Love, Marriage, and Sex Feed

Shulamith Firestone, RIP

When my wife and I got married she owned a copy of Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex, not to mention several other feminist works of the time, which in retrospect should perhaps have worried me a little. But in the early '70s most college girls with any sort of intellectual inclination read things like that, and at any rate any case the worry would have proved unfounded. The book is gone now, dumped in one of our periodic purges of books that we're pretty sure we never want to read again, or perhaps have accepted we will, after all, never read.

I did leaf through it once, though, and found at the end a truly bizarre vision of the future. It included a list of the stages through which humanity must pass on the way to perfect freedom and equality. As I recall, the elimination of legal and social gender differences was only the beginning; it progressed (if that's the word) through elimination of the family and all consciousness of family relationships, ending with a sort of techno-feminist-communist society in which babies are produced in artificial wombs and childbearing itself, as the foundation of all the oppression to which women have been subject throughout the ages, no longer exists.

Here's a passage quoted on her Wikipedia page which seems to be the summation of the vision:

So that just as to assure elimination of economic classes requires the revolt of the underclass (the proletariat) and, in a temporary dictatorship, their seizure of the means of production, so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: not only the full restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, but also their (temporary) seizure of control of human fertility - the new population biology as well as all the social institutions of child-bearing and child-rearing. And just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be, unlike that of the first feminist movement, not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally. (A reversion to an unobstructed pansexuality Freud's 'polymorphous perversity' - would probably supersede hetero/homo/bi-sexuality.) The reproduction of the species by one sex for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction: children would born to both sexes equally, or independently of either, however one chooses to look at it; the dependence of the child on the mother (and vice versa) would give way to a greatly shortened dependence on a small group of others in general, and any remaining inferiority to adults in physical strength would be compensated for culturally. The division of labour would be ended by the elimination of labour altogether (through cybernetics). The tyranny of the biological family would be broken.

I remember thinking "This person is completely deranged." And I think any reasonable person would agree. But there are probably a considerable number who would say, as they often say of communism, that it's a good idea although it would be hard to put into practice. 

 "What do conservatives want to conserve?" is a perennial question, and a good one. Not asked as often, at least in my experience, is its counterpart: to what goal are progressives progressing? I wonder how many would see Firestone's vision as a desirable utopia. Not so very many, I would guess. But those who would are probably in academia or government or journalism, and wield an influence out of proportion to their numbers. A good many more would probably go at least halfway to Firestone's goal, and agree with her basic view of relations between the sexes. No doubt the book remains useful for stoking rage in young women.

I have been thinking about the book and the woman who wrote it because I recently ran across this retrospective in The New Yorker. She didn't do well after Dialectic. After participating in the frenzy of theorizing and agitating that was feminism in the early 1970s, she turned her back on the movement, withdrew and became isolated, suffering bouts of madness and often living in poverty. Although she came out of that for a time in the 1990s (with the assistance and friendship of a woman named Lourdes), she withdrew again, and when she died alone in her apartment last year, a week went by before anyone noticed. 

Of course one who has looked at the book is not surprised, or ought not to be, to hear that her mind broke down at times: her rage was against the very nature of reality, as she herself said:

Feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the very organization of nature.

The very organization of nature. To rage against that is to see, in a distorted way, the fundamental human problem; to believe you can fix it is, eventually, to despair. She was to feminism as Nietzsche was to atheism: someone who was willing to see the implications all the way to the end. There is something admirable in her demand for purity, although it was a kind of purity not only impossible to attain but not even desirable to a healthy spirit.  

It is obvious to anyone, if Faludi's account is correct, that a troubled family life had a lot to do with Firestone's anger and her problems (not to mention the sick atmosphere of politicized personal quarrels--or should that be personalized political quarrels?--so frequently present in the feminist movement). And to a Catholic eye it's also obvious that a very misguided religious impulse was at work. Another profile, this one at The Atlantic, ends with this observation: "in her fervor she at times resembled a martyr or a saint." She did a lot of damage, to herself and others, but God would have seen the resemblance, too. 


(from a book she published in 1998, Airless Spaces)

Sunday Night Journal — November 18, 2012

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.)

 (And Can This Marriage Be Saved? was a "trademark feature" of Ladies' Home Journal for many years.)

Sunday Night Journal — May 14, 2006

On Mother’s Day

Among the many little things that have, over the years, impressed upon me the fact that men and women really are different psychologically was a moment twenty or so years ago when one of our daughters was a baby. My wife was changing the baby’s diapers or giving her a bath, talking idly, partly to me and partly to our daughter, about what a beautiful baby she was, enumerating her delightful qualities, counting the toes and fingers, and so forth, adding at the end “And she has a tiny little mole here, here, here, here, and here,” putting her finger on the spot with each “here,” which involved turning her over for the last two or three.

I remember being more than a little surprised that she had memorized the precise location of every variance in the baby’s skin—there was no hesitation or searching involved as she jumped from one to the next—and I’m sure she had done so without any conscious effort. It was just a natural result of the amount of attention she gave the baby, the same mechanism which had once enabled me to sing effortlessly from memory every verse of Bob Dylan’s eleven-minute “Desolation Row.”

I don’t really think I loved our daughter any less, but I certainly didn’t have such details at my command, and I imagine this pattern holds for most mothers and fathers. There’s a humorous list of male-female differences floating around the Internet, one of those emails that circulate for years on end and thus presumably say something that hits home to a lot of people. On the topic of children, the anonymous writer notes a mother’s very thorough knowledge of her children in every physical and mental respect, then says that “A man is vaguely aware that there are some short people living in the house.” That’s pretty harsh, but most couples will recognize the truth it exaggerates.

Concomitant with that level of attention is something more subtle. Some part of a mother somehow goes out into the members of her family, especially her children. I can imagine that if one had the right parapsychological gift one would be able to see a psychic strand connecting them, through which some sort of unconscious communication takes place, an operation which requires that a part of the mother’s soul go out into these strands. She is never altogether compact in herself; some part of her is always with those she loves and for whom she feels responsible. No doubt this can be true of women in other relationships, and is probably true of some men, but by and large it’s a feminine thing, and most strongly a mother-child thing.

I think it explains part of the reason why most women are so enchanted by the prospect of spending a day at a spa or something of that sort: it’s a circumstance where in addition to physical rest she can get psychic rest. No one expects anything from her, no one needs anything from her. All those psychic connections can be rolled up into herself for a while and the part of her that operates them can be rested and restored.

Although our children are mostly grown now, I still see this attention and responsibility in operation, even at a distance, on the part of my wife. And along with her care for our children she devotes a lot of attention to her chronically ill brother. Her mother passed away four years ago, having spent a large part of her life worrying about and providing for her son. And my wife seems to have inherited that responsibility; I mean not just the fact of it but the consciousness of it.

She’s not much for spas and that sort of thing, but I’ve been trying to get her to let go of things for at least a little while. I wanted her to take a glass of wine and the Jane Austen novel she’s been reading and go to bed. She wouldn’t take the wine, saying it would only put her right to sleep. But she’s back there with the book, and the door is shut. That’s good.

Sunday Night Journal — February 26, 2006

Staying Put

The extremely interesting discussion of so-called “crunchy conservatism” continues at National Review Online. These folks obviously have a lot more time for such talk than I do, and I can’t keep up with it, but I was struck by an exchange lamenting the unfortunate tendency of people to move away, often very far away, from the place in which they grew up, which of course in practice means moving away from their own parents and other family. You can read the two initial posts here and here. I should use words like “pressure” or “incentive” rather than “tendency,” because much or most of the time there are strong economic reasons for this mobility.

Some twenty-plus years ago my wife and I were faced with this decision. We were newly-converted Catholics with young children, living in small-town north Alabama where Catholics number five or six percent of the population, and with a growing group of like-minded Catholic acquaintances in other parts of the country. Both of us are Alabama natives. I come from the extreme northern end of the state, where we were living at the time, near my family. She comes from the extreme southern end, three hundred miles away.

We still had a certain amount of the back-to-the-land, commune-founding spirit that was abroad in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We talked to some of our scattered Catholic friends and acquaintances about forming some kind of Catholic community which would involve, at a minimum, living near each other.

Nobody wanted to move to Alabama, of course. And, parenthetically: it has always slightly amused and slightly annoyed me that so many people, conservatives particularly, who admire rural life and social conservatism want absolutely nothing to do with the Deep South, where those characteristics are more dominant than in most of the rest of the country. No doubt part of the blame for that goes to George Wallace, Bull Connor, et. al., but part of it, too, is that hardly anyone with any interest in intellectual life, which included most of our long-distance friends, really wants to live in Hicksville, however much they may praise its virtues from a distance. I don’t entirely blame them, but the syndrome does cause me to maintain a certain skepticism when city-dwelling intellectuals get sentimental about rural life and the common man.

These talks never got all that far, but they did get far enough for us to consider very seriously whether we wanted to move away from our extended families. It was something that we talked about a great deal, the kind of soul-searching conversation that goes on between a husband and wife after the children have gone to bed. Since our families were not Catholic and there were so few Catholics around, we had to assume we would be somewhat isolated religiously if we stayed where we were. On the other side there was the possibility of living in a seriously Catholic environment, but that was certainly not guaranteed: who was to say that whatever community we joined would last more than a few years? Or for that matter that it would be a healthy place, not a pressure-cooker of eccentricity and fanaticism? And if it failed we might end up with the sort of rootless Flying Dutchman life that I’d long since decided I didn’t want, for myself or my children.

In the end it came down (for me, at least—my wife might remember differently) to the question of whether or not our children would grow up knowing their grandparents. I wasn’t willing to answer “no” to that question, family won, and we decided to stay put.

I don’t intend to discuss the following twenty years or so in detail, but suffice to say things didn’t work out all that well, certainly far less well than we had hoped. As far as raising our children in the Faith was concerned, we were constantly in the position of having to choose between isolation and influences we didn’t want them to have—just to take one dominating example, there was the problem of omnipresent television in the homes of almost everyone except us. And of course the dreariness of the typical Catholic parish didn’t help. I might also mention the sad irony that in 1990 we moved down to my wife’s country, where Catholics are somewhere in the range of a quarter of the population, where we were part of a Catholic home-schooling group which was something of a running disaster.

Still: if I had it do over again, knowing what I know now, but absent some direct guidance from God, I think I’d make the same choice. It just seems fundamentally more sound, more healthy, even more human. And the long run in which all human decisions are measured has a good deal longer yet to run.

Sunday Night Journal — February 19, 2006

Something Broken

I’ve been intrigued by the question of the psychological differences between men and women since the attempt to deny their existence which was mounted by the feminist eruption of the early ‘60s and ‘70s. I took that attempt seriously for a while, but it soon became clear that the movement had two impossible dogmas: one, that men and women are the same except where women are superior, and two, that men and women are to be treated identically except where it is to the advantage of women that they be treated differently. At that point the feminist movement began to be of more interest to me for what it got wrong and what it inadvertently revealed than for what it consciously asserted; it became a spur to my fascinated consideration of woman as a species, so much like my kind and yet so different.

In pursuing this research I often make my wife the sole spokesman for her entire sex. When I’m wondering aloud and at length about what some female characteristic really means, or why men think or do X but women think or do Y, she doesn’t usually say a great deal. This is constitutional: against stereotype, I’m the more verbal of us, and she isn’t much given to the kind of abstract rationalizing that I do all the time—or if she is, she keeps her conclusions mostly to herself. But she has deep insight and a way of somehow coming up with something brief and pithy when I push her for an answer.

So it was a year or so ago, when, as is now usual around Valentine’s Day, the topic of Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was in the news. I had run across a statement that completely baffled me: an actress—I think it was Glenn Close—had said something like “Eve [Ensler] gave us back our souls.” What, I wondered, could she possibly mean? How or why could an extended discussion of one’s genitals seem soul-saving? The same news story in which Close was quoted included similar sentiments from other famous women, mostly or perhaps all actresses. After rattling on about it for a few minutes, I put the question directly to my wife: what makes them say things like this?

There was a little pause, and she answered, “There’s something broken in their woman-ness.”

Another Valentine’s Day has come and gone, and another round of dealing with the Monologues. There have been the usual controversies about whether the play should be performed at Catholic colleges. I haven’t read it, but if descriptions of it both pro and con are accurate, the answer is obviously “no.” More interesting to me remains the question of why it was written in the first place, and why some women seem to respond to it with such fervor. In a discussion on Amy Welborn’s Open Book a few days ago, I made this statement:

The way it looks to me as a male observer is that a woman is her body in a way that a man is not. A man's body is more like something he operates. I conjecture that the increased exposure and objectification of the female body in our sexualized culture is helping to produce aberrations like these plays.

That was an off-the-cuff comment. To elaborate the thought a bit further, maybe the psychology of the thing is something like this: erotically charged images of beautiful women are impossible to avoid in our culture. It’s not just female beauty that’s forced into our awareness all the time, but female beauty with a definite and direct sexual charge—the woman is first of all, and to the exclusion of almost everything else, a sexual object (as the feminist movement used to say, and perhaps still does) in the narrowest sense. Nobody, male or female, really wants to be an object of use by other people. But if it’s true that a woman is more closely identified with her body than a man is, then the anxiety generated by this objectification would be greater for women. The same sort of anxiety is generated by a woman’s participation in sexual activity in which she is treated as an object—which is to say, the kind of activity which has become the sanctioned norm for both sexes since the 1960s.

Women are thus simultaneously more vulnerable than men to the effects of this objectification and the main targets of it. Moreover, the technologically exaggerated sex appeal of the women in advertising and entertainment is both more pure, in the literal sense of having less of anything else in it, and less human than that which any actual woman (including these very models and actresses, if one were to meet them in person) can wield. Even the models and actresses themselves must know that they can’t live up to the images of which they are the raw material. So the real woman is made to feel not only like an object but an inferior object.

Adding to the disorientation is that the whole point of woman’s allure, from the simple biological point of view, is to induce the act which produces a baby. And yet it’s precisely in the context of sexual pleasure that her fertility is despised. It’s no wonder that there might be something broken in a lot of women, and some pretty strange phenomena ensuing.

Perhaps Eve Ensler’s play says some of these things. Perhaps I ought to read it, although I really don’t want to. But here’s something else which I strongly suspect may be true and which I’m pretty sure Ensler does not say: a woman who signed herself simply as “Caroline” agreed with my comment at Open Book, adding that

For women there is no earthly solution to this identification of self and body which makes, in effect, the imperfect body into the imperfect self. What I am getting at is that women are best positioned to enjoy their glorified bodies and their total selves in the hereafter.

If it turns out to be true, this would be another instance of the last—that is, those who suffer most—being first.

Sunday Night Journal — January 22, 2006

This Culture is Ugly: Dark Thoughts on Roe Day

Many years ago I heard attributed to an Episcopal seminary professor the observation that Americans have a difficult time dealing with the Christian concept of sin, because we want to believe that “if it’s a sin you ought to stop doing it, and if you can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin.” I think of this often, and it’s come to mind several times over the past few days, during which three things have come together to leave me with a sense of gloom.

The first involves the visits to colleges which my wife and high-school-senior daughter have been making. I find that I can’t be enthusiastic about any of them, no matter what they offer in the way of academics, in part because they have all succumbed to the sexual revolution and have become, as one college administrator, more honest than discreet, put it, summer camps with no grownups. No grownups, and lots and lots of alcohol and other intoxicants.

Aside from a few conservative Christian schools (none of which offer the subject my daughter wants to study), colleges have long since dropped anything but a token effort to prevent or in many cases even to discourage sexual activity in their dormitories. One student guide, showing us around a dorm, replied to a parent’s question about male visitation to the girls’ floor (that’s floor, not building) with the rather too coy policy: “if there’s not a problem, there’s not a policy,” by which she meant that only if a girl’s roommate objects to her boyfriend’s presence is he required to leave. Of course it is possible for a student to remain chaste in this environment, but now that effort, which people have always found difficult, is effectively discouraged.

On the way to one of these visits I read a long piece by Caitlin Flanagan in the January Atlantic (thanks to Dawn Eden for the link, and please note that the article is full of very crude sexual references, including a fairly nauseating quotation from a rap song). Putatively a book review, the piece is in fact a discussion of the sickening phenomenon of teenage girls performing casually impersonal sexual services for boys—behaving, in short, as the pornographic popular culture in which they are immersed tells them they should behave. Flanagan, one of our most insightful writers on matters of love and marriage, offers this stark summary: “Society has let its girls down in every possible way.”

I agree entirely with this, but unless I’m misreading her Flanagan doesn’t see clearly how we got to our present condition. She seems to put forward as an image of how things ought to be the book Forever by Judy Blume, in which a young girl intent on making love with her boyfriend is outfitted (by her cooperative parents, I gather) with contraceptive gear and certificates of health covering both parties, has a perfectly fulfilling sexual experience, then apparently (I haven’t read the book) prepares to move on to the next “relationship.” This strikes me as pretty clearly a middle-aged woman’s fantasy of what she would have liked her first sexual experiences to be, and Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t seem to see that the effect of this super-controlled Planned Parenthood approach to sex is to make the woman more available to the male while asking less of him—almost nothing, in fact, beyond not raping her and attempting to see to her pleasure during the act itself.

That was the second thing, and the third thing is today, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

All three of these social developments involve or are driven by the attempt to sterilize sex, not only in the obvious physical sense but in its psychological dimension as well (to say nothing of its spiritual dimension, the existence of which is widely denied). It is thought that if new life is prevented, or destroyed if it occurs, the pleasure of the act can be grasped without any assumption of responsibility, not just for a new life but for the other person. There is to be no baby, but also no bond, no spiritual conception of the new thing which is the family, based upon the couple pledged to each other until death, the one flesh of which Our Lord speaks. I think that if we understand the truth about sex we must see the modern attempt at liberation to be in fact an attempt to destroy sex in the most fundamental sense, because reproduction is so much of its essence. What is wanted is, in a sense, sexless sex.

The motives involved here are nothing new; mankind has always struggled with them. The illicit use of sex has always come easily to us, especially so to all too many men, and too many women have always had to learn how to kill in themselves what appears to be an innate feminine propensity to form an emotional bond where there has been physical intimacy. What may be new is the attempt to end the struggle by denying the significance of sex. The traditional rules concerning sexual behavior are impossibly difficult, we think, and we can’t be expected to follow them. So the problem becomes one of convincing ourselves that we aren’t doing anything wrong—if we can’t stop doing it, it must not be a sin. But the truth of human nature asserts itself, and not the least apparent sign of its insistence is the shrill fury with which the proponents of lifeless sex greet any challenge to their doctrine.

I don’t know how God would judge the two cases, but it seems to me that a boy and girl of forty or fifty years ago, crazed with the wine of love and desire, slipping away to car or woods or barn for furtive and risky lovemaking, are more admirable, or at least more likable, because more human, than what we are told is the contemporary ideal: the properly certified and equipped pair engaging more or less openly in what is described, in a phrase which has always obscurely repelled me, as “having sex,” expecting nothing more than a brief physical pleasure and a casual friendliness. Not surprisingly, most women are not happy with this situation and spend a great deal of energy in search of what is vaguely called “commitment,” which is a euphemism or substitute for marriage (and which, also not surprisingly, sounds to the footloose male like a whiny attempt to renege on an implicit agreement).

I don’t know why this little piece of trivia sticks in my mind, but one of the early albums by the Mothers of Invention had a chaotic-looking cover, in one corner of which was a crudely-drawn picture of a tree with the caption “This tree is ugly and it wants to die.” A variation on the phrase recurs to me sometimes when I consider the pathologies of our culture. Sex can be tamed; that’s what marriage is for. But to attempt to render it trivial is to attempt to flee from the burden of being human. This culture is ugly and it wants to die.

Sunday Night Journal — November 13, 2005

Ending Up

Twenty to thirty years ago the first wave of young orthodox Catholics formed not only by Vatican II but in reaction to the errors that followed upon it, formed perhaps above all by the exciting early days of the papacy of John Paul II, began marrying and raising families. Many of them were converts or reverts. They were filled with good intentions and high expectations, determined to live out their vocations as Catholic parents in a way that could hardly avoid being in opposition at least some of the time to the prevailing secular culture. My wife and I were among them, and we’ve met many others along the way.

Most of these have been reasonably successful, but I know of some fairly spectacular crashes: divorces, children going seriously astray, and in general all the ills that beset society at large, to which no family is completely immune and from which no family is completely isolated. Daniel Nichols relates, on the Caelum et Terra blog, a particularly sad story of a woman abandoning her husband and children. Daniel’s point is not so much the particulars of that situation as the scandal of easy annulments in the Church today, but I found myself brooding over the situation itself. How does a couple come to such a pass when, unless one of the spouses was deliberately deceitful, both had begun with the best of intentions to live a Catholic marriage?

And beyond such highly visible tragedies, I know—I expect everyone knows—of Catholic families which appear from the outside to be fine and faithful, but which have serious internal fractures. Or parents who have become perhaps too well-adjusted to the culture, and whose children are fallen-away or nominal Catholics.

I think one reason these things trouble me is that somewhere in some sub-rational part of my mind there is a stubborn belief that if parents try to do the right thing God will see to it that their marriages work out and that their children remain in the Church. I emphasize that this is not rational, and I don’t need to be reminded that the effects of original sin persist in spite of the sacraments, and that personal sin is a stubborn thing, never entirely or perhaps even mostly eradicated. I know, I know. And yet the question keeps presenting itself to my mind: how can things go so wrong? There is no definite answer to that, but, doctrine aside, every sensible person knows that things will go wrong in this world, no matter how hard we try. That’s why they call it a vale of tears.

It helps to alleviate the melancholy of contemplating these situations to remember that in none of them do we know the end of the story. Many years ago, in the mid-1970s, I made the decision, for purely pragmatic reasons, to give up my plans for an academic career in literature and to take up a practical trade, studying computer science. Some time after that I ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen for five or six years. We were standing in line for something or other and briefly catching up on what each of us had been doing. I told him I was learning to be a computer programmer and added, perhaps a bit defensively, that this was an odd place for me to end up. He replied, “Well, maybe you ain’t finished ending up yet.”

That remark comes back to me often. Those disasters that I mentioned are stories still in progress. I sometimes hear people who read The Chronicles of Narnia complain of or lament what seems to be the loss of Susan, one of the four siblings who enter Narnia. In one of the late books in the series she is no longer present, and the other three are given to understand that her interest in worldly things has taken her away. It’s a heartbreaking moment, but I’ve never taken it to be the final word on Susan’s eternal destiny. She is on the wrong road, clearly, but as far as I remember it is not stated that she will never regain the right one and that she will not, by some other and harder route, eventually enter Aslan’s country. No one still on this earth has finished ending up yet. And it’s worth remembering that this is no less true of those who seem to be doing fine as of those who are in desperate straits.

Sunday Night Journal — July 24, 2005

Heat. Humidity. Sex.

It is miserably hot and humid here, as it normally is in mid-July. Air conditioning has transformed the South, so that this sort of heat is only a nuisance, not a major factor in how one lives, except that it drives people to stay indoors, so that the southern summer now resembles the northern winter in that one doesn’t willingly spend much time outside except for certain seasonal recreational activities.

Now and then I hear someone wonder aloud how people endured this climate in the days before air conditioning. Well, I’m old enough to remember a time when air conditioning was relatively rare, when the doors of those businesses that were air-conditioned often displayed an advertisement for Kool cigarettes which read Come in—it’s KOOL inside, and I don’t even remember it as being all that bad: it was just the way things were, and you lived with it. But getting used to air conditioning makes being out in really hot weather for more than a few minutes seem miserable to most of us, and utterly intolerable to some, to hear them talk.

I would like to say that I scorn this effete comfort, but I don’t. My house and car are air-conditioned (and if I had to choose I might give up cooling the former before the latter). I do still regard it as a luxury, though, and one that might not always be there. I don’t take it for granted, and I find it salutary to be reminded of what life is like without it.

Yesterday I mowed the lawn at around three in the afternoon, when most of it was in shade. The lawn is not large, requiring only half an hour or so to mow, but the heat was so overpowering that I took a long break in the middle of the job. I would not have been much wetter if someone had poured a bucket of water over me. So rather than go inside, where it was twenty degrees cooler, I sat in the swing outside, aware of each little rivulet running down my face and neck, clothes sticking to me everywhere.

If you’re out in this heat you don’t ever actually get cool. You only go from miserable if you’re active to uncomfortable if you’re still. If you get this hot and then go into an air-conditioned house, you get an instantaneous chill of rapidly evaporating moisture; it can even become uncomfortably cool. But if you’re outside, you don’t get that. Rather, you realize after a lapse of minutes that you’re not sweating as much as you were. And you never dry out; you just go from thoroughly wet to merely damp.

In this condition any movement of air is a cool touch, the only thing you feel that is not describable as “heat.” And so you become aware of the least little breeze. There is nearly always some movement of air where I live, as it’s close to the water, but my house is sheltered beneath a bluff and surrounded by trees, so I can frequently see the treetops moving but feel no wind at all. Yesterday was comparatively still, the breeze reaching me only in intermittent light puffs, each one a delight. I sat quietly for ten or fifteen minutes, swinging a bit, waiting for and enjoying these, until I went back to work.

When every interior is air-conditioned it’s easy to lose touch with the wonderful reality signified by the phrase “cool breeze.” It’s good to be reminded of these elemental pleasures, too easily lost in a world of more powerful and pervasive ones. The former are in fact to me, and I suspect to most people if they will slow down to experience them, often more deeply satisfying than the latter, even though, as I say, I don’t really want to give up my air conditioning, if only because not having it would cause me to be even more indolent than I already am.

I read recently of some sociologist’s finding that the use of pornography among young men is causing them to grow jaded about sex. I can’t provide the reference, as I have no idea now where I read it, but the researcher made the claim that for those who absorb a steady stream of pornography—which the Internet has made it very easy to do—mere casual fornication is no longer sufficient, that the young men expect the young women to perform for them as the prostitutes of pornography do, and that it takes more and more exotic and no doubt perverse activity to excite them.

This is sad and disgusting but predictable. Of course saturating the environment with sexual imagery will in time decrease most people’s reaction to that imagery, and it is no new discovery that profligate sexual activity eventually leaves one jaded and unresponsive and in need of ever stronger stimuli. As C.S. Lewis has Screwtape say, “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” The complete eroticisation of culture leads naturally to the diminishment of the erotic. The flood of sexual imagery that now engulfs us was by comparison only a trickle when I was a teenager, and when I recall the electric jolt I could then experience as the result of a touch or a glimpse of a bit more leg than was ordinarily revealed, I have no doubt as to which kind of society I would rather be young in.

Unlike the pleasure of a cool breeze, the pleasure of eroticism is the object of obsessive anticipation. It also frequently suffers from a considerable falling-off between the anticipated pleasure and the reality. What happens when the fantasy crowds out the reality altogether? Even if no moral considerations were involved, pornography would be something to deplore as leading in the long run to a much reduced ability to experience and appreciate real pleasure.