Posts Tagged ‘sex’
Bonobos separated from chimps maybe less than a million years ago, according to some pundits. We haven’t yet been able to determine a more precise date for the split. So which species has changed more? Have chimps become more aggressive or have bonobos become more caring? Is there any way of finding out?
It’s not just about genes its about their expression. It will take some time to work all that out. Brain studies too will help, as we move towards scanning and exploring brains more effectively and less invasively.
But surely we seek not just to understand the bonobo world but to change our own. Who wouldn’t want a world that was less violent, less exclusionary in terms of sex, more caring and sharing, without any loss of the dynamism and questing that has taken us to to the very brink of iphone7?
That last remark will date very quickly… Nah, I’ll leave it in.
So we can learn lessons, and of course we’re already on that path. Advanced societies, if that’s not too presumptuous a term, are less patriarchal than they’ve ever been, without losing any of their dynamism. On the contrary, it can easily be seen that the most male-supremacist societies in the world are also the most violent, the most repressive and the most backward. Some of those societies, as we know, have their backwardness masked by the fact that they have a commodity, oil, that the world is still addicted to, which has made the society so rich that their citizens don’t even have to pay tax. The rest of the world is supporting tyrannical regimes, which won’t change as long as they feel well-fed and secure. Not that I’d wish starvation and insecurity on anyone, but as Roland Barthes once said at one of his packed lectures, the people standing at the back who can’t hear properly and have sore feet must be wondering why they’re here.
Maybe a bit of discomfort, in the form of completely shifting away from fossil fuels for our energy needs haha, might bring certain Middle Eastern countries to a more serious questioning of their patriarchal delusions? Without their currently-valuable resource, they might wake to the fact that they need to become smarter. The women in those countries, so effective on occasion in forming coalitions to defend their inferior place in society, might be encouraged to use their collective power in more diverse ways. That could be how things socially evolve there.
Meanwhile in the west, the lesson of the bonobos would seem to be coalitions and sex. We’ve certainly arrived at an era where sexual dimorphism is irrelevant, except where women are isolated, for example in domestic situations. The same isolation also poses a threat to children. The bonobo example of coalitions and togetherness and sharing of responsibilities, and sexual favours (something we’re a long way from emulating, with our jealousies and petty rivalries) should be the way forward for us. Hopefully the future will see a further erosion of the nuclear family and a greater diversity of child-rearing environments, where single-parent families are far less isolated than they are today, and males want to help and support and teach children because they are children, not because they are their children…
Bonobo society has been closely observed both in captivity and, with much greater difficulty, in the wild, and it’s worth comparing it to that of their close relatives, chimps. It’s clear that, though aggression does exist in bonobo society, it isn’t anywhere near as prevalent as in chimps. This is obviously related to the use, mentioned previously, of sex to reduce tension and aggression in situations which would normally lead to competitive activity. It’s the ‘make love not war’ social system that has caught the attention of many beyond ethological researchers.
Now, it’s clear that aggression in all primate societies comes predominantly from males. Looking at human societies, the statistics are universal. There is no human society on earth where the homicide and/or assault statistics are dominated by females as perpetrators. Up until very recently it was males who went to war, and today it’s overwhelmingly males who joing gangs, go hoon driving or join terrorist cells, just as in earlier times it was men who journeyed off to the adventure of the crusades or joined Boney’s army to devastate Europe. As Melvin Konner convincingly argues, this strongly indicates a biological or genetic basis for male aggression. Much of it seems to be about the expression in males of androgens, the male sex hormones. Now with the way we’re going today in genetics and biochemistry we may in the future be able to tweak the production of androgens to offer a biological solution to male violence – which is already in decline in developed countries. However, their are other solutions, and Bonobo society represents one.
Bonobo society is very close-knit. Male bonobos develop close lifelong ties with their mothers. There’s no relationship with the father, who’s unknown, as the females engage in sex with multiple partners more or less indiscriminately. Of course males will compete with other males for sexual partners, but even this aggression is damped down by sexual relations between males. It’s as if the button has been found to switch off escalating aggression, and that button is connected to the genitals. It would be intriguing to discover what’s going on in the brain, with neurotransmitters and hormones, during this rise and fall of aggressive emotions.
Sex doesn’t just reduce aggression though. It virtually creates the bonobo social structure. As with chimps, bonobos have a fission-fusion society, breaking off into smaller ‘unit’ groups for hunting and foraging in the forest and coming together in larger groups at other times. Individual associations, apart from the mother-offspring dependency, are casual and changeable. However, the larger group, or community, has its limit, and keeps itself separate from other bonobo communities. Another feature of bonobo society is that females emigrate from their birth groups at around 8 years of age, moving to group of virtual strangers, where they have to work to build relationships, particularly with older females. The female-female bond is a central feature of bonobo society and these bonds become much stronger than in chimp society, in spite of the fact that these females, having come from other groups, are less genetically related than the males. This bond is cemented by sex, which creates loosely hierarchical coalitions, with one female dominating, mostly through reproductive success – especially in the production of males. Sisterhood is powerful, and it’s not necessarily about genetics. It’s a great lesson for our society, if we can get over the idea, so prevalent but hopefully fading, that we’re unique in a more unique way than any other species is unique, that we’re civilized, and that we have little or nothing to learn from our primate cousins.
And there’s so much more to learn, as we’ll see.
M Konner, Women after all: sex, evolution and the end of male supremacy
Men are bigger than women, slightly. That’s how things evolved. It’s called sexual dimorphism. It happens with many species, the genders are different in size, shape, coloration, whatever. With humans there’s a size difference, and something of a shape difference, in breasts and hips, but really these aren’t significant. Compare, say, the deep-water triplewort seadevil, a type of anglerfish, in which the female is around 30 cms long, and the male a little over a centimetre. The difference in mass would be too embarrassing to relate.
Among our primate cousins the greatest sexual dimorphism, in size as well as other features, is found in the mandrills, with the male being two to three times the size of the females. In some gorillas there’s a substantial size difference too in favour of the males, and in fact in all of the primate species the male has a size advantage. But size isn’t everything, and the bigger doesn’t have to always dominate.
Female bonobos are smaller than the males, even more so than in humans, yet they enjoy a higher social status than in any other primate society, probably including humans, though it’s hard to compare, since humanity’s many societies vary considerably on the roles and status of women. So how have females attained this exalted status within one of the most highly socialised primate species?
Bonobos and chimpanzees are equally our closest living relatives. It isn’t clear when exactly they separated from each other, but some experts claim it may have been less than a million years ago. Enough time for them to become quite distinct physically, according to the ethologist Franz De Waal. Bonobos are more gracile with longer limbs and a smaller head, and they have a distinctive hairstyle, with a neat parting down the middle. They’re also more easily individuated by their facial features, being in this sense more like humans. And there are also major differences in their social behaviour. Male chimps are dominant in the troupe, often brutally so, whereas bonobo society is less clearly hierarchical, and considerably less violent overall. De Waal, one of the world’s foremost experts on both primates, became interested in bonobos primarily through studies on aggression. He noted that sometimes, after a violent clash, two chimps would come together to hug and kiss. Being interested in such apparent reconciliations and their implications, he decided to look at reconciling behaviours in other primates. What he discovered in bonobos (at San Diego Zoo, which in 1983 housed the world’s largest captive colony) was rather ‘shocking’; their social life was profoundly mediated by sex. Not that he was the first to discover this; other primatologists had written about it, noting also that bonobo sex was far more human-like than chimp sex, but their observations were obscurely worded and not well disseminated. There are other aspects of the physical nature of sexual relations in bonobos that favour females, such as female sexual receptivity, indicated by swelling and a reddening of the genital area, which pertains for a much longer period than in chimps. Female bonobos, like humans and unlike other primates, are sexually receptive more or less all the time.
This isn’t to say that bonobos are oversexed, whatever that may mean. Sexual relations are far from constant, they are casual, sporadic and quickly done with. Often they’re associated with finding food, and it seems likely that sexual relations are used to reconcile tensions related to food availability and other potential causes of conflict.
So how does this use of sex relate to the status of females in bonobo society. I’ll explore this further in the next post.
Okay I’ve recently become a bit depressed that my blog is heading south, comme on dit, being read by nobody, due largely to my personality. A recent SBS program on the celebrated Dunedin longitudinal study of human behaviour and personality told us that there were five essential personality types. Three were considered ‘normal’, and they were the well-adjusted (40% of the population) the confident (28%), and the reserved (15%). In case you can’t add, this makes up some 83% of the population. The other 17% can be divided into two rather more dysfunctional types, the under-controlled (10%) and the inhibited (7%). You’re more than welcome to be healthily skeptical of these categories, but I’m prepared to take them as granted.
I’m not sure if I’m fully in the reserved category or the inhibited one, but I’m quite certain that most of the problems or failings of my life have been due to inhibition. For example, I live alone, have very few friends and no family connections and I visit and am visited by nobody. I have no sex life but a strong sex drive – make of that what you will – and I like other people very much and have many heroes and heroines, and I believe strongly that humans have gotten where they are through communication and collaboration. We’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. I love children and would love to have been a father…
Enough, I hope you get the picture. What’s interesting is that, in accord with Dunedin’s personality types, my character seems to have been fixed in early childhood, which I spent largely enjoying my own company, but also being fascinated by the world, soliloquising on it at delightful length. And sometimes, as I grew older, falling to despair, weeping at night over a projected future of loveless isolation. Oh dear.
So what does this mean for my blog? Writing a blog that’s sent out into the public domain is surely not an inhibited act, and craving attention for it is arguably not what a reserved person does. It’s a puzzlement. In any case, I will try harder to expand my readership by writing shorter pieces and narrowing my focus. I’ve decided, for the time being at least, to confine my attention to a subject I’ve long been bothered by: patriarchy. I want to critique it, to analyse it, to examine what the sciences say about it, to shine lights on every aspect of this, to my mind, benighted way of thinking and being-in-the-world. I’ll take a look at bonobos, the Catholic Church, homophobia, the effects of religion and culture, male and female neurophysiology, history, sex, workplaces, business, politics, whatever I can relate to the main subject, which surely will provide me with a rich, open field. And I’ll try, really try to communicate with other bloggers and commentators on the subject. Maybe I’ll become just a little less reserved before it’s too late. It’ll be a cheaper way of getting myself out of a rut than visiting a psychiatrist, of whom I would be healthily if self-servingly skeptical.
A young person I know is studying psychology probably for the first time and she informed me of the stages of early childhood psychological development she has been told about – oral, anal, phallic, latency and genital. I’d certainly heard of the first two of these, but not too much of the others. A quick squiz at the lists of Dr Google led me to Freudian psychosexual theory, which naturally raised my scepical antennae. And yet, despite my limited parental experience I’ve noted that babies do like to put things in their mouths a lot (the oral stage is supposed to extend from birth to 1 -2 years), sometimes to their great detriment. So, personality-wise, is the oral stage a real thing, and does it really give way to the anal stage, etc? I’m using the oral stage here to stand for all the stages in the theory/hypothesis.
These stages were posited by Freud as central to his hypothesis of psychosexual development – though how the phallic stage is experienced by girls is an obvious question. His view was that our childhood development was a matter of fixation, at various periods, on ‘erogenous zones’. After the oral stage, children supposedly switch to an anal stage, which lasts to 3 years of age – presumably on average. These switches might be delayed, or brought on earlier, in individual cases, and sometimes an individual might get stuck at a particular stage, denoting psychosexual problems.
So how real are these stages? Are some more real than others? What is the experimental evidence for them, do they exist in other primates, and if they exist, then why? What purpose do they serve?
It seems that Freud, and perhaps also his followers, have built up a whole system around these stages and how individuals are more or less influenced by any one or a combination in the development of their adult personalities, and since the degree of influence of these different stages and the way they’ve combined in each individual is pretty well impossible to recover, the theory looks to be unfalsifiable. There also appears to be the problem that psychologists can usually only track back from the adult’s personality to speculate about early childhood influences, which looks like creating a circular argument. For example, if an individual presents as an overly trusting, dependent personality, this may be cited as evidence of fixation at the oral stage of development, because children fixated at this stage are believed to develop these personalites in later life. The only way out of this impasse it seems to me is to define this oral stage (or any other stage) more carefully, so that we can accurately identify children who have experienced a prolonged or fixated oral stage, and then return to them to observe how their personalites have developed.
Of course there are other problems with the theory. There needs to be a clearer explanation, it seems to me, of how these apparently erogenously-related stages are marked into personality traits in later life. The relationship between an obsession with putting things in your mouth, or sucking, licking or otherwise craving and enjoying oral sensations, and a dependent, trusting personality, is by no means obvious. In fact, some might go as far as to say that, prima facie, it makes about as much sense as an astrologically-based account of personality.
Perhaps if we look at the oral stage, or claims about it, more closely, we’ll find something of an explanation. In this description, we learn that the libido, or life force, gets fixated in the oral stage in more than one way, leading to an ‘oral receptive personality’ and an ‘oral aggressive personality’. The first type, which is a consequence of a delayed or overly fixated oral stage, is trusting and dependent, the second is dominating and aggressive, due largely to a curtailed oral stage, apparently. Those who experienced a longer oral stage in childhood are supposedly more likely to be smokers and nail-biters as adults, though I’m not sure how this relates to being a dependent or trusting personality.
In any case this hardly takes us further in terms of evidence, and it’s worth noting that the site in which this is mooted is described as ‘integrated sociopsychology’. Dr Steven Novella, in the most recent episode of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, warned about the use of such terms as ‘integrative’, ‘functional’ and ‘holistic’ used before ‘medicine’ as a red flag indicating a probable bogus approach. I suspect the same goes for psychology. Obviously the website’s author is a Freudian, and he makes this statement as to evidence:
What is undoubtedly disturbing to the ‘Freud-bashers’ is how much evidence has accumulated over the years to say that, in broad terms at least, if not always in detail, Freud’s observations pretty much stand up so many years later.
However, other psychology sites I’ve looked at, which don’t appear to me to be particularly Freud-bashing, have pointed to the lack of evidence as the principal problem for Freud’s stages. Of course the major problem is how to test for the ‘personality effect’ of these stages. Again I think of astrology – someone dedicated to astrological causation can always account for personality ‘deviations’ in terms of cusps and conjunctions and ascendants and the like, and this would surely also be the case for the confounding influences of our various cavities and tackle, so to speak.
Some 20 years ago a paper by Fisher & Greenberg (1996) suggested that Freud’s stages and other aspects of his early childhood writings should be scientifically examined as separate hypotheses, in a sort of piecemeal fashion. Unfortunately I can find little evidence that evidence has been found for the oral stage as a marker for later personality development – or even looked for. This is probably because most scientists in the field – experimental psychologists – have little interest in these Freudian hypotheses, and little funding would be available for testing them. They would surely have to be longitudinal studies, with a host of potentially confounding factors accounted for, and the end results would hardly be likely to convince other early childhood specialists.
I’ve said the theory looks to be unfalsifiable, but I’m not quite prepared to say outright that it is. It seems to me that the oral stage, with its obvious association with breast-feeding, and the obvious association between prolonged breast-feeding and dependence, at least in popular culture, is the one most amenable to testing. The later Oedipus/Elektra complexes, associated I think with the phallic stage, seem rather too convoluted and caveat-ridden to be seriously testable. I must admit to a residual fondness for some of Freud’s theories of development though, however unscientific they might be. Though I was never interested in the strict form of the Oedipus complex, because my father was by far the weaker of my parents, I felt it offered some insight into relations with the dominant parent – struggle, rivalry, attempts to overthrow. I also agreed with his general view that early childhood is absolutely crucial to our subsequent psychological development, and I found his ego, id and superego hypotheses enlightening and fascinating. Polymorphous perversity, sublimation and the pervasive influence of libido also tickled my fancy a lot.
I think it’s fair to say that Freud has had a greater influence on popular culture than on science, but it has been a profound influence, and overall a positive one. The term ‘observations’, rather than theories, seems better to describe his contributions. In writing about the libido and the pleasure principle, inter alia, he accepted our instinctive animal nature, and gave us ideas about how to both harness it and overcome it. Notions like the id and the superego seemed to give us fresh ways to think about desire, discipline and control. His ideas and concepts tapped into stuff that was very personal to us in our individual struggles, and his universalising tendencies helped us, I think, to look sympathetically at the struggles of others. Libido itself was a banner-word that helped release us from the straight-jacket of earlier sexual thinking – or avoidance thereof.
It’s also probably unfair to expect from Freud’s pioneering work anything like the scientific riguor we expect and really need from psychology today. Certainly he was far too firm about the rightness of his most speculative work – I read The Interpretation of Dreams as an ideas-hungry teenager and was impressed with its first-half demolition of previous dream theories, but the second-half presentation of his own theory struck me even then as ludicrously weak, though it had the definitely positive effect of putting me off dream-interpreters for life (a dream that can be interpreted is a dream not worth having, and that’s their greatest gift to us). It’s more what he drew attention to that counts. His concept of the unconscious doesn’t really cut it today, but he made us start thinking of unconscious motivations in general, and much else besides. I’ve never been to an analyst, but I think one benefit of the psychoanalytic movement is to help us realise that there’s no normality and that we all carry baggage of guilt, anger, fear and frustration. For all its failings, his was a humanising enterprise.
Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.
I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.
The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!
At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….
In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.
She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).
A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.
Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.
Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.
In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.
Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.
They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.
In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.
So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.
Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).
Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….
So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.
Here, for a change, is a film review. Though I’m a wannabe science nerd, I can’t help now and then returning to my roots, as an uberkool arts dude. Fact is, though I’m a regular listener to the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts, I can’t even pretend to be interested in their sci-fi movie and tv-series passions and references (pace Doctor Who), with rarely a mention of classical or even modern literature or cool art-house movies. C’est pitoyable!
So I’m going to treat myself here to something that comes much more easily to me than science writing.
I first saw the so-Frenchy-so-chic film l’Annulaire (The Ring Finger) a few years ago, and was gripped, though I must admit I was barely able to see past the absorbingly delightful presence and performance of Olga Kurylenko. Not that I’m beating myself up over this – Kurylenko’s beauty and aloneness and vulnerable little glances and smiles and moments of languor would provide plentiful fuel for any sensualist’s fire, be she male, female or otherwise. She’s perfection in this role.
But seeing the film for the second time the other day, and via SBS on demand, so that I could treat it as I would treat a good book, rereading certain passages, going over things I didn’t quite catch, luxuriating in the best moments and effects, I gained a richer experience, while also noting a few flaws. In fact some of the clunkier elements of the film only serve to enhance the authenticity of Kurylenko’s performance.
Kurylenko plays twenty-one year-old Iris, about whom we know nothing except that she’s working in a lemonade bottling factory in the beginning of the film, where she has an accident, badly cutting her ring finger. We next find her wandering though a port city, nursing her bandaged finger, looking for work. And also looking for love or sex or some kind of romantic adventure. For example, while wandering along the docks, she sees a ferry filling up with people and decides impulsively to board it. On the trip across the water she finds herself watching a young man who finds himself watching her. She looks away awkwardly but when the ferry arrives at its destination – an island or maybe just the other side of the harbour, it’s all a bit vague – she follows the young man, in a sort of irresolute stalking manoeuvre, into a park or garden, where she loses track of him at a set of forking paths. She’s about to retreat completely, but finally takes one of the paths which leads her to an austere old building. On the door is a note advertising a job as a clerk to help with specimens – no experience required, apparently. She decides to apply. Ans so the real fantasy begins.
Now the film’s opening scene, before the credits roll, takes place inside this ‘lab’, with the white-coated ‘doctor’ discussing the preservation of a specimen of fungus – mushrooms in fact – with a serious-looking young woman. It doesn’t make much sense, but this is the weird world the solitary Iris is about to enter. She’s already rented accommodation in the port town, time-sharing a motel room with a sailor who works on the docks. She wanders about the room, staring at the docks and the water, wondering about the man’s clothing in the wardrobe and on a hanger by the glass doors facing the sea. Features are emerging – water, solitude, longing. And also, the heat – or, to use the much more evocative French word, chaleur. Iris drips with sweat in the hospital where her finger is treated, and half-faints with the heat in the reception area of the hostel where she applies for a room. The heat promotes a languor, a slowing of pace, a slightly hallucinatory, unreal effect.
So Iris is invited into this ‘lab’ by the ‘doctor’. He’s a walking cliché, you might say, but a very deliberate one. He’s never without his white coat, he’s quite a bit older than Iris, he’s silent, austere, masterful, and apparently entirely focused on his thoroughly enigmatic vocation. After a brief interview, she becomes his employee, his dependent, even more unsure of her role and her tasks after his explanation of them than before. But she enters into the arrangement willingly enough, in keeping with her driftily adventurous spirit.
So after securing this employment she removes the bandage from her ring finger, as if it has gained strength, or the security it symbolizes has been reinforced. Before starting work the next day, she drifts through the port’s red light district, and ponders in the room she shares with the sailor, with its twin beds – brief, elliptical sexual signs. At work, her boss, who seems the sole occupant of the old building, is at turns forbidding and benevolent, unpredictable, a bit like that Judeo-Christian god, keeping her alert and a little on edge. Mostly, though, he’s friendly and reassuring, so she’s happy to stay with the adventure. On her second day, she sleeps in and has to rush, but not before noting and fondling the sailor’s coat hanging in the wardrobe. She has left one of her dresses on the hanger, billowing beside the open glass door, for him to contemplate in her absence.
Iris’s nameless boss shows her the mushroom specimen he’s prepared in a test tube, and they contemplate it together, in a moment of low-key, tentative intimacy – with more than a touch of the predatory on his part. It’s a bit of a Q and A session, with the doc explaining the meaning and significance of the specimens. They’re symbols of loss – the mushrooms grew on the property of someone – the girl – whose house burned down. The specimens aren’t given to the clients, they’re kept at the lab. Clients can come to see them, but usually don’t. They’re simply symbols of closure, not for nostalgia but for preservation and separation of the past. It’s an odd and not entirely convincing conceit, but it has a certain romantic asceticism to it. At the end of this session Iris brings to mind her ring finger, which she sucks, lost to emotion. The faces here are in extreme close-up, and Iris/Olga is becoming painfully irresistible.
Back at her rented digs, Iris passes the sailor in the hall, and learns that this is the young man she time-shares with, and her curiosity is clearly piqued, as is his. All without a word. At work, while noting that the ‘doc’ sometimes disappears through an apparently forbidden door, she meets a new client who wants a piece of music preserved. Not the sheet music but the notes themselves. Written for her by an ex-beau. The woman, of middle age, is plainly still in love and suffering. Iris is kind and slightly overwhelmed. After the client’s departure, she hums the notes of the music to herself. In one of the old building’s interminable corridors, she’s pulled out of reverie by a little boy’s musical tapping, and the response of a woman further down the hall, who almost supernaturally disappear as suddenly as they appear. So there are other residents, occupants, denizens of this place…. Iris smiles deliciously.
The doc makes one of his sudden appearances, and silently peruses the musical manuscript, comments on the intense heat, promises air-conditioning…. then he invites her for a word, down to his inner sanctum, behind the forbidden door. It appears to be an old municipal baths, a cool retreat from the chaleur. They’ve now become more intimate, closer. Intensity is captured in close up, and In Iris’s shifting expressions, the playful smile, the flicker of fear, the innocent uncertainty. The doctor announces that her shoes are of too poor quality for her role and her person. He has bought her a beautiful new pair, blood red. She unwraps them with astonishment, with wonder, with pleasure, with some concern. ‘How did you know my size?’ she asks, the laughter dying on her face. She doesn’t know what to make of this man, who has saved her, after a fashion, and given her some adventure, after a fashion. She half-heartedly refuses the shoes but he insists, and he puts them on her himself. Foot fetishists will love this scene, and Iris/Olga’s expressions here are priceless. She near faints away when her foot slips into the shoe. The doctor explains that he knows her shoe size just by looking at her. He’s a naturalist after all. He gets her to walk before him with the new shoes, telling her she must wear them at all times, whether he can see her or not. Another god-type demand, and she don’t look too happy about it. Nevertheless, and inevitably, we next see her wearing her new shoes around the docks.
In her motel room, she finds a vase of little purple flowers – a gift from her young room-mate? She’s delighted, and she investigates a book he appears to be reading, and his passport…
One day she arrives at work soaked from the rain. The doctor, as always, distant, controlling, but benevolent, makes her a hot toddy, and helps her out of her wet clothes, in the underground baths. All perfectly normal behaviour from a caring employer. She submits like a slave, and yet she always shows spirit, her eyes widen in wonder as he explains that he’ll take her wet things to be dried and ironed ‘by the woman in room 233’. ‘Is she the one who plays the piano?’ she asks. ‘No, that’s the woman in 209’, he replies, providing, like a rare morsel of food, some information about these ageing lingerers in the old building.
The doc doesn’t take advantage of Iris’s near nakedness, but leaves, with her garments, while she awaits him, wrapped in a towel and an air of confusion. Clearly, another barrier has been breached. And next we follow Iris, fully clothed again, as she trots behind her master to visit the piano lady, to ask her (and in fact demand of her, with the doc’s usual cordial firmness) to play and so preserve the musical ‘specimen’. While in the lady’s room, Iris sees a photo of a lot of young women standing in front of the ‘laboratory’, which was then, perhaps, a nursing school, or maybe a home for fallen women, we don’t know. To one side stands our doctor, white-coated of course, and apparently ageless, as if he’s struck some Faustian or Dorian Gray-style deal. On examining this photograph, Iris exchanges a meaning gaze with the doctor, who remains as inscrutable as ever. It’s actually a key scene – the doc has also invited the other lady, the ‘clothing lady’ we might call her, into this room to hear the music, perhaps as a witness to the ‘specimen’, and glances are exchanged also between Iris and the clothing lady, who smiles knowingly, and between the clothing lady and the doc, who smile to each other in apparent collusion. The mind leaps to the idea, or the knowledge, that this woman is one of the young lasses in the photo, and that some kind of strange, sexual, harem-like happenings are being referred to, in the most civilized, tea-and-scones kind of way. The clothing lady also shows an unwonted, but silent, interest in Iris’s shoes, as if she’s well aware of what’s what in regard to them, much to Iris’s embarrassment. But as we see in another lingering scene on the docks, Iris is fascinated, almost obsessed, with these shoes of hers.
The next scene is also key. Iris receives a new client, a softly-spoken, impoverished-looking elderly black man, who wants a specimen made of the bones of a sparrow who’d been sharing his flat for years, before dying of old age. While they discuss this, the man comments admiringly on her beautiful shoes. Turns out he’s been a shoe-shiner at La Gare Centrale (another vague designation) for the past 50 years. He points out how perfectly the shoes fit. ‘Let me give you advice. Even if they’re very comfortable, don’t wear them too often. Or, young lady, you’ll risk losing your feet. Can’t you see there’s hardly any room between your feet and the shoes? That proves the shoes are taking possession of your feet?’ ‘Possession?’ asks Iris. ‘Exactly,’ says the man (it all sounds so much more intime in French). He offers to shine her shoes if she will visit him at his work station.
The film continues with inexplicable moments and incidents – she hears piano music, and tries to investigate, then the phone rings, someone wants a specimen of a shadow, she thinks not, but as she responds, the clothing woman creeps about in the corridor behind her bearing flowers… She works late, pondering over the sparrow bones, and is discovered by the doc, who makes small talk about her new hairstyle.
Back in her motel room she massages her feet thoughtfully, dreamily… Then, back on the ferry, on her way to work, she sees the young sailor, on a bridge, watching. She stands up, faces him and smiles, youth and hope, sensuality at a safe distance. Then he’s in the motel room, sniffing at one of her dresses – as you do – and hanging it up to blow in the sea breeze.
Meanwhile, the chaleur oppresses. Iris, at work, opens up her blouse for relief, without realizing that the doc has made one of his sudden appearances at her door. He complains of the heat driving away the clients. She has buttoned up and is discomfited by his presence, especially when he asks after her shoes… He asks that she help him put his specimens in order during this quiet period, and so she follows him, but they end up in the basement, in the cool spaciousness of the old baths… And here the doc becomes an old charmer, after his fashion. He reminisces about the young women showering there, the running water, the soap and froth and chatter, and all that nakedness. Iris asks about those women, and the women from rooms 223 and 209. Yes, he says, they were there, and just about your age, then. But now, all is dry. No water, no soap… Those women have now aged, there’s only you and me (or ‘I’m not ageist, but…’)
So now the moment of seduction has arrived. He leads her to the centre of the baths, undresses her slowly, and we hear her breath and see her desire. She lies on the floor, naked, and he, still in his lab coat of course, enters her, at once brutal and slightly ridiculous. He pulls her on top of him, and urgently asks, as you do at such moments, ‘Is there anything you’d like preserved? We all need specimens.’ ‘Me too? Even you?’ she wonders. ‘Yes. Think, there must be something you’d like as a specimen. Let’s look at it from a different angle. What’s your most painful memory? Something awful.’ ‘I lost the tip of my ring finger.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘I lost it, in lemonade, in the factory. I fainted.’ ‘So your ring finger will never be the same?’
Back in the motel room, Iris is contemplative but happy. She swings gaily from an old tyre in the docklands, watched, unbeknown, by the young sailor. Then back at work she falls asleep on the job, dreaming of the shower and the young girls, watched by their white-coated doc, and meanwhile the young sailor is in the motel, apparently dreaming of Iris.
When she arrives back at the motel she finds a note. The sailor, Costa, is leaving and would like to meet her. He asks for a rendezvous at a local bar. As it turns out, the bar’s pretty wild – sailors, girls, every port and all. Iris turns up to see Costa being accosted by a likely lady. She takes flight and Costa pursues her – in the languid and tentative manner that’s the signature of this film. He stares up at the motel room; she emerges, stares briefly at him, then retreats, shuts the door, extinguishes the light. Hope’s deferred, making the heart sick.
She showers in sensual water. At work, the doc asks her for help with his specimens again. She’s uncertain – what about the clients? They won’t come in this uncertain weather, he assures her. He offers her an apron, as if to say, ‘this time, no hanky-panky’. Among the burgeoning specimens, she asks him where they might be put, as they accumulate. ‘Perhaps we may have to use the baths’, he suggests. This alarms her. ‘When the bathroom is turned into a preservation room, what will we do then?’ she asks, with delicious innocence.
That’s enough for the doc, and we’re back in the underground baths, and this time the sex is uninhibited, symbolized by the horrifying fact that the doc has taken off his lab coat. But who is Iris thinking of, the doc or the sailor?
Afterwards, she returns to the motel. Costa has left her what appears to be a box of chocolates. She lies on his rumpled bed…
Back at work, the young woman of the mushrooms, who has a burn on her cheek, returns. She asks Iris if she can have another specimen. She, too, is beautiful. The doctor is called for, assures her he can help, and leads her off to the lab. Iris is upset, jealous, and tries to raise questions, but the doc, authoritarian as ever, orders her to get on with preparing the paperwork. So – power, authority, invested in maleness. Iris feels insecure, humiliated. Through the day she serves other clients, but is ever-watchful for her ‘rival’. She goes to the door of the lab and tries to open it, to no avail. She wanders the docks again, thinking, dreaming of the red shoes, his hands on her feet, her legs… Back in the motel room, a storm rages, and she’s alone. At work again, she searches desperately for traces of the girl, and her specimen. She’s beside herself. She encounters one of the elderly ladies, who talks to her about her work. ‘Most of those who’ve worked here didn’t last long. They would just vanish.’ ‘What about the previous girl?’ ‘Yes, she was about your age. I remember particularly the sound of her shoes. Neat, regular. I’m very sensitive to sound. No I don’t remember the colour of her shoes.. Where did she go? Who knows? I hope you don’t leave so suddenly…’ Discomfited by the older woman’s slightly mocking tone, Iris cuts short the conversation, and continues in search of her rival’s specimen. She finds a photo of a girl, of her age, wearing striking shoes. As she stares at it, it begins to fade, disappear. Will Iris disappear so suddenly? She hurries off, disturbed, harried. Covered in sweat, she’s drying herself off when she encounters a new client, a silent Chinese man, who leaves in her possession a mahjong set. While she’s examining it, the doc makes another of his sudden appearances… He asks her to put it on a shelf, but the set opens as she picks it up, and all the pieces scatter over the floor.
The masterful doctor tells her that every piece must be put back where it belongs, if it takes all night. So, watched over by the master, she languidly, interspersed with periods of sleep or catatonia, picks up each far-flung piece and puts it back in its place. Heavy symbolism no doubt lost on me. When she finishes, the master takes her in his arms. ‘We’ve seen the morning in together,’ she says, as though this is a sign of love rather than power. ‘Take me to the lab,’ she adds. ‘I’m the only one who can go there’, he says. ‘But what about the girl with the burn?’ ‘That was about a specimen. They have priority.’ ‘So I’ll be able to go there if I ask for a specimen I can keep forever?’ He doesn’t respond, but sucks her ring finger tenderly. She seems content…
She visits the shoe-shining man, who is very pleased to see her. She assures him about his specimen, and he applies his special cream to her shoes. ‘Were the shoes given to you by someone?’ he asks. ‘Are you in love with him?’ ‘I sometimes wonder,’ she says. ‘I don’t know, but I can’t easily leave him.’ ‘It’s because of your shoes. If you don’t take them off, you’ll never get away. Get a specimen, so that your feet will be free.’ ‘I don’t want that.’ ‘Do you want to go back there?’ ‘Yes’. ‘Well, I will say goodbye then’, says the shoeshine man. ‘I won’t see you again.’ She looks at her finger, and makes her return, via a long tunnel. I don’t pretend to know what all this means.
Back at work, Iris writes a specimen label or ticket – ‘Iris, ring finger.’ She takes this ticket down to the lab. Outside the door, she takes off her shoes. With her shoes in one hand, her ticket in the other, she knocks on the door. It opens, and all we see is bright light. She drops the shoes, and disappears into the light.
Make of this what you will, it’s a beautiful film exploring love, desire, security, connection, power and vulnerability – and not just that of Iris – all in a deceptively simple, unadorned package. Clearly I’ve been self-indulgent in my descriptions here, using them as an excuse to linger over the film’s most memorable scenes, which for me aren’t the overtly sexual scenes but the covertly sexual ones – characters in isolation, loving and longing, hungering and recalling.
I’ve mentioned clunkiness – the occasional continuity error, and scenes and characters that added little, apart from more mystery. For example, a little boy often appears in the scenes at the lab – an impish spirit who watches over Iris. Is he the product of one of the doc’s dalliances with his employees? Is he a prisoner or a free spirit? I suspect he’s a more integrated character in the book on which this film was based – a ‘cult erotic novel’, so the blurb goes, by Yoko Ogawa, and the director, Diane Bertrand, didn’t quite know what to do with him. Some of the clients, too, seemed superfluous to requirements, though I’m quite prepared to accept that I may have missed a few nuances.
But in spite of this the film succeeds, not least because of the central actor’s performance. Olga Kurylenko is now quite a big name, but I suspect I’ll always associate her, first and foremost, with this very demanding, make or break role. In writing this piece, I very willingly researched the captivating Kurylenko, and frankly it moved me beyond bearing to uncover this delightful interview, apparently set up in her own home, maybe in about 2010, in which among other things she talked of The Ring Finger, her movie debut, as one of those rare experiences in which she fell in love with the character… Olga, in this rough-as-guts video, as far from media hype as you can get, reveals herself to be as delightful, warm and genuine as Iris, a woman who recognises her good fortune, but who has genuine talent, and an emotional depth that shines though on and off screen. I feel strangely proud of her after having learned so much about her, as if she were a close relative who has realised her dream. I cannot recommend this film, and its star, highly enough.