Who Does This?
Monday, March 26, 2012
CREEP: One thing I really liked about the first season of Veronica Mars (and this isn't a thought I came up with on my own) is that it created a crime in which an entire society was guilty. Veronica's rape happened because of a long domino rally of cruelty and indifference, in which no one actor ever made the specific decision to rape her. There was no way she could get "closure" by finding out whodunnit and getting him locked up. Closure came only through changing her society and herself--the whole first season, her transformation, was the process of creating a substitute for the justice she was denied.
There was a moment in Silent House when I thought it might be headed down a somewhat similar path. The girl's father looks at what are pretty obviously his brother's disturbing photos, almost certainly ones of his daughter, and shoves them into his pocket to prevent her from seeing them. The central "mystery" or reveal of the movie is pretty clear from quite early on, I thought, but there would be an especially cruel twist if the father was complicit but not outright villainous. Let's say, for example, that he had a bad feeling about how his brother looked at young girls, but he never had what he considered "enough" proof. Let's say that the pictures showed girls "playing dress-up" but not naked. There are all kinds of mottled motives here: family loyalty, patriarchal norms in which women and children are to be protected but not believed or trusted, a desire not to be "hysterical," overconfidence in one's own ability to accurately assess character ("Oh come on, I'd know if something really bad were going on"), willful blindness.
And then his daughter's fractured mind reveals the truth: By failing to protect her, failing to believe her or see telltale changes in her behavior, he had hurt and betrayed her profoundly. His misprotection had the same effect as outright cruelty and so she would punish it with the same fury.
That isn't what happened, but I do think it would have made the movie better--and darker.
Sunday, August 28, 2011
: A couple comments on Attack the Block
, re my post here
Hi Eve, I just saw your post on Attack the Block and I wanted to clarify what I was saying about its attitude toward heroism. (I'm beginning to see the downside of not having my own blog to write out this stuff anymore...)
I agree with you that the movie doesn't really *overturn* the action-hero fantasy, since in fact it affirms the guys' desire to be heroic, including the children and the white hanger-on. I think it would be better to say it overturned a certain antihero type of fantasy.
I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but I suppose my unconscious was comparing it to Pitch Black, which has a basically similar plotline: a criminal finds himself having to defend a group of people from swarming aliens and ultimately learns self-sacrifice. Only in that case the redemption was undermined by the fact that the camera clearly adored the unredeemed badass Vin Diesel, and his change of heart basically came from deciding his companions were worthy of him. Whereas the use of similar camera shots in Attack the Block seemed to say that these kids THINK they're Vin Diesel, but the screenwriters aren't granting them the sort of hypercompetence and semi-magical powers that Hollywood heroes get. (I especially liked the way the aliens are following Moses around because they think he's a female in heat, which is the sort of indignity screenwriters would probably never put on Vin Diesel.) I don't know about you, but I felt like when the gang finally figures out what's motivating the aliens, there was a bit of a shift even in the genre of movie we were in.
True, it was technically still an alien-invasion movie, but the "invasion" was essentially like a pack of wild dogs moving into the neighborhood; the kids, like the audience, imagined they were in a different kind of movie, and that turned out to be a disastrous mistake. So the block still needed a heroic rescue, but first Moses had to admit that he wasn't the type of hero he imagined he was.
Monday, July 18, 2011
THE PLANTS UNDER THE RUGS ARE MOVING. Have I done this post before, where I talk about what you should read if you want to read Stephen King? I'm not sure. Anyway, I haven't done it in a while. So here are your recommendations, if by "recommendations" you mean warnings. In alphabetical order because there's no other order, is there?
Carrie: I hate this book, but it's effective and short. Ignore the boring anti-Christian boilerplate characterization of Carrie's mother and focus on King's startling willingness to enter into adolescent girls' body-shame and his surprisingly complex bullies. In general King, like Orwell, really understands the mindset of cruelty--see also Christine.
Christine: Speaking of. You shitters. This book is about a certain kind of ingrown meanness, a defensiveness which becomes anger. It's one of King's many addiction books, but mostly about the disgusting smallness of a soul which has indulged its wrath for far too long. CS Lewis fans, this is the most obvious starting point for you, although actually Lewis and King have a huge amount in common.
Cujo: A short book which gives you the best of King at his most subtly atheist. From the initial disgrace of the "Sharp Cereal Professor" through to the devastation caused by nothing more than a wandering dog and a bat and a disease, this is a novel about horror without meaning. It's fantastic, too, and if I were an atheist, I think this might be one book I'd suggest to explain why I held that belief. Taut and quick and brutal.
Different Seasons: Oh, I barely remember this one, I'm sorry. The Body struck me as more honest about child abuse than Stand By Me, but both are pretty blunt.
IT: OK, so I did actually stay up until breakfast reading this thing. And Derry, the place, still lives in my head, like the small town from Something Wicked This Way Comes--Derry is an October country for me. I'm also really in love with the structure, the way we're called back to Derry just like the characters.
That said, I mostly hate this novel and think its climax is cheaply edgy and really has very little to do with the fear and cruelty which animate Pennywise throughout the book. I mean, if you want King stories about why evil persists, "Strawberry Season" and "The Mangler" are both a thousand times better. And shorter.
Pet Sematary: In my opinion, King's best book. If you've read CS Lewis's A Grief Observed, this is basically the opposite of that. A lot of horror stories assert that trying to get the beloved back would backfire; this is one of the only--maybe the only--stories where that proposition actually has an argument to back it up. If you want her back, in this novel, you want her-the-object-of-love back, not her-the-subject. It's actually a pretty profound novel, wrapped up in horrifying images which will never leave you (Gage's shoe, Churchill stumbling, the tree overhung with ice, the noises upstairs). This is a novel as sad as anything I've ever read, and King's masterpiece; and also an up-all-night thriller.
The Shining: The first book I ever stayed up all night to read, with the exception of ElfQuest! Unlike the movie, which is survival-horror, this is addiction-horror. It's one of the greatest portrayals of the addicted mindset, the lying to oneself and the sick feeling when you know you're lying to yourself, that I've ever read. The scene with the wasp's nest... the scene with the "Martoonies" and the bicycle on the road... the scene with the time clock at the debate tournament... This book could only be written by someone who has been there. Every addict has had that moment when we see our face fade into that photograph at the Overlook Hotel.
I get why people like the movie; Shelley Duvall is amazing and the cinematography is great. But the novel gives you the inner life of Jack Torrance, the hell where guilt becomes fury, and the movie just doesn't do that at all. The movie is really about his wife, which may be why a lot of people prefer it, but I was never going to be his wife.
Monday, September 13, 2010
ALL ALONG THE WATCHTOWER
: I started watching the new Battlestar Galactica
because I'd heard that it did interesting stuff with religion and with post-9/11 issues of wartime exigency. In the end neither of those aspects of the show resonated especially strongly with me (although I do like Sean's point about how Baltar's seemingly scattershot theology actually hangs together and plays into the overall Gnostic tone of the series). I kept watching through to the end because I was intrigued by a lot of the characters and I loved the Cylon aesthetics. When I talked about the show with friends, I found myself focusing not on the clash between the humans' polytheism and the robots' monotheism but on the totally awesome space battles. (I am not usually that kind of SF fan!) But in the end I was rewarded with one theme which really, deeply resonated with me.1. "All of this has happened before. But does it have to happen again?"
It might not be intentional, but it's deeply resonant that two of the characters who move toward the center of the narrative in the final season are alcoholics, since compulsive repetition of harm is one major aspect of addiction. (Here, have a gnomic utterance
!) A Swiftly Tilting Planet
was my favorite L'Engle in large part because it posed this same question. Can we stop? Can we change? And now that I think about it, of course Mrs. O'Keefe's drunkenness--am I remembering this right?--fits into the repetition theme as well....2. My one problem with the ending.
I can do a lot of handwaving in order to get to images, characters, or plotlines which resonate with me. So I really liked the use of "All Along the Watchtower" ("there must be some way out of here," see point #1!) even though there's really no
way to make it make sense. I really liked that Kara just... disappears.
But I was a little disappointed that so much hangs on Hera and yet she never gets an actual personality. She's purely iconic/mythic, in a series where virtually all of the characters are both iconic and fleshed-out personalities. She's just
a Significant Child, which I find kind of boring. I don't know, could they have shown her in day care, interacting with other children, doing anything other than displaying her creepy musical/psychic talents? Was she teased for having a Cylon mommy, and how did she respond if so? I guess I wanted her to have a personality, and not just a point
, because if all there is to her is the answer to, "What's the point of her?", then she's a character you can solve
rather than love.3. Cain, Roslin, Kendra, and Starbuck
: You know, I actually liked the Daddy Issues with the Adamas. But we've seen them before, in just about every pop culture product of the past twenty years. So what I really appreciated in BSG
is that it gave me something I'm not sure I've seen anywhere else: mother/daughter issues played out in the context of leadership and the "mask of command." I've seen mother/daughter issues in e.g. Absolutely Fabulous
, and older woman/younger woman mentorship in e.g. The Devil Wears Prada
, but I've rarely or never seen them brought together like this. I loved it. (The father/daughter stuff with Starbuck and Boomer was also pretty swift.)4. All beauty is strange.
I mentioned the Cylon aesthetics. I first noticed them during the aforementioned awesome space battles. The human ships generally kept on the horizontal for quite a while before doing their cool flippy stuff... but the Cylons just swarmed
, from the first moment. They acted
like robots bred to live in space. They didn't look like their fighting style was adapted from submarine or air combat. Their fighting style made them feel
alien, and very, very scary.
Then later we get to see the gooey neon Basestar. And we get to see the really eldritch scenes in which Hybrid Anders is hooked into the Galactica: how bizarre
. What an amazing image of the merging of human and Cylon cultures.5. Diana.
There's this trope or character type nowadays, the Girl Who Kicks Ass. (The Lady Who Kicks Ass is a very different type!) And I'm really unclear on why I love some iterations of that type (Veronica Mars) and find others sort of paint-by-numbers pop feminism (Buffy). Initially I wasn't sure that Starbuck would win me over--she's very clearly a Girl who kicks ass, not a Lady or Woman--but she really did. I think it's mainly her self-destructive streak (and her awareness of that streak; you can see it in her gestures at the end of that very first fight between her and Saul Tigh, where she makes her idiocy into a performance
so it doesn't make her look dumb) and also her very expressive hands and giant eyes.6. Treason for no reason!
Man, Gaius Baltar is one of the great SF characters, ever. He and the Tighs and the Sixes were my favorites by far.
Friday, July 16, 2010
ONE GOD, THREE OPINIONS
: There's a moment in David Ives's New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza
in which the goyische interrogator--one of the few non-Jewish characters in the play--quotes the old Jewish joke about “two Jews, three opinions.” A sincere and self-questioning Jew says that he doesn't think it's very funny! But Spinoza giggles.
And Spinoza is right. This play, in a startlingly intimate production from the theatrical wing of DC's Jewish Community Center, is about (among many other things) whether and how a Jew can fracture his identity such that he can be Jewish in affiliation and heterodox in belief or practice. It's about how much complicity we can accept in our community and leaders, and how much complexity we can accept in our God.
Ives bases his play on a 1656 event in which Spinoza was tried by the Jewish community of Calvinist Amsterdam. This was the first of several trials for Spinoza. In Ives's portrayal the synagogue was backed into a corner by the Christian majority. There's no chance of forgetting that Christianity wielded the sword in Amsterdam... and in Spain, and everywhere the Jews fled and everywhere they might flee. It's always instructive to view a world without Israel.
The play is ridiculous, as Spinoza plays, in a way, the role of holy fool. He's besotted with an Amsterdam where one corner provides an apocalyptic ranter, and the next provides a fig salesman with the slogan, “Fresh figs--good tits! The same thing!” He loves an Amsterdam of the mind; he loves an anything of the mind. It's amazing that he stops long enough to notice that his best friend and his girlfriend are not actually the same person with convex traded for concave.
Once at summer camp I managed to come down with pneumonia and heat fever simultaneously. And this play captures the glassy, crystalline sensation of insight and sickness, alienation and dissolution into the Real, which I'll always remember from that conflicted illness: The best thing about this Spinoza is his weird combination of cold fever and hot reason. He espouses an absolute, Nietzschean love of life. He is seriously ill when we meet him (and I wish his terrible coughing had been revisited in the latter half of the play, when it seemed to fade so he could make speeches) and he adores the ephemeral and the diaphanous. At the same time he wants a pristine religion. He wants a clean faith for men with clean hands. He rejects all complicity, including the complicity of the Jewish elders who accepted their unequal status in Amsterdam. Toward the beginning of the play he says that clouds and people are just like lines and solids, “only less complicated.”The New Jerusalem
avoids the pitfalls of the intellectual play. It does not whiff its arguments. Every vector of argument in the play either received a fair and fierce response or was dodged intentionally as a point of characterization. For example, Spinoza completely dodges the question of whether his enthusiast-determinist worldview can ever accept punishment; can there be a legal system based on his view? Given than he's asked this question while on trial for heresy, his skittering away from the question is understandable! He's simply not at all in a position where he could, e.g., say with the Karamazov patriarch that there must be hooks in Hell so that he could be hung from those hooks. Similarly, when confronted by the question of why his abstracted and hygienic concept of religion requires a God at all, he says that it's the first intelligent question he's heard all night--and doesn't answer.
Local reviewers have complained about the broad, vituperative character of Rebecca, Spinoza's half-sister. She clearly wandered in from a different genre; she's a cartoon, a monster. And yet she works as comic relief and as funhouse mirror held up to the audience: Many of us have known or been people like her, people whose ownership of their religious and ethnic minority role is simultaneously chastising, self-righteous, courageous and repressive. Rebecca humbles the audience. She doesn't manage to take Spinoza down as far as she wants to, but she can at least disabuse us of our belief in our own intellectual cleanliness.
Overall this play is served very well by its cast. Alexander Strain is puppyishly heroic as Spinoza, able to convey the heights of emotion with a quick swallow or crooked grin. Michael Tolaydo is magisterial, in all the darkest senses of the word, and fatherly as the rabbi who cannot believe that his star pupil could ever turn against the faith. The direction takes advantage of the small theater space, turning the (almost entirely) Jewish audience into the Jewish jury and evoking a real sense of danger and complicity in the viewer.
There are some flaws. There are a few quick platitudes about how religious tolerance is good, and religious persecution is bad. This isn't necessary for an American theater audience in the year 2010. And it doesn't quite work to have every subsidiary character undergo a heel-face turn or vice versa. Virtually everyone changes their beliefs about Spinoza at some point in the evening--and maybe changes back!--and while each individual change is earned by the script, the overall impression is of an author's mechanistic push for parallel structure.
But I love that this Spinoza honestly believes that truth makes sense. He honestly believes that there is one compass, and that compass is named Reason, and that compass has been found by him alone. He rejects the messiness of Jewish faith, the knife over Isaac's breast and the toppling walls of Jericho and the hookers and the angels. He rejects every element of religion which can't be understood by an exceptionally clever utopian caught in the dual flush of first love and consumption. He really is as arrogant as Rebecca says he is, even if he's arrogant in an intensely endearing and admirable way. (Pride is the greatest sin, because the most godlike.) He rejects the position that bizarre faiths like Judaism and Christianity are more likely to be true because they're weird--they're shaped the way the world is shaped, not a cube but a mountain. This play allows the possibility that there's philosophy beyond the philosophy of Spinoza; and to do that, in what is inarguably a hagiography of Spinoza, is a truly exceptional achievement.
The shocking, poignant ending of the play takes a theme of Jewish humor and misery—the Jew who has no reason to believe, no reason to trust God, yet performs Jewish practice anyway—and reverses its usual emotional valence. Elie Wiesel's play The Trial of God
was inspired by a real event at Auschwitz, in which rabbis placed God in the dock and, when he did not deign to appear as he did for Job, found him guilty. Then they made their evening prayers. Comparisons to Tom Stoppard are probably inevitable for this play, but in fact the trial of Baruch de Spinoza, in Ives's retelling, ends with an echo and an undermining of Wiesel.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A THOUSAND GIRLS, A THOUSAND THRILLS
: A few exchanges about Gay Catholic Whatnot, for those who care. Responses to my post, "Order from Confusion Sprung."
1. From an anonyreader
I just have some vague thoughts/reactions, just from a straight woman's perspective. You probably have no shortage of people giving you feedback, but I thought I'd add mine to the cacophony.My response
(This isn't very philosophical, so beware)
I can see your point in your latest post and the other things you've written on this score (I think I see it). But ...I have a problem with it, and the best way to put it is for me to flip your description over to the straight side, and to put your articulation of this into a straight landscape.
And when I do that, it doesn't sound right. Not as in "immoral" but not rightly aligned - I think I understand what you are attempting to do with eros as a part of the muck of love/affection/passion/friendship/love for God/ but when I consider the ways that *I* relate to the world, male and female - it doesn't fit life and the way I lead it at all. Let's just put it this way: I don't seem to look at/relate to men in the same way you describe yourself relating to/seeing/moving among women. Is it cause I'm 20 years older than you and been there, done that? And I'm gonna be 50 and my husband died, etc? And I've had five kids? I don't know.
> my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component,
> and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of
> mercy. My lesbianism is part of why I love the authors I love. It's
> inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I
> can't help but think it's inextricable from my vocation.
I mean...I don't see my connection to other men as having an intrinsically adoring and erotic component. Maybe I'm in denial? Don't think deeply enough about it? Perhaps. And perhaps I am oversimplifying but what you are saying, but perhaps hearing me oversimplify helps you see how what you're saying sounds to non-lesbian ears. Or whatever.
I also wonder how much childbearing and parenting affects experience and one's mental and emotional life here. I think it adds another dimension/layer to longing, desire and intimacy, as well as to the sense of self.
I think there are three quick points I'd like to make in response, since I actually agree with a lot of what you say here.
1. I was WAY too quick to write as if "lesbianism" or "the lesbian experience" is one coherent thing! I hate it when other people do that, and I'm annoyed that I fell into the same trap. The way I understand my desires really is a lot like what I wrote on the blog, but I do believe that there are different styles of homosexuality (and heterosexuality for that matter); I need to be more careful to write about lesbianisms, plural, and to think about alternatives to my own experience.
2. That said, I'm not convinced that ANY description of homosexual experience can simply be "flipped" and evaluated on the grounds of, "Would this ring true if it were describing a form of heterosexuality?" I don't think the various homosexualities and heterosexualities need to match up or mirror one another, and in fact, I don't think they DO mirror one another very much. That's partly bc of socialization issues: not just the obvious fact that gay people are in the minority, and often a harshly stigmatized and scrutinized minority, but also the fact that most kids (these days?) spend their childhoods playing mostly w/their own sex, then negotiate the transition to adolescence and having cross-sex friendships, so the ways we're used to understanding love and friendship w/members of our own sex don't develop along the same paths as the ways we understand love and friendship w/members of the opposite sex. And partly it's just... men and women are different! So a woman loving a woman probably won't map very well onto EITHER a woman loving a man, or a man loving a woman (or a man loving a man, although for whatever reason I do tend to see more parallels between my own experiences and the way a lot of gay men describe theirs). Oh so anyway, while I actually agree with the cautions/conclusions of your thought experiment, I don't think that form of thought experiment is usually wildly illuminating.
3. I should definitely write more about the dangers of the sort of "iconic womanhood/Beatrice" approach to eros. I doubt parents of girls really want their daughters to view their boyfriends, or even husbands, as icons of manhood, LOL! And of course there are ways of placing someone on a pedestal which are intensely irritating for the pedestal-bound person.
I think that's all I've got for now.... Let me know if any of that makes sense to you and (if you have the time/inclination) let me know if it prompts further questions and challenges....
2. Another anonyreader
First off, I want to say that I agree with you that the Catholic Church is making a mistake by placing so much emphasis on the phrase "inherently disordered." If nothing else, it is an ugly and bloodless phrase -- not so much derogatory as offensively bland. It may be just fine as a philosophical description, but as a public declaration of doctrine, it is tin-eared and misleading, apt to be invested with prejudice rather than to give real shape to debate.My reply
That said, I would like to make the following points, some of which are critical (?) of your position:
1. If I interpret the Church's meaning correctly, the phrase "intrinsically disordered" should not be read as referring to "homosexuality" broadly (at least not as that term is used colloquially), but rather to the desire to engage in the types of sexual contact that are available to same-sex pairs. I don't think the Church wants to forbid men from enjoying show tunes or women from enjoying field hockey (stereotypes are sometimes useful as shorthand, eh?). And I also don't think that the Church is forbidding these types of sexual activity only to same-sex pairs. Married heterosexual couples are not cleared for fellatio. (Incidentally, here is another place I think the Church has fallen down on the job. This point ought to be made clearly and repeatedly, but, for some reason, the Church gives the impression of having bought in to the notion that sodomy is somehow the special possession of the LGBT community.)
2. It's interesting to me that you seem to associate the Phrase (you know the one I mean) with a natural law vocabulary as opposed to a Neo-Platonist vocabulary. (Am I reading you correctly on that one?) I would rather associate the Phrase with a bit of philosophy that represents an overlap between both sides of that particular coin -- namely, the idea that human beings have a defined telos. (Yes, the Aristotelians and the Platonists have different conceptions of teleology, but I don't think those distinctions are relevant here.) Since human beings have a natural end, and can only be happy/moral/just in pursuit of that end, actions running counter to the end are immoral/whatever. A desire to do something counter to one's telos is a wrong desire, but, since evil is not a Thing (thank you, St. Augustine), to say the desire is wrong is not to say that it leads to something real and positive. Rather, it is to say that said desire is just a desire for the Good that has been mislead, or deceived, or... you know... disordered.
All of that to say I do happen to think the Phrase is an accurate enough philosophical description of the desires in question. We probably should not give philosophers the job of writing press releases, however.
3. I do think the the Phrase does say a little more than "no gay sex." For instance, (A) it intimates the notion that desires ought to be judged by objective and universal standards. That's something I think we Americans need to fess up to. Also, (B) it suggests that said desires aren't going anywhere you want to go. Teleology is also something we need more of.
That said, the Phrase merely intimates these things, and does not actually say them. And furthermore, even though these things are good things to say, a great deal more ought to be said on the subject.
4. And now some undisciplined musings on what to look for in a replacement for the Phrase.
First, I am reminded of a passage I once read in an article condemning Augustine's view of sexuality. Augustine was waxing eloquent about how wonderful it would be if sex were not governed by desire -- how wonderful it would be if sex were simply an expression of love unfettered by bodily urges. The article seemed to think this was the Saint's latent Manicheanism showing itself. I interpreted it differently, however. After all, it was clear that Augustine was recommending sex -- good ol' bodily sex -- he was just wishing that sex could be raised from the status of self-serving power play in which it so often languishes here beneath the sphere of the moon. Even in the purest of sexual encounters, there is an admixture of self-dealing, self-loathing, manipulation, etc. Augustine wanted sex-as-reverence-for-the-Other, and sex-as-hymn-of-joy rather than the mechanical sex-unto-orgasm which is the hallmark of sexuality in the modern West. Augustine wanted the sex of Eden.
Thus, I think one thing that is needful is a cultivation of Augustine's tragic longing -- an acknowledgment that the sense of loss homosexuals may feel if they are to follow the Church's is, in fact, the normal and sane reaction to being created for the sake of union and yet fallen from the grace that makes such union possible. And, indeed, heterosexual couples ought to acknowledge the sense of loss that they, themselves, feel even in the midst of sex. Male sexuality and female sexuality are very different things, and a heterosexual always hangs in limbo between his own desire and the desire of his beloved -- between self-immolation and self-dealing.
Your point #1 still strikes me as forcing a stronger separation of sexual desire from other aspects of eros than I think makes sense. That may be a reflection of my own experience rather than a universal claim, though. (Your point #2 seems a bit subtler on the same question, but I'd have to read it again to be sure....)His reply to my reply
Also, fascinating that you see the "objectively disordered" desire in question as the desire for sodomy, hetero or homo. I've literally never seen the phrase used or explained that way. It's ALWAYS been used to refer to homosexuality whenever I've seen it used at all.
The rest of your email is well taken and I (think I) largely agree.
As to the "objectively disordered" desire being the desire for sodomy, I admit to seeing a subtext there rather than being able to point to definitive language supporting my position. I think the Church is following its long history of being bashful in public when talking about sexual things, and also (as I said) adopting the terms of the public discourse in a sort of sloppy way. But it just doesn't make sense for the Church to condemn homosexuality as a genre when the guys who happen to be writing the Church's theological language right now tend to reject the whole concept of a "lifestyle," and other concepts that could be used to reify homosexuality away from its on-the-ground state of individual experiences, desires, and actions. Also, it doesn't fit with the Church's language when discussing sexuality to not make the distinction I suggest. The Church consistently separates out sexual behaviors from attendant cultural/emotional baggage, erring on the side of treating sex as a separate thing. I don't think that is necessarily a good tendency within Catholic discourse on sexuality, but I do think it is a strong tendency, and one that strongly indicates that the Church is really talking about sodomy when it is talking about "homosexuality."
(Incidentally, I think the Church has gotten too squeamish about how the Dead Guys used to talk about sex. The Church now acts like everything's okay so long as you've got the rings on your fingers, but it was not always so. There was a day when everything but the good, ol', missionary position was forbidden, and priests warned men against lusting after their wives. That language was too negatively-focused, and was widely misunderstood both by the priests and by the parishioners, I think, but I think more of that sort of language would be a good thing for the historical moment we're in now. I also think that the old vocabulary -- which was ultimately Augustine's -- reflected a much more realistic and respectful view of eros than anything on the market today.)
As for whether or not dividing the desire for sodomy from a more general erotic impulse is a valid theological move, I think it is for this reason... nobody specifically desires any sort of sex starting out. In our culture, where we have easy access to pornography, it's easy to miss this fact, since so many people enter into erotic situations with their imaginations already conditioned and their game-plans prepared. But eros begins with a connection to the Beloved and a desire that far overshoots any version of actual sexuality that can be conceived. Aristophanes's myth in the Symposium gets that much right. Human beings subject to eros do not desire to have their genitals physically manipulated in some specific way or another. They desire a complete physical one-ness with the Beloved that is not possible in this world. The preference for some species of genital contact comes later, and it has far more to do with a more basic, self-serving appetite for carnal pleasure than it does with eros itself. For eros, any sort of sexual contact that is actually possible for human beings is a compromise at best -- if not a lamentable distraction -- from the goal of Union with the Beloved.
I began to explicate this in my earlier e-mail before I accidentally sent it unfinished, but one distinction of the classic, heterosexual missionary position that recommends it is that it has this tragic/eschatological aspect of sexuality built-in. Rather than having one member of a couple "servicing" the other as in most versions of sodomy, or having both members "servicing" one another or some such thing (which --I imagine -- allows at least one member of a couple to lose track of eros's strident demands), both sides of the coupling must be simultaneously seeking the pleasure of the other while also seeking his own pleasure. It just doesn't work otherwise. Since the male sexual organ wants something rather different than the female sexual organ, the tension of separation is ever present, even when the moment of closest physical union approaches. There is always a negotiation going on, even while -- contrariwise -- that negotiation is ultimately what makes for the pleasure of sex. (I am, of course, speaking of the ideal situation governed by eros rather than the situation where one or both of the parties is simply out for self-service. I imagine that, more often than not, the negotiation I'm speaking of is ignored or even actively downplayed in the pursuit of perfect, American-dream, sexual satisfaction. But what I'm speaking of really is there, and cannot be entirely ignored or combated without serious damage being done between a couple.)
In any case, I would argue that, seen in the best light, what the Church's Phrase is actually trying to get at, and one thing the Church's theology of sexuality is always trying to get at is, "Do not accept the compromise that this world offers in place of the true consummation of the desire God has placed in you." That desire is the desire for the eternal eschaton, where you will be made one with God and with one-another. Everything else is the diversion of your imagination, and the compromises of the moment, and the wild irrelevance of carnality.
Monday, June 07, 2010
MY FACEBOOK STATUS IS ALWAYS "RUNNING WITH THE HARE AND HUNTING WITH THE HOUNDS"
: A long exchange about complicity, closets, and Catholics, with Jendi Reiter.Jendi
Hi Eve,Then I replied
I love your latest post about coming out. I've experienced the distortions of the closet, having had to participate in my two moms' cover-up of their relationship when I was a child, and it's just as you describe. (Though in my case, having to "say what you're certain won't be understood" made me an experimental poet!)
I respect your choice of celibacy as part of the faith you chose to follow. And as you said, in some environments, "coming out" as a Christian involves the same perils and benefits as "coming out" as gay in other environments.
However, in this whole discussion, I think you have to address the fact that Christians play perhaps the leading role in enforcing the terrors of the closet, and your Roman Catholic Church is a leader in that movement. Unlike "coming out" as a Christian (in Western countries anyhow), the biggest obstacle to gay honesty isn't an internal struggle against conformity. It's a discriminatory legal system that religious institutions spend a lot of money and effort to uphold and extend. Not to mention the hate crimes inspired by religious rhetoric against those diseased and dangerous gay people. In this country, "religious" means mostly Christian.
If that's the case, I feel this post needs to say so explicitly. Otherwise I feel that you sentimentalize the coming-out process too much. I know you aren't saying "Look, we Christians can go on humiliating gays because it's good for their souls!" but it's disingenuous to speak of the Valley of Humiliation as a Christian growth experience, when the Valley wouldn't exist without Christian homophobia.
But I really did like the post...
, basically just saying that I'd really liked her post about the closet as well. She added
Thanks for your kind words about my blog. I can always count on a good dialogue with you :)And I said
I had to send the email before I was completely done because the phone rang, so if you don't mind, here are some follow-on thoughts:
What I think I was saying, more concisely: Since you recognize that the closet is spiritually toxic, I don't understand how you can defend church doctrines that make the closet inevitable. What do you expect gay Christians to do once they come out?
Celibacy doesn't remove the stigma, particularly in Protestant churches, which (unlike the Catholics) don't recognize it as a vocation equal to marriage. Even for Catholics, gay celibacy isn't like priestly celibacy. You don't get an alternate social role and community as a replacement for the family life that other people enjoy. It's more like a quarantine. I always thought the purpose of celibacy was to make space for other forms of service that would be impeded by family duties—a positive discipline that allows gifts to flourish, not an incarceration of dangerous elements in yourself or society.
It sounds like your experience has been more positive, but maybe not everyone has your vocation, or maybe it's different for you because you didn't grow up in a church or a family that said there was something intrinsically wrong with you.
I've heard a lot of stories from gay Christians who were kicked out of their churches and families just for admitting that they had same-sex attraction—they hadn't acted on it, and they were actually seeking help overcoming it, but that didn't matter.
During the times when I've had to walk through the Gracious Valley of Humiliation (lovely phrase!) I know I couldn't have done it without Jesus. But that's what many gay people try to do, because religious homophobia has totally turned them off to the gospel. They're trying to come out, while being told that humanity's one true source of strength is not available to them. That's too much to ask.
YES, this is super helpful. I think some of the complicity you identify in my post is inevitable. Ultimately I think the resistance to homophobia is stronger than the complicity, but I can totally see why you would disagree if you already don't agree about what fidelity requires of gay people.
I also think you're right that celibacy isn't a "vocation" really, since a vocation is necessarily a way of focusing one's love/eros. Celibacy is a tool toward vocation.
Also, you highlight some of the places where my constant ambivalence about "humiliation" gets in the way of my theology/compassion, so that's good. I mean, I genuinely do believe in the Spenser thing. The Cross is a reward. But INFLICTING humiliation on others is a sin.
The post was aimed I think mostly at gay Catholics/Orthodox Christians (since the various complications introduced by Protestantism aren't really something I feel competent to address) and is part of my ongoing attempt to create/point out how much BREATHING ROOM Catholicism gives, really, how much freedom you can have as a gay Catholic, not solely based on my own experience but also people who had really difficult Catholic upbringings and yet embraced the faith.
Also, I wanted to address two specific points because the phrasing struck me: “What do you expect gay Christians to do once they come out?”
Well I mean, there's what I do, you know? Love your friends, perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, listen to music, be a person. Find your vocation. In the immortal words of the Pet Shop Boys, “There's a lot of opportunities/If there aren't, you can make them.”
And “It sounds like your experience has been more positive, but maybe not everyone has your vocation, or maybe it's different for you because you didn't grow up in a church or a family that said there was something intrinsically wrong with you.” Because yeah, my experience has been more positive and my family's acceptance is a HUGE part of that, but I wanted to push back slightly against the implication that it's easy for me. It's a bit of a Catch-22 really: If I talk about the hard parts, people say, “Oh, celibacy is so cruel”; if I don't, people say, “Well it's easy for her.” So I just wanted to flag that and note that things are more complicated, from my perspective, than either of those summaries.
Rargh I have a bunch more to say, but I should probably save it for the morning after! More soon. And THANKS, seriously, again, and I'm sorry if any of this is condescending, since like I said I don't always know what I'm talking about.
And sorry for the intermittent capslock. My underlining key is broken.
Then JR again
Not condescending at all, and very interesting! I am too tired to respond in depth.
But I'm going to continue to call you out on the Church's contribution to social structures that oppress and stigmatize gay people, which affects everyone in civil society whether or not they've chosen to be Catholic. I believe that stigma often remains even if someone is celibate. You still seem to be addressing this from an individual standpoint ("how much freedom you can have as a gay Catholic") and I'm trying to widen the political lens.
Looking forward to your post!
And me again
I guess I just keep coming back to the fact that complicity is inevitable because my primary commitment here is to Christ through the Church. So to the extent that the doctrine provides a rationalization or environment for bigotry or stigma, I can fight the results but I can't reject the doctrine. And I think you probably would agree if the issue were different; e.g. I am pretty well convinced that all Christians are to some extent complicit in Christian persecution of the Jews, even though obviously both of us attempt to resist that persecution.
Or to put it another way, coming out will always be difficult and humiliating as long as some large number of Christians “hold the line” on sexuality. And since I'm Catholic, I think they should hold the line. So it's worth looking for the spiritual benefits to the humiliation. But there's a huge gulf between that inevitable difficulty and the persecution faced by e.g. Wilde, which while apparently very spiritually-fruitful for him was of course deeply corrosive to the souls of his tormentors. To cast things in contemporary terms, the emotional and spiritual stress I went through w/r/t sexual orientation was probably inevitable (and not trivial), whereas my friends who were bullied or rejected by their families etc. had to deal w/actual sin, which I'm trying in various ways to fight.
a bit more from me
...The US bishops' pastoral letter to parents of gay children, while definitely not what I would write, is surprisingly good for bishops! (Part of the issue here, at least in terms of word choices, may be that I strongly resist identifying the Catholic Church with the hierarchy at any given time OR with any one style of theology e.g. natural law; those things form part of the Church and their failings can't be glossed over, but the Church is the Bride of Christ, and She's bigger than them.) And although my impression is that Catholic g/l ministries are a VERY mixed bag, some of them are quite good, including the one at my church. We get people from across the spectrum of fidelity to Church teaching, and I think both the support group and (to a lesser extent) discussion group elements work really well. We cannot be the only ones out there! So again I think the Church, even if we're only talking about contemporary Catholic responses to contemporary gay people/culture/identity, has a lot more resources than the majority of CATHOLICS, let alone other people, know about. Which is a tragedy and shame in itself, and something I'm of course trying to address....
and this from Jendi
to finish, since I think it's a great note to end on and I absolutely will be seeking to be more open about where I find the Church's representatives' current rhetoric and strategy wrongheaded:
Thanks as always for your thoughtful and open-hearted reply. Sorry to give the impression that I thought celibacy was easy for you. I respect your commitment to this spiritual discipline.
I think that I've been asking two separate questions but haven't properly disentangled them, so it's no wonder you've only addressed one of them :)
The first question is at the individual level: Does the church's position that gays should be celibate necessarily force gays into the closet because there is no fulfilling social role for them outside ordinary family structures? Speaking from your own experience, you say no. You feel that you can be out, be accepted in the church, and redirect your life force toward non-sexual human connections. (Hope this is an OK paraphrase.) I can accept that, though I still question whether every same-sex-attracted person can live a psychologically healthy celibate life. Let's agree to disagree here!
But the second question, at the political and pastoral level, is still unaddressed by your remarks. Let me try to articulate it more clearly.
Let's assume, for this discussion, that (1) same-sex attraction is unchosen (e.g. like blindness rather than adultery) and nearly unchangeable; (2) the closet is spiritually toxic; and (3) fidelity to Christ requires gays to be celibate. My impression is that you would agree with 1,2, and 3, while I disagree on 3 but will shelve that for now.
In that case, the Catholic Church has overwhelmingly failed to help gays live out that difficult vocation, and I really feel you need to acknowledge that, because it undermines people's ability to trust the Church as an authority on this issue.
As a political actor, the Church has opposed every piece of civil rights legislation that would remove the physical dangers and economic hardships of being an out gay person. Hate crimes perpetrators and discriminatory employers don't care whether you are celibate. All they need to know is that you're one of "those queers".
When I suggested that your path had been easier, I was partly thinking about your apparent freedom from this kind of discrimination. It doesn't sound like you've been afraid for your life or your livelihood as an out gay Catholic, celibate or not.
Additionally, in the Church's pronouncements on gay issues, I hear very little about pastoral care for homosexuals as homosexuals, compared to the emphasis on protecting "us" from "their" polluting influence. Particularly since the Church is telling gays NOT to form families, the Church must work extra hard to be a safe family for gays. It should be emphasizing at every turn that these are our equal brothers and sisters and that they need help with their challenging spiritual path. The Church should also teach us to appreciate the special gifts that arise from this vocation—the unique contributions of gays to the Church—the way they do with priestly celibates.
This ideal picture is not the Church as we know it today.
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