Once upon a time I talked to a bookshop assistant who had told me that she had learned on a university history course that the whole business of “The Burning Times” was a complete myth. I was astounded by the fact that she appeared to accept this information. For I would have bet folding money that any female student “young enough to know everything” would have greeted this attempt at debunking with a torrent of abuse of the professor centred on the concept of “patriarchy” and possibly even changed courses on the spot to get away from the evil. After all, any attempt to deny “The Burning Times” must be equated with a desire to start them up again and take part oneself. Well, so I was wrong, at least in this one case. Whether the professor was female or a boo-hiss I did not ask, and have no insight into any background factors that predisposed this particular student to accept the falsity of everything she had been told since she could walk.
For I knew that she had indeed grown up in an atmosphere that made questioning of “The Burning Times” an occasion of incredulity, abuse and ostracism. Males knowledgeable in real history have told me that this was a subject they could not raise with their wives on pain of divorce. It would be as futile as convincing the average African that there was no God (which is, by the way, something I have tried), and for the same reasons: early indoctrination, social censure and the self-interest of powerful forces.
Where I live, it used to be six million witches burned. Over what time-scale, in which period, in which countries and on what charges, no one was ever able to say. They “just knew” that particular factoid, the same way the African just knows that giving money to the preacher will lead to health, wealth and happiness, even when it doesn’t. It had to be six million, apparently, because this figure is the same as for Jews killed by the Nazis, thereby allowing any doubters to be tarred with the brush of Holocaust Denial. In some countries the latter is a criminal offence, and it will only be a matter of time before criminalisation of the other form of Victimhood Denial in the USA. If you said that six million Jews were indeed killed in the camps but six million witches were never burned in early-modern Europe, you would not be listened to, the tram of the other party was already speeding down the no-platform-for-evil track. The Holocaust parallel was so potent and convenient that I was never sure why the figure for the dead witches was one day increased to nine million. Probably it was tracking the Consumer Price Index.
Of course, increasing the fiction to nine million did carry with it a certain risk of implosion through self-evident absurdity, in that such a megadeath would be clearly visible in the demographics. Indeed, the true believers could be told that we would have gone extinct. That is not actually true either, but since these people tend to be mathematical illiterates anyway, it might have given them pause. And they also have no clue about the duration of the witch paranoia: nine million in two centuries would be one thing, but nine million women killed in a short time would put China’s gender imbalance in the shade.
One person, who knew that it had to be true because she “had read it in a book”, did actually see the point about there being not enough women left to breed from, but switched the location and claimed that every woman in a particular valley in her region had been killed. Really, you’d think someone would have noticed!
Neither was it any use to place the witch trials in post-Reformation Europe where they belonged. Assigning them to the Middle Ages fitted too well with the history learned from Dungeons and Dragons by people who thought that the period had to be awful because it was spelled “Mid-Evil”.
An even bigger no-no was trying to tell people that men were executed as witches too. And the gods help anyone who talked about motives for denunciations, about inheritance, village feuds or poisoning – or even about a paranoid moral panic over the new poisons at that time arriving from the New World. The fact that under Roman law, the property of the accused fell to his accuser was similarly an alien language. In Germany, I was once told by a historian, the typical “witch” was the burgomeister, and the typical accuser was the man who wanted to be burgomeister instead. No, not interested.
All the young women were brought up with the absolute, unquestioned and not-to-be questioned conviction that all these witches were women, had all been burned by men, with all other women opposed. There would be no women-on-women unpleasantness, because women “are” by nature altruistic and cooperative and nothing is ever their fault. The students were similarly convinced that the witches had been burned because they were women, purely for being women. Particularly if they knew herbalism or enjoyed sex. It was simply assumed that the tracts about diabolism circulated by certain demented monks were not merely efficacious by themselves, but were the only cause of what was going on. The only reason they would admit for the whole two-century phenomenon was that “men” desperately hated women.
Which may give us a clue about what was going on in the minds of whole generations of women. First of all, there is a perverse satisfaction in believing that you are hated, especially if the fact that no one seems to be doing anything much about it makes it cost-free. This fits right into both the natural adolescent’s conviction that nobody understands her and the spoiled child’s conviction that the world is out to get her – read, out to deny her some of her wishes. For such juveniles, the attempted genocide of their entire gender causes a wonderful frisson and provides much narcissistic supply. For being even indirectly associated with genocide means that you must be important. Even though no one is trying to burn you personally at the stake, you may vicariously enjoy the righteousness always imputed to the victim in sub-Christian culture.
Secondly, this victimhood is not merely a matter of sentimental solidarity with women in a far-off time of whom you actually know nothing. This currency is fungible. Whenever a member of the enemy sex opposes you, inconveniences you, contradicts you, fails to believe you or neglects to give you the unconditional support and praise that a spoiled youngster requires, he may be firmly identified with the burners of witches. The question thus becomes what incentive there would be for abandoning the knee-jerk denunciation in favour of interest in facts and truth. Until I spoke to that bookshop assistant I would have said that the thing was impossible, because too much benefit was riding on the myth. I never did find out what kind of magical de-glamourising spell the professor used, or how the student carried on living without being able to blame all the men around her for nine million witch-burnings if they did not toe the line.
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Jews, Cathars, Gays And Witches
The discovery of the Americas encouraged the European tendency, already seen in Plato, to invent perfect societies beyond the sunset. One such philosophical kingdom, which has given us the commonest modern word, was Thomas More’s Utopia. This is a kind of puritanical small-c communism with some features that are startling given More’s own Catholic faith; how far these was meant seriously, how far as satire and how far perhaps as jeu d’esprit, must be left to Renaissance scholars.
The juiciest bit from the point of view of schoolboys of my own generation is surely the Utopian custom of a prospective bride and bridegroom being shown naked to one another. In controlled forms via a respectable matron, please note, we are not talking pre-marital sex here – which was a crime in Utopia. The author thought it strange that we examined horses and cattle, but, when entering into matrimony, bought a pig in a poke.
Which is exactly what was being done as late as my own schooldays, when knowing what the intended looked like under her clothes was very, very scandalous. You were not meant even to think about this. But what, I wonder, were even these “repressed” types of the Eisenhower Era actually missing from not knowing what the other party’s body looked like? Is being shown naked by a matron any guarantee of sexual compatibility? Certainly not; but since the Utopians allowed themselves no “test-driving”, if one party were perfectly formed but frigid or perverted, they would be none the wiser. That particular pig was still bought inside the poke.
If this institution was shocking, not only to the 16th century but as late as my own day, what does that tell us? If not only test-driving was prohibited, but even knowing what kind of hideous deformity was being concealed (something More was specifically out to prevent), what follows from this? First, that having entered into matrimony you had to go ahead and consummate it despite said hideous deformity. This seems tough, unless perhaps you are the person with a hideous deformity who still wants to get married. Which may, as a reductio, emphasise how, in these latter days of fuckbuddies and labial piercings – in which millions of girls show what they have got, not via a respectable matron but over the Internet – even the moderately unattractive are right out of luck. The bar has been raised, with a liberalism that is not at all the same kind as the Epicurean-influenced More was playing around with.
And of course, being perfectly formed and not perverted or frigid is still no guarantee of anything at all. More’s “progressive” ritual seems to be saying that appreciation of the partner’s figure, below the neck, is the most important thing in a marriage. I find that actually rather depressing.
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, The Life Unbeautiful
Probably all hetero men like to look at women’s legs. Many use the feminine shapeliness of the legs as an important criterion of whom they will seriously try for. Contrariwise, for many men, thick legs are a major turn-off in themselves, even if the woman is not notably overweight in the usual other places.
So thoroughly do we take this for granted that we do not usually reflect on how little the legs mean to us if we finally get her to bed. There is a certain amount of stroking, to be sure, but less than the initial importance of the legs might suggest. If the lady is moving around the bedroom, we admire her legs to be sure, but then in the same way as we admired them on the street. We do not, on the whole, actually do much with them. And certainly not below the thighs, which we treat as foreplay to the pussy.
In part this is, of course, because most of the legs do not contain any particular hot-buttons. Although there exist toe-suckers and those who like their toes sucked, the lower legs in particular are hardly a trigger for either party – even though the calves may have been important in the initial impression. We read in books that the ankles were quite erotic to the Victorian man, but then how much time did he devote to them in bed? Geometry plays some role; when you are lying down, the lower legs are simply a little distant from the rest of the main theatre of love, you need to sit up, wriggle down or invert.
A solution to the paradox may be that beautiful legs are a bit less to do with sex per se than we might think. What they are to do with is beauty, and beauty is not actually the same thing as sex. There is an overlap, of course, but the relationship is actually quite complex. As I suggested in connection with watching slender Chinese newlyweds pose for the cameras, beauty may be a resource, and what men are actually doing when they admire legs on the street is pining for access to beauty, in and for itself, because beauty is usually something they do not have themselves. The drive to possess beauty, in whatever sense of the word, or admire it, is then sui generis, something irreducible, it just is.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to May 20, 2010)
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fine Feathers
Some airport-bookstall novel, I no longer remember which, features the following sentence: “She was beautiful, very beautiful, and I would do anything to keep her safe.” Can we imagine the adjective being replaced by “kind” or “intelligent”? We cannot. May we expect to read in another pot-boiler the variation: “She was well-read, very well-read, and I would do anything to keep her safe.” We may not. Beauty is a neural hack that compels us to respond with self-sacrificial devotion.
This principle may be seen per contraria in the cinematic genres of action, horror and torture porn. That is, whereas in real life we hold that beautiful girls are not to be harmed, whatever may be done to the rest, in our fantasy lives we are interested in nothing other than the endangerment of the beautiful. (I say “we” from outside; personally I avoid all three genres.) Bond girls have to be beautiful, not only so that we may take pleasure in imaginative identification with 007 when he beds them, but because they are so often in danger and need rescuing. No one would care about the bad guy threatening ugly women, any more than they would care about ugly women in the haunted house, or ugly women being chased by malignant hillbillies, or ugly women being tied up and dismembered by psychopaths.
The rewards for beauty can also be posthumous. Neda Agha-Soltan became the poster child for the failed Iranian revolution, not because she was the only victim, or the first, or the last, but because she was a beautiful young woman. Tariq Ali pointed out that on the very same day an American drone attack killed 15 equally innocent Pakistani villagers, but that this event never made it into our news at all. This he relates primarily to the Americans’ inability to understand their place in the world, but we might also imagine that if the Basij had killed only men, or ugly women, in Teheran that day, whereas one of the Pakistani villagers had been a beautiful young woman, and her death had been filmed and posted on the Net, she might today be as well-known as Neda.
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, The Life Beautiful
Euhemerism is, in the words of the Wikipedia, an “approach to the interpretation of mythology in which mythological accounts are presumed to have originated from real historical events or personages”. It is common to see gods as exaggerated memories of historical kings, and their rapes of mortal women as badly-remembered incidents or accidents.
Intent on the god as actor, we neglect to consider how these stories may contain a profound truth about the other side. For the ancient maidens and nymphs in the myths are always trading up. Their abduction by the god may thus be a euhemeristic retelling of their elopement with a richer and more powerful man than their arranged husbands, or even than their own chosen boyfriends. Just as men can always see a sexier one, women can always see a richer one; and coercion by divine power makes them look less mercenary when they drop everything to get him.
(Fiddle date-stamp to 5 August 2011)
In: THE LONGEST CON, The Longest Con, Miscellaneous
The “national drink of Austria”, of which I am myself very fond, is a mildly fizzy lemonade made of herbal extracts. Called Almdudler, literally meadow-yodeller, it plays on Heimat sensibility, or national-romanticism as we call it in Norway. The logo features a young farmer and his lady-friend clinking steins in front of Alpine peaks.
What intrigues me is how well-dressed they are, how far from Pythonesque mud-eating “peasants”. The boy has immaculate lederhosen, a neat green jacket with gold buttons, and a huge green hat dashing enough for D’Artagnan. The girl has a similar hat on top of her golden locks, and a dirndl with Snow White puffed shoulders.
Of course I know that “countryfolk” was not synonymous with “scruffy” or “ragged”. Even if poorer smallholders, cottars and labourers might have been quite dowdy, what we are looking at in this illustration is probably the fat cats of their valley. In the Alps these were likely to be allodialists (yeomen) rather than tenants and manorial serfs. It was the same in rugged Western Norway. There was a smaller pyramid above them than we might expect from over-reliance on the feudal paradigm. After the bishop, they were pretty well the social summit of their mountain districts. They may have thought of themselves in the same way as aristocrats in the lowlands; and in Switzerland they ran the show and had statues of themselves in armour.
This handsome young couple on the Almdudler bottle, therefore, may serve as a standing reminder that fine feathers are not reserved to the national elites – should we ever be so foolish as to forget it. Inasmuch as there ever was a time when well-off people were content to go round looking like bums, that era was very, very brief. Our green-hatted yeoman would not have understood the fad for distressed jeans, for example, any more than Indian farmers do. The Beautiful People of their valley can afford not to have holes in their clothes, and until recently this is what it had always been about. We may see subtle social codes in how the jeans are distressed, enabling the wearers to look down their noses at people who have gotten it wrong, but the codes of the meadow-yodeller were surely simpler, more direct and perhaps even brutal.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to May 18, 2011)
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fine Feathers
A good friend of mine, with artistic training, claims to be able to see in a person’s face whether there is anyone “at home” or not. For practical reasons I have never been able to conduct a clinical trial. To do this, one would need to be able objectively to identify who had nobody at home, then measure this against his intuitive perceptions. And to do this, one would in turn need to be quite sure what was meant by nobody being at home.
He is surely not alone in this suspicion, however. In People of the Lie, the psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote about malignant narcissists, seeing in them something of the serpent’s unblinking gaze. Is the outright evil analysed here, though, the same thing as nobody being at home? Peck saw incorrigible evil in terms of an absolute refusal to admit fault, but there is probably an overlap. What may be visible in the face of another, whether testably or not, might be the absence of anything other than a tactical algorithm. What we incautiously call his personality may be nothing other than a procedural manual, a suite of techniques, a set of If-GoTo logic gates. His aim is the animal agenda modified by the family romance, as is true of most of us; the difference is that, behind his eyes, we look in vain for anything else.
In one sense it is obvious that there is someone “at home” – behold, there is the tactical algorithm looking back at us. When we use this phrase, then, it is because we desperately want there to be something to a human being over and above the procedural manual for satisfying the animal agenda. A noble hope, to be sure, but perhaps one that says more about ourselves than about him. Our next question could then be, “How does it come about that a person wants there to be someone ‘at home’ in his neighbour?” Then what sort of thing would we recognise as a “someone” behind his eyes other than the tactical algorithm, that would tell us that there was a person “at home”?
Perhaps we are deceiving ourselves, and there is nothing else, which would mean that we have nobody at home too. Or perhaps we have never bothered to think out what we mean by this someone being at home, something to a person other than the tactical algorithm, relying instead on lazy shorthands like “souls”. Or perhaps we do all recognise the presence or absence of this “someone at home”, but it is just very difficult to put into words, much less set up a scientific experiment about.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to April 4, 2010)
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, Beings and Gentlebeings
In my youth I remember a university tutor praising me for saying that Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative was nothing but a Teutonic pomposity for what we have always known as the Golden Rule. Forty years on, I now feel a sense of shame at this, somewhat ameliorated by a suspicion that I am not alone in failing to give Kant the credit he deserves.
It may well be the case that what Kant thought he was doing was creating ethics ab nihil, deriving moral rules from logic in a godless universe. What I have learned from him, however, is something different. I see the Categorical Imperative as a corrective to or a denial of a particular thing. To scholars I leave the question of which approach the historical philosopher actually meant; this is my own personal take-away.
The Categorical Imperative may thus be a negative, a warning, telling us not what is ethical but what cannot be. The most fundamental moral law is not do-as-you-would-be-done-by, although you are free to enact that if you want. Even the inverse formulation do-not-do-as-you-would-not-be-done-by is a mere application of a principle more general still. This I would express as follows: it does so apply to you. The implied justification to which this is a response is the infantile wail, “But – but, it doesn’t apply to ME!” Yes, sunshine, it does. It applies to everybody. In other words, you are not special, you do not get an exemption.
The virtue of standing the Categorical Imperative on its head is this way is, I fancy, that it now becomes better able to combat what may even be regarded as the root of all evil, namely the attempt to apply special rules to oneself.
It is, human beings usually feel, different when it is we ourselves who want to do something and are told we can’t. In order to argue that it is different for us, we take refuge in either one or the other lines of argument, and I cannot see that any third line exists. Either the situation is different from that of other people who seem at first sight to be making the same choice, or else we have some sort of special dispensation. The first case is at any rate possible, and so it is always worth discussing whether our situation does actually fall under the rule or not.
The second case seems, or should seem, a priori unlikely to everybody other than the wailer who wants ethics not to apply to him. Why should he be special? Some people peddle a Great Sky Fairy that can tell them that they are special. Others do essentially the same thing in more secular words, as when someone claims to incarnate or be the voice of History – as if History is a spirit and not just a word for, as the man said, “one damn thing after another”. For history read also Destiny, whatever that is supposed to mean, or the deserving social class, or the nation, or some principle or other, some truth that only the wailer can discern. He might be right about discerning truth, of course, while all the other claims are almost certainly bunk. It is probable, however, that all of these are mere protective coloration for the primary sense of being special.
And why does he feel special? Well, it follows from the essence of living creatures that they perceive the world through their own senses and thus not through anybody else’s senses. Everybody is indeed the centre of the universe. They are the centre of the universe in that they are inevitably of the universe-as-perceived-by-them. By definition! Some mystics have claimed that they can perceive other universes, can look through someone else’s eyes, but then we need to ask whether this is just another claim to be special and thus exempt from the Categorical Imperative.
Since being the centre of a, repeat, A, universe is in fact the human condition, then for someone to regard himself as the centre of all possible universes is really not so very unnatural. He exaggerates, that’s all, and then he extrapolates to moral entitlement. As Aristotle said, to live alone we need to be an animal or a god, we are social creatures. Ergo, we need something more than feeling, something to tell us that everyone is the centre of his universe, no more and no less, and that we are thus not in the slightest degree unique and privileged. This we call ethics. It is an act of the understanding and an act of will. If the constructors of ethical philosophies cannot, after all, derive an “ought” from an “is”, then perhaps we should cut the Gordian Knot by a decision to act as if they can. For the alternative is letting the It-doesn’t-apply-to-ME wailers have their heads, and then we shall be in the soup.
That one of history’s greatest philosophers wrote a seminal work that, if I have read him aright, was designed to combat the root of all special pleading, ought to tell us something. Just as Schopenhauer wrote a sardonic vade mecum called the Art of Controversy, listing the dirtiest tricks of argumentative rhetoric, so too might we isolate and identify the tricks of self-exculpation. It may already have been done, though I would bet that if so, it has been done not by a moral philosopher, but by an American self-help hack with a fictitious doctor’s title. I should like to see it done by a philosopher of Schopenhauer’s calibre, if any can still arise, and be called something along the lines of A Science of Bad-Guy-ology.
Instead of preaching to us about what we ought to do, such a work would analyse just how human beings go to the bad, and above all, what they are telling themselves as they become more and more rotten. For no man is a villain to himself, and he is greatly helped to maintain his self-love amid even his worst atrocities by the self-exculpations that other men have dreamed up, even if they themselves never did anything frightfully wicked. The enablers, as always, must bear their share of the responsibility. And it goes without saying that we should be on our guard if we hear any of these Bad-Guy-ological lines, and beware of using them ourselves. We may expect a priori that the Bad Guys do not want us to deconstruct their techniques of exculpation, wherefore their attempts to raise a dust ought all the more urgently to be subjected to a cold-eyed analysis.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to July 5, 2013)
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, A Theory Of Everybody
The figure of the dangerous enchantress goes back at least to Homer’s Circe. She does not appear to have enslaved Odysseus sexually, merely to have turned his crew into pigs (which one would expect the usual suspects to admire her for), but plenty of her successors took some hapless male to their grottos under the hill or fairy realm and released them centuries later if ever. One of the latest incarnations of this meme is Patrick Rothfuss’ “Felurian” in The Wise Man’s Fear.
Naturally, in this day and age this character, if we can call her that, attracts the attention of the women-can-do-no-wrong brigade, saying for example that, “female characters written as The Evil Demon Seductress are portraying women as manipulative, conniving and controlling. These demon women always have ulterior motives, their sexuality is dangerous, and they’ll probably bite your head off. The harmful, misogynist myth that this trope reinforces is that women primarily use their so-called sexual power as a way to manipulate, trick and control men.” Of course, in the non-magical world no woman ever has ulterior motives, no woman ever manipulates or tricks and no woman ever uses her sexuality to control men. So the distillation of universal male fears of attractive but unethical women into an imagined supernatural figure is an evil and wicked thing to do. Universal female fear of unethical males is, of course, innocent and even mandatory. And it is no defence to say you are warning about an individual, as anything you say about a particular nasty female means you hate “all” women.
My own response to Felurian is more along the lines of wondering what she does all day when not fucking the brains out of some unwary mortal and leaving him dead or insane. Sudoku? All right, she’s other-worldly and she loves sex, but is that enough to live on? Perhaps the ideologues would have done better to explore the male inability to conceive of their sex-goddesses having any existence of her own when not busy coupling with them; except that the same complaint of objectification can be turned back on the women. (What does the Demon Lover do all day?)
When Rothfuss’ hero, or perhaps anti-hero, tricks Felurian and escapes intact, she is furious. For that she hardly needs to be supernatural, the female inability to accept being ignored or abandoned is not a stereotype but a general truth. (But would that work the other way round? No one seems to walk out on demon lovers. And they never reject you, only damage other men about which you might care.) Kvothe’s unforgivable sin is not, after all, the objectification but the having of a life, the having of business in the world, apart from the female’s needs. The faerie siren does thus stand for all women, but not perhaps in the way the ideologues have in mind.
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to August 30, 2016)
In: TOWARDS AN INTELLIGENT MISOGYNY, Towards A Male Separatism
Gordon Gecko can open his mouth and pronounce the phonemes, “Greed is Good”, but by doing so he convicts himself of a stunted vocabulary. For “greed” is one of these words that conveys our disapproval. A more neutral term would have been “acquisitiveness”. You may, if you wish, say that acquisitiveness is good; but the word greed means an acquisitiveness that the rest of us consider so extreme as to be wicked. Are Gecko and his real-life imitators, therefore, almost a kind of Satanist, saying that the rest of us are mistaken, because the extreme acquisitiveness that humanity has almost universally condemned is in fact good, despite what everyone has said? Or are they trying to move the goalposts, suggesting that their own acquisitiveness is not so extreme as to deserve the condemnation, while allowing the possibility that a deplorable acquisitiveness exists further on? Or are we merely looking at people whose acquisitiveness has not left them time to learn the meaning of words in their native language?
Done in Bergen
(Fiddle date-stamp to December 30, 2011)