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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places–But It’s Getting Easier To Find

In a world of high-pressure, time constraints, and multiple demands, it is not surprising that many younger people have turned to online dating to facilitate the process of finding a mate.  While older people have their qualms – love was never meant to be mediated but to happen – the age of big data has passed them by.  Online dating however, with its sophisticated algorithms and massive amount of data, does not prevent love from happening.  It simply facilitates it.

It is only vanity which suggests that each of us is a unique individual, motivated by particular and special talents, qualities, and ambitions.  It takes very little processing of the billions of bits of information to prove this idea as wrong as can be.  While we each may differ in bloodline, physical shape and size, looks, and intelligence, these are only superficial markings of identity.  Not only are we all hardwired in the same way – human nature for 100 million years has been aggressive, territorial, self-protective, and self-serving – but that we all want the very same things.  We all either believe in God or are still searching.  We want good jobs, a decent standard of living, a respectful, productive family, and good health.  The fact that we are attracted to blondes or brunettes, tall women or full-bodied, or have an instinct for art or a natural ability for logic and calculation, fundamentally we differ only slightly.  Scientists who have decoded the human genome have concluded no differently.  Nearly 99 percent of human DNA is the same regardless of race or ethnic origin. 

It doesn’t matter whether a dog is a Schnauzer or a Dachshund, they all bark, mark their perimeters, raise their hackles, and wag their tails; and we are no different.  Most of us settle for the most obvious and uninteresting partners.  How many spectacular marriages are there with genius, beauty, or art on both sides? And those couples have paid for the privilege of a good match.  Breeding, manners, education, intellectual versatility, and talent cost money.  The rest of us play with the same, tattered, and dog eared deck of cards.  Win or lose we end up with the same predictable results – a marriage which starts off with passion and interest, tails off into routine and indifference, and ends up in toleration and patience.  It wouldn’t take much to spice up the game just a little bit, to make mating just a little more intriguing.

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So making a good match involves only tweaking the social genome – what kind of a family exactly? How much ambition? Travel where? Anal or oral sex? It would be much harder if we really differed fundamentally; that some small but not insignificant percentage of human beings were equipped with extra-ordinary rods and cones, bat-like hearing, or with the pheromone-sensing acuity of the Amazonian Tiger Moth.  Or if individuals varied by sub-sub category, hardwired (in that >1 percent of DNA) for spatial geometry or number theory; artistic fluidity in the plastic arts vs dance or music.  Fortunately for electronic dating services, the pool is vast indeed, and only with some minor inputs from individual clients, programmers can make reasonable if not spot-on matches in a matter of seconds.

Who could argue with such a technological advance? Why not submit personal information to an impersonal process which will spit out very personal, intimate, and ‘unique’ possibilities.  And, for those still with reservations, a personal meeting can add whatever juices and intuition that the computer has missed.

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Peter Ludlow, writing in The Atlantic (1.7.13) disagrees and explains the economic theory of ‘frictionless markets’ in which transaction costs are marginal; and suggests that online dating falls into this category.  There is little cost involved in subscribing to a top-flight online dating service, and no penalty if for some reason the match is not a good one.  Within minutes of the “Sorry, I guess this isn’t going to work out” made over coffee, you can be online again:
Now I realize that the economic language of frictionless markets isn't very romantic, but the fact is that the dating game is a kind of market whether we want to admit it or not. Finding a partner used to be expensive, and the market was inefficient. If you lived in a large city, there were always people looking for partners, but the problem was how to find them. Pick-up bars were imperfect markets to say the very least. Now you go online, select a partner, and you are immediately dating someone who is at least interested in you. Of course online dating is still work, but the emotional labor and risk of failure has been significantly reduced.
The problem is that the unpredictability of potential relationships is gone; and it is that very unsuspected nature of intimacy that makes for potent, lasting matches:
1950s romantic comedies turned unlikely pairings into a formula—happenstance throws two unlikely people together and the sparks and romance begin. We all understand this kind of romance—it involves the strange chemistry of putting together two people who are, on the face of it, incompatible.
Much of what is valuable in this world is the product of mashing up ideas or music or personalities that are on the face of it incompatible. And the secret is that great chemistry (for example in music) isn't about putting together people who are on the same page—it is about putting together people who are different and making it work. The result is often unexpected and beautiful. So it is with relationships; compatibility is a terrible idea in selecting a partner. It leads to stasis, both for individuals and for relationships and (turning my music example into a metaphor) it leads to music that is predictable and unexciting.
The best and perhaps most well-known example of this is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee.  George and Martha at the beginning of the play appear to be hostile enemies in a life-or-death struggle to humiliate, degrade, and disassemble the other.  Martha is a vixen, a harridan, a harridan; and George is reptilian, cruelly manipulative and as resentful and mean as any man could be.  By the end of the play, they are kneeling together, alone, but realizing that they both need each other desperately and, with hope, can move on to a better life together.  They love each other.

Albee, like Shakespeare, O’Neill, and Faulkner were no fans of family, love, or romance; but they all knew that the family with all its suspicion, jealousy, battles for power and dominance was the crucible within which people gained insight, maturity, and understanding.  Loose, come-and-go, easy relationships where the door was always open would never be ultimately satisfying, for people would cruise from one superficial and undemanding relationship to another without facing both angels and demons.

Returning to the economic model, Ludlow suggests that only in conditions of scarcity (i.e. having to look hard for a mate in the real world) are we willing to take the risks that will offer the possibility of that unexpected chemical brew that will give us the dynamic marriages of George and Martha or Petruchio and Kate (The Taming of the Shrew).  Kate is a frustrated woman in a male-dominated household.  She is a vitally independent and sexual woman who has no idea what she wants but to get out of the stranglehold of her father and her abusive sister.  Petruchio is the last man on earth she would even consider – a Lothario, a supremely confident and arrogant man who wants to control and dominate.  Yet despite her initial reticence and hostility and his facile and dismissive desire to ‘tame’ her for sport, they find each other.  Few marriages work in Shakespeare, but this one does because of its total implausibility.

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There was a time of course before there was any dating at all and arranged marriages were the way that couples were settled.  Arranged marriage in India is no simple matter as it was in Victorian England and America.  Indians are bored with the very obvious and simplistic stories like Washington Square where the algorithm is clear, uncomplicated and published – commensurate breeding, wealth, and family status.  Of course the father wishes to protect the family wealth and defy any man of suspect commercial interests. Love is irrelevant.  In traditional India if castes are compatible, all else will fall into place – a negotiated marriage agreement with particular attention paid to dowry and bride price.  Fair skin, foreign travel and education, and good looks are only add-ons.  Love is as illusory as anything else in life, Indians say, so why bother with the vanity that love exists at all?

We in the West owe our love fixation to Petrarch who, through his love sonnets to his beloved Laura created a chivalric, romantic paradigm; and we have not yet shaken it off.  We still believe that love actually exists, that there is indeed chemistry and magic and sparks can fly between two people.  Yet the millions of people who subscribe to online dating services give, without a second thought, lie to the assumption.  If the computer can set down in front of you the man of your dreams, then how can the idea of a heartthrob possibly exist?

Of course it all depends on what you’re looking for.  If you want an easy ride, a smooth elision from adolescence to adulthood, and efficient partnership with few chances of failure, let alone acrimony, guilt, shame, and pursuit, then electronically-mediated relationships are for you.  If you want a wrestling match, a Hollywood War of the Roses, a bloody, down-and-out, flailing to the marrow marriage like George and Martha, then you are right to take your chances, trust your gut, and live a little.  After all the fun is in the hunt.  Bullfights would be boring if the bull never gored a matador.

Parents  have always consoled their homely daughters that the right man is out there and all they need to do is to find him.  Austin Sloper, the wealthy doctor in James’ Washington Square, is under no misconceptions.  His daughter Catherine is homely, shy, slow, and ungraceful.  She has no charm, no wit, no sparkle, and no allure.  He cares little if she is satisfied in love, only that she is protected from predators out to marry for money.  Marriage is a business, purely and simply, and has always been so.  Women were for centuries commodities to be traded.  Now since that particular yoke has been removed and women are free to find an ideal mate, they find that the choices are overwhelming.  With the exception of the Catherine Slopers in the marriage market, the choice of a mate among so many prospects can be tedious, boring, and downright senseless; which is why they turn to mediated dating.

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Netflix recently broke new ground when it used big data to create a television series.  They already collected reams of information on streaming service users – when they turned the sound up or down, what they replayed or fast-forwarded, what preferences they had in actors and directors, and much more.  It didn’t take a great leap of faith to produce television programming that had little creative input but was still fabulously successful.  Dating is no different.

In short, why search for love in all the wrong places when it is staring you right in the face. A few scrolls, a mouse click and some personal preferences and dislikes, and you are in business.  Petrarch, Freud, and a thousand other artists, philosophers, and poets are turning over in their graves because of this turn of events.  Rational mating is sure to slow the psychiatry business, reduce divorces, force down market value for Xanax and Valium, and close down singles bars for good.

Doesn’t sound like fun?  Perhaps not, but fewer and fewer people want to slug it out a la Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee.  Marriage is the crucible of maturity, Albee famously remarked, but who said that we really want to grow up?

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The ‘Stability Of Nullification’–Greene, Lawrence, And The Liberation of Indifference

It happened on day on Atchafalaya bayou, far down, almost to the Gulf when a well-known travel writer realized that shrimp boats and the primeval swamps of Louisiana were not going to do it.  Nor were the antebellum homes, the cotton fields, Confederate cemeteries, tarpaper shacks, and catfish.  He had seen enough of the South, Mississippi, ‘the most Southern place on earth’, and had simply worn out from this, his last travelogue. 

It wasn’t so much the South which made him write his final chapter, it was travel itself.  Despite the elegies of Nabokov, Chatwin, Mathiessen, and Doughty who wrote about the mystical, spiritual nature of solitary journeys to the most uncharted parts of the world, anything captured or experienced on his trips was of only temporary value, and informative interest.  A passing show.

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Paul Theroux, who wrote The Tao of Travel, a compendium of travel writing by adventurers not tourists, is one of the best modern observers of the phenomenon of travel.  He is never content with nor interested in places or people themselves, but what confrontation, unpleasantness, or surprising beauty mean to the traveler.  Theroux wrote Dark Star Safari and Last Train to Zona Verde as travel redux.  He retraced his steps first taken as a young man down the east coast of Africa and up the West.  

Sixty when he began his final trip from North Africa to Cape Town, he found that he had changed to such a degree that the trip was neither a re-visitation or a discovery, but a difficult, uncomfortable, and disappointing journey to an Africa which had changed dramatically in over thirty years. 

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Although he was prepared to see the surprising increase in poverty, crime, and inequality, he was unprepared for his old man’s impatience and lack of solicitude.  He had always been a bitchy travel writer and had made his name with The Great Railway Bazaar which told of India from third class – the heat and dust, the flies, the shit, the slums, the stink, and the ugliness of it all.  

He was never as cynical and misanthropic as his former friend and literary mentor, V.S. Naipaul displayed in An Area of Darkness, and after he had made his name and royalties, went on to explore the nature of travel and foreignness. My Secret History and My Other Life blended fiction, personal memoir, and travel writing and expressed the conviction that foreignness was indeed revelatory and important.

The Louisiana travel writer in question had never had any of the philosophical or spiritual revelations of Peter Mathiessen who in his book The Snow Leopard described his unexpected epiphany in the high Himalayas – an epiphany not unlike that of Shelley who wrote
Mont Blanc…Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapor broods
Over the snow. The secret strength of things,
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
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Mathiessen agreed to accompany the naturalist George Schaller in his search for the legendary and elusive animal of the high mountains, the snow leopard.  Mathiessen, an experienced writer of material things – building a birch bark canoe, the life of watermen on the Chesapeake Bay, and the residents of the southwestern Florida swamps – had described places and people as interesting and unique but never impressive let alone spiritually so.

The Louisiana writer was far more like Mathiessen and Theroux than periodical writers; but had never had any of their particularly personal insights.  He had been impressed enough by certain events to have never forgotten them – the coup in Burkina Faso, the tent city of Moorish refugees from the Sahara in Nouakchott,  and the post-civil war brutality of Luanda – nor had he forgotten civilized lunches on Lake Tanganyika, by the sea in Rio, or at the Galle Face in Colombo; but they were uneventful memories.  The events themselves had not changed him nor altered his view of himself, culture, or people. Everything taken in on his travels was information collected and sorted, drawn upon for local color or historical reference, but never recalled in dreams, prayers, or daydreams.  Events had come and gone.

A life of travel had given him a measure financial security, some romance, adventure, and a store of information about the workings of human settlements.  it was a satisfying life of no particular lasting value.  As D.H. Lawrence put it, “Ursula’s Uncle Tom had a stability of nullification” and so had he.
Tom too was at the end of his desires. He had done the things he had wanted to. They had all ended in a disintegrated lifelessness of soul, which he hid under an utterly tolerant good-humour. He no longer cared about anything on earth, neither man nor woman, nor God nor humanity. He had come to a stability of nullification. He did not care any more, neither about his body nor about his soul.
Only he would preserve intact his own life. Only the simple, superficial fact of living persisted. He was still healthy. He lived. Therefore he would fill each moment. That had always been his creed. It was not instinctive easiness: it was the inevitable outcome of his nature. When he was in the absolute privacy of his own life, he did as he pleased, unscrupulous, without any ulterior thought. He believed neither in good nor evil. Each moment was like a separate little island, isolated from time, and blank, unconditioned by time (The Rainbow).
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Perhaps he was simply like Querry, he wondered, Graham Greene’s main character in A Burnt Out Case.  Querry, a world renowned architect has given up his profession, his family, and his European life for one in a leper colony in equatorial Africa. He explains that he only wants simplicity, anonymity, and the freedom from the demands of a successful, ambitious life. In the words of the medical doctor attending at the leprosarium, Querry is an emotional burnt-out case, the term used to describe lepers whose disease has been cured but who are left with physical mutilation.  They have recovered, but they are next to useless in making their way in a non-leprous world.  Querry, says the doctors, has recovered from the European disease which has afflicted him, but despite his attempts of renewal, he is doomed to live with the mutilations of his past.  His former life has left him without desire, enthusiasm, or spiritual energy. He may have found a kind of Eastern renunciation of life, but cannot fully accept its consequences.

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Perhaps he was simply wearing out.  Decades of miserable African airports, heat, crime, dysfunction, and delays may have simply taken their toll.  Once the cost of travel exceeds the benefits of what lies at the end, it is time to stop.  Or maybe it was only encroaching old age, a final setting of accounts which have nothing to do with Qutb Minar or the Danube.  Better to poke along at home and contemplate one’s end without distractions rather than see Bordeaux yet again.

Some writers like Phillip Roth simply stop writing, cancel their contracts with publishers and agents, and tell the public that they have read their last book.  Others, never absolutely sure about their conviction just yet years pass until they have been forgotten.  Still others like the Louisiana writer knew only that he was through traveling, not writing.  If he were to continue to write, it would not be about travel, culture, or foreign adventure.  Perhaps, fittingly, it would be about getting old.

In any case for those who knew him, the Louisiana travel writer’s ‘stability of nullification’ was far from it.  ‘Temporality’ could no longer be ignored.  A measure of perspective would cure a lot of self-importance.

He never finished his last book, Journey Down the Atchafalaya, although he was close to the end; but for him the end was not the last page, but the giving out of his last bit of literary breath.  He had simply and finally, had enough.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Isolation, Foreignness, And Belonging– Lessons From Lawrence, Albee, And Hawthorne

A principle theme in the works of D.H.Lawrence is belonging.  Whether by class, character, gender, or personality, relationships are defined by difference, independence, and need. 

Gertrude Morel married down to a collier in Nottingham and never could lose her sense of social unease.  She was the daughter of higher values, education, and breeding; and for reasons of Victorian necessity married a miner – a man unashamedly working class, simple, without airs, and yet with an attractive virility that attracted his young lover.

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Lydia Brangwen, a Polish foreigner, marries her husband out of similar necessity.  She, the widow of a successful intellectual doctor, can only make her way in Victorian England by marriage; and she is lucky to have attracted Tom Brangwen, a man beneath her social class but as virile and attractive as Walter Morel.  She has accommodated herself to adjustments in social class, is willing to adventure sexual risk as a compensation, and through force of will and character bests her husband and gains a psychic and emotional independence.

Lady Chatterley, despite her class-bound fidelity to her crippled and sexually impotent husband or because of it, has an affair with the gamekeeper of her estate and in so doing discovers the joys, liberation, and evolutionary power of sex which has nothing whatsoever to do with social class and position. 

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Lawrence understood that most people struggle with notions of personal integrity and emotional evolution – becoming one’s own person – and with the need to belong to a larger, communal group. The adolescent Ursula Brangwen is critical of the bourgeois, settled, and sexually predictable community into which she enters; instinctively remains apart, but cannot help singling out those among the community whom she desires.  She abjures the school in which she teaches, her students, and her colleagues for their intellectual insularity and ignorance, but realizes that choice is only possible within the population pool into which she has been thrown.

Tom Brangwen is suspicious of his Polish wife because he cannot know her and because he senses her reflexive return to the place of her birth.  At the same time he finds in her difference a place to hide, a place where social incompetence will be dismissed as a cultural misunderstanding and nothing more. Anna, especially in her religious phase, is dismissive of her husband who understands religion only as a matter of naves, arches and buttresses.  He can appreciate nothing more subtle than bricks and mortar.

Lady Chatterley on the other hand instinctively understands that class, profession, education, or faith have nothing to do with being. Her sexual relationship with the gamekeeper transcends any more temporal or pedestrian boundaries. It is the consummation of sexual desire and the perfect fitting of male and female regardless of externalities and trappings that counts.

It is sexual encounter which brings people together, says Lawrence, and two are enough.  Community, association, and belonging have only indifferent secular meaning compared to the existential power of sexual union.

Hawthorne in The House of the Seven Gables assumes differently and writes of the inescapable influence of family history.  No one born in the ancestral home could possibly avoid the events of the past nor the genes of one’s forefathers. There is an inevitability to family succession, and there is no point whatsoever in trying to escape it. He is surprisingly modern for sensing the environmental and social pressures of community, family, and place. The Scarlet Letter takes his assumption many steps further. 

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Ibsen in Rosmersholm and O’Neill in Mourning Becomes Electra write of the impossible weight of the past, but unlike Hawthorne add personal, psychological drama to the mix.  They are even more post-modern than he.  The libraries of both Rosmer’s and Christine Mannon’s homes are dominated by portraits of ancestors, reminders of their duty and responsibility to family honor and position.  Rosmer wants to free himself from his dutiful guilt, is beguiled by the young Rebekka West, and loses his way.  Christine Mannon will stop at nothing less than murder to rid herself of her family past and free her from its burdensome responsibility.

All these characters struggle with the conflict between personal identity and integrity and responsibility to the past. In an age of personal expression and individual validation, what is the purpose, we ask, of honoring, respecting, or perpetuating the past? Is not evolution much more than a biological imperative?  While creatures may evolve only through natural selection, is not personal evolution a matter of shedding historical snake skins?

In a world obsessed with the sanctity of national borders, the meaning of homogeneous cultural identity, and the new reality of multicultural diversity, one is likely to forget the lessons of Lawrence. The concept of community is a chimera, a diversion, and a distraction from personal evolution, he says; and this evolution can only come about through personal sexual consummation. In Lawrence’s view life without Tantric union is tepid at best and meaningless at worst.

There are many of course who dismiss Lawrence’s sexual obsession as typically male, antiquated, and irrelevant. We know know that there is no such thing as sexual polarity but only gender fluidity.  His ideas of sexual conflict, dominance and submission, and sexual epiphany are fanciful if not ignorant.

But even if one dismisses Lawrence’s notions of sexual climactic epiphany, one cannot discount his idea about the nature of sexual affairs. The reason why Ursula, a main character in The Rainbow is so obsessed with Christianity is because of her emotional uncertainty. Just like Paul Morel in Sons and Lovers, she is determined to square sexual desire, personal non-sexual intimacy, and social context.  Even if the be-all and end-all of personal relationships is not mutual orgasm, there is still something to be said for unique secular intimacy – a psychological and emotional belonging which trumps social partnership each and every time.

Nietzsche famously noted that the only validation of the individual in a meaningless world is the expression of personal will.  Lawrence’s characters, especially those in The Rainbow, Women in Love, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, all understand this principle.  They all rebel against traditional notions of family and marriage not because because of any socially progressive reasoning, but because they understand how confining and debilitating they can be.

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Edward Albee thought that marriage was an outdated, archaic institution which stifled individual expression.  Yet he also understood that marriage was the crucible of maturity. Without the inescapable confines of sanctified marriage, no one could ever evolve, always escaping into an ideal but ultimately disappointing world. It was essential that George and Martha (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) flay each other to the marrow in order to begin their marriage anew. If there was any hope for marriage or even for human intimacy, it was mortal sexual combat.

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Lawrence, Albee, and O’Neill all understood that everything depends on the heterosexual dyad – the male-female combative, defiant, and dependent relationship.  The outside world is peripheral and insignificant compared to the dynamic duo of man and woman locked within marriage.

Current post-modern progressive philosophy denies the nature of such sexual relationships. Intimacy and personal evolution is never a matter of sex or sexual dynamics but collaboration, cooperation, and empathy.  Yet to deny the essential sexual polarity of male and female and to ignore millennia of sexual conflict and resolution is idealistic at best. Lawrence was right, undeniable, and relevant.