Monday, July 30, 2007


So I'm trying to quit smoking, right. And I'm trying to quit smoking because my lungs finally were showing signs of unhappiness and damage and I couldn't make it up a goddamn hill.

It was all very sad.

It's sad because I love smoking. I love everything about smoking, from the smell to the social disapproval. I love the five minute breaks that take you outside the normal flood of life. I may love that most of all. I love the feeling of doing something self-destructive in a small, self-contained way. Cigarette packaging is a work of art; playing with your lighter is always fun; smoking is great. My life was miserable before I started smoking at 17 -- you can't convince me that's only because being younger than 17 is miserable, although it is.

It's also sad because I hate giving up bad habits. I hate it when other people explain their victories over vice to me; I hate when people describe the internal struggles of giving something up. People who try to give up bad habits and fail sadden me; people who try to give up bad habits and succeed irritate me. We have a model of the "healthy life"; I hate watching people try to achieve it, whether they make it or not.

I hate even more trying to do it.

(For better writing about smoking and giving it up I refer you to Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo. And thanks to n. marie, for initially directing me there.)

Sex And The Angry Western Guy

A few years ago I read and liked Michel Houellebecq's second novel, The Elementary Particles. So I was paying attention when the reviews of his latest book, Platform, started appearing a few years ago. And what I remember thinking is, "Wow, some people are really pissed off."

This summer, I read the book and was retroactively amazed. I love this book. As my colleague Captain C. says, it is nominally a book about sex tourism. It is also at some basic level a love story, and in these modes the book is simply a highly engaging narrative. But Platform also offers fresh reflections on the seemingly inevitable market-ization of life; on the strange non-sexiness of the post-sexual revolution; on the incredible boredom of living and working in the modern western world; and on cultural politics.

The story centers on Michel Renault, a French bureaucrat in an artsy field, who goes to Thailand on a tour. He finds that sex with Thai prostitutes is sexier, more fun, and in a way even more intimate than having unpaid sex back home. On the trip Michel meets Valérie; back in Paris they fall in love, spend all their free time together, and have excellent and varied sex. Valérie, it turns out, works for the tourism industry, and together with her boss, the two of them develop a business plan to offer sex with locals for money in various "exotic" places: a kind of kinky "Club Med."

The natural enemies of Michel's life and plans are the right-thinking French bourgeoisie and the religion of Islam, and Michel is dismissive and insulting of both. He also attacks American fiction, European culture, the Guides du Routard (a kind of French Rough Guide), sado-masochistic sex, and family pieties of all kinds.

Whether all this gives a reader a shiver of recognition and literary pleasure or makes her want to roll her eyes is a highly subjective matter. But critical reviewers of Platform are not just annoyed or bored by the book; they're angry. Why?

In his review for The Guardian, James Buchan calls Michel a "reactionary libertine," whose free-market defense of sex tourism illustrates how "the novel proceeds by assertion." Of course, just because Michel offers this argument does not mean that the novel endorses it. A book with so much to say about the screwed-up quality of relationships, sex, and work in our capitalist society clearly represents no simple defense of free markets.

But Buchan is also angered by Platform's criticisms of western culture. He writes, "His view of European culture - scary, over-feminised, lonely, demeaning, faithless - is that of the worst sort of low-grade Muslim propaganda." But the fact that a novel is culturally critical cannot make it a bad novel.

To my mind, one of the novel's most interesting elements is its ambiguous stance toward the commodification of life's pleasures and relationships. Michel's defense of sex tourism is, indeed, based on the justness of the exchange: we want good sex (and authenticity, and power, and the exotic, and so on . . .); the people of Thailand want money. Fair exchange.

But when we consider the question of why we cannot have good sex, relationships, and so on with one another, the novel suggests that our tendency to commodify pleasures, and each other, is part of our problem. Michel is furious at the way sado-masochistic sex has become so common, and part of what infuriates him is what he sees as the inherent contractual nature of the sado-masochistic interaction: You must do X; I will do Y; I am willing to do Z, no more, no less. Michel pines for a kind of intimate selflessness, which he finds in Valérie, and which she seems to have despite her immersion in the world of commodified pleasures. There is no simple moral about human relationships here.

One of the myths we rely on to avoid thinking about the ways we commodify each other is to think that while we commodify things in our free market ways, we do not commodify people; intimacy and love somehow carve out a special commodification-free zone. So family and marriage make wholesome and selfless what might otherwise be an exchange of goods -- sexual goods, caretaking goods, emotional goods. Part of Platform's effect is to undercut this comforting myth. And this is naturally infuriating to some people.

There is much more to say about the specific ideas and theses suggested in the book, including the answer the book suggests to the question bothering Captain Colossus's Thai bloggers: what is wrong with Westerners and sex? I return to these, and other matters relating to Platform, in further posts.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

I Picked The Wrong Week To Quit Sniffing Glue

I was very excited about starting this blog with my distinguished colleague. I could almost taste it. Then I decided to quit smoking. It's been 19 hours. The smart money is still on me rushing out to buy a pack in the next 24 hours, but that's neither here nor there. The point is the following may surprise you with its incoherence, and I blame that on precipitously low nicotine levels.

Good. A week ago, I stumbled across this blog. And was immediately gripped. It's the story of expats and bar owners in Thailand, with contributions from readers who live or are regular vacationers in Thailand. And spend a lot of time having and paying for sex.

Sample quote: ". . . back in the states and when I was younger I would jerk off if the wind changed directions but in Thailand I feel like self-love is almost a sin. Like I am wasting it when I could be out sharing myself with others."

My favorite detail is when one of the bar proprietors, searching for a copy of Michel Houllebecq's Platform (a great book; also could be described, in a gross oversimplification, as a book about sex tourism), discovers that the bookstore has placed it in the "Thailand Section."

So the blog is, intentionally, gripping on that level -- the encounter with a world of which one knows nothing, the gradual transformation of that world into a semi-familiar place with rules which you, the reader, come to understand (there are all kinds of acronyms like TG, LT, ST that you struggle with but over time, become familiar; you start to recognize the names, etc.). In that way, not unlike Harry Potter or Moby Dick. They're pretty good writers, and, while it's often about sex (and not recommended for workplace viewing per se), it's rarely pornographic. And there's a thrill in mastering (or believing yourself to have mastered) a foreign subculture in that way.

But a lot of what makes it gripping, for me at least, is the whole paying for sex issue, paired with periodic rants about what's ruined American women. Which, apparently, ranges from Oprah to chick flicks and crosses feminism and unattractive lesbians en route (with disclaimers attached about not disliking women).

As an American woman, and a feminist, the latter obviously makes me queasy. And I guess it makes me queasier about the first part as well. In the abstract I'm not sure I think there's anything wrong with paying (a consenting adult) for sex. But when it coexists so closely with contempt for women they consider inadequate as sexual partners, then it seems a little stranger. Women that they don't find attractive don't simply fall into a category of people who are not sex objects (like, say, other men) -- they become objects of derision and anger.

I don't know. I keep thinking I'm going to come to some conclusion about the whole thing. But instead I just seem to bring it up to everyone I know.