In Four Words

A Russian SF writer caught my attention with a throwaway remark about the “female thirst for promises”. Well, I myself had often noted that if a young woman is given the choice between a taciturn man who cares for her in practice and another who avows his love in empty words, she almost always goes for the purely verbal extravagance, but this Glukhovsky impressed me by nailing the issue in a mere four words.

But what is the attraction of a promise? Very few people do what they say they will do, even in the most trivial matters. They are clearly using promises as a way of currying favour, and the wise person learns to tune promises out altogether. Not that this is necessarily easy, as false promises are what our parents bring us up on, and it takes quite serious abuse to overcome a child’s inherently trusting nature. As adults, many of us never find the balance, if there even is one.

Now, if Glukhovsky is right about the thirst for promises being even more marked in the female than in the male, why should this be? My only suggestion is that the performance is attention later, but the promise is attention right now, so that the underlying cause of the female thirst for promises is the general human inability to defer gratification plus the specifically more severe female need for attention. That the latter abyss can be neither filled nor bridged, however, merely displaces the problem; if female need for attention is so much greater than the male, why should that be?

Of course, we are not allowed to ask such things, as correct discourse about human nature may invoke design flaws only in the male, and as much as possible must be blamed on testosterone without actually knowing anything about the secretion and effects of that substance. This is the modern equivalent and reversal of ancient bio-essentialist misogynies like the Sin of Eve. But if men have their characteristic faults, which I would not dream of denying, why is it so unthinkable that women might have their characteristic faults too? And can there be a better candidate for characteristic fault or besetting sin than a “thirst for promises”?

(Fiddle date-stamp to May 23, 2013)

One Drop Of Rain …

Elsewhere in this body of work Hugo has made the point that the oppressor invariably perceives himself as the victim, indeed as fighting for his very existence under the threat of extinction. Weird as it may seem to those on the wrong end of their struggle for survival, this applies to the Nazis, modern white supremacists, and many homophobes. Even short of the spectre of extermination, it is surely a general principle that one does not understand how vulnerable one’s opponents feel. Louis-Ferdinand Céline has a startling line, which in double translation through Danish (never a good idea, but I have no choice) goes something like this: “Women, whose sexual ability is never lost, fail to comprehend that for men, despite all their priapism, one drop of rain and everything shrinks in upon itself!”

It is certainly true that men are sexually fragile creatures, and the more a man’s sense of self-worth depends on his ability to get it up, the more dangerously he is living. I think Céline is correct also in pointing out how little aware women are of this. But suppose we turn it around. When men are paralysed by female beauty, sometimes resenting its possessor, are we sufficiently aware how precarious the Girl from Ipanema feels? Those who know beautiful women as something other than sex objects, know that none of them feels beautiful. They may have noted the reaction of others as a bizarre fact, which they then milk for all it is worth, but nobody actually feels it. They may think themselves only average and be interested in other things, but it is commoner for them to yearn desperately after beauty without being aware that they already have it.

That yearning is very profitable, in a way not limited to the beautification industry itself, already vast though never counted properly; we must include “shopping therapy”. Without female insecurity the global economy would immediately collapse. The Man knows that unhappy women spend more money, and therefore seeks to make them unhappy through advertising. This is often condemned in terms of “unrealistic ideals”, which is often true but not the whole story. Because most women feel, by nature or indoctrination, that they have already fallen short of even objectively realistic ideals. Nobody has the right boobs, or nose, or hair, or whatever – nobody. In this way, therefore, women share in what Céline describes as a male vulnerability: one drop of rain and whatever you have, shrinks to nothing.

Posted on June 14, 2020 at 11:19 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, The Life Unbeautiful

On Never Having Been Down t’Pit

I used to have the conventional reverence for cultural heritage, and visited a certain proportion of the European cynosures, from the Hermitage in the then Leningrad to the Mezquita in Córdoba, and from the Sainte-Chapelle to the Hagia Sophia. Plus Kyōto and Nara, although nothing in China, India or Central Asia. Not quite an updated Goethean Grand Tour, therefore, but in conjunction with my intensive reading about the twelfth century world-wide, perhaps not altogether to be despised.

Then at some point a switch in my head seemed to be thrown, and I became suddenly unable to see a castle as anything other than a base for bad guys to issue forth and kill and rape the producers, or a cathedral as anything other than a revenue-generating machine. This happened almost overnight. That the French revolutionaries demolished Cluny thereafter evoked approval rather than the previously compulsory horror. An example I use more often is the Soviet repurposing of Yalta palaces as homes for retired coal-miners. I then challenge the audience to explain why the bling-bling of Tsarist aristocracy, overdone even by contemporary European standards, should be more important than the declining years of men doing a horrible and extremely unhealthy job. What do you have against coal-miners and why?

Perhaps this irreversible Miserific Vision was a belated apology for the atmosphere in which I grew up, in which Middle England, what one might call the Telegraph-reading classes, did indeed evince a ferocious contempt for miners – who worked in geographically and culturally very separate communities. To hear them talk, one would think that the colliers of County Durham were over-privileged layabouts. None of these Torygraph-readers, of course, had ever gone down a mine. I myself absorbed this contempt in the way schoolboys absorb certain other attitudes, which with greater understanding of the world in my old age created chagrin and shame.

In the Seventies the bourgeois contempt for coal-miners turned into active loathing, as people the middles thought of as the servant classes, merely dirtier, had the temerity to oppose their betters. Everyone knows how the Miners’ Strike helped bring Mrs. Thatcher to power and keep her there, and yet I have a suspicion that this went deeper than the undoubted inconveniences of the Winter of Discontent and the power cuts that were actually chronic in those days.

The Tories used to make a big deal about the “politics of envy” and the evils of class war, while amply proving that class hatred runs in both directions. In our present age that has restored the nineteeth-century levels of wealth concentration, an age in which foreigners, either here or somewhere else, do all the heavy work, while the natives are owners, managers, cube-rats or social clients, this is more relevant than ever. Because “Down t’Pit” has now met the ancient Yellow Peril, while the green utopia depends on Congolese cobalt miners. Why do we not talk about “blood batteries”?

(Fiddle date-stamp to April 21, 2012)

The Sociological Singularity

From my comfortable bench at pre-lockdown Starbucks, I imagined I could perceive a characteristic young male face – thick necks, heads shaven but with traces of widow’s peaks, plus piggy eyes and an air of impending mayhem. I recognised more than I can describe; and no, I could not identify the females of the species. My impression that they were Eastern Europeans might have been just a random effect of living where I do, and in the UK I could be looking at hordes of all-British thugs. The latter have certainly been around all my life under various names; I am old enough to remember when only the so-called skinheads shaved their scalps, whereas now it is common. Many photographs of the Sturmabteilung show the same physiognomy, ditto for the most brutal Balkan militias.

I have asked myself whether I was looking at mesomorphs or endomorphs, but then concluded that the question was a blind alley. The people I am observing might easily be both; but that a particular type of customer exudes “aggro” even while buying a latte, is certain. No doubt I should know more about this if I were in the habit of going out on the town or prison-visiting: there is something special about the way in which these people occupy their space.

Inasmuch as most others, unfortunately including myself, exude harmlessness, we could almost be talking about two different species, predators and prey. H.G. Wells gave us the end product of almost a million years of such specialisation. Even now, people speak of the sheep and the wolves – at the same time as most have forgotten the ancestral wisdom that the sheep need a shepherd to protect them. This used to be a deeply conservative idea, but the “right” is now the party of the wolves as they agitate for freer dining.

Is the proportion of this “SA face” increasing? I should not be in the least surprised to hear that most countries find themselves on the far side of a demographic transition, a kind of Singularity – on the far side of which is a minority of corrupt banksters sort-of-supporting a majority of thugs. That would not be sustainable. For while the banksters can use the thugs to beat up godless-pinko-liberal-pointy-heads, as was done in the Twenties, but what will happen when there is no one left but plutocrats and half-wits?

(Fiddle date-stamp to February 1, 2011)

How It Will Be Done

In some countries “wounding religious sentiments” is already a criminal offence. To what extent the terms are carefully defined in the legislation, or whether the meaning of the expression is considered too obvious to lay out, I cannot say. Perhaps different jurisdictions have chosen different approaches. I would expect, however, that they have all been very selective about who gets to have the wounding of his sentiments criminalised and who does not. Different cherries for different folks to pick.

This lack of unity is remiss. An enormous opportunity is being squandered, the opportunity to criminalise everything and everybody. All we need to do is four things. One, to define “religious” widely, so as to embrace the political, social and pseudo-scientific spheres, down to and including flat-earthery. Two, ditto for “sentiments”. We may note that this term already falls well short of the concept of “ideas”, so that when we put the first two items together we can cover transitory mental phenomena on any subject. We will then have protection for the most fleeting neuro-endocrino-hormonal states. Three, we can define “wound” not to mean what it does in battlefield medicine, but rather the mildest conceivable distress or the most trivial inconvenience. Hearing whatever I do not wish to hear will be enough – unless, of course, you are objecting to noise, the infliction of which on lovers of quiet is the closest we get to a single world religion.

This brings us to the fourth step. Clearly it is not practical to criminalise the causing of distress or inconvenience to absolutely everybody. That would cause “the war of all against all”, and with seven billion offendees on the planet, the only way to keep up would be to put an expert legal system on every smartphone and let them fight it out. Which will probably happen anyway, but a stopgap might be to designate a single authority that could pronounce on who has had his religious sentiments wounded and who has not. Only when two pals of this supreme authority tread on one another’s toes would it be necessary even to discuss the issue. All other voices can be eliminated, which in the coming world will be done at the press of a button. All your accounts is belong to us!

(Fiddle date to 22 Oct 2009)

If You Want To Do The Time, Ask A Policeman

I was reading the other day about how a nineteenth-century Frenchman named Vidocq invented the idea of publicising fictitious crime waves in order to create a market for the police services he was offering. He was a master con artist and police double agent turned top national crimefighter – which not even Dr. Moriarty managed in real life. Vidocq invented forensics, criminal databases and much else, inspiring many fictional crooks, policemen and detectives including Sherlock Holmes. Given the essential corruption of his ruling idea, we may question whether he ever stopped being a criminal mastermind. His conversion to the alleged forces of law and order looks very like what the economists call “regulatory capture”.

We have continued as Vidocq began. The notion of the police telling us honestly what criminals are out there and faithfully combating them falls on its own absurdity. The police have no economic interest whatsoever in fighting serious crime. Their budget rests on keeping minor crime on the boil, sufficient to justify their own existence but not so much as to attract reproach. In this way they resemble not the hunters they pretend to be but rather farmers. They live off their stock, a more-or-less-fixed circle of petty criminals subject to endless bureaucratic and judicial procedures, in and out of court and jail but never disappearing altogether. Pay-offs are then additional to this public income. Sudden homicide from unexpected directions can bring political pressure and thus upsets them, but the only thing in which they have any real emotional investment is violence against colleagues.

Perhaps this is easier to see in the relatively peaceful Nordic societies than in the United States, where the underlying economics of animal husbandry seem obscured by the police habit, whether driven by hatred or entertainment, of shooting unarmed black people and even the occasional white tourist. In the UK, too, racketeering and gratuitous assault has periodically dominated the culture at least of the London force, and in some other countries the police are all too obviously a paramilitary drugs cartel doing territorial battle with unsanctioned rivals. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, the police role in drugs distribution and political violence is so much less obvious that the bureaucratic imperatives to call meetings and generate paperwork become all the clearer. Where I live, the police are so water-soluble that they are rarely seen outside their warm dry headquarters and vehicles. Like the rest of the state sector, they seem to spend all their time writing reports about how they lack the resources to do anything other than write reports about lacking resources.

And yet there is a large sector of home-produced whodunits, with a sizeable export value, famous for both sadism and a social critique ultimately derived from Ibsen. For here everything is the fault of “society” – it is a kind of anti-Agatha Christie, in which middle-class order is not something to be disturbed and then restored but rather the root of all evil. This reader, however, is struck not only by the sheer nastiness of the serial killers but also by the extreme unrealism of the police-procedural aspects. As a resident and former translator, I am simply unable to buy the novelists’ picture of the police detecting. Why, that would be hard work!

I cannot speak for certain about the whodunit-prolific Swedes, but the Norwegian method in actuality consists of pre-trial detention until the victim confesses. After months of such detention, nota bene in isolation, most people would confess to having done anything, just to get out. There is not the slightest equivalent to the ACLU, and the citizenry is united in imagining that a conviction rate over 99% is proof of their own superiority, inasmuch as members of the Master Race (so unlike those Russians next door) would never prosecute an innocent person. It is to laugh – and yet the Scandinavian noir authors have built an international reputation not only on the man next door being a paedophile sadist but also on police officers being lonely alcoholics nevertheless capable of astonishing feats of intuition and deduction.

In my youth the English police were polite to members of the middle classes, who never saw how they treated their inferiors. That being so, one can easily understand how what one might call “Scotland Yard fiction” was possible for its time, although the quaint notion of an unbent copper has survived until Discworld. Perhaps the same holds true of small-town America, at least if you have white skin. Although the Scandinavian police rarely murder innocents on the street, not even coloured ones, the disjunction between the fictional assiduity and the universal experience of utterly incompetent police forces is startling. When they tried to stop the worst one-man shooting spree in history, the Norwegian police had no helicopter but piled onto an inflatable, which then sank beneath them. The Keystone Kops could not have done it better. To us it seemed merely characteristic.

The questions in my mind are, first which model will prevail, the American armoured-car and kick-the-door-down (hey, at least the Gestapo knocked) or the Scandinavians’ automatic regret that they are unable to assist you; and when, if ever, the crime fiction of either culture will desist from describing a wholly imaginary response, investigation and detection.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 1, 2012)

Three Echoes In Scott Fitzgerald

My dotage being devoted to reading what should have been read long ago, it is only now that I have ticked off The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. It came as a great surprise, as I had assumed that the title was hyperbole about some cut stone even larger than the Koh-i-Noor. Not a bit of it, it was utter fantasy about a mountain in Montana made of diamond, so that that the equal size with the Ritz Carlton was meant quite literally.

I was further struck by three echoes of or in three other works. The inability of the protagonist to escape the valley reminded me of Wells’ The Country of the Blind. Since this was published in 1904, it might have influenced Fitzgerald or it might simply be an inevitable storyteller’s trope. The congruence between the 2003 film Goodbye Lenin and the mountain-owner’s bringing his slaves up to believe that the South had won the civil war would have to be influence in the opposite direction, or else a happy coincidence.

Far more serious and sinister, however, is the initial set-up, where the mad plutocrat family have removed their treasure or refuge from the rest of the United States, by dint of corruption of the cartographical records plus life detention of foot visitors plus anti-aircraft guns. Aviation being then in its infancy, that would surely be easier than Ayn Rand’s SF-magical forcefield valley roof in Atlas Shrugged. I doubt it is provable, but intuitively this feels like a real case of influence, that is to say, it feels as if Rand acquired the idea for her solipsistic rich man’s paradise from Fitzgerald. After all, the story was very well-known in its day. What Fitzgerald meant as a surrealistic satire, however, Rand seemed to take perfectly seriously as a pillar of the new religion she created.

Posted on February 29, 2020 at 17:24 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, Randians And Aristocrats

The Other Side Of The Fence

There has been a lot of talk recently about women’s “sexual capital”. Some, especially where I live, would have me burned at the stake for mentioning the very possibility, but today I am going to ask two relatively innocent questions. One, can men at all understand what it is like to have this sexual capital? Perhaps they could in the days of fortune-hunting for heiresses, which were before my time, and perhaps it is also known to the gays, about whom I know practically nothing. But to me as a postwar heterosexual male, unattractive and therefore more or less invisible, the notion of my looks being a resource has always been utterly alien. One was supposed to make one’s way in the world (which I never did properly, but that is a wholly different issue) and only then, and quite separately, acquire a partner.

Does that then put me in the same bracket as a woman who is conscious of being called “plain” or worse things, knowing that most of her contemporaries have this thing called sexual capital and that she alone does not? It might. It might even make me spiritual kin to an ugly bluestocking. The question seems valid, but I can never be sure that our experience is the same. Certainly a diminutive man and an aged woman belong together at the bottom of the human pecking order. But I naturally have no idea what it feels like to be any kind of young woman, either with or without sexual capital.

My other question is whether and if so how it is possible to have this sexual capital and still be miserable. Might this imply unreasonable demands on life, or might there be downsides to sexual capital that I am simply not equipped to perceive? If that be so, this might offer us a fresh avenue to understanding the women and men who throughout history have turned their backs on the sexual marketplace and – even if good-looking and charismatic – entered the cloister.

Telling It Like It Became

Towards the end of Robert Musil’s massive (and unfinished) novel The Man Without Qualities I came across, in quick succession, three quite unintentional prophecies. Musil no doubt meant them as fanciful reductiones ad absurdum or as-ifs, but they have all turned out to be true of our own world.

For example, he says that, “Wanting to live for another person is no more than egoism going bankrupt and then opening a new shop next door, with a partner!” The implication here is that such a business practice is immoral. But this is precisely what most of business life now consists in, hallowed by the Washington Consensus; the standard justification for the limited-liability company is that you can try your luck again, but in practice this is all preplanned – one goes into liquidation to escape one’s debts, whether to investors or suppliers and including the start-up outlays, and then creates another company to continue the same con-game.

When Musil writes, in what context I don’t now remember, “… the button to be pressed is always clean and shiny, and what happens at the other end of the line is the business of others, who, for their part, don’t press the button”, this might be the first use of the metaphor that entered the language around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and has stayed in it ever since. He seems also to be anticipating Stanley Milgram.

Again as a reductio, Musil scoffs that getting one’s personality-forming ideas from such-and-such a source is like “ordering oneself from an interior decorator”. But that is precisely what the middle classes nowadays do. The providers are called “lifestyle consultants”.

(Fiddle to July 2, 2015)

The Qina and the Nakhba

It is no new observation that Arabs, who tend to know much more history than Americans, draw a parallel between two overseas occupations of what they call Palestine. In the Nakhba, the establishment of the State of Israel, they find echoes of the Qina, which from our side we call the First Crusade. If neither geopolitical event was quite as straightforward as the unprovoked invasion of the conventional narrative, that is only par for the course of perceived national history. Which is always about Us virtuously minding our own business until They viciously turn up and stomp us. The Muslims actually took a bigger punch than the Crusades in what we call the Middle Ages; the Mongol devastation of Central Asia and Persia was provoked by extraordinary stupidity on the part of a frontier commander and his emperor, but the millions of ordinary dead would not have appreciated that.

The formative event for the Orthodox Church was the 1204 Latin conquest of Constantinople, in which the Franks divided up what was left of the Byzantine Empire as if it were an old-fashioned watch, apparently lacking any understanding beyond “Look! Shiny stuff!” Again, this was not really out-of-the-blue, and has even been treated as an internal putsch. In the same way, the Europeans conquered India by offering military assistance. Although the Spanish also overthrew the Aztecs and the Incas as external mercenaries in the service of native factions, in the light of the European impact on the continents as a whole the pre-Columbians may be conceded their unprovoked Catastrophe. In their five thousand years of history the Chinese have eaten a lot of bitterness, but the Jurchen sack of Kaifeng in 1127 probably stands out as their own resonant moment. The straightforward “they-just-came-and-spoiled-everything” perception is perhaps most accurate for the African experience and even more the Australian. The Russian-Polish-Hungarian experience of being devastated by the Mongols is the closest Europe comes to the simple narrative.

The odd men out here are the Western Europeans. We have our watershed of the civilisation-destroying 1914, to be sure, but that was entirely self-inflicted. Nobody came to do it to us from outside, which is why H.G. Wells had to give us the “vast, cool and unsympathetic” Martians. He wanted to show the complacent British what it felt like to be on the receiving end of superior technology. The question is thus whether we are ever likely to understand a culture whose historical memory is dominated by alien irruption and devastation.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 24, 2014)

Posted on November 26, 2019 at 17:09 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Getting Medieval, Miscellaneous