On Taking Sex Seriously

Photo by Flickr user Stew Dean

For a long time, the argument about the supposedly sexually repressive nature of Catholicism went like this: Sex is a powerful, beautiful, and deeply important part of human life; to ask us to deny our sexual impulses is to ask us to deny a transformative part of human experience. It’s a critique at work in some of the most important literature of the last century: it’s in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and in D.H. Lawrence’s oeuvre. It was what “Make love not war” meant when it was still possible to say such things without irony; a time when “sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” was understood as tied to meaningful—even transcendent—experiences and before all three were rendered innocuous, and utterly free of intrinsic meaning, by that little adjective “recreational.”

In recent years, however, the critique has shifted. It says, in short, “What’s the big deal?” I recall reading the combox of a Catholic blog a year ago and, while I no longer remember either the blog or the post, I remember coming upon a comment that went something like this: “The problem is that you Catholics take sex so seriously.* It’s just not that huge of a thing.” The comment unsettled me, but it’s taken me some time to figure out why. In an unexpected turn of events, the Church is suddenly the D.H. Lawrence of the world. That is to say, it’s one of the last places you can find where sex is still understood as a potent and transformative part of being a human being.**

In his biography of St. Francis, G.K. Chesterton diagnosed what he saw as the dangers of his own age:

The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago. […] We know what sort of sentimental associations are called up to us by the phrase “a garden”; and how we think mostly of the memory of melancholy and innocent romances, or quite as often of some gracious maiden lady or kindly old parson pottering under a yew hedge, perhaps in sight of a village spire. Then, let any one who knows a little Latin poetry recall suddenly what would once have stood in place of the sun-dial or the fountain, obscene and monstrous in the sun; and of what sort was the god of their gardens.

Chesterton’s horror at the worship of sex in an ancient society which arranged even its garden landscapes around the potency of a phallus seems downright quaint now—not because we’re now “enlightened” enough to know that such explicitness is not “obscene and monstrous,” but because the Greeks and Romans still found sex, found somethingworthy of worship. Temple prostitution may—and should—strike the Christian as perverse, but one can’t help but say “But at least they had temples.” Even if sex, as Chesterton puts it, became a “tyrant” and crowded out anything else, at least its tyranny was still understood as “sacred.”

What we have now is something much darker than what Chesterton shuddered at: it’s not that we worship sex but that we’ve lost an understanding of what it even means to worship. That is to say, we’ve lost an understanding of what it would mean to consider anything—even our own desires—as something that transcends us, as something beyond a mere possession of the self. To worship is to recognize that there’s something beyond your self worth acknowledging. For the ancients to place a phallus in the middle of their gardens was, in quite a literal way, to take something that appears to be a possession of the self and to put it outside the self, to make it (again literally) larger than the self.

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7 (Belated) Quick Takes!

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First and foremost, happy Feast of the Visitation! I particularly love this feast day because the mass reading includes the Magnificat, one of the most wondrous and beautiful of all the passages in the Bible. And if you haven’t heard (or haven’t heard lately!) Bach’s setting of the Magnificat, now’s the time:

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While we’re on the topic of beauty, this week’s America magazine reprints a fine quote from Pope Francis on the very topic. In April, the Holy Father urged his audience to reject the thinking of ideologues in part because they cannot recognize beauty: “The ideologues falsify the gospel. Every ideological interpretation, wherever it comes from—from (whatever side)—is a falsification of the Gospel. And these ideologues, as we have seen in the history of the Church, end up being intellectuals without talent, ethicists without goodness—and let us not so much as mention beauty, of which they know nothing.” On this Feast day, when we can’t help but be floored by the sheer beauty of Mary’s joy, let us remember that we need beauty. For at the moment that we are not allowed to speak of the beautiful, the moment in which we cannot think in aesthetic as well as moral and philosophical terms, then we are left with a regime of thought that is ultimately cold and sterile.

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Beauty has the power to arrest us, if we let it. I’m not a huge fan of Norman Rockwell, but the Pope’s comments reminded me of one Rockwell painting that I’ve always loved, one that seems to capture how the hustle and bustle of work and of thought, if it cannot see beyond itself, misses the point. Lift Up Thine Eyes [follow the link to see the painting; I’m not reprinting here since it’s not in the public domain] depicts St. Thomas’s Church in NYC—crowds of pedestrians, sketchy and flat, wander through the streets staring at the sidewalk as a church worker finishes setting the letters on the church sign. The title of the day’s sermon is, ironically, “Lift Up Thine Eyes.”

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I had my own “arresting” moment of beauty this week. I often pu Classical music on in the background while I’m doing academic working. This was the case a couple of days ago; however, when Samuel Barber’s indescribably gorgeous setting of the Agnus Dei came on (if you’ve heard Barber’s Adagio for Strings then you’ll recognize the melody). At a certain point I couldn’t let it be background anymore—I had to stop and had to “lift up my ears” as it were. To let its beauty be both marginalized and instrumentalized into “background music” felt downright wrong.


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I wrote in a previous Quick Takes about hoping to get my campus’s Catholic grad student reading group on board with Brideshead Revisited as our summer book. Well, Brideshead didn’t win, but another one of my recommendations—G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy—did and, frankly, I’m pleased as a peach. Heck, everyone ought to read Chesterton at some point! Meanwhile, Brideshead has officially become part of my own summer reading list.

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Speaking of Chesterton, his 137th birthday was this past Wednesday. In celebration, here’s one of my favorite anecdotes about a conversation between (the heavyset) Chesterton and his friend (the rail-like) George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton says to Shaw: “To look at you, anyone would think that a famine had struck England.” To which Shaw retorts: “To look at you, anyone would think you had caused it.”

I’ve always much admired the friendship of Chesterton and Shaw. In an age of ever-tightening ideological bubbles, it’s nice to remember that there was—and perhaps can be again—a time where people who harbor deep differences in their intellectual and spiritual commitments can nonetheless build lifelong friendships. And perhaps the “nonetheless” is unnecessary; perhaps it is the ability to disagree—to care about one’s ideas and the ideas of another enough to dispute with them—that builds those friendships in the first place.

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In other literary news (albeit news that’s about 200 years old), I discovered today just how much Samuel Taylor Coleridge hated light reading and light readers. As part of my research, I’ve been reading Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and I just discovered, in one of Coleridge’s footnotes,  this little gem of a rant about “circulating libraries” (whose readers would pool resources to buy and share books, usually popular fiction):

…as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement […] from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth and hatred of vacancy.

I can’t imagine that Coleridge approves of the things I’m reading when I’m not reading Coleridge . . .

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Imagine what he would have thought of The Hunger Games . . .

For more Quick Takes, visit Conversion Diary!

7 Quick Takes—05/17/13

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The “weirdest conference ever” seems to have been ripped right from the pages of a Thomas Pynchon novel. If you’ve ever read Pynchon’s fabulously surreal and satirical The Crying of Lot 49, then you’ll appreciate this story from The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Percolator blog. The story is, to all appearances, a clever satire about higher education and capitalism but it is, unfortunately, also true.  In it, a possibly mad—but extremely wealthy—jeweler who claims to have “seemlessly” [sic] joined together the fields of religion and science in a curious self-published tome entitled (wait for it…) the Summa Metaphysica convinces Bard College (yes, that Bard College) to host a week-long conference on his work by making a sizable gift to the school. One anecdote about the oddness of the whole affair: 

I spoke to several of the conference’s participants, including Tammy Nyden, an associate professor of philosophy at Grinnell College, who called the conference “so bizarre.” She felt hesitant about the invitation to begin with, but because it was taking place at a venerable institution like Bard, she decided to go. The conference covered expenses, and it sounded intriguing. But she thought it strange that almost no one attended the presentations, and she was surprised to come across a pile of T-shirts with Summa Metaphysica, the title of Birnbaum’s two-volume work, printed on them. Her brief interactions with Birnbaum did not put her at ease. “It was a very weird experience,” she said. “He keeps saying he has this unifying principle, and it’s ‘potentiality,’ and that’s the most sense I can make out of anything he’s said.”

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So long as we’re on the topic of dubious authors, The Telegraph has a pitch-perfect parody of Dan Brown, in which a day in the life of “renowned author Dan Brown” is rendered in Brownish prose.  A sample:

The critics said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive. They said it was full of unnecessary tautology. They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors. For some reason they found something funny in sentences such as “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” They even say my books are packed with banal and superfluous description, thought the 5ft 9in man. He particularly hated it when they said his imagery was nonsensical. It made his insect eyes flash like a rocket.

In addition to immensely enjoying the parody, I was able to finally put a finger on what bothers me about a lot of the prose style in airport books: “banal and superflous description.” It’s downright odd, frankly, that completely plot-driven novels feel the need to engage in lengthy, unnecessary, and flat descriptions when, let’s be honest, no one’s reading it for the scene setting.

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In other book news, I’ve been trying to decide how to sell the Catholic grad student group at my school on Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for our summer book club. First I have to confess that I haven’t read the book, I’ve only seen the fab miniseries with Jeremy Irons (streaming on Netflix FYI). I think I did a rather wretched job trying to describe it the first time round. It went something like this: “Well, it’s about the decline of the aristocracy and about Catholicism and about romance and, well, it’s just wonderful.” One person’s interest did seem to be briefly peaked by the “decline of the aristocracy” bit, so I think I’ve found the right catchphrase now for the next time I pitch it: “It’s Downton Abbey meets Catholicism.”

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