Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pretentiousness one-upmanship

A letter to the Style section of the NYT:

Regarding “One Way to Encourage Checking-Out at the Library” by Malia Wollan (March 3), about how public libraries now host dating events (“speed-dating”) to attract users to their facilities, I note the following comment made by one individual: “The kind of person the library can attract is different than the kind you get at a bar.”

True enough. But as a public institution, libraries attract all kinds of people, some not so pleasant.

For me, I would much rather meet a potential date through friends or shared mutual interests such as classical music or foreign films.

What could be better than that?
From an article condemning "foodies" for their snobbery:
Needless to say, no one shows much interest in literature or the arts—the real arts. When Marcel Proust’s name pops up, you know you’re just going to hear about that damned madeleine again.


Withywindle said...

Following up on the previous topic of male virginity ... not to beat a dead horse, but I was just reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's Roumeli, and I came across a wonderfully apposite passage, about the Sarakatsans (Greek pastoral nomads) at marriage, p. 28. After a discussion of the bridegrooms, virginity strictly required:

And what about the poor bridegrooms? Would the floodtide of wine swirl him triumphantly through all obstacles or unmast him amidships? No wonder they looked shy. Young Sarakatsans now do their military service like the rest of Greeks and no doubt head for the lanes on the outskirts of garrison towns on mating-forays with their fellow recruits. But formerly, living in a ferociously chaste society, they approached wedlock unarmed by all but theory, hearsay and rule of thumb.

Withywindle said...

"After a discussion of brides", I should have said.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Not "beat[ing] a dead horse," but I never quite figured out why we were discussing the fact that it has indeed occurred that men in some particular instances have been virgin grooms, other than that that was the post title. Look, I've been affiliated with enough geeky institutions to know that a man can reach X years old and still be pretty inexperienced - obviously this is physically possible, and the man will not spontaneously combust. Surely, in the history of humanity, this has happened for other reasons.

The issue is more that it's that it's hard to think of a time remotely recently when men were expected anything close to the same amount of chastity as women. (No comment re: priests - at any rate this is about eventually or theoretically marriage-bound men.) Even, I would think, in everyone's favorite, the 1950s, the caveat being that if men were also marrying young, there simply wouldn't have been the time for them to have done much beforehand. Again, it's not that if surveyed, every man would have done A, B, and C, by age X. It's that there wasn't hand-wringing about the possibility that he had, and that often enough, he had.

Withywindle said...

I think the implication is that in traditional Sarakatsan society, perhaps as recently as 1900, something like universal male virginity at marriage was the case. I suppose I am arguing that 1) the difference between expectations of male and female virginity is of a lesser degree than you seem to be arguing; 2) hence there is not quite the difference in kind between male and female experience/expectations that your argument seems to lead toward; 3) that, yes, I do think you are applying a 1900ish-France counter-model, no more appropriate than a 1950s-America model, to describe the varieties of sexual mores (the Sarakatsans again: "Random fornication, adultery, divorce, rape and bastardy are unknown, and should a case of bastardy ever crop up, death to all concerned is the only remedy. This is not only for reasons of morality; these ill-starred children are thought to be personifications of Satan; they bring a curse on the tents and the huts, and, should they grow up and die a natural death, a ghost rises from the grave and haunts the folds and blights the pastures." (pp. 49-50)).

The Sarakatsans are a pretty atypical subculture in many ways, but put that aside for the moment. I think your argument does take a particular, half-secularized moment in Euro-American culture & society as a norm, and even then exaggerates the sexual differences. Furthermore, while I think you could (have, and will!) say that the basic structure of your argument remains; I think that Douthat et al's vision of the 1950s is closer to the Sarakatsan experience than yours is, and that this is not trivial. So, I do think this all is meant to be a qualified defense of them as against your argument.

I know I'm repeating myself; please forgive. I hope this explains more clearly why I think this subject matter is important re your original argument.

I think ultimately what's lurking here is that your argument seems to take chastity as an imposition against the grain of human nature, and that greater female chastity is largely a function of the greater punishments meted out to women for incontinence. Douthat et al are taking continence as closer to the grain of human nature, both male and female, in the language of sexual virtue. I'm trying to use the language of culture rather than of virtue (as you know, I think these are synonyms, from different points of view), but I think I would say that culture is very strong, very mutable, and that the impulses toward right behavior (keeping away vampire bastard babies who suck blood from your sheep, for one extreme) are at least as strong as sexual impulses, in men and women alike, and that this framework is closer to Douthat's than to yours.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

In the interest of finishing other things today, I won't get at all of this. We agree that it's possible for societies to hold all different things as acceptable regarding chastity, among other sexual variations. So far so good.

"I think ultimately what's lurking here is that your argument seems to take chastity as an imposition against the grain of human nature, and that greater female chastity is largely a function of the greater punishments meted out to women for incontinence."

I think greater female chastity has a heck of a lot to do with biology, that is, with who's at risk for pregnancy and at (greater) risk for rape.

As for "the grain of human nature," I think you're putting words into my mouth. I can't imagine how we'd go about saying any particular behavior towards sex - that of college hook-up participants or of especially chaste nomads - comes closest to a state-of-nature set-up. And I don't think society needs to be set up so as to encourage everyone to spend as much time as possible sleeping with as many people as possible, which is kind of where your assumption about my stance would lead.

Anyway, to stick with the US 1950s, let's say the groom had served in WWII and returned "impure." Do you really think this would have been frowned upon as much as if the bride, during Stateside service, or also abroad, had had some previous liaison?

Withywindle said...

On the whole, no.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

OK. So again, the issue is not whether a man could, given certain conditions (timidity, religiosity, low sex drive, bad breath) stay virginal during the years one expects men to have various exploits. It's whether in our culture, that expectation has traditionally existed, or whether, as I suspect, this is a new addition being thrown in by today's social conservatives, who want to be consistent with the gender-neutral ethos of the day, so as to convince the not-already-convinced.

What got to me was the emphasis of today's moralists on the utter novelty of young men not being prepared to marry and rear children with their first girlfriends. If "traditionalists" are only now seriously expecting this of men, they shouldn't be basing their arguments about how men behaved in some Golden Age.

Britta said...

I have a question. If greater sexual promiscuity (whether on the part of one or both genders) in the contemporary US doesn't represent a decline from a Golden Age of civilization nor a deviation away from a State of Nature, then what is the conservative argument against it? If we can show that there have been many many patterns of stable cohabiting/reproducing across cultures and throughout the ages, ranging from the chaste monogamous type to the free-love type, then why ought we choose the monogamous type?

Withywindle said...

Back to quibbling: first, I think I have troubles with talking about "our culture." I said "on the whole," but I think there have been radically different subcultures, with different expectations. To some extent, I think significant portions of America have always spoken of expectations of virginity with equal or near-equal force to both men and women. (Not to be unduly autobiographical, but I've read some of my grandfather's love-letters to my grandmother, from ca. 1920, where he confesses with horror to having had (if I read his euphemisms properly) unchaste thoughts about women. He was from a devout Christian subculture, but he certainly didn't seem to think his qualms were unusual.) If these strictures come as a surprise, it is partly that the different subsections of America are talking to one another more, not that anything has necessarily changed.

I suppose I would say that traditional social conservatism did not regard men and women as alike in their character, their social functions, their authority--patriarchy, ho--but that the more devout variants did regard them as equally called upon to virtue, including sexual virtue. (Tolkien's letters to his son express an English Catholic variant of this.) In the particular subcultures, that is, there was something approaching the Golden Age, and they simply assume too easily that their subcultures were typical of America as a whole. I suppose I would say that social conservatives are engaged in an adaptation, not an invention: they are extracting the equal call to virtue from the patriarchal, gendered patterns of authority (themselves also religiously justified), and recasting it in a more egalitarian social rhetoric, both to persuade others and perhaps because they have themselves also been persuaded. Since they don't say explicitly that this is what they're doing--since they're presenting themselves as doing what they've always done--they're setting themselves up for your sort of counter-argument. But the acknowledgment of partial change on their part also allows for an acknowledgment of partial continuity.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Not to go all literature-scholar on your grandfather, but this might have been the kind of thing a man would have said to a (presumed-virginal) woman in the hopes of pleasing her, and not an accurate representation of his attitudes towards sex.

Those of us in secular/secularish society often have idealized notions of the chastity among the pious as well as those of previous generations, so the pious of previous generations... how will we wrap our heads around the fact that they figured it all out enough that we ended up being born?

As for the rest, it seems we're in more agreement than before. I'd just emphasize that the "unprecedented" angle is pretty huge for Hymowitz, Regnerus, perhaps others as well. So even if what they're harkening back to is a little bit precedented, their argument is still pretty flawed.

Withywindle said...

1) My grandfather gave an appalling impression of sincerity.

2) Pre-marital chastity among our ancestors is not mutually exclusive with our existence.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

1) This was your grandfather. You are biased. I stand by my cynicism.

2) This was meant as tongue-in-cheek. That we imagine the olden-daysers and the pious as so pure that combine the two and it's amazing they ever took off the many layers of chastity-preserving undergarments.

Britta said...

As a counterpoint to Withywindle's grandfather, the only story my grandfather ever told me about sex was how his high school guidance counselor tried to rape him. He figured since my grandfather was tall and skinny, he would be an easy target, but since my grandfather was a farm boy, he was much stronger than he looked, so he managed to fight him off and run away.

My grandmother used to bring this up in response to arguments about "the Golden Days" of sexual decency. She was very offended when people assumed as an old person she would be shocked by something, because her attitude was, "do you really think X behavior didn't exist 50 years ago?"

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


As a counterpoint to all, let me just say that I'm grateful for how little I know about my grandparents' sex lives.

PG said...

That Atlantic article is a wreck. I'm all for poking holes in the excesses of foodie pretension and questioning the extent to which concern for animal and environmental well-being is merely a new form of elitism. But in his desire to imply a foodie media conspiracy, this guy ends up sounding like an idiot. He mocks foodies' traveling for their tastebuds rather than to experience other aspects of cultures, yet the only thing he knows about Francine Prose is that she's written for Saveur?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yay! A response to the post itself!

As they point out on the Slate Culture Gabfest response to the article, "foodie" is never defined. Is it the ethical-food movement? Gourmandism? Macho TV chefs? Professional food writers? I guess the best defense of the author would be that it's a critique of caring too much about food, wherever the concerns lead you. But it's ridiculous to claim that "foodies" are hypocrites because they eat foie gras and, say, promote locavore veganism if these are not the same people.

PG said...

Oh yes, that was definitely the biggest problem with the substance of the article. I just wanted to stick with the Pretension Olympics theme by pointing out this guy's failures in cultural awareness :-)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

PG, you have won this round, hands down.