Saturday, August 25, 2018

Richard Wagner's Alberich (an incel), and the curse of the Rhinegold that ultimately dooms the world

The Ring of Truth: The wisdom of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung
Roger Scruton
The Overlook Press
Copyright © Roger Scruton 2016

Isbn: 978-1-4683-1649-3

Page 182

In the enchanted world of civilized man love granted depends on love withheld. The transferable lust for the human form becomes violation. (The transferability of lust is made plain from the vey outset of the tetralogy, since its object, the Rhine-daughters, is plural) Once the moral law is in place, therefore, love is supposedly confined within the bounds of marriage, maintained by Fricka’s vigilant eye. But real love cannot be so confined. For erotic love, at its highest, is neither sensual delight nor domestic harmony, even if both are in some way implied in it. At its heart lies sympathy, and the sense of the absolute value of the individual, to whose being the lover is attached and whose sufferings he suffers in turn. Such is love between mortals, the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde, and it is a higher and nobler thing than the love enjoyed by the gods or of the conventional tyranny of the hearth, since it involves the gift of the self, and a readiness to sacrifice the self for other. Moreover, the capacity for this kind of love is the greatest gift of personality, and without it our journey into freedom will be incomplete.

On the other hand, the fruits of love are distributed unequally and those who are ugly or unlovable, and who want to snatch love nevertheless, will always be frustrated, as Alberich was. Out of resentment such people may then replace the longing for love with the pursuit of power, treating others as objects to be used, rather than as subjects to be cherished. [emphasis added] And it is on this resentment, buried in the heart of things, that the world of our postponed desires now rests. For this bruised sense of absolute rejection contains a new and disruptive motive—namely the urge to compete, to use others as instruments, and to see everything, love and personhood included, as a means to domination. By instrumentalizing the world in that way the humiliated Alberich can force others to respect him—such is the meaning of his great tirade against the gods in Nibelheim. He also generates something that the blessed gods need but never get round to creating—the surplus that can be used to pay for their castles in the air.
Page 183
…The human world move on from the rigidly structured system of laws, offices and powers, and gives way to a post-religious order, in which it is for us humans to maintain our values, with no obvious help from the gods. At the same time, the resentment on which this all depends—the resentment of those who pay the price of civilization without receiving its reward—remains. All that we esteem and value depends upon our ability to keep resentment at bay. But in the end resentment will surely win, since religion, becoming conscious of itself, can only retire from the scene, unable to justify its rule or to conceal the trick on which it is founded. [emphases added]

Page 303
… Science has removed us from the central place in the scheme of things that once we occupied, and persuaded many of its devotees that the `eternal in man’ is an illusion, maybe even a destructive illusion. No god will come down, now, to rescue us. If we are to be lifted from our cynicism, so as to believe in the freedom and dignity of the human being, it is we ourselves who must come to the rescue.

This, for Wagner, is the task of art—the task bequeathed by the death of our gods. [emphasis added] Art must show us freedom in its immediate, contingent, human form, reminding us of what it means to us. Even if we live in a world from which gods and heroes have disappeared, we can, by imagining them, dramatizing the deep truths of our condition, and renew our faith in what we are.

TRICIA: I loved how even the villain (spoiler alert) was basically a mean, Internet troll, who presumably didn’t get laid, whose fantasy it was to be wanted and handsome and powerful and to control everyone (including women). [emphasis added] Although, I’m not sure how I felt about the actor himself. 

SEAN: He looked right: kind of dumpy, bad sideburns, etc. (Basically my own worst nightmare of myself.) But his villain characterization is all about his arrogance and entitlement. And then when the ladies get him up against the ropes, his whole meltdown is about how the world has robbed him of his "basic dignity." [emphasis added] That’s like an angry white male blogger mantra. It is also the not-so-subtle subtext of all the dudes who “refuse” to see the new GhostbustersYou can’t take this from me, too!


The discrepancy between what the shooter wants and what he gets is eventually theorised, but in a lazy way – he adopts the ISIS ideology, or a Westboro Baptist Church-style Christianity, or homophobia, or antifederalist patriotism, or whatever is ready to hand. The frustrated male casts about for a ‘cause’ of his misery, and mistakes the increasing power of newly emancipated communities for his depletion. Whether it is the son of Muslim migrants who turns his rage on the LGBT community, or the hater of Muslim migrants who turns his rage upon the political champion of migration, the same hydraulic of hatred is at work.
The lone-wolf and the jihadist group might not be as far apart as we think. The fanatical ideology of ISIS or Boko Haram is just the last ingredient added to a bubbling cauldron of male frustration, rage and resentment. As the anthropologist Scott Atran wrote recently in Aeon, most jihadists don’t even know much about Islam. A few well-chosen pugilistic Quran quotes and homophobic or misogynistic slogans can rile up a resentful male to all kinds of evil. The wellspring of this evil is not in the religion, nor even the economic conditions, or the socially constructed patriarchy, but in profound, implacable resentment. Other factors converge, as Atran notes, to help sculpt resentment into warfare, including the ‘band of brothers’ promise of jihad – which answers to deep-seated social yearnings in isolated and alienated young men. [emphasis added]
So what can be done? If male frustration and resentment is the unifying psychodynamic underneath homegrown lone-wolves and international extremists alike, then how do we address such root frustration? Every human society has contended with the challenge of containing and redirecting male frustration and rage: these responses can be categorised into a few varieties.

The term incel, a self-adopted label for a group of men who blame women and feminism for their inability to find sexual partners, first gained public notoriety in 2014, when Elliot Rodger killed six people in Santa Barbara, California, in “retribution” for women refusing to give him the sex he believed he deserved. It entered mainstream discourse again in 2018, when Alek Minassian allegedly killed 10 people in a Toronto vehicular attack after praising Rodger on Facebook and declaring “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!” [emphasis added]

Incel culture has flourished online, where like-minded men post unsigned messages on Reddit, 4chan, and incel message boards, describing their most sinister fantasies about worlds in which women are collected like tax dollars and redistributed for sex. These insular communities have developed an in-group lingo that’s tricky for outsiders to parse. When a community that’s highly anonymous, decentralized, and often contradictory becomes fodder for memes, which are easily stripped of their provenance and edit history, it becomes extremely difficult for observers to understand and contextualize what they’re seeing. Memes can provide crucial insight into what’s really going on in incel forums. They can also warp the truth. Whether a meme is a bit of primary-source incel doctrine, a hyperbolic riff on an in-joke, or a work of satire can be impossible to determine if you don’t spend hours a day steeping yourself in the native language of incel culture.

The core of Houellebecq’s case against modern sexuality can already be found in his first novel, “Extension du Domaine de la Lutte,” which appeared in English under the unfortunate title “Whatever.” The book’s narrator set the pattern for all of Houellebecq’s antiheroes: depressed, misanthropic men who, precisely because they cannot achieve romantic or sexual satisfaction, believe that sex is the most important thing in life. “Lacking in looks as well as personal charm, subject to frequent bouts of depression, I don’t in the least correspond to what women are usually looking for in a man,” the narrator confesses. [emphasis added] Houellebecq has always seen himself as speaking for and to such men; women figure in his novels almost exclusively as their tormentors or saviors. “It may be, dear reader and friend, that you are a woman yourself,” Houellebecq writes. “Don’t be alarmed, these things happen.”

The novel’s French title, which translates literally as “Extension of the Domain of Struggle,” encapsulates Houellebecq’s theory of sexuality (he is typically French in his love of abstraction and theory). The sexual revolution of the 1960s, widely seen as a liberation movement, is better understood as the intrusion of capitalist values into the previously sacrosanct realm of intimate life. “Just like unrestrained economic liberalism … sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperization,” he writes. “Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never.” The latter group — the losers — are represented in “Whatever” by Raphaël Tisserand, who is so repulsive that he has never had sex with a woman, despite strenuous efforts to seduce one. He is a proto-incel, and his story builds to a disturbing scene in which the narrator urges him to murder a woman who has rejected him.

In the end, however, Raphaël doesn’t go through with it: “Blood changes nothing,” he observes fatalistically. And this is a key difference between Houellebecq’s characters and criminals like Rodger and Minassian: They recognize that violence will not change their situation. They are victims of generational trends that Houellebecq believes have plunged the West, particularly France, into incurable misery. Houellebecq’s second (and best) book, “The Elementary Particles,” reiterates his case against “sexual liberalism,” while adding a host of new culprits, from New Age spirituality and women’s magazines to social atomization and the decline of Christianity. “In the midst of the suicide of the West, it was clear they had no chance,” he writes of the characters in the novel, in what could be a slogan for all his fiction.

This sounds like a familiar kind of reactionary pessimism. But it is not quite accurate to call Houellebecq a reactionary, since he does not believe that it is possible to return to the sexual regimes of the past — in particular, arranged marriages — which he suggests did a better job of providing mates for undesirable men. In his novel “Submission,” Houellebecq mischievously toys with the idea that such a return could be accomplished by a mass conversion to Islam. After all, a society in which women submit to men while men submit to the divine can be seen as Houellebecq’s version of utopia. “Screw autonomy,” his narrator muses — though he uses a more vulgar word; autonomy is the root of alienation.

And it is in this sense, as diagnosis and evidence, that Houellebecq’s novels are now more urgent than ever. The portrayal of hatefulness is part of fiction’s mandate to give a truthful account of the world; there are characters in Dostoyevsky as revolting as anyone in Houellebecq (perhaps more so, because Dostoyevsky is a better writer). Houellebecq is able to give such a convincing portrait of incel-thinking because at some level he seems to share its core assumption, representing sex as something that women owe men. This misogyny can make reading Houellebecq an ordeal, and he ought to be read with the suspicion and resistance that his ideas deserve. But all the same, he ought to be read.

What to do when financial stability is beyond one’s grasp? Over the past decade, a coterie of pundits and think-tank scholars have arrived at a surefire answer, a simple one that comes with a snappy title and puts the onus on the individual: pursue the “success sequence.”

The slogan refers to a time-honored series of life events: graduating from high school (at least), getting a full-time job, and marrying before having kids (in that order). [emphasis added] As the conservative columnist George Will wrote last year (in a piece headlined, in part, “Listen up, millennials”), “Of the several causes of descent … into the intergenerational transmission of poverty, one was paramount: family disintegration.” He called the success sequence “insurance against poverty” for young adults.

The success sequence has a powerful allure for its adherents. But just as strongly, the idea repels: A number of critics—many of whom are academics and have sturdy research to back up their position—reject it, not because following it is a bad idea, but rather because it traces a path that people already likely to succeed usually walk, as opposed to describing a technique that will lift people over systemic hurdles they face in doing so. The success sequence, trustworthy as it may sound, conveniently frames structural inequalities as matters of individual choice.

Whitehead, who argued in a 1993 essay for The Atlantic called “Dan Quayle Was Right” that increasing numbers of step-parent and single-parent families “weakens and undermines society,” firmly agrees. Any promotion of personal responsibility and the success sequence, she says, should take a back seat to addressing the growing institutional barriers that make it difficult to raise a family out of poverty. Many now live, she says, in a society that is “every man, woman, and child for him or herself,” with a loss of institutional solidarity and the social contract. “It’s one of the tragedies of the times we’re living through.” Any debate over the success sequence pales by comparison.

Jennifer Lundquist, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, lent support to this structural approach to marriage, poverty, and child bearing. When she studied marriage in the U.S. military, she found that when the economic and social structures around people were stable and equal, differences in marriage rates largely disappeared. “Black civilians are less likely than white civilians to marry, whereas black and white military enlistees exhibit similar—and very high—propensities to marry,” she wrote.

The appeal of the success sequence, then, appears to be about more than whether it’s a good idea. In a society where so much of one’s prospects are determined by birth, it makes sense that narratives pushing individual responsibility—narratives that convince the well-off that they deserve what they have—take hold[emphasis added] Democracy was established in part as a reaction to the notion that there should be any preset order to the world, with rich and poor, sovereign and ruled. But, especially when paired with capitalism, democracy still creates winners and losers. The resulting dissonance between the ideals of democratic life and the reality forced new explanations for inequality. “If I say, ‘All are created equal,’” Coontz says, “how can I countenance slavery, or hungry factory workers?” And if slaves are set free, and workers given new rights, “I say, ‘We have a country that no longer keeps you down, so you must be doing something wrong.’ We say, ‘Alright, the only way I can live with inequality is to see it as the fault of those who have failed to do as well as I.’” To do otherwise leads to a dangerous idea: that the system itself fosters inequality.

Kristi Williams, a sociologist at Ohio State University who studies the intersection between health and family formation, says this explains why the promotion of the success sequence comes mainly from think tanks, not academic researchers. A good experiment to test the success sequence is impossible, she explains—researchers can’t just force one group of women to have babies without marriage and a control group to wait until marriage, and then follow the families for years. But suppose it wasn’t—assume such an experiment confirmed its validity: “The question becomes, ‘Then what?’” she says. Pass a law requiring marriage?

Another limitation: The success sequence is defined recursively, in that the steps to satisfying it are also the very things that mark what’s considered a successful life. Of course one becomes successful after graduating high school, getting a good job, and marrying—those are how many Americans define success. That’s why Cohen calls it “a meme in search of a policy.” And Matt Bruenig, the founder of a think tank called the People’s Policy Project and a former National Labor Relations Board attorney, has argued that the sequence in truth amounts to just one item: Have a decent job, and you won’t live in poverty. Despite this view of the sequence as empty platitude, though, some have a strong investment in it because it is both a good blueprint for many people and it can, consciously or not, be used to justify all sorts of inequities. That makes it a very powerful bumper sticker.

In Wagner's Ring Cycle Alberich is the ur-incel, the ultimate fugly dude who can't get any and who renounces love for the sake of obtaining the Rhinegold, which he takes and turns into a ring that magically gives whomever wears it the power to rule everything.  The ring is taken from him by Wotan through Loge (Loki) and Alberich, realizing he has been robbed of his treasure by the gods, curses the ring.  We're never given an explanation why this curse works or from what power the curse emerges.  Scruton might present the power of the curse as residing in resentment.  The have-nots whose labor provides the largesse from which the haves enjoy their exalted status bridle at the reality of the inequality. 

What's interesting about all of this is that progressives seem Wagnerian in their response to those men known as incels.  Fugly dudes who can't get laid are a threat to the foundation of law and order, men who would rather watch the world burn because they cannot attain the steps of the success sequence.  If progressives regard the success sequence as catering to those already capable by dint of sheer privilege of attaining it, the incels reject the success sequence, too.  Those men, particularly, who can't "win" by the rules of the game reject the game of domesticity in favor of a lower set of goals. 

In Current of Music, Theodore Adorno proposed that popular song presented a kind of inversion of poetic/lyric conceit.  If in art song sex was a subtext or an implication then in popular music sexual content is just barely censored which Adorno believed could invite a new thesis, that with sexual content so front-and-center and barely disguised in pop songs, we could be looking at a case in which the "text" is sex but the "subtext" might be something else.  Adorno, being the Marxist that he was, proposed that the real subtext of songs that seem to be brazenly about sex isn't sex but socioeconomic status. 

Someone probably already has done an examination of Madonna songs as explorations of sex on the surface that could be declarations of status or power so there's no need to do more than mention this idea in passing. 

Progressives have often enough said that conservatives have a "forget you, I got mine" attitude about money and material comfort.  There is probably a lot of evidence that could be collected in favor of that axiom but it seems that it could be just as true that if the "forget you, I got mine" attitude permeates conservatives on the issue of money it permeates progressives on the matter of sex.  If this is the case then contemporary progressives may not understand the possible irony of how utterly Wagnerian their view of the world may be with respect to incels like Alberich.  Scruton put it plainly enough, there are people who will never get the sex they want so they renounce love out of resentment. 

Here's the thing that has stuck with me as I think about these things, the progressives and a conservative like Roger Scruton can debate whether the success sequence is a good or bad thing but at no point does either side contest that the "Alberich" is ever going to get laid.  Progressives seem, on paper, to differ at a manifesto-writing level with the proposal that those who can't get sex should just live with that reality if the opportunity for a counterpoint against a conservative is in the making; but in practice writers who are progressive do not seem to really believe that there's an injustice to those whose inability to get sex because of inadequate status have suffered an injustice.  I.e. the incels deserve to be incels if only they would recognize why.  Progressives may shift the basis for this inherent unworthiness of action to a set of progressive ideological talking points but they have, I propose, conceded a point that even a conservative like Roger Scruton makes, that some people just don't get the benefits of society.  If a Scruton can propose that those who can't get laid or get the luxuries of society harbor resentment his solution seems to be that those people need to bridle their resentment for society to function.  It's all doomed anyway in Wagnerian terms but ... the Alberichs "should" just be content. 

When the shoe is on the other foot if incels are from demographics that have been historically oppressed, repressed or sidelined then they apparently do have some kind of right to get the sex and status they want in their lives.  The thing that may rankle progressives about a Jordan Peterson can be that in a sense he's advocating for a hero's journey that is ultimately banal, yet another variant on a post-Joseph Campbell Jungianism in which people are advised to redeem themselves and in this sense there's nothing in all of that which cannot, as Roger Scruton expounded at book length in The Ring of Truth, by Richard Wagner.  "Redemption" or "salvation" is for those who can already get laid. 

The meritocracy, if speciously defined, may look differently for a progressive and a conservative in some respects but it may be what both take for granted, if in different domains--the conservative may assume the meritocracy applies with respect to wealth while the progressive may assume the meritocracy applies with respect to sex but there's going to be some metric-based law of averages that says that somebody doesn't get X because somebody doesn't deserve X.  There's an injustice to it and an injustice that there's probably no getting around.  Conservatives like to say, often, that they are in favor of equality of opportunity rather than for equality of outcomes.  Liberals who reject this axiom in the realm of economics don't reject it, generally, in the realm of sex.  Equality of outcome for everyone would be the worst possible thing in a world where anthropogenic climate change and worries about population control permeate the First World.  If everybody had sex as though it were a universal human right (and that seems, with slight exaggeration, to be a progressive/liberal presentation on the nature of incels) the world couldn't feed all the babies that might result ... though positive Malthusianism emerges on the progressive side as a countervailing tendency ... .

A stereotypically conservative rejoinder would be that, well, if you can't afford the babies that result from you having as much sex as you want you shouldn't be having that sex. 

But notice that Scruton wrote that without a certain kind of self-giving love one's humanity will be incomplete.  Without this kind of love one cannot attain "freedom", though the freedom is paradoxical.  But then who says that "freedom" is really freedom? 

The Alberichs have cursed the power of the ring, apparently, and while we've got no explanation for exactly how or why this curse has power, or how or why it works, we can be sure that it was fugly bros who couldn't get any who cursed the ring and the Rhinegold and, well, there's nothing for it apparently except maybe redemption via the power of self-renouncing love for those who already have its benefits, more or less. 

Progressives may believe they are different from conservatives at all sorts of levels but in the last few years the way progressives write about fans of Jordan Peterson ... it's not clear to me that progressives actually are different from conservatives in this one very limited sense, the sense in which they see in all those incels the Alberich whose curse ruins the possibility of law and order and civil society.  The just-so story of the Alberich being evil can be transposed to whomever an interpreter wants in the most abstract sense but in Wagnerian terms the Jew is inescapably the scapegoat for a lot of societal ills.  Even though I regard Wagner's operas as working at the level of, oh, a Michael Bay Transformers franchise I can still try to take seriously that people like Roger Scruton think that Wagner's operas are profound.  When progressives or liberals write about the incels as those primarily white men who resent that women don't give them the sex they believe they are entitled to it's admittedly difficult to imagine that those bromides about the bros are being written by celibates.  The criteria of the just meritocracy may reside in the realm of wealth for one group and sexual expression for another (which isn't in any way contradictory with a belief that equality of economic outcomes would be the fastest way for equality of opportunity for sex), but there's an Alberich for the left and the right whether they're always comfortable admitting it in formal debating points.  The proverbial proof in the pudding may be most readily read in the put downs.  

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