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

Monday, May 13, 2019

Hollywood, Bollywood, And Why We Love The Movies–Fact And Truth Mean Nothing

Hobbes exaggerated only slightly when he said that ‘the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.  Most people feel this way even though they may have risen above 19th century penurious misery.  Tolstoy perhaps said it best when Konstantin Levin reflects on the cruel irony of a God who created Man with wit, humor, intelligence, insight, and creativity; granted him a few score years on Earth, then consigned him for all eternity beneath the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  No man, regardless of his physical satisfactions or wants, can ignore the fact that such a short, ironic, and meaningless life is indeed nasty and brutish.  It is our fate to live in a vaporless world for a few years, then die and be absolutely and completely forgotten.

How, given these sobering thoughts, can anyone be happy?

Image result for images thomas hobbes

Another Tolstoy hero, Ivan Ilyich, a man dismissive of anything sobering and intent on simply creating a simple, trouble-free life, finds in his dying moments that perhaps he was wrong to be so cavalier.  Perhaps those irritating elements of his life – people especially – were indeed important; and perhaps he should meditate on his indifference.

The moment, however, passed.  Life was what it was; and death, a far more important event which had nothing whatsoever to do with the past (‘We all die alone’) was imminent.  Better to reflect on the eternal void than on the inconsequential events of his life. Yet there was nothing to reflect on or consider since death was and always would be the great unknown.  What to do?

Taking his last breaths he thought

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?"

There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Image result for images ivan ilyich

Death wasn’t so bad after all.  It was the fear of death that was the problem, not death itself.

Tolstoy was famous for his epiphanic scenes – those of Ivan Ilych, Count Andrei, Pierre, and Levin – and through these climactic experiences was able to express his own views of being, nothingness, and spirituality.  He continued to write after Ivan Ilyich, mostly religious monographs. In his last novel, Resurrection, he writes of a man’s life gone wrong and his attempts to atone for if not rectify his mistakes. Travelling through the miseries of Russian prisons, he concludes with the following:

All this comes," Tolstoy says, "from the fact that all these people — governors, inspectors, police officers, and policemen — consider that there are circumstances when human relations are not necessary between human beings. ... If once we admit — be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case — that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds. ... Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances…

If you feel no love, sit still. Occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. ... Only let yourself deal with a man without love ... and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself.

Of course few people sober up to reality except when they are approaching the final accounting.  Best to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.  Yet how to keep those niggling thoughts of mortality at bay? To keep the wolf away from the door?

That’s why Hollywood and Bollywood are there.  Except for la nouvelle vague and the Japanese, Russian, and Scandinavian art movies of the Fifties and Sixties, movies were all about life at its most exuberant, youthful, and invulnerable.  Watching The Cranes are Flying, Last Year at Marienbad, The Sign of the Seven Seals, or Hiroshima Mon Amour was meaningful then, painful now.  These movies seem academic, contrived, and impossibly boring.  After fifty years we have shed our European pretentions and gotten over any artistic intellectualism and returned to our roots – romance, shoot-‘em-ups, sex, glamour, and adventure.

Image result for the cranes are flying movie images

Bollywood never went through such a purposeful cleansing.  From the 40s to the present, Bombay films have been melodramatic and romantic with better Hollywood endings than Hollywood itself could ever have imagined; and have served their public well.  Indian audiences after four hours watching the same, routine, formulaic movies can barely pull themselves up and out of their seats.  The experience – so beautiful, so unlike anything in their Hobbesian lives, and so hopeful and emotionally fulfilling – is inimitable and unforgettable.  Bollywood has made billions off of the same, predictable scenarios.  Perhaps the American European art house interregnum was a good thing.  We now know better who we are, what we want, and especially what our fantasies are.

It shouldn’t have taken a European counterpoint to make all this clear.  After all, Louis B Mayer and the studios had been turning out one glorious Hollywood movie after another since the early days of the talkies.  The cult of film stardom was fully established from the very beginning of film.  Romance, beauty, glamour, adventure, and anything that parted company with the America of the Depression and War years was bound to be a success.  The movies were not only an expression of our fanciful and unrequited dreams, but a celebration of celebrity and image.  Once the movies had taken hold, facts, reality, and ‘the truth’ played second fiddle.  Gradually, seduced by Hollywood and its seductive dream machine, we have come to care less and less for the reality behind the image.  The images are plenty good enough for us.

Of course Hollywood movies were never just fanciful stories.  The films of the Thirties and Forties had hard-hitting themes of honesty, courage, valor, and righteousness; but these wrapped in recognizable humanity.  Selznick and Mayer were not interested in teaching morality, but demonstrating it in a Hollywood way – heroes and heroines, victims, and villains.  Good would always prevail in Hollywood because it did not anywhere else; and that was worth watching.  Today’s films are zeitgeist-friendly.  Stories of racial, gender, and ethnic tensions are common; but they all end in the same way, happily, unlike real life.  The cult of identity has helped Hollywood to translate social issues into good storytelling.  Black people are very black, gay very gay, Latino very Latino; but within Hollywood boundaries.  There can be gang bangers, ghetto bling, and playground trash talk; but in the end goodness prevails.  Our negative images of minorities have been confirmed, but given a positive middle class twist.  There may be something white behind all the trash talk after all.

Image result for images movie they drive by night

The point is that reality in Hollywood matters as little today as it did in the first kinescopes.  Whether America has influenced Hollywood or the other way around is a moot point – they have always been mutually dependent; but that interdependency has created the perfect moral storm.  Whoever or whatever is responsible, image matters far more than facts, truth, or objectivity.

It is no accident that Donald Trump is in the White House.  He is more than anything a man of image.  Only Upper West Side liberals take and parse his every word for meaning and accuracy while the rest of the country, like good Derrida wannabes, deconstruct what he says for meaning.  The Wall is not a wall but a metaphor for rationalizing an increasingly dangerous immigration problem.  His politically incorrect tweets and asides are not the insensitive salvos against defenseless minorities the Left makes them out to be but shots over the bow of political correctness.  His sabre-rattling with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea is nothing but the familiar posturing of Presidents.  He is, avowedly and proudly a vaudevillian in the spirit of Dostoevsky’s Devil who says 

Now I only prize the reputation of being a gentlemanly person and live as I can, trying to make myself agreeable. I love men genuinely, I've been greatly calumniated! Here when I stay with you from time to time, my life gains a kind of reality and that's what I like most of all. You see, like you, I suffer from the fantastic and so I love the realism of earth. Here, with you, everything is circumscribed, here all is formulated and geometrical, while we have nothing but indeterminate equations! I wander about here dreaming. I like dreaming. Besides, on earth I become superstitious. Please don't laugh, that's just what I like, to become superstitious. I adopt all your habits here: I've grown fond of going to the public baths, would you believe it? and I go and steam myself with merchants and priests. What I dream of is becoming incarnate once for all and irrevocably in the form of some merchant's wife weighing eighteen stone, and of believing all she believes.

In other words, as the Devil tells Ivan, without him life would be nothing but churches, masses, and goodness – insufferably boring.

A little blonde Norman girl of twenty—a buxom, unsophisticated beauty that would make your mouth water—comes to an old priest. She bends down and whispers her sin into the grating. ‘Why, my daughter, have you fallen again already?’ cries the priest. ‘O Sancta Maria, what do I hear! Not the same man this time, how long is this going on? Aren't you ashamed!’ ‘Ah, mon père,’ answers the sinner with tears of penitence, ‘ça lui fait tant de plaisir, et à moi si peu de peine!’ Fancy, such an answer!

The word on the street is ‘Lighten Up’ – we have had enough hectoring and moralizing to last a lifetime.  Go to a movie.  Enjoy yourself.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

In Praise Of Greatness–The Diminishing Returns Of ‘Inclusivity’

The means by which Providence raises a nation to greatness are the virtues infused into great men – Edmund Burke

The Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle observed in 1840 that history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men”, highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.

In 1860 Herbert Spencer developed a counter-argument which said that such great men are the products of their societies, and that their actions would be impossible without the social conditions built before their lifetime. This view prevailed throughout the 20th Century and gained momentum with the rise of the Postmodernism in the Seventies.  Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault were believers in “historicism”:

Postmodernists use the term historicism to describe the view that all questions must be settled within the cultural and social context in which they are raised. Both Lacan and Foucault argue that each historical period has its own knowledge system and individuals are unavoidably entangled within these systems. Answers to life’s questions cannot be found by appealing to some external truth, but only to the norms and forms within each culture that phrase the question.

Image result for images derrida

Dismissing individual greatness in world leaders in favor of historical conditioning, however, shows the same deconstructionist vanity of regarding all ‘texts’ as equal.  Shakespeare and a barely literate slave of the antebellum South are equal, say Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault.  Both authors were equally influenced by history, and in particular the oppressiveness of a male, upper class, aristocracy.  Shakespeare was no more than the mouthpiece of the Elizabethans, a by-product of Machiavelli, Copernicus, and Martin Luther.  These post-modernists dismiss his elegant verse, his insights into human nature, his versatility, his humor, and his sublime understanding of love and jealousy.

Dismissing any unique, insightful and willful leader; or marginalizing writers who have illuminated history through the subjective insights of perceptive minds does perhaps the greatest disservice of all – demeaning and devaluing the individual, great or not.  Deconstructionism, historicism, and postmodernism are all collectivist in spirit and application.  Either we are all members of social collectives, or we are part of the greatest collective of all – human history.

Tolstoy responded with an intellectual compromise.  As he explained in his Second Epilogue to War and Peace

We say that Napoleon wished to invade Russia and invaded it. In reality in all Napoleon's activity we never find anything resembling an expression of that wish, but find a series of orders, or expressions of his will, very variously and indefinitely directed. Amid a long series of unexecuted orders of Napoleon's one series, for the campaign of 1812, was carried out- not because those orders differed in any way from the other, unexecuted orders but because they coincided with the course of events that led the French army into Russia; just as in stencil work this or that figure comes out not because the color was laid on from this side or in that way, but because it was laid on from all sides over the figure cut in the stencil.

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Napoleon, Genghis Khan, Tamburlaine, Alexander the Great, and Caesar Augustus were great leaders who influenced the course of history because of their intelligence, will, political and historical insights, and vision.  Yet they were products of their history, defined and determined by collective forces larger than themselves, and their actions – although attributed to them solely – are only the results of the intersection of past events.  Tolstoy takes this somewhat obvious assumption and introduces his particular nihilism – no action in and of itself has any particular value, conditioned as it is by accidental, random forces that precede it. 

In other words, history is a product of unique, remarkable, brilliant men whose actions while predictable if not determined, cannot be dismissed as incidental vehicles of fate.  For Tolstoy there was no contradiction.  Nihilism and individualism could and indeed coexist.

Today’s progressivism is based on French deconstructionism, but is also a homegrown blend of American individualism and Utopian communalism.   Progressives, like Lacan and Derrida, dismiss individual enterprise, creativity, and genius as nothing more than expressions of collective historical and contemporary influences.  Yet they take this argument further.  If the individual and his enterprise have no fundamental meaning; and if social, historical factors are the only determinants of individual action, then the generator of of these factors – society – becomes preeminent.  There is a higher order, a higher good to collective action, progressive say.  While this is an ironic twist of the French philosophers’ ideas – there is no such thing as a higher good in a historically reflexive world – it is also understandable.  The idealism of Soviet socialism – the subsuming of the individual within a social collective where individualism disappears and the will of the people reigns – is still operative even thirty years after the fall of the USSR.

The final distortion of the Lacanian vision is seen in the emergence of identity politics.  While individualism may be a fiction, individual identity if it conforms to idealistic norms is not.   If the true nature of an individual – intelligent, creative, aggressive, compliant, talented, compassionate – is ignored in favor of traits which conform to and promote a communalist, collectivist vision, justice and progress will be served.  Diversity, a race-gender-ethnicity expression of this vision, neuters this true individualism. 

Such homogenization of a citizenry, however, must necessarily stifle individual enterprise and the intelligence, talent, ambition, and will behind it.  History as Tolstoy rightly saw it, becomes distorted.  There can be fewer and fewer great men if the idea of greatness itself is demeaned and dismissed.

There is something to be said for cultures that revere their pharaohs, shahs, emperors, and kings.  While the transfer of power let alone the exercise of it may be problematic for latter-day, judgmental eyes, the course of history has always been about power and ‘great’ men.  Without Cyrus, Xerxes, Darius, Ashoka, Ramses, Augustus, and Pericles, and Kangxi, the civilizations of Persia, India, Rome, Athens, and China would not have been as powerful, influential, and extensive as they were.  While each civilization had its share of bad rulers, the system not only rewarded greatness but justified it.  For every Nero there was an Augustus.  For every Charles IX there was a Charlemagne.

De Gaulle was a patrician, arrogant, but dominating figure who had an almost mystical sense of his historical destiny.  “La France, c’est moi” – the embodiment of 1000 years of French history and a call to arms and resistance to those who would threaten it – was genius.  If Churchill was the brains of the Allied Triumvirate, De Gaulle was its Savior.

Image result for images de gaulle

‘Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle were all from aristocratic, patrician families whose patriotism and respect for classical values was inherent.  Of course the popular will of the people was alive and well during their reigns, and they could not rule as autocrats.  Yet they came of political age at a time when aristocratic elites were taken for granted, afforded respect if not honor.  They did not have to go through mudslinging, barroom-brawl primaries to get elected; nor did they have to tailor their policies based on the views of the common man.  They were given license to rule.  It was no different in Ancient Rome or Greece.

Although De Gaulle might have carried this sentiment a bit too far when he claimed that he was Marianne, Joan of Arc, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Charlemagne all in one, he nevertheless believed absolutely in his role in leading France.  Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Founding Fathers were no less committed to their nation but with less grandeur.

Inclusivity’, the prevailing philosophy in democratic America, assures the extinction of greatness.  The 20 current Democratic candidates for President (2020) are examples of this derogation.  They are running because of their race, gender, or ethnicity; promising to reform the country according to progressive, secular, communalist principles; but without any of the genius of De Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt, Jefferson, Hamilton, or Lincoln.  The candidates, most of them young enough to have been schooled in the educational philosophy of ‘multiple intelligences’, self-esteem, and social harmonization, cannot help but be deferential to popular opinion.  While they certainly have the drive and ambition of all politicians, they lack the essential qualities of leadership.

Cato the Elder was a Roman educator charged with the education of the Roman elite, the future leaders of Empire.  His diptychs encapsulated the principles of leadership.  Not only would future Roman leaders have be schooled in military strategy, economics, history, and law; bur would have to learn to value compassion, courage, honor, discipline, and respect.  Greatness was assumed, but not guaranteed.  In the current American school system greatness is dismissed and ignored, while simply being good is enough.

 Image result for images cato the elder

Americans seem afraid of individual power and influence.  Yet Vladimir Putin, regardless of his autocratic excesses, is determined to restore Russia’s greatness, the glory of its Imperial past, and its world leadership.  Erdogan of Turkey has the same imperial vision to restore the greatness of the Ottoman Empire, to incorporate traditional Islamic values into a divisive democracy, and to rebuild Turkey as an international power.   Putin most certainly is a product of his past, but acknowledges it.   Regardless of the judgement of history, these men at least have historical vision and the deliberateness, intelligence, and will to carry it out.

Promoting a culture of greatness does not guarantee enlightened leadership.  For all those who have created, built, and civilized, there are the Hitlers, Maos, and Pol Pots who have done the opposite.  Yet without an understanding of the role of individuals, individual enterprise, and individual genius and the commitment to promote it, there will be no De Gaulles, Caesars, and Ashokas.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Hoping For Armageddon - The End Of Time and Global Warming As Validations Of Personal Belief

A recent Pew Research poll (2010) found that by the year 2050, 41% of Americans believe that Jesus Christ definitely (23%) or probably (18%) will have returned to earth; and nearly 60 percent of white Evangelical Christians believe that he will.

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While this may seem surprising, the figures may be more a validation of passionate belief than the realization of prophecy.  In other words, if the world does in fact end, it will validate a lifetime  of absolute, deeply-held, commitment .  The years of devout religious faith will have paid off, the years of Christian brotherhood recognized, and the deferral of more secular interests in favor of the spiritual rewarded.  Death comes to us all, but a fiery end of time presided over by Jesus Christ, ridding the world of the unfaithful and raising those who believe to celestial paradise, is the best death, a sanctified death, a divinely predicted one.  Amidst this final holocaust the true believer can know that he was right, that years of devotion, celebration, and penance was worth it, and that those who denied the power and glory of Christ would get their just due.

Image result for images jesus second coming renaissance painting

To hope for this final accounting in one’s lifetime attests to the power of faith.  Why wait for final judgement and personal vindication?  Since life must end, let it end sooner rather than later.

In this age of identity politics it is not enough to simply join a group to validate one’s one beliefs or commitments.  Life and society have become too competitive for diffidence.  Quiet belief, voting for change, promoting change through the democratic system, and simple devotion are out. Clamorous belief is in.  Emotional worship, violent demonstrations, massive displays of unity and brotherhood, and universal condemnation of political opponents – the more public, obvious, and as loud and demanding as possible the better – make one’s identity clear to everyone; and more importantly, give personal credence, justification and self-worth.

Image result for images hysterical anti-trump demonstrations

Those who insist that the incineration of the planet due to global warming is at hand say that they are protesting to stop it; to prevent the destruction of the world caused by ignorance, indifference, and greed.  Yet the more temperatures climb, polar ice caps melt, and deserts expand, the happier these true believers are.  Such fulfilled prophecy is a far better reward than an unfulfilled one.  Each degree Celsius is a Station of the Cross – a secular Via Dolorosa leading to crucifixion. 

Given the psychological nature of true belief, the irony is understandable.  If the planet were to begin cooling, the forests and plains regenerated, and life returning to pre-catastrophic normality, where would apocalyptic identity go?  Where else can the environmentalist, for whom the goal of unequivocal, lifelong passion is nothing less than the salvation of the world, go?  There can be no causes worthy of this one.  Victory is cold comfort.

Eric Hoffer, whose book The True Believer described this passionate necessity observed:
It is easier to love humanity as a whole than to love one's neighbor.
Every new adjustment is a crisis in self-esteem.

To have a grievance is to have a purpose in life.


A grievance is most poignant when almost redressed.
Our greatest weariness comes from work not done.
Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, details the psychological mechanisms by which individuals use beliefs to create separate realities:
As a 'belief engine', the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalizes it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs, and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary. Shermer describes this process as “belief-dependent realism” — what we believe determines our reality, not the other way around.
If, Shermer suggests, such beliefs are internal rather than externally- based; that is if they have been created by us and become part of our personality and being, the individual has every reason to defend them at all costs.  It is not much of jump to ironic defenses, the hope for Armageddon as a justification of personalized beliefs.

The 18th century metaphysician David Hume observed that belief is emotional in nature. Belief contains an element of feeling of compulsion or constraint.
The difference between fiction and belief lies in some feeling which is annexed to the latter and not to the former, and must arise from the particular situation in which the mind is placed at any particular juncture. Belief is something felt by the mind”
Image result for images philosopher david hume

It is not surprising that true believers group together.  While association for social, political, and economic reasons is fundamentally human, association for spiritual reasons is a step beyond such practicality. 

The Zapotecs, a pre-Colombian Mesoamerican civilization  lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.

The Zapotecs and Aztecs also performed ritual human sacrifice, the only way to appease the gods and forestall the savagery of their storms, earthquakes, and floods.  Life in the Oaxaca Valley, fertile and calm, was only borrowed from the gods who made their presence known every day.  Sunrise, sunset and the dark silhouettes of northern mountains reminded them of the immanence of the gods.  Even if they were not angry or retributive, their power was still felt.  The forces of nature and the forces of deity were one.

Image result for images zapotec human sacrifice

One can only imagine the power of the collective, passionate, fearful emotion at such ceremonies. Individual belief, expressed as collective will in the very presence of the deities that they have created and believed in, must have been powerful indeed.   A thunderbolt thrown by angry gods was feared but hoped for – a sign of divine authority and a validation of individual belief.  The nature of today’s collective belief may be a tame version of such paganism, but pagan nonetheless.

Christian theology at its most fundamental is rigorously simple.  Martin Luther streamlined religion and returned to its Biblical principles.  Faith in Jesus Christ and trust in his grace are enough for salvation.  He would be quite appalled at the excesses of fundamentalism today, where simple, pious belief is not enough.  He could never have imagined 10,000 seat megachurches with sound and light, ecstasy, and communal, congregational belief.

Image result for images martin luther

In an earlier day Americans trusted in the wisdom of the Founding Fathers and the basic principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.  There would always be issues facing the new Republic, and democratic participation, tolerance, respect, and commitment would be the ways to resolve them.  There would be no need for excessive belief or intolerance in the name of righteousness.  Of course this trust has been tested.  The Salem Witch trials were only an early example of Americans collectively hysterical beliefs; yet the tendency to emotional excess as a means of self-justification and collective belonging has not gone away, and in many respects increased.

The social and political hysteria of the times is not likely to quiet down any time soon, nor is the increase in religious fundamentalism.  The age of temperance, reason, and civility has long passed.  The more complex the world becomes, the greater the tendency to believe in something without reason and to believe in it passionately.  Reason makes no sense in an impossibly complicated world.   And the more ‘diverse’ societies become and the competition among them increases, the more each group is likely to defend itself illogically and emotionally. 

Every March for the Climate, for women’s rights, and for Black Lives Matter; or against homophobia, misogyny, and capitalism is sanctified.  A march on the Mall is no different than attendance at Mass – or better, at a pagan sacrifice in the Valley of Oaxaca. True belief – absolute, emotional, passionate, intemperate belief – is here to stay.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Taking Risks–Adieu To A Settled, Predictable, Uninspiring Life

We live in a risk-averse society.  From playgrounds and swimming pools to safe spaces and kitchen counters, Americans seem determined to eliminate risk.
 
Yet risk is what saves life from being entirely predictable, pedestrian, and boring.  Risk individualizes, gives character, definition, and meaning.  For those who understand this, life is not a series of anything.

One person races cars, another does extreme skiing, another is a smoker, a third has unprotected sex, and a fourth has affairs.

None of these friends are careless or ignorant about risk.  They have simply calculated it correctly.  To quit smoking, the smoker – European, old-school Paris intellectual who sat at the Café des Deux Magots with his father and Jean-Paul Sartre; poet, atheist, Communist – would not only have to give up tobacco and nicotine, but an identity.    Continuing to smoke in a society fixated with health above all, risk aversion, and petty bourgeois concerns is a statement of particular worth.

Image result for images cafe des deux magots 50s

The unfaithful husband knows quite well that he risks his marriage every time he has a dalliance; but he is older now, and the opportunity for sex with a younger woman decreases with every year.

Although he was aware that the value of his thirty-year contract with his wife was beyond calculation;  and although she, although understanding in most circumstances, would consider his infidelity a breach of sacred trust, he valued his September-May affair so much that he was willing to take the risk.

He knew he was skating on very thin ice because he had been found out before; but the sexual epiphany of love with a woman thirty-five years his junior was worth the risk.  “She is not my first love, nor my best love, but certainly my last love”, he said, paraphrasing the Antony Hopkins character in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain; and spent every other Saturday with his lover in her small studio apartment in Soho.

Image result for images the human stain

The sexual adventurer was very aware that the Ukrainian and Macedonian women with whom he slept in the early 90s were at risk from HIV/AIDS; and so were the Filipinas, Burmese, and Malaysians he took as lovers.  He understood quite well that there was a chance – especially with unprotected sex – that he could contract the virus.

Yet sex with barely-known women in the seedier parts of Mandalay, Penang, and Chiang Mai was existential.  How could a lambent, secure, and faithful arrangement in Falls Church possibly satisfy?

A number of years ago a close friend and I went hiking in the Catskills.  He had hiked the mountains many times, and wanted to spend the night at the top of one of the range’s highest peaks; but the climb would entail a section of rock face challenging for even the most experienced climbers.

Although he was familiar with the region, he was unsure of the best starting point.  Why, asked the grocer from whom we had asked directions, should we be fussing with rock climbing when we could be in bed with our girlfriends?

Why indeed? And after many decades, and having been chastened with a good lesson learned,  my friend’s most challenging and exciting moments were never in the mountains; and to equalize the trade-off between the exhilaration of high-altitude climbing and good sex, just any girlfriend would not do. A former debutante from Miss Porter’s, an art major from Smith, or an investment banker intern at Barkley Burnham, were not enough.

He risked discovery by his wife, disease, betrayal to the police, and extortion for the sake of risk.  Love in the Carpathians, Port-au-Prince, Bucharest, and Rawalpindi would never have been as sweet if it hadn’t been backdropped with Asian sexual intrigue, the ton-ton Macoutes  and Ceausescu's security service.  What was a cinq-a-sept in Adams Morgan compared to rum punches, Petit Pierre, and hot afternoon siesta in the Graham Greene Suite at the Oloffson?

Image result for images tontons macoutes

Apsley Cherry-Garrard writing in The Worst Journey in the World, describes surviving an Antarctic winter as part of Scott’s expedition to the South Pole – an ordeal he volunteered for:
As we approached Terror Point in the fog we sensed that we had risen and fallen over several rises. Every now and then we felt hard slippery snow under our feet. Every now and then our feet went through crusts in the surface. And then quite suddenly, vague, indefinable, monstrous, there loomed a something ahead. I remember having a feeling as of ghosts about as we untoggled our harnesses from the sledge, tied them together, and thus roped walked upwards on that ice. The moon was showing a ghastly ragged mountainous edge above us in the fog, and as we rose we found that we were on a pressure ridge. We stopped, looked at one another, and then hang — right under our feet. More bangs, and creaks and groans ; for that ice was moving and splitting like glass.
What was Cherry-Garrard thinking? Of course the Age of Exploration was a unique one.  First to the poles, first to discover the flow of the Niger, first to determine the source of the Nile, first everywhere to extend and establish imperialist hegemony; and so risk taking and validation of personal worth and identity was done within a limited and prescribed context.  We are glad, as it turns out, that Scott, Amundsen, and their parties endured privation and isolation to extend the limits of civilization.  Their priorities were different.  European society was still emerging from feudalism, the divine right of kings and noblesse oblige; and individual achievement was still a matter of record and national note.  It would be 100 years before attention turned to individually-conceived  achievement and ‘self-worth’.

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At the same time in a more socialized age the need for risk to validate life is even more important.  In the days of Scott, Amundsen, and Hillary, exceeding the possible or standing thieves was enough.  In today’s ordinary, predictable, and very imaginable lives, individual validation is more difficult.  Not only have all peaks been bagged, but we have lost any interest in anything generally uncharted.  If there are still challenges, they are personal, private, and individual.

Just as Amundsen calculated risk in terms of ultimate benefit – first to the South Pole – our estimations of risk, while calculated within a less extreme physical context, must be as narrowly-defined as his to assure maximum reward and gratification. It is not enough to have an affair here and there, to be as French as the French for whom sexual deceit is venial and sexual adventure is de rigeur, but to risk all for epiphany.  D.H. Lawrence’s Connie and Mellors defied tradition and common sense and risked a chance at sexual epiphany. They succeeded, but both, like Strindberg’s Miss Julie, were once again reverted to form.

The Age of Exploration is over, at least until the colonization of Mars and beyond; and for the time being there will be no Everest, South Pole, or Bornean and Amazonian forests to discover.   It will be up to us to make adventure out of nothing – to take unconscionable risks in search of sexual epiphany.  We can do more than Connie and Mellors.  We do not have to return to pedestrian, predictable, and conditioned lives.  We can escape confinement.

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Yet in an age of sexual liberation the tendency will be to settle – a different woman, different sexual demands, different expectations – in the hope that one of these peculiarities will match up with ours.  Sexual proliferation and the myriad choices it offers does not assure epiphany.  Far from it.  Most of us are simply tired tired out, and willing to accommodate. 

If one could – that is if sexual potency and interest lasted forever – the search for a sexual Holy Grail would be as everlasting. God’s greatest irony notwithstanding– creating men with limitless sexual desire but with limited sexual potency – we will be inexhaustible in our quest for epiphany.  ‘Even at 75 it can still happen’ is the most common, saddest consignment to fate.

Yet even at this elder age, men still are willing to take sexual risks – for those of limited resources to take sex wherever it is offered; and for those more fortunate to find and display arm candy and the booty of sexual conquest as often as possible.  There always is a consequence to sexual libertinage, but after a certain age, no one cares.

Few men of a certain age still want to climb Everest, trek to the South Pole, or solo sail around the world.  To be in bed with a young, beautiful woman in defiance of decades of marriage, children, grandchildren and a successful career is enough.  Validation.  Meaning.  Purpose.  Later-life men understand the meaning of life with no help from metaphysicians.  It is to go out with a bang, sexual, selfish, and independent until the end.