Thursday, July 29, 2010

So You Want To Be A Princess?

Princesse de Conti, from Wikimedia Commons, here.

 It's a joke in our house that I was born with a princess gene.  This is an allusion to the princess in "The Princess and the Pea" who couldn't sleep because there was a pea underneath her twenty mattresses.

I'm accused of having the princess gene because I'm "sensitive," or, as you might want to describe it, "fussy."  I can't stand loud noises, or static, or even mediocre sound systems.  I hate it when the vegetables are a day old, when the carpeting looks cheap, when leather has that shiny look it sometimes has when it's low-quality.  I can tell when the sheets have a low thread count, and it bothers me.  I have many, complex opinions about the tastes of various brands of bottled water, and will go out of my way to choose Dasani over Aquafina, even though these two are the worst two of all the brands out there.

I don't know why I'm like this, and believe me, I didn't ask to be this way.  Obviously there are times when these impulses should be struggled against, and I work hard at things like not wasting food, choosing tap because it's good for the environment, and not developing a taste for fine wines.

But I used to struggle not only against the impulses, but against the character trait as a whole.  I hated being fussy, and I tried to pretend I wasn't.  I practiced saying things like "I don't care which one," "Either way is fine with me," "No, no, it's perfect just like that."  I was determined not to notice, or care, when things weren't what I wanted them to be.

The older I get, though, the more I think you have to be true to yourself.  So instead of feeling bad about the princess gene, I started thinking about all the good qualities princesses have. You know, things I could work toward improving, taking princesses as a role model.

And I realized:  there's a lot to work with here.  Consider:

1.  A princess is never crabby or sour when little things don't go her way.

A princess never makes a scowly face when she gets mud on her clothes, or her friends are late, or her shoes pinch.  She may notice these things, and she may not like them, but she knows better than to get upset.  Princesses are above all that.

2.  A princess is generous, kind, and skilled at making others feel welcome and comfortable.

It's like one of the main duties of a princess:  to know how to make everyone feel at ease, and to make people feel like they belong.  Princesses are, above all, gracious.

3.  A princess models gentleness, civilization, and cultivation.

If you've read Little Men, the sequel to Little Women, you may remember the character of Bess, the daughter of Amy.  From her earliest childhood, Bess likes things just so; she likes quiet games and pretty clothes and polite conversation.  Rather than making Bess seem like a silly girly-girl, Louisa May Alcott shows how Bess's presence exerts a powerful civilizing effect on the other children:  they take care to watch what they're doing, and to not say hurtful things, and to play gently with one another.  In other words, she's a tiny model princess.

Of course, the locus classicus for all of this is A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, one of my favorite childhood books.  Sara arrives at boarding school as a rich little girl, but then is thought to have lost her money and family; she has to work as a maid and live in the attic and almost starve to death.  Eventually her family's friends find her and her money is restored.  Throughout, she is generous and kind, reaching out to the poorest and least-liked people in the school.

As Wikipedia so aptly puts the princess aspect:
"A few of the older students are openly jealous of Sara's fortune and give her the mocking nickname of "Princess Sara" in reference to her wealth and perfect manners. The nickname first embarrasses Sara, but soon she adopts it as a reminder to be generous to others."
So if your little girl wants to be a princess, remind her that it's not all glamorous gowns and magic wands:  the position comes with responsibilities and requires a noble character.  No whining, no mocking, no meanness, and no slouching are allowed.

Of course, all of this goes for princes as well.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dreaming of Valhalla

 Even though I'm obsessed with the problem of being mortal, I never really found the idea of heaven convincing as a solution. 

Obviously, as an atheist I don't believe that heaven exists.  But my difficulty has always gone deeper than that:  even if it did exist, I thought, it wouldn't address the problem. I mean, it's supposed to be so great, heaven, but what's so great about placidity, lustlessness, nothing to do, and endless perfect weather?  Sounds really boring.  Even pretending to myself that I would go to a heaven-like place never made me feel any less bad about the fact that I am going to die.

But of course, heaven's not the only game in town.  There's also Valhalla. 

Over the summer I went to see the second opera in Wagner's Ring, The Valkyrie, at the Paris Opera.  The plot of the Ring is mindbogglingly complex, but the main thing about it is that it concerns, as the last opera is titled, the Twilight of the Gods -- a time in which the power of the gods is fading and the humans are taking over.  Wotan, the patriarch of the gods of the story, sets the events of the story in motion through his willingness to do anything -- even sacrifice his sister-in-law, Freia -- in order to build Valhalla. 

Valhalla is a kind of mix between a palace, a military fort, and a paradise.  It is there that Wotan learns that his half-human offspring, Siegmund, has fallen in love with a woman who is already married and is also his sister.  It is there that he argues with his wife about how, and whether, Siegmund should be punished.  It is there that the Valkyries bring the bodies of fallen heroes.

The gods have eternal youth, guaranteed for them by the apples that Freia provides.  In the staging I saw, when the curtain opens on Valhalla we see a group of beautiful young persons, all dressed in white, throwing golden apples around and at each other and laughing.  The physical surroundings are perfect, and somehow really oversized.  After all, it is a palace.  So it is blissful, not in the quiet way of heaven, but in the rambunctious way of sex and showing off and gluttony and the struggle for power. 

Now that as an afterlife would be beyond suitable.  If Valhalla where I was going, I would have no regrets about mortality.  You can sign me up for that any time. 

Of course, one of the main points of the opera is that you can't have it, Valhalla, and in the few weeks after seeing it I became a little obsessed with the question of what, exactly, Wagner was trying to tell us with this story.  It's not easy to find out about what people think about this question:  most of the google hits for "philosophy" "Wagner" and so on get you pages about Wagner's stated philosophical ideas about art and so on, which aren't what I'm looking for.

In the opera, two significant things about humans is that they are free, and that they love.  Siegmund is free, and his love for Sieglinde is so powerful that forced to choose between Valhalla and her, he doesn't hesitate.  It is partly this choice that moves Brunnehilda to disobedience and then Wotan to a resulting murderous rage.

I came up with three possible interpretations -- which I'm sure others have thought of, and some of which are probably more common than others.

First, that it's a comment on historical change and the rise of the individual.  Society used to require that people play their social roles without misbehavior and despite their inclinations; the humans in The Ring represent persons of modern life, who have a new kind of autonomy and individually.

Second, that it's a thought about the inevitability of the very worst things.  The gods are gods, but they behave terribly, and in a sense, it is greed that causes their downfall.  This would be a kind of universal statement about the impossibility of real goodness. 

Third, that it's about human nature and its better qualities.  The humans are powerful, not because they have Valhalla or because of their mad fighting skills but rather because they have the possibility of caring for one another so much.

On none of these interpretations are you supposed to want to go to Valhalla.  It's the site of rigidity, of terrible hubris, of military power run amok and unleavened with human kindness.

Nonetheless, it continues to exert a powerful hold on my imagination.  In the production in Paris, Valhalla had in its foreground gigantic letters that spelled out GERMANIA, bringing together, perhaps, some of these ideas.  You can say it's unsubtle, but it was truly spectacular.  This is how the letters looked in the mirror that hung over the entire stage, as they were being carried up to their places:

Even if it's terrible, how could you not want to go?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Post-Human Nature

(Picture from

When people talk about how the the future is going to bring about a new and better way of being human, I'm always like, WTF?

There's a certain kind of person -- usually a certain kind of guy, but whatever, we'll leave that aside for now -- who gets really excited about the ways technology is going to change things for us.

For instance, check out these guys in the "singularity movement" (NYT story here).  The singularity, they say, is "a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state."  A time for post-humanity.

It's hard for me to understand what these guys are thinking.  I mean, sometimes they talk about using technology to cure illnesses and live longer, and sure, that sounds great, who doesn't want that?  That's the kind of thing technology really is good for.  Dentistry, organ-transplants, bionic limbs . . . these things are excellent.  But it's not because they make human life really like totally different.  They don't.  They just make it better:  easier, more pleasant, longer.  That's not post-humanity.  Au contraire mon frère.

Other times they talk as if the transformation will happen because there will be a new way of melding minds and machines,  a way of making post-humans.  There's a vague suggestion that you might do this by uploading the information of your mind into a computer. 

But I can never see the appeal of this.  If you think about the best things in the world, computer-based post-humans wouldn't even get to enjoy most of them.  Sex, food, wine, sports, music, dancing . . . these are all embodied pleasures, surely not improved by not having a human body. I don't even get how it's supposed to work:  I mean, pleasure is pleasurable because of certain neuro-chemical things happening in the brain, which make you feel good.  If there's no neuro-chemicals, how is there any pleasure?  And if there's no pleasure ... well what is the point of that?

If you're a brain in a computer, what do you think about all day?  Math?  Most people don't even like thinking about math.  But even setting that aside, wouldn't that it be boring and stupid if that were your whole life?

I suspect that what people have in mind when they daydream this way is something like the old Q character from Star Trek.  But I never found the post-humanity aspect of Q convincing.  Q likes mischief; he enjoys tormenting people and doing things they don't understand.  He can't feel pain, and he can travel through time and do other neato things.  This doesn't describe a post-human as much as it describes a powerful human who is kind of an asshole.

And that's what I always suspect when I hear about post-humanity:  that the real desire is to be a better, richer, more powerful human.  Someone with an eternally youthful appearance, health, long life, and robots to make coffee, clean the house, and probably to provide sexual services.  And to be and have these things when only a few people do. 

Which is fine, I guess, but it's about as human, and as familiar, as it gets.