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Thursday, December 16, 2010  

I Am Just a Monkey, Man

I don't care what anybody says, I'll always love Mick Jagger:

It seems a little quaint for a 67-year-old to refer to his girlfriend of nearly a decade as someone he is “kind of dating.” But Jagger is disinclined to articulate any greater commitment. “I don’t really subscribe to a completely normal view of what relationships should be,” he says. “I have a bit more of a bohemian view. To be honest, I don’t really think much of marriage. I’m not saying it’s not a wonderful thing and people shouldn’t do it, but it’s not for me. And not for quite a few other people too, it would appear.” He laughs. “I just think it’s perhaps not quite what it’s cracked up to be. I know it’s an elaborate fantasy.”

So far, good enough for me. Marriage is an elaborate fantasy, which I think is kind of awesome, and I've got no interest in critiquing Mick Jagger's personal life anyway. You can't really blame someone for taking what the world freely gives, and I can hardly promise that given his resume I'd be a paragon of domestic virtue either. But here's where it gets kind of interesting:

He goes on to talk, in a rather rambling way, about the animal kingdom and how human mores regarding marriage and fidelity correspond to what we know of primate behavior. “If you have studied or have even a passing knowledge of animal behavior, it’s hard to see how our rules and regulation fit in,” he says at one point.

There are swans, he is reminded.

“Oh, yeah, I love it when women say that,” he replies. “I always have a joke with L’Wren about that. Women tend to say these things more than men do, don’t they?” He affects a sentimental whisper: “ ‘They mate for life, you know.’ ” He chortles heartily at this piece of feminine nonsense. “Yeah,” he muses, when his laughter dies away, “it’s swans and there’s one other. What is it? Albatross, or something.”

Modern biology, at least at the popular level, has always been driven by human narcissism. People talk, usually disparagingly, about 'social Darwinism' as if there's ever been any other kind. "Oh, I'm not a Social Darwinist," the modern-day Darwinian ideologue says; "I just think human society is totally explained by ant colonies." Now there are plenty of biologists who are truly fascinated by the variety and wonder of life, but very few of them opine on the relationship between bonobo mores and human ones.

In context, Jagger's comment--which is an entirely ordinary and increasingly conventional view--becomes rather comical. Check out the other pastimes of this mammalian enthusiast:

We are sitting in the Carlyle hotel’s Royal Suite, Jagger’s regular residence when he is in New York. A grand piano sits in the corner of the cathedral-like living room. A couple of guitars — an acoustic and a Gibson electric — are leaning against the sofa. Lying on the coffee table, alongside a bottle of Bobbi Brown Hydrating Face Tonic, is a copy of the new Diaghilev biography that Jagger has just purchased.

...

“I got a powerful sense of his mastery of every detail of every aspect of the production,” says Martin Scorsese, who collaborated with Jagger on the Stones concert documentary “Shine a Light.” “And by that, I don’t just mean the music; he also has a sharp sense of cinema.”


...

When he is on the road, he has been known to keep a map in his dressing room, indicating the city at which the tour will go into profit.

...

Marianne Faithfull once claimed that of all Jagger’s relationships, the one with Richards was “the only one that really means anything to him.”

...

He would rather be distinguished by the renaissance breadth of his interests. He speaks excellent French. He is an ardent cricket fan. He acts. He produces movies. He reads widely in fiction and nonfiction....On the morning of his interview, he missed his usual 40 minutes of every-other-day exercise in Central Park in order to attend a lecture on “wave and sand formations.”

All of this is terrific, as far as I'm concerned. And you know, Jagger is right that primates aren't so interested in monogamy. But you know what else they're not interested in? Living intercontinentally, playing guitars and pianos, reading (much less writing) books, designing camera angles, spending hundreds of hours in a studio making a record, plotting break-even points, concerning themselves with decades-long creative partnerships, and exercising. And anyone who has studied, or even has a passing knowledge of animal behavior, knows that the chimp is no damned good at sitting still through lectures on "wave and sand formations." Just think about the massive cultural effort that goes into creating even one of these enjoyments. Consider the endless, orgasm-less hours that went into creating the simple electric guitar and the social milieu in which it can be played and heard. Your wearier voices of modernity spent their lives trying to answer the question of just how the blundering meatsacks that we humans are have managed to channel our effort into such apparently useless things as grand pianos and scientific lectures. And as unsatisfying as the work of a Freud or a Marx might ultimately be, they at least felt the need to account for the vast difference between humanity as we know it and the primitive state in which they imagined our true selves to have been forged.

Not so with the practitioners of evolutionary astrology. Why do we like to screw around? Bonobos. Why do we like to mate? Swans. Our true self, the key to our correct and rational conduct, is buried in our genetic history and that's all there is to it. Whereas once we danced on strings held by the stars, now we are the dysfunctional captives of some primitive human prototype. The terrifying thought that we might truly be conscious and truly free is banished either way.

Even the form of the argument, such as it is, is self-defeating. Yes, it is true that bonobos have a varied and fascinating sex life. But it's not like they go around explaining it by making reference to some nearly-related species. Only humans do that. We are not alone in wanting to get it all kinds of ways and all kinds of places. But we are alone in feeling the need to explain it to ourselves and to each other--not to mention in fashioning methods for satisfaction that can manage to overwhelm even our insatiate longings.

However small the genomic difference between the human and the great ape, as phenomena the differences are vast, approaching infinity. The massed neurons of all the world's animals could not write nor read this blog post, much less design the computer on which it is being typed. Our animal brethren are not our true selves. The stars are not interested in our fates. We are alone with our bursting consciousness in this complacent universe, shaped for a complicated kind of freedom to do things that serve no evolutionary purpose--whether these things are grave, tedious, delightful, moving, or frivolous. The man who played at the devil and insisted that "you'll never make a saint of me" has every reason to know that.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:46 AM
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