The Duellist And The Seagull

Reading the complete memoirs of Giacomo Casanova the other day, I was struck by the extreme amour-propre of those days; that is, the way they responded to what we would now call dissing. Casanova may be best known to us as a libertine, seducer, bon-vivant and con-artist, all of which he certainly was. But a physical coward he was not. In his unhappy old age, he confessed himself too much Nature’s slave to end his own misery, and yet in his prime he had cheerfully faced blade and bullet to avenge an insult.

It occurred to me to ask what our contemporary equivalent might be. The gangbanger, certainly, who would rather die in a shoot-out than go home with a sense of having been disrespected. As regards an exaggerated sense of self-esteem, however, it occurred to me that there is a more cowardly equivalent in the manager. Especially the so-called “seagull manager”, who flies in, squawks loudly, shits over everything, squawks some more and flies off again with the sense of a job well done.

I knew one of these once, a complete incompetent who never tired of repeating his mantra, “If you are a manager, you can manage anything”. In fact he could not manage his way out of a paper bag; which fitted very well with Dunning-Kruger Syndrome. People who knew him even better swore that he was not only stupid but extremely toxic. Perhaps what is actually taught in business schools is the golden rule, “If only you are abusive enough, you can get appointed to manage anything”.

For the point does not seem to be actually having any skill, but rather deeming yourself to be “a manager”. After all, competence in management is not something that can be proved, as all outcomes can be blamed on the business cycle or the incompetence of others. Not even when his staff resign within five minutes of their first meeting with him will it occur to the self-congratulatory manager to wonder about anything else. The amour-propre involved seems to be not too removed from that of the eighteenth-century gentleman by birth, who might not be good for anything but who nevertheless could not be disparaged, or else. It is only a pity that duelling is no longer lawful; as it is now, the parasites have all the rights and we have no remedy.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 11 April 2010)

Posted on July 16, 2019 at 18:10 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: AGAINST NATURE, Homo Homini Lupus

Return Of The Window Tax

In Les Misérables, read better late than never, I find a French excise on doors and windows that positively guaranteed that houses would be insalubrious. Funnily enough, I remember hearing about the English imposing a window tax as well. The governments probably justified these as a rough measure of overall prosperity, one that the taxman could assess from the outside. From that point of view the window-tax is begging to be reinvented in the coming age of privatisation, which is what the ancient evil tax-farming will now be called, as it offers far lower costs of collection and thereby a competitive tender. So make sure you have no windows on your hovel, and you might actually to get to keep something.

The only alternative rationale that I can think of is that the insalubriousness was actually the object of the whole exercise. Why might that be? Why, with the aid of zero-sum thinking. You cannot be rich unless there is someone to be poor; and if you cannot on a rising tide lift all ships then you can at least sink some. Their misery will then be to you an absolute good.

Sitting At Their Feet

I was sent up to Oxford by philistine middle class parents who had no idea what went on there, or even what this thing called education might truly be, but just wanted the bragging rights. That is not to say that, looking back, I would consider that education was something Oxford actually provided. The pretenders on both sides thus deserved one another. You could educate yourself there, to be sure, but at the same time it was still the world of Anthony Powell, where people went in order to be recruited into powerful coteries. I never was, not would have been of any use to one.

It has been observed before that the only profession that (at any rate then) received not the slightest training for its supposed mission was that of university teacher. More than that, the dons appeared to have an active contempt for normal rational processes. For example, the idea of providing new students with a reading list was anathema; the dons gave out the names of essential books at a brisk conversational speed, which you were supposed to retain by powers of total recall or else talents in stenography that of course you did not possess. The photocopier had yet to be invented, but the mimeograph and stencil machine did exist. The dons did not use such things, however, presumably because useful devices were bad for the character.

The same principle was employed for lectures. I attempted a few, once sitting literally at the feet of a great man, underneath his lectern, because there was no other space. The effort was soon abandoned, in part because of the huge logistical difficulties of getting from one lecture to another, pedalling or trotting across town and so always in a lather, in part because I dimly realised that this was the most inefficient means of information transmission ever invented. The party of the first part, who has had no training in public speaking, reads aloud his new book to the party of the second part, who has had no training in shorthand. The latter can either attempt to comprehend something of the material, or attempt to note some of it down, but never both. I was never told which lectures were important to new students and which were an exercise in obscure scholarship or even an ego trip. I came to suspect that the real way to use Oxford was secretly communicated by older family members to younger, so as to cripple and exclude grammar-school boys and other such oiks.

At any events, I resorted to reading books, and thus obtained a respectable Upper Second. Had I been better directed to the best lectures, I might have taken a First; or then again, I might not. I was never able to form a clear idea of what, if anything, I had missed; and with the wisdom of age, if any, I still stand on my assertion that this was a system simply designed not to work. Since my day everything at Oxford has become co-educational, making in some ways a huge difference, but my impression is that the place is even more about trading on medieval glories, specifically extracting money from innocent foreigners.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 1 January 2012)

Situations Vacant: Deaf Chimps

What most people remember about Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times is the vicious satire of Taylorism – an ideology that underpinned both capitalist America and the Soviet Union. People remember the actor being passed through the giant cogwheels, and they remember the banana-feeding machine. The colour-screen address by the boss, science-fictional at the time, they have forgotten, perhaps because it was so efficiently employed by Steve Jobs.

Reading Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s account of factory labour in Detroit, however, I am reminded of an element that Chaplin by the nature of his medium could not possibly have included – namely the astonishing level of the noise. He describes the ideal Ford worker as a “deaf chimp”.

Which makes me wonder, if the ideal medieval worker was a beefy thicko, and the ideal Ford worker was a deaf chimp, what is the modern ideal? For many jobs, the lanky speed-cyclist; for others, the plausible liar. Of course, should we ever need deaf chimps again, we shall find a plentiful supply, as the kids have destroyed their own hearing and show no signs of missing it.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 1, 2012)

What Does It Mean To “Do Me”?

If I am famous for anything, it is surely for not having the slightest clue about popular music. Nevertheless even I have noted that there exists a so-called lyric consisting of the insistent injunction to “Do me, do me, do me”. I heard it a lot in Africa but really have no idea where it comes from.

My interest in language never seems to disengage, and so I observe how this verb changes its meaning according to both context and gender. If a woman says, “Do me”, it can hardly mean anything other than “copulate with me”, while if a man says it, the meaning may be the same – but not quite as inevitably. For among males, to do someone can quite possibly mean to cheat them. (We see this in the clichéd jocular inversion, “What can I do you for?”) Were a woman, on the other hand, to say that her estate agent (realtor) “did her”, there is an excellent chance that she would be misunderstood. The same applies to the verb “take”, of course.

If this linguistic dimorphism tells us anything about the nature of human life, it is surely something deeply depressing. So men exist primarily to be cheated and women to be copulated with? It is enough to drive us into the cloister. And yet one feels quite certain that this is how many people do see the world, not least the movers and shakers. Thus is the world; no, thus have we made the world.

For someone brought up in my time and place, however, the effect of the repeated musical injunction in a female mouth is simply weird. Not that I am saying women should not be allowed to sing, “Do me”, but I wonder whether any other such brief expression has so encapsulated the changes through which I have lived. My unease about copulation being the primary meaning of the most general verb of action hardly lessens when girls use it themselves in that sense. I am happy with strong female sexuality, and yet I do not particularly want to live on a planet in which a woman’s primary function is to be “done”.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 17, 2012)

Going For A Burton

Meaning no disrespect to the 17th-century physician, the Victorian explorer, the Welsh actor or the American director, I am applying the name of Burton, bearing a certain superficial resemblance to a real name known to me, to a phenomenon that I do not think anyone has ever treated before. Let us imagine a Country A. Our Burton is the first native of that country to reach Country B, where by dint of networking skill he becomes thoroughly established. He becomes the go-to authority, a one-man cultural ambassador, interpreting Country A to the natives of Country B, and perhaps the other way round as well.

If he is a moral, learnèd and wise man, this will no doubt be a good thing. But suppose that Burton is a knave or a fool? The authorities of Country B will be in no position to realise this, as Burton is all they have to go upon, and he will take good care to be judge in his own cause. He will obtain bureaucratic cover, occupy academic positions, impose examinations and recruit acolytes, thus creating a School of Burton to which no opposition is possible. Anybody who points out that what he says about his own language is gibberish, anyone who argues that the imputed national characteristics are merely the eccentricities or uncouthnesses of Burton as an individual, will be culled from the herd. Anyone newly arriving from Country A will find that the “intercultural expertise” is a done deal, and that he had better conform to Burtonism or else.

I have studied this phenomenon quite closely in a pair of European countries. I may even have been guilty of practising some Burtonism myself. Certainly it is a standing temptation to the expatriate to defend himself by claiming that his personal vices are the Done Thing in wherever he comes from. Other cultures I do not know well enough to prove the Syndrome, but I nevertheless suspect that it is a universal law, because it follows from human nature and government practice.

Should the scenario sketched above remind us somewhat of the plot of Shōgun, that is all the more felicitous insofar as Occidental-Japanese understanding is a vast and lucrative business. This is because the complexity of the respective cultural codes is a gift to anyone wanting to attribute their own incompetence to a whole nation. I myself do not speak Japanese and am totally at sea with many aspects of Japanese behaviour. But I have known a professional at “inter-cultural communication”, allegedly balancing between not merely two but three cultures, whom I am pretty certain was a phoney practising the Burton technique. She seemed to be telling all three sides that her faults were the authentic cultural practices of one of the other two.

Moreover, a little research into the eikaiwa or conversation-practice industry suggested that it was full of losers and psychos. After all, the colonial European nations know that we exported our worst specimens, so that cross-cultural interpretation can become the continuation of Empire by other means – a cushy number for the scoundrel who has failed at home and now seeks to cash in on his sole asset, his foreignness. Similarly, I have encountered teachers of Japanese in European countries who strike me – on the basis of my bullshit-meter – as merely making stuff up and claiming authority for their own ignorance and mental quirks. Nice work if you can get it.

Whenever you are told something about his home country by an expatriate, the question you should be asking yourself is, “Were this to be absolute bullshit, how would I know? Who is in a position to say that this emperor has no clothes?”

Posted on February 3, 2019 at 15:08 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Some Notes On Language

The Miserific Vision

In Simon Montefiore’s history of the Romanovs and once again in his biography of Grigory Potemkin, I encountered the story that Catherine the Great had two éprouveuses, or quality-testers of her lovers. That the French found it necessary to have such a word may tell us something about them, or at least about the court culture of the eighteenth century, which made our own Sixties seem quite prudish.

I do not know whether modern young women use their best friends as vetters in this way. Perhaps not, as the institution would make the most sense if the principal is an absolute ruler while both the tester and the lovers are subjects. If there never was a common masculine of the term, that might be because heterosexual males have traditionally been less concerned with provable erotic skills; for it makes them uncomfortable to consider where these skills might have been acquired. There is also, of course, the fact that a man is usually able to climax, regardless of what his partner does or fails to do, while this is by no means the case for women. In fact, perhaps the prime cultural determinant of the species as such is the greater contingency of the female climax.

A hypersexual Swiss-African girl with whom I once travelled was firmly of the opinion that everything women said about what they wanted was actually disinformation. For them, she said, the name of the game was orgasms, for which all the languages of commitment, romance and love were merely so much smokescreen. She did not say whether these codes had been foisted upon women by the patriarchy, nervous as it was of the female capacity for sexual pleasure, or arose from some other reason. That is, we neglected to discuss whether the smokescreen had originally been imposed but was later preserved out of habit or strategy. That she genuinely believed her doctrine of the primacy of orgasm I was in no doubt whatsoever; the only question was whether it described solely herself or everybody.

If it were indeed a general truth, it would certainly make sense out of how women so frequently sacrifice themselves for obvious rotters: if only the blackguards make them come and come again, then nothing else can possibly matter. It would also encourage a certain lack of female conscience about infidelity – the cuckold has not done his job properly but the five-to-sevener has, so what is to complain about?

Judging by the memoirs of Clara Petacci, Mussolini thought of passion in terms of a perfect fit of genital equipment. The Chinese used to teach much the same thing. Were this idea to be true, it would in the same way explode an awful lot of verbiage about “spiritual” this, that and the other. One might wonder what Hallmark Cards would look like if everyone shared Mussolini’s take.

Were my Swiss-African companion correct about women’s willingness to do whatever was necessary to get the best orgasms, this would by no means be something they would want men to know about. Tiresias discovered this the hard way. Like many other conventional attributions, women’s insistence that men are sex-maniacs “wanting only one thing” might then be revealed as sheer projection, partly in the classic Jungian sense and partly as a distraction tactic. It would be bad enough for men to realise that they had ten times our capacity for pleasure, but our ability to see through their avowed reasons for bestowing their sexual favours would spoil so many games. For example, only the pretence that these favours are parted with reluctantly allows the charging of considerations in the form of goods or services, whether pecuniary or emotional.

As long as men fail to realise, or are forbidden by the rules of decency or political correctness to say openly, what sex-maniacs women really are or have the potential to be, the latter can occupy the high ground and pretend to embody other ethical values. They can then drag in all kinds of narratives about their emotions. Calling their absurdly strong dependence on orgasm by the name of “love”, for instance, enables them to cash in on millennia of sages and religious founders who have praised something actually rather different under the same name.

My companion also championed the apparent paradox that women needed always to be rewarded for having the sex that, when sufficiently climactic, was in any case their primus motor. This paradox I was to encounter again in Africa itself, which she praised as a culture that told a deeper truth about female lust than our own. To get paid for what one enjoys best, she argued, what’s not to like?

And yet I am not entirely convinced that women think sexual pleasure so much more important than status, that is, than rising in the female hierarchy and poking other women in the eye. If I could have my life again, I should like to have interrogated this Swiss-African woman on what she thought was the interrelationship between a woman’s orgasms, filthy lucre, and status ranking. I should next have liked to question her on how she thought males functioned. For an obvious corollary of her theory would have to be that men were the truly emotional sex. This is not how we have thought for centuries, but Antiquity had certainly thought so.

The true Miserific Vision is not in itself the idea that women are walking clits: men are used to being considered mobile penises, so it is turn and turn about. No, the killer app may perhaps be to let Occam’s Razor ask why we should believe in a female emotional life at all, given that all the visible phenomena are so amply explained by the worldly triad. After all, over and above the crudest level of endrocrine agitation, emotion is not something that can be proven. Men can surely cope with the idea of women as relentless hunters of their orgasms, we have done so in other eras; but it is less certain that we can cope with the idea that all their emotional agendas are actually false fronts, including giving a tuppenny damn about the likes of us.

For men have an exiguous connection with the world and a horribly fragile sense of their own worth; we have tended to regard a woman’s concern for us as the measure of our success as human beings, yea even our metaphysical ground of being. If this be taken away from us, why, we shall have nothing left but sports and scholarship.

Posted on January 27, 2019 at 16:39 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: WHAT WOMEN WANT, The Nature Of Frigidity

Dividing The Human Cake

There are, we might say, two kinds of people: those who divide humanity into two classes and those who do not. Joking apart, the bipartite division seems to be hardwired into us. That is no doubt because, with apologies to the minority of intersexuals, we are a dimorphic species. Among some animals the difference between the sexes is quite spectacular, while in others it is difficult at least for us to perceive. As animals go, we ourselves are sufficiently dimorphic to persuade ourselves that the twofold division is a universal model. And so we often apply it to race, making that intrinsically pseudo-scientific idea even sillier than usual by positing a fundamental opposition of “white” versus the others. We do the same thing with heterosexual versus homosexual, although in reality things are a good deal more complicated than that. Despite the attractions of a three-class theory of political economy, we frequently operate with only two – the ruling class contra the rest, or progressive versus reactionary. The latter is very often all too transparently a rewriting of the Saved Versus the Damned.

If we are going to divide the human pizza into only two segments, I have my own suggestion: at right-angles to gender, race, sexual orientation and class (we need more spatial dimensions than three, but never mind) I propose slicing by Menschen versus Arseholes. Well, whoever said it had to be a 50-50 cut? The others aren’t either.

Not all the tripartite political divisions are upper-middle-lower. I read recently that Johann Gottfried Herder operated with the bourgeoisie, a minority of intellectuals and the rabble. That seems, as well as an overlap, to be ignoring the ruling class altogether, but it does have the virtue of putting the concept of “rabble” back on the political map, where it had not been since the Marxist term of “lumpenproletariat” was created and then ignored. It may not be an economic class as much as a psychopathology, but unthinking social aggression is a very real phenomenon. Now, we know of cases where social rage was directed against the ruling class, the Jacquerie and other revolts, but it may also be directed downwards, against those even more unfortunate that oneself. Insofar as current politics are all about the Sixty-Two (or One Per Cent, if you fail to realise just how concentrated wealth has now become) using this kind of socially-aggressive rabble against well-meaning bourgeois intellectuals, Herder’s scheme is more relevant than ever.

Thanks to the knee-jerk, ahistorical and very tired recycling of the word fascist” for those who suck upwards and kick downwards, we have failed to develop a new term. It needs to be globally applicable, culturally universal, distinct from previous terms of opprobrium for those seen as poor and uncultured (e.g., redneck, oik), and indeed disconnected from the means of production altogether. It is very tempting to reuse the “Mensch versus Arsehole” vocabulary, but for the sake of a perhaps specious neutrality, we ought to create something new out of whole cloth. Both chauvinism and quisling derive from the surnames of infamous people; the choice of what to call the socially-aggressive ignoramus has never been greater.

The whatever-we-call-him can be a farmhand, a warehouseman, a burger-flipper, a bus driver, a nursing auxiliary, a teacher, a spreadsheet-jockey, a bureaucrat, a software engineer, a lawyer or a professor – but we nevertheless know him when we see him, or at least after a beer or two. Given one or two of his expostulations, rather like a fictional FBI profiler we generally know what else he thinks, if that is the right word, or who else he hates so as quite unjustifiably to enhance his self-esteem.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 4, 2013)

Posted on January 20, 2019 at 14:15 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

Why Do Punters Want To See Women “Getting Bred”?

There was once a time when porn centred around the “money shot”. On the one hand this developed into the superstition that women like being ejaculated upon, by the more men the merrier. In the bizz this is called “bukkake”. On the other side, there seems to have occurred a reaction, whereby the point is now for the man to come inside the woman, who then demonstrates the fact. This is called the “creampie”.

Now, one can understand why the porn audience might prefer this more “natural” practice to bukkake. It is, of course, far closer to what men and women actually do when not in front of the camera and not getting paid.

What is puzzling, however, is some of the synonyms and hook phrases. When punters are roped in by the promise of seeing a woman “made pregnant” – or even, with overtones of The Handmaid’s Tale, “getting bred” – what exactly is happening? It seems a long way from the libertinage of youth, with its terror of knocking up or being knocked up, and equally far from the exultation of the first generations to go on The Pill.

It seems unlikely that the audience are all obeying the encyclical Humanae Vitae and affirming the principle that all copulation must be open to the creation of new human life. In some cases the plot has the woman planning to get pregnant, perhaps because her husband is infertile, in other cases the possible fertilisation is an unwelcome surprise, in yet other cases it is treated neutrally.

Insofar as I have an answer at all, I am disposed to wonder whether bukkake and creampies are two equal but opposite ways of affirming male control and female subjection. Having one’s favourite porn star “bred” may thus be related to the meme of keeping one’s woman “barefoot, in the kitchen and pregnant”. Or maybe there is a quite different reason.

(Fiddle date-stamp to August 29, 2011)

Posted on January 13, 2019 at 13:49 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: AGAINST NATURE, Against Nature, Miscellaneous

Bow Down Before My Reproduction

Orlando Figes’ book “The Whisperers”, on silence and trauma during and after Stalin’s Terror, is a heartbreaking read. Despite the incredible cruelty and misery he chronicles, however, some part of my mind could not help responding in a way he would neither have intended nor wanted.

I noticed, in the many old Russian family portraits now being published for the first time, how uncomfortable the children always looked. Of course, in those days it took a lot longer to make a photograph. I remember my own grandfather, who always looked grimmer than the Reaper. This was partly because he was a Welsh Baptist minister, and so was obliged to look suitably stern, piety being indistinguishable from bellyache. But quite apart from the worm theology, it was surely easier to hold a grim expression for the long exposures than to hold a smile. On this take, children looked uncomfortable in old photographs because it was simply not given them to intimidate the viewer like the patriarchs and prophets, and their natural expressions could not long survive that particular technology.

That is one explanation. But the parade of uncomfortable children in this collection made me wonder: could it also be because they knew that the whole point of a family photograph was to document their progenitors’ reproductive success, and the point of that in turn was to poke contemporaries in the eye? That is to say, the children looked uncomfortably aware of being merely Parental Status Technology.

Funnily enough, it was not long after reading Figes that I was looking at the family-bragging portrait of Henry VIII with his three children. It has been suggested that the columns are there to show that the two princesses (Mary and Elizabeth) were “spares” to the true family unit – the absolute monarch together with his male offspring and with Jane Seymour, who was long dead at the time but as Edward’s mother more valuable for propaganda purposes than the living queen Catherine Parr.

Of course, as sovereign Henry had the excuse that his successful reproduction affected the welfare of everybody in the kingdom. The individuals in Figes’ book, in the albums of my childhood and for all I know on Facebook today, seem equally full of themselves – without having that crucial justification but still demanding the same admiration.