Monthly Archives: February 2010

No, not Conan O’Brien

Conan the Barbarian.

Yes, I’m going write a serious post about Conan the Barbarian.

Robert Ervin Howard shot himself dead in 1936. In his thirty years of life he had written over a hundred short stories for pulp fiction magazines in the boxing, historical fiction, fantasy and western genres. He is remembered mainly for stories based around Conan, which formed the genesis of sword-and-sorcery fantasy. Like JRR Tolkien, he fused action, legend and history to create a modern fantasy form. However Tolkien created a world that was like a great mountain to be climbed, an ascent made by his protagonists into heroism. Howard’s world was more like a sea, with the protagonists conquering one wave, only to be thrown to the foot of another.

Fundamental to Howard’s writing was his attitude towards civilisation. The rhythmic rise and fall of civilisations in his fantasy world flowed from the oil booms he saw growing up in Texas. The booms drew out the worst in people, and he viewed the rise of civilisation as leading to the degeneration of its people and its inevitable decline. Conan the Barbarian is a foil to the civilisations he travels through. Where civilisations are in crisis, Conan is unperturbed. He is a typical noble savage character, despite being obviously White.

Conan is appealing first for his hyper-masculinity; his body ripples with great muscles, he is fast and strong and dangerous, his senses are keener than any civilised man’s senses can be, he is shamelessly ambitious and blunt in his desires. The last part is what gives him some enduring appeal, because Conan is kind of existential character. He is true to himself and honest in his dealings with others. However he isn’t a good person. In the Rogues in the House (1934) Conan is described by a corrupt nobleman as, “… the most honest man of the three of us, because he steals and murders openly.” In Red Nails (1936) he and a love interest slash side kick Valeria are asked to help exterminate the last members of a tribe, to which he replies, “We’re both penniless vagabonds, I’d as soon kill Xotalancas as anybody.” Yet Conan doesn’t suffer existential angst to any great degree, he accepts his own death and that others wish to kill him with equanimity since he often wishes to kill them too. He revels in his freedom from what “one should” do without any anxiety since his desires are so primal. After killing the rest of the Xotalancas he says, “Well, this cleans up the feud. It’s been a hell of a night! Where did these people keep their food? I’m hungry.”

Conan is a masculine ideal. It’s an unobtainable ideal, of course, but he is built from typically masculine traits such as strength, power, ambition, honesty and courage. He is a particular type of masculine ideal though: the outsider. He’s a barbarian in civilised lands, or at least foreign lands. His outsider status seems to be what allows him to steal and murder openly, he is not attached to the societies he comes across and perceives them only in terms of what he can get out of them. He carries some code of honour of his own though, he is confused at the thought of fighting Valeria since she is a woman, and believes in the diety Crom. Yet mostly he is a self-defined individualist, and an incredibly successful one at that. Perhaps the greatest appeal of Conan is the triumph of the individual over society.

Hunting with the Bow and Arrow by Saxton Pope (1875-1926) describes hunting bears, cougars, deer and other American game with bows. This was done partly to collect museum pieces and also as an anthropological study of the effectiveness of bows as hunting weapons. The first chapter deals the subject of another anthropological study, the last Yani Indian. Pope learned to hunt from Ishi, the last surviving member of his stone age hunter-gatherer tribe. His description in some ways matches that of Conan, “His apparent age was about forty years, yet he undoubtedly was nearer sixty. Because of his simple life he was in physical prime, mentally alert, and strong in body.” Ishi is of course an outsider in western society, yet he knows it by its effect on his people. The Yani not only had their land taken, but they were massacred, and the few remaining elderly relatives eventually die, leaving him alone. He ends up walking into civilisation starved and terrified. He is coaxed into eating and drinking by an anthropologist and ends up being given a job as a janitor.

The contrast with Conan is obvious. The true “noble savage” is bewildered and terrified in the face of civilisation, and the civilised are brutally superior when it comes to violence. Digging deeper, Ishi is quickly assimilated into civilisation; studied by scientists, cared for by doctors and given a job. He also remains bound to his people who he believes exist within a spirit world. Unlike Conan he doesn’t break free of social bonds by becoming an outsider, instead he is placed near the bottom of society. Conan only manages to rise from the depths of society by his own superhuman abilities, abilities that don’t exist in reality. True outsiders are shunted to the bottom, while the insiders rise to the top. The outsider fantasy might be appealing to our sense of individualism, our sense of self or base selfishness, but it’s an escape from a reality that rewards conformity.

Yet Ishi is a good person, unlike Conan. He spends most of his life caring for the few members of his tribe left on the small amount of land left. While terrified of White people on contact, once he trusts them he is kind, teaching them of his dead people and their culture. He remains proud of his culture and his philosophy of life, so he is also a kind of existential character, true to himself and others, he’s just a much nicer person to be true to.

Playing games

One of the frequently given pieces of the advice given to men struggling romantically is to be themselves. On the face of it this seems like excellent advice, people generally want to be accepted for who they are, and don’t want to lie to others. As Shakespeare said through Polonius’ lips in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” But wait a minute, Shakespeare was being ironic. Polonius’ preceding advice, to his son Laertes travelling to Paris, is to definitely not be true to himself, since Polonius is telling him to be reserved and laconic while Laertes is a pompous loudmouthed braggart. Here’s a big meaty slice of Early Modern English if you’re interested:

Yet here, Laertes? Aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There- my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are most select and generous, chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all- to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!

The same irony is going to be painfully obvious to anyone who is struggling romantically, if they are being themselves and getting nowhere. So does this mean men should lie, not be true to themselves and thus false to others?

I thought I had an epiphany for a little while. I was going to compare dating to the kind of play that occurs in BDSM. Surely if you can have rape play or torture play or castration play, you can have dating play. It seems utterly trivial in comparison. People could just have a “dating kink” that they act out with like-minded kinksters. Except, except, except… dating isn’t play. It’s a game. It’s The Game. Play is co-operative and expressive, while a game is competitive, driven by the outcome. The kind of play that occurs in BDSM occurs after a partner has been chosen, while dating is the selective process by which partners are chosen.

However I’m not going to give up on a good idea just because it happens to be wrong. Maybe it should become right instead. I said in my previous post that the subject of a social theory can respond to that theory, so people should be able to respond to this. The ones that read it at least. The problem with dating from a typical male point of view, such as The Game, is that it is single-mindedly, overwhelmingly, hyperventilatingly focused on sex. Dating then becomes a process of sexual selection of males, and social Darwinist explanations of behaviour reduce both men and women into simple antagonistic constructs. Now I’m a devout atheist and an ardent evolutionist, but social Darwinism rarely ends well. While sexual selection may be a reasonable model of human reproductive behaviour, the goals of men in having romantic relationships with women go beyond sex.

When people say ” go beyond sex”, normally they mean that men want sex, of course, but also like hanging out, going to movies or square dancing with their partner. Their sexual partner. But I wonder if those non-sexual activities can be seen as goals in themselves. Getting back to the idea of play, I wonder whether men can see going to a movie with a girl in a romantic context as an end itself, without seeing it as just another stepping stone towards Ultimate Vaginal Conquest XXXVII. Now BDSM is of course negotiated and consented to, so should there be a similar mechanism for dating to be negotiated? Could how far the date goes be agreed to before the date begins, but not only that, what each person wants from the date? I think it’s possible, but I guess a lot of people will think it takes the romance out of dating. Which is a similar argument that can be made towards BDSM, it seems a bit contrived to agree to be tied up and tortured, or consent to being raped. Yet many people get what they want from such contrived agreements, and I don’t see why they couldn’t from dating agreements.

Double standards

The Madonna-Whore Complex is a Freudian concept in which a man seeks out a mother figure romantically, and is subsequently unable to view his partner sexually. He develops a dichotomous view of women, where they fulfill either an intimate role or a sexual role, but never the two together. The term has been used by feminists to describe a double standard that applies to women, but rather than by individual men, it is by a male-dominated society. Women are placed into one category or the other, and are castigated for transgressing the boundaries of that category. Cyndi Lauper even wrote a song about it called, unsurprisingly, Madonna Whore. The chorus goes like this:

Every woman’s a Madonna, every woman’s a whore
You can try to reduce me but I’m so much more
I don’t want to be your mother, won’t be shoved in a drawer
Cause every woman’s a Madonna, every woman’s a whore, that’s right

Now an interesting characteristic of social theories is that the subject of analysis is able to respond to the analysis, as Cyndi Lauper showed. However at the same time that Lauper calls herself a whore in a defiantly feminist song there are anti-prostitution feminist groups. And as women have apparently become more overtly sexual the concept of raunch culture emerged, which criticised women for turning themselves into the sexual objects that men had been turning women into through history. This argument hinges on women actually objectifying themselves, turning themselves into a one half of the Madonna-Whore dichotomy. I think most women are like Lauper, they aren’t objectifying themselves by being overtly sexual, but rather trying to be something more than how they have been perceived.

While feminists usually see the Madonna-Whore double standard as something that applies particularly to women, restricting their sexual behaviour in ways that men’s behaviour isn’t, there is a similar dichotomy that applies to men. This is the Nice Guy-Bad Boy dichotomy, where men who are caring and empathetic aren’t seen as sexual, while overtly sexual men are seen as predatory and emotionally distant. The Nice Guy-Bad Boy dichotomy reflects the differences between how men and women are seen in society, a whore is often seen as used and degraded where a bad boy is seen as aggressive and creepy.

The obvious question to ask is, how do men respond to this analysis? I think men still tend to fit themselves into one or the other side of the dichotomy. This shouldn’t be all that surprising since the concept hasn’t been challenged to the extent that the Madonna-Whore concept has, as part of an organised civil rights movement. It’s common to see the “nice guys finish last” sentiment used in resignation, such as in the seduction community. While this can come with the ideal of creating a person who is more than the person they were, it often falls into the trap of the insincere, creepy and even predatory bad boy role.

A less obvious question to ask is, what if a man wants a mother figure? Or if a woman wants a father figure? Clearly Cyndi Lauper doesn’t want to be a mother figure, despite saying she is a Madonna. Yet the desire to have a nurturing relationship with a sexual partner that, at least in times of vulnerability, mimics that of parent and child seems quite widespread. It’s fascinating in this context that lovers often revert to a babytalk when talking to each other as way of building intimacy. In BDSM these desires are dealt with through daddy/mommy play, where power dynamic between parents and their children are recreated between adults through role play. The sexual nature of the play is of course very interesting because it breaks the barrier that creates the Madonna-Whore Complex. But is this a good thing? Or is it depraved? Or is that just another double standard given the babytalking that many couples do?