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

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Life As A Cliché–Why Allusion And Aphorism Suit Us Far Better Than Accuracy And Precision

“Beauty is as beauty does’, said Flannery’s mother, one of a string of clichés she used every day. ‘An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’, ‘Actions speak louder than words’, and ‘All that glitters is not gold’ were just a few and all perplexing to the young girl, looking up to her mother for love, support, and advice but getting only illegible aphorisms. 

“What does that mean, Mommy”, Flannery would ask.

“Why, it’s obvious”, replied her mother. “It means just what it says.”

Mrs. Booker had used clichés all her life as her mother had, so many in fact that her language had become a strange American Creole.  “The pot calling the kettle black”, she told her husband when he had made a comment about her driving, a comment that had nothing to do with his driving, but a reference to some other minor flaw.  Within this family lexicon, it was up to him to decipher her meaning and intent. 

It was not as though Mabel Booker could not think more precisely or clearly.  It was just that she preferred ellipses rather than rectangles.  Precision left no room for reflection.    It was better to let her husband wonder a bit what he had done wrong than to confront him with it.  Lord knows he had a lot to answer for, so let him chew on it for a while.

Mabel carried her clichés with her wherever she went – to the country club, afternoon tea, or the Women’s Auxiliary.  There was always room for an allusive comment.  No matter what the gossip, Mabel was ready to comment.  When the ladies suggested that Pastor James had interests in a certain young lady in the West End, Mable said, “He’s already got one paw on the chicken coop”.  The image of a cunning fox about to sneak in to Lily Thomas’ bedroom was more apt than any more direct and presumptuous allegation.  To comments about Harry Abel’s unseemly doings and unsure health she said, “Before the Devil knows you’re dead”, a favorite of her Irish uncle who, the drunker he got, the more he recited, “Ah, Mick”, he said, raising a glass to his dear departed friend, “May your glass be ever full, may the roof over your head be always strong, and may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead.”

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The ladies looked up from their tea sandwiches, smiled, had no real idea what Mabel had meant, but as was Mabel’s intention, they began to wonder. She knew that Harry Abel had many more skeletons in his closet than most, and he would be lucky if he escaped the law let alone God’s divine justice; but rather than add to the already murky mix, she let things and Harry Abel lie.  Let them think what they may, she thought, smiling back at Laura Dugan in her lovely flowery sundress, and taking a bite of a delicious cucumber and chutney canapes the hostess had prepared.

Mabel was particularly fond of Biblical clichés which added import to her observations.   ‘A soft answer turns away wrath’, ‘A prudent man conceals knowledge’, ‘Your enemy shall distress you at all your gates’ were some which seemed to have particular salience in these troubled times.

Jesus himself spoke in parables when he could have just come right out and said what he had to say plainly and clearly.  He wanted to make people stretch their belief and force them, by solving his parabolic puzzles, to realize the profound meaning behind them. Anything important, Jesus implied, was not black and white.

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So Mabel, encouraged by Jesus and the Bible, but as an indirect and imprecise person from birth found clichés to be her go-to manner of speaking.  She knew that many found her endless, Hallmark card, predictable, and treacly aphorisms unbearable, a sign of an unfinished education, flaccid thinking, and hopeless idealism.  At the end of the day, what were they worth? When toted, they didn’t amount to a hill of beans.  A collection of worthless, childish sayings that, Biblical reference or not, adding nothing to discourse.

Yet had the ladies at tea stopped to consider themselves and their equally imprecise, subjective, and speculative comments, they might have been more forgiving of Mabel’s childish verse.  What was the difference, after all, from drawing conclusions from Pastor James repeated visits to Harriet Goodman’s house while her husband was at work?  He could certainly be spending long afternoons in bed with her; but he could just as easily have been ministering to a woman at the end of her rope.  Why indeed did the ladies make more of Harry Abel’s supposed delinquencies when he could well have been in a legitimate although marginal business?

The ladies, like most people, found it much easier to come to facile conclusions than more cogently argued ones; and if truth be known, it was more fun to speculate than to know.  Innuendo was no different than allusion.  Both suggested but never claimed.  Mabel was only more obvious.   She contributed as much to the gossip by her well-timed clichés as the ladies did by their catty innuendos.  Both were in the same boat.

And, when one considered most clichés, they were not stupid or irrelevant.  An apple does indeed not fall far from the tree.  Children are like their parents and no sooner can avoid their influence than an apple can fall upward.  The bigger they are, the harder they fall has been true forever.  Ambitious, arrogant men will always become overconfident, incautious, and reckless; and will inevitably be removed.  Blood is indeed thicker than water, shown time and time again, the stuff of O’Neill, Faulkner, and the Old Testament.

A film critic recently wrote that he saw no difference between Turkish soap operas and so-called ‘great’ literature.

If it is at all true that great drama should be judged in part by its evocative, emotive power; then why should popular dramas not be classed in the same category as Williams, O’Neill, and Miller and judged as such?  Turkish soap operas – most notably Winter Sun, The End, Black Money Love, and Love is in the Air – are perceptive in their understanding of human nature; the inevitable crises, ambitions, frustrations, enmities, and selfishness of families; jealousy, sexual competition, and conflicts between family and individual loyalties; the nature and satisfying pursuit of revenge; and the disruptive, painful experiences of disease, disadvantage, and death.

Turkish dramas are as focused on human nature, foibles, desires, and disappointments as the plays of Tennessee Williams.  The characters are memorable, and while they are often formulaic they are never dry, sterile, or academic.  What more is there to learn about human nature than we already know? We turn to both drama and soap operas to see it played out in a thousand entertaining forms.  What makes them so popular? They are good, true to life, relevant, and compelling.

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Anything that has broad appeal is automatically suspect in the eyes of traditional reviewers.  If tens of millions of viewers could be watching and enjoying Turkish soap operas, how could they possibly be?  How could anything mass produced, predictable, and simple be considered anything but popular entertainment? Even Graham Greene, author of some of the most morally complex yet compelling dramas of recent decades felt obliged to divide his work into ‘Entertainments’ and serious works.

Without a doubt Turkish soap operas are theatrical clichés.  Everyone expects infidelity, deceit, jealousy, unwanted pregnancy, fatal disease, crime, and power; and viewers are never disappointed.  Like verbal clichés, those on the Turkish ‘dizis’ are familiar, predictable, and obvious.  While they may not have the more profound insights of more respected playwrights, they accomplish the same purpose.  They illuminate human nature, encourage viewers to reflect on it, and even move them off the couch.

Is not the purpose of art to enlighten? To educate? To move?  A case can be made that the best Turkish television serials do all three.  Winter Sun is enlightening because of its personal insights into the most common human sentiments – jealousy, envy, revenge, and ambition.  The subject may not be new, but the way the series’ producers and staff have configured it to display a range of moral, emotional, social, and family reactions to provocative events is compelling and fascinating. 

Clichés are really social code.  They need no explanation but are open to interpretation.  Which apple? Whose blood? Whose chicken coop?  In an increasingly complex world, they are needed shorthand; a way of commenting on familiar, endlessly repetitious human actions without exegesis.  Human nature has not changed in a hundred thousand years and is unlikely to; so why not rely on a proven lexicon to allude to what is already known but unendingly surprising?  The cliché not only has its place, but is part and parcel of human observation. 

Monday, October 15, 2018

D.H. Lawrence’s Sexual Epiphany Played Out Today– Predictable, Boring Episodes Of A Daytime TV Series

D.H. Lawrence had a very particular if not unique way at looking at sex.  Far from prescribed procreative union of man and wife, nor the expression of love and belonging, nor passionate adulterous, hopeful affairs, nor the refuge from an unconcerned, dispassionate world; sexual union had epiphanic possibilities.  If a man and a woman could come to sexual consummation in a state of perfect sexual balance – male and female impulses and desires for submission or domination, love or hate in perfect equilibrium after a struggle of wills – it would not only be personally satisfying fulfilling, but would represent existential hope.  Both the corrosive and demeaning effects of modern industrialization and the equally disabling influences of sexual primitivism would be dismissed or superseded.  The centrality of sexual expression was not only the core of male-female relationships but a model for post-antagonistic, equal and balanced human relations.

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Of course no one who reads Lawrence can take him entirely at his word. At worst he is prolix, repetitive, and boringly insistent.  ‘Enough already’, cry even the most sympathetic critics.

Yet Lawrence was on to something. No matter how much one can see a more balanced, tolerant, and permissive approach to sex and sexuality, the war between the sexes continues unabated with nary a sign of Lawrence’s hoped-for epiphany. No matter where one figures on the sexual spectrum, the struggle is one of wills rather than gender.  Lawrence, despite his insistent focus on the essentiality of heterosexual relationships – no different from the Tao, the concept of ying and yang, Tantrism and Shaktism – was tolerant of alternative versions of sexuality.  Ursula and Ingrid in The Rainbow had a lesbian relationship; and the friendship between Gerald and Birkin in Women in Love while never explicitly sexual, was far more than simple male friendship.

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His point was that gender specificity – or lack thereof – made no difference to the essential nature, common to all, of sexual dynamics.  Sex will always determine winners and loser in struggles  of will, regardless of roles.  Gay men will fight their way to sexual equilibrium with just as much investment and just as much pain as their straight colleagues.

Lawrence is intriguing and compelling because of his insistent focus on the expression of sexual will – not as a boring replay of marital discord, but as essential and necessary for emotional, psychological, and spiritual evolution.  Paul Morel, the main character in Sons and Lovers battles his dependency on his mother, hatred for his father, and sexual ambivalence with women because he is sexually naïve, and immature.  He thinks only in traditional terms.  He wants a saint-whore as a partner, the perfect amalgamation of artistic sensitivity, rectitude, and sexual desire.  He cannot appreciate sexual nuance nor the inevitable struggle of sexual will.  He is dismissed by both Miriam who grows impatient with his dithering and Clara, profoundly sexual, who sees him as far less of a man than her abusive husband.

Tom Brangwen is as befuddled by women, sexual enterprise, and the meaning of coupling.  He has no clue about women, wants them to love him and support him, but hates them because of their power.  Will Brangwen is equally perplexed and finds meaning in his relationship with Anna only in the bedroom.  He sense the need for something more, but shares Paul Morel’s and Tom Brangwen’s immaturity and naivete.  Skrebensky cannot abide Ursula’s demanding independence and sexual will, finds his traditional patrician sense of dominance disturbed and waning when he is with her, and ends up more disappointed and alone than ever.

Edward Albee understood sexual dynamics as well if not better than Lawrence.  His Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is the seminal piece on sexual battle, resolution, and epiphany.  At the end of three acts of brutality, meanness, and cruelty George and Martha find themselves flayed not to the bone but to the marrow.  All illusions, all ideals, all preconceptions about dominance and submission, union and independence have been stripped.  They are Lear’s bare, forked animals.  They can only promise each other a better, more informed, more resolute future; but few playgoers agree.  They have done all the right things – as Lawrence’s characters do – but still have not faced who they are and what they must become.

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Ibsen, Strindberg, and O’Neill, let alone Shakespeare, understood the fundamental, innate nature of sexual will.  Nothing other than the struggle for sexual supremacy was relevant or meaningful.  Hedda Gabler is a pure Nietzschean figure, but she learned nothing, advanced not at all, and was happy only in her exercise of will.  The women of The Master Builder and Rosmersholm were equally determined and defiant.  Laura (The Father) was a manipulative, dominant, amoral character who knew how to humiliate and destroy her husband to attain her own ends.

There seems today to be nothing of the sort.  There are no existential battles of male and female sexual wills, but victory by attrition.  A pound of flesh here, a minor adultery there, a string of allegations, suspicions, and denials; but nothing epiphanic.  The only result of a bad marriage today is divorce, a period of adjustment, and a re-engagement in rounds of sexual mating.

There is nothing tested, nothing lost, nothing gained, nothing even ventured.  Lawrence wrote:
So with man and woman.  They must stand clear again. Or rather, they must fight their way out of their self-consciousness; there is nothing else.  Or rather each must fight the other out of self-consciousness.  Instead of this leprous forbearance which we are taught to practice in our intimate relationships, there should be the most intense, open antagonism.
We are far from and afraid of such contention for fear of what it will uncover – weakness, timidity, submission or worse.  We would rather accommodate, compromise, and settle rather than confront.  Confrontation is antagonistic, against the rules of progressive evolution.  Nothing can be gained, many claim, from sexual conflict.  All is to be decided within a civil, progressive context – one where women ultimately have the final say, where gender rights are finally established, and where peaceful resolution rules.

Worst of all, men have ceded their rightful equal place in the ring  They, according to Lawrence, have become too feminine, too complaisant, too willing to abandon maleness.  Women for their part have filled the sexual void, but their ambition, their insistence on a new, dominant sexual role must come with a price.  No advances either by men or women in the sexual arena should go unchallenged.  Only through challenge, conflict, and resolution can sexual parity ever be achieved.

So one must put up with bickering, bitching, and whining about up-down toilet seats, hair in the sink, and too many days ‘working late at the office’; too much slavish responsibility to children, hearth, home, kitchen refinishing, and  budgets; too much boring,  repetitive sex; and nothing at the end of the day but dry aspirations. 

It would be far better to have the all-out, winner-take-all battles of George and Martha, Anna and Will, Tom and Lydia, and Ursula and Skrebensky than the stale, unpleasant arguments of ‘modern’ Americans. 

Better to have at it, no holds barred.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Sex, Desire, And A Refusal To Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Billy  Baxter had thought his love life was over.  After all, he was a man who, despite all his efforts to the contrary, was beginning to sag and line in all the wrong places.  There was no escaping the fact that he was far beyond usefulness; and unless one calculated his reproductive potential – his sperm count was high enough to populate a small country – he was well beyond his sexual prime.

Yet what was he do do with the relentless sexual fantasies which popped up at the most unsuspected hours and at all hours.   Why hadn’t he been born a pasha, or at least a courtier in the Ottoman Empire? Why was the pony-tailed, sweat-lacquered young trainer off limits?  Or the 40-something mommies eating ice cream cones? Surely there were women who would look up from their pizza pies and see an attractive, seductive man despite his faded and spare looks.  If he could see the virile, potent, and irresistible man within, why would it be so difficult for them to catch a glimpse through age’s shutters?

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It is God’s ultimate irony to have created men with indefatigable sexual desire but to have limited their field-worthiness to a few paltry decades; and the older one gets and the closer one approaches the finish line, the worse the penance. An older man has years of regret behind him (opportunities missed, clumsy advances, too many should-haves and too few consummations ).  A young man has only promise, possibility, and hope.  He regrets nothing, despairs of nothing, and pines for nothing.

Billy had no intention of throwing in the towel although his handlers said it was time.  What was the point, they asked? Weren’t the last decades of a man’s life a bonus, a small win in God’s lottery,  a chance to figure out what’s what without the distraction of women and sex?

There were options which short-circuited the normal course of sexual decline.  A man could always order a mail order bride.  Yet the offerings were limited. The most savvy had cornered the market for the most desirable women – blonde, blue-eyed Russian and Ukrainian beauties - shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.  The trade in beautiful, complaisant, dutiful Southeast Asian women had also dried up, leaving nothing but Biafran and Bambara women who would give anything and marry any white man for a song.

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Billy was not tempted by the trade.  It would be a come-down at best, and a public display of his failing sexual allure and his increased economic fortunes.  Better to be alone with with a whisky and a one-shilling fire than shout defeat.  At least alone, fit, trim, with only scarce signs of age, clearly had not been consigned to the Macy’s bargain basement of sexual seconds.

Serendipity – the most underrated of life’s surprises.  Who could have foretold Laura Barnes, Assistant to the Director of Human Enterprise, 30ish, single, looking, often disappointed, sexually mature, and ready?  Billy worked in the same wing of the Avex Building, far from Human Enterprise and more in commercial development, so their paths should not have crossed.  Had it not been for an unexpected absence, a necessary slot to fill, and few employees uncompromised, the paths of Billy and Laura would have gone on for months without notice. All it took was one meeting, one final after-hours en charrette push to finalize the proposal, celebratory martinis at the Mayflower, and a kiss goodnight to set the clock to a new time. 

The affair lasted almost two years, a closeted, hermetic Saturday- and sex-only adventure in Laura’s tight, ill-lit Adams Morgan walk-up; but it was ‘transformational’, the term Laura had learned at the company’s gender workshop to describe sexual epiphany.  The workshop facilitators had meant the term to mean the transformation of the individual from gender-locked to sexual chrysalis; but Billy understood it quite differently. His old, sagging, lined, and flagging body had been rejuvenated.  He had been transformed from an alte kocker to virile performer in the bat of an eye. 

More importantly, the passion and desire of the affair aside, it meant that his pull-by date had been extended.  If lowly Laura from Human Enterprise would have him, who else even more attractive, younger, and less needy might welcome his advances.

Yet the curtain on the hoped-for second act never rose.  After Laura he languished in the later years of a dry, forty-year marriage, troubled once again by dreams of Ottoman delights, young women crossing his path, and now persistent, insistent sexual memories of Laura.  Had it been worth it, he wondered?  Was the sexual salvation he experienced really any such thing?  Had he not set himself up for an obvious and inescapable letdown?

Of course it had all been worth it.  What was life if not serendipity? He had been given an early Christmas gift, nothing to sniff at, as important as any other expected reward.  To dismiss it lightly would have been niggardly, self-important, and ignorant.

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Billy knew that hitting the jackpot twice was unlikely.  The likelihood of another Laura was unthinkable; and better to  forget the possibility and return to predictability before it was too late. 
Yet since God created this Universal Irony – the fate of men to desire women long after the possibility of conquest and consummation – Billy could not like down and curl up like a lapdog before the fire.  He was not done for by any means.  A woman as desirous as he, as interested in extending life by any means possible, and as optimistic about sexual/emotional congress regardless of age, was out there waiting.

D.H. Lawrence, the master of sexual expression believed that the sexual union of man and woman was existential.  Far more than sexually satisfying or procreative, the act was liberating and affirming.  Nietzsche pronounced that the only validation of life  in a meaningless universe was in the expression of pure will.  Lawrence concurred but added a proviso – the resolution of the battle of individual sexual wills. 

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Lawrence died very young at 44, so never had to experience the consequences of his convictions.  What was to  become of a man who fails to realize such an epiphany in youth? Is he animated by the conviction that such complete sexual, existential union is still possible? Or must he be tormented until his dying day in realization that his time has long since passed?

Billy Baxter, for better or worse, never gave in.  He had come close to Lawrence but knew that his affair was little more than simple satisfaction.  Laura saw the affair differently – a gateway to the marriage, family, and children that had heretofore escaped her.  A traditional, predictable, sympathetic, never-to-be-realized hope.  Neither she nor Billy came away rewarded.  She got no husband and he no epiphany.  Neither, however, left empty-handed.  He in a renewal of sexual anticipation and a validation of maleness.  She in a passing but no less important tapping of her sexual and emotional reserves.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is the story of an aging foreign correspondent who falls in love with a Vietnamese girl and who assents to complicity in his rival’s death because of her.  Fowler like Billy Baxter sees Phuong as a last, desperate desire for sexual love and companionship.  She has been bought, negotiated a promising trade, and dependent on Fowler, his prospects, and his life.  Love is not an issue nor the question.  He does not love her so much as depend on her.  He can not return to his wife in England, and knows that marriage to a beautiful, opportunistic woman in wartime Vietnam is tentative and precarious. Yet he knows that he has what few of his older colleagues have – the (temporarily) free, pure, unlimited sex with a younger woman.

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Fowler abandons his wife, betrays his friend, sexual competitor, and colleague Pyle. One cannot blame him. He abandoned his principles, and his God because of his awful desperateness.  A life alone was simply unthinkable, and his betrayal of Pyle, despite the moral cover Greene gives him - ridding his beloved, suffering Vietnam of an enemy - was an act of jealous revenge, nothing more.  Fowler was more of a man than Billy could ever be - complicity in murder, yes, but a willful, natural act of self-preservation and conquest that Billy could only imagine.

Billy was never as desperate nor never so much infatuated nor in love with a woman as Fowler.  He was predictable, dishonest, and insecure; but never determined and not the slightest bit willful or heroic.   He took his serendipity for what it was worth, a cheap toy under the Christmas tree, threw it away when he was done with it, and like a child, hoped for something better next year.

Yet because Billy is like all men, like the rest of us, he deserves some attention.  His was never a life on the chaise lounge, defeatist, and happy enough with a sedate old age to last him till the end.  He was an ordinary man with ordinary wishes but who refused to go quietly.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas)