For Better or Worse: “Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples”

TabooIn an attempt to inject some more sex into what is ostensibly a sex writer’s blog, I’m going to start posting some of my smut-and-sex-toy reviews here. Don’t worry — I’m not abandoning the rants and musings about skepticism and politics and music and weird dreams and Harry Potter and stuff. But since I am primarily known as a sex writer, I thought some of you might want to read some of my thoughts about, you know, sex.

This review originally ran in Adult Friend Finder magazine, where I’ve been writing for about a year and a half now. I’ve done a lot of good work for them, but this is one of my favorites. It uses a dirty book review as a jumping-off point to think about the anatomy of a dirty story, and how porn fiction works — or doesn’t. Enjoy!

For Better or Worse
by Greta Christina

Taboo: Forbidden Fantasies for Couples
edited by Violet Blue
Cleis Press, $14.95

OceanI realize that calling an erotica anthology uneven is like calling the ocean wet. It’s practically built into the definition of the thing. When you have a couple dozen or more stories by a couple dozen or more writers, you’re going to have ups and downs, higher points and less high points. And in an erotica collection, you’re naturally going to have stories that turn you on and ones that don’t, stories that cater to your favorite delectable desires and stories that cater to other people’s weird-ass kinks (or their totally boring ones).

But while all erotica anthologies are uneven, some are more uneven than others. Some hit a consistently high note, ranging from damn good to fucking great; others wobble about in the range from mediocre to pretty decent. And some, like Taboo, are all over the damn map, with stories that send you flying… and stories that make you wonder why even the writer cared.

Sweet_lifeTaboo was put together by the editor of the Sweet Life anthologies, and it’s in a similar vein: stories about (and for) committed long-term heterosexual couples acting out fantasies and exploring new sexual possibilities, aimed at a couples’ audience and meant to both arouse and inspire. But Taboo has an important twist. While the fantasies in the Sweet Life books are on the gentle, not-very-threatening side — first-time spankings, three-ways, dildos, and the like — the stories in Taboo are kinkier, edgier, more extreme. Taboo has public sex, public kink, medical scenes, rape scenes, gender-fuck, sex with strangers, sex with guns, and heaps upon heaps of heavy-duty hard-core dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. It’s all about couples consensually exploring fantasies together — but there’s a huge variety in the fantasies and fetishes that the couples in the stories are exploring.

And there’s a huge variety in the quality of those stories. Taboo is so interestingly uneven that you could almost use it in a writing class, an object lesson in what makes porn fiction work — and what doesn’t.

SpeculumLesson 1: You can’t write a good porn story by just describing a series of physical events. Really effective porn gets inside the characters’ heads and bodies, makes the reader feel what they’re feeling. “After Hours” by Dante Davidson does this exquisitely. One of the better and more twisted stories in Taboo, it describes a medical scene between a doctor and a nurse, a gynecological exam with a sexual edge that gradually crosses the line from nasty, forbidden thoughts to nasty, forbidden deeds. Davidson does a remarkable job of conveying how the doctor feels, the line he walks between detached professionalism and intense arousal and invasion — so much so that it takes a while to figure out that this is actually a consensual, planned-out scene between an established couple. And Davidson doesn’t just get you inside the doctor’s head — he gets you inside the nurse’s as well, conveying not just the man’s excitement but his awareness of the woman’s as well.

CucumberOn the other very disappointing hand, we have “Forbidden Fruit” by Pearl Jones. This is a prime example of the “series of physical events” theory of porn writing. In it, a couple has a series of sexual encounters involving fruits and vegetables. The woman masturbates with a cucumber, and later on her husband fucks her with a cucumber, and then they go to the grocery store and buy more sexy fruits and vegetables, and then he goes down on her with the cucumber inside her, and then they eat raspberries off each other’s bodies, and then she cuts a hole in a melon so he can fuck it, and then… and it goes on like this. Jones gives detailed descriptions of each act, occasionally even describing the couple’s physical sensations… with no sense at all of what it means to them, what it is about fucking their produce that they find naughty or sexy or special, how it all feels to them emotionally as well as physically. Admittedly, the “sex with food” thing doesn’t do much for me (and frankly, I’m hard-pressed to see what’s so all-fired taboo about it). But I’m not particularly into the medical fetish, either; yet “After Hours” got me inside that fantasy — and made me feel exactly what was hot about it.

Which leads me to Lesson 2: A porn story should be… well, a story. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it should have a narrative arc: it doesn’t have to have a lot of non-sexual plot, or indeed any, but the characters should be in one place at the beginning of the story, someplace else at the end of it. You can get away with a series of disjointed sexual images in video porn, since it’s such a visual medium; but unless it’s written by an exceptionally good experimental writer, a porn story has to unfold, with some suspense about where things are going. This isn’t just a literary nicety — it makes the porn hotter, making it easier to identify with the characters, and giving it a sexual tension right along with the dramatic tension.

James_deanFor an excellent example, take “James Dean, One Thousand Bucks, and a Long Summer Night” by Emilie Paris. “James Dean” starts out as a fairly standard (albeit unusually well-rendered) fantasy about a couple picking up a street hustler for a voyeuristic three-way. But as the story unfolds, the wife changes her mind about what she wants — and takes charge of the scene, directing it into an area she and her husband hadn’t anticipated or even agreed on. The moment when the wife takes control and shifts the fantasy from the standard “man watching his wife fuck another man” to the rather less commonly-seen “newly dominant wife watching her straight husband get fucked by another man” is a moment that’s both unnerving and fiercely exciting. The story gets across the essence of what makes taboos hot — not simply breaking society’s rules and boundaries, but breaking your own, with the excitement of genuinely unfamiliar territory that might actually change your life while it’s getting you off.

And of course, any good narrative has to have conflict. This may be the lesson Taboo was in the greatest need of. Far too many of its stories gloss right over the hard parts: couples venture into three-ways with never a blink of jealousy or insecurity, and try freaky new fetishes with pure eagerness and no hint of anxiety or doubt.

BabysittersI could once again cite “Forbidden Fruit”: a twelve-page story, packed with multiple sex acts, in which absolutely nothing happens. It’s a near-perfect example of how the lack of development or conflict makes for truly boring smut. (I’m sorry to keep harping on this one story; it was just so pointless and rambling and dull that it actually stood out, making me wonder what on earth it was doing in an erotica anthology with obvious aspirations to quality.) But I don’t want to keep hammering on this one poor sad piece of supposed erotica. And I actually have a better example of bad conflict-less porn: “Sometimes It’s Better to Give,” a “couple fucks their babysitter” story by Bryn Haniver. It’s a fun fantasy (or it could be), loaded with potentially hot taboo elements: the depraved older couple seducing the innocent girl, the wicked employers taking advantage of their employee, the moment when the young woman’s surprise and resistance turn to curiosity and lust, etc. etc. But the author goes to an absurd effort to de-fang the nastier parts and make it all safe and nice. The babysitter’s actually their ex-babysitter, a horny and flirtatious college girl with loads of sexual experimenting already under her belt, and when the couple propositions her, she says yes with barely a blink of an eye. The author didn’t let her be shocked or reluctant or even surprised, not even for one paragraph. As a result, there’s no suspense, no conflict — and no tension, sexual or otherwise. And it’s not even remotely plausible.

Dark_alleyAdmittedly, I have a personal bias towards smut fiction that’s plausible. It’s hard to lose myself in a sex fantasy if I’m picking holes in the backstory or thinking, “There’s no way she would do that.” But my desire for porn with real conflict and problems isn’t just about believability. It’s about sexual tension, the heat created by personal friction. As a marvelous counter-example, there’s “Dinner Out” by Erin Sanders, one of the best, scariest rape fantasies I’ve read. It works because it lets the rape be both terrifying and safe. It’s clear to both the reader and the “victim” that this is a couple acting out a rape fantasy and not a real rape — and yet it lets the victim feel panic and helplessness, violation and pain. And it doesn’t shy away from the tension in her own feelings, the unsettling and exciting disconnect between feeling violated by a stranger and feeling cared for by a loving partner. There’s also “In the Back of Raquel” by P.S. Haven, an entirely different “couple tries a voyeuristic three way” story that lets the scene be imperfect, that explores and even revels in its weirdness and jealousy and competitiveness — and that finds the fierce, driven, urgent intensity at the heart of the weirdness, the almost-angry tension that makes the story both arousing and believable.

Exam_tableAnd while we’re on the subject of plausibility, we have our final lesson: respect for the fetish or fantasy. The two medical-play stories in Taboo are perfect examples of what I mean. I’ve already talked about “After Hours,” (the perverse and lovely doctor/nurse medical exam fantasy) and how it made the gradual unfolding of the story feel like exquisitely tantalizing foreplay. But the story also works because it lets the characters get into their roles and act as if they were real. Their nasty thoughts and feelings are clearly there from the beginning, but they act like doctor and patient for a good long while, keeping the reader in suspense and sticking within the fantasy’s boundaries until almost the end. It lets you believe these dirty dirty things could really be happening, in a real medical exam — and this lets you have the fantasy, lets you crawl inside it and feel it down to your blood vessels.

Nurse_bootIn contrast, we have “Medical Attention” by Skye Black. In this one, the medical attention doesn’t get to be clinical and detached even for a minute before it becomes blatantly and explicitly sexual. It has no patience, doesn’t let you believe that this could really be happening even for a paragraph: it jumps to the sex right away, giving you the barest taste of the fantasy — and almost immediately smashing it to pieces.

Okay. All this babbling about the anatomy of a porn story is all very well and good. But it’s not helping you decide whether to buy the damn book or not. What’s my final verdict? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Taboo_1On the whole, I’d say thumbs up. While Taboo is seriously uneven, enough of the stories are good to make the book worthwhile — and several of the stories are better than just good. If you like porn that’s about taboo sex and edge play, do check it out. And if you’re intrigued and inspired by the idea of acting out edgy taboo sex fantasies in solid long-term relationships, then this is your baby. Just be prepared: you’re going to have to do some skimming. Even more than you usually would with a porn fiction anthology.

P.S. You can buy Taboo at Powell’s.

Why I Like “Harry Potter” Better than “Lord of the Rings”

Harrypotter1LordoftheringsI’m not arguing that “Harry Potter” is actually — in some objective sense — better than “Lord of the Rings.” (If it even makes sense to say “in some objective sense” when you’re talking about art.) I get that “Lord of the Rings” is probably Great Art, and I’m not sure that “Harry Potter” is. (Talk to me in a hundred years, when we see if kids are still reading it.)

What I’m saying is that I enjoy “Harry Potter” immeasurably more than “Lord of the Rings.” With “Harry Potter,” I eagerly look forward to each new installment in the series. I re-read the books frequently and with pleasure; I have an extensive memory of the story, and can discuss its finer points at length; and I have an elaborate and probably unhealthy fantasy life centering around the Potterverse.

“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand, I slogged through twenty years ago out of a sense of duty. I found it tedious and unengaging, and skimmed through long sections of it; I’ve never had the slightest desire to re-read it even once; I have only the vaguest memory of the general outline of the plot (ring, Mordor, lots of battles, yada yada yada); and I couldn’t tell you the names of more than four or five characters — and that only because those names get tossed around so much in conversation. (Yes, my friends are nerds.) “Lord of the Rings” is like Wagner or Bob Dylan to me — I recognize and acknowledge its greatness, without actually liking or enjoying it.

And I think this is a defensible position.

So I’m going to defend it.

Here’s what I think “Harry Potter” has that “Lord of the Rings” doesn’t.

Snape1. Moral complexity. I may be being unfair here — like I said, I have only the vaguest memory of “Lord of the Rings” — but the characters in LOTR seemed to line up into clearly distinguished Good Guy/Bad Guy camps. Who then proceed to fight each other. For three long books. With the exception of Frodo — and are we ever really in doubt that he’ll do the right thing? — the battle of good against evil is always external. Evil is Out There, and you kill it with an axe or something.

“Harry Potter,” on the other hand, has genuine moral complexity. The battle against evil is often internal, and the right thing to do isn’t always clear. Good people do bad things, and not always for good reasons, and sometimes with serious consequences. Bad people turn out to have surprisingly decent and sympathetic sides to them. And perhaps more importantly, there’s a continuum of good and bad. There are people who are jerks but aren’t actually evil — and in some cases who have strong and important good tendencies, or who are at least understandable and somewhat sympathetic. And there are people who are likable but weak and selfish, and who screw up a lot. Forget comparing it to other juvenile literature — there’s more moral complexity and shades of gray in “Harry Potter” than there is in most adult fiction.

Corneliusfudge2. Political relevance. There are times when “Harry Potter” reads like Chomsky for kids. In “Harry Potter,” people in government ignore real threats that they don’t want to deal with; magnify fake threats to make it look like they’re taking action; use fear-mongering to solidify their power; make alliances of convenience with people they know are evil; serve their rich friends instead of the people they’re governing; manipulate and even censor the press; and use the education of children as an opportunity for propaganda. The book is like a civics lesson at the most left-wing junior high you can imagine.

“Lord of the Rings,” on the other hand… well, I suppose it’s not fair to critique the books for creating an entirely fresh and imaginary world. That’s one of its strengths, after all. But I didn’t feel that LOTR shed any light at all on my life and the world I live in. This is just a personal preference, but I strongly prefer fiction — including fantasy/sci-fi — that has some relevance and connection to me and my world. Sure, I like escapism, I like being taken out of my life… but I like being taken out of my life for the purpose of stepping back and getting perspective on it. I didn’t get that from “Lord of the Rings”… and I get it in trumps from “Harry Potter.”

Hermione3. Female characters. There’s been some debate about whether the Harry Potter books are sexist. And I’ll grant that the female characters in “Harry Potter” — and their place in the story — have some problematic aspects.

But here’s the thing about female characters in “Harry Potter”:

It has some.

More than a couple, even.

And those female characters aren’t just sidelines or afterthoughts. They’re central to the plot, they’re in positions of strength and authority, and they take an active role in making things happen. There are times when “Harry Potter” is a bit of a testosterone-fest… but compared to “Lord of the Rings,” it’s freakin’ Adrienne Rich.

Anyway. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. What do you think? Arguments, agreements, questions, outraged objections, and other comments are cheerfully encouraged.

How Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life — what does it mean?

FredflintstoneSo if you read the New Yorker, you probably read the Opal Whatsername parody in Shouts and Murmurs, How Fred Flintstone Got Home, Got Wild, and Got a Stone Age Life. I spent much of Mother’s day with Ingrid, her mom, and her mom’s partner trying to figure out all the literary references… but although I usually think of myself as somewhat well-read — and think of Ingrid and Judy and Lori in that category as well — we could only come up with maybe a third of the them.

I Googled the title, assuming someone somewhere would have out an answer key online… but I couldn’t find one.

So do you know any of the literary references in this parody? If you do, please post them here.

The ones we got:

“Afoot and lighthearted, he took to the open road…” Ingrid thinks this is On the Road, but none of us are sure.

“Stonecutter for the world, toolmaker, stacker of meat…” Chicago by Carl Sandburg.

“It was the best of times, it was the first of times…” Tale of Two Cities, Dickens.

“Keep on truckin’” – Robert Crumb.

“See Dino run. Run, Dino, run.” -Whatever the title of that stupid Dick and Jane book is.

“Let us go then, Hominidae…” Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot. (I almost wrote “Love Scone.” Oops.)

“What makes Fred run?” I assume this is What Makes Sammy Run, but haven’t read it so am not positive.

“Wilma, light of his life, fire of his loincloth…” Lolita, Nabakov.

“Once again at midnight nearly, while Fred pondered weak and weary…” The Raven, Poe. (I can never hear this without thinking about the Simpsons…)

“And so he beat on, fists against the granite, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” -The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald.

So what are the rest of the references? Help, please!

Dream diary, 5/4/06: Voldemort’s glasses

PotterI dreamed that Harry Potter had found Voldemort’s glasses, and was convinced that this was a major key to defeating him. He was trying to contact the other members of the Order of the Phoenix to let them know about the glasses, but was having trouble getting around, since BART had just added a new line and the maps were confusing.

I woke up thinking, “I need to get a life.”

Dream diary, 3/14/06: Buffy vs. Voldemort

Harry_potterBuffy1I dreamed that Voldemort was preparing his final attack to take over the world, but instead of being fought by Harry Potter and company, he was being fought by Buffy and her gang (a gang which included me and a few of my friends). Voldemort’s attack was going to be launched from Central Park in New York, down near the museums, so the Buffy gang gathered on a street corner at around 75th and Central Park West to prepare for battle.

There were about a dozen of us, and we started to discuss tactics, but Voldemort’s followers began pouring into Central Park — there were thousands of them, marching naked in a zombie-like trance along the park’s trails and converging into the center of the park — and we realized that we hadn’t actually made a battle plan, and had no idea how to fight an army of this size with this degree of organization. We all sort of shrugged and said, “Oh, well, I’m sure we’ll win, we always do,” and barged into the park, but were captured almost immediately and imprisoned in a little shack behind the Metropolitan Museum.

We could see Voldemort’s army prepare for battle through the shack’s windows — they had now split into two groups, half still naked and half with skin-tight black body armor, and they were pairing off and morphing together into these weird mutant battle-horses. The Buffy gang was starting to get worried, but mostly we were standing around the shack pretty casually, going, “Well, I’m sure we’ll think of something.”

I think this dream is about George W. Bush and the Democrats. But I’m not sure how the Metropolitan Museum and the mutant battle-horses fit in.

JT LeRoy and Hoaxes

Actually, I’m not going to talk about the JT LeRoy thing per se (I work for a company that published one of his books, so I don’t think it’d be appropriate). Read the articles in the Times or the Chron if you want the details.

But the JT LeRoy thing is making me think about the whole subject of artistic hoaxes, a subject I find both fascinating and baffling.

There’s something about them that I fundamentally don’t understand: Why would anybody even *want* to pass off their work as someone else’s, or as something other than what it really is? To me, the whole point of artistic endeavor (if I may make a gross oversimplification) is a feeling of connection with the world: a sense that you’ve dredged something out of yourself and put it out in the world, and that other people are taking that something into themselves and letting it have an effect on them. To pass your work off as something it isn’t… it essentially severs that connection, rendering the entire exercise pointless.

Sure, it’s nice to get fame and admiration. But what’s the point of fame and admiration if the person being admired isn’t really you? Wouldn’t that good glowy feeling you get when your work is recognized just feel like it was missing the mark?

Sure, it’s nice to hobnob with celebrities. I guess. It seems a little weird to me, actually, but then I’ve never hobnobbed, so what do I know. But what’s the point if the person these celebrities are admiring doesn’t even exist? Wouldn’t any sense of coolness you got from hanging out with them feel meaningless, since it wasn’t really you they were hanging out with?

I suppose you could say it’s done for money. And it’s true, money buys the same amount of stuff whether you got it fraudulently or honestly. But… well, there must be easier ways to make money than a literary hoax. There must be easier ways to make money than a literary *anything*.

Now, I’m not talking here about hoaxes for the sake of hoaxing: the ones done for the sheer fun of pulling people’s legs, or to make some point about the laziness and gullibility of the media/academia/the human race/etc. Those, I get. But the kind of hoaxes I’m talking about are different. I’m talking about the kind of artistic hoaxes that are meant to stay hoaxed: the ones that are really meant to deceive, truly and permanently.

It’s not that I don’t understand why people lie to each other and try to fool each other. I get that. People lie to gain advantage, to protect themselves, to make themselves seem more attractive, etc. etc. And there’s obviously a sense of power people get from fooling other people. I get that, too. I get why people bluff in poker games, make stuff up on their resumes, lie to people they’re hitting on in bars, and so on.

But making a lie out of years of creative work — that’s a different animal. If you don’t actually care about the artistic endeavor and are just doing it for fame and money and power … well, that’s an awful lot of trouble to go to, for what seems like not that much payoff in the fame and money and power department. And if you do care about the artistic endeavor, then it seems like an enormous amount of trouble to go to for absolutely no payoff at all.

It reminds me a little of the Bible verse (stay with me here, people): “What will it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and lose his soul?” For a long time I thought that verse was just another bit of generic Biblical soul-spouting. But now I think it’s actually very astute — and not just in a religious sense. I think it means that there’s no point in losing who you are in order to get wealth and power and stuff — because there won’t be anybody there to enjoy it once you get it. If you lose your soul, your self, in order to get stuff, you won’t have any self left to feel good about all the stuff you got.

Reading diary, 8/5/05: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

It’s fine. It’s, you know, a Harry Potter book. Either you’re into them or you aren’t. If you are, you’re going to read it no matter what; if you aren’t, you probably aren’t going to start with the sixth book in the series.

Let’s see. I did like this one rather better than the last couple: it’s a lot tighter, and it’s less relentlessly grim (except for the ending, which is, like, totally a bummer — seriously, I was more upset about it than I’d expected to be). It does still have many of the weaknesses of the rest of the series: overheard conversations, talking killers, awkward expositions, a general need for an editor with a firmer hand. It also has a certain amount of deus ex machina, especially in the romantic relationships, some of which seem to come out of left field.

But so what.

To call it a page-turner would be a gross understatement; by the end of the book, I was reading it almost frantically, to find out what would happen next. It’s just a really good, compelling story, despite its flaws, and it’s a really rich, dense, complicated fantasy world, despite its inconsistencies. It’s also one of the few pieces of children’s literature I can think of that explores moral complexity in a serious way. (If anyone can think of counter-examples. please speak up.) And I love, love, love the political digs, especially in the last few books.

I think the Harry Potter books are very, very good children’s literature (overall, I give the series a B+). Whether it’s great children’s literature, I’m not so sure. I kind of think we have to wait 100 years and see if people are still reading it to find out.

Books I’m currently still in the middle of:

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14″ by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn
“Essays” by Michel de Montaigne
“Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment” by Judith Kay Nelson

Reading diary, 7/11/05: Existentialism and Human Emotions

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Let me first explain. I got this book because I’m doing a writing project that I thought I should read some Sartre for. Plus, I’ve always assumed that I was more or less an existentialist, without actually having read enough existentialism to back that up; so there was this whole curiosity/guilt thing going. (I’ve read Sartre before, but it was a long long time ago in college and I was probably pretty stoned at the time, so I don’t remember it that well.) Anyway, I was looking for some Sartre that wouldn’t make me want to tear my hair out, and I read somewhere (probably in the Amazon customer reviews) that this was the most accessible Sartre book. Sartre Lite, if you will.

Which it may well be. But if it is, it isn’t saying much. It’s sort of like saying that the bank vault at my downtown branch is more accessible than Fort Knox. It may well be, but I’m still not getting inside.

I’m going to be fair for a minute here. The first chapter of this book is actually both readable and interesting. An excerpt from another book (this entire book is excerpts from other books), it defends existentialism against an assortment of charges that have been leveled against it — that it’s a passive philosophy, that it’s isolating, that it’s unethical or amoral, that it dwells on the negative, etc. etc. In explaining what existentialism isn’t, this first chapter does a good, clear job of explaining what it is.

Which none of the rest of the book does. At all.

What is it about modern philosophy that makes it so goddamn impenetrable? Look, I’m a smart person. I’m a thoughtful person. I’m even a pretty well-educated person, with a college degree and everything. And I couldn’t make head or tail out of huge amounts of this thing. It’s not that the ideas are hard, or hard to follow; I’ve read enough “science and math for the layperson” to know when I’m not grasping an idea because it’s simply over my head. It’s that the ideas don’t seem to make sense. Literally. They read like gibberish, or like surrealism. I can parse the literal meaning of the words and the syntax (usually), but it doesn’t seem to be getting at anything, or at anything important, or at anything that makes sense and has meaning.

Example: “On the contrary, it is a matter of rediscovering under the partial and incomplete aspects of the subject the veritable concreteness which can be only the totality of his impulse toward being, his original relation to himself, to the world, and to the Other.” (p. 61)

Or: “In empirical desire I can discern a symbolization of a fundamental concrete desire which is the person himself and which represents the mode in which he has decided that being would be in question in his being.” (p. 64)

Maybe I’m being too utilitarian or something. But it seems to me that the purpose of philosophy is to offer some understanding of the universe and our place in it; to give some shape to our lives and our choices about how we live them. This isn’t that. This is just intellectual embroidery, or thumb-twiddling, or puzzle-playing. (I’d call it intellectual masturbation, but I think far too highly of masturbation to do that.) Or maybe it’s just unbelievably bad writing.

It’s deeply weird that, as our culture over the centuries has become more egalitarian, our philosophy has become less so. My memory of 18th and 19th century philosophy, and of classical philosophy for that matter, is that the writing was mostly accessible to anyone with a fair degree of literacy and education (which, admittedly, was a small elite group), and that the ideas, while complex, were comprehensible if you followed them closely. But ironically, now that more people are becoming educated and could have access to philosophy, it seems as if philosophy has become out of reach to anyone without a philosophy degree. (The deconstructionists are even worse; I’m not convinced that even *they* know what they’re talking about.)

It’s as if impenetrability has become equated with seriousness. It’s as if the very fact of being understood and valued by largish numbers of people somehow tainted an idea, making it boorish and unoriginal and obvious. It’s as if being comprehensible to the layperson — or to anyone other than a small band of colleagues — means your ideas couldn’t really be all that smart or interesting. After all, if people of only average intelligence can understand you, how smart could you be? It’s a weird logical fallacy — the belief that because many important and intelligent ideas are difficult to follow, therefore being difficult to follow makes an idea important and intelligent. It’s the attitude that’s made “accessible” a dirty word; the attitude that’s made calling a wine “drinkable” an insult.

And fuck that.

Now, to be fair again. Some of the problem here may be that existentialism has become *too* influential, *too* ingrained in our way of thinking — so much so that it just seems obvious. If you’re a more or less secular person, the basic tenets of the philosophy — that we are who we choose to be, that we’re responsible for our own decisions, that there’s no meaning to life except whatever meaning we create — don’t seem at all like radical ideas that someone had to make up and convince people of. They just seem like a given. It’s easy to focus in the impenetrable frills, because the foundation is so solid as to be invisible.

(Although my friend Tim hit the nail on the head, I thought, when he said “Okay, they believe life has no external objective meaning, only the meaning that we create — but for some reason they think that’s a bad thing.” Touche. Sartre does beat his breast an awful lot over the anguish and despair of all this existential freedom, to the point where all I could think was “God, what a wuss.” And whenever he was gassing on about how perfectly free we all are to 100% choose our own natures, I kept thinking that he desperately needed some basic training in genetics, not to mention neurobiology and social science.) Still — a pretty damn solid foundation, for the most part.

And to be fair yet again: Not all modern philosophy is like this. The philosophy of science, for instance, is mostly pretty comprehensible (what I’ve read of it, anyway). You may or may not agree with any or all of their points, but you can usually figure out what those points are. And the same is true for ethics.

Anyway. Blah, blah, blah; rant, rant, rant. I don’t know if I have any real conclusion here. Good thing this is a blog entry and not an essay; if it was an essay, I’d be tearing my hair out trying to come up with some half-assed conclusion, maybe along the lines of “But one thing is true: Life goes on.” I don’t know. I don’t have any conclusion. It just bugs me, is all.

Books I’m currently still in the middle of:

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14″ by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn
“Essays” by Michel de Montaigne
“Seeing Through Tears: Crying and Attachment” by Judith Kay Nelson

Reading diary, 6/17/05: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Form

Neat. Tough sledding, but neat.

“Mutants” Armand Marie Leroy is about, well, mutants: people born with genetic or other birth defects. Unlike most books I’ve seen on these people, this isn’t a social history of freak shows and freak society. It’s a science-for-the-layperson book, looking at how humans (and other animals) develop in the womb, and taking what happens when that process goes wrong as a way of understanding what happens when it goes right.

The book is tough going at times. It really, really doesn’t dumb down the science; as a result, there were good-sized stretches that I didn’t follow at all and just had to skim. And I’m usually pretty good with this “science for laypeople” kind of thing.

But I found it very much worth it. I have a far better sense now (which is to say, any sense at all) of how exactly DNA and embryonic development works, how the genetic code tells an embryo to do what it does. And I have a much, much better sense of gaping awe and wonder at the fact that this un-fucking-believably complicated and delicate process even works at all, not to mention that it works most of the time. I’m feeling much more humble since reading it: less inclined to gripe about my petty aches and pains (asthma, allergies, bum knees, etc.), and more grateful for the fact that my body basically works, and has for over 40 years.

Nitpick: I do wish there had been more pictures. Not just because the pictures it does have are cool, but because I think I would have been baffled less often if there had been more visual imagery.

Books I’m currently still in the middle of:

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14″ by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn
“Existentialism and Human Emotions” by Jean-Paul Sartre
“Essays” by Michel de Montaigne

Reading diary, 5/31/05: Unweaving the Rainbow

Just finished “Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder” by Richard Dawkins. (If you’re not familiar, Dawkins is the evolutionary biologist who wrote “The Selfish Gene” and “The Blind Watchmaker.”) “Unweaving the Rainbow” is his response to people who feel that science (as opposed to spirituality or paranormalism) destroys wonder, that the scientific approach to the world is essentially nihilistic, dreary, dull, and lacking in joy, passion, or poetry. Dawkins tries to counter this view by writing about the beauty and wonder he sees in an assortment of scientific fields, and the sense of awe he experiences at the physical world and our gradually unfolding understanding of it.

Does it work? Yes and no. Dawkins is an amazing writer, excellent at making complicated scientific concepts clear to the layperson (to the educated layperson, anyway). And lots of what he writes about is fascinating, mind-opening, freaky, and even hilarious. (The bit about superstitious pigeons is still my favorite.)

But he’s definitely more of a scientist than he is a philosopher (like, duh, he *is* a scientist). He’s very successful at showing how science is useful and even enlightening; but when it comes to conveying how science can be wondrous and transcendent, he’s more hit and miss. I think he takes the awe as a given; he assumes that anyone who understands these ideas will be awestruck by their beauty and power and meaning. And alas, I’m not sure if that’s true for anyone who doesn’t already feel that way. My own response to this book was less often “I am struck dumb by the complex, beautifully balanced majesty of the physical universe,” and more often “Cool!”

Still. Dawkins is fucking brilliant, and this book rocks like Dokken. If you’ve never read Dawkins before, I’d probably start with “The Blind Watchmaker” instead (or “The Selfish Gene,” except I haven’t read that one yet). But if you have read him and yearn for more, Greta-Bob says check it out.

Books I’m currently still in the middle of:

“Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond
“The Forbidden Zone” by Michael Lesy
“Mutants” by Armand Marie Leroy
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken?” by Studs Terkel
“Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
“The Onion Ad Nauseum: Complete Archives Volume 14″ by the staff of The Onion
“Zounds! A Browser’s Dictionary of Interjections” by Mark Dunn