Dear Nephew, my hellborn one,
Ah, how I delight in writing you as my esteemed Uncle, Screwtape, once instructed me, he of diabolical dishonor, now emeritus. He has well earned his current sojourn in a New York City establishment that goes by the pithy name, Sex. I fear, however, that Uncle may be nearly exhausted and well-nigh flummoxed; indeed, he may even be somewhat vexed. For the perverse pleasures of this cavern of delicious iniquity have outstripped even his imagination. (But, then, he is over thirty.) I understand that our own Madonna of Manichean Delectations (oh, what a treasure she is, what a splendid job I have done”for she has been my special assignment, as you know) dictated the decor. And here, I confess, she has gone beyond even my instructions. For the decor is alive: human bodies poised and posed as if on the very brink of entry into the Kingdom Below. The weekly newsmagazines calmly report this as if it were mere reportage of normal everyday life in what the locals call The Big Apple.
Think of it, Beelzebubkin! The glorious free publicity, the “normalizing” (as in-vogue academic jargon of the standard inelegant sort would have it) of what was once extreme. I drooled profusely as I read the report, so much so that my bile count dropped precipitously. Indeed, I am being transfused as I dictate. I am all aquiver as I picture in my mind’s fiendish eye the following: “Two guys hung from the ceiling in chains and black leather. A female on all fours held her hindquarters up to the cat-o’-nine-tails. Hard-bodied couples struck the straining poses of simulated sex. On a giant video screen, the evening’s star knelt to shave a man’s pubic hair. All the while, dance music throbbed. The occasion? A New York book party, naturally.”
This Madonna is a wonder, a prime candidate for Demonification, for induction into the cloven-footed Hall of Infamy. Her book, also called Sex , costs nearly $50 and sold 150,000 copies on the first day. All the lonely people”bored and with money to spare. What is most delicious about all this is that it transpires under the word “Freedom.” We have succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings in making tens of thousands believe they are engaging in strong and courageous action by buying, viewing, and”best yet”engaging in untrammeled lewd and licentious behavior. They are the prophets of progress. Theirs is the “philosophy of the future,” as Uncle Screwtape once wrote. Our devilkin, Madonna, describes her mission as “opening people’s minds.” (Their pocketbooks, too, but mentioning that would no doubt be supererogatory.) She proclaims to adoring legions that she is a “revolutionary.” She fights foes of “free expression.” We are working hard not to allow her the merest glimmer of how ludicrous her position is”pushing on a wide-open door as if she were bursting through a ten-foot-thick cement wall en route to the glorious goal of Freedom. For our task has been to perversely (how else?) inculcate the notion that late-twentieth-century moderns in the West live in a world that is constrained and embattled and beset by what we have got people to call “Victorianism.” I must constrain myself”I am now braying with such hysterical delight I threaten to dislodge my bile tube.
Can you not see what we have accomplished, dear Nephew? Two citations may help to illustrate my central point, one you seem not quite to have mastered or you would be enjoying somewhat better success with those annoying Smiths in Fremont, Nebraska I mentioned in my last letter. A nineteenth-century writer, whose lightly-worn piety we were never able to dislodge, one Alexis de Tocqueville, proclaimed”I shudder to repeat it”that “the soul has wants which must be satisfied.” That pesky word “soul.” It was an uphill battle for us until the happy day we dislodged that notion, confining it to the musty dustbin of pious memory or empty incantation. Savor the victory for Our Father Below embodied in the transformation of that wretched soul business into our Old Nickian ally Woody Allen’s insistence that “the heart wants what it wants.” I scripted this myself, murmuring it over and over as Allen prepared for his press announcement professing love for his (more or less) adopted daughter.
“More or less” is important, Nephew, please take note. For this locution speaks to our tremendous victories in dispelling any solidity or gravitas, as The Enemy might have it, to the notion of “family.” Our Woody took advantage of it”we have worked hard to nurture his narcissism”and thus he could honestly”honestly!”claim that the teenager he had photographed nude and bedded was not only not his biological child, she was not properly his adopted child either”for he had never married his companion of eleven years although they have a bio-child together. He is merely sleeping with his ex-lover’s daughter and, as he stressed in one of his many delicious interviews with the press, “I could have met her at a party or something . . . . I was not a father to [Mia’s] adopted kids in any sense of the word . . . . The last thing I was interested in was the whole parcel of Mia’s children.” A chthonian wonder, is it not? Woody is “in love” and that’s that.
That nuisance Miss Manners may pose a problem here, for she was overheard to jest that the incest taboo may be universal everywhere save in New York. This is the sort of humor we can do without”it may set people’s minds to thinking. We need to keep them focused on Woody’s words: “I don’t find any moral dilemmas whatsoever. I didn’t feel that just because she was Mia’s daughter, there was any great dilemma.”
Fortunately, Our Madonna keeps coming through for us because she portrays her exhibitionism as a crusade, and I am genuinely giddy at the way she mouths our platitudes and insistently eviscerates not only Freedom but Truth of any of The Enemy’s meanings and designs. Perhaps, my serpentine one, you were too busy trying to disrupt Mother Smith’s work at the local hospice (the snide comments from her feckless “friend” that Mrs. Smith had been looking a bit worn and dowdy of late and should take more time “for herself” was a nice touch”good work!) to catch Our Madonna’s film, Truth or Dare . I was so deeply touched, indeed moved, by the simulated sex scenes played out against an altar-like backdrop, the writhing in a nun-like habit with a large cross flopping against Our Madonna’s bosom, and, oh, splendid shiver of demonic delight, the prayers led by Our Madonna herself before each exhibitionistic frenzy she calls “art.” She actually invokes The Enemy, praying for success in trashing all He holds dear and manages, with that dogged stubbornness for which He is well-loathed by Our Father Below, to instill yet”at this late date”into altogether too many puny “souls” not yet transformed into obsessively grasping hearts that “want what they want.”
You must watch this film on video, Nephew: it is elixir for the flagging spirit. “Truth,” you see, is a confession of all one’s “fantasies,” and in this confession lies freedom. One dares to be free. One is brave. One is a freedom fighter! Our North Americans love this kind of talk, especially when it taps that residue of anti-Catholicism we have ever striven mightily to promote.
One moment in the film I especially treasure. I “freeze” it whenever I screen it in my properly chilled loft: Our Madonna, her hair demurely covered by a scarf, her body demurely covered by a black dress, her eyes hidden behind dark glasses, reading her Freedom Sermon of an appropriate two minutes length with the cameras clicking, the flashes popping, the videos whirring, the microphones humming. Oh, cursed image, how treasured: she was in Rome and fighting our foe, Pope John Paul II, for it seems the Vatican had issued a statement questioning Our Madonna’s entertainment standards. Our Madonna responded earnestly (this is how we must get all to respond, including those not-yet-damned Smiths) that she was the victim of repression, and “as an American,” she protested the Vatican’s “censorship” in the name of the most fundamental of all freedoms, “freedom of expression.” Oh, I could wax so eloquently on this juicy reduction of freedom to “express yourself.” It is so cloven-footed! So demonolatric! Although you are not philosophically inclined, Nephew, just think for a moment: Express Yourself. Here, tidily encapsulated, are gnostic moments of the most limpid sort.
Your affectionate uncle,
Jean Bethke Elshtain, revealer of the secrets of the Newtape File, teaches political philosophy at Vanderbilt University.