Friday, August 6, 2010

Thank You for Smoking

Ἔρος δηὖτέ μ' ὀ λυσιμέλης δόνει,
γλυκύπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπετον

Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me
sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up

— Sappho, LP, fr. 130, trans. Anne Carson

“Why is youth so terribly unmerciful? And who has given it permission to be that way?”

— Smiles of a Summer Night

Hewlett Packard CEO Mark Hurd resigned this evening, allegedly in response to an internal investigation about sexual harrasment. While the investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, “it did find violations of the company’s standards of business conduct.” Given the obfuscations and protective smokescreens inherent to corporate PR doublespeak, this tells us exactly nothing. I am sure the legions of well-paid internal and external counsel beavering away in darkness to quickly settle and bury any real or purported wrongdoing will make sure we never really find out.

But Mark Hurd’s real or alleged guilt is not my subject this evening, Dear Readers. Rather, it is a larger and more persistent question. One which I believe many of you, like me, have pondered from time to time over the length of your lives. That is:

Why is it that powerful men cannot seem to keep their dicks in their pants?

This phenomenon is so trite, prevalent, and persistent that I will not insult your intelligence by drawing attention to the myriad examples from our recent or distant past to illustrate it. I will just presume that if you have not been in a coma since the age of three you probably have a pretty good idea of what I am talking about. Of course, I am talking about the sexual peccadilloes of men who are normally married, as opposed to the theoretically less objectionable rutting about of unattached and uncommitted men. You should also assume I am focused on powerful men. Naturally, a man with social status, economic wealth, or political power will have a lot more opportunity to fool around with members of the fairer sex, since so many of the distaff gender find such attributes to be catnip in a man. Poor, lowly, impotent men—I will assert with little fear of contradiction—are probably just as eager to do the nasty with attractive women as the big boys. They just get a lot fewer chances, and no-one in the gossip pages seems to care if they succeed.

* * *

Now those of you now reading who expect a lengthy, well-reasoned and well-documented treatise on the sociological, anthropological, and cultural sources and reasons for extramarital cheating among married men in positions of power will be sorely disappointed (as well as clearly lost, having stumbled upon the wrong blog site). But I can offer a few simple observations based on personal experience and observation.

For one, unlike what I remember believing in my callow youth and the apparent beliefs of many youngsters under the age of 30 today, getting older does not leach out physical desire or interest in sex from married adults like an inconvenient stain.1 If anything, the decreasing frequency and opportunity for thrilling sex with an exciting stranger tends to make it that much more attractive to anyone not sporting ice blood in his veins.

Second, the relentless approach of age, infirmity, and death assumes a greater and greater reality and presence of mind as one ages. Most young people below the age of 30 simply cannot comprehend—on a visceral, emotional level—the ineluctable fact of their approaching decrepitude and eventual obliteration. This lurking thought grows slowly in one’s mind as one ages, hiding in the shadows but never forgotten, and it begins to affect almost every aspect of one’s behavior. For men, fear of death can make one grasp at youth, and excitement, and beauty in a desperate subconscious bid to stave off the Reaper. If the man happens to be wealthy, famous, and powerful, likely he will be surrounded by plenty of pliable young females delighted to indulge his self-deception.

But third—and, in my opinion, most important—men do not lose the need and desire for romantic love any more than do women when they age. If anything, it gets more poignant and compelling than when they were young. The young man—like the young woman—yearns for love, and pines for it, but deep in his bones he just knows that he will find it. He assumes it is inevitable. The older man knows, from long experience, that he may never find such love, or, if he has had it, experience deep, compelling romantic love ever again. If this realization does not turn him bitter, it will make him all the more susceptible to the real or imagined siren call of Eros. Stir in method, and opportunity, and presto!: peccadillo in a glass.

* * *

But don’t take my word for it. Go watch Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. And read Pauline Kael’s review of the film, if you need further convincing that romantic love gets no simpler, no less poignant, and no less powerful when you are old and married. In it she quotes a Swedish film critic, who wrote that

“... Smiles of a Summer Night is a comedy in the most important meaning of the word. It is an arabesque on an essentially tragic theme, that of man’s insufficiency, at the same time as it wittily illustrates the belief expressed fifty years ago by Hjalmar Söderberg that the only absolutes in life are ‘the desire of the flesh and the incurable loneliness of the soul.’”

Then perhaps in the future you will not sneer quite so readily at old men besotted with sex, making themselves ridiculous in the pursuit of romantic and erotic love, no matter how powerful they may be. Perhaps you will remember the words of another old man who also clung desperately to youth and love and was obsessed with sex well into his dotage. There is wisdom and magic in them.

O but there is wisdom
In what the sages said;
But stretch that body for a while
And lay down that head
Till I have told the sages
Where man is comforted.

How could passion run so deep
Had I never thought
That the crime of being born
Blackens all our lot?
But where the crime’s committed
The crime can be forgot.

— W.B. Yeats, A Woman Young and Old: V. Consolation

Glukupikron, indeed.

1 Although there is a very long, semi-serious tradition in Western culture—disputed violently by many women, natch—asserting that married women lose interest in sex disproportionately more than husbands. This trope is neatly illustrated by one of the favorite (and most popular) jokes of Mrs. Dealmaker herself:

Q: What's the difference after sex among a prostitute, a mistress, and a wife?
A: The prostitute says, “Did you enjoy that?” The mistress says, “Did you enjoy that as much as I enjoyed that?” And the wife says, “Beige... I think I want to paint the ceiling beige.”

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