Saturday, August 02, 2008


Night before last I watched “Flags of our Fathers” and then last night “Letters from Iwo Jima,” the Clint Eastwood binary about the epic WWII battle for a tiny volcanic spot in the Pacific that made our bombers able to reach Japan with our Atomic bombs. The American side centers on the raising of the flag at the top of Mount Surinam and all the misapprehension, commercialization, symbolism, and historic meaning of it, esp. the impact on Ira Hayes. The Japanese side is literally “underground” in the caves and passages an ingenious general ordered dug as defenses. But all this is another blog and maybe it’s already been discussed enough.

The film needs to establish the bonding among raw troops coming from many parts of American society, a society of men who must be tough and stick together. One of the traditional means to that goal is hazing, and so the more sophisticated recruits tell the rube from Oklahoma -- who is “gee whiz” and “gung ho” to a ridiculous extent -- that he won’t be able to ship out to the battle unless he has filled out his mstrbtion papers. In a barracks the practice can hardly be a secret, but this kid doesn’t know the word -- it’s just another big word to him. He rushes off to his commanding officer to get his mstrbtion papers in order. (I'm leaving out the vowels to baffle the web crawlers so I don't get a lot of icky spam.)

The CO was probably not amused by this corny old joke and kicked his butt, to the amusement of the so-called buddies who are really secretly preoccupied with the “c” word -- that is, courage. (Since Larkin says in his “aubade” that “courage is no good. It means not scaring others. Being brave lets no one off the grave.”) So, okay, each guy is being pseudo-tough to keep from scaring others and secretly wonders whether he is brave. And mstrbtion is the shared male “secret” that is considered funny like maybe farting. It’s possible to play a trick like this because knowledge about such matters is on a steep gradient between those who have no idea and those who know entirely too much and do it to the point of self-destructive pathology.

By now the researchers have established that everybody “does it.” Esp. boys of a certain age when, as one scientist remarked to me, “it’s like having your you-know-what stuck into an electrical wall socket all the time.” Girls are just better at concealing it. Researchers also know the physiology of what happens: stimulation brings blood from the rest of the body to the point of focus until it stretches all the tissues, engorging them until at some point there is a trigger that reverses the process all at once in a big rush. This feels very good. Viagra helps by supporting dilation. It was originally a heart relief drug to get the feeder arteries to open up more. And those who use it report headaches from the distention of arteries that feed the brain. (A high school student once asked me to explain what an *rg*sm was. Trying to be honest without getting fired, I told her it was like a sneeze: that is, the tension builds and builds until it discharges all at once. Forty years later she tells me my metaphor was NOT HELPFUL!)

Anyway, what’s wrong with a practice that simply relieves tension, doesn’t get anyone pregnant, doesn’t spread disease unless one has hopelessly dirty hands or never washes other conveniences, and doesn’t have to offend anyone since it’s normally done privately. I suppose laundry can be a problem. And if one uses an object with too much vigor, it’s possible to punch a hole in one’s internal tubing that will require emergency surgery. What can be wrong with exploring one’s own body and reflexes?

One problem is that human beings habituate to food and sex so easily and emotionally that a person can lose the ability to respond to anything but fetishes or paraphenalia. For a while there was a joke going around that was a variation on the “not-tonight-I-have-a-headache” -- “Not tonight -- the vibrator is out of batteries.” Conditioning and habituation are ways that humans get things organized and compartmented enough to think and create, or -- if you insist -- work. The movies would have you believe that without the right commercially supplied negligee, music and lighting (oh, what a fire hazard in all those banks of candles!) a physical relationship can go nowhere. There’s little encouragement for simple stroking, absorbing the texture and temperature and scent of another person the way one did as a child. The entire erotic substrate of infancy is ignored, including the safety. Oh, I know. Lots of people need adrenaline, but geez! Life goes on after the excitement! If you survive.

There can be quite an anti-social bias in auto*r*ticm and a boastful tone of “I don’t need no stinkin’ lovers!” But flip that over, maybe through inviting voyeurism with videotape, and there is a very thin wall between auto**r*t*c*sm and torture -- doing something extreme and stimulating to oneself, where one can control and guide, can become painful and humiliating when done to someone else. Breaking taboos can hurt as much as electrical currents. And our culture already is far too guilty of linking eros with destruction, pain, power-over, and simple callousness. Some people really get off on the descriptions of torture in the news, finding it a pattern for a sick kind of intimacy, like Mailer’s friend the knifer who described in “The Belly of the Beast” what it feels like to hold the handle of a knife with its tip against the heart of the victim.

On the other hand, curiosity about torture is parallel to curiosity about sex. Shushing and suppressing doesn’t really work. Partial disclosure, especially when it doesn’t allow for human empathy, can be alluring as well as lurid. Far too many kids asphyxiate themselves with a ligature to get the rush, a practice notoriously connected to “ruff s*x.” They need to know MORE, not less, about what they are doing to their brains. Arousal of whatever kind can be easily reshaped by circumstances into something not intended.

Knowledge gradients -- some know too much and some know too little -- are hard to handle, esp. when matters can’t be discussed. Human physiological response gradients invite too many comparisons and damning of simple differences.

Long ago I read this insight: if a grid is set up -- rigid rules about behavior and knowledge and what can be known -- that immediately creates spaces where there are no restraints because there is a total blackout. People do what cannot even be imagined by people who only know the grid. This is true of every human endeavor. In war a hidden enemy leaves us vulnerable, as it did on Iwo Jima. In business seeing those spaces is called opportunity. What do we call it in our private lives? Sometimes aren’t there things it’s better not to know about? Or are you one who needs to know it all? How do you find out how much knowing will hurt? Is that what happened to Ira Hayes?

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