Saturday, December 18, 2010

Love, True and Truly Faked

Been thinking about Love lately. Have to. It’s my job. And, as they say, somebody’s got to do it.

Brother Li Wei and I are working on a chapter about “Modern Love in China” for a soon-to-be-published encyclopedia dealing with love cross-culturally. But, of course, China isn’t the only place where people struggle with the entanglements of love.

A couple years ago Bill Jankowiak put together a book on love in different cultures called “Intimacies: Love and Sex across Cultures,” in which he and his co-authors wrote about what they see as the three faces of romantic love: lust, romantic passion and attachment. As Bill sees it, love in any given culture, is construed as revolving around one or two of these facets.

No culture seems to have handled all three facets with up-front conscious regard. One or two of these facets will always be shoved off center stage. But it will never quite disappear, and typically winds up lurking in the wings like a mischievous ghost ready to unsettle things for all who try to pretend it isn’t there. If, for example, attachment, the enduring sense of connection to those you most care for, should go missing, there might be ways to fake it that offer some measure of satisfaction.

A few days ago Darla sent me a link to a piece on the website Jezebel concerning Japanese Maid Cafes. (Jezebel, by the way, is a fun and interesting website with an engagingly uppity attitude.)

The Japanese Maid Cafes are designed to appeal to men (primarily geeky men, it seems), who are willing to pay young females to act girlishly cute and solicitous toward them. So no sooner had I read about these cafes, than I was hit with the question of, “How satisfying can it be for a man to absorb the perky attentions of women who would not be extending these attentions but for the yen the men have coughed up as remuneration?”

This, in turn, brings us to the Great Postmodern Question of “How authentic is the concept of authenticity?” OK, now my head is starting to hurt.

When the Cute and Perky CafĂ© Maid pretends to enjoy the company of her client, does this make her similar to a gold-digging flirt who marries an aging millionaire in order to get her hands on his bank account? Or is she more like a stage performer who touches the audience with her moving portrayal of Othello’s deeply devoted Desdemona and who pockets some of the box office take in so doing?

Desdemona - Othello's True Love

(If only he could see that!)

If the deathbed millionaire knows the attention he receives hinges mainly on his money (and she knows he knows), does this make the gold-digger’s performances the ethical equivalent of the stage actress’s?

I think the answer for a large number of Japanese is Yes. The original Japanese female-attentions-for-hire woman is the geisha. The centuries-old geisha tradition rests on the notion that men love the attentiveness of extraordinarily charming women, and this is what the geisha was supposed to be: an artist who had mastered not only the techniques of charm, but those of one or more specialized art forms as well.

The feminist take on all this might be, “Where are the establishments where women pay men to be charming and attentive?” The answer: Tokyo. There aren’t many of them, compared to the number of establishments dedicated to pleasing men, but in Japan there actually are places where women with money to spend (and quite a bit of money – none of these joints are cheap), can have handsome and attentive young men chat with them, light their cigarettes, and take care of them in every way, for a fee.

What’s being paid for in these establishments looks like the third facet of Jankowiak’s trio of love: attachment. It’s not lust, nor is it infatuation that the performers are acting out; it’s the gestures we associate with attachment--that deep emotional connection whose absence is the very definition of loneliness.

In fact, Japan also offers host and hostess clubs in which the relationship is more like romantic passion than attachment. According to “The Great Happiness Space,” a documentary on one such club in Osaka, there is more than a little pain associated with these performances. Why is it that we don’t have such clubs in Chicago or Orlando?

Infatuation for Sale in Osaka

Japan is the most intensely aesthetic place I have ever known. It may be that this, combined with the fragmented lives to which urban modernity consigns so many of us, helps explain the existence of feigned and paid for romance and attachment in the heart of Japan’s great cities.

I’m not, after all, willing to reject authenticity as a good post-modernist would, partly because I haven’t even managed to deal with modernity yet, never mind post-modernity. So I still think Forster was right when he said, “Only connect.”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Cool Roots

Whenever my students ask me, "Professor Moore, how did you get to be so cool?" I know how to answer. Actually none of my students has asked me that yet, but I'm pretty sure it's what a lot of them are thinking.

Anyway, my answer would be that being cool comes from spending hour after hour in the library reading books. At least that was true in my case.

It all started in 1993 when I noticed my five-year-old daughter and her friends using the slang term "cool" to describe things they especially liked. Since this is the same hip term of approval I started using around 1965, it struck me that slang might not consist of fly-by-night terms that come and go with dizzying speed, as everyone seems to assume.

So, I decided to track down the history of "cool" even if it meant spending long, grueling hours in the library reading racy Beatnik novels, old Snoopy comics, and vintage high school yearbooks.

Joe Cool

And here's what I found: Swell used to be cool.

Believe it or not, corny old swell was the happenin' slang term of the Roaring Twenties. Having lingered lazily in the English language for over a century, it suddenly burst on the scene around 1920 with attitude written all over it. It defined the rebellious youth culture of that era, a culture fueled by women's rights and anti-Victorian passions that had young people dancing exuberantly and (to the horror of the older generation) engaging in petting parties.

And swell had staying power. Like cool, it hung on for decades as the number one slang term of approval. Its bad boy image hung on with it. In an "I Love Lucy" episode of 1952, Lucy hires a diction coach who tells her and Ethel that there are two words they should always avoid in their speech, "One of them is swell," he says, "and the other one is lousy." To which Lucy replies, "OK, what are they?"

But in the mid 1960s swell was transmogrified from the rebellious to the cornball. This was because the sixties, like the twenties, witnessed the rise of a rambunctious youth culture that broke with parental traditions bringing with it a new, all-purpose slang term: cool.

Modern cool was born in African-American culture and originally referred to a knowing, standoffish pose used as a defense against racism. Where swell in the 1920s was all anti-Victorian hedonism, cool embodied an attitude of knowing self-control or hipness. In fact, this attitude still endures as the core meaning of cool, and it's what keeps this term fresh and alive. Saying "cool" pays homage, on some barely conscious level, to that knowing and self-controlled pose first patented in African-American jazz circles.

Given the acceptance of the new value system by mainstream youth, the motto of the baby-boomer generation might well be, "We're cool, Mom and Dad are swell."

It's easy to trace the cool rebellion that replaced swell as the bad boy of slang right in your own home. If you have an old high school yearbook lying around, take a look at your friends' signed dedications. Chances are that if you graduated before 1964, some of those signatures will use the word swell, as in "Best wishes to a swell guy!"

If your yearbook signatures date from 1967 or later, these swell references will be largely replaced with cool ones: "We sure had some cool times in Mr. Flatt's home room!"

So swell and cool each arose by being tied to the key values of a new youth culture, and lasted for decades because each identified its users with those values. Though I haven't done the hours of grueling research required to prove it, I suspect that "bully" was also the value-rich slang term of its day.

Remember Theodore Roosevelt's reference to the presidency as "a bully pulpit?" "Bully" then had the same cocky, informal quality that swell and cool later picked up, and Teddy Roosevelt apparently used this word in order to sound like a man of the people.

                              TR and his Bully Pulpit

To create the same effect in the 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt would have called the presidency "a swell pulpit."  Bill Clinton, no doubt, would have slipped his saxophone aside just long enough to say, "The presidency?  It's a cool pulpit."

      Clinton's Cool Pulpit

And, just as in 1965, the prototypical image of cool today is the African-American male in shades with an expression that gives nothing away.

       Thelonious Monk

(This item originally appeared in the Rollins College Sandspur. Original research is in American Speech, Volume 79 - Spring 2004 .)

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Let Us Not Be Frightened out of Our Natural Ecstasy

O victory forget your underwear we're free 

– Allen Ginsberg

I watched the new film Howl last night with Darla and Brother Jonathan, and we declared it great. It has a lot of cartoon figures engaged in sex (heterosexual sex, as Jonathan noted, which doesn’t seem quite Ginsbergian), but who among those who would watch this film would be put off by explicit sex on screen?

The movie provides images to match the spoken words of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” and shifts quickly from these to scenes of the 1957 obscenity trial directed against the poem, and then to convincing portrayals of the young Ginsberg by James Franco.

Taking the poem in like this, enlivened it for me and added to my impression that it gets better every time I read or otherwise encounter it. Part of its appeal for me is that the world it evokes is somewhat familiar. It brings to life so much of the counterculture world in which I grew up (or at least, in which I would have grown up, had I chosen to do so).

Ginsberg writes of angelheaded hipsters, and for me this phrase calls to mind my college buddy, Guy, from whom I learned so much. Like Ginsberg’s visionary indian angels, he passed through the university with radiant eyes hallucinating Blake-light tragedy.

Now I feel as though I’m in the total animal soup of time, stealing one Ginsbergian phrase after another as they come to me in all their universal glory as though from the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox in nowhere Zen New Jersey. Theft, theft.

I’ve always admired Ginsberg for his gentle, insistent honesty – honesty that must not have felt gentle to the defenders of the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism. Darla and I had a chance to hear him recite at Rollins in the 1990s, and the one song-poem I remember best from that night denounced tobacco: “Don’t smoke the official dope.”

Ginsberg’s work at an ad agency in the 1950s led him to question why he should dedicate his talents to convincing housewives to spend their money on one scented product or another. It made him enough of a leftist that Kerouac labeled him Carlo Marx in On the Road.

His ad agency work is touched on in Howl, the movie, and “Howl,” the poem, where he writes of those “who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,…”

Shades of Madmen.

I never saw Kerouac in person, though he lived in Central Florida in the 1960s. I did meet Carolyn Cassady, wife of the famous Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarty) the latter lovingly referred to in “Howl” as “N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver.”

Carolyn wrote a counterpoint memoir to Kerouac’s novel, calling it Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg. She was in Orlando during the dedication of the Kerouac house at which time I had a chance to chat with her for a few minutes. By then she was probably around 80 years old, and had completely re-remembered Cassady and Kerouac in terms of their more homey side. She insisted to me that Neal and Jack were “working men,” with jobs and families. She seemed to want to see them as regular working class guys who did a bit of drinking now and then. I don’t deny this as far as it goes, but Carolyn seemed to me to be distorting who they were as much as On the Road distorted their image in the other, non-domestic direction. Still, she was a sweet and pleasant lady, and I appreciated the chance to talk to her.

On that same occasion I had a conversation with another Beat figure, the musician David Amran; not exactly a conversation, since David is a real talker and once he gets going, he just goes. On this and one other occasion where I spoke with him, he told story after story of his life in the days of the Beats. A sweet guy and a fantastic musician, but be careful not to approach him if you’re late for an appointment.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti did a memorable reading at Rollins back in the 1990s. Ferlinghetti, as the publisher of “Howl” was the one who faced punitive consequences in the obscenity trial. Hats off to him for his courage on that count.

These remembered snippets of sightings and conversations with some of the figures from Ginsberg’s world give me a nice feeling, as though I’ve caught a brief glimpse of American history as it went swooshing by.

The trial itself (and I hope this won’t be considered a spoiler) concluded with the judgment that “Howl” was not obscene, given its literary merit. For readers and audiences today (or most of us, at least), the obscenity is not in the crude, candid language of "Howl," but in the crooked, self-deluding logic of those who thrashed about trying to suppress it. Times change.

Great movie, great poem.