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.
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.