Single Story

Crackpot Literary Theories

p30200_d_v8_aaLast night I watched the film The Luzhin Defence, an older title, which I got from the library. The film is based on the novel by Nabokov, which I have not read.

After watching the film, I developed an entire literary theory, which I subsequently discovered is utter nonsense, but it is so satisfying I feel I must share it anyway.

The ending of the film reminded me of something my Russian partner once told me.

We were talking about the “American story.” The hero wins against overwhelming odds and there is a happy ending. Good triumphs over evil and we can feel safe and secure knowing Truth, Justice and the American Way are safe. Americans are comfortable with the happy ending even if it’s an illusion. We agree to this conceit the way a ballet audience agrees that it is normal for women to wear tutus and walk on tip toe. It is a narrative convention.

So I asked my partner what the Russian Story was. His answer blew my mind. In the classic Russian tale, he said, boy meets girl. Boy dies. Boy comes back as a ghost. They live (or is it die?) happily ever after and there is a lesson- a moral.

The hero of the Russian story DIES before it has even gotten interesting! The American story is about winning. The Russian story is about what you learn from losing. American heroes continue in the face of all obstacles. They do not waver, and eventually win through sheer force of character and will.

Russian heroes, according to my are destroyed before they even have a chance to begin. Then the hero is reborn to the circumstances, he is victorious in failure and he brings his lesson back to the world. The American story does not teach us what to do with failure. It simply does not give us the option. Villains fail. Heroes succeed.

Now, my partner is a ballet dancer, not a writer. He has not made a study of Russian literature, and I don’t know if his off-the-cuff description of the “Russian story” is accurate or not. It was, in any case, thought-provoking.

When I saw The Luzhin Defence I felt I had confirmation. Spoiler alert: I will now talk about the end of the film.  The Luzhin Defence is the story of a man being driven mad by his obsession with chess. He only knows how to view the world as a chess game. The film focuses on Luzhin’s relationship with a woman named Natalya, who becomes his fiancee. In the film, Luzhin (brilliantly played by John Tuturro) has been sabotaged, and suffers a nervous break-down during a pause in the final game of the world championship. Told that chess is driving him mad, he must choose between a “normal” life with his fiancee but without chess, or chess and madness. He jumps to his death. In the final scene, the grieving Natalya finds Luzhin’s written plans to complete the chess game. Luzhin’s opponent agrees to let her play the game out using his strategy, and it wins.

Remembering what my partner once said, I concluded that Russian drama is not about what one achieves in his lifetime, but about his legacy. It is not the happy end, the tragic end, or the noble end. It is about the after-effects of a life.

Here’s the problem: The epilogue was not in the novel. From a review in The Guardian:

What was a beautifully structured narrative of mental drama becomes a rather over-familiar costume romance, pillowed by a swooningly sentimental epilogue that has nothing to do with Nabokov’s novel.

So it turns out it is just another example of a film maker adding a happy end (of sorts) to a novel that is felt to be too unsatisfying for the screen.

Steven Poole, in his review sheds some light on the problem film makers often face when translating a novel to film.

A clue is to be found in Nabokov’s 1943 short story, The Assistant Producer, in which the narrator draws a lugubrious parallel between cinema and life, both of which mock the unwary with fatal coincidence. “Indeterminism is banned from the studio,” he writes. That is precisely it: the cinema simply cannot maintain creative ambiguity. How do you preserve the master’s playful indeterminism when a movie must show one thing or the other?

So there is a perfectly good literary theory all shot to hell. This all made me think of Oscar Wilde’s story The Portrait of W.H. in which he has his character put forward a theory that the W.H. of Shakespeare’s sonnets was a boy actor in his company. After the character explains all the clues that point to his conclusion (and gets someone else excited about it) he abandons his theory because it pre-supposes the very thing he is trying to prove– the existence of the boy actor W.H.

You can imagine Wilde himself becoming excited about the idea of W.H., building a grand narrative about it, only to make the realization that his reasoning is circular. So he shifts his focus and makes his story not simply about W.H., but about the beauty of believing a beautiful story, rather than the factual underpinnings of the story itself. (Lord Alfred Douglas, always a black and white thinker, in his later years set out to prove W.H. did exist using church records.)

In the spirit of Wilde, I’m not going to abandon my beautiful theory just because it happens not to be true. Clearly the end of the film has nothing to do with Russian story-telling. But for a moment, when I believed it did, I glimpsed something– another option for viewing narrative.

What if our stories were more concerned with legacy than with success in the here and now? Would we live our lives differently?

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Beyond Saying “Yes” or “No”: Power, Sex, Empathy and Agency

I found myself the other day listening to a podcast by Marc Maron talking about the allegations against his friend Louis CK.

It was fascinating to me to listen to this man trying to empathize and understand what it was like for a woman to be faced with an unwanted and unexpected sexual advance. The only comparable experience he had involved a male teacher who he admired trying to kiss him.

As a woman, until recently, it had never occurred to me just how rarely straight men have the experience of an unwanted sexual advance. “Of course not,” you may say, “because they always want it.” I do not believe this is true, and I think that view is part of the problem.

I remember a while back listening to an interview with Trevor Noah where he was talking about the value of diversity in the writing room of the Daily Show. They were doing a segment on catcalls on the streets of New York. Noah said he thought it would not be a big deal for women. If women on the street whistled at him and called him hot, he imagined it would be kind of nice. But the women on the staff let him know that it is terrible to be walking down the street, minding your own business, and to be catcalled.

Why don’t men get it? I think it comes down that an antiquated notion– one we would do well to be done with– that women are the givers of sex and men the recipients of it.

Let’s get this straight, because I’ve heard a lot of commentary lately that men are just awful by nature and women are virtuous. Poppycock! There are two main reasons why you’re not hearing loads of stories of powerful women groping their underlings. 1. There aren’t enough powerful women with underlings. 2. And this is the focus of this article–We are actively socialized not to initiate. (See my previous article on “making a pass” vs. “throwing oneself.”)

Because we do not usually make the passes, for fear of being seen as sluts, we are much less likely to find ourselves saying, “I thought he was over 18,” or “I thought he gave me signals…” And men, socialized to believe female sexual attention is a gift they should always want, are not nearly as likely to come forward and report to HR “she kissed me and put her hand on my knee…”

It wasn’t always this way. Consider this from The Good Man Project:

Of course, assumptions about male libido, as godawful as they are, pale in comparison to the incredibly creepy cultural ideas about female libido. One of the earliest known postclassical joke books is the 15th-century Facetiae of Poggio, in which we find the following anecdote, presented in the painfully stiff English translation:
A woman who was once asked by a man, why, if the pleasure of cohabitation was equal for both sexes, it was generally the men who pursued and importuned the women rather than vice-versa, replied:
“It is a very wise custom that compels the men to take the initiative. For it is certain that we women are always ready for sex; not so you men, however. And we should therefore be soliciting the men in vain, if they happened to be not in the proper condition for it.”
Somewhat later, in the first season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, we find this bit, described thus in the DVD package for those who don’t want to watch the video:
Larry is drifting off when Cheryl asks him, “Why am I the one that always has to initiate sex?” Larry explains that he’s always available, and all Cheryl has to do is tap him on the shoulder. Otherwise, he tells her, “I’ll just be mauling you all the time.”
In other words, it is the exact same joke, but the genders have been reversed.

A researcher who studied sexual habits in other cultures reports, “the Biwat of Papua New Guinea think women are the sexual aggressors and men are the receivers. They have this saying: ‘Of course the female is the aggressor and aggressive. Has she not a vulva?'”

And, as it turns out, women are the aggressors more often than you might think even in our culture. The BPS Digest calls it one of the 10 most widely believed myths in psychology that men are much more likely to be abusers than women.

A British survey published in 2014 found that over 65 per cent believed it was probably or definitely true that domestic violence is overwhelmingly committed by men. It’s easy to understand why – men are responsible for more violent crime overall, and being bigger and stronger, on average, men are seen as a more obvious threat. Yet official statistics (cited by Scarduzio et al, this year) show that partner violence against men by women is also a major problem. For example, The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in the US found that one in four men had experienced physical violence, rape, and/or stalking from a partner (compared with one in three women) and that 83 per cent of the violence inflicted on men by partners was done so by women. This is not to diminish the seriousness or scale of the problem of partner abuse by men toward women, but to recognise that there is also a significant, lesser known, issue of women being violent toward men.

But that is not what our culture tells us, not what it reinforces and rewards. I was struck by this sign at a recent protest march to end workplace sexual harassment.

hollywoodmarch
This sign expresses a woman’s right to say “no” and her right to say “yes.” In either case, she is viewed as the recipient of the man’s advance. There is no sign that I can see about her right to make the first move.

Samantha Bee, in her funny PSA on how not to masturbate in front of employees assures men that their dicks are ugly and that no woman actually wants to see one in any context.

And this is totally true, right ladies?

We hear it all the time. Women’s bodies are beautiful. Men’s are disgusting. Then there are the Viagra jokes. They operate on the idea that a man’s desire to have dependable erections in late middle age can only be selfish. It’s selfish because sex is something men get and women give. The jokes don’t work if you envision male sexual function as something that is mutually beneficial to both partners.

Samantha Bee is right, it is easy not to masturbate in front of your employees, and a lot of the behavior we’ve heard lately is reported because it is so disgusting and outrageous. No one wants to be confronted with sex when they’re trying to make a serious business presentation.

DO-vy_CWkAAdU1jBut when it’s in the right context, when it is welcome, it feels good to be appreciated for your sexual attractiveness. It is nice to hear that expressed, and to have someone take a risk and go out on a limb to make an overture.  In the right context it feels good to be viewed with lust. We all want to be desired.

Put another way: To be sometimes considered as a sexual being is a natural human need. To be always considered as an object of desire is a burden.

Men don’t get enough of that. Women get too much. I think we should correct that. We need to go beyond the right to say yes or no, waiting for advances, and calling out the ones that are inappropriate–we need to start claiming our own desire and making more of the moves ourselves.

Maybe that sense of being undesirable is one of the drivers that leads some men to aggressively over-compensate.

I appreciate it when I hear someone like Maron or Noah trying to understand the female point of view. I think a lot more men are trying to empathize these days. I am optimistic that maybe the moment has come when we will stop putting the burden on women to protect ourselves, and start asking men to be responsible in their behavior.

But if some men have trouble imagining what it is like to be in our position, some women also have trouble imagining the real confusion of some of their male friends who would never dream of doing what Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose or Roy Moore are alleged to have done but who are still a bit nervous that some episode from their past might come back to haunt them. The difference between an “unwanted advance” and a “wanted advance” is whether or not it is wanted. There are some cases when it is clear. (She’s 14, she’s your employee and you have to threaten her, you’re considering masturbating in front of someone at work) There are others where it is not so clear. If you’re going on hair twirls and head tilts as a guide, there is some room to make the wrong judgment. This is why I am concerned about the conflation of different types of stories.

Right now there is only one question being asked: “Do you believe the accuser or not?”

In some cases–not all, but some– you can absolutely believe that an accuser is telling the truth, and also ask if there is some possibility of misunderstanding.

Tara Isabella Burton, writing in Vox, used Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure to talk about the long history of the misuse of sexual power. In Measure for Measure, a man named Claudio is arrested for getting his fiance pregnant before they are married. Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Vienna, and while it is widespread, Claudio has been sentenced to death as a scapegoat– to show that the duke is tough on crime. His sister, Isabella, goes to an official called Angelo who tells her that he will spare her brother if she will sleep with him. In her outrage, she goes to her brother.

Isabella is sick and tired of men avoiding responsibility for their actions, and in this scene she lets herself go, telling her brother it’s better someone so shameful will die quickly. “I’ll pray a thousand prayers for thy death,” she cries, “No word to save thee.”…

It’s easy, especially in the post-#MeToo world, to sympathize with Isabella’s plight — plenty of women I know, myself included, respond to each new public accusation of sexual misconduct with joking-but-not-really-joking misandry, or comments about “banning all men.” But what Shakespeare does so well is present us with an Isabella who’s totally right (a lot of the men in Vienna are terrible!) and who also, through her rage, is perpetuating the same uncompromising black-and-white worldview that got Claudio arrested in the first place…

This play serves as an important reminder that, despite some people’s idealized narrative of the “pre-women’s lib” past, people were still grappling with the injustice of sexual misconduct. Shakespeare knew that sexual harassment is made possible by sexual hypocrisy: that harassed women are rarely believed, that women are only allowed to be wives, widows, or virgins, and this is what makes it so easy to make them victims.

Overt sexual harassment is only part of the story. And sexism is not only a problem of men. We all buy into it in big and small ways.  Studies show that both men and women–including feminists– have implicit biases that men are associated with leadership and women aren’t. (You can check yourself with this implicit bias test. I came out with a “slight bias” associating men with leadership and women with supporting roles.)

We need to change our cultural dynamic so women have more agency in all areas of life.  If you look back at some of my past articles you will see all sorts of examples where women are encouraged to think of ourselves as “being” while men are encouraged to think of themselves as “doing.” It begins in childhood, where boys are praised for their efforts and girls are praised for our inherent traits. We read children’s literature where boys go off on adventures, and girls try to get home. We’re even sometimes taught that math is important because it makes us more attractive to boys. We try to “empower” girls by teaching self-esteem while we send boys off to build fires and earn medals for achievement. We’re given entirely different messages about risk- boys are encouraged to take them, and girls are warned we’re inherently vulnerable. Into adulthood, stories for men are about saving the world. Stories for women are about being OK with yourself just as you are. Publishers and agents bring their assumptions about those stories to the fore when judging work by male and female authors. We seem to picture female writers as doing it for self-gratification and men for work. Therefore men’s writing is viewed as serious and worthy of academic study, while the very existence of famous female writers of the past is erased. (A reviewer in a prestigious literary review publication recently expressed surprise that my “Oscar’s Ghost” was “not sentimental.”)

I have to admit that my own two novels reflect these biases. I found it much easier to write about male beauty from the point of view of a male character in my first novel Angel. In my second novel, Identity Theft, I made fun of how the (female) director of the film The Holiday felt it was important that Jude Law’s character be wearing a tie before Cameron Diaz’s character invites him to her bed– if he were of a lower social class it would make her a slut. Nevertheless I gave in to gender expectations in my own writing. The main female character, Candi, fantasizes about a sexual encounter with a rock star. In my initial conception, she had an uninspiring life and lots of stress and she wanted a fun adventure. I came to realize that she was coming across as not “likeable” or “relateable” enough.  So I gave her body image issues which provided a socially-sanctioned sympathetic motivation for her sexual desire. She wanted the affair to boost her self-esteem, not to pro-actively go out in search of pleasure.

We do not just need to change how men think about us, we need to change how we think about ourselves.

Sexual Harassment and the Single Story

Sexual harassment allegations continue to dominate the news. I applaud the social movement to change our culture on this issue, but there is something in our national discourse that has been troubling me.

The individual tales of bad behavior are being merged into one story. There is no distinction between transgressions, whether they are isolated or part of a pattern, whether with adults or people under age, whether in a social setting or at work, whether a rebuff was followed by retaliation or not, whether it was decades ago or ongoing, whether the accusation has been carefully vetted or is just something someone posted on social media with a MeToo hashtag. All transgressions are equal, none can be examined deeply without accusations of victim blaming, and the only remedy on offer is firing the perpetrator and permanent ostracization.

The noted scholar Mary Beard wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that she is “conflicted” on the issue of public shamings.

When I say ‘conflicted’ I mean exactly that. Part of me feels that the majority of the allegations that have followed since the Harvey Weinstein cases are probably true, and — in the absence of any real likelihood of criminal prosecutions  (even in cases where that would be a technical possibility) — a bit of public naming and shaming might be the best way of changing the culture on this (and, as I said before, changing the culture in ordinary workplaces as much as in celebrity culture).

But another part of me feels that some of these allegations are probably not true (or at least there is another side to them) — and that no newspaper account is ever going to let us judge which those (albeit minority) cases are. And those innocents have no way  of putting their side of it (at least a legal trial allows you to do that).

In a recent article in Jezebel, Stassa Edwards argues against appeals to due process or any talk of redemption for the accused. She makes the case that such talk is an attempt to sweep the problem under the rug and to return to a comfortable status quo. Certainly such arguments can be, but they are not by definition, and we should not be so quick to dismiss the idea of giving the accused a fair hearing. We need to be especially careful precisely in cases where emotions and stakes are high.

Edwards argues against a New Yorker piece by Masha Gessen, who she quotes here:

“The affirmative-consent and preponderance-of-the-evidence regimes shift the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused, eliminating the presumption of innocence,” she writes, never pausing to consider that jail, suspension or expulsion from school, or job loss are hardly synonymous, or that their long-term repercussions are the same.

Indeed, jail and losing a job are not the same. But we should not be too quick to minimize the impact of social shaming, loss of career and personal identity.

Jon Ronson, who studied those who have been publicly shamed found that years later, the shamers had gone on with their lives and assumed the forgotten targets of their public shamings had too. They’d just lost a job, what’s the big deal? But, he reported, “…we want to think they’re fine, but they’re not fine. The people I met were mangled.”

So “only a job” is not a good excuse to abandon the presumption of innocence. If you were accused of something, you would want an opportunity to respond and be heard whether in court or in the court of public opinion– whether the stakes were jail or losing your job or simply a loss of face, wouldn’t you?

Are we not sophisticated enough to hold these two thoughts at once: that these offenses represent a serious, far-reaching, systemic problem and that we need to be fair to the people who are accused as well as the accusers?

Those who have, at some period in our lives, experienced unwanted sexual advances and want change, should be the most concerned with giving the accused a fair shake. Exaggerating and conflating undermine our own efforts by making us easy to dismiss. Every example of over-zealousness provides an excuse for someone to say the problem doesn’t really exist.

We are a culture that uses celebrities as symbols in our shared mythology, much as we once told tales of the gods. Politicians and film stars are a common point of reference to talk about our dreams, aspirations and values. So the celebrity who transgresses is shunned in order to demonstrate our cultural values. Symbolically, if Louis CK’s actions are forgivable, then so are your wretched boss’s, and therefore we cannot yield.

Nor do we welcome much nuance if it disturbs the important process of myth-making. If individual cases do not quite fit the pattern, they are sometimes made to. Let me give you an example. I believe Anthony Rapp’s accusation against Kevin Spacey. Spacey did not deny it. What upset people so much in that case was Rapp’s age– 14 at the time Spacey allegedly made a move on him.

Since then, many additional accounts of bad behavior have been levied against Spacey, but they have mostly been by adults, although you would be forgiven for not noticing that. To be clear here, I am passing judgment on the accusers or saying their statements are not truthful. I simply wish to make a point about how the various cases have been synthesized in the reporting to create a seamless narrative.

Consider this passage in a USA Today article on another Spacey accuser. I have edited it to remove the name and some identifying information of the accuser:

It was July in New York and [he] was just 27, in his first major job out of college [at a theater where] he was running the fledgling film program. He was in his office one day, phone in hand, when Spacey walked in and sat down at an empty desk.

 [He] knew who [Spacey] was. Then 22, Spacey was an up-and-coming actor, playing a minor role in Henry IV Part 1, according to records.

The narrator goes on to report that Spacey groped him and became angry when he was rebuffed.

The article goes on “… he was shocked, then freaked out. Would Spacey get him fired?”

I removed the accuser’s name because I do not want to make this about him or to make it appear I am trying to minimize his experience or call his story into question. That is not my point. Rather, I have some questions on how USA Today chose to relate his story.

If you scanned the article quickly, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a few things. The victim is described as being “just 27.” The word “just” emphasizes his youth, although 27 is an adult in anyone’s book.  Spacey’s age does not earn a “just” even though– take note– he was five years younger than the other man. Note also that Spacey is described as an “up-and-coming” actor. This makes him sound notable. This is in contrast to the language used to describe the 27-year-old’s job: his first out of college, a fledgling program.

Other language could have been used to describe an actor who was not-yet-famous and who had only managed to land a “minor role” in a Shakespeare production. You might go so far as to call him a “struggling actor.” In an interview years ago about his career at that time (ironically with Charlie Rose) Spacey said he couldn’t get work and was pleased to get a role as a “spear carrier” because he didn’t want to wait tables.

It is not clear whether the victim’s concerns about being fired were his own. They were not presented in the form of a direct quotation. Was this 27 year old, who ran the film program at the theater really worried that a 22 year-old, then-unknown actor in a minor (easy to recast) role would get him fired? Was that what was on his mind? Or did he simply describe behavior that he found weird and notably aggressive and the reporter speculated on his feelings? Perhaps the writer decided that a story of an awkward and unpleasant sexual advance between two co-workers (in which the person who made the advance arguably had lower status) did not fit the growing narrative of male abuses of power well enough.

These stories get reported under headlines saying that “a new accuser” has appeared.  Six out of ten people share news stories having only read the headline, which means most people will naturally assume that the stories that follow are more of the same even if there are important differences. To people who see headlines flashed across their newsfeeds, they are all Anthony Rapps.

A person does not have to be innocent to be a scapegoat. A scapegoat is someone who is made to carry the sins of others, to take on the burden of punishment to absolve an entire group. We use our celebrities this way, as symbols. We have always used them this way. They deserve it, we feel, because they courted fame in the first place. They get to be treated as small gods, and when they fall, they take on the sins of all who shared their transgressions.

But celebrities are just people. They should be held accountable for their actions in proportion to their severity, not in proportion to the severity of the social problem as a whole. Each accuser should be listened to and judged on the basis of her own story, not as a representative of the collective sufferings of women.

Edwards writes “what’s at issue here is civil rights—freedom from discrimination in the form of harassment because of gender or sex.”

She is right. Civil rights is the issue.

We can’t be champions of civil rights without having a concern for fair treatment of both the accused and the accuser.

History Obscured

Over the past couple of years in this space I have talked about how our desire to have history conform to a notion of linear progress has obscured the achievements of people who were supposed to have gained social rights only later. Two years ago I put it this way:

It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.

Another article here called Vanishing Women asks how many exceptions to the rule that women did not work outside the home do we have to come across before we start questioning if the rule is actually valid?

Another example of this surfaced recently, as reported in The Guardian. The title of the article by David Olusoga tells it all really, “Black people have had a presence in our history for centuries. Get over it.

The article describes a twitter storm over a cartoon set in Roman times which depicted a dark-skinned character.

Sensing a politically correct plot to take over British history, one presumably orchestrated by the liberal elite from somewhere deep within their headquarters in the out-of-touch, metropolitan, media bubble, Watson went on the offensive. “I mean, who cares about historical accuracy, right?” he tweeted.

This started the ball rolling. (If you’d like to read more on my thoughts on the idea of “revisionist history” you can go back to the post History as a Straight Line.)

Olusoga goes on to give an overview of recent scholarship that shows that Roman Britain was more ethnically diverse than many people have assumed. (I recommend a read.)

He concluded his article with a question.

The deeper, more fundamental question is why? Why are some people so affronted by the very idea that the black presence in Britain stretches back so many centuries? Why, even when historical evidence is presented and the opinions of experts given, are they determined to dismiss the facts and, as we have seen in this case, seek to trash the reputation of respected scholars? The refusal to accept that the black presence in Britain has a long and deep history is not just a symptom of racism, it is a form of racism. It is part of a rearguard and increasingly unsustainable defence of a fantasy monochrome version of British history.

The notion that Britain was monochromatic or that “European Christians built this nation” legitimizes the claim of certain groups to be the true inheritors of a society. It is easier for favored groups (and groups that fear falling out of favor) to point to history and tradition than to argue that there is an inherent reason they deserve favored status.

One of the first posts I ever wrote here was inspired by a poem by Beau Sia, and Asian-American who tried to empathize with a woman who got caught up in one of those viral online shamings after posting a video rant about “Asians in the library.” Her mindset, he concluded was:

“I’m so afraid I’ll have to fend for myself without what I’ve been told was mine.”

 

Quote of the Day: Space for Imagination to Play Out

We endure in a society where the mainstream orthodoxy would like us to accept that ‘there is no alternative’. One of the last great taboos is money and the associated economic system. If you consider our mono-currency as a societal tool imposed from the top down, it shapes and informs how we behave and the values we are expected to live by. In a way, it is like DNA; if we can change the DNA of our economy we could create new exchanges, values and social relations. We have become so used to this abstract construct that it is the water we swim in and the box we need to think out of. In order for people to start thinking that another world is possible we need to open up a space for imagination to play out. Art, games and play are some of the few remaining arenas available to engage in speculation about the future.

-Neil Farnan from an interview in Furtherfield on Utopoly, a version of the board game Monopoly that encourages players to imagine society based on values beyond the economic monoculture.

“Saw His Opportunity”

[Robbie Ross is] one of my greatest friends and one of the best fellows that ever lived.”- Lord Alfred Douglas, letter to his brother Percy, 1893.

31742378Years after Oscar Wilde died, two of his closes friends, Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross, found themselves locked in a bitter feud.

The conflict is the subject of my forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost. (Due out in August in the UK and November in the U.S., I believe.)

Over the years I was researching the book I read an exceptional amount of material written by people defending either Robert Ross or Lord Alfred Douglas from the other’s claims. (Douglas did more talking than Ross did.)

I have a pet peeve when it comes to the way people often talk about the conflict. I can sum it up in three words: “he saw his chance.” This expression is used by partisans of both men. From Douglas’s admirers (in truth he only really has “admirers” with reservations), it is Ross who always wanted to marginalize Douglas and at various points in the story “he saw his chance” to do so.  For example, Robert Ross acted as an intermediary while Wilde was in prison because Douglas was living in exile in France and had no direct communication. It is common for Douglas defenders to say that when Wilde began expressing negative sentiments about Douglas while he was in prison that Ross “saw his chance” to separate them.  (He did try to carry out Wilde’s instructions to get back his love letters to Douglas, but then again, he also tried to plead Douglas’s case to Wilde, which earned him a stern rebuke in a letter.)

A recent example that I came across from the other side talked about Douglas filing a libel suit against the author Arthur Ransome over his biography of Oscar Wilde, in which he was assisted by Robert Ross. The libel suit is central to the out and out war that was to erupt between Ross and Douglas. It was much more a dispute between them than against Ransome. He had the misfortune of being stuck in the middle. In describing these events one author explained that it was Douglas who had been jealous for years over Ross’s position as literary executor to Wilde and he saw his chance to get revenge. (In fact, Douglas had a whole host of motivations for filing his libel suit, some more laudable than others and Ross’s own actions certainly played a part in how his former friend reacted in that situation.)

In both cases, an image is painted of two men who were always at odds and who lay in wait for an opportunity to do harm to the other.  The only difference is where one attributes the malice.

I’ve often made the point here that we, in the west, approach history differently than people do in the east.  We learn to take a historical event and then work backwards, looking for the events that led up to it and plotting them as a straight line from one point to another. Quoting Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures… Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome. “Why” questions are asked twice as frequently in American classrooms as in Japanese classrooms.

Biographers have usually used a western framework in looking at the conflict between Ross and Douglas starting with the fact that they had a feud and then discussing the causal factors “The relationship collapsed for three major reasons…”

Looking at the relationship this way narrows the view and makes every disagreement between them a precursor of the big blow up. It has therefore been common to present the two men always in contrast, almost as mirror images of one another. In the film Wilde, Ross and Douglas are dramatically cast as Wilde’s good angel and his bad angel. If you want to find evidence that Ross and Douglas were always at odds, you can do it. Their relationship was punctuated with a number of arguments.

But then again, Robert Ross’s relationship with Wilde was punctuated by arguments as well and no one says they were not friends. In fact, Ross was drawn to artists with big, colorful personalities and all of the eccentricities and mood swings that come with them. Ross’s partner Freddie Smith, for example, was beautiful, charming and temperamental. George Ives had a relationship with Smith before he became involved with Ross (with a period of overlap) and his diary is full of references to Smith’s difficult character. Ross’s relationship with Smith was also full of arguing, as were his relationships with many of the artists he worked and socialized with. It is only because we know where their relationship finished that we interpret the arguments Ross had with Douglas as steps towards the final destruction.

Assuming that they were rivals from day one makes certain aspects of their story confusing. If they couldn’t stand each other why did Ross immediately join Douglas in France and stay with him for long periods as Wilde was in jail? (“I have a great friend with me who is also a great friend of my poor Oscar,” Douglas wrote to Andre Gide of Ross, “Although I am still very unhappy I can tell you that I feel better and less desperate.”) Why, when he first returned to England after his exile in France did Douglas write to More Adey to say he was “practically living” at Robert Ross’s house? (This after they’d had a disagreement about what Ross’s role might have been in breaking up Douglas’s living arrangement with Wilde.) Why did Ross provide a place for Douglas to meet secretly with the woman he would marry? Why did Douglas hire Ross at the journal he edited and write to others praising his writing? It makes more sense to say that Ross and Douglas, until their big split, were friends who had their ups and downs.  In fact, if they were not close to begin with, they probably would not have been so hurt by the other’s actions.

This brings me to another reason I object to the “saw his chance” frame. It assumes that Ross and Douglas did the things which laid the groundwork for the feud to hurt the other. I am a big believer in context. (That is probably why the initial version of Oscar’s Ghost was three times as long as the publisher wanted.) Ross and Douglas did annoy each other and do things that hurt the other but most of the time (until they were sworn enemies) they were acting to satisfy their own wants and needs, and within the dictates of their own personalities. Ross’s decisions on how to handle Wilde’s prison letter to Douglas, De Profundis, may have had as much to do with business and copyright issues as to Douglas’s sensibilities. Douglas certainly did not become a zealous religious convert in order to annoy Ross, but it had that effect. Douglas’s violent mood swings and outbursts of temper were not specific to Ross, even when they were directed at him.  Douglas had a large number of complex motivations for wanting to sue Arthur Ransome, some involving Ross, and some that had nothing to do with him. The unfortunate result is that two people who once loved each other came crashing into one another.

Poets’ Protest

Exist Beautifully

Even were it not for my forthcoming book, I believe I would be thinking of Oscar Wilde now more than ever. We live in an era, especially in the United States, in which the only politically valid argument for anything is an economic one. We are forced to argue that it is good to have public parks, and that attractive architecture is better than ugly not because it is nice to have a place to relax or because it is better not to have to live in an unattractive environment but because these things will attract the right kind of people and promote economic growth. F.S. Michaels calls this the “Monoculture.” I call it “Yucky Framing.”

The Monoculture, the requirement to use this yucky frame, makes it difficult to argue that anything has value that does not “promote growth,” “make us more competitive” or create jobs in the private sector– or indeed in certain limited parts of the private sector. (See Film Jobs are Jobs, and Job Creators for more on this.

So why shouldn’t art have to pay its own way? The danger in a world where only the most commercial survives is that the culture feeds upon itself. As Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

They are continually asking Art to be popular, to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity. Now Art should never try to be popular. The public should try to make itself artistic. There is a very wide difference…

Any attempt to extend the subject-matter of art is extremely distasteful to the public; and yet the vitality and progress of art depend in a large measure on the continual extension of subject-matter… Art is Individualism, and Individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. Therein lies its immense value. For what it seeks to disturb is monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine.

The reason to create art is that art is created. Business exists to allow human beings to prosper, human beings don’t exist to allow business to prosper.
Tonight poets will be protesting the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. Many will shrug and say “what’s the big deal?” The budget for the NEA is miniscule, and, as The Hill reported:
No artists will go broke without the NEA; at its demise, the agency offered direct support only to a handful of the nation’s writers.  All other artists had been federal grant-free since the mid-1990s.  Many artists of all disciplines, though, had been paid by organizations through NEA-funded projects, often the least commercial venture in a company’s annual season.  It is likely that the work of artists, already governed almost entirely by the marketplace, might have to veer even more toward the commercial.
This last observation is important. The reason to support the existence of art that does not naturally flourish in the free market is because we need some voices that challenge the Monoculture.
Yesterday I was reading Vaclav Havel’s letters. His 1975 letter, addressed to the general secretary of the Czechslovak Communist Party, Dr. Gustav Husak, argued that those who wish “total control over society” try to suppress culture in order to suppress its “differentiated inner development.” In it, I heard echoes of The Hill’s lament on the potential loss of the NEA.
The wheels of society continue to go round even without all those literary, artistic, theatrical, philosophical, historical and other magazines whose number, even while they existed, may never have filled the latent need of society… How many people today still miss those publications? Only the few tens of thousands of people who subscribed to them–a very small fraction of society. Yet this loss is infinitely deeper and more significant than might appear from the numbers involved…It is simultaneously, and above all the liquidation of a particular organ through which society becomes aware of itself…For we never know when some inconspicuous spark of knowledge, struck within range of the few brain cells, as it were, specially adapted for the organism’s self-awareness, may suddenly light up the road for the whole of society, without society ever realizing, perhaps, how it came to see the road…they fulfilled a certain range of society’s potentialities…
But of course, those at the top of the social pyramid, regardless of the social structure, are invested in the social balance remaining as it is and in people continuing to think in ways that support the status quo.
There is little I can think of at the moment that is more subversive than the notion that one does not have to be anything but only to exist beautifully.
For additional articles on this theme, see: