A Belated Frankness

Hard as it may be to believe, I was over sixty when I first kept company with ladies who were frank about their sexual needs. Their bodies seemed to work on the hydraulic model that throughout recorded history has been taught about males, namely that pressure builds up until released. If there were an obvious female equivalent for the word “despunking”, these ladies would probably have used it to describe what they required.

This may seem blindingly obvious, especially to the modern young. The fact remains that in the time and place in which I grew up, nobody talked like this. Dorothy Parker may have spent an Atlantic crossing not under the weather but under the steward; well, not only had I never been anywhere near New York, but I very much doubt that anyone in my family would have even heard of Dorothy Parker. The British aristocracy held house parties for what they called “indoor decorating”, and nourished conventions about a gentleman never refusing a request to do his hostess; but we were a long way from aristocrats.

In fact, the provincial English middle classes were so in love with the Merchant-Ivory version of the past as exhibiting their prissy selves but in more expensive dresses that they would have been hard put to it to find any sex in the Bronté sisters, let alone in Jane Austen. Because “sex” would have to mean something explicit, which of course those writers never were. Of Byron and his predecessors, the great libertines of the 18th century, they knew absolutely nothing. The verb “to bowdlerise” refers to an edition of Shakespeare with all the dirty bits removed; well, for those growing up in my time and place, the entire past was bowdlerised, starting yesterday. For my parents were of the generation that had sometimes copulated with strangers on Underground platforms. A perfectly sensible thing to do when German bombs are falling overhead, but this was not at all what they meant when braying about recovering the “spirit of the Blitz”.

As I have written elsewhere, the conspiracy of silence about female need suited both sexes: the women because it raised the price of their favours and enabled ready positioning as the victim of every transaction, the men because the idea frightened them. I can hardly emphasise too often, however, the stupendous effort put into this. Nor can I imagine growing up in a time and place where girls can call themselves horny and openly admit to masturbating.

What I understand better is Camus’ remark about the petit-bourgeois opposite of the Absurd: that everything is what it seems to be, and the meaning of life is what the neighbours will say. That rings completely true: I grew up in a different world, where everything was exactly as it appeared to a proudly ignorant person.

(fiddle date-stamp to August 6, 2011)

Houellebecq Precisely The Wrong Way Round?

Since I “discovered” Michel Houellebecq in 2020, I found much of what he writes to be an anticipation of my own thinking, so that – just as with Schopenhauer ¬ – I seem to have reinvented the wheel. There are, however, exceptions. When a Houellebecq character says, “For me, love is nothing more than gratitude for the gift of pleasure”, I slam on the brakes. Perhaps because my youth was mostly about unrequited infatuation, perhaps because for all my atheism I retain a streak of loyalty to the idea of agape or caritas, or even perhaps because I am less narcissistic than he is, I find Houellebecq’s narrators to be repulsively obsessed with getting blow-jobs and astonishingly uninterested in female pleasure. If one is to be “grateful” for anything, I fancy, it should be for the mere existence of the Other.

Quis Custodiet Quangones?

The other day I was reading, in what it matters not, about the vast expenditure of both the Ancien Régime in France and its supposedly more democratic British neighbour upon what were then called placemen. This word has long been in disuse. In the context of the Commons it used to mean Members bribed to be utterly servile to the government, lobby-fodder nonentities, but encountering it in France too suggests to me a wider usage. Sinecure is an equally obsolete word that is related: a fake job that puts you high on the public payroll, in reward for services rendered or expected. Or merely out of nepotism. The actual practice, however, is alive and well, particularly in Paris and Washington; it seems to be merely the term that is in eclipse.

I was reminded of Byzantium and the Sinosphere, both having elaborate hierarchies of bureaucratic titles. In Byzantium these could be awarded to foreign rulers or agents of influence, carrying not only prestige and presumably protection but also substantial salaries; I think the same was true of China as well. It seems indeed to be a constant of human governance, a particular form of patronage. I should not be surprised if Rameses and Hammurabi put people on palace supplies merely to keep them sweet.

Given that the particular words placemen and sinecure are pretty well forgotten, by what name do we now call this eternal practice? “Jobs for the Boys” was once an umbrella phrase, though one that I have not seen lately. At one point in the UK there was a lot of talk of Quangos. This word sounds Latin but isn’t; it was coined from Quasi-NGO, denoting various agencies that claimed to be non-governmental when convenient and took public funding when convenient. If that sounds derogatory, so be it; there was a time when the British public knew enough to despise these hybrids and distrust the closed circles that ran them. Jobs for the Ruperts, one might say. Well, perhaps some of them actually did useful work, as do a few “consultants” here and there. Governments often promised to prune this undergrowth, but since the governmental method of reducing bloat is generally to appoint additional personnel to report on bloat-reduction, nothing much ever came of this. Quango is another word I have not seen lately, probably because the principle of corrupt hybrids of public and private later got renamed New Public Management.

And then we have Consultants. Not the hospital title, nor yet the specialised engineer, but the growing practice whereby a public servant gives a contract to a consultancy company, which via a chain of offshore shell entities comes back to himself.

Another word we could use is Subsidies. To any objective economist, paying pals of the government to outcompete non-pals must fall under this rubric, but for some strange reason the word is used only of aid to the arts and new inventions, rather than powerful lobbies that got their drinking-straws into the state coffers a century ago or more. Subsidies to the oil industry, for example, are like Chesterton’s “mountain too large to be seen”, and fake export subsidies are surely as wasteful a form of patronage as ever were the sinecures of Rococo courtiers.

Well, then, if the previous popular British expression for useless but obedient legislators has fallen into disuse, might we not make a plea for the revival of “placemen”? And then let us note that the enormous drain on the public finances to pay for sinecures helped bankrupt the Ancien Régime and bring on the French Revolution.

(Fiddle date-stamp to June 1 2020)

The Very Hungry Ape

The man who wrote “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has just died. I had never actually read the children’s book myself, but I fancy that the title plus basic knowledge of caterpillar behaviour tells me all I need to know about the plot. Well, In addition I gather from news items that the continuous chomping was somehow justified or even made inspiring by the fact that the larva was destined to turn into a butterfly.

But wait just a minute. The thing about that insect family is that it is not possible to say that the creature “is” the caterpillar, or “is” the pupa, or even “is” the imago. If we assume the third thing, that is merely our bias in favour of something that we enjoy seeing. One might just as well say that the imago is the genitals of the caterpillar. It would probably be best of all to say that the creature “is” the DNA, which takes some very different morphological forms. The plant world is not dissimilar, as anyone knows who has tried to get rid of dandelions or bindweed; whatever we see above ground is not the really important stuff.

In any case, I know of a Very Hungry Beastie that munches and munches and munches, stripping bare everything around him, and who notably fails to pupate and re-emerge as something more beautiful. It is called a Human. And this is where I would start my Gnostic indictment of creation in general and our creation in particular. Some human cultures do not eat every day, but starve or gorge according to availability. I think we can safely say that this is culturally learned, and that the human being as most of us know him is a sort of Very Hungry Caterpillar.

Particularly in my lifetime, sit-down “meals” have almost ceased to exist, and the youngsters snack continuously like cows grazing. Not to wax superior; in fact both models cause me unease. To me the need to eat every day is a burden rather than a joy, and whenever you get refugees piling up against a barrier, as so often nowadays, the world in general gets a sense of that burden. I have no faith whatsoever that any green-technology transformation will save seven billions of this Very Hungry Human.

Posted on June 21, 2021 at 14:41 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: AGAINST NATURE, Defying The Demiurge

A Good Term In Huysmans

Either Huysmans, or his character Des Esseintes, forgive my memory, has a striking line about the female enslaving the male through the “venereal flower”. That is perhaps the best two-word expression of the enslavement that Hugo himself fancies having detected. The phrase that comes immediately after, though, “terror of the vulva”, does not strike me as equally well-made. Terror of the vulva, I am sure I don’t have one of those. It seems to belong to the same mental world as Freud’s concept of penis-envy in the female.

I nevertheless do feel Huysmans to be in sympathy with my own suspicion about much of our yearning for contact with the opposite sex – that it is founded on the fatal assumption that the other sex is metaphysically more important than we are and can therefore validate or redeem our existence. This error is, of course, committed by both sexes. Maybe gays do it too, I wouldn’t know, in which case we should be talking about a sense of needing metaphysical rescue by the Other.

I would quarrel with the Gnostics on one point, however; the seat of the trouble is not, I think, “the body” as such but rather our sense of identity.

(last, but fiddle date-stamp to February 2, 2020)

On Not Respecting Their Betters

In a history of the Spanish Civil War, probably Anthony Beevor’s, I read that the Spanish proletariat never respected or imitated its betters. If I recall correctly, this was meant as a sharp contrast with the Anglo-American culture of social deference and class ascent.

I have to take his word for the Spanish proletariat, or indeed any other. My own background is of the British lower middle classes, where aspirations to gentility and worship of nobs and royals were intense and utterly repulsive. I am given to understand that the same applies in the United States, replacing nobs and royals by screen celebrities. That is, I have never heard that the superstitions of my childhood era, namely that one demonstrated superiority by calling a sofa a “settee” and extending the pinkie to drink tea, had any American cognate, although the ideal of the detached house with lawn and white picket fence was surely the same as in our own privet-hedged suburbia. But this is the middles, which most Americans imagine they are. Insofar as there was once a genuine proletarian culture in either country, it probably no longer exists. We now have the precariat instead, which is by no means the same thing. I have not read enough Orwell or even watched enough “Coronation Street” to know much about how the British proletariat used to be. I would not know which author to go to for the prewar American industrial worker, and of course I know better than to seek him in American soaps.

So how did the Spanish proletarian of the Thirties live? What was his culture, to which he held in defiance of any proper deference to the hidalgo? I would expect that bullfighting had something to do with it, but otherwise I have no idea. But if there were to be a secret to a society in which “sucking upwards and kicking downwards” was not the aspiration of the impoverished, then I should like to hear about it. Spain would hardly a good example to follow in general, with its misogyny, mystical gobbledygook and murderous clergy. Not to mention the inability of that undeferential proletariat to achieve much beyond jacquerie and defeat. But even so, I should like to know more about a class that hated those above it so single-mindedly. We Anglos might learn something.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 15, 2012)

Meditation On Casanova’s Leah

Giacomo Casanova reports one of his lady-friends as having said, “A girl who gives nothing must take nothing”. I was startled to meet, in the eighteenth century, a strain of feminism that had been common in my youth. Back then, a woman who wanted company but had no intention of going to bed with you might insist on going Dutch. She did not conceptualise this in ideological terms, but rather in language of dignity and ethical straightness. If the man wined and dined her, there would be a certain degree of obligation, at least in his mind, probably in the minds of third parties and perhaps even in her own. And if she did not want to go there, she would not allow him to pay the bill. Simple as that.

In Leah’s case that fastidiousness may have come from her being Jewish, because everyone else in Casanova’s memoirs was happy to amass as much loot as possible from male sexual interest, gratified or otherwise. In this way the continent’s entire womanhood seemed in one way or another on the game, from the kitchenmaid up to the duchess – or most especially the duchess. I have seen the same in Africa. To the extent that this is no longer true of Europe, it must represent a historical anomaly.

After my own youth the pendulum swung again, so that some young ladies came to think that feminism meant doing whatever you liked and at the same time taking men for plenty of swag. Getting a good price for their tail, or a mere hint thereof, became rebranded as Girl Power. I always thought the older principle showed more ethical integrity.

Such is the human talent for self-deceit, however, that Going Dutch was actually compatible with the Remount Strategy I have discussed elsewhere. Casanova was capable of being just-friends with a woman, since he appreciated intelligence above all, but he could see the difference between a fiercely independent bluestocking and a hypocrite accumulating a reserve of potential benefactors.

(Fiddle to August 28, 2012)

Whom Does That Leave?

In the beginning there was autism, which we did not understand was a definite neurological issue. In those days we did not know this about schizophrenia either. Then there came Asperger’s Syndrome, which despite our later knowledge of brain-wiring faults, we have confused with being a nerd. By this I mean that introverted and intellectual behaviour, which has always been about half of the human repertoire, and perhaps the better half at that, will now get you called an Aspie. Do one of these self-testing things on the Intertoobes, and you will find that staying at home with a good book will get you stigmatised as mentally abnormal; you have to be a loud party animal, or else.

At the same time every second person seems now to have ADHD. They tell me that this is a neurological condition too, and can even be seen on fMRI. In that case I should like to know how it relates to the steep decline in the ability to pay attention to the three-dimensional world that is commonly blamed on smartphones. Has the world of the Internet, apps and social media mis-wired the brains of a generation to the extent that they can no longer handle any tasks other than preening, or should we be looking at new environmental toxins that dumb us down like lead in petrol used to?

Brain scans or no, I cannot shake the suspicion that those with a scientifically confirmable syndrome are far outnumbered by those who are merely continuing an ancient human tradition of not paying attention. And yet perhaps not quite so ancient after all. For at one time this habit would have been very vigorously selected against – those who did not pay attention to their surroundings would become something’s dinner. In our own society, there may still be evolutionary pressure against texting when crossing a busy road, but I do not really see any Darwinian penalty on not listening to others. Supposedly real-world interaction often resembles attempting to argue with a recorded message. I do not think one has to be especially curmudgeonly to recognise that this is now universal.

People now devote five per cent of their attention to the three-dimensional world and the people encountered therein, listening with half an ear, seeing with half an eye, and thinking with half a brain. If that. This they do for terror of missing something on the little screen that they have been taught is far more important than the person standing in front of them. This cannot be neurology, it is obviously acculturation, though one can see how it might suit the non-payers of attention to pretend otherwise.

The key here is to what extent a given neurological thingymajig is really suffered under and to what extent it functions as a permission for what everybody wants to do anyway. Whereas I cannot imagine anyone wanting to have OCD and wash the skin right off their hands, I find it all too easy indeed to imagine someone wanting permission not to pay attention. At any rate to the real live human being in front of them; it is funny how selective the Youth Of Today are, in that they have no problems with computer games and social media, only with being addressed by a meat person wanting some kind of service or cooperation. Meanwhile, why cannot I get traction for my own quite uncomfortable condition of PEIS, or Psychobabble Excuse Intolerance Syndrome?

Finally, I would point out a dilemma, almost a Catch-22. If people who fail to pay attention to the world around them are all deemed to be suffering from ADHD, while those who do pay attention to the world around them are all deemed to be suffering from Asperger’s, then what might a “neurotypical” actually look like, and what would she do with herself all day?

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 8, 2010)

The Real Point of the Kalokagathos

Friedrich Nietzsche made part of his name on a “naturalistic” explanation of ethics. In a revolutionary move, he turned his back on the substance of ideals of The Good or Virtue or Duty, and looked instead at who was formulating these and for what purpose. The young philologist reckoned that he could derive words for good and bad from the self-description of a putative master race keen to distinguish itself from its menial subjects. He thought mostly in German, but contemplation of the multiple meanings of the English “fair” may also be instructive.

In linking ethics to external and physical qualities Nietzsche was not intrinsically wrong; but I would suggest that he was led astray by the concept of race, which we have since come to deconstruct and abominate. Let us focus more on the individual, while by all means keeping in sight the biological, the “healthy body” that the sickly philosopher worshipped. We know from lab work on the “halo effect” that if a person is beautiful, he (or less likely, she) will be accorded all sorts of other qualities as well, such as intelligence or good will – which may be a dangerous mistake.

The baseline of ethics may be, not membership in any master race, but a purely individual beauty, which is the outward and visible sign of an inward genetic health. That the Athenian word for gentleman, the kalokagathos, puts the beauty part first may not be chance but rather an expression of the correct order: one becomes an honorary beautiful (kalos) by having been good (agathos).

(Fiddle to May 17, 2009)

What I Learned From Faulkner

When my programme of filling in the gaps in my literary education reached The Sound and the Fury, I found less ferocious racism than I had expected. His Southerners’ self-perception as supporting their blacks rather than being supported by them (in the original, slightly redacted: “working to support a kitchenful of negroes”) seems weird to us but plays to my general doctrine that “No man is a villain to himself” and that oppressors often see themselves as victims.

Note that the word is “kitchenful” because these are domestic servants, what people used to call house-slaves, and that as far as I could make out, field-hands did not appear in the Faulkner at all.

The worst generalisations about African-Americans are put into the mouth of Jason, who is such a nasty character as to be the most unreliable of narrators. On the other hand, his remark that “negroes always have a watertight alibi for everything they do” makes me wonder. For this was my own observation while living in Africa. I used to say that if a certain poor and unhappy country in which I lived for months could only find a paying market for excuses, it would become an economic superpower overnight, and my native hearers ruefully admitted the truth of this satire.

What do I think is happening here? Why, a version of Edward De Bono’s Intelligence Trap, in that the immense African verbal facility, learned at Mother’s knee, is primarily instrumental and tactical. Were the culture to be biased less towards bullshitting your way out of trouble and more towards not getting into it in the first place, we might see continental progress.

A biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture quotes slaves’ excuses in very much the same terms as Jason, although from a very different set of values. CLR James regards the verbal habits as an entirely comprehensible response to utterly horrible conditions. The trouble is that none of the people I have heard the lies from were slaves, though their ancestors had been colonial subjects. So perhaps the mind-set I encountered was inculcated by colonialism and the mentality of corrupt extraction it brought, and not broken by generations of theoretical independence.

One might expect the concern with “watertight alibis” in the slaves of Antiquity and other maltreated groups – subalterns in the sociological jargon. Yes, that means women too. I do not know whether anyone has systematically looked for this. The mechanism involved would be that all speech has to be geared entirely to self-preservation. What would remain in need of explaining would be the odd psychology of the human being who obstinately tells only the truth.

(Fiddle date-stamp to 3 March 2020)