Thursday, October 30, 2008
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Writing about sex can be a perilous business. For centuries, sex occupied only subversive and maligned positions in human discourse. As a result, forms of thought about it and the language used to express them are today only uncomfortably deployed, with uncertainty and self-consciousness. Not having a mainstream literary canon going back to antiquity, focused on this subject, to lean on in our thinking, we cannot draw upon generations and generations, centuries upon centuries of unashamed, analytically serious thought and reflection about this vital, central aspect of our lives. Stranded by history, word is placed against word with little precedent, with few voices to guide. Meanwhile, many, often with guitar in hand, think this is just how things should be – that we should remain silent, shun our mind forged manacles, yield up the logos to Venus’ ineffable, oceanic vastnesses.
It is not that sex, as Larkin suggests, did not exist before 1963. It’s that beforehand, or thereabouts, it was not spoken of in public in the open, unselfconscious ways it has been since. Its subterranean nature was a fixed feature of its place in society. Obviously, sex was something you could do - provided you did it in the right way, with the right person. Indeed, even if you didn’t like it, it was something you had to do, provided you were not an ascetic, so the human race wouldn’t die out or at least so you wouldn’t scandalise your parents. But in any case, if you spoke about it at all you did so with reluctance. Or if, on the contrary, you spoke about it enthusiastically, with the concerted desire to shock, you rested on the laurels of a goldmine, knowing that to shock couldn’t be easier. Generally, you knew fields were explored not fit for Grandmother; fields banished from innocence and ease.
To an extent, this sheepishness endures, remaining a potential source for embarrassment and humour amongst the more reserved. But today the chuckles gurgling around prudishness, so easily aroused even into the 70s, grow ever more diminished, harder to generate, increasingly anachronistic, as the prudish themselves decrease, or retire to the pavilion.
Given this liberation, one would have thought writing about sex couldn’t be easier. Yet I wonder whether this supposition rests on the assumption that all that one might have to say about it is that that we should not be shy about our instinctive desires. If one wants to say anything else, new forms of restriction arise, forms of inhibition emanating not from the forces of reaction, but ironically from the forces of liberation that had supposed it was only traditional perspectives that could put a muzzle on proceedings.
Today, the effort to gaze too deeply into the enigma that is sex can raise suspicions. Indeed, the very notion that it is an enigma at all might be very strenuously rejected. It might be supposed that nothing is more natural, familiar and straightforward; moreover, that anyone claiming that sex is enigmatic necessarily must hail from the reactionary camp. That he must be wanting to re-impose a veneer of mystery and lofty spirituality over its friendly simplicity in order to put it back behind its walls, so as to refortify or resuscitate some traditional morality perceived to depend upon it’s exile from public discourse.
Being caught between the rock of traditional moral perspectives on the one hand and the hard place of modernity’s often mindless celebration of its achieved sexual liberations on the other, is not a comfortable place to be. Not if one wants just to think for oneself and approach the subject as one sees fit. Each side may put you down as dangerously close to the enemy encampment. The liberal camp might eye you with suspicion for the reasons mentioned above. It might also, patronizingly, think that while, curiously, not a conventional ‘sex denier’, you are actually a repressed person who just can’t face up to the fact. Someone who needs to get out more, see more action, realize the clear lesson that the only sex talk that really needs to happen is about how much you enjoy doing this or that with him or her. While the traditionalist camp might sniff in the aura of your words, particularly your lack of moral certainties and judgementalism, suggestions of that same old permissive drift of doom that justified Sodom and Gomorrah.
In this then, as in so many other fields, the game of discourse has been rigged beforehand. The pitch has been queered, as I like to say. The compartmentalizing knives of dualism and dichotomy, of the duty to be oppositional, to take sides in accustomed battle orders, to nail your colours to the mast, have been sharpened.
Which is why I say that writing about sex can be a perilous business. As co-opted as it has become by what are essentially politicized, grand interpretations of existence, it is a likely thing that you too will be co-opted and denied your space, denied your voice, eaten up as cattle fodder by the imperatives of somebody else’s narrative.
I am supposing that some may imagine that behind these words lurks an unspoken desire to confide something personal. If this is so, this confirms in-itself the tendency to co-optation and misinterpretation in these matters.
Although sex is not the weather, and means more to us than it, it remains interesting that we cannot easily talk about it as if it is were like the weather, and as innocent and unassuming; that we are often so aware that around it gather grand forces and energies of consequence that hook it into matrices of signification that belong elsewhere, and speak of our more general, fundamental orientations.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
That said, there a still several people I have not rediscovered, for whatever reason, and have lost touch with entirely. People who meant a great deal to me at the time that I knew them, who impressed themselves upon me with depth and vigour and resonance; and who, if I might be frank, I ‘miss’. I won't bore you with too long an inventory, but here are three. Obviously, I’d have included Jessica but I should only see her if she wants to see me, and I suspect she may be indifferent or opposed to the idea.
I have changed their names, but they will presumably recognize themselves in the unlikely event of their reading this. I met them all in my late teens and lost touch with them in my early 20s.
Joseph Brightman: We travelled across South America together in an Encounter Overland truck in 1990. Highly ebullient and bright – he was always keen to dispatch rapier words against transcendence and have a go at Christians (including my brother, the Reverend). If he hasn’t changed, I can imagine him salivating with glee over every shard of Dawkinsana. I believe he is some kind of barrister in London now. Though I can imagine him in one of those wigs, I would still like to actually see him in one. I wonder if he still talks really fast and laughs a lot. Despite his atheism, he had an epic sense of life as something intrinsically grand, which appealed to me greatly.
Frederick Davidson: ‘Best Friend’, if that’s not too childish a term for the sixth form and for the ‘gap year’. He had a crappy Ford Fiesta which we called the ‘Tin Machine’, and which he’d unsuccessfully push to destruction point on the M11 between Kentish Town and Cambridge. He wrote me supportive, witty letters when I was in South America, which I was grateful for. At school his ability to equal or beat me at essays despite doing next to no homework baffled and infuriated me in equal measure. Beyond his flagrant acuity, I have never met anyone whom I felt had such natural existential strength, and such a powerful will. I imagine him to be absurdly rich and thriving in the City, presumably unlevelled by recent events. The last I heard he and his brother were going to buy a yacht.
Andrea Stewart: Gorgeous, fiery, red-headed maiden I met on an Outward Bound Course in the Lake District in 1989. She liked my blue eyes, which I appreciated. She liked my letters too and once said I was ‘priceless’. Nothing ‘happened’ between us, as the vacuous cliché has it. I think she may, however, have been one of those whom I alienated in my mid twenties when I suddenly exploded into my ‘write your friends impossibly long and intense letters, why don’t you’ phase. The last I knew she was getting into head hunting. I wonder what her innate zeal and brilliance is getting her up to these days.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
One would have thought that if people do not understand it, that that in-itself is pretty strange. After all, what's happening threatens their real standards of living, as well as whatever policies they've devised to safeguard their futures.
Not, however, that I blame anyone for their ignorance, in so far as it exists. I only vaguely understand grand finance myself. Ok, I grasp the superficial elements, about what's been going on with greedy, blindly optimistic bankers and Governments encouraging debt; but beyond that, beneath that, it’s a bit of a shady blur.
The exact relationship between things like the availability of Credit, Inflation, Interest rates, Unemployment, House Prices, the Governmental budgetary status – in surplus or deficit, the Exchange Rate and the Balance of Payments, taken together, I’ve sometimes tricked myself into believing I might understand. But too often I realise, in awkward shudders of honesty, that I don’t, not really. That professional men of finance can themselves display divergent views on the macroeconomic shape of things, persuades me I might not be alone, that even they may be grasping at a few more straws than they realise.
When I listen to economists explain - businessmen, bankers, academics, or economic journalists - I thank them for their efforts; but I still wonder if I’m being lured towards a labyrinth, their labyrinth; a maze, a gated castle, festooned with lanes leading me from myself towards abstraction, towering above me in baroque inscrutability.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I can’t help finding economics more abstract, more shadowy, and less easily grasped than philosophy, than literature, than spirituality. The connections between the domain spoken of in economics and direct human experience have always seemed circuitous and tentative. Is this only because the arched persuasion of the mind intrinsic to business has never been mine? Or does my uncertainty partake of a larger, collective confusion?
Today, we hear much about the World Financial System. Surely the problem lies here. We speak of the dominant force in the world as a thing, a system, a matrix. What happened to the world as a concrete, physical place, where human and animals live together and share their experiences and productions in the brief time they have before they die?
It used to be thought a hostile and oppressive God, with a capacious beard, fiery eyes and an appalling sense of humour, stood between us and reality as a grim alienating phantom, dividing us from ourselves and from one another. But now, in our supposed wisdom, we have decided this God doesn’t exist and never did. While the theological significances of this discovery are dubious, since God’s true nature might be very different from this caricature, the irony that we have exchanged one form of alienation, one veil, one wall, for another, should not be missed.
The new phantom of the age is money, or rather the forms of divisive organization it exhibits, namely this World Financial system that we hear so much about, even over our cornflakes.
Regrettably, this time, for something better to replace it, simply denying its existence might not be enough. We might actually have to come up with an alternative.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Who needs words to access certain experiences? We need them only to communicate them, if we need to communicate them; and when we try we deal in shadows, not substance. Knowing this, that our words might sully, we can choose to remain silent in honour of the experience.
You may remember, but it seemed that every year at Christmas in the early seventies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, starring the magical Dick van Dyke, was shown on TV. Watching it again now, I have become entranced by ‘Hushabye Mountain’ by Robert and Richard Sherman. The transcendent delicacy of emotion disorders my world in very agreeable ways. And I am moved to note that what we find here, despite the emotional richness, is the opposite of sentimentality. While some may baulk at the ‘sweetness’ on display, there is no forced or affected posturing, no mere simulation of feelings indulged in because one thinks one should, as it were, at one step removed from the real thing. Instead, the artistry is not artifice, but skillful mastery of evocation, technique deployed successfully in the generation of authentic response.
Well, in me anyway.
Alas, I can’t find an extract of the actual scene (except in Italian!?), but here Van Dyke sings it, against a series of portraits. While, as with all art, I can neither expect nor ask that you like it, there is a chance that you may, even as much as I; or that you might never even have heard it before.
Take note of the lyrics, as much as the music and the voice. Sometimes, with songs I love I find it sufficient to get carried away by the melody. I can find words superfluous, or even a distraction. But here they add to the experience, being exquisitely chosen.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
'Despite the various frustrations of life in Kuwait: the shady employer, the bureaucratic sloth and irrationality, the lack of 'things to do', the Islamic rigour, the intense awareness of inequality, the prevalence of basic racism and social injustice, I already feel I miss the place. Not only the people and the friends I made but a certain buzz and energy that I think is a feature throughout the Middle East. I'm not sure I know how to explain it, but it was certainly there in Kuwait, as it was in other Middle Eastern countries I've visited.'
This does not mean, however, that I regret leaving Kuwait, far less that I regret coming to China, which as a venture is far too young to evaluate.
It's a pity, though, that the campus is 60s gloom, not the Durhamic majesty that surrounded me when I was last attached to a University, or the gracious delicacy of the Cambridge that embraced me as a child.
And that the campus is 30 minutes out of town in an insulated western cocoon.
Still, these are not significant complaints.
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Although we’re told we live in a materialistic age, you wouldn’t guess it from the zero approval rating given to making as much money as possible as life’s primary purpose. I suppose there’d be more enthusiasm if I’d suggested life is about making enough money; enough for your needs, or even your desires. Are all people, at least those not in control of major league financial institutions, similarly unmotivated by unbounded greed? Or is greed a minority concern only for the type of people who read my blog? Personally, I’ve only wanted enough – enough, that is, to be free of the system. For this reason, I do not have enough, nor, presumably, ever will, if I’m to be ‘realistic’. Enough that I can roam and soar through the world, the free spirit I’m prevented from being. Still, since ultimately money doesn’t exist – being as it is a mere social contrivance, a convention for organising the production and ownership of material and abstract objects that do exist - I’m glad heresy and dissension from the God of this World are alive.
It’s interesting that nobody is primarily motivated by the quest for the perfect career. Did the question routinely asked as a child – what are you going to be when you grow up –mean nothing to you? Maybe at the end of the day, you just don’t really want to work, such that even if you love your job, there are still better things you'd rather be doing. Or is it that you know that since people are not their jobs, but rather people that have jobs, we cannot define our essence in terms of the ways we fit into the system of the world.
Somebody out there just wants to cope, to keep things together. And why not? It’s what we do anyway, or fail to.
The perfect orgasm. I hope you find it. I shudder to think what it will involve, and how you’ll know it couldn’t be bettered. Were you joking? I was when I suggested it. Still, we’re noticeably keen on exploring the possibilities for fleshly rapture, so presumably it’s a viable concern.
It is said that Zeus, fearing our primordial androgynous potency, cut us into our two genders. So we pine and hunt for our severed other half. Does the same dynamic exist for homosexuals? Hmmmmm. Anyway- alas, I have grown cynical about the mythology of romantic love. Bitter experience has exacted its toll. If she’s out there somewhere, the clock is ticking. My grey hair proves my point. I wish you luck, the two who seek ‘The One’. You don’t have to listen to my doubts. You might be justified in your hopes. But in the meantime, if you ask me, you might want to seek completeness in yourself. It will take the pressure off them ‘to be your saviour’ when they arrive.
If reproduction is the purpose of life, the purpose of life is to keep life going so that life can continue to be life. But doesn’t that mean reproduction IS life, since it is obviously essential for life. How then can reproduction be a purpose of life? Doesn’t a purpose of life suggest something that life is for, something, then, that is more than life, more than its mere biological basis?
Three of you think the primary purpose of life is to worship your creator, which in non-Gnostic cosmologies means God, as opposed to the Demiurge. I shall presume, to be brief, you meant God, not the Demiurge. In this world, worshipping your creator can be a noble purpose. I salute you. In many ways this is indeed my purpose. In any case, I join you in spurning the anti-theistic trends of our rootless, rudderless world, in which worship is not absent but directed to lesser lights (or even lights that are not lights) that do not deserve our worship; and which, on account of our worshipping them, bring us down to less than we could be, and less than we are. But it is not, ultimately, my choice for life’s purpose. Why? Because of the meaning of worship: namely that as an emotion and stance it is a one way street. We are expected to worship God. Does God worship us in return? I think not. And if, ultimately, our destiny is to be intimately united with God, sharing his reality in a world permeated with his presence, then the preconditions for worship will have broken down - namely that God is distant from us and, essentially, both different from and superior to us, a different order of being on the other side of the abyss. In such a fraternal, equal relationship: the one depicted in Genesis 3 before the fall, the one strikingly, unmistakably desired by God in Jesus, worship has given way to love: humanity’s voluntary love for God, and humanity’s love for itself and the creation, energized, made possible, by God’s indwelling love in us for us and his creation. To absolutise God’s desire for worship is to deny God’s desire to draw ever closer to us. While it is necessary, now, as a means to focus on God in the midst of a palpably Godless, loveless world, to say that life’s purpose, in and of itself, is to worship God, implies, surely, that God is a narcissist, that he created us so that we could praise him, presumably because he was insecure in some way. Or that’s how I see it.
Your second choice for life’s purpose is that life has no purpose. I refer you to my previous post, in which I explore how having a purpose can have two different meanings and applications. After that, what can be said? If life has no purpose for you, I wonder how you get up in the morning. If you are depressed, your lack of purpose might be the cause. If you are not depressed, are you sure your life has no purpose? But if you mean, rather, that life in the grand scheme of things has no purpose, nothing given to it from the outside, by God for example, then it’s interesting to explore what this might mean. I imagine this cosmic purposelessness could be reflected upon in either a gloomy, limiting and pessimistic, or cheery, liberating and optimistic, light – depending on who you are. Maybe God’s grand, finely worked out, detailed scheme of things was your life’s best hope. Now you’ve come to reject it as a lie and are bitter and morose, if not resentful. Alternatively, for whatever reason, maybe you’ve always seen God and his metaphysical system as oppressive, both in and outside of the bedroom. Now you are overjoyed that neither he nor his system exists, except as a human fantasy. Or maybe you are indifferent to whether life has a grand purpose or not. But in that case, I’m curious why you chose the purposelessness of life as your primary understanding of life’s purpose. Why care so much?
The Gold medal of purpose is a Socratic one. While not most of you, at least the largest group amongst you, seek ‘knowledge, wisdom and understanding’. I also believe this would be nice. But, to me, far better than to know reality as a mental scheme, as a map or set of propositions, or ethical principles, placed against reality in an exact fit, would be to be united to reality in a more thorough, holistic sense than is suggested by these mediated qualities. Meanwhile, we must wonder: whose knowledge, whose wisdom, whose understanding? That which is known, acted wisely towards and understood may very well be reality as it is in-itself. But even if it is, even if our knowledge is accurate and truthful it is still knowledge seen and understood from our perspective, by way of the limited, contingent conditions and potentialities of our minds. A ‘pure’ knowledge uninfluenced by the fact that we are the knowers of it: a knowledge science supposes exists and seeks, is impossible. And a good thing too! Only by factoring out our humanity, by knowing the world as a void, could such a knowledge even theoretically be possible. But since such a knowledge is impossible we needn’t worry about such a humanity-excluding knowledge. So why bother with it even as a dream? Knowledge will always be our knowledge. This is why knowledge changes, because we change – in ourselves, and in our abilities to discover. This is not to attack science as a means to manipulate matter, to allow this virtual communication between us to happen, and to achieve its other accomplishments. It is only to criticise science's epistemological ambitions, especially with regard to what we derisorily call ‘metaphysics’ (which is only metaphysical because we can’t see it yet ). Seeing through a glass darkly is better than not seeing at all – and this is our knowledge. But when the glass is removed, the knower and known become one – we transcend the limitations of our condition and are reconciled with the infinite and the eternal. Humanity has often been a story of presumptive, premature, disastrously abortive self-apotheoses. But this does not imply we shall never merge with the Godhead, or that our desire to become God is misconceived. After all, these things go both ways. God wants to become human too. Why else do you think he created us? How else can the incarnation be explained?
Which brings me to my own choice. Number Ten. Ok, I phrased it eccentrically, but in this I agree with the great nemesis of gloomy metaphysicians, Friedrich Nietzsche: the only fundamental purpose that life can ultimately possess is joy. Presuming that God exists –and yes, you may have guessed, I presume this – and presuming again, as I do, that God is not so insecure and vain a narcissist that he felt a need to create an army of worshippers to help him feel better about himself, what other purpose could our existence have? Why else bring particularity into existence from the abundant ocean of the one? That something went wrong in the creative process, somewhere along the way, seems to be the case. While orthodox Christians accusingly heap the blame for this exclusively on our shoulders; and while Gnostics attribute the problem of life’s joylessness to the fact that our world was created by a lesser divine emanation, if not the Devil himself, they both agree that something went wrong. The question of life’s cure, of course, is a whole other issue; but without knowing what life should be: a non-suffering field of not boring delight, it’s impossible to know where we are headed, or should be.
Of course I could be wrong. There could be no God, and life could have no grand purpose. It could all be random strangeness, from the bottom up and sideways. But I have no reason to think so that convinces me and plenty of reasons, subjectively experienced, scientifically non-verifiable, I accept, for thinking otherwise.
By the way I'm composing this in a youth hostel in Shanghai. The humidity has beat a welcome retreat, along with the heat. A very welcome event. More from the Orient anon.