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Posts Tagged ‘Valentine Day’

Lust: What if Beauty is dumb and the Beast is just a beast?

Monday, February 15, 2010 @ 05:02 PM  posted by Mark

Now that Valentine’s Day is over and the best chocolates have long since disappeared from that heart-shaped box, let’s talk about the real heart of the matter, the secret we hide inside all of our flowery phrases and champagne dreams: Lust. Cambridge Philosophy Professor Simon Blackburn contributes this volume on life’s most guilty pleasure to Oxford University Press’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins, and, like the deliciously inviting urge that he examines, Blackburn leaves you momentarily satisfied and not so sure that what just happened was a good idea, but nevertheless craving more.

Lust is a slender, compact book, a sort of philosophical speed-date that introduces us to an extraordinary array of Western philosophers, who wrangle about the meaning of sex. Blackburn excels at pitting philosophers from different historical moments against each other in imaginary debates about the proper meaning and place of lust in morality and culture, and he can’t help cracking wise about the moral struggles of our ancestors, which he does in a knowing, even superior way. After all, it is difficult to take Kant’s notion that “marriage is a contract for each to use the other’s genitals” as the final word on marital ethics (even if you’re prepared to concede that that phrase might usefully be included in standard marriage vows).

Walter Crane's "Beauty and the Beast"

A priceless passage from Augustine’s City of God, in which sexual desire is compared to farting and the proper control of sexual desire is compared to musical farting, causes Blackburn much glee: “Such people can do some things with their bodies which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some can swallow an incredible number of articles and then with a slight contraction of the diaphragm can produce, as if out of a bag, any article they please, in perfect condition. A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behinds (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region.” Thus, the Will can control the natural functions of the body, just as you should be able to control your urge to sleep with that flirty, athletic, unshaven guy at your brother-in-law’s barbecue, or that new woman in accounting who wears the inexplicably alluring false eyelashes.

Blackburn’s lightning-fast tour of the nervous superhighway connecting our heads and hearts to our nether regions is over so quickly and is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget that you didn’t fully appreciate all of the scenery as it whipped by. The author gives issues of marital fidelity short shrift, and he dismisses feminist arguments about the power of the objectifying gaze almost out of hand, but as a broad overview of historical attitudes about lust—ranging from Lucretius to Woody Allen, Schopenhauer to Barbara Herman, Plato to Proust—Lust is seductive and fun. But it returns you to the genuine article of lust with all the same doubts you had when you started.

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Today in the Holocene: Valentine’s Week

Monday, February 8, 2010 @ 04:02 PM  posted by Mark

All this week, leading up to Valentine’s Day, I’ll be writing about romances, so I thought it best to kick off the series with a little background. By romance, I don’t mean the quasi-pornographic bustier-busters you see at grocery store checkouts or the heroic medieval verse narratives of knights like Gawain and Orlando; instead, I mean the middle ground that romance has settled into for most of us, the novels and movies of mainstream Western culture, which form the very heart of what we consider romantic love today. The novels I’ll be discussing—ranging from Pride & Prejudice through Atonement, with stops along the way at Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville, Flaubert and Turgenev—have so thoroughly shaped our personal, individual ideas of “falling in love” that it’s easy to forget that romance is just a Western European invention.

To start Valentine’s Week, I’d like to recommend three entertaining critical books about what romance is, how it developed and how its earliest forms continue to influence our lives. Sandra Bullock‘s romantic comedies, the novels we read to forget our often unromantic lives, and the very assumptions we unconsciously make about our lovers, wives and husbands all began as radical new ideas in the early Middle Ages, though now those ideas are so familiar that they’re nearly invisible.

Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love: A Study of Subversive Individualism looks at how Narcissism influences our ideas of love, religion and society. Ever been with someone you’ve just fallen in love with and get the feeling that, when they look deeply into your eyes, they might actually be seeing themselves and not you at all? You’re not alone. Zweig analyzes the work of the medieval authors of Romance (Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Chretien de Troyes) to show how Narcissism is built into the very idea of romantic attraction. He also explores how the romantic exaltation of the individual affects our ideas of God, government and art.

Denis de Rougement’s classic study of the origins of Romance, Love in the Western World, describes how all the traditional elements of love came together: the damsel in distress, the shining knight on the white horse, and the forbidden desires that must be hidden from the lovers’ families. He covers everything from the Iberian poetry of Sufi mystics in the 9th Century to the screwball romantic comedies of the 1940s. He also discusses how the basic ideas of love solidified in the popular imagination with the real-life love affair of Heloise and Abelard and the fictional tragedies of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Engaging and polemical, de Rougement occasionally makes leaps that other historians have disputed (he connects the chansons of Provençal bards to the Catharist heresy that inspired the first Catholic Inquisition in a way that evidence does not entirely support), but the originality of his insights is impressive and his thoroughness in exploring the implications of his thesis, in literature and in everyday life, ultimately convinces.

Finally, to get even more “meta” on the lit/crit side of things, Northrop Frye‘s The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance offers a free-wheeling study of the different forms Romantic literature takes and why the form (epic verse, chanson, play, opera, novel, pop song) matters to the meaning of the work. Our ideas of what Romance means change when the forms of the stories change, and his wide-ranging discussion includes Classical Greek and Roman drama, the stories of O. Henry, William Golding, Benjamin Franklin and The Magic Flute. Frye’s digression into the differences between the erotic and the pornographic is entertaining.

Romance is a complex myth, one of the founding myths of our modern culture, and Valentine’s Day has reduced it to flowers and chocolates and happily-ever-afters. But Cupid still has some poisoned arrows in his quiver, and if you see him coming, you might just want to run for cover.

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