Thursday, February 14, 2013

BOOK NOTE: “The Marriage Plot” (10 love notes for Valentine’s Day)

1.  I think tonight at 7:30 at Pyramid Club you can see me given away onstage in some perverse, Rev. Jen-hosted version of The Dating Game (a bit more on that in a moment).  But a couple decades ago, you could have found me on the campus of Brown University – and a decade prior to that, you’d have found Jeffrey Eugenides there (before he moved to New Jersey).

Eugenides would go on to write The Virgin Suicides and the gender-bending Middlesex, but it’s last year’s The Marriage Plot (recommended to me by Jacob Levy) in which he describes the 80s Brown milieu, complete with the brain-warping, sometimes love-damaging effects of then-rampant deconstructionism, fashionable French literary theory designed to shame the young into being nihilists and thus allowing themselves to be reconstructed as Freudian-feminist hardcore Marxists – not that I haven’t enjoyed the company of some very pleasant and sexy Brown alums. 

The three primary characters involved in the love triangle at the heart of the book grapple with the meaning of love, language, and religion – and travel the world as well – but I confess the main joy for me is seeing them navigate startlingly familiar environs, both physically (Thayer Street, the Ratty cafeteria, etc.) and mentally. 

Eugenides could have a whole second career as a writer of teen romance novels, given the wonderful job he does of capturing the naivete and downright stupidity of college-age decision-making while still capturing how heroically the protagonists struggle to make sense of the world and the (for them) new situations it presents.  He sympathizes with these characters but remembers more vividly than most of us what novel things some basic elements of cognition still were at that stage and how that made everything a bit like navigating a new campus.

Even more so than Mitchell Grammaticus’s questions about religion or Leonard Bankhead’s doubts about deconstructionism, Madeleine Hanna’s one-foot-in-front-of-the-other efforts to deal with one of her first hangovers, annoying questions from parents, and a flirtation with a weird guy from one of her classes all seem painfully plausible and familiar. 

But let’s get back to bashing deconstructionism.  Regardless of where this trio’s romantic and philosophical explorations lead, I have to thank any book that describes a semiotics class thusly: “Everyone in the room was so spectral-looking that Madeleine's natural healthiness seemed suspect, like a vote for Reagan.”  And a book in which Madeleine reacts to Brown politics thusly: “And ‘fascist.’  That’s another one of his favorites.  You know the dry cleaners on Thayer Street?  He called them fascist.”

And a decade later, that’s still about what it was like.  Sometimes, people tell me to forget.  But Eugenides hasn’t forgotten, and he wins prizes.

2.  I try not to be angry about Brown, though, or to hate my political foes.  Yesterday at Columbia, I saw psychologist Jonathan Haidt talk about just how important – and difficult – it is to avoid such behaviors, though.  He wrote the insightful and important Righteous Mind, about which I blogged two months ago.  It describes the multiple factors that go into people’s mostly pre-rational moral judgments – and how powerful and dangerous the temptation is to tell yourself that if your opponent doesn’t emphasize those same moral factors in the same way, it must be because he (and his whole tribe/party) is sadistic, not just mistaken.  This is juvenile but instinctual and commonplace.

On the other hand, whether polite or rude, factions can’t all be correct at the same time.  I was pleased that Haidt, when I asked him, readily conceded that (though he is a centrist) you can’t deduce from the observations in Righteous Mind that moderate policies are necessarily best just because of the calming, diplomatic advantages that come from a moderate, civil frame of mind.  Though his main message is that leftists could gain strategically from being as well-rounded as conservatives in their mix of foundational principles (instead of just hammering equality and fairness over and over), he also noted in passing that libertarians (A) have the highest IQs, (B) let emotion affect their moral evaluations least, and (C) are well-situated to escape some of the toxic us/them tribal warfare into which the left/right dialogue has degenerated.

On the other hand, we libertarians might prefer that politics stay gridlocked most of the time – and eighty or so years ago when both major American political parties were far more moderate and mixed, most political scientists, as Haidt acknowledged when I mentioned it, thought we’d be better off with clearly-defined right vs. left parties, so the public would know which was which and could thus participate more.  There are dangers to bipartisan consensus and slightly different dangers to constant fighting.  Nothing’s perfect.  Few things are even close, alas.

Interestingly, despite efforts by some to dismiss the Tea Party as a last gasp of social conservatism, Haidt boldly stated (and I hope he’s right) that the Tea Party was influential in replacing the old sex-vs.-puritanism “culture war” with a new government-vs.-markets culture war in which Obama’s camp are the defenders of government.  By my standards, winning this culture war will prove vastly more important – but as explained below, I will try to do my part while also keeping in mind Haidt’s cautions against hating the out-group. 

3.  Speaking of hate, I gather this Valentine’s week brought the revelation in the Batman comic, in the conclusion of the “Death of the Family” storyline, that Joker (in his sick way) loves Batman but that Batman (despite seeming too stoic to let such things get to him) hates the Joker.  These things are so complicated. 

4.  How complicated will tonight’s Dating Game segment get at Rev. Jen’s Anti-Slam (Pyramid Club, 101 Ave. A, 7:30)?  Well, not only is it technically “Cher Night” at the Anti-Slam, but the people running this show are associated with this crowd, so I have no one but myself to blame if they end up trying to sacrifice me to cannibalistic drag queens instead of piling hot chicks on top of me.  We’ll see how it goes. 

Maybe I’ll at least encounter a punk keen to join me at this coming Tuesday’s (delayed) Tegan and Sara concert.

5.  Speaking of love and family, I would also just settle for a posse keen to see the father-son violence-fest A Good Day to Die Hard, which I was delighted to see advertised with the slogan “Yippee Ki-Yay, Mother Russia.”

6.  To some, it is a more spiritual love that matters,
and some of those people spent this week careening from Mardi Gras to Ash Wednesday to wondering who the next Pope will be, and I’ll only say that if it turns out to be that cardinal from Quebec, I hope he’s pals with Arcade Fire and Metric.  Technically, I think all Canadians are also members of Broken Social Scene, which would then expand to include the Vatican.  Should have seen it coming, really.

7.  If the next Pope rocks, few will be better qualified to comment than Dawn Eden, who I’m pleased (despite our obvious philosophical differences) to hear will be doing some Columbia talking of her own this Saturday, at 2:40pm in Lerner C555 (not 666) near 114th and Broadway, part of panel discussions on religion and relationships.

8.  Dawn has written about the oversexed aspects of contemporary culture, and she might be surprised to learn (as I did from a New York Academy of Sciences panel this week on animal sex) that a century ago, according to one panelist, people were so wary of weird sex practices that a notebook about strange behaviors such as necrophilia among Antarctic penguins had to be published in Greek and circulated among a small audience of scientists to avoid scandal.  It’s like something out of H.P. Lovecraft, plus Happy Feet and Caligula. 

9.  In an effort to make the world less creepy, though, I will today participate in a nice Twitter experiment: libertarians using the hashtag #LibertarianLoveBomb to tell the world about aspects of other political philosophies that they genuinely admire.  Today of all days, we should remember that it doesn’t have to be combat all the time. 

10.  And lest you think that’s as diplomatic as I get, coming soon, I promise an essay series – on a site more substantial than this one – that will, if all goes well, unite all factions, heal all wounds, and show at last how we can all get along, politically if not necessarily romantically. 

1 comment:

Jake said...

totally agree on The Marriage Plot. The storyline didn't always move me, but I loved everything else about the book.