Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Oldest Funny Subject Suddenly Isn’t Funny Any More

     "The pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous, and the expense is damnable." – Lord Chesterfield

     Certain things become easier with advancing age. One of them is the acquisition of a degree of calm – and a relaxed perspective – about sex.

     The quote above is supposedly from a letter Lord Chesterfield wrote to his son. I have no idea what the context was, but the truths in the quoted epigram are eternal. It suggests to me that Chesterfield had been married, and “of a certain age.” My sainted father, a veteran of both World War II and a stormy, ultimately failed marriage, liked to say that if he had to repeat one of them and was allowed to choose which one, it would be the former. (And please, don’t take “sainted” too literally; just about everything Dad said was liberally laced with expletives. Navy veterans are like that.)

     Allow me to retell an anecdote from some years ago:

     About twenty-five years ago, the C.S.O. and I had another family, the Hudsons, come to dinner at the Fortress: husband, wife, and two teenaged children. It was a pleasant evening, and dinner, cooking being the C.S.O.’s forte, was enjoyed by all. We were past the entrée and enjoying dessert when one of the teens, a charming young lady whose name was Kristin, asked a question of me that, as the saying goes, “brought down the house:”
     “Fran, what would you say is the biggest difference between teens and adults?”

     Kristin’s parents were immediately alert. Mind you, I wasn’t known in their household as some fount of eternal wisdom. Hell, I’m not known that way in my own household. But as you may have noticed, I do have opinions, and I tend to dispense them freely. Moreover, the way Kristin asked the question suggested 1) that she seriously wanted to know my opinion, and 2) that her parents had not provided an answer she found satisfactory. So I took the question seriously, and I decided to answer it seriously:

     “Well, Kristin, I’d say it’s what they’re most concerned about. Teenagers tend to be most concerned about sex. But as you get older, you tend to be less concerned about sex and more concerned about money.”

     You could have heard a pin drop. Kristin’s face lit as if I’d provided the Great Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. On the other hand, I think her parents would have looked less shocked if I’d hopped onto the table and dropped my pants. Plainly, by their lights this was something Kristin should not have heard from a respected elder. And yet it was my honest opinion. I believed it then and I believe it today.

     The get-together ended a few uncomfortable minutes later.

     Even the mention of sex in the hearing of the young can make the elders in the room distinctly uncomfortable. It’s not because the elders don’t want the young’uns to know about the process by which human life is generated. They know they’ve lost that battle by the time Junior is ten. But it might be because with the attenuation of their own drives, they’ve become embarrassed about what their sexual decisions have brought upon them.

     A lot of us make bad decisions in the heat of passion. Some of those decisions can have lifelong consequences, as Lord Chesterfield suggested. Meat Loaf would tell you the same:

     Bad decisions of that sort are a major impetus to the growth of the Men Going Their Own Way movement.

     Probably the worst recent development pertaining to the sexual decisions of Americans has been the politicization of sex and everything associated with it. I could list many manifestations. I shan’t, as it’s too early in the morning to chug yet another bottle of Maalox.® But you’re probably already familiar with most of them anyway.

     It’s my contention that mixing politics into an innocent human activity – and sex is innocent until proven guilty – is guaranteed to ruin it. Examples abound. Yet women tend to play the Lysistrata card reflexively when they don’t get what they want. Here’s a washed-up second-tier actress trying that gambit. Over abortion, of all things.

     Here’s Kurt Schlichter’s reaction:

     Let’s review. Alyssa Milano is not going to have sex unless and until you allow her to kill babies. I am unclear on what our reaction is supposed to be. Does she expect us to pull a 180 on pre-birth infanticide in order to keep the Alyssa Option open?...

     I am guessing that this innovative strategy probably won’t be successful in dissuading us from protecting the unborn. Scratching Alyssa Milano off our collective “To-do” list? We can live with that.

     Well, yes. But Milano’s screech does underline just how silly some of us can get about the whole deal. The silliness isn’t confined to actual sexual congress.

     Back during the early years of the Sexual Devolution Revolution, we saw many lampoonings of supposedly traditional sex-related convictions, such as this one:

     Now, I’m not going to say that pornography has no downside. It can warp expectations. It can unhealthfully divert the focus of the young. And yes, it’s had negative impacts on more than a few married couples. But it’s not responsible for rape, or the spread of venereal disease, any more than Grand Theft Auto is responsible for carjackings. There is no correlation among those things, as we’ve learned.

     That makes it rather strange that there should be a sudden surge of condemnations of porn, especially on the World Wide Web. The most common rationale for these condemnations is religious. That, at least, is understandable. The hierarchies of the major religions have all railed against sexual indulgence and any peripheral manifestations of it for many centuries; it’s an important competitor for the attention of the young.

     Allow me to cite a sensible man on the subject:

     The third morning after the system was installed Jill brought a letter, category “G”, to Jubal. The ladies and other females (plus misguided males) who supplied this category usually included pictures alleged to be of themselves; some left little to the imagination.
     This letter enclosed a picture which left nothing to the imagination, then stimulated fresh imaginings. Jill said, “Look at this, Boss! I ask you!”
     Jubal read the letter. “She knows what she wants. What does Mike think?”
     “He hasn’t seen it.”
     Jubal glanced at the picture. “A type which, in my youth, we called ‘stacked.’ Well, her sex is not in doubt, nor her agility. Why show it to me? I’ve seen better.”
     “What should I do! The letter is bad enough . . . but that disgusting picture—should I tear it up?”
     “What’s on the envelope?”
     “Just the address and return address.”
     “How does the address read?”
     “Huh? ‘Mr. Valentine Michael Smith, the Man from’—”
     “Oh! Then it’s not addressed to you.
     “Why, no, of course—”
     “Let’s get something straight. You are neither Mike’s mother nor his chaperon. If Mike wants to read everything addressed to him, including junk mail, he is free to do so.”
     “He does read most of those ads. But you don’t want him to see filth! He’s innocent.”
     “So? How many men has he killed?”
     Jill looked unhappy.
     Jubal went on: “If you want to help him, you will concentrate on teaching him that killing is frowned on in this society. Otherwise he will be conspicuous when he goes out into the world.”
     “Uh, I don’t think he wants to ‘go out into the world.’ ”
     “I’m going to push him out of the nest as soon as he can fly. I shan’t make it possible for him to live out his life as an arrested infant. For one thing, I can’t . . . Mike will outlive me by many years. But you are correct; Mike is innocent. Nurse, have you seen that sterile laboratory at Notre Dame?”
     “I’ve read about it.”
     “Healthiest animals in the world—but they can’t leave the laboratory. Child, Mike has got to get acquainted with ‘filth’—and get immunized. Someday he’ll meet the gal who wrote this, or her spiritual sisters—he’ll meet her by the hundreds—shucks, with his notoriety and looks he could spend his life skipping from one bed to another. You can’t stop it, I can’t stop it; it’s up to Mike. Furthermore, I wouldn’t want to stop it, although it’s a silly way to spend one’s life—the same exercises over and over again, I mean. What do you think?”
     “I—” Jill blushed.
     “Maybe you don’t find them monotonous—none of my business, either way. But if you don’t want Mike’s feet kicked out from under him by the first five hundred women who get him alone, then don’t intercept his mail. Letters like that may put him on guard. Just pass it along in the stack, answer his questions—and try not to blush.”
     “Boss, you’re infuriating when you’re logical!”
     “A most uncouth way to argue.”
     “I’m going to tear up that picture after Mike has seen it!”
     “Oh, don’t do that!”
     “What? Do you want it?”
     “Heaven forbid! But Duke collects such pictures. If Mike doesn’t want it, give it to Duke.”
     “Duke collects such trash? He seems such a nice person.”
     “He is.”
     “But—I don’t understand.”
     Jubal sighed. “I could explain it all day and you still wouldn’t. My dear, there are aspects of sex on which it is impossible to communicate between the two sexes of our race. They are sometimes grokked by intuition across the gulf that separates us, by exceptionally gifted individuals. But words are useless. Just believe me: Duke is a perfect knight—and he will like that picture.”
     “I won’t hand it to Duke myself—he might get ideas.”

     [Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land]

     That passage has always made me laugh, As I’ve aged, the laughter has grown ever more self-referential.

     Jubal Harshaw, Heinlein’s fictional self-insertion into his most famous novel, is one of his trademarked “older and wiser characters,” used to provide the perspective of age that his younger, more action-oriented characters require for balance. In Heinlein’s oeuvre, the young tend to learn from the old, which is as it should be.

     But Heinlein, many will object, was dismissive of religion. There is some truth in this; he had had his fill of religious authoritarianism well before he wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. But being a sensible man, he didn’t discard the baby with the bathwater. He retained a lively interest in religious and supernatural questions lifelong. Both those things are plainly illustrated in his novel Job: A Comedy of Justice.

     Quasi-religious crusades against pornography – specifically, the visual or written depiction of sexual activity – as a specially threatening variety of evil are doomed to failure. They cannot succeed, for the same reason attempts to ban a religion only make it flourish. Jubal Harshaw’s approach has a better record at immunizing the young against sexual obsession…and getting them to see the humorous side of the matter.

     So we see sex, “the oldest funny subject,” being politicized from the Left and becoming a target (once again) among bluenoses nominally on the Right. That makes it hard to laugh about it. It also makes it treacherous to broach any subject connected to sex, even tangentially, in the company of persons of unknown attitudes.

     But we will laugh about sex, even if only in the company of those we know well. We need to laugh, especially today. And sex is both fertile ground for the incongruities that bring laughter and something nearly everyone knows enough about to see those incongruities. Which is justification enough to close with a joke:

     A weary traveler with time to kill before his flight home stopped into a tavern to waste some of it. He ordered a beer and, as he was hungry for friendly conversation and there were few others in the bar, he tried to strike up a little chat with the bartender.

     “You know,” he said as the bartender brought his beer, “some of the stuff going on in Washington—”

     The bartender stopped him with a glare. “We don’t allow political talk in this establishment. It leads to too many fights.”

     Chastened, the traveler subsided at once. A bit later, as he was finishing his beer, the bartender came over to ask if he wanted a refill. He nodded and said, “Sure. I was just thinking about something the Pope said—” And again the bartender silenced him with a wave and a glare.

     “We don’t allow religious talk in here, either,” the bartender said. “No one ever agrees with anyone, and we can’t afford the ill will.”

     “Well, then,” the annoyed traveler said, “do you allow talk about sex?”

     The bartender was mildly surprised, but after a moment he said, “Sure, everyone talks about sex.”

     “In that case,” our hero said as he rose from his stool, “go fuck yourself.”

     And I alone am escaped to tell thee.

1 comment:

Linda Fox said...

What I remember about Stranger is that scene near the end of the book, when the dinner with implied cannabalism is described. It aped the facade of a mass, without the God component. A juvenile parody of the reality.

The trouble with today's emphasis on sexual expression in relationships, and the necessity of sexual 'testing the waters' is that it avoids dealing with far more important facets of marriage:
- Can each of the partners bear to spend extended time with the in-laws? Could they handle old-age care, if necessary? Will each partner put the spouse FIRST, before parents, sisters, or other relatives?
- Will they put their money cards on the table? A true account of their debts, spending habits, and savings? Do they have self-discipline sufficient to EACH bring a nest egg to the marriage? Will they make a wedding budget, and stick to it? Does one of the partners expect to be bailed out by parents?
- Will they accept children into the marriage? How do they treat any children from prior relationships? Are they prepared to make adjustments for the sake of offspring?
- Have they demonstrated willingness to put off plans for a sick partner? How do they treat their pets? Are they intolerant to religious people, those that think differently, the possibility of political or cultural differences between the partners?

Sex is far down the list - not unimportant, just not the whole of life. The best sex in the world won't make up for a bitchy partner, who insists on getting his/her own way, ALL the time.