Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Seventy-Eight: Mise-en-scène

A friend in the Midwest asked me to write about sex and the imagination. It's easy enough to begin an essay about that.  It's imagination that brings sex to life, that gives it its energy and power and delights. I can't imagine any physical pleasure that isn't filtered through the imagination or fueled by the imagination. Whatever the body does, or wants to do, it's the imagination that shapes it and gives it meaning.

I've always lived inside my head. I grew up scrolling through scenes in books or films in my head, and whenever I walked down streets--- in the city where I was born, in small lakefront towns in my later teens ---I was always moving through some scene in a film or a book. When I was young I inevitably had a book with me, and I'd read in all sorts of unlikely places and then re-tell the stories in my head. I did the same with films, and once I learned a bit about the grammar and vocabulary of film, I'd walk down tree-lined streets or through a downtown still shaded by wrought-iron balconies and envision how to shoot film scenes there.

I live through books and films; I always have.  On any ordinary day when I'm crossing a street or standing at a window, I'm a character in a story. When I sit at a cafe table and watch people at other tables, I'm telling their stories in my head. I'm creating stories for them, and the more details I can insert, the more depth of context I can create, then the better the stories can be.

There's a new sin (or crime, possibly) that the gender warriors have created--- something called "sexualization". That seems to mean something like imagining what a lovely stranger (or anyone, really) would be like as a sexual partner, or at least imagining them in some sexual way. This is all tied up in issues of "dehumanization" and consent. It's another term that the gender warriors use as a term of abuse that I simply can't understand. I've always made the world around me into a set of stories, and I've certainly told myself stories about sex.

That's not just about looking at lovely university girls whisper past and imagining them naked--- or, better, half-undressed in stylish high-fashion outfits. It's not just about wondering what it would be like to have her legs over my shoulders, or what her sexual tastes and previous adventures might be. It's about long, intricate stories, each one filled with details and backstory. It's about what imagining that any moment, any chance meeting could turn into an episode of "Red Shoe Diaries" or some film shown late night on Cinemax. Not porn, really, since the stories I create in my head are more about settings and styles and poses than about the sex itself.  They're erotica certainly--- tales of sudden, unexpected, risky, breathless, no-names-please encounters. It's just that the look and setting matter more than just the connection of bodies.

I wrote once in a notebook that if something can't be crafted like a story, then it's not worth doing. I suppose I do expect that from romances and encounters: a certain formality, a sense of a clear story arc, the ability to turn the world around me into sets and settings, the ability to be a character in a well-designed tale, the creation of a backstory for myself, my young companion, and the encounter itself.  Sex can be deeply, overwhelmingly passionate, but I always find myself standing just a bit outside the moment, thinking about how what's happening fits into a story arc or into a kind of roman fleuve.

Over the years, I've been lucky enough to find young companions who were girls who lived inside books and films themselves, who understood about films-in-the-head and about the art of narrative. They've had their own roles in the stories they'd tell themselves, their own set of backstories for encounters. We've been able to put our separate visions together, or at least to tell stories that complement rather than compete with one another.

I've long thought that bookish girls make the best lovers because they understand the idea of imagination, of creating worlds and knowing how to furnish them and live inside them. They understand the power of narrative, and the power of realizing that there are (or at least should be) no limits to stories and scenarios. I've been lucky about that, about finding girls who were willing to construct new worlds and imagine new tales. There's always been something thrilling about looking in a young companion's eyes and trying to intuit what stories she wants to tell and how she imagines the look, the style, of what she and I are doing.

Sex is always about imagination for me. It's not an end in itself, but it is the scaffolding, the skeleton, for narratives about worlds and times and characters, about style and sets and settings.  I can't imagine any affair, any encounter, that isn't born out of imagined stories and lived out as a kind of tale. Yes, I do sexualize the girls I see on the street or in cafes or classrooms, though it's much less a matter of the flesh than it is of casting them as characters with particular styles or complex backstories in a long and ongoing narrative.  I can't imagine sex or romance that doesn't exist as part of a story, and I can't imagine not re-visioning the world around me for the stories I tell inside my head. I always whisper to lovers, No limits, and I do mean that. I want them to trust themselves to their own imaginations and just fall forward into new worlds and new adventures, to take up new identities and re-make the ordinary world into something well-crafted and visual and stylish.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Seventy-Seven: Practicalities

I found an article on line the other day that drew a distinction in male lives.

Males, the author argued, drove themselves in any relationship to be needed because they couldn't imagine ever being wanted. Males, he wrote, were unable to imagine that they could be desired--- especially for anything physical ---and could only imagine that they've have value to a lover for the practical, concrete things they could offer, whether that was financial support or fixing a mechanical problem. The argument veered off to talk about a society in which the male body is regarded as largely undesirable, in which beauty and desire are linked with the female body. It veered off to talk about how uncomfortable males feel about being thought physically, as opposed to functionally, desirable, about how men agonize over being useful.

There's something there. I'm male and hetero, and I can't imagine how a male body could excite desire. I know it must happen, but I know that in some distant, abstract way. I certainly can't think of ever being physically desired or desirable. When girls have paid me compliments or whispered endearments to me in bed, they've never said anything about my looks or body or physical accomplishments. I'm glad about that in a way. I wouldn't know how to accept a compliment like that. I wouldn't believe anything a girl said to me about that, and I'd be instantly suspicious and on guard. I'd assume it was a lie, and wonder what she was hoping to manipulate me into doing. I'd be angry, too. Not just at the lie, but at being thought naive enough to believe her.

The compliments I've received over the years were always about being useful. I've been complimented on knowing about books and films and ideas, on being able to bring my young companions into stories and other worlds, on being able to create worlds for them. If a girl tells me that I've offered up ways for her to become passionate about ideas and books, or if she says that I've been a good way to access games and dreams that she'd have been afraid to try otherwise, I'll believe her. She's paying me compliments on things I can believe about myself. And she's making me feel useful.  I can remember saying to lovers that I wanted exactly that, to be someone they thought useful. Part of that is the nature of the exchange built into the relationship: youth and beauty exchanged for knowledge and experience. There's been passion in those affairs, but the passion I've evoked in young companions has been a passion for knowledge, certainly not any kind of physical passion for me. I know that over the years, I've accepted that and encouraged it. I wouldn't know how to do things any other way.

The author of the article did get this much right. There is a deep male unease at being found physically desirable, and no clear male guidelines for knowing how to respond to being wanted. Being useful is so much easier, and has much simpler metrics. I have spent my life finding ways to be useful to lovers and young companions. I tell myself that what I have to offer a girl is conceptual, and has nothing to do with my body, or even really with my personality. I know how to offer up things to a young companion that can provide delight or experience or learning, but in the end those things have nothing to do with me. I'm the curator, not the artist. Nothing that I offer up grows out of my flesh. I wouldn't know what to say to a girl who told me she wanted something from me that was purely or even mostly physical.

Down all the years, I have understood the terms of the exchange. I can create worlds and games and scenarios, I can offer up ideas and books and visions. Whatever I do in the flesh for my lovers is only and ever subsidiary to concepts.  I'd have no idea what to do if I had to respond to physical desire or to expectations that I be something worth looking at or being seen.

This may be something that grows out of a society where beauty is defined as female and where male value is based on the ability to do concrete, often financial things. It may be an in-built danger in roué-hood, part of the risk in having young companions. It may be born out of my own personal fears. It is there, though. I know how to be useful in certain ways, and I know how to use those things in some tactical way. I can imagine and accept compliments based on things I know or do. I have no ability at all to accept being complimented on anything that I am. I certainly don't find the idea of being wanted or desired physically anything that I can deal with, and I'd have no idea how to live up to any expectations based on those things. Being a roué is about concepts and things abstract. I have no idea how to have value based on anything else.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Seventy-Six: Taking The Stage

In the last week or so I've seen a couple of essays on the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and I read them with disdain. The concept itself itself has been so overused and diluted as to be meaningless. Too many of the people using the term and loading it down with significance in the gender wars seem to have no clear idea of how novels or films are different from real life. I'd think one would want to be clear about that.  Of course the MPDG character exists only to further the growth of the hero. Every character in the novel or film exists to further the hero's story. All those drowned sailors, all those dead suitors at the feast, exist only to help move Odysseus home from Troy to Ithaka and reunion with Penelope. Their stories, whatever they might be in an age of fan-fic, aren't what Homer is telling.

There was an article I found today that was written with some truly off-putting mixture of guilty bragging and self-aggrandizement lamenting how the MPDG trope had "consequences". The author told the story of going overseas in his high school years to meet family in Vienna. One distant cousin was an attractive girl maybe a year older with whom he was instantly smitten. She took him to parties, helped him with his German, smoked hash with him, talked about books and poetry and anarchism, showed him local underground bands and plays, marched with him in some demonstration. They stayed up all night talking and making out. She was--- oh, yes ---every bookish American teen boy's vision of the European girl. When he went back to the States at the end of summer, they exchanged letters for a year or two. When he went off to university, they gradually fell out of touch. A few years later, his family received a black-edged funeral announcement from Austria. The girl had killed herself after a long bout of depression. The story is sad enough, but the writer tried to use her suicide as being a consequence of how he'd seen her as a guide into new experiences. She was his MPDG, he wrote, and somehow he was responsible for her death, though he couldn't explain how that connection worked. The article didn't lament her passing, or note that the depression developed long after he was back home, or even really offer up fond memories of her, or feel grateful for what she'd given him when he was sixteen. It was all about the evil of the MPDG idea--- about specifically male evil. I've read a few of the author's pieces before, and I've disliked him--- this piece was just more evidence of my general contempt for him.

A young lady of my acquaintance wrote this evening to comment on the story. She told me that she was going to get a t-shirt that read "Proud To Be A Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and wear it. Her story, she wrote, was one where she had the skills and knowledge to open up shy, sheltered boys, to be the girl who taught them about a world of new books and stylish sex.  The boys were her supporting cast, she said, and she was glad to be the girl they'd remember as a figure in their education.

There's no positive male equivalent of the MPDG, or at least no positive term for it. I've known for a very long time that my young companions see me as a character in a story. I know that I'm expected to do certain things, to be the older admirer who can introduce them to new experiences. I'm fine with that, mind you. I spent years in front of classes or around seminar tables telling stories and talking about books and ideas, and I always wanted to impart a passion for those things. Being part of a lovely girl's sentimental education is a delight and an honour. I know that I'm not likely to be a destination, but I am there as a kind of adventure along the way. Being the roué, being the older admirer, is always like being a city a lovely girl passes through on a long caravan journey.

I understand the role. It's what I do, and it's what I am. My own story is one where the older admirer with a academic past is able to seduce youth and beauty into his bed with talk of books and ideas. My young companion's story is one where she's opening up to the world and traveling to some unknown country, where the older admirer is there to show her all the new things she can be or do. The trick is to make the two stories mesh, and to be aware that each of us is living inside a novel or a film.  It's risky, yes, but it's also and always a collaboration.

Live inside stories, be someone's story, be part of someone else's story. But do treasure the stories, and treasure the idea of stories.  Be part of a sentimental education, be part of transgressive erotica. Live inside stories, and be proud of being asked into someone else's.