Wednesday, October 17, 2012

altruistic perversion

I recently read Alice Munro's 'Fits'. 

In several posts I've tried to establish that the genital stage is the stage following the Oedipus complex in which a conscience qua guilt is established in the egoist, the social ideal is formed that sees the egoist want to be 'grown up' through a sense of duty to family, class, religion, or other kinds of groups he ends up identifying with, and there is an ideal to recreate the parental relationship and find one's own partner to marry. The last point has been a prominent idea in analysis over the decades. From Abraham to Kernberg the idea of genitality and love without ambivalence or sado-masochism has been alive in the literature. 

In an article on 'Fits' (Pruitt, V. (2002). Alice Munro's “Fits”: Secrets, Mystery, and Marital Relations) Pruitt seeks to characterize the marriage between Robert and Peg as representing mature genital love.

The principal conundrum in the story is posed by the motive or motives behind the deception promulgated by Peg Kuiper on her husband Robert, whose point of view is the central focus of the story. By chance, Peg is the first to discover die bodies of middle-aged neighbors, Nora and Walter Weeble, Nora murdered by her husband, who has then killed himself. Mystifyingly, Peg lies to Robert about the nature of her first sight when she approached the bedroom door; she says she observed Mr. Weeble's leg with the foot in its shoe, but Robert knows this allegation is a falsehood since earlier that day, at a diner, Robert has run into the constable who investigated the deaths, and his description of the scene contradicts Peg's in one significant detail: What Peg first witnessed was not a clothed leg but rather what was left of Mr. Weeble's head, blown off by die force of the shotgun whose trigger he manipulated with his toe after slaying his wife. Peg's deception, in its connection with a lethal level of domestic violence occurring between an affluent, apparently congenial, long-married older couple, invites scrutiny not only of the intimate relationship between them, but also of other intimate relationships depicted in the story, namely, the relationship between Peg and her former husband, between Robert and one of his mistresses in a previous serious affair, and between Peg and Robert

In her view: 

Whatever the case, Robert's idealization of Peg, which had bred deep commitment to her and tenderness for her, was imperiled before his revelation. But his apparent new-born conviction that nothing has changed between Peg and him, that their relationship is still stable and honest, that her “lie” was almost certainly in response to a searing realization about her previous marital relationship and not a harbinger of dysfunction within her current marriage, seems to dissolve Robert's profoundly distressing anxiety.

Robert's concurrent observation that he and Peg “needed some new thing to talk about” (p. 373) intimates that they need something other to discuss than the Weebles' tragedy, especially now that Robert has concluded that he and Peg will not replicate the Weebles' tragedy in their own marriage. Viewed thus, Robert's statement that “Now he felt more like going home” (p. 373) conveys his reinvigorated feelings of hope and optimism. Some words of Kernberg's again seem pertinent:
Secrets and mystery shared by the couple increase their freedom from the surrounding conventional social world and secrets and mystery of each partner maintain and create new boundaries in the couple's relationship. Secrets and mystery derive from the continuing redefinition of life in the present as new tasks, challenges, and crises reactivate conflicts and needs from the past and bring about subtle changes and actualization of unknown potentials, which may bring the couple closer together or distance them. 

The attempt to apply genitality to this relationship doesn't sit well with me. In a "genital" based story, stumbling upon the murder suicide and conjuring up memories of past relationships that, although sado-masochistically tinged, still had passion in them would have resulted in a confrontation in which more passion was brought into the current relationship. Instead, Robert, in the most banal way, expresses that they "needed some new thing to talk about" as if the murder/suicide could simply be replaced by telling Peg he saw a fox while driving home or that his steak dinner was particularly good that day. "Hope and optimism" would truly be found in the re-integration of more passion where Robert, who must perceive the disparity between Peg and her former husband passionately arguing and fighting and how he and Peg never fight, simply denies that disparity.

In his essay 'Kant with Sade' Lacan reads both of these men as perverts. Kant suffers from having to bring the Law into existence in the form of asceticism and further renunciation of pleasure to the superego which Lacan sees as parallel to Sade’s need to rebel against the Law. Neither man has internalized the law, one is continuously heading towards while the other is going away from it. Neither will reach their goal. They have only partially internalized the paternal phallus. They have only a father imago but haven't formed a full internalization based upon a transference to an actual father.

In parallel to this active-egoistic version of perversion I'd like to submit that many women who are 'frigid', lack sexual desire, and are incapable of orgasm may not be doing so just as a revenge upon men. Deutsch often points out the majority of such women are masochists and seek to give their husbands sex even though they don't get pleasure from it because they are 'maternal' givers in general. In this sense, in which phenomenology is important, and we don't just dogmatically assert in imitation of Adler or Lacanians that it must be the will to power or the woman doesn't want the man to get jouissance from her because the woman is letting the man have sex with her, we should look for another answer. Chasseguet-Smirgel points out that Sade, in his sexual fantasies, seeks to erase the difference between the sexes and the difference between the generations by having both homosexual acts as well as old people having intercourse with young people. It seems to me that frigidity and having no sexual pleasure if it goes further and sees the perverse altruist remaining a virgin and not getting married also erases the difference between the generations and the sexes by both removing her from becoming a mother herself and interacting in the institution of marriage. Additionally, no sex means that the difference between the sexes is never acknowledged. I remember a young woman I met in Prague whose face shone with purity. She had kissed some boys before and been touched a little but stopped things far before they got close to sex. She often went out and bought 'souvenirs' (scarves, artwork, etc.) she liked and told me that she imagined being a grandmother who would show these things to her grandchildren. In her fantasy she completely skipped the step of having sex and therefore her own children and was a 21 year old imagining life as a grandmother! I give this example because it seems to easy to point to nuns or other forms of mystics as occupying the place of the altruistic pervert.

The parallel to the Kantian version of the pervert would be a normal-path. Such a person would seek to bring their ideal of a grownup or married person into existence while having to sacrifice more and more of their passions to it and encountering [Oedipal or castration] signal anxiety that others don't see them as adults/normal. There are many moments in the novel where this ideal and its signal shows up:

Robert wanted Peg’s “patterned, limited, serious, and desirable, life” (41)
He had thrown himself into hopeless and painful entanglements as a way of avoiding anything that had normal possibilities 58
the diner Robert frequents is “an informal stage, where a rambling, on-going, agreeable play was in progress… it would sound as if it was an artificial life, something contrived, not entirely serious. And the very opposite was true”. 

In contrast to Robert needing to continually assert the desirability of small town life Peg is shown to be very conscious of praxis of being an adult: 

Peg bought a pink bar of soap she only used herself and on account of this “she was grown up at that time, or thought she was” 43
When she went into the neighbors house she felt that it “seemed silly to be calling Mr. and Mrs. Weeble. "Are you up yet, Mr. and Mrs. Weeble” 43 and instead called them by their first names.

Moreover, the story is very contained in a veneer or town opinion:

“For a Gilmore person, Peg is reserved”; “fine old houses for sale in Gilmore, at prices that are a joke, by city standards”; the social order has a power of its own: “In Gilmore everything becomes known, sooner or later”; “Drunk. That wasn’t the custom of the Weebles, so far as anyone knew”; when the Weebles are talked about people say “They weren’t Gilmore people”
The power of social opinion and the anxiety it would cause someone who wants to appear normal at all costs is palpable in the story. With this in mind, is Robert being mature when he wants to forget about the discovery of passion in Peg's former relationship or does he chose to deny it because he cares more about appearing normal? I think there's a stronger case for the latter.

Also, why does Peg lie to Robert, if not to cover up her morbid curiosity for the sake of being seen as normal?

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