I. Searching for something else in my files this morning, I came across this old note:
How do you get better? How do you get better at being a person? Does it always just happen over time? What if you get worse? What if you work so hard every day to become somebody and in the end you become worse? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible man who doesn’t know how terrible he’s become.
I seem to have written this seven years ago, back when I still lived in Alabama. They were very dark years, for a number of reasons. These are the years I’m writing about now, on these very last days of my sabbatical.
I’m not sure which aspect of myself I was thinking about when I wrote this, but all these years later I’m struck by how often these questions still feel valid, and the answers just as elusive.
II. If I could go back to April 2013 and answer him, I’d try to show my younger self the trap of believing that goodness inheres in people. Badness, too. If you believe you are at core a good person, your actions will not signify. Good-person cops kill unarmed black men (whom they see as bad persons) and their self-presumed goodness stays intact.
Infinitely more than your self-image, it’s your actions that matter. How you treat people, and how you treat yourself, stirs up the dust of progress and moves the world toward what folks might call good or bad—but also might never.
How do you do better? Does it always just happen over time? What if you do worse? What if you work so hard every day to do the right thing and in the end you do the wrong thing? No one’s ever going to tell you, and so you’ll never know.
Me I use God for guidance, and role models from books and among my friends. It decidedly doesn’t “just happen over time”—what happens over time is inertia. If I do worse, I recognize that I’ve done worse because I see the effects of what I’ve done. And then I try to do better next time, because there will always be a next time.
III. The thing about doing over being is that people will tell you, and so you’ll regularly know. They’ll say “Thank you” or they’ll say “Fuck you.” It’s a useful system.
But if you park just for a sec in an accessible parking spot, or let your party’s music go on past quiet hours, or forget your friend’s birthday, and some witness says, “You’re a bad person,” don’t listen to that lie. “You’ve done the wrong thing,” is the feedback you’re looking for.
(Of course, if you hear it and don’t listen, and don’t change in the future, then like magic you’ve become a bad person.)
The saddest tweet I read today (always a tough contest) was this one:
If you don’t know Andrew Sullivan, he’s a gay conservative terrified at the potential for racial justice conversations to put him out of a job. He likes also to holler online about how leftists are trying to shut down “civilized debate” while also throwing tantrums when people push back about his falsenesses:
In short: he’s one of a number of mediocre thinkers paid—still, in 2020, confusingly—to profess opinions. But Sullivan is not my focus here, it’s the unfortunate person in the first tweet who lauded Sullivan for “making sense of all the chaos.”
My point in this post is that that’s how despots come to power.
These ideas stem from two sources. One is Lewis Hyde’s incredible book Trickster Makes This World. The other is what little I was able to stomach of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos before I deleted the ebook version of it I found for free online somewhere. (Extremely relieved not to have given that guy any of my money.)
Hyde’s book focuses on trickster figures in global myths (coyote, Hermes, Loki, Krishna, etc.), with a whole chapter on what he calls “dirt-work”, trickster’s predilection for using shit and filth and shame/lessness to “make this world”—i.e., create art, artistry, industry, knowledge and then give it to humans.
By working/playing in the dirt, trickster assures his art can begin in a form unsullied by the Pure, or the Ideal, which both belong, Hyde shows, in the realm of the gods, and which reflect values centered on effort and s(t)olidity. Trickster art, on the other hand, is always playful, agile, and fluid.
(Quick aside about how purity likes to pose as strength but it’s much more of a weakness. Purity is very easy to stain and ruin. Think of washed hands, the myth of virginity, all-white furniture. Whiteness in general. Hyde notes how formulations of race in the antebellum South believed that “one drop of black blood” made anyone black. Whiteness is so fragile it cannot survive a single procreative act from a non-white person, whereas blackness can procreate with anyone and stay fully intact.)
Here’s a quote I found in my notes:
[T]rickster’s freedom with dirt means he can operate where fastidious high gods cannot and as a result heaven’s fertility and riches enter this world.
Myths show this process again and again. Not only can trickster do things the gods cannot, his dirt-work also inserts fluidity and flexibility within a system or culture. Consider Carnival/Mardi Gras, the annual dirtwork-sinfest the Catholic Church allows everyone to get out of their systems before its grueling demands of Lent. Through the chaos of Carnival, through its mockery of the pure/godly/ideal,
ritual dirt-work operates as a kind of safety valve, allowing internal conflicts and nagging anomalies to be expressed without serious consequence. If everyone secretly knows the Pope is not perfect, the secret can harmlessly endure if once a year, for a limited time only, the people make a fool of the Pope.
In other words, the presence of chaos (however controlled) allows order to continue, even to take control. Eradicating chaos—or trying out that impossibility—will only bring more chaos.
Chaos makes neo-fascists (here we turn to Peterson) very afraid. It is, in Peterson’s imaginary, the force we must all fight, avoid, or transcend. School shootings, transgenderism, the fact of disease, single mothers—they’re all evidence that life is full of chaos and trouble and that we need to return to “Western values”.
The work Peterson does to help us accomplish this is giving young men shoulders-back-type advice (literally: shoulders-back is Rule 1 of the 12 Rules), and reminding them that the yin of the yin and yang symbol is the chaos side of the balance, and is tied to the feminine. Peterson’s work is, in Hyde’s formulation, lordly, godly work—it’s rigid, pious, inflexible, humorless.
I don’t think I need to spell out the sterility of order. It produces nothing new, it works desperately to sustain itself, it seeks a kind of deathfulness. (If you’re thinking about Marie Kondo right now, I want to point you to a great essay on this by Deb Olin Unferth.) I tell my students to seek always to make a mess in their first drafts, because in a mess you can create something. In a mess something can grow. Write a swamp, I say, not a desert.
(Ecologist readers are probably rolling their eyes at my ignorance re desert ecosystems. Fine.)
How does the desire to seek order in chaos lead to despotism? Because if you can’t handle chaos you can’t handle the everyday mess of life on a globe of difference. And if you look for leaders, charismatic or otherwise, who promise to lead you away from this discomfort, they’re going to need to make that messy world smaller, and more sterile. They’re going to need to point you to a future where that seems possible.
And the only way that’s truly possible is by controlling people until they make sense, or eradicate those who don’t from the face of the planet until the planet makes sense.
The only sense to make of chaos is that we’ve always lived among it, and while cosmos literally moves the world, it’s through chaos that the world moves forward.
While searching last week for the origins of the archaic term bedswerver (it’s from The Winter’s Tale), I found this pic:
You might recognize the composition from the image behind the “distracted boyfriend” meme from 2017:
Being who I am, I thought it was interesting that the latter photo became the viral hit and not the former photo, and I wanted to know why. After all, few if any of the memes relied on gender, the distracted boyfriend standing in for “people”. So why not let a girlfriend stand in for “people”? I had my suspicions, but I took it to the court of public opinion that is Twitter:
You can click on the comments to read along if you’d like (unless it’s past 30 days and the tweet’s been autodeleted), but the general consensus was that the girlfriend in this pic isn’t distracted/horny, she’s offended/angry. Only in the context of the original, boyfriend-centered pic, goes the argument, would we ever think this girlfriend was aroused.
I’m curious about this because physiognomically these two are doing the same things: furrowing their brows and pursing their lips. Also: we can see what this woman looks like when she’s offended/angry, because you’ve probably noticed by now that the model also plays The Girlfriend in the viral pic. Her angry expression looks like dropped-jaw, widened eyes.
This is a change in my position. Used to be I understood that fantasies are separate from reality and do not indicate anything about a person’s behavior or ethical beliefs. So I’ve refused to judge people into Nazi porn, or, say, Daddy-Dom / Little-Boy fetishists who dress the latter up in diapers and give them the former’s dick to suck. I don’t judge incest fantasies or rape fantasies. I don’t judge race play, even though it can make my stomach curdle.
This isn’t a radical position. This is sexology 101.
Yesterday I found a fantasy that I’m judging the hell out of, and I want to figure out why.
This is from Jack Morin’s The Erotic Mind, which is a self-help-adjacent book about the roles that fantasies play in developing one’s individual eroticism. Morin surveyed around 350 people about their peak erotic experiences and longtime sexual fantasies to gather the data from which he’s formed his ideas. “Judy” is one such survey respondent (note very 1995 language):
Ever since I was about fifteen I’ve fantasized about being a prostitute. I was always supposed to be “good,” but prostitutes claim the right to be blatantly sexual. As a hooker, I relish my seductive walk, whorish clothes, and dirty talk. I imagine a man slowing down for a look at me. If I like what I see, I ask if he’s in the mood for action. Sometimes I’m a streetwalker and we do it in his car or a fleabag hotel. Other times I’m a sophisticated call girl catering to rich businessmen. But I’m always in control, totally sexual, and I don’t give a damn about what anyone thinks.
Perfectly good sexual fantasy. Common as hell, I imagine. But in Morin’s drive to understand the emotions behind our fantasies, he asks people to think about them, and where they came from or what makes them so charged, and Judy has a revealing answer:
I know I kind of wrote a whole book on this, but I find myself thinking about it again today, this ongoing way of finding insights into human nature by comparing our behavior to animals’. Often it’s wolves or dogs. There’s alphas and betas, these folks say. Putting aside the fact that alpha wolves don’t exist in nature (PDF link), there’s really no reason why we should believe that studying animal behavior can clue us into our own.
Actually, there are two reasons to do this:
Your understanding of (or faith in) evolutionary psychology is such that you believe our current behaviors are dictated, even unconsciously, by Darwinist notions (e.g., survival of the fittest, sexual selection, etc).
In looking at what’s natural in human behavior, you focus on the natural while equating animals with The Natural.
If you’re a #1 person I, an evolutionarily aberrant homosexual, don’t know what to tell you. If you’re a #2 person, I’ve got a guy for you to read: Thomas Nagel (another PDF link).
Okay I haven’t read him either, but I’m going to after having come across his ideas on sexual perversions in my research. Plaguing philosophers (among others) for centuries has been the question, What’s natural human sexuality look like? Most folks follow St. Thomas Aquinas in looking at the “natural” part of that construction. And most folks fall into his “animals = nature” trap.
So: because animals only have sex to procreate, natural human sexuality = procreative sex.
Again, lots is factually wrong about this, but Aquinas died almost 750 years ago so we can forgive his not knowing about dolphins or penguins or bonobos. But you can see how this idea (along with all kinds of religious dogma) has made it easy—indeed, made it “feel natural”—for people to hate / kill queers.
What Nagel does is say, Shouldn’t we focus on the human part of “natural human sexuality”? That is, what separates us from the animals and puts us in the category of Human? In that sense, what’s unnatural is only having procreative sex (again, in Aquinas’s ancient formulation). Or, more up-to-date, because animals seem not to take partners’ mutual pleasures into consideration, human sex that does the same is unnatural.
To Nagel, you’re a pervert if you refuse to recognize your sex partner(s) as mutually aroused and interested in sexual pleasure, and you’re a pervert when you disallow yourself to become your partner(‘)s(‘) sexual object.
More complicated? A little. But look at how Nagel refuses to let specific genital mash-ups or partner-numbers or any of those details get in the way of finding a path to moral evaluations of sexual behavior. I know this isn’t new, this idea (Nagel’s paper dates to ’69), but it’s new to me as a way to shut down animal behaviorist arguments.
“We are not animals, we are given them,” is how I resolved the question. Nagel’s seems more to my speed today.
I. I am trying here to figure out what happens in my body and my mind when I click on Today’s Crossword and see this:
I remember, when it happened, that I gasped lightly, a noised breath-intake, and then I held it. What was that about? Gasping seems to be a reflex of feeding the body oxygen in preparation for a willed temporary paralysis. Like with fear reflexes, turning a corner and coming upon someone who might harm you, or who you really don’t want to know you’re there. You gasp, and you still yourself. In most environments motion catches the eye more than color. Paralysis is a way to hide. Even the rhythms of breathing are too much to risk.
But in arousal or excitement? Do I need to explain it, for those who don’t do crosswords? Every puzzle is beautiful if you love symmetry (I’m ambivalent on the issue), but behold the 6 answers that span the width of the puzzle, all of them 16-letters long, and all fitting together to produce so many new vertical words! Notice also the nooked-out arrangement in the middle, how access to those squares is protected from inroads made vertically from other vectors! It’s not impossible, but the challenge of it is made bare before you’ve even entered a single letter.
What I’m saying is that there’s a promise broadcast instantly by the image of this puzzle, a promise or an invitation, maybe. The puzzle is posing and showing off, and asking me to come in and play around with it a while, knowing it knows how much I’m going to enjoy it.
Compare that image to this one:
Again, I gasped. (Never mind where I found it.)[**] I imagine also my eyelids retracted, or flared, whatever the physiological reaction is called, as though to let in more of the image’s sense data the way we flare our nostrils to gather more of a smell. And I know that in beholding these men in their hot springs, their shapes and arrangement, I felt a very similar promise or invitation as I did with the crossword.
Was it the same promise, is what I’m trying to figure out.
II. Let’s get back to gasping in fear and excitement. From what little I know I think “arousal” is a term biologists or ethologists give to the physiological process of the brain feeding hormones rapidly to the body once it’s arrested from a relaxed or dormant state. Whatever does the arresting—a fearful object, an erotic object, sunlight after sleep—doesn’t change the process.
Arousal, then, can be pleasant or unpleasant, given one’s needs or desires at the time, or given (some theorists say) whether you identify as an extravert or introvert.
The gasping, then, is functional, instinctive, and thus I’m less interested in it (call it a fault), though I do still find it interesting that I had the same bodily reaction to first encountering both images. But the shared feeling of invitation or promise is interesting, because the outcomes they point to seem so different.
III. I imagine I’m not the only person who has kept mind and body separate for most of their lives, and more specifically who has seen intellectual and sexual pursuits as operating in separate spheres. There’s nothing dumber than a hardon, is what I’m saying. But this question of shared promise is blurring lines I’ve probably spent too much time maintaining.
The puzzle makes me want to solve it, and the photo makes me want to touch the men inside it. So those actions—thinking quietly in solitude and filling in letters, being a body amid other bodies—seem very disconnected from one another. What accounts for my equal reaction is something regarding arousal I hadn’t considered before.
It’s like arousal is about the sudden stirring of potential, and because desires are manifold, I can feel as equal a pull toward an amazing crossword as I can an erotic body. What pulls me is promise, potential, newness. Novelty? It seems like this wants to be a post about novelty, and being aroused by hot new (brainy, erotic) things.[††] Except that both of these images still stir the imagination. It’s been long enough that I would happily solve that crossword again. Maybe I don’t gasp anymore, but the arousal is still there.
And the crossword isn’t new, exactly, any more than every crossword is. It presents me not with a novel experience, but another challenging one, which I can tell from the shape of it will be rife with one of the pleasures I go to crosswords seeking out: watching words and phrases materialize and fit unexpectedly together.
Which is not at all far from the pleasure of writing.
IV. I’ll wrap up on the realization I now just got that I feel a similar arousal when a new idea (like the one I just ended the section on) comes to me. That solving crosswords is like writing the way paint-by-numbers is like painting makes a lot of new exciting sense for regarding why I enjoy doing them at the end of a day of writing and reading.
But that’s a post for another time. What’s arousing about a new idea isn’t its newness so much as what I might do with the thing, and so I’m back again to these images’ promise and invitation. If arousal is the state of waking from dormancy or relaxation, I am probably aroused by arousal. I might always find it pleasant. Guy Hocquenghem calls love “the desire to desire and be desired,” so I’ll need to think some more about what to call this. Other than a risky habit.
Footnotes (↵ returns to text)
And any criticisms (ad hominem, postcolonial, feminist, etc.) that may come my way for posting such an image I’ve already worked through and accepted, discovering that, in these matters, while I can come away unashamed, there’s no coming away unscathed.↵
I’ve seen the studies that aim to show how pornography (and in a world of “food porn” or “house porn” let’s admit this is a post about varied pornographies) instills or increases one’s demand for newness and novelty, and I’ve seen the studies that show skepticism of those studies’ findings.↵