My first undergraduate year I spent a semester living in Thurston Hall: the infamous freshman residence at the George Washington University. Variously nicknamed “Thirsty Thurston” or (apologies) “Thrusting Thurston,” It’s consistently ranked among the most sexually active dorms in the country. I didn’t partake myself, for various reasons – not the least that few women succumb to the charms of bow-tied English majors.
Back then, I had no grave moral objections to that sort of thing. I was a fairly traditional Christian (albeit an Episcopalian), so I couldn’t actually approve. But I was also a romantic – or, more properly, a romanticist. I idolized men of deep, brooding passion: Yeats, Beethoven, Rossetti. The hundreds of fragile, passionate loves that burned hot for a week or day or hour were only more beautiful because they were fleeting.
Yeats’s muse, Maude Gonne, once told the poet that she couldn’t return his love without destroying his genius. No doubt she was right. The romanticist doesn’t have the stamina for true romance. He’s the new, bright flame that can’t catch on the oak-log, and so demands more and more kindling.
Auden, the great anti-romantic, caught a glimpse of this:
The greater the love, the more false to its object,
Not to be born is the best for man;
After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,
Break the embraces, dance while you can.
The poem is called “Death’s Echo,” and so often this is what these episodes seem to be: a flight from despair into base pleasure and hollow sentiment.
I’m a Catholic now, and a romantic instead of a romanticist. I take seriously the warning of Our Lady of Fatima that “More souls go to Hell because of the sins of the flesh than for any other reason.” We assume she’s warning against sexual incontinence, and she certainly is. We often take sex too lightly. But there’s another, more recent temptation, which may be even more harmful: taking sex too seriously.
The neo-romanticists of the Sexual Revolution told us that our reproductive system has nothing to do with reproduction. When I was at George Washington, the gender theorists were already pushing an even more astonishing revelation: our sexual organs have nothing to do with sex.
Finding a partner now less resembles a party than a space launch: full of complicated computer programs, careful tabulation, and even liability waivers. The skoliosexual stone femme calibrates her “dating” app to find a masculine-presenting post-op trans*woman; both must sign consent forms before engaging in hanky-panky. Venus was too spontaneous; now she’s positively tedious. She’s more inclined to ideological purity and software engineering than drugs and rock n’ roll.
There have always been those strange sorts who enjoy baseball only for the statistics. But if by popular demand, Sports Illustrated replaced glossy photographs with spreadsheets of batting averages, we should think something had gone terribly wrong with baseball fandom.
So, what’s gone wrong with Venus?
Andrea Dworkin taught us that all sex is rape, which is rapidly becoming a secular orthodoxy. It is, in fact, half-true. Study after study shows that violent and degrading pornography accounts for an ever-larger segment of the market. This has perverted and inflamed young men’s sexual appetites in ways that are, to most of us, inconceivable.
For instance, a survey of college-aged men found that roughly 30 percent would act on “intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse” if there was no risk of being caught. We can hardly blame women who suspect that – even beneath his soft, feminist exterior – every man they encounter is looking to knock her over the head with a club and drag her off to his cave.
If this attitude created a nation of celibates, we might almost rejoice with St. Paul that they’ve spared themselves worldly troubles. Alas, Americans of my generation hoard sex like Smaug with his gold. They spend it widely but sparingly, and always with a half-veiled suspicion of their partner. Whatever change is left over at the end of the transaction is immediately locked back up.
Even after years of commitment, they’re reluctant to merge their bank accounts, both figuratively and literally. That’s why a couple in their mid-thirties who’ve been together happily since sophomore year of high school might say they’re “just still not ready to settle down.” We’re hedonists – paranoid, joyless, despairing ones.
As sins of the flesh go, this may be even worse than the Sexual Revolution. The joy of casual sex was still a taste of that deeper union of soul and soul – of giving self to self. Even amid pot vapors and Jimi Hendrix riffs, two clumsy teenaged gropelings might discover something truly exalted between themselves. A brush of the lips or a tender look might spark the feeling of devotion that transforms Venus into Eros. They might fall in love – not of the animal or sentimental kind, but the human, and maybe even the divine.
No longer. We’ve long since raised high walls to protect ourselves from each other. And such barriers, like the Iron Curtain, always keep out good more than evil. They become their own raison d’être. “I can’t let him inside the walls!” she cries; “What if he’ll want to tear them down?” So we peer from battlement to battlement, knowing that
The land that lies beyond belongs to those
Who, although innocent, took death by their
own hands; hating the light, they threw away
There’s a better way. Those who come into the Catholic faith find loves that are so strong, so steady, so reliable they initially seem illusory. They are loves that burn as bright and hot as new love, yet they burn without consuming. These are loves sparked and sustained by the Pilot Light, which is Love Himself. It’s fashioned according to old custom and the old rites.
This is the love that Our Lady bears for God the Father. By following the example of her mother-in-law, our own Mother Church learned to love her Bridegroom. She wants nothing but to pass all that down to us. She’ll teach the world how to love again, if we’ll only ask.
*Image: The Virgin Mary Reading by Antonello da Messina, c. 1460 [Walters Art Museum, Baltimore]