Many weeks ago, I promised to review a book by a friend and I failed. It isn’t my fault. My pile of reading is a mountain high, stacked with a mix of the diaries of William Byrd and the latest Margaret Atwood. In addition, I receive literature from readers all the time – and I make an effort to delve into it. Some of it’s very good. Roughly 90 percent is mad. Just today, someone Tweeted to ask if I thought Barack Obama might have authored an “anti-Christ gospels.” I replied, “Probably not. He prefers to use ghostwriters.”
But I’m pleased that I found time to read Paul Lay’s History Today – And Tomorrow
. It’s a fine book that reminds us that history is the “king of disciplines,” for it synchronizes all others and turns disparate studies into a coherent narrative of the human drama. It is good to be reminded of how great we historians are.
Paul makes two points that I think are particularly potent. The first is that history is not a comfortable discipline. A lot of what one sees in popular history is tawdry nostalgia. From the endless History Channel documentaries about being a Spitfire pilot to the insufferable BB2 shows about life in a Georgian household (“Look ma – they made their own cheese!”), history has become something that affirms rather than challenges. Commissioners are terrified of anything that a modern audience will not instantly recognize, so they only produce that which “speaks” to them. That’s why domesticity is such a popular theme, or the history of the last forty years. When did BBC4 last venture into political territory that wasn’t to do with Harold Wilson or Margaret Thatcher?
Dramatists must be given credit for throwing their nets wider (The Tudors
, The Borgias
) but even these shows invariably give ancient characters modern sensibilities. Take the dreaded Downton Abbey
. At the center of Downton
is the lie that the Edwardian household was like a modern extended family: open, warm, democratic. It was not. In fact, African-American slavery was arguably a more intimate type of service than the manorial system. Don’t get me wrong – it was sustained by violence. But most historians of slavery now argue that it was surprisingly geographically unsegregated (it was common, for instance, for slave and free children to play and be nursed together). By contrast, in Edward England social relations were simply impermissible and if any servant spoke to an employer in the way that they do in Downton
, they’d have been sacked … or worse. Downton Abbey
has nothing to do with the past and everything to do with today. Whenever the English are in trouble, they retreat into nostalgia and reflect upon their present circumstances by looking backwards. They see at history through the dark glass of their own context and conclude, "We are, and we always have been, bloody marvellous."
Instead, history should be honest and ugly. It ought to present the facts “warts and all” and strictly on the terms of the people who lived it. If there is a benefit to doing this, it is to understand that other people in other times are capable of viewing the world differently – and not just because they are ignorant or savage. There is a tendency – I’d call it cruel – to presume that because everyone born before 1940 didn’t think that the Earth circles the Sun or that constant uninhibited sex is a God given right, they were all ignorant peasant scum; worthy only of being a lesson in how stupid talking monkeys can be. That isn’t to say that we should suspend our moral faculties when regarding the past: the folks living there were sometimes scathing in their judgement of it (consider the foundational ethics of Socrates, Thomas Moore, Mary Wollstonecraft, or Sojourner Truth).
But we must sink ourselves into the sanctity and the depravity of history, if only to understand what man, under certain circumstances, is truly capable of. Paul Lay expresses this better than I can in the Huffington Post
: “History, at its best, calls everything into question. It offers no comfort, no shelter and no respite, it is a discipline of endless revision and argument. It forces its students to confront the different, the strange, the exotic and the perverse and reveals in full the possibilities of human existence. It is unafraid of casting its cold eye on conflict, both physical and intellectual.”
Second, the study of the past teaches humility. The great sin of modernity is arrogance, and it is sustained by two false propositions – 1) We can make things better and 2) No one has tried this before.
It is correct that we now have the technological resources to screw things up on a truly industrial scale, but we are far from the first people to attempt to improve man’s lot. History shows that these efforts quickly end in tyranny. Invariably, it begins with an effort to eradicate the past – precisely because it usually offers sound argument against change. The French Revolution had its Year One; the Soviets had their Historical Determinism. Sweet requests for social justice in the New Age then become violent demands for the keys to the kingdom, unlimited by the precious checks and balances that traditional culture had hitherto exerted. Progress made by mobilizing the people has always turned out to be a authoritarian disaster. We can, as individuals, redeem ourselves. But social reform of the type that modern states have invested in is just violently rearranging the furniture.
Nor does everything stay the same. Today in the West we are still living as if history is at an end. Liberal democracy and free markets are here to stay.
If we are honest, we look upon the Chinese or Brazilian models of capitalism with contempt (Niall Ferguson looks upon the former with terror). The Islamic world is a land of 14th century barbarians and Africa – epitomized by Joseph Kony’s child army – is irredeemable. The West regards its backyard with as much loathing and incomprehension as it does the Tudors and the Borgias. Our inability to understand other people is made worse by a lack of sympathy for our own history.
And yet, we show the exact same arrogance of the Victorian British who presumed that the sun would never set on their own empire. As Paul Lay reminds us, “[History] has no end, as the benighted Francis Fukuyama discovered when the permanent present ushered in by the fall of the Berlin Wall came crashing down on September 11th, 2001. History opposes hubris and warns of nemesis. It doesn't value events by their outcome; the Whig interpretation of history expired long ago.”
Paul would probably stop there, but I’ll throw in a little postmodernism. The great irony of the West’s attachment to its liberal system is that this system is so fragile that it is arguably already gone, swept away by war, recession, the erosion of the Good Society, and the tyranny of the senses. We are now living and perpetuating a myth, sustained by a deliberate ignorance of the alternatives. “Everything that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”As Dennis Kucinich would say
, “Wake up America!” I’ll never forgive Ohio for voting that man out of office.
Warning: this will make absolutely no sense if you haven’t seen either Alien or The Thing. And if you haven’t, you should. As soon as possible.
What a lucky boy I am: this week I got to see both Alien and The Thing (the prequel). It was an emotional experience, bringing up a lot of repressed memories from my childhood. Both movies are “pretty cewl” (©South Park) on a dramatic level, but they also play to themes of physical decay that mean a lot to me. Every time I see the alien pop out of John Hurt’s chest I think, “Brother, I’ve been there.”
It wasn’t until I re-watched Alien on Friday night, with chamomile tea and a pizza, that I realized quite how much it’s about sex. The sets are pure fetish. The Nostromo looks like Roger Vadim designed a womb: soft tan furnishings, gently throbbing lights, and lots and lots of hexagonals. In contrast, the spaceship that our heroes find crashed on a windswept planet is a Freudian nightmare. They enter it through an open orifice and descend through a small gooey hole into a misty pit full of eggs. John Hurt then stumbles upon a monster that latches onto his face and lays its fetus inside his stomach. One might accuse the alien of pushing his luck, but then he did pay for dinner…
When the little brute burrows its way out of Hurt’s chest, it becomes a metaphor for the nightmare of physical change. When he first reviewed the movie, Roger Ebert hypothesized that its cast is middle aged in order to emphasize that they are a group of ordinary people doing a job, not action heroes. I disagree. I suspect the director (consciously or unconsciously) cast older actors because people over 30 are more vulnerable to physical change than adolescents are. As a young adult, the things that happen to us are unnerving but healthy: they are the body evolving towards its zenith of intellectual and physical capability. After 30-or so, what was once growth becomes decay. The hair falls off one’s head and sprouts elsewhere. Muscle becomes fat; dull aches become “warning signs”. The infinite sexual possibilities of youth become desperate and less probable: one must breed ASAP, before everything dies up or falls off. Romance is dead and man is a walking advert for entropy.
When the body starts doing things that you don’t want it to, it becomes a separate personality from oneself. That theme is picked up in The Thing, which has just hit cinemas. It’s a prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). Predictably, it’s an inferior movie. But by dint of the excellent premise, it’s okay. In this movie, the alien is a virus that replicates or consumes its victim, hides in the body, and then attacks others. We never entirely understand the nature of the thing, but it is hinted that its victims don’t know they’ve been taken over. The monster only bursts forth (with several arms, a dog’s head, and a scorpion tail) when threatened. The metaphor for the loss of control of one’s body is striking.
A chronic illness is like undergoing a personal alien invasion. The tumor that was recently discovered in my father’s throat could be the seedling of a malevolent entity. It consumes half the calories that he puts into his body, growing stronger as he grows weaker. This, combined with a nervous disorder, has left him bowlegged and tiny. Every time I see him, I recognize him less; the changes in his character suggest possession. This process is tragic, but entirely natural. Cancer is the body’s way of placing time limits on our mind’s habitation. If we all lived to 150, we would be a walking mass of tumors not unlike the creature that slithers into shot in the last reel of The Thing.
For others, the horrors of Alien and The Thing provoke a subconscious response. For me they are a trip down memory lane. When I was thirteen, I contracted an appalling case of eczema that required hospital treatment and lasted for five years. Isolated with my own carcass, I found the most bizarre and terrifying things taking place. I discovered that the skin can bleed without breaking, that sores can blister and hatch, that it is possible to scratch to the bone. Doctor after doctor unwrapped my bandages and recoiled in horror, without a clue what to do. My legs were encased in cotton wool and I began every morning with a bath of antibiotics and salt. O, how I spent so much time rubbing salt into my body – desperately trying to dry up and dust off the ooze. I was a “thing” all right: a larva jammed in metamorphosis. Oddly, the disease never touched my face. I suspect it understood that if it did, I might elicit sympathy from other human beings and someone might actually try to help. Hidden beneath the neck line, it was free to feed uninterrupted.
I am sure that it is significant that this condition arose during puberty. It convinced me that sex and physical decay are intrinsically linked. It left me with a profound revulsion for the human form – perhaps because the hours spent mapping it in hospital made me aware of its every imperfection, its every potential for disaster. Today, I am a physical Dualist. I earnestly believe that the body and soul are not only separate, but at war with one another. The soul’s quest for transcendence is constantly disrupted by the body’s sensual needs. The only way to achieve salvation is to starve the body and free the mind. Of course, living as we do in a material reality, that is impossible. So, unable to completely liberate myself, I live a dual existence between mental exercise and physical degradation. Once in a while I give my body free reign and permit it excess. When it is done “wandering the world seeking the ruin of souls”, I punish it with purgation. The best cure for a hangover is prayer and green tea.
I am a survivor of eczema. Around 18, it suddenly went away. Incredibly, I have no scars and haven’t suffered with it since. Always, there is the lingering fear that it will return; every small itch could be the beginning of a long campaign. But the experience has taught me that the body is intrinsically treacherous. Treacherous, but still a part of me: something to be negotiated with, or placated.
Watching The Alien, I was struck by the conviction that me and the “toothy one”, if given a chance, could get on rather well. I’m sure it wouldn’t want to eat me (I’m all skin and bone) and I’d make a terrible father for its little facehugger (I’d always be out with my mates getting drunk). So, instead it might tolerate me as the chronicler of its exploits. By writing about the beast, maybe I could pacify it and even own it – just as I have done on this blog post by writing about my eczema. I can imagine myself crossed-legged on its icky nest floor; one hand tapping away at the keyboard, the other tickling the gelatinous space between its numerous chins. Sci-fi yin and yang.
The bus stop I use in Los Angeles has a large poster of a chap in his underwear. I think it’s supposed to be advertising his briefs, but the object of the picture is clearly the man himself. The image is disturbing. Not only is the model being objectified like a prime cut of beef, but he has been blown up so large that his anatomically perfect body looks freakish. Each rib is as thick as my arm. West Hollywood is full of homoerotica of this sort; a sensuality so aggressive that it borders on Hitlerian. Confronted by images of thrusting masculinity in every shop window, I feel soiled just buying a pint of milk. West Hollywood is Pornotopia.
Back home, in Great Britain, there’s a discussion going on about whether or not to force internet providers to put filters on porn sites
. Prime Minister David Cameron’s modest proposal was denounced by “conservative” commentators as injurious to liberty
. The government cannot and should not legislate morality, they cried. I am confused as to why such people use the label conservative to describe themselves. The single purpose of conservatism is to protect what is good about the traditional order. The internet is a threat to the traditional order and so it is not our friend. The North Koreans understand that, even if we do not.
legislate morality and it does. Aside from murder and theft, it also outlaws things that can be consensual – like incest and polygamy. Against this regulation of the sexual code, critics often argue that whatever the government prohibits instantly becomes fashionable. The fact that arrests for public drunkenness actually increased under Prohibition is often cited as evidence that state censorship of this kind never works. The argument is redundant on two counts. A) Morality takes its authority from something other than popular sentiment. B) There are plenty of instances in which something has been outlawed and the public hasn’t reacted with civil disobedience. Florida recently banned sex with animals. By this logic, are we to expect a sudden spike in assaults on chickens? Are Floridians really that bloody minded?
Internet pornography is an obvious example of how permitting one variety of perversion invariably leads to greater and more terrible crimes. The internet turned pedophilia from a private sin into an organized crime. It put people in touch with each other who would never have otherwise met, allowing them to pool resources and share victims. It gave predators access to kids through forums. It also used mainstream porn as a gateway drug. By introducing younger and younger models into erotica, it blurred the lines between childhood and adulthood. People who previously would never have had access to material by which to test their inclinations were now goaded into more and more depravity (“If you enjoyed that, you’ll love
this…”). Its the expansiveness of the internet that makes it so ripe for regulating.
When I was a child, getting access to filth was bloody hard work. The best source was The Daily Sport
, a silly old rag that featured saucy stories. America could have dropped a bomb on China, and The Sport
would have run with the headline, “Six in a Barracks Sexy Sex Shock!” Beyond The Sport
, there were one or two books in the school library that covered the sexual cycle in terms of the birds and the bees (with the occasional reference to the behavior of monkeys). I also recall a sex education video that featured a family playing Frisbee in the nude. I'll never play Frisbee again.
All of this contact with nudity was fleeting and furtive. The joy was less in the seeing than the getting. Nowadays, all a child has to do to access some muck is to log on to the family computer. Within seconds they can see videos of whips, goats, origami and tantric projection – the whole T&A. “O brave new world that has such people in’t!” It is madness to suggest that this environmental pollution should not be subject to regulation. We shall never expunge the natural curiosity of the young, but we can at least make sure that the messages they get about sex are healthy ones.
I would go one step further and suggest that it’s time to give back to local authorities the power to outlaw the sale of pornography altogether. Like heroin, porn has been proven to be addictive. Back in 2004, medical witnesses told the Senate Commerce Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee
that there was no doubt that it can lead to physical dependence. Sexual activity releases hormones that provide a short term high. If that high is not associated with ordinary, socialized sexual activity, then it becomes internalized and unhealthy. Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy, called porn the “most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today. The internet is a perfect drug delivery system because you are anonymous, aroused and have role models for these behaviors.”
Given how potentially dangerous it can be, it’s astonishing how weakly pornography is regulated across the Western world. It is even more astonishing considering the West’s supposed commitment to human rights. The porn industry is an unpleasant sector that often mistreats its workers. Innocents are dragged off the street with an offer of "modelling work" and then intimidated into more. Inevitably, rates of venereal disease are high. To quote one official report, “In September 2009
, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 2,396 cases of Chlamydia, 1,389 cases of gonorrhea, and five syphilis cases among porn performers. It was also reported that Chlamydia and gonorrhea prevalence in porn performers is ten times higher than that of Los Angeles County 20-24 year olds and five times higher than that of one of Los Angeles County’s highest risk populations.”
On an existential level, pornography objectifies human beings, reducing them to the status of commodities. There is no need to engage with them as real people because the sexual stimulus is entirely one sided. This encourages the viewer to regard the subject as less than human. Of course, all of us like to be objectified on some level – to be told that we are handsome or pretty. But for us to benefit, we have to have some degree of personal exchange with the spectator. Pornography lends distance and alienation.
That objectification has lethal consequences. Porn addiction is a common trait among serial killers. The murderer Ted Bundy detailed his experiences thus
: “I would keep looking for more explicit, more graphic kinds of materials … until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far. You reach that jumping-off point where you begin to wonder if maybe actually doing it will give you that which is beyond just reading about it or looking at it.” This is not to suggest that pornography conditions the madman’s mind. But, as with latent pedophilia, it normalizes and feeds perverse desires. It reduces humanity to fresh meat. It becomes easy to disassociate sex from mutual pleasure, violence from pain.
The profusion of legalized porn reflects so many paradoxes about 21st century society. We are supposedly an epoch that respects the personhood of women, and yet we objectify them. Gays are trying to build stable families, and yet they are ghettoized by a culture that stresses fetish and permissiveness. We assiduously protect the virginity of children, but we take away their emotional innocence as soon as possible. Most bizarrely of all, we have a conservative movement that prioritizes the freedoms of business over the health of society as a whole. Give me a conservative presidential candidate who values the souls of the vulnerable over the bottom dollar and there you will find my vote.