Monday, June 05, 2006

The Decline of Eros (?)

First, sorry for the faux-academic title of the post. I wrote it one sleepless night sometime last week and don't want to reread or edit it now. Long post and may not make enough sense!

I have been reading some gender and feminism related posts on the blogosphere and coupled with Elfriede Jelinek's Lust, some of whose phrases and sentences have stuck in my thoughts, have set me thinking about these things--in particular a book which I read a few months back, at least parts of it. The book was Love and Friendship by the University of Chicago professor and an eminent conservative intellectual Allan Bloom. Bloom is famous for his iconoclastic manifesto of cultural conservatism, The Closing of the American Mind in which he lambasted lots of currently fashionable "isms" without caring for political correctness. He was also a close friend of American Nobel laureate Saul Bellow and role model for the eponymous character of his novel Ravesltein.

Love and Friendship is basically another conservative polemic against trends in contemporary culture but unlike most conservative rants it is quite sophisticated and shows deep learning and understanding of the entire western tradition of the author. The basic argument in the book is that egalitarianism and its various manifestations like individualism, feminism etc. have gone a little too far. And he traces the problems of isolation and atomism of the bourgeois society to this. He claims that these isms have devalued the role of Eros (as in its classical meaning) as the basis of human connection. He argues that we live in a world where love and friendship are withering away. Scientific reductionism and related materialist philosophies have reduced eros to sex. In particular he rounds up Freud and Kinsey (who claimed that sexual practices normally considered deviant were common is American society) as suspects and gives them both a thorough dressing down. He perhaps wasn't familiar with the currently fashionable breed of evolutionary psychologists, who are much more sophisticated in their methodologies and claims, but reach essentially the same conclusions, at least at an abstract level, namely, all our noble feelings, emotions etc. which form the basis of any romantic connection have an essentially functional role, which is to propagate our genes in the gene pool of the next generation. Some of these emotional behavior seem anachronistic in the current culture, but that is only because these behaviors were adapted during the hunter-gatherer periods. Bloom, of course, finds all these reductionist attitudes to Eros loathsome. He makes the traditional humanist claim, that is, we are different and superior to animals. So sex in human beings, coupled as it is with thought and imagination, becomes far more complex than pure animal lust. It gets transformed into Eros and becomes the basis of a profound connection between two human beings.

Bloom then advises us to turn to great writers and thinkers of the western tradition to understand this phenomenon. The book is actually a long critical study of Rousseau's Emile, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Flaubert's Madame Bovary in the light of understanding how Eros works and how our understanding of this has changed over the course of history. There is also a very long discussion of Plato's Symposium and how ancients viewed Eros. There are also very learned expositions of Shakespeare's plays, which I didn't read, unfamiliar as I was with the plays in question (Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra et al).

All of this was okay with me, although I do think he slightly misreads the doctrine of reductionism. To reduce something to understandable small units is not to devalue the complexity of the original whole. Mystery and beauty, be it of love or any other natural phenomenon (for that is what it is), shouldn't be based on ignorance of how it works. Understanding the optics of how a rainbow is formed should not, and indeed does not, devalue its beauty.

What brought me thinking about the book was what Bloom had to say about feminism and contemporary trends in thinking about gender. He, rightly, treats gender as a fact of nature, which is entirely okay, but is extremely sceptical of our attempts to transcend this fact through political means (which is what feminism is all about). But he doesn't cite the usual conservative argument ("it is utopian, it will never work"). Moving human relationships to a gender-neutral territory, just like in so many other areas, is one of the ideals of feminism and I think it is a very worthwhile ideal. But he calls such attempts, exercises in "pathologically misguided moralism" which turns "such longing [for the beautiful] into a sin against the high goal of making everyone feel good, of overcoming nature in the name of equality", adding that, "love of the beautiful may be the last and finest sacrifice to radical egalitarianism". He lambasts and ridicules feminist aims, for example, Male and female are no longer to be reciprocal terms, and male habit of supposedly forcing women into such reciprocity is what must go. And because of this "misguided moralism" what used to be understood as modes of courtship are now seen as modes of male intimidation and preying on the weaknesses and anxieties of women. He then moves on the Nietzsche and his pessimistic philosophy that all human relations, and specially the sexual ones, follow from one motivational principle in man, the Will to Power. Everything is power relationships, crude power, the will to dominate, to have things one's own way. This is what turns love into a power struggle and romantic relationships into contractual matters to be litigated. In fact Bloom bemoans how pseudo-scientific words like "relationships" and "commitment" have highjacked the original lovers' discourse. Also related is the demonization of male lust which is seen as an oppresive force (as in Jelinek's book) from which women must be protected and set free.

The best part of the book was where he traces the history of Eros (or Romance) in literature. Specially in the discussion of The Red and the Black and Madame Bovary, two of my favourite novels. (I haven't read Anna Karenina or Rousseau's book and find Pride and Prejudice very boring). Stendhal masterfully showed the hypocrisy behind any act of courtship. Julien Sorel uses the language of war to make his moves against the "enemies" and finally "conquers" them. So much for nobel feelings of love. And Flaubert, he pretty much made sure that no one could use the word romantic and be honest at the same time. And in the twientieth century literature it was as if there was race for who had the most terrible things to say about human condition and surely the word "romantic" itself became a term of abuse, supposed to mean "naive and stupid fool".

So now what do I think? I think, there is some substance to the claim that divorcing sex from the platonic ideals of human connectedness, the goals of sexual liberation, has resulted in the loss of something which is something very human. This also explains why pornography has become so mainstream and even respectable, at least something that is not frowned upon and in modern contemporary society which is so full of sexual opportunities, individuals still remain disonnected, like isolated atoms completely adrift. (Btw, there is a brilliant and utterly horrific portrait of this phenomenon in Michel Houellebecq's novel The Elementary Particles.)

What I don't agree with are his claims about egalitarianism, individualism or feminism. I think the recognition of individual rights has been a matter of great progress, even though it has meant the interference of law and state into the private world of human relationships and redefinition of those relationships in legal terminologies. Also I think the transcending of gender in the name of the higher goal of equality is a very worthwhile goal. We have achieved it to a large extent in so many sectors of life and I don't think why human relationships should remain exempt. Surely Eros or the longing for the beautiful can't be the only basis of love. There can be so many other gender-neutral things which can supplant the conventional Eros. And giving your body to earn other's trust and respect (isn't that what it is?) anyway sounds a little too primitive to me!

But yes having said this, I think Bloom was getting a little paranoid about the whole thing. The radical feminism, individualism and demonization of male desire is still not mainstream. The courtship rituals continue as usual, women continue to aspire to become more and more beautiful, often at the cost of great personal discomfort, to attract male attention and gain an upper hand in the game of courtship (what would Stendhal have thought?). Most women still derive their world view from Mars and Venus type books rather than breaking their head over what people like Nietzsche, Derrida or Jelinek had to say. And I don't see things changing at all. I personally would like things to change towards a more egalitarian society but I don't see the current status-quo as a cause of despair either.


ventilatorblues said...

Stepping aside from this kind of analysis, you should read the latest Rolling Stone magazine which has a nice piece on the Duke Lacrosse story. It describes the sex scene at one of America's top competitive colleges, and I think it offers some good insights into how full of grey areas the feminist debate is.

Here's the link (get to it soon, since often the articles disappear quickly):

Alok said...

Thanks V, for that link about the Duke Lacrosse story. I had read about it when the scandal first broke out, but this article really gives a radical new perspective to the whole thing! that statement about rape for example, that the lacrosse guys are so hot that they don't need to rape someone to get sex...and it is the girls who are saying this... shocking!

Actually I am ambivalent about this whole thing too. At some other time, I would have ridiculed this "biology isn't destiny" business of feminist movement as some pompous humanist bullshit but I was feeling a bit more optimistic when I wrote it ;) i think there must be some way, the way of the "enlightened", which transcends base sexual need and aspires for some higher ideal... gosh, I am sounding like some Guru :) anyway, I think thats where Bloom distinguishes between Sex and Eros and says that Eros has been reduced to sex in the modern culture.

this whole sexual liberation thing, the idea of abandoning oneself to sexual hedonism completely, started with a worthwhile goal. that of freeing oneself from the tyranny of arbitrary puritanical norms but now it has gone haywire. the raunch culture, as it is now called, is a giant step backwards for the feminist movement and for the entire idea of social progess...

km said...

Most women still derive their world view from Mars and Venus type books rather than breaking their head over what people like Nietzsche, Derrida or Jelinek had to say

Aa Bail Mujhe Maar :D

(and remember that hilarious scene from "Love and Death" when Keaton and Allen discuss subjectivity and objectivity in the bedroom?)

Alok said...

OMG! I think I am turning into a woody allen like character :)