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 level. 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)

Jules Verne’s Television

Most people are aware that Jules Verne wrote the first story about a giant submarine, the first modern story about travel to the moon and much else. He could be inspiring even when his technology would never have worked. Less well-known is his prediction of television, but in a quite different form to what we know. At least I am fairly sure that it was Verne and not somebody else.

Verne’s idea was a device that would allow us to look in on other cultures doing their thing. If you took a fancy to watching the Hindus bathe in the Ganges, you could do that. Then press a button and you could enjoy a temple dance in Bali, yet another button and you could watch something else, anywhere in the world. I seem to remember that Verne’s vision was heavily loaded towards festivals. Who exactly picked what to make available was unspecified or else I have forgotten the mechanism. Of one thing I am certain, however, is that Verne’s “television” viewers watched what was really happening, and happening by itself, just a long way away.

The idea was truly revolutionary for 19th-century France, and would be even now. There was indeed a channel in the Eighties that did something similar, being footage with no commentary, but it fell by the wayside. The still-revolutionary aspect of Verne’s idea would be the total absence of any other kind of “programming”. It was a very long way from the drama or the comedy series, let alone the game show.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 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

Among The Skinwalkers

Just as the late-Victorian epoch was the great age of table-tapping, ours is surely the great age of fantasy parahumans. Everyone from Marvel Comics who can possibly turned into a franchise has been, or soon will be; and then we have the tropes from a thoroughly invented Middle Ages. Such is the state particularly of American education that I have observed people thinking that knights-in-armour seriously fought dragons; and that the “Mid-Evil” period gets its name from the evil of its sorcerors, orcs and so forth.

It has been speculated that elves, fairies, hobbits and so forth are the folk memory of aboriginal peoples very nearly exterminated by new iron-wielding tribes. The survivors were consequently rather shy and perhaps even tricksy. Dwarves are probably in origin Germanic wood spirits and thus very distant cousins to the Greek dryads.

In contrast to these historic echoes, the vampire was created by Bram Stoker very nearly from whole cloth and it is painfully obvious how he could not be much older. Everything about him speaks of the nineteenth-century overclass, the bloodsuckers of the new industrial age, on their way to the opera. The vampire was given a further boost by the new nexus between sex, blood and death created by the AIDS epidemic, but I cannot help seeing him primarily in the original terms of class war.

The conceit of vampires and werewolves being natural enemies is an amusing one; the decadent European aristocracy is here opposed by the peasants and workers, with not only a deeper connection to the natural world but somewhat more fraternal group dynamics. Top-down yes, but also sideways in a manner that the vampires are not. We may, perhaps, read the conflict in terms of the well-bred young girl’s customary vacillation between the pomaded nobleman and the piece of rough trade. The latter is reminiscent of the Greek satyrs, who were obviously the country-dwellers with whom the kalokagathos did not trust his wife.

Why zombies became so popular I find it harder to say. The original Caribbean zombie, namely someone who works for nothing because he has been drugged into near-catatonia, has such an obvious relevance to shareholder value that one may expect the drug in question to be rediscovered any moment now. But this kind of enslaved fieldhand has so little to do with the Romero kind of zombie that we may ask what nerve is struck instead by carnivorous hordes who can convert by biting. Fear of proletarian revolution, perhaps? In common to all three fantasy tropes is, of course, the overcoming of death, though at a price. Well, that is old news.

After vampires, werewolves and zombies, what is left? My title references a Native American take on the same theme – namely things that look human but in fact are not. The body-snatching alien is surely a paleface imitation or parallel invention. And the whole idea is clearly a reflection of something very real, something that we used to call the high-functioning sociopath. Something that looks human but is Not Our Brother, something who can act any part he chooses, is a very good psychologist but who actually cares for us only as much as for the mud on his shoe – this is not a fantasy trope at all but a truth of sad experience.

(Fiddle date-stamp to November 12, 2009)

Posted on January 6, 2019 at 11:06 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody

Fattipuffs And Thinnifers

Since Starbucks is compelled by the peril of American litigation to celebrate an entirely secular Christmas, their centrally-imposed playlist has perforce to be solely about Santa Claus, snow, reindeer, and red-red-robins. Because anything else would be religion, and for some peculiar reason Americans do not classify object-consumption as a religion within the meaning of the Act. This allows one of the Starbucks playlist tracks to contain the words, “Everyone’s waiting for the man with the sack”. Enduring this one day, it occurred to me to wonder whether this might be as good a summary of the human species as any other. Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

I have mentioned elsewhere how the words “lord” and “lady” derive from “loaf”, while the Romance words for bosshood tend to come from the terminology of slavemastering and seniority. The German and Slavic ones come from warlordry. The basic social structure of our species may therefore be summarised thus: one man grows old in the leading of armies, thus accumulating loaves to give to other men.

The Eucharist derives from the pagan and Jewish festivals at which the common people got the red meat they might not otherwise have seen. So God, or the god, is a nourisher in a very literal sense, and when the Welsh sing “Bread of Heaven” they are trading on the dichotomy between those who have enough bread and those who do not. At this point it is worth remembering that odd Old Testament term, “shewbread”. Even displaying food must mark hierarchy. Look at what we have and you don’t!

This conviction of the primacy of nutrition was in no wise diminished from my reading in medieval Italian history about the classes called populo grasso and populo minuto. That terminology made it sound, I fancied, as if the ultimate reality were to be body weight. And that immediately put me in mind of the African “Big Man”. Not so long ago, British workers were scrawny, but overeating clubmen were “portly gentlemen”. Getting obese on pseudo-food rather than on real food is the only novelty here. Traditionally, “fat cats” were fat because they had more to eat than their social inferiors.

I have been soundly rebuked for imagining that I might have the same right to walk the pavement as others. In the city in which I live, we see primate dominance without the veneer of civilisation that promises me such a right: here, every square metre of public space belongs to the larger person, usually but not invariably male, and wherever I am standing is on their planned trajectory, or is put on it as soon as they notice me. Relative to me, moreover, almost the entire population is popolo grasso; and the average is getting taller every year. I have not felt that I had the right to exist since I was last in Japan.

(Fiddle date-stamp to May 8, 2012)

Posted on December 23, 2018 at 18:16 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: THE ENSLAVING MAMMAL, The Universal Template