Apes With Violins
I suppose the most famous mathematical equation in history is E=mc2, Einstein’s matter-energy equivalence which states that the quantity of energy, E, equivalent to a given mass, m, is the product of m and the square of c, the speed of light. Even if you use one of the larger units, miles per second, for c (the one most of us in the English-speaking world learned in school), c2 is 34,596,000,000. In meters per second, it’s 89,875,517,873,681,764.
Still, a number, especially a very big one, is only a number, and an equation is only an equation, until something makes you really see what they really mean. This equation describes the amount of energy released in nuclear fission relative to the amount of matter involved. And it’s one thing to know the equation, but quite another to contemplate the power of the atomic bomb.
As a Catholic, I believe that sex, love, marriage, and procreation are meant to be so tightly connected as to be aspects of a single thing. But like everyone else I see them separated all the time, and like many or most people I have separated them at times in my own life. I’m accustomed to the sight of it.
But recently, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I’ve come to see that connection in a way I never had before. I don’t mean that I’ve seen more reasons why the connection should be maintained, or that I’ve seen the practical harm that is done by the separation of sex from love and from childbearing and of all three from marriage. The problems caused by divorce, sexual “liberation,” etc. are everywhere, and only a fool would pretend they aren’t serious.
But that’s not what I mean. I mean I now see the separation itself, apart from any worldly consequences, as a sort of shocking mutilation, like the severing of a limb from the body. People learn to live with the loss of a limb, of course, and once it’s healed and the person has adjusted as well as possible its absence may be less startling, but the action of severing remains appalling. And I’m now walking around in a world where this action is celebrated.
As you might imagine, this makes me pretty uncomfortable in our sex-saturated culture. Here’s one example of the effect. My long-time music supplier Robert recently gave me a copy of The Trumpet Child, a cd by the pop group Over the Rhine. It’s a very good album, but a lot of the songs are sexual come-ons, directed by the woman who is the band’s main vocalist to a male who isn’t named or described, and I find that this really interferes with my enjoyment of them. I have to think of the woman as intending the songs for her husband in order not to hear them as saying something comparable to “Let’s get blind drunk and drive west in the eastbound lanes of the interstate.” (My mental revision may in fact be justified: the core of the band consists of the singer and her husband, who together write most of the songs. But you don’t learn this from the songs themselves.)
This is not puritanism. You’ll just have to take my word on this, but neither puritanism nor prudery has ever been a problem for me. Nor does it mean that I have suddenly become immensely virtuous, and immune to all the sexual temptations that have been part of my life since I was twelve or so; nothing has changed in that respect except perhaps my distress at the disorder of my own soul.
No, it’s rather a sense of the tragic distance between what should be in this realm and what is. It’s as if I have finally received the vision of what sex (using the term broadly) ought to be, and it is such a splendid thing that our misuse of it seems horrible and tragic, a continuing disaster comparable to our propensity for war. I see that one reason sex is so important is that it is the most profound manifestation of the most profound fact about us: that we are a union of body and soul. We’re not animals with a consciousness that is only a more complex version of an animal’s emotional and sensory life. We’re not angels who inhabit and control a body the way a driver inhabits and controls a car. We are an indivisible union, but unfortunately no longer a well-ordered one; we are always tipping over toward the animal or the angel. Erotic love, which is a union of spiritual and physical love, is the most profound expression of this most profound fact, but also the most delicate. When we separate love and marriage from sex we separate soul and body—which of course is a way of saying that we kill, or die.
The admonitions against fornication and adultery represent only the absolute bare minimum of what we should not do; they hardly even touch what we should do and, even more, what we should be. For to be what we should be, and were meant to be, we would have to be something we are not: unfallen.
Hearing the talk and the music, watching the TV shows and movies which treat sex as a trivial pleasure have become for me like watching a chimpanzee with a Stradivarius. The ape may find it amusing for a few minutes. He may even pluck or strum the strings and get a certain crude pleasure from the sound. But sooner or later, probably sooner, he will smash the instrument to pieces, and it’s an appalling thing to see.
One thing I can say in slight defense of our species is that the female generally has a better grasp of these things than the male, although she certainly has problems of her own. More on that next week.
Labels: Sunday Night Journal, Sunday Night Journal 2008