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

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Life Is Only A Badly-Written Preface To An Ordinary Novel–Only The Last Chapter Matters

Farley Burnham had reached his eighth decade, unthinkable a few years earlier when an affair had lifted him from the depression of old age and  into the irrational hopefulness that only a December-May relationship can give. “This is not my first love”, said Coleman Silk of Roth’s The Human Stain, “nor my best love.  But it certainly is my last love.  Doesn’t that count for something?”.  Of course it does, to which any older man who has had a sexual relationship with a much younger women can attest.  No matter how temporary, fleeting, or emotionally significant the relationship might be for the woman, it is the last gasp of male potency and a remembrance of youth for the man.

Image result for Images Roth Movie The Human Stain

The young women in these affairs have no idea of the existential proportions of their love.  They have their own sexual agenda, resolving or perpetuating myths and fantasies of their fathers, coming to grips with their own sexual insecurities, or simply rejoicing in the sexual prowess of an experienced, Viagra-powered man. These timeless relationships have always occurred and will continue to occur until recombinant DNA changes us all.  Until then women will marry their fathers, fall for bad boys, and succumb to the blandishments of Don Juans, Casanovas, and Lotharios; and men will always want to drink from the sexual Fountain of Youth.

And so it was that Brandon Appley was rescued from declining old age, hauled back to the living by Laura from Accounting; and for two years never regretted an instant of his amiable, uninteresting, and predictable life.  Young love was not only an anodyne to routine, an emotional uplift, and an early Christmas present, but a transformational affair.  Not only was life worth living from now on, but his unglamorous, unremarkable, and forgettable life was validated.

Nietzsche asserted that the only validation of life was the expression of individual will; but Appley had added a sidebar – sexual resurrection came a close second.

Image result for Images Nietzsche

D.H. Lawrence famously believed in sexual epiphany – coming together was not only an expression of mutual satisfaction, but one of spiritual promise.  His characters Gudrun, Birkin, Gerald, and Rupert (Women in Love) understood it, searched for it, were frustrated by it, found only weak imitations of it, but in their absolute desire validated Lawrence’s conviction about the existential centrality of sex.

Every other author’s tales of love and romance fall short of Lawrence’s philosophical depth and by comparison were little more than scripts for daytime television.  Love in their hands was a matter of conditioning, good or bad luck, encouragement, social norms, and breeding.  It always seemed to disassemble, unable to withstand even a light buffeting.  The men were wayward, irresponsible, and indifferent.  The women were ambitious, hungry, and duplicitous.  Edward Albee expressed it best in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? borrowing from Winston Churchill and his reflections on democracymarriage is the worst possible social institution except for all others.  It is the crucible of maturity, said Albee.  Without its confinement, rigors, and No Exit doors, we would all remain children.

Yet all of this wisdom and insight means little in the final accounting. Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich realized almost too late that his life had not only not only prepared him for death, but it kept him from making sense of it.  We all die alone, said Tolstoy.  The image of the dying man surrounded by his loving family is only as true as a Norman Rockwell magazine cover.  The reality is that our thoughts are far away from what we are losing and focused only on what is about to come.  The existential moment of a life about to be snuffed out has nothing to do with family, sexual epiphany, professional success, or social standing. As a dying man peers into the abyss, thoughts of one’s former lovers, lovers lost, love affairs missed, and sexual opportunities gone by the wayside are, to put it mildly, a waste of time. Life is not even a well-written preamble.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with being extinguished.

The devoutly religious may differ.  Their lives have been configured for this moment.  They have accumulated the credit necessary for entry to the next world and/or are convinced that they are going to a ‘far, far better place’ than the one they are leaving.  Yet they too do not dwell on the past.  Whatever credit has been built up or debt accumulated.  Whatever depressions or epiphanies have crowded their lives. Whatever attempts made to live a good, faithful life mean nothing.  The die has been cast. 

Image result for Images Tale of Two Cities

Jews have a saying, “Too soon old, too late schmart” and many an older man scrambles to figure out what’s what before it’s too late.  Tolstoy spent his entire life pondering the question of the meaning of life and at the end simply gave in.  If billions before him billions now had believed in God, then their might be something to it.  His alter ego, Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina) came up with only a slightly more salient answer – doing good is the best that one can do in a meaningless existence. Yet neither Tolstoy in his memoirs nor the characters in his books are very convincing on this score.  Life indeed is nothing but a series of randomly connected events which determine out lot.  It is far less than a good preamble.  it is a game of billiards.

So what was Farley Burnham to do? The hyper-pleasure of his love affair would soon dissipate and disappear.  He would be left with memories that over time would become so twisted that they would no longer represent what actually happened and be only re-configurations of what he had always hoped mixed in with Hollywood romance.  His many years of a busy life were already getting jumbled.  He was no longer sure what happened when, how, and with whom.  This tangle was not a result of Alzheimer’s but the confounding nature of memory.  Somehow the human being knows that life is only a preamble to death, so establishing fact and sorting it from fiction makes no sense.

Should I consult a priest, he asked himself? But he had for so long been a non-believer that there was no coming back.  I admit my mortal sins and am heartily sorry for them already.  What would an official Confession accomplish? The Church’s magic can only be worked if one believes in the power of the magician; and Farley was far beyond that.  Might the taking of Holy Communion – the body and blood of Jesus Christ –be that supra-mystical event which regardless of belief or disbelief do wonders for his soul?

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Should I take risks? Easy in the Age of COVID.  Be death-defying. Take off the bloody mask, go to raves.  Mountain climbers, racecar drivers, downhill skiers, and deep sea divers have all concluded that only by risking death is life validated.   Yet that option was for the young who had a lot of life to lose.

Yet it all comes down to this – any attempt to extract or give meaning to life is a waste of time.  If life is only a badly-written preface to a very ordinary story, then better to ignore it, flip through the chapters and read only the last one. 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Naturalism, Determinism, And Free Will–When All Is Said And Done, We’re Not Much To Write Home About

Most people reject the idea of determinism, the theory that suggests that because every action is predicated on an innumerable number of previous actions, no individual action has personal meaning and we insist that we have a God-given, unique soul and the free will to choose between right and wrong. Our actions matter and we matter.

Yet who can deny Tolstoy who in the Epilogue to War and Peace suggested that even the great Emperor Napoleon, man of battlefield genius, strategic insight, and geopolitical genius, was only a product of a long chain of previous events? 

He lost the Battle of Borodino because the day before the fight it was a cold, wet, rainy day and his personal valet forgot to bring his gumboots to camp; and as a result the Emperor caught a cold, and on the day the enemy was to be enjoined, his sinuses were so congested, his head so foggy and dull, and his fever so high, that he couldn’t have maneuvered his way to market let alone to victory of the Russians. 

His valet had forgotten the Emperor’s gumboots because he had been preoccupied with the dalliances of his wife who had, because of a previous tryst with her lover failed to show up for breakfast, forcing the valet to do without.  She had a lover because her husband was always with the Emperor. The chain of deterministic, random events could be traced ad infinitum.

Image result for Images Tolstoy

The idea of free will is nothing new and has been postulated and debated since the days of Sophocles and Plato.  Jesus, in his retorts to the tempting Devil in the desert, provided the foundations for Christian teaching on free will.  “Man cannot live by bread alone “– i.e. his teaching that the life of the spirit, embodied by Him, is far more important than any worldly gains – suggested not only that a celestial salvation awaited the faithful, but that there was a responsibility for accession.  Every Christian after the Temptation in the Desert was obliged to choose between right and wrong, good and evil.

Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov suggested that Christ’s teaching laid the foundation for a Catholic Church which was to set itself up as the arbiter of right and wrong and the Christ-anointed forgiver of sins and acquired fabulous wealth because of this arrogated authority.

The masses don’t want free will, said Ivan, but only miracle, mystery, and authority.  Christ as God could have alleviated the world’s suffering, alleviated pain and poverty, and enriched the lives of all living, but instead offered conditional salvation.  With the free will that my Father has given you, choose properly, and you will gain the Kingdom of Heaven.

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“Tell me how, advise me, help me”, the faithful pleaded to the Church, and the Vatican Empire was underway.

The Naturalists were authors who, inspired by Emile Zola, created characters who had no free will and who acted under the inevitable yoke of heredity, Darwinism, and the pervasive, influence of the environment.  Jack London, Dreiser, and Norris described the downfall of characters of initial will and purpose but who were undone by the inexorable forces of their genes, their parentage, their upbringing, and the environment into which they emerged. 

Gervaise, the heroine of  Zola’s l’Assommoir is a woman of ambition, will, intelligence, and purpose; but despite all, she ends up a homeless slattern.  Hurstwood, a principal character in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie is a successful hotel manager, confident, social, and savvy; and yet because of his obsessive love for Carrie turns to crime, flight, and dishonor. he falls to the very bottom of Paris society – a derelict, homeless, and friendless pauper.  McTeague was a self-made man, a hero of the bourgeois, entrepreneurial American Victorian age; but when his fate unraveled, he was unable to adjust, to cope, and he ended up as desperate as Hurstwood.  The trapper in London’s To Build a Fire dies not because of his ignorance and naïve arrogance – setting out in frigid Arctic cold – but because of the absolute power of the North.

Does it matter? Most people go about their business either unaware of the philosophical debate about free will, or caring little for determinism or the randomness which underlies it.  No one cares whether one’s order of whole wheat and not rye is determined by a past of fussy grandmothers, or life in a small town; or whether one’s wife or girlfriend was chosen long before one was out of diapers.  Nor one’s choice of President, vacation spots, or color.

Of course they should, for the idea of free will, predestination, and pre-ordained chance is part and parcel of our Christian heritage.  Martin Luther and the Calvinist Protestant Reformationists insisted that God’s plan for each of us was determined long ago, that our fate was sealed, and that no good works could save us.  Catholics vehemently disagreed.  Good works could sway Our Savior.

Image result for Images Martin Luther

Today’s secular progressives dismiss this debate out of hand.  There is no God, no divinity in Jesus Christ, no Last Judgment, only the living.  The fate of the world is in our hands exclusively and uniquely.  Both randomness and divine determinism are off the table.  The more we invest in social reform, the greater chance of the human race to find Utopia.

Conservatives deride these idealistic notions as nonsense.  Human nature cannot be denied.  If one is not persuaded by philosophical or religious arguments, one only has to look at history.  The course of human events – war, pillage, empire, the poor, the privileged, the powerful, and the weak – is as old as history itself.  We should look no further than history to conclude that there is not such thing as collective free will.  Societies always act in the same self-interested way,

Literary critics of the Naturalists like Dreiser, Zola, Norris, and London suggest that even in their most deterministic mode, have to allow for some individual enterprise.  Is every insight determined?  Is there no room for that particular uniqueness of individual perception?  Why did Carrie succeed when Trina and Gervaise – equally strong and determined women under the same or similar environmental influences – did not?

Image result for images Emile Zola

Which is why the current rush to validate race, gender, and ethnicity as supra-normal, unique, expressions of progressive absolutism seems naïve at best and ignorant at worst.  There may be some historical and religious legitimacy in the claim of a unique individual, God-given soul, but to claim that the color of one’s skin, one’s sexuality, or one’s national origin – temporal, passing, insignificant markers – has anything to do with existential meaning, is questionable at best.

Who am I?  Protoplasm with curiously placed bits of random DNA?  A divine soul? Both? Whatever I am has nothing to do with cultural assortment.  Being black doesn’t matter a cinder in hell – or gay, or a woman, or a thing on a sliding sexual spectrum.

Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich realized almost too late, at the moment of death that existential considerations do not include what one has done but where one is going.

So The passionate advocates for Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, or Global Warming will get on board soon enough.  

Les enfants s’amusent say the French – children will be children.  The great irony of any man is to have figured out too late that nothing matters and to have lost the youth that believes it does,

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Dirty Pictures–History, Maleness, And Feminist Outrage

The owner of the Washington Redskins football team is being run through a gantlet for having made ‘lewd, inappropriate, salacious, and demeaning’ comments about the team’s cheerleaders.  Why are Snyder’s comments or reactions to them surprising?  He made the comments in a pre-feminist age in which men joked about, fantasized about, dreamed about and especially talked about sex with women. The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders were the reason why even he most indifferent football fan watched football.  They were blonde, blue-eyed, impossibly fruity and delectable, and there for a purpose. Men have always been turned on by attractive, sexually alluring women.

Image result for marilyn monroe sexy in bed

Yet in today’s outraged, censorious, female-dominant culture, such reaction can only be perceived as misogynist, retrograde, and sexually immature.  Who but a backwoods cracker could possibly look on a scantily-clad, young, enticing female body and think only of sex?  Men, say feminists, have not evolved beyond the cave, beyond ‘Me Tarzan, You Jane’ sexual primitivism.

They are wrong of course.  Women still dress in the most sexually provocative, enticing, alluring ways and men still respond as they always have.  Woke women deny fundamental sexual dynamics, express their right to express their femininity in the most overt, sensual ways, and expect men to act as though they were looking at a plate of ham and eggs. 

In a prestigious Washington K Street office, young women had taken this feminist manifesto to heart.  They wore the most revealing, low-cut, sleeveless, frilly, sexy outfits to Division meetings.  The men who sat opposite them could think of nothing else but their bodices, their décolleté, their short skirts, and perfume  They fumbled at the Director’s questions about rates of return and financial options, bumbled when asked to recount the events of the last quarter, and jumbled facts and fiction, all because of the marvelous breasts, warm inviting lips, and sleek, toned legs before them.  

“It’s your problem”, the women said. If you can’t keep your eyes on the company’s prize, the fault is yours.  We women can wear whatever we want.

Image result for images young attractive decollete office worker

The CEO of the company, a middle aged man with a trophy wife and many lovers, and who understood the difference between men and women and the distinction between private and public spaces, disagreed.  There was business and there was pleasure, and if women wanted to play pussy and booty, they would have to do it on their own time.  

“Henceforth”, the CEO wrote in his address to his employees, “all members of the Chemfield Team shall dress appropriately and dutifully represent the solemn, serious, and principled nature of our mission to help others”.

No sooner had Mr. Dortmund circulated his position paper, that buttons were buttoned, skirts lengthened, perfume discontinued, eye liner and eye shadow left behind, and heels replaced by practical footwear.  In one fell swoop, he restored sensibility to the workplace.  He had admitted that women were dressing provocatively to attract men – despite their feminist disclaimers and insistence that they were wearing transparency only for themselves – and more contentiously he had stated that a sexually and invitingly-dressed woman would always attract the attention of healthy males.  The workplace demanded compliance on the part of women first.  Men reacted, did not initiate.

The hue and cry from women was loud and insistent.  The CEO had spoken out against the received wisdom that men are always the aggressors, the perpetrators, and the abusers; and that women are always and undeniably the innocent victims.

Yet the CEO did not retreat. If a woman dresses demurely, the CEO explained, then the problem is solved.  Finance, corporate balance sheets, proposals, and political positioning can go on as normal.  If she dresses like a floozy  (he of course chose his words a bit more carefully, but his intent was clear), it cannot.

Image result for images beautiful muslim women headscarf

The politically correct feminist ethos of the day denies this principle, and extends its culpatory reach to wherever men congregate.  Any comment interpreted to be derogatory about women, statements other than those expressing admiration for women’s intellectual, creative, and academic achievements, will be considered libelous and grounds for dismissal.

Yet men in locker rooms have always talked dirty. After showers, these same men go out with their girlfriends and treat  them well and with respect,  It was demeaning, they said, to assume that male sexual desire – perhaps crude and untoward in the locker room – was all there was about heterosexual relationships. Savvy men knew when it was time for pussy, and when it was time for candy and roses.

The most ignorant policy promoted by woke complaisant university administrators is the ‘No means No’ rule.  A woman has only to say 'No' once, tentatively, indifferently, hesitantly to a man’s advances, and every subsequent action on his part is rape.

One does not have to read through many volumes of literature to find examples of men’s frustrated pursuit of women.  A woman’s ‘no’ has always been part of her allure, ‘playing hard to get’ was part of an elaborate pas de deux, a mating dance of sexual demurral, passion, and conquest. A woman’s currency was her honor and her chastity. Her marriage might be arranged and her final worth a matter of dowry, family name, and ancestry; but the ballet was still her way of testing the interest and resolve of her suitors, exciting them with her demure sexuality, and promising much more.

Shakespeare’s Comedies are all about men chasing women and the ways in which the smarter, wittier, and more able ladies ran rings around them. Rosalind (As You Like It) knows that men are only after one thing, stumble and fall over themselves to get it, and make fools of themselves trying,

Image result for images helen mirren as rosalind

Yet Rosalind, Beatrice, Viola, and many other of Shakespeare’s savvy women are eventually softened and receptive. Portia (The Merchant of Venice) jokes with her minions at the expense of the many wealthy suitors who must solve the riddle of the ‘caskets’. One is laughably pretentious, the other clueless, the other fey and unserious.  They all want the beautiful and wealthy heiress, and she is having none of it – until the man of her dreams comes calling.

Portia

Thomas Marvell’s (1621-78) To His Coy Mistress is perhaps the most well-known poem about a lover’s pursuit of the woman he loves:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day….
I would love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews…
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace…

Image result for images thomas marvell poet

No’ was expected by these knights and troubadours; and despite their sexual ambitions respected women’s chastity.  If a woman gave herself too easily, then she must have given herself to others and would be no more than a courtesan and unworthy of marriage. Her reticence was a sign of value and her resistance one of moral and social resolve.

It was no surprise, then, that sexual games were played so elaborately. The hijinks of Shakespeare’s comedies were no more than metaphors for the necessary mating rituals of everyone who had a stake in marriage. The fanciful scenes of  All’s Well That Ends Well or Love’s Labor Lost play out prescribed sexual roles according to which women piqued men’s desire but did not give in to it; and men pursued women to the point of silliness but could never have them.

So the current crisis about rape is a mystery. What has happened to the beautiful game? Have men forgotten that women have not changed and still respond to respect, male confidence, and sexual interest? Have women read only half of the new sexual charter and not bothered with the part about sexual maturity and responsibility? Have men gotten caught between the sexual expectations of a libertine age and the new authority of women?

It is surprising to me that men need to be told “No means no”. Of course it does, and is expected in any relationship; but as true and honest a declaration it may be at one moment, a firm ‘No’ may turn into a warm ‘Yes’.  That’s how the game of mutual conquest is played – figuring out just when ‘No’ becomes ‘Yes’.  There are no absolutes in sexual gaming as any sexually successful man – or woman – knows.

Image result for images no means no

Intelligence and sophistication may be at the heart of the issue.  There are many thirty-somethings who have courted, dated, and mated with no less romance and love than any troubadour or well-born lady.  They have understood that romantic engagement is only sexual at its most base and primitive.

The most successful love affair in all of Shakespeare – and he was no fan of marriage or romance – was that between Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Kate in the first act is indeed a shrew and a vixen, but in the course of the play is ‘tamed’. Yet Shakespeare was not writing about abusive male patriarchy but mutual conquest.  Kate needed Petruchio’s confident sexuality and respect; and Petruchio finally found a woman with energy, wit, intelligence, and passion. Sex was the least of it.

Like everything else in today’s politically correct, hyper-sensitive, cancel culture, human nature is ignored in favor of social idealism.  It matters not that men and women have acted a certain way for millennia.  It is only important how they act in the future.  Genetics, sexual expectations, gender history are irrelevant.

The received wisdom of the day is that nothing is permanent, set in stone, ineluctable.  To admit that human nature hasn’t changed since the dawn of humanity, and that its expressions of self-interest, territorialism, aggression, and defensive perimeters are permanent would be to undermine progressivism itself. Everything is subject to change, and everything must be changed for a better, more just, favorable world to happen.  

The male-female sexual dynamic, never doubted and limned by artists from Socrates to D.H. Lawrence will have salience and relevance until human DNA is altered and recombined. Until then men will always talk dirty and women will always take umbrage but love the bad boy, the confident Casanova.

Plus ca change….