Warrior babes: Must men lie even about what we find sexually attractive?

Many years back, I came across a show on the TV guide channel called something like “The top ten sexiest women in sci fi”, and I decided to watch it to gain some insight on early twenty-first century cultural…oh hell, you know why I was watching it.  Anyway, “science fiction” was defined broadly to include a bunch of science fiction, fantasy, and superhero TV shows.  (In case you’re wondering, yes, ogling women is a bad thing.  Do as I say, not as I did.)

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Keep your inner weird on a tight leash

There are men who can spin nightmares out of their heads.  What a gift!  I used to think to myself that if I had the talent to write fiction, I would like to write stories like Franz Kafka’s.  I loved it how, in stories like The Hunger Artist, The Penal Colony, or The Trial, he would take a single grotesque, insane idea but human being otherwise just as they are; then he would have all the characters act as if that one thing were completely normal and focus on little practical details of how to deal with it.  Then in grad school, I discovered the old 1960’s The Twilight Zone and thought it was the best television show ever.  Rod Serling had a real talent for the eerie, for creating the situation that starts out almost normal but just slightly “off”,  but off in the appropriately suggestive or dread-inducing way.  Take my favorite episode, Judgment Night, about an English ship in WWII separated from its convoy in a night fog, told from the point of view of a passenger who can remember nothing but his name and city of birth.  It perfectly captures the feel of being in a nightmare:  the missing details, the dread, the way you can feel events coming in the dream that haven’t happened yet.  The old Invasion of the Body Snatchers movie also does a good job with atmosphere and creepiness.

Making weirdness that is arresting and suggestive is a real gift, but to have great art, it needs to be disciplined and fitted into a coherent story with believable characters.  Coincidentally, Arts and Letters Daily has recently linked essays on two artists who show what happens when someone with the gift gets to let their inner weird loose.

Kurt Vonnegut was an entertaining science fiction writer.  That’s no small thing, and it’s too bad he didn’t seem to be satisfied with it.  Although he grew preachier with age, that’s not really what did him in artistically.  (The linked article makes the intriguing suggestion that Vonnegut lectured us on politics and culture because he thought that that’s what great authors were supposed to do, and that a “great author” image was needed to sell books.  I wonder if that’s true for many authors.)  Victor Hugo inserted a bunch of social policy essays into Les Miserables, but it’s still a damn readable story (just skip the essays).  The trouble, I think, was all the blasted playing around with the form of the novel that got to be a bigger and bigger part of his later works:  the doodles, the autobiographical asides, the inserting himself into his own novels (complete with his authorial God-like powers).  Sure, it’s entertaining at first, but you basically throw away any hope of making a dramatically compelling narrative.  I think Vonnegut’s best work was some of the earlier stuff, like The Sirens of Titan and Mother Night, where he tells pretty straight narratives.  The weirdness is still there, and it’s crucial for the novels’ success, but the weirdness is in the service of storytelling.  Slaughterhouse Five gave him, I think, the wrong signal.  Of course, that’s the book Vonnegut is most famous for, so he seems to have gotten the idea that letting his inner weird run free and undisciplined was what the readers wanted.  Still, I kept reading some of his weird books.  Breakfast of Champions, for example, had some amusing bits.  Galapagos was the last Vonnegut book I read, and it left me pretty well through with him.

Stephen Sondheim has a gift, no doubt.  Of course, nothing else he did was as popular–or as good–as West Side Story, which owes at least as much to composer Leonard Bernstein and choreographer Jerome Robbins.  (About Robbins:  West Side Story is the only musical I can think of, except Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, where the dancing is a real highlight and not an annoying distraction.)  Just listen to the songs–almost any of them; there’s very little that isn’t top notch.  The music and lyrics come together perfectly.  And it’s in the service of a straightforward story, one that everyone was already basically familiar with.  Sondheim has had some other good stuff.  I own the soundtrack to Merrily We Roll Along, and I like it very much.  My parents got me the soundtrack to Passion one year for my birthday, and if I ever meet Stephen Sondheim, I’m going to ask for their money back.  Inside the tape cassette, it had an interview with him where he talked about how annoyed he was by the fact that ordinary people sing and hum to songs in West Side Story, and he didn’t want his new musical to “suffer” such a fate.  Mission accomplished, Steve.  In his later work, Sondheim has let his inner weird completely loose, tinkering with theater the way Vonnegut did with the novel, hardly bothering to engage his audience with anything that might interest them.  He’s suffered the fate of being allowed to focus on interesting ideas, while his reputation for genius saves him from having to tell compelling stories.  A musical about fairy tale characters and how “happily ever after” doesn’t really work out is a neat idea, but there’s more work to be done before it’s a good story.  (The linked article tells a damning anecdote about the audience reception of Into the Woods.)

Science fiction and fantasy writers have to be world-builders.  You need powerful weirdness to do this well.  But some writers get too wrapped up in the process, leaving art and audience behind.  Frank Herbert wrote the greatest science fiction novel of the last century.  Dune had an elaborate backdrop; Herbert worked out the history, politics, social forces, and even the religions of his galactic empire.  The sequel, Dune Messiah, was pretty good too.  I stopped with the series midway through Children of Dune, when Alia starts being visited by the ghost of Vladimir Harkonnen and cheating on her husband, or something like that.  It just wasn’t fun anymore.  My mother stuck it out for another couple of books.  Apparently Paul’s son turns into a giant worm and rules Arakkis, and then…and then…and then even the Amazon summaries become incomprehensible to me.

Reading the Lord of the Rings was one of the great experiences of my high school life.  Again, magnificent world creation.  A while later, I saw that my library had the Silmarillion; apparently Tolkien decided to abandon narrative and write some dense Middle Earth history.  I picked it up and looked at it, and then put it back on the shelf.  Maybe it’s good; I don’t know.  I would hate to have to learn that J. R. R. Tolkien let his inner weird loose.

The meaning of vampires

As everyone here knows, I’ve had my disagreements with First Things, but they’re still one of the best conservative websites out there, and I’d miss them if they were gone.  Where else would I be alerted to this Dappled Things essay on the sacramental significance of Count Dracula?  Here’s the key paragraph:

The satanic nature of the Count is rendered all the more terrifying because of his undeniable physicality. […] The human life of Christ made daily physical and intimate communion with God possible—beyond even the Old Testament experience of Enoch, with whom Renfield [the lunatic fanatically absorbed with Dracula] compares himself: “he walked with God.” After the ascension of Jesus, mortality and the supernatural returned to their separate spheres. The Eucharist transcends this division; as the actual sacrifice of Calvary occurring mystically in an unbloody manner, the sacrament brings the reality of a past action into the reality of a present. In a dark mirroring of the sacrament, Dracula is a super-physical being in whom a supernatural power is lodged. The Eucharist is the ultimate transformative and life-giving agent (John 6:58); vampyres consume blood to perpetuate an undead eternity. The blood on the cross was given willingly (John 15:13); vampyre victims do not submit of their own volition. They are hypnotized, entranced, or otherwise reduced to an altered state of consciousness. Dracula as Satan is thus elaborately developed: engaging in an anti-sacrifice and an Anti-Eucharist, Dracula is the Apocalyptic Anti-Christ who comes to collect souls and set up an alternative eternity to that promised in the New Testament.

Of relevance here is my discussion of the symbolism of blood in Human Sacrifice and the Eucharist:

A religious ritual is a symbolic act, and as such it makes use of preexisting symbolic meanings. Sometimes these meanings are fixed by the culture, as when I offer God what my culture recognizes as a salute, or when I place a cultural symbol of value (i.e. money) in the collection basket. The most powerful rituals, however, make use of natural symbolic meanings. For example, sexual intercourse naturally denotes union, and some peoples (such as the Babylonians) have tried to effect symbolic union with God through temple prostitution. In fact, this is an abuse of the sex act, whose meaning is too fixed to procreation and family life to be legitimately “stretched” in this way. However, we should acknowledge that a real religious impulse, and not mere lust, is at the foundation of this practice. What we need is a natural symbol that, like sex, signifies love and union and, again like sex, is asymmetric between the participants, but which, unlike sex, signifies a one-way donation of one’s life. This is the symbolism of blood.

Across the world, widely disparate peoples have chosen as their offering to God the flesh and blood of animals, and occasionally even of humans. Why has this seemed a fitting sacrifice to so many cultures at so many times? It can only be because of the natural symbolism of blood. “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement” (Lev 17:11). Blood is the life force; to offer blood is to offer life, and a union of blood is a merger of lives. The blood and flesh of the sacrificial victim become channels of divine Life. Blood purifies the Temple on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:15-19). Blood protects and purifies the house during Passover (Ex 12:7). Moses sprinkled the people with blood to establish the covenant (Ex. 24:6-8).

Against Extreme Makeover Home Edition

A while ago, my wife got into the unfortunate habit of watching Desperate Housewives each Sunday night at 9.  (I would always go hide in the other room from 9 to 10.  I used to do a lot of my blogging then.)  This meant that we would both often catch the last five minutes or so of the previous show:  Extreme Makeover, Home Edition.  My strong dislike of Desperate Housewives is as nothing compared to my white-hot hatred of Extreme Makeover.    Those of you who aren’t familiar with this show will need some explanation.  You see, every week the Extreme Makeover crew finds some poor family in need, and it proceeds to publicly humiliate the father.  Of course, that’s not how the crew see things; as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing good deeds for the deserving poor by building them houses.  Perhaps the people who watch the show will even think that they must be good people themselves to enjoy watching good deeds being done.

The makers of this show forget one thing that every poor man knows, whatever his education.  Perhaps the Extreme Makeover folks aren’t real men themselves, and so they don’t know what their doing.  More likely, they don’t see poor people as real people with honor and dignity, but only as passive recipients of other peoples’ charity.  In case they belong to the first category, let me explain the code.  Every man knows in his gut that it’s his duty to provide for his wife and kids, and that if he can’t put a roof over their heads, then he’s not a real man.  This isn’t just a moral duty; it’s an absolute duty.  Morality only demands that a man try his best.  An absolute duty demands that he succeed.  Consider the example of a man who, through no fault of his own and despite superhuman effort on his part, cannot support his family or arrange for them to be supported.  Perhaps there’s been some economic or political upheaval, perhaps a drought or other natural calamity.  The father must now watch as his children suffer hunger and cold.  What does he feel?  Pity for them, certainly, but not only this.  He also feels shame.  I’ve failed them, failed my own children.  I am dirt.  Morally, this is an error–the father is not to blame.  Perhaps society is to blame; perhaps no one is.  The father’s shame is unjust, and yet it is glorious.  We admire him for feeling it, and we would find something wrong, something unmanly, in a father who could simply blame society and then feel his conscience clear.  The father’s protector role is also absolute and not merely moral.  To be overpowered and thereby fail to protect one’s family is shameful.

Now some television producers come to the father.  They offer to rescue his family and give them a nice new place.  All they ask in return is to ritually castrate him in front of millions of American viewers.  First, his failure must be abjectly admitted to the audience.  Then, when the new house is done, he has to cry like a woman and tell them how grateful he is.  (This always happens in those sickening last five minutes.  I’m sure it’s part of the prearranged deal.)  What is the father to do?  His duty to see his family sheltered is absolute, so he does the manly thing and publicly sacrifices his manhood for our entertainment.

Our Lord tells us to be discreet in our good works.  Partly, this is for our own good, to keep them from becoming means for us to advertise our own virtue.  Partly, it also reflects a concern for the feelings of the recipients of our charity.  Dependency itself is, as I’ve said many times, not evil and not shameful.  Sometimes a small-scale dependency network is overwhelmed, as in this case of a father who can’t support his family.  This is always a misfortune.  In such cases, the larger society must intervene, but it must do so as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.  Quitely give your poor neighbor money or supplies, but never do it in front of his children.  Let him still be in their eyes the breadwinner he should be and would be in a just world.  Have a thought for his own feelings as well.  If he wants to call your gift a “loan”, even though you know you’ll never see that money again, let him.  The pain he feels over accepting “hand-outs” does him credit; it shows that he still sees himself as a father, a bearer of absolute duties, and not the passive victim of society to which Marxist belief would reduce him.

Against journalism: summary and conclusions

To summarize, journalism presents a dangerously distorted view of the world, because

  1. It reports only violations of social roles (e.g. bad fathers, bad priests, bad soldiers), rather than their essential nature (e.g. what it means to be a father, what is perfection and what is perversion) or their typical fulfillment.
  2. By emphasizing violations in social roles, it undermines the expectations attached to these roles, which impedes their ability to function.
  3. It discredits in the eyes of the public laws and customs that directly bring inconveniences while indirectly bringing vast benefits.
  4. It ignores the disciplines that provide true understanding of the world–statistics, history, sociology, etc–but rather forms general impressions of the world by extrapolating from sensational and often unrepresentative single events.
  5. It undermines all authority figures and all defenders of public morality by emphasizing their failings as “hypocrisy”.
  6. It discriminates in favor of revolutionaries and libertines by failing to draw attention to their evils.

Some say that journalism is a necessary evil, because it holds authority figures accountable and keeps them from preying on their subjects.  This claim is false because

  1. A hostile press forces authority figures to cover up misdeeds in their organizations in order to avoid devestating bad publicity.  This prevents them from being able to suppress corruption as straightforwardly as would otherwise be possible.
  2. A hostile press destroys the morale of an institution’s leadership class.  Without high expectations and positive role models, leaders lose much internal motivation.  Also, it becomes much more difficult to attract talended, energetic, and idealistic recruits into the leadership class, thus further eroding the institution’s quality of leadership.

Others admit the malignity of journalism’s influence, but think this to be contingent on its current practitioners:  if only journalists weren’t so liberal, or socialist, or anti-Catholic, or whatever, these negative effects of journalism would allegedly cease to exist.  This also is false.  The effects described above proceed from the very nature of journalism.  It would not help to have more scientists, philosophers, conservatives, or Christians in the newsroom.  The things these groups care about–statistical correlations, essential natures, the global function and context of a custom for a society, the manifestations of God in the world–are by construction not what newspapers report.  What newspapers report, what counts as news, are violations of social expectations, a thing that always erodes these expectations and thus serves anti-traditional ends.  Journalism is not a neutral force, a weapon that can be wielded equally well by conservatives or liberals.  It is inherently liberal.  We should thus not be surprised that more liberals are, and always will be, attracted to this unfortunate trade.  Conservatives see much less value in what newspapers report; to them it seems a very partial and superficial view of society.

So, the goal should not be to take over the newspapers; the goal should be to get people to stop reading them.  We need to make it socially costly to admit to reading a newspaper.  When a fellow at a party brings up an editorial he read in the New York Times, we should treat him as if he just said that he read something in a children’s comic book, a celebrity gossip magazine, or a pornographic magazine.  Referencing newspapers must come to be seen as a thing stupid people do.  We should reply to the newspaper reader, “Well, of course, I don’t keep track of that trash.  When I wanted to understand this issue, I read this new history of Afghanistan/read this article in the Journal of Social Psychology/looked at the primary sources/did an order of magnitude estimate based on…/etc.”  We have to get the word out that journalism doesn’t give you “the Truth”, and we should look on anyone who thinks otherwise with the same disdaining pity liberal academics have for people who think Fox News gives them “the Truth”.

I would be as horrified to find that a child of mine had taken to reading newspapers as I would be to find that he’d taken to reading pornography.  I suspect the former is the more deeply corrupting.

Other worlds and ours: James Cameron, Gene Roddenberry, and Dante Alighieri

You may have heard this report about some fans of James Cameron’s new movie Avatar who have become depressed and even suicidal over the realization that this world can never be as wonderful as the movie’s fantasy world of blue-skinned elves living in harmony with nature.  It brought to my mind an old boast I used to hear:  that whereas people in the Middle Ages were indifferent to their actual lives and their actual world because they’d put all their hopes in an imaginary afterlife, we brave, secular moderns put all our hopes and energies into this life–and, by golly, it’s helping us make progress.  (Whereas in the Middle Ages, centuries would go by without major changes.)  Now, not only is this claim not true, in some ways it seems to have gotten things exactly backwards.  People in the Middle Ages did dream about another world or worlds, and so do modern people.  There is a big difference, though, in how the dreamed world relates to our current one.  For medievals and other traditional peoples, other worlds tended to enhance the significance of this one.  For moderns, the meaningfulness of the fantasy world is contrasted with the meaninglessness of the real one.

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Brainwashing vs. Indoctrination

My mother once told me a story about a Catholic grade school class.  The teacher (who was a sister in a religious order) was telling her pupils about the evils of communism.  In particular, she told them that the communists used their power to brainwash their subjects and tell them what to think.  One student raised his hand and pointed out that the sister did the same think to her students.  My mother didn’t tell me what the teacher said in reply, but I would like to reply for her.  What they do in Catholic schools is not brainwashing, it’s indoctrination.  The two words both have negative connotations, but they are as different as night is from day, as conditioning is from teaching, as animal is from man.

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Hiding behind women and children

As I recall, one of the things that we used to hear about our (or Israel’s) Middle Eastern enemies–like Hezbollah or Iraq under Saddam–is that they deliberately endanger their own civilians.  They would put their gunmen and weapons in places like schools, hospitals, and residential areas.  Either they thought they could gain an advantage by own (or Israel’s) reluctance to endanger women, children, and noncombatant men, or else they were hoping to draw fire on their own civilians so that they could milk the casualties for propaganda.  Either way, what a bunch of dirty rats!  The other thing we’d hear about was that nasty people in places like Uganda would use chilren as soldiers.  Here, the offense is not putting noncombatants in harm’s way, but making someone a combatant who shouldn’t be put in such a role.

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Bonald’s maxim on divorce

I caught a few minutes of the Nancy Grace show on CNN the other night.  Apparently some scoundrel named Jon Gosselin has abandoned his wife and eight children and then cleared out their bank account to support his shameless life of extravagance and fornication.  That’s not important.  What did make an impression on me was one of the experts on the show, who told us that the lesson in all of this is that married couples should always have separate bank accounts.  This brought to mind one of my maxims.  I’ve been carrying this around in my head for a while; now I have an excuse to give it to you.

A country where people can get divorced is a country where people can’t really get married.

Really, what does marriage mean, if society actually encourages us to plan ahead for the divorce?  We are supposed to arrange it so that husbands could get by without their wives, and wives without their husbands.  There can be no real dependency, no real self-offering.

I now hear that the TLC network is suing Mr. Gosselin because he signed a contract to put his family on their television show, and he’s refusing to deliver on it.  He’ll go to court for this.  Of course, he made another contract to someone else–to love, cherish, and support her, and to forsake all others for her.  He’s violated that contract too, but the state would never dream of punishing him for that.  No, no, divorce is our filthy culture’s most sacred right.  Marriage isn’t like a real contract, not something important like a business contract.  Nothing can be allowed to hinder an American’s sacred right to sexual gratification.  Men can abandon their families; women can murder their own children in the womb.  That’s a price we’re willing to pay.

To hell with this vile culture.