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Month: June, 2012

Why Desire?

She tugged at my shirt, but I turned her away. She was an older woman of close to sixty, haggard, her face worn and grimaced, ethereal in her unattractiveness. She wanted me, but I refused her advances. That is, until a minute later, when, in her final plea, I glanced into the depths of her face and gave in. “Ok, yes.” Why I acquiesced, I couldn’t say. But just as I turned to embrace her, she vomited, and announced to me it was a burrito she had eaten earlier.

 My repulsion put a stop to whatever might have happened, and I left the room in disgust. I wandered down a grey hallway, and then into a green room, incandescent yet foggy, perhaps from smoke or dust. And there was my mother. She was sitting in a circle with a number of other people her age, all of whom were playing the guitar and singing in unison. The song was called “W” and it had a beautiful, understated melody that remained in my head as I woke up.

 ***

This was a dream. The melody to “W” was still in my head when I turned laboriously toward my cell phone, only to see that it was two thirty in the afternoon. Part of me felt ashamed. But the melody had a mitigating effect that allowed me to rise from the mat I’ve been sleeping on as of late with an air of calm. I had been up until about five in the morning, talking into the night with friends. The conversation was spurred on by one friend having observed with disappointment a young woman he’d recently been infatuated with walking home past us, holding hands with another man. My own predicament was that I found myself with a young woman who wanted to come upstairs, though I had no interest in that. Typical situations of unrequited desire or feeling, at once mundane and extraordinary, our all-too-human predicaments led to all the things we talk about when we talk about love: commitment, sex, jealousy, monogamy, the idea of love itself. All the contours of the most emotional parts of our lives swirled about the porch in trails and circles of words, foregrounded by the luminosity of the impending sun, who, I can say with assurance, knew all the answers to our questions.

 Through the trail of words, we eventually found ourselves on the topic of the Kinsey reports of 1948 and 1953. I noted that one of the most significant things about these reports was Kinsey’s conclusion that sexual identity itself was something of an absurdity, given his observations that sexual response did not correspond exclusively to the touch of the opposite sex. In the second report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, the idea of “normal” female sexuality was undermined, though Kinsey, despite the basis of his own findings, declared that sexuality was best cultivated in a “normal” heterosexual couple. While certainly not condemning homosexuality, he ignored even his own findings, which held so much promise in terms of upending the psychoanalytically supported institution of heterosexuality, in favor of his own cultural assumptions and bias toward the traditional hetero-normative institution.

 “That’s fine, but one thing I don’t understand, and frankly don’t appreciate, is the embrace by the gay community of their own sexuality. They flaunt it. Children attend Gay Pride parades with men masquerading in thongs. I don’t think that’s right.” I was inclined at once to both agree and disagree with my friend. His argument was one that is exemplified in Jean Bethke Elshtain’s 1982 Salmagundi article “Homosexual Politics: The Paradox of Gay Liberation,” where she argued that the gay liberation movement suffers from an internal contradiction: by demanding recognition on the grounds of sexual identity, the movement simultaneously forecloses the possibility of that recognition as it becomes lost in a histrionic form of separatism, at the expense of democratic equality and civic participation. Elshtain was responding to gay intellectuals like Dennis Altman, Karla Jay, and John Murphy, who were demanding not only recognition, but pronouncing the limitations of liberalism in the realm of culture. And while there is certainly merit to Elshtain’s argument, she missed a fundamental problem brought to light by the writings of these intellectuals: desire.

 As the conversation continued, the consensus was that Gay Pride parades may pass on, arguably becoming a faded symptom of a much needed revolt against standards of sexual deviancy and normalcy. By this reasoning, we could see the Gay Liberation movement, like the other liberation struggles of the late 60s and early 70s as the playing out of a dialectical struggle, Hegel’s spirit coming into consciousness of itself through necessary reconciliation, until the achievement of full equality. So we could see the necessity in such separatist tactics, their tactical or strategic importance, while situating it as a historical moment toward fulfillment.

 But I want to say that this way of thinking is in keeping with exactly the liberal sensibility that so values progress that it misses the larger historical significance of profound expressions of desire as a potentially positive symptom of the collapse of the public and private spheres.

 The personal has always been political, insofar as the political is motivated by certain visions of the good life. That vision derives not only from a valuation of healthy political debate and public participation, but, ideally, from the desired ends that motivate such debate. But it is precisely those ends that we see coming into question in our so called post-modern age. This may be the root of our pluralistic, interest group based politics that led Theodore Lowi, in 1969 to pronounce The End of Liberalism. But desire, I think, should not be conflated with self-interest.

In 1964, Norman O’ Brown emphasized the importance of desire in his psychoanalytic revision, Life Against Death. Brown argued that the initial separation from the mother in which individualization and identification with the same sex parent was the cause of great anxiety, stemmed primarily from a fear of death. This was what led to the establishing of heterosexual relationships as a culturally sanctioned way of keeping the desires of polymorphous perversity at bay as a denial of finitude. But, as Brown argued, it was exactly desire, as the fundamental embrace of life, that mitigated these anxieties, and so pointed not to the cultural contingency of heterosexuality, but in fact the profound fear of death that attended the institution, manifesting itself as a neurotic emphasis on autonomy. Desire is an embrace of life, a way of reconciling oneself to death, and calling into focus the fact of death underlying our cultural practices, while bringing to light the arbitrarily rigid distinctions in sexual identity and steadfast autonomy.

The embrace of personal desire in a public forum may be, for some, an encroachment on privacy. And this is point is certainly understandable. But I want to say that the reactions to such embraces speak to a certain liberal tendency to over-value privacy, as though we seek to keep the fact of our humanity as desiring creatures shrouded in secrecy, as though we’re ashamed of the Dionysian rites we’ve abdicated in order to put emotion, at a remove. For Nietzsche, these orgiastic rites were thought to invoke the Gods, but as we lost connection with the perceived reality of such invocation, tragedy was born, and our rites became only symbols, representations at a remove from our emotions in a way that separates our words and works of art, our desires, from our human concerns, our human tendencies toward desire. And as the values of bourgeois morality place a premium on privacy and an “equality” that comes at the price of the soul, these invocations of desire are perceived as not only misguided, but shameful.

So can we think about desire in another way, as not simply the narcissistic embrace of one’s own sexuality as so many assumed of the Gay Liberation movement, but as an embrace of life against death, a profound public recognition of love and emotion more generally against the stultifying constraints of liberalism? Can we think about the Gay Liberation movement as a public expression of the limitations on emotion and feeling that our Lockean liberalism and Calvinist work ethic, which dictate the good life in terms only of bourgeois middle class life, impose? As a political expression of the personal, can we think of our contemporary Gay Pride parades as celebrations of desire so lacking in public life?

***

Immediately after awaking from my dream, I thought of the seriously Freudian implications it held. But as I thought more, I found that the ostensible incest message contained in my probably meaningless dream was overshadowed by the importance of its fantasy, strange and bizarre and uncomfortable as fantasy sometimes is, as the placid dirge of “W’s” melody, birthed in desire, put a smile on my face and a faith in the day to come.

-Erik Hmiel

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The Unkindness of Acquaintances or Baby’s First Heartbreak

On a recent five hour train ride from Rome to Turin, a young boy of about eight years walked down the aisle and stood at my shoulder. “Ciao,” he said. “Ciao,” I replied. He said his name was Giovanni. I smiled and told him mine. He turned and left, summoned by his mother, who was whispering something to him.

A minute later, Giovanni walked down the aisle again. This time, he walked past me to the seat across the aisle, where a young girl was coloring away industriously in her coloring book.

Giovanni had clearly been told by his mother that she had intended for him to introduce himself to the young girl instead. He repeated his opening line to her. Unlike our communication, which consisted of bemused albeit pleasant enough silence, the exchange between Giovanni and the girl took off immediately. Soon the girl’s mother and Giovanni exchanged seats so the children could sit next to each together. Giovanni sidled into the seat. He confidently took what he clearly thought was his rightful place, picked up a colored pencil, and got to work on the page facing the one the girl was working on. Soon, her name, Miranda, studded his every sentence.

It was an adorable scene. They hit it off instantly. The boy had a rare charm. His shining eyes were full of humor and he was quick to smile. The girl, remarkably self-possessed for someone so young, kept steady at her work even when he began slowly to inject humor into their interchanges. All of the adults in earshot followed the charming scene, the picture perfect portrait of childhood bliss.

In their early moments together Giovanni and Miranda worked in silence, only looking each other’s way shyly once in a great while, when the other wasn’t looking, talking only tentatively about what colors different parts of the picture should be, asking for a certain
color pencil, and the like. Giovanni saw that the rules were Miranda’s, and the coloring book, pencils, and seat were too. Then he began subtly to bring some playfulness into the conversation. She responded to the overture. At first sight, Miranda appeared to be an extremely serious child. Short but solid, sporting thick glasses and an unflattering haircut, her appearance alone did not draw the eye the way his did. But Giovanni’s conversation made her come to life.

Miranda was transformed. His wit was quick and sophisticated. As they colored away, he would make a quiet observation that made her laugh with pure joy. Both then returned to their initial, serious, working posture, until she would say something that would make him giddy.

After a remarkably long time, the coloring gave way to pure joking, and the quiet tones of their conversation predictably shaded into gleeful noise. Now they were weak with the hilarity of what had become an elaborately funny conversation. Perceiving that their interactions were too rowdy for the train, their respective mothers reclaimed them, returning everybody to the original seating arrangement.

The girl never fully recovered. Giovanni, who didn’t like the arrangement either at first, adapted more quickly. After a few minutes, he could be heard laughing with his mother, playing some kind of game involving clapping. But Miranda, who had before he arrived been completely absorbed by her coloring, which she clearly took much more seriously than he did judging by the differences in the quality of their results, could not now get her mind off of him. When the girl was out of earshot, checking on Giovanni, our traveling companion marveled over Miranda’s intelligence and learned in Italian from her mother that she was unusually gifted intellectually. We could tell her mother faced some challenges that go with that territory and was happy and proud but exhausted.

Miranda was furious that she and Giovanni were separated. She did not mince words or body language when it came to letting her mother know how angry she was. From elation, her demeanor transformed into discontentment, disapointment, and dejection. She was like a flower which, suddenly blooming beyond its wildest dreams, wilted just as quickly…and was now beyond resuscitation. Finally, her mother, grasping the gravity of the situation and patiently persevering in reading a book aloud to her–a book that looked very advanced for a child that age–eventually managed to get Miranda interested. Only then did she start to look a little less glum.

Soon it was time for both of the young children to get off the train, coincidentally at the same stop. Miranda went over to say goodbye, asking Giovanni if they could be friends. “No,” he said, “I can’t. I already have a girlfriend.”

***

It was amusing to hear this interchange, considering that Giovanni was hardly old enough for a real girlfriend, even by the rushed standards of today. If I had to guess, I would say he was about seven to ten. But some of us had observed the entire acquaintance develop over the previous couple of hours, and noticed an affinity rare even for children, whose friendships often seem to come more easily than those of adults. So it was impossible to feel anything but pain.

We winced with empathy on Miranda’s behalf. Who among us had not experienced some radical rejection that had left-at best!-an emotional scar. Perhaps we were projecting, but we wondered, why on earth couldn’t they be friends? Or maybe Giovanni was just joking around and she knew that.

***

What do we conclude from a drama such as this? Are we all just cruel by nature? Were nature, fate, or the gods up to their cruel games again? Or was this boy, who seemed so sweet before, encouraged to behave this way in a culture that makes friends into commodities and categories, shrinking the possibilities for deep connection by pigeonholing us into mutually exclusive types of friends (girlfriend, friend of convenience…) and giving us a script for how all of our interactions will play themselves out? Doesn’t the post-modern Western culture of selfish individualism reward those for whom friendship, and even what passes for romance among more mature adults, has little intrinsic value?

I recently saw the movie “Young Adult” (Dir: Jason Reitman, 2011). The main character, destabilized by divorce, job loss, and a feeling her life was going nowhere, decides to return to her hometown to win back her teenage flame, who is now happily married with a newborn baby. He is making all the right choices these days, while she is drinking far too much and doing everything wrong. “I think I’m an alcoholic,” she announces to her nonplussed parents. She swears, she’s cynical, she’s out of touch with reality. She’s a person of poor character, or a clinical narcissist, it’s hard to tell. We are clearly supposed to think she is superficial, and she is that-par excellence. But her ex-boyfriend, portrayed as the good-hearted family man, only stares blankly when she tries to summon up memories of their wonderful times together in sexual communion. Is he missing some vital depths as well? His stance toward her is rigidly moralistic, uncompromisingly therapeutic: you have no right. You are messed up. If anything, we all just feel sorry for you.

Well, two can play this little game, whether of morals or health.

Is it so right or healthy to be able to leave someone behind like this, with no sense of the tragedy that involves for the other person, whose heart is left hanging?

Even if the parting of ways was necessary by exigency or fate, or without doubt for the best, should there really be no backward glance?

Declarations of love, in action and words, mean something to the one who truly loves, who takes that ultimate of all personal, intimate risks. Though that was not the situation for the jaded drama queen in “Young Adult,” certainly it was the case for Miranda, whose encounter with the abrupt withdrawal of Giovanni’s affections was horrible to watch. This withdrawal was aided and abetted by his mother, who suggested he introduce himself to her in the first place but now had no words of wisdom to share when it came to protecting the feelings of a child other than her own. No helpful whispers from her now.

Surely Miranda deserves better.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

The Maté Factor

I was looking for something to eat, or drink.  Preferably a commercial establishment that would afford some measure of placid comfort, versatility, relief.  But simplicity takes strange forms these days in Ithaca, New York.

Made with organic spelt and topped with butter and real maple syrup, it was the colorfully illustrated Belgian waffle ad that first caught my attention.  “Hmm.  This might work.  Yes, I think it will.”  Moments before my brisk walk through the Ithaca Commons ended in vain, I stumbled upon exactly what I was looking for: the Home Dairy Company, the innocuous-looking sign above the waffle ad proclaimed.  Satiation was now within reach.  I didn’t exactly want a Belgian waffle just then, but I was comforted by the fact that I could have one if I wanted to.  That seemed important, or at least decisive.

Inside, the solid wood tables, dim lighting, and sprawling green decor reminded me of the Rain Forest Café, the Amazon-themed equivalent of the Hard Rock Café we used to go to on special occasions when my step-father felt like driving to Arizona Mills Mall.  Going there for dinner was a lot like going to Knott’s Berry Farm, only the gift shop was a little smaller.  The Home Dairy Company, by contrast, was what the Rain Forest Café should have been like.  Its rustic atmosphere was on par with the Moose Lodge at Magic Mountain, except there were no singing moose heads on the walls.  The floor was neatly swept and most of the tables were empty.

As I approached the counter, the aura of hip, eco-friendly entrepreneurs I’d felt outside in the Commons began to give way to something more difficult to place.  The older woman behind the counter clearly did not recognize me as a regular, and her coldness made me feel slightly ill at ease.  I ordered an iced coffee and paid $1.70 for it.  “That’s a good price,” I said cheerfully when I handed her the money, hoping to add color to our otherwise colorless transaction.  If she registered the gesture at all, she seemed not to register it as a friendly one.  I considered that she might be inexperienced, but I couldn’t help thinking that a customer shouldn’t feel spurned this way.  It wasn’t good for business.  And I might want to come back.

At the other end of the counter I found my first clue that I was not in the Home Dairy Company at all.  It looked like a basket of newspapers at first.  But when I opened one of them, I discovered a religious pamphlet called the Twelve Tribes Freepaper.  “The Radical Life of Acts 2:44,” it professed in bold type.  “All who believed were together and shared all things in common.”  Behind the caption a panoramic photo showed a group of people clasping hands and dancing in a circle.  Some appeared to clap, others to sing.  I noticed they were all wearing the same plain garb the older woman behind the counter was wearing.  In fact everyone around me was wearing the same plain garb.

Just then a younger woman behind the counter handed me my iced coffee.  She smiled and asked if I had any questions about the pamphlet.  I learned that the café I was standing in (formerly the Home Dairy Company) was cooperatively owned by an international network of communities called the Twelve Tribes, or the Commonwealth of Israel, who sought to live like the first disciples in the book of Acts.  “We share all our possessions in common as they did,” she explained.  “We work together, share our meals together, we worship together, and all the money we earn in our businesses is shared so that there are no poor among us, just as they did.”

In other words, this was no ordinary venue for placid consumption.  Because I’d seen that waffle ad, I had stumbled upon an authentic source of early twenty-first century countercultural praxis: the Maté Factor.

According to the Twelve Tribes Freepaper, the Maté Factor Café in Ithaca is one of dozens of cooperatively owned businesses spanning nine countries across four continents.  The Twelve Tribes bases its social philosophy on what it considers the original teachings of Yahshua, the Son of God.  Yet like other fringe religious sects, it is equally informed by hostile alienation from the modern world, which infuses its call for “A New Brand of Culture”:

We live in an age of oppression—physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.  We are oppressed from without and within.  Screaming out for justice in an age of supreme injustice on all sides spawns the revolutionaries who strain every fiber to make a blow to the system.  Everything is dark and twisted: poverty, genocide, generations under medicated tyranny, political corruption, endless war, pollution, and ecological nightmares…. The ultimate act of revolution is to respond to the call that strikes to the core, to the very essence of the world system itself…. The call of the gospel is the ultimate solution to all the injustice that this sick and dying world has ever seen.  It is the only antidote to the oppression and aggression of this age.  There is nothing that exposes this self-centered consumer society more than a people who wholeheartedly band together, enduring through thick and thin…

“Where did I fit into this equation?” I wondered.  Motivated by Pavlovian conditioning and Huxleyan convenience, I was the self-centered consumer who happened upon the Maté Factor in spite of myself, entirely by chance.  In theory, I’m happy to support the Twelve Tribes’ cause; but aren’t I technically part of the problem, not the solution?  In all seriousness, shouldn’t they keep people like me out of their little café lest the whole enterprise be soiled by association with the enemy?

The paradox of my presence in the Maté Factor underscored the extent of the problem I was reading about in the Twelve Tribes Freepaper.  I responded to an advertisement, and a few minutes later I was drinking an iced coffee while contemplating the ultimate act of revolution.  How could the two experiences run together so smoothly?  How could they permeate each other so effortlessly?  And what, if anything, did this say about the prospects for the kind of revolution the Twelve Tribes prescribed?

I was at a loss by the time I finished my beverage.  Part of me wanted to leave the Maté Factor, but the image of that Belgian waffle was still fresh in my mind…

-Michael Fisher

Garrulous Men

I walked in as I normally do, into the dimly lit bar. It’s lit by the soft glow of neon signs and the stale hue of the plain green and brown tables that vaguely remind you of an alcoholic’s cafeteria. On any given night you’ll see businessmen relaxing, reflecting over the day’s or week’s activities, young people trying to forget about their jobs altogether, and a generally friendly, all female wait-staff which quickly becomes the object of male attention, sometimes to the benefit of their gratuity, sometimes to the detriment of their dignity. Or somewhere in between. I walked into these familiarities to be greeted by equally familiar faces. Only there was one I didn’t recognize.

He was the archetype. Or anyway, he became the archetype, in the same way that Thoreau says we create our fate. Our conversation began amicably enough, quickly moving to the topic of politics and then to income redistribution, ending with a friendly “let’s agree to disagree” sort of resolution, despite his having jokingly referred to me a fascist. Perhaps this was the warning sign of his archetypical character; perhaps equating my beliefs with the greatest horrors of the twentieth century was an ironic way for a stranger to diffuse the distance between us, a playful transgression to break the dimly lit ice? But as the thaw continued, it became increasingly apparent that it wasn’t our getting to know each other acting as the catalyst, but his drinking.

The hum of people talking around us grew fainter. And the light of the neon beer signs converged in a spotlight on this increasingly garrulous man. Despite his still participating in conversation with others, all voices were subsumed under his, the certainty in his questions and answers and statements belying any traces of genuine discourse. A tyrant with words, every utterance began in earnest and seemed to blend into the next, to the point where there was no beginning, no spaces between statements or words; just a din that resonated with the bleakness of this, my favorite bar, unveiling its grey hues so conducive to quiet conversation and mediation, to reveal a loud black–no color, no solace, just noise.

And as this descent continued, as he continued to speak with slurred certainty, as the voices were drowned out, as grey faded to black, the female wait staff came into the realm of his conversation. It was one bar-tender in particular. A bartender I’d like to think I know, albeit superficially. She smiles to me outside work; she undercharges me at work; she’s my age, trying to get by. She’s also particularly beautiful, a fact quickly seized upon by this garrulous man, as he made it known that his expertise in the domain of women, the simple fact of his being a “man,” warranted his ugly suggestion to another friend of mine, an injunction that ended a night already thwarted.

“She just wants you to plug her little hole.”

The words came out of his mouth with vital fluids dripping down his chin–bile, and blood assuring that these were his true colors. The statement gushed out onto the floors, unknowingly flooding the bar and its inhabitants, who were unknowingly drowning in his male bravado. I sought respite but struggled to swim. I was gasping for air and swam for the door, passing tables full of people, passing the bartender, all oblivious to the rising waters. I thought, as I was struggling to swim, of this man as an archetype, his relation to women distorted by a sense found in certain men who have a poor relationship to themselves, a fear of death that manifests itself as a particular orientation to truth, an anxious ontology of claiming that seeks to reconcile one’s mortality through the certainty of statements that subordinate others, particularly women, to the psychic certainty of patriarchy. The resonance of his statement was filling the room quickly as it became clear that this attempted reconciliation could never fulfill itself; it could never find that higher relief in the dialectic of death and assurance. And so the bile and blood continued to effuse in the wake of his disgusting, self-assured assertion.

Finally, I found the door amidst the disgusting fluids of a garrulous man and found relief outside in the relative quiet. I lit a cigarette and placidly inhaled, watching my exhalation dissolve like our identities and mortal lives, seeing in the diaphaneity no words, no self-assertion, no pretense or certainty. And I walked home in silence, listening only to the rhythm of my footsteps, exhaling smoke into the night.

-Erik Hmiel