Fatal Unattraction

I’m not going to talk about Bad Art Friend, because I haven’t read it; instead I’m going to talk about Tony Tulathimutte’s The Feminist, but I’m going to try to talk about it without talking about what it ostensibly wants me to talk about (feminism, incels, masculinity, identity politics and so on) except in a quite specific and limited way.

A slightly antiquated moral fable: a virtuous and upright man fails to establish a successful business, and becomes embittered by his lifelong inability to attain the prosperity he sees all around him. Everyone else in the local business community indulges in a little corruption and dishonesty from time to time; a few are egregiously dishonest, others merely routinely tolerant of trifling dishonesty in themselves and others. The virtuous man is known to be a man of his word, reliable to a fault, but he is not trusted and he is not liked. No-one wants to do business with him, given the option of rubbing along with someone who is less of a tiresome stickler.

The man performs good works in the community, sponsors lavish public events, faces his peers with a practiced bonhomie, but beneath all of these efforts there is an undertone of desperation and, behind that, moral contempt. There is a fact which everyone can perceive about his character, which is that he is a prig, and no-one is willing to accept the bargain he is trying to make with them by putting on a show of likeability, generosity, community-spiritedness and so on. This is the stumbling block within himself, and he cannot get over it.

His tribulations worsen: as the years pass, it becomes increasingly apparent that he is widely disliked, and the snubs directed towards him become more explicit and more injurious. Others have wealth, and the camaraderie of the wealthy, from which he is shut out — literally, in the case of the country club to which he is refused membership, on grounds which are never disclosed. He sees his less upright peers acquire shining moral reputations, as benefactors and do-gooders, pillars of the community. The entire edifice of social status, the hierarchy of esteem and emolument, stands bare before him, and he sees that it is a lie in which everybody colludes except himself.

As his desperation and bitterness intensify, he lowers himself by accepting, through gritted teeth, corrupt and debased arrangements which his more routinely dishonest peers, buoyed by the gains their peccadilloes have secured for them, have the luxury of refusing. Because he cannot find it in himself to indulge some petty hypocrisies, he becomes a grand hypocrite and, eventually, a serious criminal who is driven to violate every principle he believes in. The moral of the fable, although it is not spelled out, is something like this: self-righteousness makes you socially ugly, and ugliness corrodes the basis of virtue, which is the confidence that you with all your flaws are acceptable to yourself and to others, and can accept others with all their flaws in return.

The story of The Feminist is something like this story, but transposed into a different bourgeois milieu with the parameters tweaked so as to press some contemporary buttons. Romantic and sexual viability is the story’s chosen proxy for social acceptance, and an ostensibly feminist sexual ethics and etiquette is its stand-in for moral uprightness. What does the protagonist need to do, to be saved? What is the stumbling block within himself? I suggest that it isn’t narrow-shoulderedness, nor some unquantifiable default of sexual charisma, that holds him back. It isn’t, in this case, an autistic difficulty with implicit social prompts (this is hinted at — “the alien system of codes and manners that govern flirting, conveyed in subtextual cues no more perceptible to him than ultraviolet radiation” — but not particularly developed, and the background explanation is that he has been socialised in a predominantly single-sex environment). But the flaw is characterological, which is to say that it inheres within the character’s “make-up”, and defines the role he is going to play and the trajectory he is going to take within his story. He is, like our floundering man of business, a prig who invariably places a moral barrier between himself and the trust of other people. (The idea that people, or at least characters in stories, have “character flaws” in this sense, and that you can hang an entire story off developing the consequences of such a flaw, is just what makes both my fable and The Feminist antiquated, or reassuringly old-fashioned, in a certain way).

There is a social transactional layer to both sex and business which is distinct from, although functionally enmeshed with, the explicit quid pro quo of both activities. You may think that someone is a scoundrel who is definitely trying to screw you over, and yet still be willing to engage with them on the basis that, at a certain level, you and they both know what they are like, what you are like, and how things are likely to go. Mutual recognition, having sized each other up and assented to what you see in each other, is foundational here. It’s the difference between “he’s a slippery customer, and I don’t know what his game is”, and, “I expect he’s up to something, as per, but I’ll take my chances”. Among the things which are off-putting at this level is someone’s very clearly trying to win a sort of game with themselves, in which assenting to their terms means you are inevitably going to come off as the loser. “This person’s absolute priority, come what may, is keeping their self-regard intact” is a red flag no matter how morally and politically correct the rules of the game appear to be.

We might see The Feminist as trying to prompt us to ask some thorny questions about the viability of contemporary feminist sexual ethics, given that someone can be as upright and virtuous as the protagonist and end up embittered and (it is implied, femicidally) vengeful as a result, but I don’t think the story poses such questions clearly enough to merit being taken seriously as an interlocutor on that topic. It confuses the issue by lensing it through a character whose way of being upright and virtuous is always going to end in disaster, and leaning into that narrative payoff rather than developing the question more multi-dimensionally. The bit of “contemporary feminist sexual ethics” that concerns explicit, painstakingly negotiated consent is I think fairly clearly both aspirational, rather than descriptive, and chiefly about managing risk (which is situationally modulated, as the girls in the story who would rather see a bit of initiative directed their way understand perfectly well). It fits the narrative template well because it is catnip to the kind of mind that cleaves inflexibly to moral aspirations and is risk-averse to a fault. This is what happens to ethical schemes when they fall into the clutches of the superego: they lose their situational flexibility, and become engines of perversity. But this, again, is not specifically a fault of the ethical rubric in question: the superego can do this with anything.

The interesting thing, for me, about The Feminist — and I wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be true of Bad Art Friend too — is how much it is shaped by the need to tell a particular kind of story, organised in a particular kind of way: a moral fable centred on an aspect of someone’s personality that frustrates their ability to function socially as they would wish, to the point of a final undoing of their moral selfhood. The reader is invited to gawp at the resulting trolley-crash as if observing something “about society”, but there is deceit in the premise: The Feminist is not (as it sometimes seems to want to be) a plausible synechdoche of a “certain type of soi-disant feminist man”, but a parable running on very well-worn narrative rails. It borrows, at the denouement, from the language of an incel subculture, but does not “explain” incels sociologically. Instead, it illustrates a mechanism, similar to the one I was ascribing to the superego just a moment ago, or a sort of homology between mechanisms: on the one side, a narrative form linking character to comeuppance through a developmental sequence; on the other, the sense of an “inner stumbling block” reported by many incels, who feel that they are in the position of having something wrong with them that they themselves are unable to see, or can picture only through dysmorphic fantasy (“my shoulders must be too narrow”, etc). But perhaps the question “why this literary form, now?” and the question “why this type of angry fatalism, now?” have an answer in common.