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

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Adulterous Sins Of Our Fathers

Benjamin Nugent has written about adultery in the New York Times (4.28.13), and has blamed middle-aged men over 50 for their corrupting influence on younger generations.  These paunchy white men have embraced infidelity just as they have greedy, materialistic capitalism. Golf trophies, successful takeovers, trophy wives, and notches on the sexual six-gun are all part of the same ethos.

I felt that the problem with these men was the problem with America. Like our carbon-greedy nation, ruining the global climate for everybody, they suffered from a belief that they deserved what they wanted, no matter the collateral damage.

Then, after a decade of loathing men of a certain generation (provoked by the infidelity of his mother’s partner), Nugent himself falls into the tender trap.  He meets an ex-girlfriend and fucks her in the back seat of his Ford. Obviously still remorseful over his moral slide, he can only manage the weak phrase “We ended up making out in my car”.  What have I done, he wonders?  How could I have become one of them?

It turns out that this little indiscretion shakes Nugent’s worldview to its roots.  He has always tried to be the model of honesty, moral rectitude, and the champion of  liberal values.  Since Nugent’s abhorrence of the dereliction of his mother’s partner had as much to do with the partner’s age, class, and politics as with his canoodling, it is no wonder that he has experienced a more generalized angst. 

I have some consolation for Mr. Nugent. An estimated 30-60 percent of Americans have admitted infidelity whether to husbands and wives or to girlfriends, boyfriends, or partners.  Men, as everyone knows, are tomcatters – something to do with the biological imperative of spreading one’s seed as widely as possible to assure the continuity of lineage; and this impulse has no social boundaries.  Everyone does it. For young men like Mr. Nugent, cheating on a current girlfriend in favor of a new, more attractive, alluring, beneficial one (in procreative terms) is par for the course.  Not cheating, really, but playing the field in 21st Century terms. We no longer have Victorian arranged marriages to assure social position and economic well-being, so we have to fend for ourselves; and knowing the vicissitudes of the human heart, who wants to be stuck with a bad choice? Hell, we all make them, and the task is to rectify them – fuck someone more compatible, accessible, and productive.

Mr. Nugent cites John Updike to bolster his argument about the sexual profligacy of the privileged, white male brotherhood conflated with generalized greed – something about not willing to clean up after your dog – but he misses the point.  Rabbit is Updike’s hero, a tragic character who was born with natural talent and male exuberance, and because of the limitations of his social class and education, gets stuck in a bourgeois routine which he hates.  He is in the thrall of his wife, Janice, because her father runs Springer Motors where he works.  He has to pay the price of financial support with fidelity, and he simply cannot do it.  His male exuberance knows no bounds.  He even guiltlessly sleeps with his son’s wife.  She is willing, and his son is a jerk.

Rabbit is not a child of entitlement, just the opposite.  He is a child of disenfranchisement who makes his way as best he can.  He is a hero because he never gives in, never willingly straps on the braces that will hold him in place.

If you’re born Caucasian, male and middle class in the United States, your job is to check the manifestations of the entitlement bred into you by your native culture. These manifestations pop up continuously. Whenever I was tempted to flirt with somebody I wasn’t supposed to flirt with, or indulge in some other depravity, like driving when I could take a train, I would think, “Don’t be a disgusting white guy like Stepfather Figure X.”

On the contrary, says Updike, we should most definitely indulge in what Nugent calls depravity.  We should give in to the urges which define us as expressions of our individuality, maleness, and humanness.  We do not have to be Nietzschean Supermen whose expression of will is the only thing that separates us from the herd.  We only have to follow our instincts. Is this a call to revive male supremacy or to adopt a Beyond Good and Evil approach to women?  Not in the least.  Sexual partnership has always been a form of contract with rules, regulations, and boundaries.  Screw around too much, and you might lose a good thing.  Be as faithful as a choirboy, and you might face the Grim Reaper with a gob full of regrets.

The author Nugent might have quoted is Phillip Roth, another Lothario and advocate for sexual healing.  In The Human Stain the main character, deeply involved in a sexual affair with an attractive young woman at least 30 years his junior says to a much younger friend who is critical of and worried about this romance, “She is not the first love of my life, nor the best; but she certainly is my last”.  Roth understands the rejuvenating power of young love and how older men cannot resist, as Nugent suggests, because of notches and trophies, but because making love to a younger woman is pure, unadulterated bliss.  There is the silky smooth, unblemished skin – not the wrinkled parchment of age.  There is the lively, energetic responsiveness – not a reluctant rolling over once a month.  There are the fluids, the wetness, the pure desire, the multiple orgasms, the joy of sex.  What older man could possibly turn that down in favor of fidelity, feminism, or ‘progressivism’?  Death is staring them in the face and such considerations are nothing compared to the magical gift of a younger woman.

Mercy: that might be the singular benefit of repeating the sins of the previous generation. You might learn how quickly desire can rout ideology. You might acknowledge that you are not wholly unlike the dream-home-building, car-loving Rabbits you define yourself against, in that your major life decisions are guided by wants and not beliefs. Once you stop hating yourself, you might hate other people less.

I know that Mr. Nugent is writing for the Times in the category Opinionator/Anxiety, but he really shouldn’t beat up on himself so much.  He has been sold a bill of goods by women and their ‘progressive’ male shills.  He should also reread Updike and rather than pull out confirmatory quotes, should pay attention to the full characterization of Rabbit, truly an American tragic hero.

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