"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Sexual Allure–Millennia Of Come Hither Likely To Last For Many More

An economist who worked for a prestigious international development firm, one which prided itself on social responsibility and uniform adherence to gender appropriateness, was surprised to read a memo from its CEO to all staff.  “Heretofore”, he wrote, “all employees will dress in a manner respectful of each other and expressive of the best and most serious intents of the company”.  He needn’t have said more. No reference to exaggerated décolleté, sleeveless blouses, tight, revealing skirts, or ‘business sheaths’ was necessary.  A line had been crossed at Baker International, and everyone knew it.

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“I am a woman’ was the credo of an organization which promoted women’s rights in Africa, championed the struggle against male oppression in Latin America, and stood behind veiled women in Iran and Saudi Arabia.  No less was it on the front lines of American women’s struggle for sexual equality and their fight against misogyny and patriarchy.  Yet what do do, pondered the CEO with what had become a workplace of sexual admission, no different from the backstreets of Amsterdam or the cages of Bombay.  Women in the K Street offices of one of the most prestigious eleemosynary institutions in Washington were beginning to look like tarts.

Not everyone on the board of directors agreed; and in fact there was a near mutiny from the most progressive feminist quarters whose members insisted that no attempt to corral, hogtie, whip-and-bind female employees to suit male Victorian tastes would be tolerated.  Women could and should be able to wear whatever suited them, however ‘provocative’ such dress might seem to unwoke male employees.  If men responded sexually to female attire which displayed the beauty of God’s creation, then so be it.  That was men’s problem, not that of women who were simply celebrating their female identity.

Of course most men saw the situation quite differently.  Sitting across from a beautiful young woman dressed in a scant, revealing dress; scented and accessorized; and sexually provocative in everything but word and demeanor was distracting at best, painful at worst.  How was a normal American man supposed to sit across from a deliciously attired, lightly perfumed, and coquettishly posed young woman without thinking about sex? It was prejudicial of senior management to allow such dress in the workplace, men complained.   Policies that promoted women’s equality should never ignore the polices of nature.  Men are simply and forever attracted to women’s appearance, the more revealing and seductive the better.  It has always been so.

From the sculptures of Ancient Greece and Rome to Khajuraho; from Degas, Renoir, Matisse, Ingres, and Picasso; to People, E!, and Entertainment Today; from Elle and Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar, the female form is displayed, honored, sold, and marketed today as it has been for millennia.  To men a woman is by nature alluring, seductive, and attractive.  A prize, a trophy, and a victory. 

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A war was fought over Helen of Troy, and few could resist Cleopatra, seductive queen of Egypt and seducer of Roman emperors. 
From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i' the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.
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Every family in the West End of New Brighton sent their children to Mrs. Lennor’s Dancing School, a finishing touch on a a social education which would have to withstand the influences of college, New York, and San Francisco.  Mrs. Lennor was a strict disciplinarian, not that much different from the Sisters Mary Joseph and Mary Francis who provided the Catholic sons and daughters of the community with a solid, moral, and irreproachably modest religious training.

Boys on one end of the waxed, finely polished hardwood floors; girls on the other; and at the sound of Mrs. Lennor’s clacker the boys charged over to the girls’ side, the fastest getting the most desirable, , the slowest getting the fattest.  Despite claims to Victorian civility and upper class reserve, Mrs. Lennor encouraged the most basic sexual, predatory notions.  No one complained, objected, or cried foul.  Mrs. Lennor’s basement dancing school was the way things were, the way the world worked, the way boys and girls were made.

Today of course, Mrs. Lennor would never exist nor ever be considered.  If there were ever such a thing as a dancing school, then boys and girls would each in turn race across the floor.  Boys and girls would equally numbered so that there could be no chance of one fat girl left alone, crying and disconsolate.  The state – or its private surrogates – would have intervened, engineered the occasion to be gender neutral, equal, and fair.

Even so, what is one to make of the provocative, sexy, alluring, come-hither images of young women on the covers of both female- and male-oriented magazines?  The sexy, off-the-shoulder, winking images of Hollywood, Istanbul, and Bollywood stars?  The advice columns so predictably traditional?  The stories of luscious, dominant, persuasive males and their willing, complaisant, happy and agreeable female partners?  Within the acceptable modern concept of the strong, independent female, the age-old story of romance, seduction, and wiles persists.  The Turkish dizi is not an exaggeration.  It is a playout of the everyday drama of sexual interest.

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Even the most talented, serious, and experienced actresses have chosen to be photographed in provocative poses.

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Which is why modern feminism has lost its way.  While rightly focusing on women’s civil and legal rights and economic opportunity, it has distorted the millennia-old equation of sexual dynamics.  While there may be a few outliers on the gender spectrum, most men and women fall under the bell curve, inevitably drawn to each other for better or for worse, attracted by the same sexual allure favored by the Greeks.  Even the most casual look at statues, frescoes, paintings, and drawings  of ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and Indians reveals the same sexual allure of women – jewelry, make up, elegant and inviting clothes – that exists today and has always existed.  The female form, nude, sublime, elegant, has been sculpted by artists for 5000 years.   The days of work-booted, flannel-shirted, unshaved women as statements of female empowerment in the 70s went the way of mullets and tie-dies.  Women went back to frills and décolleté  after this unnatural experimentation.

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Of course sexual dynamics have changed.  Men are more on their guard, women more alert to sexual improprieties, and society as a whole has moved away from the idea of male sexual empire.  But that having been said, little has changed since Athens and Rome.  The images of women today are no different than those on the frescoes of Pompeii or Alexandria; artists now as then appreciate the female body as unique, especially beautiful, and symbolic of grace and natural elegance.  Women still – and perhaps more than ever – dress to attract a mate.  Despite claims to the contrary – that  women’s dress is simply an expression of female uniqueness – women and men both know what the finery is all about.

And more power to beautiful women who add to a world increasingly monochrome and narrowly focused.  Thanks to women in finery, jewels, eyeliner, and sleek fashion.  Glory be to women at their unashamedly attractive, alluring, and seductive.

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Culture bespeaks volumes.  Men on an elevator in Rome  turn their eyes to a beautiful women entering the car.  Men on an American one lift their eyes to the ceiling, to the accreditation notice, to the lighted floor buttons.  It is not that Italian men are unreconstructed or unreformed; but that they have not lost an appreciation for sexual difference and sexual attraction.  American men have been instructed to tune out their instincts, their natural tendencies, and their sexual desires; and by such complaisance have devalued women, sex and sexual difference.

Of course male and female behavior is distributed over a continuum.  After decades of feminism modern women now acknowledge their more collaborative, communicative style; their particular ability to care and nurture; their acuity and perception and understanding subtlety and behavioral cues; their emotional sensitivity to violence and aggression? Is there any doubt, given the reams of publications on fashion, traditional female sexuality, that women have an alluring, sexy side that men don’t have; or that no matter how much mothers try, they simply cannot get their daughters to play with Army tanks and big trucks?

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While many women and men act very much alike; and while there are some exaggerated examples of sexuality on either end of the Bell Curve, men and women have never been and will never be the same and will always attracted each other thanks to that difference.

D.H.Lawrence, perhaps better than any writer, understood the primacy of heterosexual difference and the unique sexual union of man and woman.  There is no misogyny, patriarchy, or male dominance in Lawrence’s books.  Despite some antagonistic claims, Lawrence is the feminist writer, as interested in female character, desire, demands, and identity as any author.  He was concerned with mutual satisfaction, the ultimate consummation.  While he was aware that all couples must resolve issues of dominance and submission, he was never male-oriented.  Both men and women struggle to find their own, proper place on the scale of sexual dynamics.

If one were to believe the cant and presumption of critics and commentators, heterosexual dynamics is either passé or already dead and buried, replaced by a gender-neutral and neutralized code of conduct.  Of course, this discourse remains in academia and in the progressive enclaves of Boston and the East Coast.  Women still say ‘come hither’ and men follow them; and while the rules of the game have been altered somewhat, they do not affect the nature of the game or its outcome.

‘Come hither’ and ‘come with me’ are here to stay.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Delights Of Popular Culture–What’s With Highbrow Anyway? We Are All Middlebrow

Noah Berlatsky, writing in The New Republic (10.13) lamented the demise of ‘true’ culture – that higher-level appeal to the most sophisticated and evolved tastes of society.  Such culture, he said, was being eroded if not destroyed by a popular culture which has no universally redeeming values, no intellectual foundation, and no purpose in a necessarily pedestrian life sorely in need of salvation.

Berlatsky’s plaint is a familiar one – America is losing its soul to popular culture.  We are a country more characterized by Las Vegas glitz, Hollywood, Beyoncé, throw-away fashion, and Happy Meals.  Intellectuals can only smile at America’s fancies and inanities.  If Americans were only more like the French, they say. Why haven’t they ever had a Sartre, Camus, or a New Wave?

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Berlatsky goes on:

What matters are these soulless, hollow, fungible icons, and the assurance that they will continue forever as around them all the mere humans effervesce like ghosts. This art isn't about empathy or love. Instead, it's about worship, about pledging fealty to our invented, charismatically uncaring, gods. Our corporate fictions offer the blank joy of not caring, whether about creators, actors, strangers, or ourselves.

With one final kick at corporate greed and its devilish distortion of empathy and good, Berlatsky dismisses popular culture for its divorce from meaning.  It has no purpose other than to entertain, and by resorting to pure entertainment – i.e. hollow men in tights and evil villains – it dumbs us down to the lowest possible level.  Where are the moral considerations of evil? Or the consequences of action? Or gender issues?

The argument, of course, denies the real vitality of American culture and the ineffable connection it has with millions of followers from Africa to the Arctic. If our culture is derivative, it is irresistible.  As much intellectuals would like to deny it, most of the world cares more about Iron Man than Kant.  More importantly this popular culture is far more seminal than any Left Bank reflections on being and nothingness.  It has gone viral,  and soon, with  America leading the way towards a virtual world where the very concept of reality is changing, personal fantasy, idealization, and make-believe will forevermore bury highbrow culture.

Classical music in the United States is dying.  According to a former violinist for the Metropolitan Opera, there are a number of signs:

¶The recent labor disputes of American orchestras due to decreased budgets and donor support.

¶The reduction or outright cancellation of Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic tours and concerts in the parks.

¶The demise of classical music radio stations across America.

¶The increased media focus on rock and pop superstars, while classical music managements have difficulty booking concerts for their artists. (NY Times, Letters to the Editor, 11.24.12)

As a result, most symphony orchestras rely on the canon – the fewer concert-goers there are, the more conservative they feel they must be.  Why take the chance of alienating both old and young with a complex Liszt or Benjamin Britten?  Ironically but not surprisingly, the more predictable and over-performed the music, the less people enjoy it and stay away in even greater numbers.

Western classical music suffers from many ills. Perhaps first and foremost, as suggested by the last point above, it is the very epitome of an archaic, irrelevant past – ‘dead white men’ in common parlance.  Most symphony orchestra rarely play any 20th century music, and even the sprightly Mozart cannot draw big audiences for whom an unbelievable array of modern, contemporary music and entertainment is available. Secondly, the venue – the concert hall – is as formal, deadening, and insufferably enclosed as can be.  Compare this to a rock concert.

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Now more than ever, with the ascendency and influence of Donald Trump, middle-brow popular culture has never been more important and universal. Gone are the days of Camelot where  Pablo Casals played at the White House, Robert Frost read his poetry at JFK’s inauguration, Jackie was the epitome of European grace, charm, and elegance.  Gone are the morally righteous days of Jimmy Carter who abhorred excess, preached parsimony and restraint; and gone are the days of George H.W. Bush, a patrician in the Roman style – generous, respectful, dutiful, and principled. In its place are gold bracelets, a rough-and-tumble macho braggadocio, a Jay Gatsby lifestyle, and a concentration of American power – not the political power that Robert Reich and his colleagues are used to but financial, retail, real estate, entertainment power all concentrated in one man.

The Trump years began as  soap opera. When would the Trump children start fighting over access to Father? Would Melania continue to live her life of luxury and privilege in New York, dismissing Foggy Bottom, Capitol Hill, and press club events? Would her life be any different from the Hollande and Sarkozy wives and loves who came and went from the Elysees as they pleased?

Two years into the Trump presidency, the soap opera continues, episode after episode of jealousy, spite, family disputes, greed, ambition, and sex.  For the first time and once and for all, Americans have a president who truly represents them – not politically, but culturally.  Who would not want a trophy wife, mistresses, yachts, tropical resorts, glitz, bright lights and show.  Trump’s supporters knew from the beginning that this was man of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the mean streets of New York, not one of hearings, legislation, lobbyists, and backdoor deals.  They knew that they were electing a showman and a vaudevillian; and that 1600 Pennsylvania would become the center of a three-ring circus.  Only the pundits are surprised and nonplussed, still smarting from Trump’s surprising victory and still unsure how to cover him.

Trump press conferences, reviled by the Left and the establishment media, are watched by ordinary Americans, not because they will learn anything substantial about policy, but because of the performance?  Gone is Clinton’s judicious parsing of language, the careful and thoughtful evasion of pointed questions, the respectful demeanor.  Americans tune in because they want to see Trump fire people, yell at insolent reporters, storm in and out.  Anyone who thinks that just because Donald Trump is President he will change his ways is just whistlin’ Dixie.

The reason why Turkish soap operas are so popular is not because of the beauty of the female leads (stunning), the suspense of the cannily-devised plots, the comeuppance of the bad, the recognition of righteousness and right action, and the victory of love; but because what happens every week in Istanbul can happen anywhere in America whether on Wall Street, Washington, or Dubuque….Especially Washington, for Turkish tales of greed, ambition, and impossibly immoral action could only happen here.

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Americans  watch the Trump soap opera with as much delightful anticipation as they do Kara Para Aşk.  They have have willingly suspended belief, disassociated themselves from the supposedly ‘serious’ development and dénouement of the events in Washington, and are as devoted to the American serial as Turks are to theirs.  What will happen to Elif?  Will she escape the malicious set-up engineered by her uncle and aunt? Will Omer solve the case and win Elif’s heart? Will the dastardly be caught and put behind bars?  Will Trump be caught in a web of lies, sabotaged by his own confidants, exposed for all his wrongdoings and evil intent?

Donald Trump loves all of this – he is the center-stage, high-stepping vaudevillian, carny barker, trapeze artist, and sideshow attraction all rolled into one.  He loves the attention, and loves it even more when his critics cry for blood.  His critics, schooled as they are in old, archaic modes of opposition (policy, logic, defined purpose, values) are hopelessly outmatched.  They refuse to wrestle in his ring, object to his rules, and are beaten before they enter the arena.
What is the point of living in Washington, after all, if it isn’t for the grand guignol of national politics.  Washington is center stage, not for serious political inquiry or debate, but for melodrama, soap opera tears and remorse, and best of all vengeance, vendetta, and retribution.

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As much as the elite Eastern Establishment would like to hope otherwise, we are a middlebrow nation, dismissive of intellectual pretention, and solidly rooted in popular culture – a culture which has emerged from the populace, never imposed, and always subject to whim, fancy, and fickle preference.  We Americans fled Europe four hundred years ago exactly to escape cultural feudalism, the imposition not only of state religion but state culture.  In America there were no academies of right thinking, not arbiters of expression or cultural preference, no historical determinism.  America’s pop culture is so popular here and abroad because of its democracy.  We all are no different from the actors on As The World Turns or Dallas.  We need no canon, no Louis XIV, no Oxford, Sorbonne, no Medicis or Tudors.  Human nature is simple – self-serving, defensive, territorial, jealous, ambitious, and expansive – and the great fun is seeing it played out in its infinite variety, not looking for insights.

Fewer and fewer Americans are content to sit on their hands at an Elgar concert, stand respectfully before a Picasso or Rembrandt, or read Proust and Joyce.  Most of us want some fun out of life.  People Magazine, E!, and Entertainment Today are our preferred reading.  Soap operas are preferred viewing, and sound-and-light performances our preferred way to spend a Saturday night.

So be it and bravo for it.  American popular culture is an expression of our history, our spirit, our democracy, and our unassailable individualism.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

The Nature Of Regret–Examining A Good Life

“There is nothing I regret”, Edward Stanton admitted when he was forty.  After all he was happily married with two children, had had more adventures than most men, had been to the most remote, unexplored parts of Asia, had eaten well, slept well, and enjoyed the company of friends.  What more to life could there possibly be, he wondered? There was no reason why life, begun so opportunely and well, wouldn’t continue.  The venues might well change; romance might take on a different, older tone; and the perimeters of his adventures might well be drawn in somewhat, but the extremely good run – absent unforeseen circumstances – should continue well on to a much more mature age.

The issue that arose when Stanton was much older was not that the run had ended but that it would not continue.  He had no regrets about lost opportunity in the past, only in the future.   Old age is a matter of pleasant company, not adventure.

Regret, so ignorantly dismissed when he was a young man, had arrived with a vengeance although in unexpected form.

Yet, what was there to regret?

Konstantin Levin, a principal character in Anna Karenina wonders at God’s irony.  He created an intelligent, witty, insightful, and creative being, granted him a few short decades of life, and then consigned him for all eternity to the cold, hard ground of the steppes. No matter how full and productive one’s life might seem, such fulfillment framed by this divine indifference, was only ignorant satisfaction.  There could be nothing to regret in a life that was created without purpose.  Randomness does not permit long term investment.  One could only hope for the right angle of the ball when struck.  If it caromed differently, lipping the pocket and rolling away, so be it.

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If there was no regret, then there could only be anger or resignation – Job’s anger at God’s arbitrariness, Abraham’s righteous resolve to prevent the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; the surprising nihilism of Ecclesiastes; or the willful individualism of Nietzsche.

Edward Stanton had been confused by the unexpected turn life had taken and surprised at the total irrelevance of old age.  He was unhappy to find himself old since there was no anodyne for that dark existential reality; but he regretted nothing.  Railing against God or godlessness made no sense at all.

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Phillip Roth wrote in The Human Stain, a novel about a love affair between an older professional man and a much younger working class woman, “Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”.  Edward Stanton like the fictional Coleman Silk had had an affair with a younger women when he was well into his sixties, a Christmas present, an unexpected gift under the tree, a surprise, and a delight.  He couldn’t believe his good fortune just when he had given up all hope of resurrection.  The affair went on, and despite her hopes of marriage and children, and his hopes of extending the Christmas feast, both left disappointed. 

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The best thing about a May-December affair is that it is rejuvenating and a temporary suspension of dreary fact.  The worst thing about it is that when it ends, the sense of loss, age, and approaching death is more acute and painful than it ever was. Better to have never opened the gift.

Coleman Silk and his lover die in a car crash caused by her jealous husband, perhaps the best way of all, thought Roth, of ending any impossible affair.  Silk knew from the beginning that any relationship with the young woman would be dangerous. There were more issues than just age, class, education, and breeding.  She was orphaned, damaged and abused by her psychotic husband, unconscious or indifferent to the consequences of sleeping with an older man, disgraced and let go by the college where she worked, an impossible partner, and strange companion. 

His death meant no regrets, no mayhem, no second thoughts, guilt, or the distortions of memory which result from them.  Her sudden death was preferable to a long, extended, miserable one.

Perhaps Edith Piaf said it best in Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien – a song about a life examined, both philosophical and romantic:

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Not the good that has been given
Not the bad, it's all the same to me

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
It is payed, done, forgotten
I don't care about the past

With my memories
I light the fire
My pains, my pleasures
I don't need them anymore
I'm done with the loves
and all their troubles
I'm done for ever
I start over with nothing

No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Not the good that has been given
Not the bad, it's all the same to me
No, absolutely nothing
No, I regret nothing
Because my life, because my joys
today, they start with you

No, I regret nothing

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With promise, the past can be erased with no consequences, no regrets.  Whatever she has enjoyed and whatever pain she has suffered are no longer relevant.  They have been consigned to an unremembered place.  Only the future is real, with possibility and, most importantly, joyous.

One expects that when the singer’s new love fades, or simply ends, she will discovered that there is no such thing as ‘an unremembered place’ and she may reconsider ‘Je ne regrette rien’.  Unfortunate endings have their way of unearthing the past.

Edward Stanton was not so cynical, for the older he got the more persuaded he was by ‘God’s irony’ or Schopenhauer’s ‘Aesthetic Perception’.

Schopenhauer’s violent vision of the daily world sends him on a quest for tranquility, and he pursues this by retracing the path through which Will objectifies itself. He discovers more peaceful states of mind by directing his everyday, practically-oriented consciousness towards more extraordinary, universal and less-individuated states of mind, since he believes that the violence that a person experiences is proportional to the degree to which that person’s consciousness is individuated and objectifying. His view is that with less individuation and objectification, there is less conflict, less pain and more peace (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

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Regret was individuation,  Regretting past events was to give them more meaning and substance than they deserved in a universe of random events.

Vladimir Nabokov was a self-described ‘memorist’.  He understood the importance of memory as the defining essence of human life, and developed techniques to fix events in his memory and devised ways to recall them from his mental archives and replay them like a movie.  The more he could remember, he said, the more complete he was as a human being. The present, Nabokov observed is nothing more than a millisecond of existence before becoming the past. The Higgs boson once produced has a lifetime of less than one sextillionth of a second; and this is slow compared to the passage of the present to the past.  The future is only possibility.  Only the past provides definition, integrity, and above all meaning.

Nabokov had no regrets about the past because it never ceased to exist.  He never allowed it to recede, to become distant, fragmentary, or illusionary.  How could he regret a period of time which was more real than the present? How could he, like Piaf, value the future over the past.

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Unlike Edith Piaff and Schopenhauer, Edward Stanton had a place for pleasant memories.  They did not crowd out a more rational, ordered configuration of time.  They need not be buried and forgotten to make room for the new or to prevent the infection of the future by the past.  Since they were not accompanied by regret, his memories of comic book romance (tropical nights, moonlight, the scent of ylang-ylang and cloves, nakedness, and the sound of the ocean) could remain – never recollected as they happened, always changing, but always sweet.  Unlike Nabokov he could not retain them as permanently, could not live them as though they still existed; but he was happy enough with his regretless although imperfect memories, his unromantic view of the future as more of the past, and his ticking clock which suggested sense to it all.