Masculine Anxiety and the Introjected Father


I have been reading what must now be a classic feminist philosophy text, Susan Bordo’s The Flight to Objectivity. In it she constructs a feminist argument about Descartes’ Meditations, a seminal work that she claims many (male) philosophers have not taken seriously enough. Descartes is, of course, considered the founder of our own age, of modernity. To understand the world I live in, I have to understand Descartes. For Bordo, The Meditations reveal a masculine cultural state of extreme anxiety, which Descartes solved, at least for himself, by repudiating the feminine (body) and masculinizing thought.

When Descartes wrote “I think therefore I am”, or the Latin that’s thus translated, he didn’t mean what we think. He wasn’t talking about an activity of the brain, logical argumentation, or the power of causal reasoning. But If I had read only his famous Discourse on the Method, I would believe that “I think, therefore I am” did indeed mean ‘I reason and therefore I am’.  He doesn’t elaborate on the verb “think” in his summation of The Meditations contained in The Discourse, he elevates reason above imagination and feeling, and he makes clear that he dedicated his life to learning to use reason correctly to arrive at truths. In both his treatises he compares nature and the human body to machines, with multiple references. It’s a barren view of physical reality. The universe is arid, even dead, as a clock is dead. It would appear he first created a mechanical universe, and then mechanical bodies to inhabit it.

But here’s what he said, in longer form, in the second of his Meditations:

“I am not more than a thing which thinks, that is to say a mind or a soul, or an understanding or a reason”, followed a page later by “What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, conceives, affirms, denies, will, refuses, which also imagines and feels.”

Notice that for him, the words “mind” and “soul” denote the same thing. In the third meditation he expands even more:

“I am a thing that thinks, that is to say, that doubts, affirms, denies, that knows a few things, that is ignorant of many, that loves, that hates, that wills, that desires, that also imagines and perceives.”

As Bordo notes, it was consciousness that he (re)discovered, an active incorporeal consciousness. Experiencing one’s own consciousness, any activity within it, confirms one’s own existence. And he rightly concludes that as a result the easiest thing for a human to know is him/herself. Everything outside the consciousness might be false, an illusion created by an “evil genius”, but we can be assured we exist when we doubt, or affirm, or deny or engage in any of the activities of consciousness.


Descartes (born in 1596) was thinking at a time when everything that people thought they knew had indeed been shown to be false. The period from 1400 to 1600 CE was probably the most tumultuous period in western history since the fall of Rome because of the destruction, on multiple fronts, of the monocular perspective that allowed a belief in absolutes.

During those two hundred years:

  • the population of Europe was halved by famine and bubonic plague
  • Luther, a monk frightened of death and even more frightened of his fear of death, ripped apart the “one true church”, thus initating a wholesale slaughter that lasted for 30 years. He also conceived a whole new God, one who predestined every event in his creation for as long as that creation existed. Humans were his chess pieces, each without the free will to determine his own life course, each without the responsibility for his crimes, or for his salvation. This God, it has been argued, was a cruel and indifferent genius.
  • the writings of ancient Greeks and Romans were rediscovered, hidden in Muslim libraries, and humanism, based on neoPlatonism, emerged as a new form of Christianity.
  • the printing press was invented, allowing lay people (not just monks) to read
  • Marco Polo travelled to China and back and the west began to find out about ancient Chinese knowledge and beliefs.
  • Muslims crowded the European borders, attempting to take Vienna to the east, and occupying southern Spain
  • Christopher Columbus encountered North and South America, and the alien cultures that flourished on those continents
  • Copernicus discovered the earth was not the centre of the universe. And Galileo’s telescope revealed that not all moons revolved around the earth.

In other words, all the long-held beliefs of Catholic Europe and England were challenged, were shown to be culture-specific, and even downright wrong. Ever since the conquests of European tribes by the Christian Romans, Europe and Britain had been unified by the Roman Catholic faith, and by the Latin language, and by the dense network of monastaries and churches, all of which provided a unifying set of beliefs and way of life. Life for humans all across Europe and Britain was punctuated by a whole host of holy days, which included various festivals and celebrations throughout the year.

Of particular note in the context of a woman’s study of history and of philosophy, Roman Catholicism had allowed a hallowed place for women. God might have been the “father” but the church was the “mother”. Nunneries were prolific, and mysticism was more common among religious women than men. Catholics could worship the feminine in God through Mary, the mother of God, and also through St. Anne, the mother of Mary. There were a host of female saints who could be appealed to for a variety of sufferings.

The Roman Catholic religion gave people the ‘right’ to function as nothing more than children, earning salvation through obedience and duty to father God and mother Church. The reformation, led by Luther and Calvin, was devastating to this familial concept of human life and particularly devastating to women.

Bordo argues that this is the context of “Cartesian anxiety”, an anxiety shared by the entire culture. This is the anxiety that provokes Descartes into asking about his own existence, and the existence of everything under the sun. How can I know anything exists, is his first question as a philosopher.

One can imagine the vertigo that might have resulted. People had envisioned the universe as a series of nested eggs: a circling sun, within that the circling stars and planets, then the moon, with earth perhaps as the yolk, with a little church embedded in that yoke, with tiny humans within that church, the beings for whom the entire egg had been created. And above all this, god brooding and clucking. What a home! Then people discovered it was all a mental concept, one of many wildly differing human mental concepts, and in many ways proven to be an illusion.

So where did Descartes go, once he had established the certainty of his own existence? He brought reality indoors, as it were, through the mechanism of “ideas”. All our ideas are reflections of outer reality. Rather than questioning the truth of outer reality, he questioned the truth of the ideas within his own consciousness. In order to answer in the affirmative, he needed God and he needed the concept that it is our will that affirms the truth of our ideas. How do we know that our will is correct in affirming the truth of any idea? His answer was that if the idea was irresistible to the will, then it must be true. But in order for that proposition to be true, he had to conceptualize a God who created people with a will that would not find the false irresistible.

Some philosophers have argued that this is a circular argument. How do we know x is true? Because our will finds it irresistible. Why does our will find it irresistible? Because it’s true. In any case, Descartes was following in the footsteps of Luther and Calvin, who had conceived of “inner conviction” as the measure of truth. This inner conviction, they said, was put in our heart by God.

These concepts, the “irresistible idea” and the “inner conviction”, both resting on God, are extremely dangerous concepts. This was a shift away from outer authority as evidence of Truth. Outer authority could mean the local priest, a church council or synod, or the Pope, all of whom spoke for God as they understood God. They were human “fathers” who stood in for the great, unknowable God the Father.

The developments of the reformation and the renaissance absconded with the father, in a manner of speaking. His representatives stopped being absolutely believable. For some he stopped existing at all in the form of priest or learned religious scholar. All that remained was  a distant unknown.

So I think with Bordo that it was a time in which an entire culture was faced with the need to grow up, to separate from a familial unity. Bordo argues that men were overwhelmed with separation anxiety from the mother, and as a psychological defence, repudiated her. But it seems  to me that, rather than directly repudiating the feminine, or the maternal, as Bordo argues, the culture reacted most forcibly to the now absent father.  The symbolic father, realized in the church fathers, and the pope, were now internalized or introjected as “inner conviction”. Introjection occurs when a person internalizes the ideas or voices of other people, particularly those in authority. Introjections involve attitudes, behaviors, emotions, and perceptions that are neither digested nor analyzed; they are simply adopted as a part of one’s personality as concepts that one considers should be believed or behaviors that one thinks ought to be followed. Introjection can be a defense mechanism adopted by a child whose parent becomes unavailable. The introjected parent becomes a substitute for the lost one. Because the ideas are not digested, a person in the grip of an internalized parent cannot be reasoned with. A destructive internalized concept is psychopathological – it drives us to do things for pathological reasons that we don’t understand ourselves, and that we can’t control or modify.

Descartes, and his contemporaries, went from one absolute to another, and I would suggest  “inner conviction” is far more capricious and unreliable than an outer authority. And the only argument against someone’s inner conviction is demonization. It becomes a trial of accusations of being led by the devil rather than by god. And that’s exactly what did happen – which led to mass slaughter.

Bordo’s main point is that Cartesian dualism – the absolute split between mind (consciousness) and body – was a masculinization process. Descartes did declare the mind to be clear and distinct and completely incorporeal and therefore separable from the limited, corporeal body. He was developing an argument, he says in The Discourse, to prove that the mind could live on after the body was dead.

But he does conclude The Meditations with a renewed belief in nature: “there is no doubt that in all things which nature teaches me there is some truth contained,” and a few lines later “Nature also teaches me by these sensations of pain, hunger, thirst, etc., that I am not only lodged in my body as a pilot in a vessel, but that I am very closely united to it, and so to speak so intermingled with it that I seem to compose with it one whole.” This doesn’t seem to me to be a total repudiation of the body, or of nature.

Bordo, in her analysis, abandons The Meditations after the fourth; I would like to have seen her comment on the last two Meditations. And also on what male philosophers did with this Cartesian conception — how they elaborated on it, developed it, and used it to the advantage of men. Her book could have been three times as thick as it is.

I am also interested in Descartes views on imagination and feeling. He says that because it takes more effort to imagine than to conceive, the imagination is not essential to his nature and that he (a being that thinks) would remain the same without imagination. The same for feeling. So, finally, he claims that the “I”, the conscious being is separable from, and complete without body, imagination or feeling. Clearly he privileges the intellect and the will as essential to the self.

And yet, he says in the Discourse that he intends to spend the rest of his life searching for medical truths that will help people live healthy and long lives. These seem, on the surface, to be contradictory attitudes. With what medicine do you heal a clock?

My belief (at this point in my reading) is that the protestant reformation led the way in destroying the feminine aspect of the divine, and thus in destroying a place for women in public. The divine became again, in popular conception, a distant, remote, inscrutable and indifferent father/creator. Those who introjected this distant father figure might well have felt “he” repudiated the feminine and therefore were acting on his orders as they began a violent campaign against women, and against everything they saw as feminine.

It was, I think, religion rather than philosophy that was most to blame. Bordo writes that the century from 1550 to 1650 was a horrifically misogynist time, with most of the hatred centred on woman as mother. Thousands of old women were roasted for witchcraft. What caused it? Fear, of course. But was it fear of the power of woman, or fear of what “He”, the introjected Father, might think?




Who is the Real Fingerpost?

I’d never heard of novelist Iain Pears until I stumbled across An Instance of the Fingerpost last week at a 50 cent stall. Turns out he’s a British author with a substantial reputation as a historian and detective writer. I really liked An Instance of the Fingerpost, which is a collection of four short novels, each telling substantially the same story from the perspectives of four different characters.

Telling a story from different points of view is a trope of post-modernism, and allows an author to reflect the limitations and biases of subjectivity. We can never know the truth, if there is such a thing, because we are all trapped within our own social constructions.

But this is not Pears’ objective, particularly. The first story, we find out later, is a collection of blatant lies, told to steer people away from a dangerous truth. The second story, we find out later, is told by a delusional man who suffers from hallucinations and is incarcerated in an insane asylum. We have no way of knowing these two stories are false versions of events until we are told by the third and fourth authors. The third story is told by a man who is both covering up a truth and so biased toward suspicion that he’s incapable of seeing anything for what it is. That leaves the fourth author, who claims the status of a “fingerpost”, an unbiased witness with nothing to gain or lose.

The stories of all four are focused on a woman. She figures in the plot in a straightforward way, but I wonder what Pears might be attempting to do metaphorically with her. Three of the men believe she holds papers, given by her dead father, with dangerous information. The last comes to believe that she is wisdom and compassion – in other words, the divine — embodied in human form. There’s a vast difference between knowledge and wisdom. The first three men fear the woman for her knowledge. Could Pears be saying something about the fear that men have of women? Do men fear being unmasked by women?

Historians don’t generally paint the mind-set of a given historical period. They tell us certain facts, and idealize certain men either for their actions or their discoveries or their philosophies. When it comes to the men of history, I think historians do what men in general do – look for heroes. I like what Mr. Wood, the teller of the fourth version, says about that. He is a historian and he comments on what philosophers say is the purpose of history, “to illustrate the noblest deeds of the greatest men.” He replies that few such men stand up to close examination. And when other philosophers say it is the job of historians to record the wonderful deeds performed by human instruments of the divine, he says “can we easily believe that such liars, brutes and hypocrites are His chosen instruments?”

So we, standing at the end of history, look back through a perspective constructed for us by men who not only want, but apparently need, to set up certain men as idols, as ideal men, who reassure men that to be a man is a good, important and significant thing. Anything that reveals their mere humanity, their flaws and failures, even their immorality is excised. And the context in which they lived and which created their motivations and innovations is removed, so that they stand as islands in an oceanic wasteland.

Their efforts make women invisible, and one has to wonder if what they’re really trying to erase is their fearful attachment to women. All this hero-construction and hero-worship seems like over-compensation. It’s also kind of looking like a heroic effort to fool women.

Fingerpost is peopled with many real figures of history and Pears plants them firmly in the mud of their time. One such figure is the philosopher John Locke, revered by male historians as one of the greatest philosophers in the English language. He’s portrayed in this novel as a more or less loutish sap who takes the word of a friend over that of a foreigner simply because that was the prejudice of the time. His empiricism doesn’t extend to the world of humans. He is also described by Wood as a man so used to living on the patronage of the wealthy, whom he despises, that he couldn’t give it up.

This strikes me as the kind of man who would patch together some of the enlightenment ideas already circulating in Europe together with some safe, conventional ideas to create a porridge so non-threatening to the established order that it could become the idea of the age. That, of course, is not how he was presented to me when I was studying English literature. It was expected that I would obediently regard him as one more male genius in a long line of men who created the best culture in the world.

The setting of the novel is a culture bagged and packaged in assumptions and in prejudice against the poor, the foreign and the feminine. Pears presents them so blandly that we can see how much they were simply “given” at the time. All four storytellers sneer at the lowly serving girl and accuse her of being a whore. Even Wood, after loving her for three years and being loved by her, almost immediately believes she is a whore simply because one man told him so, and because she had given herself to him. His friend tells him “such people as she are corrosive to any society, and must be known.” The attitude that men are not responsible for their lust is just part of the mud that the men and women of the novel live within.

All the male characters show their expectation that she, as a poor woman, know her place as inferior, dependent and necessarily obliging and obedient. Her refusal to acknowledge her subservience is shocking to them. She acts like an equal to the rich and the male and all the men in the novel are continual thrown off-balance, if not outraged, by it.

And yet, they are obsessed by her, as men often are by women. And isn’t it because men know, deep down, that they are peripheral to the species? Women are humanity. Women are central to humanity. If a single man visited a town of women once a year, the species would survive just fine. A man has just one act to perform; beyond that act, he faces the abyss. What meaning is there to his life? To avoid facing that abysmal existential meaninglessness, he creates interlocking ladders of male status and priviledge and pretends that the activities of men – the politics of position – is of vital importance. No wonder he fears being unmasked by women.

No wonder he wants to keep women imprisoned within walls, uneducated and ignorant, in no position to watch his posturing, and in no position to criticize. How threatening it must be to men to see women enter their world, to see them hold their heads up as if it’s perfectly fine not to have been placed appropriately on the masculine ladder. As if they have a right to claim a position themselves. As if, with a wave of their hand, they can send the entire masculine edifice flying.

And yes, women can do that.

It’s happening every day actually. When a man meets a woman and is capable of loving her, he finds he can lay down all this posturing and rest. A woman invites him to be real.

Meanderings in response to “Nonzero: the logic of human destiny”

This blog is meant to be a place for me to speculate and hypothesize. I’m trying, as I have for most of my life, to figure out the meaning of life. I do not necessarily assume that there is one. Science has not yet determined whether life is meaningful by any criteria, so speculation – by anyone — seems perfectly reasonable.

I’ve been reading a lot of history in the last few years in an attempt to find answers, or at least to find the context for what it is to be human here and now. I continually run into a problem. Many history books give the impression that whole countries were populated exclusively by men for hundreds of years. I’ve read books of five hundred pages with not a mention of woman. Really, I’m not kidding.

Writing about humanity without mentioning women seems to me to be like examining bipedal motion by studying only the left foot, photographing or videotaping only the left foot. Your idea of human motion would be completely skewed, wouldn’t it?

So I’ve become more and more frustrated by history texts. Yes, history is written by the winners, but there never was any battle between men and women, women weren’t excised from the historical record; women are ghosts, invisible for the most part, silent all the time. We seem to have no more relevance to whatever historians consider important than the pigs or cows penned behind the houses of the men.

So I was really excited when I came across Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. The blurbs on the inside cover approached hyperbole. It promised to give me a complete overview of the totality of human history. Oh joy.


In the first paragraph Wright states his thesis, that there is “direction in human history.” He believes in cultural evolution and so goes against the recent trend against such beliefs. Anthropologists of the early twentieth century had finally clued in to the fact that their predecessors, cultural Darwinians, were biased by virtue of being winners: “In placing western cultures atop a universal ladder of progress, they seemed merely the academic expression of an already too-common European supremacism.”

Imagine my surprise when, a few pages in, I discovered Nonzero was not a history of humanity, or a history of civilization, but a history of patriarchy (which is only one kind of civilization). Wright does with gender what Darwinians did with western culture. He speaks from the isolation of the smallest quadrant of humanity – the priviledged male.

Men can’t tell the difference between patriarchy and culture, any more than they can tell the difference between men and human, unfortunately. (Neither can a lot of women.) If you need a illustration of the difference, think about the difference between a basket of fruit and a basket of peaches. A lot of misperception occurs when people describe generalities instead of specifics, and a lot of dishonesty hides through the willful description of generality rather than specific.

Early in the book Wright makes some claims about human nature. Humans pursue status, he says, “with a certain ferocity.” We try to raise our standing by impressing peers, we suck up to people of higher status, we curry their favour. This is because “human beings evolved amid social hierarchies. ”

First of all, we have not evolved amid “social hierarchies”. We have evolved within patriarchies. Again this is a certain kind of hierarchy, the kind where status, power and wealth are given importance by the men in a society run by men.

I don’t think the ferocious quest for status would occupy such a high place in the description of humanity if women were the humans being examined. Throughout the long history of humanity a woman’s day would begin with clasping a baby to the breast, feeding multiple people according to need only, helping other humans give birth, tending to sickness and woundedness. If that’s what an anthropologist saw when looking at humans and human societies, she would first of all describe humans as deeply and ferociously cooperative.

This book is written from within the blindness of masculine conditioning. Let me jump to the back of the book to show you an example. The author refers to a study by a psychologist who “used boys in a summer camp (unbeknownst to them) to study human nature.” This sentence is written without irony, as if a) boys and humans are the same thing and b) boys are natural creatures rather than man-made creations.

This study was done decades ago, so one may wish to forgive the ignorance of the time, but Wright reproduces it in this book, published in 2000. By that year any thinking person knew that gender was conditioned, that most humans live in patriarchal societies, and thus that boys will reproduce the patriarchal teachings they’ve imbibed consciously and unconsciously. They are mirrors of their society; when they live in a phallocentric patriarchy, they will give useful information only about patriarchy and its impact on males. Boys alone can tell us nothing about human nature except its capacity for imitation.

If you want to find out something about humanity, you need to examine males by themselves, females by themselves, and both in interaction. That at least would give you a chance of finding out something. But men refuse to identify themselves as men. I’ve written about that here. They insist on identifying themselves simply as human, using words like “mankind” (which was meant to refer to the totality of humankind, but didn’t really), and later “humanity” or “humankind” (which at least acknowledges that there are humans other than men.) “Man” and “human” are not the same thing. One is a subcategory of the other. How hard is that to understand?

I’m sure men do understand it; they use the larger category in an attempt to hide their crimes. It’s human nature, they want to say, not specifically male behavior. I’ve just come across an example of this in the only intellectual magazine in Canada. And I have to say I find it devastating that any man can say what the editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine just said. He was speaking about white male priviledge:

As a writer and public speaker living in a liberal democratic society, I absolutely take it for granted that when I speak on TV or write a column in a magazine or on a website, I speak for myself, and only myself. I don’t speak for white people. Or for men. Or for middle-aged people. Or Jews. Or lapsed conservatives. If I wake up feeling funny, or mischievous, or sanctimonious, I can be funny, or mischievous, or sanctimonious in what I say or write. For good or ill, it’s all on me, and only me.

There it is. A man thinks he speaks for himself only. For forty or more years feminist scholars of all disciplines – anthropology, sociology, gender studies, literary criticism, philosophy – have been telling men that when they speak, their discourse is steeped in their masculinity. They speak as socially-constructed men, not as individuals, not as default humans. And here he is, an educated public intellectual, who has heard none of it.

At first when I read those words, I thought he had mispoken. I thought he meant that masculine priviledge allows him to pretend that he speaks for himself only, not as a representative of masculinity. That in fact is what masculine priviledge allows. But no, Jonathan Kays actually believes he speaks as himself only and that “identity politics” (as he refers to the demands by women and people of colour that they be allowed to speak in public) plays no role at all in his speech. As if “masculinity” does not affect identity.

It’s enough to make a person give up. However, I will post more responses to Wright’s book in future posts. Stay tuned.

Ethics, the Feminine and the Thriller part II

On Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears

It’s impossible for a novelist to deal with ethics through stereotypical characters. The role of the stereotype dictates their behaviour. Consider the stereotypes men have created for women : the holy triumvirate of whore, virgin angel and madonna mother, along with the ball-busting shrew, the ambitious women who threatens male power and control. None of these characters can confront ethical problems in fiction because their role assigns them either ethical or unethical behaviour.

Male characters can be judged by readers according to how they treat whores, angels, madonnas or shrews, but there’s a limited range of responses, often socially, rather than ethically driven. It’s okay to harm a whore or a shrew according to social mores of even recent times, but ethical standards are of a different order than this context-sensitive social morality. It’s stereotypical masculine behaviour, too, to banish the whore, destroy the shrew, adore the virgin and make way for the Madonna. For a novel to be truly concerned with ethics, the characters have to be nuanced and rounded.

I think feminist and other broader ethical concerns have much to do with spirituality, for lack of a better word. Well, maybe “psychological health” would suffice, psyche and spirit being either identical twins or close cousins, depending on your point of view. Encounters we have with other people, like encounters we have with anything, impact our spirit or our psyche. We either mature through the encounter, growing in wisdom and compassion, or we harden into crippled versions of humanity. Men who see women only as stereotypes, or functions, deny themselves the value of the encounter. Even men who choose not to deal at all with the 52 percent of the population that is female, deny themselves the growth and maturity that could follow if they would only throw down their patriarchal glasses to try to see the women around them without preconceptions, and without diminishing them to the status of functionary.

Where ethics really come into play is in how we respond to our emotions. Anger, envy, jealousy and fear are the emotions that lead us to harm others, if we simply act from those emotions. An ethics that doesn’t deal with emotion may be prescriptive, but it fails to analyze the problem, and thus can’t provide solutions. “Just say ‘no’” doesn’t cut it. That’s one problem with religion-sourced ethics. It calls on us simply to obey, without helping to understand why we might harm others. Controlling our emotions has never been a viable solution, as it leads only to repression, which all too often leads to explosive release. The ethical route is to feel emotions without acting on them. That’s the route to spiritual and psychological growth.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I consider The Sum of All Fears, Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller about how the world might destroy itself in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin War with its accompanying thaw in US – Soviet relations. He envisions a crisis, in which the world is destroyed by fear, by bogeymen, by stereotypical responses to cultural stereotypes. The ethical person will be the one who can throw aside the stereotypical view and use reason to sidestep a stereotypical response and has the strength of character to refuse to be motivated by fear.

Jack Ryan is the hero of the novel. We are informed almost from the start, and throughout that he is a Catholic and that it matters. We find out again and again that Jack is an ethical person, a man who learns by his mistakes, a man who uses reason to overcome problems, a man who hates corruption in politics, a man who speaks his mind and follows the rules. He is saved from being a caricature by his tendency to lose his temper, which makes him enemies and diminishes his effectiveness at his job.

There are two female characters of note in the novel and a third who figures more in the plot than her brief appearances would suggest. One, Ryan’s wife, comes very close to being the “angel in the house”. She’s pretty much a perfect wife and mother, as well as being an eye surgeon. We know she’s not greedy, as she’s not concerned about money. We know she suffers only minimally from vanity. Her hair is rarely groomed, she doesn’t wear heels and acknowledges her flat-chestedness with only a little sadness, not enough to invest in silicone. She is close to the stereotype of the woman who “leans in”, drawn long before the term was created — the woman who takes on wife and motherhood while also working hard at a career, without letting anyone suffer.

When she believes Jack is cheating on her, we see her weakness, which seems at first to be her failure to believe in Jack, but evolves into a failure to confront him to find out the truth. We see her at her worst when Jack’s driver and bodyguard comes to see her and she says: “’Sure, why not? It’s over, the only reason I haven’t walked out is the kids. So go ahead, make your pitch. Tell me that he still loves me and all that. He doesn’t have the guts to talk about it to me himself, but I’m sure he had something to do with this,’ she concluded bitterly.”

This is actually a foreshadowing of the major plot of the novel, in which The American president believes lies about the Russian head of state, which almost leads to world destruction. Tellingly, Clancy does not let this character struggle through the situation. She already knows she should talk to her husband and it is her failure to do so that causes her to spiral downward with her emotions. While she accuses Jack of not having “the guts” to talk to her, she suffers from the same cowardice. Instead of taking that step, and growing through the act of courage, or failing to take the step and suffering the consequences, however, she is “saved” by the work of Jack’s two friends and bodyguards, who come to her home to tell her that Jack is faithful, and even bring her to see the evidence for herself. Clancy fails to allow her to make the ethical choice. Does he believe women are incapable? Does he believe women need rescuing by men? This would be a better book if he had made different authorial decisions with regard to this character.

The other woman, Elizabeth Elliot, is more of a problem. For quite a long time in the novel is looks as if Clancy is going to have a woman destroy the patriarchally-created, violent, cruel and murderous world because the woman is worse than any of the men in that world.

Elliot is shown as totally self-absorbed, without compassion or empathy for others, suspicious of all around her, devious in attempting to control other people, and lastly stupid enough to believe that she can control them. She is the ambitious shrew who actually believes (gasp!) that she can bust the balls of POTUS! After the first instance when readers are shown that she and the President are having an affair, the narrator says: “So easy to manage. She smiled her secret smile to herself. He could be directed to do exactly what she wanted, when she wanted it and do it consummately well, for he loved to give pleasure to a woman…he craved being remembered and so he did what the woman wanted if the woman had the wit to ask…so eager to please, even in this.”

After she has arranged for a naive young student to spy on Jack to look for dirt she can use to get rid of him, she thinks: “It was so easy to seduce people …Sex was a useful tool for the task, but power and ambition were so much better. She’d already proven that.”

After all her predictions that she could control men, even the president, a reader expects to find out whether she is right or not. However, although the president is strongly swayed by her suspicions during negotiations with Russia, we never do really find out. In the end Clancy drops her quite awkwardly from the plot, consigned to a hospital because she “didn’t cut the mustard.” The president himself is also inexplicably dropped and we don’t find out what happened to him. No hospital is mentioned in his case.

The third woman is the Asian wife of a dead army officer whom Jack is helping financially. With eight children, all of whom are to receive good educations, the triumvirate of angel, whore and Madonna is complete.

Despite these limitations in the female characters, this is a good novel. It presents a scenario in which suspicion and distrust function as the greatest threat to peace and good relations in both personal and political arenas. The novel has something to tell us about how to make the world a safer place. Jack is a good man because he transcends his gender conditioning – his best qualities are those his society generally assigns to women. He is generous, tender and kind-hearted, forgiving and humble. He understands that power corrupts, saying “The very atmosphere of Washington corroded the soul.” He also understands the power of clear and direct communication and it is in that way that he manages to avert the destruction of the world, about to be brought about because of people’s failure to speak to and listen to each other. And, unfortunate as it is in a world run by men, communication is also regarded as a woman’s skill. He is in touch with his emotions and capable of self-criticism, qualities one doesn’t see in public representations of men.

Though I usually prefer detective novels and thrillers written by women, I plan to read other Clancy novels to see if he improves in his representations of women – if he’s capable of moving beyond the triptych of female stereotypes.

Ethics and the Thriller Part 1

I continue to believe that mystery novels and detective thrillers have taken over the role that novels originally had, to teach citizens compassion and empathy for people outside their own families. British society of the 17th Century was able to go beyond clannism and tribalism partly as a result of novels. Does it go without saying that compassion and empathy are directly related to ethics? To care for other people means to do them no harm, which is to say to neither rob, rape nor murder them. Beyond that it means to prevent harm from coming to them, which means to protect them from harmful people by means of law and/or force, but also to protect them from starvation and exposure to the elements by economic means. To do no harm and to protect from harm – that’s the concern of ethics, motivated by compassion.

Interestingly enough, some of the first novels used the plight of women in this educational pursuit. In the early 17th century life for all but well-off families was visibly hard for women. Women worked in the fields and dairies, and as servants in wealthy homes. The work was physically hard and women were vulnerable to attacks by men. Married women bore babies one after another, many of whom died, many of whom killed their mothers in the process. The husbands, themselves hard put to provide money for the family, without many options in life either, were too frequently drunkards and wife-beaters. It’s no accident that the first novels dealt with concerns we now call “feminist”.

Feminist concerns continue to be closely linked with ethical concerns of course, although what constitutes harm is often in dispute. Is it harmful to women to be constantly harassed and threatened by strangers on the web? Is it harmful for women to function as prostitutes? Is it harmful that they are represented as sexual objects in pornography? Is it harmful that they are constantly admonished to be unrealistically thin? Is it harmful if they’re forced to wear makeup and/or high heels to work? These are some of the ethical questions of the early 21st century.

I think none of these would have been asked in the 17th, which is only a measure of shifting landscapes including a greater understanding now that what appears to be choice can be constructed servitude. Prostitutes and porn stars, not to mention women and men in general, are constructed by masculine pressures, controlled by masculine perspectives, subservient to the needs and wishes of POP (people of power).

It has occurred to me, thirty or forty years on, to wonder why early “second wave” feminists didn’t formulate their demands within ethical frameworks. The enslavement of women — inevitable when women don’t have money or the means of earning money — is surely an ethical matter. But then the domestic enslavement of women handed from fathers to husbands (and if necessary to brothers) was constructed by patriarchal culture as a privilege, not a deprivation. Women, at least women of a certain class, were being protected from the dog eat dog working world.

And we need to remember that when women started fighting for “women’s liberation”, they first had to become aware of their lack of liberty. Privilege can mask bondage. This is the power of social conditioning. A weekly allowance, if it’s more than sufficient, is a powerful inducement. Any many men would feign amazement at a woman who would give that up to earn her own living by the sweat of her brow.

Moth Smoke Obscures

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, which I found in the bookshelf at the Hotel Orchidea in Florence, made a big splash when it came out in 2000, garnering praise and awards then and again when it was reissued in paperback in 2007. It’s a beautifully written novel, and people who love sentences will love this book. But it’s a seriously flawed novel. The central character, Daru, is  an unlikeable whiner with no redeeming qualities (that I can find). This is not necessarily a problem, but as the central protagonist, he must be a primary tool through which the author’s message is elucidated. In that he fails, and that is a problem.

As a poor child who associated with rich kids because of financial help from a friend of his dead father, Daru is motivated by resentment and arrogance when his education is finished and he has to live within his own means, which are significantly less than that of his wealthy jet-setting ex-schoolmates. His arrogant response to a client of his bank who treats him like a servant results in the loss of his job and his life spirals down in a drive to self-destruction. When he adds heroin to to near constant consumption of hash, we know he’s approaching the end. By the final chapter, he’s on trial for a death he did not cause, a child killed by his erstwhile friend Aurangzeb, trained to be a shark in New York, and bringing those skills back to Pakistan to hide and launder his corrupt father’s wealth. Innocent of this crime,  Daru had shot at a child during an attempted robbery, so  he is not exactly innocent. The novel begins with a parallel case from history, about which the narrator says “none present were innocent, save perhaps the judge. And perhaps not even he.” It’s possible the origins of the novel lie in Hamid’s desire to explore this subject. However, he has wandered too far off-track for readers to see this as a novel about lack of innocence.   Daru is a  wanna be wealthy elite who can’t accept the relative status and money of his own life in the face of his friend’s limitless wealth and power. It’s a depressing novel about someone who feels like a victim and consequently acts like one, participating in his own destruction.

The biggest question is whether this is a political novel, or a psychological one. I think it’s meant to be political, exploring different responses to a blatantly corrupt government by wealth and influence. Aurangzeb’s wife, Mumtaz, unhappy in her marriage and the useless bacchanalia of life as an insider, turns her journalism talents, nurtured in New York, to writing about the corruption all around her. She illustrates that one can choose an active, participatory role as exposer of corruption and advocate for the oppressed.

Daru’s drug-dealer, a man who also owns a small rickshaw company, offers another response to such political corruption. When taxi-drivers move in and take away rickshaw business, he takes to robbing them. While preparing Daru to assist him in a new endeavour, robbing boutiques, he lays out his philosophy: “This is how I see things. People are fed up with subsisting on the droppings of the rich. The time is right for a revolution. The rich use Kalashnikovs to persuade tenant farmers and factory laborers and the rest of us to stay in line . . . but we, too, can be persuasive.” When Daru asks him why boutiques, he replies “symbolism: they represent the soft underbelly of the upper crust, the ultimate hypocrisy in a country with flour shortages.”

Daru seems stumped by the fact that the traditional opposition,  communism, is a spent force and the “trending” opposition is religious fundamentalism. Yet Mumtaz and Murad show there are other ways to respond to the despotism of wealth. Daru chooses self-destruction.  Unfortunately his response is too loaded with psychological weight to be seen as a response to corruption. He is more disabled by his envy of the rich than by the fact of the rich. There is a distinctly British feel to this novel, with its orphan raised above his class through a wealthy benefactor and then dropped back into it when the funding ends.

The rickshaw driver is more sympathetic, as he’s a man who takes action without rage or the impulse to violence. Though he provides the guns, he plans robberies that won’t require any actual shooting.  Daru wallows in his boredom and emptiness, but it is within us all to take action, as we see through both Mumtaz, underground journalist, and Murad, rickshaw driver and leveller of rich and poor.

The title refers to the ancient eastern symbol of the moth, so enchanted with the beloved flame that it’s willing to be burned to ash in consummation, to lose its identity in union. In this novel Daru slashes away at the moths with a tennis racket, preventing them from immolating themselves. There is an absence of “moth smoke” here, and the corpses littering the floor point to an absence of meaning. This seems to parallel Daru, in love with nothing (despite his brief affair with Mumtaz), absent of passion, slowly killing himself. But shouldn’t the title be “No Moth Smoke”?
I have to wonder what western readers saw in the novel. I can’t help but think it’s a colonial response – the affluent west’s enchantment with the exotic “other”.  Hamid has laid open his Pakistan culture — with its corruption, its huge wealth disparity, its hedonism — for westerners to feast on, while congratulating themselves for their own superior culture. We shouldn’t do that; we should see it as a mirror of our rapidly disintegrating democracies, and perhaps if Murad were the central character we might take more notice of what could threaten us.