On December 1st, 2017, the Irish Times carried an account of on an 11-year old girl who took her life weeks after posting a message on Instagram saying she was unhappy with her appearance and wanted to die. Prior to this she had written what appeared to be a suicide diary, self-harmed and scrawled ‘beautiful girls don’t eat’ along her arm.
Separately, the same edition reported that a jury convicted a man in his mid-30s of a sexual assault that occurred during a date arranged through the Tinder dating app. The woman in her early-30s – a foreign national learning English in Ireland – believed she was meeting him for a coffee. The man told Gardai he was under the impression it was a ‘hook-up’ for sex. She testified that the assault began after she rebuffed his advances to kiss her while they were sitting in his BMW in the grounds of University College Dublin.
Use of social media is notable in each case, but these tools amplify, rather than rupture, pre-existing tendencies in each gender. More poignantly, both lay bare pathological expressions of male and female sexuality in our time. The harrowing tale of the young girl reflects how many women feel under to reach an unattainable ideal of beauty. Young age heightened her vulnerability to social media, bringing premature exposure to dominant expressions of femininity. This is a manipulated demand for a highly cultivated beauty; which in a consumer society is perceived to be purchased, including through plastic surgery.
The tale of the Tinder date illustrates the value men attach to the acquisition of that cultivated beauty, and may react with rage if denied access to it. The man in the case could have felt that extended courtship via conversations on Tinder and WhatsApp entitled him to the prize. It is also notable that he drove an expensive car and was dating a foreigner, which placed him in a dominant economic position. Though seemingly sober, when his investment did not reach fruition all rational faculties deserted him, becoming, in the description of the woman, ‘an animal’.
When a woman invests in her beauty it becomes a currency valued by men, who bring a currency of their own to the sexual marketplace. This is often financial but it can take the form of a promise of career advancement, in exchange for the goods. Both sides can take advantage of their wealth, women of their beauty, men generally their money, although these roles can be reversed. This pessimistic generalisation seems to have long antecedents in the slave markets of antiquity, but its present iteration is a product of more recent cultural trends.
Western society is still digesting the seismic events of the 1960s, a period when objective morality both that defined as ‘Christian’, and that emanating from its Modernist rival Communism, were effectively abandoned by much, though not all, of the intelligentsia. What began as a countercultural movement, reaching its culmination in the Paris Spring of 1968, after which that generation assumed dominant positions in politics, academia and the media, merging into a singular entity that has been labelled ‘The Cathedral’. Above all, the countercultural movement was associated with sexual liberation, especially expressed through the Rock n’ Roll ‘revolution’, the era’s defining artistic genre.
The origins of this movement has been explored by the cultural historian Ian MacDonald in his superb account of the music of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head (2005). He points to the effect of a the drug LSD:
Though framed into terms of sexual liberation and scaffolded by religious ideas imported from the Orient, the central shift of the counterculture was drugs, and one drug above all: d-lysergic acid diethylamide 25, or LSD. Synthesised in 1938 by a Swiss chemist looking for a cure for migraine, LSD is a powerful hallucinogen whose function is temporarily to dismiss the brain’s neural concierge, leaving the mind to cope as it can with sensory information which meanwhile enters without prior arrangement – an uncensored experience of reality which profoundly alters one’s outlook on it.
With the brain’s neural concierge removed:
The LSD view of life took the form of a smiling non-judgmentalism which saw ‘straight’ thinking, including political opinion across the board from extreme Left to Right, as basically insane. To those enlightened by the drug, all human problems and divisions were issues, not of substance, but of perception. With LSD, humanity could transcend its ‘primitive state of neurotic irresponsibility’ and, realising the oneness of all creation, proceed directly to utopia.
Using it, normal people were able to move directly to the state of ‘oceanic consciousness’ achieved by a mystic only after years of preparation and many intervening stages of growing self-awareness – as a result of which most of them not unnaturally concluded that reality was a chaos of dancing energies without meaning or purpose. There being no way to evaluate such a phenomenon, all one could do was ‘dig it’. Hence at the heart of the counterculture was a moral vacuum: not God, but The Void.
Crucially, McDonald states: ‘the Sixties inaugurated a post-religious age in which neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional/physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity.’ He claims that this was a precursor to the New Right that degenerated into the 80s yuppies, the essence of the politics of Neoliberalism: ‘What mass society unconsciously began in the Sixties, Thatcher and Reagan raised to the level of ideology in the Eighties: the complete materialistic individualisation – and total fragmentation – of Western society.’ The Centrism of Blair and Clinton carried the main left-wing movements into embracing this “materialistic individualisation”, leaving the radical space to the right-wing populism of Brexit, and Trumpism.
Encountering The Void, leading members of the 60s generation lapsed into a lazy sensuality, epitomised by the self-immolation of icons such as Jim Morrison. For a long time the decadent rock star retained a sexual currency, as Michel Houellebecq describes in his novel Atomised (1998): ‘Young, good-looking, famous, desired by women and envied by men, rock stars had risen to the summit of the social order. Nothing since the deification of the pharaohs could compare to the devotion European and American youth bestowed on their heroes.’ In the novel, the character of David Meola, a failed rockstar, spirals into perpetrating Charles Mansonesque sadistic murders, while apparently emulating his archetypal hero Mick Jagger:
To be seductive he had to be evil, to be the perfect embodiment of evil –what the masses adored above everything was the image of evil unpunished. Only once had Jagger’s power been threatened, a clash of egos within the group – with Brian Jones. But the problem had been resolved in Brian Jones’s swimming pool. Though it wasn’t the official version, David knew that Jagger had pushed Brian into the pool; he could see it happening. It was this original murder which had made him the leader of the greatest rock band in the world. David was convinced that man’s greatest achievements were founded upon murder
But the sexual currency of the rockstar – a hangover from a distant Romantic era – did not last long, passing instead to the gatekeepers: executives in the entertainment industry, like Harvey Weinstein, that had rapidly usurped control from artists. Today the rockstar is an anachronism that spends much of his time compulsively checking his Facebook profile for new likes, and worrying whether he can afford the rent.
A wider nostalgia for the 1960s sustains a dwindling number of rock ‘franchises’, such as the Rolling Stones and U2, whic continue to earn vast sums of money on the back of their celebrity; the avant-garde has been decimated by the dominance of digital platforms, and the artist is merging with the entrepreneur. As William Deresiewicz wrote in The Atlantic:
we have entered, unmistakably, a new transition, and it is marked by the final triumph of the market and its values, the removal of the last vestiges of protection and mediation. In the arts, as throughout the middle class, the professional is giving way to the entrepreneur, or, more precisely, the “entrepreneur”: the “self-employed” (that sneaky oxymoron), the entrepreneurial-self.
This, he argues, has come about because: ‘The Internet enables you to promote, sell, and deliver directly to the user, and to do so in ways that allow you to compete with corporations and institutions, which previously had a virtual monopoly on marketing and distribution.’
Rockstars, especially the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, really were once agents of a form of a liberation. However, as MacDonald observed, in their naivety they never embarked on the mystic path involving: “many intervening stages of growing self-awareness”. What remained was a basket of half-baked ideas around free love that unravelled once the collective hangover – that was the 1970s – kicked in.
Under a dominant market, an apparent liberation opened the way for abuse by economically dominant individuals, including providing opportunities for the assertion of aggressive male tendencies, which have long antecedents. As Houellebecq concludes: ‘The sexual revolution was to destroy the last unit separating the individual from the market. The destruction continues to this day.’
In response to the avalanche of allegations against Harvey Weinstein there have been loud cries against patriarchy, but the patriarchal order – in the West identified with ‘Christianity’ – for the most part enjoined men to show sexual restraint; although bringing a woman’s virginal qualities into marriage was the real guarantor of patriarchal order. Once married she became effectively a husband’s possession: in most countries marital rape was considered a paradox until very recently.
Parallel with expansion in women’s legal rights, since the 1960s sexual relations have increasingly been absorbed into the marketplace, including the multi-billion dollar pornography industry. A revealing aspect of the Weinstein cases was the absence of face-to-face intimacy through kissing. It was as if he had a shopping list of desires – from blow jobs to massages – he wanted satisfied in exchange for opportunities, or whatever else he dispensed.
An aroused male is a very violent animal. The accounts through history of what men, especially warriors, have done to women is shocking, and makes one wonder whether those of us with a Y-chromosome carry an Original Male Sin, as feminists suggested in the 1970s. Jung might have said that there is a rapist, as well as a murderer, in all men.
This male warrior archetype emerges in Virgil’s formative epic of Ancient Rome: the Aeneid. Aeneas symbolically carries his aged father (the patriarch) on his back out of a burning Troy – while losing his wife in the flames, as well as later rejecting Dido’s love in favour of his fate, or really ambition, to re-establish Troy as Rome. The character of his Latin opponent Turnus is also exemplar of Roman manhood. Turnus taunts his enemies:
We take our babies down to the river the moment they are born and harden them to icy water. Our boys stay awake all night and weary the woods with their hunting. For games they ride horses and stretch the bow to the arrow. Our men endure hard labour and live spare, subduing the land with the mattock and shaking the towns of their enemies with war. We are worn hard by iron all our lives and turn our spears to goad our oxen … our delight is always to bring home new plunder and live off what we take … But you like your clothes dyed with yellow saffron and the bright juice of the purple fish. Your delight is dancing and idleness. You have sleeves to your tunics and ribbons to keep your bonnets on. You are Phyrgian women, not Phrygian men.
Aeneas and Turnus eventually fight a duel to the death to determine who will win Lavinia the virgin daughter of King Latinus. She, along with womanhood, is condemned as ‘the cause of all this suffering, her lovely eyes downcast’. Christianity appropriated this ideal of the pristine virgin, subject to male, or divine, will, along with woman as temptress in the Garden of Eden, giving us, paradoxically Original Female Sin.
The response of right-wing politicians to the sexual revolution of the 1960s has usually been to call for a reversion to the old, patriarchal ways, last dominant in the 1950s – this is the substance of Trumpism, Steve Bannon’s brainchild. In Houellbecq’s novel the character of MacMillan the District Attorney who prosecutes Meola, and goes on to become a Republic politician, asserts:
decline in Western civilisation since 1945 was simply a return to the cult of power, a rejection of the secular rules slowly built up in the name of justice and morality. Actionists, beatniks, hippies and serial killers were all pure libertarians who advanced the rights of the individual against social norms and against what they believed to be the hypocrisy of morality, sentiment, justice and pity. From this point of view, Charles Manson was not some monstrous aberration in the hippie movement, but its logical conclusion.
The “justice and morality” that MacMillan is referring to are the traditional values that held sway as America asserted its ‘manifest destiny’ to colonise the ‘Wild’ West. That society saw women as second class citizens, who ideally conformed to ordained gender roles, while men waged war.
It begs the question how any man should contain his violent energies. Superficially, the commodification of sexuality through the market economy protects women from primitive male violence, as women now have a range of opportunities once denied to them to speak out against a violence that had once been tolerated. But the number of rapes that go unprosecuted remains truly shocking, and this occurs after an apparent ‘sexual liberation’.
In reality neither men, nor women, have been meaningfully liberated from destructive tendencies. Moreover, the violence against women is now often self-inflicted, through self-harming and punishing beauty regimes, including invasive plastic surgery. We’ve replaced one form of authority with another, and men suffer equally through this estrangement as financial wealth becomes a key determinant of sexual proclivity; a disproportionate number of men are committing suicide. All the while the possibility of meaningful love between couples diminishes.
This may seem an unnecessarily pessimistic portrait of relations between the sexes. An ideal of Romantic love survives – its endurance is attested to in thousands of soppy pop songs – although it tends to bring a set of fatalistic assumptions that have been conveyed by poets since the Troubadours. But I suggest the cultural stew in which we find ourselves makes even Romantic love increasingly untenable. Between the poles of a sexual liberation operating in an avaricious market, and regression to a conservative conception of a woman’s role, a middle ground is difficult to identify.
The ebb and flow between male and female energies is unlikely to ever reach a point of equilibrium. Although a resolution of sorts does comes about at the end of Atomised when the character of Michel Djerzinski realises a scientific breakthrough for precise human cloning, leading to the elimination of sexual reproduction. This prospect of a ‘Brave New World’ is a dystopian spectre, but I maintain we do require radical solutions to tame destructive male energies, saving women, and men, from themselves. In my view, this must involve a re-appraisal of our relationship with Earth, which is the eternal feminine, and has been exploited by a male will-to-power, the Roman mindset of Aeneas and Turnus, who despises “dancing and idleness”.
Can we recover a mystic path that was bypassed by the hippies with their use of LSD? This will surely be conveyed through poetry, and ultimately in new religious forms where the poet-artist is no longer an entrepreneur but a theologian, as Patrick Kavanagh maintained.
Robert Graves argued that ‘The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the experience of mixed exaltation and horror that her presence excites.’ The thesis he propounds in The White Goddess (1948) is that:
the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon goddess or Muse, some of them dating from the Old Stone Age, and that this remains the language of true poetry – ‘true’ in the nostalgic modern sense of the ‘unimprovable original, not a synthetic substitute’. The language was tampered with in late Minoan times when invaders from Central Asia began to substitute patrilinear for matrilinear institutions and remould or falsify the myths to justify the social changes: Then came the early Greek philosophers who were strongly opposed to magical poetry as threatening their new religion of logic.
This might seem like nostalgic primitivism, but a matrilinear society where ego and ambition are less prized is appealing. We could also envisage living arrangements beyond the nuclear family – which is seen by historians as a product of the seventeenth century – allowing generations and genders to intertwine tribally. Marriage might also be seen in less formal and contractual terms. This might improve the prospect of real love blossoming between couples in the West, where sex has moved from being a taboo to an obsession in the space of a generation, linked to the arrival of the pill and abortion access.
Ultimately the forces of sex and reproduction are played out on a planet that has been exploited to the point of breakdown by our appetites, and where humans beings kill over sixty billion other animals for food every year. By controlling this ambient violence we may tame male tendencies of acquisitiveness and female self-mutilation, both of which feature in the tragic stories that I began this piece with. The #Metoo phenomenon is an important cultural moment, but it will only prove redemptive if we acknowledge the true nature of our societies, where vile discrimination goes far beyond that which affects women. Greater development seems necessary of repressed feminine qualities, which are not restricted to any one gender, and may open hearts to a genuinely “oceanic consciousness“.