Sex

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Sex is healthy and good. At least, this is what we hear from sexologists in a world mostly liberated from religious obscurantism. At the same time, sex is somewhat controversial. Feminism has shown us how important the question of consent is, whereas the social stigma on pedophiles proves how hard it is still to distinguish between sexuality and sexual act.

For months I have not been able to illustrate the philosophical condition I think sex has to fulfill in order to be healthy and good. My biggest worry was that of being mistaken for a puritan. Thanks to the help of the French novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, I have overcome this worry and I can now proceed to express my opinion.

Let me spend a couple of words on why it is important to spell out this condition. Nowadays, it is unproblematic for most people to find sex. Moreover, the taboos around it are crumbling and the wars for sexual liberation of the past decades are showing their fruits. A question now arises: is the availability of sex enough for sex to be healthy and good?

I don’t think so, because the simple fact that we can mutually consent to have sex is compatible with terrible sex. That kind of sex can be morally ok, but not good in the very concrete sense of the term. Besides, it is hardly definable as “healthy”: even if it might be “physiologically healthy”, it remains psychologically terrible. Hence, we need an additional condition to the mere availability of sex to make sex healthy and good.

How about love? That seems to be too demanding. As A pointed out to me once, a person can enjoy sex without displaying any profound emotional bonding to the sexual partner. One night stands can be often fun.

The short story “The Man who Loved the Nereids” by Marguerite Yourcenar has helped me shed light on this issue. The story goes like this: Panegyotis was a rich young man who enjoyed the company of many girls. Unfortunately, he was charmed by the Nereids, magical creatures living away from human civilization. After his encounter with these “supernatural man-eaters”, no common human pleasure could arouse him anymore. Indeed, he longed for the rest of his life for his nonhuman lovers.

To describe his condition, Yourcenar writes the following:

As much as no love exists without dazzlement of the heart, there is no true sensuality without wonder of beauty.

The condition of poor Panegyotis applies to many more cases than what you might expect. Without being amazed by another person, sex won’t be good nor healthy. This amazement needn’t be as pretentious as the one you’d experience in front of the Nereids. But it can’t be absent, if you are not willing to get terrible sex.

Too many people have sex without even questioning whether they like it, because sex is supposed to be intrinsically “healthy and good”. It is not. Sex is good only upon at least what we could call “Panegyotis’ condition”: there must be something that amazes you about your sexual partner(s). There must be “beauty” in that person, which could fill you with a sense of genuine wonder. Otherwise, sensuality isn’t “true”. It remains the social construct of void expectations it concretely is. Sex becomes a dull routine, a set of mechanical gestures to achieve an orgasm – sometimes even without the orgasm.

You can’t expect sex to be good independently of what you feel for a person. But this feeling needn’t be as strong as love. It can simply be an emotion related to our “inner sense of beauty”, call it wonder, amazement, inspiration or what you like.

No matter how hard we strive to understand it, sex remains a pretty complicated thing. To make it a little easier, we shall first figure out that we have been hit underneath, rather than under the bed sheets. For that might be too late.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Correctness

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Potentially, every time we say something, there is a risk to hurt someone else’s feelings or to discriminate certain people. This is the trivial sense of “taking a risk to discriminate” and, of course, if we were to take it seriously, we couldn’t say a word anymore.

There is another sense, however, which is the one of consciously foreseeing the discriminatory effects of what we are saying and say it none the less. This is immoral. And immoral is also avoiding to excuse oneself, once one is shown the discriminatory effects of her utterances.

Political correctness has developed in western, modern, multicultural societies as a method of talking and thinking in such a way as to avoid, insofar as it is possible, immoral discrimination of disadvantaged members of a society. An excess of political correctness could mean being self-righteous and be unsustainable, because it might lead to improper censorship.

Since more than one person has accused me of unsustainable political correctness, I owe them an explanation. I need to address two related features of the problem: the first is political correctness taken as a form of “moral censorship” about certain everyday life, linguistic or artistic freedoms; the second is the risk of adopting the stance of a moral police officer.

Flat-out censorship is never the most efficacious method to contrast discriminatory ideologies. I do believe in the importance of dialogue about what is right and wrong, and in the possibility for fallible creatures like ourselves of making forgivable mistakes.

This said, my political correctness doesn’t yet allow me to appreciate a racist or a homophobic joke. Indeed, certain kinds of satire have an oppressive flavor: they attack the vulnerable and implicitly defend the powerful. And each time you laugh, you strengthen inequality and oppression.

We won’t stop laughing then, because something gets censored. We stop laughing when we start thinking, and our thoughts will help us next time to distinguish funny jokes from discriminatory ones, and to laugh accordingly. Moreover, in an evolving society, what was strange and “abnormal” in the past, can suddenly turn out to be common in the present, and related jokes will thus stop being funny “just for that”.

In a previous letter, I have already addressed the topic of misconduct of artists. In this case, all I shall underline is that nothing in the production of art provides artists with any “moral pass”. Art can’t be judged in moral terms, just as moral subjects can’t be judged in artistic terms. Art is judged with artistic criteria, whereas an artist’s moral conduct with moral criteria. In the case of discriminatory lyrics, for instance, we might adopt artistic criteria but, among them, we shall also consider the originality of the message and its meaning. Given my recent definition of art, we might even question whether those lyrics can’t be better defined as a discriminatory regurgitation, rather than art.

Now I skip to the second accusation, that of endorsing some sort of Orwellian moral police, if not being myself a moral police officer. Here I must distance myself from a common phenomenon of political correctness. What I really don’t like about this phenomenon is its Manicheism, its seeing everything as either black or white, its dividing the world in bad guys and good guys, in police officers and criminals.

We can’t a priori rule out the possibility of victims to be themselves oppressors and we can’t deem oppressors as monsters. That would be too easy: monsters don’t have the chance to be otherwise. Human beings are much more complicated creatures. They often act upon certain motives and they have reasons for acting. They have a history and they are culturally shaped. They deserve blame sometimes. Sometimes they perpetrate unforgivable evils. But always as human beings, never as monsters.

This means that we can never judge an individual life as if we could see through every relevant decision leading to an evil action. All we can do is just to try to analyze the action itself, its motivational background and attempt to construct a model for making the action morally intelligible. I really can’t see how this approach might count as “moral police”.

Talking about monsters in a politically correct fashion is a terrible mistake: we risk to ascribe very human vices to non-human entities. De-humanizing vices leads to extreme dangers: we tend to be too indulgent with ourselves and too fatalist with monsters. We tend to forget the evil in ourselves, because “at least we are not monsters”.

No one is. Not even the filthiest genocidal criminal. We all are fallible human beings, and we fail whenever we are given the chance to reconsider our conduct, and we laugh or appeal to specious artistic license or else instead of thinking.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Hijab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The hijab is the veil typically worn by women belonging to the Islamic culture. There are many ways of understanding it: for some people it is just an item of clothing, for others it has a deep religious meaning. For certain women it is an obnoxious imposition, for others it represents the free vindication of Islamic identity in islamophobic contexts.

In this letter I would like to address the feminist interpretation of hijab. The position I am going to defend is that the hijab can’t be considered a feminist symbol with respect to the western conception of feminism. This doesn’t mean that feminism and hijab-culture are incompatible. I think indeed that quite the contrary is the case. Still, I believe that people interpreting the role of hijab as quintessentially feminist are mistaken, and I’ll try to show why.

Attending a course on cultural anthropology some years ago, I learned about the following phenomenon: certain women belonging to the Islamic culture intentionally wear hijab as a symbol of emancipation. The reason why they do so, is that they don’t want to be seen by men as sexual objects, but rather want to be valued for their intelligence, personality and willpower. In this sense, hijab assumes the meaning of “protection” against the lustful gazes of men.

Although I strongly appreciate the efforts of these women to tackle their chauvinist societies, and I believe that individual choices are best seen by individuals in their practical contexts rather than by outside observers, I think that this meaning, theoretically understood, can’t be straightforwardly called feminist.

The reason is that feminism attempts to become a general theory of society and not a code of advices about how women should best behave. Feminism tries to talk to and about everyone: from children to adults, from women to men. This means that, even if hijab can work as a practical help in certain circumstances, and a symbol of female emancipation, it is far from being straightforwardly feminist. Feminism would require men to stop objectifying women in the first place, so that women are free to wear hijab at their will, and not because otherwise they would be objectified. To put it differently, feminist theory can’t come to terms with chauvinist blackmailing.

Another reason not to accept this meaning of hijab as feminist is the central role of the human body in western feminism. Women have fought under the motto “my body, my choice”, which is a vindication of the woman to be the ultimate judge about how she administers her body. In the above mentioned case, women are covering their bodies not because of a positive conception of it, but as a response to the objectification of men. They strive to be considered as thinkers, but in this struggle they set aside that they are also sensitive beings, sexual beings and material beings. Again: their efforts might be even necessary, given their conditions, but their sensible practical decisions can’t be theoretically understood as straightforwardly feminist.

Another example of the attempt to link hijab to feminism is less demanding. Certain women defend the claim that wearing hijab symbolizes the feminist freedom of women to wear what they want – especially in western societies. But from this claim they usually go as far as concluding that hijab (and their conception of Islam) is feminist. In my opinion, this is a confusion about a priority of meanings: the fact that feminism allows you to wear what you want, doesn’t yet entail that what you want to wear has a feminist meaning. A hijab remains often related to the Islamic culture, and all that feminism does is letting women intentionally adhere to it. From a feminist perspective, feminism must be prior to the meanings of hijab, otherwise we risk to say that, for instance, religious codes of behavior are feminist, which would be utterly ridiculous.

Western, modern feminism is compatible with Islamic culture insofar as it stands for the emancipation and empowerment of women of every culture. On the other hand, it clashes with Islamic and other cultures, whenever they oppress women and force on them their symbols of oppression. These symbols can be reinterpreted and can even be helpful in constituting one’s personal identity at different levels and with different meanings. But to forget that feminism is the condition for this to happen rather than religion or something else, is to step away from feminism and to take a step closer to connivance with the status quo of a world still extensively ruled by men.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Memorial

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Yesterday, one year ago, I was writing a piece, which became the spark to inspire my letters to you. I report it because, even if I might already have changed some of my ideas on the topic of ‘evil’, I still think that this has been one of the best things I’ve ever written on the Holocaust Memorial Day. So here it is, one more time.

27 January 2016

One month ago, as I was lazily staring out of the window of the 15 euros Flixbus I found to get to Prague from Erfurt, my eyes were caught by a strangely familiar view. I was tired because of the delayed departure and of the extra bag with the paintings I had left in the trustworthy hands of old friends in Germany. Prague wasn’t even meant as a stop in my brief journey, but it happened to be a pleasant break on the way back to my busy Viennese life. That’s why I was on that bus, travelling through the ashen, yet fascinating Thuringian landscapes. At times, raindrops rolled across the window glass, tracking their decaying paths toward the asphalt. I wasn’t aware I was approaching the hill, for it so gently rises. I noticed small groups of houses, unconscious villages perhaps. Even if I had it in front of me, barren at the bottom and topped by the beech forest, it took me a while to spot the white tower, and realize. I tried to take a couple of blurry pictures with my phone before giving up and letting the thoughts curl freely. How could you witness, from the distance, that something horrible were to happen on the other side, in the heart of the forest? The hill stands still, silent as the villagers at the bottom. How to imagine? How to think? How to believe when told? How, in the face of evidence?
In the last year, I got closer to the idea that evil can be objective. Sometimes it doesn’t depend on a particular point of view, nor it depends on a certain interpretation. Sometimes it is there, as real as water, these words or a historic event. We have tried so hard to keep it away from our sight, that now we are almost unable to recognize it again. Evil can be real in the deadly distance of the sea as in the safety of the apartment next to ours. It is an object of this world, whether you want it or not. Whether you live at the bottom of the hill, or you died in Buchenwald.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Pessimism

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Giacomo Leopardi was an Italian poet, philosopher and exceptional philologist, who lived the scientific revolutions of the early 19th century and ventured into the dark side of naturalist philosophy. His pessimism influenced the ideas of Arthur Schopenhauer and the future of modern philosophy and literature to come.

At the moment, I am reading parts of his ‘Zibaldone of Thoughts’, a diary he kept for his philosophical ideas among others. His uncommon sensitivity shines through the yellowed pages of my 1951 edition, and his high consideration of women is proven by his constant references to the writings of Mme de Stäel and to other Swiss and French femmes de lettres.

It is not my purpose to idealize his figure, nor to depict an anachronistic version of a man of his time. At any rate, Leopardi’s exceptionality is beyond doubt and deserves much greater international consideration.

I am rather ignorant concerning this author’s massive literary production of a quality more unique than rare, surprisingly vast especially for him, who died prematurely at the age of 38. None the less, I will attempt to pay him a brief tribute by analyzing an argument among those of Zibaldone, which led him to embrace pessimism.

As I understand it, this argument is formulated in two parallel ways. The first I will call argument from the infinity of pleasure, shortly “infinite pleasure argument” (IPA); the second is the argument from the projection in the future of our good, shortly “future good argument” (FGA).

IPA runs like this: we desire our pleasure always to be infinite. However, desire is all we can do with respect to infinite things, for infinity is unconceivable for finite creatures like us. Hence, our pleasure can never be satisfied, because everything we can ever experience is going to be finite.

FGA runs like this: our good is always projected in the future. Once we have reached it, we project it even further or are caught by boredom instead. Therefore good can’t, by its own nature, ever be reached.

Both IPA and FGA lead us to adopt one of these two pessimist conclusions: delusion about our true condition, or melancholy and hopelessness, which are the best ways to deal with our misery.

Reason has no liberating power from Leopardi’s perspective. Indeed, it is our “capital enemy”, who is concerned with destroying the illusions that could make our life happier.

You might guess that a sympathizer of rationalism such as myself would find this position uninteresting to say the least. Instead, I might surprise you by telling that I could even agree with Leopardi on a great amount of things. All I need is just a different interpretation of his own arguments.

If taken as descriptions of reality, both IPA and FGA are inexorably sliding into pessimism. But if we adopt a motivational/normative reading, we can see how they can have even an optimistic potential. I try to clear myself in what follows.

Imagine a world in which the infinity of pleasure were reached. Or imagine a world in which the good we always project in the future were in our hands. What kind of worlds would those be? Wouldn’t they be incredibly static worlds, with no possibility of doing anything whatsoever for it wouldn’t make sense to change our perfect condition? But there is something more to this thought experiment, I believe: would the notions of good and bad ever make sense anymore? If we couldn’t change our condition, what term of comparison would we have to define it as good? The assumption that our perfect static condition were good would be just as arbitrary as thinking it were perfectly bad.

What this is supposed to show is that awareness of our existence comes with the question of whether our existence is good or bad. At the same time, it is only because of the variety and mutability of our reality that we can distinguish what is good from what is bad. And once we know that, we are suddenly provided with reasons to pursue what is good and reject what is bad.

Leopardi followed the path of pessimism, which drove him with great costs to greater philosophical and literary excellence. But that is not the only path permitted by his arguments. You could even uncover a source of motivation and normativity in them, because, once you exist, discrimination between good and bad is unavoidable and action necessarily follows.

No one ever said that achieving the good was as easy as not doing anything.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Anarchy

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

At a philosophical dinner I took part to few days ago, I had the opportunity to entertain an extremely interesting conversation with O, who calls himself an anarchist. I don’t know much of anarchism but I have always found the idea quite unappealing. A world without enforced laws has always seemed to me pretty unrealistic. That is why I was so happy to hear the words of someone who believes in anarchy.

In this letter, I will outline the main points of this conversation and my final rejection of anarchy as a plausible conclusion. But I would urge you to think about it not as a trivial issue. It is indeed interesting and the thought of anarchy shouldn’t be dismissed with the scorn I myself have treated it in the past.

O started by pointing out that we have gotten used to the idea of living in legal states. In these states, we must obey the law and deviance is sanctioned or punished. The police is itself an institution whose presence discourages such deviance and is justified to employ violence whenever the law permits or requires it. O poses then the question: is a unified legal system a good enough reason for permitting or even requiring violence? Is it good that we must obey something which we never agreed upon and be punished if we do not?

If these questions raise even the least of doubts, it is interesting to wonder whether our world must be legal. It is so, of course, but shall it be so?

O asks: on what ground do we think that law is required? He answers that we take improperly for granted that people are going to be bad and we need laws to “make them behave”. Isn’t this a story we tell ourselves just because we don’t know anything better than a legal system? At this point, M intervenes and says “I don’t take people to be bad, but I don’t want to take the risk that they are, therefore I think law will be helpful”. In my opinion, there is even a deeper worry than this: can I myself grant that I will always be fair without the external incentive of law?

O accepts M’s objection but insists “What do you think will prevent people from being bad? Law itself or the fact that rationality will tell them that being bad could make you incur legal sanctions?” Obviously the latter. But if we take a legal system to require human rationality, that means that rationality is more fundamental than the legal system itself. If you accept this, why shouldn’t you believe that rationality alone can grant living together? Wouldn’t that be a world similar to ours but without any arbitrary enforcement of something we have never agreed upon and without anything such as “legal violence”? Everyone would live according to their rules and principles, and without being forced to obey anything they disagree with.

If you think this kind of reasoning is sound, you might very likely be an anarchist already. Let me then point out my objections.

O’s argument is based on the presupposition of “natural rationality”, as if human beings were “born rational” and they would be so, independently of any kind of unified education. This is a very strong claim, which becomes even stronger as he says that individual rationalities would work just like a unified law in determining individual behaviors. Such rationalities would have to be based on systematic moral theories (or codes of behavior), but how can we grant that each individual will formulate her own systematic theory?

Even if we were to accept “natural rationality” and “natural formulation of moral theories”, the question of how such theories could be integrated in a beneficial way is still unanswered. But let’s be even more charitable and grant such “natural integration”. What if someone starts exploiting the integrated system by, say, evading taxes? We wouldn’t have any common ground to say: you shouldn’t do that. Actually, there would even be individual theories which would allow evading taxes to the extent that the system as a whole doesn’t crumble. How can we grant that that is not the case? Could we accept it? I suspect that there would be something in us protesting: that is unfair!

At this point, O is forced to grant some content to that natural rationality, but on what base? Agreement? That would already amount to a legal system. Some kind of innate universal morality? But that’s just absurd: morality is the last thing which can be innate and universal at once!

Here is what I think: rationality is not natural but is something we learn; not everyone has a systematic theory of morality, and those who have it didn’t produce it spontaneously; we aren’t perfectly integrated beings, and integration is often something we have to work hard to obtain; we need a legal system because we must be granted the chance to meaningfully protest whenever something goes wrong. And what if the law is wrong? We must change it!

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

Art

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

In this letter I will address the question of art in its most general formulation: “what is art?”

Since I lack the knowledge on the topic of an artist, an art critic, an art historian or a philosopher of art, I will attempt a man-of-the-street approach to it.

I’ve heard many definitions of art in the past. Many think it is a particular way of expressing one’s own subjectivity. Some people think it is the work of genius, namely the creation (or interpretation) of something, which has never been seen or heard before. Some other think it is a particular way of vehiculating messages – political, moral, philosophical, existential, etc.

To a certain extent, I believe that all these definitions are sensible. At the same time, none of them is invulnerable to objections.

Consider the first view I’ve mentioned. If art were to be understood only as the particular expression of one’s own subjectivity, art would hardly send messages about the world as it is often said to do. If all art can do amounts to expressing what one feels or subjectively thinks, there wouldn’t be any such thing as politically or morally loaded art.

The second view, that of genius, faces a direct objection: how can we define what is truly new? If we look closely, we would see that nothing is, for, as David Hume remarkably argued, everything we can imagine is the product of our own experience. If nothing can exceed our experience, then nothing is truly new. But there is indeed innovation in the connections that art originates, so maybe that’s the meaning of the work of genius. However, wouldn’t this view be still too elitist? Wouldn’t we like to grant the status of artist even to minor painters, musicians, poets and movie directors? There seems to be a gradualism in art that the concept of genius is too coarse to notice.

After all, art might be just a way of vehiculating all kinds of messages, so our third view. This view is able to account for both art as subjective expression as well as “art about the world”. Moreover, it blocks the accusation of elitism. However, it remains vulnerable to the all-too-common objection that “everything goes” (in a certain sense, the first view faces the same problem). If art is a way of vehiculating messages, how can we draw the line between art and other more trivial ways of expressing messages such as writing an article, bringing cookies to our neighbor, burning a flag, and so on? The risk is that everything goes, and art would be meaningless. We don’t want art to be meaningless, do we?

Thinking about art provides us with quite a headache. Perhaps it is impossible to give a positive account of art. But maybe a negative is still possible. Instead of thinking what art is, we could ask ourselves what art isn’t. If something can be better defined as a psychological experiment, a treaty about economics or the unintentional effects of a psychotic person provided with paint and brushes, why employ the concept of art then?

I think that the term “art” can be used with parsimony as the term to explain something which other terms can’t better explain. You stumble on your feet and your camera takes by chance an astonishing shot after falling? Well, that’s what it is: a casual event producing something beautiful, but no art is involved. The same can be said about the Niagara falls: they are “by chance” beautiful, but it would be counter intuitive to call them a “work of art”, for no artist was involved in their production.

It is important to point out two consequences of such considerations: 1) contrarily to what many people believe, art is not in the eyes of the observer, but rather in the eyes of a community of observers, who can apply definitions and in general agree about what isn’t art or simply have shared feelings about it; 2) the negative definition of art allows relativism about what art is but, at the same time, helps us find a meaning to it which is quite rigorous, namely that of excluding from the domain of art all that can be better explained by other concepts.

A last thing that I would like to underline, is that this theoretical approach to art has a parallel in practice. Not only it defines art negatively, but it tells also what one is supposed to practically do to “produce art”. Art is something that is originated when all other means of expression are deemed inadequate.

Art is the last possibility for limited beings such as ourselves to express what otherwise would be impossible to express for us. Good art is the only, irreplaceable, remaining way to say something, when all the other attempts have already failed. On the other hand, the easier it is to replace a work of art, the worse it is. Bad art can be much better expressed by better art, an article or nothing.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha