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 Café 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.”