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The Persistence of the “Lolita Syndrome”

Ever since the details of the Jimmy Savile case started to come to light, I have, like some philosophical gumshoe, been pursuing an investigation into the possible intellectual origin of his mentality. In other words, I have been looking into what has loosely been referred to as the “culture of abuse,” which may or may not have been a factor at the BBC, or what Michel Foucault would have called the “epistémé” — a kind of conspiracy at the level of language and ideas and metaphor that (in this context) could conceivably promote or justify the sexual exploitation of young girls. (Alongside its continuing “Savile review,” the BBC has also promised to examine the case of Stuart Hall, another broadcaster, who has pleaded guilty to indecently assaulting 13 girls over three decades.)

I believe there has now been a breakthrough. Of course, it is perfectly possible to object at the outset that this whole inquiry is futile, that there is no intellectual origin to anything, that the very idea of a whodunit — beyond reference to the actual perpetrator — is irrelevant in comparison with overriding biological imperatives. It’s the libidinal economy, stupid! But that argument is itself an integral part of the conspiracy.

Surveying the list of usual suspects, I could hardly avoid considering “Lolita,” Nabokov’s classic novel — virtuosic, teasing, elusive, complex, ironic — which was published in 1955 and neatly coincides, historically, with the rise of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine (first issue: 1953). The pushy, hectoring, rhetorical voice of the narrator, Humbert Humbert, is set against the almost voiceless figure of Lolita herself, the 12-year-old girl (as she is at the beginning of the novel) whom Humbert abducts. I was about to write “seduces,” but the key to understanding the narrative is that it is Lolita herself who does the seducing. At least, according to Humbert. The narrative is, in judicial terms (pitched, as it is, at a notional jury), a disavowal or diminution of responsibility on behalf of the accused, or a re-attribution of responsibility. The argument is that the “nymphet” is already sexually adventurous. “Between the age limits of 9 and 14 there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac).”

I detected a significant congruence between “Lolita” and Savile’s autobiography, “As It Happens,” published in 1974, Chapter 10 of which reads like a pedophile’s charter. Savile’s equivalent of “nymphet” is “teentype” or “sirene” (or “crumpet”). Always seeking to outwit irate or concerned parents, he is hazy about ages on the grounds of his “disjointed sort of theory that all girls, in relation to their male opposites, are 2,000 years old when they are born.” Savile, a Catholic, may be making some point about original sin here. But the trope that braids together Nabokov and Savile is the Hugh Hefner image, repeated with variations, of an older man (replete, ideally, with tweed jacket and pipe — Savile prefers the cigar) festooned with nymphets/sirenes/“playmates,” who have clearly been drawn to him, like bees to some highly pollinated plant. All three insist on some kind of categorical imperative governing the behavior of the girls. Savile also argues that “girls have taught, trimmed and trained me up to Olympian standards.” It is they who groomed me.

The first work by a philosopher (to my knowledge) that gathered together some of these threads was Simone de Beauvoir’s “Brigitte Bardot and the Lolita Syndrome,” an essay first published in Esquire magazine in August 1959. It has to be said that Beauvoir’s interest in these matters was not purely theoretical (in fact, it is hard to conceive of any philosopher’s thoughts being purely theoretical). As a diligent investigator, I am obliged to say that she was dismissed from her teaching job in 1943 for “behavior leading to the corruption of a minor.” The minor in question was one of her pupils at a Paris lycée. It is well established that she and Jean-Paul Sartre developed a pattern, which they called the “trio,” in which Beauvoir would seduce her students and then pass them on to Sartre. (See, for example, “A Disgraceful Affair,” by Bianca Lamblin, in which she recalls being infatuated with Beauvoir, but romanced systematically by Sartre, who cheerfully remarks, on the way to a consummation, that “the hotel chambermaid will be really surprised, because she caught me taking another girl’s virginity only yesterday.”)

Beauvoir’s “Lolita Syndrome” (her personal favorite, she said, among her essays) offers an evangelical defence of the sexual emancipation of the young. They have been tied up in chains for too long: Bardot is presented as the Harry Houdini who will get them out of bondage. Bardot is a filmic counterpart to Beauvoir herself, the Socrates of St. Tropez who is falsely convicted of “corrupting the youth of France.” She is a “woman-child” — a “garçon manqué érotique” — whose age difference is capable of re-igniting burned-out desire: “she retains the perfect innocence inherent in the myth of childhood.” Beauvoir posits Bardot as the incarnation of “authenticity” and natural, pure “desire,” with “aggressive” sexuality devoid of any hypocrisy. The author of “The Second Sex” is keen to stress sexual equality and autonomy, but she also insists on the “charms of the ‘nymph’ in whom the fearsome image of the wife and the mother is not yet visible.”

In a rhetoric that is half-French Revolution, half-Marxian, Beauvoir sets her heroine up as a modern-day, bare-chested Liberté, leading the cohorts of the younger generation, breaking down the taboos, “capable of incinerating the poor disguises that camouflage reality.” “Children ceaselessly ask: Why? Why not? Are we going to stifle the questions that BB has raised?”

Perhaps in the background there is a whole genre of what has been described as “female pedagogical pedophilia,” fixated on the sexual awakening of schoolgirls. But probably the key work of this generation, published in the 1930s but going on to become a manual of the 1960s, was Margaret Mead’s “Coming of Age in Samoa.”

Mead was an anthropology postgrad at Columbia when she took off for Samoa to do research for the thesis that would eventually become the book. Mead was in some ways America’s Beauvoir, an exponent and apostle of feminist themes. But she was also a precursor to Nabokov’s Lolita (and the early Bardot). Her Samoan girls are always on the lookout for sexual adventures “under the palm trees,” curious to experiment before being tied down in marriage. Whether or not she was hoaxed (as has been argued), the Lolita syndrome narrative enabled her to give an anthropological twist to Freud, depicting the Southern Hemisphere as the realm of the unconstrained id, with the North — North America in particular — still tangled up in sublimation and repression. It remained only for the sultry, grass-skirted breezes of the South to blow northward.

Savile takes up the very same argument, on the last page of “As It Happens,” looking forward to “admirable Polynesians” joining Europe and bringing “jolly goings on” to his native Yorkshire: “Why should they have it all?”

Both Beauvoir and Mead hark back to 18th-century or early-19th-century harbingers of sexual liberation. Sartre and Beauvoir used the word “pivotal(e)” to describe each other — the “necessary” significant other in their lives in contrast to “contingent” lovers. They were alluding to the works of Charles Fourier, the post-revolution utopian thinker (who provided a template for the future to the early Marx and Engels). Fourier’s “phalanstery” offers (in “Le Nouveau monde amoureux” of 1805) to provide a “sexual minimum” that tends toward a maximum: the rigorous timetable of the future sketches out a permanent sexual Olympiad involving mass public orgies, multiple affairs and a sexual AAA call-out service for emergencies.

Boredom and frustration — the dissatisfaction of any one of the 12 principal “passions” — become the cardinal sins of this society and the root of all evil. “Civilization” has (as Freud would argue) been built on repression, and it doesn’t work: the point is to satisfy all desires, thereby eradicating conflict and violence and ushering in the state known as “Harmony.”

Both Mead and Fourier (and Freud, more critically) refer back to the voyages of discovery, and notably Bougainville and Tahiti in 1768. This was the 1960s of the 18th century and Tahiti provided an alternative culture. The theme of Bougainville’s “Voyage” was that his men were accosted and seduced – “conquered” by “jeunes filles” (young girls, possibly virgins). The French sailors had become objects of the other’s desire. And the sexually voracious nymphet, or “Venus,” is given some kind of historical/anthropological documentation for the first time. Diderot’s subsequent satirical take on the subject suggests how this seemingly idyllic state of affairs could go wrong and how it was all inevitably connected up to the exercise of colonial power. The writings of the Marquis de Sade (notably “Philosophy in the Boudoir”) — another of Beauvoir’s touchstones — might be taken as a more brutal satire on the Bougainvillean/Fourierist vision of desires and passions leading naturally to a state of harmony rather than one in which murder, torture and rape are the norm.

The original model of Bougainville’s narrative is Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Bougainville was an avid reader of the “Discourse on the Origin of Inequality.” But more crucial for the Lolita Syndrome is “Emile,” dating from 1762, notable for Rousseau’s theory of “negative education.” Formal education, as such, can only spoil the growing child. Children should be kept well away from libraries and schools and teachers for as long as possible. They already know everything they practically need to know. They are (as we might put it now) genetically pre-programmed. Rousseau, in a move that is perhaps the foundation of Romanticism, turns the classic pedagogical relationship on its head, and suggests that it is the child who teaches us, not the other way around. All we can do is corrupt and distort the inbuilt software.

I realized, when I returned to “Emile,” that I had found here the intellectual precursor of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Savile. For Savile, it is the “teentype” who “taught, trimmed and trained me.” Humbert Humbert, the English academic, is overthrown by the superior, carnal knowledge of the nymphet. Beauvoir finds salvation in the figure of the naïve, artless BB; Mead sees the future of the North in the primitive South. In each case it is assumed that education no longer serves any real purpose. Education, as Rousseau would argue, is only a way of locking the child up in irons. The child is always already 2,000 years old, automatically educated.

The irony of my investigation into the perpetual orgy paradigm is that I am arguing that the style of thinking that made a real difference maintains that thinking makes no real difference. Rousseau was the distant godfather of contemporary arguments that imply that education is, in effect, irrelevant, since the selfish gene (or “nature”) is paramount and sociobiology rules. But the point that emerges from Beauvoir’s analysis in “The Lolita Syndrome” is that liberation and “authenticity” are indistinguishable from coercion because they turn the very notion of “freedom” into a categorical imperative. As Rousseau argues in “The Social Contract,” the citizen (young/old, male/female) has to be “forced to be free.” As so often, freedom coincides with what I want you to do for me.

Perhaps the phalanstery of Fourier is already here, with its unremitting satisfaction of passions. But there is a certainly an ironic convergence between believers and atheists. Savile for one, mother-fixated and explicitly convinced of his own sinfulness, nevertheless expected to get himself off the hook with a final, posthumous appeal to the “Boss.” And in a strange mirror image, secularists are perfectly capable of dissolving any notion of responsibility in an invocation of ancient, even pre-human patterns of behavior. For Savile, there is predestination; for others, there is the overarching excuse of genetic fatalism.


SEPTEMBER 1, 2012, 2:16 PM

Beginning – check. Middle – check. End – check. But, hold on a sec, isn’t there something missing? Something rather vital? In fact, couldn’t it be the key to your book’s selling or not? Ah, yes, the title.

Sometimes I think I am going to have to give up and employ one of those companies that do nothing but invent names for things. Usually it’s perfume. Actually I think I would be good at coming up with names for perfume. Or soap powder. Or vacuum cleaners. But when it comes to books, the job feels impossible. Your mission: summarize your entire work in a nutshell. If I could do that (you want to cry out) I wouldn’t have bothered writing the book in the first place!

The ancients felt the same way. Nobody was too bothered about titles. In the good old oral poetry days, on some far-flung Greek hillside, the audience would have been calling out for “that one about the guy trying to get back from Troy” rather than “The Odyssey.” And think of the “Bible” (ta biblia – “the books” or “the scrolls”). It’s scarcely even a title at all, more a category. Still, it is popular all the same. Maybe if I wait a few centuries and see what label people stick on my stuff yes, that ought to do the trick.

Meanwhile, thinking pre-posthumously, how do they do it? Other writers, I mean. You can’t help but marvel at what titles the other guys come up with. Even one that seems like an obvious clunker can catch on. Imagine trying to sell Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” to a publisher now. “Well, Ludwig – you don’t mind if I call you Ludwig, do you – that is very stylish. But it’s a bit, you know, Latinate. Sounds like a Harry Potter spell! Do you think you could go away and come up with something a little sexier?” And yet there it is: impregnable.

One option is to steal someone’s else title. It’s legal; it’s also known as a homage, especially if you play around with it. A classic example is Dylan Thomas’s nod to James Joyce, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.” I wrote a book once about the adventure of two young boys (true story, this – I was one of them) who go off to St.-Tropez in the late ’60s in search of Brigitte Bardot. Obviously, I thought, it had to be called “Waiting for Bardot,” but the editor preferred “BB & Me.” My title stuck, but I reckon the editor might have had a point about his preference, too, and a few centuries from now we’ll know.

Gabriel García Márquez is, of course, the author of one of the great titles, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” It’s so fundamental, so universal; it’s right up there with “The Odyssey.” So I was sort of consoled to discover, while reading an autobiographical volume of his, “Living to Tell the Tale,” that for at least one of his books he came up with more than 80 different titles – and rejected them all. Title-mania afflicts the greatest as well as the humblest.

Consider these two candidates for standout title of the 20th century.

“Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” by T. E. Lawrence. A classic. According to legend, he lost the first draft when changing trains in Reading, England, and he had to rewrite from memory. What’s the meaning of the title? Who cares! It’s great anyway.

“Seven Types of Ambiguity,” by William Empson, is admittedly more obscure, unless you happen to be into critical theory. Meaning of the title? Well, it’s ambiguous.

Notice the resemblance.


See how this formula also applies to 100 + YEARS + OF + SOLITUDE?

I am not necessarily recommending this as an infallible system, but it’s probably worth considering if you’re stuck. Here is a possible alternative for the “Kama Sutra”: “64 Types of Loving.” I think I still prefer “Kama Sutra,” to be honest. Notice that this is another of those I-didn’t-even-bother-with-a-title titles. It just stuck there, like a barnacle. Alternative theory: just go and translate your title into Sanskrit.

Now we come to the negatives. We could be here all day talking about all the bad titles in the world. They are legion. But there is one type of title (hold on, could that be a killer title: “One Type of Title”?) that really gets my goat. I don’t know why exactly. It’s a phobia of sorts, maybe because it has become, I suspect, the most common title structure of our day. It is this:


It could have started with the success of “Flaubert’s Parrot.” We also had “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” “Finnegans Wake” just about escapes my ire on account of not having an apostrophe. But as for ones with, I could go on ad nauseam.

Which brings me to my own recent bout of title-obsessing. I was writing a book about the feud between Jean-Paul Sartre (“Nausea”) and Albert Camus (“The Stranger”). My first title – the one I pitched to publishers – was “What It Feels Like to Be Alive.” It’s not bad for one of those long-winded ones. Then I started to fall in love with Sartre’s classic one-liner: “Hell Is Other People.” The publishers thought that would be a little too harsh and acerbic for most readers to stomach. In the end we settled on “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus.” It just about works. I think (cue further fretting).

Perhaps the rule about titles is that there is no rule. Like everything else we write, a title is a bunch of words that are arbitrary, random, largely meaningless, and yet still striving to sound as indispensable as the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (now there is a possible title for the somebody’s something school of thought).

I was struck by the title of one book that I came across purely by chance in a bookstore. Lured in by this beguiling title, I took it down off the shelf, only to discover that it was the translation of a novel by Michel Houellebecq that I already knew. The original title, “Extension du domaine de la lutte” (literally, “Extension of the realm of struggle”), is one of those deliberately stodgy ones. It’s the opposite of sexy, flinging that terrible imperative back in the face of all publishers. But the translator, Paul Hammond, and the publishers had most likely felt that they couldn’t get away with that in English. The version they came up with should, I think, be a lesson to all of us who get wound up – blocked, even – worrying about titles.

That title is a classic one-worder: “WHATEVER.”

Andy Martin is the author of “The Boxer and the Goalkeeper: Sartre vs Camus.” He teaches at Cambridge University.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 3, 2012

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It begins with four notes, not chords.

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November 22nd, 2010

I ought to have known better than to have lunch with a psychologist.

“Take you, for example,” he said. “You are definitely autistic.”


“I rest my case,” he shot back. “Q.E.D.”

His ironic point seemed to be that if I didn’t instantly grasp his point — which clearly I didn’t — then, at some level, I was exhibiting autistic tendencies.

Autism is often the subject of contentious and emotional debate, certainly because it manifests in the most vulnerable of humans — children. It is also hard to pin down; as a “spectrum disorder” it can take extreme and disheartening forms and incur a devastating toll on families. It is the “milder” or “high functioning” form and the two main agreed-upon symptoms of sub-optimal social and communication skills that I confine myself to here.

Simon Baron-Cohen, for example, in his book “Mindblindness,” argues that the whole raison d’être of consciousness is to be able to read other people’s minds; autism, in this context, can be defined as an inability to “get” other people, hence “mindblind.”

Was Wittgenstein hinting that autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant?
A less recent but possibly related conversation took place during the viva voce exam Ludwig Wittgenstein was given by Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore in Cambridge in 1929. Wittgenstein was formally presenting his “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” an already well-known work he had written in 1921, as his doctoral thesis. Russell and Moore were respectfully suggesting that they didn’t quite understand proposition 5.4541 when they were abruptly cut off by the irritable Wittgenstein. “I don’t expect you to understand!” (I am relying on local legend here; Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein has him, in a more clubbable way, slapping them on the back and bringing proceedings cheerfully to a close with the words, “Don’t worry, I know you’ll never understand it.”)

I have always thought of Wittgenstein’s line as (a) admittedly, a little tetchy (or in the Monk version condescending) but (b) expressing enviable self-confidence and (c) impressively devoid of deference (I’ve even tried to emulate it once or twice, but it never comes out quite right). But if autism can be defined, at one level, by a lack of understanding (verbal or otherwise), it is at least plausible that Wittgenstein is making (or at least implying) a broadly philosophical proposition here, rather than commenting, acerbically, on the limitations of these particular interlocutors. He could be read as saying:

Thank you, gentlemen, for raising the issue of understanding here. The fact is, I don’t expect people in general to understand what I have written. And it is not just because I have written something, in places, particularly cryptic and elliptical and therefore hard to understand, or even because it is largely a meta-discourse and therefore senseless, but rather because, in my view, it is not given to us to achieve full understanding of what another person says. Therefore I don’t expect you to understand this problem of misunderstanding either.

If Wittgenstein was making a statement along these lines, then it would provide an illuminating perspective in which to read the “Tractatus.” The persistent theme within it of “propositions which say nothing,” which we tend to package up under the heading of “the mystical,” would have to be rethought. Rather than clinging to a clear-cut divide between all these propositions ─ over here, the well-formed and intelligible (scientific) and over there, the hazy, dubious and mystical (aesthetic or ethical) ─ we might have to concede that, given the way humans interact with one another, there is always a potential mystery concealed within the most elementary statement. And it is harder than you think it is going to be to eliminate, entirely, the residue of obscurity, the possibility of misunderstanding lurking at the core of every sentence. Sometimes Wittgenstein thinks he has solved the problem, at others not (“The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem,” he writes in “Tractatus.”) What do we make of those dense, elegiac and perhaps incomprehensible final lines, sometimes translated as “Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent”? Positioned as it is right at the end of the book (like “the rest is silence” at the end of “Hamlet”), proposition number 7 is apt to be associated with death or the afterlife. But translating it yet again into the sort of terms a psychologist would readily grasp, perhaps Wittgenstein is also hinting: “I am autistic” or “I am mindblind.” Or, to put it another way, autism is not some exotic anomaly but rather a constant.

I am probably misreading the text here — if I have understood it correctly, I must be misreading it. But Wittgenstein has frequently been categorized, in recent retrospective diagnoses, as autistic. Sula Wolff, for example, in “Loners, The Life Path of Unusual Children” (1995), analyzes Wittgenstein as a classic case of Asperger’s syndrome, so-called “high-functioning autism” ─ that is, being articulate, numerate and not visibly dysfunctional, but nevertheless awkward and unskilled in social intercourse. He is apt to get hold of the wrong end of the stick (not to mention the poker that he once waved aggressively at Karl Popper). An illustrative true story: he is dying of cancer; it is his birthday; his cheerful landlady comes in and wishes him “Many happy returns, Mr. Wittgenstein”; he snaps back, “There will be no returns.”

Wittgenstein, not unlike someone with Asperger’s, admits to having difficulty working out what people are really going on about. In “Culture and Value” (1914) he writes: “We tend to take the speech of a Chinese for inarticulate gurgling. Someone who understands Chinese will recognize language in what he hears. Similarly I often cannot recognize the humanity of another human being.” Which might also go some way towards explaining his remark (in the later “Philosophical Investigations”) that even if a lion could speak English, we would still be unable to understand him.

Wittgenstein is not alone among philosophers in being included in this category of mindblindness. Russell, for one, has also been labeled autistic. Taking this into account, it is conceivable that Wittgenstein is saying to Russell, when he tells him that he doesn’t expect him to understand, “You are autistic!” Or (assuming a handy intellectual time machine), “If I am to believe Wolff and others, we are autistic. Perhaps all philosophers are. It is why we end up studying philosophy.”

I don’t want to maintain that all philosophers are autistic in this sense. Perhaps not even that “You don’t have to be autistic, but it helps.” And yet there are certainly episodes and sentences associated with philosophers quite distinct from Wittgenstein and Russell, that might lead us to think in that way.

The philosopher may tend to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.
Consider, for example, Sartre’s classic one-liner, “Hell is other people.” Wouldn’t autism, with its inherent poverty of affective contact, go some way towards accounting for that? The fear of faces and the “gaze of the other” that Sartre analyzes are classic symptoms. Sartre recognized this in himself and in others as well: he explicitly describes Flaubert as “autistic” in his great, sprawling study of the writer, “The Family Idiot,” and also asserts that “Flaubert c’est moi.” Sartre’s theory that Flaubert starts off autistic and everything he writes afterwards — trying to work out what is in Madame Bovary’s mind, for example — is a form of compensation or rectification, could easily apply to his own work.

One implication of what a psychologist might say about autism goes something like this: you, a philosopher, are mindblind and liable to take up philosophy precisely because you don’t “get” what other people are saying to you. You, like Wittgenstein, have a habit of hearing and seeing propositions, but feeling that they say nothing (as if they were rendered in Chinese). In other words, philosophy would be a tendency to interpret what people say as a puzzle of some kind, a machine that may or may not work.

I think this helps to explain Wittgenstein’s otherwise slightly mysterious advice, to the effect that if you want to be a good philosopher, you should become a car mechanic (a job Wittgenstein actually held during part of the Great War). It was not just some notion of getting away from the study of previous philosophers, but also the idea that working on machines would be a good way of thinking about language. Wittgenstein, we know, came up with his preliminary model of language while studying court reports of a car accident in Paris during the war. The roots of picture theory (the model used in court to portray the event) and ostensive definition (all those little arrows and labels) are all here. But at the core of the episode are two machines and a collision. Perhaps language can be seen as a car, a vehicle of some kind, designed to get you from A to B, carrying a certain amount of information, but apt to get stuck in jams or break down or crash; and which will therefore need fixing. Wittgenstein and the art of car maintenance. This car mechanic conception of language is just the sort of thing high-functioning autistic types would come up with, my psychologist friend might say, because they understand “systems” better than they understand people. They are “(hyper-)systemizers” not “empathizers.” The point I am not exactly “driving” at but rather skidding into, and cannot seem to avoid, is this: indisputably, most car mechanics are men.

If Wittgenstein is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers.
My psychologist friend assured me that I was not alone. “Men tend to be autistic on average. More so than women.” The accepted male-to-female ratio for autism is roughly 4-to-1; for Asperger’s the ratio jumps even higher, by some accounts 10-to-1 (other statistics give higher or lower figures but retain the male prevalence). Asperger himself wrote that the autistic mind is “an extreme variant of male intelligence”; Baron-Cohen argues that “the extreme male brain” (not exclusive to men) is the product of an overdose of fetal testosterone.

If Wittgenstein in his conversation with Russell is suggesting that philosophers are typically autistic in a broad sense, this view might explain (in part) the preponderance of male philosophers. I went back over several sources to get an idea of the philosophical ratio: Russell’s “History of Western Philosophy” (about 100-to-1), Critchley’s “Book of Dead Philosophers” (30-to-1), while, in the realm of the living, the list of contributors to The Stone, for example, the ratio narrows to more like 4-to-1.

A psychologist might say something like: “Q.E.D., philosophy is all about systemizing (therefore male) and cold, hard logic, whereas the empathizers (largely female) seek out more humane, less mechanistic havens.” I would like to offer a slightly different take on the evidence. Plato took the view (in Book V of “The Republic”) that women were just as philosophical as men and would qualify to become the philosopher “guardians” of the ideal Greek state of the future (in return they would have to learn to run around naked at the gym). It seems likely that women were among the pre-Socratic archi-philosophers. But they were largely oracular. They tended to speak in riddles. The point of philosophy from Aristotle onwards was to resolve and abolish the riddle.

But perhaps the riddle is making a comeback. Understanding can be coercive and suffocating. Do I really have to be quite so “understanding”? Isn’t that the same as being masochistically subservient? And isn’t it just another aspect of your hegemony to claim to understand me quite so well? Simone de Beauvoir was exercising her right to what I would like to call autismo when she wrote that, “one is not born a woman but becomes one.” Similarly, when she emblazons her first novel, “She Came To Stay,” with an epigraph derived from Hegel ─ “every consciousness seeks the death of the other” ─ and her philosophical avatar takes it upon herself to bump off the provincial young woman she has invited to stay in Paris: I refuse to understand, to be a mind-reader. Conversely, when Luce Irigaray, the feminist theorist and philosopher, speaks — again paradoxically — of “this sex which is not one,” she is asking us to think twice about our premature understanding of gender — what Wittgenstein might call a case of “bewitchment.”

The study of our psychopathology, via cognitive neuroscience, suggests a hypothetical history. Why does language arise? It arises because of the scope for misunderstanding. Body language, gestures, looks, winks, are not quite enough. I am not a mind-reader. I don’t understand. We need noises and written signs, speech-acts, the Word, logos. If you tell me what you want, I will tell you what I want. Language is a system that arises to compensate for an empathy deficit. But with or without language, I can still exhibit traits of autism. I can misread the signs. Perhaps it would be more exact to say that autism only arises, is only identified, at the same time as there is an expectation of understanding. But if autism is a problem, from certain points of view, autismo is also a solution: it is an assertion that understanding itself can be overvalued.

It is a point that Wittgenstein makes memorably in the introduction to the “Tractatus,” in which he writes:

I therefore believe myself to have found, on all essential points, the final solution of the problems [of philosophy]. And if I am not mistaken in this belief … it shows how little is achieved when these problems are solved.

Which is why he also suggests, at the end of the book, that anyone who has climbed up his philosophical ladder should throw it away.



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August 10th, 2010

This all started the day Luigi gave me a haircut. I was starting to look like a mad professor: specifically like Doc in “Back to the Future.” So Luigi took his scissors out and tried to fix me up. Except — and this is the point that occurred to me as I inspected the hair in the bathroom mirror the next morning — he didn’t really take quite enough off. He had enhanced the style, true, but there was a big floppy fringe that was starting to annoy me. And it was hot out. So I opened up the clipper attachment on the razor and hacked away at it for a while. When I finally emerged there was a general consensus that I looked like a particularly disreputable scarecrow. In the end I went to another barbershop (I didn’t dare show Luigi my handiwork) and had it all sheared off. Now I look like a cross between Britney Spears and Michel Foucault.

Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness.

In short, it was a typical bad hair day. Everyone has them. I am going to hold back on my follicular study of the whole of Western philosophy (Nietzsche’s will-to-power-eternal-recurrence mustache; the workers-of-the-world-unite Marxian beard), but I think it has to be said that a haircut can have significant philosophical consequences. Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentialist thinker, had a particularly traumatic tonsorial experience when he was only seven.  Up to that point he had had a glittering career as a crowd-pleaser. Everybody referred to young “Poulou” as “the angel.” His mother had carefully cultivated a luxuriant halo of golden locks. Then one fine day his grandfather takes it into his head that Poulou is starting to look like a girl, so he waits till his mother has gone out, then tells the boy they are going out for a special treat. Which turns out to be the barbershop. Poulou can hardly wait to show off his new look to his mother. But when she walks through the door, she takes one look at him before running up the stairs and flinging herself on the bed, sobbing hysterically. Her carefully constructed — one might say carefully combed — universe has just been torn down, like a Hollywood set being broken and reassembled for some quite different movie, rather harsher, darker, less romantic and devoid of semi-divine beings. For, as in an inverted fairy-tale, the young Sartre has morphed from an angel into a “toad”. It is now, for the first time, that Sartre realizes that he is — as his American lover, Sally Swing, will say of him — “ugly as sin.”

The New York TimesJean-Paul Sartre and two friends in France, no doubt discussing philosophy.

“The fact of my ugliness” becomes a barely suppressed leitmotif of his writing. He wears it like a badge of honor (Camus, watching Sartre in laborious seduction mode in a Paris bar: “Why are you going to so much trouble?” Sartre: “Have you had a proper look at this mug?”). The novelist Michel Houellebecq says somewhere that, when he met Sartre, he thought he was “practically disabled.” It is fair comment. He certainly has strabismus (with his distinctive lazy eye, so he appears to be looking in two directions at once), various parts of his body are dysfunctional and he considers his ugliness to count as a kind of disability. I can’t help wondering if ugliness is not indispensable to philosophy. Sartre seems to be suggesting that thinking — serious, sustained questioning — arises out of, or perhaps with, a consciousness of one’s own ugliness.

I don’t want to make any harsh personal remarks here but it is clear that a philosophers’ Mr. or Ms. Universe contest would be roughly on a par with the philosophers’ football match imagined by Monty Python. That is to say, it would have an ironic relationship to beauty. Philosophy as a satire on beauty.

It is no coincidence that one of our founding philosophers, Socrates, makes a big deal out of his own ugliness. It is the comic side of the great man. Socrates is (a) a thinker who asks profound and awkward questions (b) ugly. In Renaissance neo-Platonism (take, for example, Erasmus and his account of  “foolosophers” in “The Praise of Folly”) Socrates, still spectacularly ugly, acquires an explicitly Christian logic: philosophy is there — like Sartre’s angelic curls — to save us from our ugliness (perhaps more moral than physical).

I suspect that the day Britney Spears shaved her own hair off represented a kind of Sartrean or Socratic argument (rather than, say, a nervous breakdown).

But I can’t help thinking that ugliness infiltrated the original propositions of philosophy in precisely this redemptive way. The implication is there in works like Plato’s  “Phaedo.” If we need to die in order to attain the true, the good, and the beautiful (to kalon: neither masculine nor feminine but neutral, like Madame Sartre’s ephemeral angel, gender indeterminate), it must be because truth, goodness, and beauty elude us so comprehensively in life. You think you’re beautiful? Socrates seems to say. Well, think again! The idea of beauty, in this world, is like a mistake. An error of thought. Which should be re-thought.

Perhaps Socrates’s mission is to make the world safe for ugly people. Isn’t everyone a little ugly, one way or the other, at one time or another? Who is truly beautiful, all the time? Only the archetypes can be truly beautiful.

Fast-forwarding to Sartre and my bathroom-mirror crisis, I feel this gives us a relatively fresh way of thinking about neo-existentialism. Sartre (like Aristotle, like Socrates himself at certain odd moments) is trying to get away from the archetypes. From, in particular, a transcendent concept of beauty that continues to haunt — and sometimes cripple — us.

“It doesn’t matter if you are an ugly bastard. As an existentialist you can still score.” Sartre, so far as I know, never actually said it flat out (although he definitely described himself as a “salaud”). And yet it is nevertheless there in almost everything he ever wrote. In trying to be beautiful, we are trying to be like God (the “for-itself-in-itself” as Sartre rebarbatively put it). In other words, to become like a perfect thing, an icon of perfection, and this we can never fully attain. But it is good business for manufacturers of beauty creams, cosmetic surgeons and — yes! — even barbers.

Switching gender for a moment — going in the direction Madame Sartre would have preferred — I suspect that the day Britney Spears shaved her own hair off  represented a kind of Sartrean or Socratic argument (rather than, say, a nervous breakdown). She was, in effect, by the use of appearance, shrewdly de-mythifying beauty. The hair lies on the floor, “inexplicably faded” (Sartre), and the conventional notion of femininity likewise. I see Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot in a similar light: one by dying, the other by remaining alive, were trying to deviate from and deflate their iconic status. The beautiful, to kalon, is not some far-flung transcendent abstraction, in the neo-existentialist view. Beauty is a thing (social facts are things, Durkheim said). Whereas I am no-thing. Which explains why I can never be truly beautiful. Even if it doesn’t stop me wanting to be either. Perhaps this explains why Camus, Sartre’s more dashing sparring partner, jotted down in his notebooks, “Beauty is unbearable and drives us to despair.”

I always laugh when somebody says, “don’t be so judgmental.” Being judgmental is just what we do. Not being judgmental really would be like death. Normative behavior is normal. That original self-conscious, slightly despairing glance in the mirror (together with, “Is this it?” or “Is that all there is?”) is a great enabler because it compels us to seek improvement. The transcendent is right here right now. What we transcend is our selves. And we can (I am quoting Sartre here) transascend or transdescend. The inevitable dissatisfaction with one’s own appearance is the engine not only of philosophy but of civil society at large. Always providing you don’t end up pulling your hair out by the roots.