Watched the same film twice over the weekend, sort of. The first was Force Majeure, a French-Swedish film from 2014 that was acclaimed upon its release and won the jury prize at the Cannes film festival. I’d not heard of it, but that didn’t matter. I’m open to foreign films that sometimes sneak into our theaters and festivals, and now onto my cable subscription, so I was game for the viewing. What I also didn’t know was that this film was the basis for the Will Farrell/Julie Louise Dreyfus comedy, Downhill, released earlier this year. And what most don’t seem to understand, including sympathetic critics and especially the producers of the remake, is that Force Majeure is not the singular critique of masculine ego they think it is.
First, the question of comedy. The opening sequences of FM, slow as they are, don’t suggest that. The plot follows an ordinary family of four vacationing at a ski resort, and appearing to have a nice, if underwhelming time at first. Drama begins when a “controlled” avalanche plows into a restaurant wherein the family is dining, sending them all scurrying for cover. The horror, as the wife and mother later calls it, is over in seconds, though the trauma persists and the avalanche becomes a symbol of something else that disturbs them. The real trauma proceeds as the husband appears to deny what the wife, his kids, and we, the audience, clearly observe in the earlier scene: that he “runs away” from the oncoming avalanche, abandoning his family because of terrified feelings that he spends much of the film denying. Gaslighting, and so on. When he finally accepts the truth of his fear and paternal failure, he collapses into sobbing shame, but a repair with his wife and kids becomes possible thereafter. As the film moves towards its climax, it’s not clear whether he will redeem himself. But he does, ultimately, rescuing his wife in a later scene after she has fallen when skiing. Then, in an epilogue scene that depicts her continued sensitivity to ambiguous dangers, the husband takes center stage, shepherding his kids along a country road alongside his wife and walking proudly towards a sympathetic camera.
In watching the Downhill remake, I was first struck by the reduced running time, which is about a half hour less. Initially, I figured this was about picking up the pace: European films, I notice, are often slower in their depiction of action or character. They set scenes with more stillness, and more visuals than dialogue to build context, relying upon levels of patience that American audiences (mainstream anyway) likely don’t have. Next, the most notable feature is the absence of comedy. Actually, it’s not fair to say that either version is lacking in “dark” laughs, but in FM, in particular, they are few and far between, though they are more subtle. Best example: after the husband’s friend tries to intervene with the family trauma, engaging the tense couple in an impromptu therapy session, he later wars with his own girlfriend about all of the themes implied in the earlier conflict. Hilarious. Anyway, in Downhill, the corresponding scenes are flat (seems like they got cut), and Farrell and Dreyfus’ usual charm is wasted—though I thought both did well with the dramatic material. However, additional or changed elements seem either gratuitous or inconsequential. Dreyfus’ wife character picks up an oversexed friend at the resort, a character that is ridiculous and, frankly, unfunny, unlike the reserved, confident and thus intriguing character this is based upon from FM. Also, Dreyfus is more irascible and prudish than the wife from the earlier film, which sets up a “You go-girl” flirtation and casual sex scene with a predictably hunkish ski instructor. Meanwhile, the filmmakers exploit Farrell’s man-child persona, at one point having him plod about drunkenly like his more entertaining characters do in other films. Some think Farrell was miscast, thinking the husband is meant to be an alpha-male. But this reflects either a facile understanding of FM, or a deliberate revision of its more even-handed themes. In Downhill, Farrell is meant to be an average Joe, perhaps what Robert Bly once termed a “soft male”, quietly grieving a deceased father; timid with his angry spouse—not a wayward stud who merits a take-down. Admittedly, this renders Farrell a bit stiff: a docile, phone-fixated man who likes to use and speak of hashtags.
But the biggest difference between these two films lies in the ending, and it’s an ending that illustrates where Hollywood is going wrong these days, pandering to its zeitgeist, anti-male politics, plus its insistence upon the explicit. In Downhill’s climactic ending, the scene in which the husband is alone with his kids on a ski slope, waiting for their mother to appear after having trailed behind them, begins more or less as the scene from the source material does. As in Force Majeure, the wife becomes separated from her family, is nowhere to be seen, and remains so for several moments, unheard until she issues a dimly audible distress call. Feeling emboldened—his chance for redemption arriving—Farrell’s character says, “stay right here” to his boys, and runs back (not away), ostensibly to rescue his wife, as in the earlier film. But here there’s a switch. In Downhill, the husband finds the wife, who has feigned a fall and cried out because she’s decided upon a ruse: “this is for the boys”, she says, directing her husband to cooperate and carry her to safety, therefore pretending to rescue her. Now, something similar might have occurred in FM—meaning, the wife in that story might have contrived the climactic rescue also—but the audience can only wonder about this when watching that film. Well, mainstream American cinema doesn’t do that. American cinema explains. Therefore, by Dreyfus’ character’s action and speech, she gets to be the hero, not him, by clearly taking what is now a psychological versus literal fall: protecting the ego and the good father image, however false that is. And she lets him know it. Oh, the things women have to do to sacrifice themselves to help men feel better, blah, blah, blah. Wives of the world unite, etc. The scene also makes sense of a previously inscrutable change: the casting of two boys in the child roles versus the brother/sister pairing of FM. So, this is about modeling proper male behavior for the 21st century—a theme that might have been blunted, producers likely thought, if one of the children had been female.
Those same producers, or someone at the top, further ignored the layered meaning of FM’s epilogue scene, or they missed its final subtlety. I did too, actually, until my wife pointed it out, which led to a second viewing of this epilogue. See, in this scene, the family is heading back home on a coach that is traveling along a treacherous road, only the driver seems incompetent, steering perilously close to mountainside precipices. As the scene unfolds, the camera focuses upon the neurotic wife, who first complains to the driver, and then demands that he stop the coach and let all the passengers off. When he complies, the wife cries “let me off!” and dashes out, at first leaving her husband and children behind, which mirrors the “run away” moment when the avalanche hit the restaurant. Within moments, the wife is back in the company of her family, but not before the subliminal message has been sent: namely, that she has acted with as much fear as her husband had earlier in the film. The question is, will this get noticed? Will the husband, or the kids, remonstrate against her “running away” as she did against his cowardice? And will she be as defensive, as gaslighting, as he was? Will anyone, including the filmgoer, even notice? Anyway, this bookending of near disasters, overlooked by observers of either film, it seems, balances the scales of gender comment.
It might even be a rebuke of post-modern double standards: a trick played upon viewers, reverse-gaslighting with what the filmmaker says is happening, whether we notice it or not. The trick is that masculine cowardice is highlighted, which might stir the feathers of both progressive and conservative contempt (albeit for different reasons), while feminine flight is either unnoticed or else cast in a sympathetic light, as “trauma”, not cowardice. If this is the case then the French/Swedish film may in time be regarded as a masterpiece of social satire: an astute insight into the obtuse hypocrisy of our times. In the meantime, for the sensibilities that do reign today, especially in the United States, FM’s ending is a mysterious canvas, one that likely flew over the heads of Downhill’s producer’s (pun intended); that is, unless they had observant wives also. Anyway, FM’s final images are of the husband smoking a cigarette as he walks, exercising a rediscovered free will, one might think, while the wife asks that his friend, a man who has shown a level head in tense moments, carry their tired daughter along that cold mountain road. Another symbolic rebuke of the husband, despite having made the fuss that placed them on that road. Downhill ignores these meanings, substituting for this scene an equally oblique if duller ending in which a mini-avalanche from a hotel roof-top drops a pile of snow between the Farrell and Dreyfus characters. Divided still, we’re meant to notice. Careful or caretaking of each other? Unknown. But this epilogue does nothing to nuance Downhill’s more tendentious climax, whose gynocentric message is directed at a short-attention span, post Me-Too constituency that wants women to be heroes, not for men to redeem themselves in traditional fashion.
So what? Not for the first time, Hollywood bastardizes a foreign original and plays to its own base. Or the base it thinks it knows, or seeks to manipulate. Of course, mutation (or mutilation) of an original source isn’t exclusively a Hollywood vice, nor are adaptations typically this offensive. Indeed, some have suggested that Force Majeure itself bears a distinct resemblance to a Hemingway story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomba”, from 1936. But the alterations within Downhill betray either an unconscious bias or a deliberately crafted agenda for 2020. Were Downhill an original script, one could argue that its filmmakers simply wished a positive message for average Joe and Jane: to empower women and nudge men with a rightful smote upon their much-publicized egotism. Not a hard pitch post-2018, one would think. But the fact that filmmakers did ignore, willfully or not, the more evenly depicted gender themes of FM, including its (upon second glance) unmistakably judgement-altering finale, exposes their disingenuous quasi-feminist position: that fairness or equality-seeking ethos that supposedly governs their art. Who knows how important the script and character changes are or will be for a mainstream American audience, or how popular they may be for viewers who share the social engineering agendas of Hollywood’s nouveau brass, but from what I gather and have read, Downhill has not been acclaimed so far, is not likely to win awards, and is a relative flop at the box office. Its vapidity, among other faults, has been laid bare. This may be what happens when a good story is intruded upon with what someone in power thinks ought to happen.
Read a paper recently by an analyst who referred to an aesthetic experience between patient and analyst. He was at pains to indicate that by using the word aesthetic he was not referring to an experience that pertained to beauty, rather something created between two people; something struggled for. At pains. Some might wonder why he’d bother, in either forum: the clinical or the literary. After all, isn’t the purpose of the written or spoken word to make oneself understood? Why use esoteric language, or use known language but change its meaning to something idiosyncratic?
In a book that may be published before the coming of the apocalypse, I use numerous words that I know will be upon the margins of readers’ vocabularies. Some will read these words, annoyed, and bristle at my showing off, forcing them to use a dictionary. They will question my purpose, wonder why I don’t speak or write plainly, as others might if the text is meant to be expository, not artful in nature. Within the manuscript of Getting Real About Sex Addiction, a title that suggests a certain plainspoken directness, there are words like ontological, Saturnian, Copernican, anodyne, unctuous, and…I don’t know…a few others that may wrinkle a brow or two and make readers wonder, what does that mean? Once or even if they know the meanings of these words, or more popular synonyms, they might then ask, well, why didn’t he just write that? As the book in question is not a fiction, and is aimed at professionals primarily, and features the odd passage wherein bullet-points are called for, then pragmatism over, uh, aesthetics, will be expected. I mean, by everyone. I can tell already that scrutinizing editors and would-be publishers will bristle (see, there’s one—used it twice here already—why not write “object”, not that “bristle” is incomprehensible…just sayin’) at the use of terms not widely known or digestible. They won’t like that I might compel gratuitous effort versus unblinking recognition of a loaded term or phrase. Unconcerned by prose, they’ll care less, I think, about the flow of sound—that rough estimation of how many syllables might tax a reading mind, for example. See, check that last sentence out: pithy and sweet, wasn’t it? A bit cryptic, but satisfying? The word count on this will be economical, which adds to the effect. There’s an illusion afoot. A reader feels that the script is taut, in order.
But I have something else in mind, actually. And it has little to do with aesthetics or order, though it does concern an experience with both reader and patient, for sometimes they are one in the same. This something has to do with well-known words: loaded words, saturated words; words that everyone knows but knows with too much prejudice, for these words get used too damn much. You know these words, and given the title of mine and Joe Farley’s book, you might guess what words are coming. Addiction. Trauma. Misogyny. This is to name just three. That’s enough, maybe, to stir in the reader thoughts that are already linked or fast linking, for these are the kinds of words that are used so often that people needn’t use a dictionary to determine their meanings, even though definitions that exist for them are either loose, variable, or dubious. Take the first two: the word addiction conjures many definitions—more opinions than facts, actually—such that delineating pathology, as in the case of sex addiction, has become a Gordion Knot (yes, I know: google it, I guess. Sorry, don’t mean to seem insulting—it’s just that some will moan and say…). Then there’s the word trauma, a favorite of therapists, for it renders everyone’s past sympathetic, which we like, even though it complicates matters: how to be responsible, basically. Trauma means…well, it doesn’t really matter what it means precisely, or comprehensively, which is what some attempt. It means the intrusion of the environment, Freud thought with uncharacteristic brevity. Beyond that, it denotes the power of the past; that we find it hard to “get over” things, to learn and not repeat.
The word misogyny is simple enough: it means hatred of women. Everyone knows that. It’s the extra connotation that bears explanation, signaling as it does a pervasive phenomenon, plus a tacit context, not an aberrant state of mind. In modernity, it both reflects and assigns hate, and is a cudgel in either sense, weaponized on both sides of a hate divide. There. That’s an example of a cryptic thought. Reader: tease that one out, make of it what you will, or else wait patiently for our book, wherein I shall expand on the subject. Misogyny is one of the few concepts I explore in a repeated fashion, though I don’t research the concept’s intellectual pedigree. What I have to say on it squeezed out others’ thoughts. Sorry. You’ll find that I’m studious on most subjects, I promise. Anyway, phenomenology (to simplify: what is observed) is what misogyny has in common with addiction and trauma: whether we know the precise meanings of these terms or not, we know the ubiquity of impact. One problem is that this engenders prejudice, and lazy thinking, alongside legitimate social concern. In one sense, we don’t have to research these words. We don’t have to use a dictionary. We just need to have listened, and not even listened well, to what gets talked about incessantly in media and film. Well, I guess I’m less interested in the incessant. I guess I want to be different, and so I want to use words that some will know but many will not: again, philosophical words like ontological, but also diagnostic categories—schizoid personality, for example—or social constructs like misandry (misogyny’s lesser heard and therefore less saturated analogue); the odd anachronistic charm like lickspittle, and weathercock; allusions like Bovarism, or Gordian Knot, come to think of it. By the way, some of these words will be properties for some, and this “some” will be even lesser impressed by my glancing use of their precious esoterica. So much for effort. See, I’m straddling worlds with this writing project, this book/blog bridge: between the learned academic and the lumpen proletariat; between the journeyed professionals and studious consumers of mental health care. Aiming for the in-between reflects my uncertainty, my not fitting in, which is my story. And publishers won’t like that either, because fitting in means knowing the reader.
So, my purpose is a re-direction, though a subtle one, in keeping with—how is it phrased—an analytic frame? Will I irritate with the unfamiliar, the abstract? Or the abstruse? Can I be understood? Perhaps the reader/patient will take responsibility, want more.
Summertime Blues, 2020 style. A barren, incendiary spell upon writing incendiary things. Back to a familiar topic. For me, they never go away, The Who, despite their own barren and then incendiary spells. Nor should they go away, whether they are taking us back in time, as in the recent release (recent? Maybe two years ago) of Live at the Fillmore 68’ album, featuring a half hour version of “My Generation”, or else releasing a brand new collection of songs via a new album, eponymously titled for the first time in their storied, fifty-plus year career. For most of the last year, the former release had gripped my attention, backward as I am (like atavistic, practically) in my tastes and still pining for the inchoate noise about which I wrote in my last book, The Psychology of Tommy (buy it. You’ll learn stuff, damnit!). See, back in the day, as in when I first became aware of The Who in, like, the mid-eighties, and when they weren’t even a band anymore because they’d supposedly retired after a “farewell” tour of 1982, I read an essay about them in a book entitled The History of Rock & Roll, which was a collection of essays by rock critics, assembled by Rolling Stone magazine. Even then, this book was a guilty pleasure. At the time, I was supposed to be reading either engineering or architecture (before psychology, my incipient vocational choices) books, or else novelists like…actually, I can’t even remember who was de rigeur in 1986, other than Stephen King, maybe.
Anyway, I latched onto an essay by a rock critic named Dave Marsh that was about The Who—who had earlier written a biography about The Who entitled Before I Get Old, though I didn’t know about that at the time. BTW: great book. Read it in college, when I was supposed to be reading books about psychology. Back to the essay: in it, Marsh characterized the essence of the legendary Who, about whom I had thin knowledge in the 80s, and that which I did know was either confusing or pejorative. For example, as I wrote in my book, one of the first things I’d ever heard about them was a curt dismissal from my Beatles’ loving older sister: “Oh them, they just make noise”, she’d once scoffed. That was in the seventies when I only heard pop or rock groups on television (conservative radio in Britain, I think), and The Who weren’t on television in this period; nor did they have many hit, radio-friendly singles in those years. I later heard one of their songs, “You Better You Bet” via television—specifically MTV—only it confused me because the song was tuneful and light, not noisy and brash as I was expecting and vaguely longing for. Much later I bought The Who’s greatest hits collection, a modest single album that introduced songs like “My Generation” and “Substitute”, which I’d not heard before, while recalling for me songs like “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—songs I actually had heard before, if only in fragments.
But what about this noise business? In reading Marsh, I was intrigued to read the following: “Their sound was anarchy, chaos, pure noise—a definition of one kind of Sixties rock. No room for ballads. The Who’s half-life in that era’s volatile world of pop should have been about the length of one of their singles. Instead, they somehow outlasted every other band of their generation” (Marsh, 1980, p. 285, in…f-it, look it up if you’re interested). Well, that’s one helluva claim, I thought. Written in 1980, the author may have been jumping the gun, especially as he was referring specifically to bands lasting with original membership in-tact (lots of groups breaking up or firing people in the 70s, I guess). But it was the “noise” comment that gripped me most. It gripped me because—for whatever reason—noise was what I wanted in that era. I still want dissonance. At the time, however, I was half-mystified, half hooked by the description: I might have conjured blaring white noise and thought it a Who song, even. But listening to Who’s Greatest, I wasn’t hearing that. Again, I was hearing good songs—great songs, unusual songs—but hardly “pure noise”.
Later, I found the noise in live albums, notably Live at Leeds from 1970, but still not the cacophony I’d once imagined when reading that Marsh essay. Meanwhile, other Who virtues took my attention away from this, uh, quiet (private, I guess) obsession: intelligent lyrics and driving, eloquent sounds, wrapped in a rich, near-Pythonesque or not-quite Spinal Tappy sense of humor. The four-headed monster/personality that was Townshend, Daltrey, Entwistle, and Moon recalled the sides of a self that I wished to emulate. They were playful, sensual; even primal. Pete’s way of being seemed the most cerebral, if not always the most accessible: from him I got the music, got excitement at his feet. By this time, when I was eighteen, roughly, he was an industry giant, a kind of rock & roll/spiritual muse, treating the music as a medium of spirit, and commenting upon his and later generations’ concerns, sometimes with an oblique if caustic turn of phrase. I still liked and sought the noise, but over time the juxtaposition of chaos and sound, coherent thought became, for me, the essence of not only The Who, but of what rock and roll or even art in general should be. Hyperbole? Maybe, but that manic ethos carried my fandom over the decades. Even as I hit fifty in 2018, I was still a lover of their music, the lyrics—the noise—even though it was all repetition compulsion by that point. It was the same stuff, over and over again, as I was still listening to the same songs, the same sounds, yet still listening for something not yet heard.
The Live at Fillmore 68’ album is a revelation, especially its climactic track, a half-hour, whirling dervish version of “My Generation” that realizes all that The Who were onstage in the late sixties, and certainly what Marsh had written about them in 1980. Had he been at that concert, I wondered. Finally! I thought: the music that captures that special elixir that he’d written about. The track begins ordinarily enough, with the familiar words about death before aging sung by Daltrey as he’s sung them thousands of times. Then, after the last spiraling chorus, the song takes off on a journey that soars and ebbs, rising to crescendos, resting in false endings, then plunging into a doom-laden cacophony. This, the listener is meant to think, is rock and roll from the end of time, performed on the eve of apocalypse. At certain moments, it seems like the song will never end; that rock and roll will truly not die. And there will be nothing wrong with that, the right-thinking listener will decide. There are no new words in this improv from the closet. Not that I need them. I no longer expect new lyrics from Pete Townshend. Glad to have this almost literal blast from the past, this secret garden, this gift from the crypt, I’ve been happy to let the mythopoeic noise wash over me. Satisfied, or perhaps satiated at last, I have felt ready to watch The Who retire.
Hold on. Who am I to decide that? Who am I to write a blog, never mind a book, about The Who, without their permission? Turns out The Who are not ready to retire. They haven’t stopped playing. They haven’t even stopped making albums, hence last year’s plainly entitled effort, The Who. Well, aren’t they full of surprises, not to mention good songs still? Didn’t like the new album at first—felt oddly resistant to it, as if I’d felt lied to again, teased into thinking they’d retired, like they had done like a half-dozen times since the 80s. My truculence was specific on some tracks: thought the first song was like an outtake from Who Are You, the group’s 1978 album (Moon’s last) that featured several rather self-conscious not-quite anthems about…I don’t know…something about how The Who write songs that others copy, or that they copy from others, reflecting a turnstile of influence and fame—your turn, my turn, passing the baton of greatness—something like that. Anyway, I’ve warmed to that song since. I’ve also thought the rest of the album wonderful: smart, tough, passionate, enjoyable. Several songs are even catchy. My favorite track is “Ball and Chain”, a political song that alludes to Guantanamo Bay, fascistic judges, the downtrodden, nameless poor. Its recurrent motif, Waiting for the big cigar, might sit nicely alongside Townshend’s most iconic one-liners, the refrains that audiences will sing out loud, whether Pete and Rog still hit the right notes or not.
And yet, I have a criticism. Nay, a complaint. I know. Who am I? And no, it’s not that there isn’t sufficient “noise” upon this relatively poppy, possibly last album by The Who. Actually, it’s about the words, plus my tendency to co-opt things I love and treat them as my own, modify them. Finally, this complaint is about history, as in the need to circle back and integrate history, plus reiterate a perennial Who theme that I will not tease in this next thought: that all music and art comes from something before. See, there’s something missing in that one song—that terrific song, “Ball and Chain”. And that something missing is a blast from the past, or at least a reference to the past, to one of The Who’s most famous songs for the ages. It’s in a motif from “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Who’s perennial set-closer and still their most overtly political song. Think of that one line again, whose final refrain goes, Still waiting for the big cigar, from “Ball and Chain”. An opportunity was missed here, I think. Imagine an alteration, a drop-in edit that might go, Still praying with the same guitar, to follow that previous line. Think about it. An idea for an ad-lib during a post-Covid tour, maybe?
So, let’s take a step back, get some perspective and understand some things, or alternative opinion, at least. Sex addiction, a concept dominantly aimed at men over the last thirty years, exacerbates a divide already created by the narrative of feminine virtue. To be fair, the sex addiction field (movement?) isn’t responsible for generalizing undercurrents that collapse upon closer inspection. Take the following scenario, for example: a couple are in therapy, speaking of a sexual episode that serves as an interlude between contentious arguments. After lovemaking, one partner asks, “Are we good now?” thinking that sex has saved the day. The partner responds coolly, “We haven’t solved anything here. What makes you think our issues have gone away?” So, at this point I have not revealed who is who in this arrangement, as in who the man is and who the woman is (sorry PC monitors, my client base is dominantly heteronormative). What if I offer a couple of interpretations? Let’s see where the biases land, shall we? So, I suggest that the first person asks “Are we good?” with the assumption that sex will re-establish a bond; the episode was “relational” and intended as an affirmation of the couple’s togetherness. The second partner remained irritated by the first partner throughout the lovemaking but was sufficiently aroused to put aside, for the most part, feelings that may have interfered with performance. This person thus satisfied desire but later asserted a moral high ground with respect to the couple’s conflict: talk about having it both ways.
So, who is who? Well, if one absorbs the platitudes published under the umbrella of sex addiction treatment, one would be inclined to believe that the partner motivated by “relational” goals would be female and the person intent on getting laid but still maintaining a superior attitude is male. I’ve read numerous articles or books that dispense such generalities, anticipating the nodding heads of a Greek chorus while failing to address or even imagine nuance. That chorus seems increasingly homogenized, speaking with transparent rhetoric. To encourage protest, it affirms assertiveness: “stand up for your rights”, etc. When it disapproves of speech, we hear critiques like “divisive”, and “hate speech”. To decry unpopular opinion, one simply needs to cast it as hateful in the modern zeitgeist. Approved speech that is suppressed is called silence—an imputation of cowardice. One is encouraged to “show up”. However, if you show up with the wrong opinion, then you are self-serving: it is a “photo op”. Back to private, microcosmic scenarios, my warring couple and a pair of interpretations: The first person—the “Are we good?” partner—thinks that sex is an effective circumvention of conflict. It is the answer to all problems, a kind of all you need is love approach. Now here’s a twist. The second partner agreed to have sex thinking (falsely) that the conflict had actually been resolved beforehand. This person had been hoodwinked by the partner’s seeming contrition, only to feel increasingly foolish during the lovemaking episode, which felt familiarly cold and unloving.
Again, who is who now? Same scenario, different interpretations, but I think each would elicit biases as to which gender is being represented based upon stereotypes promulgated by self-help and sex addiction literature. I could evoke further scenarios, leave these relatively lightweight scenes behind and address what I believe are the biggest elephants confronting our field. The issues therein conflate matters of sexual addiction, post-modern sexual mores, progressive and conservative politics, and congeal thought upon the darkest behaviors on the sex addiction fringe: acts of abuse, and of sexual assault. Would these issues elicit further biases? Of course they would. The baseline assumption is that women comprise the dominant faction of sexual abuse victims while men are vastly over-represented as perpetrators. With respect to violent sexual assault, there is surely little to contest this particular assumption. But amidst an era wherein definitions of coercive sex are broadening to include instances of pressured sex, or compliant but later regretted sex, then notions of perpetration begin to blur. Mine and Joe Farley’s forthcoming book, Getting Real About Sex Addiction, cites research of the last decade that increasingly implicates female victimization of male partners, employing a construct, “Made to penetrate”, that has gained traction in research circles in recent years. It was so important I stuck it in the footnotes. Anyway, my skepticism: the idea has yet to gain traction with mainstream culture, and likely not with credulous readers of self-help literature. The problem, as I see it, is two-fold: firstly, boys or men may be even less likely than women to admit being coerced into sexual activity, fearing an emasculating response, especially if the alleged perpetrators are female. I can imagine reactionary society openly mocking their accompanying accusations as cowardly, unmanly. I imagine a corollary of women’s experience, which on the whole means something that’s been observed all along: sexual abuse desexualizes its victims, it seems. Meanwhile, a progressive rebuke might focus upon a moral equivalence argument, a point of symmetry that is not desexualizing, but rather de-individualizing: something vaguely territorial, perhaps; something along the lines of, yes we suppose this happens, but does it really compare to the rates or levels of abuse that have been meted out by men against women?
Back to the standard pretexts of sex addiction treatment, which is all about treating people, men and women, equally. Right? Well, take a glance. Take more than a glance at literature—books, blogs, you tube videos, whatever—that purport to represent men’s sex addiction versus that of women. Notice that women are more likely tagged with the label love addiction, which, in comparison with the salacious concept of sex addiction, enobles women’s sexual acting out behaviors, and therefore turns on its head society’s task of mailing out scarlet letters. Meanwhile, instead of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, female sex or love addicts have “complex trauma”, which is an ambiguous contrivance, suggesting experience grounded in external phenomena, and then internalized as personality-altering characteristics—a more palatable, stigma-free assessment category whose plainspoken synonyms are words like victim or survivor, not creep, jerk, or pervert. I have other bullet points on this theme, but you get the gist. So, here’s the thing: in general, the biases of our profession reflect the progression of psychodynamic thought as it has moved into the 21st century, alongside progressive social movements and the demographic changes in our profession. A hundred years ago psychoanalysis, then clearly a patriarchal institution reflecting the psychology of western men, posited drive theory as a model of how the human mind works: something internal, a libidinal/aggressive energy within a human being strains to express itself, and will do so to one degree or another, despite the ego defenses that work to hold it back. Repression. Latterly, Object Relations theorists like D.W. Winnicott injected that the fate of this drive is contingent upon the variability of a nurturing environment, be that a caregiving dyad, a home, or a broader sociocultural milieu, while analysts like Jean LaPlanche, Jessica Benjamin, Carol Gilligan or the Lacanian Julia Kristeva excoriated this same establishment for reducing women’s sexuality to the maternal/child bond. These views have long since been adopted by feminists and other social justice advocates (who now represent a plurality in our field) who externalize an understanding of psychopathology, at least selectively. Misogyny is therefore a kind of original sin, reflecting an ancient subjugation of women. Misandry, its lesser observed twin, is a social protest against that which is variously conscious or unconscious, but not repressed.
This has in turn been picked up by the sex addiction field, yielding watered down versions of Object Relations theory with substitute jargon so that its principals can pretend originality. It means that female sex or love addiction is understood primarily as a reaction to either repressive sexual mores that disadvantage women, or else it constitutes an identification with an aggressor phenomenon. This is a theory first advanced by one-time psychoanalytic outcast Sandor Ferenczi in the early 1930s. It offers that sexual acting out behavior is a re-enactment of a sexually traumatic (as in victimizing) past. There. Now here’s the next thing. Assuming that OR theory also applies to men, you may wonder how that plays out. How do we graft the theory onto what we think happens to them? Well, firstly, it would mean that male sex addiction is not simply a matter of excessive drive, contrary to the essentialist beliefs of many. It would mean that males act out sexually either because the nurturing (or not) environment is permitting/expecting them to be promiscuous, or else because they have also been developmentally traumatized in some way. As indicated in the last entry, the most popular theory with respect to this category of trauma is the abusive, alcoholic father story, with second place going to disillusioning mentors: molesting priests or sports team coaches, for example. The first chestnut, which smacks of Oedipus Complex derivatives, offers that passive boys, symbolically castrated by overbearing fathers, struggle to make it with the women they admire, instead pursuing vulnerable women who substitute for their abused mothers. But to identify with the adult male sex role as it once was is to symbolically re-traumatize women, or even commit incest with them if partners and mothers are psychically linked. Thus, sexual desire must be split-off, directed at women who cannot be hurt because they are transiently involved or not psychologically real—hence prostitutes, strippers, and porn stars.
Alternatively, if trauma theory were to analogize the male and female childhood experience, or even offer what Freud originally suggested with his latterly withdrawn Seduction Theory, then practitioners would offer what they typically suggest when the subject is the sexual traumas of women: a once sexual victimization at the hands of a male perpetrator. And some men report such victimizations, and usually they indicate a male perpetrator which, if then linked to a later heterosexual pattern of addictive behavior, would make about as much sense as the Electra Complex makes to critics of Freud’s Oedipal theories. See, if a repetition compulsion or aggressor identification were in effect, then otherwise heterosexual boys and later men would therefore manifest ego dystonic same sex attractions, which in turn might lead to homophobic reactions, manifesting as a reaction formation, or perhaps the reputedly defunct Conversion disorder. And how frequent are these phenomena, the reader might wonder? With respect to heterosexual men, OR theory filtered through modern assumptions and quasi empiricism suggests that hypersexualized boys “model” (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s term for internalization) the example of their sexually incontinent fathers, in this way remaining bonded with their bad male objects later in adulthood, which in turn elicits guilt when this identifying behavior conflicts with consciously-held goals, like those “how to respect women” ideals incessantly imparted by their disgruntled, single mothers.
There you have it: father blaming. Lucifer the angel expelled-from-the mountain-of-God stuff (remember that one?). Not God blaming, or Eve blaming. Certainly not slut shaming. Mother blaming?
Actually, it’s been suggested…with euphemisms, mostly, or ambiguity. Think Jean LaPlanche. Otherwise, Excess gratification, enabling a Narcissistic development—the failure to say “no” early enough, often enough, to that omnipotent, more often male (we think) than female child, who clings, protrudes with fingers, embraces and scratches with equal ferocity to an object that may respond in kind. Think Object Relations theory. It’s another chestnut, actually. Made its rounds, got covered in psychopathology 101 if you ever took such a class; if you were ever listening. But wait. Saying “no” to what, the reader might further wonder? Does this mean a child that isn’t sufficiently weaned from the breast? Is that a sexualized child, so repressed until later, until after puberty—when all the parts and fluids are simply working more fully, having arrived online, so to speak? Careful, the medical field thus argues. You’re entering the taboo zone now, so let science come to the rescue and say what facts and fate have decreed. Besides, nobody is reporting such childhood abuse as you are implying. Why don’t more of our clients/patients report on this? Gee, d’ya think it might have something to do with implicit, preverbal memory not being available for autobiographical recall? And even if it was, who would go there, at least plainly? I touched on this touchy subject in my earlier blog, “Life Weans The Giraffe”, and here I’ll “touch” on it, this final word, this ancient and original horror once again, with or without scare quotes. And so, to those who think the answers lay in a forensic grasp of an actual past, versus the phantasies of infantile experience, here is my climactic provocation on this multi-layered subject of sex addiction etiology: …no, can’t write it. Sorry.
Have you heard of this word? It’s quite popular these days in…what do I keep calling it? Mental health circles? Psychotherapy circles? Circles? Not even offices, “these days”. The milieu is the online cyber-sphere, the realm of Zoom, the I-phone; possibly the socially distanced consultation. But not conferences, networking lunches, or live “treatment team” discussions. Literature? Maybe. The editors I’m conversing (exchanging e-mails) with say they’ve been furloughed, or otherwise detained. So they won’t read me and they won’t read or publish anything new for a while. Our profession: it’s being podcasted, you-tubed, perhaps, but its edifices are being ghost-towned. Ghosting. That’s…well, that’s for another entry. Today’s subject is another staple of sex addiction treatment, Gaslighting. It’s an important concept, actually—perhaps more relevant to people’s daily lives than any other communication problem—though it’s an appropriated property, with a pedigree in drama, modern and classical. Here’s my footnote on it from Getting Real About Sex Addiction:
“Gaslight is a 1938 play and later a film about a man who torments his wife, searching for jewels to steal in her attic (the lights in which dim the lights elsewhere in the house—hence the title) and lying about his behavior and disappearances. The term has come to mean someone who deliberately seeks to induce anxiety, even psychosis in another through deception. Interestingly, the play recalls Sandor Ferenczi’s famous concepts of “identification with the aggressor” and “confusion of tongues” (1933): a sign of trauma is the subject’s identification with and induction into patriarchy—an internalization of its demands—exploiting a child’s dependence, need for love.”
Have you heard of Sandor Ferenczi? You should have. He’d be a darling of social justice warriors, Me-Too crusaders looking to history for evidence of good men. Ferenczi was a psychoanalytic dissident of the 30s; a once acolyte of Freud who thought the project’s original Seduction Theory—which would have implicated scores of Viennese men in the practice of sexual abuse—should have been restored to the center of psychoanalysis, in place of Freud’s subsequent theory of infantile sexuality. The latter became the model for the human mind, not the belief that external events—trauma—is the original sin besetting humankind. Modern psychoanalysis sings a different tune, humming the bars Ferenczi sang, citing the Gaslight example. I prefer its dramatic antecedent, Hamlet, but I get the point, what the stories are trying to say about what really drives us nuts. But even the zeitgeist ethos doesn’t capture the common hold that Gaslighting has upon everyday interaction. See, it’s not just about events that occur that are later denied. More intricately, it’s about thoughts conveyed that are soon denied, to be met by knowing yet beguiled and censored responses. Here’s my play. It’s from 2020:
A man invites another out for a drink, wanting company. He is rejected, but he will jettison—that is, split-off—that feeling. His stoical other and soon-to-be nemesis seems indifferent, elusive. He says no. Twice. The homoerotic current is subsumed beneath a hetero front: the first man provokes, asks if the other even likes parties…women. In the cold moment, the other man keeps a surface calm, but he looks away, knowing that eye contact in this instance would be aggression. It would betray hate. He gets up, stifles a reply but moves to leave. The first man delivers Gaslight comment number one: “what’s your problem?” Does it sound familiar, this chestnut of denial; this projection of offense? “Nothing”, the other says, not wanting a conflict—not finding the words, it has to be added. “Seriously”, presses the first man. He presses his luck. He acts like he doesn’t know what he’s said, and in some protean sense he is telling the truth, for he is on automatic, unaware. Still, he presses. Is he asking for something? Is he asking to learn?
The second man gives finally. Heaving a breathy sigh, as if it’s all an effort to explain himself, he declares, “You’re disrespecting me. You know you are.”
The first man shrugs, affecting indifference. Now he’s rejecting—rejecting truth, rejecting feeling, and altering the script. This is now about a guy who over-reacts to a simple question. Sensitivity. The second man juts his chin, utters a disgusted noise. Will he press his case, declare further what is happening in this banal, everyday moment? Given the stilled tongue of the adversary, further words might not be necessary. The escalation: it likely won’t happen; but what is the verdict? What will the narrative be if and when the stories are spun beyond this testy dyad? He–the second man–could state what is happening. He just about knows and understands the phenomenon. Everyone does, he thinks briefly. His family, his friends, himself at times; anyone: they’ve all done this thing. They all deny what happens and then fumble for words. Only one sums it up.
Another example, better perhaps, concerns a man who gets quietly drunk, is sternly obnoxious, and asks rude questions in the guise of being interested in others’ lives: “How’s your…” followed by “Well, sounds like he hasn’t got long to go…” –that sort of thing. Never mind why others put up with it. That’s a long story. And it’s not likely to change because if one raises an objection in the moment the man becomes confused. Talk to him about it later and he simply won’t remember. Either way, he’d pay minor lip service to the question of offense, chuckle it away, insinuate that the offense is in the complaint (“I was merely…”), and otherwise ridicule the protest. What do we now call this protest?
As a one-time supervisor—whom I once lampooned in a skit I wrote and enacted—would have said, “I am not a fan”. He will have been speaking of a once marginal psychoanalyst named Masud Khan, who in my pseudonym-filled skit became Mesut Ozil, who is a German soccer player, which is an example of…nevermind. Displacement. I think. Anyway, my client was speaking of John Gray, or alluding to John Gray, at least (of whom I am not a fan), by quoting his famous phrase, don’t sweat the small stuff, because she was sweating the small stuff. Meaning, she was distressed over that which seemed inexplicable and trivial, and whose meaning was obscure, and possibly superficial, but not necessarily so. Deciding it was superficial was part of the “don’t sweat it” mandate, which rather forecloses the “think about why you are sweating it” ethos that I tend to encourage. This seems like a waste of time to those to like to imply that they never have a lot of time, as if anyone does, and that I am wasting their time by suggesting they take time to understand why they sweat over that which doesn’t merit sweating. This sometimes results in the kind of exchange that challenges the premise of what is “small”. Does small mean inadequate, unworthy, or insignificant? Or is small that which is subtle, semi-invisible, but nonetheless impactful, even deadly? This latter rhetoric sets up my climactic provocation: are we not in the midst of an H.G. Wells-like scenario, suffering at the hands of that which we had once othered (we thought it was foreign); that we thought insignificant, un-impactful, not close to home. Indeed, are we not suffering more than we ever imagined we would at the hands of that which is microscopically…small?
Which leads me to discuss Cyril the gnat. Cyril has friends, many of whom hover—and I mean hover—about my kitchen, drawn to the compostable cairns that sit within thin cardboard, take-out containers and such. This is the ephemera of our Covid life: the boxes, the cans, the debris; the unrinsed, sugary resins. A few of the gnats venture beyond the kitchen’s entry, towards a dining table that teases with extra plates, plus crumbs that scatter about electronica, or else live camouflaged upon the surface of a beige carpet. When either my wife or I vacuum (Okay, it’s more often her than I), one can hear the crackle of hardened food being swept up, carried along a film of hair that we’ve shed from our bodies. Human beings shouldn’t live like this, but we do, at a distance from the minute dirt, dust and insect-inviting debris, thinking it good enough. It’s not good enough. Time for a deep clean. Meanwhile, the gnats, Cyril and company, are in from the heat. Most of them stay close to the edibles, and it’s Cyril who’s in my face, or else within arm’s reach, baiting me to show my quickness, reach out and slap the air and squash him in a sweaty palm. Cyril is trying my patience, pushing his luck. A risk-taker, he is not socially distancing. He is disrespecting me, tickling my skin with his feathery fly-bys, not giving me space. What is he thinking? And what am I thinking, thinking that he thinks. So, what has the instinct that presses him directed? That he take over? This interloper, this looter and complainer: he is mocking me with his butterfly flutter, his floating in from the dark, followed by his quick dashes away.
It’s a week later now. Most of Cyril’s friends are gone, observing that the food supply has reduced, so they have moved on in acceptance of their transient, itinerant lives. We’ve righted our ship, my wife and I, having cleared away most of the salty chips and other sweet pieces, or else drowned some of the beta gnats in a vat of apple sauce and vinegar. Only Cyril remains, wondering if we’ve really gathered our wits, turned a corner and flattened our curve. There’s a slip backwards afoot, Cyril thinks, still hovering about the light fixture by the television, and dodging the death ghetto that is our kitchen. Can we sustain our better habits, keep up our defenses, recapture our privileged hegemony? Cyril seems more determined than his peers. He’s sticking around, not content to haunt with territorial norms. Somewhere around a nook in our living room he has found a nest. A school of offspring is pocketed within the wood of a coffee table, I think. Cyril has planned for the future, has staked a claim at the frontier of his existence, within the bosom of a home he feels ready to seize. He has been inspired by recent events, after all. A world-wide revolution has occurred and small lives—lives so small they don’t even seem like lives—suddenly matter. They kill. Big lives, my life, are now the roommates, forced to share space with the lesser fortunate. Justice. Cyril the gnat and his progeny are here to stay, and I am sweating. Cyril himself might not see out the win. Not in his lifetime, maybe. No matter, as far as his individual life is concerned. He is down, and he may be downed, for his cause. He won’t even prepare, I think, being accustomed to the sudden, brutal demises of his kind. I will get him, if only him. Yet Cyril is lucky: he lives phylogenesis, lets his reflex govern the present, driving him on behalf of his species, yet there will be no past or present as I think of it; no dignity or lack of it in the face of death, and therefore no composing himself for an audience with God.
In the Covid era, a meeting at a golf course between two non-golfers makes as much sense anything else. It made more sense than meeting at our favorite local eatery, anyway. I was the one to object to an original plan of an airless interior versus an open space. In response, Joe, my friend, my co-author, suggested the nearby golf course, saying he wanted to “hit some balls”, possibly with double entendering purpose.
I’ve played golf about a dozen times in my life. Turns out Joe has played even less than that. No matter, it seemed as we got together, ostensibly to discuss our currently dormant writing project, entitled and herein promoted as Getting Real About Sex Addiction: A Psychodynamic Approach to Treatment. It isn’t dormant because we’ve got writers’ block and have stopped writing on it. It’s not dormant because we can’t find a publisher and are tired of rejection (well…). Actually, it’s dormant because we do have a publisher, who for the time being shall remain nameless, who is near dormant in his interest. He expresses support and enthusiasm—has done for over a year—but for one reason of another (especially since the Covid outbreak and subsequent restrictions), he cites delays owing to other priorities, suggests an indefinite time-frame for our publication, and even ignores requests for a publishing contract. With our shared penchant for innuendo, Joe and I agree that our publisher is like a careless lover, ever promising affection but never making a commitment. Regarding our book: he won’t put a ring on it.
Perhaps this is perversely apt for a book that is mostly about male sex addicts, because although female or pan sex addicts exist, they are not the focus of our profession’s “clinical attention”, much less progressive society’s thinly-veiled contempt. Hate. When it’s deemed righteous it’s called revolution, or a paradigm shift, or something like that. Clearly, based upon statistics and stereotype, the contemporary sex addict is wayward in his habits, slick and therefore elusive in his communications; at times compulsive, he is also calculating, gaslighting, opportunistic, and prone to ghosting. In a word, he is untrustworthy. In at least one more, he is heterosexual and of course male, because the most livid pathologizing is reserved for the most privileged. They are privileged with the “pathologizing” label of sex addiction, so-coined by an industry patriarch, Patrick Carnes, and since promulgated to the mental health colony, now dominantly feminine. The sex addiction label (not yet a diagnostic category) is controversial, in part because it is pathologizing, which isn’t nice, critics assert, unless it’s aimed at the privileged. The dominant faction of label recipients, men, are therefore further privileged to receive tender care and attention for their narcissism-fueled desires. Excuse me while I pause to laugh at the twisting rhetoric of my profession. This is my commentary, my satire, aimed as it is at the ideological undercurrents that live within the sex addiction field in particular. What are my qualifications? How well placed am I? How well placed is anyone to observe the sexual mores of our dystopian 2020? Is not lying concurrently in the beds of or before the laptops of millions stopping anyone else from having opinions? As Joe sat before me at lunch, at times eyeing a pair of golf clubs with which he’d hoped to get in some driving practice, I reminded him of these themes in our book, or within my slightly more numerous chapters, at least. See, partly because of delays, we haven’t talked about or even read each other’s chapters in ages. Gee, d’ya think it might be a good idea to remind each other of what we’re doing, I evinced.
Let’s go for a walk, I suggested, with Joe gleaning that I was about as interested in golf as a squirrel scrambling across one of the putting greens. He pointed to a path that seemed to wind its way throughout the course, there for players, and at least appropriate for pedestrians, we thought. Or, we didn’t think. Not really. We thought to take the clubs along so that I could swing at the air, take the head off a weed, or a stray daisy. To fidget with a toy; to self-sooth, as therapists are prone to observing. Play of another, less organized kind. Joe and I had too much to talk about, having not seen each other in months, but in spells, at least, we stuck to our task, and spoke of our embattled manuscript as we strolled along the sinewy path. At one point we stopped talking for a few moments as we were semi-politely shushed by a tall and patrician-looking man who was about to—how do you say?—make a drive? He thrust an open palm in our direction, signifying a genteel, yet officious displeasure. “Just…please, don’t talk”, he beseeched, containing an imperious disapproval. “Are you guys lost?” he followed up in a friendlier voice, having just taken a satisfying shot. Joe picked up on the meaning. I didn’t and was then treated to Joe’s assessing comments for the next few minutes. The man had reminded him of some in his practice, of the breadth of masculine Narcissism that has informed, darkened, but also fed private practice psychotherapy, and likely sex addiction treatment, in recent generations.
Soon, Joe returned his attention to our shared, if oft-interrupted endeavor. He asked after feedback given to us by early readers, which aren’t interested friends or colleagues, necessarily. I think we’ve managed to enlist one person whom we know to read more than a handful of pages. No, the more rigorous feedback has come from other would-be publishers, departments of review to whom we (or I) have submitted sample chapters, hoping to capture academia’s interest. Well, we received interest, I reminded Joe—some of it hostile in nature, which I found pleasing, as this is in keeping with the book’s adjunctively subversive aim, as far as I am concerned. However, the most salient critiques were based upon misunderstandings, of passages clumsily written by myself, and thus were necessarily and easily correctible. The reaction to opinions that are indeed irreverent and will hopefully remain so, or out of the mainstream, or “evidence-based”—that selectively applied principle—are yet to come, perhaps. In speaking of all this, Joe seemed a bit lost in our project, and needful of my re-orienting influence, especially if we are to have the requested latitude to further edit or re-write our material over the next year or so. By the end of our golf course, socially-distanced outing, my co-author was proclaiming rejuvenation: an agreement to revisit our dormant project; to revive it regardless of others’ interest, or our publisher’s interest, and to add updated material to its extant substance. A few topically relevant passages about therapy in the era of Covid, Joe agreed.
Near the end of our visit we were walking amongst a derelict section of the course, within a quadrant that featured an old gazebo, plus some manner of waiting area—a wholly undefined yet concrete structure. As we left its perimeter, we were approached by a golf cart driven by a smiling woman whose piercing gaze shot right into us. She pulled up uttering a query similar to the one directed at us by that superior-looking figure from the previous hole. Are you lost? was not quite the question she led with, and even if she had, its effect would have been quite different. Immediately, I was struck by her pleasant demeanor, and when she offered to escort us back to the golf club’s entrance—a suggestion made vague by an offhand turn of phrase—I quickly suspected that Joe and I had broken course etiquette, yielding a complaint resulting in this woman’s approach. This time Joe was slower on the uptake, which meant that I was quicker to the space next to our driver, while Joe sat on the end of the cart’s seat, which seemed designed for two. “Riding bitch” she said, which belied the air of flirtation I’d briefly assigned to her, or not. Was it an insult? A moment of manly teasing from a woman who has assimilated obnoxious golfing men? On the ride back via the sinewy, not-quite-the-pedestrian path we thought it was, our chauffeur pleasantly asked after our business. I replied that we’d patronized the club’s bar/sandwich shop, implying an entitlement to walk the grounds. Joe changed the subject, speaking of a club employee—a teenager, youngster, or something—who might be known this woman, and who might vouch for our decent characters, maybe. Actually, I’ve no idea why Joe was small-talking this woman about some kid who worked at the club. However, his distraction didn’t stop me from making, like a good, as in present therapist, the elephant comment of the moment: “I’ve a feeling that we shouldn’t have been walking where we were, that we’ve broken the club’s rules here”. Laughing, seemingly embarrassed yet keeping her dignity, the woman confirmed that “technically” we were walking where we shouldn’t have, but that it wasn’t a big deal. Not a big deal. What Joe and I were doing, on all levels, is not a big deal, I thought with a touch of angst, but a newfound bit between my teeth. “Treading on a few toes”, I later muttered, thinking of the year or so ahead.
Elsa had prepared for this evening all afternoon. For several days, actually. Laid out upon her bed, her gossamer satin dress, the base of which needed a slight hemming, she thought, posed for her admiration all afternoon long. Around six, as she applied a light facial cover and delicately attached a pair of earrings she’d bought for herself shortly after Christmas, she gazed into her bathroom mirror, prodding at her brunette bun, examining her color combinations, her symmetry and style. Once, the accessories would have been gifts. Earrings were a typical offering from her ex-husband, gone six years now, geographically anyway. He’d been gone emotionally for at least twice that long. The gifts, like the near-annual jewels, were like stand-ins, substituting shiny objects for a void.
Ostensibly, Elsa was venturing alone to the dinner gathering, though one of her colleagues was bringing along a male friend to the party of six. This was the kind of online-ignited get together that Elsa had patronized before. About a half a dozen people, maybe a few more, converging upon a social scene, usually a fashionable restaurant in a lively district, with casual if tacitly intent purpose. About two-thirds of the group would be unattached and similarly-situated: thirty-something, single though experienced, maybe too experienced; professional and therefore financially independent, though not wealthy necessarily; implicitly egalitarian, progressive in their beliefs. Elsa thought her friend Judy a little gratuitous in this last category. Ever eager to exhibit her knowing, socially just credentials, she used words like “cisgender” to indicate the profiles of heterosexual others, or “woke” to signify a near-requisite sensibility. Ever careful to include and not assume inclusion, she crafted her thoughts to cover all bases, to not reduce or restrict to any particular way of being.
For an hour, Elsa’s thoughts drifted lightly over a surface of chatter and dry congeniality. Work was a predictable subject of conversation since at least two within the party were colleagues from Elsa’s magazine; one, a junior editor, was technically her subordinate, which added to a somewhat formal air. Elsa rarely got drunk, but she might have wanted to let the hair out of the bun, so to speak; to tease Judy out of her studied sociability. She might have wanted more than one drink to soften the creeping anxiety that settled in around eight o’clock. Joe, her mooted quasi-date for the evening, had started well with alert interest in Elsa’s literary career, but soon betrayed a dismaying distractibility. He timed his comments well, not interrupting necessarily, but within moments of Elsa’s speaking, he at least twice spoke in tangents, conflating his interests with hers, leaving Elsa confused, and quickly bored, which taxed the abilities she employed in the daytime, like the maintenance of polite, smiling contact. Over Joe’s shoulder, she observed a congestion of dinner guests around a tight front entry. A troubled hostess was struggling to manage the numbers, it seemed, and a fussy manager bounced back and forth between the restaurant’s kitchen and the glitchy elevator that brought group after group, packing the space. That singular path to the dining area was the one feature of the restaurant that Elsa disliked. The curiously small elevator, built to fit an earthy, Terra Cotta ambience, seemed inadequate for the restaurant’s physical needs—a sacrifice to someone’s notion of an aesthetic, Elsa thought.
The explosion that occurred around eight-thirty blew past the ornamental shaft, not destroying it necessarily, but certainly obscuring it from vision. Within seconds, smoke filled the room, with sparks of flame spitting out from the sides. Sounds of glass shattering shot out from side to side, with feminine screams and angry male barks hitting the noiseless gaps. Elsa staggered, reached out for someone’s touch, possibly Joe’s or that of Judy, straining to stand. She wasn’t injured, not physically anyway, and her investigatory mind was just about functional. The fire, or explosion, had come from the kitchen, she thought, as if divining the cause was the paramount task of the moment. Everyone else had other priorities. From within the haze of their shock, they fell over chairs and past broken tables. Splintered wood and shards of glass were minor obstacles as bodies scrambled like desperate rats to a presumed escape, that space wherein that tight and glitchy elevator once stood, pretty and inviolate. The cluster of panicked diners were in for a rude awakening, and by the looks of the crowded back-up, evident even amid the thick and blackening smoke, the prospect of escape had hit a wall.
Elsa stood as though frozen, not sure how to act, to think, or to be. Twitchily, she flicked glances at frightened faces, those of colleagues, of strangers, of people to whom she cared how she appeared no matter what they represented. She heard fragments of thoughts, of frantic inquiries. What floor were we on? Where is there an emergency stairwell? Elsa thought, am I the only one still thinking about what happened? The advancing blanket of smoke pushed back groups, the dinner party to which Else was now tenuously attached. The fluttering limbs and stop-and-start motions suggested a thin solidarity that was doomed to collapse: every man, woman, or whatever Judy might remind was in between or beyond was for themselves, said the body language. To Elsa, it seemed that within moments that could not be measured temporally, all social conventions would dissolve. Not only would the barely-invested concern between individuals disappear, so too would the inhibitions that illustrated the fixed limits of caring. As flames ignited curtains on either side of the dining hall, portending an entrapment of heat and breathlessness, the crowd rushed back, pushing Elsa, now separated and amongst utter strangers, towards a back wall. Fire escape. Someone called out the words with a blend of fright and inspiration, and suddenly heads turned, searching for the recognizable fixture that would signal hope.
Soon the coughing started, followed by smoke-induced tears, which forced temporary blindness. Choking, and hearing the din of others’ like-suffering, Elsa’s body spun away, bumping off others’ bodies like a ball in a pinball machine. What lay before her felt like a hallucination: an orange line of fire, advancing upon a wall that flanked the kitchen, melted away an ornate wallpaper pattern as though it was an ice-cube quickly thinning into a puddle. As the flame tore away at the fabric of brick and mortar, it revealed behind it a grey space that beckoned like freedom. Cool and clear: that was the impression Elsa held of the space that had opened up, promising room to breathe. Glancing around her, she saw that few were at the gap so she dashed towards it, pushing past an object that might have been a chair but was possibly flesh and bone—someone else’s already-slumped, defeated body. Within another indeterminate moment she was at an edge, contemplating a dream. Is this a dream, she wondered, feeling a pressing heat at her back and an urge to leap? This is a dream, she next decided, regarding a mobius strip of fire all around her. Whatever this is, it will soon be over. The dream—or this something unthinkable—will soon be over, yielding relief. Elsa gasped. Dizzy, her head spinning, she knew there was one more decision to make. Instinctively, she looked over her shoulder, like she was saying goodbye to the assembly of faces. Who did she really know? Who cared about her? As something like a hot spear struck her, she let out a shriek and stumbled backward. Falling, she felt the weightless sensation of a terrorizing drop and conjured its hard and bloody end. Finally, the eyes of an unknown woman met hers, perhaps drawn by the sound of Elsa’s cry. It was an appraising gaze, at once sympathetic yet judging of another’s indignity, and as the eyes of that woman disappeared above the floor upon which she remained standing, Elsa wondered her final thought before the great dream: does it matter still what anyone thinks?
Amid these difficult times (how’s that for an opening cliche?), I’ve determined that it’s time to address an important matter that has hitherto been ignored: the meaning of the roadrunner and of course, its relevance, like that of Dr. Strangelove, to the strained realities of the present day. Roadrunner? Yes, the roadrunner, as in the long-running (hey, a pun) Looney Tunes cartoon that began in the late forties and persisted well into the 21st century, tirelessly representing themes of obsession, futility, as well as split-identifications.
To fully appreciate the roadrunner one has to be a child, or at least inhabit the childlike state that intuits all of the following: namely, the roadrunner rules. Rules were important when I was first watching cartoons. Pre-teens know rules, are governed by rules, and don’t know the possibilities of breaking rules, generally, yet they know how to identify. The world of the roadrunner, plus its (gender?) nemesis, the seemingly male Wile E. (not so wily) Coyote, is likely the American southwest, given the resemblance of the landscape to that of the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley. The rocky, arid spaces suggest the starvation that motivates the salivating Coyote, while the roadrunner figure, wide-eyed and spry, seems ever comfortable, well-fed and unthirsty. The rules are that no dialogue exists between these characters, only the non-verbal utterances between enemies (the roadrunner’s impish “beep-beep”, for example, which made it seem like a car), such that a western “duel” is conjured.
In its cartoon physics, rules apply to the Coyote that don’t apply to the underdog roadrunner: For example, the roadrunner can stop on a dime while the Coyote cannot, which often leads the latter to fall off precipices that he doesn’t see until its too late. Interestingly, a sub-rule that relates here is one in which the Coyote is spared the full consequences of his impending fall until he realizes his error. What does this mean? Are we to infer, or absorb into our childlike state that reality only hits when reality hits? That psychic reality (coming out of denial) will coincide with material, or physical reality? Furthermore, in the cartoon, the Coyote enjoins the audience into his psychic acknowledgement, as if the collective witnessing (by the viewer) is also necessary to activate the actual fall. What typically follows is the changing of our position to that of a God-like aerial view. We see the Coyote fall, and as he looks up at us and disappears towards a sandy earth and a presumably dusty death, he appears more humiliated than terrified. He has, after all, been fooled again.
This recalls another rule: that the roadrunner never directly harms the Coyote. It just seems to ever know something the Coyote doesn’t, like the apparent fact that a painting on a rock will allow its entry, such that the roadrunner can continue along a road that has been painted on a surface, while the Coyote gets flattened as he runs into the same surface. And what does that mean? Is this really the roadrunner’s world, and does it have special powers that defy physics? Are we to infer a social allegory in this hint that rules are applied selectively? Again, the roadrunner cannot directly harm the Coyote, but it can manipulate or take advantage of nature’s whimsy, the apparent flexibility of gravity, and of hallucinatory objects. Of course, it’s also possible that the roadrunner itself is not real, and that its disappearance into the painting on the rock is itself a hallucination.
The most important rule in the roadrunner cartoon appears to be that the Coyote cannot and will not ever capture the roadrunner. Why? And if he never captures the bird (?) why does he never give up. Why does he not move on, start chasing lizards or something, or at least hire some company other than ACME to supply the weaponry that will invariably let him down. What…was ACME like the Amazon of its day: were brick and mortar stores all gone and did he have no choice but to order from this one supplier of all that is needed? For children, it’s not clear who is meant to be identified with. It’s not clear who is the hero and who is the villain, which for me is the secret of the cartoon’s lasting appeal: though it borrows motifs from the genre of the western, it otherwise mocks its landscapes and binary paradigms. In it, the underdog is a pest and a flirt; it is implicitly female in a pre-feminist sense: teasingly appetizing, but with no appetite of its own. Okay, not quite true: occasionally, the roadrunner stops in its tracks, tempted by a petit cairn of seeds that its adversary has placed in the middle of the road, but it can easily eat and run, and more importantly, it may seem to the viewer that the would-be prey can give or take sustenance. The Coyote, meanwhile, is deceptively powerful and nasty–a rapacious derivative of the big bad wolf–and a desperate fanatic who does not know when to stop.
If we are to identify with the roadrunner, then this identification is the reason the bird is never captured. The reason: the consequences are unthinkable. The roadrunner will be eaten. He, she–whatever–will be torn to shreds, and cartoons can’t allow that. That’s for adult entertainment, horror films and the like, and children must be protected from the dire consequences of the chase. Sorry Coyote, this means that you must lose while we empathize with your need. You are a villain, but a likeable one because you never seem to actualize your villainy. Also–again, because of cartoon rules–the Coyote is not destroyed by this necessary sparing of the roadrunner. Each episode ends with the Coyote unfed, which is sad but not fatal. The episode, and therefore the Coyote’s loss and humiliation, will soon be over, only to begin again the next time.
If children of a happy or safe upbringing, we watch the roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons, allowed by adults to enjoy their never-ending chases, their darker-than Tom and Jerry drama, because unlike the mouse and cat, the roadrunner and Coyote are never friends in domesticity–they are rivals amid desolation, and perhaps the last creatures on earth. But this again is too much imagination for the childlike mind. The episodes only last a few minutes, so we’d know, or learn, about stopping, but not death. Kids are often told when to stop, when recess is over; when play time is to become work time, school time; when dinner, as provided reliably, is ready. On some things, adults encourage children to not give up on that which is frustrating, and sometimes be told that one doesn’t always get what one wants. That’s all, folks! No one explains obsession to a child, or fanaticism; an addiction never satisfied, much less starvation. The need of the Coyote, and the ambiguous need of the roadrunner, must ever exist in tension, unresolved and co-existent. No one seems to understand–at least not with words–pursuing a goal through hallucination, at some point forgetting what pursuits are even about.