Clouds of Women and Men
Some thoughts occasioned by Daphne, Cameron, Harper, and Ethan in episodes 1-4 of season 2 of "The White Lotus"
Note: this in no way a review of The White Lotus. The season is still unfolding, and I don’t have any reason to expect the observations made below to remain sound as it does so; indeed, with a new episode tonight, I won’t be surprised if this post shortly seems stupid in the context of the show. I use this quartet of characters at this moment in the plot’s arc solely as a departure point. Also: I discuss some NSFW themes in this post; as some readers are my professional colleagues, I warn you here and encourage you to skip this post if that will make you uncomfortable! Also: thanks to my friend Jason for the chat about this!
The show The White Lotus features, among many other characters, two opposed yet closely interwoven couples:
Harper and Ethan; and
Daphne and Cameron.
That Harper’s name is perilously close to “harpy” and that Daphne shares her name with a Greek nymph who transforms into a laurel tree to escape Apollo’s aggressive pursuit are both details relevant to the characters. For the men, Ethan is a Hebrew name meaning “firm” and “strong,” while Cameron is Gaelic and means “bent nose,” a sobriquet which points, as it rather phallically were, at several possible interpretations. (I think it’s significant that one name comes from the Judeo-Christian world and the other from old Britannia).
Within their relationships, Harper harps; Daphne turns into something inanimate and unreachable yet living; Ethan is outwardly unchanging; and Cameron follows his crooked protrusions wheresoever they lead him.
All four of them are familiar types from our present. Harper is an angry, somewhat dour, worldly critic; although it’s not explicit, she certainly seems online, aligned with e.g. Twitter conceptions of “what the good is”: she reads the news, detests humanity, sees individuals mostly as instances of cultural and political problems, and, although she is unhappy, she remains proud of her moral superiority. Ethan is a common kind of male pseudo-cipher: seemingly without self, he nurtures his resentments in secret and eagerly aligns with Harper to keep peace. Daphne is an elevated sorority girl, engaged in type-A interpersonal gamesmanship with her husband, aching from his betrayals while half-engaged in her own. And Cameron is a comparably fraternity-derived “bro,” a man easily congruous with his own life and his social scene, untroubled by his deceits, happy to deploy pop-evolutionary-biological / Rogan-anthropological arguments for why he cheats, etc.
As couples, the show seems to say, they represent two poles of romantic relationship:
Authentic: Harper and Ethan are co-sufferers; they bring their “complete,” broken selves to one another let the chips fall where they may. Ethan likes morning sex; Harper likes evening sex; so they do not have sex, because to do so would require inauthenticity from one of them. They do not “try” for one another, because, for them, “to try” is to break what a relationship is: the space where they are fully relaxed and expressive of everything they feel (or do not feel).
Performative: Daphne and Cameron are co-actors; they perform the scripts of “being in love” and “being happily married.” When they romp about in their hotel room, it seems likely that what turns them on above all is their image of themselves as happy, good, and lucky (or even: their awareness that others can hear them). Like good actors, in other words, they enjoy the performance. But any performance has in its shadow some residue of the “real” self —such as it is— and they each periodically allow those selves some free expression in the form of secret adulteries.
At the halfway point of the season, it’s not yet clear what the show intends to say about these ways of being; so far, it’s been seemingly deliberate in ironizing them both. Ethan and Harper are indeed more “real” with one another than Cameron and Daphne, yet there remain whole zones of their relationship that they cannot discuss easily. Ethan in particular is not much less performative than Cameron, but rather than performing “romantic devotion” while cheating, he performs “total alignment” with his wife and her worldview while nursing his grievances (and masturbating alone). Harper is authentically what she thinks she is; but what she thinks she is is at some distance from what she really is; she is compelled, angered, energized, and frightened of Cameron, with whom her sexual tension is occasionally palpable. Something in her is unsettled, and she herself doesn’t know what it is.
Likewise: Daphne is perhaps a caged bird, but it’s not at all clear that, if released, she’d have anywhere to fly to. Her role may not be reducing her; it may indeed be substantiating her, less repressive than enabling; she has kinds of power, has forms of freedom, and although she seems unsure of whether women or men are “worse,” she doesn’t seem to want for direction in life. Cameron is a douche, yet his vivacious energy and positivity do, in fact, seem to result in better living through naive philosophy. He may be empty-headed and unfaithful, but it’s very hard to imagine Daphne —or anyone— preferring the inert Ethan, whose self is muddled by subtle, self-deceiving aspiration. And strangely, there’s a sense in which Cameron and Daphne are “realer” with one another than Ethan and Harper: they are each following their wills, rather than distorting or masking their wills for the sake of various ideals. They are facing the same way, outward, and they are operating similarly, while Ethan and Harper seem to revolve around one another, inward-looking and stuck.
So we return again to the contrast between “authenticity” and “performance.”
When I was in junior high, I had a friend I occasionally detested I’ll call D. Thick, muscular, with an impishness that presaged sadism to me, D. was in a mysterious position in the status hierarchy: a handsome and athletic preppie who was nevertheless not rated among the higher echelons, he had to hang out with my “off the map” group of weirdo friends on many weekends, although none of us were sure how to feel about him. We did have things in common, of course: we were all obsessed with girls, romantic imagination commingling with coarser urges in ways we had no idea how to balance or explain. D. was more successful with girls than the rest of us and was less of a feminist and a Puritan, and he often wanted to talk about his exploits in ways that bothered me.
One day, in the midst of a prurient conversation, D. told us all about how much he enjoyed blow jobs. He was, I now think to his credit, astute about why: “It makes me feel powerful, like, seeing her head down there. It feels, like, so dominant to me.” At the time, I felt wild contempt, and told him that I found this disgusting. Then and in the decades after, I pretended to preferences that aligned with various moral standards I thought I held; since, in my warped conception of romance, there could be no power dynamics at all in a relationship of any kind —only a merging of selves, only authenticity, only co-equal mutuality— blow jobs were anathema to me.
I laugh now to remember when my first girlfriend in high school attempted to initiate one and I stopped her, lecturing her on why I’d never want such a thing. I cannot imagine her thoughts as her priggish, snobby, hideous paramour interrupted making out to deliver a sermon on his own moral goodness! She argued with me: she claimed she wanted to do it and had “practiced” in some form or another. I didn’t even think to ask how; I simply reiterated that “I don’t like them.” (I could die of shame even today recalling this).
What the hell did I know about it? Why did I interpret things this way? But once we seize on an identity, we’re loathe to discard it, and ever since I’ve thought of myself as “not a blow job guy.” I may indeed not be; it makes no difference. But what I do remain interested in is the origin of these stories I’ve told myself about myself. It seems obvious to me that a 14-year-old boy saying he’s “not into blow jobs” is performing; he has no way of knowing what he’s into, not really. But who was I performing for? For D? For my other friends? For myself? For God? For some imagined goddess-like “spirit of woman” in the sky who would observe my rectitude and reward me with maternal, enveloping, self-annihilating love, as my own mother intermittently had? Why did I want to merge more than to fuck? What do I want, in life or love, and how did I come to want it?
Recently, a friend told me that she felt that Nth-wave feminism and pornography had ruined men from “both sides”: on the one hand, men hid their real natures and desires, pretended to forms of docile goodness they didn’t actually possess, and repressed sharp, intense, or self-centered desires they felt acutely, making them in sum “unclear” and inwardly-conflicted and hard to assess as individuals. Their role-playing as “nice guys” isn’t sufficient to make them actually “nice guys,” whatever that would mean, but is sufficient to make them confusing, “not manly,” not decisive, not straightforward. And at the same time, heavy use of pornography has made their “inner selves” intensely selfish sexually, transactional, uninterested in the mystery of a given woman they meet and likelier to favor the globally-scaled bazaar of exposed and uncomplicated women they find in videos online.
I told her that I’d come to feel that men like D. are, in fact, better for women than men like me. My high school girlfriend could never know who I was because I refused to be who I was; I preferred to be something “good,” to act out a part, to feign qualities I lacked. I told my friend: “I’m like a cloud of half-inhabited male-selves. All the things I don’t want to be remain in me, but suppressed. All the things I want to be are sort of in me, but half-assed. There is nothing for a woman to fix on, to judge as ‘what she wants’ or not; I am always trying to become what’s wanted, and so I wind up a kind of vapor, a cloud of confused nature and will; I do not know myself and cannot be known; I am never really present. I am not a destination or a fate; I do not represent a path or a future; I cannot even be a stable target. Meanwhile, a woman meets a man like D. and knows what he is and what he wants. She might like it or not; she can make a decision; she can evaluate trade-offs, pros and cons; she knows what’s being exchanged. She doesn’t need to be a sky-goddess making a soul whole through approval or merging; she can be herself, distinct, accept or rejecting, assenting or resisting, a real, imminent woman with a real, if flawed, man. His ego does not hang in the balance when she speaks; she is freer to be independent with a chauvinist than she is with me, somehow, and I hate it.”
I’m not sure I blame feminism for this, or pornography. I doubt any of this is new. Some men are men; other men, like me, are not men. I don’t know what we are and I don’t especially feel like I need a word for it. I bet a lot of women know exactly what I mean anyway.
Daphne, in explaining to an incredulous Harper why she isn’t bothered by Cameron’s infidelity, says
I figured out how to handle it… I do what I want, so I'm not resentful,
It is unclear how seriously we’re supposed to take Daphne here. It could be a self-dealing rationalization, of course, but in contrast to Harper, Daphne does do what she wants, whereas it’s not clear Harper can even detect what she wants. Like me, she is so committed to pretending to be good that she might be literally unable to suss out her own will and preferences. And, like me, it’s hard to hard to know whether she’s even achieving the goal, whether she is, in fact, “good.” Worse for her, she’s enmeshed with a man engaged in similar pretenses: Harper is a woman who finds / pretends to find expressions of affection trivial and stupid; Ethan is a man who finds / pretends to find being desired unimportant. But wait! Which couple is performing? Which is authentic? Have they somehow reversed?
Daphne the phony does what she wants; Harper the real doesn’t even seem to want. Like many from the preceding generation —Gen X— she seems determined above all to never be seen wanting. She has an answer for everything, like me; she rejects all she lacks, like me; she avoids hope, like me, because we find it pathetic and we despise the fact that we are, like all humans, pathetic. We are still performing for some sky-god or another; we are eager to be designated as angels. We may still expect a reward. But we are always aware that somewhere inside us lurks that pathetic human-animal organism with all its uneditable desires, all its unconsidered urges. It does not want what we want; it threatens the performance of authenticity because to be really authentic, we’d have to express things that do not support our self-mythologizing, do not align with our boring-as-fuck “values.” I may like blow jobs! Harper may like bros, shopping, wealth, giggling, god-knows-what. Fortunately, we’ll never need to worry: we can perform our measured and elect qualities into the grave, as many do.
That’s how we “handle it.” Daphne does what she wants instead. Whether it can truly stave off resentment is not obvious, but it’s something.
On one hand, then: we see not antipodes but two forms of the same human reality. Everyone is a mix of being and becoming, fact and theory, actuality and aspiration. In relationships, the simultaneity of two individuals stretching across these dynamics gets complicated very quickly; our partners see us, obliging us to take our performances into the most private spaces while also assuring us —when relationships are good— that the unperformed reality which leaks out is, if not “good,” then at least not cause for rejection. This is one of the ways that relationships are a process, not a conclusion: over time, they influence and even produce the selves that are their ostensible bases. The binary of “real” and “fake” is itself both real and fake, and ultimately a bit incoherent.
On the other hand, we probably can debate which kinds of performance are better, if not in some general moral system than at least for us as individuals. In David Lean’s version of Dr. Zhivago, the loathsome character Komarovski says something to Lara about her poet / revolutionary lover that struck me when I saw it years ago:
Lara, I am determined to save you from a dreadful error. There are two kinds of men, and only two, and that young man is one kind. He is high-minded. He is pure. He is the kind of man that the world pretends to look up to and in fact despises. He is the kind of man who breeds unhappiness; particularly in women. Now, do you understand? I think you do. There's another kind. Not high-minded. Not pure. But alive. Now that your taste at this time should incline towards the juvenile is understandable. But for you to marry that boy would be a disaster.
Komarovski, a rapist and a chauvinist, goes on to grotesquely assert that there are likewise only two kinds of women. I suspect that any serious taxonomy would include far more than two types of men and two types of women, but I think the point is well-made. Ethan and Harper play at purity and breed unhappiness; Cameron and Daphne are not high-minded or pure, but they are alive. Note that Komarovski says “alive,” not happy; happiness may not be on offer, and it may not be the point; it might be a rather bad thing to seek, as many have observed. But what else is there today? What else has there ever been?
I say as a compliment to the show: I do not expect to find answers in coming episodes, only more complications. We all rise and fall again and again on moods that emerge from these inner and mutual conflicts; there is no perfected, final state of interrelationship or self-relationship. Do we play at goodness only to console ourselves for our lack of happiness? Do we fake happiness only to distract from our lack of goodness?
Towards the end of the most recent episode, a so-far mysterious character says “My whole life has been one long distraction,” and this seems as close to the spirit of the show as anything, and especially for how he says it: as a witticism, a bon mot, a clever remark whose reality is unknown and, for the moment, unimportant. It could be true, in whatever ways, or it could be an improvised self-mythologizing joke catalyzed only by the requirements of an interaction with another. So too with everything we are. And thus the intensity of Harper’s brief moments alone with Cameron, in the hotel room and out at sea; they are suffused with menace and desire, and seem somehow truly dangerous. They should. We might we be someone else entirely if responding to a different interlocutor; our self might take a suddenly new shape, something we both fear and crave, especially as we calcify in older age. What was realest about us can turn out to have been an act, and a momentary performance can lead inexorably to some new reality. How much we fear or yearn for this has a lot to do, again, with what we’re living for, with what we think is good in life; but think whatever we will, we’ll never, ever know.
Albie definitely has big substack energy
The blowjob story sounds like a Seinfeld episode. I can even imagine the dialogue while Elaine is narrating it to Jerry and Jerry says, “And then what did he do?” “He said he wanted to merge” “A blowjob is not merging?” “It’s not merging!”