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Culture Watch

In this issue:

Nuns have to do it, some athletes just want to. Doing without sex is what we're talking about, and it's the subject of an intriguing and thoughtful study "A History of Celibacy." A bestseller in Canada, it traces the phenomenon from ancient Greece to the present day. Just when you though there was nothing new to be written about Elizabeth Taylor, along comes The Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Ellis Amburn. He finds there are still surprises. 

Shhh--something is growing in the greenhouse of the widow in the movie Saving Grace that will save her home from creditors--and maybe send her to jail. The delightful British comedy stars the superb Brenda Blethyn. 

A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott
(Scribner; 493 pages; $30)

   The title of this book could just as well have been A History of Celibacy AND Sexuality, because you can't talk about one without the other.  Elizabeth Abbott, who is the dean of women at Trinity College of the University of Toronto, has thoroughly researched both for this study, which was a bestseller in Canada, and follows several major recurring themes that run throughout human civilization. Refreshing for an academic, she writes with wit and energy, producing a scholarly work that is enlightening and entertaining. Sinners no less than saints do battle with their own sexuality, and Abbott illuminates the celibate state and struggles that preoccupied such disparate figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc and Cher.
   For centuries, the condition of celibacy - or, as some might term it, predicament - has been forcibly imposed or has been a deliberate choice. The reasons are many.  The castrati of opera - young boys castrated to preserve their high sweet voices - and the high-ranking eunuchs of China are examples of enforced vocational celibacy, but in many cultures men have a long - and to some, bizarre - tradition of deliberately committing to celibacy for short or extended periods as a kind of insurance for physical and mental prowess and stamina. The  belief in the "power of semen'' has influenced men from a variety of backgrounds - Greek physicians, Hindu sages, athletics coaches, and moral reformers - to advocate celibacy because it enables males not only to save their precious fluid ounces but allows them to conserve manly vigor, energy and intellectual acumen. More than semen is at stake. French novelist Honor´e de Balzac supposedly groaned after a romp in bed, "There goes another novel." 
    Boxers may not read much Balzac but they share his pain. They are almost reverent about their faith in semen; Muhammad Ali thought that six weeks of celibacy before a fight would make him a great warrior. In a sort of "No Sex, Please, We're Soccer Players'' gambit, coaches from nations competing in the 1998 World Cup, Abbott writes, imposed a ban on their players the night before a game. Whether or not the practice of forgoing sex to achieve athletic success is based on exact science, she rightly credits it with imparting a vital psychological energy through a sense of ritual and discipline.
   From ancient times until today, women have gained power and lost it through celibacy. The wives of the Greek comedy Lysistrata famously kept their husbands out of their beds until they agreed to end the long drawn out Peloponnesian War. (The men lasted six days before caving in.) Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, is one of the better known females who calculatedly kept herself inviolate for political gain. In late Victorian England, thousands of women staged a "silent strike'' for women's rights, knowing no man and bearing no child as their strategy to improve the lot of the sisterhood. 
       However noble and uplifting chastity may be for some women, for others it has only a dark and sinister side. Whenever it is upheld as a moral virtue, it is women who have the task of protecting and maintaining it. These unspoken rules of the Victorians, Abbott writes,  commanded that "a woman must be virginal at marriage and chaste afterward but her husband is not bound by the same constraints.'' One result of the double standard was the sanctioning of prostitution. The author makes the point that "Prostitutes, reviled though they were, effectively accommodated enough male lechery to ensure 'good girls' remained just that.'' Prostitution was the service "without which society's moral standards would collapse under the burden of pent-up lust.'' 
      Since the earliest recorded history, celibacy has figured in religions, and Abbott provides four chapters describing the tangled connections between faith and human sexuality. The pagans prized celibacy - think of those Vestal Virgins - and of the world's major religions only Judaism and Islam do not make it an important instrument for the devout. Christianity has struggled with it since the days of the early church, finally accepting it for clergy in the 13th century. At a young age, girls were often consigned to a nunnery by their families and endured a life of poverty, obedience and chastity, suppressing their sexuality to become the "Bride of Christ'' and never a wife or mother. Not that this was all bad. For many, it meant liberation from the real possibility of a bad marriage, hard drudgery, multiple births and early death, and for the truly faithful, it cleared the path to spiritual growth. Abbott sweepingly concludes that "the convent gave European women more freedom to develop and express themselves than any other institution, including the family.'' 
    For women, growing old increases the chance of enforced or chosen celibacy, Abbott contends, either because they generally outlive their mates or because of their partner's impotence. Society--not to mention the adult children--is embarrassed by any show of lust. "In old age,'' Abbott stresses, "women are expected to revert to the undefiled state of early childhood when they were sexless, virginal and pure.'' For her part, Abbott, who has been married and is a mother, is experiencing a newfound commitment to celibacy as a result of her work on this project, and she calls it liberating. No more must she look after some one else's needs for meals or clean laundry  "or answer the infernal question, 'Honey, where are my socks?' '' It's a lighthearted comment, but she takes serious note of modern society's renewed interest in celibacy.
      There's evidence of a modern chastity movement that is re-assessing the prevailing view of sexual activity as performance, "depersonalized and relegated to the category of other athletic activities.''  The specter of AIDS is one of the most compelling reasons for re-thinking celibacy. While in the West abstinence is a leading preventive measure, Africa's cultural views against celibacy have contributed to the devastation of the AIDS epidemic on the continent. Containing everything you ever wanted to know about celibacy, the book could not be more timely. 

And Don't Call Her Liz

The Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Ellis Amburn
(HarperCollins; 352 pages; $25

     Elizabeth Taylor has been with us late and long, getting and spending. The breathtakingly beautiful and brave child of National Velvet grew up before our eyes in films, magazine spreads and scandal sheets. We lived through her affairs and addictions, the marriages and divorces, the at-death's-door illnesses and miraculous recoveries, the great performances and embarrassing movies, the astonishing weight gains and losses. She dominates many pages in the 20th century photo album. We have seen pictures of her with and without husbands, and we are familiar with snapshots of the children, the dogs and the diamonds. Some of us may even have bought her perfume. Is there anything left that we need or care to know? Yes, according to author Ellis Amburn, quite a bit, and he's right. If there were a degree in Taylorabilia, Amburn would have a doctorate.  He may have read every article and book that even mentions her name - he lists 100 books in the bibliography - and interviewed 500 people for this biography. Though you might argue that the title is an exaggeration, this crisp and detailed account of the star's life and loves, triumphs and failures, makes for a fascinating read.
     From the start, she was a commodity to be exploited. Like many another kid actor, a stage mother was pushing her. Cynical studios were eager to take advantage of the public's infatuation with the intriguing girl who was rapidly ripening into a woman. In her choice of lovers and husbands, she always managed to attract major exploiters, takers who were panting to advance their career, self-importance or finances through her fame. Despite this and to her credit, she never saw herself as a victim. Early on, she invented a seemingly conflicting personal role for herself: the exquisite beauty as tough and arrogant broad and who could out-curse most of the men around her. This aspect of her persona suited her perfectly in the Oscar-winning role of Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but she took it, like she did took most things, to excess. Amburn points out, and rightly so, that she played the "loud-mouthed harridan over and over in many of her succeeding movies.'' He calls winning the Oscar for that performance "the kiss of death for her career as a serious actress.''
   The book clears up two minor points: 1) the fabulous eyes are not violet, and 2) she detests the name Liz. Such trivia is sprinkled through the book, but there's more on Amburn's mind as he reviews her astonishing life. Analyzing the relationships with the most important men in the life of Liz (whoops! Elizabeth), he sees a distinct pattern. Essentially, Amburns explains, she developed non-sexual and deeply loving relationships with men the author describes as being gay - Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and Michael Jackson, among them - to whom she remained fiercely loyal and protective. The coruscating, self-destructive relationships were all explosively charged, non-loving involvements with high-testosterone, heterosexual partners (think Eddie Fisher, Mike Todd, Senator John Warner). There's a complexity. Amburn notes, with Richard Burton.  Because of his homosexual encounters -Laurence Olivier was reputed to be a lover - and unresolved sexual ambiguity, the tortured Welsh actor fits into both categories. Worse for Taylor, and eventually fatal to Burton, was his alcoholism. Amburn's descriptions of their nightmarish booze-filled days and nights and Burton's doomed attempts to put down the drink are horrifying and heartbreaking. The sense of waste--of money, of talent, of purpose--is almost palpable.  At her worst an angel of destruction, Taylor at her best has been a mainstay to her family and her friends and a fearless champion to combat AIDS. It's too much to ask if she will herself look back and honestly evaluate her tumultuous existence. As Amburn puts it, she prefers dwelling "in an eternal present, as if the past never existed.'' Since Taylor will not examine on her much-lived life, Amburn has done it for her, and quite nicely too. 

And Consider This


Saving Grace 
Directed by Nigel Cole

What's a poor widow to do? Especially if she's a genteel lady presiding over a gracious manor and charming grounds in the country who's suddenly inherited the Alpine-sized debt of her late husband. The deceased made a mysterious leap from an airplane without a parachute, and now his widow, Grace Trevethen, is set to lose everything to creditors, including her home, if she cannot quickly come up with a hefty sum of cash. She's completely at sea about finances. The local vicar asks if she has a stock portfolio. She doesn't know what it is, and neither does he. An inspired solution is at hand, but there's a tiny technical problem: it's highly illegal. A genius at growing all things green, Grace and her gardener Matthew (Craig Ferguson) concoct a scheme to grow hemp plants in her greenhouse and then turn over a handsome profit by selling the marijuana. When the harvest is done, Grace puts on her best white suit and hat and travels to London in search of a dealer to buy the stash. Mayhem, as they say, ensues. Saving Grace is one of late summer's pleasures. The coast of Cornwall is spectacularly beautiful, and in the honored tradition of British comedies, there's a fine supporting cast of village eccentrics and lovable folk who get pulled into the scheme. But it's Brenda Blethyn who carries the day and the film. The two-Academy Award nominee gives the newly bereaved Grace an appealing naivete and sweet confusion and then brings out the matron's newfound steely determination as she plots criminal intent and comes to her own rescue. She and Ferguson, who also co-wrote the screenplay, make for a welcome rarity on the screen these days: an older woman and younger man as trusted partners and good friends.

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