romance with them isn't worth some effort.  One friend put it simply enough: a boy who'd walk away without trying to persuade or even cajole was saying that he didn't find her worth a few minutes of inconvenience. He could call it embracing "consent culture", but what he was saying was that she just wasn't worth convincing--- which was insulting, really. The girls I talked to told me that the problem with "enthusiastic consent" and "consent culture" wasn't the idea of consent as such, but the idea that they no longer had a way to gauge how much a potential lover valued them, that there was no way to ask a potential lover to show that he'd expend some time and energy and thought to show that he was seriously interested in them. I suppose that's a kind of sexual economics that the gender warriors despise, but it is utterly human: the need to be valued, to be shown that one is worth something.

There is something about "enthusiastic consent" that ruins the kind of romance that I've always liked. I like seductions and flirtations: very formal, very mannered, very based on a kind of dance. Advance, withdraw, advance again. Persuade, tempt, intrigue---  I like the verbal part of it all, too. All very formal and mannered, of course. It's a game that requires two players, and one that I've always loved. The girl involved--- my Young Companion ---understands what's happening and where the dance leads. That's part of it, too. She's chosen to be part of the dance, and she knows where it leads. But there's the whole game of serve and return, serve and return. Flirtation and seduction are about persuasion and temptation, of course, and about a kind of dance through obstacles toward a goal. It's verbal, mostly, and verbal is one of my stronger skills. The delight in it all is about the word games, the ripostes, the serve-and-return that allow both parties to get to the first serious kiss and to the bedroom. Consent is won--- given as a prize for being clever and mannered, for knowing how to volley in the serve-and-return. Or perhaps it's given when the girl lifts an eyebrow and joins in the dance. Seduction and flirtation are both skills, and they're ways to demonstrate a kind of commitment to the pursuit, to how valuable your potential partner is, to offering up mannered delights. Seduction and flirtation are skills, and they're skills that are valued for themselves and show a partner that they're valued, too.

Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden. I still believe in that phrase. And I believe that serve-and-return, that clever words, can win hearts and win through to the bedroom. I believe that the dance is part of the delight. And I will always believe that.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fifty: Streaming

Once upon a time, after someone had said unpleasant things about me on line, a young companion offered me support and caring and wrote to say that "you are not your blog". I found that message in my archives a few nights ago, and it did give me something to think about. I know what she meant by it, but I have to wonder about how true it is in at least my own case. I've spent a large part of my life writing about things, and of course much of my life has been lived in and through books. I've always invested a lot of myself in what I write, and I invest a lot in what I read, too. I am what I write, and I suppose I am what I read, too. I've written about that here--- about the things I've learned from books, about the way I've always searched through texts and films for images and ideas and objects for constructing a life.

I do spend far too much time on line reading journals and blogs and Tumblrs. It's hard for me not to think of each of the sites I visit as a kind of alien world that I'm observing from orbit, or trying to reconstruct from Hubble images. It's harder still not to think of personal blogs and journals and Tumblrs as a world of streaming films, of long-running telenovelas. When I find a blog or a journal I like, I always look at it as a roman fleuve, as an ongoing story that I want to follow into the future. I do become a bit possessive about the blogs and the stories they tell, and I'm always glum if they vanished or are simply abandoned. There are a few sites out on the web that I've followed for seven or eight years, and I'd hate to lose those voices and the stories they tell.

The downside of that of course is that it's hard--- perhaps impossible ---to think of the blogs or journals as being about flesh-and-blood people. My rooms are filled with books and DVDs; each one of them is a set of stories about lives. The lives inside novels and films are real to me, and always have been. I suppose I read the entries at blogs and journals and regard them as novels, as telenovelas. I read the stories there as being about characters, and I take from them what I take from novels on my shelves.

That does raise the issue of what I take from entries about sexual adventures and experiences. Some of the entries I've found have been well-crafted and very powerful. Those are the stories I want to know about in detail, to deconstruct and analyze the way I do erotic literature or films. It might be better for me to just read them as erotica, to read them and think they're hot and arousing. That would at least mean that I was taking the stories to be about people. But I spend time breaking them down into more abstract parts, trying to infer what I can about sets and settings, about characters and their lives. Or their character arcs. I think less of the lives than of the function of the characters, of their roles in plot structures. It might be more human if I read the entries to find fantasy material, but I've never quite done that. I read the entries for a sense of alien worlds and a sense of detachment from where I am. I keep reading with the same attitude I take toward romans fleuves or series novels. I obsess over what will happen next, and over how the author will keep the plot alive.  There's a kind of demanding cruelty there, I suppose. I'm demanding that the invisible authors hold my interest, and of course I'm as invisible to them as they are to me.

Darkness, obsession, transgression, risk, adventure--- I want all that from what I read. Stories that end with a girl finding true love and contentment and an ordinary life are...well...failures. I've never liked it when a novel or a series or a film ends. I want it to go on and on, to keep exploring, and to be part of a world that's aspirational and elegant and still suffused with a sense of darkness. It might be more human just to read and look for fantasies that could be used either with young companions or for the Solitary Vice, but I'm not reading for anything with a direct or unmediated physical use. It's the worlds that I want. I want the structures of those worlds: places, settings, lighting, wardrobes, social markers. I want the ambience, of course: elegance, darkness, stylishness,  class. I don't expect the character-girls to serve as fantasy images; I expect them to serve as carriers for stories. I could laugh and call it a kind of structuralist fetish, but I do wonder about what I'm actually doing here.

I'm not reading for the lives of people I can easily see as "real". I'm not reading for utilitarian things, for sexual fantasies. I'm not reading to watch people change or grow. I'm reading what I hope will go on forever, characters that I like moving through different highly formal plot structures and offering up lists and accounts of other worlds. I want the girls portrayed in the blogs to have dark adventures and explore all the labyrinths of the erotic. But I care about the structures and not flesh and orgasms. That's a different kind of demand, and one that is less human.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Forty-Nine: Exotica

I'm never quite sure what to make of the current usage of the word "problematic". The gender warriors and the neo-puritans of the "social justice" world have a particular meaning for the word. It's used as a weapon, of course, as a moral condemnation. To call something "problematic" is to condemn it out of hand, to say that it's morally flawed and needs to be done away with. Like the current invocation of the word "privilege", "problematic" is used to point the bone at hapless opponents, to silence argument, to flaunt one's own moral righteouness and brand opponents as thoroughly (and ab initio) discredited and probably evil.

One of the "problematic" things out there these days is the idea of the "exotic", or the idea of "fetishising" something. An acquaintance who writes erotica posts links at Twitter on a daily basis--- links to photos of handsome gay men having sex. She's bisexual herself, and the male characters of her novels are almost inevitably bi. She prides herself on writing hot male-male scenes, and she seems to have a fair number of female readers who sigh over those scenes. Yet the other evening she posted a series of apologetic tweets about her daily gay links. She apologised for "fetishising" the scenes in the photos, for "fetishising" the men in the photos.  Someone had found what she was doing "problematic" and attacked her for finding male-male sex hot to look at and for encouraging her female followers to become aroused by the photos.

I don't quite follow the argument, of course. I fail to see the moral failure in looking at something outside one's own usual experience or one's own world and finding it hot precisely because it's new and unknown. I fail to see why something can't be simply desired based on novelty. My literary acquaintance was attacked for finding two handsome men together to be a hot thing to watch, and I've known other people who were attacked for wanting to try something based on novelty or visual appeal. To say that one wants to date an Asian girl, or a red-haired girl, or to say that one is excited by a category, an image, is now "problematic", meaning morally evil.

I'm not sure why it's evil to seek out novelty, to want to be part of something new and different, to want something that've  you've never had, to want to be part of a scene that has visual or literary resonances. Is it only that the desire is purely for novelty, or for what enters at the eye? Is it that the desire isn't about the person, but about the novelty? Is it that simple? I'm still left shaking my head.

We're creatures who tell stories, who live for and through stories. We construct stories about what we see, and we long for new stories and new experiences that turn into stories. To "fetishise" is only to look at something and see the inherent stories. That's what it is, really. I've spent my life seeing the world as a set of potential scenes, as the raw material for stories. I won't apologise for that, and no one--- not my acquaintance the erotica writer, not someone wondering what it would be like to take someone who's [fill in the blank] to bed ---should ever have to apologise for that.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Forty-Eight: Sentimental Education

A friend told me once that when she first went to university she was given a warning. There was a meeting for all the new girls in the residence halls where they were told about women's services available at the university, and then told all about the risks they ran at university and how to deal with them. Some of the warnings were standard enough--- depression, eating disorders, drinking, personal safety. But there was one part that my friend always remembered.

There was a long set of warnings about what to do if faculty made advances to them. The presenters were from the campus women's rights organisation, and they performed a series of skits about what to do. My friend remembered one in particular. The gist of it was that if some male faculty member gave you poetry he'd written for you and told you that you had "a great ass", then you should immediately "call the dean! call his wife!" and tell them what was going on. My friend said that she didn't know whether to laugh or jeer. She'd come from a small town in the Quebec countryside to a major university, and having a distinguished older professor find her desirable was something very much on her agenda. She was perplexed, too, at how specific the skit was. Were English and Lit faculty supposed to be so lecherous that they got special mention? What if you were a girl in the engineering program? Would an engineering professor be likely to write poetry for you? She thought, too, that the skits were too pat, too polished. Years later, she told me, she found a Tumblr where the same warning was repeated, with the same language. She wondered where the skits had originated, and whether women's groups at universities all over North America were using them every September.

She laughed, too, and told me that the best part of having been warned about that in her freshman autumn was that in actual fact, one of her instructors really did bring her poetry (though she was never quite clear whether he'd written it specifically for her or was just showing her poetry he'd already written) and made a point of telling her she had excellent legs. She loved the sheer irony of it all, and only regretted that he never took it farther than lighting her cigarette and flirting. She was, she told me, more than willing to sneak off to hotel rooms or a locked office or even his house...if only he'd asked. She told her best friend that all that was needed would've been for him to take her jaw gently in his hand and kiss her.  A fiercely intelligent older man with greying hair and a literary reputation was exactly what she'd been planning for since high school.  I could only light her cigarette and apologize that my hair hadn't yet gone grey.

My friend told me that her taste in older men was something that marked her as part of a secret tribe. There were other girls at her university who managed to have affairs with faculty, and she did envy them--- but it was all more clandestine than being gay would've been back in the Fifties. She remembered being told that no girl of her age could actually be attracted to older lovers. She was, she was told, really only falling for what they knew, for the books and ideas and lives that they represented. All she could do was stare. But, she'd say, isn't that exactly the point? To learn from a lover, to find someone who could evoke passion about the things she wanted to learn? The bedroom is the best classroom, she wrote me once: a place for opening herself to experience and knowledge, a place for shared conversations late at night. Her dream since high school had been sitting cross-legged on a older lover's bed and reading the books he'd written or having him stand behind her and kiss her bare shoulders while she scanned his bookshelves. The line is there in a letter she sent me once: trading youth and erotic energy for knowledge--- isn't that the perfect exchange?

My friend had known since high school what she wanted, and what stories she wanted to be part of. Someone else told me once that when she'd walk into a classroom and hear her professor talking about Neruda or Rilke she'd feel vaguely cheated that she wasn't getting what she called a "sentimental education", that the poetry she was studying didn't come with a seminar where one had affairs with poets. I envy her using "sentimental education" as a term. And I envy what my Quebec friend said about coming to Montreal and university, about coming there to find experience and find affairs that could open up the world to her.

My own university experience would've been different. I'm male and heterosexual, and my choice of mentors was very different.  I did spend my undergraduate years seeking a sentimental education, though. I wanted to seek out experience and worldliness, and I was in love with ideas and with being part of the stories told in novels and films. I still am, of course. I had different things to trade for it, but I'd have offered up youth and beauty if I'd had them.

I've been someone who offered up knowledge to Young Companions. You know that. Knowledge and, I hope, intellectual passion. And, yes, intellectual and physical passion went together--- a pairing that's as powerful and brilliant as anything out there. Yes--- it's an exchange, and it's one that's never anything to be ashamed of. Not for either partner.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Forty-Seven: Alexandria

Body, Remember
Body, remember not only how much you were loved
not only the beds you lay on.
but also those desires glowing openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembling for you in voices---
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it's all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too--- how they glowed,
remember, in eyes that looked at you,
remember, body, how they trembled for you in those voices. 
--- C.P. Cavafy

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Forty-Six: Monads

I was born in a region and in a time where there were very clear rules about social behavior. I'm city-born, but I spent parts of my childhood and adolescence in small towns with streets overhung with moss-draped trees and houses built seventy or eighty years before. There were longstanding rules about social behavior, and the guardians of the rules were the elderly ladies who sat on porches or seemed always to be visiting the tiny stores along the main street.  One clear rule was  simply that one smiled, that one made the effort to smile in public.  I can remember receiving the occasional reminder about that--- being reminded to smile on such a lovely day, or reminded that a "handsome young man" should always have a smile, or that a smile brightened everyone's day. I'd always smile when reminded. I suppose, too, that I worried a bit about looking dour enough to worry others or give a darker tone to an ordinary day.  I never minded the elderly ladies and their chivvying. It was part of small town life (or even some older, insular city neighborhoods), and it did remind me as a boy that I was part of a social web, that something as trivial and simple as a smile could help make it a better day for the people around me.

I'm thinking about that because I've been finding blog posts in the Social Justice world that go on and on about how being told to smile is a kind of "micro-aggression" and is yet another gendered power play. The blog entries are written by women, and they draw flurries of comments by women. The stories are all the same: the anger and violation felt at having people (men--- always men) tell them to smile, or that they'd be prettier if only they smiled.  I did feel a bit perplexed that all the stories were gendered. My own experience and observation was that it was elderly ladies who issued reminders. Regional and generational, possibly, but I do suspect that small towns in New England or the Thames valley aren't so different. Perhaps it's only males that the authors and their commentariat remember.  I never felt the reminders to smile as a gendered thing, or as a gendered issue of power, of males using the reminder to smile to control women.

I do find the whole "micro-aggression" issue troubling. The term seems to be applied to almost any kind of social interaction, to the exhortation to smile and to the smile itself (seen as an adjunct of the Evil Male Gaze) , to initiating conversations, to asking someone to dance, to a choice of subway or airport lounge seats.  The underlying vision seems to be that any act that brings someone into a social contact is an act of aggression.

The world that the Social Justice crowd seem to envision is one that's completely atomized, one where armoured solitary figures move through the streets or through offices and schools with nothing to say to one another that could be construed as personal in any way or as creating any kind of social ritual. That's an unpleasant world to imagine. No one can speak first, lest that be taken as a sign of "privilege" or of exercising power and aggression.  No one has any part in any social webs or rituals, since such things constitute "micro-aggression" via laying claim to others' attention or reminding them that someone is regarding them with attention.  We're not even talking issues of politeness and courtesy here. This is about something else, about a belief that only a world without social rituals or interactions can be just, about a belief that only a world of disconnected atoms can be free of power dynamics, gendered or not.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Forty-Five: Inspirational

A girl I once knew, a recent graduate at LSE, an expat trying to make her way in London's East End, posted an image at her Tumblr the other day--- a poster that says in large block letters against a background of the sea "REMEMBER---- YOU are someone's reason to masturbate!I know what the poster is trying to do, trying to say--- it's meant to be inspirational for her. She's a gym rat, and she's had body image issues most of her life. The poster is mean to remind her to spend more time on the treadmill, to be more determined about weights and body sculpting. It's there to remind her to keep working out, to remind her that she can dominate the fantasies of the buff, washboard-abs men she fancies, that she can be the girl that gym rat men sigh over. 

The poster is inspirational for her, but it's not something anyone male could've posted. I can all too easily imagine what the Gender Studies crowd and the Social Justice Mob would make of that poster if it had been posted by anyone male. The propaganda of the gender wars would depict the poster as "creepy" and "entitled" if a male had posted it. I think we can take that as a given. I do wonder if any of that ever crossed my expat friend's mind... And I wonder if she ever thinks that she's doubtless been guys' Reason since her teens? Does she--- or any girl ---ever consider that? And...what is the Correct attitude about that? What do girls think about being strangers' Reason? Any thoughts? In my time, I've asked girls all sorts of questions about their views on sex and desire, but I'm not sure I could ask a girl that, ask her what she thinks of being strangers' Reason, ask her if she realises that she's very likely to have been part of male fantasies since her teens. Asking that--- or even raising the possibility ---isn't ideologically possible in an age of Gender Wars. Suggesting to a girl that she figures in strangers' fantasies (even if it's almost certain to be true) is regarded as tantamount both to sexual assault itself or to wishing a kind of assault on her. The expat gym rat girl can see the poster as inspirational, but no one male would be allowed in the current climate to offer her up the poster phrase, to say that to her as either inspiration or statement of fact.

Male desire and male sexuality are regarded as suspect--- or more ---these days. I've heard Gender Studies types argue that any masturbatory fantasy is a kind of rape. And that's alongside or in addition to the usual point of view in the culture that regards male masturbation as pathetic and laughable at best and as creepy and hostile and disgusting at worst. I looked at the image of the poster there at the expat girl's Tumblr and felt empty and glum. Part of that is being male and recognising that male desire is taken these days as something necessarily morally and politically corrupt. Part of it of course is recognising my own lack of value.

Another expat friend in London, a girl a few years older than the gym rat girl and part of a fairly posh and educated crowd, told me not to worry. Everyone, she wrote, is someone's Reason. I could only think of the end of "The Sun Also Rises": Wouldn't it be pretty to think so? Yes--- it would be pretty to think so, or at least consolatory. Being someone's Reason (and, yes, I always think of that someone as being "someone attractive") is a marker for value. I find it difficult to imagine being someone's Reason, and there's a sense of loss and futility and hopelessness when I look at the expat girl's Tumblr. 

Being someone's Reason would be a marker for social and sexual value. Being a fantasy object for an attractive girl--- especially a stranger ---has a clear rank-hierarchy value. I understand that I'd never be fantasy-worthy for the particular gym rat girl, and I don't want you to think she's the issue. She's certainly right about herself. She's quite fantasy-worthy by anyone's standards. But her own tastes run to males whose looks I could never match and could never have matched in the days of my far-off youth. So it's not about her. 

But it is about being fantasy-worthy. Everyone is someone's Reason, my other expat friend wrote. Tonight I can't imagine being anyone's Reason, or at least not a Reason for anyone for whom being fantasy-worthy would confer value. I'll just note that somehow, being fantasy-worthy seems to be more of a marker for value than just being desirable in the flesh. Maybe it's only that I see imagination and memory as being more important than the flesh. You're free to infer that; you may be precisely correct. The odds are in your favour, anyway. 

Tonight I'm looking out at the lights of the city where I live and thinking about the expat girl's poster. I feel empty and useless. She's certainly a Reason for handsome strangers. My other expat friend is a Reason for a great many people--- a different set of categories, but still a Reason. I'm not anyone's Reason. I don't have that kind of value, and I'm not likely to have it again. And I'm very, very depressed over the gnawing fear that I may never have had that value. Flesh has its charms, but being fantasy-worthy outweighs flesh. I'm no one's Reason, and I won't be a Reason in the future. All I can do is feel the dull, dead emptiness of coming to believe that I was never anyone's Reason. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Forty-Four: Explanations

There's  word I've just run across out there in the bloglands: "mansplaining". I found the original essay that used the word, and I do understand what it means. It still sounds like a word Ricky Ricardo would've used, but I do understand where it comes from and what it's intended to mean. I do have a few problems with the word, since I'm not convinced that it needs to be a gendered thing, and I'd certainly argue that the basic idea needn't necessarily be gendered. But I suppose it is something I'd apologize for.

I rarely if ever apologize for things in the gender wars. I try to reserve apologies for one-to-one encounters, for moments when I've failed in courtesy with individuals. I was brought up to believe that politeness and courtesy matter, and I'll always believe that. I don't apologize for political or social failings, and I don't apologize for being most of the things on the current "social justice" list of all things evil---- male, older, white, straight, cis, nominally middle class. I will always apologize for inadvertent failures of individual politeness; I will not apologize for "privilege".

"Mansplaining", now... Well, I am guilty of over-explaining. I over-think, and I over-explain. I'm aware of that.  I spent far too many years standing in front of classes explaining things. I can so easily be triggered into lecture mode--- explain, offer up examples, repeat key points, point out linkages between ideas. Tell the story, look at it from different angles, then quickly review. That's built into me, I fear. And before ever I stepped up in front of my first class, I spent years managing a bookstore, explaining to people why they needed this book, what that book could offer them.

I over-explain. And I love telling stories.  I don't think that's ever been a gendered thing. I'll tell stories to anyone. I probably do offer up explanations to people who may already know them, but if they tell me that and offer up their own stories--- well and good. I suppose there's competition there, but I like that. Trading stories, seeing who knows the most arcane things and the most intriguing stories--- how can that not be fun? I have to wonder what matters more--- the value of the explanation as such, or just being able to tell stories. I have no clear answer to that.

I've never assumed that the girls I talk to or flirt with need to have things explained, or that as a male, and an older male at that, that my explanations are always and ever more correct than girls' views. But I will launch out into explanations and stories. I was trained to do that--- to explain, to tell stories. I ask questions, too. I was trained to do that as well.

So I do feel the need to apologize sometimes. Not for "mansplaining", not for assuming that I must know better than any "mere" female. I'll apologize if ever I took up someone's time when they were busy, or if my stories and explanations turned out to be wrong.

Telling stories, though--- I won't apologize for that as such. Or for enjoying the game of exchanging stories. But it's the stories that matter, not gender competition. I want to be very clear about that.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Forty-Three: Enquiries

This morning at the coffee shop by the university, a lovely co-ed at an adjoining table looked over and asked me about the book I was reading. I looked up over my reading glasses, pushed aside my caffè macchiato for a moment, and chatted with her about the book. The book itself was the kind of thing I am likely to have with me on a weekend morning--- something academic, something historical. In this case, an English Marxist look at radical groups during the English Revolution: Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. The girl was a History major, and she'd heard the title before and had always, she said, meant to read the book. A pleasant enough conversation on a Sunday morning. She asked me if I was faculty somewhere, then asked about what I'd taught in my past. We talked about her grad school plans and about what I liked about the book. She told me about her interests and I recommended a couple of other books. I wished her luck on her last couple of semesters and on grad school. She thanked me and we each went back to what we'd been doing--- reading, working at a laptop. Five minutes' worth of conversation, ten at the outside. I mention this only because the exchange--- this kind of exchange ---seems now to be regarded as evil.

I'll be more precise. This kind of exchange is now evil, but only if I'd been the one to initiate it. There's been a new front opened in the gender wars, and I missed the reports of the landings.

Oh, I did find the reports, or at least accounts from the front. I found three or four accounts on line--- each with its flurry of angry supporters ---about the evils of conversation. The accounts from the front were all remarkably similar. In each case, a woman was somewhere in public--- on a subway, on a bus ---and reading. A man attempted to strike up a conversation, or at least ask her about the book. Unpleasantness then ensued. It took me a minute to get at the rage each of the women felt. None of the accounts suggested that the man had propositioned the woman reading. None of the accounts suggested that the woman reading was specifically annoyed at having her reading interrupted. None of the accounts suggested that the man was unpleasant or even unattractive. The anger was at something else altogether.

Now--- it may be that the particular scenario--- asking about a book ---is particularly baffling to me. I was brought up to think that readers are a kind of freemasonry, that they're likely to share information, likely to regard sharing information about books as a kind of social ritual...and perhaps a responsibility. In my younger days, I did work at a bookstore. I'm used to talking about books, and books have always been a key social passport for me. So I'm predisposed to ask about books, to ask about authors or topics I'm interested in. Of course it's better if there's an attractive girl with whom I can discuss a book. I certainly won't deny that. If you're going to strike up a conversation, a girl who's a reader, who's reading something you find interesting, is always a good choice. But beyond that, books and enquiries about books always have defined a freemasonry for me. Talking about books is something that even supersedes even Manhattan subway rules about eye contact and sullen silence.

The anger, it seems, isn't so much about being interrupted. It's about the idea that someone male would open a conversation. It's taken for granted that asking about a book is always and ever a poorly-disguised cold proposition for sex, or at least that any effort at asking anything, initiating any conversation, is somehow the same as unwanted sexual attention.

I was brought up to believe in courtesy, in being just a bit tentative and semi-apologetic when asking anyone anything. I was brought up to be polite always, whether in making an enquiry or responding to one. I have never assumed, though, that there was a line of evil in asking someone about a book.

The women recounting these tales were all bitterly angry that someone asked them a question, that someone tried to make conversation. They weren't angered at the particular approach, or at the looks or status of the male. It wasn't that the man said anything untoward, or that he wasn't good enough to speak to her---- the anger wasn't about that at all. The anger was at males in general for thinking they could just open a conversation, that they would ask something that might require a response. Each of the women regarded that--- the need for a response at all ---as a kind of violation.

So here we are. Striking up a conversation is a new front in the war against...what? Flirtation? Social interaction? Well, it is regarded now as on a par with knifepoint or chloroformed rags to ask someone what she's reading. The response--- whether that's a brief discussion about the merits of the book or a curt acknowledgment that you're reading a certain author and title ---is regarded as something taken from the woman with the book. The social need for a response is equated with...well, equated with some kind of sexual aggression.

I have to sigh. This is what it's come to. Yet another front in the gender wars, yet another group of bloggers arguing that any approach, any interaction, probably has some kind of sexual component or intent and is tantamount to sexual aggression, to violation and harassment. I know that I'm all the wrong things (older, male, straight, cisgendered, white, nominally middle class) to be allowed to have opinions on these things, but I am nonetheless left perplexed and saddened and irritated by all this. There's a war here against flirtation, or any social interaction that might have a hint of flirtation to it. There's a demand for a world of atomised and armoured individuals--- a world of windowless monads ---where anything "social" is kept to a strict minimum and anything sexual is excluded altogether.

The girl at the coffee shop this morning asked me about the book I was reading. I was happy to take a few moments to respond, and to make polite conversation. She was attractive, young, intelligent: all the more reason to be happy about talking for a few minutes. The new "social justice" rules may allow her, as the female, to initiate a conversation. Or perhaps not. Perhaps the rules say that by making people like me think that girls are willing to have conversations with male strangers, she's "objectively" a gender traitor. One never knows about these things.

I miss the eighteenth-century arts of conversation and flirtation. I miss the idea that such things are an art, and one worth learning. A world where an enquiry about a book--- even if that's a way of opening a conversation with someone attractive ---is a red flag for evil isn't a world for me. A world where conversation and introductions are thought of as evil is a world where something valuable has been lost. It angers me that the loss is either never thought of or disregarded as simply part of purging evil.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Forty-Two: Procedures

The latest round of gender wars began, I'm told, in an elevator in Dublin some months ago--- perhaps even a year ago. The story is simple enough. A woman with something of a reputation as a blogger was speaking at a conference. One night very, very late, she was returning from a party, and there in the hotel elevator, a man, presumably another attendee, told her he was quite taken with her work and asked her for coffee in his room. She declined and went on alone to her own room. End of encounter. We know nothing about the man; there's some doubt that he existed at all. In any case, no one has ever named him, and he's never come forward. But the invitation in the elevator has unleashed a whole scorched-earth campaign in the gender wars on line.

I'd have thought the moment in the elevator was simply a small and rather polite social moment. The assumption is that the man was propositioning the blogger, though, given the conference setting, it's quite possible that he was just a fanboy offering coffee and gushing conversation to someone famous in the conference world. Nonetheless, so far as I can tell from the original story, the entire encounter was brief, calm, and courteous. The man asked her for coffee--- whatever that may have meant ---and when she declined, bade her goodnight politely. Somehow the account of the elevator moment immediately became a tale implicit with danger and overtones of violation. One can hardly blame the man for never coming forward. He's been portrayed all over the web as "Elevator Guy", a presumed harasser and attempted rapist. The blogger and her allies have certainly not hesitated to make the story one about an escape from danger. Needless to say, I didn't think he'd done anything wrong.

Would I have asked a girl for coffee in an elevator? Yes. Certainly. If I'd found myself in an elevator with someone I fancied, or with someone I simply hoped to have a conversation with over coffee, I'd have no problem with a polite invitation. And if she happened to be someone I'd wanted to ask out all night, the elevator would be a place with a lot to recommend it. There's always a clear chance of rejection, and the elevator at least isn't public. Being turned down in public is humiliating enough, and all the more so since the rejection would affect any chances one might have of flirting with other girls. What girl would choose to go out with someone who'd already been humiliated in public and rejected by other girls? The elevator is safer ground.

I'm told that part of the gender wars rants growing out of the elevator incident ("ElevatorGate") is a cold assertion that any male who'd try to get a girl away from a crowd or her friends to flirt is obviously one step away from being a serial killer/rapist. Once again, what should be ordinary social interaction and courtship ritual gets turned into open hostilities. I can't imagine trying to flirt with a girl in the midst of her friends. There's competition for attention, there are distractions, and what group of girls anywhere ever has told one of its members to go off and have fun and make out with a new male? Call that an attitude based on either envy or social solidarity, but it's there. The group won't tolerate a solitary outsider. An equal-sized group of other males, quite possibly. But not a single male, not someone interested in one of the group members. I've been reading blog posts and articles about how any male who'd try to ask a girl to leave her group is dangerous and evil. The word "creepy"--- implying dangerous ---gets used with increasing frequency. And not just for the lone male seeking to separate a girl from the group, but for almost any male engaged in open flirting.

The incident in the elevator has led to a long and bitter series of attacks on the idea of flirtation and on the idea of sexual interest itself. The idea of the courtship dance itself has been attacked and determined to be an affront to any ideals of "social justice".  To be in favor of seductions, flirtations, or offers is to be deemed an enemy of womankind and social justice. Lines are being drawn, and of course the argument is no longer about a polite offer and a polite rejection in a Dublin hotel. It's all about violence and oppression and a disdain for anything like sexual interest and sex as ritual and play.

I believe in courtship and mating rituals, and I always believe in courtesy. I believe that sex and flirtations shouldn't be battlefields, and that there should be a sense of play and delight between men and women in social situations. Any social setting, any interaction, always has the potential for flirtation and exchanges. I do like that--- the rituals of flirtation, the recognition that any moment can become the first moment of a flirtation or seduction. Courtesy, yes, always. And politeness. Take those things as givens. What I don't like and don't understand is the hostility out there, the idea that social rituals are really a kind of battlefield, a place where any sexual interest is some kind of hostile and oppressive act.

The current age claims to be sexually open, or at least sexually knowledgeable. I have my doubts. Desire (and especially male desire) is regarded as suspect. Any social interaction must be purged of anything that might be sexual, any social interaction at all is...suspect. I'm assuming that any conversations and introductions are now regarded as hostile acts. I suppose that striking up a conversation now is an act regarded as oppressive and tantamount to violence.

I will not give up a sense of ritual, a sense that the social world has the promise of romance and flirtations and even physical passion threaded all through it. I will not give up introductions and the eighteenth-century kinds of conversation and flirtation that I admire. Strange thing, mind you. I'm a social-democrat by belief, and I've always thought of social justice as something political worth supporting. The term has been stolen, really, by people who want to turn any possible interaction between men and women into a skirmish, into part of a no-quarter-given war. I won't give in to that. I won't give up a world where desire and play are valued, where a polite offer or introduction may or may not be accepted, but is nonetheless not regarded as an attack.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Forty-One: Mornings

I think back to mornings when I did awaken next to a lovely young companion. The places change--- dorm rooms, apartments, hotel rooms ---but the moment is the same. There's that grey-violet pre-dawn colour to the light, and there's that sense of stillness in the room. I've always liked those moments, liked seeing my young companion's bare back half-draped by the sheet, liked the way her hair falls across bare shoulders. Watching a lover sleep is one of the more romantic images out there. And I've always leaned across to brush my lips over one shoulder or one hip and--- often ---awakened my young companion with caresses and kisses. Lovers have done that for me, too, awakened me with mouth or fingers, brought me up out of sleep and into lovemaking. That's always been part of mornings-after for me. Last night's sex becomes morning sex, and a prelude to showers and coffee and brunch. My practice has always been to offer up that dawnlight caress, the kiss on the spine or the edge of a hipbone, to begin the morning-after as an extension of the night-before. I've begun mornings-after that way for a lifetime. I'm told that that's no longer romance. It's all supposedly evil--- and probably illegal in certain countries. It's clearly enough to find oneself regarded by a whole faction of gender wars types as a monster. I've no idea how matters have come to this.

I've always been someone who talks during sex. I tell stories, and I encourage my young companions to tell me stories as well. This is who we are for the night, these are the masks we're wearing, these are the things we're doing and the films we're living inside. I talk during sex, and of course all seductions are about talking, about words. It's stories that I want from my young companions, too. I want us to construct worlds for each other, to be inside our own novel, our own film.

That's romance, of course--- creating and sharing a fantasy. My reading of certain writers and columnists these days is that the kinds of talk I share with lovers doesn't count, and may only be a screen for evil.

There's a disdain for seduction out there in the culture, and there's a disdain for silence, too. There are writers (and perhaps legislators or would-be legislators) who believe that silence should never be part of sex.

I've never overriden a No; I've never thought of ignoring a No. But those dawn-lit mornings are now regarded not as part of a shared world but as a battlefield or a tense negotiation between hostile states. Is it even not-evil to look at a sleeping companion and see beauty or feel lust? Are we quite to that part yet?    

When next a lovely, long-legged young companion shares my bed, I will want there to be morning-after sex. I'll hope that the morning-after there in bed will begin with kisses and caresses. The morning-after thing that's always there to be said is just, "Hey, you..." That's an acknowledgment that we're there, and that this bed and this hour are still part of what we created the night before. I refuse to regard awakening a lover with touch and kisses and drifting into lovemaking as evil. I refuse to give up the idea of mornings-after as a kind of dreamworld.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Forty: Contempt

The social world is structured by rules, arbitrary but sharply enforced. I've always known that. That's been the plot of how many hundred novels and films? Pick your own favourites--- mine are Wharton's "House of Mirth" and her short story "Autre Temps". It's not a thing that disappeared somewhere late in the last century. We still live by arbitrary social rules, and time puts all of us on the wrong side of many of them.

I define myself as a bachelor and a Gentleman of a Certain Age, and I have chosen to call myself a roué. The arbitrary social rules and various contemporary ideologies frown on all three of those things. I'm well aware of that, but there are some days when I realise how harsh the rules can be.

I've always been willing to discuss social behaviour and the codes for seduction and flirtation, always willing to learn about the codes of politesse in different social circles. That's like learning languages and histories: two things that have been key parts of my life. What I've been finding, though, is a social scene that's infused more and more with contempt, where the arbitrary social rules are enforced with growing harshness. There's a narrowing field of places and events where it's socially safe to make conversation, let alone to flirt. Playfulness and delight and ritual are being slowly, inexorably erased from social interaction. And I do find it harder and harder to imagine what social life, what flirtations and seductions will look like in a decade or two--- or if we'll be allowed to do those things at all.

This summer I feel a sense of futility, a sense of exclusion, a sense of loss. I do imagine no longer being able to be part of a life outside my rooms and books.

There are arbitrary social rules. Yes, arbitrary, I know. But nonetheless binding, and with serious penalties and enforcers as menacing as the Furies. I find it harder and harder to risk running foul of those rules, and of course that means that I find it harder and harder to be in society.

If I'm going to go out, if I'm going to be part of the social world, then there are defensive skills to learn. The goal in social life must be to be like Caesar's Wife: spoken of neither in praise nor blame. That's a key thing, of course: neither in praise nor blame. The goal in being out in public is to be...invisible. Or at least nondescript. To be a figure who never catches the eye of the enforcers.

All social life, all going out into public, is going out into the eyes of judges and adversaries. Be aware of that. One must remember that at all times.

Are the judges and adversaries all female? Oh, very probably. Not that that's any different from Edith Wharton's day. Though I think the atmosphere is much less forgiving today, the language far more moralising.

The trick is always a kind of invisibility. Never, never play the peacock. The goal is to not be noticed--- to not stand out. The judges and adversaries look for anything standing out, either as good or bad. The trick is to fade into the background, to be part of the background. The eye passes over you but never lingers, not for good or ill. Attract no attention, either good or bad. Just look like you fit in, like you're part of the background. But excite no interest or comment. That really is the key thing. No comment, no judgment. You're just...there. 

I suppose that's what I'll have to aim for. Appear to belong, or at least don't disrupt the background. That's how camouflage works, isn't it? Just be part of the pattern. Seem to belong, but don't attract judgment or comment. Just be invisible. If you're invisible enough, you can still be out in the world. If you learn the skills well enough, I suppose you can even walk past the velvet ropes into the world where the harshest of the judges and adversaries go. You don't get fawned over or asked to the VIP area, but you can be inside, be inside the parties and clubs and restaurants where social life--- "social" in a way Wharton would've understood ---happens. You get to be part of the decor, a face in the background crowd. You're not a name, not an actor with a speaking part--- a mere attendant lord only --- but you get to be there. That's...something. And it's safe. Do nothing, say nothing, be nothing, look like nothing that stands out, that could attract derision or mockery. Anonymity is safety, and its own power. Grey is good enough. Always tell yourself that. Grey is good enough

Being a roué, being a Gentleman of a Certain Age, being someone who talks with Young Companions, who can be part of conversations and flirtations--- those are things that have to be given up. Those are things that catch the eye of judges and adversaries, things that attract the Furies. There are words that are used here in these latter days for the things I am, and they're not words that can ever be taken as anything other than condemnation and derision. If I'm to be out in society at all, then I have to learn to be grey, to be something that never stands out from the background noise. Never do what might attract attention, never say anything, never be anything or want anything that can be judged or attacked.

Contempt has always been part of the social world. It's how arbitrary social rules are enforced. Lily Bart and Anna Karenina found that out. I do think that the reach of contempt has expanded over the last decade or so, and the rules have become harsher and more rigid. I think it's time to learn how to be a ghost, how to be grey. That may be the only way to have any kind of social life any more.  

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Thirty-Nine: Routes

A friend did a review of Alain de Botton's new book on sex, and I fear that she and I will have disagreements about the review. I rather liked de Botton's book on travel, and I liked his books about airport life and the nature of work. I haven't been too impressed with his books on religion or philosophy, but I wasn't angered or put off by them, either. My friend, however, is put off by de Botton's views about sex. I haven't read his book, but I did spend time this morning reading through her review. I suspect we'll disagree on a couple of things.

My friend Ms. Flox is dismissive of de Botton's views because she finds them Freudian. I've been an admirer of Freud since  my teens. He's an intellectual hero of mine, and his "The Future of an Illusion" has a firm place on my shelves. I've studied and lived in and enjoyed Vienna, and it was through a biography of Freud (more precisely, a biographical novel read one high school springtime) that introduced me to Vienna. So I'm disposed to like Freud, and I smile a thin, cold smile whenever I hear him dismissed out of hand by feminists or devotees of the neuroscience cult. 

My friend cites this passage as a reason for disliking de Botton's book: “The precise origins of our enthusiasms may be obscure, but they can almost always be traced back to some meaningful aspect of our childhood: we will be drawn to specific things either because they recall appealing qualities of a beloved parental figure or else, conversely, because they somehow cancel out, or otherwise help us escape, a memory of an early humiliation or terror." To me, of course, the quote seems totally unexceptionable. We are creatures of our histories. We carry our pasts with us. Does my friend really think that we aren't shaped by our childhoods, or that what we desire or love or fear doesn't grow out of our pasts? 

It did strike me that she had her own reasons for disliking that passage. De Botton follows Freud in tying fetishes and enthusiasms to our childhoods and how our psyches are shaped there. My friend says something a bit later that caught my eye: the need to evade responsibility underlying the entire work is toxic: It’s not that I like this  [fetish] because I’m weird, it’s that my psychological history has a deficit...  That stopped me and rather surprised me. There's more there than just rejecting Freud's ideas about how childhood shapes how we see sex as adults. The word "responsibility" is a red flag here. And consider her phrasing. Is she arguing that one does have certain "enthusiasms" because one really is "weird"? The other side of "responsibility" is guilt. Always. I read that as saying that my friend does want people to  think that they should feel guilt about their enthusiasms or fetishes, that whatever they like or do doesn't have a history, that it's always a matter of context-less, history-free choice that can be derided as "weird", something that should induce guilt.

I'd hate to think that's what she's saying. 

Our enthusiasms, our fetishes, all come with histories. All our loves and hates come with predispositions and genealogies. Mine do, certainly. I can look back at what I've fancied or desired down the years and see how those things evolved. And it's not hard to see some of the things I've been looking for through my particular tastes.  It's certainly not hard to see how my predispositions were shaped,  to see that when I was beginning to think of sex and desire, the channels were already dug for where my tastes would flow. 

I'll make it a question, then. What routes did you travel to your desires and enthusiasms? I know what the choke points have been in my own life, where the channels had been excavated long before I started to travel down them. I hope you'll think about those things in your own lives, that you'll think of the genealogies of desire.  

I hope, too, that you'll understand that your enthusiasms and fetishes evolved along the roads that lead back to your pasts. They didn't appear out of nothing, and they didn't appear because you're "weird".  I remain somewhat disappointed that my friend would use that word, and that she's rejecting the idea of history.  I'm disappointed that she wants to invoke the idea of "weird" and the guilt associated with it, and I'm disappointed that she thinks that what we like or desire or hate isn't shaped early on. She wants to cut away the baggage of the past and then saddle us with the far heavier baggage of the word "weird".

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thirty-Eight: Grey

This summer's most-talked-about book is of course the e-novel with the grey silk necktie on the cover. I've read reviews, of course, and read essays about it, though I haven't read the novel itself. It's already spawned a host of imitators; I do know that much. I can't say I have much interest in reading either the original or the imitations. I can't imagine being taken with either the romance or the s/m.

My own vision of s/m romance doesn't involve humiliation or psychological games. There seems to be an ongoing theme here, in original and imitations both, of the wealthy and powerful male lead using his money to isolate and control the female lead. And of course so much of the s/m does seem to involve exactly what I dislike in the professional s/m world: the idea of "breaking" the submissive, of destruction of will and personality. A friend who worked once as a professional domme boasts off-handedly that she can reduce "hipster boys and bankers" to "simpering bitches" in a handful of minutes.   That's something that fails to interest me in any way. It's something I can't imagine wanting to do to a lovely girl.

I understand the underlying structure of the romance in these books. The secretly-tormented brooding hero is to be redeemed by the heroine's love and sacrifice. Her willingness to endure humiliation is offered up to show the hero the meaning of true love. I just don't have any interest in that.

I have no problem with the hero having at least some money. An s/m romance requires some money, since money buys time and privacy and accoutrements. But is it necessary that the male lead be a billionaire CEO? There should be money for travel, and for accoutrements. But too much money is a bludgeon, and it's always used to force the heroine into absolute dependence on the hero. Now I know that I've always said the s/m is an aspirational thing, that it involves stylish things. But there's a kind of malicious deus ex machina quality to the hero's wealth in these novels. There's a distinction here, though it's one I haven't quite finalized.

I'm not sure an s/m romance works in a university dorm room. Having to remove two weeks' worth of dirty laundry and three weeks of class assignments from a dorm bed before you can tie a lovely girl up does seem to be a mood-killer. I'm very certain that s/m romance doesn't work in a blue-collar setting. But there does come a point where the idea of wealth becomes too overbearing, where it overshadows the idea of elegance and style with sheer materiality.

There is an s/m romance to be done. I can see that. But it needn't be about humiliation and redemption, and Stockholm Syndrome doesn't figure in it. The hero can be older than the heroine--- after all, I do encourage lovely young girls to prefer older men ---and can have some money without being an embodiment of corporate wealth and power. The heroine can be young and relatively inexperienced, but there shouldn't be a sense of her being victimized. There won't be a ridiculous "sex contract" (something that the original novel has bequeathed to all its progeny). There's no reason why the heroine--- intelligent, thoughtful,  someone not unaware that s/m exists ---can't come to the hero, can't keep putting herself in his path, precisely because she's interested in adventures or experiences, because she's willing to try something that's new and unknown and just a bit scary, something she's read about. There's no reason, too, why he has to want to control her life or treat her as a pinned butterfly. The sex can be intense, transgressive, explicit. That's all fine. But, again, there's no reason the sex--- and here the riding whip and the candle wax and the blindfolds are included ---should involve humiliation, no reason why it shouldn't be about measured rituals and formal games, and certainly no reason why the sex can't be done without the whole "breaking the girl" thing.

I don't mind a hint of the Gothic. There are certainly fashion and architecture styles that suggest Gothic romance that I do like. Yet...the s/m romance I'd want to read is a romance that's not based on the idea of suffering and redemption. There's something to be said for the two lead characters sitting on a stoop and kissing before the hero takes the young lady into his brownstone to be blindfolded and whipped. This summer's novel and all its epigones really don't have the kind of aesthetic that appeals to me. I'd wear the grey silk tie from the cover, I think, but I can't imagine an s/m romance where there's no sense of exhilaration and adventure, where the girl doesn't stand up on the brownstone steps and take the hero's hand and pull him toward the door. "Show me," she'd say. "Show me." That's something that would have to be there.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thirty-Seven: Declaration

A Song of a Young Lady To Her Ancient Lover

Ancient person, for whom I
All the fluttering youths defy,
Long be it ere thou grow old,
Aching, shaking, crazy, cold,
But still continue as thou art,
Ancient person of my heart.

On thy withered lips and dry
Which like barren furrows lie,
Brooding kisses I will pour,
Shall thy youthful heat restore.
Such kind show'rs in autumn fall
And a second spring recall:
Nor from thee will ever part,
Ancient person of my heart.

Thy nobler part, which but to name
In our sex would be counted shame,
By age's frozen grasp possessed
From his ice shall be released,
And, soothed by my reviving hand,
In former warmth and vigor stand.
All a lover's wish can reach
For thy joy my love shall teach,
And for thy pleasure shall improve
All that art can add to love.
Yet still I love thee without art,
Ancient person of my heart.

- John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thirty-Six: Noonday Demon

Whenever I read discussions about the state of sex these days, what I find is fear. I read about the ways sex is approached and regarded, about the current state of courtship rituals, and what I find is a subtext of fear. We're afraid these days, and it's hard to put a name to exactly what we're afraid of.  Yet if you read all the social analyses of sex, it is there. Sex--- or lust, or longing, or desire ---is still the noonday demon. That term is St. Augustine's, I think. I always liked the description: lust or desire as the noonday demon, as the dark force that spring upon its victims even in daylight, the predator that doesn't have to wait for a new moon midnight to go hunting.

We're afraid of allowing desire or lust or longing to gain a foothold in social interactions, in social settings. It's dangerous to hug, lest one party feel a sexual frisson. It's dangerous to admit that desire can be there at any time, in any social interaction, since admitting that somehow undermines or devalues everything else about the interaction. It's not new to understand that desire and lust can be dangerous. The Greeks knew how dangerous Aphrodite could be. But what is new is the insistence that any trace of sexual desire or sexual sensation somehow corrupts and devalues everything else around it. We give a kind of power to desire that the Greeks and Romans never did, nor the courtiers of Heian Japan. If sexual desire makes an appearance at any moment, it displaces everything else and lessens the value of everything else around it.

I'm not sure what the wellspring of the fear is. Is it the fear of loss of control, of not being able to master desire? The Greeks knew all about that, but they never saw it as a reason to reject desire. It may be a fear that desire or lust erase the "serious" in life, that if you look at someone with lust in your heart you can't possibly think that they could be of any other value. We're not good at that in this society, in this time and place. We're not good at admitting that we can put multiple values on things, at admitting that people can be more than one thing.

We're afraid, too, of the noonday demon in a way that comes down to a fear of the imagination, a fear of what happens behind the eyes. Oh, we're afraid of the gaze itself, but what lies farther along that route is a fear of the imagination. Desire enters at the eye, and the imagination shapes it. I suppose that's about control. To be desired is to lose control, to be subject in some way to another's imagination.

Desire enters at the eye: that's always and ever true. We're visual creatures as we move through the world, and what we see becomes what we want. What we see becomes raw material for hopes and longings and dreams and the stories we tell ourselves. And that gets to be taken as a negative thing, as an oppressive thing. Desire is equated to a desire to subjugate, to oppress. To admit to desire is bad enough amongst the so-called "social justice" writers, to admit to fantasy is worse: it's taken as an admission of violation and a will to oppress.

Sometimes I read current discussions of desire and lust and sex and think that the imagination itself has become an enemy. The imagination is the natural haunt of the noonday demon, a place not so easily disciplined, a place where the external world is re-shaped. Though maybe that's the real fear, the fear that being part of another's imagination is all about loss of control, a loss of some kind of autonomy.

That may be it, and if you're reading this, tell me what you think: are we afraid of any kind of fantasy, any kind of desire, that we can't control in others?