Umberto Eco

  
“I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.” 

― Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum

I first learned of Eco after reading The Name of the Rose in graduate school, though I cannot remember whether it was the first round in 89 or the second in 2003. I saw the movie of the same name and cannot remember whether I saw it before reading the book or vice versa. I do know I enjoyed both immensely, so much so that I read a second book, the one from which the above quote comes, which I also enjoyed, though I believed that the text was far more about the title namesake than it was before reading it. I had read Michel Foucault, who I found as intriguing as mystifying, so naturally was drawn to the title. 

The text, like all Eco works, is complex and dense with plot and erudite history, lore and textual references–not your read on the beach in paradise. Eco demands you grapple. And while many details of both books I read are long forgotten, the words and specific scenes remain etched in the beautiful keepsakes section of my brain.

Like many faithful readers, I seek treasure–that unique turn of phrase or universal truth that hangs with me, bubbled to the surface when I need a lift, a reason or insight. Countless times the belief in mystery became and becomes my mantra. Some people often sigh, “It’s God’s will” when at a loss to explain the inexplicable and I just as often say, “Bow to the mystery.” Though both signal surrender, one does far less resignedly. 

That the “world is an enigma” satisfies, becalms and relieves humans of the burden of making sense of chaos and that which we cannot understand due to the size of our brains, undiscovered truths or components necessary to solving riddles, or both–or neither. That we madly “attempt to interpret” the world smacks of vanity or fruitlessness but not necessarily. Human’s drive to know, to understand and control is itself an enigma, one with benign origins though sometimes malignant intent or results. 

This quote counters another oft-pronounced snippet pulled out of pocket at the cause-effect chain’s logical end with no solution: “Everything happens for a reason.” Eco obviously disagreed and wrote legions against that idea, wracking ordered plots with disordered interferences from magic, evil intent, human contaminants and other messy interlocutors, all in historically altered (small and large) and imagined context. 

One thinker, writer and human I mourn, Umberto Eco died yesterday, a significant loss or gain for the mystery.

Is that a vibrator in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?




What I treasure most about blogging is the many contributions from readers whether in thoughtful or supportive comments, or suggestions of what to “gaze” at as today’s content donor put it. It makes my day when someone sends me a bit, a piece, an image, video or an article, some snippet topical to the blog’s thematic interests. Today’s gift is an article in the New York Times paying tribute to Dell Williams, former actress, advertising executive and army WAC, who started Eve’s Garden, a Manhattan sex boutique opened at a time when openly flaunting female sexuality took some daring. 

The story goes that she opened her sex shop after a humiliating experience at the hands of a young “pimply faced” clerk/interrogator when, in 1974, she purchased a vibrator. This spurred her mission to establish a place where women could purchase sex paraphernalia in peace. This kick-ass entrepreneur spent a majority of her life defending the right to open acceptance of women’s sexuality, something perhaps taken for granted today as more of a given than in her lifespan. 

Though it is still not a given even today.

While attitudes about female sexuality have progressed from denial by the patriarchal societies of Western Civilization to acknowledgment that it exists, there is still some distance to go before female sexuality is fully, openly celebrated, let alone discussed, by men and women. 

Thanks to vibrators, and women like Dell Williams who fought for freer access to them, there is an interesting history from which to start a conversation about women’s sexuality that does not seem so contrived, cliché or awkward. In fact, I used today’s research to pique the interest of my 15 year old, a sly engagement of her unsuspecting provincial sensibilities, to talk about sex, something she is loathe to do with her mother.

It turns out the vibrator is the tool that has not only traveled well through the centuries but also one that has propelled female sexuality and feminism into its current state of the question I have heard of late: Do we even need feminism any more? While the answer is yes, for many reasons, economic equality access being only one of them, that is a story for another day. The advent of the vibrator is a story of patriarchy, capitalism and power.

It begins with Hippocrates in 4th Century Greece, or at least he was the first on record to theorize that hysteria, a condition ascribed to women who displayed symptoms such as fainting, nervousness, and bad temper, more commonly known as “dry womb disease,” which seems to me as overall unhappiness most probably due to a lack of sexual excitement (read: not pumping out the lube) or fulfillment with men and the “normative” practice of penis-penetrating-vagina sex, what Rachel P. Maines in her book The Technology of Orgasm terms the “androcentric standard” of acceptable sexual practice.

The medical treatment Hippocrates and generations of physicians thereafter–until 1952 when hysteria was no longer diagnosed–for women experiencing hysteria and dry womb, was manual manipulation of the vulva by physicians to hysterical paroxysm, the medical condition better known as orgasm–in other words, getting women off. This treatment, an ongoing therapy, took up too much time for doctors to make enough money from other patients and was a routine and rote task that clearly could and should have been the work of midwives but for physicians not wanting to forego the income, prestige and power over the female body. As such, devices were developed to facilitate that “chore.”

Coupled with attitudes that women should not be touching their own bodies or have pleasure outside of marriage and what men could provide–androcentric sex–the vibrator was kept in the hands, so to speak, of the medical establishment until 1902 when Hamilton Beach patented the first take home vibrator, a large and noisy (we can heeeeaaaar you) apparatus. The hush of sexual repression quietly deposited these household objects from the hands of doctors into locked drawers, despite their popularity. According to trojanvibrations.com, these early vibrators emerged as one of the most common household electrical appliances invented even before the electric iron:


By 1917, there were more vibrators than toasters in American homes, claiming to cure everything from headaches to polio, deafness and impotence. Some ads for vibrators even claimed to be able to put a glow on your face.


In the radical feminist 70’s, the vibrator came out of the closet and into the hands of women trying to bring all things woman into the forefront, but particularly her sexuality as her power and her own.  Today, approximately half the American population uses or has used a vibrator, according to a survey of statistical findings I conducted on the web, only one of which is livescience.com.

Maine’s first chapter of her book mentioned above is available online and is a fascinating detailed history of the vibrator in context of sexual history from 4th Century B.C. through the Victorian era til modern times, citing wonderful hysteria treatment tools like horse simulators and other early curative devices designed for women’s orgasm, wickedly delightful apparatus to an unappreciative audience, my guess.

The covert manipulation (pun intended) of attitudes toward women’s sexuality–sexual pleasure that demanded more than male vaginal penetration as well as women’s ownership, participation and education (To know why, see Huffpost’s 13 Reasons Every Woman Should Masturbate Regularly)–derived from what Michel Foucault, French philosopher and author of the History of Sexuality, deemed the male medical establishment’s “hystericization of sexuality” (using their authoritative power to keep women’s sexuality as well as homosexuality in the realm of disease vis a vis the normative sexuality of the culture), patriarchy and capitalist greed.

Thank you Hippocrates for taking the time to notice, for kickstarting the vibrator’s journey to women, promoting sexual health for both men and women, and for getting all those women off, a trend that persisted even if disguised as medical treatment (wink, wink). He was hip to the truth he and his cronies kept mum, I suspect: most women, producers of the only organ designed for pure pleasure, maybe don’t need men so much to get off once they figure out what they have and how to use it.

The Science of Sex and Labeling

The medico-pychological health establishment and popular media mold our sexual proclivities and cabin our instincts. I’m convinced of it. Like Cicero, I have pushed the bolder of an idea that labels of gender-sex identification are arbitrary, prejudicial and crippling, that love is far too mult-faceted, complex and unexamined to be striated into gross categories of behaviors: homosexual, heterosexual and bisexual. If they have a function at all, it is to be descriptive of tendencies and not modes of prejudicial placement and exclusion. And like Cicero, the bolder comes down with excuses from friends and followers that human nature is thus. That may be so, but it is important to delve into how human nature is not so natural, that there are unconscious contributors that frame our nature, confining it to a few convenient options that order behaviors neatly and conveniently for reference, analysis and mating.

An article from askmen.com entitled “Exploring Female Sexual Fantasies” written by Dr. Victoria Zdrok gives men advice about dealing with women’s fantasies during sex. She advises men not to feel intimidated if your woman is fantasizing about Brad Pitt during sex or Angelina Jolie, for that matter, since “many women are naturally bi-curious and women are much more likely to have same-sex fantasies than men.” She further advises: “If you find out that your girlfriend or wife is having such fantasies, don’t worry about her being a lezzy — take advantage of the moment and suggest a threesome. But don’t be too eager; pretend that you are actually indulging her fantasy!”

Now, she’s a doctor so she should be good authority, right? Men and women should believe her and I am sure a publication like askmen.com with a wide readership (largely men, I would presume) features an article written by a doctor for legitimacy and persuasiveness. No matter that a quick google search reveals the doc as a Penthouse centerfold and her front page images are one of the following.

credit: corbisimages.com

Now, I am not suggesting that the good doctor is not authoritative or doesn’t know her stuff. I mean what man wouldn’t suggest a threesome upon discovering his woman has bi-curiosity and that most men lie and manipulate women into fulfilling men’s fantasies, right? What I am suggesting is that most readers would not question the source of the writing for legitimacy and take the advice from a doctor as a credible given.  They would take it as fact that many women are bi-curious and women more than men have same-sex fantasies. I am no sexpert and no doctor. However, my more than five decades on Earth have proven at least circumstantially otherwise. Try trolling on Craigslist in the personals ads for men seeking men in just about any city. They vastly outnumber the women seeking women section. If men are not fantasizing about men maybe it’s because they are having the sex with other men that the women are not with other women because women are busy being mere curious fantasizers too afraid to act or maybe they are not advertising their sexual behavior or getting hooked up through other means.

I am being ridiculously reductive, but I believe Dr. Zdrog is too. It’s not just Craigslist but my lived experience talking with and reading about men from a variety of sources that leads me to conclude that probably more men are curious and fantasize about sex with other men than this article suggests and more women are more than curious, but I would not dare make a bold statement about any of that in writing, not without affording the reader the benefit of my research and findings. No, I am not overlooking the fact that askmen is not supposed to be the Atlantic Monthly of scientific research.

The point is that we take our information fed to us without examination. Publications like askmen are in the business of making money by selling exciting and eye catching ideas (duh, right?), the more biased and incomplete–suggestive–the better. No one wants to get bogged down in reading a bunch of facts and studies. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Dr. Zdrog may be right or she may be writing more from her own experience as a bisexual and self-proclaimed sexpert Penthouse featurette (whatever all of those dynamics suggest). The magic is in being published. If she is published, she must be right. If she is a doctor, she must know. I mean I am sure my GP, my family’s all purpose doc for coldsores to leukemia, knows all about sex and fantasy, right? Men can believe the bold statements about women and bisexuality (and implicitly men not being as bisexual). Women can believe it. What effect does that assumed, unverified “fact” have on incurious readers’ sexual understanding about themselves and others? If I am bi curious, is it because I have been fed that curiosity or does it derive from MY natural inclinations?

Michel Foucault, Twentieth Century French philosopher, in his work entitled The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction“> theorized that sexuality has been controlled by the medical establishment throughout history by legitimizing or norming sexual behavior through science, something humans are cultivated to accept as authoritative. Doctors of medicine and psychology analyze human sexual behaviors and label them deviant or healthy, and those “facts” are disseminated into the population as the standard against which individuals measure their own normalcy.

Nothing new here about how much our thoughts about ourselves are not truly our own, but it bears reminding that critical thinking, among other practices, can set us free-er. Sex and relationships are far more complex and should be afforded the greatest respect and devotion of thought beyond the soundbites we are used to consuming. What attracted me to the definitions of bisexuality as a concept was the umbrella of its protectorate–all manner of relational behaviors– as well as its focus on human tendencies to separate and divide. We are pattern-makers as a species. We love the feel of a pattern. Patterns tickle our brains, and we are taught to recognize them from toddlerhood on. Maybe that is the human nature behind the science of labeling.