26 August 2008

Book Review: "Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head: The Secret World of Sexual Fantasy"

Who's Been Sleeping in Your Head is a bit of a departure for me. Most of my nonfiction reading tends toward the historical or the "hard" sciences (astronomy, evolutionary biology, etc.) but one of my GoodReads friends marked this as a "to-read," I read the publisher's blurb and a few of the reviews, and it looked intriguing. Fortunately, one of my libraries possessed a copy and the inevitable ensued: I obtained and read it.

Brett Kahr is a Freudian psychoanalyst who's realized that there is a dearth of studies of what constitutes sexual fantasies - what's "normal" (if that can be measured) and what's "perverse" (also a slippery concept) - and how those fantasies might affect people in their lives.

Being a Freudian, Kahr believes that most, if not all, of our fantasies arise from childhood traumas. "Trauma" here does not necessarily mean something horrible like being raped by your father when you're 10 years old or having a group of boys sodomize you in the public restroom when you're 13. It can mean relatively unfortunate events or circumstances in an otherwise good childhood. Circumstances like an emotionally distant father or an overbearing mother or (as in the case of one woman) the loss of an older brother in a car accident. Kahr argues that "trauma functions as a key ingredient in the genesis of adult sexual fantasies" (p. 393) and that these fantasies help master "trauma through eroticization, rendering the terrifying and unprocessable into something sexy and manageable." (p. 383)

A "perverse" fantasy is one that eroticizes hatred (p. 418) and that "requires sustained perpetration of sadism toward oneself or one's 'love object'" and "becomes so all engrossing it prevents one from forging intimate relationships." (p. 420)

There are a number of conclusions he arrives at (if some are only tentative):

1. What is a sexual fantasy? An image, thought, drama, usually thought about during sex (coital or masturbatory) and that results in orgasm. (This makes it a different phenomenon than the sexual dream.)

2. What is a "normal" fantasy? There is no normative fantasy. People who appear quite "normal" might have some of the most sadistic, misogynistic, bestial fantasies but as long as they avoid the two criteria for "perversion" I mention above, they're no more abnormal than fantasizing about making love to one's partner that never departs from the missionary position.

3. Why fantasize? Kahr doesn't really know. From an evolutionary point of view it may help arousal and, hence, propagation. In terms of human psychology, it eroticizes and makes harmless traumas in our lives.

4. Does everyone have fantasies? Despite some negative responses in Kahr's survey, he feels that everyone has a fantasy of some sort even if they don't recognize it as such.

5. Should we share fantasies/act them out with our partners? Maybe. He recounts cases where exposing and/or acting out a fantasy did wonders for a relationship; alas, sometimes they torpedoed a relationship.

6. Are fantasies dangerous? Sometimes. See above about what a "perverse" fantasy is. Actually, in relation to this subject, Kahr gets into some potentially scary "Big Brother" stuff where he envisions mental-health experts "tagging" potential rapists, pedophiles, etc. based on their sexual fantasies - sort of a "Minority Report" world without the ESP.

7. If we don't fantasize about our partner is that a "bad sign"? Maybe; maybe not. Since a fantasy is a defense mechanism from past trauma, the absence of one's current partner is not unusual.

8. If we fantasize about something illegal (i.e., rape, pedophilia, incest, murder, etc.) will we eventually act it out? Probably not. Most - the overwhelming majority - even if their fantasies involve raping the cheerleading squad or murdering their partner don't go through with it. As Kahr wants to emphasize, even the most vile fantasy is a defense mechanism against some childhood trauma. Now, fantasizing about gang rapes or murder probably indicates a fairly serious trauma and the person should seek some form of therapy and it may make a person's intimate relationships ultimately unsatisfying but it doesn't mean we have a future "Ted Bundy" on our hands.

9. Can we control our fantasies? Always a good Freudian, Kahr doesn't believe so. At least not to any great extent.

One of the best aspects of this work is that Kahr doesn't try to create an all-encompassing theory of sexual fantasy. He tries to identify some broad generalizations but doesn't apply them to explain fantasy.

Though I don't have the background to assess just how valid psychoanalysis is or what competing theories may be out there, I found this book fascinating and interesting.

16 August 2008

The Limits of Power

Just a short post to publish links to two essays on TomDispatch taken from Andrew Bacevich's latest book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism:

The American Military Crisis
The Lessons of Endless War

He's also appearing on the Aug 15 episode of Bill Moyer's Journal so you should look him up there as well.

I'm probably (no, definitely) more radical in my solutions to our imperial overreach but even his reasonable, even-handed voice is inaudible in the current discussion about foreign policy and America's future role in the world (from both parties and candidates).

Remaking Some Classics

One should learn not to procrastinate. Case in point: I've been meaning to suggest here that two classic SF films deserve to be remade only to discover that "they" have already done it for one -- The Day the Earth Stood Still. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) comes to Earth to warn us that if we take our aggressive tendencies off planet will spell our doom, and the first thing we do to him when he lands is shoot him. It's a great film -- both thematically (dissecting the Cold War paranoia of the time and the futility of violence) and in terms of writing and acting (though "Billy," the kid, is truly annoying). But it is getting a bit long in the tooth, and would have benefited from a producer/writer/director team that cared about the material.

Alas, this new version (due out in December from what I've read) stars Keanu Reeves (not as Gort, the blank-faced robot and a natural choice, but as Klaatu) so I'm not sure whoever conceived this project really knows what they're doing. On the upside, they have cast Jennifer Connelly as the mother (originally Patricia Neal's role) so it'll be nice to look at for those moments she's on screen.

I will wait, with low expectations, and hope for the best.

The second film that I think deserves a remake is the equally classic Forbidden Planet. The SF genre's retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Leslie Nielsen, Ann Francis and Walter Pidgeon. Again, in the hands of someone who cared about the material, a really fine, quality film could be produced.

Of course, it should go without saying, that if you haven't seen either original yet, you should.

05 August 2008

Film Reviews

I was browsing in the library's video shelves the other day and was seized by an impulse to check out a few horror-movie classics. To whit (to wit? -- I can never remember): Tod Browning's Dracula and Hammer Film's version of The Mummy.

Dracula: The last time I saw Dracula must have been nearly 30 years ago so I figured it was time I reviewed the classic. Overall, I must say I didn't like it much, and it's not because I'm jaded by the over-the-top gore of modern horror. It's more because the movie just doesn't create an atmosphere of suspense or terror. Outside of Renfield and his maniacal laugh, it's just not that interesting. And Dracula's destruction is almost laughably easy -- This man terrorized his countrymen for 400 years? What a bunch of wusses!

It's always been a pet peeve of mine that vampires are always so easy to kill in these movies. Supposedly at the top of the undead food chain, it's still possible for a bunch of teen-agers to slaughter the vampires by smashing a few windows and letting the sun shine in.

The Mummy: Hammer Film's version of The Mummy wasn't too bad. It wasn't terribly suspenseful or frightening but it told the story in a straightforward and competent manner, and Cushing and Lee were good.

I also checked out another in the BBC & Time-Life Films' series of Shakespeare adaptations; in this case: Julius Caesar. These adaptations are usually pretty good and this version of Julius Caesar was no disappointment. I'd also recommend their versions of Henry V and Richard III. I don't remember their names, but the actors in the leading roles were both excellent.

I can't say I liked Olivier's version of Henry V. I was turned off by what I might call the "prissy arrogance" of his Henry, and, in my opinion, he compares unfavorably with Branagh's king. On the other hand, I think Olivier was brilliant in his version of Richard III. I thoroughly enjoyed watching that video.

One final note: I highly recommend the PBS Mystery series Foyle's War. I stumbled upon these gems while channel surfing one weekend. I had known of their existence but had never been particularly interested in watching them. Oh, what a fool I was. In terms of stories, the series is not so different from other police procedurals like Prime Suspect (also highly recommended), Inspector Morse or The Inspector Lindley Mysteries, except that it's set in southern England during WW2. What makes it a marvelous series is solely Michael Kitchen's portrayal of Christopher Foyle: A man of high principle, incisive intelligence and compassion who doesn't let the war compromise those qualities. It's impossible to verbally describe how he carries off the role since it's invoked by his manner and tone of voice but you'll enjoy watching this series.

'Possums on the Patio

I feel like a jerk but what else could I do?

There's been a particularly ripe smell about my patio for the last few weeks, and this last weekend I finally got around to investigating its source: A family of opossums had been using the patio as a place to sleep away the day.

Let me backtrack a bit here: Up until Sunday, I had been keeping the wooden frame from an old futon out on the patio, using it as an impromptu shelf for my book boxes. It was covered by a tarp and, thus, provided a dark, enclosed space, which was attractive real estate for an opossum.

Pulling away the tarp Sunday afternoon, I disturbed three opossums who had been sleeping there. Now, I have no problem sharing the patio with these guys. There cute and they're quiet. Unfortunately, unlike the ferals, they're not very clean -- to be indelicate: They sh*t where they sleep (and eat). The futon was hopelessly fouled with feces and I had to throw it away (along with the tarp, which had been providing teething relief), and I washed down the patio and wall.

The smell's mostly gone but so are the opossums, unfortunately.

On the up side, I've got a lot more room on the patio now.