Teaching the Gorillas
From the July/August American Spectator.
August 10, 2002.
It used to be quite a familiar quotation — although it is not, I believe, to be found in Bartlett anymore. If I had to guess, I would say that the reason for the omission is that we wish nowadays to think better of the pioneering American feminist and transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller, than as a butt for the wit of Thomas Carlyle who, when told that she had said, “I accept the universe,” replied: “Gad! She’d better!” But another reason why this once famous retort may be fading in the folk memory is that Miss Fuller’s proto-feminist assumption of alternative universes to be had for the asking — or at least to be reinvented with each new ideological advance — is now one that we all share. In this sense, we are all Marxists now.
Or at least all but a few irrelevant curmudgeons such as myself who are haunted by Kipling’s “Gods of the Copybook Headings.” You remember them?
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
In other words, in pursuing the sort of Higher Thoughts that commonly occupy the minds of artists and philosophers, we may forget such basic and unalterable — also useful — data as that water wets and fire burns.
In no area of human life has this forgetfulness been more apparent, at least in the now-nearly 40 years since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, than love and courtship. Once among the principles too obvious even to need copybook expression was the understanding that sexual promiscuity was bad for men and much worse for women. Courtship was supposed to take place — and for the most part did so — on a continuum leading from casual acquaintance through deepening love and friendship to marriage because marriage and its sexual consummation were seen as the culmination of that process, a terminus ad quem which alone could give meaning to everything leading up to it.
Untune that string, as Shakespeare’s Ulysses said about “degree” in Troilus and Cressida, and hark what discord follows. Or watch what ugliness follows in a film like Some Body, directed by Henry Barrial from a screenplay he co-wrote with his star, Stephanie Bennett. For me the problem with this movie was the need to believe that, even today, there is a sufficiently large body of opinion among 30ish single women that it is a good idea to be sexually promiscuous, to get paralytically drunk and sleep with whomever can be bothered to take you home, to drink and do drugs and go to bars and parties for casual sex. That this is a common point of view among women would seem to be the minimum requirement for us to sympathize with one, such as Miss Bennett’s character, Samantha, who only learns from bitter experience that it is a bad idea to do these things.
Who doesn’t know this? That Samantha must learn it the hard way — and that without any of the obviously really bad things that can happen to people who don’t know it — strikes me as being too trivial a matter for treatment at feature length, a demonstration of the obvious. It’s true that movies have for some time offered us portraits of sociopaths of one kind or another for whom we are meant to feel, if not sympathy exactly at least a kind of admiration — like Hannibal Lecter, say, or Angelina Jolie’s character in Girl, Interrupted. But the point about such people is that their splendidly awful personal authenticity, which is what is admirable about them (if anything is) is chosen. In some sense they like being like this. But Samantha is just a ninny who thinks that playing the slut will make her happy and then finds that it won’t.
Well, duh. Here there are no Gods of the Copybook Headings because there is no copybook. Everything has to be learned from scratch. At the beginning of the film, Samantha breaks up with her boyfriend, Anthony (Jeramy [sic] Guillroy) after a party at which she leaves him to go upstairs for a casual coupling with another party-goer. The next morning, Anthony says to her: “I wish you wouldn't party so hard like that, Sam. . .You gave the impression that anybody could be with you, so I think: what’s so special about us?” What indeed! Poor Anthony! He has to explain to her what’s wrong with sleeping with other people. Well, why do you mind? she wonders. Absolutely nothing is given; absolutely everything has to be learned, argued over, justified.
Just as obvious to men as the lesson of Some Body ought to be to women is the message of Bart Freundlich’s World Traveler in which Billy Crudup stars as Cal, a successful young architect who suddenly and for no apparent reason abandons his wife and young child to go on a solitary road trip across the country, stopping here and there to pick up friends and lovers — most notably the drunken fantasist Dulcie (Julianne Moore) — before finally fetching up at his dad’s place in Oregon. And what do you think? It turns out that dad had abandoned Cal and his mother when he was a child and Cal had — not to compare notes, exactly, but to define himself negatively in relation to his father. He had to make sure that he was not him, and then he could go back to the wife and kid.
It’s both a charming and a morally responsible way for the film to end, but somewhere lurking in the back of our minds is the question: Why did Cal have to do this bad thing in order to understand that it is bad? Was it a lack of imagination? Could he not have imagined the pain that his leaving without a word cost his wife and child and not done it? Presumably not. For men as for women the committing of even the most egregiously wicked or foolish deeds, at least when it comes to sex and “love,” might almost be seen as necessary to any understanding of why they should not be — if they should not be — committed. The moral question is treated as an afterthought at best. What really matters is the characters’ feelings and what they are induced to do because of them.
These two movies are admittedly extreme examples, but we see something similar over and over again, particularly in the plethora of films that deal with the hardships and disappointments women endure while negotiating the “dating” scene. The one thing that would obviate all these difficulties, the avoidance of casual or experimental sex with relative strangers is the one thing that is never even considered. It’s as if we were seeing people constantly talking about how hungry they are while seated at a banquet and not eating. In movie after movie, Lovely and Amazing, Never Again, Sunshine State, Cherish, Crush — to name just a few of the most recent examples — the heroines sleep with men on little or no acquaintance and then wonder why they get hurt.
In the “real” world we would expect them to know, but real doesn’t necessarily mean what is the case. Life, as we know, imitates art and the invention in some respects becomes the reality. So far as sex and courtship are concerned, the various reports one gets from the “singles” scene seem to suggest that a world of female promiscuity is no longer just the stuff of male fantasy, though the fantasy element is not necessarily removed by making the fantasy come true. For the reality is that sex, particularly for women, inescapably implies some deeper attachment the denial of which, for ideological or other reasons, involves a tearing away of emotional tissue and a permanent scarring of the psyche. The denial of our nature may be real enough, but it does not change that nature’s own, deeper reality.
Film has always been a pushover for propaganda, and what we see in so many of the ostensible entertainments committed to celluloid these days is a kind of sexual propaganda. Feminists, for all their lesbian self-righteousness and anti-porn crusades, exploit promiscuity as revolutionaries exploit poverty. Yet in recruiting the victims of sexual “liberation” they promise a remedy for what they themselves, with their passionate advocacy of sexual autonomy, have caused. The one thing we know for sure is that feminism can be compatible with almost anything, even porn (Camille Paglia is its great champion), but the one thing it never proposes is chastity and fidelity in marriage, which is what (so the Copybook Headings used to teach) man and woman were made for.
Well, maybe it was the copybooks that lied. But it is hard to forget the terrifying conclusion of Kipling’s poem, with its vision of the time when
. . .after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
. . .And, By the Way,
A good example of the new sexual ethos that is part reality and part propaganda is the HBO smash hit Sex in the City. A good way to think of this ghastly show is as feminist pornography. By that I mean that it is the fantasy version of sex from a female point of view, just as regular porn is fantasy sex for men. Of course the fantasies are very different. The men’s has to do with naked writhing bodies while the women’s has to do with designer shoes and giggly, girly lunches, but what they have in common is the belief — or rather, I should say, the fervent desire for belief — in no-fault sex.
It’s not that sex does not involve the emotions; it’s that it never goes beyond the emotions, either to the spiritual in one direction or to the practicalities of permanent commitment in the other. Where the men’s fantasy ends with ejaculation and a cheery good-bye on both sides, the women’s positively revels in the aches and pains of longing and rejection, as well as the joys of conquest — in short, the whole panoply of emotion that sex with commitment left out invariably generates. That they suffer in their fantasy is never a reason for questioning the basis of the fantasy. The suffering (and the various sorts of consolations it attracts, such as ice cream and shopping and girlfriends cooing over one) is part of the fantasy.