“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Secret Dancers

For about 3 years, I was a bit obsessed with C.K. Williams's poems. They usually tell stories, and rather than worrying over whether his words impose some burden of meaning on his subjects, Williams uses words to discover the meanings that exist independent of them. The result is a stripping away of tired, habituated ways of seeing to make way for new revelation.
This poem was also inspired by Ian McEwan's novel Saturday, which focuses on a day in the life of a neurosurgeon. Anyway, I really love how this poem turned out, but it's so derivative I feel I have to cite my inspirations.

                                       Secret Dancers
The woman on the right side of the booth as I approach—“Can I get you something to
            drink?”—I noticed had something wrong with her,
the way she walked, the way she moved, when I led her with her friend, much older,
her mother perhaps, from the door—“Hello, will it be
just the two of you today?”—to where they sit, in my section, scanning the menu for that
one item.

“I’d just like water with lemon,” the one on the left says, the older one, the mother.
I nod, repeating, “water with lemon,” as I turn to the other,
like I always turn from one to the next, but this time with an added eagerness, with a
curiosity I know may offend, and I see my diagnosis was correct,
for the woman cannot, does not, sit still, cannot be still, but jerks and sways, as if unable
to establish equilibrium, find a balanced middle.

I’m glad, hurrying to the fountains, as I always do, the woman said, in essence,
“For me too,” because I’ve already lost her words in the deluge
of the disturbance, the rarity, the tragedy of the sight of her involuntary dance—chorea—
which is, aside from the movement, nothing at all like a dance,
more an antidance, signaling things opposite to what real dancers do with their
performances.

I watch my hands do by habit the filling of plastic cups with ice and water, reach for
straws and lemons, still seeing her, slipping though sitting,
and doing my own semantic antidance in my mind: “How could anyone go on
believing… after seeing… dopamine… substantia nigra…
choreographed by nucleotides—no one ever said the vestibular structure, the loop
under the ear with the tiny floating bone that gives us, that is
our sense of balance, was implicated… so important to see.”

In the kitchen, sorting dishes by shape on the stainless steal table on their way to being
washed, I call to the pretty young cook I sort of love,
who sort of loves but sort of hates me for the sorts of things I say (noticing and
questioning), and say, “There’s a woman with Parkinson’s
at table three—you should come look,” and feel chastised by an invisible authority
(somewhere in my frontal lobe I suspect) before the suggestion
can even be acknowledged. Look? Are we to examine her, make her a specimen, or
gawk, like at a freak? But it—she is so important to see,
I set to formulating a new category of looking.

I begin with the varieties of suffering so proudly and annoyingly on display: abuse, or
“abuse”, survived, poverty escaped, gangsta rappers shot or imprisoned
to earn their street cred, chains of slights and abandonments by ex-lovers, all heard so
frequently, boasted of as markers of authenticity. Is there a way,
I wonder, to look that would serve as tribute to the woman’s much more literal, much
more real perseverance and courage, a registering and appreciation
of identity, that precious plumage that renders each of us findable in the endless welter
and noise of faces and the dubious stories of heroism attached to them?

Returning to the booth to take the women’s orders, so awkward, so wrong, the looking,
I discover, cannot be condoned under my new rubric because
the sufferer’s antidance is leading her in the wrong direction. Those stories of abuse,
penury, assaults or arrests, and recurrent dealings with
unfaithful lovers all go from bad, the worse the better, to better but never too good. This
story, like nearly all real and authentic stories, is about deterioration.
So I type their orders on the touch screen computer, defeated, chastened, as if curiosity—
noticing and questioning—leads irredeemably to taboo
(but how lucky to be born with this affliction instead of one more incapacitating!)

I’m left sulking a little, and thinking about dancing and movement that goes by the name
but isn’t. “Dance Champ!” they exhorted Ali from ringside in Zaire,
when he’d decided, strategically, and it turned out successfully, not to. Ali, The Greatest,
the star and subject of movies, King of Classic Sports on ESPN,
his not quite dancing featured so prominently, so inescapably—look all you want, look
and be awed—but all in the past. You forget the man is still alive.
The secrecy makes me wonder: is it economic, is it political?

The visibility, the stark advertisement of achievers of the formerly impossible, the
heroically, the monstrously successful, coupled with the tabooed
hiding away of the vastly more numerous unfortunate, fallen, and afflicted—the
lifeblood, the dangling American Dream, insufficient,
the market for better lives necessitates the beating heart of  belief, “You can do
anything...,” be your heroes, be heroes for others, by working,
spending, studying, being industrious, acquisitive, but never, never questioning and only
curious to a degree, “…anything you put your” (antidancing) “mind to.”

As I carry the plates, one in the crook between palm and thumb in my left hand, the other
balanced over it on my wrist so I have a free hand to grab the ketchup
on my way to the booth, I recall uneasily watching Ali, his arm outstretched, antidancing
as he lit the Olympic Torch.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

CK Williams translates Ovid

Image Courtesy of wikimedia.org

Hercules, Deianira, Nessus
                   From Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book IX
There was absolutely no reason after the centaur had pawed her and
            tried to mount her,
after Hercules waiting across the raging river for the creature to carry her
            to him
heard her cry out and launched an arrow soaked in the hydra’s incurable
            venom into the monster,
that Deianira should have believed him, Nessus, horrible thing, as he
            died but she did.
-
We see the end of the story: Deianira anguished, aghast, suicide-sword
            in her hand;
Hercules’ blood hissing and seething like water in which molten rods are
            plunged to anneal,
but how could a just-married girl hardly out of her father’s house have
            envisioned all that,
and even conjecturing that Nessus was lying, plotting revenge, how
            could she have been sure?
-
We see the centaur as cunning, malignant, a hybrid from the savage time
            before ours
when emotion always was passion and passion was always unchecked by
            commandment or conscience;
she sees only a man-horse, mortally hurt, suddenly harmless, eyes sud-
            denly soft as a foal’s,
telling her, “Don’t be afraid, come closer, listen”: offering homage,
            friendship, a favor.
-
In our age or scrutiny and dissection we know Deianira’s mind better
            than she does herself:
we know the fortune of women as chattel and quarry, objects to be won
            then shunted aside;
we understand the cost of repression, the repercussions of unsatisfied
            rage and resentment,
but consciousness then was still new, Deianira inhabited hers like the
            light from a fire.
-
Or might she have glimpsed with that mantic prescience the gods hadn’t
            yet taken away
her hero a lifetime later on the way home with another king’s daughter,
            callow, but lovely,
lovely enough to erase from Hercules’ scruples not only his vows but the
            simple convention
that tells you you don’t bring a rival into your aging wife’s weary, sorrow-
            ful bed?
-
…No, more likely the centaur’s promise intrigued in itself: an infalli-
            ble potion of love.
“Just gather the clots of blood from my wound: here, use my shirt, then
            hide it away.
Though so exalted, so regal a woman as you never would need it, it
            might still be of use:
whoever’s shoulders it touches, no matter when, will helplessly, hope-
            lessly love you forever.”
-
See Hercules now in the shirt Deianira has sent him approaching the
            fire of an altar,
the garment suddenly clinging, the hydra, his long-vanquished foe, alive
            in its threads,
each thread a tentacle clutching at him, each chemical tentacle acid,
            adhering, consuming,
charring before his horrified eyes skin from muscle, muscle from tendon,
            tendon from bone.
-
Now Deianira, back then, the viscous gouts of Nessus’ blood dyeing her
            diffident hands:
if she could imagine us watching her there in her myth, how would she
            want us to see her?
Surely as symbol, a petal of sympathy caught in the perilous rift between
            culture and chaos,
not as the nightmare she’d be, a corpse with a slash of tardy self-
            knowledge deep in its side.
-
What Hercules sees as he pounds up the bank isn’t himself cremated
            alive on his pyre,
shrieking as Jove his Olympian father extracts his immortal essence from
            its agonized sheathing¾
he sees what’s before him: the woman, his bride, kneeling to the dark,
            rushing river,
obsessively scrubbing away, he must think, the nocuous, mingled reek
            of horse, hydra, human.
                                                                                    ¾C.K. Williams
                                                                                                TheVigil, 1997
Also available in Collected Works

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Upper Hand in Relationships

         People perform some astoundingly clever maneuvers in pursuit of the upper hand in their romantic relationships, and some really stupid ones too. They try to make their partners jealous. They feign lack of interest. They pretend to have enjoyed wild success in the realm of dating throughout their personal histories, right up until the point at which they met their current partners. The edge in cleverness, however, is usually enjoyed by women—though you may be inclined to call it subtlety, or even deviousness.

            Some of the most basic dominance strategies used in romantic relationships are based either on one partner wanting something more than the other, or on one partner being made to feel more insecure than the other. We all know couples whose routine revolves around the running joke that the man is constantly desperate for sex, which allows the woman to set the terms he must meet in order to get some. His greater desire for sex gives her the leverage to control him in other domains. I’ll never forget being nineteen and hearing a friend a few years older say of her husband, “Why would I want to have sex with him when he can’t even remember to take out the garbage?” Traditionally, men held the family purse strings, so they—assuming they or their families had money—could hold out the promise of things women wanted more. Of course, some men still do this, giving their wives little reminders of how hard they work to provide financial stability, or dropping hints of their extravagant lifestyles to attract prospective dates.

            You can also get the upper hand on someone by taking advantage of his or her insecurities. (If that fails, you can try producing some.) Women tend to be the most vulnerable to such tactics at the moment of choice, wanting their features and graces and wiles to make them more desirable than any other woman prospective partners are likely to see. The woman who gets passed up in favor of another goes home devastated, likely lamenting the crass superficiality of our culture.

            Most of us probably know a man or two who, deliberately or not, manages to keep his girlfriend or wife in constant doubt when it comes to her ability to keep his attention. These are the guys who can’t control their wandering eyes, or who let slip offhand innuendos about incremental weight gain. Perversely, many women respond by expending greater effort to win his attention and his approval.

           Men tend to be the most vulnerable just after sex, in the Was-it-good-for-you moments. If you found yourself seething at some remembrance of masculine insensitivity reading the last paragraph, I recommend a casual survey of your male friends in which you ask them how many of their past partners at some point compared them negatively to some other man, or men, they had been with prior to the relationship. The idea that the woman is settling for a man who fails to satisfy her as others have plays into the narrative that he wants sex more—and that he must strive to please her outside the bedroom.
  
          If you can put your finger on your partner’s insecurities, you can control him or her by tossing out reassurances like food pellets to a trained animal. The alternative would be for a man to be openly bowled over by a woman’s looks, or for a woman to express in earnest her enthusiasm for a man’s sexual performances. These options, since they disarm, can be even more seductive; they can be tactics in their own right—but we’re talking next-level expertise here so it’s not something you’ll see very often.

           I give the edge to women when it comes to subtly attaining the upper hand in relationships because I routinely see them using a third strategy they seem to have exclusive rights to. Being the less interested party, or the most secure and reassuring party, can work wonders, but for turning proud people into sycophants nothing seems to work quite as well as a good old-fashioned guilt-trip.

           To understand how guilt-trips work, just consider the biggest example in history: Jesus died on the cross for your sins, and therefore you owe your life to Jesus. The illogic of this idea is manifold, but I don’t need to stress how many people it has seduced into a lifetime of obedience to the church. The basic dynamic is one of reciprocation: because one partner in a relationship has harmed the other, the harmer owes the harmed some commensurate sacrifice.
  
          I’m probably not the only one who’s witnessed a woman catching on to her man’s infidelity and responding almost gleefully—now she has him. In the first instance of this I watched play out, the woman, in my opinion, bore some responsibility for her husband’s turning elsewhere for love. She was brutal to him. And she believed his guilt would only cement her ascendancy. Fortunately, they both realized about that time she must not really love him and they divorced.
  
          But the guilt need not be tied to anything as substantive as cheating. Our puritanical Christian tradition has joined forces in America with radical feminism to birth a bastard lovechild we encounter in the form of a groundless conviction that sex is somehow inherently harmful—especially to females. Women are encouraged to carry with them stories of the traumas they’ve suffered at the hands of monstrous men. And, since men are of a tribe, a pseudo-logic similar to the Christian idea of collective guilt comes into play. Whenever a man courts a woman steeped in this tradition, he is put on early notice—you’re suspect; I’m a trauma survivor; you need to be extra nice, i.e. submissive.

           It’s this idea of trauma, which can be attributed mostly to Freud, that can really make a relationship, and life, fraught and intolerably treacherous. Behaviors that would otherwise be thought inconsiderate or rude—a hurtful word, a wandering eye—are instead taken as malicious attempts to cause lasting harm. But the most troubling thing about psychological trauma is that belief in it is its own proof, even as it implicates a guilty party who therefore has no way to establish his innocence.
  
          Over the course of several paragraphs, we’ve gone from amusing but nonetheless real struggles many couples get caught up in to some that are just downright scary. The good news is that there is a subset of people who don’t see relationships as zero-sum games. (Zero-sum is a game theory term for interactions in which every gain for one party is a loss for the other. Non zero-sum games are those in which cooperation can lead to mutual benefits.) The bad news is that they can be hard to find.
      
            There are a couple of things you can do now though that will help you avoid chess match relationships—or minimize the machinations in your current romance. First, ask yourself what dominance tactics you tend to rely on. Be honest with yourself. Recognizing your bad habits is the first step toward breaking them. And remember, the question isn’t whether you use tactics to try to get the upper hand; it’s which ones you use how often?

           The second thing you can do is cultivate the habit and the mutual attitude of what’s good for one is good for the other. Relationship researcher Arthur Aron says that celebrating your partner’s successes is one of the most important things you can do in a relationship. “That’s even more important,” he says, “than supporting him or her when things go bad.” Watch out for zero-sum responses, in yourself and in your partner. And beware of zero-summers in the realm of dating. Ladies, you know the guys who seem vaguely resentful of the power you have over them by dint of your good looks and social graces. And, guys, you know the women who make you feel vaguely guilty and set-upon every time you talk to them. The best thing to do is stay away.
       
     But you may be tempted, once you realize a dominance tactic is being used on you, to perform some kind of countermove. It’s one of my personal failings to be too easily provoked into these types of exchanges. It is a dangerous indulgence.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Artificial Beauty - Is There a Better Way to Advertise?

While the idea of objectification is as nonsensical as it is offensive, it is nevertheless undeniable that fashion and cosmetic industry marketers deliberately aggravate the insecurities of young, and not so young, women by setting unrealistic standards of fitness and beauty. A recent viral video (see below) underscores just how easy it is to create convincing dynamic images of women with impossibly exaggerated features, and the video’s popularity testifies to the pressure women feel to live up to these preposterous ideals. (Men are also subjected to similarly exploitative advertising, but that’s for a future post.) Still, I would wager most women would balk at any plan to do away with models and beauty product advertising altogether. It’s the deceit and the artificiality that they find infuriating.

So what would more truthful, more ethical, more realistic, but just as useful and effective advertising look like? If images really are as easy to doctor as the critics suggest, then it should be just as easy to transform ordinary pictures of everyday women into ads for clothes, accessories, and makeup. And we already have immense caches of digital images featuring exactly the types of women we encounter on a regular basis in real life. As TV commercials tend more and more toward obsolescence, and marketers cast about for newer and better ways to reach their audiences, it seems to me they ought to avail themselves of the opportunity to rise above their saprophytic, bottom-dwelling, insecurity-inducing industry practices. Why not use our friends, why not use us, as models—assuming we give them permission to do so?

Imagine registering at a website for a line of clothing or products we tend to find appealing, giving the operators access to our friends list on Facebook or some other social media site (with whatever necessary restrictions we wish to impose), and then receiving adds featuring our friends as they would appear decked out in the new fashions, done up in the new shades. These ads would probably be even more effective than the old-fashioned TV spots—and they would allow us to pass along the images to the very friends featured in them. “Check out how good you’d look in these boots!”

As long as there were some mechanism in place to ensure the doctored images resulted in faithful renderings of how the products would affect our appearance (and that could be tricky because the marketers would have a huge incentive to make the pics look too good), the problem of impossible standards and artificial ideals would be solved.

I'd be amazed if something like this isn’t already happening.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Is Patriarchy Even a Real Thing?

            One of the definitions of patriarchy is male control of families and government. But what many are referring to when they use the term is a culture and socialization process that privilege men and boys while oppressing, disadvantaging, and subjugating women and girls. In practice, patriarchy often means the simple assumption that males have it better than females and that they work, often deviously, often with the complicity of blinkered females, to maintain their advantage.
 
            I'm skeptical that there even is such a thing as patriarchy, at least in that latter sense of the term. I can imagine my feminist friends reading that line and getting set to unload a barrage of anecdotes and snippets of history lessons. Before you begin your attempts at setting me straight, let me be clear about what exactly I'm suggesting. It's undeniable that the treatment of women in third-world countries is often abysmal. It's undeniable that some cultures—usually the religious sectors in particular—explicitly preach that women are to be submissive to men. Those explicit teachings are rightly called patriarchy.

            There is an important distinction to be made, however, between a system of family hierarchy and social governance on the one hand, and the suggestion on the other hand that an entire culture is biased in favor of men. Keeping score on both sides of the gender divide by adding up all the miseries and subtracting all the privileges to see who has it worst is exactly the type of tribal behavior that makes this sort of politics so divisive and incendiary. So let me just point out that there are a lot more people monitoring the travails of women and not bothering to consider for a second that men might be going through things that are just as bad or worse. Often small groups of men prey on women and other men alike. And women often enjoy certain advantages over men, especially if they're intelligent or attractive or both, even in third-world countries. (The case of third-world countries, incidentally, ought to give feminists pause before they spout off about the evils of civilization.)

            I'm not a Pollyanna. There really are groups who suffer from severe societal and generational disadvantages, even in this first-world country. In fact, their plight offers a helpful template for how we should expect oppression to appear in various measures. Here, for instance, is a graph of how African Americans and whites have responded to surveys investigating their subjective well-being since the early 1970s.
Source: "Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress," by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers
            Two things stand out in this graph. One is that whites have a significant advantage in terms of subjective well-being, just as we might expect. The other is that the gap between the races has been narrowing, albeit at a disconcertingly sluggish pace, over the past forty years. This is probably due in large part to the victories of the civil rights movement, and other deliberate social efforts to right injustices.

            Based on the conventional wisdom regarding the plight of women, we might expect the happiness divide between the sexes to demonstrate pretty much the same trend. But it turns out the two graphs look nothing alike. 
Source: "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfters

            First, men didn't start out with a clear advantage. Second, it seems women have actually gotten slightly less happy over the past forty years.

            Yes, men continue to make more money, men continue to hold more positions of power. So, you could argue that men are still privileged and women are just disappointed that they haven't made much progress. And I bet at least a few of you reading this are wondering how girls might be socialized to claim to be as happy as men even when they're not. But neither of these special pleads really accounts for the pattern anyway.

            We need an alternative hypothesis. Maybe it is human nature to develop different roles for women and men. These roles may even be influenced by regular developmental differences, like the production of hormones, and then over time become somewhat exaggerated through a process of observational learning and norm generation. Insofar as this is the case, it’s simply wrong to point to the different roles and claim their existence is proof of one side’s privilege.

            With each role comes a set of privileges and burdens, and maybe, just maybe the two cancel out pretty well. Many men probably feel the need to make money is a burden. Many women probably feel the greater burden of child-rearing placed on them is a privilege.

            None of this necessarily works as evidence for the superiority of traditional sex roles—and I certainly don’t advocate any enforcement of them. Indeed, we need to do our best to support people who for whatever reason want to step outside the bounds of our common expectations. But we also have to be prepared to accept the conclusion—should it be arrived at with a threshold degree of certainty—that people are happier when they embrace their differences, whether those differences are the product of biology, culture, or both.

            And, if you are wont to insist on the existence of male privilege, how will you demonstrate it? How can you be sure it isn’t limited to circumscribed domains? How would you convince a reasonable and informed skeptic that patriarchy is a real problem?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Seduced by Satan

            Why do we like the guys who seem not to care whether or not what they’re doing is right, but who often manage to do what’s right anyway? In the Star Wars series, Han Solo is introduced as a mercenary, concerned only with monetary reward. In the first episode of Mad Men, audiences see Don Draper saying to a woman that they should get married, and then in the final scene he arrives home to his actual wife. Tony Soprano, Jack Sparrow, Tom Sawyer, the list of male characters who flout rules and conventions, who lie, cheat and steal, but who nevertheless compel the attention, the favor, even the love of readers and moviegoers would be difficult to exhaust.

            John Milton has been accused of both betraying his own and inspiring others' sympathy and admiration for what should be the most detestable character imaginable. When he has Satan, in Paradise Lost, say, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” many believed he was signaling his support of the king of England’s overthrow. Regicidal politics are well and good—at least from the remove of many generations—but voicing your opinions through such a disreputable mouthpiece? That’s difficult to defend. Imagine using a fictional Hitler to convey your stance on the current president.

            Stanley Fish theorizes that Milton’s game was a much subtler one: he didn’t intend for Satan to be sympathetic so much as seductive, so that in being persuaded and won over to him readers would be falling prey to the same temptation that brought about the fall. As humans, all our hearts are marked with original sin. So if many readers of Milton’s magnum opus come away thinking Satan may have been in the right all along, the failure wasn’t the author’s unconstrained admiration for the rebel angel so much as it was his inability to adequately “justify the ways of God to men.” God’s ways may follow a certain logic, but the appeal of Satan’s ways is deeper, more primal.

            In the “Argument,” or summary, prefacing Book Three, Milton relays some of God’s logic: “Man hath offended the majesty of God by aspiring to godhead and therefore, with all his progeny devoted to death, must die unless someone can be found sufficient to answer for his offence and undergo his punishment.” The Son volunteers. This reasoning has been justly characterized as “barking mad” by Richard Dawkins. But the lines give us an important insight into what Milton saw as the principle failing of the human race, their ambition to be godlike. It is this ambition which allows us to sympathize with Satan, who incited his fellow angels to rebellion against the rule of God.

            In Book Five, we learn that what provoked Satan to rebellion was God’s arbitrary promotion of his own Son to a status higher than the angels: “by Decree/ Another now hath to himself ingross’t/ All Power, and us eclipst under the name/ Of King anointed.” Citing these lines, William Flesch explains, “Satan’s grandeur, even if it is the grandeur of archangel ruined, comes from his iconoclasm, from his desire for liberty.” At the same time, however, Flesch insists that, “Satan’s revolt is not against tyranny. It is against a tyrant whose place he wishes to usurp.” So, it’s not so much freedom from domination he wants, according to Flesch, as the power to dominate.

            Anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes the political dynamics of nomadic peoples in his book Hierarchy in the Forest: TheEvolution of Egalitarian Behavior, and his descriptions suggest that parsing a motive of domination from one of preserving autonomy is much more complicated than Flesch’s analysis assumes. “In my opinion,” Boehm writes, “nomadic foragers are universally—and all but obsessively—concerned with being free from the authority of others” (68). As long as the group they belong to is small enough for each group member to monitor the actions of the others, people can maintain strict egalitarianism, giving up whatever dominance they may desire for the assurance of not being dominated themselves.

            Satan very likely speaks to this natural ambivalence in humans. Benevolent leaders win our love and admiration through their selflessness and charisma. But no one wants to be a slave. Does Satan’s admirable resistance and defiance shade into narcissistic self-aggrandizement and an unchecked will to power? If so, is his tyranny any more savage than that of God? And might there even be something not altogether off-putting about a certain degree self-indulgent badness?