Friday, February 29, 2008

On the subject of constraints

Friday, cigarette #2

Also from A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women:
A Reply from His Coy Mistress

Sir, I am not a bird of prey:
A Lady does not seize the day.
I trust that brief Time will unfold
our youth before he makes us old.
How could we two write lines of rhyme
were we not fond of numbered Time
and grateful to the vast and sweet
trials his days will make us meet?
The Grave's not just the body's curse;
no skeleton can make a verse!
So while this numbered World we see,
let's sweeten Time with poetry,
and Time in turn may sweeten Love
and give us time our love to prove.
Annie Finch

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sonnets are born free, and everywhere are in chains

Friday, cigarette #1
I can freely leave an unfinished free-verse poem to prepare a meal, sleep, have a drink with friends, but a formal poem seems to follow me everywhere and makes me hard to live with. Mona Van Duyn, A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women
I have a feeling that Peter Augustine Lawler would have enjoyed Tuesday's YPU debate (Resolved: Conform to traditional gender roles). All of the modernists said exactly what he would have predicted: Gender roles are constraints, constraints obscure individuality, and individuality is the basis of my identity.

Some conservatives answer this charge by saying that the sense of direction that tradition gives people outweighs the fact that traditions are constraining, but is the fact that a tradition constrains people really a disadvantage that needs to be outweighed? Even if individual authenticity is the thing you care most about, constraints usually give you more individuality, not less. Ask a hundred high school students to write a free-verse poem, then ask them all to write a sonnet. The hundred sonnets are going to reflect greater individuality. The shackles of tradition give people purpose, and that's cool. But sometimes, like rhyme and meter, they're cool just because they're shackles.*

Oscar Wilde takes the virtue of working within constraints one step further:
Personality is an absolute essential for any real interpretation. When Rubinstein plays to us the Sonata Appassionata of Beethoven, he gives us not merely Beethoven, but also himself, and so gives us Beethoven absolutely — Beethoven re-interpreted through a rich artistic nature, and made vivid and wonderful to us by a new and intense personality. When a great actor plays Shakespeare we have the same experience. His own individuality becomes a vital part of the interpretation. People sometimes say that actors give us their own Hamlets, and not Shakespeare's. In point of fact, there is no such thing as Shakespeare's Hamlet.
In other words, if you want to understand Kenneth Branagh you shouldn't chat with him about his favorite books or watch him drink his afternoon tea. You should watch him play Henry the Fifth.

The logical conclusion of the idea that men are most themselves when most free of constraints is that the groggy self that exists when I've just woken up, before I've had enough caffeine to remember my manners, is more authentic than the more polished self that leaves the house for work in the morning and meets with my thesis advisor. Maybe this is true, but I hope not.

*Not all constraints lead to greater authenticity. Burqas do not, in fact, dignify women.

Blogwatch: As if going out on a Saturday night weren't performative enough already...

Thursday, cigarette #1

1. Forget campuses, ТКБ takes a look at the Visigothic Rape Industry.

2. Snuh posts a Friday Five that includes an mp3 of "Papa was a Running Dog Lackey of the Bourgeoisie," which is an O'Jays-style soul verison of The Communist Manifesto from the 1970's National Lampoon show Lemmings. No, really.

3. Hat tip Eve on this one: Smoking ban workaround in bars: Hold "theater nights":
The Star Tribune reports that dozens of bars in the Twin Cities are holding "theater nights" and declaring everyone in the bar to be an actor. By law, performers are allowed to smoke during theatrical performances.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I don't know what conservatism is, but if you hum a few bars I can fake it...

Wednesday, cigarette #2

The idea that there’s a difference between making a contract with the community (which is what Jonathan Rauch thinks marriage is) and entering into a tradition (which is what Eve Tushnet thinks marriage is) has been making the rounds in the Yale Compulsive Philosophical Discussion Support Group, and this quote from Marijane Meaker's memoir of her lesbian relationship with Patricia Highsmith came up:
That kind of conversation would launch one of my diatribes about how different we were from any other minority group. Unlike blacks, Jews, and other who faced discrimination, we grew up without a peer group. We had no support from our families, either. The church saw us as sinners and the law saw us as illegal.
A lesbian growing up in the homosexual isolation of the 1950's had to relate to her sexuality through books and movies rather than people. Before arriving in New York where lesbian bars actually existed (Meaker's book depicts the 1950's New York scene in detail) Meaker's only contact with lesbianism was through a tradition, not a community.*

The same narrative is true of kids who grew up in North Carolina or Cleveland dreaming of the Ivy League, except that when these precocious rednecks finally replace the imagined tradition of intellectual New England with a flesh-and-blue-blood community of New England intellectuals they experience a disconnect between the two and, more often than not, disappointment.

James Poulos pointed out that Romney's narrative as a conservative is that of a convert, not a dyed-in-the-wool believer, and that's a good thing. It gives him a different relationship to the movement than the Republicans "whose conservatism developed within the sadly lazy, self-congratulatory, decadent, and brittle yet bloated environment of mid-'90s Washington" have, but also different from the relationship one would expect someone who had been an undergraduate member of the Party of the Right to have.

The question of whether someone relates to conservatism (or lesbianism or intellectualism) first as a tradition or first as a community seems like a pretty helpful way to categorize their narrative. The differences between Young Republicans and ex-liberals might make a good study, or the differences between people who came to Ivy League schools from public schools in the middle of nowhere versus those who went to Roxbury Latin. (Hey, don't look at me; I'm not the anthropologist in this house.) I tend to prefer people who had to go out and discover a community based on their beloved tradition — a man who grows up right-wing is like the fish who's the last one to realize he's in water.

*Is this why gay men, according to world-renowned fruit fly Camille Paglia, fixate on cultural trivia?

Meaning, Existentialism & Gender Roles: Broockman gets nausea, Eve gets vertigo, Housemate Dara gets creative

Wednesday, cigarette #1

Last night's YPU prize debate on gender roles (Resolved: Conform to traditional gender roles) was, with a few exceptions, no fun. None of the men wore dresses! Only one of the men wore a burqa! Not one of the speakers in the negative spoke in favor of a completely androgynous society; everyone stayed somewhere between gender-neutral and "separate but equal." If their objection to gender roles is that they confine and oppress women, then the only solution should be to get rid of gender altogether. Any gender role, no matter how enlightened, is going to constrain some woman somewhere from doing something she would otherwise do; otherwise, it's just a bundle of characteristics, not a category.

The four speeches that didn't fall into this fallacy were the most interesting of the night: Leah, who said that we should accept gender roles as being as psychologically ingrained as other evolutionary stuff like "fight or flight," but that the way to handle this is not to conform to gender roles but to play with them [Can we play with gender roles without conforming to them? Is there a difference between rejection and subversion? —CSB]; Geoff, who said that conformity is antithetical to art, therefore art demands we disregard gender roles [Conforming to gender roles is like conforming to an artistic form, i.e. novel, sonnet, etc.! Conforming to a gender role is a creative, even artistic act! —CSB]; and Noah, who said that it's never a question of "Should I conform to role X?" but "Which of my nineteen different roles should I conform to at this moment?" The roles of male, student, Jew, American, & leftist can coexist within a single person, and he has realize that he can never embody any of these roles fully, certainly not without sacrificing all of the others. Noah also warned that getting rid of roles completely leaves us vulnerable to totalitarianism, which essentially says, "You only have one role (citizen), but you damn well better do it." Other absolutisms substitute other roles; same bad deal.

Then there was Broockman, who was interested in meaning:
I suspect that some say “Conform!” not because they are motivated by justice, but because fearing nihilism they feel a need to imbue their own traditional choices with external meaning by identifying some tradition as something inherently meaningful and right.

. . . Sexual traditionalism proscribes some ex ante grand social solution to what is the most important challenge of any individual’s life.

I too mourn what the aff mourns, but we ought not become trapped as we attempt escape from nihilist nausea by making such statements to others. Rather, let us create meaning with the statement made to the universe by our lives. For, even being reactionary forces one to live at the tempo of others. A teaching from the Jewish tradition reads, “We can only be redeemed to the extent to which we see ourselves.”

Your soul’s answer may to be keep fighting regardless of this futility. But the struggle to the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart only if he knows this truth.

Sartre says, “every man is condemned to freedom.” And I say, embrace it.
Looking through my Mary Poppins bag of stock arguments, I found this Eve-ism: "I have sometimes doubted that my life has meaning; I have never doubted that Hamlet has meaning."

Deconstruction — I won't say "postmodernism," because, as Housemate Dara always says, there's no reason postmodernism can't be creative after it's done being destructive — insists that Hamlet really is meaningless. It's like 4'33", which very obviously has no meaning except what the listener brings to it. This seems to be what Broockman is saying about life. I disagree — maybe 4'33" has no meaning inherent in it, but a Bach concerto seems to have meaning that we perceive as well as meaning we impose.

Eve's aphorism is compelling because the statement "There is no essential difference between 4'33" and a Bach concerto; both have no meaning but what the listener projects onto it" is more obviously false than "Life has no meaning but what a man projects onto it." Of course there's a difference between John Cage and Bach! One has stuff in it already! To put it in literary/cinematic rather than musical terms, I am more confident in the meaning of Gilda's "actual-size movie-queen despair," which is obviously tragic, than I am in the meaning of my own problems, which may simply be unfortunate.

Think of existentialism as the belief that life is more like 4'33" and less like a Bach concerto. That may in fact be something Broockman believes. However, it seems weird to say that life can't have inherent meaning if we accept that Hamlet, Gilda, and Bach concerti can, and if we don't accept that those things can, then we're back to equating what it's like to listen to 4'33" and what it's like to listen to Bach.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Are AFF roundtables on marriage outdated?

Monday, cigarette #3
When we marry, the choice is voluntary, but the duties are not a matter of choice. Edmund Burke
I had been planning to go to the AFF roundtable "Is Marriage Outdated?" on a swing through DC, but Mike Gravel rescheduled his YPU appearance at the last minute. Lucky for me, AFF has posted an audio recording of the whole thing.

James Poulos, riding high from the very fun phrase "this world, where you must plant your feet firmly on your own shoulders," delivers this about twenty minutes in:
Marriage is outdated if we decide that marriage is all about us... The authority of shared spousal agreement is only partial. Marriage is the willing subjection of both spouses to an authority outside them both... So, we can realize how gay marriage doesn't necessarily threaten the authority of all marriage. It only does so if gay marriage isn't sacred or isn't a union. As people like Andrew Sullivan show, a vocal number of would-be gay spouses do want unions, and many of them do think that gay unions are just as sacred as straight ones. Gay marriage is controversial because large numbers of Americans think homosexuality is not sacred, and that really is the deciding issue.
This is only true if involvement in the sacred is something we can just decide. James is right that the important and interesting thing about marriage is that it binds two people together by some kind of sacred authority, but he doesn't give a very clear picture of where this sacred authority comes from. I can't make something sacred just by saying it is — two roommates, for example, couldn't invest their living arrangement with the same kind of holiness that marriage has just by calling it a "sacred" commitment.

Maybe it's possible that, while one person doesn't have the authority to make something "sacred," a whole community acting together does, and so if your community or church decides that gay marriage is sacred then it is. As Eve pointed out in a question, though, it ain't necessarily so:
Do you all think there is a difference between a "contract with the community" and "entrance into a tradition?" Those two seem to have different resonances with me, to the point that when I hear "contract with the community" I think, "Oh God, Hillary Clinton wants to raise me like a baby," whereas when I hear "entrance into a tradition" I think, "Oh, that sounds cool and beautiful and somehow aesthetically pleasing."
If it's not what your community says but the tradition of marriage that makes it a sacred relationship, then we have considerably less freedom to decide which relationships count as marriage and which ones don't. If it turns out that the Western Canon from the Song of Songs on down talks about marriage in deeply gendered terms, then we can't crowbar gay marriage into "the sacred" and expect it to work.

Full audio here.

St. Aelred: No one ever so lacked a Boswell!

Monday, cigarette #2
The spoken, not the written, word was his proper vehicle; and no one ever so lacked a Boswell. Karl E. Beckson, Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage
John Boswell suggests one reason why being able to talk about purity might be helpful to Christians:
Though shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination. [18:22]

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. [20:13, KJV]
The Hebrew word "toevah," here translated "abomination," does not usually signify something intrinsically evil, like rape or theft (discussed elsewhere in Leviticus), but something which is ritually unclean for Jews, like eating pork or engaging in intercourse during menstruation, both of which are prohibited in these same chapters.
Understanding homosexuality this way wouldn't open the door to gay marriage, but it might help, say, AIDS ministry if the Church were able to use language other than that of moral condemnation.

He also suggests that I might be right about disliking a culture that understands all physical intimacy in a sexual context:
Even for celibates Aelred did not discourage physical expressions of affection. As abbot he allowed his monks to hold hands and otherwise express affection, unlike other abbots who, in the words of Aelred's admiring biographer, "if a monk takes a brother's hand in his own, . . . demand his cowl, strip and expel him."
Or, if not right, then at least in the same wrong camp as St. Aelred.

Brutus: honorable man or enemy combatant? Film at 11.

Monday, cigarette #1
Brutus even dares tell his friends that if his own father returned to earth, he would kill him just the same. It was an overpowering love of country which, taking leave of the ordinary rules for crimes and virtues, hearkened only to itself and saw neither citizen, friend, benefactor, nor father. Virtue seemed to forget itself in order to surpass itself. Montesquieu, Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline
The blog is back! After last night's paper-writing marathon, Housemate Jack suggested I start calling it "The Red Bull Drinking Blog." On the other hand, there is now senior essay where was none before.

The ladies over at Iqra'i have been picking up the slack with some very provocative posts on honor and loyalty:
Brutus has no honorable choice. In the end he chooses the one which is best for everyone else: he tries to leave his countrymen a Rome that is, if not his ideal, then better for his action.
Karras puts a lot more nuance into it than that, but it still sounds like "When the going gets tough, the tough get utilitarian." Brutus picks the choice that's "best for everyone else?" Measured in utils or hedons?

If Brutus was only interested in having the best outcome, there was no need for him to be a conspirator. Caesar ends up dead either way. (This came up at the Resolved: Brutus was an honorable man debate; hat tip Noah.)

Housemate Dara was at that debate and picked up this line of reasoning in her speech: Brutus lending his dagger to the assassination changed the story. It had been about a self-serving power grab; Brutus made it about the Republic. He had more to lose by being involved (personal loyalty to Caesar that none of the other conspirators had), but he was also the only one in a position to make the enterprise ideological and honorable. Sanctification through narrative: it works.

This puts us squarely in the realm of honor (Socrates: "When life gives you hemlock, make hemlockade") rather than pragmatism (Aristotle: "You shall not sin against philosophy twice"), so it doesn't make sense to talk about what's "best for everyone."

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Can't squeeze nothin' past William Howard Taft!"

Tuesday, cigarette #1

Posting will be light as the senior essay heats up (should be back Thursday), so have a little blogwatch in the meantime:

Songs:Illinois reports on Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs about 43 U.S. Presidencies. Hurry over for mp3's of "Andrew Jackson" and "William Howard Taft."

Pitchfork (CSB disclaimer here) revisits its interview with John Darnielle:
Pitchfork: What speaks to you in metal?

JD: I don't know that it's really a "speaks to you" sort of thing. There are so many ways to respond to music besides feeling like someone's communicating with you...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

CSB: We Read Two-Bit Queer Theory So You Don't Have To!

Sunday, cigarette #2

From Stanley Booth as quoted in Dusty in Memphis (33 1/3 series) by Warren Zanes:
A gay friend told me he'd never understood Tennessee Williams until he came to Memphis. I'd lent him a second-story apartment with no air conditioning. He said to want to have any sort of sexual contact in the summer in Memphis, you'd have to be a pervert.
I'm sure there's a way to work this insight into my senior essay...

Sunday Morning Words to Live By: "Go on your nerve"

Sunday, cigarette #1

From "Personism: A Manifesto" by Frank O'Hara:
I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."

That’s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose you’re in love and somebody’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, "Hey, you can’t hurt me this way, I care!", you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Zoroastrian, a Catholic, and a Rabbi walk into a bar. Is the bar clean or unclean?

Saturday, cigarette #2

I've been threatening to write about purity for a week now, and I suppose it's no good waiting for something timely and purity-related to show up in the news, so here goes nothin':

1.) Zoroastrian Purity Laws: "Wait, did you say unconsecrated bull's urine?"
Among Irani Zoroastrians, hair trimmings and nail parings are gathered separately and placed on scraps of cloth. Furrows are drawn around these scraps with the chanting of the required holy words. Then the cloths are tied up or sewn shut, placed in another cloth, and carried in the left hand to the "place of nails" (N.P. lard, nākhondān), which is situated on the outskirts of the village. This structure has no door, only an opening in the flat roof and steps leading up to the opening.

Alternatively, the nails and hair are simply placed in a metal vessel, which isolates and confines the pollution, covered with cloth, and emptied into the lard. In this case, however, the bearer has to undergo a threefold purification: three stones are set within a pure space marked by a furrow, and ablutions are performed with unconsecrated bull's urine on the first stone, with dust on the second stone, and with water on the third stone. The vessel is rinsed with unconsecrated bull's urine, scoured with dust, and washed with water.
The reason for quoting this passage from Purity and Pollution in Zoroastrianism: Triumph Over Evil is not to make you laugh at Those Zany Persians, but to give an example of what it looks like to think of morality in terms of purity and impurity, because . . .

2.) . . . Christianity Doesn't.
Kate (a.k.a "Heavily Annotated") mentioned in class the other day that medieval canon law understood crimes as sins against a sacrament. Bestiality, for example, was a sin against the sacrament of marriage because it distracted from and therefore damaged properly ordered sexual activity within marriage. I mention this one in particular because . . .

3.) . . . This Story from Plymouth Colony Complicates Things
There was a youth whose name was Thomas Granger. He was servant to an honest man of Duxbury, being about 16 or 17 years of age. He was this year detected of buggery, and indicted for the same, with a mare, a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey. Whereas some of the sheep could not so well be known by his description of them, others with them were brought before him and he declared which were they and which were not... First the mare and then the cow and the rest of the lesser cattle were killed before his face, according to the law, Leviticus 20:15, and then he himself was executed. The cattle were all cast into a great and large pit that was digged of purpose for them, and no use made of any part of them.—William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation
In Zoroastrianism, whether a man repents is less important than whether he performs the appropriate sanctifying ritual. One consequence of tossing out purity/impurity is that repentance becomes the most important part of atonement. (Yeah, yeah, the sacrament of reconciliation, whatever. Even in the case of confession, it's the mental state that's most important.) The fact that William Bradford was careful to cast the violated cattle into a large pit and "make no use of any part of them" suggests that his kind of Christianity was able to talk about purity in the way that the Zoroastrians and rabbinic Jews could and medieval Christians could not.

Christianity is credited with turning the West into a guilt culture rather than a shame culture, but I know at least three conservatives who like talking in terms of shame more than talking in terms of guilt and want very badly to find a Christian way to do so. I've been trying for the last week to do the same kind of thing with purity with no luck. The bestiality story from William Bradford's journals makes me think that there should be a way to do it, though . . .

Saturday Morning Dose of Puritan Poetry

Saturday, cigarette #1
Women are books in which we often spy
Some blotted lines, and sometimes lines awry,
And though perhaps some straight ones intervene,
In all of the errata may be seen.
If it be so I wish my wife were
An almanack – to change her every year.

An impromptu response:
“Women are books” — in this I do agree,
But men there are that can’t read A B C,
And more who have not genius to discern
The beauties of those books they attempt to learn.
For these an almanack may always hold
As much of Science as they can unfold.
Annis Boudinot Stockton

Friday, February 15, 2008

"Good day for ducks, isn't it?" "Why, yes, the men are well-dressed..."

Friday, cigarette #1

The Abyss has done some comparative marriage theory, drawing a distinction between Iris Murdoch & John Bayley, who wanted "to preserve their singular lives within their shared space, like 'two animals in a field,'" and Sheldon & Jean Vanauken, who "wanted to become one person."

She quotes this passage from Sheldon Vanauken's A Severe Mercy:
For use in company we had a whole range of signals that didn’t depend on catching each other’s eye or contorted faces. They were, in fact, mostly innocent questions, such as asking, “Did you bring the English Ovals?” And they meant such things as “This person is boring me out of my mind: do something!” or “Let’s get out of here!” or “Keep your eye on the one I shall glance towards!” or “The one that just spoke is lying” or “When we go, let’s ask the person (or couple) I shall glance at to come with us.” These and many others, some more subtle and complex, along with the appropriate responses, in all of which we were well drilled, enabled us to carry on fairly elaborate conversations with privacy in a roomful of people.
The Abyss is not charmed:
I find Vanauken’s and Davy’s relationship-model deeply undesirable. Insofar as they ward off “creeping separateness,” they erect an ugly power structure against relationships with other people: their code language, and their sense of themselves as the last bastion of courtesy in a world of “whispering mockers of love,” reminds me of Erich Fromm’s concept of “égoisme à deux” in The Art of Loving. Their model of relationship is thus crippling to community, and I would take a rich, sustained community over an intoxicating relationship any day. . . All this is to say that I find the Bayley-Murdoch model enormously attractive and the Vanauken-Davy model enormously repellent.
I understand how a private code might seem to imply a rejection of everything else that isn't your lover, but when I've had relationships where the two of us had this ability to carry on secret conversations in public (I'm thinking of both friendships and romances) I never found it isolating, and here's why: it isn't as if I sat down with Housemate Dara some Thursday morning and drafted a Helen & Dara Secret Codebook. Secret signals develop over time, and most of them have some kind of story attached. They aren't a rebellion against living in a wider community, they're an expression of it.

If your secret language comes from a fantasy world, then the Abyss is right and what you have is probably bad. But most relationships' catalogue of secret signals comes from the fact the two people have good stories, which they wouldn't have if they'd retreated into some anti-communitarian isolation.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Two from the humor archives

Thursday, cigarette #3

I really should give each of these its own post, not because they each deserve it (although they do) but because I've had more than three cigarettes today. By a factor of seven. At least.

First, fun with cafeteria comment cards:
There are two things I like about this card:

1.) The unintelligble word "BIHVHAR"

2.) The fact that it was written by two people named Motorcycle and Blaze. I bet if your name were Motorcycle, and you met a guy named Blaze, you would know right then and there that you were gonna be best friends.
And Beyond the Fringe:
I think an awful lot of tommyrot has been spoken about juvenile violence. I think we can use this voilence and channel it towards God. It is my aim to get the violence off the streets and into the churches, where it belongs.
Video of the latter here.

He's right, of course, but what's "owl-light?"

Thursday, cigarette #2

Anti-Climacus points us towards a neat quote:
Even today the Northern visitor hankers to see eroded hills and rednecks…to sniff the effluvium of backwoods-and-sandhill subhumanity and to see at least one barn burn at midnight. So he looks at me with crafty misgivings, as if to say, “Well, you do talk rather glibly about Kierkegaard and Sartre…but after all, you’re only fooling, aren’t you? Don’t you, sometimes, go out secretly by owl-light to drink swampwater and feed on sowbelly and collard greens?”—George B. Tindall, in the 1963 speech “The Idea of the South.”

When Harry & Sally Met the Party of the Left

Thursday, cigarette #1

When I got off the floor of the Party of the Left's debate (Resolved: Men and Women Can Never Be Friends, a joint debate with the Conservative Party) the President of the Union told me I was what was wrong with America. This is almost certainly true, but not because I took some rhetorical shots at the crackpot notion that a woman can ever be "one of the guys."

To be fair, I went a little further than that (although not, by these lights, into Enemy of the State territory) by saying that in order to compete in a boy's club like the Party of the Right a woman has to scrape together as much power as she can, and, insofar as some of that power inevitably looks like "wiles," the When Harry Met Sally theorem holds true. (The reason why a woman can't compete with men in the same way that men compete with each other should be obvious — being a mannish woman makes you off-putting and unappealing, which means you lose power, in which case why did you bother in the first place.)

Turns out Madame President and I were both wrong. The Other Well-Dressed Conservative Grad Student Named Justin (not the one teaching the "What is Conservatism?" seminar but the other one) gave a rebuttal after which I had to be scraped off the floor with a spatula. According to him, it's fine to say that a female leader has to lead in a feminine way, but it's not a beautiful femininity, it's a sublime one, and being a thunderstorm rather than a rose doesn't compromise a girl in the way that trading on flirtation does.

Phew! One less thing to worry about.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Burkean Veils: Now 50% more politic and well-wrought!

Wednesday, cigarette #1

Nicola treads on my turf by quoting Burke in reference to Sex Week at Yale:
All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature.
This is a nice quote, but it doesn't stand alone. (Sorry, but after McCain's rank abuse of Burke-quoting privileges, I'm especially sensitive to people taking him out of context.) I know I don't care that much about literal truth ("If you're not postmodern, you're not paying attention"), but Burke did. There are only a few kinds of decent draperies that he's okay with.

#1: The Politic, Well-Wrought Veil
They threw a politic, well-wrought veil over every circumstance tending to weaken the rights, which in the meliorated order of succession they meant to perpetuate; or which might furnish a precedent for any future departure from what they had then settled for ever. They knew that a doubtful title of succession would but too much resemble an election; and that an election would be utterly destructive of the “unity, peace, and tranquillity of this nation,” which they thought to be considerations of some moment.
Even though the succession shenanigans of the Glorious Revolution were pretty unorthodox, Parliament did its best to make William and Mary's coronation look as ordinary as possible. Burke believed that an honest and thorough examination of the facts surrounding their coronation would lead to the conclusion that it had been as legitimate as any that had come before, but he also knew that honest and thorough examination is a rare thing, so Parliament was justified in fudging the facts of its narrative.

#2: The Sacred Veil
There is a sacred veil to be drawn over the beginnings of all governments. Ours in India had an origin like those which time has sanctified by obscurity. Time, in the origin of most governments, has thrown this mysterious veil over them; prudence and discretion make it necessary to throw something of the same drapery over more recent foundations.
The men who start countries are usually sketchy guys, so it's good that time and myth make them sound like heroes.

The "politic and well-wrought" veil is pragmatic; the "sacred veil" is aesthetic. The first makes something look like what it actually is; the second makes it look like something it's not. In the former case, honesty was preferable to dishonesty but the stability of the kingdom was preferable to either. In the latter case, dishonesty is, by its own merits, preferable to fact.

So which kind of veil is sexual modesty? I want to know where to send the funeral bouquet. Nicki has an answer:
Like a woman, life has her powders and paints to hide blemishes in public. With her lover she can be plain and still found beautiful, but no true gentleman would want the world to see his lover as he does. To be a conservative, I think, is to recognize the necessity of pleasant lies: not to mislead us, but to make us love before we understand.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Urban Traditionalism: "When a man is tired of Adams Morgan, he is tired of life."

Tuesday, cigarette #2
"The Prince of Wales is from Richmond. England, not Virginia. He does not have enough relatives to be from Virginia."
Several students in "What is Conservatism?" expressed agreement with Russell Kirk's kvetch that "veneration dies on the pavements," and even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Are cities to blame for mobility, rootlessness, impermanence, and every other modern evil? Is city life fundamentally unconservative?

Even if we grant that city life lacks a sense of permanence, it's still not quite right to say that there's no urban parallel to the glowing pride of showing some stranger around your ancestral home. Doesn't Aaron Sorkin say that his favorite thing to do is show New York City to someone who's never been there before? Los Angeles nostalgia is morbid and vaguely nihilistic, but it exists. People still associate the town of Berkeley with radicalism; DC hard-core couldn't have happened anywhere else; blues might have come from the Delta, but soul is entirely a product of Memphis.

Housemate Will points out that while each city does possess a tradition, rural (and potentially even suburban) culture is more conservative because the people who live there don't just feel connected to their location but also to their neighbors, whereas in the city getting to know your neighbors is considered impolite.

Even if it's true that urban conservatism is based on my relationship with the mythic ideal of a city more than my relationship with the actual people who live there, that only means that urban traditionalism is self-conscious instead of unaffected, and mythical rather than communitarian.

Where do I sign?

Cigarette etiquette according to Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, cigarette #1

From The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde:
When Pierre Louÿs wrote to André Gide about the elegant customs and manners of Oscar and his disciples, he was charmed by the way 'X,' a young man to whom he had just been introduced, offered him a cigarette. 'Instead of simply offering it as we do,' Louÿs wrote, 'he began by lighting it himself and not handing it over until he had taken the first drag. Isn't that exquisite? They know how to envelop everything in poetry.'
UPDATE: Reader AGS suggests "cigaretiquette." Appalling, simply appalling.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Chaste Right-Wing Conspiracy: "One Kiss Don't Make a Summer..."

Monday, cigarette #2
MUSIC: "Add Your Light to Mine, Baby," Lucky Soul
I've seen you dancing like no one was looking
Beneath the fullest moon,
Oh, someday soon I'm gonna find all the things I've been yearning for,
Are you coming too?
Reader JWB rejects the possiblity of a girl group revival because girl groups only make sense in a culture that takes chastity seriously. In a world where "Wouldn't It Be Nice" sounds kitschy, the delicate frustration of well-intentioned high school girls no longer exists. Therefore, no girl group revival, QED.

Could we switch this reasoning around and bring back chastity by bringing back girl groups? Maybe not with these girls ("There’s no need for talking/In what we’re about to do..."), but I think Lucky Soul could get it done.

Several fuddy-duddies in the Party of the Right say that rock music is "just sex." Not an implausible claim — if the White Stripes were to release a song in praise of maiden virtue, there would be a meaningful disconnect between form and content. Like a heavy metal album of Southern spirituals. So, while we're out on a genre hunt, we might as well look for a genre of pop music that could plausibly glorify sexual restraint. The only one besides girl groups that I can think of would be straight edge punk (GIRL GROUPS : CHASTITY :: PUNK : PURITY?), and good luck reviving that one with the Caffeine Generation.

And if this works, could we engineer a soul revival in order to bring back America's love affair with freedom?

Gearing Up for Sex Week at Yale with some Pretty Creepy Literary Criticism

Monday, cigarette #1
The Everlasting Cigarette of Chastity
Bluntly equating literary discourse with sexual intercourse, Wister indicates [in The Virginian] that a cowboy can make love to a woman only by first gaining intellectual access to her through an acquaintance with canonical fiction. —Blake Allmendinger, The Cowboy: Representations of Labor in an American Work Culture

We can never embrace (sexually or otherwise) a single person, but embrace the whole of her or his family romance. —Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence
Hat Tip on both: The Rat

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Two-Four-Six-Eight! We Ain't Gonna Fornicate!

Saturday, cigarette #1
The council of Toledo (400 AD) declined to excommunicate a man who lived faithfully with a concubine. But half a century later, Pope Leo ruled that a previous relationship with a concubine did not exclude marriage: this was not bigamy, but moral improvement. [...] Bishop Callistus of Rome, in the mid-second century, caused outrage by ruling that such cohabitations, though they were not marriages in law, need not be denounced as fornication. Gillian Clark, Women in Late Antiquity
The infamous and biennial Sex Week at Yale begins tomorrow, which means that matters of love have been on everyone's mind. While Housemate Will has been trying to get his burqa admitted into the lingerie show ("Gentlemen members of the Committee for Freedom are expected to donate $5 to the burqa fund"), I've been wondering what an appropriate-yet-appealing alternative to "Sex: Why Not?" might be, and how to fit it onto a sandwich board.

Hard-line prudery has the advantage of making a good protest chant, but until it becomes practical for college students to marry it isn't likely to make a dent in the paperback sales of I Am Charlotte Simmons, which leaves conservatives searching for a middle ground between the ideal (no dating without the prospect of marriage; chastity outside marriage) and the nightmare scenario (what exists now).

I am basically on board with the Church sticking to her guns on chastity* (although we'll see what happens when I finish Boswell). ("It sounds like a parlor game. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: pick two." —Eve) A bigger problem is the notion that all dating should be oriented (however distantly) towards marriage. If we take it as a rule of thumb that one should never date a girl for more than a year without marrying her, then it becomes impossible to date in one's first three years at college. There is a Very Highly Placed Officer of the Yale Political Union who refuses to date before he's "settled" (read: rich) enough to marry, which he expects to be sometime around thirty.

Preliminary Conclusion: "No sex before marriage" is difficult in a world where people don't marry until their mid- to late-twenties but essentially fine. "No dating that isn't directed towards marriage" is a bigger problem.

Another data point that fits into the constellation "Christian hook-up culture" is something that happened a few nights ago: Housemate Dara was unhappy and I was fulfilling my obligation to comfort her when I realized that, while our script was fine, the blocking was off: I was saying the right things, but the fact that I hadn't given her a hug was some kind of failure. There is some bundle of physical activities that go along with marriage, and to neglect them makes a marriage bad or incomplete. So too with friendship. So too with dating.

This is important for the following reason: in the same way that Christian theology understands "girlfriend/boyfriend" as somewhere on the spectrum between "stranger" and "spouse," it also puts all physical intimacy somewhere between "handshake" and "the sacrament of marriage." Putting my arm around Dara when she's unhappy is an instance of physical intimacy that technically fits somewhere on this spectrum, but it wouldn't make sense to put it there.

Campus hook-ups as they exist now are either "not quite sex" or "sex," and, unfortunately, very few college students can give themselves any compelling reason to stop at the former. The prevalence of out-of-wedlock sex on college campuses could conceivably be side-stepped by inventing some genre of hook-up that isn't part of a declension that ends in sex.

Preliminary Conclusion: In the same way that campus culture suggests that there should be a genre of dating alienated from the march towards wedlock, it also suggests that there should be a genre of intimacy that isn't part of the spectrum between a handshake and sex but makes sense independently.

This shouldn't be taken to mean that the problems of hook-up culture would be solved by replacing it with another kind of sexual free-for-all that respects certain deontological bright lines. For one thing, that fails to address the emotional consequences of a romantic scene centered around hooking up. (The Women's Political Forum discussion focused on these — who'd'a thunk?) However, if I were to draw up a list of every kind of college student romance I could think of (the Two Drunks at a Frat Party, the Summer Romance, the Doomed Love, etc.), I could probably get a committee of morally sensitive people to differentiate between ones where a hook-up would be emotionally disastrous and the ones where it would be genre-appropriate.

Preliminary Conclusion: While it's true that some kinds of non-marriage-oriented dating are bad (drunken one-night stands, boo!), this doesn't mean that every kind of non-marriage-oriented dating is (summer romance, yay!). Further research into which genres of dating are acceptable despite being alienated from marriage should consult Hollywood and the Western Canon.

One alternative to hook-up culture that was popular with the ladies of the WPF was this: "Chastity until marriage is impractical, but hooking up is bad for women, so college students should pursue committed long-term relationships and exercise their own judgment about what level of physical contact they think is appropriate within that." This sounds appealingly humanistic, and makes sense in a world where marriage is obsolete, but inventing some kind of mini-marriage is bad for actual marriage. The attitude towards late antique concubinage was "It's like marriage, only different"; the WPF's attitude towards committed relationships between college students is "It's like marriage, only smaller." The difference is crucial. The latter suggests that commitment is the thing that makes sex appropriate in marriage, when the real reason is much more complicated. (If it's commitment that's important, then why reject gay marriage? Where does the fact that sex makes children fit it?) The alternative to the current Sex Week culture that I've sketched raises its own questions, but I am more confident that it leaves marriage untouched than I am about the WPF's solution. Not totally confident, but more.

*The two things complicating this are the Gillian Clark quote above and some edition of Bernard of Clairvaux's sermons that I read ages ago — as I remember it, the introduction said that his sermons on the Song of Songs obviously assumed that his audience (monks, not laity) had some familiarity with sex. I wouldn't swear to it, though, and I'm not sure it would make a difference if I did.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Watch This Space

Posting resumes tomorrow. Topics include:
Why can't Christianity talk about ritual "purity" in the way that Zoroastrians and rabbinic Jews can?

The Yale Women's Political Forum is having a round-table on "hook-up culture" tomorrow. Will Yours Very Truly be able to make her case for a Christian hook-up culture? What can that phrase possibly mean, and would Tom Wolfe approve?

If the two examples of a comedian-comedienne romance that actually works are
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Much Ado about Nothing, doesn't that kind of prove the point?

Is the phrase "om nom nom" necessarily benevolent? Or can wicked things (i.e. bears, the Yale Political Union) also "om nom nom?"

No, seriously, Christian hook-up culture? What?
And if Housemate Dara does anything funny, you know where to find the scoop...