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

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Just The Facts, Ma’am - Life Would Be Boring Indeed Without Tall Tales

Of course scientists need to base their work on the facts; but for everyone else life is far more forgiving.  Who tells the truth all the time anyway?  Husbands certainly don’t, nor politicians, nor preachers, salesmen, and flight crews.  Semi-truth is about the  best we can hope for.

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Harriet and James Parker refused to sign a pre-nuptial agreement.  Not only was marriage too sacred to be clapped into a legal box, they trusted each other – mutually and completely. The only contract they would enter into would be one of good faith; and it would be one of the highest standards.

Sexual imperatives being what they are, it wasn’t long before James strayed – at first an excusable dalliance, but later more and more serious affairs.  He, like every other man made up the most hackneyed excuses – working late at the office, proposal time even on Saturdays, meeting old friends for drinks – but that was because his life was itself hackneyed.  Although he never admitted it, cheating on his wife was tacky.  Had he been a real man, he would have made millions, had sexy groupies and arm candy, and never have had to lie.

Nevertheless he could not stop his infidelities.  They were fun, distracting, challenging, and as he got older ‘life affirming’.  There was nothing like a September-May affair to validate one’s worth.
His wife knew exactly what was going on, but because she had grown to expect these petty dalliances from her husband and had become financially self-sufficient thanks to her cunning and determination, she let them slide.

In fact as her indiscretions became more and more public and James could no longer assume – as all patriarchal men do – that his wife would never stray.  Yet her libertinage was the very key to his own.  When two are dancing the same tango, the moral and ethical issues of fidelity disappear. 

Yet both Parkers kept up the charade.  His after-hour ‘business meetings’ continued as did her ‘trips’ to San Francisco and Memphis.  It wasn’t so much that such tall tales were necessary for the sake of the marriage – that vanity had been dispensed with years before – but that they both had become so used to an imagined double life, that they could not give it up. 

Admitting a dalliance with Jane from Accounting or Bob the Silicon Valley whiz kid would not have betrayed the marriage so much as it would have betrayed the melodrama that added spice to their otherwise ordinary lives.  “Everybody is married, for God’s sake”, Harriet said to a friend.

Edward Albee understood the nature of marriage better than most; and his cynical-hopeful view was never more evident than in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? George and Martha are out to destroy each other, strip each other bare to the marrow; but do so because they cannot do without each other.  Only by starting from a beginning, can they have any hope of surviving.

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Marriage, Albee felt, was the crucible of maturity.  Only within its confines can men and women possibly come to grips with their desires, insecurities, and ambition.  As much as he hated marriage as the bourgeois construct of society, he understood its elemental nature.

The key to the disassembling of George and Martha is their imaginary son – a fantasy so real that he is the object of love, jealousy, resentment, need, and aspiration.  He has lived with George and Martha for years.  They have relied on him, needed him as the anchor for their dysfunctional marriage.  Better to hold on to a fantasy than to have everything disappear.

Unlike George and Martha, James and Harriet Parker had no dramatic potential whatever.  They could never flay each other to the marrow for the truth or ever resort to poison.  Yet they needed their own imaginary child to keep the marriage from become a desperate, predictable, horribly bourgeois affair.  As their sex lives became more and more routine – as they got older their choices of paramours became more limited and far less interesting – their stories became more inventive and exciting.

Harriet’s descriptions of cocktails at the Beverly Wilshire or the scene at Palm Beach were marvelous concoctions of Hollywood, St. Tropez, and Gstaad.  She told of improbable but delightful coincidences – the Kuwaiti sheik with five of his wives; the French intellectual on his way to lecture on Lacan and Derrida at Berkeley; the world-famous five-star chef who ate foie gras for breakfast at the Four Seasons.

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James played his own part – a less dramatic, more pedestrian role than his wife’s but one filled with intrigue, mystery, and as much deception as he could imagine.  Every one of his ‘meetings’ were rendezvous with deeply troubled but passionate young colleagues working out their childhood demons; borderline alcoholics who teetered but wrote brilliantly; Lotharios and timid priests; Buddhists and mathematical geniuses.

A woman I knew rarely told the truth.  She exaggerated, invented, and wove impossible stories about her successes.  She was an impresario, a music producer, a businesswoman, and an Atlantic sailor.  There was always a scintilla of truth to what she said – she was in the music and radio business; she did sail off the coast, and she did have plenty of brains and savvy – but there was always something improbable about her stories – the musicians she attracted to Cartagena, sailing through the Dardanelles, her millions in New York stock holdings.

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I never cared.  Elena Castillo was far more interesting this way than if she had only stuck to the facts.  I was getting an intelligent, creative, canny woman and Sarah Bernhardt.  Who could ask for anything more?

A distant aunt who had grown up in modest circumstances in an immigrant community in Buffalo but who had then married well and moved with her husband to a white picket fence neighborhood in New England – as far from the Italian ghetto as she could get – never told the truth about her upbringing; put as elegant a face on her unfortunate childhood as could possibly be believed; and like Elena Castillo was both a smart, solid, and demanding woman and Sarah Bernhardt.

I never cared.  While her children dug, poked, and scratched for ‘the truth’ about their mother’s past, I was indifferent.  Auntie Rose was Auntie Rose, however confected.

American progressives are still livid about President Trump’s ‘lies, distortions, and deliberate fabrications and avoidances of the truth’.  His supporters of course have never cared a whit about the truth – facts, data, position papers, policy statements – as long as he continued to harass the progressive establishment, promise to retrieve the millions of foundering, lost Americans who had been disregarded and disrespected by them, and stand up for America. 

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Trump’s message was never about facts but about meaning, imagery, and principle.  Trumpists loved his braggadocio, outrageous and outsized personality, Hollywood and Las Vegas glitz and glamour, and New York street smarts.  Who cared about the facts?

The Internet has enabled conspiracy theories like never before.  Once stories go viral they become bigger than life.  The more they circulate, the truer they become.  Before long we will be unable to tell fact from fiction and it will no longer matter.  Life in a virtual world requires no fact-checking.
All this is to say that we are finally unharnessing ourselves from the plow, no longer willing to spend our life in someone else’s traces.  The truth – facts, what is, reality – is now recognized as being very overrated.

Freedom is no longer defined in terms of civil or human rights, but of intellectual independence.  No more enslavement to practicality, objectivity, rationality, and good sense.  Life is too short to be in those chains.

Facts? Who cares?

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