Archive for May, 2012


The Conversion Of John Henry Newman Part I – Fr. Louis Bouyer

May 31, 2012

John Henry Newman, at age 23 when he preached his first sermon in Over Worton Church on 23 June 1824.

The year 1816 was one of bitter trial for the Newman family. One after effect of the economic and financial upheaval which followed the termination of the Napoleonic wars was to compel the Banking House of Messrs Ramsbottom, Newman & Co. to stop payment. Many years later, Newman, hearing his friend Bowden alluding somewhat tactlessly to what he called the Bank’s failure, reproved him rather sharply, pointing out that there had been no question of “failure”. The Bank did suspend payment; that, he agreed, was true enough, but only for a time. Eventually, all the creditors were paid in full. That gives us some idea of the moral trials the Newmans had to bear, not to mention the material anxieties which beset them all through that spring. The letters exchanged between Mrs. Newman and her sister-in-law Elizabeth afford eloquent testimony of the tribulations she had to endure.

Certainly, the creditors were quickly paid off, and the family, so far as money-matters were concerned, was soon on its feet again. At this juncture, however, Mr. Newman took it into his head to give up banking and become a brewer. That meant yet another change of houses, and so, from the lanes of Norwood, off they go to Alton, so as to be near the brewing works of which the paterfamilias was now to take over the management. One result of all this unsettlement was that the Newmans found it convenient to leave their son at his boarding-school all through those summer holidays. The void of that solitary vacation was to be filled by his conversion. How that came about he himself has described in the autobiographical memoir of which Anne Mozley availed herself in preparing his letters for publication. The passage runs thus:

On my conversion how the wisdom and goodness of God is discerned. I was going from school half a year sooner than I did. My staying arose from the 8th March. Thereby I was left at school by myself, my friends gone away. [Letters, vol. I, p.17 Anne Mozley has cancelled what follows.] That is, it was a time of reflection, and when the influences of Mr. Mayers would have room to act upon me. Also I was terrified at the heavy hand of God which came down upon me.

That last rather cryptic phrase is apparently the only piece of evidence there is to support a conjecture advanced by Maisie Ward. In her view, the words imply that Newman had been prepared for his conversion by the mental distress which the family misfortunes had caused him, and that, it must be confessed, seems to be the most plausible interpretation to put upon them, though there is nothing to corroborate it. At all events, what he himself considered most expressly providential about the whole affair was that it had resulted in his being left by himself at Ealing in close contact with Mr. Mayers, thus bringing him under an influence which, if things had taken a different turn, he would never have experienced.

The Reverend Walter Mayers, of Pembroke College, Oxford, was a master at the school. So far, all that had happened between him and his pupil was that the latter had collided rather sharply with the master’s Evangelical brand of Christianity in various discussions they had had together, discussions which were enlivened for the pupil by his somewhat mischievous satisfaction in putting a “poser”, when he could, to a master more pious than brilliant. Thoroughly to understand how, in the course of those lonely weeks, the clergyman came to be the means of bringing about so radical a change in the boy’s mind, we must go back and look a little more closely into Newman’s early religious training and endeavor to find out exactly where his own unaided reflections had brought him by the time with which we are dealing.

We have said that Mr. Mayers was an Evangelical, and it has sometimes been assumed that the Newmans belonged to the same party. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A few years later they became acquainted with a Miss Giberne, a young woman who at that time was a typical Evangelical. Throughout her life, and it was a long one, she was to remain a true friend of the future Cardinal. However, the sort of impression we get from her first encounter with the Newmans gives it vivid idea of the gulf there was between them and herself. This musical, literary, and, from her point of view, worldly family had nothing in common with her own ideals, notwithstanding the immediate liking she had taken to John, Francis, and their sisters.

What exactly are we to understand by the term `Evangelical”? To answer that question, we must try to get some sort of general idea of the Anglican Church as it was in the early part of the last century. From the seventeenth century onwards, it had been exposed to two divergent tendencies: the one, High Church; the other, Low Church. The High Church party set great store by Tradition — that is to say, by the Catholic, and by what, in those days, may have been still more important, the Royalist element which the term connotes. The others — the Low Church party — were all for the stark, uncompromising Protestantism of the Puritans and the Presbyterians, yet not going to the length of actually parting company with the Establishment.

When the Deists were at the height of their power, it looked as if both parties were going to fuse together into a sort of religion which was hardly more than a vague philanthropy, but which still adhered to those conservative ideas of which the Church of England seemed to be the natural stronghold. Athwart this atmosphere of stagnation and inertia the voices of Wesley and Whitefield rang like a trumpet-call to arouse the people from their slumber. Had it not been for them, all definite belief, all religion in the strict sense of the word, might well have disappeared from England, and with it the State Church itself. Perhaps the most conspicuous characteristic of Wesleyanism in its early days was the overwhelming conviction that Christianity implied a new life — hence the transcendent importance attached by the Methodists, as they came to be called, to “conversion”. But conversion, new life, might be taken to mean merely such a moral reform as a man might bring about by his own efforts.

What is distinctive about Wesleyanism is that it is concerned with an experience, a religious experience and one clearly recognizable from the nature of its onset. At a first glance, Methodism would appear to be a return to the Christianity of the Gospel as contrasted, not merely with rationalism but with the humanistic and philanthropical ideas then prevailing. Looked at from another angle, it reveals a close affinity with the sentimentalism that was so marked and so general a feature of the late eighteenth century. Still, it cannot be denied that in one way or another it links up with a Christian tradition dating back far earlier than the Reformation, with the love of the religious folk of the Middle Ages for the person of Jesus Christ.

Viewed against a Moravian background, compared with the German Pietists and certain manifestations of primitive Lutheranism, Wesley’s religion will be seen to have had more in common with Saint Bernard or with Saint Francis of Assisi than with the Scottish Calvinists or the English Puritans, for it is from a direct encounter of the soul with Jesus, with the Christ of the Gospels, that conversion is looked for. It was not a matter of a mere moral reform, which a man might claim to have brought about by his own efforts, but a gift bestowed by God. It is from Jesus, from Jesus acknowledged to be in the fullest sense the Son of God, the Savior of the world, that the gift is to proceed.

It cannot therefore be denied that, notwithstanding its intrinsic intellectual insufficiencies, there is a core of sound doctrine at the heart of Methodism. But this cannot be dissociated from a particular kind of spiritual experience characteristic of the period. It is in the contemplation of Jesus as loving us and as shedding His blood for us that the Wesleyan gives himself to Him, and it is during an intense and passionate outpouring of the emotions that he attains to what he calls faith, by which he means the certain conviction that the blood of Jesus was shed for him, that it has cleansed him from his sins and made him a new man.

It was partly by force of circumstance, partly from their indifference to everything save this spiritual experience, far rather than from any definite separatist resolve, that the Wesleyans, after Wesley, and in spite of his desires, eventually cut themselves off from the Established Church. This, however, they did not do without leaving their own indelible mark upon it. The Evangelical party within the Church were a lasting witness to the effect Wesley had had upon it, and Wesley’s influence still endures, albeit modified in various ways to bring it into closer harmony with the more traditional, less emotional, elements in Anglicanism.

For Evangelicals, conversion did not necessarily involve any of those violent paroxysms of emotion to be seen at the usual revivalist meetings. Emotion there was, but by conversion was generally signified the gradually growing conviction, the belief taking ever deeper and deeper root, that one hall been saved by Jesus Christ. Such had been the experience of Thomas Scott, with whose writings Newman was now shortly to become acquainted, and of whom he declared many years later that he almost owed him his soul. Such, too, was conversion as understood by Mr. Mayers, who was now to initiate his pupil into his own particular school of religious belief. Nothing, however, was more remote from the ideas in which Newman had been reared than this sentimental religiosity, even in the modified and milder form in which he was now to encounter it. How his family looked on the Christian religion he has described in a few words in the Apologia:

I was brought up from a child to take great delight in reading the Bible; but I had no formed religious convictions till I was fifteen. Of course I had a perfect knowledge of my Catechism.

If we want to get a clear idea of what was in Newman’s mind when he penned that brief resume, it is perhaps conveyed at least implicitly, in the following passage, which we take from the Grammar of Assent:

“Bible Religion” is both the recognized title and the best description of English religion. It consists not in rites or creeds, but mainly in having the Bible read in Church, in the family, and in private. Now I am far indeed from undervaluing that mere knowledge of Scripture which is imparted to the population thus promiscuously. At least in England, it has to a certain point made up for great and grievous losses in its Christianity. The reiteration again and again, in fixed course in the public service, of the words of inspired teachers under both covenants, and that in grave majestic English, has in matter of fact been to our people a vast benefit. It has attuned their minds to religious thoughts; it has given them a high moral standard; it has served them in associating religion with compositions which, even humanly considered, are among the most sublime and beautiful ever written; especially, it has impressed upon them the series of Divine Providences in behalf of man from his creation to his end, and, above all, the words, deeds, and sacred sufferings of Him in whom all the Providences of God centre.
Grammar of Assent, Bk. 56-57.

There we have without doubt the basis of Newman’s religion: a high moral standard, a standard hallowed by the idea of Providence — that is to say, as Newman understood the word, by the presence of God, the all-seeing Witness and sovereign Actor in every circumstance of our daily lives. But as that is drawn wholly from the Bible, the reading of the Bible lends it an atmosphere of light and color of a very special character, and what exactly that was we must endeavor to understand.

It is difficult for anyone who has never experienced it to form even a remote idea of what a religious training, founded wholly and solely on a study of the Bible, really is. For a thoughtful and imaginative child it results in a kind of supernatural humanism quite unique in its character. The world, human history, the life of mankind are bathed in a light that nothing henceforth avails to dim or extinguish. The presence of God, everywhere active, all-powerful, reigns over all things, animate and inanimate. Then there are those countless figures of Patriarchs, Prophets, Kings and Apostles, Saints and Sinners, or rather of sinners called to repentance, of Saints conscious of their sin, who, for such as are familiar with them, seem more real than the folk we meet every day.

Let us make no mistake about it; we have here the underlying stratum of Newman’s spiritual nature, the lasting soil from which its fairest blossoms, its choicest fruits were to spring.

However all this may be the case with Protestant children in general, Newman adds two important particulars regarding himself. It was not any sort of Bible in which he was taught as a child to take delight. His Bible was King James’s Bible, the celebrated Authorized Version, the outstanding landmark of English prose. He dwells on the grave majesty of its language, thus accounting for the incomparable and sacred charm which the Bible, merely as literature, never ceased to have for him from his childhood onwards. No doubt the Bible is the Word of God, and is always so, no matter into what tongue it is rendered.

Nevertheless, those golden periods were well calculated to make him see in them the confirmation of the Bible’s sacred character — hence for him, as for many another, the fusion of Christianity with that Biblical humanism of which the Latin countries have scarce a notion, but which is so natural and so real an experience for the Anglo-Saxon and Germanic peoples. Finally, Newman gives us this additional indication of what Bible-reading is for an Anglican; it is not confined to a few passages selected in the light of individual fancy, nor does it range haphazard over the whole of the sacred text without scheme or plan. Thanks to the Prayer-Book lectionary it is Scripture in its entirety gradually unfolded in harmony with the rhythm of the Christian year. From the Cradle to the Cross, from the Cross to the Celestial Abode, the scene unfolded itself to the child John Henry like a pageant of unforgettable splendor.

If, over and above this general view of the matter, we would learn something of the more particular manner in which Newman was affected by his experience, we may profitably take note of what Anne Mozley has to tell us in an essay of no little insight and delicacy. In all probability it was not without guidance from Newman himself that she went gleaning among his sermons for the passages to which she refers, passages every one of which is unmistakably the record of some personal experience of his own. It is not always easy to determine how far Newman’s sermons are to be regarded as the autobiography, or, shall we call it, the diary, of their author. Here, however, is a passage that can scarcely leave us in doubt:

At first children do not know that they are responsible beings; but by degrees they not only feel that they are, but reflect on the great truth, and on what it implies. Some persons recollect a time as children when it fell on them to reflect what they were, whence they came, whither they tended, why they lived, what was required of them. The thought fell upon them long after they had heard and spoken of God; but at length they began to realize what they had heard, and they began to muse about themselves.
Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. VI, no. 8 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997),

Concerning this first discovery of the Divine Word, of the appeal it makes, is it not the child we hear speaking, though the words are the words of the man?

Let us consider this consciousness of self, which begins with a sense of being dependent on God, the sudden outcome of the patient pleading of God’s words, in which the child’s soul had bathed before its awakening. To the significant passage just quoted, Anne Mozley added another, and, in the whole of Newman, there is hardly one which we should be more inclined to describe as Proustian. It is of peculiar interest to us at this juncture because it shows us the belief which Newman was not only to retain, but steadily to develop, the belief in the spiritual treasure inherent in those childish experiences. From the mere contact with the Bible, the dawning soul, touched all unawares by grace, is enriched with a treasure which, as long as life shall last, it will never lose or exhaust. One’s thoughts revert, not only to Proust, as we ponder these things, but to Wordsworth and his Ode on Intimations of Immortality drawn from Recollections of Early Childhood. But with Newman the whole is set in a different key. For him, the invisible world is not substituted for the visible, but added to it, and hopes, hitherto vague and undefined, are now steadily focused on the expectation of the Divine Vision.

Such are the feelings with which men often look back on their childhood, when any accident brings it vividly before them. Some relic or token of that early time, some spot, or some book, or a word, or a scent, or a sound, brings them back in memory to the first years of their discipleship, and then they see, what they could not know at the time, that God’s Presence went up with them and gave them rest. Nay, even now perhaps they are unable to discern fully what it was which made that time so bright and glorious. They are full of tender, affectionate thoughts towards those first years, but they do not know why. They think it is those very years which they yearn after, whereas it is the Presence of God which, as they now see, was then over them, which attracts them.
Parochial and Plain Sermons, vol. IV, no. 17 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997)

We shall have occasion to return to this experience, so vivid in Newman’s case, of Memory and of the Presence of God through it perceived. For the moment, we would remark that Wordsworth’s sad lines about his passing from childhood to adolescence are equally applicable to Newman:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy,
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
     About the growing boy.

What, then, was it that had happened to this fifteen-year-old lad? The answer is precisely what was to happen or fail to happen again in the young man of ten years later. It was that the growth, the activity of his intellectual powers, had stifled his religious life. It was not that the intellect had seized on any particular argument against religion. It was rather a case of an intellectual attitude, a mental climate, inimical to that immediate sense of God as being Sovereign Lord of All, which afterwards came to be, and thenceforth always remained, an outstanding feature of Newman’s faith.

The youthful mind, confidently relying on its own powers, instinctively shrinks from the idea of any such dependence. The acceptance of a mystery beyond his comprehension, and that he feels, none more clearly, to be the whole of religion, strikes him as something he has grown out of, and left behind him. In the Apologia we read:

When I was fourteen, I read Paine’s Tracts against the Old Testament, and found pleasure in thinking of the objections that were contained in them. Also, I read some of Hume’s Essays; and perhaps that on Miracles. So at least I gave my Father to understand; but perhaps it was a brag. Also I recollect copying out some French verses, perhaps Voltaire’s in denial of the immortality of the soul, and saying to myself something like, “How dreadful, but how plausible.”

Be it noted that this semi-skepticism, which had taken hold of the young lad’s mind, was of a purely intellectual order. Morality was in no way questioned. Quite the reverse, in fact. The proud intellectual self-sufficiency, which thus put God out of the picture, seems to go hand in hand with a corresponding self-reliance on the moral side. The autobiographical memoir records a note of an earlier day which makes that point quite clear:

I recollect, in 1815 I believe, thinking that I should like to be virtuous, but not religious. There was something in the latter idea I did not like. Nor did I see the meaning of loving God. I recollect contending against Mr Mayers in favor of Pope’s “Essay on Man”. What, I contended, can be more free from objection than it? Does it not expressly inculcate “Virtue alone is happiness below”
Letters, vol. I, p. 19.

These entries are of the highest importance, not only as explaining the nature of his conversion, but for the light they throw upon his apologetical writings, from the Oxford University Sermons to the Grammar of Assent. When, sixty years later, Newman received the Red Hat, he summed up his life’s work in a single phrase, when he said he had always fought against Liberalism. What he meant by that term was the claim of man to do without God, to act by himself and for himself, whether it be a matter of comprehending the Universe or ordering his own life.

The “reason” which, in the University Sermons, is contrasted in so definite a manner with “faith”, is reason in which self-reliance amounts to pride, and which refuses, on principle, to rely on any power external to itself. It was reason in this sense of the word, and reason very much alive in the boy John Henry, that led him to turn away from Christ, not indeed in order to live a life of sensual indulgence, but rather to entrench himself in a virtuous independence that refuses to bow to anything or anybody.

How, then, are we to account for its bowing to the very ordinary intellectual gifts of the worthy ecclesiastic over whom, it is only too clear, the dialectical prowess of the child of genius scored some very easy victories. Newman has not explained (how, indeed, could he have explained?) the process by which his ideas, in this particular instance, underwent so complete a change. He does, however, give us to understand that it was not so much by his sermons or exhortations that Mayers influenced him, as by the books he gave him to read during those long weeks of inactivity in the year 1816.

We may take it, then, that Mayers impressed him more by his character than by his discourse, more by what he was than by what he said. Those victories which the pupil, doubtless too brilliant, too adroit for his master, had scored in their arguments, did not delude him. He who put virtue before religion must have recognized in a mind of a humbler order than his own, virtue of a different order from his own. And that probably is what led him to attach to Mayers’ words an importance that his arguments as such would certainly not have earned them. That it was, as well as the necessity of finding something to fill up the time that led the boy to tackle the somewhat austere books that were put into his hands. How these books of Mayers’ affected him, Newman in a few succinct and striking words tells us in the Apologia:

I fell under the influence of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.

Those words whet our curiosity still more to learn what books these were that were thus offered to this young, enquiring mind. And now a paradox awaits us. Of the first of them, Newman tells us that the main doctrine contained in it struck him very forcibly and at once commanded his assent. But he adds that he came to discard it later on, and long before his conversion to Catholicism. A few lines farther on he adds that he retained it till he was twenty-one, when it gradually faded away. The book alluded to was by Romaine, one of the few rigid Calvinists that were still numbered in the Evangelical fold. It will not surprise us to learn that the doctrine in question was that of final perseverance, conversion being regarded as a sudden consciousness, on the part of the convert, of his predestined salvation.

If it was a doctrine that converted him, how came Newman, who stressed the doctrinal and dogmatic character of his conversion, to write of it — of his conversion, that is to say — a few lines farther on, “I am still more certain of it than I am of having hands and feet”? Here we have a problem which, up to now, does not appear greatly to have exercised his biographers. Nevertheless, it must be evident that the importance ascribed by Newman to this conversion, definite and permanent as it was, cannot be satisfactorily explained so long as this problem remains unresolved.


And I Shall Dwell in the House of the Lord Forever – Rabbi Kushner

May 30, 2012

Corriedale lambs in Tierra del Fuego. The more I’ve stared at this photo, I guess this is what we really look like. Most of us figure in some bunch here or there and I’m over on the left sitting down in the pasture. Got a nice spot, can’t complain.

Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.


We can read the Twenty-third Psalm as a drama in three acts. Act one is serene, pastoral. The psalmist feels safe and secure, and he thanks God, his faithful shepherd, for providing him with that security.

Act two turns dark and stormy. The psalmist’s life is interrupted by trauma, tragedy, and bereavement. Instead of dwelling in green pastures by still waters, he finds himself alone in a dark valley. Then he learns that he is not really alone. He comes to see God not only as the source of the good things in his life, but as the source of comfort and consolation in hard times. He comes to understand that only because God was with him was he able to find his way out of the darkness. He learns, as all of us who have gone through hard times learn, that the sunshine we step into when we have found our way through the valley of the shadow is infinitely sweeter than the sunshine we had basked in during our carefree, cloudless days.

In act three, he realizes that his understanding of God, his relationship to God, has matured as well. God is no longer just the one who follows him through his travails. God now offers him something more permanent, an invitation to dwell in His house.

What does it mean to dwell in the house of the Lord? “Home” is such an evocative word. It speaks of love, of an enduring relationship. Robert Frost defines it as “something you somehow don’t have to deserve.” It is the ultimate expression of the promise, “I will be with you.” Home symbolizes safety, security, a refuge from the dangers of the world outside. God’s house is also a sanctuary in the sense of a holy place (sanctus means holy).

But there is also a sense in which it is uncomfortable, even intimidating to live our days conscious of the fact that we are living them in God’s presence. A Hassidic tale tells of the rabbi who hired a horse and carriage to take him to a neighboring village. The carriage was making its way along a road with fruit trees and orchards on either side. At one point, the coachman stopped by the side of the road and told his passenger, “I’m going to climb over the fence and steal some of that fruit. You sit here and keep an eye out for anyone coming. Let me know if anyone sees me.”

He had just crossed the fence when the rabbi called out, “Someone’s watching!” The driver jumped back into his wagon, drove a bit farther, stopped, and said, “I’m going to try again. Make sure I’m not being seen.” Once again, as soon as he crossed the fence, the rabbi called out, “Someone’s watching!” The driver was puzzled. He said, “I don’t understand it. The road is empty; the area is deserted. I don’t see another human being for miles. But every time I try to grab some fruit, you tell me someone’s watching. What’s going on?” The rabbi pointed heavenward and said simply, “Someone is watching.”

For the author of the Twenty-third Psalm, dwelling in God’s house, having the sense that every moment of his day is being lived under God’s watchful eye, is the most reassuring, most comforting thought he can have. For the rabbi’s coachman, it is a major inconvenience, keeping him from doing things he would like to do. What might it mean to us? The answer may depend on where we are in our lives.

For a young child, there are few things more important and reassuring than the knowledge that his parent is there watching out for him, and few things more unsettling than the fear that the parent might not be there. That is likely why very young children play peek-a-boo; its message: Mommy may go away out of sight, but she comes back a moment later. That may be why young children in a playground “push the envelope,” going to the brink of doing something dangerous or forbidden, not in the hope of getting away with it but in an effort to elicit the reassuring cry of “Stop that, I’m watching you.” And maybe there is a part of us that never quite outgrows that childhood need.

But a few years later, that young child grows into a sulky, withdrawn teenager. “Momma, come see what I can do” is replaced by “Stay out of my room” and “Will you just get off my back and let me live my life?” What has happened? One of the defining characteristics of adolescence is self-consciousness, the feeling that people are looking at you and judging you. For the first time in their lives, adolescents are making ethical decisions, making choices about their values and their behavior without parental guidance and authority. They are making choices about dress, relationships, and money, and because they can never be sure they are doing it right, they are manifestly uncomfortable, hypersensitive to being judged. If you have a fourteen-year-old daughter at home (or if you can remember being a fourteen-year-old girl), how much time does she spend on the phone with her friends every evening deciding what to wear to school the next day? It is important for her to know that she won’t stand out as the only one wearing the “wrong” clothes.

Go back and reread chapter three of Genesis, the puzzling story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Note that before Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, they are described as “naked but feeling no shame” (Genesis 2:25). But the very first thing that happens after they eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is that they realize they are naked, feel embarrassed by it, and try to hide from God’s sight. Why are they ashamed when there is literally no one else in the world to see them? My understanding of the story is that acquiring a knowledge of good and evil marks their transition from childhood to adolescence.

Isn’t that the difference between a child and a teenager, that a child can only be obedient or disobedient to parents and teachers, but a teenager has to make his or her own moral decisions about right and wrong a thousand times a day? I see Adam and Eve after they eat the forbidden fruit as adolescents, brand-new to the world of knowing right and wrong, new to the challenge of making moral choices, insecure about their body image, uncomfortable at the prospect of being judged, risking being told that they had done wrong and would be punished.

According to some classical Christian and Jewish interpretations of the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve were capable of sexual activity and reproduction even before they ate the forbidden fruit. Remember, they were commanded to be fruitful and multiply. But after they ate the fruit and acquired a knowledge of good and evil, their attitude toward sexuality changed. It was no longer a simple matter of being guided by nature and instinct, as it is for other animals. It now took on a frantic dimension, a quest for intimacy and closeness, a reprieve from loneliness, a reassurance of being desired. (Sounds very adolescent to me.)

For Adam and Eve, for the rabbi’s coachman, for the typical adolescent, living in the presence of God is intimidating, a source of potential shame and imminent condemnation. When Job’s friends try to comfort him after a series of disasters have made his life miserable, they speak to him in the accents of childhood: Don’t despair, our heavenly Father is watching over us constantly. And Job responds like an adolescent: You’re right, God is always watching over us — to catch us in a mistake and have a reason to punish us (Job 7:20).

As we grow older, we carry with us fragments of both views, the child’s sense of reassurance that his parents are there for him and the adolescent’s need for a life free of watchful eyes and judgmental authorities. Ultimately we come up with an outlook that reconciles the two. We come to realize that God invites us into His house, into His presence, not simply to protect us and not only to judge us, but to establish a relationship with us, and the basis of that relationship is God’s expectation of moral behavior.

God says to us, as one might say to a child who is no longer a child, If you are going to live in My house, I expect certain things of you. God says this not in order to restrict us or to punish us when He catches us in a mistake, but to show that He takes us seriously and to invest our lives with significance by telling us that He cares how we live.

In the view of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the great souls of the American Jewish community, God gave Israel the Law at Mount Sinai because He sensed the existential loneliness of the average human being in what can often be a lonely world. God who created Eve as Adam’s mate because “it is not good for man to be alone” sought to cure an even deeper feeling of loneliness by reaching down to enter into people’s lives, freeing the Israelites from Egypt and forming a covenant with them.

For Soloveitchik, as paraphrased by one of his disciples, there comes a point in a person’s life when he or she realizes that one’s “work does not suffice to define [one's] personality. Human dignity is now seen in the quest for purpose, meaning and relationship.” With the sound of God’s voice addressing man by name (that is, when we feel personally commanded to do something we might otherwise not be inclined to do — being generous, forgiving, in control of our emotions), “God, whom Man has searched for along the endless trails of the universe, is suddenly discovered as standing beside him.”

God, who is pure righteousness, seeks to establish a relationship with human beings by summoning us to do righteous deeds. In that way, God connects with our soul, our conscience, the little bit of Himself that He breathed into us, that inner voice that should have told the coachman that it was wrong to steal his neighbor’s fruit even if he didn’t have a rabbi as his passenger. God tried to do that with Adam, giving him one command. But Adam, too much the adolescent, was unprepared for a mature relationship with God.

When God called Noah, Abraham, or Moses to do things that were challenging but right, promising only that He would be with them, promising to guide Abraham to his unknown destination, telling Moses “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:11-12) when he asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?,” that was more than an assignment. It was an invitation to a relationship. For the person who asks, “Why should I be good? Why should I respect my neighbor’s property? Where is my reward for being honest?,” the Twenty-third Psalm gives us the answer. The reward is “I shall dwell in the House of the Lord forever.” The reward is that you will be redeemed from the existential loneliness of wandering aimlessly through life, without meaning or purpose. You will have God as your friend and neighbor.

And what will be the punishment for the person who chooses to live a selfish, deceitful, exploitative life? I don’t need to picture him tormented in Hell and cast into fire and brimstone. It is punishment enough that he will live out his days alone, perhaps feared, perhaps envied, but ultimately alone where it matters most, while those around him live out their days in the presence of God.

Can you remember a time when you went out of your way to help a neighbor in need, and how good that felt? Can you remember a time when you reluctantly gave money to a good cause because you could not say no to the person who asked you, and later you realized what a bargain you had gotten? The feeling of satisfaction you got from helping those in need was worth more to you than the money. That is what it means to live in the House of the Lord, to have a relationship with God based not on our need and not on His might but on the capacity for righteous living that God has planted in each of us.

There is a part of us that wants to live in the presence of God, not only for the comfort but for the challenge. There is a part of us that wants to be summoned, that welcomes the demands of morality and righteousness. When God summons us to act justly and righteously, it is His way of telling us that He takes us seriously enough to care about how we live. When He tells our neighbors not to harm us, not to harm our marriage, our property, our reputation, He is giving us the message that He cares about our wellbeing. When He speaks to us through the voice of our conscience and through the words and deeds of inspiring teachers and leaders, He is assuring us that we are not alone in a dangerous and distracting world. When we come to understand that, we learn to see our lives differently. We learn to see our pain and our problems differently. We learn to see the world differently.

The author of the Twenty-third Psalm, who has been meditating on all the good things that God does for him, has saved the best for last. God, who has provided him with a peaceful, livable world, who has stilled the raging waters around him and within him, who has led him through the valley of the shadow, has also given him this ultimate gift: He has invited him into His home, into His presence, that he might live all of his days in the presence of God.

God has said to him in his bereavement, as he languished in the valley of the shadow, You have lost someone you love, but you have found Me. You have discovered what I am really about, not the God of fairy tales and contrived happy endings, but the God who said to Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses, to the saints and strivers in every generation, “Fear not for I will be with you.” You have found Me, and I will not abandon you. Like the shepherd who watches his flock by day and at night, I will be with you in sunshine and in shadow, in happy times and in tragic times. My house is your home.

The psalmist, I am sure, repaid God with prayers of gratitude and with acts of righteousness. But in addition, he repaid God for all of His kindnesses by writing a psalm, so that future generations would come to know what he had come to know about God. And this is what he has to tell us:

When we are frightened because the world is a scary place, God is with us. If He cannot always protect us from harm or from our own mistakes, He can ease our fears and our pain by being with us.

When we are exhausted because the world asks so much of us, God gives us times and places of refuge from the claims of the world, to calm and restore our souls. God renews our strength so that we can “mount up with wings as eagles” and continue tirelessly to do what is right.

When we are terrified at the prospect of losing control over our emotions and doing ourselves serious harm, God is with us to help us do things with Him at our side that we were not sure we could do alone.

When illness, bereavement, and the losses that come with age cast a shadow over our lives, God is there to fill the empty space, to remind us that shadows are cast only because the sun is shining somewhere, to take us by the hand and lead us through the valley of the shadow and into the sunlight.

When events in our world bring us dismay and we fear that evil is prospering, God reminds us that evil acts invariably carry the seeds of their own destruction.

When people disappoint us, when they cannot give us what we need, whether because our needs are too great or because their emotional resources are too meager, God is our reliable friend, an inexhaustible source of love and strength.

And when we find ourselves wandering aimlessly through the world, wondering why we are here and what our lives will have meant when they are over, God blesses us with a sense of purpose, a challenge, a list of moral obligations and opportunities, every one of which will give us the sense of living our days in His presence.

There is pain in the world. If we are to be truly alive, we cannot hide from it. But we can survive it, and God’s caring presence lessens the pain.

There is death in the world, robbing us of the ones we love and one day robbing them of our presence. But God who is immortal assures us that death may take a person out of our future but cannot remove him from our past, that all the things we loved a person for have entered so deeply into our souls that they remain part of us. The Lord gives, but the Lord does not take away, and their presence is every bit as real as their absence.

There is fear in the world. There is vulnerability and uncertainty. God cannot tell us that nothing bad will ever happen to us. But God can tell us that we need not be afraid of the future, no matter what it holds. He cannot protect you from evil without taking away from other people the human power of choosing between good and bad. He cannot protect you from illness or bad luck. He cannot spare you from death and let you and those around you live forever. But He can give you the resources to transcend and overcome those fears, so that bad luck never causes you to lose faith in yourself, so that bad people never cause you to lose faith in humanity, so that the inevitability of death never causes you to give up on the holiness of life.

There will be dark days, days of loss and days of failure, but they will not last forever. The light will always return to chase away the darkness, the sun will always come out again after the rain, and the human spirit will always rise above failure. Fear will assault us, but we will not be afraid, “for Thou art with me.”


Melito of Sardis

May 29, 2012


Melito of Sardis (died c. 180) was the bishop of Sardis near Smyrna in western Anatolia, and a great authority in Early Christianity: Jerome, speaking of the Old Testament canon established by Melito, quotes Tertullian to the effect that he was esteemed a prophet by many of the faithful. His feast is celebrated on April 1.

Last week I joined a Communio Study Group in Boston. Communio, in case you’ve been missing out on it, is a leading journal of Catholic intellectual writing that “strives to provide long-term resources for reflection, renewal, and mission in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council as interpreted by the Pontificate of John Paul II.” Along with First Things it forms my Catholic magazine/journal readings.

Each month a member of the Communio group chooses an article from the journal and leads a discussion concerning it. It sounded like fun and turned out to be the same. It will help me get the journals off my shelves and into my head.

In May we discussed an article by an Orthodox priest, by Fr. John Behr that was about the eschatological dimensions of the liturgy. It’s a topic that falls into my interest in liturgical theology which is one of my categories in

 I took a course not long ago titled “Spiritual Liturgy” which turned out to be an eye-opener as I was constantly challenged to track my reactions to the Eucharist. Reading the following reminded me of a level of awareness that I constantly need to promote within myself.

If you live in the Boston area and would like to join us, give me a holler through the comment mechanism and I will help set it up for you.


 Melito of Sardis

Now, everything that we have been talking about — the encounter with the risen Christ, the coming eschatological Lord in the opening of scripture and the breaking of bread — is exemplified in an early Christian text, On Pascha, by Melito of Sardis — only published in 1940. Since then there has been a debate about what kind of text it is.

It was first classified as a “Good Friday Homily,” although it does not really fit into a homelitic genre. It is now recognized as a kind of Haggadahan exposition of the Passover reading from Exodus, which would accompany the Jewish table rite known as the Seder, which developed in diaspora Judaism, when the Passover sacrifice was no longer possible at the temple. This makes it, in fact, the earliest liturgical text that we have, and, for that matter, the earliest representative of a Haggadah that we have.

One must recall that the reading of the Exodus scripture was never understood as the recalling of a (merely) past event, but as a way of inscribing oneself in the same unchanging reality of God. As when Joshua urged the Israelites gathered at Shechem to devote themselves to the Covenant which God had made with their fathers, they speak of this as having happened to themselves (Josh 24).

Melito begins immediately following on from the reading of the scripture of the Exodus, and takes it to be speaking of Christ (i.e., directly, without the intermediary of a gospel text)

1   The Scripture of the Exodus of the Hebrews has been read,
and the words of the mystery have been declared,
how the sheep was sacrificed
and how the people was saved,
and how Pharaoh was flogged by the mystery.

2   Therefore, well-beloved, understand, how the mystery of the Pascha
is both new and old
eternal and provisional,
perishable and imperishable
mortal and immortal.

3   It is old with respect to the law
new with respect to the word.
Provisional with respect to the type
yet everlasting through grace.
It is perishable because of the slaughter of the sheep,
imperishable because of the life of the Lord.
It is mortal because of the burial in the ground,
immortal because of the resurrection from the dead.

4.   For the law is old
but the Word is new.
The type is provisional,
but the grace everlasting.
The sheep is perishable,
but the Lord,
not broken as a lamb but raised up as God,
is imperishable.
For though led to the slaughter like a sheep,
he was no sheep.
Though speechless as a lamb,
neither yet was he a lamb.
For there was once a type, but now the reality has appeared.

5.  For instead of the lamb there was a son,
and instead of the sheep a man;
in the man was Christ encompassing all things.

6.  So the slaughter of the sheep
and the sacrificial procession of the blood,
and the writing of the law encompass Christ,
on whose account everything in the previous law took place,
though better in the new dispensation.

7.  For the law was a word,
and the old was new, going out from Sion and Jerusalem,
and the commandment was grace,
and the type was a reality,
and the lamb was a son,
and the sheep was a man,
and the man was God.

8.  For he was born as a son,
and led as a lamb,
and slaughtered as a sheep,
and buried as a man,
and rose from the dead as God,
being God by his nature and a man.

9.  He is all things.
He is law, in that he judges.
He is word, in that he teaches.
He is grace, in that he saves.
He is father, in that he begets.

He is son, in that he is begotten.
He is sheep, in that he suffers.
He is human, in that he is buried.
He is God, in that he is raised up.

10.  This is Jesus the Christ,
to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen

This is a wonderful preface in praise of Christ, understanding him in terms of the scriptural account of the Exodus.

Melito then begins again by saying that he will re-narrate the account:

11.  This is the mystery of the Pascha,
just as it is written in the law, which was read a little while ago. I shall narrate the scriptural story,
how he gave command to Moses in Egypt,
when wanting to flog Pharaoh
and to free Israel from flogging
through the hand of Moses.

It continues with a fuller exposition of the scriptural story, seeing in all its details the reality of Christ. It is, for instance, because of Christ’s blood that the angel turns away from the dwellings with lamb’s blood smeared across the lintels: it is not that the angel does not like the smell of lamb’s blood, but rather that he sees in the blood of the lamb the reality of the blood of Christ.

This is then followed by a more universal depiction of salvation history, beginning with humanity in Eden and the continuation of the way in which humanity continued in sin, but also the way in which Christ was also present, already working, in types, our salvation.

59   If you wish to see the mystery of the Lord
Look at Abel, who is likewise slain,
at Isaac, who is likewise tied up,
at Joseph, who is likewise traded,
at Moses, who is likewise exposed,
at David, who is likewise hunted down,
At the prophets who likewise suffer for the sake of Christ.

And then the first half of the oration comes to an end:

65.. Many other things were proclaimed by many prophets
concerning the mystery of the Pascha, who is Christ,
to whom be the glory forever.

The second half of the oration begins with the words:

66.. This is the one who comes from heaven onto the earth for
the suffering one,
and wraps himself in the suffering one through a virgin womb,
and comes as a a man.
He accepted the suffering of the suffering one,
through suffering in a body which could suffer,
and set free the flesh from suffering.

Recent scholars have seen in these words, “This is the one who comes (aphikoinenos) from heaven,” an allusion to the aphikomen, the piece of bread broken off from the main loaf at the Passover Seder of Judaism, hidden, and brought in towards the end. This aphikomen — “coining one” — is taken as a messianic symbol. Melito clearly identifies the Paschal Lamb with Jesus.

Now the oration continues with a cry against Israel for not having recognized him, but having instead crucified him. This seems to us to be anti-Semitic (the Jewish community in Sardis would have just finished their Passover meal when the Christians gathered to celebrate their Pascha). But the invective against Israel is always in the second person: Melito is saying to his community: you did not recognize him — you stand convicted. It is only as convicted that they are then able finally to recognize him as their Savior. And so, the oration concludes with Melito speaking in the person of Christ:

100.. The Lord clothed himself with humanity,
and with suffering on behalf of the suffering one,
and bound on behalf of the one constrained,
and judged on behalf of the one convicted,
and buried on behalf of the one entombed,
rose from the dead and cried out aloud:

101.. “Who takes issue with me? Let him stand before me.
I set free the condemned.
I gave life to the dead.
I raise up the entombed.
Who will contradict me?”

102.. “It is I,” says the Christ,
“I am he who destroys death,
and triumphs over the enemy,
and crushes Hades,
and binds the strong man,
and bears humanity off to the heavenly heights.” “It is I,” says the Christ.

103.. “So come all families of people,
adulterated with sin,
and receive forgiveness of sins.
For I am your freedom.
I am the Passover of salvation,
I am the lamb slaughtered for you,
I am your ransom,
I am your life,
I am your light,
I am your salvation,
I am your resurrection,
I am your King.
I shall raise you up by my right hand,
I will lead you to the heights of heaven,
There shall I show you the everlasting Father.”

104.. He it is who made the heaven and the earth, and formed humanity in the beginning,
who was proclaimed through the law and the prophets,
who took flesh from a virgin,
who was hung on a tree,
who was buried in earth,
who was raised from the dead,
and ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has the power to save all things,
through whom the Father acted from the beginning and forever.

105.. This is the alpha and omega, this is the beginning and the end,
the ineffable beginning and the incomprehensible end.
This is the Christ,
this is the King,
this is Jesus,
this is the commander,
this is the Lord,
this is he who rose from the dead,
this is he who sits at the right hand of the Father,
he bears the Father and is borne by him.
To him be the glory and the might for ever. Amen.

This is a wonderful text, exemplary of what happens in liturgy, and especially the eschatological dimensions of liturgy. We began by standing to celebrate the Passion, the Exodus of Christ, understood in the light of the books of Old Testament being opened in the light of Christ. This then moves seamlessly into the celebration of the Paschal Lamb, the coming one — identified with the aphikomen — the part of the loaf hidden at the beginning of the meal and brought out towards the end. And then, in and through all of this, Christ, the coming one, is now present, speaking in the person of Melito himself. This is realized eschatology in action, even now when it is read as a text almost two thousand years later.


Orach — Herta Müller

May 28, 2012

Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, and was described by the Nobel Foundation, as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.”

Every once in a while I challenge writing a memoir but it is so overwhelming on so many counts – I can’t even speak to what memory, identity and how to entwine the two really means. Which is why I am sometimes stunned and shocked by a writer like Herta Müller and her Nobel Prize winning The Hunger Angel. To complicate things further the book is a novel and not a memoir per se but it reads like a memoir and when you read of its making, you see why:

By the summer of 1944 the Red Army had advanced deep inside Romania; the Fascist dictatorship was overthrown, and its leader, Ion Antonescu, Was arrested and later executed. Romania surrendered and in a surprise move declared war on its former ally, Nazi Germany. In January 1945 the Soviet gen­eral Vinogradov presented a demand in Stalin’s name that all Germans living in Romania be mobilized for “rebuilding” the war-damaged Soviet Union. All men and women between sev­enteen and forty-five years of age were deported to forced-labor camps in the Soviet Union.

My mother, too, spent five years in a labor camp.

The deportations were a taboo subject because they recalled Romania’s Fascist past. Those who had been in the camp never spoke of their experiences except at home or with close acquain­tances who had also been deported, and then only indirectly. My childhood was accompanied by such stealthy conversa­tions; at the time I didn’t understand their content, but I did sense the fear.

In 2001, I began having conversations with former depor­tees from my village. I knew that the poet Oskar Pastior had been deported, and I told him I wanted to write a book on the subject. He offered to help me with his recollections. We began to meet regularly; he talked, and I wrote down what he said, We soon found ourselves wanting to write the book together.

When Oskar Pastior died so suddenly in 2006, I had four – notebooks of handwritten notes, in addition to drafts of sev­eral chapters. After his death I felt paralyzed. His close pres­ence in the notes made the loss even greater.

A year passed before I could bring myself to say farewell to the We and write a novel alone. But without Oskar Pasti­or’s details about everyday life in the camp I could not have done it.

So I thought to myself, maybe I can find a poet who lived many elements of my life and get him to write about it. It certainly was a success for Ms. Müller as you can see in the following as she follows her fictional character, 17 year old Leo Auberg and his struggles at a labor camp in the Soviet Union. There is this combination of poetic intensity and detachment as The Hunger Angel sharpens Leo’s senses into an acuity that is profound as it makes his soul’s journey. The prose is addictive. It drags you in and forces you to confront a reality that millions in the world’s gulags and labor camps live today.


None of the underclothes they issued us had buttons. The under­shirts and the long underpants each had two small ties. The pillowcases had two sets of ties. By night the pillowcase was a pillowcase. By day it was a canvas sack you carried with you for whatever might come your way, also for stealing and begging.

We stole before, during, and after work, though never while begging — which we referred to as going door-to-door — and never from a neighbor in the barrack. Nor was it stealing when on the way home after work we combed the rubble heaps, picking weeds until our pillow was full. As early as March the women from the country spotted the edible orach with the serrated leaves they called MELDE. Here it was called LOBODA. We also picked wild dill, a kind of grass with feathery leaves.

But none of it was any good unless you had salt. And you could only get salt by bartering at the market. The salt was gray and coarse like gravel, you had to break it up. Salt was worth a fortune. We had two recipes for orach: Salt the leaves and tear the wild dill into tiny bits and sprinkle on top and eat raw, like field greens. Or else boil the stems whole, in salt water. Fished out of the pot with a spoon, orach stems make a delightful mock spinach. The broth can also be drunk, either as a clear soup or a green tea.

Spring orach is tender, the whole plant finger-high and silver-green. By early summer it’s knee-high and the leaves are splayed. Each leaf can look like a different glove, always with the thumb pointing down. When silvery green like that, the orach is a cool plant, a food for spring. You have to watch out in summer, though, because it quickly grows tall and dense, with hard, woody stems. Then it tastes bitter, like loam. Even­tually the plant forms a thick middle stalk that reaches up to your waist, and spreads out into a loose shrub. And by mid­summer the leaves and stems start to take on color: first pink, then blood-red, later a reddish purple, and in the fall a deep indigo. Each stem develops clusters of flowers, just like sting­ing nettle. But the orach clusters don’t hang, they stick out, angled upward. They, too, turn from pink to indigo.

It’s strange: the orach isn’t really beautiful until it begins to change color, long after it ceases to be edible. Then the plant lingers along the wayside, protected by its beauty. The time for eating orach is over. But not the hunger, which is always greater than we are.

What can be said about chronic hunger. Perhaps that there’s a hunger that can make you sick with hunger. That it comes in addition to the hunger you already feel. That there is a hunger which is always new, which grows insatiably, which pounces on the never-ending old hunger that already took such effort to tame. How can you face the world if all you can say about yourself is that you’re hungry. If you can’t think of anything else. Your mouth begins to expand, its roof rises to the top of your skull, all senses alert for food. When you can no longer bear the hunger, your whole head is racked with pain, as though the pelt from a freshly skinned hare were being stretched out to dry inside. Your cheeks wither and get covered with pale fur.

I never knew whether the orach should be reproached for being inedible, for turning woody and refusing to cooperate. Did the plant know that it no longer served us and our hun­ger, but rather the hunger angel. The red flower clusters were jeweled ornaments around the neck of the hunger angel.

From the first frost in early autumn, the orach put on more and more jewelry, until it froze to death. Poisonously beautiful col­ors that stabbed our eyes. The clusters, countless rows of red necklaces along every wayside, adorned the hunger angel. He had his jewels. And we had our mouths, which had grown so high and hollow that our steps echoed inside. A bright void in the skull, as if we’d swallowed too much glaring light. A light that sweetly creeps up your throat and swells and rises to your brain.

Until you no longer have a brain inside your head, only the hunger echo. No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger. To this day I have to show hunger that I escaped his grasp. Ever since I stopped having to go hungry, I literally eat life itself. And when I eat, I am locked up inside the taste of eating. For sixty years, ever since I came back from the camp, I have been eating against starvation.

I looked at the orach that could no longer be eaten and tried to think about something else — about the last tired warmth of late summer, before the ice-winter came. But instead I thought about the potatoes we didn’t have. And about the women who lived on the kolkhoz who probably did have potatoes in their daily cabbage soup. Though apart from that, no one envied them. They lived in holes in the earth and had to work much longer every day than we did: from dawn to dusk.

Springtime in the camp was the season for cooking orach picked off the rubble heap. The German name MELDE sounded as if it meant more than it did. In fact, MELDE was for us a word without any overtone, a word that left us in peace. It wasn’t the MELDE DICH — present yourself — of roll call. This MELDE wasn’t a roll-call weed, but a wayside word. If anything, it was a word for after evening roll call, an after-roll-call weed. Because we couldn’t cook our orach until we had been counted, and that took forever because the numbers never came out right.

There were five work battalions, or ORBs — Otdyel niy Rabochiy Batal’on — in our camp, each consisting of between five hundred and eight hundred internees. I was assigned to battalion number 1009, and my work number was 756.

For the Appell, or roll call, we stood in rank and file — what an expression for those five miserable regiments of swollen eyes, large noses, hollow cheeks. Our stomachs and legs were distended from the brown bog water. In freezing cold or sear­ing heat, we spent entire evenings standing at attention. Only the lice were allowed to move. During the endless count­ing they could drink their fill, parade across our miserable flesh, crawl over us from head to pubic hair for hours on end. And after they were sated and resting in the seams of our quilted work clothes, we’d still be standing at attention. And Shishtvanyonov, our camp commandant, would still be screaming. We didn’t know his first name. He was simply Tovarishch Shishtvanyonov. But that was long enough to make you stammer with fear whenever you said it. For me the sound always conjured the rumble of the deportation loco­motive. And the white alcove in the church at home, HEAVEN SETS TIME IN MOTION. Perhaps we had to stand so long to stop the time in motion. Our bones became heavy as iron. When the flesh on your body disappears, your bones become a burden, and the ground pulls you downward.

I practiced forgetting myself during roll call, to the point where I couldn’t tell breathing out from breathing in. I prac­ticed rolling my eyes up without lifting my head, to look for a corner of cloud where I might hang my bones. If I was able to forget myself, and found the heavenly hook, it held on to me. But often there was no cloud, only blue sky, like open water.

Often there was nothing but an unbroken cover of clouds, a uniform gray.

Often the clouds were running, and no hook could hold fast.

Often the rain burned my eyes and glued my clothes to my skin.

Often the frost bit into my entrails.

On days like that the sky lifted my eyes up, and the roll call pulled them down — then my bones just hung inside me, with nothing to hold on to.

The kapo, Tur Prikulitsch, strutted back and forth between us and Commandant Shishtvanyonov, his lists slipping out of his hands, dog-eared from constant leafing. Every time he called out a number, his chest wobbled like a rooster’s. His hands were still a child’s. My hands grew in the camp: square, hard, and flat, like two boards.

If someone screwed up his courage after roll call and asked one of the nachal’niks, or even Commandant Shishtvanyonov, when we would be going home, they would say curtly: SKORO — ­soon.

This Russian SOON robbed us of the longest time in the world.

Tur Prikulitsch had Oswald Enyeter, the barber, trim his nose hairs and fingernails. The two men came from the same region, near Rachiv in the Carpatho-Ukraine, where three lands meet. I asked if it was customary in that part of the world for barbers to trim the nails of their better clients. The barber said: No, it’s not. That comes from Tur, not from home. What’s from home is five coming after nine. What do you mean, I asked. That things are a little balamuc. What’s that, I asked. All mixed up, like a madhouse.

Tur Prikulitsch spoke Russian as well as German. He wasn’t Russian like Shishtvanyonov, nonetheless he belonged to the Russians, not to us. He was interned along with us, but he was the adjutant of the camp administration. He translated the Russian commands and added his own in German. He divided us into work battalions on a sheet of paper, assigning each name and work number to a specific battalion. That way he had an overview of everything. Each of us had to know his number day and night and never for­get that we were not private individuals but numbered laborers.

In the columns next to our names Tur Prikulitsch wrote: kolkhoz, factory, rubble removal, sand transport, rail segment, construction, coal transport, garage, coke battery, slag cellar. Everything depended on what he wrote in that column. Whether we would end up tired, dog tired, or dead tired. Whether we would have time and energy to go door-to-door after work. Whether we’d be able to rummage around in the kitchen waste behind the mess hall unnoticed.

Tur Prikulitsch himself never went to work, never had to report to any battalion or brigade or shift. He ruled and was therefore alert and disparaging. When he smiled it was a trap. When you returned his smile — and everyone had to — you• felt you were his fool. Tur Prikulitsch smiles because he’s entered something in the column next to your name, some new and worse assignment. Between the barracks, along the main street of the camp, I avoid him, preferring to keep enough distance to make speaking impossible. He lifts his legs high when he walks and carefully places his shiny shoes on the ground like two patent-leather purses, as if the empty time were dropping out of him, right through his soles. He notices everything. People say that even what he forgets becomes an order.

At the barber’s I’m no match for Tur Prikulitsch. He says whatever he wants, there’s no risk. It’s in his interest to insult us. He knows he has to keep us in our place, so things stay the• way they are. He stretches out his neck and always talks down to us. He has the whole day to admire himself.

I admire him as well: he’s athletically built, with brass-colored eyes and an oily gaze, small ears that lie flat like two brooches a porcelain chin, nostrils pink like tobacco flowers, a neck like candle wax. He’s fortunate that he never has to get dirty. And this good fortune makes him more attractive than he deserves to be. He doesn’t know the hunger angel, so he can give com­mands at roll call, strut around the camp, smile cunningly in the barber room. But he can’t take part in our conversation. I know more about Tur Prikulitsch than he would like, because I know Bea Zakel well. She is his mistress.

The Russian commands sound like the name of the camp commandant, Shishtvanyonov: a gnashing and sputtering collection of ch, sh, tch, shch. We can’t understand the actual words, but we sense the contempt. You get used to contempt. After a while the commands just sound like a constant clearing of the throat — coughing, sneezing, nose blowing, hacking up mucus. Trudi Pelikan said: Russian is a language that’s caught a cold.

While everyone else was suffering at attention during the evening roll call, the shift workers who didn’t have to be counted tended their orach or other delicacies over little fires — built with coal between two bricks — in the corner of the camp behind the well. Beets, potatoes, even millet, if a clever barter had paid off — ten beets for a jacket, three measures of millet For a sweater, half a measure of sugar or salt for a pair of woolen socks.

For a special meal the pot needed to be covered, but there weren’t any lids. At best a piece of tin, and even that might exist more in the mind than anywhere else. But however they did it, people always managed to create a lid out of something. And even though it was never really a lid except in words, they kept repeating: That pot needs a lid. Perhaps memory has put a lid on itself when you can no longer say what the lid was made of, and when there was never but always a lid, no matter where it came from.

In any case, as evening fell, some fifteen to twenty little fires flickered in the corner of the camp behind the well. The rest of us had no food except what was served in the mess hall, nothing to cook on our own. The coal smoked, and the cooks watched their pots, spoon in hand. The pots came from the mess hall, pitiful mess kits of local manufacture. Gray-brown­ enameled tin dishes full of pockmarks and dents. On the fire in the yard they were pots, and on the tables in the mess hall they were bowls. As soon as one person finished cooking his meal, other people with pots were waiting to take over the fire.

When I had nothing to cook, the smoke snaked through my mouth. I drew in my tongue and chewed on nothing. I swallowed my spit with the evening smoke and thought about bratwurst. When I had nothing to cook, I walked close to the pots and pretended I was on my way to brush my teeth at the well before going to bed. But by the time I put the toothbrush in my mouth I’d already eaten twice.

First I ate the yellow fire with the hunger of my eyes and then the smoke with the hun­ger of my mouth. As I ate, everything around me went still, all I could hear was the rumble of the coke ovens from the factory yard. The faster I tried to leave the well, the slower I went. I had to tear myself away from the little fires. In the rumble of the coke ovens I heard my stomach growling, the whole scene was filled with hunger. The sky sank black onto the earth, and I staggered back to the yellow light of the barrack.

You didn’t need toothpaste to brush your teeth. The toothpaste from home was quickly gone. And salt was far too valuable, no one would have spit that out, it was worth a fortune. I can remember the salt, and how much it was worth. But I can’t remember my toothbrush at all. I had one in my toilet kit. But that couldn’t have lasted four years. And I wouldn’t have been able to buy a new one until the fifth and last year, when we were given some money, cash for our work. In any case, I can’t remember a new toothbrush, if there was one. Perhaps I preferred to spend my money on new clothes instead of a new toothbrush. I’m sure that the first toothpaste, the one I took from home, was called CHLORODONT. The name wants to be remembered. But I’ve forgotten the brushes — the one I must have taken from home and the one that probably replaced that one. The same with my comb. I’m sure I had one. I can remember the word BAKELITE. At the end of the war, all the combs we had at home were made of Bakelite.

Can it be that I forgot the things I brought from home sooner than I forgot the things I acquired in the camp. And if so, is that because they traveled with me. Is it because they were my own and therefore I didn’t give them any more thought, just went on using them until they were used up, and even longer. As though with them I was at home and not somewhere else. Can it be that I remember the objects that belonged to others better because I had to borrow them.

I definitely remember the aluminum combs. They came during the time of lice. The lathe operators and metalworkers made them in the factory and gave them to the women. They had jagged teeth and felt moist in your hand and on your scalp, because they were cold to the touch. When you worked with them they quickly took on your body warmth, and they smelled bitter, like radish. Their smell clung to your hand long after you’d put down the comb. The aluminum combs made nests in your hair, you had to tug and pull. They caught more hair in their teeth than lice.

But for lice there were also square horn combs with teeth on both sides. The village girls had brought them from home. On one side thick teeth for parting the hair, on the other fine teeth for nits. The horn combs were solid and heavy in the hand. Your hair didn’t catch in the teeth, it came out sleek and smooth. You could borrow the horn combs from the village girls.

For sixty years now, at night I try to recall the objects from the camp: the things I carry in my night-suitcase. Ever since I came back, the sleepless night is a suitcase made of black leather. And the suitcase is lodged in my forehead. For sixty years now I don’t know if I can’t sleep because I’m trying to recall the objects, or whether I struggle to recall them because I can’t sleep. One way or the other, the night always packs its black suitcase against my will. And it’s against my will that I have to remember. And even if I didn’t have to, but wanted to, I’d rather not have to want to.

Occasionally the objects from the camp attack me, not one at a time, but in a pack. Then I know they’re not—or not only—after my memory, but that they want to torment me. Scarcely do I remember that I had brought along some sewing things in my toilet kit than a towel barges in, a towel whose appearance I no longer remember.

And then comes a nail brush I’m not sure I had. A pocket mirror that was either there or not. And a watch I may have taken with me, but I can’t remember what became of it. I’m pursued by objects that may have had nothing to do with me. They want to deport me during the night, fetch me home to the camp. Because they come in a pack, there isn’t room enough in my head. I feel pressure in my stomach rising to the roof of my mouth. My breath teeters over, I have to pant. A toothcombneedlescissormirrorbrush is a monster, just as hunger is a monster. And these objects would not gang up on me if hunger were not one of them.

When the objects gang up on me at night, choking me, I fling open the window and hold my head out in the fresh air. A moon is in the sky like a glass of cold milk, it rinses my eyes. My breath again finds its rhythm. I swallow the cold air until I’m no longer in the camp. Then I close the window and lie back down. The bedding knows nothing and warms me. The air in the room looks at me and smells of warm flour.


The Abolition of Man Part Two – C.S. Lewis

May 25, 2012

German author W.G. Sebald traces the life story of Grünewald in his first literary work, After Nature. This book-length prose-poem uses the preoccupations of Grünewald and especially his creation of the Isenheim Altarpiece to communicate an intensely apocalyptic vision of a world that has abandoned nature.The Isenheim Altarpiece also features in the last chapter of Sebald’s novel The Emigrants, in which the painter Max Ferber describes his intuition of the extreme power of pain after seeing Grünewald’s work.

I’ve been on a bit of a roller-coaster lately. I guess you could say I’m having trouble with the world. It used to be I could read something like this

“The world has put the life of the world to death,
and now we are committed to death. It is now time
for the Lord to work, and he works precisely
through this death, this pure sacrifice.”

And understand something of it but sometimes the world clearly overwhelms me. I think of my pornography posts the past week and the Roger Scruton posts before that seemed to elucidate a Catholic view of sex. But I found the pornography posts deeply distressing, particularly in view of how it impacts children. A child disappearing into the bathroom with a copy of Playboy in the sixties seems archaic now and has nothing in common with the child rewiring his neuronal patters with Internet Porn.

How did any of this happen? C.S. Lewis more than explains the answer to that question, as he continues in this post with the second part of his essay “The Abolition of Man.


Yet the Conditioners will act. When I said just now that all motives fail them, I should have said all motives except one. All motives that claim any validity other than that of their felt emotional weight at a given moment have failed them. Everything except the sic volo, sic jubeo [From sic volo, sic jubeo, stat pro ratione voluntas: Thus I will, thus I command, my pleasure stands for a reason.] has been explained away.

But what never claimed objectivity cannot be destroyed by subjectivism. The impulse to scratch when I itch or to pull to pieces when I am inquisitive is immune from the solvent which is fatal to my justice, or honor, or care for posterity. When all that says It is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains. It cannot be exploded or `seen through’ because it never had any pretentions.

The Conditioners, therefore, must come to be motivated simply by their own pleasure. I am not here speaking of the corrupting influence of power nor expressing the fear that under it our Conditioners will degenerate. The very words corrupt and degenerate imply a doctrine of value and are therefore meaningless in this context. My point is that those who stand outside all judgments of value cannot have any ground for preferring one of their own impulses to another except the emotional strength of that impulse.

We may legitimately hope that among the impulses which arise in minds thus emptied of all `rational’ or `spiritual’ motives, some will be benevolent. I am very doubtful myself whether the benevolent impulses, stripped of that preference and encouragement which the Tao teaches us to give them and left to their merely natural strength and frequency as psychological events, will have much influence. I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently.

I am inclined to think that the Conditioners will hate the conditioned. Though regarding as an illusion the artificial conscience which they produce in us their subjects, they will yet perceive that it creates in us an illusion of meaning for our lives which compares favorably with the futility of their own: and they will envy us as eunuchs envy men.

But I do not insist on this, for it is a mere conjecture. What is not conjecture is that our hope even of a `conditioned’ happiness rests on what is ordinarily called `chance’ — the chance that benevolent impulses may on the whole predominate in our Conditioners. For without the judgment `Benevolence is good’ — that is, without re-entering the Tao — they can have no ground for promoting or stabilizing these impulses rather than any others. By the logic of their position they must just take their impulses as they come, from chance.

And Chance here means Nature. It is from heredity, digestion, the weather, and the association of ideas, that the motives of the Conditioners will spring. Their extreme rationalism, by `seeing through’ all `rational’ motives, leaves them creatures of wholly irrational behavior. If you will not obey the Tao, or else commit suicide, obedience to impulse (and therefore, in the long run, to mere `nature’) is the only course left open.

At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely `natural’ — to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us forever.

If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit [From Horace: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit - Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror] : and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.

My point may be clearer to some if it is put in a different form. Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes.

Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgments of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it.

We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture.

To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers’ is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may `conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because `Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.

This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls.

It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

I am not here thinking solely, perhaps not even chiefly, of those who are our public enemies at the moment. The process which, if not checked, will abolish Man goes on apace among Communists and Democrats no less than among Fascists. The methods may (at first) differ in brutality. But many a mild-eyed scientist in pince-nez, many a popular dramatist, many an amateur philosopher in our midst, means in the long run just the same as the Nazi rulers of Germany.

Traditional values are to be `debunked’ and mankind to be cut out into some fresh shape at the will (which must, by hypothesis, be an arbitrary will) of some few lucky people in one lucky generation which has learned how to do it. The belief that we can invent `ideologies’ at pleasure, and the consequent treatment of mankind as mere υλη [Greek for matter], specimens, preparations, begins to affect our very language.

Once we killed bad men: now we liquidate unsocial elements. Virtue has become integration and diligence dynamism, and boys likely to be worthy of a commission are `potential officer material’. Most wonderful of all, the virtues of thrift and temperance, and even of ordinary intelligence, are sales-resistance.

The true significance of what is going on has been concealed by the use of the abstraction Man. Not that the word Man is necessarily a pure abstraction. In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, we find the concrete reality in which to participate is to be truly human: the real common will and common reason of humanity, alive, and growing like a tree, and branching out, as the situation varies, into ever new beauties and dignities of application.

While we speak from within the Tao we can speak of Man having power over himself in a sense truly analogous to an individual’s self-control. But the moment we step outside and regard the Tao as a mere subjective product, this possibility has disappeared. What is now common to all men is a mere abstract universal, an H.C.F. [Highest Common Factor], and Man’s conquest of himself means simply the rule of the Conditioners over the conditioned human material, the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present labouring to produce.

Nothing I can say will prevent some people from describing this lecture as an attack on science. I deny the charge, of course: and real Natural Philosophers (there are some now alive) will perceive that in defending value I defend inter alia [Inter alia is a Latin phrase that translates to "among other things."]the value of knowledge, which must die like every other when its roots in the Tao are cut. But I can go further than that. I even suggest that from Science herself the cure might come.

I have described as a `magician’s bargain’ that process whereby man surrenders object after object, and finally himself, to Nature in return for power. And I meant what I said. The fact that the scientist has succeeded where the magician failed has put such a wide contrast between them in popular thought that the real story of the birth of Science is misunderstood. You will even find people who write about the sixteenth century as if Magic were a medieval survival and Science the new thing that came in to sweep it away.

Those who have studied the period know better. There was very little magic in the Middle Ages: the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are the high noon of magic. The serious magical endeavour and the serious scientific endeavour are twins: one was sickly and died, the other strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse. I allow that some (certainly not all) of the early scientists were actuated by a pure love of knowledge. But if we consider the temper of that age as a whole we can discern the impulse of which I speak.

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious — such as digging up and mutilating the dead.

If we compare the chief trumpeter of the new era (Bacon) with Marlowe’s Faustus, the similarity is striking. You will read in some critics that Faustus has a thirst for knowledge. In reality, he hardly mentions it. It is not truth he wants from the devils, but gold and guns and girls. `All things that move between the quiet poles shall be at his command’ and `a sound magician is a mighty god’.

In the same spirit Bacon condemns those who value knowledge as an end in itself: this, for him, is to use as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit. The true object is to extend Man’s power to the performance of all things possible. He rejects magic because it does not work; but his goal is that of the magician.

In Paracelsus the characters of magician and scientist are combined. No doubt those who really founded modern science were usually those whose love of truth exceeded their love of power; in every mixed movement the efficacy comes from the good elements not from the bad. But the presence of the bad elements is not irrelevant to the direction the efficacy takes. It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it would be true to say that it, was born in an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour. Its triumphs may have-been too rapid and purchased at too high a price: reconsideration, and something like repentance, may be required.

Is it, then, possible to imagine a new Natural Philosophy, continually conscious that the `natural object’ produced by analysis and abstraction is not reality but only a view, and always correcting the abstraction? I hardly know what I am asking for. I hear rumors that Goethe’s approach to nature deserves fuller consideration — that even Dr Steiner may have seen something that orthodox researchers have missed.

The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life.

Perhaps I am asking impossibilities. Perhaps, in the nature of things, analytical understanding must always be a basilisk which kills what it sees and only sees by killing. But if the scientists themselves cannot arrest this process before it reaches the common Reason and kills that too, then someone else must arrest it.

What I most fear is the reply that I am `only one more’ obscurantist, that this barrier, like all previous barriers set up against the advance of science, can be safely passed. Such a reply springs from the fatal serialism of the modern imagination — the image of infinite unilinear progression which so haunts our minds. Because we have to use numbers so much we tend to think of every process as if it must be like the numeral series, where every step, to all eternity, is the same kind of step as the one before. I implore you to remember the Irishman and his two stoves. There are progressions in which the last step is sui generis — incommensurable with the others — and in which to go the whole way is to undo all the labor of your previous journey.

To reduce the Tao to a mere natural product is a step of that kind. Up to that point, the kind of explanation which explains things away may give us something, though at a heavy cost. But you cannot go on `explaining away’ forever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on `seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.

It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to `see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To `see through’ all things is the same as not to see.


The Abolition of Man Part One – C.S. Lewis

May 24, 2012

National Review ranked the1943 book #7 in its 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century list. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute ranked the book as the second best book of the 20th century. In a lecture on Walker Percy, Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College listed the book as one of five “books to read to save Western Civilization,” alongside Lost in the Cosmos by Walker Percy, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

After the posts of the past couple weeks on pornography, I recalled a Woody Allen line about being on the losing side of the sexual revolution which dovetailed to this classic C.S. Lewis piece that concerns Man’s somewhat questionable conquest of Nature. If you have never read it, please do. A simple but depressing message: We have been sold for slaves. 



It came burning hot into my mind, whatever he said and however he flattered, when he got me home to his house, he would sell me for a slave.
John Bunyan


`Man’s conquest of Nature’ is an expression often used to describe the progress of applied science. `Man has Nature whacked,’ said someone to a friend of mine not long ago. In their context the words had a certain tragic beauty, for the speaker was dying of tuberculosis. `No matter’ he said, `I know I’m one of the casualties. Of course there are casualties on the winning as well as on the losing side. But that doesn’t alter the fact that it is winning.’

I have chosen this story as my point of departure in order to make it clear that I do not wish to disparage all that is really beneficial in the process described as `Man’s conquest’, much less all the real devotion and self-sacrifice that has gone to make it possible. But having done so I must proceed to analyse this conception a little more closely. In what sense is Man the possessor of increasing power over Nature?

Let us consider three typical examples: the airplane, the wireless, and the contraceptive. In a civilized community, in peace-time, anyone who can pay for them may use these things. But it cannot strictly be said that when he does so he is exercising his own proper or individual power over Nature. If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man.

Any or all of the three things I have mentioned can be withheld from some men by other men — by those who sell, or those who allow the sale, or those who own the sources of production, or those who make the goods. What we call Man’s power is, in reality, a power possessed by some men which they may, or may not, allow other men to profit by. Again, as regards the powers manifested in the airplane or the wireless, Man is as much the patient or subject as the possessor, since he is the target both for bombs and for propaganda.

And as regards contraceptives, there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

It is, of course, a commonplace to complain that men have hitherto used badly, and against their fellows, the powers that science has given them, But that is not the point I am trying to make. I am not speaking of particular corruptions and abuses which an increase of moral virtue would cure: I am considering what the thing called `Man’s power over Nature’ must always and essentially be. No doubt, the picture could be modified by public ownership of raw materials and factories and public control of scientific research. But unless we have a world state this will still mean the power of one nation over others. And even within the world state or the nation it will mean (in principle) the power of majorities over minorities, and (in the concrete) of a government over the people. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones.

The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power.

In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors. And we must also remember that, quite apart from this, the later a generation comes — the nearer it lives to that date at which the species becomes extinct — the less power it will have in the forward direction, because its subjects will be so few.

There is therefore no question of a power vested in the race as a whole steadily growing as long as the race survives. The last men, far from being the heirs of power, will be of all men most subject to the dead hand of the great planners and conditioners and will themselves exercise least power upon the future.

The real picture is that of one dominant age — let us suppose the hundredth century A.D. — which resists all previous ages most successfully and dominates all subsequent ages most irresistibly, and thus is the real master of the human species. But then within this master generation (itself an infinitesimal minority of the species) the power will be exercised by a minority smaller still. Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car.

I am not yet considering whether the total result of such ambivalent victories is a good thing or a bad. I am only making clear what Man’s conquest of Nature really means and especially that final stage in the conquest, which, perhaps, is not far off. The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have `taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ [One of the three fates, the daughter of Zeus and Themis {"divine law"}, who spins the thread of human life.]and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it?

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects. In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed, when we read them — how Plato would have every infant “a bastard nursed in a bureau”, and Elyot would have the boy see no men before the age of seven and, after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry — we may well thank the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses. But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

The second difference is even more important. In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed.

Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education. The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human action are no longer, for them, something given. They have surrendered — like electricity: it is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above. For we are assuming the last stage of Man’s struggle with Nature. The final victory has been won. Human nature has been conquered — and, of course, has conquered, in whatever sense those words may now bear.

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race. They are the motivators, the creators of motives. But how are they going to be motivated themselves?

For a time, perhaps, by survivals, within their own minds, of the old `natural’ Tao. Thus at first they may look upon themselves as servants and guardians of humanity and conceive that they have a `duty’ to do it `good’. But it is only by confusion that they can remain in this state. They recognize the concept of duty as the result of certain processes which they can now control. Their victory has consisted precisely in emerging from the state in which they were acted upon by those processes to the state in which they use them as tools. One of the things they now have to decide is whether they will, or will not, so condition the rest of us that we can go on having the old idea of duty and the old reactions to it. How can duty help them to decide that? Duty itself is up for trial: it cannot also be the judge. And `good’ fares no better. They know quite well how to produce a dozen different conceptions of good in us. The question is which, if any, they should produce. No conception of good can help them to decide. It is absurd to fix on one of the things they are comparing and make it the standard of comparison.

To some it will appear that I am inventing a factitious difficulty for my Conditioners. Other, more simple-minded, critics may ask, `Why should you suppose they will be such bad men?’ But I am not supposing them to be bad men. They are, rather, not men (in the old sense) at all. They are, if you like, men who have sacrificed their own share in traditional humanity in order to devote themselves to the task of deciding what `Humanity’ shall henceforth mean.

`Good’ and `bad’, applied to them, are words without content: for it is from them that the content of these words is henceforward to be derived. Nor is their difficulty factitious, “We might suppose that it was possible to say `After all, most of us want more or less the same things — food and drink and sexual intercourse, amusement, art, science, and the longest possible life for individuals and for the species.

Let them simply say, This is what we happen to like, and go on to condition men in the way most likely to produce it. Where’s the trouble?’ But this will not answer. In the first place, it is false that we all really like the same things. But even if we did, what motive is to impel the Conditioners to scorn delights and live laborious days in order that we, and posterity, may have what we like? Their duty?

But that is only the Tao, which they may decide to impose on us, but which cannot be valid for them. If they accept it, then they are no longer the makers of conscience but still its subjects, and their final conquest over Nature has not really happened. The preservation of the species? But why should the species be preserved? One of the questions before them is whether this feeling for posterity (they know well how it is produced) shall be continued or not. However far they go back, or down, they can find no ground to stand on. Every motive they try to act on becomes at once petitio. It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.


Reading Selections II from How Porn Became the Norm by Pamela Paul

May 23, 2012

Not A Solo Activity
In other words, despite appearances, pornography isn’t precisely a solo activity. As interviews with men and women attest, it plays into how people approach and function in relationships. Whether a couple watches together, or one or both partners uses it alone, pornography plays a significant role not only in sex but in couple’s sense of trust, security, and fidelity. As Mark Schwartz, clinical director of  the Masters and Johnson Clinic in St. Louis, Missouri, says, “Pornography is having a dramatic effect on relationships at many different levels and in many different ways — and nobody outside the sexual behavior field and the psychiatric community is talking about it.”

Not knowing whom to turn to when their boyfriends turn away from them and toward pornography, many women write in to magazine advice columnists for help or ask for support in online forums. Female-oriented internet communities (chat rooms, bulletin boards, online forums, etc.) teem with discussions on the subject. Every week, advice columnists across the country address the issue; presumably many similar letters go unanswered in print.

Just one example: A woman writes to a local newspaper, “We’ve been together five years, lived together half that time. We have a loving, happy relationship. Recent I discovered via the computer that he’s fascinated by hard-core pornography, lots of it. When confronted, he said I have no right to be upset, though he’s aware it offends me; he insisted I let it go. He’s still spending hours looking at this and I’m disgusted…. I’ve tried to discuss how degrading and controlling this seems to me, but he is not willing to give it up. I know many people think it’s harmless, but it’s making me question whether I’m willing to continue a relationship with someone who can disregard my feelings so easily.”

The Pornified/Harris poll found that overall, 34% of women see men using pornography as cheating in absolutely all cases. Yet only 17% of men equated pornography with cheating. Indeed, most men who use pornography tend to see pornography as not cheating: A man has his needs, and he’s fulfilling them in a way that prevents him from cheating on his wife with a real woman. According to the Pornified/Harris poll, 41% of men say pornography should never be considered cheating. Only 18% of women felt the same way.

Once she’s discovered his pornography, what next? Psychotherapist Marlene Spielman says when a woman finds out about a partner’s pornography habit, the result is usually a back and forth of very strong emotions. The woman typically feels, hurt angry and betrayed. Confronted husbands often begin with denial before confessing the truth, followed by a big fight, blaming, and accusations. He may accuse her of driving him to it; she might point to his avoidance of problems in the relationship.

In the 2004 Elle/ poll, one in four divorced respondents said internet pornography and chat had contributed to their split. At the 2003 meeting of American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, a gathering of the nation’s divorce attendees documented a startling trend. Nearly two-thirds of the attorneys present had witnessed a sudden rise in divorces related to the internet; 58% of those were the result of a spouse looking at excessive amounts of pornography online. According to the association’s president, Richard Barry, “Eight years ago, pornography played almost no role in divorces in this country. Today, there are a significant number of cases where it plays a definite part in marriages breaking up:’.

The five lawyers from the office of matrimonial attorney Marcia Maddox are working on at least one case involving pornography. In one, a wife found her husband’s internet pornography while she and their daughter were working on a school project. Horrified, the woman hired a computer technician, who discovered a trove of pornography on the hard drive. The couple ended up getting a divorce; the mother was awarded sole custody.

The fact is, Maddox says, “Using pornography is like adultery. It’s not legally adultery, which requires penetration. But there are many ways of cheating. It’s often effectively desertion — men abandoning their family to spend time with porn.” Often the judges find that even if children aren’t directly exposed to a father’s pornography, they are indirectly affected because their fathers ignore them in favor of porn. Visitation in such cases may be limited.

Mary Jo McCurley, an attorney who has practiced family law in Dallas since 1979, agrees. In the past five years, more and more cases are brought forth in which a husband’s pornography habit is a factor.”We see cases in which the husband becomes so immersed in online porn it destroys the marriage;’ she explains. “Not only is it unsettling for the wife that he’s using other women to get off, but it takes away from the time they could spend together as a couple.”

In divorce cases these days, enormous amounts of time and money are spent recovering pornography from computers. “You can hire experts who specialize in digging through hard drives, McCurley says, “There are people who have made a profession out of it. It’s become quite common in Texas divorce.”

Bad For Teenagers
The statistics are frightening, but even more appalling are the effects of pornography on the next generation. According to a 2001 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, seven in ten fifteen-to-seventeen-year-olds admitted to “accidentally” stumbling across pornography online. Girls were more likely than boys to say they were “very upset” by the experience (35% versus 6%), although 41% of youth that age said that it wasn’t a problem.

Statistics show nearly all — if not all — teenagers are exposed to pornography
one way or another. A 2004 study by Columbia University found that 11.5 million teenagers (45%) have friends who regularly view internet pornography and download it? (Incidentally, teenagers with a majority of friends who do so are three times more likely to smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs than are teens who have no such friends.)

The prevalence of teens with friends who view and download internet pornography increases with age, from nearly one-third of twelve-year-olds to nearly two-thirds of seventeen-year-olds. Boys are significantly more likely than girls to have friends who view online pornography: 25% of twelve- and thirteen-year-old s, and 46% of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls say they have friends who regularly view and download internet pornography, compared with 37% and 65% of ,s in those age groups.

Bear in mind that most of these statistics are already outdated.

Psychotherapists and family counselors across the country attest to the popularity of pornography among pre-adolescents. Even pre-adolescents are being treated for pornography addiction, says Judith Coche, a clinical psychologist who runs the Coché Center in Philadelphia and teaches psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. She describes one case in which the parents of an eleven-year-old girl found her creating her own pornographic website. When confronted, she said that pornography was considered `cool” among her friends. Perhaps it wasn’t a very good idea, she admitted, but all of her friends were doing it. Her parents were horrified. Coché says, “Before the internet, I never encountered this.”

“I’ve had my own therapy practice for over twenty-five years;’ she says. “I feel like I’ve seen everything.”She pauses and says almost apologetically, “I’ve been walking around my practice saying  “We have an epidemic on our hands: The growth of pornography and its impact on young people is really, really dangerous. And the most dangerous part is that we don’t even realize what’s happening.”

Pornography is wildly popular with teenage boys in a way that makes yesterday’s sneaked glimpses at Penthouse seem monastic. The prevalence of the internet among teenagers has made pornography just another online activity; there is little barrier to entry and almost no sense of taboo. Instead, pornography seems to be a natural right and an acceptable pastime. One teenage boy in Boston explained recently to the New York Times, “Who needs the hassle of dating when I’ve got online porn?”

There is a reason for this. Like all good marketers, pornographers know it’s important to reel consumers in while they’re young. Pornography is integrated into the cable TV and videogame cultures, for example. MTV recently announc launch of a Stan Lee/Hugh Hefner collaboration, Hef’s Superbunnies, an “edgy, sexy animated series” from the creator of the Spider-Man comic book series featuring a buxom team of specially trained Playboy bunnies.”

Mainstream videogames regularly feature pornographic elements. One 2004 game, “The Guy Game,” which features women exposing their breasts when they answer questions wrong in a trivia contest, didn’t even get an `Adults-Only” rating (The game manufacturer is being sued because one female included in the footage was only seventeen and didn’t give her consent to be filmed.)” “BMX XXX” adds a pornographic sheen to bike stunts and racing. Another game, “Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude, features full-on nudity as garners live out the player lifestyle, trying to score hot babes. The manufacturers are fighting to obtain an “M” rating (the equivalent of a movie’s “R’) in order to ensure being carried at Wal-Mart’s across America.

Marketers have extended the porn brand to everything from sporting equipment to clothing. Two snowboarding companies, Burton Snowboards and Sims, now offer boards — clearly marketed to teenagers, the backbone of the snowboarding market — emblazoned with images of Playboy bunnies and Vivid porn stars. Sims boasts that the boards with photographs of porn starts Jenna Jameson and Briana Banks are their best sellers.

Sexually Cued To A Computer
The effects of such ever-present pornography on kids who are still developing sexually has yet to be fully understood, Coché explains. She has talked to parents who have witnessed their sons playing computer games when pornographic pop come onto the screen. “Pornography is so often tied into videogame culture and insinuates itself even into non-pornographic areas of the web. It’s very hard for a twelve-year-old boy to avoid.”

As a result, boys are learning to sexually cue to a computer, rather than to human beings. “This is where they’re learning what turns them on. And what are they supposed to do about that? Whereas once boys would kiss a girl they had a crush on behind the school, we don’t know how boys who become trained to cue sexually to computer-generated porn stars are going to behave, especially as they get older.”’

Kids also absorb pornography very differently from adults. Not only are they like sponges, they are also quite literal. Not only younger children, but even young teenagers are generally not sophisticated enough to differentiate between fantasy and reality. They learn direct lessons from pornography, with no filter, and with no concept of exaggeration, irony, or affect.

They learn what women supposedly look like, how they should act, and what are supposed to do. They learn what women “want” and how men can give it to them. Watching pornography, boys and girls learn that women always want sex and sex is divorced from relationships. They learn that men can have whomever they want and that women will respond the way men want them to. They learn that anal sex is the norm and instant female orgasm is to be expected. And they absorb these lessons avidly, emulating people they perceive to be role models.

“Kids today are going to run into pornography online, not erotica,” explains Aline Zoldbrod.”They’re getting a very bad model. Pornography doesn’t show how a real couple negotiates conflict or creates intimacy.” For girls especially, Zoldbrod believes, pornography is a “brutal way to be introduced to sexuality, since much of it is “rape-like” in its use of violence.

Still, many older kids at least partly recognize the negative side. When asked 2001 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 59% of fifteen- to twenty-four-olds said they thought seeing pornography online encouraged young people to have sex before they are ready, and half thought it would lead people to think unprotected sex is okay. Half thought internet pornography could lead to addiction and promote bad attitudes toward women. In a 2002 nationwide Gallup poll, 69% of teenage boys between the ages of thirteen and seventeen said that even if nobody knew about it, they would feel guilty about surfing pornography on the internet, Not surprising, an even greater number of girls — 86% — felt the same way.

Interestingly, when asked about the effect of pornography for the Pornified/ Harris poll, young people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four were most likely of all generations to report negative consequences. Four in ten of them believe pornography harms relationships between men and women, compared with only three in ten twenty-five-to-forty-year-olds. The internet generation is also more likely to believe that pornography changes men’s expectations of women’s looks and behavior.

Adults also see the harm pornography does to young children and teenagers. When asked in the Pornified/Harris poll, “What is the greatest impact of pornography on children?” 30% of Americans said the fact that it distorts boys’ expectations and understanding of women and sex, 25% said that it makes kids more likely to have sex earlier than they otherwise might have, 7% cited the way it distorts girls’ body images and ideas about sex, and 6% said it makes kids more likely to look at pornography as adults (men were twice as likely as women to believe this).

Only 2% of Americans actually believe that pornography helps kids better understand sexuality. And only 9% think that it doesn’t have any impact on children at all.

Pornography’s Effects
Pornography in all its permutations affects children’s developing sexuality; the younger the age of exposure and the more hard-core the material, the more intense the effects.
Boys who look at pornography excessively become men who connect arousal purely with the physical, losing the ability to become attracted by the particular features of a given partner. Instead, they recreate images from pornography in their brain while they’re with a real person.

“It’s sad that boys who are initiated to sex through these images become indoctrinated in a way that can potentially stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Gary Brooks says.”Boys learn that you have sex in spite of your feelings, not because of your feelings. Meanwhile, girls are taught that you don’t have intimacy without relationships:’

No matter what kind of pornography teenagers look at, spending one’s pre-pubescence and puberty using porn can have lifelong implications. Masters and Johnson’s clinical director Mark Schwartz has seen fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys who are addicted to pornography. “It’s awful to see the effect it has on them;’ he says. At such a young age, to have that kind of sexual problem.”

Schwartz isn’t surprised about the growing number of young addicts in the Internet Age. At that age, “your brain is much more susceptible;’ he explains. “Many of these boys are very smart and academically successful; a lot of computer geeks are the ones who get drawn in. It affects how they develop sexually. Think about a twelve-year-old boy looking at Playboy magazine. When you’re talking about internet pornography, you can multiply that effect by the relative size of the internet itself

Research trickling in has begun to document the effects of pornography on kids a difficult area to study given obvious ethical challenges. Certainly, there aren’t any parents who would consent to have their children view pornography in order to further research on the damage it causes.

Still, some evidence has been gathered. A recent study of 101 sexually abusivechild ren in Australia documented increased aggressiveness in boys who use pornography. Almost all had internet access, and 90% admitted to seeing pornography online. One-fourth said an older sibling or a friend had shown them how to access pornography online, sometimes against their will; 25% said that using pornography their primary reason for going online. When questioned separately, nearly all of their parents said they doubted their child would access any pornography via the internet.

It Wasn’t Like This
Touring around this country to promote my book Pornified, I heard again and again concerned parents. “I know my fourteen-year-old son is looking at extremely -core pornography, but what can I do about it? He tells me he needs the computer for schoolwork.”I have a ten-year-old daughter. I don’t want to even think about boys her age are learning about the opposite sex online.” “My daughter found pornography that my husband downloaded on the family computer.” A pediatric told me there was an incident in her practice in which toddlers acted out moves from a pornographic movie.

A day’s worth of nationwide headlines inevitably brings up stories of children encountering pornography at the local library, child pornography arrests, and school incidents in which teachers are caught looking at pornography on school computers during school hours. It is terrible enough that adults are suffering the consequences of a pornified culture. But we must think about the kind of world we are introducing to our children. Certainly everyone — liberals and conservatives alike — can agree with the statement, “It wasn’t like this when we were kids.” And I can’t imagine anyone would have that thought without simultaneously experiencing a profound sense of fear and loss.


Reading Selections I from How Porn Became the Norm by Pamela Paul

May 22, 2012

“It’s All Mainstream Now!”
That is what Seth Rogan’s character Zack says to his best friend and and intended love, Miri, in an effort to get her to make a pornographic film with him. The film is Zack and Miri Make a Porno, the latest gross-out comedy/romance from Kevin Smith, and one of many recent comedies (and romances, shockingly) to make light of pornography. Indeed, in Rogan’s last romantic hit, Knocked Up, his character’s’ job” is creating a pornographic website. The women in the film? After a quick, symbolic “Yuck!,” they become willing participants.

It is all mainstream now. Over the past ten years, technological advances, cultural shifts, and social attitudes have transformed the pornography landscape. Today men, women, and children are affected by the ubiquity and mainstreaming pornography in unprecedented ways. The internet, in particular, has made pornography more anonymous, more accessible, and more affordable than ever before, bringing in new users, increasing use among existing fans, and catapulting many into sexual compulsiveness. Children are being exposed to pornography earlier than ever before in ways that will profoundly affect their sexuality and their lives.

Not only is pornography itself more ubiquitous, the entire culture has become pornified. By that I mean that the aesthetics, values, and standards of pornography into mainstream popular culture. Young girls brazenly pose in pornographic ways on their MySpace pages, even creating porn-like videos of themselves and preening before untold numbers of strangers. Porn stars are regularly in the same tabloid magazines that profile actors, singers, and other celebrities celebrating those who sell sex with those who create art on the basis of other talents (though, of course, one could argue the relative merits of that “art”).

Pornography Is Everywhere
All of this would not be possible without the hyper speed spread of pornography over the past two decades. Today, the number of people looking at pornography is staggering. Americans rent upwards of 800 million pornographic videos and DVDs (about one in five of all rented movies is porn), and the 11,000 porn films shot each year far outpaces Hollywood’s yearly slate of 400. Four billion dollars a year is spent consumers on video pornography in the United States, more than on football, baseball and basketball. One in four internet users looks at a pornography website in any given month. Men look at pornography online more than they look at any other subject. And 66% of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-old men visit a pornographic site every month.

Pornography regularly makes headlines and sells products, even within the mainstream culture. In 2004, Janet Jackson notoriously bared her breast during the Super Bowl, in prime-time family television viewing hours. Shortly thereafter Paris Hilton’s amateur sex video became an internet sensation. More media attend followed — Howard Stern fled to satellite radio and soon porn star Jenna Jameson and Playboy bunny Pamela Anderson were topping the best-seller lists with a memoir a roman a clef, respectively.

A glossy coffee table book of porn star portraits accompanied by essays from writers such as Salman Rushdie and Francine du Pies Gray was published. Showtime ran a special in which porn stars, Jameson among them, bragged about the power women have in the pornography business. Today celebrity couples boast about their trips to the hottest strip clubs. Characters on prime-time sitcoms extol the benefits of porn. Even mainstream women’s magazines advise women to enliven their marital bedtime routine by turning on late-night Skinemax.

The message is that pornography is everywhere — and only ever-so-slightly scandalous. It is good for you, and especially good for relationships. Pornography is hip, sexy, and fun.

But particularly on the internet, where much of pornography today consumed, the type of sexuality depicted often has more to do with violence, extreme fetishes, and mutual degradation than with fun, much less with sexual or emotion connection. For those who haven’t double-clicked: These aren’t airbrushed photographs of the girl next door or images of coupling; they are vivid scenes of crying women enduring aggressive multiple penetration.

These are images created by pornographers for a single purpose: to help men masturbate and get them to pay for it. Sex, in pornography, is a commercialized product, devoid of emotion, stripped of humanity, an essentially empty experience. As one porn fan put it, after an evening of porn surfing, “You feel like, yeah, that was a release, but I don’t know, maybe not the best thing. Like eating a bag of potatos chips.”

Bad For Women And Marriage
“You get into a slippery slope,” cautions Massachusetts-based psychologist and sex therapist Aline Zoldbrod. “The majority of porn out there is degrading and has only gotten worse. The women are plasticized; there’s no longer as much diversity or naturalism as there was two decades ago.

Zoldbrod believes many young men today are terrible lovers because they learn about sexuality from pornography. “In real life, sexually-speaking, women are slow cookers and men are microwaves. But in pornography, all a man does is touch a woman and she’s howling in delight.

Today, pornography is so widely used by young they learn these falsehoods. There’s good evidence that the more porn men watch, the less satisfied they are with their partner’s looks and sexual performance. Advice columnists across North America receive letter after letter in which women complain about their partner’s pornography. Men who watch a lot of porn seem to focus more intensely on the visual, even when in bed with a woman, asking her to emulate the look and moves of porn stars. Women have distorted body images feel the need to remodel their appearances — no matter how they personally feel about pornography.

Though pressured to accept pornography as a sign of being sexy and hip, women admit that in practice they are hurt by their boyfriend’s use of porn. A twenty-four-year-old from Baltimore complained to me about how her boyfriend got lap dances at a strip club every month. “If he were to do that with a woman in front of me on the living room couch, that would be considered cheating. Why is it somehow okay just because he’s at a strip club?” Another woman told me, “All of my girlfriends and I expect to find histories of pornographic websites on our computers after our boyfriends use it. They don’t bother erasing the history if you don’t give them a lot of hell.” The implications troubled her.”I fear we are losing something important — a healthy sexual worldview. I think, however, that we are using old ideas of pornography to understand its function in a much more complex modern world.”

Women view men’s relationship with pornography as a sign of betrayal, even cheating. A thirty-eight-year-old mother of two from Kentucky said finding her husband’s secret stash of porn “pretty much wiped out the trust in our relationship.” She she knew about his years-long subterfuge, she recalled, “I would find myself worrying all the time. If I were going to take a trip for my job, I’d wonder about what he might look at while I was gone.”

Pornography thus creates deception and distrust in relationships. Most women have no idea how often their boyfriends and husbands look at pornography because the men do not tell them. Usually the deception is deliberate, though many men deny to themselves how often they look at it, and most simply don’t think about quantifying the amount they view. While men consider trust crucial for a healthy relationship, they seem willing to flout that trust when it comes to pornography — deceiving their significant others into thinking they’re either not looking at it at all or are looking at it less frequently. Fitting pornography into one’s life isn’t always easy.

More women are installing programs such as Net Nanny on their computer to limit their home computer internet access to PG websites. According to one filtering company,, more than half the company’s 3,000 customers at adults who use the software not to block their kids’ access but to keep themselves and other adults from looking at porn. In a 2004 Elle/ poll, one in four women said she was concerned that her partner had an “out-of-control habit” with online pornography.

Matrimonial lawyers attest to a growing docket of cases in which pornography was a major source of tension, if not the cause of the divorce, “Pornography wreck marriages.” says Marcia Maddox, a Virginia-based attorney.

Bad For Men
Yet lest pornography get written off as a “women’s problem;’ consider the extensive negative effects of pornography on the primary users, men. According to a large-scale 1994 report summarizing eighty-one peer-reviewed research studies, most studies (70%) found that exposure to non-aggressive pornography has clear negative effects – and that is not the only kind of pornography most users view.’

Countless men have described to me how, while using pornography, they have lost the ability to relate to or be close to women. They have trouble being turned on by “real” women, and their sex lives with their girlfriends or wives collapse. These are men who seem like regular guys, but who spend hours each week with porn — usually online. And many of them admit they have trouble cutting down their use. They also find themselves seeking out harder and harder pornography.

In interviews for Pornified, a book I wrote about pornography’s effects, men — even those who were avid porn fans — confessed that their pornography habits had damaged their sex lives. Men who use pornography say they are losing the ability to relate to, be close to, and achieve orgasm with real women.

A single twenty-something graphic designer told me he would find himself in bars, berating himself over the way he scanned potential dates. “I’d be saying, ‘No, her breasts are too small, she’s not worth it then wonder,’ Who have I become? Why am I judging women like this?” After months of rampant use, he had to “restrict” himself in order to regain perspective.

A twenty-eight-year-old man explained, “I used to view porn online, but I began to find it more difficult to stay aroused when having sex with a real woman… During a dry spell, I discovered iPorn, and the easiness of it made it easy to glut — to the point where now, even though the dry spell is over, real sex has lost some of its magic.”

When they are having sex with real women, such men need to conjure images they’ve viewed in pornography in order to maintain their level of excitement. Other times, they want to focus on their partner, but find their minds filled with pornographic images instead — like getting a bad song trapped in their heads.

Men also told me that they found themselves wasting countless hours looking at pornography on their televisions and DVD players, and especially online. They looked at things they would have once considered appalling — bestiality, group sex, hard-core S&M, genital torture, child pornography.

They found the way they looked at women in real life warping to fit the pornography fantasies they consumed onscreen. Their daily interactions with women became pornified. Their relationships soured. They had trouble relating to women as individual human beings. They worried about the way they saw their daughters and girls their daughters’ age. It wasn’ t only their sex lives that suffered — pornography’s effects rippled out, touching all aspects of their existence. Their workdays became interrupted, their hobbies were tossed aside, their family lives were disrupted. Some men even lost their jobs, their wives, and their children. The sacrifice is enormous.

Nor is it only the most violent hard-core pornography that damages how the male users view women, including their wives and their girlfriends. Because pornography involves looking at women but not interacting with them, it elevates the physical while ignoring or trivializing all other aspects of the woman. A woman is literally reduced to her body parts and sexual behavior. Gary Brooks, a psychologist who studies pornography at Texas A&M University, explains that” soft-core pornography has a very negative effect on men as well. The problem with soft-core pornography is that it’s voyeurism — it teaches men to view women as objects rather than to be in relationships with women as human beings.”

But pornography doesn’t just change how men view women — it changes their lives, including their relation to pornography. The first step is usually an increase in frequency and quantity of viewing: more times logging online or clicking the remote control, prolonged visits to certain websites, a tendency to fall into a routine. In a 2004 Elle/ poll, nearly 25% of men admitted that they were afraid they were `overstimulating” themselves with online sex.

In fact, routine is an essential ingredient in the financial success of high-tech porn. Wendy Seltzer, an advocate for online civil liberties, argues that pornographers should not even be concerned about piracy of their free material. “People always want this stuff. Seeing some of it just whets their appetite for more. Once they get through what’s available for free, they’ll move into the paid services .” And once they’ve indulged in more quantity, they want more quality — meaning more action, more intensity, more extreme situations. The user’s impetus to find harder-core fare helps the entire industry.

Particularly on the internet, men find themselves veering off into forms of pornography they never thought they could find appealing. Those who start off with soft-core develop a taste for harder-core pornography.

Men who view a lot of pornography talk about their disgust the first time they chanced upon an unpleasant image or unsolicited child porn. But with experience, it doesn’t bother the user as much — the shock wears thin quickly, especially given the frequent assault of such images he encounters on the internet. He learns to ignore or navigate around unwanted imagery, and the third time he sees an unpleasant image, it’s merely an annoyance and a delay. At the same time that such upsetting imagery becomes more tolerable, the imagery that had aroused him becomes less interesting, leading the user to ratchet up the extremity of the kind of pornography he seeks, looking for more shocking material than he started with.

The Women’s Market
Having won over such a significant chunk of the male market, the pornography industry is eager to tap into the other potential 50% of the market: women. A number of companies are increasing production of pornography made by and for women, and the industry is keen to promote what it likes to view as women’s burgeoning predilection for pornography. Playgirl TV announced its launch in 2004 with programming to include an `erotic soap opera’ from a woman’s point of view, a 1940s-style romantic comedy with “a sexual twist;’ and roundtable discussions of “newsworthy women’s topics:’

In recent years, women’s magazines have regularly featured a discussion of pornography from a new perspective: how women can introduce it into their own lives. While many women continue to have mixed or negative feelings toward pornography, they are told to be realistic, to be “open-minded:’ Porn, they are told, is sexy, and if you want to be a sexually attractive and forward-thinking woman, you’ve got to catch on.

Today, the pornography industry and our pornified culture have convinced women that wearing a thong is a form of emancipation, learning to pole dance means embracing your sexuality, and taking your boyfriend for a lap dance is what every sexy and supportive girlfriend should do. In an Elle magazine poll, more than half of the respondents described themselves as “pro-stripping’ (56%), and said that they weren’t bothered if their partner went to strip clubs (52%).

Sociologist Michael Kimmel, who studies pornography and teaches sexuality classes at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says, “Twenty years ago, my female students would say, ‘Ugh, that’s disgusting,’ when I brought up pornography in class. The men would guiltily say, ‘Yeah, I’ve used it, Today, men are much more open about saying they use pornography all the time, and they don’t feel any guilt. The women now resemble the old male attitude: They’ll sheepishly admit to using it themselves:’ Women’s attitudes have merged even more closely with men’s.

The internet measurement firm comScore tracked close to thirty-two million women visiting at least one adult website in January 2004. Seven million of them were ages thirty-five to forty-four, while only 800,000 were over the age of sixty-five. Nielsen NetRatings has found the figures to be somewhat lower, with ten million women visiting adult content websites in December 2003. In a 2004 Elle/MSNBC. com poll, 41% of women said they have intentionally viewed or downloaded erotic films or photos, and 13% watched or sexually interacted with someone on a live web cam.

Yet as much as women are touted as the new pornography consumer, they still lag far behind men. The sensational headlines do little to reflect the reality of most women’s experiences. Statistics belie the assertions of the pro-porn movement and the go-go girl mentality espoused by female pornography purveyors.

While some polls show that up to half of all women go online for sexual reasons, the percentage of women who say they do is likely exaggerated by the inclusion in the definition of “adult” internet content of erotica, dating, and informational sites, areas to which women are disproportionately drawn compared with men. Others feel that admitting they don’t look at pornography at all is akin to affixing a “frigid” sticker to their chastity belts; better not to come off as uptight. Many women tracked through filtering programs visit pornographic sites by accident or out of curiosity, or are tracking down their male partner’s usage.

Some attribute the rise in female consumption to an increased supply in pornography for women. That may be part of the reason, but there’s more at play than a simple increase in supply — something has to explain the increased demand. Broader societal shifts in men’s and women’s roles in relationships and a corresponding swing in women’s expectations and attitudes toward their sexuality are driving women to pornography, too.

Not A Harmless “Guy Thing”
Many women try to treat porn as merely a harmless `guy thing;’ but they are profoundly disturbed when they are forced to come to terms with the way porn changes their lives — and the lives of their boyfriends or husbands. They find themselves constantly trying to measure up to the bodies and sexual performance of the women their men watch online and onscreen. They fear that they’ve lost the ability to turn their men on anymore — and quite often, they have.

One twenty-four-year-old woman from Baltimore confided, “I find that porn’s prevalence is a serious hindrance to my comfort level in relationships. Whether it’s porn DVDs and magazines lying around the house, countless porn files downloaded their computers, or even trips to strip clubs, almost every guy I have dated (as well as my male friends) is very open about his interest in porn. As a result, my body image suffers tremendously…. I wonder if I am insecure or if the images I see guys ogle every day has done this to me.’ She later confessed that she felt unable to her concerns to anyone. A guy doesn’t think you’re cool if you complain about it,’ explained.”Ever since the internet made it so easy to access, there’s no longer any stigma to porn.”

A thirty-eight-year-old woman from a Chicago suburb described her husband’s addiction to pornography: “He would come home from work, slide food around his plate during dinner, play for maybe half an hour with the kids, and then go into his home office, shut the door and surf internet porn for hours. I knew – and he knew that I knew. I put a filter on his browser that would email me every time a pornographic image was captured…. I continually confronted him on this. There were times I would be so angry I would cry and cry and tell him how much it hurt…. It got to the point where he stopped even making excuses. It was more or less ‘I know you know and I don’t really care, What are you going to do about it?

For many wives and girlfriends, it becomes immediately clear that the kind pornography their men are into is all about the men — about their needs, about they want — not about their women or their relationships or their families. It’s not surprising a woman ends up feeling second-rate. Not only does pornography dictate how women are supposed to look; it skews expectations of how they should act. Men absorb those ideals, but women internalize them as well. According to the nationally representative Pornified/Harris poll, commissioned for my 2004 book, women (six out of ten) believe pornography affects how men expect them to look and behave. In fact, only about one out of seven women believes pornography doesn’t raise men’s expectations of women.

Men tell women their consumption of pornography is natural and normal, and if a woman doesn’t like it, she is controlling, insecure, uptight, petty, or a combination thereof. The woman is demanding. She is unreasonable. He has to give up something cherished since boyhood. She’s not supportive. She blows everything out of proportion. If it weren’t for this attitude of hers, the relationship would be fine. For a woman to judge pornography as anything but positive is read as a condemnation of her man, or at the very least, of his sexual life. Discomfort with pornography also becomes a woman’s discomfort with her own sexuality.

Still, the Pornified/Harris poll found that only one-fifth of Americans belies pornography improves the sex life of those who look at it. Indeed, two-thirds respondents to this nationwide poll believe looking at pornography will harm couple’s relationship. And not surprisingly, half of Americans say pornography demeans women. Women are far more likely to believe this-58% compared with 37% of men. They are much less likely — 20%o compared with 34% — to believe that pornography isn’t demeaning.

Of course, with increased viewing, the arousing effects of pornography become less obvious over time. While 60% of adults age fifty-nine and older believe pornography is demeaning toward women, only 35% of Gen Xers — the most tolerant and often heaviest users of pornography — agree.


Van Gogh’s Strange Afterlife By Hugh Eakin

May 21, 2012

Mr. Eakin is a senior editor at the New York Review of Books and writes frequently about museums and the art market.  A version of this article was in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal.  Why does Van Gogh demand our attention? Because he, in many ways, represents an alternative to faith that some claim for Art. The post explains more…


It is hard to pinpoint when exactly Vincent van Gogh crossed over from being a mere titan of modern art to a general symptom of our culture — a painter whose name adorns bottles of vodka and whose supposedly liberating madness is regarded with worshipful reverence. Twenty-five years ago, his paintings ushered in the era of stratospheric prices for leading Modernists, with the sale of “Sunflowers” for $39.7 million and “Irises” for $52.9 million — at the time, three- and fourfold increases over the previous world record for any work of art. Not long after that, Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito set a new mark again by paying $82.5 million for “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” and then suggested that he might have it cremated and buried with him.

But despite continual invocation in exhibitions, movies and books, little of the legend of mad Vincent withstands serious scrutiny. If anything characterizes Van Gogh’s intensely felt landscapes and portraits, the critic Robert Hughes long ago observed, it is lucidity, not lunacy. And the scrupulous recent biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, while continuing the tradition of viewing the artist’s work as an expression of his “fanatic” personality, nevertheless concludes that his untimely death by a gunshot wound was more likely an accident than a raving suicide. What is perhaps more surprising is that almost as many questions surround the art as the life. In the past two decades, museums around the world have quietly downgraded some 40 works formerly attributed to the artist, and doubts have been raised about even highly sought-after paintings like the record-breaking “Sunflowers.”

Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ was sold at auction for $39.7 million in 1987, then a world record for a painting. In  “Solar Dance: Van Gogh, Forgery, and the Eclipse of Certainty,” the cultural historian Modris Eksteins argues that Van Gogh’s  paradoxical status — he is “the most popular artist of all time,” yet his work is clouded in uncertainties — points to something more fundamental about our own society and the place of art within it. Amid the devastating violence of the two world wars, Mr. Eksteins observes, the norms of behavior and belief that had governed social relations for centuries broke down. Critics, reflecting their times, increasingly saw in the fiery canvases of Van Gogh and other “misfit” Modernists not only a new way of perceiving the world but also a spiritual response to an age in which few certitudes had gone unchallenged. “Van Gogh’s greatest brilliance may have been his doubt,” Mr. Eksteins writes. “That doubt now pervades our entire enterprise.”

Mr. Eksteins has a knack for pinpointing moments in the rise of Modernism that expose the deep social forces that have shaped our world. His pathbreaking “Rites of Spring” (1989) argued that radical artistic experiments like Stravinsky’s infamous ballet “The Rite of Spring” were a defining part of the political and psychological crises that precipitated World War I. Now he sets out to show that Van Gogh’s pervasive hold on 20th-century culture has little to do with the early Modernists of fin de siècle France, where his brief career played out. Instead, Mr. Eksteins provocatively argues, Van Gogh’s prevalence can be traced to the cultural anxieties of 1920s Germany, where his art first gained wide notoriety — and where a major controversy over fakes erupted.

Van Gogh (1853-90) sold hardly any of his art during his lifetime, and on his death at age 37 his paintings were deemed nearly worthless in Paris.

On the other side of the Rhine, however, the artist was seen as a Nietzschean hero whose blazing canvases — “screaming in horror to the heavens,” as the critic Julius Meier-Graefe put it — seemed to anticipate an age in which art had replaced faith. Along with Meier-Graefe, who had become enamored of the French Impressionists while living in Paris in the 1890s, other instigators of the German Van Gogh cult included the socially connected Count Harry Kessler, the powerful art dealer Paul Cassirer and the shipping heiress Helene Müller, who quickly amassed a collection (now housed in the Kröller-Müller museum in the Netherlands) that was exceeded only by the artist’s own estate.

Even before World War I, Van Gogh’s work was represented in nearly a dozen German museums — far more than in any other country. But it was during the Weimar period that he entered the culture at large. Establishing the pattern that has been followed ever since, Meier-Graefe’s wildly successful biography “Vincent” (1921) celebrated the artist’s turbulent life as the fount of his art, and the pursuit of Van Gogh’s paintings took on a tulip-like mania. “Around this time,” the novelist Elias Canetti later wrote, “the Van Gogh religion began.”

Into this mix dived Otto Wacker, a gay dancer turned art dealer, who in 1925 produced a cache of 33 previously unknown Van Goghs. The paintings — of characteristic late subjects ranging from wheat fields to a “Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear” — were of variable quality, and their provenance was dubious. (Wacker claimed that he had been hired to represent an unnamed Russian collector who had taken the works to imperial Russia early in the century and recently smuggled them out of the Soviet Union.) Yet he convinced the leading experts — including Meier-Graefe and Jacob-Baart de la Faille, the Dutch scholar editing the first Van Gogh catalogue raisonné — and began selling the paintings to dealers like Cassirer, who placed them in the top private collections.

Only when a 1928 exhibition placed Wacker Van Goghs next to the real thing did misgivings surface. A fraud case slowly got under way, and, in 1932, Wacker was found guilty after a sensational trial that featured paintings in the courtroom and conflicting expert testimony. Despite having no particular expertise in Postimpressionism, Ludwig Justi, the ambitious director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, told the court that the Wacker paintings were “as false as any pictures can possibly be” and ridiculed the scholars who authenticated them. For their part, the Van Gogh specialists confusingly claimed, in contrast to the court’s own findings, that some were real and some were fake.

None of this much dampened Van Gogh’s appeal. As a German newspaper observed in 1929: “Within a short space of time [the case] has done more for the artist’s fame than his prophets were able to achieve in 30 years.” Mr. Eksteins offers a more complex reading. “Though Wacker went to prison,” he observes, “it was the experts, and by corollary any traditional notion of authority, that lost the most respect in the prolonged and painful affair.” De la Faille, whose flawed catalog is still a standard reference work on Van Gogh, reversed his own conclusions several times. And Justi, even as he was heaping scorn on the Wacker paintings, rashly bought two Van Goghs for his own museum that were quickly exposed as likely forgeries.

For Mr. Eksteins, the collapse of established authority that emerges is a defining part of the Van Gogh cult. Our uncertainty about Van Gogh’s work, he paradoxically suggests, is inextricably linked to the rupture of traditional ideology and morality that attracts us to the artist in the first place. Nowhere was the rupture more dramatic than in the final years of the Weimar Republic, that “fantastic panorama of commotion, imagination, and violence” where Mr. Ekstein’s centers his account.

With a saturation of cultural reference, “Solar Dance” conveys the heady atmosphere that made Berlin the first European capital to embrace the transforming potential of art in a secular age. Yet it also created the ideological void that ended in the rise of Hitler. Van Gogh was celebrated as a solitary genius whose paintings rebelled “against the formalism of the establishment” and made “the untamed decorative”; but the potential for fakery in his messy oeuvre, and for embellishment of his biography, risked introducing just the kind of “fantasy world of myth and mastery” that drew people to National Socialism — a process Mr. Eksteins recounts in the final part of the book.

Yet in pressing the political reading of the Van Gogh affair, Mr. Eksteins can get carried away; he is unlikely to persuade readers that “Nazism was, in short, much like the artworks peddled by Otto Wacker.” A larger question is whether Weimar can adequately account for the durability of the Van Gogh myths today. In his overriding interest in the artist’s fascinating German afterlife, Mr. Eksteins gives rather short shrift to Van Gogh controversies elsewhere, some of which have involved a similar undermining of cultural authority without any of Weimar’s social upheaval.

He does not mention, for example, the case of “Study by Candelight,” an unfinished painting authenticated by De la Faille (who called it one of the artist’s best self-portraits) and sold to the head of Universal Pictures in 1948. It was brought to the United States and celebrated in the press, but after the director of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam declared it a fake, the painting was withdrawn from a 1949 Van Gogh exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (The Met’s curators termed it “strident in color, weak in drawing, and uncertain in the modeling of the head.”) Other experts hired by the U.S. Treasury — which was responsible for determining the painting’s authenticity since original artworks can be brought into the country duty free while reproductions are taxed — concluded that “it was a real Van Gogh and therefore exempt from import duties.”  Today the painting is omitted from Van Gogh catalogs, and its whereabouts are unknown.

Of course, none of these disputes can quite measure up to the actual paintings. Van Gogh’s elusive oeuvre still awaits a full treatment on its own terms, unraveled from the madness and the mania that surrounds it. But if the $119 million paid last week for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” — the latest auction record — is any indication, the frenzied pursuit of Modernist anomie shows no sign of slowing. As Mr. Eksteins shows, that appetite, like the Van Gogh cult to which it has given shape, may tell us far less about the art than about ourselves.


Pornography, Persons And Sexual Desire – Roger Scruton

May 18, 2012

Dr. Norman Doidge, a neurologist at Columbia, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, describes how pornography causes re-wiring of the neural circuits. He notes that in a study of men viewing internet pornography, the men looked “uncannily” like rats pushing the lever to receive cocaine in the experimental Skinner boxes. Like the addicted rats, the men were desperately seeking the next fix, clicking the mouse just as the rats pushed the lever.
Pornography addiction is frantic learning, and perhaps this is why many who have struggled with multiple addictions report that it was the hardest for them to overcome. Drug addictions, while powerful, are more passive in a “thinking” kind of way, whereas pornography viewing, especially on the internet, is a much more active process neurologically. The constant searching for and evaluating of each image or video clip for its potency and effect is an exercise in neuronal learning, limited only by the progressively rewired brain. Curiosities are thus fused into compulsions, and the need for a larger dopamine fix can drive the person from soft-core to hard-core to child pornography—and worse. A paper published in the Journal of Family Violence in 2009 revealed that 85 percent of men arrested for child pornography had also physically abused children.

The “rival picture of human sexual desire” Scruton presents here is nothing less than the image that emerges from the Churches’ understanding of the human person, particularly in what we find in John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’m beginning a new category for these writings on pornography but, in truth, this is really TOB in a different context.


Now, I am one of those who think of pornography as something we should avoid ourselves and do everything we can to forbid to our children. But nothing in the modern myths justifies that attitude, and therefore I must search for the error these myths involve, and replace them with a rival picture of human sexual desire.

This is what I wish to sketch in the remainder of this paper. But first, let me make some disclaimers.

  1. First, these myths involve an “instrumentalized” view of sexual conduct — the view that the sexual act, in whatever form it takes, is a means to something else, be it sensory pleasure, orgasm, or relief from internal pressure. It does not follow from this that the act does not have some other value. Just as eating is a means to gustatory pleasure and also to nourishment, so does it have another value — especially eating in company, a form of companionship that brings with it both intimacy and comfort.
  2. Second, someone could adhere to the instrumentalized view of sexual desire and still argue that when we take this pleasure in company there is a social payoff, in the form of an intimacy and mutual enjoyment, and go on to build a picture of “good sex” which reconstructs some of the moral values we associate with loving relations in general and marriage in particular. However these moral values will not be intrinsic to the sexual act. They will be by-products of the act, and will have no intrinsic bearing on the morality of the act itself, any more than the social value of dinner à deux has any bearing on the rightness or wrongness of eating the particular thing that is eaten (and which may in fact be forbidden by some dietary code).
  3. Finally, in opposing these myths, I am not insisting that the only alternative to them is the old morality that regards heterosexual relations within marriage as the only legitimate form of sexual expression, and which, for example, dismisses homosexuality as a perversion. Exactly what moral code is the right one, or whether there is any single right one, is not a matter that concerns me directly in this paper. I am concerned only with the more fundamental question, which is a question of philosophical psychology rather than morality — the question of what to put in place of the instrumentalized view of sex. If I go on to draw moral conclusions, they will be tentative, and based in a sense of what is at risk in our sexual encounters.

Persons And Animals
The first point to make is that sexual desire belongs to that aspect of the human being which we summarize in the concept of the person. Many of the things that we experience we experience as animals, and what we feel does not normally depend upon thought, intention, or personality. We feel the same pain from a wound that a dog might feel if wounded in the same way. But there are other states of mind •that only persons can experience. While a dog can experience aggression, he cannot experience remorse or shame, cannot wonder about the laws of nature, cannot judge another dog morally, and so on.

There are some states of mind that are rooted in our animal nature, but are transformed by our involvement as persons. Soldiers in the front line respond to an attack on their comrades by joining with them in the fight, and this response belongs to those collective reactions exhibited by pack animals. However, the soldier who rushes to share the danger of his comrades is not just obeying an instinct. He has risen above that instinct and judged acting on it to be right and honorable. He has not just an urge to join the battle but a motive, and that motive is honor and duty toward his fellows, and shame at letting them down.

The soldier is acting for others, and from a conception of himself, and of how he looks in others’ eyes. Such a motive can prevail over the animal instincts of fear and dread only because the soldier also has the virtue that enables him to act on it — the virtue that we know as fortitude or courage. In short, he acts from a full, free, personal involvement in his predicament, conscious that he is judged for what he does, and aiming at a good that he understands in personal terms.

Exactly similar things should be said of sexual desire. Sexual desire is rooted in instincts we share with the other animals, and the pursuit of one person by another may not look so very different from the encounter of horse and mare in a field. However, just as in the case of the soldier, the person who responds to these instincts also stands in judgment upon them. Is it right or wrong to respond? When he responds, he responds from a judgment that this is the right person, that in doing this thing he is in her eyes not demeaning himself but gaining her acceptance, just as she is in his. They share a reciprocity of glances, a gradual accommodation in which their consent is woven into their desire, so that the desire becomes an expression of something other than instinct. Of what?

To answer that question we must look a little more closely at the concept of the person. Most animals are not persons, and some persons are not animals. We, however, are both. Hence there are features of our mental life that non-personal animals do not share. We have rights and duties; we make judgments, reflect on past and future, on the possible and the impossible; we are self-conscious, distinguishing self and other, and attributing our mental states to ourselves on no basis; we relate to each other not as animals but as persons, through dialogue, judgment, and moral expectations.

Indeed, there are arguments for saying that the concept of the person is essentially tied to interpersonal relations: To explain what a person is, we must explain how persons relate to each other. One vital feature of interpersonal relations is their emotional content. My stance toward self and other is reflected in my emotional life. Emotions such as shame, guilt, anger, remorse, gratitude, forgiveness, and rejoicing are essentially directed toward persons — whether self or other — and learning to feel these things is part of what it means to grow up, i.e., to pass from the animal to the personal condition.

Fundamental to all these emotions, and to the life of persons generally, are our beliefs about freedom and responsibility. No two philosophers agree as to what freedom and responsibility presuppose, but for our present purposes we can leave the philosophical controversies to one side; my sole concern is to examine how we actually envisage ourselves in our lives as persons. In all our conduct toward each other we treat both self and other as free. My responsibility is revealed in my shame, and my freedom in my forgiveness. The belief in freedom and responsibility is pre-supposed in anger and resentment, in gratitude and love. Take that belief away and little would remain of our emotional life and its rewards.

The heart of freedom is the self. Kant suggested, in his lectures on anthropology, that the distinctiveness of the human condition is contained in the fact that human beings can say”I.” Self-consciousness brings with it the condition of freedom, and the knowledge of both self and other as responsible. But there is a yet more remarkable fact about the use of “I.”

By my use of this word I create a new center of being: I set my body aside, as it were, and replace the organism with the self, and present to others another target of their interest and response. To know my mind, and also to change it, they do not examine my body: They look to my words, my opinions, my thoughts. They enter into dialogue with this thing called “I;’ and see it as standing in the arena of freedom, both part of the physical world and situated on its very edge.

Something like this is assumed in our ordinary human relations. Just think of your response, when your friend betrays your secrets. You don’t think of him as you would of a computer, in which you stored information that somehow got out. You don’t ask yourself about who hacked into his brain. You go to him and you address him in the second person, I to I: “You promised:’ you say, and your words are addressed to that very center of being where his “I” resides. In accusing him you are not trying to provoke some physical reaction. You are expecting a response from that I — a response from the center of freedom where he resides, one self-conscious subject among others.

You expect him, in other words, to take responsibility for what he did, to say “I am sorry,” and maybe to show how he is going to atone for his fault, to make amends, and in this way re-establish your relations in such a way that you will forgive him. There is a process here, in which one “I” faces another, both of them exercising their freedom, taking responsibility for their choices, and acting as the sovereign of the human animal.

This does not mean that there are two things here — person and animal. There is one thing — an organism, organized as a person. That is how we treat each other in all our free relations.

And Desire
Now for sexual desire. It is rooted in animal instincts, but in a person desire is re-centered, self-attributed to the I, so as to become part of the interpersonal dialogue. It is an interpersonal emotion, in which subject and object confront each other I to I. Hence sexual desire, as we know it, is peculiar to human beings.

In describing sexual desire, we are describing John’s desire for Mary, or Jane’s desire for Bill. And the people themselves will not merely describe their desires, but also experience them, as my desire for you. “I want you” is not a figure of speech but the true expression of what I feel. And here the pronouns identify that very center of free and responsible choice that constitutes the interpersonal reality of each of us. I want you as the free being who you are, and your freedom is wrapped up in the thing that I want.

You can easily verify this, as I show in my book Sexual Desire, by studying sexual arousal. This is not a state of the body, even though it involves certain bodily changes. It is a process in the soul, a steady awakening of one person to another, through touches, glances, and caresses. The exchange of glances is particularly important, and illustrates a general feature of personal relations.

People look at each other, as animals do. But they also look into each other, and do this in particular when mutually aroused. The look of desire is like a summons, a call to the other self to show itself in the eyes, to weave its own freedom and selfhood into the beam that calls to it. There is a famous description of this phenomenon by John Donne, who writes in “The Ecstasy”:

Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.
So to engraft our hands, as yet
Was all the means to make us one;
And pictures in our eyes to get
Was all our propagation.

The experience described by Donne is known to every sighted person who has ever been aroused. Likewise the caress and the touch of desire have an epistemic character: they are an exploration, not of a body, but of a free being in his or her embodiment. They too call to the other in his freedom, and are asking him to show himself.

All the phenomena of desire can be understood in that way, as parts of a mutual negotiation between free and responsible beings, who want each other as persons. And this has an important metaphysical consequence, which in turn has important moral consequences. Persons are individuals in the strong sense of being identified, both by themselves and by others, as unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes. This is something Kant tried to capture in his theory of persons as “ends in themselves.”

Somehow the free being is, in his own eyes and in the eyes of all those in a personal relation with him, the being who he is. He is never merely an instance of some useful attribute. To treat him merely instrumentally is always in a measure to abuse him; and while I can employ you for a job and in doing so recognize that someone else might have served my purpose just as well, I must, in employing you, respect your individuality, and not treat you as a tool or a slave. You are for me, even in this functional relation, the free being who meets me I to I.

It follows from this that, in those relations between persons in which self and other relate as subject and object, each views the other as unique, without a substitute, This has an immediate impact on sexual desire. John, frustrated in his desire for Mary, cannot be offered Jane as a substitute. Someone who says “Take Jane, she will do just as well” does not understand what John wants, in wanting Mary.

It follows also that desire requires complex, compromising, and potentially embarrassing negotiations, and that without these negotiations sexual intimacy is liable to induce self-disgust. When girls complain of date-rape, it is this kind of thing they have in mind. It is not necessarily that they didn’t consent to what happened. Outwardly maybe they did. But inwardly they did not, and didn’t realize, until too late, that this was so. Consent has to be prepared by elaborate games and intimacies, in which freedom and responsibility are alertly deployed by both parties to the transaction.

What I have said points at every juncture to difficult philosophical issues concerning the nature of persons, of freedom, of responsibility and self-awareness. I am consciously refusing to address those issues, because my task is simply to remind you of what you all know and what you all have experienced in moments of desire.

Arousal and desire are not bodily states or even states of individual persons: they form one pole of an I to I encounter, and involve a going out to the other, in which his or her freedom and responsibility are intimately involved in what is wanted. It is only in this way that we can explain some of our most immovable intuitions about sex.

Consider rape. On the instrumentalized view of sex surveyed earlier, rape is a crime of the same order as leaning on a woman without asking her permission and at the worst like spitting on her, doing something that disgusts her without caring what she feels. It involves using someone for a purpose that could have been achieved with any other instrument, but without troubling to seek her consent and even by ignoring her resistance.

As we know, however, rape is next in line to murder, by way of an assault. It is a violation of the other person in the very depths of her being. The view that I have offered immediately explains this. The rapist is not merely prepared to use his victim as a means: He steals her most precious possession, the thing that she wishes to offer only as a gift and in a condition of mutual surrender. He does not merely disregard her freedom: He poisons it, removes from it the most important thing for which it was made, which is the mutual self-giving of desire. And that is why rape is experienced as an annihilation and not just an abuse.

This account of desire explains why we feel disgust at pedophilia, impose a taboo on incest, and regard bestiality and necrophilia as perversions. It explains the role of modesty as an invitation to correct behavior, and shame as a protection against abuse — a point vividly made by Max Scheler in his long paper on shame. I do not think I need to spell these things out, since anyone who recognizes the core of truth in what I have said will be able to spell them out for himself.

Disowning The Myths
My purpose now is to sweep away the myths I began by enunciating. All of them, it seems to me, arise from a fundamental mistake about the intentionality of sexual arousal and sexual desire. These states of mind are not directed toward pleasure, orgasm, or any similar thing. They are directed toward one free being by another.

That last point is worth lingering over. You might think that the rapist is indifferent to the freedom of his victim. On the contrary, however. It is precisely her freedom that he wishes to seize, to overcome, to force to bow before him. For this reason you cannot rape an animal, even if you can sexually abuse it. The victim of rape is a free being, compelled to accept what she does not consent to.

The myths depend upon removing from the picture of sexual activity both the self-conception of the subject and the other-conception of the object. The subject regards the other as a tool with which to induce excitement and pleasure, and conceives himself as a sensory organism. The myths remove from the picture of desire both the person who feels it and the person toward whom it is felt. The myths, in other words, do not describe desire at all, but something else — something that we might observe in animals or children, or, as Socrates put it (according to Xenophon) in pigs rubbing against a post.

One thing that tempts people to endorse the myths is the very obvious fact that sexual activity involves bodily changes and bodily sensations, leading (though not always) to orgasm. This has made the caricature of desire believable, in the minds of those who take an accountant’s view of human satisfactions. It looks as though you could enumerate the benefits of sexual activity in terms of pleasure, and the costs in terms of the time and energy needed to find the person willing to stimulate you, and on that basis proceed to give a utilitarian morality of sexual behavior. If that sounds ridiculous, do not be deceived, It is ridiculous, so ridiculous that Judge Richard Posner has written a whole book, called Sex and Reason, devoted to treating the phenomena in this way.

There is a downside to such books, and to the myths they reinforce. Myths can work on reality in such a way that they cease to be myths and become true descriptions instead. Thinking of sex in the instrumentalized way that Judge Posner exemplifies you actually prepare yourself to experience it in this way.

Henry James had an inkling of this when he wrote, in the Preface to The Bostonians, of “the decline in the sentiment of sex;’ meaning the loss of that full-hearted, self-committing form of sexual desire which animates the heroines of Jane Austen, and its replacement by short-lived, titillating forms of seduction. And the more people think of sex as a means to the production of pleasure or a means for obtaining orgasm (as was famously believed by the madman Wilhelm Reich, who even invented a machine to help the orgasm-seeker to reach his goal), the more the other drops out of consideration as irrelevant, and the more sex ceases to be a form of interpersonal relation and retreats into narcissistic solitude.

Pornography And Self-Abuse
In conclusion I want to touch on the relation of pornography to a highly unfashionable idea, that of self-abuse, a term originally applied to all forms of masturbation, in ways that led to much ridicule and scorn of our ancestors and their puritan hang-ups. It is surely obvious from my account that sex, in what I would wish to describe as its normal form, involves a moving out from the self toward the other — an attempt to know and unite with the other in her body. It involves treating the other as a free subject, and enjoying the mutual arousal which is possible only through the reciprocal interest in each other as conscious and free.

The self is at risk in this: The other may refuse to cooperate, may turn away in disgust, may act in ways that elicit shame and humiliation. That is why you have to be ready for it, and one reason why it is such an injustice to inflict sexual relations on children. In the face of this risk people are tempted to retreat from the direct forms of sexual desire, and take refuge in fantasy objects — objects that cannot damage or threaten you, that cannot withhold consent since they cannot give it, that are without the capacity to embarrass or shame the one who watches them.

Such objects are provided by pornography. The people displayed in the pornographic film have no relation to the viewer, nor are they displayed as being in any other relation to each other than that of each using the other’s body as a machine à frotter. It is impossible to know what they are feeling, and in any case their feelings are in no way directed to the person who is using them and at the same time abusing himself.

The viewer’s pleasure is not the pleasure of desire, since there is no one he is desiring. Nor is he really aroused except in the purely physiological sense, since there is no mutual arousal of which he is a party. Everything is cold, bleak, objective, and also free of cost and personal risk.

Pornography exactly conforms to the myths about desire that I have rejected: it is a realization of those myths, a form of sexual pleasure from which the interpersonal intentionality has been surgically excised. Pornography takes hold of sexual desire and cuts away the desire. There is no real object, but only a fantasy, and no real subject, since there is nothing ventured of the self. To say that this is an abuse of the self is to express a literal truth — so it seems to me.

Like all cost-free forms of pleasure, pornography is habit-forming. It short-circuits that roundabout route to sexual satisfaction which passes through the streams and valleys of arousal, in which the self is always at risk from the other, and always motivated to give itself freely in desire. The short-circuiting mechanism here is in all probability not different from that researched by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Robert Kubey in their studies of gambling and TV addiction.

It exhibits in addition, however, a depersonalizing habit — a habit of viewing sex as something external to the human personality, to relationship, and to the arena of free encounters. Sex is reduced to the sexual organs, which are stuck on, in the imagination, like cutouts in a child’s picture. To think that this can be done, and the habit of doing it fully established, without damage to a person’s capacity to be a person, and to relate to other persons as one sexual being to others, is to make a large and naive assumption about the ability of the mind to compartmentalize.

Indeed, psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by pornography, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. Sex, portrayed in the porno-image, is an affair of attractive people with every technical accomplishment. Most people are not attractive, and have only second-class equipment. Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that pornography encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy. People who lose confidence in their ability to attract soon become unattractive.

And then the fear of desire arises, and from that fear the fear of love, This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.


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