Archive | April, 2013

Eroticism

27 Apr

It was with some mirth that I read the other day of a male author of “erotic fiction” who has resorted to Craig’s List to find a young woman willing to share a thirty-day erotic affair with him, an affair they would both write about, and which he would turn into a marketable book:

The book will detail every aspect of a mutually-agreed to romantic affair between myself and a young FEMALE lover (perhaps you), experienced over 30 days, as in the novel. The difference between the first book and this one will be verite: everything in this new volume will be the truth as both participants see it. If you agree to participate in this project, you will keep a diary of all of your thoughts, impressions and memories of the thirty-day affair that we will share. I will then combine your written thoughts with my own to present the reader with two versions of the same erotic story. One love affair, as seen separately by the man and woman.

My first thought was, this man has no real concept of the erotic, if he believes he can find it to order on Craig’s List. Others were angry at the implied sexploitation of the young woman (no payment offered) but I couldn’t get past my irritation at seeing the erotic so unforgivably reduced. Not to mention his confusion of the romantic with the erotic, which is like confusing Mills and Boon with The Delta of Venus. 

I know that “romance” and “romantic” are common euphemisms for sex, but “erotic” is a whole other concept, and far more dangerous.

Take, for example, what the French philosopher Georges Bataille has to say about the erotic: The whole business of eroticism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so that the heart stands still.

and:

..eroticism, unlike simple sexual activity, is a psychological quest…eroticism is assenting to life even in death.

I’m not saying it’s impossible to encounter the erotic on Craig’s List. One of its hallmarks is that it can manifest anywhere, anytime, between any two people, no matter how apparently unlikely. And when it does it is frequently in the form of a coup de foudre, and a kind of madness ensues, madness in the sense that desire for the other is so great it overwhelms common sense, and even one’s sense of self-preservation. It is impossible to satisfy the erotic through simply having sex. Indeed, there is no such thing as simply having sex when the erotic is involved.

In essence, observes Bataille, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation…

I don’t believe Bataille is saying that actual violence and violation are necessary for the erotic experience, although they may be for some participants. Rather, the violence is in how the erotic explodes into a life, violating all boundaries and disrupting “normal” feelings and behaviours. One has up till that point been self-contained, with boundaries safely in place, and no particular sense of yearning, except perhaps now and then and weakly, for something nebulous, a yearning easily shaken off by attention to daily life and responsibilities. Then, in a moment, one’s self-containment is violated, violently, by a sustained gaze, by a touch on an arm, by the presence of one you didn’t know you were looking for until suddenly he or she is there. In the immediate clamour you cannot formulate the thought: I want to be in his arms. Only later do you allow yourself to admit that desire.

You are no longer who you were seconds earlier. And you will never be again. This is the violence I think Bataille is describing.

The whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives…Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals… The stirrings within us have their own fearful excesses; the excesses show which way these stirrings would take us. 

The idea that an erotic affair can be confined to thirty days is laughable: the erotic has its own timetable, it may be more, it may be less, but the idea that one can determine in advance its lifetime is an indicator that one is considering something else altogether.

It is possible to refuse the erotic. William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, offers an opinion on refusal:

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.

I suspect that what the author is searching for on Craig’s List is a shadow of the erotic, a shadow of desire. A simulacrum. And yet again, the reputation of a word is unforgivably traduced.

You don’t get peace by hating war: the theory of emotions

25 Apr

Some years ago I recall the Dalai Lama observing that hating war isn’t the way to find peace.

From this I took it that he meant personally entering into the territory of hatred and fear, the same emotions that fuel war, is not the most useful way to change a paradigm. I liked the Dalai Lama’s theory: that in order to effect wider change one must first start with the self. Every time we manage to overcome a negative emotion, he said, and allow it to dissipate without acting on it, we have achieved a miracle.

There’s nothing exclusive about the idea. There was a rich Greco-Roman tradition of shaping the self through commitment to self-improvement that involved, among other things, a theory of emotions and the necessity to understand them for the betterment of the self and the community. The Stoic philosopher and writer, Seneca, was an advocate of this culture of the self, later interpreted by Foucault as technologies of the self, designed to shape the subject through a set of practices that position one in critical relationship to oneself, with the goal of improvement not just for the self, but for society.

Currently, I am deep in Martha Nussbaum’s “Upheavals of Thought: the intelligence of emotions.” Nussbaum makes a powerful argument that there can be no adequate ethical theory without an adequate theory of the emotions. Emotions, far from being messy, sticky and yes, let’s not pretend otherwise, characteristically female hindrances to clear thinking, are suffused with intelligence and discernment. They are a powerful source of information, awareness and understanding.

On ANZAC Day, I feel sorrow for those who are sent to die by the State, and for those who lose the ones they love. I also feel a profound contempt for the State that slaughters its young, and the young of its enemies. I wish that what we were encouraged to remember on ANZAC Day, as well as those who died, is the vileness of war, and the tremendous responsibility we have to refrain from engagement, except in the most dire of circumstances.

However, hard as it is, I will attempt not to hate war, in the hope that any individual who manages, even for a short time, to refuse to enter the energy of hate, makes her own tiny contribution to changing the world.

Join me, anyone?

Asylum Seekers: How Abbott co-opts Article 31

23 Apr

illegal-boats-0-620x349Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has attempted to justify his use of the term “illegals” for asylum seekers arriving by boat, by referring to  the wording of Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

This is what the Convention actually says:

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence. (Article 31, (1) )

There is no record of any asylum seeker attempting to enter this country  by boat who has not first presented him or herself to the authorities, without delay, and attempted to show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

No asylum seeker arriving by boat has ever been found to have attempted to enter this country without contacting the authorities.

There are, however, abundant examples of people entering this country by plane, neglecting to present themselves to authorities, and neglecting to show good cause for their illegal over-stay and presence.

Commentary on Article 31 from the Refugee Council of Australia

Article 31: Refugees unlawfully in the country of refuge

This Article recognises that refugees have a lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents. As such, what otherwise be considered illegal actions (eg. entering a country without a visa) should not be treated as such if a person is seeking asylum. This means that it is incorrect to refer to asylum seekers who arrive without authorisation as “illegal”, as they in fact have a lawful right to do so if they are seeking asylum.

Asylum is a human right

 

Marriage, equality, and the sentimental

20 Apr

DO YOU KNOW WHAT I HATE MORE THAN RAINBOWS IT IS PICTURES OF TWO WHITE PLASTIC MEN ON TOP OF A FUCKING CAKE. Helen Razer, April 19 2013.

Gay wedding cake

Razer’s tweet caused me to reflect on sentimentality, what it is, and just how much it has to do with our society’s attachment to getting married. It seems to me that rainbows, and cakes such as the above, symbolise easily accessible emotions and contribute to a wider cultural inclination to substitute such emotions for critical thinking and reason. This isn’t peculiar to same-sex weddings: there seems to me to be a strong element of the sentimental in the very nature of weddings, no matter how “tasteful.” Which, of course, can be half the fun, but just how much does that aspect blind us to the faults of the institution?

“Sentimental” is in current usage a pejorative term, though it was not always thus. The sentimental is considered shallow, excessive, spurious, dishonest, false, and mawkish. It is emotion devoid of reason and critical judgement, indeed the sentimental stands accused of privileging diluted and short-lived emotional experience over logic to such a degree, that ethical and intellectual judgements that ought to be applied to a situation are abandoned in favour of the thrill of a temporarily heightened state.

In a sense, the sentimental has served to obfuscate the debate we have to have, which is about the institution of marriage itself, and redirected our attention and energies to the question of marriage equality. I don’t think anyone can deny the presence of the sentimental in this dispute, and perhaps the wonderfully excessive Maori wedding song sung by that joyous group in the New Zealand parliament the other day is an indicator of the rush of heightened emotion associated with all weddings, but especially so when those weddings have been forbidden and are now sanctioned. We don’t think about the failings of the institution, and how it functions in society, so carried away are we by the uncomplicated thrillingness of the romance of it.

I have to say here that as long as we have marriage in our culture and remain in its thrall, there is no question but that it ought to be available to everyone who desires it and is of an age to consent. Forbidding a group of people what they very much want to have  while it is freely available to everyone else, simply on the grounds that they have the same genitalia, is absolutely wrong, and counter productive. The marriage equality debate brilliantly demonstrates how we are distracted from arguing the deeper considerations of the ethics of the institution itself.

No one who wants to marry and is prevented by our laws from doing so, is going to want to start questioning the institution from which they are unfairly excluded, because the exclusion and the desire to be admitted will take precedence. I don’t believe we will be in any position to seriously challenge marriage until it is available to everyone, and the dust of the fight for equality has settled.

Rainbows, hearts, and plastic gay or heterosexual couples on excessive confectionery, can be read as symbols of the sentimental, signifying  a dominant aesthetic of sentimentality that obscures the deeper questions and feelings, and quite rightly thoroughly aggravates observers such as Razer who rail against our collective willingness to settle for the sentimental, and allow it to dull our judgement and reason. Judgement and reason ought to cause us to first think critically about this institution we are celebrating: sentimentality seduces us into settling for the heightened emotion that inevitably surrounds the desire of two people to commit themselves to lifelong state-sanctioned monogamy. Sentimentality is strongly present in that desire: the desire is, I would argue, not born of logic and reason, and it is perhaps not particularly ethical either, unless qualified as an intention, rather than a vow.

I recall a wedding a few years ago, non-religious, colourful and casual, pretty much your north coast upmarket hippy event, and a lot of fun. After the couple exchanged their vows, a friend standing next to me said in a voice that was much louder than she’d intended, owing to a sudden lull in the celebrations, “Well, it’s all down hill from here.” The bride and groom looked aghast. I dug her hard in the ribs with my elbow. “Well, it’s true,” she hissed at me defensively. “I know, but you don’t have to bloody well say it,” I hissed back.

All the weddings I’ve attended have been joyful, including both of my own. But there has been a great deal of sentimentality associated with them and more, with the idea of them. Personally I’m very taken with the love and hope that cause two people to throw their lot in together for life. I suppose that’s why I’ve done it twice and would probably do it again, because third time lucky and anyway I’m closer to death than I was the first two times.

The impulse to fidelity and mutual trust seems to me a worthy one, however I think I would add “To the best of my ability” or “I’ll do my very best” next time, because one never knows what’s ahead, and reason and logic suggest vows are sentimental in their very nature, and therefore untrustworthy.

Then there is the question of the regulation of the expression of emotion. It makes people very happy to marry one another at the time, and on the whole. It usually, one hopes, makes their friends and relations happy as well. Who has any right to deny others this happiness, even if the aesthetics and politics of it are not to one’s taste?

Yes, the institution may be a flawed foundation stone of a conservative agenda. Yes, conservatives love marriage because they love what they consider family. There is actually nothing in the least bit wrong with loving family, it is the traditional conservative notion of what a family consists of that is at fault here.

That the state has no business deciding who may or may not marry is a given. The fact that our Prime Minister does not approve of marriage equality ought to be of no consequence to anyone other than Ms Gillard herself. Nobody will make her marry another girl. It is remarkable to me that Ms Gillard, herself living in a de facto relationship, continues to take this obstructionist stand against marriage equality. Apparently marriage is not an institution she values for herself, yet she is perfectly willing to deny it to others on the spurious grounds that it is supposed to take place only between a man and a woman.

It is not so very long ago that Ms Gillard’s de facto relationship would have made her  occupation of the Lodge an impossibility. The Prime Minister has much to be grateful for. Society’s changes have worked to her great advantage. Why then, does Ms Gillard persist in denying these same advantages to others? I’m certain her stand has little or nothing to do with the sentimental.

rainbowA very sentimental rainbow but at least there is no unicorn

Dear ALP

16 Apr

kevin07-kevin-ruddDear ALP

Lately, I have been thinking back to election night, 2007. I was in Brisbane that night. I’d gone up because I had an early flight to the US next morning, and things being as they are where I live, things like, for example, the treacherous stretch of pot-holed goat track we call the Pacific Highway,  if one has commitments such as overseas flights one can only be sure of keeping them if one allows oneself  twenty-four hours to drive 300ks. Occasionally, even that isn’t long enough.

Be that as it may.

I returned to the hotel room with Mrs Chook when it was all over, and you had won government. We turned on the TV, danced, drank champagne from the mini bar (what a waste of money that was, in hindsight) and felt, like many others, the terrible oppression of John Winston Howard’s lengthy reign lift off us. We were entering a new political phase, we believed, and our relief and happiness kept us awake for much of the night. By the time I boarded my flight the next day I was exhausted, but content.

It did not take long for things to sour. I believe my first major shock was when Kevin Rudd took that bizarre decision to send the Oceanic Viking, a ship carrying rescued asylum seekers, to Indonesia, where a lengthy stand-off ensued and it became clear that your policies on the question of asylum seekers were beginning to morph into something that more closely resembled those of the deposed John Howard and his right hand executioner, the pallid-complexioned Philip Ruddock. (The one who collected stamps from all the countries whose displaced peoples he locked up indefinitely in Woomera and Baxter, along with their children. He kept them in a Chinese cabinet his wife gave him for Christmas. The stamps, not the people).

One remembers such odd facts.

Things have gone frightfully down hill since then, but I cannot bear to list the litany of offences you continue to commit against those who are legally seeking refuge in this country, as is their human right, and as we continue to invite them to do. You are, ladies and gentlemen, fucking hypocrites on this matter.

I can say that I have never forgiven Kevin Rudd for initiating this downwardly spiralling breach of faith.

Then came the coup. Oh yes, much happened in between but if I’m to list every idiocy I will be here till the end of next year, and anyway, confronting you with individual disgraces is not my intention.

What I do want to convey is my horror and distress, when I recall the great tide of support and enthusiasm that swept you into power in 2007 and compare that to where you are now. That win was miraculous. You could not put a foot wrong. It was the triumph every politician dreams of.

SO WHY HAVE YOU FUCKED IT UP?

I believe you’ve fucked it up because there’s not one among you of any influence capable of putting their ego to one side, and focussing on the greater good of your party, and this country. You’ve had some good policies. You’ve done some good things. But none of this gets any airtime because you are so busy publicly brawling among yourselves that you have become the dominant narrative, with your scandals and your betrayals, and not, as it should be, with your policies.

Nobody can hear the good things above the noise of you fighting like fornicating possums trapped in the roof.  You have thus wickedly squandered all your hard-earned capital, and for what, I ask you, for what?

Again, I cannot bear to list the insults and disappointments you have dished out to those of us who elected you, because of your blind, ego-driven hatred of one another. I cannot bear to detail the extent of the self-harm, the cutting of your own arms and legs with blunt razor blades, the public purgings, the binges of self-destruction, the poking out of your own eyes with burnt sticks, the gut-spilling, the incessant factional wars, the eating of yourselves and your leaders, nobody could make this stuff up.

Obviously, you came to power divided and unsettled. Obviously, you are more heavily invested in your internal political hoo haa than you are even in getting yourselves re-elected. Even now, at this eleventh hour, you will not shut up & Mr Simon Crean (no, I will not refer to him as The Honourable) recently and inexplicably found himself compelled to enact yet another attempt at sabotage from the back benches, to whence he was so recently banished after his bizarre efforts to get rid of one leader and replace her with the leader you already got rid of, who has hung around ever since you fatally stabbed him, like an unhappy shade unable to grasp that it is actually dead.

Well, let me tell you, a punter can only take so much before she ceases to give a damn. And sadly, I have now reached that point. I no longer care what you do. Feed on yourselves. Gorge until you vomit like dogs. Do yourselves as much harm as you can manage before you finally collapse in a bloodied heap of lacerated, putrid human flesh, on the opposite side of the house, where you will no doubt languish for decades, and it serves you fucking well right.

Oh, yes you can cry foul, and blame the media. I admit, they have not been on your side. But did you have to make it so easy for them? Did you have to drip feed their malice?

I will vote for Janelle Saffin, my local member, as I have done for some time. This is not a vote of confidence in you, ALP. It is a vote for a damn fine local member who, god help her, has the misfortune to belong to you, and whom you recently demoted because she supports Kevin Rudd, even though she was doing a damn fine job and I resent it that you took her job away from her.

As for the rest of you, quite frankly I wouldn’t piss on most of you if you were on fire.

Sincerely, and more in incandescent rage than sorrow,

Jennifer.

One of the things Thatcher’s death made me think about

15 Apr

A comment made by Russell Brand in his article in The Guardian on the death of Margaret Thatcher provoked feminist outrage, and cries of “nobody ever says that about male politicians.” Or male anythings, really.

You could never call Margaret Mother by mistake, Brand writes. For a national matriarch she is oddly unmaternal. I always felt a bit sorry for her biological children Mark and Carol, wondering from whom they would get their cuddles. “Thatcher as mother” seemed, to my tiddly mind, anathema.

Of course it’s rare for male achievers to be considered from this perspective, and of course that can be a source of outrage to us women, seeming, as it does, to privilege our mothering abilities above and beyond anything else we can do, and do well. So we read obituaries of female scientists, for example, that begin with a tribute to their role as mothers, implying that no matter what else they might have done, their finest accomplishment was, well, mothering.

This feminist refrain has become so familiar to me over the years it’s become reified. I hear it and think, oh yes, that’s right isn’t it, and move on.

This morning I found myself thinking about my sons. They have done well in their chosen fields. I’m enormously proud of them. I’m delighted when they achieve another goal. I’m proud of how they love their female partners, and I don’t hesitate to tell them if they aren’t being fair. They may not listen, but I tell them anyway.

One son  seems quite proud of having been brought up by a feminist. Another claims it probably trashed him. This one bore the brunt, as an adolescent, of me going back to university, and then me and his Dad parting company. I will never forget one screaming, tearful encounter between us when he was having difficulties with his stepmother that were, of course, all my fault. “If you hadn’t gone back to university and got political,” he yelled at me, “none of this would ever have happened and we’d still all be living in the same house!”

In a way, he was quite right.

But what I realised this morning is that while I’m proud of them for just about everything, the thing that really makes me go weak at the knees is watching my sons with their children. As dads, they are, to my mind, amazing. I know they learned a lot from their own Dad, who was an excellent and very loving Dad. But they surpass him, and I’m sure, me.

For example, when the newest baby arrived last week, his dad stripped off his shirt in the delivery room, said he didn’t need them to clean the infant up, and took him in his arms for skin to skin contact while the baby’s mother was temporarily unavailable.

I would make this the first line in anyone’s obit.

Is it demeaning them, for me to think of and treasure these young men first as brilliant, loving Dads, and second as successful young men in all their other roles? If it’s offensive to think of women in that way, surely it must be equally offensive to transfer that thinking to men?

No, I don’t think it is demeaning to honour a man’s dadness. What’s wrong is that we hardly ever do it.

We should acknowledge a man’s role in his family life, just as we do a woman’s. I don’t think it’s sexist and demeaning to honour a woman’s role as mother.  We are throwing the baby out with the bath water in demanding that women are not first spoken of in terms of our love for our children and our role as mothers. We need to keep doing that and we need to start speaking in these same terms about men a whole lot more than we do.

family

And it’s been worth every mile

13 Apr

With the coming of another child into our family, I’ve been thinking about love.

The human heart seems to have an infinite capacity for love. A new child, and the moment you hold him in your arms or even before, even as he is being handed to you by your son, his father, whom you also love beyond understanding, already you are in love with this new life.

Then you look on as your son falls in love with his baby, and you realise that however much you loved your son up to that moment, now you love him even more.

Then you remember the other kind of falling in love. And how, if it’s the kind that lasts long enough, you don’t just fall in love with the beloved once, but over and over again. And each time it feels deeper, and more strong, and somehow your heart expands and gives this growing love a home as well.

And somehow, there is room for everyone. And somehow, it’s worth every mile:

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