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.