Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Man and Beast

with 3 comments

Sometimes it is difficult to deal with writing this blog in the mornings.  My computer at home is clunky, I still have a dial up connection here, and the blog site will do really odd things when it gets finicky. This morning has been one of those times.  If I’m low on patience, I blow the whole thing off until the next day, when–given my schedule–I’m pretty certain to have access to a really nice computer with a really nice connection at school. 

Today, though, is the first day of a three day period when  I’m probably going to be right here.  We’re due to get a big whacking nor’easter tomorrow, which means that it’s unlikely school will be open to go to.  So here I am, and with the way I feel about teaching lately, that is not a bad idea.

Of course, if I’m home, I’ve got other things to annoy me.  I can manipulate my environment here better than I can there.  I can keep the television set off–except for period forays into the weather reports–and put Back or Mozart of Hildegarde on the CD player and read my books and otherwise behave as if the world I live in was very different from what it is.

Unforunately, I get distracted.  And when I get distracted, I channel surf.  And when I channel surf, I always seem to end up staring at–Lady Gaga.

For those of you even more out of it in terms of popular culture than I am, Lady Gaga is the stage name of the latest things in Big Rock Stardom.  When she first came onto the scene, with a song called Poker Face–well, okay, that was when I first noticed her; she could have been around for a decade before that, I suppose.

Anyway, when she showed up with Poker Face, she looked like one of those slightly-overweight Jersey girls whose only real attractiveness lay in how young she was.  She now seems to have lost about twenty pounds, so that she now looks sort of like a forty-year old streetwalker who’s had a really hard career.

But Lady Gaga’s looks are only marginally her own fault.  Her schtick is entirely her own responsibility, and it’s her schtick that gets to me.

I don’t really have a lot of problem with explicit sexuality.  I get a little numbed out with the extent to which most modern women rock singers “whore themselves,” as Dylan once put it, but, you know, whatever.

What gets me about Lady Gaga is that she celebrates ugliness.  And I do mean ugliness.  At the end of her most recent video, a thing called Bad Romance, she’s seen lying next to a burned corpse on a burned bed, smoking a cigarette while bolts of electricity come out of her nipples. 

So here’s the thing.

For most of the history of Western Civilization, art has been not only the way we idealized ourselves, the way we expressed our idea of what it meant to be human, but also the way in which we separated ourselves from “the beasts.”

Man is a being somewhere between a god and a beast, the Greeks said.  The Medieval Christians always put it somewhere between a beast and an angel.

However anybody put it, the stress was on valorizing and encouraging the superior side of ourselves and discouraging the other thing.  Even a raw, raunchy and distinctly anti-intellectual comic writer like Aristophanes used his comedy to impress on us the ways in which we fell short of what we ought to be.

For  a long time, I used to explain this phenomenon as a response to the realities of an uncertain world.  When you lived in an era where death was common, even for the young, where you never knew when the next plague or marauding horde would show up–it made sense to use art (and politics and philosophy) to impose order on the mess. 

The first break in this theme comes with the Romantic period, and that can be seen as a direct reaction to the hyperrationalism of the Enlightenment, accompanied as it was by a hyperrationalism in government and industry as the age of consciously conceived governments marched almost in lockstep with the coming of the industrial revolution.

In a way, I’ve got a lot of sympathy for the Romantic movement, even if I don’t have much respect for Romantic ideas and even less for the behavior of the leading lights of the era. 

Well, okay.  I have a lot of respect for Byron.  He believed in freedom and revolution, and he went out and got himself killed for it. 

But I understand the need to rebel from the hyperrationalism, because in some ways we’re in a hyperrationalist time now.  “Good social work practice” may have replaced “moral uplift” as the catch phrase of the day, but it comes down to much the same thing.  I doubt if it matters much to the adolescent targetted by the harpies of good works if he’s told he’s “delinquent” or that he’s “sick.”  I don’t know if getting locked up is worse than getting medicated out of his gourd.

But here’s the thing.  The Romantics may have rebelled against hyperrationalism, but they didn’t do it by making themselves and the world around them ugly.  Nor did they degrade themselves and their world until it all resembled a raw mindless suppurating sore.

Beauty is truth, Keats said, and truth beauty–but it was beauty he was talking about.  “Ode on a Greceian Urn” is a beautiful piece of work, whether you agree with its underlying premise or not. 

The ugliness seems to have started just around the turn of the twentieth century, first with the Dada movement in art and then moving in fits and starts though the culture at large.  Right now, it’s lodged firmly in a lot of rock and hip hop, especially in video. 

Aristotle and Aquinas thought that man (and woman) was likely to lapse into a bestial state if she didn’t maintain a fair degree of self-discipline.

People like Lady Gago seem to revel in that bestial state, seem to actually attempt to make it more bestial.  My cats have more propriety, and more natural modesty, than this woman does. 

What’s more, they seem to be determined to reduce all of humankind to its genitals–or “junk,” as the slang goes these days.  That says something, although I’m not entirely sure what.

I understand the need to rebel against the hyperrationalism–the need to take sex back from the people who natter on endlessly about “making good choices” and “staying safe.”  Sex is not safe, and my guess is that that’s one of the things we like about it. 

I don’t understand the need some of these women seem to feel to reduce themselves to a vagina, and their emotional lives to a matter of “love you with my muffin,” as the woman said.

Ack.  It’s not just women.  It’s everywhere, and the rock and hip hop music videos are just the place where it is most thoroughly and consistently on display.

The Romantic movement was rebelling against hyperrationalism.

This new thing seems to be rebelling against human-ness.

If that makes any sense.

Written by janeh

February 9th, 2010 at 7:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Man and Beast'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Man and Beast'.

  1. And here I thought Lady Gaga was just a pathetic little attention-whore with self-esteem issues and an unreasonably large audience. They are thick out there.

    It seems to me, though, that (some) artists have been seeing the world as ugly and hopeless at least since the Beatnik movement, and we haven’t slid off the edge of the earth yet. In fact, the art and craft of beauty are alive and well (or so my copies of American Style magazine insist) they just don’t get on MTV much.

    Sex, as it always has, sells, and every new generation thinks they’ve discovered the raw, nasty side of things. What’s more true, I think, is that we tolerate a wider range of sexual expression in public than anyone over 50 is used to. It’s not that sex is uglier than it used to be…it’s that the ugly side of sex that always existed is emerging from the shadows. I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing, as something cannot be remediated unless it can be discussed. Repressing this sort of behavior doesn’t reduce it, necessarily.

    Don’t ask why Lady Gaga does it, because the answer is “the money.” She may or may not be that way in her actual life. No telling. Many times a public persona is diametrically opposed to the private person. Ask instead why people spend money to watch her do it.


    9 Feb 10 at 12:49 pm

  2. I think we are moving away from the idea that humans should aspire to the best they can be or do, and that the sheer nastiness and ugliness of so much of contemporary culture is partly a result of this. It’s all very well to know that sex always had a dark side, but I think a lack of – acceptance, repression, call it what you will – makes the public nastiness both nastier and more common. What’s that phrase about appetite growing by what it feeds on? When you get used to something you really like, you want more, or new, or different versions to get the same degree of satisfaction. That applies to avid collectors as well as people who like raunchy performances that focus specifically on the most painfully destructive aspects of sex. And they not only need more of the stimulant, they need more of the quality of the stimulant. A society in which a glance at an ankle was arousing gives way to one in which ankles aren’t noticed at all, and naked flesh surrounded by bits of S&M gear (or Lady Gaga in that video!!) is only mildly exciting.

    I think another aspect of the same idea is the tendency to treat humankind as merely another animal, which comes out of a hyper-rationalist approach (or perhaps reductionist?) views of the last century or two. It can also be seen in the kind of attitude that animals are exactly the same as humans.

    It’s really a logical conclusion if you start from the premise that we all evolved from the same batch of chemicals (and of course don’t consider any evidence that humans have evolved in a somewhat different way than any other organism). From that point of view, humans are just animals, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise. Combine conclusion that with the need to increase the impact or frequency of a stimulus to try to maintain the same level or pleasure or excitement, you get Lady Gaga and whoever comes after her and tries to top her behaviour.


    9 Feb 10 at 2:05 pm

  3. There isn’t much left to say. As Jane says, this is a deliberate choosing of the beast in us, beginning about a century ago, and with the volume steadily cranked up. I keep seeing an old “Peanuts” cartoon, with Lucy shouting “If you can’t be right, be wrong at the top of your lungs!”
    It is, of course, a matter of some frustration to me how much of this sort of thing is actually tax-supported. But to the extent it’s still a commercial enterprise, I take some pleasure in starving the beast. Since I have no satellite or cable connection, MTV and its accomplices don’t get a penny of revenue from me to support such “entertainment” While A&E and the History Channel do quite nicely selling me DVDs on the assumption that I have a brain as well as genitalia.
    When you watch these things, you pay the perpetrators–and you get more of what you pay for. Give them neither money nor attention, and see how many are left.


    9 Feb 10 at 6:09 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 211 access attempts in the last 7 days.