Carl’s comments regarding Mary Eberstadt’s new book Adam and Eve After the Pill got me wondering. Was this book truly a game changer in the debate regarding the consequences of the sexual revolution (and “full modernity” as he puts it) or not? So I went out and bought the book and read it. In answer to that question I have to say no.
Her argument is backed up with much evidence, but the book makes a case that she had already made in previously published articles in First Things and Policy Review. So as far as game changing went, I was already familiar with the gist of her argument.
I largely agree with her argument, but I’m not sure it is a game changer in the cultural war. That is, it is not a game changer unless one starts to look beneath the surface of her overall case. Looking at all of her articles as they are compiled in the terms one book, you start to think of connections that had not been there before. You begin to see things between the lines, as it were.
I think such a reading is fair due to the fact that the book is highly rhetorical. Eberstadt relies on a method of leading you into her argument with a suppositional case that you initially think is about one thing, but that ends up about being another. You think she is talking about today and the consequences of the sexual revolution—after all this is the book’s topic—but she ends up talking about communism and the cold war, current dietary restrictions and food obsessions, and the historically prior widespread popular acceptance of smoking tobacco (primarily cigarettes).
Eberstadt ends up making strange connections—connections which show moral homologies and trans-valuations between previously held moral standards of conduct, and currently accepted codes. No doubt, she did this in her previous articles. She compared the communist revolution and reactions to it with the sexual revolution and similar reactions. She described opposing attitudes toward both food and sex in the 1950s and the 2000s. She made an analogy between tobacco use in the past and the consumption of pornography in the present. But when these ideas are presented together as a whole, the reader starts to see a larger account of what just might ail us beneath the surface of the problems of the pill and the sexual revolution—as substantial as those problems and their consequences are.
Eberstadt presents a problem of human desire in both its male and female modes—perhaps even in a desire for the infinite. Moreover, she shows the way in which there can be well-formed and mal-formed versions that such desire can take in the light of its particularly sexed or gendered nature. Sexed and gendered nature is an important part of her case. Much of this is unstated, but given what on the surface seem to be strange corollaries—say, that between tobacco and pornography—the reader can only be left with further questions in this regard. What is it that one desires that can give one completion?
Without answering that question Eberstadt outlines the social science data that consequentially suggests a current and general confusion and unhappiness in life, and especially in the lives of men and women, and how they relate to one another. Rampant loneliness, high divorce rates, infidelity, alcoholism, drug abuse, addiction to pornography, and general neuroses and psychoses seem to lead to behavior that entails personal and social self-destruction. It is connected to the sexual revolution, and it is connected to a human desire in terms of a freedom that knows no bounds other than that which is assigned by the conventions of the day. Eberstadt hopes that the data collected through decades of social science research will lead to a change in behavior, but I’m not so sure that is the case. The facts she relates are open to interpretation, and one must share her dismay at the psycho-social disorder that such practices have led us in order to seek a change. And we still must wonder a change for what?
Throughout the book, Eberstadt speaks of the Kantian Categorical Imperative, and she shows how attitudes toward activity that could be made universal for all can change over time. But this insistence on Kantian morality, to my mind, shows a thinness regarding the foundation of ethics not only when it moves to an abstraction beyond settled emotive, historical and cultural practices, whether they be for better or worse. It is also thin in its reliance upon a morality understood as a free and rational assent to agreed upon rules, and therefore a morality that does not take into account the unruly—and heteronomous—nature of eros, let alone thumos. A Kantian morality eschews any teleology as being base eudaimonism, so Eberstadt likewise remains silent regarding any ends of human action.
This may sound like a simplistic reiteration of Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of modern morality, and if so, so be it. However, I simply wanted to point to the nature of human eros—or desire—as presented in Plato’s Symposium with an addendum of the Epicurean notion of pleasure. In this case, desire is a lack, and perhaps a fundamental lack. As such, eros is painful—only to be relieved through satisfaction and potential pleasure. But what ultimately satisfies? Convention—whether traditional or libertine—is established to give form and shape to such desire. It also attempts to answer the question of what is ultimate, but it can never quite get at the true meaning and purpose of the whole. It is always conventional. Such is the partisan nature of living in a political community.
Eberstadt points out that the conventions of modern libertinism lead to a whole host of social and personal disorders, and she has plenty of evidence to back her claim up, but she provides no account of what would truly satisfy. Maybe Kant is right, and we should rely on the formal autonomy of rational agents who see each other as ends in themselves. However, when you connect that formal intent to sexual desire such an account of morality seems lacking to me. If sexual desire must act in conformity to a universal maxim in a Categorical Imperative, it is always going to have a hard time seeing action has having any purpose beyond itself. And sex always implies such a purpose in procreation and its attendant institutions of family and political community. Eberstadt wants the facts of social science to conform to a Kantian rule, but she never says what the purpose is. That purpose has to be read between the lines.
Let me just mention Eberstadt’s subtle analogy between attitudes toward sex and food. According to her book, in the 1950s a woman would have been libertarian regarding food choices and puritanical regarding sexual activity. Her grand-daughter in the 2000s, on the other hand, holds opposite judgments regarding these things. This is true to my memory and experience. But what does it mean?
Hunger for sex and food moves the soul to nourish the body. In an empirical observation of human activity and life, a la Hobbes, desire seems to know no end other than death. It shows itself as power seeking after power that only ends in death. As death, it is limited for each, but limitless as a species. But Aristotle also knew that human beings were the most unruly and dangerous of all animals outside of convention, especially with regard to food and sex. He too claims that these things can be taken in an unlimited manner, even if such behavior leads to self-destruction. However, unlike Hobbes, Aristotle posited the human being was a political animal, an animal which finds its perfection—or telos—in the context of a well-ordered city. St. Augustine too spoke of infinite human desire, which is itself a kind of pain. Be he unlike Hobbes or Aristotle, claimed that “my” heart is restless until it rests in “you”—the personal God revealed in the personal relation of a triune God. But this revelation also provided an end, viz. personal salvation and eternal life.
For all my critique of popular Kantianism, let me say that Eberstadt’s book is really good. With less panache, but with equal force and even further empirical social science evidence, her method resembles Roland Barthes’ Mythologies in its outlines of the deep structure of the contemporary beliefs and practices surrounding our most deeply held moral codes about human sexual desire—or should I say eros. And she does it all with a moral intent beyond the value-free conventions of most contemporary social science. She outlines a structural semiology of sexual morals which connects “is” and “ought,” in order to submit facts to a candid world understood in the light of a well understood grasp of seemingly self evident moral truths.
To my mind, however, a game changer in the cultural debate would have to address eros and its completion—or at least the alternative claims for its completion. But then, perhaps I’m asking too much of contemporary debate and discourse. I admit I could never be as brilliant as Mary Eberstadt is in this book.
UPDATE: Let me add a partisan jab at President Obama. Eberstadt has this to say about the pervasive acceptance of pornography: “What seems unremarkable today–accepting pornography industry money for one’s charity, say…” may be a passing delusion. The porn industry “may yet [come] to see their efforts reviled by a future public–just as many people who once aided the tobacco industry, whether paid or not, are seen with our critical eyes today.” The Weekly Standard reports on this event in the Obama campaign.