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?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Thirty-Five: Contact

I'm physically affectionate in some ways. I've always liked holding hands across a table, or tracing a fingertip across a young companion's cheekbone or lips. Driving with a hand on a lovely young companion's thigh has been something I've loved since my long-ago youth, and what can be more exhilarating than running through the streets of a nighttime city hand-in-hand with a lover? Yet I'm not someone who hugs. Touch as a romantic gesture is very much part of what and who I am, but I'm not from a physically demonstrative family, and I've never been one for hugs.

Having said that, though, I did discover a new reason to avoid hugs the other day. I ran into an argument on the web where the author argued that hugging was tantamount to sexual harassment. I assume that the gender-studies crowd and the so-called "social justice" crowd agree with the author's position, though that should hardly surprise me. The argument was that the person (and here the person was assigned as female) giving the hug probably intended it to be a non-sexual gesture. The person (inevitably assigned as male) who receives the hug may feel some kind of sexual frisson upon being hugged. Since that feeling was never intended, by feeling anything sexual--- even inadvertently ---the person being hugged was engaging in a kind of non-consensual sex with the person initiating the hug. And, the author noted,  neither party could ever predict whether a hug could produce those feelings in advance. The author announced at the end of the article that hugging was too dangerous a thing to do or receive, if one truly believed in issues of consent and harassment.

Now I don't like being hugged very much. I like physical gestures that are clearly part of a romance or a seduction. But I find the argument here to be...exasperating. There's a level of fear in it that baffles me. There's a fear that sex may be lurking in any gesture, and I suppose it's related to the same fear that once had teachers monitoring school dances, ruler in hand, checking to see how far apart dancers might be. I find it telling that the argument wasn't that initiating a hug as a way of touching someone--- the hug as groping ---was a kind of nonconsensual sex, but that any sexual feeling that the person being hugged might feel, even if inadvertently, was somehow an act violating the will of the hugger. It's the lurking monster that the author was afraid of, the idea that any physical gesture might somehow allow in the noonday demon.

Once upon a time, in another city and another life, I was sitting with a lovely companion at a coffeshop near a major university, and we were listening to the people at the next table discuss the evil of sexual fantasy. The girl at the next table doing most of the talking was explaining that all sexual fantasies that involve any real, living person were a kind of violation. She used the terms "abstract rape" and  "rape through the imagination". Her argument that was that any fantasy was a kind of non-consensual use of the person being imagined, and that all fantasy was about exerting the power of the "imagined gaze". She made the point that all (male) masturbation, insofar as it involved fantasies about actual people, was no better than rape, since the person being imagined had never given explicit consent. To fantasize was to violate, to be fantasized about was to be violated. My young companion just shook her head and pointed out to me that there were clear reasons why she'd chosen to attend a university just up the railway line and not the one just up the street. I had to laugh--- we both attended the better university to the north, and there was some feeling of justified superiority on our parts ---but I did feel a small touch of fear. I couldn't imagine what a world would be like where our cafe neighbors' ideas were taken as correct...and socially enforced.

There's a kind of fear out there that I don't understand: a fear of what might be lurking inside the mind, a fear that any sexual tinge added to a contact is oppressive and destructive, a fear of what might be hiding inside the imagination, a fear of what can be born from the gaze. I don't hug, but I do hold hands, and twine fingers, and construct fantasy scenarios. I can't decide what the final argument is to be--- is that contact itself is a gateway to social evil, or that the imagination itself must be dismantled?  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thirty-Four: Frames

I was watching girls in bikinis down by the pool last evening when it did occur to me that I was feeling a sense of exasperation and annoyance watching them. I thought at first it might be a hostility born of sour grapes. After all, they weren't with me, and I'd have felt very much the intruder if I'd gone down to the pool. I'm not likely to fit in to a poolside scene, and there was no chance I could speak to them. But when I thought a bit more about it, it did occur to me that something else was happening as well.

I was watching the bikini girls from the window by my writing desk, and it did strike me that the window was part of it all. I could see the girls swimming and sunning and laughing together, see them drinking bottled beers and chilled gin drinks. I was exasperated and annoyed that they weren't topless in the sun, or skinny-dipping in the pool, or drunkenly kissing one another. I was annoyed that, as flimsy as their bikinis were, no one's top came off when she dived into the pool. There's no reason why any of those things should happen in real life...though those things would've happened in almost any film. I was annoyed that what I was watching wasn't playing itself out the way it would have in a film. The window was a frame for what I was watching. Sitting at my desk and looking out through the glass was exactly like watching something on a television screen. They were framed in the window, centered there as a scene.

Social programming, I suppose. Anything seen in a frame, anything seen on or through what might be a screen, isn't daily life. It's supposed to be scripted and edited. It's supposed to be a story told to entertain or excite or amuse the viewer. Too many years of living inside books and films have left me much less able to distinguish what I see on a television or laptop screen from what I see framed in my window.  The bikini girls weren't real-life girls who live near my flat, they were characters in a film, and one that I was exasperated with for its poor writing.  It wasn't just sour grapes that they weren't with me. It was that I was watching a flawed film, a film that couldn't hold my interest. I suppose I see far too much of life that way.