Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.
Whatever happened to Extreme Unction? Who are the baleful liturgists who drove a stake through the sacrament and nailed it to the ground?
No need to answer that. I know who they are. They are the same ruinous bien pensants who confused the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and ‘70s with the cooing of the Holy Spirit. Let God forgive them; I cannot.
Death of Daniel O’Connell. Currier Lithograph (1847). Museum of the City of New York.
Unction for those in extremis was stripped of its exclusive purpose and ritual dignity in the wake of Vatican II. All astringent solemnity is gone. The reduction—a theft—is implicit in the name change: sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. If the theology has not changed, the practice surely has. Last Rites are obsolete, outmoded by cultural resistance to the awful significance of a ceremony so named.
We are all sick in some way, are we not? Sick of sorrow, sick of coping, worn down by the stresses of the lived life. We want to be healed of caring too much, or cured of paralysis in caring at all. Old injuries act up, a knee is out, iron is too low, the PSA too high. Then comes that hint of cataracts, the heart murmur, or the family history of diabetes. Count in the growing list of pathogens that make the nightly news. Lastly, and for lack of greater specificity, there is what our forefathers knew as the ague. We are only made of clay; and clay breaks down.
So my parish offers what it calls a Healing Mass. One Sunday of every year, parishioners are invited to file altarward with their vulnerabilities and complaints to receive the Anointing of the Sick. The not-so-sick, the anxious, and the out-of-sorts queue, palms up, for bodily and spiritual healing. It is this same quick, casual anointing that substitutes now for the Last Rites.
The old rubrics were strict:
The sacrament may not be given more than once during the same illness, unless after receiving the sacrament, the sick person has recovered from the danger and then has a critical relapse.
That was then. In these indulgent times, so obsessed with “wellness,” the holy anointing is closer to a spa treatment than a rite of initiation into the dreaded mysteries of death. A woman I know in California wrote to tell me that she stood for anointing monthly while her husband lay terminally ill. The sacrament was prophylactic against the impending loneliness of widowhood. All to the good, the comfort of it. But heartbreak is not a mortal disease.
From the Codex Trujillo del Peru (18th C.). Real Biblioteca del Palacio Real, Madrid.
precious friend died not long ago. Some weeks before the end, while he was still able to speak and take the Eucharist, the local pastor came to anoint him. In requesting the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, the family anticipated Extreme Unction as they had always known it. They were wrong.
The priest commissioned to carry out this liturgy in the name of Christ arrived in dungarees, a plaid flannel shirt, and red suspenders. He had troubled to put on cologne but not his Roman collar. Was dishabille a democratic gesture toward the demotic tastes of the times? By the look of him, he had come to help with yard work. Left behind with his clerics was any visible sign of the divine Agape that was the reason for his being there.
He offered no personal words of consolation, no talk of Jesus, nothing of what it means to pass through death to life as a child of God in Christ. After a bit of light chat about his sciatica and the hazards of an icy road, he announced his intention to get on with administering the Sacrament of the Sick.
The dying man quipped, “Well, I certainly qualify.”
It was the remark of a man fully conscious, poised for accompaniment through the concluding step of the dialogue between himself and his God. But the move never came. The family was not asked to leave the room while the priest heard the man’s last confession. There was none. After a brief spasm of blessings, the priest was gone. Bewildered by grief, and constrained by deference toward a priest in their home, the family saw him politely to the door. But the deficiency stayed behind, dangling like an unpaid debt.
Some weeks later the wife asked why the traditional sacrament of Penance had been omitted. The answer: “Unless someone requests confession, we don’t offer it any more. That would be an intrusion.”
The pity of it.
Nikolai Ge. Crucifixion (1893). Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
We call it Anointing of the Sick. But the dying are not sick. Not any longer. They and sickness are finished with each other. Sickness is a tool of mortality, a loyal servant to the germ of death we were born with. In the moribund, sickness has done its work. It has accomplished what it was ordained to do. No matter now the affliction or assault that opens the grave. Every deathbed is a slaying stone.
The dying lie at the edge of the world, at the very verge of their allotted time. In their extremity, they suffer on the margin of time itself. All flesh is grass, Isaiah tells us. It shrivels at the root; dust in the wind. Where is grass on Golgotha? The place of the skull is rock. The shadow of the Cross is sharpest there. And in that shadow mercy learns its own name.
A fatal chasm exists between the hour of death and the deluge of unwelcome conditions that overtake us. Sickness yearns for treatment; death thirsts solely for redemption. And for the last rite that escorts the dying into the fellowship of those for whom time no longer exists.
Extreme Unction has been relativized, made friendly for a generation that does not want to hear the death knell in the words Last Rites. All the while, death grins in our faces.
Straightaway, a housekeeping item. Several readers have emailed to ask why there is no place to comment at the end of this blog. One reader complained, “It is a nuisance having to look up responses on Facebook.” Maybe I should explain.
World War I spoof postcard published by Cynicus Company, 1915.
The comment box is disabled for a jumble of reasons. Chief among them is the snowball effect of comments on individual readers. Positive comments roll one way; negative ones, intimidating, roll another. It matters to me that readers respond to the content of a posting on their own, without being distracted— bolstered, diluted, or bedeviled—by other respondents.
Considered remarks that amplify and extend a posting are valuable. But they are also less common than other kinds. Comment threads tend to evolve into readers signaling to each other. Sometimes it is contention for the sake of it, a kind of antler display. Too often, comment boxes offer a pretext for plugging a reader’s own website, latest book, or line of sportswear. Previously, when my comment box had been on, I sometimes thought I was hosting a dating service. “Great comment, Joe! Where can I see the rest of your stuff?” That sort of thing.
Pablo Picasso. Card for Guillame Apollinaire, 1916. Musee Picasso, Paris.
One popular argument in favor of a comment section runs along the lines of community-building. The comment box is thought to serve as a sort of drop-in center where locals can chat and get to know each other. That is the same rationale the CEO of Starbucks once offered for the existence of the chain. I did not believe it then, and I do not believe it now.
An online community is a mirage; an e-community is no community at all. It is a faceless, soundless collection of pixels in drag as a community of persons. Hashtag Nation.
This goes against the grain, I know. And to some extent, it is an aesthetic judgment. But it is mine. I simply do not share the prevailing assumption that blogs exist as open forums for reader exchanges. That expectation is little more than the sense of entitlement peculiar to online media. James Kalb, experienced in writer/reader protocols, is dry about it: “There is something about joining an internet discussion that’s a little like putting on a clown suit.”
Vittore Carpaccio. Legend of St. Ursula (detail, 1495). Accademia, Venice.
I have no clue to the nature or tone of what gets passed along on social media. Something about Twitter and Facebook—especially Twitter—reminds me of stalking. I have no personal account on either; am innocent of both. Is that a fault? Not sure. I just know that I care about the words of readers who take time to write off stage and under their own name. These matter to me very much. That is why an email address appears at the bottom of every post.
If clarification or correction is in order, tell me and I will make it. Thoughtful yeas and nays are forever welcome. And helpful.
• • • •
Note: One reader emailed to ask what was the point of the earlier posting on Roy Strong. Forgive me. I had thought it was clear: Strong made a choice.
He preferred marriage—to a woman he did love—to living under the strictures against homosexuality of the era in which he came of age. In other words, social disapproval contained his impulses toward homosexuality.
Moral of the anecdote: When culture puts out a welcome mat, Dionysus leaps in to the parlor.
Is he a youth? Is she a woman?
Is she a goddess or a god?
Love, fearing to be ignoble,
Hesitates and suspends its confession.
To make this beauty maudit
Each gender brought its gift.
—Théophile Gautier, Enamels and Cameos (1852)
James Slattery aka Candy Darling, transwoman, Warholian superstar and drag queen.
Gautier, writing in French a century and a half ago, used the noun sexe. It is doubtful he would have recognized the word gender except in relation to other nouns. Gender is a linguistic signifier, not a biological one. But a modern translator, speaking to his own cultural moment, observes the protocols of his time.
In our cultural climate, almost all writers, even conservative ones, surrender to the word gender, reserving sex for mere genital mechanics. Gender is a term taken from linguistics, not biology. The gender designation is arbitrary. La tavola or il tavolo, take your pick.
In the best thinking of our savants, society assigns a gender to each child born just as it does to words. But unlike words, which have to obey their assignment, we can reject the mandated designation and pick our own. Gone is any fixed relation to biology of the masculine or feminine.
This impetus toward androgyny is not as novel a peculiarity as it seems. It is the encroachment on life and law of tendencies in nineteenth century aesthetic movements. Fervent belief in the transformational powers of art and artifice, hallmark of the Decadent sensibility, has slouched its way toward us as a social phenomenon.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Mnemosyne (detail; 1881). Delaware Art Museum,Wilmington
I was reminded of this by Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith. How ambiguous are the faces of his female portraits. Is she a goddess or a god? They could easily be the faces of drag queens, physiognomy blurred by hair and cosmetics, their beauty—if that is the word—artificial. Among the Decadents, nature had had its day. The rest is style. Or, in the words of Stéphane Mallarmé, “To suggest, that is the dream.”
Jade Starling, a pop singer and celebrated host of drag shows, phrased it less elegantly. But she meant the same thing when she said in a recent interview: “Drag queens are amazing. Their artistry, their makeup, their hair. They are always stunning.”
She would get no argument from Mallarmé. And likely none from the nineteenth century English aesthetes or their French imitators. Among the Decadents, the more artificial, the more removed from nature by the labor of the artist, the more beautiful something becomes. Androgyny, with its ideals of seductive ambiguity and sensuality, emblematizes the victory of the cult of beauty over the banality of nature.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lillith. Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington
If I had been born ten years later, I might’ve lived my life as a gay man.
Is homosexuality innate? Is there a gene for it? If not a complete molecular unit, then perhaps some partial genetic link? And if a link, would this sectional fragment prove a determinant to sexual preference? Or would it hover in our DNA with all the other unfinished suggestions that move each of us past the many roads not taken?
Roy Strong, dressed for a 2010 photo shoot. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.
The findings of Dean Hamer, the American geneticist who claimed to have discovered a “gay gene” in the Nineties, has never been replicated. Hamer himself was homosexual and, with his partner, founded the film company Qwaves to promote sympathy for “the voices of those on the outside.”
Now the outside is In, very In. The myth of a gay gene persists together with other teasers from the corridors of higher superstition. It is not my place to argue whether there is a natural standard for human happiness or ground in nature for definitive statements about homosexuality and genetics. Others are better equipped for that debate than I am. But let me offer the testimony of Roy Strong, eminent art historian, landscape designer, and flamboyant director emeritus of London’s National Portrait Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In March, 2013, London’s The Daily Mail included an excerpt from Strong’s autobiography Self Portrait as a Young Man:
Roy Strong and wife Julia in the 1970s. Photo by Paul Lewis
I was not only cripplingly shy but aware that sexually I was ambiguous. Prosecution of homosexuals as criminals reached a peak with the famous cases of Sir John Gielgud in 1953 and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu the following year.
It is difficult to communicate to a generation where everything can be and is said and done what it was like to come to sexual maturity in the middle of the Fifties. If I had been born in 1945 and not in 1935, I should probably have lived the life of a gay man in a society which by 1980 accepted such orientation.
An old friend of mine, Brian Sewell, took a very different path in life from the one I chose. For that I respect him, for he too could, he admits, have married. In the Fifties, any mention of such a tendency was then unthinkable and even if I had faced up to it, I would not have known what to do about it. At 20 I was bottled up and inhibited.
There was a homosexual side to me, that much I knew; but whenever, later, I had glimpses into that world I knew that I did not wish to enter it.
There was another side to me: emotionally and intellectually I was also hugely attracted to women and I knew that, if I found the right person, I would like the stability of an old-fashioned Christian marriage. I was 24 when I entered the National Portrait Gallery, an age by which many men are not only married, but fathers.
Twice I seriously considered asking two very different women to marry me, but I fell back on contemplating the social gulf between their families and my own. But in the long run I was to be a very lucky man when, in 1971, I eloped with the designer Julia Trevelyan Oman an elopement arranged by my friend and confessor, Father Gerard Irvine. Our marriage that same year precipitated the break with my mother who, rejecting Julia, created a slow death in our relationship. . . .
The attraction between us was instant but totally divorced from what one thinks of as London of that time, the world of David Bailey and Blow-Up. Both of us, beneath it all, were shy people born out of context and there followed a gentle, old-fashioned courtship until, at last, I plucked up courage and proposed to her in St James’s Park.
She died, to my anguish, in 2003.
Roy Strong and his “precious and private friend” designer Gianni Versace.
The maudlin 1970 movie made from Erich Segal’s chart-busting novel Love Story passed into blessed memory. All that remains is Ali MacGraw’s line to Ryan O’Neal: “Love means never having to say you are sorry.” On the list of the American Film Institute’s top movie quotes of all time, it is up there with Casablanca’s “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Love Story’s one-liner became one of the most referenced chestnuts in post-Woodstock popular culture. Winding its way into song lyrics and subsequent movie dialogue, it was also one of most parodied. Even John Lennon took a swing at it: “Love means having to say you’re sorry every five minutes.” Sodden with bathos, it remains the pitch-perfect epigram for a popular culture that dictates sentimentality as a you-gotta-have-it fashion accessory.
Unhappily, popular culture is inhaled by more than the daytime audience for Real Housewives and reruns of Downton Abbey. Fumes seep under chancery doors, even into papal apartments, including Pope Francis’ business-class one.
What brings this to mind is the spiraling catastrophe in the Middle East. Things have worsened in the wake of Francis’ imprudent kiss of the graffitied security fence and follow-up theatrics in the Vatican garden. The magic olive tree planted for the cameras by Mahmoud Abbas, Shimon Peres and the pope did not work. All that thaumaturgical shoveling could not break the spell of Palestinian hatred for Israel and for Jews.
The life-sized M-75 rocket monument erected three months earlier in Gaza City to showcase Palestinian intentions toward “the Zionist entity” still stands. Within a week of Francis’ ceremony under the boxwoods, Hamas kidnapped and murdered three teenage boys in the West Bank. While Israelis mourned their sons, Palestinians gloated over their deaths. Fatah’s own Facebook page posted this:
Also this three-fingered version of the victory sign. Its meaning unmistakable, Fatah coyly offered it as open to interpretation:
Repercussions have been harrowing. The rogue retaliatory killing of an innocent Palestinian teen has been seized as justification for a renewed intifada. In brief, since the prayer fest, the rot has deepened and spread. You would think Francis might be embarrassed.
But no. Love means never having to say you are sorry. Especially if you never intended to have a measurable effect. It is apparently enough that the chimera of peace-and-love, like Shelley’s skylark (“bird thou never wert”), be hailed while it sings and soars above concrete realities on the ground.
On June 14, two days after the kidnapping, Fox News Latino published a curious article stating that the prayer summit was not aimed at restoring talks. It was “merely to serve as a symbol of mutual coexistence and respect.” The article quotes from Francis’ interview with Barcelona’s La Vanguardia in which he acknowledged that his idea was “completely novel” and that he had but one aim: “to open a window to the world.”
In other words, an impulse for novelty, that prized media commodity, eclipsed concern for efficacy. Put plainly, the unspoken object of so much ostentatious piety was to showcase Francis’ personality. Not for nothing is the term “a personality” our synonym for “a celebrity.” Idiosyncrasynoveltyis the lifeblood of celebrity. It distinguishes.
The only casement opened that sunny day in the garden was one that gave a view onto the papal ego. Francis admitted that “ninety-nine percent of the Vatican said we shouldn’t do it.” Faced with a reluctant Vatican, the pope pulled rank. What he achieved was a window of opportunity for an emboldened Hamas.
What we need to ask is this: What has Francis to sayclearly and in publicnow that the staging has gone, the blue shovels put away, and the runic tree, a sustainable prop, is back in the hands of Vatican gardeners who dropped it in the ground to begin with?
Francis is fond of symbolic gestures. But symbols have their consequences. Why else employ them? In this instance, they are all the more mischievous for exempting the symbol-shaper from responsibility for the way his signs are interpreted and used. To borrow a maxim from Flannery O’Connor, if it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.
To what extent might Francis share, at some level, prevailing European hostility toward the Israeli state? It is feasible to wonder. For all the hype about him being the first Latino pope, he really is not. We still have an Italian pope, one raised in a white collar home in the most affluent and Europeanized city in South America. His father was an accountant, not a laborer. During Bergolio’s youth, Argentina was closer to Rome and Madrid than to any third-world Latin American country.
An in-law of mine was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Now an American citizen, he has familyall ethnic Russians and Germansstill in Argentina. He writes me this:
“I don’t like the label “Latino”, it’s an American catch-all. Francis is just another first-generation European refugee in South America, a full-blooded Italian who grew up speaking Spanish. Just like other middle-class professionals in my parents’ generation he was born in an essentially prosperous country, with great public health and education, that was starkly different than its neighbors from Mexico on down. Alas, that is very much not the case now. Maybe the current generation in Argentina is better described as “Latino,” but not Francis, my parents, even me, or anyone else in the educated urban middle classes who is older than about 40.”
Media-induced romance, whether about the first Latino pope or the first black president, is a synthetic obscurant. It hides more than it reveals. And there are pitfalls in the dark.
I am fond of vintage American history textbooks. Rifling through dumpsters, library discards, and second-hand bookstores, I cannot resist bringing them home when I find them. I am drawn to the temper of older histories, particularly ones written for students. Prior to the revisionist animus of the Sixties, school texts shared a sympathy for the American experiment, the fragility and genius of it. Sins were acknowledged but without the rancor that scours the past for new sources of accusation, new means of destruction.
Poster. Art Project of the WPA (c.1936
A civilized sense of national identityto be distinguished from the ideology of nationalismis hard to find in contemporary texts. Howard Zinn’s anti-American harangue, A People’s History of the United States, is one of the most widely used and influential texts. It has incapacitated a generation of readers for living gracefully with our singular past. In the selection process necessary to the historian, Zinn and his disciples shrank the historical enterprise to a story of grievances and outrages.
I am spending this Independence Day with a yellowed, water-stained copy of the second volume of E. Benjamin Andrews’ History of the United States). It is a 1928 edition, the sixth reprinting after its publication in 1894. The succession of reprints signals its popularity at the beginning of the twentieth century. Historian and once chancellor of the University of Nebraska, Andrews wrote about the American Revolution with an affection no longer fashionable. He approached the Revolution through the lens of the French and Indian War (1754-63), emphasizing its role in framing colonial preparedness to secede from England:
“The results of the French and Indian War were out of all proportion to the scale of its military operations. Contrasted with the campaigns which were then shaking all Europe [the Seven Years’ War], it sank into insignificance; and the world, its eyes strained to see the magnitude . . . of those European wars, little surmised that they would dictate the course of history far less than yonder desultory campaigning in America.”
It seemed a minor theatre in the global conflict between the great colonial powers. Yet it had momentous consequences. Charles Gravier, comte de Vergennes, French envoy to the Ottoman Empire, prophesied from his post in Constantinople: “England will erelong repent of having removed the only check that could keep her colonies in awe. They no longer stand in need of her protection.”
Philip Dawe. Tarring and Feathering the Excise Man (1774). Lithograph published in London.
The French and Indian War gave rag-tag colonists battle field training side by side with the British, a daunting fighting force. It provided experience in establishing camps and enduring a march. It set a standard, however difficult to maintain, for organization and discipline. The value of that tutelage was inestimable.
“If the outbreak of the Revolution had found the Americans a generation of civilians, if the colonial cause had lacked the privates who had seen hard service at Lake George and Louisburg, or the officers . . . who had learned to fight successfully against British regulars by fighting with them, it is a question whether the uprising would not have been stamped out . . . almost at its inception.”
What is interesting about the following passage is the knowledge Andrews takes for granted in the reader. Nowhere does Andrews identify Fort Necessity as the battleground on which Washington suffered his firstand onlysurrender. Neither is Braddock identified as the British general under whom colonists, young Washington among them, fought with the British against the French. Braddock died at the outset of battle; the campaign proved a disaster for the British. Andrews could trust his readers’ ability to fill in the backstory by themselves. To audiences unaided by Google, the historian need state only this:
“Without the Washington of Fort Necessity and of Braddock’s Defeat, we could in all likelihood never have had the Washington of Trenton and Yorktown. Besides Washington, to say nothing of Gates, Gage, and Mercer, and also there Dan Morgan of Virginia, began to learn war in the Braddock campaign. Again, the war prepared the colonists for the Revolution by revealing to them their own rare fighting quality, and by showing that the dreaded British regulars were not invincible.”
German Battalion Fighting for the British in the American War of Independence (19th C.).
Pennsylvania Historical Society, Philadelphia.
But another necessity loomed, one even more crucial than skill at arms. That was a sense of union, a “community of sentiment” that fueled the cooperation needed to carry the fledgling nation through the bloody trials and deprivations of secession. The only hope of successful resistance lay in concerted action derived from grasp of a mutual cause, a perception which Andrews reminds us was “still none too intense” in the colonies:
“It is important to remember not only that the war built up this conviction of a common interest, but that nothing except the [French and Indian] war could have done it. The great forces of nineteenth-century civilizationthe locomotive, the telegraph, the modern daily newspaperwhich now bind sixty millions of people, spread over half a continent, into one nation, were then unknown. The means of communication and transportation between the colonies were very primitive. Roads were rough, full of steeps and cuts, and in many places . . . almost impassable with mire. It took seven days to go by stage from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, four days from Boston to New York. The mail service was correspondingly inadequate and slow. At times in winter a letter would be five weeks in going from Philadelphia to Virginia.
“Newspapers were few, contained little news and the circulation necessarily confined to a very limited area. It has been estimated that the reading matter in all the forty-three papers which existed at the close of the Revolution would not fill ten pages of the New York Herald now. In connection with this state of things consider the fact that the idea of colonial solidarity . . . had to be created outright. Local pride and jealousy were still strong. Each colony thought of itself as a complete and isolated political body . . . . Plainly a lifetime of peace would not have begotten the same degree of consolidation among the colonies which the war, with its common danger and common purpose, called into being in a half-dozen years.”
Common purpose. How we represent ourselves to ourselves, to our young, makes the difference between our survival as one people or suicide by balkanization. So I gather around me old texts like Andrews’ as talismans against the grinning executioners waiting to garrote defense of our shared history. They are frail things, these books. But while they remain intact, they defy the frenzied schoolmen determined to suffocate gratitude for the shared human project that is our legacy.
Homosexual behavior has been with us forever. Homosexuals elevated to an ethnicity separate from the rest of usa Queer Nationare recent phenomena. The successful fashioning of homosexuals as minorities, its members akin to a racial group or a protected species like pandas and black rhinos, trumps what is left of a normative approach to sexuality and sexual ethics.
Brassaï. Male Couple Dancing at a Ball in Montagne Sainte-Genevieve (c.1932).
The roots of our Foucaultian “reverse discourse” are deep and tangled. Civil society has a critical stake in recognizing their origins and implications. Robert Reilly’s most recent book, Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Gay Behavior is Changing Everything, attempts to unbraid the snarl we are in. I attended his lecture and book signing at First Things editorial offices to support the intention. To my own surprise, I came away nonplussed, even disheartened, by the evening.
I will try to explain. Where to start?
Reilly is a polished speaker. His talk was elegant and informed. Instruction, however, was partial and designed for receptive ears. A reprise of much material that has appeared before (e.g. Jeffrey Satinover’s Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth, 1996) it was the kind of talk that, in political circles, is called rallying the base.
The lecture took for granted audience distaste for homosexual behavior, particularly male homosexuality. (Lesbian practices are less risky and lesbians are less promiscuous than gay men.) It also assumed sympathy for natural law arguments. Neither assumption holds sway outside the choir loft.
Painting on wine cup of two pentathletes (550 - 500 BC). J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Pockets of residual aversion are irrelevant in a commercial culture which has made explicit sex, gay or straight, into a currency with proven market value. (Calvin Klein come-ons are on midtown kiosks; gay movies stream on Netflix.) And appeals to Aristotelian tradition and virtue-based ethics are incoherent to the contemporary temper. It is a discourse without persuasive power; the word chastity no longer resonates. For good reason did Alistair MacIntyre entitled his study in moral theory After Virtue.
The adjustment of our moral sensibilities to accommodatethen affirm and, finally, advantagehomosexuality traces back well before the 1960s. Just how far back, and over which terrain, makes for a long night’s parlor game. The devolution is cultural and derives from far more than court cases. Still, Reilly is right to reference them. Each successive decision has been a bellwether of the brave new world toward which we are hurtling. And which, in part, we already occupy.
The courts have been pivotal, not only institutionalizing homosexuality but enforcing guardianship of it as well. An unintended consequence of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, bias crime statutes relating to sexual orientation began working their way through the states in California in 1984. Momentum culminated a quarter century later in the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed by President Obama in 2009. Homosexuals are now a federally protected class.
It is a short walk from safeguarding homosexuals to consecrating homosexual activity.
Gustave Courbet. The Two Friends (1867). Musee du Petite Palais, Paris.
Now, as Reilly aptly stated, court approval of gay marriage “sanctifies” homosexuality. Nevertheless, the courts do not function in a vacuum. Decisions are made within the context of a fluid culture subject to myriad pressures from factors distinct from homosexuality itself.
Chief among these is abandonment of the term “disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association in the 1970s. Removal of homosexuality from the list of diagnoses was not mandated by the courts. Rather, the erasure informed legal opinion. Like you and I, the courts function within a climate dominated by reverence for experts. Legal opinions incorporate the trusted testimony of mental health professionals and social workers. Some of them activists themselves, these are the front-line standard bearers for the redefinition of homosexuality on which the politics of affirmation rests.
Homosexuality was excluded from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of psychiatric disorders on ideological grounds alone. A mix of activist politics and good intentions, not new clinical evidence, drove the revision. That abandoned word disorder, with its dreary medicinal odor and cry for treatment, violates professional ethics among the therapeutic crowd. By now, an entire generation has been raised to understand disorder as the vocabulary of ignorance and bigotry. Yet that is the word on which Reilly stakes his argument. It is a rational place to drive a stake only within a communal milieu which finds natural law intelligible.
Taddeo di Bartolo. Lust or Sodomite and Adulterer (detail of The Last Judgment, 1394. San Gimignano.
The old medical category was a compassionate alternative to criminalization. Homosexuals ceased to be sexual outlaws and became, instead, victims of a condition. But conditions can mutate. Today, any suggestion of what was once called “perversion” is out the window. It has been dead on the sidewalk for longer than today’s college studentscopies of Foucault’s The History of Sexuality in their backpackshave been alive.
Philip Rieff’s Psychological Man triumphed by endorsing an anti-culture immune to the claims of natural law. Nowadays, Jean Genet, with his craving for “a derangement of all the senses,” would be just another guy next door.
What the analyst’s couch unbuckled spilled into popular culture. Antique distinctions between natural and unnatural acts dissolve in the liberating exchange of virtues for values. Dennis Altman had it right in The Homosexualization of America (1982): “. . . the affirmation of being gay is the affirmation of sexual desire.” Follow your bliss. Whatever works. Love reigns.
The genie is out of the bottle. Disapproval will not put it back.
Straightaway, let me clarify. In the previous post I quoted Ron Hubbard as saying: “The one super-secret sentence that Scientology is built on is ‘Do as thou wiltthat is the whole of the law.’” The words belong to L. Ron Hubbard, Jr., not Sr.. Speaking of Scientology, the son added: “It came from the black magic, from Crowley.”
Hubbard Sr. was a confessed admirer of Crowley, calling him “my very good friend.” According to Hubbard Jr., his father prepared for his Philadelphia Doctorate Course lecture series, taped in 1952, by reading Crowley. The title of the son’s book, L. Ron Hubbard: Messiah or Madman?, indicates a certain filial tension. But let us take that as a healthy response to having grown up with Hubbard’s attraction to Crowley’s occult system.
Aleister Crowley. Self Portrait as The Sun (1920).
For scholars of scientology, the series is available used on Amazon for under one dollar. If you are more fastidious, you can purchase it spanking new from Bridge Publications for $1,150. The publisher offers this synopsis:
“This renowned series stands as the largest single body of work on the anatomy, behavior and potentials of the spirit of Man ever assembled, providing the very fundamentals which underlie the route to Operating Thetan. Here it is in complete detailthe thetan’s relationship to the creation, maintenance and destruction of universes. In just those terms, here is the anatomy of matter, energy, space and time, and postulating universes into existence. Here, too, is the thetan’s fall from whole track abilities and the universal laws by which they are restored.”
Bridge continues with a quote from Hubbard, Sr.:
“What can a thetan do? Now, we’ll say a Cleared Theta Clear. You couldn’t put down such a goal, because that’s the postulated, outer-line, unattainable absolute. Probably anything we understand it to be is probably attainable already, but what is the outermost limit of it? Lord knows. Haven’t got any idea and you haven’t either.”
If you are unsympathetic to Scientology, you will find that comment incoherent, even desolate. If you entertain some tenderness toward occult quests for a theory of everything, you will stand on Nietzsche’s assertion in Beyond Good and Evil that every “profound thinker is more afraid of being understood than of being misunderstood.”
A Witch and Her Familiars, a Cat and a Demon (17th C.). British Library, London.
Intuition of unseen forces and attempts to control them have been with us forever. The systems of belief that we call the occult are various in origin and implication. But throughout the long history of the occult, there ran a consistent thread of concern for the causes of misfortune and ways to relieve it. Helplessness in the face of eventsdisease, debility, fire, childbirth, crop failure, or the luck of a bad drawwas a crucial element. Witchcraft, astrology, divination, ghosts, fairies, reliance on ancient auguries or apocalyptic prophecies offered means of making sense of the inexplicable.
More recent mystico-magical systems, fermenting since the eighteenth century, are different. Whatever else they might contain, they are fueled by ambitionphrased and costumed in variegated ways to divinize oneself. Here are Icarus’ wings to fly us toward new possibilities of becoming. Or, as Scientologists would phrase it, to reach the “upper echelon of theta beingness and behavior.”
What the Crowleys and the Hubbards of our times represent is a quasi-spiritualized individualism. Here is David Riesman’s autonomous man in fancy dress. Or devil’s gear. The insignia of this new autonomous individual is his heightened self-consciousness, and a de-socialized will that transcends the virtues of the old bourgeois individual still tethered to civil society.
Our new individualism comes wrapped in the exotic, like Crowley’s cult of Thelema or Hubbard’s Scientology, to suggest evermore extravagant and hallucinatory understandings of the self. And the Self so discovered is, inevitably, superior to the restraints and formalities of ordinary life. If Crowley’s squalid end is any gauge, that is hell enough.
Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Kenneth Auger viewing Crowley’s Satanic Frescoes in Thelema Abbey, Sicily.
Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.
Aleister Crowley (1875 1947) and the nineteenth century’s enchantment with esoterica grew up together. Born in the year the Theosophical Society was founded, he was an Oxford educated, pansexual playboy, rock-climber, Swinburnian poet, yogi, cabalist, and something of a monster. He was also a born sorcerer, a natural magus given over to the enthusiasms of his era: narcotics, the unconscious, and the occult.
Once dubbed “the wickedest man in the world” by the British press, Crowley is often called a Satanist. Technically, he was not. But he might as well have been. The demonic character of the aphorism for which he is still celebrated is a variant, in biblical cadence, of Lucifer’s cry: “I will not serve.”
Self-invented, he fashioned himself as a kind of Übermensch destined to transcend and destroy what Nietzsche termed “slave morality.” Crowley warred against “the oppressors of the human soul, the blasphemers who denied the supremacy of the will of man.” He venerated and invoked those deep, supra-rational forces that awaken “the creative genius which is the inalienable heirloom of every son of man.” Self-idolatry is only a short walk on from there. The instinctive will must rise, become a law unto itself, and acknowledge no other.
Crowley is not dead yet. If anything, he is more alive today than he was when he claimed to have created the “V for Victory” sign as a magical talisman against the Nazi swastika.
If you are a connoisseur of old Beatles LPs, you have Crowley’s portrait on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you are a Tom Cruise fan you know that the Church of Scientology hatched from Ron Hubbard’s attraction to Crowley’s vision. Hubbard made no bones about it: “The one super-secret sentence that Scientology is built on is ‘Do as thou wiltthat is the whole of the law.’”
Crowley’s conjured eidolon holds particular appeal for the individualistic egos of musicians (most notably John Lennon) and actors. It suits the quest for gnosis, the pearl prized by assorted bohemians and New Agers as they tap into their own higher selves. Considered outré and eccentric in Victorian England, Crowleyiana all is pretty mainstream by now.
I was reminded of just how mainstream while I was standing in line at the local farmer’s market on Saturday. In front of me was a young woman with Crowley’s maxim tattooed on her shoulder. We were queued at my favorite stall, waiting for the same artisanal cheeses and brick-oven baked breads.
On another day, her tattoo might have left me either indifferent or amused. Just as likely, it might have nettled, gotten under my skin in some irksome way. This time, though, it simply made me sad. Needled into her skin, the words struck me as infinitely sorrowful. So smug and cocksure, they seemed as bleak as a shroud. The woman had branded herself like livestock, a heifer steered by a genie riding herd on a culture that had lost its compass and its dignity.
Non serviam is the world’s siren call. It has been with us from the beginning and will accompany us to our end. Dare I tell her? After all, she was making a public announcement, was she not? For a fraction of a nanosecond, I fantasized leaning over and whispering: “Oh, sweetheart, may all that thou wilt be graceful.” Had she been anyone I knew I might even have kissed her shouldera benediction to mute the curse implicit in those tattooed words.
But she was a stranger. Besides, I wanted my cheese. I had come for a week’s worth of cave-aged cheddar, a quarter pound of Amish schmearkase, and a glorious roasted garlic ciabatta. Why disturb the universe? I felt like Prufrock; but that bread smelled so good.
In the end, I kept my impulse to myself. Perhaps the Spirit would bend to kiss her for me.
Burke, the Great Orator. Illustration from Pictures of English History (published 1850).
Edmund Burke was the greatest Parliamentary speaker during the reign of George III. He was a passionate defender of the colonies in their grievances against the king. Here in my hand is a tiny 1908 edition of Burke’s Speech for Conciliation, delivered March 22, 1775. It is one of the treasures from last week’s dumpster dive at my local recycling center.
I could not leave it for the shredder. In a sane culture, this slim little hardcover would be showcased in a vitrine at the local library, on display as both an honored testament to the colonial character and a jewel of argumentation. In literary style and logical structure it stands as one of the most restrained and dignified of Burke’s speeches. An education in diction for any polemical writer, there is never the half-word, never ambiguous approximations. He uses none of what we today call weasel words. There is only the tempered, lucid handling of facts delivered with great calm.
But it is not his rhetoric that bears attention just now. Instead, it is his depiction of the American character, the attributes and mettle of the colonists. We can hardly recognize ourselves in his description of our predecessors. Listen:
“The temper and character which prevail in our Colonies are, I am afraid, unalterable by any human art. We cannot, I fear, falsify the pedigree of this fierce people, and persuade them that they are not sprung from a nation in whose veins the blood of freedom circulates. The language in which they would hear you tell them this tale [of keeping them obedient to the crown under unjust circumstances] would detect the imposition; your speech would betray you. An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery.”
After surveying the achievement of the colonies in agriculture, industry, and commerce, Burke returns to the colonial spirit:
“In this character of the Americans, a love of freedom is the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole: and . . . your Colonies become suspicious, restive, and untractable, whenever they see the least attempt to wrest them by force, or shuffle from them by chicane [sic], what they think the only advantage worth living for. This fierce spirit of liberty is stronger in the English Colonies probably than in any other people of the earth . . . .”
What Burke was certain could not be done, has been accomplished. Not by other Englishmen, but by ourselves. It has taken little more than a century but by now only an imbecile or a lunatic could refer to us as “a fierce people.” The turn-of-the-century generation that troubled to publish this speech could see in it a reflection of themselves. Not ours. In our entitlements and entertainments, in the degradation of our public discourse, we have flattened ourselves, grown flaccid, sentimental, and gullible. We have slowly, inexorably, exchanged the crown for the state.
Out of all the reasons for this diminished and diminishing transaction, one falls more readily than others within my grasp. I cannot help wondering about the contribution of our hastening reliance on imagesthe Trojan horse of consumer technologyto the trivialization of public information that prompts corrosive sentimentality and distorts history. Add to that warp the reigning paradigm of our concept of information: sound and sight bites, including the grunts we call tweets and text messages. Taken together, they insure the abolition of our attention span. Popular understanding, once honed on the primacy of print literacy, buckles under the pressure of media-enduced enthusiasms that make Mad Hatters of us all.
Meaning requires content; content takes time. Yet what we accept as the truth of things are fragments that flit past the eye in numbing succession. It is always tea-time and we want a clean cup. In the spectators we have become, Edmund Burke would never recognize the people on whom he showered his admiration.