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

Thursday, December 30, 2021

The End Of Romantic Love And Sexual Obsession In The Censorious Age Of Identity

Petrarch is considered the originator of the concept of romantic love.  His many poems to ‘Laura’ describe love’s  transforming nature – it is never simply an affection, a simple desire, or a feeling.  It is transformative, epiphanic, and spiritual.

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My Laura, my love, I behold in thine eyes
Twin daystars that Mercy has given,
To teach me on earth to be happy and wise
And guide me triumphant to heaven.
Their lessons of love thro' a lifetime have taught
My bosom the pureness of thine,
They have roused me to virtue, exalted my thought,
And nerved me for glory divine:
They have shed on my heart a delightful repose,
All else it hath barr'd from its portal,
So deeply the stream of my happiness flows,
I know that my soul is immortal.

The idea of romantic love was something new in the Middle Ages, an era of plague, early death, and subsistence.  Marriages were arranged for convenience whether between kings, queens, and courtiers or among peasants.  Marriage was a practical union, a combining of resources, a means of reproducing labor or maintaining power. 

Petrarch suggested that something more significant and much more expressive of God’s love and man’s search for it existed beyond economics, heritage, and duty.  Tales of knights and their fair maidens and the idea of virginal love and the heroic conquests of it were common.

Dante who wrote his love poems to Beatrice a few decades before Petrarch anticipated the new, romantic attitudes that were to prevail through the Renaissance and well beyond.  In this poem the theme of untimely death, a feature of much of subsequent love poetry, is suggested:

To every captive soul and gentle heart
Into whose sight this present speech may come,
So that they might write its meaning for me,
Greetings, in their lord’s name, who is Love.
Already a third of the hours were almost past
Of the time when all the stars were shining,
When Love suddenly appeared to me
Whose memory fills me with terror?
Joyfully Love seemed to me to hold
My heart in his hand, and held in his arms
My lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.
Then he woke her, and that burning heart
He fed to her reverently, she fearing,
Afterwards he went not to be seen weeping.

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Shakespeare continued the tradition of romantic love poetry with his sonnets

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimmed;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand'rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow'st.
    So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,
    So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Petrarch, Dante, and Shakespeare all wrote of romantic obsession, a benign longing, a happy unhappiness, a desire which relegated all rational thought, delayed enterprise, and left the lover despondent.  Sex was only implied, for it was less important to the poet than the sublimity of romantic love, an expression of the best and highest human purposes and not to be distorted by lower order sexual instincts.

In the 19th century, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy wrote of obsessive sexual love.  Dostoevsky’s A Gentle Creature tells of a man’s obsessive desire to dominate and control the young woman he marries.  Tolstoy’s The Devil tells of a man’s pursuit of a peasant girl, a liaison which ends in death.  Evgeny does not love Stepanida and cannot explain his attraction to her.  She has a devilish control over him, a spell which he cannot resist.  He is tormented by his unwillingness to sleep with her after he is married, and is tortured by thoughts that he will and in so doing abandoning all moral authority. 

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Graham Greene was a master of sexual obsession, and the introduction of Catholic guilt and inflexible moral codes adds a unique dimension to the plights of his characters Scobie and Bendrix.

Emily Bronte, Ian McEwan, Josephine Baker, and especially Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Mann (Lolita, Death in Venice) were masters at describing sexual obsession – a pursuit that had little to do with romantic love, but with an unnamed and unknowable desire for possession.  Humbert pursues Lolita to relive the love he once had for a girl who died young.  Lolita, a ‘nymphet’, a girl of premature sexuality and an innate, indescribable sense of her allure, is his old love reborn; and he cannot resist her.

Aschenbach’s obsession with the beautiful boy Tadzio, unlike Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, has no known antecedents or psychological influences.  It is an unexplained but irresistible sexual desire for a boy of remarkable beauty and innocence –something unexpected in a man of his age and propriety.  

Aschenbach loses all sense of the social and personal order according to which he has always lived.  He becomes unmoored from the past and from the person he always thought he was.  He cannot help himself. He dies unhappy and alone without ever having made his love known.  He is not unlike Tolstoy’s Evgeny who cannot explain his ineluctable sexual attraction to Stepanida, who cannot resolve how to act with her or with his wife and who ends up badly.

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For the most part, literature is filled with simple sexual combinations – women who love others than their husbands, but who are not compelled to do so.  Their interest is social, economic, and practical.  Emma Bovary is not a Stepanida but a willful woman determined to control her own destiny.  Hedda Gabler does not love her husband or the man she persuades to kill him, and acts only out of an act of supreme, unstoppable will.

George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are obsessed with each other, caught in a marriage that was inevitable but ultimately destructive.  Never in the play do either of the characters want to end the marriage, but continue to flay each other to the marrow for the sake of their intimacy.  It may not have been love which they wanted to preserve, but certainly the powerful, consuming relationship which defined them.

The rest of the world has neither love nor obsession, married with children. The idea of romantic love seems outdated in modern times.  Too much is being made of identity, social purpose, meaning, reform, and progress to allow for anything so diverting and frivolous as romantic love.  Old people holding hands on a tropical beach is definitely wrong.

Sexual obsession seems equally to have gone by the wayside, dismissed as misogynistic, retrograde, and socially inhibiting. Men continue to have affairs but do so increasingly carefully.  An aggrieved wife, now a trial lawyer with serious investments, will dissolve the marriage quickly and efficiently.  Women who put up with dalliances are a dying breed.  Only wealth that matches or tops spouse’s net worth assures quick disentanglements, and easy sailing. 

None of this speaks of obsession, an idea faltering after so many years of Freudian analysis and many more of a Puritanical, censorious era. In fact it is a joyless era overall.  No high spirits can last in an atmosphere of constant, unremitting sanctimony.  Not only love and sexual obsession have gone by the wayside.  Having fun has too.

Of course men think about women all day long – that is the one obsession left.  Not an irrational desire for a woman but for all women, any woman, a universally sexually frustrated desire, the saddest of all.

There may come a time when the pall of political hypocrisy clears, when both romantic and obsessive love are let out again, when men’s desirous pursuit is not condemned, and women’s sexual allure not demeaned and dismissed.  Dante and Petrarch will be back and so will Mann, Nabokov, and Tolstoy.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Omicron, Bullies, And Playground Rules–Man Up!

Bobby Palmer was a fourteen year old, six-foot, 150 pound bully.  He blocked doorways, pushed, shoved, and tripped his classmates daring them ‘to do something about it’.  He was a mediocre student, a poor athlete put on the football team only as a big piece of meat; and sloppy, careless, and clumsy, he was of no interest to girls.

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He was at his best at first bell, recess, and last bell.  Standing by the door in the morning he mussed hair, tore shirts, tossed knapsacks into the shrubbery, and smeared chocolate on clean pants.  At recess he cornered his targets on the front lawn and rolled them down the hill; harassed them on the athletic field, and stuck gum on the term papers of the few who stayed in.  

At last bell he was the first down the stairs, given a wide berth, elbowing and kicking anyone who got in his way.  He stood blocking the doorway, exacting tolls – pieces of candy, Faber pencils, or brand new erasers. 

No one told on him for fear of reprisals.  Bobby Palmer was bad enough as a tough, mean bully; but had he gotten wind of a snitch, the student would not survive the semester.  The school was a small country day school with barely fifty students, all drawn from the well-to-do nearby neighborhoods.  The families were descendants of the city’s first industrialists, the captains of industry who built the hardware, tools, and machinery that supplied the Pentagon, retail stores, and wholesale outlets.  

New Brighton industry was known nationwide as a quality supplier and thanks to its reputation, enterprise, and skill became one of the largest cities in America in the mid-1900s.  Wealth was secured and sheltered from the Great Depression thanks to canny investment, and no industrialist’s family ever had to work again. The leisure class had homes on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, skied in Gstaad, and wintered on St. Bart’s.

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Out of respect for their storied family heritage, the children of these scions were given far more responsibility and independence at Harper Country Day than their public school counterparts, children of the working class who manned the lathes, drills, and power wrenches of the downtown factories.  No teacher looked over their shoulders, and punitive discipline was a rarity.  Also, the ethos of the school as in its communities was conservative individualism.  Children were taught from an early age to solve their own problems, take an occasional beating, and give as good as they got.

Bobby Palmer somehow missed out on the parental instruction and the social mores of the West End.   He reveled in thuggery, power, and his ability to intimidate all comers.  Fear was adoration, abject as it might be, and Bobby thought of himself as king of the castle.  The rest of the school hated him, plotted against him in their minds, but never engineered the coup they envisaged.

The school was divided into three distinct groups according to their approach to Bobby Palmer.  There were those – the vast majority – who simply kept their distance, stepped out of the way, and arranged schedules of avoidance.  There were others who tried to ingratiate themselves with Bobby by doing favors, running errands, tripping and pushing those students that he missed on the way up or down the stairs. 

Finally there were the very few, one or two, who challenged him, fought him, and refused to put up with him. Lyle Farrell was one of those who stood their ground.  Half-WASP, half Irish bar brawler; insider because of his mother’s family, outsider because of his father’s, living on the far outskirts of New Brighton in a cabin in the woods, Lyle was the perfect foil for Palmer.  He had BB gun fights with his cousins, shot .22s at anything that moved on Meriden Mountain, and came down out of his family’s redoubt to join the upper class swells of the West End.

He fought Bobby on the front steps, on the football field, and on the front lawn.  Every night he went home black-eyed and bloodied, his country clothes ripped and tattered; but every day he went back.  After a few weeks of this Bobby saw that he could neither intimidate or beat this little weasel, gave up and turned his attention elsewhere.  But the damage had been done.  He was no longer Genghis Khan but a shabby, disreputable bully.  The sycophants left off and the rest of the school maintained their distance.

In short, everyone learned how to deal with Bobby and all bullies.  They had, unlike today, no one to protect them, to shield them from taunts and insults, to watch over them on the playground.  They had to figure things out – when to stand their ground, when to keep their distance, when to compromise and deal.  The playground was and always had been the place to wise up.  Now that opportunity is lost.  Bullying is a hanging offense.  Boys are taught to behave like girls, and schools have been transformed into progressive laboratories. 

Of course little of this happy indoctrination about love, sharing, compassion, and understanding has ever worked.  Middle school girls are still as catty and vicious as ever.  Boys are still emotional truants; and at best these competitive instincts are simply tamped down for a few academic years and then blossom in full flower once they are finally let loose in the adult world.

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Omicron is the latest bully on the playground, and people are struggling to figure out what to do with it.  There are those who refuse to buckle under, correctly assess the threat as relatively minor and go about their business knowing that at the very worst they will be in bed with ‘flu-like’ symptoms for a week.  They are willing to take what this uncompromising, threatening variant dishes out and deal with it.

There are others who panic, refuse to budge from their air-purified basements, return to the days of scrubbing, isolation, and suspicion.  They give in to the virus without a fight, without assessment, without logic.  They are afraid of their own shadow.  They cower, hide, and run.  The artificially constructed ideal, progressive world of good faith, obedience, right behavior, social integration, and harmony, shown to be a sham in a dog-eat-dog world which hasn’t changed in millennia, collapsed around them.

There are others, the vast majority, who simply take reasonable precautions, do the needful, and hope for the best.

Omicron has lined people up before testing centers, closed down family gatherings, shut down businesses, and created a universal suspicion of others.  America’s enemies have taken note.   In the eyes of Russians, Iranians, and Chinese, Americans run for cover. They try to live forever, weaken the national ethos with false pretenses of ‘identity’, ‘inclusivity’, and ‘diversity’ instead of joining together in a truly national union . No universally accepted principles, no unity, and no gumption. These geopolitical adversaries are now even more convinced of the lack of Americans’ lack of spine, huddling in bunkers, trembling, and afraid to emerge.

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The liberal Left looks aghast at standing room only stadiums, concerts performed to thousands, and people simply going about their business.  They are irresponsible, reactionary, and dangerous.  They must mend their ways, listen to Anthony Fauci and the CDC, do what the President advises, care and protect others, leave individualism and personality aside.  Do the right thing.  The playground must be dismantled.  There can be no difference of attitude, ethos, or opinion.  All must pull together for the common good and towards an unreachable Utopia.

Omicron, just like Bobby Palmer, has forced a reckoning.  Some people, like Lyle Farrell, stand their ground, assess risk, and act regardless of consequences.  The toadies who sucked up to Bobby are now fearful adults loosed from their moorings.  They never learned their lesson about threat and how to deal with it, and suffer because of it.

Let playgrounds be playgrounds.  Let bullies bully and be challenged.  Let the pecking order remain.  Let weak and strong sort it out.  Stop being fearful.  Man up.

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