Monday, September 19, 2022

Cyrano de Bergerac

I was wondering today about Cyrano. He remained faithful to Roxanne all his life though he could not have her, and his sunset scene still causes me to tear up even describing it. 

Would we consider this creepy in real life?  Would they have considered it so then? When an artist takes something in hand and signals that this is supposed to be beautiful and tragic we have a suspension of our warning systems for creepy. We trust them to keep it within bounds, and allow ourselves to be swept away. Men who in real life would look at their friend and say "Dude. It's over.  Get on with your life." will nod approvingly at the surpassing nobility of the life.  Women who think men are essentially predatory and would call the police over an old flame who called back one time too many will weep and wish men could be like that these days.  We trust the artist, and this allows us to tear down the emotional fences. Rostand will keep Cyrano contained, of this we are sure.

Because without this he's like Quasimodo, or Grima Wormtongue. No chick is signing on for that. (To be fair, Quasimodo was ugly in appearance only. Decent chap in his own way.) I suppose Cyrano semi-qualifies as unattractive because of the nose, but it seems to be the point that this is his only failing. He seems athletic and nimble, intelligent, clever, with birth of minor nobility - all the ingredients for a romance novel, really, except for the nose.

No, I take it back.  We are supposed to understand that Quasimodo, or many a horror monster, is the real beautiful soul but our warped values fail to perceive this because of their appearance. Standard literary interpretation, you can teach it to 10th-graders and they get it. Frankenstein cuts the wood for the family he watches and envies. King Kong was only goaded into violence., forget that.  He's Romanian nobility, rotten to the core. 

When George Jones recorded "He Stopped Loving Her Today" he said "Nobody'll buy that morbid son of a bitch," but it went not only #1 that year but is on everyone's Top Ten country songs of all time. The poor bastard keeps old photos and letters until he dies, and then she comes to his funeral. So that's the balance. In real life we would regard that guy as seriously obsessed and in need of professional help. In a song it's beautiful. If you find an old flame is still carrying a torch for you, you block them on Facebook at this point.

Well, it's time that makes it creepy, and worse every year we think - though I suppose twenty years is as crazy as sixty.  Yet it is also attractiveness, and social status, and all the things that go into the large unwieldy package that young people have to try and condense into a Tinder profile now. Creepy versus non-creepy follows a lot of the old rules.  I thought it was Maureen Dowd who said "Bill Clinton reminds you of your first boyfriend.  George Bush reminds you of your first husband," but I can't find it credited anywhere.  Maybe it was linked from a Jezebel comment on some other female writer's essay and I just attributed it to Dowd. But the statement captures a lot of liberal sentiment at the time.

Speaking of Clinton, and attractiveness, and creepiness (and John Edwards and Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd) when Nina Burleigh said she would be happy to give Bill Clinton [oral sex] for keeping abortion legal it was widely derided at the time. Yet it was even worse than we thought then.  Donald Trump had an ill-timed attempt to run for president in 1999 - and he was pro-choice at the time. Can anyone imagine a world in which a female White House correspondent for Time magazine...

So who's creepy in this world? Maybe I'm just resentful because I'm too close to the Quasimodo camp myself.


james said...

In a world where spouses frequently give up on each other, and where you sometimes wonder how lovable you've been, a story about someone who loves faithfully (and in the cases of Cyrano and the Jones song man, without interfering to make a pest of himself) has an obvious attraction. We want a lover who will never give up.
And now that I think of it, we have One.

Grim said...

I wonder about "creepiness" as a moral standard. Martha Nussbaum has a whole bit she does about disgust and shame in moral philosophy, in which she argues that disgust especially is fundamentally irrational and unworthy as a moral guide. (Her aim here was to clear the way for homosexuality, which she thought people objected to chiefly from disgust rather than for rational reasons; but there are rational arguments against it in Kant and the ancients, so I'm not sure she's right about that.) Because it inclines us to judge irrationally, and since rationality is supposed to bear some very strong relationship to correct moral judgment (accounts vary as to exactly how this works, but for Kant at least reason is the source of moral judgment), disgust should not be included in our moral reasoning. "That's icky" is not a good reason to do or to not do anything, in other words.

Creepiness seems to me like a sort of disgust. The fact that the same behavior strikes different people as 'very creepy!' or 'romantic!' suggests that it's not fully rational; the fact that it appears differently in different generations suggests it is just a kind of disgust that some people feel when contemplating the behavior and others don't.

I will note that the chastity, which is fully rational, redeems a lot of love that would otherwise be improper. Lancelot's love for Guinevere was very open, and if it had also been chaste (as advertised) it would have been worthy of the celebrations it received. Because it was not, it proved destructive. Cyrano might be a case of true, unrequited love that is ideal and upright.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

WRT Nussbaum, I recall there was a study seeking to discover the reason behind people's opposition to homosexuality, and that fit about 13% of the population. Haidt's axes of moral reason also includes purity/disgust. I know some personally whose instant reaction when discussing anything about homosexuality to cringe and shudder. So it's a real thing, and perhaps not enough reason in itself. Yet it is there for a reason in cultural or evolutionary terms, and we only speculate what that is, so we don't know if it's a good reason or a bad one in our culture. Most likely, some of both. But it is the usual mind-reading for her to assume that is even a small part of everyone's reasoning.

james said...

I haven't read Nussbaum, but I'm curious what sort of defense she would make for her claim that "disgust is fundamentally irrational." It seems to me that disgust embodies "folk wisdom" or "animal instincts" and that there's likely to be a reason for the reaction. The reason may not be relevant to the current situation, but that's merely a misapplication--I'd bet most of the time the "rule of thumb" that led to the disgust is going to be correct.

Grim said...

My reading of Nussbaum's argument is that she thinks that disgust by its nature disables reason, and thus is irrational by being against reason in the way that antimatter is both not matter and opposed to matter.

The argument is in a book she wrote called From Disgust to Humanity. She is at pains to try to justify some forms of emotion as proper -- indeed necessary -- to treating people justly. She thinks that Kant is wrong to hold that reason alone is the ground of morality, but that reason must be coupled with sympathetic imagination of others in order to do them real justice. She wants us to respect not merely their status as rational beings, but what she calls their conscience, by which she means their ability to engage with moral problems rationally, emotionally, and in all other ways. It's quite close to Kant's model, which also grounds respect for others on their engagement with the moral law; but it's also hugely different, as for Kant the moral law is rational by nature, and all deviations from rationality are therefore in a strict sense deviations from the ground of morality.

Kant thinks that emotions have a role to play, but only insofar as they are guided by reason to serve as reinforcements to reason's conclusions. Nussbaum actually uses this approach at points, even with disgust: she describes one justice's views she disagrees with as being 'like vomiting in public' rather than reasoned argument; she endorses a view that rejecting homosexuality is a form of rejecting the humanity of homosexuals, which is "hideous." If she is right that disgust's function is to disable reason, it's weird to deploy disgust as a weapon in this way -- unless the whole point is to stop your opponents from thinking or being thought about, and to encourage people to reject them without further rational consideration of their position.

There is something to that, but I think that (like The Ring) it marks a power that you should reject rather than wield. To say that a man is "creepy" is to bar any further consideration of what he is doing and why; it is to place him into a category of the horrible and the hideous, based on emotion alone. It stops our thought, and is in that sense strictly irrational.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I think purity is indeed a deciding factor. A voluntary devoted purity, that is, not one imposed by the woman who no longer wants anything to do with you.

james said...

I tried mentally playing out the last scene with people I knew, and the stand-in for Roxanne turned angry: "You mean I could have married the man I loved if you'd just spoken up?"

Assistant Village Idiot said...

She has a point!