Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Trophy

There are many reasons not to accept Balachandran Prabhakaran's trophy.

He deserved it.
His father deserved it.
His people deserved it.

It happened three or four years ago.
It happened far away.
It was photo shopped.

It can't be helped.
It may be too graphic for some viewers.
It's obscene.

War is never fair.
The war is over.
It won't happen again.

I didn't do it.
I can't stop it.
I get nauseous.

I'm too sensitive.
I can't sleep.
I get nightmares.

I give to a cause already.
I believe in promoting positive energy.
I believe in the power of love.

Still, I'll help you look at Balachandran's trophy pictures.
          You've already seen the first two. Balachandran, a 12-year-old boy, sits alone on a bench in a sandbag bunker. He wears shorts but his chest is bare. Although his shoulders are draped in a blanket you see three rolls of baby fat because of  how he slouches. He's been given a snack to eat. He's chewing a chocolate bar.  
          Here is Balachandran two hours later lying in the dirt with five bullet holes in his chest. The blanket is gone. 

          Balachandran was executed in a No Fire Zone, along with countless others. Really, no one has counted. His father was Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka. In 2009, some 10, 20, 30, maybe 40,000 Tamils or more were executed in a single massacre that ended a long and bloody civil war.

         Well, it ended the Tamil resistance. The oppression of Tamils, which includes intimidation, imprisonment, rape, torture, murder, and disappearances, continues with impunity, partly for the reasons listed above.

          The Sri Lankan government denies all of it and the rest of the world--India, Britain, the United States, The United Nations--looks away. We let the government of Sri Lanka encourage and deny the execution of a child, and we look away.
Instead we turn willingly to another trophy winner, Oscar Pistorius. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Pistorius is the inescapable darling of every news venue. I hardly need to tell you that he is called Blade Runner because he is a double-amputee who won gold medals in the Paralympics on aerodynamically designed prosthetic legs, or that he is on trial for the murder of his his lovely girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a well-known model. It seems that on Valentine's Day, Pistorius shot Steenkamp to death through the locked bathroom door, where she may have been hiding from him.
          Pistorius is easy on the eyes, and so is Reeva. That helps, certainly. We can easily pronounce their names, and that helps, too. The murder happened in South Africa, but it has nothing to do with apartheid, ethnic cleansing, genocide or the corruption of a brutal government—nothing at all to do with the implication of our disinterest--and that helps a great deal.

          This is a manageable story because we have one handsome murderer and one lovely victim. We allow ourselves to admire Oscar Pistorius because he is handsome and smart and conquered adversity—when he won Gold, so did we all—and we allow ourselves to loathe him now because he abused our trust when he murdered his lover in cold blood. We are eager to try him. We're so intent on righting a wrong that we don't even seriously question his guilt. This, at least, we can manage--we can bury the dead, right a wrong, proclaim one man's guilt and put him away for life. We feel we've done justice. Case closed.
          But what about Sri Lanka? What about the countless numbers of dead, each of whom had their own stories we will never hear? Who are their murderers? Where are their graves? Where's justice? 

          If you're like me, the question you're afraid to ask is How do I change the world? We may, in fact, be helpless. I don't know how to fix it. I can't lie to you; I have just come back from what I publicly proclaimed was a mental health break—a vacation from Sri Lanka. And I'm planning another vacation immediately.

          But you and I must try, just sometimes, to look. When we agree to look without being able to help, we accept our complicity. It's a nauseating, heartbreaking obligation. That's how we start.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Against Beauty


I was having some trouble with my defense against Beauty until I heard the confession of Didier, an ex-model. We usually think of a confession being motivated by guilt or remorse, but Didier's confession was driven by another kind of emotion closely related, I suspect, to fear.

          Perhaps he was compelled by the need to be seen, simultaneously, as beautiful and as something more than merely beautiful, or maybe he was tormented by a secret fear of being ever-so-slightly less than extraordinary himself.

          In his confession, he describes walking hand-in-hand with an exquisitely beautiful woman. Although she is disguised in sweatpants and without make up, her lush, Lady Godiva hair hidden in a cap, she is still that rare diamond: an easily recognized supermodel. 

          Didier feels the awed gaze of people in the street, the double-take, as they can't believe their eyes. He confesses that the faces in the crowd are transparent to him, that his profession is responsible for engendering the kind of skewed vision that acknowledges nothing less than extraordinary beauty.

          It is unclear to whom Didier was confessing, to the supermodels, to the transparent crowd, or to himself. It is also unclear whether he believes the crowd actually sees him and his companion, or just recognizes their glossy image.

          Extraordinary beauty is a kind of rare mutation, a deformity, for which ordinary people are willing to pay or be cut. We know it doesn't last because by nature—and in nature—everything withers, dies, changes; its impermanence only increases its value. Even the simplest among us know this fundamental truth: we cling to beauty the way we cling to our own ephemeral lives, with a kind of blind, biological desperation. At the same time, we distrust its blinding brevity. We adore beauty and abhor the ugly pain of loss in equal proportion.

          What is it like to be dazzlingly beautiful—to be unconditionally desired and loved—and then find oneself growing old and invisible? What must it be like always to view oneself simultaneously as self and as object?

          In her essay Against Nature, Joyce Carol Oates writes of her perplexity at our reverence for the majesty of nature and the sense of proportion we experience as we take our place in nature. She confesses her aversion to nature's indifference—her aversion to the irrelevance of our lives. We are, after all, just fancy cosmic dust, and will return again to dust.

          Our love for nature is in the same family of feelings as our love for beauty. Climbers of Everest who die in an avalanche, or a misplaced footfall, or who freeze to death, or return triumphant, with only fingertips or an earlobe sacrificed to frostbite remind me of the beauty cravers. We insist on regarding these dumb adventurers as heroic when, in fact, they save no one. We applaud any doomed, grand attempt to scale the mountain and outwit nature, while we carry on our own feebler, private attempts to avoid our inevitable demise.

          We avoid admitting there is no final conquest. There will always be other mountains to climb, new odds to beat, but no ultimate triumph. Only small, hard-won, imaginary contests and conquests of Nature, to whose mute neutrality we inevitably return in death. From invisibility, to invisibility.

          What makes humans think they're so entirely different and superior to other species? Other animals use tools, other animals mate for life, care for their young, birds sing, cats kill for sport, bonobos mate for pleasure, we all know death, we all fight for survival, we all grieve. All that is natural.

          What is unnatural is uniquely human. Not only are we the only animals who wear clothes, but we  cook what we kill for food—elaborately pretending we don't feed on death.  We erect slaughterhouses, hide our butchers, package the meat, and then we use language to create even greater distance between death and life. We pretend there is no connection between the clucking chicken and 'poultry,' the lowing cow and boeuf bourguignon, succulent veal and the suckling calf.
          Vegetarians are no better. Just because something fails to whimper, cower, or bleed doesn't mean it, too, doesn't die. When I was a child, I used to bite bright, red cherry tomatoes straight off their vines, and their hot pulp would gush in my mouth. It gave me great pleasure. And I knew enough to feel shame, at a tender age, and hide my activity.
          The grim task of survival and death is transformed by human imagination into an art form; food becomes cuisine; eating becomes dining; starving insinuates marginality and poverty, while slimness suggests the supernatural glamour of restraining our animal appetite.

          Of course, our uniquely human appetite and imagination can almost as easily veer in the opposite direction of beauty; apparently, we are also the only species capable of committing suicide. Human imagination is dangerously double-edged.

          Extraordinary beauty is inhuman, and so has that death-defying quality. I'm never happier to be alive than when I am on my knees to beauty, blinded by beauty, am able to see the fearsome arc of our waning through the magical prism of devotion. Like most of us, I am grateful to love and abase myself in its service. Beauty, and the kind of imagination called upon to appreciate it, is the lie that reveals a greater truth. Only our imagination is immortal.
         

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Beast


It is very easy and extremely dangerous to underestimate the hardness of ice. Ice fields consisting of thick broken floes, especially those that bear signs of erosion by the sea on their upper surface, should be avoided. Do not enter ice if a longer but ice-free route is available.
~ The Mariner's Handbook

I copied this down in the morning, a few hours before I was to meet with Curt. Not sure why it seemed so important at the time, except it had the feel of a coded message. Sometimes we find advice before we recognize a problem. Sometimes we want a problem.

          It was just coffee. I'd brought my laptop to the café so I could help him out with some typing. I'd expected him to bring me a sheaf of lined paper covered with his handwriting and thought I might need his help deciphering some of it. 

          Instead he produced a pile of tests with the correct answers already filled in. It took us almost three hours to undo the language of the tests by rephrasing each question as a clear statement of fact and highlighting the key terms.

          When I came home, I felt heavy, the way you feel when a germ first enters your body. I decided to lie down for a few minutes before starting dinner. I had barely the strength to kick off my shoes and pull up the covers. A chill settled over me. I’d paid for my own coffee, but A. had insisted on paying for my typing services--I was sure I'd feel better if I could just take a nap--Why did the money matter? My thoughts fell like loose change, disconnected and indistinct. I was tired and maybe a little queasy. My body ached.


The gray branches of the giant oak tree outside my bedroom window are outlined in white. White street, white sky, white rooftops. A particular kind of snow had fallen this morning—just briefly—the coldest snow of the finest texture. The slight accumulation dulls the edges of my neighborhood and the effect is soft and peaceful. A quiet erasure of details that nonetheless glitters like a clean blade.

            I reach for the book on my bedside table, but my hand freezes halfway there; it looks like someone else’s hand. I rub the thumb against the fingers, the way I remember my grandmother doing when she came in from the garden, sifting the dirt from her fingertips. But my hand is empty.

            What if reading has become a poison for me? I'm too eager to remove myself lately, to slip between the pages of a book, like slipping into suicide or love. I have begun to address myself the way I would a reader; we are on familiar terms but remain essentially mysterious to one another.
          I'd recently read something by a psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips, about how we spend so much of our lived lives trying to find reasons why our ideal lives are not possible--why we don't live up to our potential--and how what is not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives. I wonder if our imagination is always the more satisfying reality. So often, we hear of people who dream of being rich and famous only to feel tremendously disappointed when they realize wealth and fame. If it's true that the journey and not the arrival matters, then we suffer unless satisfaction remains just out of reach.

          A glimpse of my parallel life: I'm drinking red wine with faceless friends on an old, arched terrace high in the Italian hills; it's late in the evening and there's laughter, smiling, conversation, a slight breeze carries the scent of hay. Constellations above; on the table among the glasses a hand-painted plate contains a wedge of cheese and ripe figs. A sense of ease. Someone, a man, pours more wine into my glass. I don't like the taste of red wine, but there it is.

          I've been aware of parallel lives since I was a child. I first learned to sleep alone when I was seven; till then I'd slept with my grandmother. Since I was seven, I've told myself stories in order to be able to sleep. Always stories about love and passion. (Now, of course, I read myself to sleep.) I knew then, as a child, that passion is the most important quality, and passion is aroused when an obstacle is placed between lover and beloved. In this paradigm, pain and misunderstanding lead inexorably to the fulfillment of passionate love. It is essential that fulfillment be fleeting for the cycle of passion and pain to be perpetuated.
          I may have learned this so young because my first and favorite movie was Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast. All the ingredients I would ever need were there: fear and delight in equal measure, captivity in a magical world where inanimate objects were alive, the humbling power of beauty, the awful joy of standing up to something wild and untamable, and finally the pleasure of succumbing.
          But I was always quick to turn off the TV before the beast was transformed into a prince. The prince was a vain, sniveling weakling, a repulsive concession to human limitations and a frightful renunciation of passion. The beast is ashamed of his nature, but he never denies it. Beauty may be comforted by thinking she wants to civilize him, but she is mistaken; passion is uncivilized. One of my favorite scenes is when our delicate, beloved Beauty witnesses the beast tearing apart his prey. In my story, the beast continues his inner struggle to tame himself and loses as often as not.
          Curt is neither prince nor beast but decades ago, when we were lovers, he stood in nicely for both, as needed. Phillips, the psychoanalyst, warns, "People are real to us by frustrating us. If they don't frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy." Yes, I read too much. But Phillips has to be wrong. Who in his right mind revels in frustration?
          So what if I happen to be in love with the writer Erich Maria Remarque, who died, long before I'd heard of him, in 1970. It's not so absurd. In Arc de Triomphe, he writes, "It's always what one makes out of it oneself...Love is not a businessman who wants to see a return on his investments. And imagination needs only a few nails on which to hang its veil. Whether they are of gold, tin, or covered with rust makes no difference to it. Wherever it gets caught, it is caught."
   
           But these are my thoughts. Does that mean I'm in love with myself?

           A few minutes ago, when I contemplated the prosthetic nature of my arm and my artificial heart, I tried to question what my ache might signify--the onset of flu, overexertion, sorrow?—but the whole human machine is malfunctioning. My interpretive function has gone offline and I experience feelings in their physical dimension only, without access to any emotional component. I feel unwell, unable to start dinner, unable to come up with a good excuse for lying in bed feeling stuck and frozen. Why am I so miserable?

          There is an incurable personality disease I was reading about recently called alexithymia, which is defined as the inability to identify and describe one's emotions. As luck would have it, the disease can't be acquired—you have to be born with it—so my current condition must be merely one of repression.

          It started immediately after seeing Curt. Our meeting was perfectly comfortable, there was no tension, nothing strained or terrible, except he insisted on paying me. That's when I started feeling sick. The bills had been folded inside his jacket pocket the whole time we were working and chatting.

          It's not as if I desire him. I got there early not because I was anxious but because I wanted to buy my own cup of coffee without a fuss. I didn't want to owe him anything. I don't know why I didn't tell anyone where I was going; it's not like I was hiding anything. I didn't wear anything special. I wore a scarf; I never wear a scarf. I used an eyelash curler; I almost never think of my eyelashes. That means nothing.

          When he came into the café, he asked me if the coffee was good. The Whole Earth café has a delicious variety of healthy food, but the coffee is terrible. I told him so, and then offered him my cup to sample. Maybe that was odd. He hesitated; that might have been odd, too. Our fingers touched for a fraction of a second too long. Was I slow letting go of the cup? Meaningless. He sat down, folding his long leg under the little table and our legs rested against one another. There was no room for him to move his leg, but I held my leg there longer than necessary before shifting away. Again, meaningless.

          Remember, it was a relief not to find him desirable, a relief to have a normal conversation--about work and health, family, politics, exercise--a relief to attend to something outside of ourselves, the wording of a study guide, the typing of the words.

          We kept changing tables because the sun was following us wherever we sat. The laptop, our jackets, the papers, our coffees, all of it had to be moved each time. A feeling of changing course and being hemmed in again. We had to sit quite close. I touched his arm when I had a question. His cotton shirt was an unflattering yellow-and-black plaid. I liked the feel of his arm. So what?
          I remember thinking that he had an Easter Island head. The way it's shaped and the tilt of it. He's so tall, always looking down from a greater height gives him the appearance of sneering. He needed a shave; in fact, I thought he'd look nicer if he shaved his whole head. Just a fleeting thought. On the whole he looked the same, just heavier, with drier skin. Age hadn't really changed him too much, just made his features less distinct. He  had the same small, bluish scar by his left eye, from embedded gravel when he was thrown from his bike. The same jaw, still strong and tight. One front tooth still slightly overlapping the other. He smelled good, nice deodorant.

           But his left ear had shriveled. The whole lobe had slackened, was shrunken and discolored, creased and thinned. Once noticed, it could not go unnoticed. I wondered if he had noticed? Or if any of the various women he slept with noticed.

          I wondered, in the most neutral way possible, if anything else had shriveled, and decided No. Because male-pattern baldness is indicative of high testosterone levels and because he never has a shortage of women.

          Then I noted that while my breasts may droop, my earlobes are still juicy.

          I liked pretending we're friends, pretending we're collaborating on something, and I liked pretending we could mean something to each other if we wanted to. Pretending that there might be other contexts in which I could put my hand on his arm or graze his leg with my mine.

          Maybe he was doing the same, and paid for my services. He pays sex workers all the time; maybe this was paying not to have sex. Love is not a businessman. Paying for a fantasy and simultaneously making it clear by paying that it is just that, only fantasy.

          Or maybe he was just paying for my typing.


I read about a sex study by Meredith Chivers in which arousal in both sexes is measured by a device called a  plethysmograph. Its sensors are connected to the genitalia and detect swelling in males and lubrication in females. Men and women were shown a variety of porn and asked to use a keypad to self-report arousal and the results were stunning. Men claimed to be aroused by almost everything (except copulating bonobos and men on men, if the subject was heterosexual, or men on women, if the subject was gay) and the science confirmed this. The plethysmograph demonstrated that all women, on the other hand, were turned on by everything--gay, straight, and bonobo--but were unable to recognize their own arousal the majority of the time.

         I was ready to say that if bonobos make me hot without my knowing it, then what's so terrible about Curt affecting me the same way? It's unworthy of repression, so why give something natural and quite trivial a second thought?

          But that's not what I really believe. What I really believe is that all those women hooked up to the plethysmographs recognized their own arousal but chose to answer dishonestly. Duh. People lie on polygraph tests all the time when they feel they have something to hide. Why should this be any different?

          Plus, no one can persuade me that bonobos are sexy. I have a hunch that nobody finds bonobos sexy except other bonobos, but the juices were already flowing so the plethysmograph erroneously picked up the overflow.

          Furthermore, the reason bonobos are not sexy is that they lack passion. Fucking in bonobo society is a soothing behavior, akin to grooming, and takes place indiscriminately and often incestuously. Chivers actually felt it necessary to spice up the soundtrack by overdubbing the silent bonobos with the sound of screeching monkeys.

          My secret is so embarrassing. I've steered into just about every iceberg to avoid coming to this conclusion. I crave sex--real sex with a real person. A real—and therefore probably quite frustrating—person. I was married to a frustrating person and it was a disaster. A. was a disaster. I'm left with the question, Is love always a rusty nail where we hang our fantasies? When is it real? I won't feel real unless I know love is.