Sunday, 27 October 2019

Sex & Sensibilities


I’ve just about made it through Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, at long last, as it’s been on my bucket list for awhile. It has arguably the greatest opening line of any novel, which has always made me want to continue with it, but apart from the odd nice observation or turn of phrase here and there, it’s been a bit of a slog.

I’ve been trying to withhold judgement or limit my expectations, since it’s a relatively ‘early’ novel (1813), but as with another highly regarded book from roughly the same period, Wuthering Heights (1847), I found it to be extremely limited in accomplishment and amateurish in execution: with both books I had the problem several times of not knowing who was talking to who on the page, which would seem to me a very elementary mistake to make when writing a novel. And then realizing this was taking place going on a hundred years after Gulliver’s Travels, which suffers from none of these deficiencies.

Most of all it’s been making me think about the differences between male and female art - Austen, after all, is perhaps the highest regarded female author there is, and especially in Britain is always mandatorily listed in the ‘top tens’ of great writers.

But why? Her strengths are few - mostly just an ear for, and wry observation of, middle-class life and gossip. Whereas, in terms of invention, originality, drama, plot, tension, sustained humour, concision, and most of all scope, she is nothing at all to write home about.

Nothing exists for her outside the comfortable drawing rooms and pleasantly-kept gardens of her world. The book was written - and set - during a time of enormous upheaval and drama and death - the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars - and yet the only flicker of acknowledgement of this is the occasional mentions of the young army officers, newly stationed in town, who are of interest only as potential marriage prospects. There is an absolute absence of curiosity about the wider ramifications of the war, the political changes daily taking place, about the horror those men are heading to or coming from - let alone the experiences of the ordinary footsoldiers. Her vision is microscopic: all that matters to her are the internal frettings of a woman in search of a marriage.

Austen made light of this herself, even writing of one character. “without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object”. But though Austen recognizes how deeply cringey and unpleasant this is, her avatar in the book, Elizabeth, is shown to be no different from the rest of the womanfolk: when the protagonist of Pride & Prejudice improbably ends up at the country home of her love interest Mr Darcy, the long, loving descriptions of the grounds and the estate, the decoration of the house, even the furniture, are all an integral part of the changeover of her feelings, all plus points and incentives on the growing list of advantages to bag him. Essentially saying ‘soon, all this will be yours’.

This is another profound difference between the sexes, for if a man - then or now - was writing about a woman he had met, and began listing all her wealth and shiny objects, about how she has a swimming pool that he looks forward to swimming in every day once they are married and she’s taking care of his every want and whim forever…. everybody, woman or man, would simply think him a heartless cad or a ridiculous gigolo. The idea that such material covetousness would be a fundamental part of his ‘love’ for her would be unthinkable in any sympathetic male character. It would not, in fact, be recognized as ‘love’ at all. And yet this fetishization of wealth and/or status is still the rule for female-written women characters in practically every ‘Romance’ novel there is, from Jane Austen right up to 50 Shades Of Grey.

To return to my original point: Austen is widely held to be the greatest female author, and yet her objective accomplishments are few. In this she illustrates in microcosm a general disparity between the sexes in ambition and achievement and, well… genius.

For example, in literature there is no female equivalent to Shakespeare, Joyce, Tolstoy, Dickens, Milton….. There’s no female Tolkien - a woman spending decades building a world for which she wrote dictionaries in an invented language and long books of political history and mythology before even publishing a word. The nearest female equivalent would probably be J.K. Rowling, a mediocre and derivative hack who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. The former is the product of an all-consuming obsession, a drive to break new ground no-one has walked before, to do what previously would have been thought to be impossible. The latter is a nice, safe, part-time hobby that paid well.

On the other hand, and to be fair, there’s no male equivalent I can think of to, say, Anaïs Nin, but then she herself is perhaps the most extreme example of the solipsism I’m addressing: the subject of almost all famous female writers is the internal feelings of a single woman.

This lack of vision, the lack of ability or inclination to rise up above and out of oneself, attempting to reach far beyond one’s grasp, is largely why there are no great female composers - no female Bach, or Mozart, or Debussy or Mahler or Beethoven or Wagner or Stravinsky or so many others. Even though all you need to write a symphony is some paper, a pen and a piano, the middle class women of the 19th century, who had more free time and piano lessons than anybody else alive, came up with precisely nothing, not one orchestral work of any note.

I already (unintentionally) made a lot of people angry by pointing out awhile back the incontrovertible fact that there are no great all-female rock & roll bands - yes, a few good little cult acts like The Slits or The Dixies Chicks or The Go-Gos or whoever, but none that achieved anything like the universally recognized (and recognizable) body of work of The Beatles, The Stones, Black Sabbath, The Clash, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, The Smiths, R.E.M., U2, etcetera etcetera etcetera…

Now, part of that is simply because of how hard it is to keep an all-girl band together, when at least half the band will want to quit and become a mother instead within the first 5 years. But it’s also just because of the lack of shared technical excellence and overwhelming drive to eclipse everything by everybody (male or female) that has come before them. There ARE very important female figures in the history of rock & roll, like Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin, Carole King, Nina Simone, Laurie Anderson and others: my point has always been simply that either they worked alone, or almost 100% exclusively with men. Any great female singer you can think of, the entire musical architecture built around and supporting her singing was constructed pretty much exclusively by fellas. Just as in every other medium.

Even female magicians: right now I’m hooked on watching Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, and every time a woman appears onstage, I instantly know what I’m going to see: an old trick, performed at an amateur level, dressed up in an appealing and well-thought out presentation. The focus is always much more on the colours, the clothes, the backdrops, the character she is playing, rather than actual technical ability. The female magician simply refuses to spend decades sitting in front of a mirror practising with cards, or cups and balls, at the expense of all else, or obsessively designing and building device after device after device to reach towards some new standard of greatness.

And that’s a perfectly sensible position to have - to want a well-rounded, pleasant life instead of one of mania and single-minded obsession. But that’s also why no woman got to the North Pole, or the top of Everest, or up in an aeroplane, or down to the bottom of the sea, until long after the first man bit the bullet and made the trip.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

RIP Daniel Johnston

I’ve just now found out that the Vincent Van Gogh of underground rock & roll, the late great Daniel Johnston, has died, apparently of a heart attack.

The man had been a grotesque physical and mental wreck for decades, and yet it somehow still seems very sudden and unexpected.

He first came to public attention in the early 1990s, at the height of grunge, and in the middle of all that whining, self-pitying and mumbling angst, Johnston stood out as the real deal, a genuinely schizophrenic, regularly institutionalized tortured poet struggling to cope with the voices in his head whilst also writing the most beautiful, wide-eyed, open-hearted, painfully honest songs perhaps ever penned, and drawing endless pictures of an Hieronymus Bosch-like hellscape, peopled with superheroes and impossible creatures of his own invention.

The musical well - along with his singing voice - dried up in his final couple of decades, most likely because of all the very heavy medication and just plain old physical deterioration, but the songs he recorded at home in anonymity throughout the 80s are now rightfully treasured among those who know as scratchy classics comparable to all the great, mysterious blues recordings from the 1920s and 30s: unique historical recordings of an authentic American artistic voice.

There’s a lot to his story, too much to try go into here, but his music has been a touchstone of truth in my life, and it means a great deal to me that he existed and made what he made. No-one ever sung truer.

So rest in peace, Daniel, and thank you.

Monday, 22 April 2019

Jordan Peterson explains the Post-Modernism/ Neo-Marxism connection to Slavoj Žižek

People always go after Peterson for his lumping these two, seemingly disparate movements together, but this is the best and simplest stating of his position I’ve seen.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

RIP Scott Walker

So I’ve just found out that Scott Walker, one of the greatest, most influential, and uncompromising artists in all of pop music, has died at the age of 76. I guess that’s a decent innings but it still feels a blow, and too soon. It felt like he still had a lot more in him.

The newspaper obituaries all seem to be dwelling on his early mainstream success back in the 1960s with the Walker Brothers, with hits like ‘Make It Easy On Yourself’, ‘My Ship Is Coming In’, and especially the utterly magnificent ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’:

And that's to be expected, but the truth is, his most important work came later, with a long solo career that paid no attention at all to chart success or sales, or his movie star good looks, but instead fiercely followed his own obsessive, idiosyncratic avant-garde path into unknown realms, with deeply serious work that has no real contemporaries or precedent in the English speaking music world, and more easily discerned roots in French and German theatre and cabaret, as well as Russian writers of the past.

To me, more than anything, he resembles one of the great French film directors, like Bresson, or Cocteau, or Renoir, if they had instead chosen to work only in song. And like those great artists, the best of what he made will never age or go out of fashion, but still be encountered with new eyes and treasured a hundred years from now.

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

That idiotic Gillette ad may have turned the tide on ‘toxic masculinity’

Razor blade commercials aren’t supposed to make national headlines, but these aren’t ordinary times. Last week’s Gillette commercial playing on the #MeToo movement became the latest piece of corporate messaging to berate and belittle men.

The commercial implored men to “be better,” while juxtaposing scenes of boys wrestling at a cookout, bullies menacingly chasing a boy down the street, men catcalling women and making lewd jokes and generally acting like brutes.

Many Americans were angry, not least men, whom the commercial framed as universal aggressors and rapists.

Fans claimed that those who were upset by the Gillette ad should be asking themselves why. The implication was that, if you didn’t like being lectured by a company trying to sell you razors, it must mean that you are likely the bully and sexual assaulter the ad makers had in mind when they made the commercial.

Well, I’m a woman, and I hated the commercial, because I’m tired of the boy-bashing that has become all too common on our screens and in our world.

“It’s just an ad!” doesn’t fly. Would women shrug off “just an ad” that treated femininity as something inherently bad and in need of modification? They wouldn’t. Women accept far less criticism from advertisements than men do.

In 2015, a company called Protein World released an ad for a diet supplement featuring a fit model in a bikini and the words: “Are You Beach Body Ready?” The backlash was swift. The ad was defaced again and again in the NYC subways, and the city of London went so far as to ban “body-shaming” ads on the Underground.

If there was a moment in time when women collectively decided that they would no longer stand for being body-shamed, that was it.

Similarly, the response to the Gillette ad feels like a dam breaking. This might be the moment when men have finally had enough.

Men are constantly barraged with criticism. “Men are the worst” has gotten old. The word masculinity is only preceded by the word “toxic” these days.

Meanwhile, men have been on a downward trajectory for some time now. Fewer men go to college, more men commit suicide, more men live at home with their parents well into adulthood.

Men take the most dangerous jobs, they fight and die in our wars, yet they are told nonstop that they are terrible, and the future isn’t for them. They are expected to shrug it off because, well, they are men.

If men are traditionally stoic and impervious to criticism, and we like them that way, then the idea that men can take the shots simply because they are strong and manly flies in the face of the commercial — which bashes male stoicism.

Gillette implores men to be better because kids are watching. Yes, kids are watching men portrayed as bumbling idiots in so many ads and as violent misogynists in this one.

The worst part of the commercial is the group of men standing in a row over their grills robotically repeating “Boys will be boys.” The message is that men are all the same. They don’t think for themselves, and they excuse bad behavior in each other. They’re grilling just like your husband, father, brother — doing this activity they enjoy while simultaneously creating bad men out of their sons.

“We expected debate,” Pankaj Bhalla, Gillette’s North America brand director, told CNN Business. “Actually, a discussion is necessary. If we don’t discuss and don’t talk about it, I don’t think real change will happen.”

No, what we need is to stop insulting men. We can’t elevate women by knocking men down. Some men will nod along with ads that insult them, but, in general, these companies are offending men and doing damage to their own stated cause. On the Gillette YouTube channel, the commercial has garnered more than double the number of “dislikes” than “likes.”

This wasn’t a win for the company.

“Isn’t it time we stopped excusing bad behavior?” Gillette asked in the tweet introducing the commercial. Yes, it is. And that includes the bad behavior of corporate salesmen treating half of the population as monsters, all to sell a product targeted at precisely that segment of Americans.

Monday, 21 January 2019