on love – from stand-up philosophy

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lifetime and legacy

The first person I knew who died was my grandfather.

His name was Alf, but all I remember of him was his face and his laugh – a high, joyful, wheezy chuckle – and that he and my Grandmother used to call each other ‘mate’. “Put the kettle on, mate,” they’d say to each other.

I don’t know why they called each other that, but it was very deeply affectionate. It always sounded friendlier than any stock affective term like ‘darling’ or ‘honey’. Like their love had genuinely been built on being best mates.

In fact, the two of them had been star-crossed young lovers in Liverpool (he was Protestant, she was Catholic – which mattered in the 30s) and both their families threw them out. After the war they worked in factories for the rest of their working lives, and were devoted to each other until he died.

And when he died, in 1989, I was given a watch.

It’s a nice ornate kind of thing, with a classic-looking face and a leather strap. It was engraved “Duncan, from Grandad” – but I’ve always known it wasn’t really from him. To begin with, it was a brand new watch so it must have been bought specially for me when he died; and by the time he was dying his Alzheimer’s had reached the point where he wouldn’t exactly have been able to go shopping for watches himself.

But that doesn’t make it of any less value; it must have been bought by my mother and/or my grandmother, who must have decided that he would have wanted me to have something like that. So it’s from them, really.

But it’s also from him. Kind of. I guess in a way, it’s from all of them.

I think it is very beautiful.

The problem with death is that nobody ever thinks enough about it until they’re faced with it – then it takes them by surprise.

They organise their lives, plan parties, clean the kitchen, complain about the government, and generally go on as if the whole thing will never stop, and then one day they’re hit by a bus, or Alzheimers, or a stroke or whatever and it’s all over. Like that.

According to Alice Osborne, the founder of a project called the Legacy Centre, the number of people leaving wills has dropped dramatically in recent years. The centre is being set up to challenge the taboo of talking about dying; as a comedian and a philosopher, this is obviously something of which I very strongly approve.

People just don’t like talking about death. It’s a big empty amorphous monster that’s out to get us, all of us, and we don’t talk about it. When it happens to one of us, we treat it with the utmost solemnity, and until then we try not to think about it.

On the upside, this allows us to keep thinking we’re immortal, and putting things off (it also means a lot of money goes to the exchequer when we die without leaving wills). The downside is that this does sometimes leave people in a mess when they are dependent on someone who dies without providing for them.

But the biggest problem with not talking about death is not to do with our unpreparedness for death itself, or what what will happen to our things after we die. The bigger problem is a failure to face what death means for us while we are still alive. I think a lot of people have the power to do more with their resources – and not just their material resources – while they are still alive. But they don’t.

Martin Heidegger was obsessed with death. The limitedness of life, he thought, must be faced honestly if we are to make the best of it. An authentic state of “being-towards-death”, he thought, throws all our projects into sharp contrast with the fact that we have a very limited amount of time in which to make those projects happen.

At first, he said, really fully comprehending the fact of your own death makes everything you do appear meaningless; we feel a state of terrible anxiety about it.

But once we’ve come to terms with it, it imbues everything we do with meaning. Life is limited: it happens in a certain period of time, and we have to act on the things we care about, decisively, before time runs out, to make life meaningful.

This is an oversimplification of Heidegger’s point, of course. But that’s okay – it’s a fairly simple point which I think is best made bluntly: what gives life meaning is the things which are important to us before we die – in other words, in our lifetime.

In some ways, it’s banal, which is why it’s such a wonder that so few people really spend much time thinking about it. But your achievements and your goals do matter, to the extent that they matter to you in the limited time of your life.

And most of all, I think – although this is my emphasis rather than Heidegger’s – it is the people who are important to your life, and the time spent with them, which matter. Bearing in mind that in a few years, or a few months, or a few days even, you or they could be gone.

Heidegger gave that state of mind a name which, when translated into English, seems underwhelming. He called it care.

But Heidegger also pointed out that in the process of caring about things, many of us lose sight of how real our limitedness is, with death always on the horizon. We think we’re safe, get sidetracked by novelties, new things and insignificant people, and lose what it is about ourselves which is authentic.

If we do think about death at all, we think of how to survive it in some way, through our ‘legacy’. We think of the practical side of the fact that our physical body will no longer be able to move around and act on the world. So we make wills, set things in order, leave inheritances. We set up what we would like to see happen, almost as if we were actually going to get to stay and observe it; it’s almost as if are just planning to go away for a bit.

And what we forget about is that the most important legacy a person can leave is the memory of their life.

It’s possible – as I have learned, to my very great regret – to be too obsessed with death. Or at least, to make the mistake of thinking that the inevitability of death means we must get the most out of life. I have certainly made decisions based on thoughts which have taken the form, “I am going to die without ever experiencing x – therefore I will need to experience x.

This can be a mistake. It’s true that we must act now, because time is short; but the quest to beat death should not take the form of a checklist. Giving meaning to life has to be deeper – and in fact, much happier and more cheerful – than ticking off a bucket list of fleeting experiences.

It’s about committing yourself to completing the projects that really mean something to you, however challenging they seem; it’s about openly and cheerfully loving those people who you love, whether or not they understand that this is what will have defined your life; it is about being the person you are.

While a person is alive, they cannot get happiness by chasing transitory experiences until those experiences can no longer be chased. And after a person is gone, their life cannot be valued from having completed a list.

By then, your life has its value in the memories of people who knew you and loved you – or who hardly had a chance to know you, remembering your wheezy laugh, and the fact that you called your wife ‘mate’, and, most importantly, the fact that you loved them.

The watch I was given when my grandfather died isn’t very reliable. It keeps stopping. As a timepiece, it is entirely useless.

Still, I treasure it and I wear it every day. Because it isn’t a timepiece in the sense that it tells me the time; it’s a constant reminder of the limitedness of time – and the love that is possible within it.

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matriarchal polygyny: a modest proposal

Introduction

Whatever one thinks about Karl Marx, there is no denying that his friend Friedrich Engels was by far the cooler of the two. It was Engels who had the big parties at his house, and Engels who took Marx out drinking in Soho (and who bought all the drinks, obviously, because he was the one with the money. Which is also cool).

And coolest of all, it was Engels who was prepared to shock Victorian Britain by publishing a book about sex and relationships. Marx himself, lacking Engels’ bravery, kept sex mostly as a personal thing between himself and his wife Jenny. And, notoriously, their housekeeper Helene. (In fact, when Helene had one of Marx’s children, Engels told everyone the child was his. Some think he did this to help Marx avoid controversy. But really it was simply because Engels knew, deep down, that being a player is cool).

Engels worked harder, partied harder, and still lived longer than Marx. And so, shortly after Marx died, Engels published his solo masterpiece, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State. In it, he argued that the “traditional” patriarchal family structure is neither natural, nor moral, nor particularly functional. Before the invention of private property and land, Engels suggested, families were largely not patriarchal, but matriarchal groups of powerful women. These women took husbands, sometimes temporarily, for the purposes of procreation. They then raised the children together communally.

The patriarchal family, he claimed, only developed with the development of private property, as a means for those who had taken control of land and the means of production – who happened to be men) to take control of their wives and families and to subjugate them in much the same way they subjugated the working class and the rest of the material world.

Men wanted faithful wives only to guarantee that their children were their own so they could pass on their property to a legitimate heir, and so control what they owned even after they died. For that reason, they needed to ensure their wives were going to live with them and be dependent on them. With the help of bourgeois marriage law, men were able to make women their dependents and sexual servants, leading to what Engels calls the “world-historical defeat of the female sex.”

Engels views this not just as a bad thing for women, but also for men, who have traded in their own sexual freedom for a means to pass on property, with the result being prostitution and infidelity.

And it is from from this point – that the monogamous nuclear family is ultimately a bad thing – that my modest proposal originates.

 

One’s own children are a burden

It is self-evidently true that women were, through no fault of their own, tragically defeated and gain nothing whatsoever from being in a ‘traditional’ monogamous family group. There is, after all, absolutely no benefit or interest whatsoever for a woman in a relationship with a man who owns property and who has the privelege of going to work while she is left to bring up children. Bringing up children is a task of little value, and certainly not one that a man would ever take on seriously. It is therefore an unjust state of affairs that one person in a marriage has the freedom to go out and work, while another is forced to spend time with their own children.

It could therefore be pointed out that one great and fortunate step for humanity is that, as a result of the advances of feminism, both men and women are now expected to work, so that nobody of any gender has to be left with the odious responsibility of raising their own children. To an extent this has been a victory for both feminism and socialism; with our system of state schooling, we have liberated parents from wasting their precious labour time on the banal task of instilling features like reason or self-discipline in their children. We can now safely expect our childrens’ schools to do this for us, and happily we also have a schools inspectorate which can declare any school inadequate which fails to take complete responsibility for this. Engels himself thought that such a state of affairs could only come about after a communist revolution. Perhaps he was wrong about that.

 

Monogamy is the problem

But the battle is not yet won: there are still problems which are rooted in the basic structure of the monogamous family. Curiously, though, Engels thought that in a communist utopia, people would continue with monogamous relationships, but more in the nature of ‘sexual love’. And this, of course, is where Engels must be modestly challenged. Because it is not capitalism that is the problem: monogamy is the problem.

Nobody wants monogamy really. If we want to know what people really want, we must do two things: consider their nature as they have evolved, and listen to what they say they want. And also, what they say they don’t want.

 

What men want

With men, it is very clear. Men want sex. And they want it with as many women as possible. We know this from what they say when they do not have it, and what they say when they have it with one person and yet still want to have it with others and can’t. They are unhappy with the situation.

There is a perfect evolutionary explanation for this: they want to have as many children as possible, with many different mothers, to increase the likelihood that their genes will be passed on. Contrary to Engels’ claim that only capitalist bourgeois society causes infidelity in men, it is in fact perfectly natural for men to want to have children with several different women.

However, they cannot do this, because the expectations of capitalism are such that they can only pass on their property to the child of one mother. Capitalist bourgeois values have therefore been so entrenched in women that they believe it is in some way wrong to have sex with a man who may be having sex with other women. They know they could, but they believe they shouldn’t, unless they are in a monogamous relationship with him. The result is that many men are frustrated.

Men are also frequently frustrated with the responsibilities placed on them by having so much power in the workplace. As we know, the workplace is where all men are given almost infinite power and opportunity, in comparison with women. But for some reason, they do not want it. And this is understandable, because men are fundamentally incompetent. They feel pressure to work hard and take on more powerful roles with more professional responsibility. Similarly they feel a responsibility to take charge in the home and be the head of their household; and to make important decisions which, deep down, they know their basic foolishness renders them ill-equipped to make.

They dislike this, and would like nothing more than a life with absolutely no power or responsibility, where they are able to relax and have sex with many women. But current family structures and working traditions deny them this possibility.

 

 

What women want

Women, meanwhile, are completely different. Women know that they could easily have sex with a man at any time: they simply need to ask. But they don’t. While it is natural for men to want to be polygamous, and also natural for them to demand complete commitment from their partners (in order to ensure their own genes are passed on), this is not the case for women. This is because, as everyone knows, women are far less likely to cheat. It is almost like they don’t know how.

This may be because, as outlined above, bourgeois capitalism has taught them that they must know who the father of the child is so that he can pass on his property. Or it may be because, since they bear children and never have the worry about whether the child is theirs, they evolved simply to desire security for their babies, rather than the spreading of their genes.

Either way, women do not ever complain, as men do, that they are not having sex with enough different people: women complain that they cannot find ‘the one’. Women just want to find one man who will give them those babies. It is no wonder they so easily fell victim to the capitalist bourgeois men who promised them this, in exchange for stripping them of all power.

For unlike men, women still do not have the power they deserve. Women are clearly more sensible and intelligent than men, but even in post-feminist societies with socialised childcare, they still do not earn as much as men on average. Women deserve the opportunity to work longer hours to earn money, to gain the power, and these opportunities are routinely denied to them. With this economic power would come the possibility of making more important decisions around the home, which women also know that they would be better at.

What women need, therefore, is not simply equal responsibility, power and opportunities to men, but more responsibility, power and opportunity than men. Otherwise they are never to achieve truly equal responsibility, power and opportunity.

 

A modest proposal

In summary: Men want sex with many women and can’t get it; but they don’t want power, either at work or at home, which they are ill-suited to and yet are given it simply by asking. Women want power and are kept from it, while knowing they could have easily have sex but not really just wanting one man to love them.

There is an obvious solution, a new kind of family structure which, if adopted, would solve all the problems of men and women alike: Matriarchal Polygyny. Polygyny, to clarify, is the practice of one man being partnered with more than one wife. This should not be confused with polygamy, (either gender having more than one spouse) or polyandry, (which is a wife having many husbands), or the grotesque free-for-all that is sometimes called ‘polyamory’. It is specifically polygyny.

One man would have anything between three and ten wives.

But there is a twist to this: my proposal is not like standard polygyny, the way it is practiced by Mormons or many Muslims in the Middle East. My proposal is for matriarchal polygyny: in every case, women would be in charge.

There is no doubt that if responsibility was taken out of the hands of men, and the job of running both families and society was taken over by women, as a sisterhood together, things would be better. Men don’t want to get things done and are naturally competitive; but women are both immune from such laziness and, as we know, never compete with each other.

The role of women would therefore be like a combination of queen bees and worker bees in a bee-hive. They would, together, do the work that needed doing, arrange communal schooling and socialisation for the children of all so that they did not have to worry about their own children’s upbringing, and take on the economic power and responsibility at work that they have always desired but been kept from attaining, and make the important decisions for the family that they have been prevented from making.

Women could, in family groups together, have it all. These would not be traditional families – they would be ‘mammilies’.

Men, meanwhile, would be relieved of their responsibilities and kept as drones are in a bee-hive. Their role would be to relax and enjoy their new role as sex-slaves for their many wives. It is, after all, what men have always dreamed of.

Everybody would be happy.

 

An apparent problem, and a solution

A critic might point out that there is an obvious problem for this: there would be too many men (as least to begin with, while society waited for technology to make it possible to grow the exact number of men that were required in test tubes). With this would come a danger of male babies being born unwanted, as there is a chance that mammilies would not be able to find enough wives for them.

There is, again, a modest but obvious solution to this. We can easily do swapsies with Chinese families, where the one-child policy has male babies considerably more desirable than females. No doubt the Chinese government, exemplary as they are in knowing what the people of China want, could facilitate this. Perhaps it could even make a Sino-Western world war less of an inevitability.

 

Conclusion

There is work to be done. Changes in government policy must be made in order to ensure that this family structure becomes the norm as swiftly as possible, and it should be acknowledged by all that groups of women should be in charge, should have a man to love them and to give them babies (this is, after all, the only thing men are good for) and to take all the positions of power that are required to make the world right.

Which is – to return to where we began – how Karl Marx’s family actually worked. After all, Karl never worked or earned money, so he never had any economic power over his family. And everyone knows that the real brains and power, the Queen Bee behind the Marx hive, was always Jenny. She got things done and kept her family in order – with the help of the housekeeper, of course – both of them using their drone, Karl, to satisfy their sexual needs and bringing all the children up together, while giving Karl enough spare time to write Capital and go drinking with his very cool friend Engels without having to worry about pesky things like responsibilities. And everyone was happy.

Matriarchal polygyny: if it’s good enough for the Marx mammily, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

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