Neil Armstrong and the Conspiracy Strong Arm

There is a young woman I work with who has some odd beliefs. She believes that behind each harmful habit a person can indulge in lies a demon, probably on a different plan of reality, whispering in our ears and manipulating us into doing whatever harmful thing it is, be it smoking or drinking – or whatever. I was unconvinced by her arguments, but – like most who at some level know their beliefs are garbage – she relaxed into the ‘you can’t you prove otherwise’ mode of thinking. When I hear something like this I know I am wasting my time discussing whatever topic it is, because, as we all know, you can’t reason someone away from a conclusion they didn’t use reason to arrive at.

We do discuss things other than the work of manipulative demons, however. For example we have suggested certain films the other should watch or books the other should read. One suggestion of hers was the movie Capricorn One. You just know what’s coming next.

‘It’s the movie which shows how they faked the moon landings,’ she said with breezy nonchalance which I found irritating.

‘The moon landings were faked?’ I asked her to confirm what I knew she had just said because I was checking she really meant it.

‘Yeah,’ she continued, unaware that that my estimation of her had just had its cable sliced-through and was now plummeting towards the basement, ‘they faked the moon landing to beat the Russians.’

I had, obviously, heard such tall stories before and knew very well about this and other conspiracy theories, but I had never believed the moon landings were faked; nor had I cared this way or that, but I knew enough to ask her one question which caused some interesting – and very quick – movements of her eyebrows, forehead and the muscles around her eyes.

‘Which moon landing was faked?’ I asked.

A slight hesitation. ‘What do you mean?’

‘Well, there were seventeen Apollo missions. The last seven were to land on the moon. We know about Apollo thirteen, so that leaves six moon landings. Which one was faked?’

The manifestation of several jumbled thoughts trying to get comfortable all at once, causing multiple facial expressions to flash across her face simultaneously and very rapidly, told me all I needed to know. She didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.

So why did she believe this outrageous nonsense? What was the evidence for it?

She told me about waiving flags, dodgy pictures, missing stars, slow-motion film to suggest reduced gravity, computers with the power of calculators – all kinds of strange claims I hadn’t thought about before. So, just for the fun of it, I took a quick trip through some internet sites and every point she made was answered in five minutes. It seemed that nothing a moon-hoaxer could ask lacked an answer: the answers were simple, clear and utterly rational.

She did mention one thing which triggered a memory and suggested I might know a bit more about this than I had thought.

‘So, explain why Neil Armstrong became a recluse, then. If he was the first man on the moon why didn’t he become a famous celebrity, travelling the world making a fortune? He practically went into hiding because he was ruined by guilt.’

That had me searching my book shelves for something that evening. It was the Norman Mailer anthology – The Time of our Time. There was something I read in those pages which demanded to be found, and found it I did.

Mailer covered the Apollo 11 moon-shot for Life magazine, and his writing became the book, A Fire on the Moon. Extracts from this book are in The Time of our Time, and the part I wanted was the press conference where Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins met the hacks while sat in

a plastic box about twelve feet wide, ten feet deep and ten feet high. Blowers within this three-walled plastic room blew air from behind them out into the audience: thereby, the breath of the astronauts could enter the theatre but the airborne germs of the journalists would not blow back.

Such an odd set-up might have contributed to the mood in the room. Mailer suggests both the astronauts and the journalists were frustrated, though for different reasons. The Press because they

did not know how to push into nitty-gritty for the questions, the astronauts because they were not certain how to begin to explain the complexity of their technique. Worse, as if they did not really wish to explain, but were obliged out of duty to the programme, even if their privacy was invaded.

Having his privacy invaded was something Armstrong clearly hated, and Mailer describes Armstrong’s discomfort manifesting itself in a less than relaxed manner and style of delivery.

While the focus of attention was naturally on Armstrong for commanding the flight, he seemed in the beginning to be least at ease. He spoke with long pauses, he searched for words. When the words came out, their ordinary content made the wait seem excessive.

Mailer’s understatement in the final sentence makes it easy to forget, but it should be remembered. In Armstrong, then, was a fellow who was significantly uncomfortable while on public display. Uncomfortable to such a degree that Mailer observed Armstrong was ‘More wooden than young Robert Taylor, young Don Ameche, young Randolph Scott.’

As a speaker he was all but limp – still it did not leave him unremarkable. Certainly the knowledge he was an astronaut restored his stature, yet even if he had been a junior executive accepting an award, Armstrong would have presented a quality which was arresting, for he was extraordinarily remote.

Mailer’s last four words should be remembered. An obvious question presents itself. If Armstrong, while one of three in a press conference was uncomfortable, wooden of style and delivery, and remote to such a degree that it was described as ‘extraordinary,’ then what would happen to such a fellow after becoming the first man on the moon and the most famous man on the planet? What is more likely, that such a fellow struts his history-making stuff across the chat-show circuit – doing book-deals and adverts for aftershave along the way – or retreats from public life?

Mailer suggests that Armstrong, even while on public display, was hiding; hiding behind flat, expressionless words, phrases and technical jargon. Consider Armstrong being asked by a BBC man, James Gunn, what the plans are if the Lunar Module fails to fire-up and leaves two of the three stranded on the moon.

Armstrong smiled. His detestation at answering questions in public had been given its justification. Journalists would even ask a man to comment on the emotions of his oncoming death…At a press conference you answered questions. So Armstrong now finally said in answer to what they would do if the Lunar Module did not come up off the lunar surface, ‘At the present time we’re left without recourse should that occur.’

That Armstrong ‘became a recluse’ is evidence the moon-landing was faked if you are the type of person who does not know that Armstrong always was such a person, and that the moon-landing fame simply made him more so.

Of course, it was not the release of the movie Capricorn One which got the hoaxers started. Mailer sees the conspiracy coming and douses its spark with reason and logic thirteen years before the woman I work with was born:

The event was so removed, however, so unreal, that no objective correlative existed to prove it had not conceivably been an event staged in a television studio – the greatest con of the century…Indeed, conceive of the genius of such a conspiracy. It would take criminals and confidence men mightier, more trustworthy and more resourceful than anything in this century or the ones before. Merely to conceive of such men was the surest way to know the event was not staged.

Some conspiracies, though they are obvious nonsense, manage to attach themselves to the public mind and won’t let go. Not all of them require quotations from writers who were there at the time to put something into context.

Consider the belief that Flight 77 did not hit the Pentagon. This is a line taken by the 9/11 ‘truth movement.

One of its leading lights, a fellow called David Ray Griffin, won’t have it that the plane hit the Pentagon because, well, the crash site didn’t look right to him. He wrote a book in 2004 about this.  The hole in the wall didn’t ‘look right.’

David Aaronovitch, writing in Voodoo Histories, ruthlessly slays the entire argument with comical brilliance:

This idea seems to have been informed to an extent by Tom and Jerry cartoons in which the cat, Tom, when propelled through a wall, leaves his entire profile, whiskers and all, outlined in the brick.

The following is almost banal by comparison, but worth noting:

Fully 184 of 189 people known to have been aboard Flight 77 or killed in the Pentagon, were identified (mostly through DNA testing) from remains found at the scene.

Who wants boring facts like that when you could have a missile cloaked by holograms to look like a passenger plane? And how do you explain the passengers on the plane disappearing? That’s easy. The real plane was flown by remote control and dumped in the Atlantic.

Of course it was.

The young woman who still refuses to budge on the moon-shot hoax question is hardly alone in her refusal to accept reason, logic and plain facts. But why? Why are conspiracy theories so popular? The answer, Aaronovitch suggests, is quite simple, though I doubt many conspiracists will be quick to accept it:

The classic view of paranoia, the unwarranted belief that one is being persecuted, is that it is a wholly negative state. But what if paranoia is actually the sticking plaster that we fix to an altogether more painful wound? That of feeling ourselves to be of no importance whatsoever, and our lives (and especially our deaths) of little significance except to ourselves.

Aaronovitch, using an argument from psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz, suggests that

paranoia may often be a defence against indifference, against the far more terrible thought that no one cares about you…The lonely person fears that there is a burglar or a murderer in the empty house waiting for them. Indeed, they may often perceive the real symptoms of such threats – the noises, the shadows, the displaced objects. These fears disguise the truly obliterating disaster, the often well-founded fear that no one is thinking about them at all.

If this creates paranoia, and paranoia creates conspiracy theories – and we know those theories are absurdly popular across the globe – then have we just learned something about human nature which is uncomfortable?

Religious belief, the idea you are watched by a supernatural being, is paranoia defined.

Could it be the case that the best and worst created by humans – whether it’s a charity or a suicide bomber – has its origin in a desire to be cared about?

That is a thought worth pondering, and it’s much more worthwhile a thing to consider than, for example, whether Diana was topped by rogue MI6 agents indulging in a bit of off-the-books wet work.

Image result for paranoia

The Real Evidential Problem

There are many persons who say they believe in God. I think they are mistaken.

I have said this many times before and it is always misunderstood. I think it might be misunderstood because the phrase ‘believe what you like’ is so common. It seems to me that there are many persons who think we are free to believe whatever we like. We are not. You may not believe whatever you like and you are not entitled to your opinion.

A person is not entitled to their opinion because having an opinion is not an entitlement. When a person tells you they are entitled to their opinion they are doing no more than expressing an opinion.

When a person expresses an opinion they might as well say ‘I’m speaking now’ or ‘it’s me speaking’ because what you are hearing is their opinion by default because it is them saying it. It is true a person can think whatever they want. I think a sense of entitlement is a problem in society.

That a person can think whatever they want does not mean they can believe whatever they want. Persons seem to believe they can believe whatever they want. This is easy to test.

If belief is a choice then you might want to choose to believe you are rich, or that a relative of yours who is dead is alive. But why stop there? Why not choose to believe they are alive and sitting next to you having a conversation? I think if belief was a matter of choice then the world would be populated by significantly happier and more contented humans.

That you cannot believe your dead relative is alive and well and having a conversation with you, or that you cannot believe you live on Mars should tell you belief is not a choice. But why is belief not a choice? Belief is not a choice because belief requires evidence. What is evidence? Consider the words of the evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins:

“Our five senses – sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste – do a pretty good job of convincing us that many things are real:  rocks and camels, newly mown grass and freshly ground coffee, sandpaper and velvet, waterfalls and doorbells, sugar and salt. But are we only going to call something real if we can detect it directly with one of our five senses?[..] How about radio waves? Do they exist? Our eyes can’t detect them, nor can our ears, but again special instruments – television sets, for example – convert them into signals that we can see and hear. So, although we can’t see or hear radio waves, we know they are a part of reality. As with telescopes and microscopes, we understand how radios and televisions work. So they help our senses to build a picture of what exists: the real world – reality.”*

Whatever definition you wish to give to the word ‘evidence’ it must, ultimately, connect to our five senses, either directly or with help from instruments. (If it doesn’t connect to our senses from outside our brains, then it is just subjective, internal experience, not evidence of something from the real, material universe.) Of course the radio waves and other things mentioned above would be sensed in ‘real-time’ – in that the things mentioned exist at the same time we do. But what about something which existed in the past, which we can’t see now and is something which we don’t have instruments to detect?

“We understand how water, with minerals dissolved in it, seeps into corpses buried in layers of mud and rock. We understand how the minerals crystallize out of the water and replace the materials of the corpse, atom by atom, leaving some trace of the original animal’s form imprinted in the stone. So, although we can’t see dinosaurs directly with our senses, we can work out that they must have existed, using indirect evidence that still ultimately reaches us through our senses.”*

The senses must be stimulated from outside the person. If a person says they “know in their heart” God exists, they are not to be taken seriously. Just as a barrister who said “I know in my heart the accused is guilty” would not be taken seriously. Subjective experience (or internal physiological sensations) is not evidence for something which the claimant says exists outside of their body and mind.

Evidence is always something external to the person and detectable with one or more of the five senses directly or through the use of different types of instrument if it falls outside the narrow range of our senses.

So why does belief require evidence? What stops a person believing something for which there is no evidence?

The simple answer is that evidence causes belief. Evidence is the reason to believe. Evidence is where belief comes from. Yet some persons will claim to believe something for which there is no evidence, how can they be right?

I would say they are not right, they are mistaken. This brings me back to my first two sentences. The person who says they believe in God is mistaken. It is not belief they have, it is faith. This is a distinction which actually has a difference and is independent of the person’s wretched opinion. Why do I say they are mistaken? How do I know?

It is obvious words are not evidence. If I speak the words ‘the earth is flat’ I do not have evidence the earth is flat. If I speak the words ‘clouds are made of candy-floss’ I do not have evidence clouds are made of candy–floss. If I speak the words ‘I believe God exists’ I do not have evidence that God exists, but – and crucially – I would not have evidence that I believed those things existed, either. All I would have would be some internal physiological sensations which I called ‘belief’ when I should be calling them ‘faith.’ So what is the difference between belief and faith? The difference is in how they are caused, not how they feel to the persons experiencing them. Just as one cannot tell the difference between water and vodka by looking, one cannot tell the difference between faith and belief by feeling.

A person could tell the difference between the two by asking what and where is the evidence for what they call ‘belief’? Which of their five senses has been stimulated from outside their body and mind, by something which exists in the real-world – reality – and is detectable directly through those senses or by instruments which detect the stimulant? If the person cannot answer this, they know they are experiencing faith, not belief, when they claim the earth is flat or God exists.

I think it is true that if a person has no evidence for what they say they believe then they do not believe it – they are just unaware of their mistake. But why does this matter?

It matters because words matter and words matter because they are used to demonstrate thoughts. Words cannot be re-defined to suit the speaker as they see fit. The word ‘evidence’ has to mean something in order for it to mean anything, and the word – and the person using it – becomes absurd if the person is allowed to state that they ‘know’ the earth is flat or God exists on the basis of what they ‘feel’ and this is allowed to be taken seriously in the public square. It debases what evidence actually means when claims about reality external to the person are concerned and actually debases things which we know are true by allowing piffle to be spoken about in evidential terms. It equalises junk to truth.

A person who believes God exists should agree with every word so far. Why would someone who believes God exists want their position to be equivalent to someone who says they have ‘evidence’ John Lennon visits them in their dreams, that their ‘belief’ he does this is evidence because it feels real to them, and they can say they have evidence because they are entitled to their opinion?

The ‘gap’ in the argument here is as follows. A person might say that belief in God will not be proven by either the theist or the atheist. This is true. They might then say that because one can never have proof either way, belief in God is a choice. All the talk about flat-earths or candy-floss or dead relatives talking to you is all very well when discussing beliefs which can be proven to be false, but when no proof is available – a person has no choice but to choose. (And there’s a problem with that idea lurking not too far under the surface, is there not…)

They have travelled along the road of reason and logic and come to the fork in that road. Now they must choose. Belief in God or no belief in God?

Yes, this really is what some people think.

This stupid ‘argument’ – which is an insult to the intelligence (but not quite as much an insult as the ‘arguments’ in support of capital punishment) comes from a misunderstanding about what ‘agnostic’ means. Terms like ‘believer’ or ‘unbeliever’ or ‘non-believer’ are separate from what agnostic means because agnostic is a term about what we know, not what we ‘believe’. A person can be a ‘believer’ and will still be an agnostic. We are all agnostics by default. The lack of proof for God either way makes this so.

What does the person have at the fork in the road, as they approach this monumental ‘choice’? Belief in God or no belief in God? If arrived at the point where ‘belief’ in God is one choice on offer, then it follows that the person has no belief as they approach that ‘choice’, for how can they choose something they already have? But if they already have no belief, then how can no belief be a choice, either? For how can a person choose something they already have?
The ‘choice’ is an invention of theists who want to make their position and the position of the atheist equivalent opposites. So they try to claim both positions are ‘beliefs’ or ‘faith positions.’

They are not.

Some theists go to a great deal of trouble to delude themselves.

So, it is reasonable to argue that a person who says they believe in God is mistaken, that they have misidentified faith for belief if their ‘belief’ has no evidence to cause it.

It is reasonable to argue for a definition of evidence because words cannot be re-defined on the whims of the person using them.

It is reasonable to argue that evidence is always external to the person and detectable via one or more of the five senses, or with instruments if the evidence falls outside the narrow range of our senses because it is absurd to say that a delusional person who believes John Lennon visits him in dreams has evidence this happens.

It is reasonable to suggest a ‘believer’ should agree to the above because what kind of believer wants his ‘belief’ (faith) in God to be obviously frivolous and equivalent to the Lennon position?

And it is reasonable to argue that belief/unbelief is never a ‘choice’ because not having one means you already have the other so there is no choice to begin with.

Peter Hitchens Changes His Mind. Quietly.

Presuppositions are powerful things. They are powerful because a person has to accept what is presupposed in order to understand what is said. Certainly a person can reject the presupposition afterwards, and in some cases does so quickly, but many times this doesn’t happen, and many times a person is left uncomfortable or unable to “put their finger on” what’s troubling them about the other person’s position.

Peter Hitchens uses this tactic. He sometimes talks about the position taken by his ‘automatic critics’ to his views on this or that. ‘Automatic critics’ is an interesting phrase because it suggests his opponent’s position is not faithfully held. The phrase is a sort of argumentative pre-emptive strike in the possible debate or discussion to come. Before he’s had to get started he’s already accused his opponent of a lack of sincerity. It’s subtle, certainly, and a sort of “Presuppositional Debatics.”

This is not the only example. Consider this change of mind by Peter Hitchens. I’ve italicised the relevant parts. In this quote he’s talking about Terry Pratchett:

“I have heard the position of the new atheists well summed up elsewhere as ‘God doesn’t exist – and I hate Him!’ But I wasn’t aware that Sir Terence (whose books I have not felt compelled to finish, or explore further, after sampling one or two) had said he hated God for not existing. Both positions are of course nonsensical. Sir Terence has no idea if God exists or not, and can believe in Him tonight if he chooses to do so. You cannot hate someone who is not there.” *

(21 June 2011 – “More Angry People.”)

In terms which could not be clearer Peter Hitchens describes “God doesn’t exist – and I hate Him” as “nonsensical.”

By November the following year he has changed his mind:

“I was amused by Douglas Wilson’s summary of the ‘new atheist’ position as ‘God doesn’t exist – and I hate Him’, as being paradoxically accurate […]”

(12 November 2012 – “Who has The Thin Skin? The Millican Exchange Continues.”)

He’s changed his mind unless “paradoxically accurate” means “nonsensical.” It doesn’t so he has. I wonder if Douglas Wilson, an impressive and serious person, got in touch and explained to Peter Hitchens exactly what the point of “There is no God – and I hate Him” actually is? I also wonder if Douglas Wilson is the “elsewhere” that Peter Hitchens refers to?

In any case, by the following year, Peter Hitchens likes the paradoxical position enough to have re-phrased it as his own:

“They often ask me quizzically ‘How can you say that we hate God, when we don’t believe in him?’. My reply is always the same. You refuse to believe in Him because you hate Him.”

(27 June 2013 – “Puddleglum versus the Atheists.”)

His answer might now be ‘always the same,’ but it hasn’t always been the same answer.

By 2014 the paradoxical position is expressed freely and easily:

“And then there are the many female liberationists bashing away at the traditional family, and all the legions of equality merchants and open-borders enthusiasts, and of course the militant atheists, who hate God, claim he doesn’t exist, and want to stop us telling our children about Him, in case he does exist.”

(14 October 2014 – “A Guide to Selfism.”)

I’d say he’s changed his mind, wouldn’t you?

It’s a good tactic, a bit like a gambit in Chess: sacrifice a bit of surface logic to land a deeper blow.

Could you miss all the doubt the militant atheists are suffering from?

This is important because using skill with words to suggest the atheist doesn’t believe the position he takes is, at bottom, a refusal to take the person seriously because he doesn’t know his own mind. This is insulting. But it’s also the claim to know the atheist’s mind better than the atheist does which is a form of dishonesty because such a thing is impossible. Acting or writing in a seious way, assuming the atheist doesn’t believe his position is dishonest behaviour because you can’t know that. You can’t know that even if you’re a presuppositional apologist. Which Peter Hitchens isn’t.

* Two lines later, Peter Hitchens says “The passion which atheists devote the subject suggests (as such passion almost invariably does) a grave uncertainty underneath. So do the linguistic and debating tricks employed by some atheist bores […]”

I don’t know if using linguistic or debating tricks suggests grave uncertainty under the surface words or not. Peter Hitchens does, but only when atheists do it.

Bugger The Truth

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same,
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

 -Rudyard Kipling

When a man enjoys anal sex with a woman, certain things are true. These truths might be known consciously or not, but I would argue they will be known at some level within both the man and the woman. What are some of these truths? The woman will know that it is not only she who has an anus. She will know every other woman has an anus, so the man could, conceivably, be enjoying the same sensations with any other woman. This is not a truth which should be too problematic for most women because the same is true of vaginas. However, the woman will also know that men don’t have vaginas, but they do have anuses. So what else is true? It is true that the woman knows, when her man is enjoying anal sex with her, he is enjoying sensations which he could enjoy with anyone, including any man. So what else is true? It means his enjoyment is not because of something specific to her; in fact his enjoyment isn’t down to women at all. The woman doesn’t take any credit for the man’s enjoyment. This means she is being denied to right to give. This could be more damaging to a relationship than the man selfishly denying the woman orgasms.

What is this likely to do to the woman’s view of herself within the relationship? Hardly will she feel special in terms of what goes on in the bedroom. None of the enjoyment the man wants is down to her. It isn’t even down to women. Could anal sex make women feel insecure? In addition, if it does make women feel insecure – and if this kind of sex is asked for or demanded enough – then might a woman begin to feel worthless? If sex is the centre of the relationship, the core where the love and respect which support the union are fashioned in heat and grind from sweat and tears, then she is worthless in the relationship because she causes nothing at the core of it.

For how long can the illusion be sustained by the woman that she is causing the man’s enjoyment by allowing him to butt-fuck her? His pleasure is not caused by something she does it is caused by something she has. This distinction, obviously, needs to be defended in respect to vaginas. To fuck the vagina is to fuck the woman; the woman is a woman so at least the man fucks her by acknowledging she is female. When her cunt is fucked the woman might still have the insecurity that the man is thinking about a different one, but his pleasure will be caused by something specific to her because it is specific to women. Her identity is, in a vague way, accepted. She remains a factor in the equation. This can’t be said for her anus because it is not specific to women.

If it is more pleasant to give than to receive then this might be a form of selfishness disguised as kindness if the pleasantness comes from the good-feelings we derive from seeing our recipient being happy or satisfied. It would mean we do something to feel good, not to make the receiver feel good. So if the man butt-fucks the woman enough is he denying her the ability to feel good by denying her right to be selfish? The genuinely selfless woman, in matters of sex, should have no problem with being butt-fucked because she doesn’t need to be the cause of the man’s enjoyment; it’s the insecure woman – insecure to a greater or lesser degree – who will either have or develop an opposition to her butt being fucked. All this might say something about why the man might want to have anal sex with the woman to begin with.

A man cannot cock-whip a woman in the same way she can pussy-whip him. She can withhold cunt privileges if displeased with the man; the man – if the woman is exceptional in bed – can be pussy-whipped into obedience. All men know this. Women have what men want. Women know they have it and they know men want it. That is the proper meaning of the term but there is another more general meaning to the term “pussy-whipped”. It’s another way of saying “nagged.” If the sex isn’t exceptional but instead mundane and routine, then the man cannot be controlled by it so another method is used. (Women should pay attention to the idea that the worst nags are the worst shags.) Both methods are to keep the man subservient until he is no longer required. The desire to do this might come from a need for security and protection – not the same thing at all.

The woman takes control of the relationship early on when she finally forces the young man to realise he is destined for a life of “being normal” when he gives up his boyish desires to be a footballer or a rock-guitarist or whatever fantasy future he has in mind and offers the thing men usually need to have nagged out of them: commitment. Men hate that word because of what it implies. Women like to say men hate it because it implies “growing up” but men hate it because it implies “giving up.”

From that point – when the hated “commitment” is secured – the woman is in control. (Obviously not all relationships are the same – sometimes the evolutionary software doesn’t run properly – but, all things being general, these appear to be the facts of the matter.)

All that is left for the man is to neutralise the power the woman has over him by taking from her the ability to feel good by stopping her claiming credit for his sexual pleasure.

The Psychology of Swinging

I’ll spare you some of the details but today a woman I speak to on the bus told me about some of her and her husband’s adventures on the “swinging” scene. We know each other well enough to text now and then, usually about unreliable busses and other business, and last week she text me to say she got an earlier bus home because she and her husband were going to meet a fellow. I asked her what she was talking (or rather texting) about and she sent one of those winky faces. “I’ll tell you next week,” she said.

I saw her today and asked her. We spent about half an hour of the journey to Bristol sat next to each other texting so the other passengers wouldn’t know what we were talking about. What a conversation. I’ll summarise.

Apparently her husband is prone to “depression” and this depresses more than his mood. By mutual consent she seeks out single men, arranges to meet them, and the husband tags along. I wanted to know what the husband gets out of these encounters. Was he the driver or the security? Both, possibly? Would he wait patiently in the car while business was conducted?

No, he would be present while negotiations took place and would “intervene” and assist if the main-man wasn’t delivering the experience. Everybody involved was a consenting adult, so what was the problem?

Well, I mean to say, what could be the problem?

I long since made my debauchery-debut and couldn’t care less what grown-ups do in private, but I must admit it, I felt a pang of disgust at these arrangements. What bothered me more than the (mild) disgust was realisation I wasn’t quite sure why I was disgusted. I don’t like not knowing why I think such and such, so tapped away at work making the notes from which this post is written.

I realised that my “problem” involved the husband knowing. I quickly knew I’d have no problem if (you’ll have to take my word for this) the husband didn’t know and the woman was “cheating.”

I began to realise that having the husband’s consent to conduct proceedings (whether he was there or not) would mean all the “power” was with the husband and I’d be conducting business under another man’s permission. This could have its own depressing, or shrinking, affect. In such a circumstance there would be an unspoken “power-play” – a kind of chess-game – between the two men and the advantage would be the husband’s by virtue of a sort of “Queen’s Gambit.” The husband, basically, offers charity to the single man and the single man should jolly well know it and have the decency to feel disgusted, humiliated or both.

The lady in question explained that some husbands actually like to be “cuckolded” and some even like to be told exactly what business to conduct by the third-man. This took disgust into confusion. What exactly is the psychology, here?

How could the man enjoy ordering the husband about? The husband gives his permission, therefore the “bang” the man gets out of the proceedings is about as shallow as spit on a rock. This is not even method acting. How could the man be so easily pleased? The Cuckold is King.

Some men really can’t see with only one eye.

Of course, the questions kept coming. Why should this be about “power” in any case? Shouldn’t it just be about “pleasure”? Perhaps, but we can’t pretend men don’t have egos, so the ego/power question won’t go away.

One consideration lead to another and before long the tapping away at the notes changed the subject. The move to retain the “power” became a question about what kind of person would want or need to retain it. These considerations lead to a thought coming up from the unconscious about the ladies. A man and woman, who are both, say, straight, cannot be friends. They can behave like friends, but they won’t actually be friends, not under the surface, where things count more than surface behaviour.

If a man has a female “friend” – and both have the same orientation – she will consider him a worthless loser and have almost no value for him whatever. She will take whatever she can from him, she’ll take a little flirting and the feeling she is attractive, she will take the odd safe compliment here and there and keep him in line for compliment production, but the relationship will be all suck and no blow.

When one accepts we are hairless primates, evolved with jealousies and tribal posturing and frail egos, that our DNA is but 3% different from that of Chimpanzees, then I don’t feel too stupid “over thinking” it a bit.

I suppose I’m just a good Skeptic.

Image result for swinging

Girls on the Hood

Once upon a time Empire magazine ran a very cheap but very cool competition. It asked its readers to write in and say where they had got their pirated copy of Reservoir Dogs – Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 debut movie. The most dubious source would win a t-shirt.

The magazine got quite excited about Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino was the new, hip, cool, baddass wizzkid on the movie scene. With only one movie doing the rounds comparisons were already being made between him and Scorsese. Anyone who has seen the opening slow-motion title sequence to Dogs, and has watched Robert de Niro swagger into the bar – again in slow-motion – with two chicks on his arm in Mean Streets, will know what people were noticing. The combination of cool looking cats, slow-mo and kickass music performed a sort of magic on the viewer.

Dogs also showed picture fans that Tarantino could do a thing which many professional writers cannot do; that is, write dialogue. By ‘write dialogue’ I mean he allows his characters to talk about stuff. The opening sequence in the diner, where a bunch of professional criminals discuss the subtext to Madonna’s Like a Virgin and argue about the practice of tipping the waitress is a perfect example. This guy was different.

Three years later Pulp Fiction came out and the world realised that Tarantino had the elusive “it”.

(At the same time the world realised, for sure, that a cat called Samuel L Jackson was one of the most mesmerising players in the history of pictures. I do not say that lightly. Watch the (now) classic scene – the “with great vengeance and furious anger” scene, or any scene he’s in in Django – and tell me Jackson is not significantly intense and demanding of his audience. He demands you look at him when he’s talking.)

Tarantino pictures are not for everyone. He writes and directs pictures for those folks who love fiction, love revenge and love the event of going to the movies.

He writes and directs pictures for me.

And now I’ve seen all of his pictures and can comment on which I think is his best.

When I say ‘his best’ I mean which one I like the most, for how can anyone compare different movies and apply an objective measure to test for “bestness”? It is impossible.

There were four pictures I could watch again and again without ever getting bored. Each time I watched one of these movies there was more revealed with each viewing. The performances, perhaps, have “something” about them which prevents them from becoming boring; or another detail is noticed, or an example of irony is detected. The four movies in question?

Rope, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and Glengarry Glen Ross.

There are now five and the fifth one is Tarantino’s Death Proof.

It’s a “something” movie. And, being an inquisitive so and so, I have thought about what the “something” Death Proof has which is tickling my subconscious.

Hardly is Death Proof Tarantino’s most commercially or critically successful picture. Those two considerations seem to be the two which are cared and spoken about the most. But what about artistic success?

Critical success just means the critics liked it. Who cares about that? A critic is just another member of the audience and never will every member of an audience like a picture. A critic’s opinion does not have more worth because they get paid to write their opinion. A critic’s opinion might have more effect. That aint the same thing.  I am a critic. This is my opinion. I’m writing my opinion for free.

Death Proof is a picture about women. It’s a picture for women. It’s a feminist picture. Now, on the surface of it, that might not be obvious.

Ostensibly Death Proof is about a psychopathic stuntman who drives a grunting muscle-car and uses it to kill women. The car is rigged-up by a stunt-crew and the sicko can smash it into a brick-wall (or a car full of women) at 120mph just for the experience. So, he drives it head-on into females, smashing the car up in the process. This is how he gets his rocks off.

So we have a sort of stalker/slasher movie cut and pasted together to look like a seventies exploitation picture. The film is damaged and scratched and the editing jumps and bounces about as if it was put together by pissed-up projectionist. It’s all deliberate.

It’s also a homage to muscle-car movies like Vanishing Point and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry. It’s a homage to car-chase movies. The car-chase is something we have all seen and remembered from Christ-knows how many movies in the past.

(Anyone who gets teary-eyed about the car-chase from Bullit should watch the last ten-minutes of Death Proof and understand nostalgia’s power.) Some people do make ‘em like they used to, and some even make ‘em better.

The point is that irony is not for everyone, though Death Proof – in its first half which tells us about Mike’s character – is packed with irony.

If I were playing “give us a clue” I could tell you what irony was with one hand in my pocket, but some think irony needs to be “funny.”

Consider the following scene. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) throws his car keys along the bar because Pam (Rose Mcgowan) asks the bartender if there is anyone he will vouch for to give her a ride home. It’s a classic western shot. Most of the time what gets slid down the bar is a shot of whisky, but this is a modern movie, so it’s a bunch of car keys. (Pam actually asks Mike if he’s a cowboy.) There is irony there, and it’s at the expense of Pam, who knows less than the audience. Of all the guys to ask for a lift, Stuntman Mike is the last dude you’d want driving you home. She doesn’t know it, but we do.

(Think of all the movies you’ve seen where the scream queen wanders down to the cellar without a torch. It’s a cliché. It aint believable, but it’s popular. It works. Why does it work? It works because an audience enjoys knowing more than the characters on the screen. Knowing more than the characters do is irony in action.)

That’s one type of irony, but what about other types? This is where things get a little complicated.

After the car-key slide and a little conversation Pam asks Stuntman Mike if he is offering her a ride home and whether he’ll be okay to drive later. (For completeness ‘icy-hot’ is a logo on the back of Mike’s jacket.)

Follow the conversation closely:

PAM: So, icy-hot, are you offering me a ride home?

MIKE: I’m offering you a lift if when I’m ready to leave, you are too.

PAM: And when are you thinking about leaving?

MIKE: Truthfully, I’m not thinking about it. But when I do you’ll be the first to know.

PAM: Will you be able to drive later?

MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a teetotaller. I’ve been drinking club-soda and lime all night and now I’m building up to my big drink.

PAM: Which is what?

MIKE: Virgin Pina Colada.

Notice that Stuntman Mike corrects Pam. It’s not a ride he’s offering her, it’s a lift. Once you get that the rest of what this exchange actually means should fall into place and allow you to see where old Stuntman Mike is coming from.

Run the same conversation again, but have them say what Tarantino actually means. Pam is just checking if old Mike is going to be getting ‘friendly’ later:

PAM: Do you want to have sex with me?

MIKE: No

PAM: Will you try to have sex with me later?

MIKE: I know looks can be deceiving, but I’m a dickless virgin who’s terrified of women. I’m not really interested in you because I’m building up to my big crash scene.

PAM: Which is?

MIKE: The virgin’s penis collider.

So the irony is double layered. There’s what the conversation really means, and in addition there’s poor old Pam who has no idea just how unfriendly Mike is going to become.

So Mike kills Pam by stomping on the brakes and smashing her face into the dashboard. He has a racing driver’s harness but the passenger side doesn’t even have a seatbelt. Then he speeds off to catch the girls he’s been stalking and drives head-on into their car at speed.

The crash-scene is a skin-shredder and a bone-cruncher. The impact is shown four times – once for each passenger in the car, and we see exactly what the impact does to each of them. It’s beautifully done. The girls in the car are head-dancing and playing air-drums to a song called “Hold Tight” no less, unaware that a woman-hating lunatic really is using his car as an extension of his penis.

Some Thoughts on the Common Snob

The claim that fictional violence causes real violence is a fantastic claim to make. There is no reason to believe this is true and every reason to believe it is untrue. The claim fictional violence causes real violence is a form of snobbery and snobbery is terribly common.

Some persons like to feel superior to other persons. They like to think their ‘taste’ in this or that is ‘better’ or more ‘refined’ than the next person’s. You probably don’t do this yourself, though you might have spotted it in others.

In any case you will have heard or read, at least once, that violence in movies might cause real violence to happen. It is quite common for the popular press to suggest this. Those who take their opinions from the popular press tend to agree. These days certain Playstation and X-box games (and some song lyrics) are said to do the same because many of them have lots of fictional violence.

Consider only movies for a moment. The most violent movies will show more than just violence (and not every movie has violence in any case) so do the non-violent things shown in movies cause persons to copy them in reality? This tends not to be claimed. This makes the claim about violence weaker, not stronger, because it gives violence a special status when it is but one thing movies show, so the argument should be put which explains that special status.

Be aware that when a person claims ‘X’ is harmful they are also claiming every other letter of the alphabet is harmless. That they might not spot this in understandable.

This means when a person claims movie violence might cause violence in real life, and they leave it there, they are also claiming the violence in novels, plays, poetry, radio-drama, musicals, opera, painting and sculpture is harmless.

There could be two reasons for this. Either they have thought about it sufficiently to discount other forms of fiction or there’s another reason.

So what could another reason be?

Both Stephen King and Jack Vettriano are disliked by critics. Why is this? It might be because everything they write and paint is rubbish – perhaps the critics are right? – or perhaps it’s because what they write and paint is worse than rubbish? What they write and paint is popular. If something popular also has artistic merit then the critic is surplus to requirements. He is ridiculous because he is pointless. It is therefore important that what is popular must not have artistic merit. Much criticism involves the critic taking time to elucidate the depth and breadth of his cleverness. Many critics have wonderful imaginations. The critic is easier to forgive because their snobbery is connected to their employment.

You might have spotted a pattern, here. With critics, what is popular lacks artistic merit; with the common snob, it is harmful.

The common snob (probably for good reasons) might feel uncomfortable discussing the artistic merits of this and that but is quite at home stroking their chin while telling you the violence in movies might cause violence in real life. It’s a way to get a superiority fix while staying under the comfort-blanket of public opinion.

In other words, doubly shameful.

A Tragedy of Manners

In a Yellow Wood – Gore Vidal

The most sorrowful tragedies are true ones, are always pulled from an experience a human had to endure. Depending how closely you are prepared to look, the most sorrowful tragedies are being endured, right now, under the masks one stares at everyday across the office and the mask one stares at in the mirror. If one can develop enough skill – and Vidal’s agony-ridden protagonist, Robert Holton, is just such a fellow – then the tragedy of one’s situation can be filtered through a sanitising intellectual process and changed into a decision made instead of an imposition born of fear.

Holton is a low-level worker in a New York brokerage and the last word in playing it straight. World War II is a recent memory – but Holton has managed to forget most of the “virility of war” and has set his meter running in the chilly-blue instead of the hot-red which consumed him while abroad and in uniform. When he was in uniform, boy, he really lived. Now he must conform, knuckle down, and be incredibly grateful for any “opportunity” to climb the corporate ladder. Vidal shows us Holton’s attitude to work and his past as quickly as page four, as Holton dresses to face the day ahead:

He searched through the bureau drawers for a shirt. He found a white one and put it on. Before the war he had worn coloured shirts but now plain white ones seemed more sound. And then it was a good idea not to be too vivid when you worked for a brokerage house.

This is not a change of taste being described, but a rewritten character being shown. One wonders what the war did to this man that he had the colour drained from him. His future is decided and can not be altered, no matter the price:

Robert Holton, though he had never been much of an athlete, had a good build. Sitting at desks, however, would ruin it sooner or later and the thought made him sad. There was nothing he could do, of course, for he would always sit at desks.

As Holton dresses and ponders his figure the morning light glows “yellowly through the window shade.” Those diverging paths are fast approaching Robert Holton. He has no idea of the choice to come his way before the day is over; has no idea the twisting kaleidoscope which moves us all in turn is about to take its turn with him. Though he remains unaware as he prepares for work, this morning he has woken in his yellow wood.

The path which leads to the brokerage house takes him past his breakfast stop, a small diner where he is served by the same waitress each morning. Marjorie Ventusa, the waitress in question, is in love with Robert Holton. They know each other enough to engage in a little flirty banter, but they never dare to step outside the cells they have made for themselves; they offer just enough to polish the surface of the other’s mask. As Holton begins to tuck into his breakfast, he asks:

   “When you going to go out dancing with me?” Robert Holton asked, sawing a piece of bacon in half with a blunt knife.

   “I’m pretty busy,” she said; she always said that when he asked her that question. He would say it because he thought it was funny and she would answer him as though she thought it was funny too. She wished that he meant it now.

Does he ask her because he thinks it’s funny? No, he asks her because she always answers the way she does, there is no danger, and she answers the way she does because he asks her only because she thinks he thinks it’s funny. That is a mistake on her part; Holton asking her to go dancing has nothing whatsoever to do with humour. The reasons are heartbreaking. We are beginning to get a sense of the tragedy of manners that can evolve when somebody believes they are not worthy of being sincerely asked to go dancing, and the ripple affect it can have across the psyches of many others. One wonders, also, why Vidal chose to tell us the knife was blunt.

Holton is joined for breakfast by a female co-worker, Caroline Lawton. She is similar to Marjorie but the differences are the point. Caroline has the same fears as Marjorie, but Vidal injects her with an icy – yet almost comical – narcissism. Marjorie asks this woman, who is clearly a rival, for her order:

   “I’ll have grapefruit juice. That’s all I want. I’m reducing,” she said to Robert Holton and she patted her slim waist.

   “What on earth are you reducing for?”

   “You think I look all right this way? She asked, pretending surprise.

Her comments are not put into context until three pages later when, sitting at her desk, Caroline goes digging in her desk drawer:

Here were several compacts in various stages of use. A slightly crushed box of pale green Kleenex, a carton of cigarettes, and a box of fairly expensive candy. The lid of the candy box was off and Caroline Lawton decided that, since her breakfast had been small, a little candy wouldn’t hurt her.

Can this novel have been published in 1947? It all seems so modern. I know women like her. Her character is on display throughout the paragraph: from the candy being expensive, to the lid being off, to her deciding she deserved it because her breakfast had been small. Here we have an eyelash fluttering air-head narcissist in action; she flops from one self-centred moment to the next without bothering to remember the previous one. I really do know women like her.

Caroline and Holton toil under the stewardship of Mr Murphy, the head of Statistical Section; Caroline is Mr Murphy’s secretary, Holton an entry-level clerk. There are others who share the joys of the office and whose surface politeness is a delicately constructed sham, but Caroline is the master, or so she often tells herself.

There is a psychological cocktail of boredom, compromise, denial, dissatisfaction and loneliness swirling behind the eyes of these characters. They are pitifully aware of their wounds, yet have developed the greatest skill in hiding from others any sense those wounds exist. Their effort is spent convincing others of their happiness, cleverness and their all-round contentedness with life. There is comedy here, but it tastes sour. That sourness comes from the truth.

But Holton is the main course. Here is a quiet man, a simple man whose boat rocking days are long behind him. “I suppose if it were easier to take a job than refuse it I’d take the job. I’m easy to please” he tells the lovely Caroline, hiding the point (from her but, more importantly, himself) that this is not an example of being easy to please by claiming it is. He lived a life during the war. He spent his time in Europe knowing a great many women and tasting the pleasures life offers; but now, back on home soil, the decision has been made to live an existence of muted and desolate obedience. In more ways than one his shirts are now not simply white; they are – as we have seen – plain white.

After lunch, Holton is visited at the office by Jim Trebling, his best pal from his military days and the man with whom he broke many European hearts. Soon, the banter between old comrades turns to the fairer sex:

   “Do you remember Carla?” asked Jim suddenly, his mind adjusting to the present.

   “The girl in Florence? Sure, I remember her. What was her name…Carla?”

   “That’s right.”

   “She was very nice looking, wasn’t she?”

   “Yes.”

   “Sure, I remember her.”

   “I thought you liked her quite a bit,” said Trebling, not looking at Holton.

   “I suppose I did. We ran into a lot of people, though. There were so many people.”

   Trebling agreed that there had been a number of people in Europe, people they had known.

This is a passage worth getting into for a moment. Holton appears absurd by attempting to relegate Carla to a vague memory. “What was her name..?” he asks, just after being told it. How he would love to waive his hand and consider her a woman of no importance, but he cannot do this convincingly. Trebling, with manners more delicate than would be found today, offers a cold “that’s right.” This is exquisite. He could press the point, demand to know what on earth his friend was talking about because they both knew how taken with her he was, but this would force his friend into a corner he clearly has no wish to be in, so he allows Holton the space to be comfortable by accepting the basic facts. Holton, noticing this piece of good manners, makes another grab for acceptable fantasy. “She was good looking, wasn’t she?” I do beg your pardon. Wasn’t she? I think they both know she was a little more than good looking, but Trebling, now sensing his friend does not want to “go there” must look away before deciding to push just a little. He covers a statement of fact in the blanket of assumption, smoothing the edges: “I thought you liked her quite a bit,” he tells Holton, one step down from stating a fact. Holton must accept his feelings for Carla, but rushes off the point straightaway after. “I suppose I did. We ran into a lot of people, though.” Trebling, coldly accepting the mathematical truth, agrees there had been a lot of people in Europe and they had known some of them. This is of it’s time. These days, all Trebling would have to say is “Man, what the fuck?” but Trebling is a man with a sense of mood and some delicacy. Whoever she was, Carla made a significant impression on Holton, but he is suffering from the strangest denial of his feelings for her. What can it hurt to admit to his comrade how this woman moved him? After all, she was left behind in Europe after the war and there is no chance of them seeing each other again. Is there? The pathway in the yellow wood is leading somewhere. Trebling is the kaleidoscope’s warning. Start thinking certain thoughts, Mr Holton, because a choice is rushing toward you.

Holton’s day takes what is not necessarily a turn for the better when he attends a cocktail party after the office closes. He walks back to his hotel to change for this engagement and notices, as a nurse with a baby carriage passes by, that the horror of the design for life affects not just those who are trapped in wage-slavery:

It was late, probably much too late for her to be out with the baby. As she passed him he caught a glimpse of the child and saw that it was staring vacantly ahead, concentrating on growth.

Is this the last word in horrific cynicism? It suggests all kinds of tube-fed dystopia. One wonders how many writers owe their careers to this small aside. Back at his hotel, Holton ponders the conversations with Trebling:

In Europe there had been many women. He often was surprised now when he thought of how many he had known. There were periods when he had never been satisfied. Both Trebling and he had gone about it like hunters.

Okay, now we’re beginning to get the point. The second and third sentences are the ones to consider. This is significant because of the word “surprised” and because of those periods when he had never been “satisfied”. I mean to say, all those women and no satisfaction; my dear fellow, why ever not?

He arrives at the cocktail party; the hostess, Mrs Helena Stevanson, belongs in a Wildean drawing room where the sweet and pretty air and etiquette keep the resentment under control. A typical exchange between a guest breaking away from her hostess:

   “It’s been lovely seeing you, Helena darling. I’ve got to join my escort now. I came with Clyde.”

   Beatrice said this triumphantly but gained no victory.

   “You came with Clyde. How wonderful! I’m dining with him tomorrow.”

There is a wonderful low-high-low rhythm to Helena’s line, but is something missing here? Would the tone of the politeness be better served with a question mark after Helena Stevanson’s rather flat statement “You came with Clyde”? It would lift the tone of voice to match the exchange, but without it one wonders if Helena, dining tomorrow with Clyde, will hear a tale or two about Beatrice’s sexual habits?

Helena flits between guests, spending a snatched moment offering air-kisses and exaggerated good manners, and even manages to torture our friend, Robert Holton. This after just bringing up the subject of Holton’s mother:

The was an awkward silence. Robert Holton never found it easy to talk about his mother and Mrs Stevanson had decided, obviously, that it was the only thing she could discuss with him.

To move from the awkward silence Holton is pushed toward some guests who are slightly more exotic because they are foreigners. They exchange handshakes and Holton pays not much attention until he shakes hands with Mrs Bankton:

   “How do you do,” said Robert Holton.

“How do you do,” said Mrs Bankton. Her voice startled him. It was deep and foreign and she had said the “you” as if she had really meant him.

Holton stumbles for a moment, then presses on, fascinated:

  

   He stammered, “I know you. I know you but…”

   “But who am I?” She laughed and gestured with her long white hands.

   “Yes, who are you?”

   “Carla.”

Trebling was the warning that something was afoot. The universe usually gives us a warning before making us pay close attention and Holton’s attention is now tightly focussed. They talk, they reminisce about the colourful time they spent in Florence during the war years but are joined by a writer – another terribly earnest chap – who insists on taking Holton and Carla to dinner at a little place he knows. Holton accepts, and Carla is forced to because she has plans for Holton, and they depend on their being close. They take a cab to their dinner destination, are given a good table and listen to the music while they watch the people on the stage before their dinner arrives:

The music was becoming soft and sentimental. Full round chords gushed around them and people danced on the stage. Men danced with women and women with men for there was not really much courage among these people.

You get a sense of their surroundings, I think. Carla is happy to be there because she is married to a man who uses her as camouflage for his taste for more earnest encounters than she is equipped to offer. She wants Holton to understand her position – and does indeed tell him – hoping he will be moved by her predicament. There is a deep irony here. Poor Carla seeks out the man with whom she shared her first breathless, gasping moments, hoping to rekindle the passions they shared as an antidote to the sterile state of her marriage; but she does not suspect that Holton has buried similar tendencies to her husband’s, and her mission is doomed. She will not save her situation.

Soon, the headline act takes to the stage and the three of them watch:

More dancers appeared. This time they were real women and the men who came out with them were dressed as men. They did a serious near-ballet but, because they didn’t know how to dance very well and because they didn’t particularly care, the dance was funny and Holton laughed. Lewis and Carla didn’t laugh: for different reasons.

Could Lewis’s lack of laughter be due to surprise and Carla’s due to fear? I do wonder. Perhaps here the first vague sense that her mission is going to be an unsuccessful one percolates up into Carla’s conscious mind? After much talk, and the third man’s excusing himself for a back-stage meeting, Holton and Carla leave together. Carla has but one thing on her mind.

Holton is still playing it straight; the choice to be conventional seeps out of every pore:

   “How cool it is!” said Carla, as they walked along the street. “I couldn’t breathe in there.”

   “It was a crazy place,” said Holton, looking straight ahead as he walked, following the traffic lights. Carla occasionally drew him off the curb and into the street but he always managed to obey the green lights.

She is taking him to her hotel where she hopes to convince him to leave this life behind and go with her to live in Italy; back, perhaps, to Florence where they shared their tender moments. While they walk, they talk – talk of Carla’s husband – and Carla’s pesky subconscious digs her in the ribs. She, like most in one form or another of denial, has a conscious mind which is lightning-quick in offering logical comfort:

   “I’d like to meet him.”

   “He’d like to meet you, too.” She laughed. “I might lose you to him.” She stopped herself quickly. She shouldn’t have said “lose” because they were supposed to be just casual friends; at least that was the basis he seemed to want. She mustn’t frighten him.

Oh yes, of course. That was what she meant when she said “lose”, wasn’t it? Vidal – and it shows throughout this novel –has a remarkable nose for the psychological, for just how the mind works and how the conscious mind, the critical faculty, is for self-defence as much as reasoning. Of course, more sour truth is forced down the throat of the reader.

Their walk toward the hotel, for part of it anyway, is observed by a character from earlier in the day. The waitress who serves him his breakfast, Marjorie Ventusa – and is in love with Holton, remember – is out and about in the city and spots him from a safe distance.

Marjorie was about to go into the movie when she saw Robert Holton crossing a street on the other side of the square. She had a sudden impulse to call to him, to make herself heard over the hundreds of people. Then she saw that he was not alone. She saw that he was with a dark pretty girl: a woman from the world where he lived.

A shame she thinks they live in different worlds. If only she could just say it. Perhaps she’ll mention something at breakfast, tomorrow? Perhaps he will. For now, Holton is heading for Carla’s hotel, and doesn’t spot the waitress of whom he asked that morning “when you going to go out dancing with me?”

At the hotel she plays the card she has been waiting to play all evening; indeed, she plays the card she came to New York to snap down on the table. They talk, post coitus, of her less than satisfying marriage, and talk turns to specifics:

   “I can leave him.”

   He shook his head. “I couldn’t marry you.”

She was lost. She was falling now. It seemed as if the room had become cold and foreign and she had come to a hostile country. There was no longer an answer to make: the answer had been made. She tried not to let her face show what she felt.

   “Why couldn’t you marry me?”

   “I haven’t any money.”

   “I wouldn’t want that. You wouldn’t want to be married to a broker and live in New York.”

   “Why do you have to be a broker?”

And that’s the rub, right there. Why must he be a broker? Why are there no other choices which come to mind? His answer is coming from a restricted, pre-decided pool of possibilities. With his answer one understands that Carla’s campaign was doomed to failure.

As they lie, naked, Carla accepts there is no hope and Vidal gives us an image of the heat draining from their encounter as the last hope she had for Holton drips out of her:

She was defeated at that moment. The dream she had been fashioning disappeared and there were no traces of it left, only a lingering sadness and an open wound.

An open wound? Well, that’s one way of describing it. Carla wants Holton to leave America and go with her to Italy. Holton, because Carla is everywhere at this moment, manages to get as far as considering it:

   “It’s a temptation,” said Holton suddenly.

   “What is?” They separated.

   “To go to Europe with you, to live with you.”

   “It could be done.”

   “Maybe…No, it wouldn’t work.”

   “Why?”

   “It just wouldn’t be practical.”

   No, she thought, it wouldn’t be practical.

It would not be practical and that is the point. It would be vibrant and full of joy; it would be dangerous and crazy; it would be intense and tender; and it would be a step toward living for love, art and whatever brings joy. But Holton has a point. It would not be practical.

So that is that. We joined Holton as he wakes and gets dressed for work; we join him at breakfast as he flirts – as much as is safe – with the waitress. We follow him to a cocktail party where he meets the woman – trapped in an emotionless, and almost certainly sexless, marriage – for whom he was the first man. He rejects the colourful offer of living a life of passion and freedom in Italy because to do so would not be practical, and then he leaves her to return to his rooms. He has to be at work in the morning, after all.

He dreams of Carla and Trebling – Trebling, by the way, takes Caroline out for the evening and they, too, stroll across Times Square at the same time as Holton, Carla and Marjorie, but that is another essay – and eventually falls into sleep, happy with his choice because he has decided to be happy with it.

Carla is not so much there to represent the choice between a life of conformity – making money, keeping your head down, obeying the boss and so on; and their opposites which are living for love, for fun and for freedom, as she is the possibility his nature is not what he feels it is. His feelings for her complicate his private equation; they offer factors he has no wish to calculate. To give this possibility a face and a name and a heartbeat simply offers more tragedy. Her tragedy. Vidal is ruthless. And he isn’t finished yet. Holton still has to go for breakfast the next morning and have Marjorie serve him.

So, at breakfast, then:

“Got anything good for breakfast? I feel pretty worn out today.”

   “I guess you were out last night.”

   He nodded. She couldn’t stop asking him now; she couldn’t stop thinking about Robert Holton and the dark haired girl.

   “Probably one of those big parties, I guess.”

   He nodded and said, “Sure, one of those big parties.”

   She was not sorry that he lied.

She was not sorry because his lie allows Marjorie to construct a pitiful glimmer of hope:

She had to look serious even though she was happy. He had at least not wanted to tell her that he was out with another girl.

Oh my word, the agony. That such a little thing could make her happy; that such a thing could stimulate the desire to remain professional! Who is easy to please, here? Marjorie has the last word in intricately constructed self-denial. Her ego uses logic to fashion hope at the expense of emotional sincerity. How Vidal knows these fragile humans! The man is merciless.

Marjorie serves the breakfast and Holton eats it, but – he knows her a little, remember – he still finds time for the obligatory flirting, that flirting which offers just enough to polish the other’s mask:

He ate and then she put the dirty dishes on her tray. Then he said, “When’re you going to Italy with me?”

That is why his asking her to go dancing has nothing to do with humour.

Hell of a Ghost

Daniel Radcliffe, for reasons not obvious to me, was offered the lead role in an adaptation of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black. It is a curious piece of casting because Radcliffe is no actor worthy of the title. His acting skills are playing catch-up to his success. This should be the other way about. The novel (acknowledging the stage-play and the television adaptation) is, or should be, the first stop for anyone wanting to take in the tale properly. That the awful film will be the first experience many have of this excellent tale is a shame.

It is worth having a look at the book because Susan Hill takes the classic elements from the genre – used in countless tales – and makes them all fit perfectly. There is the swirling mist; the old and creaky house; the locals who are reluctant to “talk about it” and the sound of horses clip-clopping about in the darkness and all the rest. When you read the book you get the sense of the familiar, that what’s coming is every ghost story you have ever read. Things do not bode well for the book in that respect, yet Hill makes all the ostensibly clichéd elements work.

That the story is written in the first person forces Hill to impose a heavy burden upon herself and her narrator by declaring, at the outset, that the tale is almost too terrifying to recount. One gets the sense she does this to force her imagination to cash the cheques her introductory pages have written. At any rate she delivers the creepiest 160 pages I have read in a while.

We are told of a ghost-story game in which Arthur Kipps cannot participate because for him to tell the scariest story he can think of means talking of the woman in black and he cannot bring this woman to a scary, but innocent, family game; rather, he composes himself and writes the tale we hold in our hands as a way of finally shaking the last cobwebs of the horror from his psyche. The novel is an act of therapy for him. After reading it, one understands his position perfectly.

In a great many tales of this kind the ghost has a purpose. It tends to want to avenge some terrible injustice and manipulate a character into finding the evidence to convict a person who had done them wrong. Sometimes the ghost can be ingenious, sometimes “in your face”, sometimes both. Hill has said her ghost needed to have a purpose and, goodness me, she gives it one, but is no more than obsessively malicious.

So to begin with we have Arthur Kipps – a twenty-three year old solicitor – being assigned to collate the papers of Mrs Drablow, a Miss Havisham type character who occupied the obligatory secluded house at the end of a causeway which is passable only during low-tide. Kipps is London-based – the Drablow estate is hidden away in some far-flung and cold estuary – and Hill uses her early pages to give the reader a sense of the horrors to come. Even the London fog through which Kipps moves is something more than pea-soup:

In the streets, there was a din, of brakes grinding and horns blowing, and the shouts of a hundred drivers, slowed down and blinded by the fog, and, as I peered from out of the cab window into the gloom, what figures I could make out, fumbling their way through the murk, were like ghost figures, their mouths and lower faces muffled in scarves and veils and handkerchiefs, but on gaining the temporary safety of some pool of light they became red-eyed and demonic.

That is just a drive through some fog. It is typical of the tone that Hill has her narrator set, and the tone of voice, the way of speaking used by Kipps, helps this along. Though he is but twenty-three he talks like a sixty year old would now; in a slightly formal and much better educated way; he has a stiffness which implies a sort of Christian abstention in certain matters. We know he will not be living it up while away working on the Drablow papers. He wants to file an excellent piece of work to his boss – who is more tightly–collared and stuffier than him – and use his assignment as a stepping stone to advancement within the firm. With advancement comes more money which would allow him to support a wife and child. He exudes typical, lower-middle class aspirations. His world is one of ink wells, large dusty ledgers and stiff, creaking wooden chairs and offices of absolute silence. The year is not given, but the impression is that the year cannot be later than 1910.

Hill slips but twice, as far as I can spot, with her narrator’s language. Consider these passages:

I had been both relieved and pleased when finally he took me into full partnership with himself, after so many years, while at the same time believing the position to be no more than my due, for I had done my fair share of the donkey work and borne a good deal of the burden of responsibility for directing the fortunes of the firm with, I felt, inadequate reward – at least in terms of position.

And:

I saw the face of my watch. It was barely three o’clock and I hoped that the candle would burn until dawn, which on a stormy day at this fag end of the year would come late.

In both passages Hill allows her narrator, as it were, to “drop an aitch”. From the first, the phrase “donkey work”, and from the second, “fag-end” stand-out. Whether they sound too modern for the person talking is not quite the point. They sound too scruffy for him to be saying. These are the only examples I can find, and they jumped off the page as I read. Apart from these two minor lapses the narrator’s language – the word choice, tone, the visual impressions offered and so on – is first rate and the thoughts I had at the back of my mind were of a smarter, more restrained world, a world of propriety and good manners; a world, in other words, long gone.

His long journey up-country comes to an end in the small town of Crythin Gifford where he has lodgings in the pub, the Gifford Arms. Hardly could his first night have been a better one. He brushes the locals’ reluctance to discuss Mrs Drablow aside:

On the whole, that night, with my stomach full of home-cooked food, a pleasing drowsiness induced by good wine, and the sight of the low fire, and inviting, turned-back covers of the deep, soft bed, I was inclined to let myself enjoy the whole business, and to be amused by it, as adding a touch of spice and local colour to my expedition, and I fell asleep most peacefully. I can still recall it, that sensation of slipping down, down into the welcoming arms of sleep, surrounded by warmth and softness, happy and secure as a small child in the nursery.

You feel almost drowsy reading it…

Kipps’s first engagement is the funeral of Mrs Drablow. For this he adopts a “professionally mournful expression” as he takes his place in the cold church. Towards the end of the service, our narrator sees the woman in black for the first time. I think a longer quote is appropriate for this moment in the story:

On hearing a slight rustle behind me, I half turned, discreetly and caught a glimpse of another mourner, a woman, who must have slipped into the church after we of the funeral party had taken our places and who stood several rows behind and quite alone, very erect and still, and not holding a prayer book. She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined, in court circles on the most formal of occasions. Indeed, it had clearly been dug out of some old trunk or wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty looking. A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but, although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin, and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious blue-white sheen.

There she is. Just watching. Look at the descriptions of her, and, knowing she’s a ghost, pick out the most salient point to pay attention to – the piece of information which might reveal her character. The most salient point is the easiest to miss. She is not holding a prayer book. That little detail tells you, pretty much, all you need to know about this entity. The passage is the first sighting – not so much of a ghost with a sulk – but of the visual representation of a supernatural, malevolent force with a weapons-grade grudge. No prayer book? I wonder why…

There is a little problem here. From where, exactly, does the creature in black (and any ghost come to that) derive, not its hostility, but its ability to employ that hostility? Why does being dead give it more power to “make things happen” than it had in life? Innumerable ghost stories allow this question to go unanswered. If we are to follow the spiritual reasoning then, a living human has access to the same spiritual planes and energies as the spirit of a dead human has; in fact, the spirit of a living human, it could be argued, is more powerful than the spirit of a dead one because the body is a battery, feeding power to the psychic planes. Yet no haunting is done until the aggrieved person dies. If the woman in black was (and is) resentful about this or that, then her spirit could have done some haunting while she was alive – freed from physical constraints while she slept: Her astral-ghost could have got up to mischief and she would have been unaware of it, at least consciously. I know of no ghost story in which the spirit is of a living person does the haunting. Yet Robert Bruce, for example, mentions in his non-fiction book, Astral Dynamics, that the astral-ghost of a living person is “not to be trifled with”. There is a contradiction between those who write about ghosts as fiction and those who write of the spiritual world and astral planes as non-fiction. Stephen King answers the question of how some ghosts might obtain their “abilities” in Bag of Bones.

The ghost of the narrator’s wife has been forcing her way back down to the lower frequencies of the physical world to make her former husband aware of a thing or two. In contrast to many other ghosts in books and film and television, which can trash bedrooms in absolute silence (the woman in black included), this, it is implied, is no easy task for the kindly spirit in question. Another spirit in this story, the spiteful Sara (whose motivations are the same as the woman in black’s), has been haunting the locals – and forcing them to sacrifice their own children – for decades.

Mike Noonan, King’s narrator, is warned by his wife’s ghost to jolly-well get a move on, and makes his own observations:

“Git out, bitch!” the Sara-thing snarled. It raised its arms toward Jo as it had raised them to me in my worst nightmares.

   “Not at all.” Jo’s voice remained calm. She turned toward me. “Hurry, Mike. You have to be quick. It’s not really her anymore. She’s let one of the Outsiders in, and they’re very dangerous.

   Sara shrieked and then began to spin. Leaves and branches blurred together and lost coherence; it was like watching something liquefy in a food blender. The entity which had only looked a little like a woman to begin with now dropped its masquerade entirely.

Well, quite. Hill has her woman in black have – or rather be – a force with unpleasant intentions, but suggests nothing which might explain where her abilities and her power come from. We are left to suppose that, well, she’s a ghost, and that’s what ghosts do. But a pact made in the afterlife, with not so much another non-physical entity as a never-physical entity, would have explained the question of ghosts’ powers and posed some unsettling questions about bargaining on the other side of the tapestry.

 Enquiries are made by Kipps about this wretched creature (the correct word) and they follow obviously from what he has seen, and to her credit, Hill doesn’t even come close to the clichéd dialogue and behaviour of the locals which can be found in, say, the work of James Herbert. (What I’m talking about is any local who describes their village and surrounding area as “these parts”. Anyone who has read Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall­ – just as an example – will know what I mean.) No, they change the subject and it is obvious they will not be drawn, but there are no “get out while ye can!” moments.

In any event Kipps begins his job of collating Mrs Drablow’s papers and the creature in black rather takes a shine to him straight away. It is difficult to understand the creature’s motivations as regards her interest in the young solicitor. Take, as an example, the little dog which a local man gives to Kipps to keep him company while working at the Drablow house. This dog scratches and snarls at the doors during the night, and nothing too bad happens to Kipps while the dog is about. Later, while taking a breath of air outside, someone unseen out in the mist on the marshes which surround the house whistles to the dog and off it scampers. It is the creature up to no good, drawing the dog away from Kipps and onto the marshes to slowly sink and drown. But why? It is unclear if the creature does this so that Kipps can feel the pain of a loved one lost to the marshes, or if her intentions are more sinister: Getting the dog away so she can get to him. The second explanation is certainly creepier, but both are unsatisfactory.

That animals snarl and bark at entities unseen to humans is nothing new in fiction, but it makes no sense that any ghost – certainly not the woman in black – should be bothered or in any way put off by a little canine scratching and sniffing about the place. What can a little dog do against this negative force that a human cannot? Why should the woman in black be kept at bay by no more than a little dog? It implies that all a person need do is behave aggressively toward the ghost and she will lose her bottle. It might be the case that the ghost simply wants to kill the dog on the marshes so Kipps can feel a little of what she felt, but, given her spite, that would never be enough for her and doesn’t fit very tidily anyhow. (Later, she scares a horse to take her revenge, so why is a tiny dog considered a problem, but a muscular horse easily spooked – and able to know that the woman in black is something to be scared of to begin with?)

If she wants rid of the dog to somehow and in some way get closer to Kipps, then I wonder what prevented her getting as close as she wanted before the dog was introduced. The goings-on with the dog question the whole point of the ghost’s haunting, questions the idea that the entity is all-powerful and fearless, and, in so doing, weakens the book in a subtle but fundamental way. In short, what on earth is she scared of?

The haunting experienced by Kipps does not always take the form of visions or mysterious sounds. During one period spent at the Drablow house, Kipps is made to feel an aching sorrow in his heart, an absolute sadness which takes him by surprise and shocks him with its intensity. This is, clearly, the woman in black haunting him, but in a different way to the usual. It is with this kind of haunting that one wonders if the woman in black is motivated by the desire to express no more than how she felt when the tragedy, which Kipps is yet to discover, happened. It seems like a play for sympathy in a sense, the ghost saying “You see! You see how bad it was for me!” This, like the scenario with the dog, offers some questions. Why does the woman in black want Kipps to feel this way, to feel the agonizing heartbreak she was forced to endure? If he concentrates on this, understands it, and realises that the woman was hideously torn by the tragedy, perhaps she might leave him alone? She might feel as if she has, finally, made her point? But it might be a form of torture, a way to make him suffer before….what? One wonders what would have happened to Kipps if he had, quite simply, stayed in the house and let the woman in black do her worst. That she haunts is hardly in question, but exactly why she does it is unclear for most of the book.

Hill layers the scares and the shocks, builds them one on the other, but this seems to be for our benefit, the readers, who are tugged slowly along and the pressure increased little by little. Kipps is dismissive of the ghostly question and then accepting too easily, he moves from A to B too smoothly. A man in his position – by which I mean a solicitor with an analytical mind – would be more determined to find the logical explanation behind the facts and evidence which presented themselves before succumbing to the horrific truth. (And I think it unlikely that such a person would succumb so easily, anyhow. Most of us see the evidence which strengthens our beliefs rather than weakens them. All kinds of problems are caused by this small piece of psychology.)

So on he goes, delving into the papers of the deceased woman and getting deeper embroiled in the history of the family and the tragedy which is the woman in black’s motivation.

That the book is written in the first person, and set years after the adventures at Eel Marsh House, tells us that Kipps escapes from his predicament with his life (if not all his sanity). This detracts somewhat from the suspense as the reader goes along, and is the payment for the narrator telling us just how terrifying the story is at the beginning. That he’s telling it means he got out. (If you want a first-person narrative which manages to turn this contradiction on its head, then Robert Harris’s The Ghost does this perfectly. That his narrator is telling this tale does not mean he gets out of the soup at all…)

The final reel, as it were, is rather tacked-on at the end as an after-thought, like an attempt to “get one in” at the end for allowing us to know that Kipps escapes from his ordeal. But, as I mentioned earlier, even that poses questions because here the woman in black terrifies a solid horse, yet before, she seemed troubled by a little dog.

That the novel is considered a “classic” of the genre is justified, but even classics are not without their contradictions and problems.

Image result for woman in black

 

 

Razor Sharp Comma

What follows is an example of how to use a comma. The extracts come from the short story, Here We Are, written by the mildly poisonous Dorothy Parker and published in 1931. Miss Parker can be forgiven most of her poison because it seems to have been caused by sadness rather than hate, but not all of it because she seemed to enjoy making use of it. The best people are usually complicated.

The story is just shy of hilarious. A newly-wed couple is approaching New York for their honeymoon, and – this was written in the thirties, remember – they don’t know each other as well as a couple nowadays might. The poor fellow seems terribly pre-occupied with how they will spend their evening. He attempts to broach the subject of their wedding-night without wanting to mention it directly. And very-well his new wife knows it.

Parker allows but ten lines of dialogue before the bitterness sets in. Perhaps her view of marriage was less romantic than most. On the question of how long they have been married, she tells us that

“The young man studied his wrist-watch as if he were just acquiring the knack of reading time.

“We have been married,” he said, “exactly two hours and twenty six minutes.”

“My,” she said. “It seems like longer.”

“No,” he said. “It isn’t hardly half-past six yet.”

“It seems like later,” she said. “I guess it’s because it starts getting dark so early.”

“It does, at that,” he said. “The nights are going to be pretty long from now on. I mean. I mean – well, it starts getting dark early.””

That, I submit, is superb. It comes early on. Parker gives you her worldview wrapped up in ironic dialogue with both characters talking about different things. We can smirk a little at her talk of being married for a time which “seems longer” – suggesting that her husband’s preoccupation is boring her; and shake our heads in comic despair at her preoccupied husband, who reveals what’s on his mind by missing her point completely. His interest is long nights of getting-to-know-you-time. Notice Parker has him correct himself at the end, lest his wife catches on.

She has already caught on and she makes him suffer.

Boy, does she make him suffer.

The poor fool makes one innocent remark about a female guest looking rather handsome and his new wife tortures him across the remaining pages. She drives him almost to the brink of insanity and she does it while pretending she has no idea what she’s doing or what he’s going through.

One of the ways Parker has him tortured is through the perfect use of a comma.

The husband attempts to hit back by mentioning his wife’s male friend, Joe Brooks.

Big mistake.

“Yeah,” he said. “He’s fond of you. He was so fond of you he didn’t even send a wedding present. That’s how fond of you he was.”

“I happen to know for a fact,” she said, “that he was away on business, and as soon as he comes back he’s going to give me anything I want, for the apartment.”

That final comma is so sharp it could draw blood.

Funny thing is, she’s only just getting warmed up.