Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mailer - and I'm not feeling too well myself

God damn it. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Mailer's dead.

I saw him read last year, and typically he chose a nicely salacious passage from his last novel with which to entertain the largely white haired audience. There were even males in the audience - Mailer's career spanned the time when there was actually an intelligent, novel reading segment of American malehood, hard as that is to believe now. Of course, those guys are disappearing, and their places being filled by the usual male shitheads, heads filled with babyish action movies, so imaginatively illiterate that they are unable to make it all the way to the end of a Penthouse letter.

I wrote a piece for the Austin Statesman last year about the Mailer exhibit at U.T.'s Harry Ransom center. I had to radically rewrite the piece to get it published. Here's the unadulterated piece. It is newspaperish. Sorry about that.


Although writers may be, as Shelley once said, the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”, museum exhibits about writers tend to put them in a more modest light. A writer usually exists in a hidey hole and produces manuscripts, which are then made into books, if he or she is lucky. The writer mopes, drinks, procrastinates, writes letters, and is, more often than not, married and divorced many times. We can see the manuscripts under glass, we can see the book covers, we can gaze at some photographs of the writer, friends, and family, but we usually make this pilgrimage to pay tribute to the books themselves.

The upcoming HRC exhibit on Norman Mailer is a louder thing entirely. Rather than the archaeology of a living arrangements of a celebrated pen man, this is, rightly, an x ray of contemporary American culture, touching on all the cold war currents – celebrity culture, the Vietnam War, black power, crime and media – that are still with us as we try to create our own, shaky post Cold War models. It is hard to think of another American writer as plugged into our discontents, a more persistent critic of the (in his words) ‘barbed wire cocoon of … middle class life’, and a more conflicted egomaniac than Norman Mailer. His career provides not only the basis of this exhibit, derived from the purchase of Mailer’s archive last year, but also for a three day symposium of scholars, activists, enemies and friends, capped by a panel on which it is hoped that Mailer will participate himself, and a showing of the four films he directed at the Alamo Draft House. The latter are an especially nice touch. D.A. Pennebaker, the filmmaker with whom Mailer worked, loaned his own prints for these rarely seen movies. According to Jameson West of the Austin Film Society, who suggested the film festival to the HRC, the early films – Wild 90, Beyond the Law, and the legendary financial disaster, Maidstone, are a ‘holy grail’ to cinephiles.

From best selling author to hip

In a self-revealing passage in Armies of the Night, his book about the march on the Pentagon in 1967, Mailer writes about seeing himself in a documentary that

“for a warrior, presumptive general, ex-political candidate, embattled aging enfant terrible of the literary world, wise father of six children, radical intellectual, existential philosopher, hard-working author, champion of obscenity, husband of four battling sweet wives, amiable bar drinker and much exaggerated street fighter, party giver, hostess insulter – he had on screen… a faint taint, a last remaining speck of the one personality he found absolutely insupportable – the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn.”

Mailer was raised, however, to be a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, in a household in which he was the much loved and loving son, who made his family proud by going to Harvard and studying to be an engineer. Then came World War II. Mailer, who really wanted to be a novelist and saw himself as the heir of the great generation of novelists before him – Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos and Steinbeck – joined not only out of patriotic feeling, but out of his sense of the literary main chance: the biggest novelists, the Tolstoys and the Hemingways, wrote about war.

According to his official biographer, Robert Lucid, [shall I say, who was interviewed for this story?], he was, in effect, a nice young man at Harvard. “His mother said, in an interview with Manso [another biographer], that when Norman got out of the army, there was something missing. There was a gentleness that was taken away.” Mailer himself has said he discovered the best part of America in the obscenity of American military humor and conversation. He had, also, picked up experience in the Pacific theater of combat that went into the The Naked and the Dead. When he finished that novel, he went to France with his wife, Bea. He returned to find that it was an overnight sensation. He was one of the first literary ‘stars’ of the WWII generation. While the book endures, and provided Mailer with an steady income in the fifties, Mailer has never ranked this novel among his favorites. He has often said that he did not feel that the style of the book was something unique to himself. To find out what was unique to himself, Mailer commenced a long hegira to his own style, during which he produced two novels: Barbary Shore, which was greeted by an almost universal Bronx cheer by the critics, who not only hated it but hated it gleefully; and, Deer Park. This, too, at least in Mailer’s opinion, was not given the critical reception it deserved – although over the years it has come to be viewed as one of the few great Hollywood novels. For Mailer, however, whose ambition was not simply to write novels, but to write novels that were as newsworthy and change making as presidential elections or World Series, there was a sense that he had come to some unlucky impasse in the American culture itself in which even the greatest novel wouldn’t have the effect it should have. Something had either gone dead in the American nerve, or in the form of the novel itself.

According to Lucid, at the same time Mailer was wrestling with these writer’s issues, he continued in full flight from being the ‘nice guy.’ This was accelerated by his marriage to Adele Morales in 1951, after divorcing Bea. Adele was a painter who ran with the abstract expressionist set and mixed with New York’s beats. Norman and Adele became habitués of the bohemian circles in New York as well as in the circles of the literary establishment. In the demi-monde of the beats, heavy drinking, experiments in sex, curiosity about drugs and the outer limits of experience were norms long before the birth of the sixties counter-culture. Adele, self confessedly, loved drama. And Mailer, self-confessedly, was getting interested in ‘the dangerous imperatives of his psychopathy.’ The result was a marriage with the quality of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf:’ a traveling show of ugly party scenes, continuous tension, and games of infidelity – all of which fed into the more and more frenzied tone of Mailer’s writing, which found its rhythms in a series of essays for a weekly newspaper Mailer helped found, The Village Voice. Many of these were collected in an unusual book entitled Advertisements for Myself. Michael Lennon, a Mailer scholar who, for years, kept Mailer’s archives, said about his own interest in Mailer, “the trigger for me was Advertisements for Myself.” This was true for many in the coming sixties generation. The book gave birth to a new tone and attitude that turned into the cultural politics of the sixties.

At the center of this attitude is an essay beginning: “Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” No other essay Mailer ever wrote had the impact of The White Negro: superficial reflections on the hipster. Here thoughts Mailer had been revolving about politics, race, sex, and metaphysics finally achieved critical mass in a style that Mailer would only deepen for the next fifteen years.

In the essay, Mailer outlined his Manichean view of the possibilities in the present day world situation. Given the looming possibility of mass death, one had two choices. One could exist in the face of that risk as an existential bravo, embracing the input of the senses and impulses and even one’s most hideous fantasies as they lead you to actions which may annihilate any control you could exert over your life. This was the path of the ‘existentialist.’ Or one could strangle the muddled vital impulse by opting for ever greater levels of security, and a society that exiled the primitive, the raw, and the ambiguous. The outlaw or the conformist – these were the options.

The complexity in this essay can easily be hidden by the wild and romantic investment Mailer makes in the ‘primitive’ black male – who he sees as the ultimate sexual player, marked for violence in an America in which the sounds of lynching parties still rumble in the basement of the collective psyche. This ‘negro’ of Mailer’s is an odd creature, touched by the prevailing racist codes of the fifties, yet still as recognizable as the semi-serious heroes in today’s gangsta rap. In the sixties, Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver would defend Mailer against charges of racism by James Baldwin, seeing Mailer’s mythic street fighter as the prefiguration of black power. Equality of opportunity, for Cleaver, as for Mailer, meant equality of threat. Still the importance of this essay in Mailer’s work is not so much for its racial mythology as for the fact that here he finally he forged the connection between our historically unique vulnerability, materialized in the bomb, and the root of that condition in our search for invulnerability. Out of our fear arose the promise that technology would give us a final solution – power, goodness and absolute invulnerability. The latter project led not only to the atom bomb, but to the technological colonization of every outcropping of nature in our lives: of sex, with birth control; of food, with the sacrifice of taste to the mass production of fruits, vegetables and meats; of our living spaces, with the clutter of homogenous franchises, the rise of faceless business architecture, and the increasing loss of regional particularity; and of course, in art itself, with the merger of aesthetic standards and mass marketing. In later essays in the sixties, Mailer overlays this technophobia with a final, cosmological touch – the nature that technology tries to crush is related to the beleagured status of Mailer’s existential God, conceivably outgunned by his loveliest creation, Lucifer. While many took this to be Mailer playing with language, all indications are that Mailer wasn’t fooling. In the best intentions, Mailer saw the signature marks of the devil; in the worst criminals, he saw the workings of divinity. There is nothing Mailer hates more than the liberal idea, expressed by Hannah Arendt, of the banality of evil. Mailer has never backed away from his belief in both God and the Devil – and finds the embarrassed liberal attempt to eliminate the latter as delusive as the conservative’s notion that he represents the intentions of the former.

These insights led Mailer throw himself into the countercultural politics of the sixties. In 1960, as Mailer was writing an influential, pro-Kennedy essay in Esquire, he also planned to run for Mayor of New York. His idea was that he would appeal to those never appealed to by politicians: the homeless, the outlaws, the gang members. All of which came to a halt on November 19, 1960, when, at the party thrown to announce his mayoral intentions, a clearly disassociated Mailer stabbed his wife Adele.

Adele survived, and decided to divorce him instead of imprison him. Mailer got off with a few weeks observation in Bellevue. But he was now marked as a violent man, a reputation he both used – his next novel, The American Dream, begins with the hero killing his wife – and objected to. In the sixties, Mailer seemed to be wired to everything that was happening in America. His early, prescient opposition to the Vietnam war, and his idea that the anti-war movement should move out of the traditional ways of doing politics, deeply influenced the movement. His book, Armies of the Night, won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. He was a familiar presence on tv talk shows, and rarely a boring one. And he finally did run for the mayor of New York City, using his unorthodox strategy, in 1969. Fortunately for Mailer, he lost.

However, he ended the decade broke (from financing his film Maidstone, a monumental flop) and a little worn out by the assassinations, the election of Nixon, and the launching of the Apollo 13. The last seemed to signal the triumph of the technological power he associated with Satan. On all fronts, Mailer seemed to enter the seventies as a loser. Yet, as Lucid argues, the seventies is perhaps his most artistically successful decade. It includes the biography of Marilyn Monroe, The Fight (Mailer’s classic account of the Ali-Foreman fight) through Executioner’s Song to Ancient Evenings in 1983.

From Male Chauvinist to Ancient Egypt

Mailer began the seventies by launching a strong attack on women’s liberation. In retrospect, this was an almost suicidally foolish thing to do for a writer. The audience for novels was shifting, as men began to desert fiction and women became the core audience for the novel. Mailer became, in the media, a caricature of the male Neanderthal, and sometimes seemed to gleefully help on the process. A TV appearance on the Dick Cavett show, in which he was supposed to debate Gore Vidal (who had infuriated Mailer by writing in a review that ‘There has been from Henry Miller to Norman Mailer to Charles Manson a logical progression’) added to his notoriety as a wild man. On the aesthetic level, however, the feminist movement seemed to have more of an impact than he admitted. His best writing of the seventies either centered on women – the biographical ‘novel’ of Marilyn Monroe – or were anchored in female characters of a much more considered complexity, such as in Mailer’s portrait of Nicole Baker, Gary Gilmore’s lover, in Executioner’s Song.

At the same time he was picking fights with Germain Greer, Mailer also maintained his fascination with criminals. This lead to what some consider his best book. Larry Schiller, “a hard-scrabble guy,” as Michael Lennon calls him, had bought the rights to Gary Gilmore’s story. Gilmore had killed two men in Provo, Utah. Condemned to death, he asked the state to execute him, in spite of the pleas of his lawyer. A circus atmosphere surrounded the execution. Gilmore requested death by firing squad. Schiller had already teamed up teamed up with Mailer to do the Marilyn Monroe book. He persuaded Mailer to do Gilmore’s story. The result was absolutely uncharacteristic of the Mailer people had grown accustomed to. Mailer, or his ego counterpart, seemed to drop completely from the text. The story gathers its own momentum in unadorned, unsparing paragraphs, seemingly beyond the author’s biases or control. Joan Didion’s review of the book is famous in its own right, and its description of what Mailer is up to still seems perfect: ‘The very subject of “The Executioner’s Song” is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.”

But Mailer’s next, real life encounter with a convict didn’t come off so triumphantly. A convict named Jack Abbott began to write Mailer letters. Mailer found them astonishingly good. He arranged to get Abbott paroled, and his letters published at the same time. But in July 1981, in the same month that Abbott’s letters were coming out and merely three weeks after he’d been released from prison, he knifed a waiter to death. Mailer came in for some very hard press from the New York tabloids.

In 1983, Mailer’s highly touted ‘big novel’ was finally published. A long novel about ancient Egypt was not what one expected, exactly, from the heir to Hemingway’s throne. Ancient Evenings received decent reviews, but it never made the impact Mailer’s previous novels made. In the current literary atmosphere, which is more accepting of fantasy and alternative realities, it would perhaps have fared better. The Egypt of three thousand years ago, in which death and reincarnation are facts of life about which the reader just has to get around as he or she can, reflects to a large extent Mailer’s own conclusions about the nature of the world. Michael Lennon points out that Mailer was always interested in point of view, but always had trouble escaping from the prison of the first person, even though he had a firm belief in his own extra sensory ability to escape from his own person – to influence events by directing his mind’s eye at them. His solution in Armies of the Night and the works of the late sixties is to externalize himself as “Mailer’ or ‘Aquarius.’ In Ancient Evenings, with a narrator who can read minds, he can combine the objective and the subjective in a wholly different way, breaking down the reader’s sense of fundamental categories.

No justice, no peace

In his debate with Gore Vidal on the Dick Cavett show, Mailer had said, “By God, I may be writing on the floor, but if you taught me something about writing, I’d look up and I’d love you for teaching me something about writing.” As Lucid puts it, “it is almost impossible to separate any horrible or mundane thing he did from the underlying strategy to be a writer.” By 1983, Norman Mailer was the writer he’d set out to be. It was the era of the Pied Piper, as Mailer called Reagan. Mailer was settling into a more established role himself. His marriage to his sixth wife, Norris, did not progress from epic battle to epic battle – it was actually rather stable. Mailer worked on his CIA novel, Harlot’s Ghost, engaged in a few literary cat fights – notably, with Tom Wolfe – and seemed to be generally in that retreat we accord to venerated writers whose most upsetting writings are now coolly embalmed by graduate student’s in the clammy terms of whatever literary theory is in fashion. The ambitious, even megalomaniac notion of the writer as a fighter pitted against the malign intentions of the culture was out of synch with 80s culture. In 1991, Mailer did manage to make waves with his semi-defense of American Psycho, Brad Easton Ellis’ much abhorred novel. For Mailer it horrifyingly inversed the premise of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities: in this novel, it was not that the rich, in contact with the underclass, committed crimes, but that the rich were the criminals from the get-go, and the underclass was its privileged victim. At the same time he was carrying the torch for this anti-corporate stance, Mailer alienated some of his older audience by seeming to make piece with the world of intelligence he probed in Harlot’s Ghost. He made a speech at CIA headquarters, a building he would formerly have picketed. One wondered if all the fires were banked.

Recently, it looks like they are still active. Mailer’s denunciations of the war in Iraq have been issued with as much fire and brimstone as the early speeches against the war in Vietnam. They are logically continuous with the view of the world he worked out long ago, as a young man, after The Naked and the Dead. His appearance in Austin in 2005, coinciding with the announcement of the purchase of his papers, was turned into an opportunity for provocation as Mailer once again spit fire against the war, and against Bush’s administration.


There is a Jewish myth recounted by the philosopher Shestov that goes like this: when the angel of death comes down to close the eyes of man, the angel’s body is all covered with eyes. Sometimes the angel discovers that he has made a mistake. The term of the man’s life that he has come for still has more time to go. So the angel pulls one of the eyes off his body and gives it to the man. “ … then the man sees strange and new things, more than other men see and more than he himself sees with his natural eyes; and he also sees, not as men see but as the inhabitants of other worlds see: that things do not exist "necessarily", but "freely", that they are and at the same time are not, that they appear when they disappear and disappear when they appear. The testimony of the old, natural eyes, "everybody's" eyes, directly contradicts the testimony of the eyes left by the angel. But since all our other organs of sense, and even our reason, agree with our ordinary sight, and since the whole of human "experience", individual and collective, supports it, the new vision seems to be outside the law, ridiculous, fantastic, the product of a disordered imagination.” Such men are then considered mad. Shestov simply says, “And then begins a struggle between two kinds of vision, a struggle of which the issue is as mysterious and uncertain as its origin.”

Surely of the writers of his generation, Mailer has been the one most gifted or cursed with this kind of outlaw vision. It has lead him through stunts, exhibitionism, some incredibly stupid posturing, and some extremely valuable prose in which something outside of the normal run of human experience, some possibility in an age that erected absolutes into weapons at the same time as it destroyed absolutes in all domains of intellectual life, still lives. Who, in the present state of American culture, in which all our present claimants to outlaw visions are cleverly obeying the dictates of marketing campaigns, is Mailer’s heir? Nobody. The line is extinct.

Friday, November 09, 2007

the civilizing mission: Tahiti/Samoa

A thesis is the poetry of logic, and it usually ends up, x eyed and down, strangled by detail. Or at least this is my conclusion after hearing many many details in many many papers at the History of Science Society conference. It jolted me, since my own essay in the making, attacking the triumph of happiness, sometimes seems so mired in the Enlightenment underground, so intent on picking up odd writers, that it seems bent on disappointing my original inspiration, which was to strike a blow against a cultural dominant that is leading us to ruin. So, I need a bit of air and a leap ahead, which is why LI’s post today is about Andy Martin’s Willing Women: Samoa, Tahiti, and the Western Imagination, published in the Raritan in 1997.

It is a superclever essay, since Martin takes Bougainville’s Voyage – an important Enlightenment text – as the background to dissect the famous controversy about Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa – another famous text, this one coming out of the ‘mongrel modernism’ of the twenties. Mead was accused of gross fraud by an Australian anthropologist in the 1980s, Derek Freeman – but it wasn’t just Mead who was accused, here. Rather, Freeman rightly saw Mead as representative of the cultural relativism and liberalism of her time – from a vulgar Hegelian viewpoint, you could say that American liberalism springs from the synthesis of twenties liberations (cultural and sexual) and the thirties economic rationality (FDR’s patchwork Keynesianism). Freeman is a bit of a hero on the right, and Mead more than a bit of a devil.

“Mead's scenario of love in the South Seas, "under the palm trees" in her own phrase, started to unravel in the 1980s, when an Australian, Derek Freeman, denounced her narrative as a myth {Margaret Mead and Samoa, 1983). In his account, Samoan culture was in fact rigid, male-dominated, hierarchical, fundamentalist, fixated on premarital virginity. He even brought forward, as evidence, one of Mead's own sources who confessed—sixty-odd years after the event—that she and her friends had freely misled Mead by telling her what she wanted to hear, stories of innumerable moonlit rendezvous and sultry perfumed liaisons. In truth they remained strict conformists to the Samoan moral code. Mead herself later admitted she had been hoaxed.”

Martin begins his essay with a variation of the classic Freudian question, what do women want – in this case, what did Mead want? Want, of course, is fated to produce doppelgangers and decoys, generating a black market in which authenticity is traded for mockery and vice versa. It is zoned for irony. In this case, the irony is that what the women of Samoa wanted in telling Mead what she wanted to hear, supposedly. Martin is a little too comfortable changing the locus of the controversy to Tahiti – the shift is justified by the reference to the “South Seas”, and the easiness comes to haunt this essay, as I will point out later – but I don’t think he is totally wrong to make the shift. Martin starts with an account of Bougainville’s ten day stay in Tahiti. Bougainville came there in a ship named, appropriately, Boudeuse - ‘literally, "Sulky Woman" or "Kissing Couch"’ – and his description of this landfall as a sexual paradise became, of course, a topos for the crossed destinies of Rousseau and Sade, for the nobility of the natural and the unnaturalness of nobility.

Martin’s essay is a nice attempt to survey the metaphorical implication of ‘Tahiti’ – viewing it as not simply a metaphor attached and functioning in a Western orientalist metaphoric, but as a catalyst that joins together one view of women’s desire (a view that Martin, rather hastily, identifies with Freud’s discovery, via Dora, that the unconscious never says ‘no’), with orientalism itself. Tahiti touches Napoleon and Flaubert’s Egypt and transforms them into Cythera – Bougainville’s own metaphor for Tahiti. Flaubert’s Egypt leads us from Madame Bovary to Gauguin - back to the real Tahiti. Gauguin leads us back to rape. And rape leads us to Sade, whose texts contain woman as the object who cannot be raped – since women are fated always to say yes, even when they say no. The problem with this account of rape is, obviously, that it takes raped to be defined by a judicial notion which is surely, if anything, a product of the liberal patriarchy which is, at the same time, being accused by Martin of generating the unrapeable, infinitely submissive, infinitely wanting woman. One theme is entangled with another, but Martin, working through the margins, comes to affirm the patriarchal gestures of a rightwinger like Freeman and – in a bizarre coda concerning Martin’s own sexual object, Brigitte Bardot – Bardot, whose autobiography is disconcertingly thrown into this mix.

Thus, though LI can say that both Martin and myself are operating under the baleful moon of deconstruction - we are brothers under the skin - I cannot fully endorse Martin’s elaboration of his theme.

Only men and boys can truly seem to be raped [in Sade], since they frequently put up more than token resistance, whereas, in the case of girls and women, sex, however coercive and even fatal, is always ultimately consensual. The Sadeian would-be rapist is invariably irritated, provoked, outraged by this apparently irrepressible fountain of feminine pleasure and desire. The sexual criminal can therefore always reasonably assert, in Sade, that no crime has been committed since he was only responding to an implicit invitation: all along he has done nothing but provide the supply to her demand.

Suppressed by Napoleon, marginalized as erotica, Sade's texts can now be seen to constitute the archetype of the nineteenth-century novel in Erance. Erom Madame de Stael through to Colette, the novels written by women constitute a series of variations, suh-Juliette, on the uninhibited woman. Novels written by men tend to subscribe more to the model of Justine, taking an initially more passive woman and forcing her to show her true and more predatory colors. One reason, I would contend, why Elaubert's Madame Bovary is often represented as the greatest of nineteenth-century novels is that it is the most flagrantly Sadeian of afl texts in the period.”

It is a bold thing to elaborate a contrarian thesis that you then take to be operating, unconsciously, among the community at large all the time – Martin is contending not only that his reading of Sade is right, but that the Sadeian impulse is so dominant that it determines unconsciously the judgments of the critical community. Sade so dominates that you will notice it is Sade in particular who Napoleon bans - rather than, as was the case, a whole group of erotic writers from the eighteenth century. By this means, Sade becomes so central that the critic, apparently, like the women of Tahiti, can’t say no to Sade, even if they appear not to be thinking of him at all. Derridian histories become problematic in the instance in which they forget their own overdeterminations. There is no, so to speak, control on the catalyzing power of Tahiti in Martin’s metaphoric chain. Still, Martin is right, I think, to see Bougainville’s Tahiti as the background to Mead’s Samoa.

“Bougainvillea, the brilliantly colored vine (named by Commerson. Botanist Royal aboard the Boudeuse) that Bougainville brought back from the tropical South, takes root and flowers in Europe. At the same time there springs up a whole Bougainvillean crop of ideas, which we can loosely bundle under the heading of "Southism," that bursts out in the nineteenth-century novel and the paintings of Gauguin. The Bougainvifle-Gauguin axis becomes the center of gravity of a pertod, from Rousseau to Mead, which proudly thrusts up fantasies of willing women like the figurehead of a ship. That hazy catchall concept of phallogocentrism can be understood, I would
argue, as the revelation of a secret orgiastic theory about the desires of women, especially young girls, for men.”

LI has found it hard to say what women want, in my thesis about the change in emotional customs brought about by the great transformation. I’ve made several false starts. My sense that volupte acts as the ‘center of gravity’ of the seventeenth century prehension of the Enlightenment bonheur thesis has been influenced by the fact that so many women took their intellectual places as advocates and opponents of volupté – and that the women who advocated it were writing in the wake of Gassendi’s re-introduction of Epicurus to the high cultural scene. But so many women makes for… how many women? My sample size will always be unrepresentative, insofar as it is hard to know just what samples to take, what the variables are that influence them, etc.

That Martin seems to naively accept Freeman’s account of Mead, and Bardot’s account of her younger self, tells us that he definitely needed to counterweight his own quest for the catalyzing effects of Tahiti. Such is the power of poetry that some of Martin’s instances are irresistible:

“At the end of the eighteenth century, the poet and revolutionary Camille Desmoulins spoke of his desire to "compose a Tahiti of the heart" as he was carted off to the guillotine.”

But Martin's thesis, which aligns Desmoulins, Napoleon, Freud and Mead in a massive denial of rape, seems to me not to be the center of gravity of Orientalism. One way to bring this out is to read Martin's article against this piece in the Summer, 2006 issue of Ethnohistory by Paul Shankman, which goes over the Freeman-Mead controversy one more time. His article makes for an interesting twist on Martin’s thesis, for it is possible, on re-reading it, to see that Martin is making an argument that is imbricated with a standard apologetic for imperialism – that the Europeans abolished barbaric customs that oppressed women. The suttee is one. The abolition of the public defloration of virgins in Samoa, or taupou, is another. This is a quote from Mead:

Mead noted that by the 1920s the taupou and many other aspects of Samoan tradition had changed appreciably.

‘ Deviations from chastity were formerly punished in the case of girls by a very severe beating and a stigmatising shaving of the head. Missionaries have discouraged the beating and head shaving, but failed to substitute as forceful an inducement to circumspect conduct. The girl whose sex activities are frowned upon by her family is in a far better position than that of her great-grandmother. The navy has prohibited, the church has interdicted the defloration ceremony, formerly an inseparable part of the marriages of girls of rank; and thus the most potent inducement to virginity has been abolished. If for these cruel and primitive methods of enforcing a stricter regime there had been substituted a religious system which seriously branded the sex offender, or a legal system which prosecuted and punished her, then the new hybrid civilisation might have been as heavily fraught with possibilities of conflict as the old civilisation undoubtedly was. (Mead 1928: 273–74)’”

Reading Shankman as a sort of counter-reading of Martin is interesting, especially in the light of Martin’s 90s-ish take on feminism, rape and Freud (Martin goes so far as to agree with Masson), which, as we can see from the past seven years, is consistent with using feminism as the avant garde justification for America’s imperial policy – precisely toward that Orient which, in Martin’s view, is Napoleon’s unrapeable female. There's a well known history of viewing the imperial power as the guardian of the native female, but it is not to be found in Martin – rather, it is disguised by a trendy extension of the Sadean template to all of Europe. The rape ideology then infects Mead and the cultural relativists. And, to give us a sort of ultimate 90s-ish trompe l’oeil effect, Martin prominently features the memories of older women, looking back at their younger selves and telling the truth about those selves – the Samoan women Freeman quotes, and the older B.B.

Shankman, however, reverses the nineties trope by quoting the younger Freeman, whose dissertation, arising from his fieldwork in Samoa in 1948, actually tallies with Mead’s picture of Samoa, and disagrees with Freeman’s later assertion that the intervention of the missionaries was not inconsistent with the native Samoan ethos, which never countenanced the free sexual behavior Mead claimed that she had discovered from her informants. Younger selves and older selves, here: a variable that is too often underconceptualized, or simply omitted, in our narratives.

Shankman has engaged in a lot of controversy with Freeman, as is evident from his paper. However, in his defense of Mead’s credibility, he quotes from Freeman’s 1948 thesis on our topic: rape and unrapeability.

reeman continues his discussion of marriage by reporting that ‘‘most avaga’’[elopement marriages] begin with a moetotolo, or ‘‘sleep crawling.’’ ‘‘Sleep crawling’’ refers to a practice in which a young man silently slips into the young woman’s house at night and, without awakening the household sleeping all around them, engages in sex with her. It is one form that clandestine relationships take and may be part of courtship. It is also dangerous for the young man, who, if caught, could be severely beaten and his family fined. Nevertheless, Freeman (1948: 208) comments that ‘‘in many instances a moetotolo is achieved with the connivance of the girl concerned.’’ That is, despite the risk involved to the boy and possibly to herself, the girl may have encouraged the relationship. Here Freeman is suggesting that in many cases the relationshipwas consensual and that the girl might be willing, a point made in somewhat more detail by ethnographer Tim O’Meara (1996: 108).

In Freeman’s published description of avaga in Margaret Mead and Samoa (1983: 240), he reiterates that girls may ‘‘actively encourage’’ their own seduction. However, Freeman now defines moetotolo exclusively as forcible ‘‘surreptitious rape’’ (244), in which the young man clandestinely crawls into a girl’s house and manually deflowers her in symbolic imitation of the pre-European defloration ceremony. In fact, Freeman argues that moetotolo is characterized by aggression and that Mead misinterpreted this custom (245), stating that:

“The intention of the sleep crawler is, in fact, to creep into the house in which a female virgin is sleeping, and before she has awoken to rape her manually by inserting one or two fingers in her vagina, an action
patterned on the ceremonial defloration of a taupou.”

This is all rather fascinating. To disentagle the the politics of rape and consent, of subjects and objects, of the construction of a legal system that punishes rape in the context of a culture that tends towards liberal ‘relativism’ gives us the contradictions and stresses of our current imperialist fiasco. That fiasco depends, muchly, on its refusal ever to take ‘women’ or ‘men’ as anything but unified and compartmentalized categories. That compartmentlization allows for disengaging them from the other variables of their social life - notably, their social and economic position in society - and allows us to gain a compartmentalized truth. What has puzzled me about the discourse of the last seven years is that the Enlightenment, the springtime of cultural relativism, has become a codeword for universalism. And that the feminist strike against patriarchy has been seized as a buttress of imperialism. From universal values to a nice little bombing raid on Iran is another hop skip and a jump through catalytic metaphors that I will save for some later post.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

46 more shopping days till Hulaichi's deathday

Another black hole in the killing zone
A little more mad in the methadrome

“Washington: Sir, the CIA rendition program was started under Bill Clinton. This is something that just gets lost in all this discussion. I hope your film reflects that.

Stephen Grey [producer, FRONTLINE: Rendition]: Yes, we made that clear.
It's an important legal point because it means that when the U.S. came to Sept. 11, they already had extensive experience in how these prisoners would be treated when rendered to places like Egypt. The biggest rendition was in the summer of 1998 (four from Albania, and one from Bulgaria). Of those rendered, two were hanged without trial. All alleged very serious torture; it was documented in court.”
- Discussion, Washington post

While I was away in D.C., I was unsurprised to see that there was no announcement that Andrew Moonen had been arrested for murder, nor any announcement that the justice department took any interest in Margaret Scobey’s status as an accessory. So I was thinking: what can we do to celebrate this great, this minor, this emblematic, this damning, this sickening, this let’s all eat shit and die social fact? Well, by a happy circumstance, the murder of Raheem Khalif Hulaichi took place on our greatest holiday, when God said that he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosever believeth in him could buy a Desert War III: Hard Combat for the boy and the TinyTots Iphone for the little girl this Hulaichi deathday. Yes, I was thinking of counting down the shopping days to Raheem Khalif Hulaichi’ s deathday. Maybe Umm Sajjad can even get her compensation from the Maliki or Mehdi official who apparently stole it before it reached her – for such is the virtuous circle of Moloch in Baghdad, as pointed out by Praxis in my comment section below.

In the meantime, let’s all sing our Hulaichi deathday songs as we gather 'round the yule log:

Its a small world and it smells funny
I’d buy another if it wasn’t for the money
Take back what I paid
For another motherfucker in a motorcade

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

ezekiel returns from babylon, bearing gift certificates

I’ve known M since we lived together on ‘Manslaughter’ street in New Haven back in the 90s, and have loved her with as pure a love as this corrupt hulk can manufacture. She is now a professor, married to a writer and historian (who, she told me, just won one of Mexico’s most prestigious prizes for a book he published last year) in Mexico City, and has two incredibly beautiful kids. She was giving a talk on a panel at the Society for the History of Science conference in D.C., and floated me a ticket to come up and see her.

So I flew into the Ronald Reagan airport with the kind of funny feeling Ezekiel would have had if he had were going on an all expense paid weekend to Babylon. D.C., after all, is at the very center of the American Jitters that have knocked me severely askew for years now – it is the symbolic embodiment of all that is lunatic, corrupt, short term and blind in this land where God shed his grace and the corn grows as high as the genetically altered elephant’s eye.

When I was a kid, I went to D.C. a lot. My Mom’s people lived in Montgomery county. They were all, or mostly, Republican, and – such are the tricks in this life – all worked for the guv’mint. Except my Democrat Uncle Harry, God bless him. First big Democrat, first big cigar smoker, first Catholic in my life. Otherwise, it was a nest of Southern Baptists. In truth, at the time I was less interested in Democrats and Republicans than cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or the huge slide in the park in back of my grandmother’s house, which had one of those nice shiny and sharp metal edges at the end of it now banned in most places and replaced by softer outdoor environments made of plastic and painted with candy colors and holding no threat. I suppose that is a good thing.

However, since I came into a man’s estate, I have not often walked the streets of D.C. And not at all since it was infested with Bush.

As it turned out, though, the stooge tourist in my soul soon fell in love with the monuments and book stores and coffee shops, worshiped the God Lincoln in his temple, went the dutiful round of National Museums, and even had a few kindly thoughts for the Crystal Gate Marriott, where the History of Science wingding was going on. There were a lot of microhistories that receded into the micro a bit too much, and there were the cocktail hours that had the odd flow you get when you put cheap wine and expensive bottles of beer in the hands of the chattering academic type and confine them to the unimpressive architecture of international blandness characteristic of mid priced hotels – imagine the buzz that would arise from a special flypaper that caught a couple hundred intellectuals, and you get the soundscape. My people, obviously. The HSS Hazen lecture, ‘How Science became Technical’ by Theodore Porter was my own personal highlight of the conference. Porter works in areas dear to my heart, and upon which I am probably going to poach for this review I am way behind on, namely: quantification, precision and the construction of the system of objectivity.

M. is a walker. She once walked me down the entire length of Miami Beach to the very end, across a bridge, and deep into Miami’s Colombian neighborhood. A journey that looms larger in my mind than it does in hers. We did considerable urban hiking, however. And once we resettled in cheaper digs at Day’s Inn, after the Marriott business ended, we rather radiated out from Connecticut avenue – to the left, into the heart of Georgetown, and to the east, to the Capital and such. We did most of the things we set out to do, except finding some boots for C., M.’s daughter, and finding a particular pale blue shade of tights – in quest of the latter we must have sorted through every Benetton’s and Sisley’s in the precincts of the Capital district. We even included in our sweep the clothing stores in Union Station.

Pale blue tights are hard to find this year.

There are three things about me that irritate M. I always leave food on my plate. I have a terrible sense of direction. And … well, I can’t remember what the third one is. In the main, however, we get along pretty well as traveling companions. She wanted to see the the Natural History Museum and the Botanical Garden, and I wanted to see the WACK! exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. We were pretty well satisfied with our choices. I will write about the WACK! exhibit in my next.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...