I read an article by Ed Driscoll about how Christmas is getting – I don’t think he used the word – desecrated. Not by commercialism as such. He doesn’t go into a “buying gifts for people you love is evil” rant which is good because I like Ed.
People driving around with bumpers that say “Jesus is the reason for the season annoy me about as much as people driving around with Coexist bumper stickers spelled in symbols in which only one has a problem with all the others. It’s just as SMUG and, sorry, I HATE smug. Besides, it’s a-historical. As far as we can tell the historical Christ was born when there were shepherds in the fields – i.e. NOT December in Israel. And most European religions have always had a holiday with which the longest night of the year is marked. For a secular treatment of the need that satisfies in the human mind, please refer to Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents. (Yes, I am serious. I daresay even the religious will find echoes there. At least, I find my theological thinking in the oddest places, but maybe that’s just me.)
And if you’re a Christian and getting ready to blast me, please don’t. I don’t think the fact that we celebrate the birth in the wrong day invalidates the whole religion. The birth date is unknowable, (even if guessable at. Yes, Israel had a calendar and Rome had a calendar and we have a calendar and with enough time, pencil lead and skull sweat someone who, unlike me, doesn’t transpose digits, could possibly calculate something approaching the “right” date. The question is, would it be? Look, my dad was born in 31 (I think I said 41 the other day because I do that with numbers) in a country with widespread literacy and official birth registration. When time came for him to enter school grandma counted backwards, the way people in rural areas did/do, “Thirty seven, that was the year that the farmer’s cow died. Thirty six, that was when it rained into August…” and gave his birthdate that she thought to the best of her knowledge was correct. Except that she always told the story of his birth. How he was born on a Sunday and she was alone at home and the village half empty because everyone had gone to some Saint’s celebration nearby.) When dad turned 50 my brother bought him one of those “your birthdate newspaper.” The date grandma gave wasn’t a Sunday. So, either dad was born in another year – possible, since in the village school age was determined by “is large enough and has started taking an interest in reading” and if dad was like my boys he grew early – or in another day altogether. We still celebrate on the date Grandma gave, because that’s the best guess all the same.) and we really have no clue of his real birthday. And it might have been thirty two or perhaps thirty three.) And from a theological point of view it makes sense to celebrate in the darkest of the year. “For those who were in darkness saw a great light.”
All I’m saying is that even if the West hadn’t converted to Christianity (yes, yes, but bear with me) or even if we had adopted the more Jewish-rooted form of Christianity that Peter supported at least for a time, there would still be a winter celebration and reassurance that the light will come back and that darkness won’t swallow the world. Christianity and Judaism are perhaps to thank for the fact we no longer spill human blood to ensure that. (Just like alternate histories in which Rome survives rarely include the fact that slavery would/might/likely survives with Rome, alternate histories in which the Celts took over the entire world tend to ignore the blood thirstiness of their religion. Though nothing and no one had anything on the Phoenicians when it comes to spilling blood in sacrifice. I’m not sure piety is a virtue when it comes with taking someone else’s life – or to quote Pratchett “And the goat ran away swearing off religion forever”.)
Anyway, forgive me. I haven’t had but one cup of coffee, or I wouldn’t have wondered so disastrously from the point. The point being that Ed (and apparently Lileks) were shocked by things like people selling sh*t lipbalm, on Christmas, near a register.
It is a post about the coarsening of the culture, in other words, and most of those make me roll my eyes – but not that one. Partly because it hooks up with Witchfinder writing itself in my head, and I just endured a long speech from a dead character about how it is one’s duty not to rub other’s faces in the grit of the world. How the honorable man smooths out the worst, most harsh realities to make it possible for others to go on living. (We’ve spoken of it here, too, in the contest of the Alies crediting the French resistance with helping more than they should to allow the country to heal.) Look, if you read biographies from the Victorian age, or early, you find a lot of our vices again and again. But not in public. In public there was a face and a smoothing, and a way of allowing people to go on.
Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But it takes a lot of hypocrisy for people to live together, particularly in large, cohesive populations.
Look, if I hate someone I’m related to (I don’t. Most of them have died. Which is the best revenge) with the deep gut-level hatred that’s making me sick for days in advance of a family gathering, is anything gained by my telling the person hosting the gathering that I’m not coming, that she has to choose between me and that SOB? Or is it better to go to the gathering, make nice if I have to, stay as far from him as I can the rest of the time, and enjoy the other people. Or alternately to call and say “I’m sick. I can’t make it.” Is it a lie? Sure. Is it hypocrisy? Sure. But what would be served by telling them “I hate so and so” – chances are they already know it. We’re far more transparent than we like to think. But they still wish to see this person, and they wish to see me. What does “frankness” do but make life miserable for as many people as possible? The cry against hypocrisy often seems to me the cry of the two year old who just made a poop mural all over the bathroom wall and is screaming that everyone must admire it and not wash it away. (Interesting, reading the biographies of “intellectuals” who insisted on “frankness” and railed against immorality, they were only frank when it was convenient. I.e. when it hurt everyone but them.)
But somehow – and probably because of resentment of the just and good men – weirdly most of them REALLY were such, just not perfect – who caused WWI and WWII we have decided that a sort of rude frankness, the rubbing of people’s noses in the worst/darkest/rudest aspects of life for no other reason than just doing so, is the greatest public virtue.
I’m not talking of sexual orientation – though the Witchfinder speech in my head is tangential to that. At that time, in those circumstances, the only way to smooth over things is to soft pedal that – or even political orientation. When something is intensely at the center of you lying about it CONSTANTLY taints the soul. I know this. I speak from knowledge. This doesn’t mean I don’t lie about it occasionally by omission. The best way to get along with people who think all libertarians are terrorists is to enlighten them, but at a family party or an office gathering, if the boor in the corner is screaming about evil libertarians, it might be best to smile in a strained way and slide away. (And the insistence to bring politics into occasions that are definitely not political is why I don’t have many friends on the other extreme of the spectrum anymore.)
To an extent – a limited, “appropriate time and place” extent – frankness is a virtue at least in matters pertaining to the essential qualities of a person. Appropriate time and place? Well, yes. Do I need to know the guy selling me tickets to the amusement park is gay? I mean, I might suspect it, but that’s neither here nor there. His interaction with me has NOTHING to do with his sexual orientation and it would be very odd if he said “Here are your tickets, by the way, I’m gay.” Or if the elderly man doing alterations on my dress said “It’ll be tomorrow before it’s done. By the way, I am a Maoist.”
However, what we’re facing is exactly that – a slipping of the intrusive “doesn’t belong here” in places where it doesn’t belong. And in many cases, what we’re seeing is the slipping of the “doesn’t belong anywhere outside the nursery” into adult life.
What I’m talking about is stuff like the sh*t lip balm…
Look, adults know that every animal excretes the end product of our metabolic processes. That’s fine. It’s perhaps not ideal – in an ideal world, we live off unicorn twinkles and good wishes – but we live in flesh and flesh has needs. What Rex Stout called derisively “The appetites we share with dogs.”
Kids are fascinated with this – partly I think because they’re fresh from potty training. Learning to control their sphincter is SUCH an accomplishment they’re fascinated with the whole process. – I remember my younger kid and a little female friend, at three, while her mom and I were in a bookstore, looking over a book of cat pictures. They were planning to get married and have cats. And they kept reassuring each other their cats would poop. They talked about it all through lunch, afterwards, making the adults’ diet easier. (No, to this day I have no idea what the alternative to cats who poop is. They just swell very large and eventually burst? I mean, it seems like it would be easier on the litter box but hard on cat longevity.)
And for the last few decades, society has become fascinated by it as well. Excretory processes, meaningless sex, and just sheer strange and demeaning antics have long been a staple of modern literature, and have been making their way into popular books, movies and other forms of entertainment. (There was the year Water World came out, where every movie HAD to have the obligatory pissing scene.)
Some of my socon friends see in this a plot to desensitize society and take us down the primrose path to hell. I think they’re giving it too much credit. Oh, someone or other at the head of houses MIGHT think that, but I don’t think so.
It is all the worship of “frankness” and this vague idea that if it’s taboo it MUST be violated. That violating a taboo – or what used to be a taboo, these people are preserved in amber and seem to be unaware we don’t live in the fifties – by itself makes a rather pedestrian craft into art.
I am not, understand opposed to the representing in art of excretory processes, or of sex, not even of the strangest forms of sex (TENTACLES!) provided it serves a purpose. (I’m not even opposed to the representation of it in craft, which is more what I do than art.) But it has to serve an internal story purpose greater than “And it’s one in the eye of the Man” – particularly since these days “the Man” is likely to be a jaded aged hippie who will be cheering you with “right on.” I will even cheer you right on, if you’re writing this to provide the readers with titillation. That is an ancient and traditional purpose, and what the heck, why not if you CAN do it? But in that case it serves a purpose – it’s part of why you’re writing this. Again, it’s your right.
Regardless of people’s opinions, I maintain that Heinlein was serving a story purpose with the talk about sex in his later books. (No, he really didn’t SHOW sex, not really. If you think he did, you’ve never read romances.)
If you’re going to show me your characters in bed with an octopus, show how that scene changes the characters, and what it means for the plot. And then I’ll defend to the death your right to put it in the story and yell at anyone who slanders you.
However, showing such things just to show them, to be “modern” and “taboo free” is a) stupid. b) boring. BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT EVERYONE IS DOING.
And making lip balm out of sh*t seems completely bizarre when there are so many things you can make it out of. Not that I dispute your right to make it. I also don’t dispute your right to sell romance novels between a woman and her squid. JUST don’t think you’re being brave or speaking truth to power, or even being very interesting, because you’re not.
Look, the Rex Stout derisive comment about “the appetites we share with dogs” was said by his detective, Nero Wolfe about sex. Nero Wolfe is a character who is grossly fat due to his indulgence in food. Food is also an appetite we share with dogs. So there is a contradiction, right?
No. If I remember the scene well, Wolfe was talking about sex as sex. Not love, not even one of the more refined forms of lust, but the use of another human being as a masturbatory device. Reading a blog the other day and seeing commenter after commenter say “women have the right to orgasms” and “It’s our birthright” made me want to weep because it was a glorification of the appetites we share with dogs, simple and unvarnished. It was the pursuit of physical reaction with no thought and nothing attached. I wanted to say “chickies, if that’s your birthright, you’d be better off with a mess of pottage.”
Rex Stout’s relationship with food does not consist of eating whatever he finds by the way side. He has a refined relationship with food, one that takes in account years of tradition and culinary expertise. It is not in any way an appetite we share with dogs.
Humans are more than orgasms. Arguably our mating rituals involve everything from poetry to quantum physics. Giving yourself an orgasm by means of a mechanical device (what the blog was talking about) might be okay (if your religion permits it. So not going there) to take the edge off or whatever. However, I’ll quote Heinlein here (or perhaps allude to it. I remember the saying in Portuguese as I first read it, and I never QUITE remember it in English. “Masturbation is clean, cheap and doesn’t keep you outdoors till all hours. It is also lonely.”
And if you think your birthright is to give yourself endless orgasms with a mechanical device, you’re going to end up, sooner or later, feeling rather hollow.
Because we’re not just the appetites we share with dogs. If we were we’d still be living like dogs – or rather – like wild wolves, falling on whatever might give us calories or sexual pleasure without a second thought.
We and our overgrown brain have also the appetites we share with gods. By which I mean, in this case, not Himself, maker of the Universe and in many ways beyond our knowing, but those flawed gods of the ancient mythos, who were human like us, only more so.
They too shared appetites with dogs, but all of Zeus philandering was marred — enhanced? — by his wife’s jealousy, which is what made it relevant to hear about, because even the gods themselves cared enough to be jealous, and to want this other god to love only them. Some of the myths still move us, because they go beyond the appetites we share with dogs, to that place of flawed greatness we each senses within ourselves.
In my corner of the world, which is the arts, all I can tell you is that submerging yet another object in urine, or flinging poo at yet another icon is jaw-cracking-yawn boring. It’s been done. In fact it is “the done thing.” It might at one time – if it did it was before I was born – have shocked people out of complacency and made them think. Now? It’s just “oh, yeah. He/she thinks he/she’s being edgy, poor sod.”
To move people, to reach them, you need to violate some real taboos. Say, for instance suggest that men and women aren’t EXACTLY alike other than the obvious reproductive organs? No? Of course not. Because the people in charge will never let that through, (unless you’re with a few, limited publishers) and if they do you’ll be crucified… Which tells you what the real taboo is.
By which I mean – you want to do REAL stuff, do so. Violate real taboos. (Go indie, if you have to.)
If you don’t have the courage to/don’t want to, then don’t. But stop pretending to. Stop rubbing our faces on things that are no surprise to anyone who has learned to tie his own shoes – and of no more interest.
Think instead on the appetites we share with gods. The mythological stories survived the demise of the religion because they reach some deep aching place within us – a place of strife between the animal and the something other which can neither be reduced nor appeased.
And then – if that’s your purpose, and if you’re very, very good (which I’m not) – maybe you’ll achieve art, which will still make people weep when you’ve been dead a thousand years.
Even if you fall short, that is worth trying for. And trying for it IS our birthright as humans. Why should you settle for less? Go all in or go home.
UPDATE: As is usual on Wednesdays, there is a different (writer craft related) post over at Mad Genius Club. And sorry to be so late. Today is one of those… interesting days.