I Want, Therefore I Am
Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote an occasionally histrionic, but at times very moving and personal column about coming to terms with his bisexuality. He begins by writing in painful detail about being raped as a seven-year-old child by an older male relative, and how the rage that seethed inside of him over that very nearly destroyed him. He writes about how his mother finally got wind of it, and, phoning him at college, asked him what was wrong:
I was engulfed in an irrepressible rage. Everything in me was churning and pumping and boiling. All reason and restraint were lost to it. I was about to do something I wouldn’t be able to undo. Bullets and blood and death. I gave myself over to the idea.
He sped down the road, armed with a rifle, preparing to murder his pedophile rapist, and end his pain, or so he hoped. Before he arrived at his destination, Blow’s reason restrained his passion, and he realized that if he went through with it, he would destroy his own life. He turned back.
It’s a very powerful moment. Later, he talks about the fluidity of his sexual desire, and coming to understand and to accept that he desires both men and women. Once he opened himself to his desires, he found that they did not fit anybody’s neat, clear scheme. Here are some excerpts I want to highlight:
I would slowly learn to allow myself to follow attraction and curiosity wherever they might lead. I would grant myself latitude to explore the whole of me so that I could find the edges of me.
I wasn’t moving; the same-gender attraction was. Sometimes it withdrew from me almost completely, and at others it lapped up to my knees. I wasn’t making a choice; I was subject to the tide.
I would hold myself open to evolution on this point, but I would stop trying to force it. I would settle, over time, into the acceptance that my attractions, though fluid, were simply lopsided. Only with that acceptance would I truly feel free.
There are some complicated things going on in this column, and I commend it to you for consideration. The thing that stands out to me about it is Blow’s (very modern) belief that his passions constitute an essential part of his identity as a person. That is, he seems to believe that his freedom consists in accepting his desires, and that he is “subject to the tide.”
But is this really true? Somehow, reason tamed his homicidal passion in the case of avenging his rape. Why is that passion restrainable, but sexual passion is not? He would say that the passion to kill someone is not the same thing as the passion to have sex with someone, and he would, of course, be right.
But he would be wrong in another sense. According to Dante (speaking from a position informed by both classical and medieval Catholic thought), all sin comes from disordered passion. To be truly free is to master our passions by making them subject to our reason. We cannot prevent our desires, but if we make ourselves “subject to the tide” of passion, we cannot be said to be free. I believe this is true, and it would be true if Blow believed himself to be subject to the tide of heterosexual desire, or desire for wealth, food, status, or anything else he wanted.
Understand that I’m not making an argument against homosexuality or bisexuality here. I’m raising a point about identity and desire. What makes us different from the animals is our ability to reason, to control and to direct our passions. Blow says here that we only become fully human when we yield to our desires.
Except he doesn’t really say that. His freedom depended on his will and his reason controlling his desire to kill his rapist. That was a passion that, if he had yielded to, would have resulted in his literal imprisonment. He kept his freedom by refusing to be a slave to that passion.
Yet he says he found his freedom later by giving in to his sexual passion.
So which is it?
It is the characteristic lie of our age that we find our identities by indulging in our passions instead of mastering them.
UPDATE: Listen, before you post a comment, get it straight in your mind that I am not arguing about the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality. For the sake of argument in this thread, I will take the position that there is nothing in principle wrong with homosexual desire. What I’m arguing about is the primary role Blow gives to desire in terms of determining both his conduct and his identity.