Can This Marriage Be Saved?: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewski.
Once when I was, as best I can remember, in my early teens, and spending the night at, as best I can remember, my maternal grandmother's house, I was looking for something to read and couldn't find anything except a stack of Ladies' Home Journal magazines. I am unable to reconstruct how this situation came about, and maybe I'm remembering it all wrong, because it was at the home of that same grandmother that I had found a treasure-trove of Hardy Boys books. At any rate, I did leaf through these magazines, and of course there was not much there to interest a teen-aged boy. However, I did find one thing: a regular feature called "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" It told the story of a troubled marriage from the point of view of each spouse, and then gave the views of a marriage counselor on how the spouses might go about working things out.
These little dramas were fascinating to me, which in retrospect seems a little surprising. And when I ask myself what made them interesting, I think it was, first, the fact that they were dramas, and second, the way they illustrated the adage that there are two sides to every story. I was intrigued by the fact that the two people saw things so very differently; frequently it wasn't even two sides so much as two entirely different stories, both spouses portraying themselves as unloved and the other as unloving, both blind to their own faults, or at least oblivious to the other's perception of them.
The phrase occurred to me as I was reading this book, not in reference to any specific marriage, but to marriage itself, and to the general state of relations between the sexes. The old half-humorous phrase "war between the sexes" often seems all too accurate. Is there really more genuine and deep hostility between men and women in general now than there was a generation or two ago? How about a hundred years ago? A thousand years? I don't know how that question could be answered, but it certainly looks to me as if there is. At any rate the institution of marriage is certainly under attack, and in serious trouble. And one of the causes of the trouble is a terrible misconception of the nature of sex, a misconception which Budziszweski attempts to counter in this brief book.
In seven chapters, beginning with "Does Sex Have to Mean Something?" and ending with "Transcendence," Budziszweski takes on the idea that sex has no meaning, showing that those who say it has none generally cannot avoid being drawn back to the conclusion that it does, and leads the reader through a series of questions about the nature of sex to the threshold of that to which sex points and leads, which is the transcendent love of God.
In equal parts poetic and analytic, the book is beautifully written. It paints a lovely and persuasive picture of sexual attraction, love, and marriage. And at times that almost seemed a weakness to me, as I turned from contemplation of this picture of the mysterious riches of these things when they are rightly understood and practiced to a consideration of what is actually going on around us in our culture. In stark and ugly contrast to Budziszewski's vision (one which of course he shares with other Christian thinkers) stands one of the most repulsive things I've ever read on the subject, Hannah Rosin's piece in the September Atlantic, in which she praises the habit of easy and detached sex among college students. Be warned before you click that link: it contains crude and occasionally disgusting sexual terms, a couple of which, I'm thankful to say, were new to me. Rosin invites us to celebrate and admire the fact that young women have become cold-hearted climbers who put their own material and social success above everything else:
To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture. And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind.
I couldn't help thinking, when I read this, of Christ's warning about the end times: "...and the love of many shall wax cold."
At the other end of the social, material, and intellectual scale was a very poor and dissolute man--a drunk, actually--whom I met a few days ago, and who spoke of his sexual life in the crudest and coldest imaginable terms. Ms. Rosin would have recoiled from the sight of him, yet he was, in philosophical principles, pretty much of the same mind as she on the subject of sex.
The Christian vision of love, as articulated by this book and many others, may seem impossibly and naively sweet. These are words from another mental and emotional world entirely:
To the lover, the beloved may seem luminous, iridescent, as though she were lit up from within, like a paper lantern. Some lovers say that she reflects light from a lamp which is not present; others that she seems to be encrusted with gems. She is almost too wonderful to look at steadily. The experience has the aroma of eternity. When Dante says "Now my beatitude has been revealed," his phrasing is therefore exact. He does not say that the beloved is his beatitude; she isn't.... It isn't she who is the infinite and perfect Good. Yet by some magic, by some effulgence of grace, she somehow, to some degree, diffracts or reflects it to him.
Who would not prefer to live in this latter world? No one with much health in his soul, I would think. But even many of those who might wish for it and be open to it do not believe that it is real. I don't know whether the temper of our times is better or worse in that respect, though I must say it certainly seems worse. There has never been such a thing as our mass culture of noisy cynicism and prurience and un-love. To the conflict between the sexes that is an inevitable feature of life in our fallen world, we have added a prevailing materialistic philosophy that directly attacks the very idea that anything in human life, especially sex, has any intrinsic meaning beyond the advantage and pleasure to be obtained by the individuals involved.
Can this marriage--of men and women, of love and sex, of physical and spiritual, of human and divine--be saved? The book supplies much-needed assistance. There's only one problem with it: it's not likely to be read by anyone who doesn't already agree with it, and while those who do agree with it will find much of interest, it will not startle. The author leads the reader from earthly love to the love and knowledge of God but declines to acknowledge his destination until the last chapter. But no one who is likely to purchase a book from this publisher (ISI Books, the publishing arm of a conservative foundation) by this author on this topic will fail to see it coming. That leaves it up to those who do to get its message out into the wider world.
I should add that it seems to me that there are some distinctive intellectual contributions here, beyond the more or less expectable view of sex in the light of Christianity. At any rate there are some ideas here which I haven't encountered before, in particular the chapter on the meaning of sexual beauty. Budziszewski discusses the phenomenon by which a young man discerns beauty in a young woman that he didn't at first recognize after he gets to know her for what she really is, and how this recognition becomes a step toward marriage. By an interesting coincidence, a day or two after I read that passage I heard Frank Sinatra's "Ring-a-ding-ding" (written by Jimmy van Heusen and Sammy Cahn):
How could that funny face
That seemed to be common place
Project you right in to space
Without any warning?...
She takes your hand,
This captivating creature,
And like it's planned, you're in the phone book
Looking for the nearest preacher
These are the most natural things in the world, but we live in a culture which denigrates and denies them.They are too elemental ever to be destroyed, but they can certainly be damaged, and they certainly have been in our time. Men and women have always struggled to understand and get along with each other, but the bonds of affection and common purpose that once assisted them in that struggle have been attacked and damaged. One must ask the question: who benefits?
(J. Budziszweski is a convert who teaches at the University of Texas; there's an interesting interview with him here.)