Wednesday, February 27, 2013
(The stuffed dormice are particularly succulent this year, but the wine is running low. Catullus has just complained that nobody is answering his arguments and Germanicus, pausing to refresh his glass, has taken up the challenge.)
Germanicus: The reason that no one has answered your original argument is that it's based on a really bizarre paradigm. It assumes that the body has some sort of archetypal significance. I don't see that. It's just a machine, a tool that gets you through the day. Sure, you have to look after it and do basic maintenance if you want it to work for you, and there's kind of an implied obligation “If you have enjoyed the experience of having a body, you will find that yours is supplied with the necessary equipment to provide bodies to others. Please use responsibly.” But if you're doing your duty and procreating like you're supposed to, I don't see that it matters what else you use the equipment for. I mean, think of your reason. This is the faculty that leads you towards truth and allows you to know God. But so long as you're doing that, no one makes a fuss if you also use it to play chess or analyze episodes of South Park. So it would seem that if the reason, being the noblest of faculties, may be justly used in the pursuit of trivial pleasures, then surely the baser parts may likewise be used to recreate.
Juvenal: I can see that Sheila is contemplating how she would feel about being a trivial recreation for Germanicus' baser parts.
Germanicus: Come off it. I'm making a serious argument.
Catullus: So is Juvenal, and I feel he made it rather well. Sheila would deplore being considered in the manner that you have just described, wouldn't you Sheila?
Sheila: I would probably demur.
Catullus: Because my paradigm is not “bizarre.” We all recognize on a deep, psychological level that what occurs when two people have sex is something of far greater significance than a couple of “baser parts” rubbing up against one another and exchanging goo. It has definite aesthetic and moral qualities. Everybody knows that.
Ali: Yes, I agree. But its aesthetic and moral qualities have to do with a relationship, with a sense of responsibility towards another person. I really think that to a large extent all of these ancient moral codes, with their weird and repressive anxieties and purifications were really just a way for men to allay guilt feelings. On a fundamental level people know that other people are people, and the sense of conflict that men have traditionally felt around sex is a result of the fact that traditionally, men practiced it in a way that was really disrespectful of the personhood of their partners. The horror of homosexuality was a horror of being the one who was disrespected.
Sheila: Mmm. Like Lady Macbeth washing her hands. Empty ritualistic gestures. I like that.
Germanicus: Does that mean our team scores a point?
Sheila: You're unlikely to score anything else.
Germanicus: Maybe a victory greater than that of Hector over Achilles...
Catullus: Deviation! Madame Chairperson, he's boasting disgracefully and it's nothing whatever to do with the subject at hand. I think someone had better keep him off the punch. I didn't come all the way out here from North Irving Street to listen to this kind of rubbish.
Sheila: Have you got a point you'd like to make.
Catullus: I do. I would like to address Ali's point. I think it's utterly ridiculous to opine that ancient moral ideas about homosexuality had anything whatsoever to do with the status of women. I know it's de rigeur in feminist circles to assume that all social ills are the the result of heteropatriarchal oppression, but this really was a discourse that was concerned with the relations between men as men without any reference to women whatsoever. People whose thought is totally wrapped up in postmodern categories might assume that there is a high degree of correlation between our own notions of social life and those of ancient societies, but it's pure illusion. When people in the ancient world "owned" each other, it wasn't a matter of ownership in the modern sense. That was considered a perversion of the natural relationships between human beings. A perversion of the natural relationships between a human being and anything, really. The whole ancient concept of ownership was a concept of stewardship. You belonged to another person in the sense that we would speak now of "belonging" in a particular place or a particular group, not in the sense that we would speak of "owning" or "possessing" a thing.
Ali: The ancient world was a society that was really dominated by the fact that economics was based in a culture of slavery, in much the same was that our society is dominated by the fact that economics are based on a culture of mechanization and a theory of unlimited production. I'm not saying that our model is better, I'm just saying that it's obvious if you look at these ancient texts that they are animated by a real, gut-level fear of being dominated, of being enslaved. Even just look at the way that they construe being a sexual being. Your penis is conceived of as a mutinous slave that must be mastered in order to secure your personal freedom and self-dominion. You're telling me that you honestly can't see that that's an obvious symbolic manifestation of guilt and anxiety surrounding the practice of slavery?
Juvenal: All right, but let's turn that sword the other way round, shall we? What function does the celebration of homosexuality play within a society of mechanization and consumerism? First of all, I think it's pretty obvious that our entire sexual morality is built around the notion that bodies are objects of consumption which we mechanize in order to facilitate their use. We sterilize. We put rubber contraptions on our dongs. We buy little blue pills. We control STIs with drug cocktails. The body is a machine that is expected to produce an output of pleasure when we want pleasure, and babies if we want babies. We treat the body as a possession just as much as the ancients did, just as an individualistic possession rather than as an external possession. That means we self-exploit, self-enslave, and self-abuse in order to produce our own bodies as a consumer commodity. I'm not really sure that that's less fucked up.
Germanicus: Right, but it has nothing to do with homosexuality. It's a really common way of arguing: homosexuals get AIDS, and suffer from aneorexia, and substance abuse, and whatever, therefore homosexuality is contrary to the genuine good of the human person. But none of those things are proper to homosexuality as such. They're accidents. And you can't decide whether a practice is antithetical to human flourishing on the basis of its accidents, much less on the basis of the way in which it happens to present within a particular society. Besides which, you just admitted in your own argument that heterosexuality within this culture is equally messed up.
Catullus: I think the important take-away point here is that sexuality is an area of significant anxiety within any society, because it is intimately connected to the way in which we relate to ourselves, to our own bodies, and to the dignity of other people. Nothing's going to be resolved by playing the tu quoque game with some spectre of antiquity. The question we have to ask is: what basic considerations should govern the economics of the sharing of human bodies? My contention is that the criterion of self-possession, reciprocity, integrity, and mutual self-giving have to be central to any genuine moral understanding of sexuality, because those are the criterion for moral relations between people in all spheres of life. And of course I'm arguing that that's not possible in homosexual relations, because the full expression of these goods is...necessarily lacking.
Catullus: Well because it's a closed system. It's just ping-pong. An exchange of gifts always has to be open ended, the gift has to circulate beyond the original givers, otherwise it just ends up stagnating. Sooner or later it devolves into childish arguments about whose “turn” it is, and people start looking for sexual outlets outside of the relationship just to escape from the tedious insularity of it all. The same thing can happen with heterosexuals, but at least they have the possibility of escaping from it through the birth of children.
Ali: Okay, I understand what you're saying. But does that mean that if a heterosexual couple is infertile then they're somehow doomed to this...childish insularity? That they would have to be celibate in order to love one another properly?
Catullus: It's a false analogy. An infertile couple marries in the expectation of having children, and generally they see their infertility as a kind of tragedy. It's like in the fairy tales “Year after year, their only sorrow was that they did not have a child of their own.” They continue to make love in the hopes that they will be miraculously provided with a happy ending. A gay couple know from moment one that procreation is not going to happen. So to embrace that life they must deliberately enter into the circumstances of a tragedy.
Germanicus: This entire argument only makes sense if you assume that anything less than the absolute best is somehow tragic. I'm not arguing that homosexual sex is equivalent to heterosexual sex. Obviously it's not. One of them can make babies, the other can't. That's a pretty big difference.
Juvenal: Is that “difference” in the sense of “otherness” or “difference” in the sense of “subtraction”?
Germanicus: Difference in the colloquial sense. My point was that --
Juvenal: I can see what your point was, I just though it was an interesting choice of word, because it illustrates what is really the crux of the whole debate. Because it is a difference in the sense of subtraction. Gay sex is sex minus babies. That's not just a “pretty big difference.” It is a serious privation. And I think that you will find, if you consult Thomas Aquinas, who I believe is riffing on Plotinus, that the traditional definition of “evil” rests on the notion that evil does not consist in a thing being of a seperate ontological category of malcreated essences, but rather of a thing being a good which has become threadbare and impoverished to the point of pathos.
Ali: But that's not what evil is. To do evil is to harm another person, to deliberately inflict your will on them in violation of theirs. It's not about deprivations and essences and objective goods. It's about people being able to experience themselves as worthwhile, supported, included, and loved. It's not an abstract thing, and this is the whole problem with the “traditional” approach to evil. It tries to take morality and situate it in some inaccessible realm, whether it's in the inscrutible mind of god, or the abstract realm of forms, or ocean of the infinite, or whatever. It takes morality out of the human sphere. But morality is human. It's about the acts that human beings commit in relation to other human beings, to whole human persons, including their feelings, and their bodies, and their social relationships, and their subjectivities. The only way to know whether an act is good or not good is to ask people: do you experience good from this, or do you experience harm. Anything else is an act of violence because it takes something which is intimately connected to the personality of the individual and tries to turn it into an object of intellectual appropriation.
Juvenal: Bullshit. Listen, the reason that you abstract things is not in order to remove them from the individual and appropriate them as a piece of intellectual property. No. You abstract things in order to understand what the underlying logic behind the experience of harm is. It's like...it's like, say you were dealing with some woman who “experienced” being beaten by her partner as an expression of his love for her. You know, “He only beats me because he has my genuine good at heart and he wants me to be a better person.” Is this woman expressing a legitimate experience of violence? No. She's been manipulated by some abusive bastard, and the only way to do her genuine good is to appeal to an abstract principle which lies outside of the experience that he's engineered for her. Your theory assumes that somehow people are able to have experiences which don't rely on the fact that other people are exercising power over them, which is niave to the point of being seriously dangerous. Cute. Charming. Wonderfully innocent. But bloody dangerous. Dangerous because it leaves people in the clutches of seriously predatory individuals who are able to construct abusive situations as being in “the best interests” of the person that they are abusing. That's not loving-kindness and respect for another person's subjective experience. It's just abandoning people to their fate and leaving them to fend for themselves when the wolf comes clawing at the door.
Ali: But the issue is, how do you go about helping people without becoming another abuser? I realize that you do get these situations where people have had their self-respect worn down to the point where they're just completely unable to trust in their own judgement. I know that happens, and it's really hard to deal with because there's the risk that you're just going to be the next controlling influence on their life. But I just don't see that with most of the gay people that I know. I see them in real relationships, imperfect, but not abusive relationships in which they genuinely love one another, and where they are able to exercise their own intelligence, and their own judgement, and where the relationships are actually fulfilling and mutual.
Juvenal: The issue is, how can a relationship between an old man with AIDS and a boy who was totally vulnerable and isolated possibly be mutually fulfilling? Isn't that the definition of a situation where someone has had their self respect worn down to the point where they are willing to put up with being taken advantage of indefinitely, and where they will see their total self-oblation as being an expression of the depth and authenticity of their love? Because that's what you're standing for, Ali. Sorry. Don't mean to be a bitch about it, but that is what this is about.
Catullus: How dare you? How dare you accuse the only person who is even remotely on my side, the only person who has troubled to take the opportunity to sit down and listen to me on my own terms, the only person who actually knows what the hell they are talking about, that they are contributing to my victimization? What gives you the right?
(There is a slight cough from the doorway. Father Kirkman stands there, a platter of Roman delicacies balanced precariously in his hands.)
Jerome Kirkman: I'm sorry to interrupt. I know that usually your mother and I would serve you for Saturnalia, but she's put her back out and could use some help in the kitchen. Catullus...
Jerome: I'm going to sacrifice the goat now. Perhaps you would be willing to assist me with the taking of the auspices?
(End of Part XI)