The White Lotus Is Surprisingly, Subtly Countercultural - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The White Lotus Is Surprisingly, Subtly Countercultural
From left to right, F. Murray Abraham (Bert), Michael Imperioli (Dominic), and Adam DiMarco (Albie) — the three generations of Di Grasso men — in “The White Lotus” season 2 trailer (HBO/YouTube)

I first discovered HBO’s hit series The White Lotus through the hosts of the controversial Red Scare podcast, upon whom two of the characters in the first season were based. Director Mike White inhabits the cultural realm of the podcasters and their listeners, who delight in ridiculing politically correct tropes du jour. Thus my surprise when so many of my “normie” friends raved to me about the series’ second season. Did they not catch the subversive ideas White was toying with? In the culture clash between proponents of wokeness and anti-woke reactionaries, White emerges as an ingenious outlier. He proves himself capable of slyly slipping taboo ideas into his plots with a level of nuance that most countercultural reactionaries find themselves incapable of pulling off.

White, along with the other iconoclasts in his milieu, finds inspiration in theorists like Camille Paglia, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, René Girard, Christopher Lasch, and other writers who challenge modern rationalism and postmodern social constructivism, privileging aesthetic and metaphysical contentions over purely social and political ones. Season 2 — which takes place in Sicily — explores a number of themes that appear in Paglia’s debut book, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence (which the Red Scare–inspired characters are shown reading poolside in season 1, in addition to The Portable Nietzsche and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams), an over-700-page tome published in 1990. The dissident art and literary critic presents a series of unorthodox assertions about sex, gender, and human nature that — in addition to provoking the ire of the feminist establishment — won her attention across the globe.

White has rendered The White Lotus a true catalyst for freedom of thought and critical inquiry.

The book’s title alludes to her theory that Western culture “is ruled by personality.” Paglia traces this idea through “recurrent types or personae,” which in Latin literally translates to “masks.” Her “stress on … the biological basis of sex differences” builds on the Freudian assertion that “the mother [is] an overwhelming force who condemns men to lifelong sexual anxiety, from which they escape through rationalism and physical achievement.” Such interpretations of gender dynamics — of which Paglia is a bold proponent, as well as White, albeit with more subtlety — have been scant ever since Freudian ideas were deemed taboo by hegemonic powers.

Part of Paglia’s understanding of men’s and women’s sexual “personae” is shaped by Nietzsche’s Apollonian/Dionysian polarity: The former represents the masculine impulse for stoic order and rationality, while the latter represents the feminine drive toward ecstatic, bodily revelry and the chaotic, unpredictable forces of the natural world. Paglia’s proclivity to elucidate sexuality through the specters of art and nature can be said to have inspired White’s tendency to juxtapose sex scenes with cuts to the natural world — crashing waves, underwater shots of sea life, birds flying in the air, and the eruption of volcanoes — and to works of art — ranging from paintings of Catholic saints to the mysterious “teste di moro” (the term alludes to the Sicilian legend of a woman who chopped off the head of her adulterous lover and used it as a vase for flowers).

Lucia, a native Sicilian prostitute who seduces tourists at the White Lotus hotel, looks at a painting of St. Lucy (her namesake) with shame after sleeping with a client. Mia, her friend, stares fearfully at the altar of the (deconsecrated) chapel, into which she lured and had sex with a lounge singer in order to convince him to help her with her music career. Albie, the painfully politically correct Stanford student on vacation with his Italian-American family, gazes with dread upon a painting of St. Sebastian in the throes of ecstasy — whether he does so due to his divine love for Christ offered in martyrdom or his homoerotic and masochistic pleasure is, according to Paglia, up for debate. When Ethan finally has sex with his wife Harper (after giving her the cold shoulder in favor of porn), the testa di moro in their hotel room spontaneously crashes to the ground, implying that Ethan has realized his own masculine persona, or “mask.”

The interplay of sex with nature, and with art that alludes to Roman paganism and Catholicism (both of which undergird the Southern Italian metaphysical consciousness), sheds light on the complex dynamics at work within human sexuality. Hardly the mere “expression of feelings” or the projection of ingrained social conditioning, sex taps into eternal cosmic forces from which we can never fully escape.

White further explores the Freudian Oedipal narrative, Nietzschean ressentiment, and repressed “will to power” in his male characters. He is keen on the trope of the man who discovers his masculine sexual persona after accomplishing a distinctly masculine feat, usually one involving physical violence. Such feats empower characters like Ethan (who beats up his hotter, more assertive frenemy Cameron after he makes a sexual advance on his wife) and season 1’s Mark (who beats up a burglar threatening the safety of his girl boss of a wife) — both of whom are made to feel overshadowed by other men’s sexual prowess or their wives’ professional success.

These moments serve to reestablish that these characters are, as men, neither superfluous to nor interchangeable with their wives. White also uses Tanya — who clearly struggles with attachment issues and borderline personality disorder — to examine Freudian tropes about the feminine psyche, playing on the archetypes of the hysterical, sorrowful mother; the tragic heroine; and the sexually insecure “fag hag.”

White’s commentary on gender also plays with Paglia’s criticism of the implicit classism of proponents of political correctness, most of whom descend from or adapt themselves to the genteel, bureaucratic worldview of the WASP establishment. Paglia contrasts this hermetic, neo-gnostic Anglo view with those of her Italian family, her Jewish professors, and her Black and Latino arts students, whose more aesthetically and metaphysically rich worldviews — despite tending to be gruffer and more passionate — are more morally compelling than the views of those who harp about morality and justice without any real depth or foundation.

In her infamous lecture at MIT in 1993, Paglia warned about those who clamor for “diversity” but, in reality, look with disdain upon those whose cultural sensibility differs from their own — and who usually have little regard for the particularities that make each of the world’s cultures unique, especially when it comes to religion and art. The myopic materialism of the post-structuralist worldview, which prizes moralism and politics over aesthetics and spirituality, tends to generate a dull monoculture rather than a truly diverse cultural quilt.

White uses Albie as a vehicle for examining this tension. Albie is first juxtaposed with his father, Dominic, a Hollywood producer who has been “canceled” for his numerous adulterous affairs, and then with his grandfather, Bert, who also has had several adulterous affairs of his own. Albie often stands in judgment of his father and grandfather for their toxic masculinity. His reliance on the social constructivist jargon imparted to him by his literary and cultural theory professors distinguishes his “evolved,” morally upright views on women from those of his relatives.

He presumes to “educate” his father and grandfather — as if reading from a script — on how women have been historically oppressed by men. He has no qualms about belittling his father for his adultery, despite his father’s remorse and attempts to forgo his sexual addiction and make amends with his wife. Bert’s more biologistic views on sexuality, on the other hand, function as a mirror opposite of Albie’s social constructivist ones; Bert insists that men’s testosterone makes monogamy an impossible expectation and claims that he was a good, loving husband despite having “goomads” on the side.

Portia, Tanya’s secretary, who at first is charmed by Albie’s “nice guy” personality, finds herself more drawn to Jack, the sexy, unpolished — and certainly not politically correct — working-class bad boy. Albie’s blind adherence to woke orthodoxies sucks the erotic tension out of their encounters and ultimately stands no chance next to Jack’s scintillating flirtation skills. Portia and Jack clash, however, when he lets loose his contention that the world is fine as it is, especially when one considers the advancements in human rights and technology made in the last century, as opposed to Portia’s “presentist” belief that the world “is going to shit” (which is likely a reference to one of Paglia’s viral videos, where she condemns the lack of historical consciousness of those who share Portia’s view).

The public is thirsting for something more than humdrum moralistic and political messaging.

Albie’s condescending sympathy for the oppressed reveals the naïveté of elites who see themselves as saviors. His pity for Lucia, whom he deems a victim of patriarchal capitalism, backfires when she convinces him to wire her money and then disappears. Lucia better fits Paglia’s take on prostitutes: Far from being poor, defenseless victims, they are eternal symbols of the femme fatale, the malafemmena who holds cosmic power over “stupid,” instinctive men. And despite all his moralistic posturing, Albie shows his true colors when he blackmails his own father, who, despite his own ethical failures and alleged “toxicity,” emerges as the more authentically moral character.

While White clearly borrows heavily from certain Paglian themes, his show is less prone to doling out polemical arguments or solutions, as Paglia usually ends up doing. Despite the show’s proclivity to go against the status quo, it leaves the viewer with more questions and food for thought than settled conclusions. And unlike other proponents of free speech who too easily fall into “anti-woke” reactionary posturing, White has rendered The White Lotus a true catalyst for freedom of thought and critical inquiry.

Glenn Greenwald, in an interview on Red Scare, laudes The White Lotus for refusing to be “preachy” in a “crude way,” like most other shows are. Anna Khachiyan (the show’s co-host) jokes that The White Lotus is “an equal opportunity show in that it makes fun of everybody,” unlike many other shows, which may as well have a voice-over spelling out for viewers who the heroes (usually oppressed minorities) and villains (the privileged oppressors) are.

“Yeah,” replies Dasha Nekrasova (the other co-host) to Khachiyan, “everyone” — including the less woke characters — “was fallible” and “layered.” Greenwald adds that, countering the Manichaean logic of our times, “there was good and bad in all of them.… Everyone was so fucked up but also so human,” so relatable.

“You’re able to sympathize with every character rather than being forced into loving one and hating another,” he continues. “Each of them [is] given the dignity of an argument.” White allows space for critiques of cancel culture to coexist with more standard critiques of historically privileged communities, showing that all “factions” have their own errors as well as their own points worth considering.

“Because the show doesn’t moralize,” continues Khachiyan, it raises genuinely “interesting debates” and questions “without paralyzing” open discussion. “That’s when art is most interesting,” replies Greenwald, “when it can take actual parts of life and make you think and make you have doubts about your own initial impressions and reactions and judgments instead of just having to digest messaging.”

White’s complex character arcs, suspenseful plots, and attention to aesthetic detail — and, ultimately, his fidelity to art for art’s sake rather than using it as a tool for propaganda — allow him to present countercultural ideas to a public that typically has a categorical aversion to anything that runs contrary to the status quo. The show’s massive popularity speaks not only to White’s artistic genius but to the fact that the public is thirsting for something more than humdrum moralistic and political messaging. Dare we hope that The White Lotus will open up those challenging debates and discussions for which Khachiyan insists it has the potential?

Stephen G. Adubato studied moral theology at Seton Hall University and currently teaches religion and philosophy in New Jersey. He also is the host of the Cracks in Postmodernity blog on Substack and podcast. Follow him on Twitter @stephengadubato.


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