Este artigo, publicado na revista australiana, Quadrant, aparece no site de Roger Sandall
Sexualizing everyday life
from Mann and Nabokov to Sheik al-Hilaly
My first question is this: was the mad Mufti right?
When Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilaly said that half-clothed Australian women went around like “exposed meat” inviting rape there was an immediate uproar from all enlightened opinion. Unbelievable! How could anyone say such a thing? Shock-horror was general, and the ugly imagery confirmed a growing suspicion that our Islamic leadership is stuck in the Dark Ages.
But it’s less clear that the Sheik was entirely wrong. Perhaps he could even be seen as a kind of messenger bringing bad news. What he was complaining about, if we’re honest, was a process that has been going on so long, and has now gone so far, that it has become the water we swim in and the air we breathe: a sexually heightened moral environment far removed from any known culture in the past, in which everyday activities like buying a paper or visiting a supermarket continually present us with acres of erotica and exciting flesh—along with once forbidden instincts, thoughts, and desires now normalized and routine.
My second question is this: Has a moral tsunami left our middle classes, the erstwhile custodians of civil order and decency, in ruins? What has been the corrupting role we ourselves have played in this state of affairs—every one of us that is, from the sensation-mongering media at the bottom, to our most celebrated cultural paragons at the top? Recently the papers have been filled with scandalised reports of paedophilia in a surprising variety of milieus. Have the works of even our most gifted artists and exalted writers contributed to a climate in which this too has become inevitable? The Sheik’s comments were tasteless. His language was brutal. But can we truly say he was unprovoked?
Art and innocence
“The kingdom of art increases and that of health and innocence declines.”
So wrote Thomas Mann, and he knew what he was talking about. Moral degeneration and civilisational decline, he argued, come with the ascendancy of the modern artist and the subversive role of art in modern life, a doctrine fully explicit in his novella Tonio Kröger. There he tells us that today’s artists are estranged from life, pursue goals hostile to life, work continually to subvert and destroy the bourgeois firmament, and jeer when it comes tumbling down.
The weird thing is that nobody saw what was happening. The middle classes thought Communist revolution in Russia was out to ruin them—and it certainly made every effort to do so. But capitalism proved more easily debauched than overthrown, and the western bourgeoisie more vulnerable to moral than political subversion. The possibility that the libertine values of artistic bohemia might be more dangerous in the long run, however, never seems to have entered their giddy heads. Artists were exciting. Artists were creative. Artists were free and uninhibited, and art was a raison d’etre much more noble than trade and commerce. As part of this delusion the bourgeoisie came to believe that the counter-cultural creators of beautiful paintings and music must also have beautiful souls.
But this was nonsense. The so-called artist’s ‘gift’, wrote Thomas Mann, has dark roots in a poisoned psyche. “It is a very dubious affair and rests upon extremely sinister foundations.” The world should know that most artists today are sick in mind and spirit, a danger to decent people and heedless of the damage they cause. Plumbers and carpenters and other tradesmen were reliable friends. But artists were the enemy. And because he understood this so clearly, the eponymous Tonio Kröger (the character of a writer in the book who speaks for Mann himself) was embarrassed to find complete strangers sending him letters of praise:
…I positively blush at the thought of how these good people would freeze up if they were to get a look behind the scenes. What they, in their innocence, cannot comprehend is that a properly constituted, healthy, decent man never writes, acts, or composes…”
Literature is not a calling, it is a curse, believe me! It begins by your feeling yourself set apart, in a curious sort of opposition to the nice, regular people; there is a gulf of ironic sensibility, of knowledge, scepticism, disagreement, between you and the others; it grows deeper and deeper, you realize that you are alone; and from then on any rapprochement is simply hopeless! What a fate!
The rise of the paederaesthetic
If art increases as innocence declines, is it a matter of cause and effect? In that case Mann would seem to be supporting Rousseau’s view in the First Discourse that literature and the arts are actually making the world worse. It certainly sounds like that. In Mann’s view the writer stands in permanent moral opposition, sceptical and ironic and relentlessly gnawing away. Worse still: having found a role in Art he may have lost a useful role in Life. The sense of being set apart in an alien moral universe is overwhelming:
You can disguise yourself, you can dress up like an attaché or a lieutenant; you hardly need to give a glance or speak a word before everyone knows you are not a human being, but something else: something queer, different, inimical.
Sexually inimical too—or sexually perhaps most of all. “Is an artist a male, anyhow? Ask the females! It seems to me we artists are all of us something like those unsexed papal singers. We sing like angels; but…” Here Kröger/Mann breaks off. Perhaps from weariness or boredom. Perhaps also because the angelic songs of yearning can hardly be named for what they are. Readers of Death in Venice will however take his meaning. In that story the ageing writer Aschenbach lusts after the youth Tadzio, and the ironic sensibility so ably described, the scepticism, the irony, the extreme narcissism, is combined with the mysterious obsessions of the paedophile—such obsessions being those of the author himself.
* * *
Thomas Mann was a towering figure, intellectually in touch with the major currents of thought in his time, and to try and reduce him to his erotic interests would be ridiculous. His diaries for 1933 and 1934 reveal an observer whose understanding of European realities was second to none. Under the Nazis, he wrote, the Germans were becoming a “wretched, isolated, demented people, misled by a wild, stupid band of adventurers whom they take for mythical heroes.” In his entry for December 15, 1933, Mann reported Max Planck’s meeting with the Führer:
Planck had requested a personal interview with Hitler regarding anti-Semitic dismissals of professors. He was subjected to a three-quarter-hour harangue, after which he returned home completely crushed.
He said it was like listening to an old peasant woman gabbling on about mathematics, the man’s low-level, ill-educated reliance on obsessive ideas; more hopeless than anything the illustrious scientist and thinker had ever heard in his entire life.
Two worlds coming together as the result of the one’s rise to power: a man from the world of knowledge, erudition, and disciplined thought is forced to listen to the arrogant, dogmatic expectorations of a revolting dilettante, after which he can only bow and take his leave.
Stephen Spender wrote of the diaries that “Thomas Mann is a monumental figure of our time. Reading these journals one feels that this monument is made of very hard, resistant, almost cruel material: but under the surface there is a human being who, together with Freud, was the greatest human being this century.”
Under the surface, too, unmentioned by Spender, was a pederastic interest that pervades his work and accurately reflects his inclinations. There is far more to his stories than that. And we might note that he appears to have spent most of his life in chaste frustration. But with their adored ‘Hermes’ (and their slight and ridiculous women) the tales he spun probably helped to disinhibit, to condone, and to legitimise predatory behaviour that mothers with children can only regard with dread.
Mann and Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov once joked that if Lolita had been about a man and a boy he would have had no American publishing problems—and that this was considered a joking matter is almost as revealing as anything else to do with the book. It would of course be ludicrous to suggest a direct connection between the works of these authors and what is now going on in the media and the streets. The self-conscious complexities of literary style alone would exclude all but the most determined reader from the experiences Mann and Nabokov publicise.
Still, there it is, an unbudgeable fact of literary history: two of the most distinguished writers of the 20th century, the most relentlessly cerebral and self-conscious writers, and the most academically admired and studied writers with whole shelves of earnest research devoted to their books, gave what I shall call “paederaesthetics”—the world of belief and feeling embodied in erotically idealised juveniles frankly treated as sexual prey—an important place. A widely used Simon & Schuster reader’s guide for college students from 1995 tells us that
Lolita, with its murder, paedophilia, sadism, masochism, and even hint of incest, clearly struck a nerve in our society by violating a number of its strongest taboos.
I’d have thought that any healthy society very reasonably should have taboos against murder, paedophilia, sadism, and incest. I am neither a prude nor a killjoy, yet rules against these things seem sensible to me. But the author of this student guide to Lolita apparently feels otherwise, suggesting, in accord with bohemian principles, that the proper function of literature is to overcome such taboos. And perhaps in the case of paedophilia it has succeeded.
The sexualising of everyday life
Our culture is deeply divided. Should we be in favour of public copulation or might that be OTT? If it’s okay for Paris Hilton to make a video of herself having sex and to share it about in cyberspace, why shouldn’t our very own Susie and Jim make one too? A glance at any newspaper shows how each libertine advance ratchets up another without anyone knowing where to stop.
A mass-market color supplement to Sydney’s Sun-Herald for October 29 2006 has the Hilton sisters on the cover, while inch-high yellow lettering shouts “Hedonism is Back, How to Party Celebrity Style”. The following 30 pages promote celebtrashery as a way of life.
Spectrum, a literary supplement of the Sydney Morning Herald edited and written largely by women, moves up a cultural notch and features a story about the female author “of a best-selling erotic novel”. This cites “a man who wishes women would make more noise in bed, and a divorcee in her 50s finding sex on the internet.” Reviews follow, a scene from the film Suburban Mayhem showing a chesty chick with thigh-high boots who, we are told, is “mistress of the SMS, and the local boys are her Praetorian Guard.” Reviewer Sandra Hall reports that “Wanna Fuck? is their call to arms” and that the young woman in question “usually obliges.”
Some relief from this brazen brutishness is provided by the writer Elizabeth Farrelly. Her essay “In search of a cure for paradise syndrome” questions the concept of illimitable human desires, and quotes Raymond Tallis’s thoughts on this subject. But only pages later there’s a full-colour cartoon of a pole dancer getting her rocks off—if that’s the expression I need. This illustrated a contribution by Mr David Marr.
Not wanting to unfairly target a single Sydney newspaper I looked at The Weekend Australian Magazine for November 11-12. The cover is a bold come-on for an article asking if it is right or wrong for women teachers to seduce male pupils. No particular moral stance is adopted, and a number of court cases are examined. Yet by only the second paragraph we are treated to a vivid description of a 37-year-old woman who “wound up in the front seat of her car giving one of her boys oral sex… His friends thought he was ‘a bit of a legend’. He let them in on juicier details, like her glasses fogging up.”
* * *
Now then. Let us stop for a moment and consider. Put yourself in the position of conventionally respectable immigrants from some traditional culture—Sri Lankan Buddhists, Colombian Catholics, Greek Orthodox from the Ukraine—who are used to certain standards of dress and decorum, who go to buy a weekend newspaper, and who are confronted with this sort of thing. We might also mention the good Rabbi and the pious Lubavitchers over my back fence, whose views of female decorum are in all important respects indistinguishable from the Sheik’s.
What conclusion can they possibly draw from the daughters of billionaires fornicating on the web, cries for more noise in bed, shouts of “Wanna Fuck?” from movie stars, a female pole dancer engaged in public masturbation, and Australian women teachers who seduce their pupils and provide them with oral sex? Sheik al-Hilaly may be a boor and a pest. He doubtless has a wider political agenda. But I ask you: if these are not examples of white western women aggressively calling for action, what exactly are they?
Philip Rieff has suggested that we ourselves are the counter-culture now. If that is true, with the values of bohemia saturating the mass media and barely distinguishable from those of the general populace, then we can probably find the reasons for the Mufti’s outburst by gazing thoughtfully in the nearest mirror.
Civility and common sense
Getting the balance right between the animal and the civil has been a problem since civilization began. It hasn’t been easy. There has been a perpetual strain between the puritan tendency and the libertine, in China, in Japan, in India, and in the West as well. Some cultures and some eras veered to the one; some to the other. Alexander Pope saw this perplexity as part of Man’s condition. Created half to rise and half to fall,
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little or too much;
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused or disabused…
For Europe’s educated classes the situation in the 18th century may have been as near as we are likely to come to a secular world where mind and body, thought and passion, were in some kind of balance—the various worlds of Hume and Rousseau, of Gibbon and Voltaire, of the Baronne de Warens and the Marquise du Deffand—a world where both the conventional Johnson and the promiscuous Boswell could separately thrive and flourish.
* * *
Be that as it may, the usual way of dealing with this matter involved a common sense separation of realms. You didn’t publish entertaining accounts of oral sex provided by female teachers for their male pupils in family magazines. You didn’t have leading novelists advertising the joys of paedophilia. Though one should expect, in a free country, that such matters may be discussed and argued about—the pros (few) and the cons (many)—it has usually also been assumed that this would be constrained by a thoughtful choice of time, place, and occasion.
That’s where we seem to have gone wrong. An abandonment of the common sense rules to be found in hundreds of traditional cultures, and a foolish refusal to confine the sexual world to where it belongs, has led to its being indiscriminately mingled with everything else, 24/7. A burly Middle Eastern peasant in a nightshirt may seem an improbable source of moral guidance, yet in a way that’s what the outspoken Sheik really is—and he’s calling the shots as he sees them. But shooting the messenger is hardly the answer. Sheik Taj al-Din al-Hilaly and his followers are what they are. We are what we have fatefully become.