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Ruby Sparks, magical thinking and being very careful what you wish for

My favourite Freudian idea is omnipotence of thought. It explains everything from superstition to lucky charms to OCD and it’s what’s “new” about cash cows like The Secret.

That our thoughts are powerful enough - are magical enough - to change things.

As a writer, the idea that thoughts, that words, could have such power is thoroughly seductive. Seductive and oh so very self-indulgent. And it’s the premise of Ruby Sparks.

Neurotic wunderkind novelist Calvin (Paul Dano) dreams about the perfect girl, types her up and just like magic she appears. In real life. In all her flame-haired, coloured-stocking, blow-job-enthusiast glory.

Ruby Sparks - now showing

So I really hate the what do you want question as related to relationships. Equally do I loathe the what do you like question in regards to sex. I don’t know how to answer either. There’s too many ifs and buts and variables.

And I was thinking about these questions - about my inability to answer them - while watching the preview for Ruby Sparks a couple of weeks ago. Calvin’s powers lacked appeal for me because I don’t know what I want well enough to type it.

The handful of times I’ve desperately crossed-my-fingers wanted something and when I got it was, often, horrible. I write this not merely as support for the be careful what you wish for adage, but more broadly because I don’t think it’s possible to wish with sufficient accuracy or specificity.

How do you type up wanting love, wanting to be needed, wanting copious amounts of affection but also manage to accurately identify all those on-my-terms and in-palatable-doses-only caveats?

How do you specify wanting the dream partner to appreciate your work, to satisfy you sexually, to find you hilarious, but also manage to make them forget that they’re only doing it because you’ve forced them?

I went into the cinema over the weekend convinced that I wasn’t interested in Calvin’s superpower because I don’t trust my imagination or skills as a writer. I left the screening convinced of it for quite a different reason.

Philosopher Pierre Bourdieu has a line about taste being born from what we’re “condemned to”. While Ruby Sparks makes no overt references to Bourdieu, his idea pervades the film: that we can only ever have an appetite for what we know.

That our vision of the perfect partner at most is a version of ourselves.

Calvin can only fantasize about the perfect girl by using the points of reference he has. He can give her traits that his previous girlfriend didn’t possess, perhaps gift her qualities he’s desired but never experienced, but the ideas are still only drawn from the finite pool of what he knows; from what he thinks he has a taste for.

To me this idea explains my complete befuddlement when trying to answer the what do you want/what do you like questions. How can they be answered when embarking on anything new? How does anyone know what they like when with someone they’ve never been with before?

The other day I clicked on a Fairfax blog post which - in far too much detail - pitched a a road map to the G-spot. More interesting than the post however, was one of the reader comments:

I dont really buy all these “twiddle knob A, push button B while operating flange C” style things…You should just fool around and see what she likes

Encapsulated in this comment is the key to working things out in the bedroom, but more so, in life. And it explains why Calvin’s “gift” turns out to be such a disaster. There’s what you think will work in theory - on paper - and then there’s just seeing how things go. Without the lists and the planning and the obsessive orchestration.

Like Garden State, like High Fidelity, like Me and You and Everyone We Know, like Synecdoche, New York - films I loved but which nevertheless tried very hard to be cool - sometimes Ruby Sparks felt laboured. But I liked it. Despite myself I liked it.

I am, afterall, a sucker for ever newer lenses to examine my neuroses.

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10 Comments sorted by

  1. Dale Bloom


    But what about women? How would a woman feel only having one boyfriend?

    And don’t women know they should have something new all the time, even if they don’t know what they want.

    In a feminist and consumerist society that emphasises choice, everything should always be new.

    1. Mal Adapted


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      In addition, men can also fall prey to consumerism and the lust for new things.
      I once knew a man who fell in love with a new shiny car and bought it, even though he already had a perfectly good car. Upon reflection this doesn't sound like a feminist society, lit sounds like a manist one- otherwise this man may have gone out and bought a shiny new ring or something. I like shiny rings. I must be a repressed feminist.

    2. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Mal Adapted

      Oh no, Femboy Pup the Dale Bloom impersonator is back.

      It is true there are men who fall prey to consumerism, and some have been known to fall prey to feminism, but for the most part they are trying to attract women, who may/may not know what they want.

      Eventually, most men have to be satisfied with what they are intended for, which is to provide for women and attempt to satisfy women.

      Although, in a feminist and consumerist society, that is normally a thankless and impossible task.

    3. Dale Bloom


      In reply to alfred venison


      I have given my lunch to others at times ( and given plenty of money to women one way or another), but a feminist is different and they wouldn't want to try to steale my lunch.

    4. Dale Bloom


      In reply to alfred venison

      That's the way. Now off to the pub for you.

  2. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Words are indeed powerful - as are thoughts. But magick??? Nah - that is a retreat into powerlessness... an admission of futility and impotence.

    Here's some recent powerful words: "Behead those who insult the Prophet". Context is everything of course - so strap it on an eight year old and find a TV crew and we're away.

    Here's some more: " One small step - one giant leap for mankind".

    "I have a dream...."

    Words can change us, change history ... smash down walls and break the backs of dictators. And they can spread hatred, anger, fear and outrage.

    We must be most careful what we say and where we say it.

    But with wishful thinking - with magick - it does nothing real, just takes us into a fantasy world and away from the real, the concrete and the true. It is a curious business this western commercial passion for zombies, vampires and fairy tales. I wonder what it tells us about them and some of us. What we are seeking and what we are running away from.

    1. Lauren Rosewarne

      Senior Lecturer at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      When Freud wrote about magical thinking he was originally discussing the behaviour of "primitive" people; they attributed all kinds of things to the power of their thoughts - it was a way for them to understand things they didn't have information about.

      I think there's probably a bit of that today in terms of why people are attracted to such narratives as well as, more likely, the appeal (and delusional) of being able to have more control in our lives than we probably do.

    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      don't despair, Peter, its only pygmalion in modern drag with glitter of magical realism. -a.v.