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Archive for November, 2009

A Few Notes from The Land of the Sore Throat

with 5 comments

And sore everything else, at the moment.  I am n ot a happy camper here, and I’m a little too floaty to do a regular sane post, including either of the ones I was going to do from the set up yesterday.

But a couple of things that are going through my head.

First, I never suggested that people ought to want to read book just for the prose.

Quite the contrary.  If you go back and look, you’ll see I said that there are an awful lot of well written works that are boring and useless

Lynn says she can overlook bad writing if she likes other things about the book–the plot or the characters or whatever–and she doesn’t see why everybody else isn’t the same.

Well, I’m not.  Really bad writing doesn’t just turn me off, it’s the proverbial nails on the blackboard.  I don’t understand how anybody can stand to plow through it.  It’s quite literally physically painful. 

The only real exception  I can think of to that rule is to a book I read first in childhood, and which I can now just about read even though it gives me a headache.  Of course, I read that book nearly twenty times, I think, so I just may be used to it. 

But I also didn’t need English classes to “train” me n ot to like bad writing–I got that habit all on my own and very young.  Writing is, for me, like music.  It has a sound.  And wrong notes are wrong notes.

That said, there are lots and lots of books that are not written particalarly well, but are also not written particularly badly.  Agatha Christie would not have written a sentence like the one I produced.  She was not a great prose stylest, but she wrote servicably well, and I have no trouble reading what she wrote.  Hell, I love what she wrote. 

And in case you’re wondering, I consider my own writing to be in that not-really-good, but not-really bad servicable area.  I’d do better if I could, but I just don’t have the talent.

But getting to the sentence I used as as an example:  it really isn’t a perfectly good sentence and just my taste that I don’t like it. 

Assuming that the purpose of writing is to convey information of some sort or the other, that sentence actively works against the reader’s ability to understand it.  Or anything it’s involved in. 

I don’t mean that it “lacks clarity” as my teachers used to say, although it has that problem, too.  I mean that by throwing that mountain of detail at the reader it actually obscures the scene it is trying to set.

Sentences like that are almost always written by amateur writers who do not trust themselves to be able to convey what they want to say and don’t trust their readers to be able to figure it out. 

I think the idea that there are people out there with so little imagination, or cultural reach, that they have to have every detail of a scene spelled out for them over and over and over again–well, okay, but my guess is that they don’t even really understand their television shows.

And now I think I’m going to go off and put honey in my tea and find some madeleines to dunk in it and still not do a Proust, who wrote some of the best prose in the history of the planet, but who is such an annoying, obnoxious self-regarding twerp that…well, let’s just say I’m not reading Proust this morning.

Written by janeh

November 15th, 2009 at 8:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Desperate–A Truly Desperate–Plea for Help

with 7 comments

Okay, sorry to do this, and sorry for the amount of shouting I’m about to do, but this is making me crazy.

Robert just posted a comment to today’s post, and in doing so, he did what about two thirds of the people who commented on the first post did–

He confused “standards for good and bad prose” with “standards for good and bad literature,” writing as if the two were the same thing, or as if they were so closely related as at least to be part of the same subject.

They’re not. 

It doesn’t take years of study to be able to recognize good prose.  It takes a decent eighth grade grammar and composition course.  The rules of English usage have been the same, with minor variations at the margins, for one and a half millenia.

But being able to recognize good prose DOES NOT MEAN that you will therefore be able to recognize great literature.

Some great literature is composed in good prose.  Some great literature is composed of actively bad prose. 

Knowing if Book X is written in good or bad prose WILL NOT tell you if Book X is great literature.

It’s as if you went about deciding if one of those bridge designs would work not by looking at the entire design, but by restricting your inquiries as to the place where the engineer intended to buy his steel.

Unless that happened to be a very, very bad place, you’d have uncovered no very useful information.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2009 at 10:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Going Around in Circles

with one comment

This is going to take a little while to do, so bear with me–I may have to use multiple posts.

But before I start for real, I want to take the occassionon to point out that my “aarrggh” in the title of the last post has nothing to do with assertions that “standards are relative,” and everything to do with the fact that I was trying to talk about a specific thing–the rhythm and the music of the prose–and had that discussion violently yanked into the territory of the “great work” and “characterization” and whatever. 

In that first post, I made no assertions whatsoever about what makes one work “great” or even “good.”  I was talking about the prose on its own.

And unlike judging a work to be good as a whole, it doesn’t require fifty years, or even fifty minutes, to tell the difference between good and bad prose.  The standards for good writing in English have been largely unchanged for centuries, and where they seem different what is actually at work is the disjointedness of time.  Words that were clear and precise in usage in one century may become less so over the years, so that, reading them now, they seem vague and ambiguous. 

The music and the rhythm remain, though, and they have the same qualities in Chaucer as in Shakespeare and in Shakespeare as in Spenser.  Right on down to us.

The reason that it takes fifty years to determine if a work as a whole belongs in the canon–which is not the same thing as deciding if it is “good” or “great”–is because the contemporaries of the work may be responding to all kinds of ephemeral and entirely parochial aspects of that work that are not really intrinsic to it.

A couple of years ago, the National Book  Association got into a lot of rouble with many of its members by asking  Stephen  King to be the keynote speaker at its annual awards banquet.  “Disgraceful!”  they thundered.  “He’s not a real writer!”

But those judgments were by and large not based on King’s work but on King’s income, and to a certain extent on the libertarian-to-traditionalist political assumptions some people find in his presentation of family (among other things) as a good thing. 

And many people like King’s work for the same sorts of reasons that Harold  Bloom dislikes it–and their judgments are just as illegitimate for the same reason. 

This is inot a phenomenon restricted to the arts.  Scientists spent decades resisting the increasingly corroborated hypothesis that intelligence is highly heritable, not because the science wasn’t there but because they felt it had political implications that they weren’t able to stomach. 

On top of that, the work as a whole has many more constituent parts than just the quality of the prose.  Great prose will not a masterpiece make, at least not on its own–I give any of you Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t  Dance, which contains some of the most beautiful prose in twentieth century English, and that is otherwise completely useless. 

We wait fifty years to let the arguments die and the  petty human emotions calm down, and then we see if people feel compelled to go on reading the book (or the poem or whatever), and then, and only then, do we have something we can even start investigating with any kind of objectivity.

But right now, I simply want to make two statements, and I’ll spend the next several days going over my reasons for saying what I’m about to say. 

1) First, I reject the idea that a standard of quality in literature is invalid unless “any intelligent person” could apply it and come to the same conclusion. I’m an intelligent person, and yet I cannot look at a Taylor series, for instance, and judge whether it has beenvalidly  validly and correctly cosntructed.  Nor could I judge whether one mathematical proof is better or more elegantly constructed than another.

This does not mean that there are no objective standards of elegance in mathematical proofs.  It means that I haven’t been trained to understand them.  The demand that the standard for literature be so simple that “any intelligent person,” no matter how sparse his training or dilettantish his acquaintance with the field is just another way of saying that the humanities are nothing but hobbies, with no real knowledge or expertise necessary to understand them.

I think exactly the opposite is true.  I think it takes a lot m ore work to understand the humanities in general and literature and particular than it does to understand mathematical equations, and I see no reason why “any intelligent person” should be in a better position to evaluate literature than they are to evaluate mathematical proofs.

2) Second, I don’t just disagree with theat quote from Kelvin, I think it’s one of the most dangerous and destructive delusions of the modern era. 

Science is extremely useful for what it’s good for, but what it’s good for is essentially plumbing. 

I’m not denigrating plumbing.  Plumbing is very important.  It’s also extremely limited.

Science can tell us virtually nothing about what it means to be human, never mind what we should do to live humanly.  It can’t even tell us what chocolate tastes like, or what C above high C sounds like.  It can give us equations for both, and molecular models for the first–but you can study those all you like, and you still won’t know. 

Kelvin’s statement is a perfect example of scientism–the process of transforming science from a useful but limited method of investigating some parts of the world into a religion, and it’s given us everything from Stalin to the whole language approach to reading instruction.

But I’ll get back to all that tomorrow.  At the moment, it’s raining where I am, and I’ve got Handel’s Messiah.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2009 at 7:14 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Arrrrgggggghhhh. So To Speak.

with 7 comments

I could go into a lot of things here.

For instance, standards are objective.   If they’re not, they’re not standards. 

Tastes are subjective, and what people usually mean when they declare that standards in art are subjective is that their own tastes to not fit whatever they think the standards are.

I qualified that as I did because often what people think the standards in art are aren’t what the standards really are, but just something they sort of picked up somewhere.

This is especially the case in areas like contemporary painting, which have been taken over by a group of people hailing “standards” that have nothing at all to do with the actual standards in the field, but who have the money and the access to publicity to make themselves look important by declaring the “worth” of things they only choose to like because they figure nobody else will. 

That doesn’t mean there are no longer any standards in painting, only that you’re unlikely to hear much about those standards because an awful lot of people with an awful lot of money at stake have a significant interest in confusing the issue for the general public.

After all, how else would they get grants?

And I never said anything about the world coming to an end because lots of people like kitsch. 

I never said anything about people giving up what they like in favor of what is objectively good, either.

But I do think that the world is a poorer place because we are so endlessly inundated with kitsch–and that we are less than the human beings we could be.   Art is the way we tell ourselves who and what we are.  Our children model themselves n ot on the lectures we give them but on the images they see and hear.   A world where young women strive to be Isabel Archer is a better world than one in which they strive to be Lady Gaga.

But what I was talking about yesterday had nothing to do with ideas, images, characterization, plot or any of the rest of it.

I was talking about the rhthym and the music of the prose.

That’s it.

Nothing else.

Some very good and interesting ideas have been delivered in very bad writing–see Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.”

Some very bad and morally objectionable ideas–hell, anti-civilizational ideas–have been delivered in some very good writing.  Try Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” which is nothing more than a very elegantly stated “put up or shut up.”

Some good and involving stories, original and compelling, have been delivered in very bad writing.  Try Atlas Shrugged, for instance.

Some bad, boring, and intellectually trite stories have been delivered in very good writing.  Try, oh, I don’t know.  Ann Beattie’s Falling in  Place, for instance.

But the quality of writing is about the rhythm and the music of the prose, and nothing else.

This is bad writing:

“Mary strode purposefully into the large, elegant living room, her four inch red spike heels clicking against the aged hardwood floors as her bright red hair bounced and swayed against the expensive confines of her Marie Callienda black felt hat.”

Plot?  Characterization?  Ideas?  I have no way to know, but they don’t matter. 

The quality of writing is in the music and the rhythm of the prose, and that reads like the wailing of castrated cats. 

That sentencce up there could be the start of the best book in the world in every other way.  I t could have wonderful characters, an original story line, new ideas.  I still wouldn’t be able to read it. 

What surprises me is that so many people could read such a thing–that the wrong notes, the mangled rhythms, the excruciating clunkiness of the damned thing are under the radar of so many readers.  It’s as if they’re literally tone deaf.

And, not being tone deaf, I just don’t get it.

Written by janeh

November 13th, 2009 at 9:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fear and Loathing, Fear and Trembling, Something or the Other

with 6 comments

I’ve been having a very distracted week–it’s a long story, and I’m not going to go into it–but in the midst of it all I’ve been thinking about two things:  bad writing, and con men.

By bad writing  now, I’m not referring to student writing.  Student writing is often truly deplorable, but it tends to be bad because it’s a mess.  The bad writing I’m talking about often gets published, and consists of SO DAMNED MUCH DETAIL YOU WANT TO KILL SOMEBODY/

Okay, sorry for shouting.

I just read through a manuscript partial in which every single person, place and thing was meticulous described.  I didn’t just find out that Sarah was a “cool red head,” I found out that she was “five foot seven with a slim, taught body, blazing red hair and eyes as blue as Lake Tahoe” who “intoned threateningly” and “tossed her head nervously.”

Nothing anybody did, anywhere, went without a descriptive phrase.  Ever. 

I often tell myself that the reason for the bad writing I get from my students is that they don’t actually read, so they have nothing to model their own prose on.

But in this case, that won’t work.  The person who wrote this thing almost certainly reads a great deal, although it might be restricted to books of a very limited kind.  But I’ve read those books, too, and I know they aren’t written like this.  No publisher would touch such a thing, and I’m willing to bet that even this writer wouldn’t read it.  There are so many details, so many qualifying words, scattered everywhere, that it’s difficult to get any sense of what’s going on.

And the effect is exactly the opposite of what one would expect in setting the scene–with so much detail presented so relentlessly, it’s almost impossible to get any impression at all of what characters and scenes look like.

I know a fair number of people who turn out to be very good writers do this sort of thing when they’re young, and in that case it tends to be–as it was for me–insecurity about your ability to write at all.

I expect that could be what it is here, but since this writer is not, as far as I know, very young, I have to wonder if what we’ve got is simply a complete lack of ear–a sort of tone deafness for prose. 

And there’s a lot of it out there.  I can name at least a couple of best selling writers who have not only tin ears, but really awful tin ears.  They don’t make this kind of mistake, but they make others, and I can’t read them.

But millions of people can, and millions of people seem to prefer what they write to things that are written well. 

I know it’s common for practitioners to complain that the public has all its taste in its mouth, but it seems to me that with writing, writers and the public are largely at odds.   In fact, talking strictly about the writing–the music of the prose,  not the story, or the plot, or the characterization, or whatever–it sometimes seems to me that many readers actually prefer to bad stuff.

And no, I’m not talking about something that is entirely subjective, but about the proper and effective use of the English language, which can be codified in many ways. 

There’s a version of this in academia–academics not only write very bad prose, but they tend to prefer prose in fiction that has been drained nearly bloodless.  If you ever have the misfortune to be saddled with a textbook for the standard Freshman English course these days, what you’ll find is not selections of short stories and poetry, but lots of short little, understated, “thoughful” essays on one topic after another, giving the impression that every single human experience–from missing a birthday party in fourth grade to being a witness to genocide–elicits the same sad, wistful little sigh meant to indicate that the experience has been “deeply felt.”

I kind of get this with academics. One of the reasons why I am constantly protesting the tendency to identity “intellectuals” as “people working in universities” is that schools–and I don’t care what schools, and possibly especially high-end schools (for reasons I may get around to in another post)–tend to be highly conformist.  All that “thoughtful, deeply felt” prose is the equivalent of being neat, handing your work in on time, and always being careful to behave “appropriately.”

But the tendency of people who are not academics to like clunky, painfully atonal prose is beyond me.  As I said before, I’m not talking here about a love of story, but of a tendency to prefer a story badly written than the same one written well. 

If it was a matter of content, it would make a certain amount of sense. 

But it isn’t, as far as I can tell.

I think something similar to this happens in painting.  There’s an enormous market out there for very bad Catholic devotional art–people seem to prefer it to painting of the same subjects (the Annunciation, the Nativity, that kind of thing) done by masters like Michaelangelo and Raphael.

I don’t know, maybe I’m complaining about nothing–maybe this is the equivalent, in art, to why the most popular girl in high school is always the “cute” one, while the class’s one true beauty can’t get a date to save her life. 

But it’s depressing.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2009 at 12:05 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

And On To The Moriarity Problem

with 9 comments

Okay, before I start this, I want to warn anybody reading it that it contains a great, big, enormous SPOILER–I’m supposed to cap that–for a book called The Old Wine Shades, by Martha Grimes.

There’s simply now way for me to talk about what I want to talk about here without revealing the ending.  That said, I’ll absolutely guarantee that Robert would hate this thing if he read it, and I do know a number of you tend to read more on the level of thrillers than straight detective stories, so we may be mostly all right.

The Old Wine Shades has one of the most interesting premises I’ve seen for a murder mystery in a long time.  Detective Richard Jury, Grime’s series detective, a British police officer attached to New Scotland Yard, is sitting in a pub one night when a man comes in a starts to tell him a very odd story.  The man’s name is Harry Johnson, and the story is about a friend of his, Hugh, whose wife and nine-year-old son disappeared under very strange circumstances only a year earlier. 

Actually, it wasn’t just the wife and son, it was the wife and son and dog.  The three had been out looking at houses in Surrey, ones close to a special school for autistic children that the wife wanted to place the son in, and they just vanished into thin air.  Then, a few months later, the dog came back to the family’s flat in London. 

In the meantime, Hugh has become so distraught that he can no longer function, and checked himself in to a psychiatric facility for depression.

It’s the kind of story that probably would have gone nowhere at all under ordinary circumstances, but Jury is, at the time this starts, no so much formally on suspension, but shunted off to the sidelines while the higher ups conduct an investigation into a case in which, in order to rescure two kidnapped children, he entered a house without a warrant to retrieve them. 

It’s the sort of case that should have been cut and dried–Jury went in not only without a warrant, but without probable cause to get one.  He had a hunch. 

But his hunch was right, and two children were saved, and public opinion is not going to be on the side of “if he couldn’t get the warrant, he should have let them die,” so here he  is, sort of but not really suspended, without much of anything to do.

So Jury lets himself get interested, and goes around checking up on the story–which seems to check out.

Anyway, to get to the punch line here–it turns out, of course, that Harry Johnson set the whole thing up, targetted Jury especially because of his present professional difficulties, and has arranged everything in such a way that he cannot get arrested for what he’s done.

Which is not to kill Hugh’s wife and son–Hugh’s son died in a boating accident and his wife has gone off to stay with her father in the South of France to get over her grief–but to kill his own mistress, whom he convinced to take part in the original charade.

Whatever.  It really is a very good plot.  But it occurs to me that it’s also a good example of what I think of as Moriarity Syndrome.

The problem with Great Detectives–and for all the rhetorical understatement of Grime’s writing, Jury is a Great Detective–is that it’s difficult to find crime and criminals for him to investigate that fully exercise his talents.

I’ve gone off before now on the stupidity of actual crime and actual criminals.  Hell, even most of the people we consider to be “intelligent” criminals aren’t, they’re just people able to exploit the willful self-delusion of the authorities.  Take Bernard Madoff, whose scam, though huge, should have lasted for about a minute and a half.  It wasn’t even particularly clever.  The man just said, “I can guarantee you seventeen percent!”  And everybody just went, “Okay!”

Had anybody even thought about what Madoff was presenting, for even two seconds, they wouldn’t have touched it.  And, in fact, some people did think about it, but nobody would listen to them.

Whatever, it doesn’t take a genius to be Bernie Madoff.  We know that because Madoff isn’t a genius.  But a Great Detective needs a criminal genius as a foil to his own talents, and therein resides the problem.

Really intelligent criminals would not get caught.  At the very least, they would be very hard to catch, and they wouldn’t be caught often. 

The detective novel, however, requires that criminals be caught, at least most of the time–the detective must not only solve the crime, but bring the criminal to justice.

And you could certainly write a detective novel in which the Great Detective went up against the Crininal Genius and then solved the case and got the CG arrested, but as soon as that happens  you’ve got the problem of the next book, or the next story.

It just isn’t plausible that there are dozens of Criminal Geniuses out there.  It’s barely plausible that there are criminals smart enough to carry a Hercule Poirot plot on an ordinary day. 

So what the novelist usually does–what Grimes did with Harry Johnson–is what Doyle did with Moriarity:  the detective solves the puzzle, but is unable to bring the criminal to justice, thereby giving the criminal a chance to launch another diabolical plot for the Great Detective to solve.

In general, I don’t mind this particular chain of events.  I certainly never have minded it with Holmes.

I found myself, however, very annoyed at the Martha Grimes novel.  Harry Johnson is  not only a Criminal Genius, but quite literally insane–and I do admit to being interested in the characterization, which was good.  I know what kind of person Grimes is talking about, and I know why that kind of person is insane if the word “insanity” is to make any sense at all–but it’s not the kind of insanity that can get you a plea for trial.  But I’ve met the Harry Grimeses of this world, just not any quite as intelligent as Harry is supposed to be.

I’m  not exactly sure why I found it annoying that Harry doesn’t end up arrested.  I’ve got no problem with a continuing story over the course of a series–that is, we meet CG A in this book, then he shows up again in another book, and finally, after six or seven encounters, we have the book where he finally gets caught.

And I know nothing that would indicate to me that this is not what Grimes intends to do. 

What’s more, I’ve got no problem with detective novels where the bad guy, although discovered, just gets away.  Life is like that sometimes.  I’m not one of those people who wants my fiction to reflect some idealized world unlike the one I’m living in.

But, with all that said, this annoyed the hell out of me this time.  And I think my annoyance may be the herald of something deeper, an underlying impatience with the entire Great Detective/Criminal Genius trope, as a trope.

I think that if I were able to get what I wanted from a story about a Criminal Genius,  the detective would have to be not a Great Detective, but an average but determined plodder, a sincere, thoroughly decent Ordinary Guy.

And I think that the reason I want that is that that is what I need in the real world–in the real world, there are no Hercule Poirots, no Sherlock Holmeses, not even many Richard Juries.  There are guys who maybe managed to get through a couple of years of community college, or four years of the lowest ranked state schools, who aren’t the smartest guys in the room, but who are charged with finding and putting away the people most likely to hurt us.

Fortunately, real life criminals are also not Moriarities–or Harry Johnsons–but if a Moriarity or a Johnson came along, then none of us would be safe unless our local Average Guys could catch them.

And, I think, it would make a very good novel.

But that’s the kind of thing I think about when I’m not getting enough sleep.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2009 at 10:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Okay, One More Try

with 11 comments

Lymaree says:

>>And I don’t see a conflict between “all types of sex where consent is possible and given is okay” and “sex with the unconsenting is absolutely forbidden.”

My problem with that statement  is with the “is possible.”   It is an attempt to make it legitimate to condemn all kinds of consensual sex by declaring that the consent “really isn’t” consent, for one set of reasons or the other.

But the simple fact is that plenty of the people involved in those situations do in fa ct think they have consented and do in fact think they are fully capable of giving that consent. The distinctions look–and are–arbitrary. 

And they’ll fall apart sooner rather than later, because every time some consenting couple gets rapped because it “really isn’t” consent, their response will be to make a very public and angry case for people to mind their own business, and then to lobby for changes in the legal and social standard that will not penalize what they feel is central to their own lives.

And what results from that is–well, the Monica Lewinsky case.   Which had even the most ardent liberal proponent of sexual harassment laws complaining about the power standared inherent in sexual harassment laws.

And note that I’m not getting i nto the can of worms that is the tendency of lots of people–both on the stronger and on the weaker end of the relationship–to find power differentials between sex partners to be sexy as hell.  That’s the basis of virtually every category romance,  and the entire BDSM movement. 

But although I don’t think there are any more actual pedophiles in the pobupulation, I DO think a higher percentage of pedophiles act on their urges than did in more sexually conservative times.

Why would this NOT be the case?  We know from the literature, for instance, that many homosexuals did not act on their sexual desires in earlier periods, because of soxcial disapproval and isolation.  And we also know that many gay men, at least, never started a gay relationship until they found a group of people who accepted what they already felt as normal.

And it’s not just gay relationships we can look to–far fewer heterosexuals (especially heterosexual women) as long as they were living in a world where the act was both condemned and penalized, not by law but by social opprobrium.

I don’t see that pedophilia is any different in that respect than anything else.  True, nobody is going to stop somebody who s dedicated to getting what he wants, but most people are not dedicated to that extent.  Some homosexuals practice even in Tehran, where the penalty for being caught is death.  I’m willing to bet most homosexuals in Tehran decide just to go without sex rather than run the kind of risks they’d be subjecting themselves to.

I’m sure that most pedophiles feel that what they’re doing is wrong, and feel ashamed of it.  But the members of every single sexual minority o ut there hae felt the same as long as society at large condemned what they do.  That’s why such groups fight for social visibility and approval–because they hope that, once the larger society acccepts and no longer condemns what they are, they won’t feel ashamed of it anymore.

We now have an active and visible pedophilic community making just these kinds of arguments and efforts, with just that result in mind–to change social attitudes about pedophilia.

And you don’t think that such a climate, and the existence of such groups, has an effect on how man y of those people with a pedophilic sexual orientation will actually go out and act on it?

As to–can’t remember whose–comment that consent is obviously not given in the case of pedophilia, since the children so sexually abused cry out and protest and are n pain, so that the perpetrator cannot fool himself into believing there has been consent–I think that’s true enough for cases involving actual genital intercourse.

But a surprising number of these cases do not involve that.  There’s everything from fondling to–a biggie, and it completely mystifies me–taking sexually explicit pictures.  Meaning that the possibilities for self-delusion are considerably expanded. 

As for social norms, the reason I think that isn’t what I’m talking about is that every time I’ve seen it used, it seems to imply that the “norms” in uestion are socially constructed.  I don’t think our responses to sex and sexuality are at base socially constructed.  I think the incest taboo, for instance, probably has a good deal of evolutionary biology in it–what’s socially constructed is only the definiition of “family” we use to trigger it.

So, when Lymaree talked about her father marrying his first cousin, my brain went:  so what?  But then, I’m not close to my first cousins, and I don’t “feel” them as faimily in most cases.

Finally, I’d like to point something out.

I would think that what I’ve said in these posts is largely unexeptionable. 

I haven’t suggested that we go back to some Victorian standard of sexual propriety. 

I haven’t suggested that we make some forms of sex illegal.  In fact, quite the opposite.  I haven’t been talking about laws at all. 

I’ve said two things: 

First, that in a sexually liberated age, we’ll get more of the bad people acting on their desires as well as more of  the good ones.  And that this is especially the case in an era when the message is that sexual desires are impossible to control and anyway probably shouldn’t be, since when we do that we are “denying who we really are.”

Second, that the standard we’re using is inherently unstable, because it does not cover all the forms of sex we want to disapprove, and therefore forces us into rhetorical strategems that weren’t working all that well before the Anita Hill case, and by now aren’t really working at all. 

And third, that since the standard is inherently unstable, it will, in the next ten to twenty years, inevitably break down, and what will come in its stead will be EITHER a return to much stricter sexual mores, OR a wholesale capitulation to “do whatever you want,” even in cases we now find abhorent. 

I doubt if any of us finds either of those outcomes desirable, but it’s like the man said–you can’t always get what you want. 

And now, I’m going to go worry about Dr. Moriarity.

Written by janeh

November 9th, 2009 at 7:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Little Note

with 8 comments

And then I’m going to run off and actually do something with my day.

Lymaree said this:

I do think it is possible to isolate and limit an entire class of sexual behavior by defining it properly, and then by discouraging it extensively. And that class is sexual behavior involving the non-consenting. This covers child abuse, bestiality (I’m sorry, I don’t think your dog or your cow is capable of giving consent, even if they don’t turn around and bite your winkie off), and sex involving any sort of power-relationship that conflicts with free consent , such as parent/child (even where the child is not a minor any longer), boss/employee, officer/enlisted, teacher/student…you finish that list yourself. 

And I actually sort of agree with the first sentence.  It’s just that

1) I don’t think this defines it properly and

2) I don’t think just “discouraging” something extensively does much good–it can’t be just a matter of school classes, legal penalties and lectures in newspapers and on cop shows.  It has to go much deeper than that, to be almost non-verbal in its gut-level reaction, and there’s good reason why this standard as stated not only won’t, but can’t, deliver that kind of punch.

First, I’d like to point out that this is, in fact, the standard we have now, and it isn’t working.  

It’s not working because it is inherently self-contradictory.  Theoretically, the standard is “consent,”  but what it really is is “consent, except in those cases where we don’t approve of the sex, so then we’ll say you can’t really consent, and your consent therefore doesn’t count.”

On that list of relationships this statement finds “Not really consensual” is an awful lot of actually consensual sex–secretaries marry their bosses and graduate students marry their professors all the time. 

One can certainly find cases where people in authority abuse their power to coerce their subordinates into sex, but you can find just as many in which the relationship is perfectly willing and sincere on the part of both parties. 

That’s why so few states have been willing to use a power-model sexual harrassment standard, and why so many of the institutions that have tried to use one have found themselves in deep trouble, both legally and in the court of public relations.

If you’re serious about using consent as a standard, then you’re going to have to accept lots of the relationships you say you want to prohibit, plus at least some relationships between teen-aged girls and older men.  I knew two girls in high school who had relationships with men in their thirties.  Both of them will tell you that the relationships were good ones and that they still value them.  One of the two has been marrid to the man in question for over thirty years.

Consent is not a standard.  It is an attempt to get out from under the need to set standards. 

Certainly, no sex is morally legitimate if one of the parties to it does n ot consent.  But sex between adults and six yeaar olds is wrong for other reasons besides the lack of consent on the part of the six year old.  The problem is, if we articulate the other ways in which that sex is wrong, we risk impinging on practices we don’t want to judge, practices that are now considered perfectly okay for people to engage in, although they weren’t so considered thirty years ago.

For what it’s worth, I think that the standard as Lymaree stated it is not only the one we have, but the one we are going to go on having.

We care far more about our own sexual autonomy, and about being able to think of ourselves as “good” people because we are n ot “judgmental,” than we do about protecting six year olds.

Written by janeh

November 7th, 2009 at 8:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

So NOW I Know What You All Like To Talk About…

with 9 comments

Well, let me start with an aside, to jem–I wasn’t saying the  Catholic Church should get off scot free on the pedophilia scandal, I was wondering why clincial psychology got to make mistakes like that, over and over and over again, and still be heralded as “experts” practicing “science.”  

I’m sure there were one or two people out there bucking the conventional wisdom, but the conventional expert wisdom of the time was that pedophiles could be cured, the aggressor in an adult-adolescent sexual relationship was always the adolescent (especially if she were female), and homosexuality was a form of mental illness.

Those ideas changed not because new research discovered new facts, but because attitudes in the wider society changed first.   This is not science, and it should not be privileged to decide court cases, parole hearings and public policy as science.

But let me get to the suggestion–by  Gail, I think–that there’s no reason why society whouldn’t be able to be accepting of homosexuality and teen-aged sex and other things, and still erect strong social norms against pedophilia.

First, social norms are not nearly enough.   Climate is much more than that–it’s the emotional baggage around such norms.  The supposed basis for such norms is almost never what people say it is.

Smoking really is a good example, because the same people who tell you that smoking is wrong because it’s bad for you will quite happily take a hit or two of Ecstacy on the week-end or spend their Thursday nights getting wasted. 

The climate around smoking is causd by the fact that we have managed to make it, well, yucky–the response is visceral and non-rational.   In places where that visceral response has not taken hold, smoking laws–even when they get passed–are about as effective as trying to put out a house fire with a sippy cup.  People just ignore them, and trying to enforce them isn’t really worth the effort.

It’s this need for a visceral response that makes me think that it may be the case–notice the hedging–that we can’t approve teen-aged nonmarital sex, homosexuality and a host of other things while also erecting a strong enough climate around pedophilia and adult-adolescent sex to actually deter any activity in the latter two.

For one thing, it’s not just that we declare these things to be okay because they’re “natural.”  It’s also because the climate at the moment strongly militates against being “judgmental” of other people’s tastes in sex, even when we find those tastes “icky.”  We also push a line that says that being a “minority” is a good thing and that other people have the obligation to understand (and not be “judgmental” of) minority lifestyles.

I hate the word “lifestyle.”

My point is however that any society in which many relatively unusual sexual tastes are accepted will also have to have something like this set of assumptions.  Only something like this set of assumptions can stop something else that is perfectly “natural,” and that our tendency to act on our visceral response to such activity (icky!) by condemning it.

Sex evokes far more violent visceral responses than smoking ever will, because sex is far more central to the human condition, although probably not as central as this present social climate likes to make it.

We’ve done a good job of making society safe for sexual minorities–I just don’t think we can do that without also making life far more comfortable for pedophiles, who are, after all, a sexual minority.  And my guess is that it’s virtually impossible to contain an explosion of adult-adolescent sexual activity in the present climate. 

I am, I’ll say it again, not talking about laws.

Laws that buck a prevailing climate are not entirely useless, but they’re not really effective, either.  We needed fewer laws with  less stringent penalties to keep pedophilia in check in the Fifties than we do now.  Fewer natural pedophiles became active, none of them knew of a shadow clture that approved their activities or desires, and there was no rationale for the things they did.

I’m not suggestinbg, by the way, that we go back to condemning homosexuality or non-marital sex.

I am suggesting that as long as we want to live in a world where individual sexual tastes are considered private, nobody else’s business, and important to  our personal identity and autonomy–then we have to accept the fact that more of the pedophiles among us will become active.

And the laws will not only not help, in the long run, they’ll hurt.  People  have a limited capacity to accept injustice, and the kind of laws now on the books–the kind that put that eighteen year old who has sex with his fifteen year old girlfriend behind bars for ten years and then on a lifelong sex offender registry that funcationally destroys any chance he will have for a normal life–invite a backlash.

The backlash won’t take the form of a stronger climate against pedophilia, but of one more likely to minimized the damage done by pedophilia.  And strictures against adult sex with adolescents will just disappear.

The only other option, I think, is for us to become less accepting,  more judgmental, and more traditional in what we (again, viscerally, not by law) accept as “not icky” sex. 

And that does not seem to be the direction in which we’re going.

Written by janeh

November 6th, 2009 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Thought Experiment

with 5 comments

Okay, before I get started on this, to answer jem:  I have no idea if the psycholigist the Church consulted in the Sixties were Catholic or not, but I do know that standard professional opinion at the time was that a) people who were attracted to pre-pubescent children could be cured and b) people who were attracted to adolescents were the victims of those adolescents, especially if the adolescent was a girl. 

And I’m not lumping all psychologists into the “bad” category.  I’m just saying that I don’t think psychology is science, and it does more than bug me a little that it’s treated as science–and its practitioners treated as experts–for the purposes of public policy and criminal trials.  Too much of clinical psychology is about social control–about upholding predetermined standards of “normal.” 

But to get to the thought experiment.

First, let’s assume we could study a range of societies.

On one end–in Society A–we have a completely sexually repressed society, where sex is only accepted (SOCIALLY and MORALLY, not just legally) when it occurs between two formally married people who are trying to have a baby.  All other sex–including sex between those same two married people, after the woman’s menopause or when she’s known to be barren–is condemned.

On the other end–in Society Z–anything goes.  No sex is condemned.  Ever.  At all.  Have sex with chickens.  Nobody will think anything of it. 

Now, no society is either like Society A or Society Z.  Our societies come somewhere in between, and most people don’t want to live on either of the extremes. 

But I think we can posit the following, and that the factors as outlined will be true.

1) Assuming a steady number of pedophiles (say, 10) in each of the societies, a higher percentage of such pedophiles will be active in Society Z than in Society A.  That is, if pedophilia is a sexual orientation, pretty much the same percentage of people will be born pedophiliac in each of the societies, but more people with that orientation will actually go out and do something about it in Society Z than in Society A. 

2) This is because laws are all well and good, but what really makes for a brake against any kind of sexual activity is:

          a) how much sexual activity is socially accepted PLUS

          b) what the rationale for allowing that sexual activity is PLUS

          c) whether people with still-disapproved sexual orientations are isolated, or can find a community to support them in defining their activity as “normal”

And here, I think, is where we have our problem.  I don’t think that there are still lots of active pedophiles even though we now have laws against pedophilia.  I think we now have stronger laws–and more laws–against pedophilia because there are in fact more active pedophiles, and there are getting to be even more all the time.

I also think that if the only thing we do about the situation is pass more laws, the percentage of pedophilias who act on their sexual desires will increase until it approaches 100%.

In Society A, of ten pedophiles, one will act on his impulses and cause harm to children.  In Society Z, nine will act on their influences and harm children.

In other words, climate matters.  The more loose, open, accepting and tolerant a society is of different kinds of sexual behavior, the more people with desires that same society still defines as “wrong” will act on them.

Think of it as collateral damage.

At the moment, we live in a society that manages to hit all the buttons in terms of what’s likely to cause trouble.  Yes, this society condemns pedophilia, and sex with adolescents as well, but

1) it tolerates and even accepts more and more marginally popular forms of sexual activity every year.  Sexual activity that was utterly condemned a decade ago is now perfectly acceptable, giving the not complete ridiculous impression that other activity–condemned today–may very well be accepted tomorrow.

2) the reason given for this increased toleration and acceptance of various kinds of sexual activity is that sexual orientation is ingrained in each of us, we don’t choose it and can’t help it and therefore condemning it is tantamount to racisim.

3) and in the Internet, we have an international community of pedophiles who support each other in their desires (and activities) and who make it possible to be a pedophile in 2009 without feeling isolated in the least.

In other words, as a society, we’ve reach about Society W on the scale from A to Z, but on the Internet, we’re all the way to Z.

I don’t think laws control behavior all that well, especially sexual behavior.  But I do think climate controls a lot, or at least provides a heavy-duty defense against undesirable manifestations of “the natural.”

We can pass all the laws we want, but the percentage of pedophiles who act on their pedophilia will continue to grow as long as the social climate is largely hostile to the very idea of sexual deviance–which it is. 

The issue then becomes where on that continuum do we want to be–how much sexual freedom from individuals do we feel is important enough to justify risking more active pedophiles and more harmed children?

And that is the only decision we can make.  Even Society A won’t eliminate all active pedophiles.  And most of us don’t want to live there, and for good reason.

But I do think that the consequences of more sexual freedom are inevitably more harmed children, and a lot more harmed adolescents.

I also think that we understand that, underneath–that’s part of the reason we get hysterical and rigid as we do with things like sex offender registries.  Some eighteen year old sleeps with his fifteen year old girlfriend and we ruin him for life–and that really is what it is–because we don’t want to have to look at the possibility that our tolerant attitudes to many marginal forms of sexual behavior is in and of itself a cause of very bad things.

And I’m blitering now.  But maybe I’m a little clearer.

Maybe the question is this–how much of our own freedom are we willing to give up in order to limit that collateral damage? 

What if I could prove that society’s acceptance  of your relationship with your fully adult nonmarried lover causes the pedophile down the street to feel entitled to have sex with eight year olds?

I have a sneaking suspicion that, at the moment, the answer to how much we’d be willing to give  up in our own behavior is–nothing.

Ack.  I keep getting tangled up in the grammar of how to ask the question.

Written by janeh

November 5th, 2009 at 10:17 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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