Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Their strength is as the strength of ten
Spenser, as any reader of Robert B. Parker’s most popular detective series can tell you, has no flaws, no vices, no weaknesses.
Spenser himself likes to say, as if he’s joking, that his strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure.
Spenser’s no Galahad, but he is a knight in shining armor, worthy of sitting at the Round Table, somehow transported through time to our era.
A lot of readers find him and his books annoying because of this. If I were to interview Parker, and with luck someday I might, I’d ask him if this criticsim of Spenser, coming either from without or from within---he himself might get tired of writing about a hero so virtuous that his only character flaw is a habit of making bad jokes at the wrong moment---led him to create Jesse Stone, the small town police chief hero of one of his two other detective series.
Stone is flawed.
Over the last generation or so a new tradition has grown up among writers of mysteries and thrillers----the flawed detective-hero, angst-ridden, conscience-striken, ghost-haunted, introspective and moody, scarred by the horrors, evil, and tragedy that they have witnessed and taken part in, prone to self-destructive behavior in their spare time, either actively in the form of making stupid personal decisions or passively in the form of addictions to booze or self-doubt or self-pity. They are disconnected from friends and family, alienated from any community they nominally belong to, withdrawn, lonely, sad.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the exemplar. I think of P.D. James’ wistful, brooding, poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh as the prototype, but you could make the case that Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was the first. Marlowe carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He was burdened by some guilt or sadness or both, perhaps connected, that he never explained, but which often made him more melancholy and cynical than the victims of the crimes he was investigating. Whatever he saw while on a case didn’t make him sad or sick, it just confirmed him in his sadness and malaise.
The new breed of detective novels just make explicit and a part of their plots what Chandler used to give Marlowe his tone of voice.
So along comes Jesse Stone, recovering alcoholic, who drank himself out his job with the LAPD and out of his marriage with the beautiful, vivacious, adoring, but flighty Jen. Stone now clings to the end of his tether in Paradise, Massachusetts, with a bottle of Bushmills in his bottom drawer calling to him all the time and Jen breezing in and out of his life, twisting him up into emotional knots.
Stone is definitely flawed.
Except that he’s not.
He has weaknesses. He makes mistakes. He gives into temptations he wants to resist. He does “bad” things.
He has “flaws” but he is not flawed because he has no vices. In that way he is as pure of heart as Spenser.
I’m nearing the end of Sea Change, Parker’s latest Stone novel, and while Jesse has been as maddeningly “flawed” as he was in the previous book I read, Stone Cold, Parker does the same thing he did in that one---he excuses all of Stone’s bad behavior on the grounds that Stone is “a good man.”
We know he’s a good man because all the good female characters are at pains to tell him so.
Some of the bad female characters tell him so too.
And they’re right. He is good, and all his flaws are excusable.
Stone has flaws but like almost all heroes in contemporary popular entertainment he has no vices.
Stone and those other heroes can make mistakes. They can goof up. They can cause trouble for the people they want to help accidentally. They can give in, for a time, to certain weaknesses, usually self-doubt or anger.
But they can’t sin.
They are allowed to feel as though they have sinned. But when they do other characters will quickly assure them that they really did the right thing or had no other choice but to do the wrong thing in order to get the right result.
But they can’t actually sin.
I said Spenser was like a knight of the Round Table. Actually, he’s like only a few of them. Galahad, Percivale, and Bors, the three who got to see the Grail.
None of the other knights are allowed near the Grail---although Launcelot is granted a vision of it---because they all have sinned.
They are all sinners. They have vices. Gawaine is vain and boastful, too quick to anger, and not always as chivalrous as he manages to be with the wife of the Green Knight. Kay is eaten up with envy and spite. Launcelot…
Launcelot brings about the destruction of Camelot because he can’t put aside his feelings for his best friend’s wife.
It’s worth noting that in many of the tales Percivale is portrayed as something of a holy fool and Galahad is assumed into heaven---he dies---when he is 17, that is not yet a man. He’s still a boy. A child.
It’s as if the lesson of his tale is that the purity of heart that is required of us to get into heaven is only possible for children. To grow up is to grow corrupt.
But that’s the point. The stories of the Knights of the Round Table, at least as they are finally tied together and summed up in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, are cautionary tales.
They warn us that even the most heroic among us, those of the greatest virtue are equally capable of vice. To be human is to be weak.
The Greeks knew this too. The heroes of the Iliad are all shown at their worst. Achilles is vain, sullen, selfish, disloyal. Odysseus is conniving, duplicitous, bloody-minded. Hector is vacillating. It’s been a long war and they are all worn down and at the ends of their tethers.
It’s the old lesson: Heroes are flawed and their flaws are their undoing.
All stories of heroes are---used to be---inherently tragic.
I can’t pinpoint when that view of heroes changed or explain why it did. But it was still alive enough in the 19th Century when Robert Louis Stevenson came up with Alan Breck Stuart, the swashbuckling hero of Kidnapped and David Balfour.
Alan Breck is vain, boastful, reckless, selfish, and even on occasion cowardly. He has an instinct for self-preservation that coupled with his reflexive urge to throw himself headlong into a fight makes him a very problematic travelling companion. He gets David into as much trouble as he gets him out of.
David is the much more virtuous character. He is level-headed, reliable, self-aware and self-critical. He is brave and he is resourceful and he can be heroic. But he is not a hero or the hero of his own books.
It’s as if Stevenson is trying to tell us through David that being good is not just not the same as being heroic, but that it is actually antithetical to it. That there’s very little that separates a hero from a villain would definitely seem to be one of Stevenson’s theme if you read Kidnapped back to back with The Master of Ballantrae.
There is a separation. Stevenson isn’t making the anti-heroic point of early 1970s cop movies. You can tell Stevenson’s good guys from his bad guys, even if like Long John Silver, the bad guy can be charming and likeable.
I’m taking too long to say what I set out to say. I think something important was lost when the tragic hero disappeared from our storytelling, and the rise of the “flawed” hero isn’t a real or satisfying replacement, especially since so many of the flaws are actually tricks to make us like and admire the hero all the more and forgive him whatever apparently bad things his job calls upon him to do.
There’s a moral lesson to be drawn from this, but there’s probably a political lesson as well.
I doubt it’s been all that good for us as a nation to have spent a hundred years telling ourselves stories in which the hero has no vices and the apparent bad that he does, all his flaws, are really signs of his superior virtue.
Monday, May 22, 2006
Quit calling us squares, you beatniks!
No love for the Nuge?
A reader found a blog that’s reprinted the NRO’s Top 50 Conservative Rock Songs. The deep, deep irony that is the #1 pick is enough to make this one a thigh-slapper.
1. “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” by The Who. The conservative movement is full of disillusioned revolutionaries; this could be their theme song, an oath that swears off naпve idealism once and for all. “There’s nothing in the streets / Looks any different to me / And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye… Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.” The instantly recognizable synthesizer intro, Pete Townshend’s ringing guitar, Keith Moon’s pounding drums, and Roger Daltrey’s wailing vocals make this one of the most explosive rock anthems ever recorded—the best number by a big band, and a classic for conservatives.
The fact that they fall for the “small government” line and continue to elect Republicans who drive up deficits and curtail civil liberties demonstrates that conservatives are in fact easy to fool over and over and over again. Anyone who still trusts Bush after he lied to get us in the Iraq war is demonstrating a depth of gullibility previously unmeasurable by any instruments known to man.
But the choice of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was inevitable. The critical mythology of neo-conservatives is that they were once idealistic leftists and totally cool and could so get laid and knew where to buy the best weed but the tawdry stupidity of liberal beliefs ran them off. The seedy reality is that the only known human being to actually make the legitimate case that this is his life story is P.J. O’Rourke. The rest of them were just Marxists who ran off to be right wingers when they realized the American left wasn’t ever going to embrace Stalinist authoritarianism. All attempts to claim the mantle of pseudo-cool rebellion must be viewed in this light.
3. “Sympathy for the Devil,” by The Rolling Stones. Don’t be misled by the title; this song is The Screwtape Letters of rock. The devil is a tempter who leans hard on moral relativism—he will try to make you think that “every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners saints.” What’s more, he is the sinister inspiration for the cruelties of Bolshevism: “I stuck around St. Petersburg / When I saw it was a time for a change / Killed the czar and his ministers / Anastasia screamed in vain.”
The only real question is does this mean that when capitalists kill children, they do it with Jesus’ blessing?
5. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” by The Beach Boys. Pro-abstinence and pro-marriage: “Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true / Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do / We could be married / And then we’d be happy.”
This selection demonstrates the futility of trying to wedge anti-sex views with a fondness for rock and roll. The 60s were a time of smuggling lust under the guise of sweet romance and the band that performed the song “Good Vibrations” can hardly be said to have a Puritanical view of pleasure. They’d have done better with “Little Deuce Coupe”, on the theory that the car probably has shitty gas mileage.
8. “Bodies,” by The Sex Pistols. Violent and vulgar, but also a searing anti-abortion anthem by the quintessential punk band: “It’s not an animal / It’s an abortion.”
They should have just picked “Smack My Bitch Up”, because it conveys the same sort of message but in a much more digestible form.
10. “20th Century Man,” by The Kinks. “You keep all your smart modern writers / Give me William Shakespeare / You keep all your smart modern painters / I’ll take Rembrandt, Titian, da Vinci, and Gainsborough… I was born in a welfare state / Ruled by bureaucracy / Controlled by civil servants / And people dressed in grey / Got no privacy got no liberty / ‘Cause the 20th-century people / Took it all away from me.”
If you’re stubbornly against modernity, then why would you be desperate to prove you like rock music, too?
13. “My City Was Gone,” by The Pretenders. Virtually every conservative knows the bass line, which supplies the theme music for Limbaugh’s radio show. But the lyrics also display a Jane Jacobs sensibility against central planning and a conservative’s dissatisfaction with rapid change: “I went back to Ohio / But my pretty countryside / Had been paved down the middle / By a government that had no pride.”
Ironically, they have a pro-environmental destruction song a couple of notches up. I guess they voted for environmental destruction before they voted against it.
18. “Cult of Personality,” by Living Colour. A hard-rocking critique of state power, whacking Mussolini, Stalin, and even JFK: “I exploit you, still you love me / I tell you one and one makes three / I’m the cult of personality.”
And for some reason, that makes it ideal for people who support a President who’s on a mission to consolidate as much power into the top levels of government as he can.
20. “Rock the Casbah,” by The Clash. After 9/11, American radio stations were urged not to play this 1982 song, one of the biggest hits by a seminal punk band, because it was seen as too provocative. Meanwhile, British Forces Broadcasting Service (the radio station for British troops serving in Iraq) has said that this is one of its most requested tunes.
I was going to try very hard to be understanding that anyone putting this list together has to know that he’s engaging in a fool’s errand of cherry-picking certain lyrics and ignoring the rest of the band’s career or the very meaning of the word “context”, but picking a Clash song for a list of “conservative” rock songs is just beyond the pale.
24. “Der Kommissar,” by After the Fire. On the misery of East German life: “Don’t turn around, uh-oh / Der Kommissar’s in town, uh-oh / He’s got the power / And you’re so weak / And your frustration / Will not let you speak.” Also a hit song for Falco, who wrote it.
Picking relentlessly at the Communist Bloc is not the way to endear yourself to the neocon establishment that adores their methods. I’m just saying.
28. “Janie’s Got a Gun,” by Aerosmith. How the right to bear arms can protect women from sexual predators: “What did her daddy do? / It’s Janie’s last I.O.U. / She had to take him down easy / And put a bullet in his brain / She said ‘cause nobody believes me / The man was such a sleaze / He ain’t never gonna be the same.”
If Daddy overdoes it on the male entitlement thing, at least on a regular basis, you get one shot to the head. Thanks, Patriarchy!
32. “Keep Your Hands to Yourself,” by The Georgia Satellites. An outstanding vocal performance, with lyrics that affirm old-time sexual mores: “She said no huggy, no kissy until I get a wedding vow.”
Yes, and he’s irritated. Well, I guess it’s old-fashioned in that women are blamed for everything.
35. “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Written as an anti–Vietnam War song, this tune nevertheless is pessimistic about activism and takes a dim view of both Communism and liberalism: “Five-year plans and new deals, wrapped in golden chains...”
If being annoyed at mealy-mouthed liberals who won’t push harder for progressive goals makes you a conservative, I’m a conservative. Who knew? I want my check from a think tank now.
40. “Wake Up Little Susie,” by The Everly Brothers. A smash hit in 1957, back when high-school social pressures were rather different from what they have become: “We fell asleep, our goose is cooked, our reputation is shot.”
If your reaction to a song about kids losing their reputations unfairly because no one can adhere to impossible standards is longing for that world’s return, you are a sadist.
50. “Stand By Your Man,” by Tammy Wynette.
Needless to say, this indicates they couldn’t come up with 50 rock songs. What, Ted Nugent didn’t have a single song they felt comfortable cramming in as filler?
So, here’s the idea that we were working with at Pandagon--try to come up with your own rock songs that are most definitely not politically conservative but under great duress could be read that way. One of my suggestions from comments was “The KKK Took My Baby Away”, because while it’s not approving of the right, they do basically win the girl in the song.
I find it interesting that a lot of these songs on here are anti-choice and anti-divorce. Apparently there’s a great deal of sentiment on the right that the law is obligated to make it very hard for women to run off and leave them for Fabio. Who knew?
Friday, May 19, 2006
What do you call a Right Wing Christian, ear-lie in the morning?
According to Peggy Noonan, there’s a large market for books aimed at Christians who want to have their faith debased and destroyed.
Noonan, you may have heard, is in a fluster---well, ok, she’s always in a fluster. This time she’s flustering over The Da Vinci code.
She’s aghast that that nice Ron Howard and that nice Tom Hanks have collaborated to make a movie that’s so blasphemous, so subversive, and so...so...so insulting!
I do not understand the thinking of a studio that would make, for the amusement of a nation 85% to 90% of whose people identify themselves as Christian, a major movie aimed at attacking the central tenets of that faith, and insulting as poor fools its gulled adherents. Why would Tom Hanks lend his prestige to such a film? Why would Ron Howard?
Beats me, Peg. As Scott Lemieux says, it’s a puzzle.
I’m guessing Noonan’s heard that the novel The Da Vinci Code’s something of a bestseller.
In fact, it’s an industry.
That she apparently can’t see any connection between its bestseller status and it’s being turned into a movie is just another sign that she needs to get out more and spend less time communing with angels in the form of dolphins.
But her assertion that 85 to 90 percent of Americans are Christians shows that A.) she doesn’t bother to look things up before throwing numbers around and B.) she has the same understanding of math and fractions as Bertie Wooster, who has observed that half the world doesn’t know how the other three-quarters lives.
Surely it should have occured to her that if 85 to 90 percent of Americans are Christians and The Da Vinci Code is selling like...well, like a book that everybody and his brother are buying, then some of those books must be being bought by Christians.
Unless she thinks that the 10 to 15 percent of Americans who are godless Liberals are buying up multiple copies and forcing them on their Christian friends in order to shake their faith in the divinity of Jesus, there must be a lot of Christians who want to be told that Jesus didn’t die on Golgotha that day 1973 years ago.
Because, you know, no one reads potboiler novels just for fun.
Now, there are folks of the Right Wing persuasion who believe that seeing movies about prepubescent children learning magic will inspire a generation of witches and warlocks, and others who believe that movies about gay cowboys will cause their sons to run off to go fishing with their best guy pals, and others who argue that movies about crusading journalists exposing lying demogogues as the liars and demogogues they are will teach us all that Communism is the cat’s meow and way cooler than democracy.
So, if Noonan believes that a movie about the murderous adventures of an albino monk and how Tom Hanks’ physical charms are irresistable to the likes of Audrey Tautou will lead to crises of faith all over God’s Country, she’s simply conforming to a type, and God bless her and save her.
Not much I can do to help her, except point out that generations of kids have grown up quite certain that real mice don’t talk or wear red shorts and white gloves.
The real danger in what she’s saying is in the continuation of two ideas:
A. America is a Christian nation.
B. Somehow the great Christian majority is being oppressed by a tiny minority of Liberal elitists.
The truth is that a minority of people who identify themselves as Christians feel themselves to be oppressed by the existence of a majority of people who don’t agree with their idea of what Christianity is or ought to be.
It is true that most Americans are, nominally, Christian. Something like 5 out of 6. But most of them are not of the type of Evangelicals, Pentecostals, or the various non-denominationalists that make up what goes by the name of Christian in the Media these days.
Most of them are Catholics, Episcopalians---you know, those people with the gay bishop---and the other more established Protestant churches. (Updated: This is a bad sentence. Patrick Nielsen Hayden rightfully takes issue with it in the comments. I’ll be back later to clarify. For now, here’s a site that has results from a Gallup survey of religious affiliations. Most of the numbers seem to be from 1990 though. If anyone has more up to date numbers, please leave them in the comments.)
In other words, most Christians are of the type of Christian that those who speak for “Christians” in the media these days think aren’t truly Christian or aren’t Christian enough or aren’t Christian in the right way---right as in correct in their religious beliefs and practices and right as in correct in their Right Wing politics.
Right Wing Christians refer to themselves as just Christians, naturally, because in their minds they are the true Christians. It turns out to be useful politically to refer to themselves this way because it blurs the distinctions between themselves and other types of Christians, helping to disguise the differences between themselves and those other Christians so that not just all those other Christians don’t realize what the Right Wingers really are and want, but also so that their non-Christian political enemies fall into the trap of using the term Christian as an insult and an accusation.
When Liberals speak or write dismissively of “Christians” and their reactionary politics and general assaults on reason, science, art, and a democratic, pluralistic culture, other Christians instinctively close ranks, joining their votes with people who are even more contemptuous of their faith than the godless Liberals.
Once upon a time the Media used to identify Right Wing Christians as Fundamentalists or Evangelicals or Born Agains or Right Wing Christians. But because there are many Fundamentalists, Evangelicals, and Born Agains who are not Right Wingers, either because they are apolitical, liberals, or merely somewhat conservative, the terms have been generally abandoned and replaced with variations on Conservative Christians.
Since most Americans consider themselves Conservative, although surveys of their actual beliefs on most issues show that they aren’t anywheres near as conservative as they think they are, the term Conservative Christian might as well be read as simply Christian, and in fact that’s how it’s often read and abridged, allowing Right Wing Christians to pass themselves off as mainstream and portray opposition to their agenda as attacks on Christianity in general.
It would be nice then if we could come up with a term, and convince the Media to use it, that would strip away the Right Wing Christians’ camouflage.
I had some reservations about the term, particularly because it seemed ripe for mau-mauing from right-wing pundits—say, Rush Limbaugh or Hugh Hewitt—who would almost certainly twist it into an attack on “ordinary Christians.” I didn’t necessarily think it was an inaccurate coinage, but it was one that lent itself to misinterpretation in the wrong hands.
Neiwert prefers another term, Dominionist. David’s post is too long for me to summarize here, but as usual for him, it’s thorough and informative and well-worth reading. In it he lays out the Dominionist agenda, which is, in a nutshell, to make America a Right Wing Christian quasi-theocracy.
I have two objections to the word Dominionist.
One, it’s not punchy.
Go ahead, say it out loud. You’ll sound all mush-mouthed to yourself.
And two, it’s not going to catch on without lots and lots and lots of repetition and patient explanation.
I don’t think we’ve got the time.
I’ve always liked the phrase Right Wing Fundamentalist. It’s punchy, it’s got a history, it distinguishes between Fundamentalists who are not Right Wingers and those who are, and it denies the Right Wingers the words conservative and Christian, which is not just useful but accurate, because they are neither.
Its weakness is that it wouldn’t seem to include Right Wing Catholics of the Scalia stripe.
The Media in its currently cowed state will be hard to bring round. They seem wedded to the idea that the Republican Party is a conservative party. Conservative is for them a synonym for Republican and Republican is a synonym for small town, Middle American, traditional, flag waving wholesomeness.
Right Wing Christians vote Republican, therefore they are conservative, wholesome, traditional, Middle American.
You know, the mainstream majority.
Cross-posted at my place.
I first heard of Dominionism from Shakespeare’s Sister.
Another way to take the word Christian away from the Right Wing Fundamentalists/Dominionists/What you will may be for Democratic, Liberal, and Progressive Christians to start inisting on their Christianity in the public square too. Yellow Dog Sammy reports at the American Street that this is going on in Ohio these days, not to everybody’s comfort.
Neddie Jingo doesn’t like the novel The Da Vinci Code, not now, not ever, and probably doesn’t like anybody who does.
Pedophiliac rape fantasies are the sign of a cultivated mind
I was feeling a little low, like the level of wingnuttery I’ve been reading lately isn’t entertaining enough to mock. The Disco Ball must have heard my cries of woe because an angel sent to me in the form of Jill alerted me to the fact that John Derbyshire has a review of Lolita up at National Review. Yes, that John Derbyshire. It is possibly the most defensive book review ever written.
I’ll skip all the pretentious blather the Derb uses to set up the scene for his first reading of the novel when he was 16, but suffice it to say,
you get the strong impression that the Derb thinks he went to an English boarding school in the 40s,* though he admits it was actually an American high school. But do read it, because it’s so damn pretentious that if I didn’t know any better, I’d think he was a fictional pretentious twit invented by a writer who could squeeze maximum comic value out of such a character. A writer like Nabokov, for instance. Well, except I can’t imagine Nabokov writing this:
Still Nabokov’s prose was at some level beyond that. I sucked it in, reading and re-reading, of course not getting a tenth of the allusions and effects, but knowing that there was something there to be got. I even started to talk like Humbert Humbert, the book’s first-person narrator, dropping words like “callypygean” and “phocine” into my conversation, to much derision from my peers. To this day I can recall the expression on the face of one of my schoolmasters—a rugged old RAF veteran with a clipped George Orwell mustache, who had slaughtered thousands in the great bombing raids on German cities—when I slipped the term “soi-disant“ into an otherwise humdrum sentence.
I just can’t imagine Nabokov starting off a comic piece about a character who is seeking self-justification for being amongst other things, a pretentious ass and an unsubtle pervert with such an obvious joke, no matter how funny it is.
Later, in the 1970s, I got a copy of Alfred Appel Jr.’s The Annotated Lolita, and filled myself in on all the dismayingly many allusions I still had not got. I lost that book in my travels, and bought another, and lost that, and bought another. The Annotated Lolita in front of me now is my fourth or fifth.
My two major guesses for why he kept “losing” it were that it are a) his wife kept throwing it out or b) he had to replace it every time his current copy gets crusty.
Lolita was subsequently much written about, with critics lining up pro and con. Some thought it was a dirty book; some thought it nihilistic; some, to (Nabokov said) the author’s great pain, thought it anti-American.
The Derb would have you believe that Nabokov was prone to slapping crying bald eagles on his window, but I imagine that mostly Nabokov was upset that people missed his major theme of anti-"pretentious assholes who need to hang around with 12-year-olds or Jonah Goldberg to feel smart” theme.
Which brings us to the content of Lolita, the actual story. Humbert Humbert, born 1910, grew up on the French Riviera. In the spring of 1947 he rents a room in the house of Mrs. Haze, in “green-and-pink Ramsdale,” a sleepy New England town. Mrs. Haze has a daughter, Lolita, born January 1, 1935. Humbert is in love with Lolita. Mrs. Haze falls in love with Humbert. Humbert marries her to be close to the girl. The mother dies in an accident. Humbert has a sex affair with Lolita. The affair ends when she deserts him for a famous, but mediocre and decadent, playwright. After three years Humbert locates Lolita. Then he tracks down the playwright and murders him.
At this point, the ambiguity sets in for the reader of this article written by a “John Derbyshire”. Is he purposefully a bit obtuse about the plot lines implied in Lolita in order to uphold his illusion that admiring Humbert Humbert is a good thing? Or is he so blinded by admiration of Humbert that he actually believes the self-serving lies about this “sex affair” that is conducted like most “sex affairs” are, with kidnapping, murder and rape?
It is of course a dreadful story, of awful crimes narrated by the criminal. Like all criminals, Humbert is a solipsist, a person who does not really believe in the existence of anything outside himself.
I have to wonder sometimes if Nabokov made Humbert commit multiple crimes so that pro-pedophile reviewers ever after could be deliberately vague about which of his crimes they disapprove of.
Also like all criminals, he is full of self-justification.
Is he saying all NRO writers are criminals, perhaps even pedophiles?
There is really nothing to like about Humbert Humbert. The more you get to know him, in fact, the more unpleasant things you uncover.
True as this is, Humbert does tell you the worst parts of his character up front--that he’s a murderer, that he gets off on fucking young girls, and his delusional view of himself as a cultivated man is evident if not bluntly stated. If Nabokov wrote it now, though, he’s probably just make Humbert a blogger for The Corner and the rest of those things would be implied.
Discussing the book with a woman friend the other day, she pointed out a thing I hadn’t really noticed: Humbert is probably a lousy lover. Once you have been told this, it’s obvious. Why would a solipsist give any thought to another person’s gratification?
I love it--most of us would assume someone who humps a 12-year-old like he’s a dog going after your leg is the dictionary definition of a “lousy lover”, but Derbyshire had to have someone point it out to him.
And yet, by the magic of his art, Nabokov manages to bring us, at least grudgingly and partially, round to Humbert’s side—to be of Humbert’s party, as Milton made us of Satan’s. In an interview, Nabokov said that he thought Humbert should be given one day’s vacation from hell every year, to stroll a green country lane in the sunlight. That is the position the author wants his reader to arrive at; that is the position we do arrive at, if ignorance or prejudice do not get in our way.
For the first and possibly last time ever, an NRO writer comes out against ignorance and prejudice. And it’s on behalf of a pedophile, albeit a fictional one.
Ah, the realities of life! Was there ever a civilization more uncomfortable with them than ours is today? Humbert Humbert is a monster and a sociopath. He was a human monster, though, and a human sociopath. His monstrousnesses are hypertrophied growths of our own flaws; and his sociopathy consists in breaking rules for which, if there were not some fairly widespread propensity to break them, there would be no need.
If I were writing a review of Lolita in Humbert’s voice, that paragraph is pretty much how it would turn out, I think.
Some of the most vituperative emails I have ever got came in after I made an offhand remark, in one of my monthly NRO diaries, to the effect that very few of us are physically appealing after our salad days, which in the case of women I pegged at ages 15-20. While the storm was raging, biologist Razib Khan over at Gene Expression (forget philosophers, theologians, and even novelists: the only people with interesting things to say about human nature nowadays are the scientists) decided to look up some actual numbers. Reasoning that a rapist is inspired to his passion mainly by the physical attractiveness of his victim, Razib went for rape statistics.
That makes perfect sense if you assume that most men’s reaction to finding a woman attractive is to seek out a chance to violently assault her. It’s true of course. The most common pick-up line you hear in bars is, “You would look hoooot cut into pieces and tossed in a plastic garbage bag after I have my way with you.” Works every time.
He found a 1992 report (Rape in America: A Report to the Nation) from the National Victim Center showing the age distribution of female rape victims. Sixty percent of the women who reported having been raped were aged 17 or less, divided about equally between women aged 11 to 17 (32 percent) and those under eleven (29 percent). Only six percent were older than 29. When a woman gets past her mid twenties, in fact, her probability of being raped drops off like a continental shelf. If you histogram the figures, you get a peak around ages 12-14… which is precisely the age Lolita was at the time of her affair with Humbert Humbert. As Razib noted, my own “15-20” estimate was slightly off. An upper limit of 24 would be more reasonable. The lower limit really doesn’t bear thinking about.
The reason it doesn’t bear thinking about is presumably because it completely tanks his argument that the most reliable measure of a woman’s “peak attractiveness age” is how likely she is to be raped. If you take the Derb’s assertion and apply it to the very statistics he shows here, then in fact you can easily argue that women are far sexier at age 5 than 25. But the Derb pretends it’s not that his argument doesn’t hold together even if you share his assumptions. The reason he wants to write off the age group that accounts for 29% of rapes is this:
(I have a 13-year-old daughter.)
And that doesn’t even fly, because again by his very own statistics, his daughter is prime age for being raped, since 13-year-olds are so outrageously seductive than no man can pass them up.
Behind such sad numbers, and in the works of literary geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov, does the reality of human nature lie.
And now the Derb puts Humbert’s self-delusions to shame, because even Humbert admits that he’s a pervert and doesn’t try to argue that he’s got a normal man’s sexual urges.
It is all too much for our prim, sissified, feminized, swooning, emoting, mealy mouthed, litigation-whipped, “diversity”-terrorized, race-and-“gender”-panicked society. We shudder and turn away, or write an angry email.
Fuck that. I’m such a mealy-mouthed pussy that I want to actually toss men who rape young girls in jail. That’s just how we mealy-mouthed liberals are. Too weak to roll over and let child rapists run around hurting children.
The America of 1958, with all its shortcomings, was saltier, wiser, closer to the flesh and the bone and the wet earth, less fearful of itself. (It was also, according to at least one scholarly study, happier.)
Less fearful of itself but if you were a teenage girl in this fantasy version of 1958, you presumably had lots of reasons to be fearful of Daddy.
This next part is fucking great, he openly envies Jerry Lee Lewis, and not for his massive skill on the piano.
One of the first media sensations ever to impinge upon my consciousness was the visit to Britain by rock star Jerry Lee Lewis in May 1958, four months before Lolita’s American debut. This was supposed to be a concert tour, but 22-year-old Jerry had brought his wife Myra along, and the British press got wind of the fact that Myra was only 13. This wasn’t an unusual thing in the south of that time; Jerry himself had first been wed at 15 (when he already had a drinking problem). Myra was his third wife, and also his second cousin once removed. Back then country people grew up fast and close to their kin. Neither Jerry nor Myra could understand what the fuss was about. He: “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?” She: “Back home you can marry at 10, if you can find a husband.” (This was not true, even in the south, though Myra likely believed it. She also, according to the British press, believed in Santa Claus.)
Upon thinking about sex with someone who still believes in Santa Claus, I can’t resist wondering if the Derb had a Humbert-like moment of inappropriate semen placement. This in and of itself should not be considered evidence of being a bad lover, of course.
How long ago it seems! Nowadays our kids are financially dependent on us into their mid-twenties, and can’t afford to leave home till they are 35.
For the record, that’s having your kids at home, especially your daughters, 15 whole years after they’ve passed the age where they are proper fantasy fodder.
Marriage at 13? Good grief! And so, while Lolita met with a fair share of disapproval in 1958, and was denounced from many pulpits, I believe its reception would have been much more hostile if it appeared now. It would also have been differently politicized. Back then the complaints came mostly from social conservatives, who I imagine would disapprove of Lolita just as strongly today. The Left, however, almost unanimously championed the book. Would they still do so? A woman! Who was also a child! Exploited by a man! And both of them from stifled, self-denying bourgeois backgrounds! Oh, that evil Patriarchy!
Unlikely. I know The Left and I think if he hasn’t already read Lolita, if he did, he’d probably like it. But then again, he’s a bit quicker on the uptake than the Derb and would realize that it’s a novel and not really an endorsement of lusting after 12-year-olds. He would notice also that in the 1950s America portrayed in the book, just like the one that really existed, was hardly tolerant of pedophiliac “sex affairs”, and not the patriachal utopia that the Derb seems to think it was.
Here you see one of the paradoxes of our strange times.
That a man can claim to have read the Annotated Lolita a number of times through and yet doesn’t show much evidence of grasping the basic themes and characters?
Our women dress like sluts; our kids are taught about buggery in elementary school;
NAMBLA would be a perfectly acceptable organization but for that damn buggery.
“wardrobe malfunctions” expose to prime-time TV viewers body parts customarily covered in public since “the lamented end of the Ancient World B.C."(Humbert);
Subjecting poor Derb to the unsightly view of a breast on a woman over the age of consent. Next time the NFL needs to take pity on him and strip the shirt off a teeny-bopper.
our colleges have coed bathrooms; songs about pimps rise to the top of the pop music charts; yet so far as anything to do with the actual reality of actual human nature is concerned, we are as prim and shockable as a bunch of Quaker schoolmarms.
Hear hear! Bring back the time they had the Negroes and women under control and if a man damn well wanted to fuck a 12-year-old, no one was going to stop him, by god. The only question this really brings to my mind is, “Why doesn’t the Derb suck it up and join a fringe Mormon church?”
What would Vladimir Nabokov say if he could view our present scene? I think he would weep. Political Correctness was only embryonic in the mid-1950s, and Nabokov poked some gentle fun at it in Lolita:
…according to the rules of those American ads where schoolchildren are pictured in a subtle ratio of races, with one—only one, but as cute as they make them—chocolate-colored round-eyed little lad, almost in the very middle of the front row.
Whoops, Derb got a little excited there and forgot something important--that it’s written in the first person and anything in the entire book can’t be treated as Nabokov’s opinion but the opinions and views of a fictional character called
John Derbyshire Humbert Humbert. Not that Nabokov did or didn’t agree with this sentiment, but it does well to remember everything the character says is colored by the fact that he’s an immoral rat and a delusional misanthrope to boot.
He would have been horrified to see how this how these silly but harmless and well-intentioned courtesies have swollen into a monstrous dreary tyranny, shutting off whole territories of speech and thought, acting as a sheet anchor to hold back our commercial and intellectual progress, corrupting our constitutional jurisprudence, turning unscrupulous mountebank attorneys into billionaires, and making art like Nabokov’s incomprehensible to millions who, had they been born a few decades earlier, would have gotten from it such unexpected, unimagined delight as I got among the birdsong and bowlines in the Sea Cadets’ hut at Northampton School for Boys 44 years ago.
My pet theory about Humbert’s perverse desires, at least today, is that avoiding contact with adults and conducting a fantasy relationship with a 12-year-old is the only way he can preserve his delusions of intellectual superiority to others. For some reason, this seemed a good time to bring that up. I will say that my appreciation for Nabokov’s characterization is deepening rapidly.
That we are stupider, coarser, duller, lazier, narrower of mind, more fearful of strangeness, more abject, and more craven than the Americans of 1958 is bad enough.
Nothing bespeaks of a country’s slip from intellectual greatness like the loss of a steady supply of sex partners that still believe in Santa Claus.
What really shows that our civilization is, and richly deserves to be, on its way out, is that we are less able to savor and love a surpassingly beautiful work of art like Lolita.
I wonder if the Derb would be shocked to find out it’s my favorite novel even though I thoroughly and completely condemn eroticizing 12-year-old girls. Surely you can’t appreciate a novel where the main character is an asshole through and through as well as a pedophile and not think there’s some kind of endorsement of his sexual desires lingering behind all that. Only simple-minded people can grasp that being pulled into Humbert’s world shows that Nabokov is a great writer, not that Humbert’s world has an inherent appeal to it. In fact, simple and stupid and modern reader that I am, I might even be simple enough to notice the grand joke about the book is that Humbert is prone to rhapsodizing and romanticizing endlessly in an attempt to distract from the fact that he’s screwing a child in seedy hotel after seedy hotel.
*I misread that. The Derb went to an English school. That just makes his persona as a pseudo-intellectual Europeanized jackass snarling and snapping at tawdry American culture even funnier.
Thursday, May 18, 2006
The WaPo has an agenda and it’s different from the CDC’s
I’ll admit, the flare-up over this WaPo article chastising women for not acting like we’re in a constant state of pregnancy is causing me to bang my head against the wall. I noted, strongly I thought, yesterday that the article is very misleading and doesn’t describe the report at all. You can read the report here. There are two main things that are very important to keep in mind during all this:
- The CDC did not suggest that the only reason to keep women healthy is for our duty to produce good soliders for the Fatherland.
- However, the WaPo article basically did say that.
So it’s not like there’s a real disagreement here. Ezra is right that the CDC article is actually something that fits into the progressive agenda nicely, even though of course if it were scientifically sound and against us, you have to bend to evidence. It’s not just that the report lays the blame on society for not getting poor women in front of a doctor more often that fits our agenda, either. The report firmly states that it’s in a woman’s best interests to plan her pregnancies to fit her life goals.
All that said, the fury in the feminist blogosphere is completely understandable. There is no reason to feel like this is a great opportunity to condescendingly tell the little womb-bearers that we shouldn’t be offended when someone dehumanizes us. The WaPo article was smugly misogynist when it recommended that women’s behavior be constrained and that all women should view themselves primarily as incubators. Telling women to suck it up and lay at home pretending we’re pregnant while men go out for drinks or even sushi lest we damage the only thing that really matters about us isn’t “sensible” advice. It’s cruel and it fits into a long tradition of using theoretical pregnancies as an excuse to discriminate against women officially and to subtly undermine our self-esteem. For instance, while it probably sailed right by a lot of the audience of the WaPo article, the never-clean-a-catbox suggestion was echoing nasty stereotypes about women who have pet cats, particularly how owning cats is held against single women as a symbol that they’re insufficiently dedicated to their mission to get with husband and child ASAP.
And for those who are fixing to smugly say that feminists should have read the report before getting angry, think about what you’re saying. It’s sad that we’ve come to a point where even a medical article has to be assumed to be 90% propaganda, 10% information. Instead of clucking and condescending, get mad! The WaPo won’t do their damn jobs right.
The CDC, as Ezra points out, is pretty mundane in its political agenda. The CDC mostly has a list of diseases and tries to collect research on prevention/treatment and boil it down into recommendations for doctors and the public. Recommendations are targeted, of course. This report was about putting together research and recommending ways for doctors and educators help women get pregnant the right way as opposed to the all-too-common “oops I was drunk” way. It seems to me that these recommendations, if implemented, would help shove society in a direction where we view pregnancy as something rightfully planned and controlled by women instead of the current, anti-feminist view that pregnancy is just a manifestation of women’s role as passive vehicles.
The subtle little catbox dig in the article and the implication--that women are getting scandalously out of control with their crazy notions that they have a right to exist for themselves--shows to me how the WaPo has an agenda and that agenda is very different from the CDC’s agenda. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The NY Times specializes in pushing articles about how it would just be so nice if women quit having career ambitions and stayed at home, but the WaPo prefers to sex up their stories a little and write about how it would be so much nicer if women would quit thinking they deserved a little fun and pleasure, and leave those things up to the men. Mildly different. But certainly it’s fitting that the editorial staff that feels that an evidence-less claim that college women who actually like sex are causing an impotence epidemic on campuses around the nation might be inclined to favor spinning otherwise mundane medical recommendations so it looks like it’s just all the more evidence that the world will fall apart if women in it don’t give up on enjoying life.
In other words, the alarming part of this entire debacle is that the WaPo thinks it’s necessary to put a fiercely anti-woman spin on an article that’s supposed to be about women’s health issues. The real story is that the CDC released a report that indicated that we need more health care for women and more education about the importance of planning your reproductive life. The WaPo is burying a story that could be used as more evidence by progressives to bolster our pro-universal health care, pro-choice agenda.
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
St George and the Dragon, a fable by Richard Cheney
What a shower, [the Grand Master] told himself. A bunch of incomptents no other secret society would touch with a ten-foot Sceptre of Authority. The sort to dislocate their fingers with even the simplest secret handshake.
But incompetents with possibilities, nevertheless. Let the other societies take the skilled, the hopefuls, the ambitious, the self-confident. He’d take the whining resentful ones, the ones with a bellyful of spite and bile, the ones who knew they could make it big if only they’d been given the chance. Give him the ones in which the floods of venom and vindictiveness were dammed up behind thin walls of ineptitude and low-grade paranoia.
I read that a while back in Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, and I thought, Hey, the Right Wing blog mob!
I thought about it a little more and grew uneasy.
You know, Lance, I said to myself---I can talk to myself as if I’m two people because I have a pen name---You know, Lance, I said to the side of myself that goes by the pen name of Lance, They could say that it sounds like the Liberal blog mob, and you know it would be true of some people we could both name.
In fact the Media Elite does say it about the Liberal blog mob.
Furthermore---the side of me that does not go by the pen name of Lance likes to use high falutin’ transitions like furthermore---Furthermore, Lance, there are days when you’d say the same thing about you! Maybe we should stop thinking like a blogger and just enjoy the book.
Lance agreed, and we read on.
The Supreme Grand Master smiled in the depths of his robe. It was amazing, this mystic business. You tell them a lie, and then when you don’t need it anymore you tell them another lie and tell them they’re progressing along the road to wisdom. Then instead of laughing they follow you even more, hoping that at the heart of all the lies they’ll find the truth. And bit by bit they accept the unacceptable. Amazing.
Oh ho, I oh-ho-ed to myself. I forget which me was oh-ho-ing, Lance or the furthermore guy. Doesn’t matter. Perhaps we oh-ho-ed together. Oh ho, we said, the Grand Master is Karl Rove and the Elucidated Brethern are the Right Wing blog mob! Unless…
They’re the media!
Maybe they’re both, I suggested to me.
Maybe, I agreed. We’d better keep reading.
So we read on, and only a paragraph or two later we came to:
“Look, the Supreme Grand Master said what we do, we find some handsome lad who’s good at taking orders, he kills the dragon, and Bob’s your uncle. Simple. Much more intelligent than waitin’ for a so-called real king.”
Holy mackerel! I exclaimed, speaking to my one and only self now, the shock of the realization integrating my personality in an instant and causing me to give up the lame literary conceit of being two different people, Holy mackerel! They’re talking about George Bush!
That makes the Supreme Grand Master…
This might be a good time to stop and summarize the plot of Guards! Guards!
The Supreme Grand Master is in reality a second-tier functionary in the government of the city of Ankh-Morpork who, wanting power but aware that he is not the sort of person the people would trust enough to just hand him the power over their lives he craves, hits on a scheme to put his own puppet king on the throne.
He will conjure up a dragon to terrorize the city and when the people are sufficiently frightened and despairing, he will send out his puppet to slay the dragon---an easy job because the Grand Master thinks he has the power to make the dragon just disappear at his command---and the people will be so grateful they will proclaim the puppet king. The Supreme Grand Master will then rule the city through his puppet.
Which is why I was thinking to myself as I read that that the puppet was obviously George Bush and the Supreme Grand Master was...Dick Cheney!
As for the lad [the puppet]...he was a distant cousin, keen and vain, and stupid in a passably aristocratic way. Currently he was under guard in a distant farmhouse, with an adequate supply of drink and young ladies, although what the boy seemed most interested in was mirrors. Probably hero material, the Supreme Grand Master thought glumly…
Just a few more nights [he thought]. By tomorrow the people will be so desperate, they’d crown even a one-legged troll if he got rid of the dragon. And we’ll have a king, and he’ll have an adviser, a trusted man, of course, and this stupid rabble can go back to the gutter.
Definitely Cheney! And Bush! And the War on Terror is the dragon! What a brilliant satire of the Bush Administration! Terry Pratchett’s a genius!
Now, Terry Pratchett is a genius, but Guards! Guards! isn’t a satire of the Bush Administration, at least not this Bush Administration. It was published in 1989, when W.’s father was running the show.
So was Pratchett preternaturally prescient?
Maybe he was just paying very close attention to American politics and studying the characters roiling around the first Bush White House.
It’s a point of pride with me that I’ve despised George W. Bush since the 1980s. Somehow, W. popped up in the news in a way I don’t remember specifically anymore but which showed him to be an angry, insensitive, loudmouthed jerk with a giant chip on his shoulder and a sense of entitlement not seen in Washington since Alice Roosevelt Longworth outgrew her roller skates and stopped breaking things in her father Teddy’s White House. Bush was drinking back then but I don’t remember being aware that he was a drunk. I just knew he was a jerk and definitely not half the man his father was---and I didn’t think all that highly of his father.
I dismissed him from my thoughts, convinced that once his father was out of office he’d disappear from public view. Jeb, I thought, was the Bush son who’d be going places.
Fooled me, didn’t I?
But the fact is that anyone who was close enough to observe the workings and personal dramas inside the White House in those days and who was paying attention could have seen the beginnings of the second Bush Presidency. They could have seen how Karl Rove had latched on to the apparent screw-up heir apparent. They could have seen Dick Cheney courting and grooming the son.
They could have seen the plot of Guards! Guards! unfolding right then and there.
Terry Pratchett, however, did not need to be on the spot to have come up with the plot for his book. He did not have to have been thinking of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, or Karl Rove in order to have imagined the Supreme Grand Master and his ambitions and his dragon.
Characters like them are as old as time and the story has played itself out again and again.
Devious, ambitious, and unscrupulous men and women who don’t have the strength or the wherewithall to take power for themselves directly have always known how easy it is to achieve power by latching onto and flattering and manipulating stupid and egocentric bullies.
The story is so old and familiar and true that even television writers know it.
Another point of pride with me is that I recognized what Dick Cheney was up to when he made himself Bush’s running mate. I knew what he was doing because when I was a kid I saw an episode of The Wild, Wild West with the same exact plot. Anthony Zerbe played a brilliant but twisted political genius who because he was scarred from the Civil War was too ugly to be accepted as a leader by the voters of his territory so he found a handsome, charismatic, but dumb and vain puppet to run for governor so that he could rule through him.
So it was shocking to me that so many members of the punditocracy didn’t seem to see what Cheney had managed to do. Instead they praised Bush for being smart enough to know his own limitations and humble enough to choose the wise old statesman to be his Vice-President.
They didn’t see who had picked whom.
They didn’t see what I saw when they looked at George Bush’s resume.
They didn’t see what Dick Cheney was, the bitter, angry, thwarted would-be powerbroker, the old Nixonian who could not get himself elected President in his own right, could not even get his own Party to nominate him.
They didn’t see Anthony Zerbe or Terry Pratchett’s Supreme Grand Master.
When the time came they didn’t see what a dragon the Bush Leaguers made out of Saddam Hussein.
Why not, I asked myself, in disbelief. Why can’t they see it when it’s all so obvious and so familiar? Don’t they read? Don’t they know any old stories?
As it turns out, the problem is that they do read. They did know a story and they were very busy telling and re-telling it.
And that story, because they loved it so much and refused to give it up no matter how much reality contradicted it, had to have a sequel and in that sequel a hero king had to come forth to redeem the time.
End of Part One. I’m not sure if there’ll be a Part Two. Maybe I should just re-post this from my page, It’s always been about Whitewater.
More shameless self-promotion while I’m at it: Yesterday’s post at my place---George Bush haunted by the ghost of Ronald Reagan.