Saturday, August 29, 2015

One Five Four: Deux Heures

Tonight I've been watching a lovely and very charming small film called "5 to 7". It's new--- released this year ---but it reminds me so much of Eric Rohmer's films. I've recommended it to friends I know who fancy both Eric Rohmer and Whit Stillman. It's very much the sort of film I wish I could watch with a lovely friend. Tonight I'm watching "5 to 7" with a bottle of chilled Riesling--- always a good thing ---but it's a film that does call for a lovely young companion there at one's side.

The plot of the film is simple enough. Young American in Manhattan, twenty-four and a would-be writer, falls into an affair with a lovely Frenchwoman not quite a decade older--- married, of course, with two children and a diplomat husband. She makes it very clear that she enjoys being with him and that he's a fine lover. She also makes it clear that the two of them can exist only for two hours on a given day, the two hours where she can be apart from social and family obligations and be part of a world of her choosing. There's a hotel room that's theirs, but there are also days when their two hours are spent at parks or films or museums. Yes, a movie where Where an affair is as much about talking as it is about sex.

The boy learns the rules of the affair as they go. The two of them can be seen together in the street or at a cafe. She can take his arm as they walk, but not his hand. They cannot kiss on the street or in the park. He's amazed at what he's learning, at being part of something that's like the novels he read at university or the films he watches on his MacBook. He's literary enough to be thrilled by having rules to learn, by realizing that he's part of something from another culture, another world.

I'm remembering what I wrote about earlier this month, about the affair I had in my twenties with the woman who was the food-and-wine critic. I remember parking my car and walking up the street to the address I'd been given--- the apartment she'd borrowed for us. I'm remembering that it was in a renovated block, one of those streets that had fallen into the kind of genteel ruin that the city was famous for, something expensively re-done to look like it was a ghost from the nineteenth-century. There was an inner courtyard; I do remember that. She told me later that the apartment was in the renovated servants' quarters. I remember it was upstairs, and I remember envying the books on the shelves and the carefully-arranged Mediterranean air to it all.  I can't recall what I must've been like that spring. Twenty-five or twenty-six, almost certainly with hair cropped short and spiked, probably a boy in a dark blazer and jeans, maybe in grey flannels. I may or may not have had a white streak dyed in my hair--- just the kind of affectation I'd have liked. I remember her as very tall, with elegant eyeglasses and a Scandinavian last name. She always talked about the way the city was famous for its creolization of food and drink and culture, but her own fashion style was very severe.  I remember feeling so incredibly adult about it all. After all, it was everything I'd read about--- an older, attractive, married woman with knowledge of things like food and wine, a borrowed apartment in a moneyed-bohemian part of an aging city that lived off its own legend.

It wasn't quite 5 to 7, but it was late afternoon into mid-evening. She was a food-and-wine critic; I suppose she could tell her husband that she was out at tastings or at restaurants. She wanted to take me to an opera once. I remember that--- the invitation ---although in the end I couldn't go. Her voice wasn't local; I remember that, too. She'd been born in northern California and raised in Seattle. But I remember her leading me from the kitchen to the bedroom and saying, "I hope you don't think I'm being too bold." At twenty-five or twenty-six I'd have been stunned by everything--- even that line. Yes--- yes. There were afternoons where I could watch the shadows at twilight from the bed in that borrowed apartment. It really was like being in a novel. I kept telling myself that, kept telling myself that it was like finding myself in just the kind of story I'd have wanted to write.

Those are kinds of memories an affair should generate. You'll have very few times like that in your life.  That's obvious. But the chance to spend even a few weeks or a few months having those experiences, to feel yourself launched into something with a literary pedigree---- always take that chance. And hold on to the memories. And affair goes on not just in bed, but in the memories it leaves you with, in the sense of having stepped into another world.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

One Five Three: Madison

I don't think I could define what an "affair" is any more. I'm not sure at all what counts as an "affair" these days. Life is short, the Ashley Madison tag line runs. Have an affair. There's the question, though, of what an affair is these days.

I'm old enough to remember when some writers (John Fowles, I seem to recall) still wrote affaire de coeur when describing what their characters were doing. I remember being young--- in my teens, in my undergraduate days ---and reading novels where it seemed that "having an affair" was one of the clear markers for adult life, at least in educated professional urban circles. I can recall sitting in my rooms at home and reading--- Updike, Cheever, Anthony Powell, Louis Auchincloss ---and believing that in the cities and social circles I longed for and aspired to that it was simply taken as a given that educated professionals, married or not, had affairs.

Now I'll take a moment to note that I grew up far away from those cities, and probably a generation removed from the settings of those books. But I did grow up in a house where the shelves had all those novels, where there were comedy albums by Nichols & May and the young Woody Allen on the hi-fi.  That world--- Fifties and early Sixties New York or London ---was the world I always thought was just outside my windows, just over the horizon.

I've never had any particular reverence for the institution of marriage. I always assumed that it was an institution that had clear and concrete purposes--- passing on property in a given bloodline, a mechanism for raising children and training them in cultural norms. Nothing wrong with that, and those two things are necessary in any society.

I'm a life-long bachelor, but I never had any particular feelings one way or the other about marriage as an institution. It was a necessary thing, but I was outside it. I suppose I still see it as a social marker I can't claim, a social expectation I haven't met. Whatever marriage did for society, I always saw myself as a bit apart. When I was in my teens or early twenties, I saw marriage as something one would probably do for a while to establish a certain claim to be thought a serious adult (and, yes, to establish a certain clear hetero status), but I don't think I ever ascribed any particular value to the married state itself. I'm sure it suits some people (my own parents were, as best I could tell, happily married for half a century), but I never had any reverence for marriage as such.

You've been reading along here, so I'll assume you know that I always say that I was Ruined By Books in exactly the way the Victorians feared. I did read Cheever and Updike and Auchincloss in my teens--- read books about worlds as alien as those in the sci-fi I used to read as well. In my undergraduate days I read Stendahl and Flaubert and the Big Russians. By the time I was ready to come down from university, I think I took it as a given that "having affairs" was something that gentlemen did, that "having affairs" was a customary part of the social worlds I wanted to inhabit.  I don't know how to explain that any other way.  By the time I was twenty-one, I took it for granted that in the professional classes, among people who lived in what they'd simply call The City, discreet affairs happened as part of the daily social landscape.

Alas, though. Despite my advanced years, and despite the credentials on my wall and the initials tacked on after my name, I don't move in circles where people have affairs.  The closest I think I've come to an affair was in my middle twenties, with a married fortyish woman who was a food-and-wine critic. It was all very discreet and reasonably clandestine. I remember that she borrowed a place from a female friend for us to use for rendezvous--- a converted carriage house in what we'd have called Uptown, or "out on the Avenue". It lasted a couple of late-spring months, and the key thing I remember is how adult it all felt. Or at least literary. But that's as close as ever I've come to an affair. It's been liberal arts co-eds since then, not women of the professional classes, married or not. And there's a clear distinction between dating or hooking up and an affair. Whenever I read Anita Brookner or Louis Auchincloss about the very discreet and civilised affairs their characters have, I know that I'm out of the loop.

I don't know what counts as an affair these days. It also seems that, as the Ashley Madison hack is showing,  the moralizers and shame-wielders are all-too-ready to attack the very idea of an affair. I miss the idea, of course. I miss the formality of it all. Like I miss the classic idea of the mistress, too. If you're following this, tell me what you think about the definition of affair and what the semiotics of the term are. And tell me what's happened in the last generation or so to give rise to the ranting (and rancid) moralizing and shaming that have boiled up since the Ashley Madison hack.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

One Five Two: Venue

There's a recent article at the Vogue website (06 August 15) by Karley Sciortino, who does the wonderful Slutever blog. It's called "Breathless: Why Can't Straight Men Talk About Sex?" It opens by posing this question:

At a recent dinner party, a guy friend of mine mentioned that he wanted to start a podcast about sex. He’s been hitting Tinder hard, and felt that he and his guy friends had enough hookup stories—ranging from sexy to awkward to horrendous—to sustain a funny and enlightening radio show. However, the immediate response at the table was, “Eww, no. You’re a creep.” The consensus was that two straight dudes can’t have a podcast about sex and dating without the whole thing coming across as... sleazy.

Ms. Sciortino is quite right, I think. If you're male and straight, you can't talk about sex--- experiences, problems, stories, fears, hopes ---without being thought of in the age of the gender wars as creepy or as a braggart. Those are regarded as the default settings for any straight-male accounts of sex. (There's also the New Age-y voice straight males might use at Good Men Project, but that's regarded as sad and easily mocked as silly--- God knows I certainly laugh at things like that) Karley Slutever writes that all the real writing about sex and sexual experience today is done by women, and that it's disheartening. Men aren't allowed to talk about sex without being seen as creepy or as PUA weasels, she says. All the real work in talking about sex is being done by women.

She's right, Ms. Sciortino is. Males--- straight males ---are no longer regarded as having any place in such discussions. Whatever problems or thoughts straight males have, whatever stories they have to tell--- hilarious, poignant, horrifying, awkward, romantic ---straight males aren't supposed to talk about them. No one wants to hear the Black Speech of Mordor, after all. 

Well, let's admit that a fair number of male sex blogs in the recent past were either frat-bro bragging or PUA propaganda. The gender warriors found ammunition left lying to hand. That's true enough.

But Ms. Slutever is right that the gender warriors see all male essays/blogs about sex as being some sort of assertion of power and aggression. There's little enough space for straight males on line to write about their own experiences or their own anxieties without being attacked as creepy or dismissed on ideological grounds. 

It's an awkward thing, though. I agree with her that there should be more male voices in conversations about sex and the labyrinths of sexual experience. Yet I have to ask myself if I'd read any blogs like that.  I read sex blogs by women as...novels. As film scripts. As sources for lists of accoutrements (fashions, wines, toys) worth having for sex and lists of  things to try and places to try them in. I read sex blogs by attractive twenty- and early thirty-something girls as novels, as travelers' tales, as Zagat guides.  I read them because I want to imagine being someone who could be part of the girls' stories. I don't want to read accounts of experiences by other males because I, well, as a straight male of a certain age, I...can't. For reasons that are obvious but probably deeply problematic. 

How very awkward, no? Yes, there should be spaces for males to be able to talk about their own stories, to open up exchanges and share advice. There are travelers' tales to be told by males that are worth reading. It's just that I wouldn't read them myself, that I can't imagine letting another male tell me about things sexual. So where does that leave me? Where does that leave the whole idea of men being able to talk about sex? 

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

One Five One: Incel

Let's see, now... Who recalls the term "incel" these days? Remember that? "Incel" = "involuntary celibate". It's a word that comes up in the angrier precincts of the "manosphere" for males who feel bitter and angry and betrayed that they've been left out of things sexual, that they aren't being granted access to the Forbidden City. I read this morning that back in the later Nineties there were support groups on line for "incel" people (male and female both) that really were about support and encouragement, groups that gave the lonely and bereft places to talk about being alone in a world of couples, groups that had a wistful air to them rather than a bitter one--- and read, too, that at some point those early people were driven away by rage-filled MRA/anti-feminist types. 

I've been wondering if any trace of that earlier culture still exists. The internet is a more brutal place than it was back in those days; we can take that as a given. I recall times when groups at places like would've talked about "incel" in terms of individual loneliness and how the lonely could help one another through their solitary times. I don't have any problem with the term, mind you--- in an earlier day "involuntary celibate" wouldn't have about seeking out some ideological enemy in feminism; it would've been about personal loneliness.

Being unwillingly celibate (the criteria seem to set six months as the time past which simple lack of luck becomes "incel") is pretty much something everyone goes through at points in their lives. And despite all the Social Justice Cult ranting about "entitlement" and reducing the pain people feel to just "privileged straight white tears" about not getting laid, there's a whole world of emptiness and social failure implicit in the term. We all have a need for someone else in our lives, a need not just for flesh but for all the social things that go with having a romantic partner. Involuntary celibacy means more than just not having sex, although the gender warriors seem to think it's about nothing more than being "thirsty" or wanting to get laid at will. (Funny, though, how they denigrate sex-as-pleasure or sex-as-adventure) Involuntary celibacy means being without the social part of being partnered--- being able to go to social events where the expectation is still that everyone is in a couple, not feeling excluded or useless in social settings, being able to share the closeness of romance, and, yes, being seen by others as valuable and valued enough to have a partner. Everyone has empty periods, everyone knows the discomfort of being single in a social world of couples, a world where the dyad is considered the norm. Everyone knows that. But it wasn't always a state that was associated with simmering rage and ideological disdain.  

I'd like to think that somewhere out there in corners of the web there are still communities where people offer one another kindness and support and hope about being able to alleviate loneliness or find romance. I'd like very much to think that, to think that there are still groups where members can tell one another that, even alone, they have some social value, that being alone doesn't mean that you have no worth in others' eyes.

I do wonder, too, whether "incel" as a term ever made it into gay or lesbian circles. Involuntary celibacy isn't restricted to straight white boys. I've no idea what the social dynamics of the gay world are these days, but I remember the dance club world of my Lost Youth as being one where the gay scene had its own exclusionary rules and lots of members who were painfully alone despite all their efforts to find romance. I remember reading Andrew Holleran's "Dancer From The Dance" where Holleran talks about the early gay disco scene as one of a "great and terrible" democracy of beauty...and thinking how hard that world must be for anyone not pretty enough to meet the scene's standards. Wouldn't involuntary celibacy have existed in Holleran's world--- and been at least as painful as in the straight world? In that era, in that world, in places that celebrated beauty and the casting off of old strictures and denials, wouldn't being incel have hurt even more than in the straight world?

A lovely young friend in Chicago tells me that she thinks "incel" never made it into usage outside outside the whole loathsome MRA/Red-Pill world, that she never heard it used in the gay or lesbian worlds at university or when she was a gallery girl in Manhattan. I do wonder, though--- are there self-described gay incels, and how do they perceive themselves? Do they use the word? Do they write about it? Is there a gay counterpart to "incel rage"? And...are gay males who call themselves incels attacked by the gender warriors and the Social Justice Cult the way straight users are? Gay men, I think, are currently being moved into the category of Bad Guys by the gender warriors--- see the whole feeding frenzy over "gay misogyny" or the way queen-speak "appropriates" black slang, see the way gay males are now treated by the gender warriors as bearing inherent male evil the same way straight males are. And what about the lesbian world? That's completely opaque to me; I have no travelers' tales to rely upon. How do non-straight-male worlds handle the idea of involuntary celibacy? That's something that the flaneur and the quondam academic in me would like to know. 

I'd like to know, too, if there are still groups who use the word "incel" without the ideological baggage of the gender wars and the whole dreary Red Pill nonsense. I'd like to know if there are still places where people can discuss loneliness and social exclusion with wistfulness and personal sorrow--- with mutual support, but without mockery, rage, and ideological derision.