Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Ennis and Jack in World War II

The impressive film "Brokeback Mountain" did an excellent job of fleshing out Annie Proulx somewhat slight story. As a survivor of the era it portrays (1963ff.), I found much food for thought in the film. It shows how hardscrabble life was in Wyoming forty years ago—and probably still is. In addition to the natural taciturnity of the two men—especially Ennis, the Gary Cooper type—the conformist spirit of the age deprived gay men and women from learning the words that would allow them to define their relationship in terms that went beyond the usual putdowns.
After seeing the film, my thoughts went back to a little-known novel I had read a quarter of a century ago that covered some of the same territory: "Wingmen," by Ensan Case. This is a love story of two airmen in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Unlike the Ennis and Jack of "Brokeback Mountain," these two pilots are educated and aware of their feelings, while taking great care to burnish their straight image. They know what can happen if the truth leaks out. The author spends much time building up the background of their naval air unit in the South Pacific. The two men do not get together sexually until p. 300. In this way, the novel provides the "thick description" that is lacking in the Proulx story, where the two men's sudden access of hormones is unexplained--as it remains unexplained in the film.
Unwittingly, perhaps, Proulx reverted to an obligatory convention of the post-World War II era, the obligatory death of one of the two men. That does not happen to the two pilots of Case’s novel. They become partners in a hardware business in San Jose, California. To all intents and purposes they are married, and this lasts for twenty-four years. Not everything is peaches and cream, though, as the older man, Jack Harbison, becomes increasingly fearful that they will be found out. This fear probably contributes to the heart attack that kills him. The younger man is devastated.
Ensan Case, possibly a pseudonym, seems never to have written another novel. Still, some readers recognize the intrinsic merit of "Wingmen." Most paperbacks of this type can be found on ebay for $.99 or thereabouts. Wingmen costs $65.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Don't consume that!

When I travel to countries like Mexico and India I take care to drink only bottled water. Experience has shown that by following this policy I hardly ever get diarrhea. Conversely, drinking tap water almost always leads to disaster.

Upon returning home to New York City, though, I immediately return to my regular practice of drinking water drawn from the tap, both in my own home and in restaurants. Increasingly, though, I meet New Yorkers who will only drink bottled water. Self-approvingly, they brandish their little plastic bottles as Tokens of Virtue. "See, I take care of myself! You don’t." Yet studies have repeatedly shown that New York City water is generally purer than most brands of bottled water. The devotees of the bottled water cult are unmoved by empirical evidence. They just know that tap water is "bad" for you. That is an article of faith.

There is some resemblance to the food taboos enjoined by major religions. For example, Jews and Muslims will not eat pork; Hindus will not consume beef. However, these long-observed practices which are part of a larger context that offers spiritual solace. It seems that the Avoid Tap Water Cult is not religious; it purports to be purely rational.

The bottled water preference is only one of a number of Avoidance Rituals. For a time, even apples were eschewed because of the Mylar scare. Depending on the individual, a variety of ingestibles are implicated. In fact, once the principle is adopted, it proliferates—a kind of meme that seeks ever-new items to add to the roster of things to avoid. The task is a kind of treasure hunt in reverse. A strange dividend is that the banal act of eating becomes a great drama in which a moment of carelessness, or negligence on the part of some server, can yield a serious infraction. Moreover, the aversion pattern is contagious, spreading from individual to individual. This may occur through a lecture from an avoidance devotee—“Don’t you know you shouldn’t have that?”—or via spontaneous adoption. Today tens of millions of people are in the grip of these food fads. What they must not consume consumes them.

Once when I was a boy I visited the home of a classmate. Innocently, I asked for a slice of bread with butter. "Bread!" she exploded. "Bread is the staff of death." More recently some guests came to my apartment for a meeting. One of them snooped in the kitchen and found sugar. He was upset that I did not want to throw it out immediately. The very presence of sugar in the home was polluting.

These faddish avoidance rituals are not to be confused with genuine health risks, as with hoof-and-mouth and mad cow disease. Rather, they are essentially magical rituals without a rational basis.

Note also that this pattern is different from the normal prudence that asks us to maintain a balanced diet, reducing cholesterol and other elements that can be harmful in excess. By contrast, the water cult, and its many cousins in the realm of food avoidance rituals, is absolute. One must n e v e r consume tap water, or sugar, or salmon, or whatever. Moreover, the banned items are hardly ever the site of bacteria, which can in fact cause harm, but--horror of horrors--of "chemicals." As if everything that we encounter on earth was not made of chemicals. Notice the difference from beef that might contain the bacilli that lead to Mad Cow Disease. Avoiding such beef makes sense; skipping salmon does not.

The term food fad does not do justice to the phenomenon. In fact, some would say that such irrational taboos are a neurosis or phobia. Perhaps instead they should be analyzed as an anthropologist would examine the beliefs of some tribal group. Following this approach, one would need to identify the underlying ideology. Let me take a stab at this. The underlying concept seems to be that the body is a fortress, powerful if uninvaded, but very vulnerable if harmful elements are admitted. Some substance that is "bad for you" must never breach the perimeter of the bodily fortress. Such violations are terrible, leading at the very least to grave psychological crises. Conversely, if the megilla of taboos—typically the list is usually constantly expanding—is carefully adhered to, good health will be assured in perpetuity.

Food avoidance is not a formal religion, but it has elements of such. As with all faiths, there is a tendency to proselytize. This can occur in many ways, from casual remarks to detailed expositions of the taboo. For this reason, those who have escaped this net of delusions must make conscious efforts to resist it. Otherwise there is a danger of being coopted into the group neurosis.

In my youth, when society was generally poorer, most people did not have the luxury of observing these Avoidance Rituals. Such practices would appear to be a product of an overly wealthy, possibly decadent, but surely neurotic society.

PS Since writing this piece I acquired a volume that would seem to have some answers: Madeleine Ferrieres, Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fads (Columbia University Press, 2006). This poorly focused book reads more like notes for a historical monograph, than a real book. Typically French, the author regards other countries as mere footnotes to her own. She starts in the Middle Ages and peters out in the eighteenth century. This book is not the solution to the puzzle of our current wave of food faddism and phobias. For that, I believe, only an anthropological approach, concentrating on comparative instances of magical thinking, would serve.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Homosexuality and disgust

In the last few weeks the film "Brokeback Mountain" with Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall has been getting a lot of ink. I needed tell you that it is about two cowboys in love.

In a commentary available at "Slate" Mickey Kaus has evinced a desire to avoid the movie because, as a heterosexual man, he finds the subject of homosexuality distasteful. (Kaus conceded that he will probably see the movie eventually.)

Relevant to this issue is a brief segment from my manuscript "Tropes of the Homolexicon." (The opening paragraphs owe a debt to the Wikipedia entry.)


Disgust is an emotion, associated in the first instance with things perceived as unclean or inedible. Disgust ranks as one of the basic components of the theory of emotion advanced by Robert Plutchik. There are two categories of disgust: physical disgust, linked with physical or metaphorical uncleanness, and moral disgust, a more sublimated form. A sense of fastidiousness represents perhaps the most diluted form of disgust. Disgust is the opposite of sympathy, affinity, and liking.
Many hold that disgust has its origins in (and in some cases to be identical to) instinctive reactions that evolved as part of natural selection for behavior which tended to prevent food poisoning, or exposure to danger or infection.
The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has published a monograph entitled Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, examining the relationship of disgust and shame to a society's laws.
A recent study found that women and children were more sensitive to disgust than men. Researchers have sought to explain this finding in evolutionary terms. At all events “real men” undergo a desensitizing process which makes them less susceptible to the emotion. As will be seen below, reactions to homosexuality among men are an exception to this tendency.
While some find wisdom in adhering to one's feelings of disgust, some scientists have asserted that reactions of disgust depend upon prejudices that should be challenged and refuted.
Let us turn now to more specific applications. Some find even the thought of homosexuality repellent. This response is in part a reflection of individual temperament and experience, backed up, as so often noted in these pages, by centuries of disparagement.
Some straight men report that even seeing the penis of another man is displeasing. The thought of two persons with penises interacting sexually is even more so. It is odd that a man should have this response to an organ that is, after all part of his own body, but it sometimes happens. As a rule these phalliphobic men do not exhibit the same response to lesbian behavior. Up to point they may find it titillating. It is for this reason that short lesbian scenes sometimes appear in straight porno films. Gay-male scenes never do.
Apart from sex and the contemplation of it, some dislike what they regard as the "antics" of gay people, their flamboyance and assertiveness. These individuals find that the discussion of homosexuality—even in the harmless way of mentioning one’s significant other—to reflect a supposed homosexual obsession with sex, which they find distasteful. Needless to say, they are bewildered when gay people say that they are not interested in the details of the opposite sex life of those they encounter. For some straight studs boasting of their sexual conquests is their right. But such rights are withheld from "disgusting, promiscuous" gays, who "insist on rubbing the sordid details of their sex life in our faces." The oddity of this comment is shown by the fact that such offendees even object to gay peoples' showing signs of affection, such as hugging and holding hands, conduct they find readily acceptable with opposite sex couples.
Objection to the more usual forms of gay sex, including dating and affection, is one thing. We enter a gray area when we enter the realm of the paraphilias. While S/M does occur among straights, it is more common with gays. Urolagnia, sexual interest in urine, has perhaps a prima facie disgusting quality. Such forms of gratification are perhaps an acquired taste, not unlike those who cherish snakes as pets. That is to say, the aversion can be overcome, but if it has not an adverse reaction will ensue.
Disgust with gayness and its attributes is an aspect of homophobia in the strict sense. In everyday parlance the word homophobia is used to cover all sorts of opposition to homosexuality. To the extent that it involves an emotional, possibly irrational aversion, that is a phobia, it may be properly regarded as the umbrella category to which disgust at homosexuality belongs.
In Leviticus 18 and 20 the Hebrew Bible stigmatizes male same-sex love as to’ebah, which the King James version renders as abomination. Other terms represent later strata of disapproval, including such common terms as bugger and faggot. Learned discourse speaks of reprobates and degenerates.
Some slang terms emphasize the more graphic side of sexual conduct, including "cocksucker" and "turd burglar" (UK). Some, it is said, have a predilection for smegma or cock-cheese. Poor personal hygiene is stressed in "dickbreath."