Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Where is Fancy Bred?

You don’t have to be some sort of postmodernist to recognize that we frequently mistake linguistic conventions for objective facts about the universe. For example, we normally speak of facing the future; but it would be more sensible to claim, as some peoples do, that we are backing into the future. After all, everything we can know or perceive, as opposed to make guesses about, is in the past; and our constant stumbling would be more understandable if we adopted the metaphor of walking backwards to tomorrow. Whichever way we imagine our orientation in time, however, the choice is linguistic, not a matter of adopting a different physics. Nevertheless, such choices can have existential consequences.

Consider how we speak about sexual desire. When I say I desire a woman, the normal interpretation, at least among my kind of people, is that the desire, though inspired by her, is something that belongs to me, something I’m responsible for. There is nothing inevitable about this way of putting it. Old poems sometimes personify desire and treat it as one of the properties of the desired person, a fact about them. “Desire glowed in her lovely face.” On this view, one can no more choose not to perceive and feel this desire than one can choose not to see that an apple is red; and if the lover makes a fool of himself over the beloved or even acts in some seriously wrong way, the fault is not his, any more than it’s the nail’s fault to be attracted to a magnet.  In speaking in this fashion, the troubadour is merely working a variation on the eternal complaint of the misogynists. After all, priests and philosophers have been blaming women for being desirable for several thousand years now as if women had a singular responsibility for the bridle their attractiveness puts on masculine freedom. This rationale, which I suspect underlies the resentment of women by traditionalist Jews, Christians, and Muslims, continues to be widely in evidence in the modern world and, if it sometimes seems ridiculous, causes a tremendous amount of hurt. Of course it is possible to construe this attack on women as an instance of projection; but the matter can’t be settled scientifically because the location of desire is not a natural fact but an ethical choice, albeit one that the culture we are born into usually makes for us. Taking responsibility for your own behavior isn’t a recognition of a truth, it’s a matter of doing the right thing, which is something different. 

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