Temperance – week 3

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

In the third week of my engagement with temperance, I turned my attention from food to sex – and started abstaining from porn. Whenever I have spoken to people about the list of things I proposed cutting during Lent, pornography stood out: I articulated the word somewhat faster, with a mild sense of embarrassment. What makes porn so prevalent, yet so shameful? What makes it so fascinating? This is what I tried articulating over the week.

Pornography was pervasive in my childhood. From about the age of ten, I was very aware that on the first Saturday of the month at midnight, one of the TV channels played a porn movie, and that my step-father duly recorded it. I was aware that he stored videos in the library – later, I would sneakily watch them in the afternoon when he was away. Once, at the age of twelve, while walking around with a friend, I remember stopping at a suburban supermarket to buy a treat: there, we glanced for a long while at the jacket of ‘cum for lips’ that sat at eye level in one of the aisle, giggling and aroused.

Porn offers to satisfy a certain form of cruel curiosity. Photographs of sexual organs in extreme close-up appear in two distinct domains – pornographic movies, and medical books. Pornography rips open people, like anatomy does. Porn is an act of radical unveiling. It promises a form of perfect knowledge: it captures the moment when a person is completely revealed in its most naked form. To that extent, porn is a perversion of knowledge: rather than a slow, gradual, dialectic process of encounter, it proposes a shortcut to ‘knowing, in the biblical sense’. But that moment of complete revelation always eludes us – and so we watch more, and more, and more again, in a vain attempt to seize it.

When a new technology emerges, we overestimate its impact in the short term, and underestimate its impact in the long term. To what extent does that apply to the sexual revolution – of which endemic pornography may be no more than a symptom? The way that Aquinas articulates chastity is no longer relevant: not only because he draws explicit parallels between the beautiful dishes that whet our appetite and the beautiful women that arouse our lust; but also because his framing of ‘sexual acts against nature’ no longer aligns unproblematically with our understanding of how ‘nature’ operates in the realm of sexuality. From books on the bonobos to wildlife TV series, from ethnographic reports to the Kinsey survey, we’ve developed a more sophisticated understanding of the many roles played by sex in creating and nurturing diverse types of social relationships.

In our globalised world soon due to hit 8 billion people, if sexuality is to support the survival of our species, chastity should be reframed in the following terms: what sexual behaviour is most conducive to social harmony. Part of our fascination with pornography may stem from this question. Progress in modern medicine, birth control and paternity tests, challenges previous assumptions about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. So, what should we do? Should we rejoice and indulge without limits, just because we can? Or should we keep things ‘within measure’, and if so, what is this measure? While we’re figuring out these questions, porn offers a temporary satisfaction: it invites us to join a fantasy world where sexual acts occur outside of any context, and have no consequences.

A pragmatic logic underpins most support for pornography: since people want it, let’s  normalise it, rather than afflict users with guilt, and push the whole industry to some dark underbelly. Yet, on the Internet, porn exists in shady condition: who’s the owner of the many videos that circulate, soft and hard-core, professional and amateur? Were actors willing participants? Is all of it, or most of it, within the clear realms of legality? Yet somehow, either by the very nature of the thing itself, or the conditions that surround our engagement with it, these are not questions we raise: we search, we click, we watch. And that’s where much of the problem may be: not that there is something inherently bad about pornography, but that it freezes thought, and distracts us from more valuable pursuits.

The silence that covers our engagement with porn certainly contributes to these shadows. ‘The Internet is for porn’, joke the characters of Avenue Q. To what extent is this true? There is a lot of porn online, there must be physical and economic counterparts: server farms, web designers, production companies – yet I have no critical understanding of it. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The same applies at a personal level. I have read dozens of articles describing in details what food I should eat and when in order to reach various forms of personal optimum. I am quite aware of what my friends eat, and even what they drink. I know nothing of their pornographic habits, nor have I ever come across an article listing ’10 ways that pornography can help you find inner calm and increase your creative output’. We collectively Febfast and Meat-free-Mondays, but porn remains an entirely private experience.

This may be why it grates against even a very liberal understanding of chastity. To what extent will our private engagement with naked bodies on a screen contribute to social harmony? Will it bring peace through generalised sexual relief? Will it increase frustration and feed aggressive desire? Or will it isolate us, lost on a solitary quest for impossible knowledge? Without some collective discussion, we cannot answer these questions. As long as shame hampers conversation, pornography will remain problematic.

 

 

 

 

 

Cardinal virtues – a project for 2017

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This is a sharp memory from my grade Ten French class. We were studying French moralist writers of the 17th century, and our teacher explained one of the fundamental religious debates of the time: the respective role of Grace and Virtues on our salvation. It was the height of religious wars in Europe, and the question of Grace was at the core of a theological opposition between Protestants and Catholics, echoed in France in a polemic between two Catholic factions, the Jesuits and the Jansenists (represented by Pascal). According to Jesuit views – inspired by Renaissance Humanism – God offers his supernatural grace to all humans; it is our duty to meet Him halfway, and use our free-will to deliberately cultivate virtues and accomplish good works. This goes directly against the belief of Jansenists – as well as most Protestant theology – who take a more pessimistic view of mankind: our sinful nature is such that only the Grace of God has efficacy to grant us salvation. All attempts at cultivating moral virtues and conducting good works carry the risk of fostering pride and delusion.

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What exactly do we mean when we talk of virtues? For over twenty years, I’ve worn a symbol of my father’s home region around my neck, the ‘guardian cross’, blending a heart, an anchor and a cross. The symbol represents Faith, Hope and Love – three virtues that Paul’s Epistles identify as defining Christianism, and known together as theological virtues. Today, in our post-Christian world, the word virtue evokes at worst a conceited bigot, at best a coy individual, looking for shelter from a corrupting world. But it was not always this way: in its original meaning, virtue has the same root as ‘virile’, and refers to the character of a good citizen – in a famous reflection on the dominant affect in various, Montesquieu associates Virtue to Republican rule. Through the works of Sts Ambrosius, Augustine and Thomas,Catholic theology considers not three, but seven fundamental virtues. Four cardinal virtues, identified in the works of Aristotle, and therefore common to Christians and Pagans, complement Faith, Hope and Love: known as Cardinal Virtues, they are Prudence, Temperance, Justice and Fortitude. On a recent public profile I wrote – ‘I like to listen and look for common ground’. My exploration of Cardinal Virtues in 2017 will both allow me to reconnect with my own Catholic heritage, and reflect on universal forms of good behaviour – what makes a good citizen in a range of tradition, and how to cultivate one’s own character.

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Last year, I started a daily blogging project – a daily page of handwriting which I posted online after light editing. After three months, this was interrupted by a demanding new role with the Global Challenges Foundation. The project I was in charge of setting up has now found its shape, systems are in place, and I’ve been able to reduce the extent of my engagement. This allows me to resume daily writing meditation. So this is what I propose for 2017. I will associate a virtue to each season: Prudence and Summer, Temperance and Autumn, Justice and Winter, Fortitude and Spring. Every day, I will reflect on the season’s virtue, decide a way to practice it over the course of the day, and write about the experience in the evening in a diary. At the end of each week, I will write a short blog post summarising what I did and learnt. Marking the end of each season, I will take a full week to reflect, and compose a deeper written meditation. The project will blend writing and practice – and hopefully, lead both to personal transformation and valuable intellectual insights.

I look forward to this year exploring virtues – and hope we can all learn from this.

On landscapes and memories

The first time I took a train down from Beijing to Shanghai, one particular spot triggered a strong emotional reaction. It’s a range of mid-sized mountains, dragged at the top, some white stone exposed, dark pine or cypress trees dotting the flanks, among lower, yellower, shorter bushes. I have since gone through this pass a number of times. It stretches from Jinan to Tai’an, the backbone of China Eastern mountaing range. I have since realised why that emotional reaction. It looks incredibly similar to the mountains of Provence, the Cevennes north of Nimes, where my grand father stems from; the Alpilles, by the Rhone river, marking entrance to the Mediterranean rim; the Southern Alps, separating France and Italy; the Appennine, which I crossed many times going from florence to Bologna.

I Often speak of the parallel between China and the Mediterranean. Two sophisticated, old civilisations, both convinced of standing at the centre of the earth. Joyful, warm people. Centres of literary cultures. Elaborate merchant cultures. An eye for beauty. This landscape, halfway between Beijing and Shanghai, is the physical counterpart of this more diffuse sense of alignment. And whenever I pass by, watching the mountains from the train window, I sense the depth of my connection to China. 

I felt it more broadly, during this trip, in the Hutongs of Beijing, where old people pull out chairs into the street at night and spend time enjoying the fresh air, greeting neighbours as they pass by, gossiping, playing cards, like my grand parents used to do when I was a kid. It brings back the warm, quasi-magical world of my holidays in provence, where life was happier, warmer, more social. Where you could stand outside the door, where people knew who you were, and the nights smelled of jasmine flower. This I fiound on the streets of Beijing. And as I head south to more metropolitan Shanghai, I feel as if I’m getting back to working life, leaving holidays, warmth and family behind.

On anglo-imperialism

Alternatives are limited. My multicultural friends in Melbourne often resent ‘anglos’ and their sense of self-evident linguistic and cultural centrality. But forces of resistance are dispersed.

I like lists. One of my favourites is the yearly list of ‘Global Cities’, major nodes in the world system, ranked in order of importance. Although New York and London sit alone on the ‘alpha ++’ top tier, the twenty four ‘alpha’ cities of 2015 are reasonably spread across the globe. Superficially, we live in a globally diverse world.

A closer look tells a different story. Nine of these alpha-city were founded by the British, or became significant as part of the British Empire – London, New York, Mumbai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Toronto, Sydney. Two more, Los Angeles and Chicago, are located in the US. Contrast with Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Frankfurt, Madrid, Beijing, Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, Sao Paolo, Mexico, capitals of so many distinct historical entities. I’m not entirely sure where to place Shanghai.

I learnt one day that English historians mockingly label France ‘the eternal second’. Its empire did not quite match the British. They failed, only just, in claiming ownership of Australia. In the two World Wars, they were a lesser supporter of the great Anglo-American alliance.

Last night, I watched Mission Impossible. British and American spy networks play complex games of alliance to save the world. The French are nowhere to be seen, nor the Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Belgians, Russians, Germans, Spaniards, Brazilians, Italians or Mexicans. These nations are not playing the grand game.

Much of Australian discourse on multiculturalism hovers between a post-British aspiration to join a liberal, English-speaking community – and an aspiration to fully respect all cultures and languages equally. These may be two sides of the same coin. On top, post-imperial anglo-universalism; below, the mossy jungle of diversity. What would an alliance of second-tier powers look like, I wonder – or an alliance of their diasporas as a real-politik alternative to current all-inclusive, English-umbrella’ed conceptions of multiculturalism.

On Australia day

Outside my building, an Asian boy is playing Because I’m Happy on the violin. He would be seven or eight. His father is standing nearby, seemingly proud, perhaps amused. The boy is wearing an orange cap with a white stitched-on kangaroo, and the word ‘Australia’.

Today is the national holiday. My social media pages are flooded with controversy. Should we move the date? January 26 commemorates the landing of the First Fleet. Indigenous people find it disrespectful. Better call this Invasion day.

At lunchtime, I passed a demonstration of Indigenous flags marching along Swanston Street, and headed for a quiet picnic in a suburban park. Our group included two French-Australian couples, a French woman with her half-Indian daughter, an Australian woman with her half-Sudanese son, the son’s Chinese schoolfriend Wan, and a couple from Venezuela. We had potato salad, cold chicken, rockmelon, and a French-style puff-pastry caked filled with almond paste, washed down with nine-dollar-a-sixpack beer from Aldi. We sat on mats, played croquet, and conversed in three languages.

Later, on St Kilda beach, it was a large, noisy, shirtless guard. Two red-haired girls were strolling on the esplanade, draped in a large Australian flag. Their mother was walking two steps behind, trying to capture a photograph on her phone. With the crowded beach and pier in the background, the shot had iconic potential.

These vignettes capture my experience of Australia Day. Their contradictory tension makes up the nation I embraced.

On translation – reflections on English imperialism

Last year, I taught a class on translation at La Trobe University. On the reading guide from the subject coordinator is an article by Tim Parks about underpaid and underrecognised translator. I liked one part of the piece – a recurring theme against the praize of individual genius in literature. I winced, however, at the following passage:

‘Some years ago Kazuo Ishiguro castigated fellow English writers for making their prose too difficult for easy translation. One reason he had developed such a lean style, he claimed, was to make sure his books could be reproduced all over the world.

What if Shakespeare had eased off the puns for his French readers? Or Dickens had worried about getting Micawber-speak into Japanese?’

Indeed, but isn’t it remarkable how a Japanese author is thinking of overseas readers – while London-based Tim Parks defends the genius of his co-native authors, who should never compromise their own capacity to use all the resources of the English language so that barbaric French or Japanese readers might access them. These are not our audience – and we shall not cater to them.

This short extract – and my reaction to it – reveals tension between two different ethics of literature. One whereby the great book is written by a great individual. One whereby the great book is that which can access a larger number of readers – including, because the writing is easy enough, or universal enough.

Take the case of Italian epic-writing collective Wu Ming – possibly the most remarkable literary experiment to come out of Europe in the last fifteen years. They create myths for contemporary reader, and work as a group. There is no genius writer. And their work has been reasonably well translated.

With collective writing, translation can occur without the odd obsession that translators have, what Tim Parks describes like this: “You’ll never know exactly what a translator has done. He reads with maniacal attention to nuance and cultural implication, conscious of all the books that stand behind this one; then he sets out to rewrite this impossibly complex thing in his own language, re-elaborating everything, changing everything in order that it remain the same, or as close as possible to his experience of the original. In every sentence the most loyal respect must combine with the most resourceful inventiveness.” Note the gender of the pronoun.

Translators can take pride in this extreme level of attention to details. It is a remarkable, and remarkably undervalued skills. Yet there can is an hybris to translation – the desire to recreate, and deny the difference of languages – and an hybris to literature, that of the author directly communing with the language, and neglecting all considerations of their readership.