In his essay “The disease of theory: 'Crime and Punishment’ at 150" (The New Criterion , May, 2016), Gary Saul Morson makes the following remark about Raskolnikov’s murder of the old pawnbroker, the incident that propels Dostoevsky’s narrative. “The crime emerged not from a specific decision but from a state of mind…Every moment in which he fostered the theoretical state of mind, in which abstract considerations displaced common decency, made the crime more possible.” Morson’s piece is a brilliant meditation on the kind of thought that creates its own vacuum. In place of air what is expunged by theorists of the extreme, who put ideas before people, is common humanity. It’s a subject that Tom Stoppard also broached in The Coast of Utopia, where anarchists like Bakunin and Herzen are depicted gripping the imagination of the intelligentsia. Bazarov, the nihilistic character of Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is an idea come to life while Solyony, the Lermontov quoting alienated romantic in The Three Sisters is a proto-Raskolnikov who finds little value in human life and kills another character in a totally gratuitous showdown. Commenting about the sensibility of the era that Dostoevsky describes and it’s effect on the shaping of Raskolnikov’s character Morson remarks, “It is almost as if people don’t think ideas, but ideas use people to be thought.” Is this in effect the more profound issue that underlies Philippa Foot’s famed problem in ethical philosophy. In order to spare five people a trolley has to be diverted so that it simply hits one. From a utilitarian point of view it makes sense to sacrifice 1 to save 5. But what about the sanctity of the life of that one individual? As Morson states, “According to utilitarianism, the fundamental criterion of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What if that entails murder?”
Tuesday, May 31, 2016
Monday, May 30, 2016
In his obituary of John Bradshaw, a guru of the recovery movement (“John Bradshaw, Self-Help Evangelist Who Called to the 'Inner Child,' Dies at 82,” NYT, 5/12/16), William Grimes makes the following observation “Until they learned to seek out and heal the hurt child within, he said, most adults stumbled through life, expressing their pain through self-destructive behavior and entering into unhappy love relationships with similarly damaged partners, each hoping to find in the other a loving, approving parent.” Bradshaw who coined the notion of the “inner child,” is the kind of mass market personality whose ideas one might give short shrift to, particularly if you're feeling inundated with good intentioned homiletics of the Codependent No More variety. But Grimes’ paraphrase makes a lot of sense no matter how sophisticated the therapeutic paradigm you subscribe to. It falls under the rubric of unfinished business and it’s understandable why certain loose ends which are not only painful to deal with but seemingly too problematic to be resolved are something that even the most sincere seeker for inner peace and contentment might readily avoid. M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled, is another piece of popularized psycho-spiritualism; it’s the road “more traveled” aka denial that the mass of men are prone to take where coming to grips with painful childhood issues is involved. When you think about it Bradshaw’s idea makes lots of sense. You have a way of looking at the world that's molded when you're very young and if those perceptions, for whatever reasons, are created by childhood trauma or at least pain, you may find that the defensive behavior you've learned produces negative results in adult life. Childhood wounds, of the psycho-sexual variety, are not the kind that easily heal.
Friday, May 27, 2016
|"Nymphs and Satyr" by Bouguereau (1873)|
Women with nymphomania or men with the corresponding state of satyriasis or satyromania suffer from uncontrollable sexual desire. But are such compulsions tantamount to a kind of outsized ambition? Does the drive to constantly seek out new partners, with the notion that nothing and no one is enough, derive from a feeling of discomfort with the status quo? For instance, it’s said about a business that it won’t survive unless it expands. That‘s one of central tenets of capitalism. But sexuality is also intrinsically bound up with the idea of success. A human being can be viewed as a commodity whose worth is constantly being evaluated by the marketplace. Judith Rosner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar presented a kind of Upton Sinclair view of bar life in which searching for love in nightspots was equated to a meat market and eventually slaughterhouse. Today sites like Tinder facilitate the commodification of sexuality and at the core of this sexual agora lies a Darwinian survival of the fittest. The powerful and attractive male who can gain the attention of all the females (the peacock with the most colorful and dramatic plumage) or males (depending on his orientation) and conversely the females who can attract the most men or women is also the one who will occupy the top of the food chain, leaving those who lack these abilities to be bottom feeders. Of course, one can return to the idea that nymphomania or satyromania are just addictions, predicated on the manipulation and abuse of serotonin levels. But on an existential level sexual ambition is often inextricably tied to the desire for success. You get the job to get the girl or the guy to get the job. Sometimes this process becomes the equivalent of one of the those nuclear chain reactions that gets out of control and leads to a meltdown.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
|"Bacchanal with a wine vat," by Mantegna (c.1470)|
What is the difference between a gang bang and an orgy? On first glance it would seem that an orgy is a far more easy going communal activity, while a gang bang has connotations of something more aggressive, particularly because of the words “gang” and “bang.” Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines gang as “a group of criminals” and “bang” as “a resounding blow” while “orgy” is defined as “a wild party and especially one in which many people have sex together.” So there’s a long road to hoe between orgies and gang bangs. In addition the gang bang is actually a solitary activity for the object of the banging. There may be gang bangs in which multiple people are having sex with even larger crowds, but generally gang bangs are activities in which one solitary individual either willingly or unwillingly becomes the subject for the advances of a group. They are, in the vernacular, the caboose for the figurative train. If you drew a Venn diagram there would be some overlapping areas for gang bangs and orgies. Equanimity is not one of the by-products of group sex and a very popular or attractive person at an orgy could very well find themselves the subject of a gang bang when everyone wanted to have sex with him or her, even though it might not feel like a gang bang due to the psychedelic 60’s music, and Timothy Leary sensibility of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” These instances might be termed inadvertent or de facto gang bangs which exude a feeling of joy as opposed to the the atmosphere of doom and gloom that accompanies the kind of gang bang where a posse of people is out to ravage their mark. Still not all gang bangs are criminal activities and not all orgies are completely legal, particularly if they involve the use of large amounts of hallucinogens to catalyze the appropriate level of disinhibtion for the orgy to actually take place.
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
|Epicurus (photo: Interstate295)|
The problem with hedonism is that it's so self serving. If you're constantly thinking about how you can maximize your pleasures there's no time for anyone or thing that isn’t an immediate source of pleasure. Here's a quote from a new Showtime series called Submission, which has an S&M theme that's obviously trying to capitalize on the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. “sometimes losing control has it’s own kind of power.” But though "submission" in an S&M context camouflages itself as a kind of surrender of the self, it's merely a technique of creating sexual excitement and ultimately of maximizing the intensity of the orgasm. Though such surrender camouflages as a spiritual pursuit, it's totally egocentric. Epicurus is a philosopher whose name is associated with pleasure by virtue of the fact that epicureans, or would be followers of the dictates of Epicurus might be devoted to the cultivation of taste—at least in so far as food is concerned. But Epicurus was a proponent of moderation and the pleasure he proslyetized for was characterized by the diminution of pain. It was not based on a raging need to increasingly gratify urges, but a more even-handed ability to define sensibility, something which is ultimately a social phenomenon in which other peoples’ needs and desires are taken into consideration. But let's employ what might be called a "last supper test," something like one of those conundrums in ethics, in which, in this case, the condemned prisoner gets anything he wants. Imagine yourself hypothetically occupying your own death row. It’s your last day on earth and you sate your desires for wine, women (or men), song and of course glazed donuts. Every orifice is stuffed. Unfettered by the fear of consequences you have satisfied all your desires. But are you happy?