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Sexual Revolution Without End

Scenes from the ballet "The Rite of Spring" composed by Igor Stravinsky, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky (Bettmann/GettyImages)

Over the weekend I finished reading Rites Of Spring: The Great War And The Birth Of The Modern Age, by Modris Eksteins (only $7.21 on Kindle). It’s as good as people say; thank you Rob G. for recommending it. Eksteins is a (now retired) Latvian-born Canadian historian who specializes in German culture. This book is a cultural history of the West from the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the ballet choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky, and produced by Serge Diaghilev) till the death of Hitler in 1945. Eksteins focuses on the transgressiveness of Western culture in Modernism. I found this passage especially interesting:

Diaghilev’s ballet enterprise was both a quest for totality and an instrument of liberation. Perhaps the most sensitive nerve it touched—and this was done deliberately—was that of sexual morality, which was so central a symbol of the established order, especially in the heart of political, economic, and imperial power, western Europe. Again, Diaghilev was simply an heir to a prominent, accumulating tradition. For many intellectuals of the nineteenth century, from Saint-Simon through Feuerbach to Freud, the real origin of “alienation,” estrangement from self, society, and the material world, was sexual.

“Pleasure, joy, expands man,” wrote Feuerbach; “trouble suffering, contracts and concentrates him; in suffering man denies the reality of the world.” The middle classes, in particular, of the Victorian age interpreted pleasure in primarily spiritual and moral rather than physical or sensual terms. Gratification of the senses was suspect, indeed sinful. Will, based on moral fervor, was the essence of
successful human endeavor; pure passion, its opposite. That the issue of sexual morality should become a
vehicle of rebellion against bourgeois values for the modern movement was inevitable. In the art of Gustav Klimt, in the early operas of Richard Strauss, in the plays of Frank Wedekind, in the personal antics of Verlaine, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde, and even in the relaxed morality of the German youth movement, a motif of eroticism dominated the search for newness and change. In the United States Max Eastman shouted, “Lust is sacred!”

The sexual rebel, particularly the homosexual, became a central figure in the imagery of revolt, especially after the ignominious treatment Oscar Wilde received at the hands of the establishment. Of her Bloomsbury circle of gentle rebels Virginia Woolf said, “The word bugger was never far from our lips.” André Gide, after a long struggle with himself, denounced publicly le mensonge des moeurs, the moral lie, and admitted his own predilections. Passion and love, he had concluded, were mutually exclusive. And passion was much purer than love.

And:

Despite a fascination among the avant-garde with the lower classes, with social outcasts, prostitutes, criminals, and the insane, the interest usually did not stem from a practical concern with social welfare or with a restructuring of society, but from a desire simply to eliminate restrictions on the human personality. The interest in the lower orders was thus more symbolic than practical. The search was for a “morality without sanctions and obligations.”

Hannah Arendt said something similar about pre-totalitarian culture. She said intellectuals and artists were happy to see the habits of civilization destroyed just for the fun of transgression. That worked out well for us, didn’t it?

Certain liberals in this blog’s comments section love to scratch their heads and puzzle over why social and religious conservatives are so preoccupied with sex. They ought to read a little history. Sexual revolution was at the core of the Modernist revolution. In the 1960s, Philip Rieff, the great interpreter of Freud, said this cultural revolution — of a morality based on feeling, and of forbidding to forbid — was more significant than the Bolshevik Revolution, because the Bolsheviks, atheists though they were, still believed in a binding transcendent order.

With the Eksteins passage above in mind, take a look at Carl Trueman’s latest in First Things. He’s writing about Critical Theory, of which Queer Theory is a part. Excerpts:

What exactly is the endgame here? What do these people want in terms of positive philosophical and political construction? I eventually concluded that the answer was really quite simple: The purpose of critical theory is not to establish anything at all. Rather, it is to destabilize as potentially oppressive any claim to transcendent truth or value. Its target is the destruction of all metanarratives, and thus the bombastically rebarbative prose is itself part of the “argument.” Leaving readers hopelessly confused about even the simplest things is an important part of the game, pellucid simplicity being one way the oppressors made their oppression seem natural.

Trueman explains why the acceptance of transgenderism and queerness is so extremely radical, far moreso than many people (especially Christians) realize. More:

The debate over LGBTQ issues is not a debate about sexual behavior. I suspect it is not really at this point a debate with the L, the G, or the B. It is the T and the Q that are carrying the day, and we need to understand that the debate is about the radical abolition of metaphysics and metanarratives and any notion of cultural stability that might rest thereupon. Until we clarify that and adjust our strategy of engagement accordingly, we cannot develop the arguments needed to persuade our fellow Christians of the truth, let alone anyone else.

Read the whole thing. Carl has a fantastic book about modernity, expressive individualism, and the sexual revolution coming out in November. You can pre-order it here. I read it, and wrote an introduction to it.

Don’t forget this:

No journalist ever asks him about this — and you watch: they won’t ever do it, not even a Fox journalist. Yet this is a massively important issue: whether or not the law will deny biological reality, and make it a civil rights offense to assert that biology matters.

It would be easier to remove a cuttlefish from the jaws of a hungry moray eel with a pair of chopsticks than change your average modern person’s mind, pulverized by propaganda, about the sacredness of their sexual liberty. But at least orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, and fellow travelers ought to understand exactly what we are up against — and how deep the roots of the revolt go. They have been at this for over a century, and still act as if the real problem in our culture is repression.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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