Recently, in a fit of my own form of quixotic insanity, I posted the following in my facebook page:
What did I want? I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword. I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist, and feed that lousy claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur – I wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow tilting of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last thousand miles. I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme, and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of Bilgewater and Lost Dauphin. I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and to eat the lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be the way they had promised me it was going to be, instead of the tawdry, lousy, fouled-up mess it is. I had had one chance – for ten minutes yesterday afternoon. Helen of Troy, whatever your true name may be – and I had known it and I had let it slip away. Maybe one chance is all you ever get.Oscar Gordan – Glory Road – Robert A. Heinlein.
That passage stirred me when I read it at about 14 or 15, sitting at the kitchen table in my mother’s kitchen. That’s what I wanted to. Oh, not the harem as I had no use for odalisques, but perhaps a group of oiled barbarians to carry my chaise over the heads of my adoring subjects.
I knew I was a reprobate, steeped in sin and malice from early on — I don’t lie to myself as much as most people. I try to be good. It’s much harder than being nice. But I also know what lies beneath my attempts — but I didn’t realize how much of a reprobate until I posted this on facebook.
Before the metaphorical ink was dry on the post, I had realized that I was — apparently — a dinosaur come from a much freer past into a Brave New World. (Which, btw, was NOT an instruction manual, no matter how much people want to make it so.)
Among other things, it was pointed out to me that odalisques didn’t consent, that wanting an harem was sexist and that dust beneath your chariot wheels meant you weren’t a nice person, or an elected ruler or something.
In the Don Camillo books by Giovanni Guareschi, there is this persistent scene, when the village priest is engaged in a feud with the local communists, or the local, ammoral gentry, where he spots one or more of them in the front row, turns the crucifix on the wall so the Christ faces the wall (and doesn’t hear him, is the understanding, though the character has enough depth we realize it’s a respect thing, not a literal thing) puts his hand on his hips and speaks in his own way.
I am now turning the portrait of Heinlein to the walls and putting my hands on my hips.
What a generation of mewling babies, with the intellectual rigor of a drunken sot. Their inability to even imagine something that might potentially be offensive to someone, somewhere has so restricted their little pea brains that they are functionally historically illiterate. They not only are unable to imagine that someone, somewhere, might not have believed as they do; they don’t think anyone should try to imagine believing or living differently than the morals of our times. This at the same time they enjoin us to respect as our equals cultures that are far worse than those imagined far-off ones.
My grandmother used to say “There’s willfully blind, and then there’s those who erase the place where the eyes go.” And that’s them. A willfully blind generation of moralist scolds, stumbling blindly towards a future they refuse to comprehend is different from their imaginings, and does not, in any way, care about their scolding. They wander around the world in a cloud of self-regard, unable to comprehend that other people don’t see them as brave pioneers but as crazed censors with nothing to contribute to either culture or society but a hand held up and wagging finger and the word “no.”
They don’t realize they are midgets, standing on the shoulders of giants. Because they can piss down, they imagine themselves superior, unable to see their product is nothing but a yellow streak on the face of civilization.
They’ve built nothing and understand nothing.
So, I’m saying it’s okay to portrait slavery and sexual abuse, war and criminality without making it clear in the books I disapprove?
I’m saying that most of the history of mankind is slavery and sexual abuse, war and criminality, and that in those times, and in those days there were degrees of evil. Sometimes a man made a very small advance towards what we now consider a better world. A tiny one, by the skin of his teeth, and that was enough for us to consider him a hero, and to remember him through the ages.
A friend once pointed out that by our rational, present day morals, Ulysses was a despicable human being. And my friend is right. He was a brigand and a thief, a killer, a sea raider.
On the other hand he was in tune with the morals of his time, where hospitality was sacred over property or even self-determination, and he stood out from his time as a cunning one. In a place and time where most people died within five miles of their birthplace and never broke the rules of his time, this fictional hero had traveled the world and outwitted supernatural enemies. So. He was remembered. His adventures were chanted around fires for millennia and gave the pulse of those who heard it a pleasant rush. “What if I did? What if I could?” Even in the nineteenth century, as distant from his morals as from ours, his adventures thrilled many a school boy. In the sixties, now as distant from us as the face of the moon is from the Earth, his story translated into Portuguese even thrilled a very small girl who’d just learned to read and who didn’t know this was the legend of a lost civilization.
Odalisques? Well, when I was little, some of the still preserved legends from the Moorish occupation spoke of good harem masters and bad harem masters. Everything is relative. The good ones were often remembered for centuries. Which in turn helped a new generation of boys grow up with the idea of “what was acceptable.”
Yes, sure, women were always equal to men and blah blah blah. And if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you. It leads to nowhere.
Sure, women have the same rights as men, and are their moral equals. Unfortunately, human civilization doesn’t proceed wholly in a world of spirits. While there are undoubtedly some beliefs and conditions that are better than others and while by and large the civilization of humans — with some truly disgusting back sliding — proceeds to freer, less violent and generally better lives for all, in primitive conditions, or even very difficult ones, men tend to revert to the law of the jungle. This is not ruled by some imaginary noble savage, but by physical force. And in physical force women drew the short straw. Meanwhile we’re also the producers of babies, the resource that gives a tribe a future. Throughout history this combination made us THE most valuable resource, something to be stolen and hoarded and kept captive. Yes I used “something” because caught in endless pregnancies and vulnerable to attack, through most of human history women weren’t treated as human.
They had a power of a sort. A power that I’ve seen in action, and which is used — I understand — all over the Arab world. While there was no such a thing as solidarity among women, each being too interested in the survival and prospering of their children, and therefore often helping in the virtual enslavement of other women (or worse. The history of China is … eye opening) women could and did have power. A woman with a strong personality could influence a man all the more as she was held to be incapable of it.
If you don’t see the inherent dramatic tension of a story on such lines, it’s because you’re too busy shouting slogans. Take off your “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” and take your foot out of your mouth and the plugs from your ears, and try to actually pretend you were born and raised in such a society. No one is going to listen to you if you preach feminist power, and the men of the time will knock you about if you attempt to. But you can have power by whispering in his ear. And if you don’t see yourself as the woman who controls the empire with your whisper, if you don’t understand the power of it, your imagination is dead. Put away the paddles. Stop trying to restart it. If it weren’t nailed to its perch, it would be pushing up daisies.
But isn’t it immoral to think, write, create such art? Wouldn’t it be better if we wrote only about the world as we wish it would be, where men and women are completely alike save for some externals, and where there is no such thing as non-consensual sex or slavery? Or at least, if we have to write about such a time, shouldn’t we condemn it loud and clear?
Ah, you lotus eaters. You have no idea how most of the world lives even now, much less in former times. You don’t understand the GLAMOUR of evil, even as you feel it — or do you really think your little witch hunts are inspired by loving kindness? Do you think we believe you don’t feel the thrill of the hunt, the joy of sadism? — and you can’t comprehend not scolding when something is not right in tune with your quite up to the minute “morals.” You lecture us on tolerating “the other” while completely incapable of grasping what “the other” is. You think if someone is a darker tan or comes from far away, they are moral imbeciles who must be tolerated because they’re too stupid to reform.
And in that way you tolerate the unthinkable, even while refusing to think it or to understand how your ancestors built the civilization you’re now gleefully tearing apart.
You’ve been so rich so long you don’t realize your willful mind-castration is taking you back to a place where YOU will be dust beneath some barbarian’s chariot wheels.
But wont reading about such things make people do them?
Really? You think your fellow humans are so feeble of mind they’ll be unable to help themselves but will do something because they read about it? Honestly, is this projection?
There was this theory about movies and video games, both of which being visual probably have more chance of doing that. It turns out Tipper Gore was wrong. Actually kids who play violent video games and watch objectionable movies tend to be — on the whole — less violent than their generation. The operative word is “their generation.” If you have an entire generation raised by hired strangers who are not allowed to teach them morals, you are going to end up with more violence and amoral behavior, regardless of what they play, watch or read.
As for violent reads: between the ages of ten and twelve, I was fascinated with a book on the Adventures of Captain Morgan, which I BELIEVE had belonged to my great grandmother (unless dad bought it used in one of his ubiquitous old book stores, or as they’re known in Portuguese, Alfarrabios.) It was a set of leather bound volumes, with original and rather bloody litographs. I remember particularly Captain Morgan, trying to kidnap a princess, cut off the head of her slave sleeping in the antechamber, while the slave slept, with a blade so sharp the poor woman never woke up.
I mean, these were nineteenth century books. The killing of innocents was part of the thrilling adventure and you read that scene thrilled that his sword was so sharp he could pull off the unbelievable.
You didn’t read it for the blood, though that gave you a range of the danger he faced, for others tried to do onto him what he did to that salve, but for the fact that the man for his time had an inflexible if idiosyncratic honor and, as written, was a protector of the weak and the oppressed. (No, not in real life.)
Strangely, though this inspired many dreams (and a very bad novel written at 16 or so) about being a female pirate in the age of sail, I never actually felt the need to cut someone else’s head off as they slept. Even as a pre-teen, I could get a sense for “that was a different time and place; they did things differently. Didn’t mean they were right or that I should do them now.”
People who demand either whitewashing or preaching against the past in their stories, lose that sense. They turn the vast and interesting history of mankind into a flat canvas with themselves in the center dictating what is light and what is dark.
The hubris of it is only half of the evil in this. The wilful blindness is worse, because by losing sight of the past, they can’t see the future they’re shaping.