Cultural Odds And Ends, Fortune Cookies

The purpose of the entertainment industry is to distract you while your pockets are picked.

Is it a coincidence that we talk about “staging” a coup d’etat? After all, the best coups are pure theatre, with no casualties. We might also say that the audience contributes its suspension of disbelief, and comes away purged of pity and terror.

Is it merely a satisfying linguistic coincidence that other products “make” or “earn” money, while Hollywood films “gross”?

Some men have claimed that women can never be comedians, because they are intrinsically not funny. This is ridiculous, because there are such things as female comics, and perhaps there would be more on a level playing field. If being a comic demands a certain black view of the world’s follies, plus good timing, they can certainly do that. On the other hand, the relative scarcity may be due, not to discrimination, but the fact that too many women are much too busy being intrinsically right to be funny or indeed anything else.

Once upon a time the kitchen of a middle-class home was relegated underground or to the back. The master never set foot there, the mistress came only to supervise. But the servants cooked, uncomfortably. In the 1950s the kitchen migrated to the front, so that the housewife could welcome hubby home. It then became the social centre, although the French and Iberians persist in having a dining room. The terminus of the trend may be found in Germany and Scandinavia, where people spend vast amounts on the appearance of their kitchens and then buy the cheapest possible processed food to microwave there.

One-liner ideas for films:
* Three hundred liberals hold Thermopylae against a million knuckle-dragging rednecks.
* A film from the point of view of Ernst Stavro Blofeld – or his cat.

In another life I should like to write a Bildungsroman about a young girl who wants to explore the real world as opposed to fishing for attention and hand-me-down moralising. It might be interesting to explore the forces that would be opposed to her becoming a rational adult.

Douglas Adams pioneered robots with Genuine People Personalities™. This might be closer than we thought. The place to start would be add-ons to Siri, for nagging, boasting, guilting-out and passive aggression.

The last scene of Woody Allen’s All You Wanted To Know About Sex… is a conceit about the interior life of a man on a date and getting laid, with the actors playing body or brain functions and in Allen’s case a spermatozoan as parachutist. I propose that the scene be remade with the woman instead. We might learn something from her “control room”.

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.

Return Of The Window Tax

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

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

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 would have agreed with Mephistopheles when he said, “All a woman’s fuss and fury is to be cured in one place”.

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

Bow Down Before My Reproduction

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

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

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

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

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

On Snow White As The Centre Of Male Attention

The potential of Snow White and her seven devoted male companions has been amply exploited in porn – it is easiest to do in animation, of course. There are even cartoons floating around online showing Snow White solo but with her breasts bare; she is much older than in the 1937 version but nevertheless instantly recognisable by her bodice, slashed sleeves, high collar and hairstyle.

Some people find even the still image offensive. They should then be asked why exactly. What is it about the combination of Snow White and sex that we so earnestly wish not to think about? The European folk tales in general are after all chock-full of sex and sometimes very nasty sex too. Did Disney set out to de-eroticise the genre, and actually succeed?

We need not be detained by the fact that in the originals, she offers only to “keep house” for the dwarves. We all know what that really means, for Catholic priests and everybody else. If at the beginning the character herself did not know, in time she would be enlightened.

In the principal source story, Snow White is pre-pubescent, and that is definitely icky, but most modern visual treatments are of a post-pubescent female. Which serves to revive my question as why a cartoon character shown as mature and with superb perky breasts should be so offensive. And in any case, how on earth can being “the fairest of them all” fail to relate somehow to sexuality, whether present or future; what else would it be for?

So perhaps it is the idea of a nubile girl with seven bearded partners that is so upsetting. The stumbling-block would then be the age-discordance, which our culture finds more outrageous than most. Now, the seven miners did not necessarily have to be ancient. Old Germanic “dwarves” probably began as some kind of nature spirit, and it is thought that their being small and ugly is a later development. In all modern visuals, however, the dwarves are neither Dark Elf metalsmiths nor Tolkienesque axe-wielders, and certainly not the Velasquez achondroplasics, but merely short bearded men in their fifties and upwards. And the sexuality of “dirty” old men is the last redoubt of popular opprobrium, which political correctness has not touched and for good reasons of evolutionary biology never will.

Offensiveness can hardly lie in the polyamory per se. If a lady chooses to have seven bedmates, who nowadays can object to that? You go, girl! Perhaps the problem is how victim theology now demands that gangbangs be perceived as invariably coercive rather than (at least sometimes) a woman wanting the narcissistic supply – that is, wanting to be the centre of male attention. And this is a definite choice on our part, driven by male fear of female capacity.

Snow White might therefore be an extreme case of the theme that dominates all chicklit, namely a female keeping several men in play and thus drawing on the multiple economic and emotional resources of a de facto harem. While at the same time spouting off about romance and fulfilment and what have you. The thing that we really, really do not want to think about is not so much the very young girl of the original Snow White story having sex as it is female strategising.

Posted on November 6, 2018 at 16:05 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Fairy Tales

The Starbucks Psychometric

Every day I spend some time on a comfortable bench in my local Starbucks, drilling my kanji. For I have set myself to learn Sino-Chinese characters (specifically via the Japanese elementary-school syllabus), primarily as a way of staving off senility: “use it or lose it” as they say. Other people may do crosswords or Sudoku in the same spirit, and good luck to them, but these puzzles simply do not interest me.

Chinese tourists and students generally take an interest in what I am doing, presumably because they do not see very many old codgers learning to write their ideograms. Exactly the same goes, of course, for Japanese, while educated Koreans are familiar with the classical Chinese characters. Such curiosity can trump even the Asian Millennials’ addiction to their smartphone screens. Some Europeans and Americans also enquire. Norwegians ask but rarely, for they are in general an astonishingly incurious people.

Or perhaps this is because higher-educated Norwegians are not the core Starbucks market. This consists of teenagers with unlimited funds – they often order food and drink then leave without having touched it – combined with an unlimited indifference to everything beyond fashion and Facebook. Which is exclusively what they talk about, hour after hour. Females who are concerned only with cliques, it has been said, remain fourteen forever; and this is the best place to watch them doing it.

At my Starbucks there is a minority of intellectual types, even a philosophy professor, but also a minority of pigs. This type may be defined by his shoving past a person standing two feet from a door labelled W.C. in foot-high letters to rattle the handle or even enter first. Even when not doing this, they exude an air of menace, it is something about the way in which they take up space. Meanwhile, other customers are exuding an air of general inoffensiveness. Is this the general division of humanity into predators and prey, or is it something more specific to Starbucks? I am by no means sure, but would suggest that if the theme of being stuck at a certain age is part of the subculture, then the Starbucks customer base includes not only the female students who clearly intend to remain fourteen forever but also men in their forties who just as clearly intend forever to remain the 14-year-old schoolyard bully.

Probably the teenagers of all countries are squealing narcissists. It should be noted that they are the core market for practically everything, on the grounds that they have such low sales resistance. Cerebral underdevelopment combined with extreme others-dependence is a lethal combination for world culture. The only counterweight among this generation appears to be ecological idealism, something I respect even while considering the battle long lost.

Given the core market, therefore, I do wonder whether the clinical psychologists should borrow the name of this actually well-run chain to create a new psychometric. They could measure everyone along the dimensions not only of extroversion, risk aversion, authoritarianism and so forth, but also of “Starbuckery”. One end of the spectrum would be nerdhood, which is self-evidently uncool and risible, the other extreme would involve an extremely limited mental horizon. Perhaps the indifference to everything outside the cool-kids status bubble is related to attention-deficit disorder. I have noticed that children as young as three know what Starbucks is, and bully their parents to go inside. So the test could be applied at primary school.

It occurs to me that Starbucks has taken over what used to be the function of the restaurant, namely to offer cheap elegance and fake deference to the lower and middle classes that did not have napkins and fish-knives at home. The only difference between the gratifying fuss made then and now is that you are no longer seated and have someone obsequiously leaning over you to take your order. Ostentation takes the form not of being seen behind the wine-glasses but loudly sucking at straws. The fussiness, however, lives on: I wonder whether the astonishingly long-winded ordering options that seem so mandatory at a Starbucks are powered by the lack of choice in other aspects of life. If Marcuse said something similar in his day, well, it has all gotten so much worse since the Sixties.

Posted on October 29, 2018 at 19:47 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Monkey Agenda

The King Of The Saucy Postcard

I needed the Wikipedia for the statistics on how the miserably underpaid Donald McGill produced 12,000 designs for his “seaside postcards”. These ran ultimately to 200 million copies, from which he saw no royalties. I would not have known that at the time, but the genre itself I remember perfectly well from my childhood. This must necessarily have been well after the initial smashing of the prewar industry by “local censorship committees” (what a Stalinist expression!) in 1954. It revived somewhat in the Sixties, which by no means looked the same among the English provincial lower-middle classes as they did in California.

George Orwell treated seaside postcards as expressive of proletarian culture. This cannot be the whole story. Although my background was not working class, I was nevertheless intensely exposed to the Art of Donald McGill. Sociologists may talk about them being the only printed versions of music-hall jokes, but in fact this low humour not only lived on into the early TV comedy shows but utterly dominated them. These shows the middle classes also watched, if only to prove that they could afford televisions. My father would roar with laughter at the most antediluvian kilt joke, while punishing me for far lesser infractions of the great gentility code of No-Sex-Please-We’re-British.

I could have been exposed to Donald McGill only on visits to the seaside. Given that we lived far inland, therefore, something about the world portrayed in the naughty postcard must have resonated with what I saw around me the rest of the year. The Wikipedia site describes a “working-class outlook that youth and adventure, and even individual life, end with marriage” and “a worm’s-eye view of life where marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster”.

Well, not always so comic. The example chosen to illustrate the Wikipedia page is from McGill’s cheerfully “saucy” double-entendre, but what I remember best was desperately pessimistic. In this world, a man’s life ended with marriage because sex was restricted to the honeymoon. Women never saw conjugal relations as anything but bait. The McGill designs I remember were all about the scrawny milquetoast being bullied by the obese battleship. He has not had sex since exactly 30 days after his wedding and the wife was ready to belt him one with the rolling-pin for even thinking about it. McGill’s married woman is an archetypal zero-sum thinker: if her husband gets anything he wants, whether sex or peace and quiet in the potting-shed, it necessarily means less of whatever she wants.

The men of the world I remember remained horny for life, while the women switched overnight from real or fake libido to savage bluenosery, or pretended to. I never saw the slightest real-life approach to Terry Pratchett’s comic creation “Nanny Ogg”; had she existed in my vicinity, we would no doubt have moved. My parents certainly disapproved of a contemporary’s, who in their forties were obviously still having sex with gusto.

At some level, marriage as portrayed by McGill – for the man, a matter of ferocious nagging, celibacy and enslavement – was what I expected and what I therefore avoided. Well, wouldn’t you? Perhaps the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 was after all onto something, though for quite the wrong reasons. Donald McGill may indeed have “depraved and corrupted” me by destroying my capacity for a normal perception of marriage.