Sex & The Divine (Not Divine Sex)

The sinfulness of sexual pleasure has always had more than a fair bit to do with the sinfulness of woman.

From an essay by Francine Prose at Lapham’s Quarterly:

The debate over sex with the beautiful versus sex with the ugly had its twisted roots in the belief that there was an almost mathematical ratio between pleasure and sin. The greater the pleasure, the worse the evil. Apparently, too, there also was considerable worry about ejaculation as something that drains and weakens the male, a dangerous process in general and particularly in the presence of the predatory woman who, unlike her mate, doesn’t lose in sex a life-sustaining fluid. The rabbinic admonition to think of a woman as “a pitcher of filth with its mouth full of blood” was echoed in the work of the twelfth-century theologian Petrus Cantor. “Consider that the most lovely woman has come into being from a foul-smelling drop of semen; then consider her midpoint, how she is a container of filth; and after that consider her end, when she will be food for worms.”  [too much more]

Robert George on  heterosexual marital sex and hating anything else:

… the argument for marriage between a man and a woman can require “somewhat technical philosophical analysis.” It is a two-step case that starts with marriage and works its way back to sex. First, he contends that marriage is a uniquely “comprehensive” union, meaning that it is shared at several different levels at once — emotional, spiritual and bodily. “And the really interesting evidence that it is comprehensive is that it is anchored in bodily sharing,” he says.“Ordinary friendships wouldn’t be friendships anymore if they involved bodily sharing,” he explained to me. “If I, despite being a married man, had this female friend of mine and I said, ‘Well, gosh, why don’t we do some bodily sharing,’ and we had straightforward sexual intercourse, well, that wouldn’t be friendship or marriage. It is bodily, O.K., but it is not part of a comprehensive sharing of life. My comprehensive sharing of life is with my wife, which I just now violated.” But just as friendships with sex are not friendships, marriage without sex is not marriage. Sex, George said, is the key to this “comprehensive unity.” He then imagined himself as a man with no interest in sex who proposed to seal a romance by committing to play tennis only with his beloved. Breaking that promise, he said, would not be adultery.

The second step is more complicated, and more graphic. George argues that only vaginal intercourse — “procreative-type” sex acts, as George puts it — can consummate this “multilevel” mind-body union. Only in reproduction, unlike digestion, circulation, respiration or any other bodily function, do two individuals perform a single function and thus become, in effect, “one organism.” Each opposite-sex partner is incomplete for the task; yet together they create a “one-flesh union,” in the language of Scripture. “Their bodies become one (they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together) in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs and other organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole,” George writes in a draft of his latest essay on the subject. Unloving sex between married partners does not perform the same multilevel function, he argues, nor does oral or anal sex — even between loving spouses.

Infertile couples, too, are performing this uniquely shared reproductive function, George says, even if they know their sperm and ovum cannot complete it. Marriage is designed in part for procreation in the way a baseball team is designed for winning games, he says, but “people who can practice baseball can be teammates without victories on the field.”  [ewww more]

From Johann Hari at the New Statesman:

After all the arguments for subordinating women have been shown to be self-serving lies, what are misogynists left with? They have only one feeble argument that is still deferred to and shown undeserving respect across the world, even by people who should know better: “God told me to. I have to treat women as lesser beings, because it is inscribed in my Holy Book.”

Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom are the editors of Butterflies and Wheels, the best atheist site on the web. In Does God Hate Women? they forensically dismantle the last respectable misogyny. They argue: “What would otherwise look like stark bullying is very often made respectable and holy by a putative religious law or aphorism or scriptural quotation . . . They worship a God who is a male who gangs up with other males against women. They worship a thug.”

Every major religion’s texts were written at a time when women were regarded as little better than talking cattle. Their words and commands reflect this, plainly and bluntly. This book starts with a panoramic sweep across the world, showing – with archetypal cases – how every religion has groups today thumping women down with its Holy Book.  [the review carries on]

It’s a Mad Mad World

I haven’t been posting much lately.  I’m thinking.  The world is spinning inside my head.  I’m thinking Chris Hedges is right:

A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. And we are dying now. We will either wake from our state of induced childishness, one where trivia and gossip pass for news and information, one where our goal is not justice but an elusive and unattainable happiness, to confront the stark limitations before us, or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy.   [more]

I haven’t retreated into fantasy but I’m less and less sure of how to talk about illusions of reality.  I’m thinking.

And then there’s this.

Marilyn

From a review of Joyce Carol Oates’ Blonde by Pam Rosenthal:

marilyn1How did a perpetually frightened and insecure young woman summon up such powers of illusion? Out of what fathomless need did an illegitimate child who spent years in foster homes command so much attention and so much love, even 40 years after her death? How, out of a series of doomed affairs and marriages and some not-very-good scripts, did she manage to tell us so much about sex? And what kept her from ever satisfying her own needs for love and respect?

Oates presents her story as a tale of the grotesque, a horror story akin to Stephen King’s “Carrie,” another book about an unhappy child with a mad mother. Like most horror stories, “Blonde” is a tale of freakish overcompensation, impossible wishes granted, awesome power ill-used, demons finally undefeated — the story of an injured child who can’t be healed, even by the love of the millions. There’s nothing supernatural in it, of course, unless you consider the immense sway that movie images and technology hold over all our imaginations.

Unlike genre horror fiction, though, “Blonde” is a huge, incantatory, expressionistic work that doubles back on itself to retell stories again and again, building its themes and variations through a seeming infinity of retakes. Description approaches hallucination. The action is told by numerous voices, some singular and famous, some anonymous and plural. Sometimes the narrative voice is breathless, almost gasping — the ghostly Marilyn Monroe voice, oddly formal and well mannered, too high and thin for the body that produced it.

Read the whole thing here

Galumph Don’t Glide

From Donald Fanger’s review of Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney by Dennis O’Driscoll:

There is a lot here about how poetry comes into being. Speaking of Robert Lowell’s “epoch-making poems like ‘For the Union Dead’ and ‘Near the Ocean,’ Heaney explains: “They came from where he was cornered, in himself and his times, and were the equivalent of escapes, surges of inner life vaulting up and away. Every true poem arrives like that, with self-consciousness giving way to self-forgetfulness in the glee of finding the words.” An aside on Lorca finds him making the same point in other terms, finding in the Spanish poet’s essay on duende an implication “that poetry requires an inner flamenco, that it must be excited into life by something peremptory, some initial strum or throb that gets you started and drives you farther than you realized you could go.” “The image I have,” he writes later, “is from the old cartoons: Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse coming hell for leather to the edge of a cliff, skidding to a stop but unable to halt, and shooting out over the edge. A good poem is the same, it goes that bit further and leaves you walking on air.”

One striking example comes in his discussion of the famous lines from his early poem “Digging.” Heaney explains: “In the case of the pen ‘between my finger and my thumb’, ‘snug as a gun’, and all the rest of it, I was responding to an entirely phonetic prompt, a kind of sonic chain dictated by the inner ear. It’s the connection between the ‘uh’ sounds in ‘thumb’ and ‘snug’ and ‘gun’ that are the heart of the poetic matter rather than any sociological or literary formation.” That aural susceptibility is everywhere on display in this book, as when he comments: “I always hear the tinkle of a whitesmith’s hammer in the word ‘tinker’, the rim of a tin can being beaten trim”—or when he speaks of “poems full of linguistic burr and clinker.” (“If I couldn’t altogether escape an Irishy/Britishy formality,” he comments, “I had an inclination from the start to dishevel it. I’ve always been subject to a perverse urge to galumph rather than glide.”)

Read the whole thing here

Poetry for Breakfast

Anything that can be thoroughly said in prose might as well be said in prose. The everyday intellect remains satisfied with abstraction and explanation in prose; the poetic mentality wants more. In narrative poems, the poetry adds the secret (unsayable) room of feeling and tone to the sayable story. Philosophy in its more logical incarnations strives to eliminate powers of association because they are subjective and uncontrollable. Poetry, on the other hand, wants to address the whole matter of the human — including fact and logic, but also the body with its senses, and above all the harsh and soft complexities of emotion. Our senses, excited by sound and picture, assimilate records of feeling that are also passages to feeling. Poems tell stories; poems recount ideas; but poems embody feeling. Because emotion is il-logical—in logic opposites cannot both be true; in the life of feeling, we love and hate together—the poem exists to say the unsayable.

Donald Hall

Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected at Shortcovers

Seen One, Seen ‘em All

From Terry Eagleton at the London Review of Books:

Romantic literature, with its cult of the poetic personality, might seem just the opposite of this. Yet the Romantic poet’s richly particularised voice is largely a way of giving tongue to the transcendent. From Wordsworth to D.H. Lawrence, one speaks most persuasively when one articulates what is not oneself, whether one calls this Nature or the creative imagination, the primary processes or the dark gods. The self runs down to unfathomably anonymous roots. Men and women emerge as unique beings through a medium (call it Geist, History, Language, Culture or the Unconscious) that is implacably impersonal. What makes us what we are has no regard for us at all. At the very core of the personality, so the modern age holds, vast, anonymous processes are at work. Only through a salutary repression or oblivion of these forces can we achieve the illusion of autonomy. Anonymity is the condition of identity.

It is this bleak doctrine that Modernism will inherit, as a cult of impersonality takes over from the clapped-out Romantic ego. For Romanticism, the self and the infinite merge in the act of imaginative creation. To surrender oneself to dark, unknowable powers is to become all the more uniquely oneself. One must lose one’s life in order to find it. For one strain of Modernism, by contrast, the self is displaced by the very forces which constitute it – unhoused, scooped out, decentred and dispossessed. We are no more than the anonymous bearers of myth, tradition, language or literary history. The only way the self can leave its distinctive thumb-print, from Flaubert to Joyce, is in the fastidiously distancing style by which it masks itself. Language itself may be authorless; but style, as Roland Barthes claims in Writing Degree Zero, plunges straight to the visceral depths of the self.

Another strain of Modernism turns back to subjectivity itself, as if by way of refuge. The self may be fitful and fragmentary, but there is something we can rely on in the immediacy of its sensations. And though the essence of selfhood is now elusive, there are certain rare moments in which it can be fleetingly recaptured. Postmodernism, by contrast, rehearses the Modernist tale of the unhoused, decentred self, but without the consolations of an essential self. There never was such a thing, for Barthes any more than for David Hume, and we are doubtless all the better for it. What looks like a loss is actually a liberation. Unity is an illusion, and consistency is more a vice than a virtue. Postmodernism is full of personality cults, but they know themselves to be groundless. Like commodities, individual selves are basically interchangeable. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Read the whole thing here

Ignatieff On Evil

Yann Martel’s review of Michael Ignatieff’s The Lesser of Evils in his monthly letter to Stephen Harper:

The Lesser Evil is a study on liberal democracies and terrorism. How do a people who value freedom and dignity handle those who commit senseless violence against them? What is the right balance between the competing demands of rights and security? What can a democratic society allow itself to do and still call itself democratic? These are some of the questions that Mr. Ignatieff tries to answer. He looks at nations as diverse as Russia, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Germany, Italy, Spain, Sri Lanka, Chile, Argentina, Israel and Palestine, in their current state but also historically, to see how they have dealt with assaults by terrorists. He also makes literary references, to Dostoyevsky and Conrad, to Euripides and Homer. Throughout, the approach is open, fair and critical, the analysis is rigorous and insightful, the conclusions are wise. Last but not least, the style is engaging. Mr. Ignatieff has a fine pen. My favourite line in the book is this one, on page 121: “Liberal states cannot be protected by herbivores.”

Mr. Ignatieff is a passionate yet subtle defender of liberal democracies and he finds that generally the tools they already have at their disposal will do in times of terrorist threat. Indeed, he argues that overreaction to a threat can do more long-term harm to a liberal democracy than the threat itself. The U.S. Patriot Act and Canada’s Bill C-36 are two examples Mr. Ignatieff gives of well-meaning but redundant and misguided attempts to deal with terrorism. When the regular tools won’t do, he acknowledges that the choices faced by liberal democracies are difficult. He makes the case that when a society that values freedom and human dignity is confronted with a threat to its existence, it must move beyond rigid moral perfectionism or outright utilitarian necessity and—carefully, mindfully, vigilantly—follow a path of lesser evil, that is, allow itself to commit some infringements of the part in order to save the whole. It is a position that seeks to reconcile the realism necessary to fight terrorism with the idealism of our democratic values. To work one’s way through such treacherous ground, to get down to details and talk about torture and preemptive military action, to give just two examples, requires a mind that is tough, sharp and brave. I’m glad to say that Mr. Ignatieff has such a mind.  

I haven’t read this book and doubt that I’ll bother.  So, for the moment, I can only comment on what Martel has said about it.  This business of carefully examining how the ideals of democracy can be bent to meet real problems – funny, I thought democracy was made real at least in part by our unwillingness to sacrifice its ideals to “terror”.  Some say that it’s when the ideals are most difficult to defend is the time they’re most important.  And this – “Liberal states cannot be protected by herbivores”????  WTF.  Does that mean no vegetarians in Canada’s armed forces?

I’ve read some of Ignatieff’s earlier works.  Didn’t like them in terms of ‘point of view’.  Doesn’t sound as though I’d like this one either.  No more than I am fond of the man.  I suppose it’s good news that Ignatieff can wield a pen effectively.  But it also matters what he’s saying.