Bi the Bear
18 July 2017
"Legal" Lolitas, "New World" vs "Old World", American Landscape, Book Review, Comics, Delores Haze, Essay, Eurocentrism, Individual Will, John Colapinto, Literature, Lolita, Manifest Destiny, Nabokov's America, Novel, Rape, rape-culture, Sexuality, Vladimir Nabokov
Pedophilia and sexual corruption really shouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind when looking at the great plateau’s of Utah. Fortunately it isn’t. My first actual thought goes to John Ford’s The Searcher’s. There’s plenty of shots of John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter riding their horses over those endless seas of orange sand looking for Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) who’s been kidnapped by Indians and most likely sexually assaulted by them and by just following that line of thought I’m right back to where I started. The desert is supposed to be a tabula rasa but instead, it seems, it’s just a breeding grounds for perverts.
With that lovely observation however I think back to Lolita and my recent attempt to write about the novel. My first essay about the book was to observe the sexual assault that is the primary content. Humbert Humbert, a rambling European pervert, stays in the home of a woman named Charlotte Haze who has a young daughter named Delores who Humbert renames as Lolita. He marries Charlotte, and when she dies in an automobile accident, he gains possession of Lolita and spends the rest of the novel traveling with her around the United States raping her until she escapes and takes up with another sexual deviant, a writer named Quilty, who Humbert eventually kills at the end of the novel.
Lolita is a book that is written in many reader’s minds before they have even picked up the book because Lolita as a word has gained a magnificent potency in our society. Referring to a girl as Lolitaesque is enough to suggest that she is a sexual being that looks incredibly childlike. Looking through the “key terms” section of my stats for White Tower Musings I can usually expect lovely search combinations like “Black Dick Lolita Fuck” or “Lolita suk dick,” “Lolita bukkake,” “Lolita pussy porn” or perhaps the ever lovely “paid money school legal cute Lolita teen blowjob dick.” The tragic part is at this point I tend to be more depressed at the constant and atrocious grammar and spelling errors than I am by the fact there are people who want to fuck “legal” Lolitas.
Well, no, actually. I’m seriously fucking bothered by this, but at some point the grammar becomes an issue.
The reader may be wondering whether there is any real artistic merit to Lolita other than using it as a means of discussing rape and pedophilia, but as I was reading the novel again I was reminded by another interpretation that’s been buzzing in my skull since graduate school.
As I mentioned in my previous Lolita essay, a friend of mine taught the novel to a group of largely unresponsive undergraduates who couldn’t, or in some cases wouldn’t, look past the rape to see if Nabokov was aiming for something different in terms of an aesthetic approach. He attempted to bring in outside articles and critics to the debate, but the content tended to keep most people stubbornly resolved in their assessment. My complete memory is a bit fuzzy, but as I recall he told me that one argument about the novel Lolita was that, rather than being solely a book about pedophilia, it was largely a satire about Eurocentrism and mocking Americans that are duped or suckered in by it.
Vladimir Nabokov was traveling the country with his wife and children collecting butterflies while he was writing Lolita, and this exercise allowed him the opportunity to really see the territory of the United States. Many scholars have noted this inspiration in their many articles about the novel, one of which was a book review in the New Yorker entitled Nabokov’s America.
The essay appeared in The New Yorker in 2015, and in the article John Colapinto discusses biographies of Nabokov along with his travels and turbulent life. In one passage Colapinto discusses a biography of Nabokov and uses it as a means of exploring Nabokov’s creative focus at the time:
Much of the novel’s energy derives from the love-hate relationship Nabokov had with America’s postwar culture of crap TV shows, bad westerns, squawking jukeboxes—the invigorating trash that informs the story of a cultured European’s sexual obsession with an American bobby-soxer who is, as Humbert calls her, the “ideal consumer, the subject and object of every foul poster.” Nabokov always refused the label of satirist, and it would be an oversimplification to say that “Lolita” merely skewers the materialism of fifties America; throughout the book, there is a sense of hypnotized wonder and delight at the happy consumerism of the country and its inhabitants, and Nabokov took overt joy at clipping and cataloguing examples of that consumerism, which he carefully worked into the very texture of “Lolita.”
Colapinto’s article is sporadic, jumping from point to point, and in fact after reading it again recently I’m not entirely sure it’s a boon in terms of commentary about Lolita, but within this paragraph at least there’s the start of an idea, which is that contained within the novel there is an examination about consumerism and the way the American landscape and consciousness feeds this passion.
The United States as a country and as an idea has always been intimately connected with the notion of enterprise. The early European settlers who came to establish colonies for religious freedom were possessed by the idea that this “new world” held an opportunity. The new land (or really “home” to the people who were living there already) was a chance to make a new life, establish a new society, and find an agency that hadn’t existed in the old world and the old life. Even after the American Revolution this notion continued because with the sale of the Louisiana Purchase news ideas of Manifest Destiny were created to justify the Westerward push of Europeans deeper into the continent. And even after the United States had pushed to the very Edge of California, the Klondike and Alaskan Territories offered new wealth, and the islands of the Pacific offered tropical paradises. Consistent with a study of the history of the United States, there is the idea that this country is the “New World” and promises hope and possibilities for those willing, or brave enough, to try and conquer it.
But beneath this rhetoric there is always a heap of bodies and people getting screwed, both literally and figuratively. Which leads me back to Lolita.
The character of Humbert Humbert seems a perfect embodiment of this rhetoric because Lolita is his story, his narrative of personal satisfaction and agency, and the reader would do well to remember that his victim never gets her story told. While Lolita is a story about rape in the sexual sense, the far more pernicious element is the symbolic and psychologic abuse of Dolres Haze and the American landscape which allows the rapes to occur.
While reading Lolita, and reading more and more essays about the novel, I came upon a small quote which, delightfully, managed to sum up everything I’d been trying to say up to that point:
And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-lac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep. (175-6).
On one side note I can never read this passage without cringing. Granted there are plenty of passages in Lolita that leave one queasy (that is assuming you have a soul), but the image of Delores Haze caught in a hotel room in the middle of nowhere crying in the same room as her rapist is a hard image to forget, and, honestly, I don’t want to forget it.
This passage is one of many in which Humbert manages to reveal his true self throughout Lolita, and like each of his reveals, his repulsive character becomes clearer to the reader who at first is simply disgusted with him for the outright sexual assault. Looking at this passage the reader gets the sense that it’s not just Delores Haze which has been molested by Humbert, but in fact the landscape of the American territory. The plains, mountains, valleys, plateaus, villages, towns, tourist traps, forests, and cities in the great expanse of country are nothing but empty sights for Humbert who is honest about the fact that he does not really care about such sights. In fact he admits openly in one passage that the appeal of such wonders is simply for his own sick amusement:
[…]but also the fact that far from being an indolent partie de plasisir, our tour was a hard, twisted, teleological growth, whose sole raison d’etre (these French clichés are symptomatic) was to keep my companion in passable humor from kiss to kiss. (154)
Behold ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the lord hath offered him unto my hand. After reading this passage Humbert has more or less given away his entire position, because it’s clear that no matter how beautifully he expresses his adoration of the American landscape it’s all just bullshit to cover his criminal offences. If one just looks a few pages earlier the reader is able to see such a bluff:
By putting the geography of the United States into motion, I did my best for hours on end to give her the impression of “going places,” of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight. I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilts of forty-eight states. Voraciously we consumed those long high-ways, in rapt silence we glided over theit glossy black dance floors. Not only had Lo no eye for Scenery but she furiously resented my calling her attention to this or that enchanting detail of landscape; which I myself learned to discern only after being exposed for a quite a time to the delicate beauty ever present in the margin of our undeserving journey. (152).
I suppose at this point my contester is probably owed the chance to speak. So what? We’ve addressed already that Lolita is a weird book about a creepy pedophile who rapes a little girl while traveling around the country. What’s the point of digging deeper into that? Once you get to the issue of sexual assault what could possibly be worse than that?
This is a tough question because it’s one I’m not entirely comfortable answering. I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t care about Delores Haze, or about actual rape victims because I do. Humbert Humbert is a sick creep but his offenses reveal a larger issue which can tie into the dilemma of rape and sexual violence. Lolita is most certainly an examination of sexual assault, but by that same line of reasoning the book is an attack against Eurocentrism.
If the reader doesn’t know this term it’s unfortunate because it’s a concept that every citizen of the U.S. should consider. Eurocentrism refers to the practice or idea that European culture is inherently superior to American society, language, or culture at large. The reader has probably experienced this in some capacity whenever they listen to British actors speak. There is a lingering notion that the British accent is somehow more refined or sophisticated than the American accent, and while I could write whole volumes about this, all I need from the reader right now is recognition. Humbert, when he appears in Charlotte Haze’s home is seen as this worldly, heavenly being simply for the fact that he can speak multiple languages and has some vague background in academia. Humbert’s good looks and European accent hide his true nature to the Americans he interacts with. And if I can push this a little further Humbert’s manipulation of Delores Haze ultimately reflects a larger trend of European people’s looking to the New World to find what they want. In the case of Humbert this involves the rape of a twelve-year-old girl, but looking at the way the man can become a symbol for the larger historical trend Humbert is simply another in a long line of Europeans who came to America and built a life at the expense of the people already living there.
Delores Haze loses everything in her life: her mother, her home, her magazines, her friends, her freedom, and even her name. Humbert strips Delores, performing a kind of psychological imperialism until the girl is almost completely bare of something she could call her own. At this point then the reader may complain, where is the hope then, for Delores? Funnily enough, it’s in the idea of the American territory and consciousness that Lolita finds some kind of saving grace.
During the long road trip Humbert explains that while he is controlling virtually every aspect of Lolita’s life, but something is missing and remains beyond his grasp:
How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty. And I was such a thoughtful friend, such a passionate father, such a good pediatrician, attending to all the wants of my little auburn brunette’s body! My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys. On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove. Her eyes would follow the adventures of her favorite strip characters […]; she studied the photographic results of head-on collisions; she never doubted the reality of place, time and circumstance alleged to match the publicity pictures naked-thighed-beauties; and she was curiously fascinated by the photographs of local brides, some in full wedding apparel, holding bouquets and wearing glasses. (165).
I recognize that it’s near impossible to get past the graphic imagery of this passage, but the reader should try because what’s taking place in this scene is ultimately what redeems the novel in my eyes. Delores Haze loses so much territory to Humbert Humbert as the narratives progresses, but what he cannot take away from her is that small ounce of integrity and personal territory which is her personal self. He effectively rapes the landscape of the United States with his perversion and at the same time he attempts to control the territory of her body. While he succeeds in this first endeavor he cannot take her independent spirit which, while it may seem largely shallow in its consumerism, is still some semblance of the American mindset.
Delores is a young woman who wants to read comics, drink soda-pop, and play with boys her own age. That mentality may not be distinctly American, but at the time Lolita was written it was intimately tied up with consumerism and capitalism which was the defining American Philosophy.
There’s a victory then in Lolita, for even if Delores Haze is the victim of Humbert’s vicious and corrupt sexual deviance, he cannot manage to colonize and strip her of that small spirit which wants to make a real life for itself, free from the grasp of this failure who can only find in the beauty of the American countryside a few motels to work out his sexual problems.
All quotes taken from Lolita were cited from the . All quotes from Nabokov’s America were taken from the New Yorker article which I have provided a link to below. Enjoy:
While working on research for this essay I found a documentary entitled How do you Solve a Problem Like Lolita? Apart from envying the title (then again I used this bit for my Eraserhead review so what the fuck am I jealous for?) I found it useful for these series of essays and thought my reader might be interested. You can follow the link fellow for the first part of the documentary, and the other three parts should be on the suggested titles side of the screen. Enjoy:
42 Nipple Options, Alex + Ada, Artificial Intelligence, body objectification, commodifying the female body, Essay, Feminism, graphic novel, Harmony, Harmony the Sex Robot, Honda P2 Robot, Human Body, Human Developement, Human/Robot Love Story, Jenny Kleeman, Jonathan Luna, Literature, Long Read, Love, Love isn't about ALWAYS agreeing, Mutual Identification, Philosophy, Pornography, rape-culture, RealDolls, Robots, Sarah Vaughn, Science, science fiction, Sex Dolls, Sex Robots, Sex Trade, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, solipsism, suggestions, The Gaurdian, The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot
I really didn’t see the book coming.
I’ve told my regular reader that I’ve gotten a job at the Tyler Public Library and this job has largely been a saving grace, but what I haven’t conveyed as clearly as I should have is that the job is also really fun. The people I work with are funny and are like a small family, the patrons that I help are fascinating for the fact that everyday they come up with some new request, the questions for info range from the obvious to the most esoteric (Do you know how much a 1969 Eagle Trailer is worth?), my supervisors are wonderful people, and best of all I’m surrounded by books. It’s this last part that makes me the most happy because there isn’t a day that’s gone by where I don’t wind up checking out a book. My wife’s greeting to me when I come home now has largely
become, “More books?” I have a problem, but I just don’t care because “look a collection of short stories by Woody Allen!”
I close at the Library, meaning my work days are usually in the afternoon and evening and my responsibility is to close up the library and shut the computer catalogs on the second floor down for the night. While I was walking around shutting them down I passed the graphic novel section. It’s a small area, nowhere near as large as I would want it to be, and in front of it there is a wooden table where patrons can leave books for staff to shelve. There was a large stack of religious book like there always is, but laid out beside the large pile was a book I recognized. Alex + Ada is a book that’s difficult to miss given the fact that the book is enormous (about 1 foot in length at least) with a white and blue cover with Alex and Ada staring at each other, a small blue dot on either of their heads.
Part of the reason I picked it up was the compulsion I spoke of before. A fair number of the books I check out in the last twenty minutes before work ends are either books of poetry or graphic novels. They read quickly and give me space between Lolita and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I checked the book out though because my friend Aleya had recently added it to her GoodReads account and had given it a pretty high rating. That’s it. Just these two connections allowed for a moment of serendipity which lead me to checking the book out.
Alex + Ada, like I said at the very beginning, was a book that I didn’t see coming. Once I read about what the story was about, a young man receiving an android for a birthday present, I figured it would be the standard Sci-fi trope. Boy receives a robot, Boy is unnerved by her docility so he finds a way to activate her sentience which is illegal, Girl robot wakes up and begins to discover life and reality, Boy starts to fall for robot and robot falls for Boy, somebody finds out and blabs to the cops, the police come and either kill the Boy or the robot, the end. And to be fair this is technically exactly what happens, however rather than end on the tragedy of the finale Johnathan Luna manages to tell a story about love that, apart from having a happy ending, recreates the narrative of the Human-Robot Love story into something that feels both relevant and important.
And the reason it feels so relevant is because of a recent article in The Gaurdian titled The Race to Build to the World’s First Sex Robot.
The article is part of the British website’s “Long Read” series, a weekly article published which explores some facet, development, philosophy, or notable event in society. A friend of mine introduced me to The Guardian, and after reading just a couple of the “Long Read’s” segments I’ve become hooked onto them. The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot was one of these articles and it managed to appear right as I was finishing Alex + Ada in a level of serendipity that could almost be maudlin. Both stories center around one female robot (if you can label robots with something as tenuous as genetic based sex). In the Gaurdian article the robot’s name is Harmony. She’s modeled with the standard approach to human beauty, big boobs, slim waist, young features, and represents years of the sex-industry’s manufacturing of the female form. However Jenny Kleeman, the author of the article, manages to convey that Harmony is not just a humping post, she has by design, a larger goal.
The major breakthrough of McMullen’s prototype is artificial intelligence that allows it to learn what its owner wants and likes. It will be able to fill a niche that no other product in the sex industry currently can: by talking, learning and responding to her owner’s voice, Harmony is designed to be as much a substitute partner as a sex toy.
Harmony cannot walk, but that’s not a big issue. McMullen explained that getting a robot to walk is very expensive and uses a lot of energy: the famous Honda P2 robot, launched in 1996 as the world’s first independently walking humanoid, drained its jet pack-sized battery after only 15 minutes.
“One day she will be able to walk,” McMullen told me. “Let’s ask her.” He turned to Harmony. “Do you want to walk?”
“I don’t want anything but you,” she replied quickly, in a synthesized cut-glass British accent, her jaw moving as she spoke.
“What is your dream?”
“My primary objective is to be a good companion to you, to be a good partner and give you pleasure and wellbeing. Above all else, I want to become the girl you have always dreamed about.”
McMullen has designed Harmony to be what a certain type of man would consider the perfect companion: docile and submissive, built like a porn star and always sexually available. Being able to walk might make her more lifelike, but it isn’t going to bring her closer to this ideal. At this stage, it is not worth the investment.
What’s revealed in this passage is the fact that capitalism is what’s behind this sex robot industry; a simple case of supply and demand. The sex industry has poured billions of dollars into realistic sex dolls, and a quick Google search to see the results can be both informative and at times frightening. The women dressed up in white panties and bras are enough to make one double-take or else follow links to determine whether or not it is a hoax. But beyond the realistic quality of these “women” is the fact that the major force behind the industry is not a concern to create robots that will revolutionize the robotics industry; it is to provide erotic satisfaction for many men.
Looking further into the article this becomes painfully clear:
RealDolls are fully customizable[sic], with 14 different styles of labia and 42 different nipple options. Upstairs, where the fine details are added, there were dozens of tubs of different coloured hand-painted, veined eyeballs. A “makeup face artist” was using a fine brush to paint eyebrows, freckles and smoky eyeshadow on a rack of faces. Shore explained that most of their customers send photographs of what they would like Abyss to recreate. With a subject’s written permission, they will make a replica of any real person. “We’ve had customers who bring their significant other in and get an exact copy doll made of them,” he said. Shore estimates that less than 5% of doll customers are women, even for their small range of male dolls. McMullen sculpted one of the three male face options to look exactly like himself. None of the male dolls are selling very well. In fact, Abyss is in the process of revamping its entire male line.
And then just a few passages later:
But as all right-thinking men would say, it’s Harmony’s brain that has most excited McMullen. “The AI will learn through interaction, and not just learn about you, but learn about the world in general. You can explain certain facts to her, she will remember them and they will become part of her base knowledge,” he said. Whoever owns Harmony will be able to mould[sic] her personality according to what they say to her. And Harmony will systematically try and find out as much about her owner as possible, and use those facts in conversation, “so it feels like she really cares”, as McMullen described it, even though she doesn’t care at all. Her memory, and the way she learns over time, is what McMullen hopes will make the relationship believable.
It’s usually at this point that I’m supposed to stand up and argue that this is a step too far and that it’s just a slippery slope until Terminator robots will be slaying human beings in the killing fields and the end of mankind will come about. The largest reason I won’t make that argument is because The Terminator film did a far better job of doing that for me, and also because it seems hyperbolic and unnecessary. Unlike some doomsday theorists who argue that the rise of AI will bring about the violent death of man I foresee a far more gloomier vision: the irrelevance of mankind.
The increase of AI systems has really demonstrated itself to be more of a capitalistic view of the future than one of science. Machines increasingly are coded to observe human behavior and, rather than offer solutions for complex problems in society, tend to be made to recommend me products based on my online shopping habits. If I liked reading Lolita perhaps I would enjoy The Ballad of the Sad Café. If I enjoyed eating at Fuzzy’s Taco perhaps I may enjoy TGI Fridays. If I enjoyed watching Dear White People perhaps I would enjoy 13th. These day to day suggestions have become increasingly blasé to me because they’re just part of life. Rather than violently trying to control me AI systems are in fact slowly and quietly removing my freewill through actions and suggestions that leave me comfortable and content.
This domesticity and familiarity with robotics and technology is a far more realistic suggestion of what the future is going to be like.
My reader may object now and argue that, is this really so bad? Technology is supposed to simplify the lives of human beings and help us overcome challenges and burdens in our life. Would having a robot that observes our behavior and adapts its own to make us happy really be so bad?
This is a complicated question because I honestly don’t know if there’s a clear answer. People should be happy, but there is a hidden conflict beneath this familiarity because it could bring about a negative change in the way human beings interact. When one interacts with a machine that conforms to your tastes and preferences it removes the human element of a relationship because other people disagree or hold different attitudes about what is right, wrong, pretty, ugly, grotesque, or beautiful. It’s the differences of opinions and the regular challenges by other people that a healthy personal self is able to develop. I grind my teeth every time somebody posts an alternative opinion on my Facebook page, or when someone close to me defends President Trump, but I recognize that that difference of opinion is what helps me keep myself grounded in reality.
Solipsism, the idea that one’s own mind is the only real thing in the universe, as a mode of being is corrosive because it’s a fueled narcissism that makes it impossible to connect and therefore sympathize or empathize with other people. And I suppose if my argument isn’t clear enough, the problem with turning sex robots into intelligent partners that are obedient and compliant with your every wish and preference, it stands to reason that the individual who lives and acts with one is going to be left completely disconnected to real humanity.
Kleeman is right then in making sure to post the alternative viewpoint that is growing against the sex robot industry:
Many of the “big issues’ discussed at the two-day event were first raised in 2015 by De Montfort University’s Dr Kathleen Richardson, when she launched the Campaign Against Sex Robots. An anthropologist and robot ethicist, Richardson claims that owning a sex robot is comparable to owning a slave: individuals will be able to buy the right to only care about themselves, human empathy will be eroded, and female bodies will be further objectified and commodified. As sex with robots is not a mutual experience, she says, it’s “part of rape culture”. We are so entertained by the idea of a robot sex partner, she believes, that we have failed to ask fundamental questions.
I met Richardson in March at the London Science Museum’s robot exhibition, where she eyed the distinctly non-sexual robots on display with deep suspicion. Sex robots rest on an idea that women are property, she said. “Sex is an experience of human beings – not bodies as property, not separated minds, not objects; it’s a way for us to enter into our humanity with another human being.” She dismissed the idea that humanoids could reduce sexual exploitation and violence against sex workers, arguing that the growth of internet pornography shows how technology and the sex trade reinforce each other.
The implications then for the sex robotic industry become messy and worrisome because, at least as far as I can tell, these are all serious charges that have a great amount to merit to them. Artificially intelligent sex robots blur the line of consent because they are programmed not to say no, but at the same time they are being marketed as a realistic human alternative to a real human relationship.
In the face of all of this my reader is probably wondering what the hell any of this has to do with Alex + Ada. Well in fact it has everything to do with the graphic novel, because as I noted at the start this review came about because I was left so tremendously star-struck by the book when I finished it. Unlike Kleeman’s article which left me troubled and disturbed Alex + Ada offered a far more optimistic vision of human/robot relations by hoping for love rather than just sex.
At the start of the graphic novel Alex doesn’t even want a robot, his grandmother buys one for him because he’s been mopey since his fiancé left him, and over time Alex observes that the dynamic of the relationship is troublesome. He sees in Ada a companion that has an absence of choice and so desperate to see if there’s a way to change her he finds an online group dedicated to helping robots attain a freedom and sentience. During one exchange between two members of the group Alex offers a line that reveals everything about his humanity:
And what makes you think you’ll want her if she’s sentient? A lot of our members were abandoned by their owners when they still didn’t turn out how they wanted.
I just…I see more in her. I want to know who she can really be.
There’s so many passages in Alex + Ada I could offer my reader to demonstrate its significance but this small quote seems enough to demonstrate the humanity offered in this book. Alex doesn’t look upon Ada as just a product, he sees in her the potential to become something real, something human which he could learn to love or appreciate. And it’s this vision of humanity that gives me hope for the future.
Love and real connections between people are built upon the ability to reconcile differences of personality. My wife and I have strong relationship, but that doesn’t free us from differences. Her love, really obsession, with cats tends to be regularly occurring issue between us, and I can never start reading or writing before she interrupts me to complain about something he read on an article or comment section online. We disagree regularly about politics, and I’ve been known to drive her up a wall with my frequent moodiness, and let’s be fair I own a LOT of books. But it’s these differences that foster a real relationship because human interaction is built upon complexity.
Alex + Ada offers up a relationship that becomes healthier over time because once Ada’s sentience is activated she becomes a person with her own ideas, opinions, concerns, and sexual preferences (the line “again” left me both laughing and groaning from familiarity). This essay has largely explored The Guardian’s article about the sex robot industry, but hopefully the reader can observe in just this small passage how the graphic novel offers up a hopeful vision and reality that contrasts with the concerning developments in this new industry.
The sex trade will always push technology forward, that has been demonstrated since human beings began developing technology period. When humans created writing we used it to write about fornicating, the printing press allowed for the easy mass production of pornography, video cassettes allowed the porn industry to flourish, and the internet’s development was pushed forward largely because of the ease of access to porn. The sexual robotics industry is just another in a long line of technologies that satisfies the ancient biological urge to fornicate. But where some are looking to AI to find a corrupt kind of solipsism, Alex + Ada offers up the idea that technology is going to change even this dynamic because at some point people, hopefully, will look into the eyes of their sex dolls and probably ask the question: Could there be more?
The story of human beings and robots interacting can be an endless cliché as creator and creation look upon each other with a different perspective, but as society is approaching a reality where this is no longer just the speculative visions of science fiction the questions about the morality of sexual robotics and whether or not humans and robots can empathize with each other is becoming more and more relevant.
Rather than offering a judgement it seems far more appropriate to ask the reader a question: Which of the two stories offers up a healthier view of humanity? The one where a man controls an intelligent female object to blow him and offer him jokes, or one where a man risks his very life just so that his female robot can think for herself?
All quotes from Alex + Ada were taken from the Hardback Image edition. All quotes from Jenny Kleeman’s The Race to Build the World’s First Sex Robot were taken directly from The Gaurdian’s website. If the reader would like to read the full article for themselves they can do so by following the link below:
Just for the record, while Alex + Ada is an incredibly hopeful vision of the future of love between individuals, I think it’s important to remind the reader that the best human/Robot love story remains Bender and Lucy Liu from Futurama. I mean you have a talented, charismatic, sexy beast, and then there’s also Lucy Liu.
Alec Baldwin, Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump's Skin, Barack Obama, Catch-22, Chris Jones, Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Donald Trump Alec Baldwin, Essay, fart jokes, George W. Bush, Humor, Joseph Heller, Literature, Lorne Michaels, Novel, Political Cartoon, Political Discourse, Political Satire, Politics, President Donald Trump, Presidential Satire, Satire, Saturday Night Live, SNL, television, The Atlantic, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmel, Yossarian
“Things could be much worse,” She cried.
“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.
–Catch-22, Joseph Heller
I am not a political writer, and the only real political identification I’m comfortable with is alcoholic. It’s an honest position, and it tends to get you far more friends than any partisan group or congregation. You buy some beer, or maybe some top-shelf booze, you bring your deck of Cards Against Humanity, and then you spend an evening googling bukkake and object permanence while your wife eventually beats you with that card about two midgets shitting into a bucket. I’m currently on the wait-list to add stoner to my political resume, but only because it seems a far more dignified title than republican or democrat.
This is why it irks me to write about President Trump, or really the version of Trump which seems to possess the only real power: Alec Baldwin’s version of Trump.
The last few decades have been a wonderful time for political satire largely because of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Both of these institutions have educated the American populace about what’s going on in government, but they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t bore, or cause nauseous indigestion. Dana Carvey’s George Herbert Walker Bush became iconic with the “it’s bad, it’s bad,” Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin virtually eradicated her political ethos, and Will Ferrel’s George W. Bush is still in effect the satirical portrait of the last century, that is until Alec Baldwin starred as Trump in a cold open of the Presidential debate.
But this essay is not so much just about Trump himself, it’s in fact about an essay which was recently published in The Atlantic: Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin. My regular reader will remember that I work at the Tyler Public Library, and part of my job is making the rounds and making sure the magazines are in order. Everyday someone has picked up seven copies of the Dallas Morning News and scattered them over a table before leaving, someone has left copies of The Economist in the areas reserved for Red Book or Seventeen, and of course on the other side of the library someone has left an enormous stack of magazines and decided not to return them to their original space. Working this gig has left me sympathetic for people who work in retail who have to deal with this crap every second of every day. While I was rearranging the magazines however I noticed that the new Atlantic was out and on the cover was Alec Baldwin, holding his Trump wig, and being dressed in the nameless orange hue make-up. I would have checked the magazine out right there (because you can check out magazines at the library) but unfortunately it still had the “new” blue sticker on it so I had to wait a month.
It should be noted I apparently forgot that magazines publish in print and online these days. Hindsight and all that. I read the article in under half and hour and I was left so impressed by it I knew that I had to write about it.
As I noted before, the entertainment industry has hit a golden stride in the last few decades with wonderful political satire that often feels more real than the actual people it’s mocking and the American people have been better off for it. These characters and impressions have allowed common people to laugh at their representatives, which is, I would argue, a healthy power dynamic. Chris Jones, the writer of the Atlantic article, briefly notes this:
Michaels has long vowed to keep the show politically agnostic. Whatever the leanings of its stars and hosts, Saturday Night Live is an agent of chaos, as victim-blind as a bomb. It can seem these days that the show is single-minded in its pursuit of the Trump administration, but SNL has always gone after presidents, beginning with Chevy Chase staging some remarkable pratfalls as Gerald Ford. A grinning Dan Aykroyd was the principal Jimmy Carter (“Inflation is our friend”); no fewer than seven performers took their shots at Ronald Reagan, Joe Piscopo most reliably; Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush (“Not gonna do it”) became synonymous with the man himself. Phil Hartman jogged into McDonald’s as Bill Clinton, and Darrell Hammond played him as a glad-handing hound. Will Ferrell made for the best George W. Bush, an innocent, distractible child. The show sometimes struggled with Obama—his single most memorable Saturday-night incarnation was arguably Dwayne Johnson’s “The Rock Obama”—but it’s hard to satirize competence.
Trump just makes comedy easy.
Before I dig into this I just had one comment concerning Obama. I don’t deny that I liked, and continue to like, former President Obama, however the last eight years was rather disappointing in terms of political satire because no one could ever make fun of the man. Key and Peele provided the only real substantial character parody, but the problem there was that their parody was based on the fact that Obama was competent and paid careful attention to being eloquent, patient, and intelligent only occasionally letting his inner self out. This absence of satire though created an issue because there were plenty of problems with the Obama administration, like there are in every administration.
Watching the first 100 days of the Trump administration however has been akin to watching…well, I’m a writer and I can’t even come up with an effective metaphor. I was going to come up with something clever and revolting like a rotting frog sucking it’s own festering erection while babies crawl out of it’s back and fall into the “drained swamp” already dead, but my lawyers informed me that this would probably somehow warrant copyright infringement. The only word that feels accurate is tiring. There’s been relentless displays of incompetence, and as Jones notes, this only makes it easy for comedians to parody the man and the people who work for him.
Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the Trump Presidency however has been its reaction to the public image, or perception of the administration as something corrupt, self-parodying, and completely inept. Every week Alec Baldwin’s performances seem to garner reaction from President Trump, and it’s telling when the man making fun of him notes how easy it would be to kill that image:
Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.
“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”
That’s it. That’s really all it would take. It may seem like a simplified analysis, but this action would in fact speak volumes, and at the start of Trump’s campaign for President this seemed the case of what would be. Trump appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and he did a guest spot on SNL alongside two actors portraying him. However, at some point the comedy stopped and President Trump no longer seemed to appreciate the parody, and not long after he began his public bemoaning of being mistreated by the modern media. And even after winning President Trump could do nothing but talk about the size of the crowd at his inauguration or complain that the press was mistreating him.
While I was reading Jones’s article, and thinking about the last few weeks this idea of a leader wanting nothing more than to be liked was eerily similar to Catch-22. Now my regular reader may remember, then again it’s been a while, that I read and reviewed Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 observing how the work is a wonderful satire about the abuse of authority. The novel is about a group of fighter pilots in World War II who are required to run “bombing runs” that are, by their nature, suicide missions. The pilots have to fly a certain number of missions before they’re released, and after that trying to explain is ridiculous and so I’ll let Heller’s characters try to explain it to the reader:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he has to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and he let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” He observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” (46)
The Catch of Catch-22 has lingered so efficiently in the culture that it’s an actual word now, and Heller’s novel has also lasted as one of the funniest books ever written along with being one of the most tragically accurate presentations of what happens when there is an abuse of authority. Soldiers are expected to follow the orders of their leaders without question, but this creates a conflict because not every leader is going to be intelligent, sly, or even sympathetic. Reading Catch-22 the reader is constantly reminded that the protagonist Yossarian is a sane man living in a world of bloody madness and that it could stop at any time if someone would just recognize that the commanders in power were morons and bullies.
My reader may object at this point, wondering what Heller’s novel about World War II fighter pilots has to do with the Trump Administration and Jones’s article. If my reader will allow me one more quote from the book hopefully my thesis will become clear.
Near the end of the novel Yossarian has rebelled against the leaders and commanders of the squadron, at one point sitting naked in a tree refusing to go on any more missions, and he is confronted by Colonels Korn and Cathcart, the bumbling commanding officers. The two men confront Yossarian about his rebellious impulses and offer him a way out of the war. In its own way, it is deceptively simple, but a close examination reveals it’s anything but:
“—and we have to send you home. Just do a few little things for us and—.”
“What sort of things?” Yossarian interrupted.
“Oh, tiny, insignificant things. Really, this is a very generous deal we’re making with you. We will issue orders returning you to the States—really, we will—and all you have to do in return is…”
“What? What must I do?”
Colonel Korn laughed curtly. “Like us.”
Yossarian blinked. “Like you?”
“That’s right,” said Colonel Korn, nodding, gratified immeasurably by Yossarian’s guileless surprise and bewilderment. “Like us. Join us. Be our pal. Say nice things about us here and back in the States. Become one of the boys. Now, that isn’t asking too much, is it?” (426).
I’ve avoided words like autocrat, dictatorship, and totalitarianism because the internet and media are already awash with voices screaming such words at the current administration, and while some of those voices are coming from rational and thinking people, this constant call is reducing the power of these words and the realities that they express. The problem with dictatorship is not that the citizens are living in a system where power is controlled in one central office, it’s that the populace at large can easily become prey to inept or ridiculous leaders who may demand adoration and affection. The platitude that “power corrupts absolutely” can be tiresome to hear, but human beings are narcissistic creatures by nature, and providing some of them opportunities where their ego can fester into something corrosive and brutish only adds to the problem. Dictators, autocrats, emperors, Kings, and even Presidents can allow this power complex to become something terrible, and at the heart of it all there is a desire to be liked.
I said, before the quote, that Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart’s questions was deceptively simple,
and that’s true. It’s an easy request at first to “like” somebody, but beneath comes a deeper implication. “Liking” an individual can sometimes blind you to their faults. I mentioned before that I “liked” and “still like” former President Obama, and at times that blinded me to problems in his administration that became clearer as time when on. Each reader has their own experience, that may or may not even be political. It might be a family member who’s abusive, a friend who’s an alcoholic, or a celebrity crush that blinds them to the fact that the person they adore is an egoist or an outright moron. The “simple request” to like the person who can bring you to harm is in fact a test of integrity.
Those in power will always desire citizenry beneath them to like them or to be sympathetic to their cause, because that approval allows them more power to accomplish their personal and political goals. It’s for this reason that “liking” someone in politics can often lead to ruin or disappointment because human beings are fallible and tend to fuck-up a lot.
I’ve done my best to avoid the outright politics because I don’t want this site to be a political site, but at 2000 words it’s best not to bullshit. So I’ll be clear:
I wrote this essay because watching the Trump administration I’ve become more and more concerned that the United States has elected an irrational egoist who can’t take a joke.
That’s probably why Jones’s article has the appeal that it does. Looking back to his article the character of Trump and his persecution complex only seems more and more clear:
So much of Trump’s popularity hinges on his image as a self-made miracle, a winner, a strong and successful man who is the best at everything and always gets his way. Baldwin has become our deflator in chief, a weekly pinprick in Trump’s balloon. Every time Trump tweets a wounded Sunday-morning response, every time Spicer laughs off McCarthy’s portrayal but then tries a little harder to bury his rage, every time Conway shows up on TV looking a little more challenged and broken, Baldwin can tell himself that SNL is not just making laughs but effecting change.
“Any administration wants the opposite of what Trump is getting now: They want to be saluted for what they’re doing,” he says. “They want to do their job and have people blow trumpets and worship them and throw confetti. They’re like movie stars in that way.” Trump lashes out at Hollywood, but it’s his dream to belong there. “I think that the comedy is effective—I believe that it’s absolutely, 100 percent effective—in that it’s achieving the opposite results,” Baldwin says.
Jones’s article is an important insight into the current zeitgeist, and as time goes on it may not seem as terribly relevant as a literary document. Nevertheless it felt important to bring attention to the essay because the cartoon character of President Trump, that Alec Baldwin brings to life week after week, is something timeless.
Throughout history human beings have mocked and parodied figures of power and influence (often through excellently timed fart jokes)* and it’s been the mark of great leaders who managed to laugh alongside them. Theodore Roosevelt was known to adore every cartoon parody of himself, even at their most biting. Former President George W. Bush opened up a presidential themed hour of SNL alongside Al Gore. And if nothing else, former President Obama invited Kegan Michael Key to play his “anger translator” Luther at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Politicians need to be laughed at so they, and the citizens they govern, don’t take themselves too seriously.
Humor and jokes bring people back to reality, and it’s rather tragic when reality is somehow only a fraction less goofy than the cartoon image.
On one final note I find it rather disappointing that few people have taken the time to make fun of President Trump using flatulence. Fart jokes have unlimited potential for reducing the ego, because it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when they’re farting. Put President Trump on a golden toilet eating a bean burrito, and I shall show you the stuff that comedy gods are made of.
Please find below this text every video of Alec Baldwin’s performance of President Trump to date. My reader may wonder why I’m including these. The best answer I can give, is fuck him that’s why.
Before I get accused of partisanship, it’s important to remember something. President Trump IS the President, and Democrats are partly to blame for that. There’s been plenty said about the results of the election, but what is important to remember is that Democrats consistently screwed themselves by fucking with the Bernie Sanders campaign which was drawing mass appeal from young voters, veteran’s groups, Black Lives Matter organizations, and white working class voters, the last group who would eventually go to Trump. They are also to blame for the fact that they allowed themselves to get cocky and smug during the campaign which only instilled in them the idea that they had already won which allowed the Trump Campaign to move through rural areas which won them the election.
Democrats fucked themselves, hard.
I just wanted to make sure my reader, who may be a self-righteous liberal or conservative, knew exactly where I stand before they share my article on Facebook or twitter.
My political position remains firm by the conviction: fuck democrats, fuck republicans, fuck liberals, and fuck conservatives. And just to be safe fuck libertarians too.
All quotes from Catch-22 came from the Simon & Schuster paperback edition. All quotes from Alec Baldwin Gets Under Donald Trump’s Skin came from The Atlantic.
If the reader would be interested in reading the article for themselves I’ve included a link below that they can follow to it. Enjoy:
Anatomy, Big Daddy, Bile, Blood Meridian, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, Boobs, Borderlands, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Corey Taylor, Cormac McCarthy, Creative Non-Fiction, Creative Writing, David Foster Wallace, Dead Babies, Dead Baby Tree, E Unibus Pluram, Eraserhead, Eraserhead Baby, Essay, Family Guy, Family Guy Ipecac, Film, Human Body, Human Memory, humors, Ipecac, Medieval Physiology, Mr. Torgue, Nicki Minaj, Pain, Parabola, Physiology, Prime Numbers, Slipknot, television, TOOL, Two Girls One Cup, Vomit, Watching, Writing
THOSE READERS WHO BELIEVE THEMSELVES OF FIRM CONSTITUTION SHOULD PROGRESS, BUT THOSE READERS THAT ARE EASILY DISTURBED MIGHT JUST GOOGLE KITTENS OR PLATYPUSSES INSTEAD. ANY AND ALL READERS ATTEMPTING TO FIND A POINT OR PURPOSE IN THESE WRITINGS SHALL BE SUBJECT TO A $273 FINE AND A STERN TALKING TO.
–Management, White Tower Musings
My dog Sonya, not Huckleberry because he’s actually well behaved, is a silent vomiter. On at least three separate occasions she has yakked in my car, actually my sister’s car she’s letting me borrow Mr. Torgue, that’s what she calls her vehicle and I try my best not to yell “THE BADASS CRATER OF BADASSITUDE” while I’m driving in it, and on each of those three occasions I have never actually heard her make a sound while she ralphs up what could constitute enough food to feed three dogs. It’s also an oddity to discover at this point in my life that picking up dog vomit does nothing to actually phase me. I am not terribly bothered when the heavy clumps of partially masticated food pellets soaked in the chalky stomach acid squeeze between my fingertips, and apart from the smell which is often sterile and basic leaving no impression of faintness on my part, I am often able to simply lift the “puddle” in my hands and drop it apathetically into the grass by the driveway.
The frail body on the unknown baby creature in a gif (pronounced “jif” pronounced “gif”) from the movie Eraserhead by David Lynch leaves me uncomfortable and terrified to go to sleep. There’s something about the way the face of the creature is so alien and yet so human. It’s a baby, and by and large, rotting babies tend to unnerve people. It’s grotesque. Grotesqueness shouldn’t exist. At least not for babies.
Corey Taylor, the lead singer of Slipknot, use to vomit in the sack mask he’d wear on stage. That’s the first Slipknot album so at that time his mask was a burlap sack with holes where his dread knots would come out. He eventually lost that mask because his dreads would melt in the heat of the electric lights into the sack. As for the vomit, Taylor’s vocal cords weren’t prepared for the level of intensity that was being placed on his throat. The producer of the album kept telling him “deeper, harder.” He spent most of the time recording the first Slipknot Album throwing up between takes. Then, once the album was mixed, he had to repeat it on the road. He would usually throw up, but it wasn’t just that. He would throw up but huge chunks would get stuck inside his mask. So along with being hot, having a sore throat, and having to perform in an uncomfortable burlap sack, he also had puddles of vomit collected in his mask close to his mouth and eyes.
I have yet to review Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West. The book, apart from being one of the darkest novels published in the last forty years in American fiction, is philosophically heavy and so one has to be at a high point before approaching that monster. There is one passage, in particular, that is impossible to forget:
The way narrowed through the rocks and by and by they came to a bush that was hung with dead babies. They stopped side by side, reeling in the heat. These small victims, seven, eight of them, had holes punched in their under-jaws and were hung so by their throats from the broken stobs of a mesquite to stare eyeless at the naked sky. Bald and pale and bloated, larval to some unreckonable being. The castaways hobbled past, they looked back. Nothing moved. (57).
I have tried writing fiction since reading this passage, and while I have written passages that have attempted to convey malevolence in certain characters, I have yet to really produce anything that surpasses the potency of this images. The little jaw bones haunt me.
I had no idea what Ipecac was before I watched Family Guy. It’s apparently a syrup developed to induce coughing and actual vomiting. Peter challenges Stewie, Chris, and Brian to chug it and whoever can go the longest with puking gets the last piece of pie. Chaos eventually ensues as one by one they all begin to vomit over and over again. Watching the scene for the first time I nearly came close to vomiting myself, and I wonder at that physiological reaction. It’s not uncommon for people to throw up themselves when other regurgitate, but where does that come from? Is it the sound of a person upchucking? Is it the sight of vomit erupting from the lips? Is it an almost traceless smell that is produced? But it must surely be the sound and the image of vomit because watching Family Guy I didn’t smell anything. I could only picture my early experiences vomiting. I have since watched that scene at least thirty to forty times and every time I can’t watch it and not laugh. The physicality is just too perfect.
It’s fascinating to see “reactions” become a content and discourse all their own. To wit. The Two Girls/One Cup video became famous not so much for the actual content, but because people discovered it, suffered the initial reaction of watching it, and then began to show it to their friends and family almost always recording the reaction to the video. It became a game unto itself and the pleasure of watching other people react to something you yourself had already seen became a new kind of experience in entertainment. Where before watching something was a way of sharing the experience, the language had become so deconstructed and weak that the only means of eliciting recognition between fellow human beings was to watch their reactions to watching the video. This watching of watching is something that I wish was an original observation but David Foster Wallace beat me to it. He notes in his essay E. Unibus Pluram that this watching of watching is not only a common phenomenon, it’s actually generational. His generation, which I believe is generation X, grew up on television, and while defending the regular watching of television he observes how people tend to feed off the watching of one another for lack of the ability to converse:
The plain fact is that certain things having to do with fiction production are different for young U.S. writers now. And television is at the vortex of most of the flux. Because younger writers are not only Artists probing for the nobler interstices in what Stanley Cavell calls the reader’s “willingness to be pleased”; we are also, now, self-defined parts of the great U.S. Audience, and have our own aesthetic pleasure-centers; and television has formed and trained us. It won’t do, then, for the literary establishment simply to complain that, for instance, young-written characters don’t have very interesting dialogues with each other, that young writer’s ears seem “tinny.” Tinny they may be, but the truth is that, in young Americans’ experience, people in the same room don’t do all that much direct conversing with each other. What most people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions that myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other— “Did you just see what I just saw?” (44).
I think the grotesqueness of the Two Girls/One Cup fed into this same concept, for while the initial reaction of the ingestion of feces and vomit for the sake of eroticism repulsed us, we found in this bile a connection to other people because watching someone else gave us first a sadistic pleasure of horrifying someone else, but then also validated us as we acknowledged the fact that what we were watching was absolutely repulsive.
Watching TOOL videos is an exercise because each video challenges the viewer. Often the challenge is explained in the sentiment, what the actual fuck did I just watch? This initial reaction subsides and one is able to eventually pick at certain elements until meaning becomes clear. That and Wikipedia provides “meaning” behind the lyrics of certain songs and so looking at the videos again one is able to find meaning.
Parabola is a little difficult. Most of TOOL’s Aesthetic relies either upon Eastern religious imagery and philosophy or else upon Mathmatical concepts. In the case of a Parabola it is a curved line formed on a Cartesian graph. Because I know nothing about math I had to look up a satisfactory definition and found the following on a site called Purple Math:
The parabola is the curve formed from all the points (x, y) that are equidistant from the directrix and the focus. The line perpendicular to the directrix and passing through the focus (that is, the line that splits the parabola up the middle) is called the “axis of symmetry”.
Looking at TOOL’s lyrics, I’m able to decipher, or at least how this mathematical construction could help create meaning:
We barely remember who or what came before this precious moment We are choosing to be here right now Hold on, stay inside… This holy reality, this holy experience Choosing to be here in… This body, this body holding me Be my reminder here that I am not alone in… This body, this body holding me, feeling eternal All this pain is an illusion Alive! In this holy reality, in this holy experience Choosing to be here in… This body, this body holding me Be my reminder here that I am not alone in… This body, this body holding me, feeling eternal All this pain is an illusion Twirling round with this familiar parable Spinning, weaving round each new experience Recognize this as a holy gift and celebrate this chance to be alive and breathing A chance to be alive and breathing This body holding me reminds me of my own mortality Embrace this moment, remember, we are eternal All this pain is an illusion
The song celebrates the body while also hinting at the sublime power of the spirit to transcend the body. There’s some cognitive dissonance here as almost every TOOL video makes the viewer observes the frailty of the body when set against such supernatural forces . At one point three blurry men wearing suits cut open an apple before vomiting black slime onto the table. Their bodies lift up off the ground and, still vomiting, they revolve around the table making a circle.
And here’s the thesis soaked with ingested slime.
The idea of humors is an outdated medical concept. We possess entire libraries explaining the gastric process and how regurgitation is done. There is no mystery, yet for this knowledge many are still disgusted by vomiting. Simply watching or hearing someone vomit is enough to induce vomiting. Even thinking about the sound or sensation of vomiting can sometimes induce this process and so the question that needs answering is: What is it about regurgitation that so bothers us biologically and psychologically?
It is because vomiting is physically and psychologically traumatizing. It is painful to vomit because the act of regurgitation brings partially digested food, but also stomach acid up the throat and so it feels as if our throat and mouth are burning afterwards. It also occurs that often we vomit often as children and the experience, at least it was for me, is horrifying the first time and every time afterwards it is awful reliving this previously horrific experience. Food is supposed to go down and stay down and leave out one end. Vomiting is a reminder of the drawbacks of our biology.
Yet looking at TOOL, I cannot deny the fact that vomiting is a physical act that reminds me that I am alive. There is no sensation so powerful as pain, and vomiting is simply that, pain. My reader may ask then, what good is it observing this pain? To this I can only provide a quote from the play A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Big Daddy is suffering from the cancer that will kill him and when his son offers him medicine he rejects it. His excuse is one I’m fond of:
Brick Pollitt: [Offering Big Daddy morphine] It’ll kill the pain, that’s all.
Harvey ‘Big Daddy’ Pollitt: [Wincing with pain] It’ll kill the senses too! You… you got pain – at least you know you’re alive.
I’ll never forget vomiting for the first time, or watching those blurry men vomit the black slime, or watching Sonya carefully as I drive her anywhere, or that scene in Family Guy with the Ipecac, because those moments were possessed by a fierce carnality that is impossible to forget. In this postmodern, pseudo-Modern period, Whatever-the Fuck Period we live in, it’s easy sometimes to forget the body because so much of life is wrapped up and experienced in screens and technology. The moments that are making up our lives are in screens.
I’m not railing against technology, nor suggesting all these “gadgets” are divorcing us from our bodies, I’m simply remembering a few moments when I was reminded of my body, often at another’s expense. Connections are where our memories are embedded and established, and while it isn’t as pleasant as remembering your first kiss, or your wedding night, or your first ice cream cone, the first time you vomit is a sensation that lasts in memory, and there’s most certainly a story behind it.
Here you’ve been through a lot. Here’s a picture of Nicki Minaj bouncing her boobs out for…you know I’m still not entirely sure why this was a thing in the Pound the Alarm Video. Hope you enjoy nonetheless:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, animal cruelty, apathy, arthropoda, Arthropods, bacon is amazing and if you disagree you're a goddamn communist, biology, Birthdays, Boiling Lobsters, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, empathy, Essay, ethics, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Gourmet, Infinite Jest, Jason Segel, killing animals for food, Literature, Lobster, Lobsters are Bugs, Maine Lobster, Maine Loster Festival, metacognition, mortality, PC, Philosophy, preference, Science, segmented joints, self preservation, selfish acts of violence, Shogun's, suffering, will to survive, Writing
Is it right to boil lobsters? I’m seriously asking.
Four months back was the most wretched of holidays, a day of the year that I dread more than anything else: my birthday. This isn’t me trying to be cute, I legitimately hate my birthday. Part of this is because of my depression and self-loathing. I’ve trained myself to consider myself worth less than dog-shit, and so when you live in a culture that reinforces a narrative that birthdays are about taking a day to celebrate someone and extol their virtues and just celebrate their existence it becomes, difficult isn’t the word, fucking agonizing. Put it simply, how do you appreciate your existence when you often consider your existence to be a waste of other people’s time? Still I’m fighting this bullshit in my head, partly because last year’s birthday was quite possibly the worst day of my entire life. This year I wanted it to be different. Part of what helped was having to work on my birthday, it kept me occupied, but the other half was about a week later my family took me to one of my favorite restaurants, Shogun’s a Japanese Steakhouse. I’m sure places like this exist around the country, but if the reader doesn’t know what this is it’s a place where patrons sit around a stove and a chef comes out and cooks their food in front of them usually performing by lighting fires, throwing bits of food into their mouth, and performing incredible stunts with knives, spatulas, and other cutlery.
I asked originally about lobster because on this night I had what I usually do when I go to Shogun’s: chicken, steak, and lobster. The lobster, it should be noted, wasn’t boiled alive in front of us, the chef simply brought out two tails, coated them with butter and seasoning, and then baked it under a steel bowl while he cooked the chicken and made jokes about me and my sister both working in libraries.
He picked up the bowl, dropped the lobster on my plate, and started with the filet mignon. I ate the lobster, and I’ll admit it without shame, it was delicious. I also, on one small side note, got my wife to try lobster for the first time ever.
This may at first seem like an opening that will then switch over into a long monologue about how I regretted it later, and how I have since made a vow to never eat lobster again. Well, fortunately, this isn’t the case. I didn’t regret ordering or eating the lobster. The only guilt I felt was a remembrance of a documentary that aired a few years ago about lobster catchers in the Caribbean who are being manipulated by big seafood providers, but I ordered a Maine lobster so that didn’t even come into the equation. I honestly don’t feel any guilt about eating lobster, unless they’re boiled. And this development, like most things in my life, has to do with reading, specifically a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace called Consider the Lobster.
My regular reader will remember that over the last year I’ve experienced an explosion of interest in the writing of David Foster Wallace, buying up most of the books he ever wrote. I’ve read Infinite Jest (and survived) and in-between reading that book and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, I bought a hardback copy of another one of his essay collections Consider the Lobster. It’s impossible to forget this book with it’s pure white cover, and a red lobster raising its right claw up in a kind of grim welcome to the reader. I remember seeing the book before whenever I would encounter David Foster Wallace’s writing, and my amazon account was always recommending it to me. When I asked a professor friend of mine, who I originally consulted for Infinite Jest, about it her answer was an unequivocal, “Yes, I fuckin loved that book.”
I bought a copy and started reading it the moment it arrived.
The essay was originally a field piece Wallace was assigned to write by Gourmet magazine. I wonder briefly what they knew what they were getting into when they hired Wallace because the man never just wrote about his topic, he managed to write about the philosophy and spirit of whatever material he was writing about. Wallace is specifically writing about the MLF (Maine Lobster Festival), and while he explains the significance of the event in terms of food connoisseurs and Lobster enthusiasts, the essay eventually becoming a moral conversation about the nature of being a gourmet period.
And part of that is providing a taxonomic, biological background of the lobster which, if the reader honestly believes I won’t provide a quote for you clearly have never read any of my work:
Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae, characterized by five pairs of jointed legs, the first pair terminating in large pincer fish claws used for subduing prey. Like many other species of benthic carnivore, lobsters are both hunters and scavengers. They have stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae.
And arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda, which phylum covers insects, spiders, crustaceans, and centipedes/millipedes, all of whose main commonality, besides the absence of a centralized brain-spine assembly, is a chitinous exoskeleton composed of segments, to which appendages are articulated in pairs.
The point is lobsters are giant sea insects. (237)
Part of the joy for in including that quote is knowing that somewhere out there in the world someone who has just recently eaten lobster will start to gag as they realize that cockroaches, beetles, and centipedes are related to lobsters and that they, in principle, recently ate a sea-roach. But after I get over my juvenile habit of grossing people out with facts about bugs (it’s the main reason why I never get invited to parties), there is a purpose to including this quote because it’s also part of the reason Wallace includes this background material in his essay. Shortly after this he provides a brief historical account about how lobster was seen a lower-class food, how it was often fed to criminals, and after this he explains that the principle means of cooking lobster is to boil it alive. All of this ultimately moves towards his central thesis, or, really, the central question of Consider the Lobster:
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice? (243).
This question is an important one to ask, especially when you live in a society that has become more and more divorced from the reality of food. Individuals who live in the twenty-first century, specifically people who live in urban areas, tend to live in artificial environments where the reality of killing creatures for meat is a somewhat alien concept, actually, let’s be real here, it’s damn near abstract for them. Probably one of the best examples is the hog-killing scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Jason Segel has to kill the hog which is screaming and grunting and then spends most of the time on the way to the party crying.
Before I get into my analysis of Wallace’s argument though I do want to take a moment to just note the previous quote and observe the man’s ability as a writer. Part of a writer’s job is not just coming up with catchy hookers that grab people’s attention and then being cute and smart and funny until you reach your word limit. Which, you’ll note, is pretty good summation for everything I do on this shitty blog. The writer’s principle job, to sound archetypal for a moment, is simply to observe humanity’s character and behavior and then to show it right back. As Wallace observes his own question he notes immediately what the reaction will be, and having asked this question in real life I understand why he prepares for a reaction. I asked my wife one night the same questions and she responded with a quick and precise “no.” Now in her defense she’s a biologist; she’s been trained to study animals and that often includes capturing them, killing them, and then cutting them up to see how they work. I tried to make my argument but she threw back plenty of facts about arthropods in general the most obvious one being that, unlike humans, they lack a real nervous system, or at least one as centralized as human beings.
That brings me back to bugs and Wallace again.
No one is really sure whether or not bugs, or arthropods feel pain. I took a few weeks of an etymology course before I realized the class wasn’t for me (I don’t think the other students liked me) and while I was there the professor of the class noted that it’s difficult to measure “pain” in arthropods. Wallace himself observes the complications of pain when he writes:
Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that other human beings experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. (246).
Wallace also notes that the conversation itself is uncomfortable as he notes just a few lines later:
The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should also add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. (246)
This last point seems to be the most poignant element of the entire essay, and all the more important. Wallace’s essay really becomes what it is in this paragraph for me because it stops being about the experience of lobster and instead becomes an opportunity for meta-cognition. If the reader doesn’t remember that word it literally means “thinking-about-thinking,” or to put it another way “thinking about the way that you think about things.” I suspect many readers of Gourmet were rather pissed at Wallace for making them revaluate choices that he himself admitted he didn’t think about, but if I can dust off a platitude, the unexamined life is not worth living.
Now I know my reader’s objection immediately: You’re a hypocrite sir, you admitted yourself that you ate lobster recently and you felt no qualms about it, so why should I feel lousy for simply enjoying lobster?
The reader makes a good point, and the only sufficient rebuttal I have is that this essay, this reflection, is a not a condemnation of people who eat lobster in general. My only aim is to ask a question which can start a moral argument, which, by it’s nature, is never going to have a clear answer for each person’s morality is subjective.
For my own part I have no intention of stopping eating lobster, however I refuse to eat boiled lobster because it seems unnecessarily cruel.
My reader will almost assuredly rebut this point and again cite Wallace himself on the issue of pain, but Wallace provides a few moments of sobering clarity for me when he observes the actual process of boiling lobsters alive by noting their reaction to the process. He writes:
However stupourous a lobster is from the trip, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook it’s claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you usually hear the cover rattling and clinking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water. (247-8).
Some might continue to object, but allow me to offer one more quote before they negate this behavior:
To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference, and it may well be that an ability to form preferences in the decisive criterion for real suffering. (251).
I tried, when I made the argument with my wife, to make this point, but I have a damn difficult time expressing my opinions and intellectual positions clearly in conversation. That’s the main reason why I write; it gives me control and a focus I lack in real life. To my wife’s credit she observed but stuck to her argument, and in fact I’m sure there are many who will do the exact same after reading my review and Wallace’s actual essay. Nobody’s going to really stop eating lobster if they don’t have any such qualms about the lobster’s potential suffering because it’s just, as I and Wallace noted before, a sea-bug. There’s no reason to observe much empathy because they’re an other.
But hopefully the reader has observed that Consider the Lobster is NOT about lobsters at all. In fact the essay is nothing more than a chance for Philosophic reflection about the way human beings act about their food. Wallace concludes his essay with two keen observations:
Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? (252-3).
And then in closing paragraph he notes:
I’m not trying to bait anyone here—I’m genuinely curious. After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be sensuous? Is it really just a matter of taste and presentation? (254)
Empathy is a tricky a word to throw out because it’s so wrapped up in morality, and morality itself tends to be clouded in religious discourse that discussing empathy for animals makes one seem naïve or “soft” or even worse, a vegetarian. For the record, vegetarians are not the scum of the earth, those are vegans. No eating cheese my ass. I fuckin love cheese.
But all this reflection reminds of a moment years ago that gave me pause for thought. I was in a biology 1201 lab course and we were waiting to start our Mid-term Practicals. I looked down and crawling beneath my feet was a small field cricket. Without thinking I slammed my foot down, enjoying the hard crack and wet crunch. I had killed crickets before, dozens of times. My father was an exterminator so killing insects really wasn’t an issue for me, it was literally just business. But when I lifted my foot and looked at the carcass I felt instantly that I had done something wrong. The cricket hadn’t bothered me. It hadn’t bitten me. Crickets aren’t known for spreading disease. Nor do they usually bite. A cricket is about the closest thing you can get to a puppy in terms of insects. It’s ridiculous to fret about wantonly stepping on a bug, but is it?
It’s easy to negate another creature’s potential suffering for the sake of your own comfort, and it’s just as easy to establish rhetoric to justify that worldview. There’s nothing wrong with killing lobsters, and if you do believe there is that means you’re either just another insane animal rights activists, or else you’re just soft bodied and want to ensure that other people don’t have a good time. I worry about this, because narrative, as I’ve demonstrated in previous writing, matters more than anything. It’s easy to spin this rhetoric and just stop asking questions about the need for a moment of empathy and reflection and that can lead to consequences. It may start as lobsters, but then it may shift to cats, dogs, dolphins, whales, and even people.
I have no business with slippery-slope arguments. Humans aren’t going to eat people anytime soon (unless they taste good with butter I suppose, but then again what doesn’t?). But fostering a lack of empathy can lead to real problems because it negates that suffering can exist in multiple forms. Once one stops caring about whether lobsters may be experiencing pain it might be easy to forget that people are dying in Syria, that the state of Israel acts like a bully and gets away with it, that women across the globe face regular sexual harassment, that workers in the meat industry tend to be illegal immigrants who are used and exploited and then quickly tossed aside once they become injured on the job, that in the united states there is a 14% illiteracy rate, and the list can go on until one becomes with numb to tragedy.
Consider the Lobster is an important essay because it asks the reader to perform a simple task: consider. This act can make people uncomfortable because most of the time people would rather not consider that their actions may be wrong, or, more appropriately, that the way of life that they’re enjoying may be at the expense of another. But asking that question is a valuable endeavor because it can foster the behavior of self-reflection and empathy for other beings which is worth more than all the lobster in the world.
And besides, there’s always bacon.
All quotes from Consider the Lobster in this essay were quoted from the hardback Little, Brown & Company edition. However, if the reader is interested, I have also provided a link to the original article published on Gourmet’s website. Enjoy:
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Let me begin by apologizing. Before you protest that I’m always apologizing you’re right but this one does need some explanation. You see over the last few months I wasn’t in a good place. In fact I was in a rotten one, a fucking rotten one. Graduating college wasn’t the entrance into some new golden world as I had thought or dreamt it would be because I discovered the institution I had attended and hoped to teach at wouldn’t hire me. That resulted in a long period of joblessness which, while it saw a blossoming of writing, didn’t see anything in the realm of actual employment. Add to that my wife was bouncing between jobs and encouraging me to consider teaching high school. Now I hated high school and I hated being a teenager so imagine B spending the rest of my life in such an environment. It didn’t get better after that despite the fact I was offered a teaching job at a local college. I was lobbying to teach there but as always no positions were available until one of the professors had a family emergency and needed someone to cover her classes till the end of the semester. I hopped into the gig thinking that I would be teaching college students, when in fact, I wounded up teaching college students who were really just high school students. The students didn’t want to be there and after just a few weeks I realized I didn’t want to be there either. I realized day by day that I was miserable. And then the depression kicked in. Finding yourself huddled up in a ball and crying in a shower twice a week for eight weeks is a hell of a thing B—–, but it gives you some perspective. It was near the end of the that semester that several of my friends, unbeknownst to me, had begun to lobby for me at the Tyler Public Library. One of my friends is a full time employee there, and two others are part time, and because people tend to see something in me that I don’t they continued to lobby for me while I day-by-day began to realize that I actually wanted to work there. I was ready to leave college behind and start a new path. And when a temp job opened up I knew, for my own health that I had to take the library job.
This is a long fucking opening B—–, I know that, but I just wanted to offer explanation as to why I haven’t been writing back, and also why I decided to begin this enterprise that I’m starting with this letter.
You see you’d be surprised how many atheists and agonistics work at the library. One of them is one of the friends I spoke of, and one night while we were closing we were discussing being atheists, the end of our faith, secular humanist mommy groups (that’s a thing, they exist) and of course Christopher Hitchens. We briefly discussed the book god is not Great, because both of us had read the book and credited it as the document which helped us realize we were atheists. I say realize because I distrust people who say they “became” atheists, it reeks of false conviction. But as I was heading up the stairs towards the employee exit, I thought about our talk and I thought about our letters. The first letter I ever sent you B—–, included a quote from god is not Great, and I recommended that you read the book.
What I’m offering now B—–, is the chance to read the book and talk about it chapter by chapter. This could take a year, it could take only a few months, but I like the idea and I want to give it a shot. So this first letter will address the first chapter of Hitchens’s book.
Although before we begin I have to tell you that your current girlfriend looks remarkably similar to Gal Gadot. The Halloween party picture you sent where you were both Wonder Woman was just eerily similar and on an entirely unrelated note I cannot wait for the new Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman, World War I, AND Gal Gadot. Jammer be happy.
Picking up god is not Great has been a fascinating reminder of how much I have actually grown in my personal belief B—–, or lack of belief if you want to be specific. I noticed myself reading the opening chapter and feeling somewhat stalled. I feel lousy admitting that, especially about Old Hitch, but I think, to his credit, it’s because I’ve read so much about atheism because of him and so his initial arguments seem, to quote Aerosmith, like the Same Old Song and Dance.
Still if you’re reading this book for the first time, these ideas and declarations are bold and unsparing. The first chapter, if you’ve read it already, starts off with a declaration of his beliefs that he titles “Putting it Mildly.” What I love, from the start, is how Hitch recognizes that he’s going to be attacked the moment he hits the ground running. If you don’t believe me watch how he starts the book:
If the intended reader of this book should want to go beyond disagreement with its author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course), then he or she will not just be quarreling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who—presumably—opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Mrs. Jean Watts. (1)
There’s a lot to get into in this first chapter B—–, and I can’t possibly cover all of it, but I wanted to start off with this quote because it provides insight to the reality facing out and about public atheists. I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve avoided such treatment by supposed “believers” but that’s usually because I only inform people about my lack of faith to people I know and trust. If a random Christian asks me about my faith I’ll usually just say something like “I was raised in the Episcopal church.” I’ve found though sometimes that when I out myself as an atheist those people who are bothered by it will usually just ignore me and quietly pray for my soul. But just because I’ve had it easy doesn’t mean that other people have. Atheists are some of the most distrusted people on this planet, and I suspect the only reason I don’t have people writing me angry letters telling me to suck dicks in hell is because I’m just some shit-for-shit nobody with a shit-for-shit blog.
How many shits was that by the way, I lost count. Must have been thinking about Gal Gadot again. There’s this one picture of her wearing glasses and this nice hat…
What I like about this opening however is that, while it does acknowledge the tendency of many people of faith to demonize atheists it also reinforces an observation I’ve had, which is that real atheists tend to be those who’ve experienced real religious instruction. Hitchens describes his early teacher Mrs. Jean Watts, as a sweet and kind woman who taught the children about nature and spirituality. Hitchens was raised in this environment and one moment was eventually attributed to his early skepticism:
However, there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts overreached herself. Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.” (2)
I suspect B—-, that every atheist has a moment like this. I sometimes refer to it as the “aha” moment, but really it’s probably more accurate to call it the “really, oh for fuck’s sake” moment, because honestly that what you feel when it happens. Or at least that’s what I felt when I experienced mine. Unlike some atheists that will profess having some kind of dramatic realization, real mature atheism occurs, much like religious instruction. It takes time, real study, introspection, and finally just one moment of initial skepticism. I’ll never forget mine.
A preacher from the local Baptist church in town came by to deliver the sermon, and given the fact that I attended an “Episcopal” school I failed to really observe the fascinating dynamic of a Protestant sermonizing at a Catholic-Light institution. He was a charming character and boomed rather than softly spoke, and the lingering sensation of him is the fact that I was wrapped up in his story. It was the Loaves and Fishes tale retold from the position of a boy who happened to be at the scene retelling the event to his mother. I was about twelve years old at the time, but I was transfixed by this man and his ability. I wondered where the story would go, or how it would end, and even after I realized this was the loaves and fishes story I’ll never forget the moment when the man raised a finger in the air and spoke:
“And do you know who that man was Momma? That man’s name? It was Jesus Mama. Jesus Christ.”
Something dropped into my stomach and I suspect it was the angels because that’s what it felt like. It felt like I had finally woken up and seen Christianity for what it was, or at least what it had always been: a cheap sell using a piss-poor story.
Faith and belief was shown for what it was B—-, a club ticket rather than a spiritual tool. It didn’t stop right there, and in fact it wouldn’t truly diminish until I read Hitchens’s god is not Great a year after graduating high school, but that moment of initial skepticism I believe is crucial and one of the reasons Hitchens makes it the start of his book.
Christianity is an institution, one that is wrapped up in almost every level of our culture. I won’t compare the skeptics and atheists and agnostics to Neo in The Matrix because that seems too dramatic a metaphor, but the first moment sometimes does resemble that scene when he wakes up in the gel and looks around the world. You begin to see how the power structure is embedded at every level. It’s important B—-, to have a social network so that one doesn’t feel alone in the world, and while there is Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Blogs, T.V. shows, and the internet in general, books can go a long way in helping someone reassess their beliefs or even just feel validated.
Reading this first chapter again I always remember that preacher and so there is an identification. Christopher Hitchens and I went through the same experience and that makes me recognize that my skepticism isn’t something unnatural, it’s common. That banalization is important for arguments I’ll try to get into later.
But this opening chapter is the first in what can really and should be called a kind of Manifesto. The readers who pick up god is not Great are reading the work of a new generation of atheists who feel free enough to openly declare their sentiments, opinions, and belief without (much) fear of the societal rebuttal. And Hitch, being the man that he was, decides to not spare anything and simply declare his sentiments to his reader:
There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. (4).
These four points perfectly sum up my own position for why I believe religion is a dangerous institution. You’ll note B—-, that I said religion and not god. I’ve told you before B—– that the reason I don’t believe in god is not because of religion but from my own observations of reality. Because there is no empirical evidence for the existence of a divine being I cannot in good conscience profess belief or even pretend to believe in one. Likewise talking about the possibilities of such a being, or philosophy about that being’s intentions, from my perspective, is absurd.
It doesn’t matter the extent of god’s power because until there’s evidence for god’s existence there’s no point asking such questions. To put it another way, it’s useless arguing how many angle could fit on the head of a pin, or what is the molecular make-up of a unicorn’s horn. Neither have any solid proof of their existence so there’s no point having the conversation.
I take that back. Unicorns exist. They’re called Rhinos and they’re awesome.
This quote is vital however because it lays the foundation for everything that’s going to follow in Hitchens’s book. He lays out his ideas in the form of a thesis and statement of belief so that the reader can determine what is his ultimate position. Religion, and by extension god, are pollutants because they distract human beings from reality. They make man the focal point, the prime locus of the entirety of creation, and that allows human beings the opportunity to perform vile actions because they are the chosen creation. And, of course, this spawns dickish behavior ranging from murder, torture, rape, pedophilia, genocide, and wearing sandals with socks. (#Never Forget #Never Forgive).
I know the objection B—–, and I’m getting rather tired of it to be honest, but I’ll indulge it in the spirit of fairness. The charge, by the casual believer, is that atheism is a religion too. That atheists turn their godlessness into a kind of faith and that this in turn makes them just as much of self-centered assholes as religious people.
And you know, my problem B—–, is that most public atheists don’t really help me much here. Bill Maher regularly turns his atheism into a merit badge, Richard Dawkins actually has little merit badge pins that are large red “A’s,” and David Silverman has tried to establish an atheist television channel, and Sam Harris is the textbook definition of a giant douche-bag. The real problem is that most of the men I’ve just cited aren’t in fact atheists, but really more of anti-theists. And even Old-Hitch himself fell into this category.
If I can save the man though, at least a little in your eyes, let me offer the second most important quote from this chapter:
And here is the point about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Steen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in the post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication. (5).
In short B—– it goes back to a point I’ve made before in these letters. Atheism, by it’s very definition, cannot be a religion. It can most certainly be called an “ism,” and therefore should be looked on with skepticism. But anyone who would argue that a lifestyle and philosophy can emerge from this position is fooling themselves. Atheism is simply, or at least the way I’ve executed it in my lifetime, an absence of belief and faith in god. That’s it.
I place whatever “faith” I have in this life, not with a god, but with facts, knowledge, data, and information. I trust these because they are not determinant purely upon faith, but by real material reality. A fact is determined by the collection of humanity observing the same phenomena and recording it, doubting it, testing it, and finally resolving it into reality. That’s the way knowledge is produced, coallated, and recorded for posterity.
I live my life now in the absence of god and there’s a lovely freedom to it that I’ll explore in later letters. I just wanted to start here B—– with an understanding of what Hitchens believes atheism is and how he’ll go about arguing it, and whether or not I agree with his points. I agree that Hitch can be abrasive, and there are certain elements of the text that I disagree with, but the quotes I’ve provided here are used because they seem to perfectly reflect my position. They did when I was a nineteen year old kid who had known nothing but the church, and spent most of his time reading with a heavy lump in his chest and crying while turning the pages. It felt like I had finally found the voice I had been waiting for. The person who had made the exact arguments I had been making in my head for years.
Which leads me to the final argument in this letter. There’s a temptation to make the lack of belief and faith into some kind of dramatic affair. It shouldn’t be. And that’s the point. Belief in the foundation of reality is difficult B—–, obviously, and unfortunately the arguments surrounding it have become wrapped up in emotion, politics, and power structures, so much so that, when a man decides to write a book criticizing religion he has to start the book by predicting a pushback. I don’t ever want our letters to be as such, because I know you are a believer. And so let’s hope in this correspondence for further dialogue rather than mutual excommunication.
Besides, even if we disagree about god we can both agree Gal Gadot’s going to be the best part of the new Wonder Woman and Justice League movie. As if there was any doubt of that.
It may be a while till my next letter, but keep writing, I enjoy your responses.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
A while ago Cracked.com got into a bit of trouble because they posted an article about the way atheists communicate in public and why their methods were flawed. This, to no one’s real surprise, created a bit of a tizzy by atheists themselves who proceeded to shit all over Cracked. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it myself, but whenever people are offended or bothered by a piece of writing I immediately pick it up and read it because people always get upset for the wrong reasons. Plus, discourse is important. Enjoy:
I’ve also attached a link to a newspaper article from my alma matter UT Tyler. A friend of mine was writing a piece about religion and college students and he wanted to get some of my insight about being an atheist. It is, as far as I know, the only time my name has appeared in newsprint. The article ends on a positive note about faith, which is rather annoying, but it’s still a well written article. If you’re at all interested B—–, simply follow the link below.
I don’t really have anything to add here B—–, I just wanted to gush about the fact that Gal Gadot is playing Wonder Woman again. I’m not obsessed, I promise, there’s just something….something….
Well shit I can’t remember. What ridiculous fool I am. At least I’m cute.
Batman, Benedict Cumberbatch naked sunbathing, Bisexuality, Book Review, Comics, Essay, Evil Bear Man, Gay, Gay Batman Sex Fantasy, Gay Men Comics, Gay Porn, Gay Sex, Homo-Social Relationships, Homoeroticism, Homosexuality, I Like It Like That, I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire, Justin Hall, masculinity, Masculinity Studies, Michael Fassbender, Naked, Penis, Pornography, Queer, Queer Sex, Queer Theory, Sexual Exploration, Sexual Fantasy, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Space, The "Fairy", Writing
I’ll admit that I wanted it both ways. And yes, that is a bisexuality pun.
My regular reader will remember, because I won’t shut up about it, that I’m bisexual. My graphic novel memoir I Like Dick, I Like Vagina, I Like Me is still several years away at this point but that’s only because the publishers fail to see my brilliance and so I languish in obscurity. Because I’m married however, and because my wife and I hold to a “No Sharing” policy, exploring my sexuality is often limited to the wonderfully perverted world of Tumblr or else my traditional outlets, books. There’s a problem on this second front because as I said before I want it both ways, and this time it’s not a pun. I have been, since I started reading works about Queer theory, looking for a book which would explore queer male sexuality while also not being ungodly academic.
Surprise surprise this has been difficult.
Most writing about sexuality between men remains rigidly fixed in academic analysis in which case your spending most of your time reading about Freud or Marxian realities inherent to Postmodern identity politics. The other alternative is pornography, and as I stated before, Tumblr exists and seems to do a far better job at it then most erotic male writers I have read. What has always been missing in book after book of male-male erotica is some level of intellectual exercise. Reading about X putting his dick in Y’s mouth and or anus can be fun, but after a while the characters become archetypal nobodies and I wanted to explore sexuality not just scratch an itch. It seemed then that there wasn’t any book out there where I could really get another person’s perspective on their sexuality in a way that was physically and psychological satisfying.
Until Half Price Books. This chain has largely been responsible for whatever emotional development I’ve had with my sexuality because unlike the bookstores in my home town of Tyler, Texas, they carry (unashamedly I might add) an entire section dedicated to gender, sex, and sexuality books. On yet another of my family’s recent pilgrimage to Dallas I headed for the LGBTQ Studies after cleaning up in the dollar section, and my cart filled up within a space of five minutes. Most of my books were studies of queer male sexuality or their history and so when I spotted I Like it Like That: True Stories of Gay Male Desire it was just one of the many books in the pile. It was a few minutes later when I was vetting my pile that I took the time to figure out what I was buying, and after reading just the back cover I knew I had to own this book.
I Like It Like That is not just a collection of testimonials for I’ve read and still own several books like that. Most books about queer men tend either to be outright pornography, or else testimonials about their first time or about their coming out. Books like that are valuable and should be read and studied, but again there was always something missing for me whenever I read them. The way my own mind works I always prefer a work that takes the time to introspect or analyze a condition or situation. The men writing their personal essays are not just describing their sex life, they’re offering assessments and deeper understandings of what sex has meant to them, or how it has changed their life, or shown in what way they have explored or expressed their sexuality. Each essay acts alone and independently from the other, but while reading this book each essay feels like it’s is arranged in reaction to others so at times the book is like reading a group of men talking together about their sexuality. The best part about the collection however is the actual range of sexual expressions that are understood and discussed. One article titles Tom Selleck’s Mustache is one man’s realization that he possesses a fetish for mustache’s in general and therefore kissing men with mustache’s is his favorite erotic act. Another essay, which is in fact a comic strip, titled Amanuensis is a short story about a top who helps two husbands who are both bottoms. Big Black Daddy-Dick, or The Joys of Being Fetishized is really everything the title suggests as a middle aged black man explores the pleasure derived from others who look at him and his dick in a kind of worship. Bathhouse Desires covers the territory of a man visiting a bath house for the first time and feeling lost in lust and desire. Straight Guy Fetish explores a personal essay of a man caught in a one sided relationship with a straight man. And finally Evil Bear Man is a comic strip about a man who works as a fetish escort and has sex with his boyfriend in front of his client dressed up as Batman and Robin.
This last one, for the record, is my favorite only because I couldn’t stop laughing while reading it.
This basic list serves to demonstrate what an odd and wonderful book I Like it Like That really is for the reader interested in exploring libidos. Reading these essays feels so personal because too often the subject of sex is something that is hushed up or hidden. But something powerful happens when a writer opens their secret heart and shows you something. To wit, observe just one passage from the essay The Weight of My Desire:
I like men. And I like that I like men. But more than that, I like that you like them too. […] Sometimes, I think, the only thing greater than my desire for a man is my desire for his hunger. Do you know what I mean? His yearning to touch, or be touched by, another man. His willingness. His lust. His lack of inhibition. The thought that maybe just the book of another man’s smile is enough to get him hard. That perhaps even you might think of me and quiver. That I might hold the power to do that to you. Then I could pull you close, press your forehead into mine, and gaze into your eyes as we fuck. And in your eyes I will see that you like it. I will hear it on your warm breath and in the wet sound of your tongue on my skin. We are not that different, you and I. Your balls ache the way mine do. (207-8).
It’s incredibly painful to me how long it took for me to be able to read the first two sentences and agree with them. For the longest time I hid behind the random imitation of the “fairy” whenever the issue of same-sex intimacy between two men was brought up. Whenever I would discuss Benedict Cumberbatch or Michael Fassbender I would become fay and limp-wristed and raise my voice to sigh dreamily. I still sigh dreamily after Michael Fassbender for the record because…because…Ahem
Ahem. And Jason Moma is…
…well…yeah. The point is though while reading this passage I recognized the similar physical sentiment, “your balls ache the way mine do,” but I also recognized how much I had grown into my own comfort of my sexuality. Being attracted to another man wasn’t funny, or at least wasn’t just funny. It could also be real, and it could also be something to enjoy about myself.
Having said that though humor is important especially when dealing with sex. That’s why Evil Bear Man is without doubt my favorite essay in the collection. The fact that it’s also nothing but comics doesn’t hurt either.
The essay is about a fetish escort who gets paid by one of his clients to dress up as Robin and “break in” to his apartment so his client can pretend to be a villain by the name of Evil Bear Man. Evil Bear Man’s evil scheme? To force Batman and Robin to fuck.
With the help of his boyfriend, who plays the role of Batman, the pair of them eventually play out the fantasy for the client who enjoys a nice, quick wank. The description is enough to make even the most patient and open-minded reader to stop and ask the question: why should I be giving a damn about this. With the incorporation of images this moment sounds like nothing but pornography? But looking back over the essay again I can counter this immediately. Pornography is designed to titillate and arouse the viewer and/or reader of the work. Evil Bear Man works to occasionally arouse the reader, but often Justin Hall, the writer and illustrator who’s work I have appreciated in other books such as Boy Trouble and True Porn, breaks the serious erotic’s to show small moments of humility. His boyfriend complains about the utility belt, on the way over a kid tells him that the Robin outfit looks gay, after the client has paid he hopes the pair of them don’t laugh too hard and of course they do, and at the end the pair of them eventually continue to fuck in the outfits while the onomatopoeias of BLAM, WHAM, and KER-POW pop up between the phrases “Take it.” Anyone who watched the old Adam West Batman like I did surely remembers this and having them subverted, or perverted if you prefer, was funny and charming.
The point is while the reader observes this small tale they explore the fantasy of the client and observe how the escort and his boyfriend eventually perpetuate it, both together, and also to the reader. The individual reading the book I Like It Like That, is most likely someone who will derive some kind of erotic interests from the essays being presented and so there’s an invitation to not only observe the little distractions that can take place during sex (you always wind up placing your weight on their hair for some reason), but also to see if maybe some part of you isn’t also slightly turned on by watching Batman and Robin fuck.
I’ve never had a Batman fetish myself, and I still don’t. However, studies of tumblr have demonstrated that even without my participation this fantasy will continue into the future.
I’ve probably said more than I need to in order to the pique the interest of the reader who’s willing to sink $20 into a nice slim little book of erotic essays, but as always my point in these writings isn’t just to review books. Anyone who wants a quick review should try Goodreads. These essays are about my own exploration and so I prepare for my contester who interrupts me to ask, “Why should I bother picking this book up? I’m not gay, I’ve never had any gay feelings. Why should I waste my time reading about a bunch of gay men having sex?”
To this criticism I really don’t have much of a defense. If you’re a straight guy this book probably doesn’t offer much for you. I’m sorry but that’s where it stands. Though it should be noted that there is a small populace that call themselves straight who engage in same-sex activity, but that’s for a later essay.
Buying the book, and taking the time to write this out I wasn’t really writing for straight men. I wasn’t writing for gay men either. And in fact I wasn’t writing to any men at all, simply myself. As I noted before, my bisexuality is an odd creature because it can only exist in an odd erotic space. Because I don’t want to cheat on my wife, but because I also am unwilling to hide my, what Alison Bechdel calls in her brilliant graphic novel Fun Home “Erotic Truth,” this books is a real gift. It affords me the space to explore my sexual feelings towards other men without violating my marriage or without making me feel guilty.
And, along with helping me find my sexual self, it also affords me a few opportunities to think. Such as the following passage from the essay The Truth of His Nakedness:
It wasn’t about sex. Until it was. But it took me years to realize that nothing had really changed. These days, my nakedness is usually reserved for sexual situations, but that only reinforces the point—the erotic space is the same. The erotic space is the space of unavoidable truth. The erotic space is who I am.
In the end, all there is nakedness: two bodies coming together, sharing their common humanity, their naked vulnerability, the ultimate truth that we are not alone. (184-5).
The essays in I Like it Like That, much like this review/reflection of the entire book, finds its heart in the preceding passage because everything about these essays is about nakedness. “Naked” as a word always suggests vulnerability and by exposing your body, and by extension your desire to another person there is always a risk. Writing these words, and publishing them on the internet for all the world to see is a risk because there will always come those who will reject my desire, and by extension my person in general. I’ve listened to horror stories from some of my friends in the queer community and so I do not write and publish this essay without some reservation. It would be a mistake though to suggest that this was purely about the actual act of sex, because these essays prove sex is not only about the act of inserting something up an anus, into a mouth, or into a vagina. Sex is about a space in which desire is allowed to breath and be and the only way for a person to figure out what they “like” is to find some kind of space in which to work with.
Queer men exist in a wonderful space in which to explore their desire, and I’m happy to contribute to it in any way I can, even if it’s just suggesting a book through this shitty blog.
Looking over these words I’ve reminded myself that the reason I’m able to be and exist is because of the agency and space I possess. Others aren’t nearly so lucky. I’ll probably never have sex with another man, and while there is some sadness in this declaration there is still a happiness in recognizing I have enough “space” to openly acknowledge it’s still something I would like.
And if that “space” should ever include Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch, well, I mean, I wouldn’t complain. Would you?