I’m afraid I’m going to re-enter the fray. Rod Dreher has a piece today wondering whether the next step in our cultural development (or decline) will be the normalization of trans-ablism – that is, the normalization of people who deliberately make themselves (or have themselves made) disabled. If, after all, people who suffer from gender dysphoria have the right to address that psychic hurt through gender-reassignment surgery – nay, should be applauded for having the courage to do so – then why shouldn’t people who suffer from a profound sense of alienation from one of their limbs have the right to lop it off?
It’s not at all a ridiculous question. It is indeed difficult, if you start from the (true) proposition that such people are suffering from great psychic distress, and proceed to the (more debatable) proposition that absent strong evidence to the contrary we should assume that people know what is best for themselves, to conclude that self-mutilation is self-evidently wrong in all cases.
The only thing I find strange is the assumption that there’s something profoundly un-Christian about self mutilation. After all:
And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
That’s Matthew 5:29-30, in the King James version.
But of course, Jesus was speaking metaphorically. Nobody would ever have actually done such a foolish thing as to mutilate himself for the sake of salvation.
1. At this time while Origen was conducting catechetical instruction at Alexandria, a deed was done by him which evidenced an immature and youthful mind, but at the same time gave the highest proof of faith and continence. For he took the words,There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake,Matthew 19:12 in too literal and extreme a sense. And in order to fulfill the Saviour’s word, and at the same time to take away from the unbelievers all opportunity for scandal,— for, although young, he met for the study of divine things with women as well as men,— he carried out in action the word of the Saviour.
2. He thought that this would not be known by many of his acquaintances. But it was impossible for him, though desiring to do so, to keep such an action secret.
3. When Demetrius, who presided over that parish, at last learned of this, he admired greatly the daring nature of the act, and as he perceived his zeal and the genuineness of his faith, he immediately exhorted him to courage, and urged him the more to continue his work of catechetical instruction.
4. Such was he at that time. But soon afterward, seeing that he was prospering, and becoming great and distinguished among all men, the same Demetrius, overcome by human weakness, wrote of his deed as most foolish to the bishops throughout the world. But the bishops of Cesareaand Jerusalem, who were especially notable and distinguished among the bishops of Palestine, considering Origen worthy in the highest degree of the honor, ordained him a presbyter.
That’s from Eusebius, talking about Origen Adamantus, an important 3rd-century theologian. But of course, this was in the early days of the church, and Origen’s self-castration (and other errors) were subsequently rejected. Indeed, Origen was never canonized because of those errors. Now that those errors have been corrected, it’s impossible that anyone could see self-mutilation in a godly light.
‘Listen! Help me! I don’t know what is the matter with me. Oh!
Oh!’ She unfastened her dress, exposing her breast, and lifted
her arms, bare to the elbow. ‘Oh! Oh!’
All this time he stood on the other side of the partition and
prayed. Having finished all the evening prayers, he now stood
motionless, his eyes looking at the end of his nose, and mentally
repeated with all his soul: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have
mercy upon me!’
But he had heard everything. He had heard how the silk rustled
when she took off her dress, how she stepped with bare feet on
the floor, and had heard how she rubbed her feet with her hand.
He felt his own weakness, and that he might be lost at any
moment. That was why he prayed unceasingly. He felt rather as
the hero in the fairy-tale must have felt when he had to go on
and on without looking round. So Sergius heard and felt that
danger and destruction were there, hovering above and around him,
and that he could only save himself by not looking in that
direction for an instant. But suddenly the desire to look seized
him. At the same instant she said:
‘This is inhuman. I may die. . . .’
‘Yes, I will go to her, but like the Saint who laid one hand on
the adulteress and thrust his other into the brazier. But there
is no brazier here.’ He looked round. The lamp! He put his
finger over the flame and frowned, preparing himself to suffer.
And for a rather long time, as it seemed to him, there was no
sensation, but suddenly–he had not yet decided whether it was
painful enough–he writhed all over, jerked his hand away, and
waved it in the air. ‘No, I can’t stand that!’
‘For God’s sake come to me! I am dying! Oh!’
‘Well–shall I perish? No, not so!’
‘I will come to you directly,’ he said, and having opened his
door, he went without looking at her through the cell into the
porch where he used to chop wood. There he felt for the block
and for an axe which leant against the wall.
‘Immediately!’ he said, and taking up the axe with his right hand
he laid the forefinger of his left hand on the block, swung the
axe, and struck with it below the second joint. The finger flew
off more lightly than a stick of similar thickness, and bounding
up, turned over on the edge of the block and then fell to the
He heard it fall before he felt any pain, but before he had time
to be surprised he felt a burning pain and the warmth of flowing
blood. He hastily wrapped the stump in the skirt of his cassock,
and pressing it to his hip went back into the room, and standing
in front of the woman, lowered his eyes and asked in a low voice:
‘What do you want?’
She looked at his pale face and his quivering left cheek, and
suddenly felt ashamed. She jumped up, seized her fur cloak, and
throwing it round her shoulders, wrapped herself up in it.
‘I was in pain . . . I have caught cold . . . I . . . Father
Sergius . . . I . . .’
He let his eyes, shining with a quiet light of joy, rest upon
her, and said:
‘Dear sister, why did you wish to ruin your immortal soul?
Temptations must come into the world, but woe to him by whom
temptation comes. Pray that God may forgive us!’
She listened and looked at him. Suddenly she heard the sound of
something dripping. She looked down and saw that blood was
flowing from his hand and down his cassock.
‘What have you done to your hand?’ She remembered the sound she
had heard, and seizing the little lamp ran out into the porch.
There on the floor she saw the bloody finger. She returned with
her face paler than his and was about to speak to him, but he
silently passed into the back cell and fastened the door.
‘Forgive me!’ she said. ‘How can I atone for my sin?’
‘Let me tie up your hand.’
‘Go away from here.’
She dressed hurriedly and silently, and when ready sat waiting in
her furs. The sledge-bells were heard outside.
‘Father Sergius, forgive me!’
‘Go away. God will forgive.’
‘Father Sergius! I will change my life. Do not forsake me!’
‘Forgive me–and give me your blessing!’
‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Ghost!’–she heard his voice from behind the partition. ‘Go!’
She burst into sobs and left the cell. The lawyer came forward
to meet her.
‘Well, I see I have lost the bet. It can’t be helped. Where will
‘It is all the same to me.’
She took a seat in the sledge, and did not utter a word all the
A year later she entered a convent as a novice, and lived a
strict life under the direction of the hermit Arseny, who wrote
letters to her at long intervals.
That’s from Tolstoy’s haunting novella, Father Sergius, written in 1890.
Now, again, this isn’t the end of the story – Tolstoy ultimately leads us to the conclusion that Father Sergius was mistaken in thinking he could solve the problem of temptation by cutting off his finger in a moment of crisis. But that’s part of a larger argument Tolstoy is making that asceticism is just another form of self-involvement, while true Christianity consists in an achieved emptying out of self, leaving only a love of God expressed through a love of other people.
Which doesn’t undermine my fundamental point at all – it may strengthen it. It is perfectly possible within the context of a Christian worldview to conclude that self-castration and cutting off fingers – actions Dreher finds diabolical in a secular context – are reasonable ways to achieve harmony between soul and body – harmony between signifier and signified being the characteristic of “symbolic” relationships according to Dreher, in contrast to “diabolical” ones (and I note that such harmony is precisely the goal of those Dreher diabolizes). I wouldn’t expect many Christians to go there, of course. But I wouldn’t expect many secularists to castrate themselves or cut off their arms either!
Meanwhile, within the context of a modern secular worldview, it’s perfectly possible to conclude that self-mutilation is harmful, full-stop. All you need is some theory of mental health and the willingness to defend it in the face of individuals saying that they know what is best for themselves. Which we do all the time: addiction is a concept that secular people can understand; manic-depression and schizophrenia are concepts that secular people can understand; etc. It is entirely plausible to me that in a generation we’ll have a different view of gender dysphoria than we do today – or that we’ll have a very similar view. Predicting the fitful progress of science and medicine is a mug’s game. All I will say is that it’s hard for me to believe that the best way to advance science or medicine is to assert that you know what is best without listening to those you claim to want to understand, and help.
One may still ask why we would need to make culture heroes or villains out of people seeking to alleviate their own suffering. But that’s a different question. For myself, I think we should be skeptical of all such culture heroes – and villains. We should find our own heroes, our own villains, the ones that hold distinct meaning for ourselves. That’s true for those of us who are active participants in the general culture. It should be doubly true for those who proclaim the need to keep a distance from same.
In a nutshell: deBoer is skeptical that there will ever be a convergence between our current “big data” approach to artificial intelligence and anything that resembles the intelligence exhibited by conscious beings like humans. My own skepticism is qualified – not because I think our machines are likely to start resembling us, but because I suspect our own minds will change, and are already changing, as they adapt to an increasingly cybernetic cognitive environment.
If you want more than a nutshell, give a listen.
I’ve been absent from The Week for a couple of months, and what do I come back with on my return?
I’d particularly like to see a series of one-on-one debates between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Sen. James Webb of Virginia. . . . [W]hile they appear to hail from opposite ends of the party ideologically speaking, their critiques of the dominant neoliberal center have some elements in common. Both are deeply concerned about the rise of inequality and the alienation of working-class Americans from political life. Both have expressed skepticism of an overly corporate-focused approach to domestic policy and a foreign policy consensus that is overly belligerent. And both are implicitly critical of a party that makes a shibboleth of identity politics, while being far less full-throated in support of measures that would benefit a wide swathe of Americans, but would challenge powerful, entrenched interests. While I’d expect to see a lot of disagreement in any debate between them, it might be even more educational to see how often they turn out to agree.
Educational — and politically important. One major challenge the Democratic Party has today is how to satisfy an increasingly restive, educated liberal base, while also reaching out to recapture downscale white voters. From a cultural perspective, Sanders represents the former while Webb represents the latter. If they turn out to agree on some large questions of policy — and disagree with the party establishment on those same questions — might the establishment actually take notice? Might Hillary Clinton herself?
‘Cause that’s what Hillary definitely needs: men to explain to her what she should be running on. Also this.
Anyway, if you want to, head on over there and read the darned thing. Should be good for a laugh.
I have great respect and affection for my colleague, Rod Dreher. But I have to admit, I am very frustrated by his latest obsession, because I don’t understand what it means.
I’m talking about the so-called “Benedict Option.” I know where the phrase comes from. It’s a reference to Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, which I read with interest several years ago. I don’t remember the book well enough to give a fully accurate summary, but the heart of it was a critique of the modern condition from an Aristotelian (filtered a bit through Hegelian historicism) perspective.
In his view, modernity denies its denizens the spiritual embeddedness, the sense of moral place that pre-modern societies had, because pre-modern societies had, and embodied or expressed, particular ethos – and an ethos can only be expressed socially. One way of putting this is that any given society before modernity had a social conception of virtue, whereas modernity is limited to rights-based rule-making because we have disclaimed any social consensus on virtue or the good. (MacIntyre also discusses pre-modern turns away from a social understanding of virtue toward something more individualist; Stoicism and Epicureanism are examples he highlights.)
I actually kind of agree with this critique of modern liberalism, but I also have no illusions about the social or political consequences of the predominant alternatives to that liberalism that the yearning for some kind of “integrated” or “meaningful” mode of life have inspired in modern times (both romantic nationalism and Marxism come immediately to mind). Which is why I’ve argued (in this space and elsewhere) that we need a language of “liberal virtue” that would marry Aristotle to Mill, so we could see that those virtues are also socially embedded and require cultivation.
Be that as it may, my understanding of what MacIntyre was talking about when he looked forward to a “very different St. Benedict” somewhere in the future was the emergence of ethical communities – that is, communities that embodied an ethos with concomitant understandings of virtue. Presumably, their size and influence would spread over time, until eventually they became the dominant culture (though I don’t know that MacIntyre was particularly interested in prophecy of that sort). The point is, it seems to me that any conscious program to implement a “Benedict Option” would be concerned, first and foremost, with questions of communal organization.
I’m told that a key inspiration for the Benedict Option is early medieval monasticism. Ok, then: monasteries were communities of celibates who held property in common. Anyone from the outside could join the community by taking the necessary vows, and non-votaries could visit, even dwell with the community for a time. But the monastic community was constituted by rules of considerable complexity, and it played a unique economic role in the larger society by virtue of its distinctive legal status. So I’d expect discussion of the Benedict Option to center on what such communities such look like, how they should relate to the larger, less-tethered community of co-religionists and the larger society as a whole. Should Benedict-Option Christians found communities outside of major cities, so as to be able to fully express their ethos, and encourage non-Benedict-Option Christians to visit them there? What should the economic relationship be between communal organs and individual adherents? What should the rules be for joining – or leaving? What kinds of legal protections would such communities need as corporate bodies? And how should adherents behave when they are among “gentiles?”
These are the kinds of questions that actual ethical communities – groups like the Amish and Mennonites, yes, but also Orthodox Jews, Mormons, American Sikhs, utopian Socialists, kibbutzniks, all kinds of groups – have wrestled with at their founding. Communal organization for a self-conscious ethical group within a foreign society – not necessarily hostile nor necessarily friendly, but foreign – is not a new problem. I’d expect advocates of the Benedict Option to be particularly interested in such forerunning models, and to be discussing how they might or might not be applied to the specific challenges of small-o orthodox Christianity in a society that still retains the trappings of Christianity but, from their perspective, can no longer be called Christian in any meaningful sense.
That, however, doesn’t seem to be the center of the discussion about the Benedict Option, at least not so far as I have seen. Instead, most of what I’ve seen is discussion of how corrupt and threatening to Christianity the surrounding culture is becoming, and how small-o orthodox Christians need to recognize that fact and prepare for it, combined with repeated assurance that the Benedict Option does not mean withdrawing from the world or compromising the Christian obligation to witness, spread the gospel, be in the world while not of it, etc. In other words, I hear a lot about why the Benedict Option is important, and a lot about what the Benedict Option isn’t, but very little that I can grasp with any kind of firmness about what the blasted thing is in the first place.
Part of the reason, I suspect, is that the concept is being pitched non-denominationally. Dreher is a big-O Orthodox Christian, but he’s writing to an audience that is mostly not – mostly, I suspect, Catholic and to some extent Protestant. But I still think there’s lots of room to be more concrete about what kinds of things he might be advocating.
Let me give a few examples of the sorts of things I might expect a Benedict Option Christian to do, or not to do, that I would not necessarily expect of someone of similar conservative religious views and orthodox beliefs who had not embraced this view. I will try to be as specific as possible, with the understanding that I’m not trying to tell Dreher or anybody else what he’s about, but that I am trying to say: this is the level of specificity I expect.
- Take your kids out of public school. This is maybe too obvious, but I’m not sure I’ve heard it articulated as bluntly as that. If you believe that the most important task facing Christian communities is to raise the next generation protected from the threat of the larger culture, then the most obvious thing to do is to take the kids out of public school and either educate them yourselves or in schools organized by your religion’s authorities. That choice should – again, according to the logic of the Benedict Option as I understand it – become more than a choice; it should become a social expectation. It is that aspect, the notion that you would be expected to educate your children parochially, that would mark a break from the way even conservative Christians have historically thought about schooling in America (at least since the advent of public education), and more in line with how Orthodox Jews today approach the subject.
- Create wealthy, independent institutions from communal property. Not all property, obviously – but I would expect a conscious effort to create communal institutions that have some real economic heft and that are constituted to serve the interests of the Benedict Option community. A quasi-monastic community that depended on contributions for its annual budget wouldn’t have the independence of the medieval monasteries. Nor would a quasi-monastic community that depended on outright hucksterism to keep itself afloat. It takes wealth and industry to build the kind of institutional independence I’m talking about. The Mormons are probably the world-beating models to look to for this.
- Adopt distinctive emblems or dress to identity co-adherents. One of the distinctive things, to me, about modern Christianity – and not just Protestantism – is its aversion to these kinds of rules. But they are ubiquitous in the religious world generally. Sikh men grow their hair and cover it with a turban, carry a dagger, and wear a metal ring around the arm. Mormon men wear temple garments under their regular clothes. Orthodox Jewish men wear a four-cornered garment with fringes and cover their heads. The signifiers can get extremely elaborate: in the Hasidic Jewish world, the precise way a man ties his gartel can tell you what sub-sect he belongs to. The point is that these signifiers have social significance. They are not individual, personal expressions of belief – they are individual, personal expressions of affiliation, which tell other individuals that this individual is one of them.
- Refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The pledge of allegiance is an oath – of fealty – to an emblem of a secular state and nation – asserting that nation to be under divine auspices and to be indivisible. The Benedict Option, if it means anything, seems to me to command rejection of every part of that: to refuse to swear fealty to any secular entity, and to refuse to sacralize the United States of America, or proclaim its indivisibility. Refusing to swear allegiance does not mean refusing to be good citizens, refusing to vote or to fight or in any way to withdraw from participation in the life of the community. It’s just that: refusing to swear allegiance. It’s a formal declaration of what it seems to me the Benedict Option is all about, in terms of what it recognizes about the nature of the United States of America and about the primacy of the allegiance to the Christian God. Formalities like these are precisely the kind of thing I’d expect someone serious about the Benedict Option to care about, deeply.
You get the idea. If you have given up on the idea that this is a fundamentally Christian society, but you want to live in such a society, you have to actually build it, and build it separately from the larger society. You need institutions. You need rules. You need social expectations.
One problem I see is that the thrust of Jesus of Nazareth’s message cuts against all of the above. It’s very a Pharisaical approach to the world, in fact, not a withdrawal from or a rejection of the world but a conscious and scrupulous separation in certain specific ways so that you don’t forget who you are – and that you are not like others. And much of Jesus’s most-pointed preaching is about how you’re never going to get into heaven that way.
That’s why I want to hear, from someone who is a Christian (not a Jew, like me), what the Benedict Option actually means. If there’s a distinctively small-o orthodox Christian approach to this problem that differs from the approach taken by numerous religious groups in the past – because this is emphatically not a new problem – then I’d like to know what that distinctive approach is.
But one thing I am sure of: whatever the Benedict Option is, if it’s inspired by MacIntyre’s book, then it must be expressed socially. It cannot be a matter of simply changing hearts; it cannot be a purely abstract theological project. Because one of MacIntyre’s central points is that what modernity is missing is the ethical dimension of community, and the ethos of a community can only be expressed socially.
GOP bigs are reportedly anxious about the size of their Presidential field – both the possibility that not all the contenders will fit on the stage, and the possibility that a great many of these contenders lack basic plausibility. I mean, just take a look at the list of announced or likely candidates: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, John Kasich, George Pataki, Rand Paul, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, Scott Walker. And then we may yet hear from Bob Ehrlich, Jim Gilmore, Peter King, Herman Cain, Mike Pence, Rick Scott, Allen West, John Bolton, Sarah Palin, Joe Scarborough, Steve King, Nikki Haley and I don’t know who all else who’s been speculated about here or there at one time or another.
In a normal political party, said bigs would simply pull the less-plausible candidates aside and let them know that this isn’t their year, and said candidates would quietly fold up their tents – perhaps with the exception of one or two gadflies who ran anyway to represent a particular faction or tendency. But of course, the GOP isn’t a normal party, and nothing would draw more popular support for a candidate from the reverse-snobbery caucus than knowledge that that candidate had been excluded by the “establishment” from the mere opportunity to make his or her case.
So: what to do when your party becomes a reality show?
Clearly: run it like a reality show.
My modest proposal: instead of having one set of debates with the whole clown car on stage, you have two sets of debates. One is for the top-tier, the “inner circle” of candidates who are actually interested in running for and have a shot at becoming President. The second set of debates is for, well, the rest of the field.
For the first debate, let’s say the two groups are determined exclusively by poll numbers – you’d need some objective metric, and that’s as good a metric as any, particularly since we’re not actually excluding anybody from debates altogether. Let’s say we put the top eight polling candidates in the first tier and the rest in the second tier. Then we have our first debate for each group.
And then we enter “survivor” mode.
Each group of candidates – inner circle and outer circle – votes for which candidate from their number should move from their current group to the other group (with voting for yourself being inadmissible). Whichever candidate gets voted out of the inner circle gets dumped down to the clown car for the next debate. But a replacement candidate gets promoted up from the clown car to the big leagues. Rinse and repeat.
The interesting thing, to me, about this is that both groups would start out with some “real” candidates and some jokes. Based on the average of recent polls the top tier would be Bush, Walker, Rubio, Paul, Huckabee, Cruz, Carson and Christie. There’s ample representation for the fringes in that group. And the second-tier debates would include veteran politicians like John Kasich and Rick Perry along with the likes of Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. So the “top-tier” candidates couldn’t ignore the kooks, and the “also-ran” candidates would have a real shot to stand out and earn promotion, without any individual stage being too crowded.
Or would demotion and promotion work based on “merit” like that? The incentives in this game could be very interesting. At the end of the first “top tier” debate, who would the various candidates most want to send back to the minor leagues? Maybe Christie gets better traction with a live audience than people expected – so Bush, Walker and Rubio all vote him off the island to remove him as a threat. On the other hand, maybe Bush and Cruz are both strategically more worried about Rubio than they are about anybody else, so they make an agreement to vote him off. Or maybe Huckabee, Cruz, Christie and Rubio all agree to vote off Bush in a symbolic de-throning that makes a mockery of the whole “top-tier/second-tier” concept.
It seems likely that the top-tier candidates would collude to vote off whoever they perceive to be the biggest threat. But that candidate wouldn’t actually be gone – he’d just be speaking in a different time slot. Perhaps he’d dominate there, and get only more popular where it counts – with voters? And what about the second-tier candidates? Who would they vote to promote to the inner circle? Well, it really depends on what they are playing for. If Huckabee gets sent down, they might collude to send him back – lest he play the Fox host game better than they can. But if Bush gets sent down, they might never send him back to the big leagues – better to spend the rest of the debate season beating up on this year’s embodiment of the supposed establishment.
I suppose you could play the game such that instead of the candidates voting on who to dump or promote, a poll of the viewing audience determines it. That would perhaps be less ruthless – but might still make for interesting dynamics, because you’d expect there to be a somewhat different audience for the “real” debates and the “clown car” debates. Would the “clown” audience vote to promote their tribune – even if that turns out to be Donald Trump? Or would they vote to promote whoever they didn’t want to watch anymore – even if that turns out to be Bobby Jindal?
At some point, you’d have to winnow down the top tier even further – certainly by the time there is actual voting going on. But here’s the thing: you’d never have to winnow down the clown car. Even candidates who stopped campaigning in the actual Presidential race could stay in on some nominal basis so as to be able to continue to participate in the “people’s debates” – and continue to represent their issues, criticize the actual serious candidates, and audition for the talk show they no doubt prefer to host to being President. In fact, there would be no reason to ever stop the “people’s debates” – you could run them all year, every year, and only start promoting when an election is impending.
Splitting the field in this way would allow the GOP to have its ratings and eat them too, populism-wise. The “elite” candidates would undoubtedly deny that there was any qualitative difference between the two pools, claiming that the division was entirely an artifact of practical concerns – size of the stage, giving everyone enough time to speak, etc. Meanwhile, the “clown car” candidates could loudly proclaim their lack of interest in being “chosen” for some “establishment” clique, that indeed they are proud to remain where the candidates are real Americans. And hey: it’s not like anyone would have to get less air time than anybody else. Heck, the clown car might even get bigger audience. And if they didn’t – if the Fox audience tuned out the “non-serious” debates, wouldn’t that be salutary, a minor way of de-fanging the tiger of tele-populist rage?
The GOP wants to be a big tent. It worries it’s turning into a three-ring circus. But maybe, multiple rings are exactly what this circus needs.
Earlier this week I posted the first half of my dialogue with Conor Friedersdorf, which was about police brutality and the conservative response thereto. In the second half we covered a bunch of topics, including:
- Why are the hawks once again driving the foreign policy debate? And what, if anything, can we do about that?
- Can we defend free speech while still also denouncing stupid speech – and can we defend offensive speech on the grounds that (in some instances) it’s also intelligent?
- Are Angelenos really as shallow and phony as New Yorkers think? And if so, what does it say about New Yorkers if the Times is right that we all want to move there?
Check it all out there. Or here:
Q. How do you make an obscure 400-year-old play relevant to today?
A. Put it on stage.
That’s my feeling after seeing Red Bull Theater‘s production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, John Ford’s 17th-century masterpiece. [Full disclosure: I am a board member of Red Bull Theater, and consequently have a considerable emotional interest in the production. No pecuniary interest, though; it’s a not-for-profit theater.]
Actually, the play is especially relevant for some TAC writers and friends. In particular, I would love to go back and see the show again with Rod Dreher and Damon Linker in tow. Because the play dramatizes a scenario close to the heart of both of their perennial concerns. And I’d be curious to see how they respond to a dramatic, as opposed to expository, exploration thereof.
The premise of the play, revealed in the very first scene: Giovanni (Matthew Amendt) is in love with his full-blood sister, Annabella (Amelia Pedlow). Like Romeo, he’s got a friendly neighborhood friar (a sober and solid-minded Christopher Innvar) to whom he confesses his love, and said friar has prescribed prayers and fasts and the like to rid him of this forbidden passion, but these regimens are unavailing. As Giovanni tells us in soliloquy:
The more I strive, I love; the more I love,
The less I hope: I see my ruin certain.
What judgment or endeavours could apply
To my incurable and restless wounds,
I thoroughly have examined, but in vain.
O, that it were not in religion sin
To make our love a god, and worship it!
I have even wearied heaven with pray’rs, dried up
The spring of my continual tears, even starv’d
My veins with daily fasts: what wit or art
Could counsel, I have practised; but, alas!
I find all these but dreams, and old men’s tales,
To fright unsteady youth; I am still the same:
Or I must speak, or burst. Tis not, I know,
My lust, but ’tis my fate, that leads me on.
Keep fear and low faint-hearted shame with slaves!
I’ll tell her that I love her, though my heart
Were rated at the price of that attempt.
Well, he does, and it turns out that she shares his incestuous passion, even declares that hers exceeds his. Before too long, they have consummated their love – and thence proceed the inevitable complications. Annabella has suitors, of course, who she can only put off for so long without arousing suspicion. Her father is far more understanding, and concerned for her happiness, than is Juliet’s – but even he has limits. And then there are the complications of the other subplots – all of which turn on the dark point of love, at the intersection of romance and revenge.
The play reads very luridly, and one could approach it in the spirit of pure camp and have a great deal of fun. But director Jesse Berger has tried for a more complicated effect. He has Amendt and Pedlow play the leads with total sincerity, as if they were playing Romeo and Juliet – and these two beautiful and talented young people have such chemistry that I found their love entirely plausible. Meanwhile, most of the other players are encouraged to lend a camp edge to their performances – in some cases, as with Marc Vietor’s scheming Richardetto or Rocco Sisto’s sinister Cardinal, a bit more than an edge.
The result is to create a fruitful division in the perceptions of the audience, or at least that’s what I felt. Many of the characters – Clifton Duncan’s and Kelley Curran’s estranged former lovers, Soranzo (who seeks Annabella’s hand) and Hippolita (whom Soranzo had previously seduced from her husband, but now has abandoned, and who plots her revenge) for example – are overtly calculating in how they present themselves. Others, like Philip Goodwin’s Florio, father to Annabella and Giovanni, or Everett Quinton’s Donaldo, father to one of Annabella’s less-plausible suitors (Ryan Garbayo’s foppish and sweetly imbecilic Bergetto), are fundamentally tender and good-hearted but have the civilized-person’s appreciation for the necessity of polite deception. Derek Smith’s delicious Vasquez is the purest exponent of this world’s values, inasmuch as his total loyalty and his total deceptiveness are both consequences of his own determination not to be deceived, nor moved, by anyone – possibly rivaled by Franchelle Stuart Dorn’s perfectly named Putana, the nurse, who, like Juliet’s, is an unshockable confidante, disturbed not at all by Annabella’s carnal desire for her brother, nor particularly disapproving of her acting on it, but blind to the possibility that it could be motivated by more than desire – by love.
Because only Annabella and Giovanni are themselves in themselves; only they are fundamentally capable of feeling the kind of love they feel, and are therefore incapable of deceiving themselves about it, or of hiding the love that comes to define them. (Indeed, the only reason their secret is not exposed much sooner is that nobody who isn’t already in on it ever considers the possibility.) Of course, their love is tragic, ending in slaughter – but the juxtaposition of their tragedy with their quality as the only fully genuine people onstage ties those qualities together in our minds.
In this sense, the play goes beyond Romeo and Juliet. At the end of Shakespeare’s play, the audience can console itself in the same limited terms that the Prince and the two patriarchs, Capulet and Montague, do, and blame the tragedy entirely on the feud. These lovers were not truly star-crossed, it’s just the crossed nature of their parents that ushered in tragedy. That’s certainly what Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim and Laurents did with Shakespeare’s material – they made it a story of the struggle for supremacy between hate and love. And if that’s the contest, then of course we stand for love – and calls ring out to tear down the hateful barriers that stand in its way.
But love is a jealous emotion; it stands not only against its opposite, but against all other ties, against the world and life itself. ‘Tis Pity gives the audience a pure expression of this jealous power, because it gives us a pair of sympathetic lovers for whom one can neither say, “if only the hateful world would end its disapproval, there would be no tragedy,” nor “this isn’t really love, but some kind of warped mockery thereof.” Because it is true love, but a true love that cannot be accommodated. It cannot be accommodated – and yet, we are loathe to banish it from our republic, for fear of banishing what is best in all of us, what is better than many of us will prove capable of feeling. It’s a tragedy in the classic sense, because it admits of no escape – and tragedy of that sort is as anathema to the Christian view of our common nature as it is to the modern progressive view.
On the other hand, you don’t have to take the proceedings as seriously as I do above to be moved and exhilarated by the play. The cast is phenomenal from end to end. The set and costumes (designed by David M. Barber and Sara Jean Tosetti respectively) do a perfect job of bridging the 17th and 21st centuries, and look gorgeous doing it. There’s not a moment that goes by without soaring passion, low humor, or the pathos of mere humanity – or all three at once. Even if you are not inclined to meditate on what the play is saying, it’s a great evening of theater.
So in spite of my previously-disclosed conflict of interest, I am not at all conflicted about saying – go see it, while you still can.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore runs at the Duke Theater in New York through May 16th.
Conor Friedersdorf and I got together to do a bloggingheads – and I talked way too much. As a consequence, they split the discussion into two parts. In the first part, we talked primarily about the conservative response to recent revelations about police abuse from a variety of jurisdictions.
Friedersdorf has been writing about the subject for a while, so if he still counts as a “conservative” then he’s an exception to his own generalization that the institutional conservative response has been unimpressive. The subject isn’t one that I’m personally as well-versed in as he is, but TAC has published a number of worthy pieces on the subject, including two recent pieces by Matthew Loftus, so I think we should count as another exception.
In any event, here‘s the dialogue:
I love looking below the lid once the election results are in. Take the recent UK election. What does it tell us about the change in the “will” of the British electorate, if anything? And what does it portend for the future?
In terms of seats, what happened is:
- The Tories gained 24 net, enough to form a majority without the support of any minority party
- Labour lost 26 net
- The centrist Liberal Democrats lost 49, nearly wiping out the party
- The Scottish National Party gained 50
In terms of vote share, though, what happened is:
- The Tories gained a negligible 0.8%
- Labour gained 1.4% – still pretty unimpressive, but a bigger gain than the Tories, and yet they lost seats
- The Liberal Democrats lost 15.2%
- The Scottish National Party gained 3.1%
You may note that the above numbers don’t add up. Where’d those missing votes go?
- The UK Independence Party gained 9.8%
- The Green Party gained 2.8%
(Now the total vote is more than 100%, but that’s accounted for by losses across a variety of smaller parties, the most prominent being the British National Party, which was wiped out after losing 1.9% of the vote share.)
The SNP garnered 4.8% of the UK national vote and earned 56 seats, 8.6% of the total. UKIP garnered 12.7% of the vote and earned . . . 1 seat. UKIP earned half as many seats seats as the Ulster Unionist party, which only got 115,000 votes to UKIP’s nearly 3.8 million.
UKIP illustrates the reason why third parties aren’t supposed to exist in first-past-the-post systems: it’s supposed to be obvious that these votes are wasted – or, worse, would be strategically mis-placed, throwing a seat to the voter’s third-choice candidate rather than the voter’s second choice. It’s a rule of political science that’s been broken for decades in the UK, though – the LDP has long been in a position somewhat analogous to UKIP today, earning far more votes than seats.
But there’s an exception to that rule, and that is when there is a geographic “logic” to a party’s support. Such as is the case with the SNP today.
The SNP won an outright majority of Scottish votes. They also won majorities in many constituencies, and substantial pluralities in nearly all the constituencies where they failed to earn a majority. That’s why they have 56 seats, and UKIP has only 1.
Is that “fair”? Well, on one level of course it is – everybody knew the rules before the game was played, and the game itself was played by the rules, so by definition they have to accept the fairness of the result. But on another level, the real question is what the system is intended to achieve.
In a pure proportional-representation system, such as exists in Israel, for example, the Tories would have been the clear plurality victors in this election, but would have seen their seat count increase not at all. Labour wouldn’t have budged much either. Instead, all the movement would have been from the LDP to UKIP, the SNP and the Greens – because that’s what happened with the vote. And the new government would likely be a right-wing coalition of the Tories and UKIP – or, if that were politically unacceptable, either a government of national unity or a hodge-podge coalition of the Tories, LDP and SNP. (Such heterogeneous coalitions are far from unknown in proportional-rep systems.)
Of course, we don’t know what UKIP’s vote might have been in that scenario. If most UKIP votes in this election came from safe Tory or safe Labour districts, and the expectation was for a close election prior to the vote (as it was), then under a proportional-rep system those voters might have preferred to vote for their second-choice party rather than UKIP, rather than risk throwing the election to the third-choice party. This is precisely what happened in the recent Israeli election – Likud got a late surge from voters who might otherwise have voted for one of the smaller right-wing parties. (The same might have happened in this election, if voters were debating between, say, the LDP and the Tories voted Tory to prevent a Labour-LDP-SNP coalition government.)
But the question I wonder about is: under a proportional rep system, what would be the mood today in Scotland? The Westminster system under-weights the votes of geographically diffuse minority views. By the same token, it overweights the votes of geographically concentrated minority views. Which is more optimal for a given country depends very much on who you are trying to placate, who you are trying to convince to “buy in” to the political system.
If the essential question in British politics today is the constitutional status of the different countries that make up the United Kingdom, then the Westminster system makes it relatively easier for Scotland to demand that the question be taken up on terms that it dictates. If you look at the two-party vote in England, you will see how difficult it will be for Labour to form a parliamentary majority from English votes. But assuming the SNP doesn’t fade quickly, it’s not at all hard to imagine a future election in which no party forms a majority, and the only coalition partner for either Labour or the Tories have is either the SNP or each other.
Moreover, precisely because of the disparity in size, it is very difficult to imagine that the “Scottish question” could ever be as central to English politics as it is to Scottish. Which means that even if an English-nationalist or anti-federalist tendency takes hold south of Hadrian’s Wall, it’ll be a diffuse minority tendency, and likely be as efficacious as UKIP has been at turning votes into seats.
Does that mean commentators like our own Daniel Larison are right that this result points to the inevitability of Scottish independence, and that the UK is “living on borrowed time?” Maybe. But the history of the Bloc Québécois in Canada should give anyone making such predictions pause. In particular, I would argue that, if a plausible federalist solution exists, then a vote such as we’ve just seen is likely the necessary political predicate to achieving it. While it is true that anyone who voted “yes” on the referendum should logically vote SNP, the opposite is not the case – the mere existence of the SNP as a large bloc in Parliament gives substance to the notion that Scotland could get the best deal for itself by negotiating a high price for remaining in the union. And if that’s the case, then the peculiarities of the Westminster system that give an independent-minded Scotland an outsized share of seats are precisely the peculiarities that make it possible to hold the system together.
If the goal is to give a minority region like Scotland the maximum leverage to negotiate its terms of staying in the union, the Westminster system is pretty well-designed. Somewhere, John C. Calhoun is probably smiling.
I’ve been trying to avoid reading Jordana Narin’s Modern-Love-contest-winning-essay because I thought I knew what it said already from so many people commenting on it. But I finally broke down after Damon Linker’s latest entry in the sweepstakes and read the blasted thing. And it isn’t at all what I thought.
I thought it would be an article lamenting how hard it is to get guys to commit these days – or about how women themselves are now afraid of commitment, perpetually leaving their options open for something better that might come along, and ending up lonely and dissatisfied. But it isn’t that at all. It’s about a woman who is so terrified of losing what little she has, romantically-speaking, that she dare not tell the truth about her feelings.
Listen to Jordana:
I was eager to move on from high school, and talking to Jeremy was an escape, a peek into an alternative universe where shy boys with moppy brown hair and clever minds seemed to care about more than their next hookups. When I published an article about my struggle with Crohn’s disease in an obscure online magazine, he wrote with praise and to tell me it moved him, lessening the shame I felt.
Every time his name popped up on my phone, my heart raced.
Sounds like a pretty special guy. Nonetheless:
I decided to leave him behind when I left for college.
But he wouldn’t let me. Whenever I believed he was out of my life, I’d get a text or Facebook comment that would reel me back in.
And I wouldn’t let me, either. His affection, however sporadic, always loomed like a promise. So I accepted his invitation, asking myself what I had to lose.
I lost a lot that weekend: A bet on the football game. Four pounds (from nerve-driven appetite loss). A pair of underwear. My innocence, apparently.
Naïvely, I had expected to gain clarity, to finally admit my feelings and ask if he felt the same. But I couldn’t confess, couldn’t probe.
[M]ore than three years after our first kiss and more than a year after our first time, I’m still not over the possibility of him, the possibility of us. And he has no idea.
There’s a word for this feeling. The word is LOVE. Jordana is in love with Jeremy.
Her friend, Shosh, can see it – that’s why she tries to talk her out of it:
My friend Shosh insists that I don’t actually have feelings for Jeremy.
“You don’t know him anymore,” she says. “I think maybe you’re addicted to the memories, in love with a person you’ve idealized who probably isn’t real.”
Maybe she’s right. Maybe my emotions are steeped in a past that never presented itself. Still, he envelops my thoughts. And anyway, Shosh has a Jeremy of her own, another guy at another school she holds both close and far away.
Right: Shosh has what used to be called a friend-with-benefits, someone she is emotionally close to but not in love with, who she sleeps with periodically. And she’s fine with that arrangement. She thinks Jordana’s Jeremy is in the same place as her Jeremy – fine with this arrangement as is. She wants Jordana to conform to that model – which means convincing herself that she is not in love with Jeremy – so that she’ll be happier. And it’s true – it’s a lot easier to be happy in a shallow kind of way without love. Particularly unrequited love.
This is not new. People have been trying to convince themselves that they are or are not in love with someone that they should or should not be in love with since the invention of love. They are still doing it – single people, married people, divorced people; love can be an awkward intrusion or a present absence for anybody. More often than not, the effort to convince is not very convincing.
But that’s not Jordana’s problem. Here’s her problem:
I’ve brooded over the same person for the last four years. Can I honestly call myself empowered if I’m unable to share my feelings with him? Could my options be more closed? Could I be less in control?
My father can’t understand why I won’t tell Jeremy how I feel. To me, it’s simple. As involved as we’ve been for what amounts to, at this point, nearly a quarter of my life, Jeremy and I are technically nothing, at least as far as labels are concerned.
So while I teeter between anger with myself for not admitting how I feel and anger at him for not figuring it out, neither of us can be blamed. (Or we both can.) Without labels to connect us, I have no justification for my feelings and he has no obligation to acknowledge them.
Her father asks her why she doesn’t just tell him how she feels, and she says she can’t because . . . nobody else has made a formal declaration of what their relationship is. But who could that “somebody else” possibly be?
Jordana’s problem is that she is waiting for Jeremy’s permission to say how she feels and to ask for what she wants. She wants him to say “I love you,” and he hasn’t done it. And she is terrified that if she says it first, if she explicitly or implicitly makes any demands, that he will refuse those demands, refuse to reciprocate.
She is, in other words, letting a man take advantage of her feelings for him, and hurt her, because she is afraid of losing him.
This. Is. Not. New.
And it’s not Jeremy’s fault – not at this point. It’s Jordana’s. It is entirely her responsibility to decide when it’s time to speak her mind, and then to do so. If he turns her down because he’s afraid of commitment, and misses out on what might be the love of his life, that’s his fault – not hers for speaking. But she can’t wait for “permission” from a label that he alone has the power to apply. She has to apply the label. Herself. She has to say how she feels. And then face the consequences of that truth.
This is just part of growing up, part of what everybody has to go through and has always had to go through since the moment we started letting young people find mates for themselves instead of being forced into marriage with whoever their parents preferred. This is the way love works. You have to take emotional risks to get it – and those risks might not pay off. You have to weigh your self-respect against your desires – and you can’t let either be an absolute trump card.
If her friends won’t give her that advice, maybe it’s because they’ve never experienced love. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to experience love. Is that about wanting to preserve romantic choice, sexual autonomy? I somehow doubt it. I suspect it’s more about wanting to preserve choice outside the realm of sex, to preserve autonomy from romance. It’s about, as Jordana says at one point, wanting to avoid drama.
But that’s the thing about love: it’s not something you choose. It’s something that chooses you. And when you think about it, avoiding drama is a pretty lame approach to life, isn’t it?
If I were giving Jordana advice, that advice would be:
- Read Chekhov, all the major plays. Start with The Seagull and The Three Sisters to learn something about unrequited or imperfectly requited love. Dive into the depths of Masha and Vershinin’s affair, or Nina and Trigorin’s – but also listen to Konstantin’s longing for Nina and Masha’s for Konstantin; Kulygin’s for Masha and Olga’s for Kulygin – and of course Tuzenbach’s for Irina. And then read Uncle Vanya to fully appreciate the futility of a life spent avoiding drama. Learn that what you are struggling with is not new, that your feelings have sufficient dignity and scope to have inspired great art. That should make you feel a bit better, I think.
- Then, take a step back, and a deep breath, and ask yourself: do you really believe that there is only one Jeremy in the whole world? That you will never – could never – feel love for anybody else? That no one will ever remind you of him, or that you’d have to blot out the memory of him entirely to ever feel a deep longing for someone else? Do you really believe that if he doesn’t feel the same way about you, that this is the best you can hope for in life – clinging to the sleeve of someone who doesn’t love you the way you love him? Do you want to be a character in a Chekhov play?
- If, with your cold rational mind, you know the answer to all of those questions is “no,” then tell him how you feel. Tell him you are in love with him, and that you’ve been in love with him for a long time, and that you need to know if he feels the same way; that he has to be an adult and tell you the truth. He might surprise you by saying he loves you, too, and that he wouldn’t want to lose you. Or he might say that he doesn’t want to change the way things are – that you’re a very special friend and he doesn’t see why that should preclude having sex now and again. Or he might not be an adult, and fail to answer the question in any coherent way. Whatever he says, you’ll know the answer to the question that is causing you so much pain.
And whatever he says, this phase – the phase of painful, unspoken, possibly unrequited love, which is not some modern invention but has existed forever – this phase will be over. You’ll be in a new phase, and you’ll learn what that’s like. You’ll have done a bit of growing up.
There’s no substitute for that process, and no shortcut. Nor has there ever been.