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The Dis-Integrating of Reality

Symbolism, diabolism, and the chaotic fever dream of modernity

A reader posts a link to an interview with the influential feminist theorist Judith Butler, in which she reflects on transgenderism. Excerpts:

Cristan Williams: You spoke about the surgical intervention many trans people undergo as a “very brave transformation.” Can you talk about that?

Judith Butler: It is always brave to insist on undergoing transformations that feel necessary and right even when there are so many obstructions to doing so, including people and institutions who seek to pathologize or criminalize such important acts of self-definition. I know that for some feels less brave than necessary, but we all have to defend those necessities  that allow us to live and breathe in the way that feels right to us.  Surgical intervention can be precisely what a trans person needs – it is also not always what a trans person needs.  Either way, one should be free to determine the course of one’s gendered life.


JB: I agree completely that nothing is more important for transgender people than to have access to excellent health care in trans-affirmative environments, to have the legal and institutional freedom to pursue their own lives as they wish, and to have their freedom and desire affirmed by the rest of the world. This will happen only when transphobia is overcome at the level of individual attitudes and prejudices and in larger institutions of education, law, health care, and kinship.

One more:

CW: Some (such as Milton Diamond) assert that there seems to be a genetic issue that can lead to transsexualism. What are your thoughts about such assertions?

JB: In the works by Milton Diamond that I have read, I have had to question the way he understands genetics and causality. Even if a gene structure could be found, it would only establish a possible development, but would in no way determine that development causally. Genetics might be yet another way of getting to that sense of being “hard-wired” for a particular sex or gender. My sense is that we may not need the language of innateness or genetics to understand that we are all ethically bound to recognize another person’s declared or enacted sense of sex and/or gender. We do not have to agree upon the “origins” of that sense of self to agree that it is ethically obligatory to support and recognize sexed and gendered modes of being that are crucial to a person’s well-being.

Butler goes on to say of course men may have vaginas and women may have penises, and that “we should all have greater freedoms to define and pursue our lives without pathologization, de-realization, harassment, threats of violence, violence, and criminalization. I join in the struggle to realize such a world.”

The reader said that within this interview lies many of the assumptions of those (straight and gay) who are pushing for the normalization of the LGBT experience. I think he’s right. The key idea here is that when it comes to sex, gender, and identity, there is nothing fixed, that everything depends on the will of the individual self. There is no reality, only “reality.”

I was talking recently with a Catholic priest friend who works as a campus minister. He was telling me that the No. 1 problem the college students he works with face is pornography. Nothing else is remotely close. He says it affects the kids profoundly, in particular their ability to form normal, healthy relationships with the opposite sex. The sexual instinct is so powerful in the human person, especially in males, that once it attaches itself to pornographic images, the bondage is extremely strong. This is particularly true within a culture in which any kind of restraint on sexual fantasy and activity is rapidly dissolving — indeed, in a culture in which sexual desire is considered at the core of one’s identity as a person.

I mentioned to the priest the observation by sociologist Philip Rieff that sexual restraint is at the core of the Christian worldview — a worldview whose collapse is indicated by the collapse of sexual restraint as an ideal in Western culture. Just now, I found the complete passage, from his 1967 classic The Triumph of the Therapeutic. It goes like this:

In the classical Christian culture of commitment, one renunciatory mode of control referred to the sexual opportunism of individuals. Contemporary churchmen may twist and turn it while they try to make themselves heard in a culture that renders preaching superfluous: the fact remains that renunciatory controls of sexual opportunity were placed in the Christian culture very near the center of the symbolic that has not held. Current apologetic efforts by religious professionals, in pretending that renunciation as the general mode of control was never dominant in the system, reflect the strange mixture of cowardice and courage with which they are participating in the dissolution of their cultural functions. Older Christian scholarship has known better than new Christian apologetics.

At bottom, only a single point was dealt with, abstinence from sexual relationships; everything else was secondary: for he who had renounced these found nothing hard. Renunciation of the servile yoke of sin (servile peccati iugum discutere) was the watchword of Christians, and an extraordinary unanimity prevailed as to the meaning of this watchword, whether we turn to the Coptic porter, or the learned Greek teacher, to the Bishop of Hippo, or Jerome the Roman presbyter, or the biographer of Saint Martin. Virginity was the specifically Christian virtue, and the essence of all virtues; in this conviction the meaning of the evangelical law was summed up.

Historically, the rejection of sexual individualism (which divorces pleasure and procreation) was the consensual matrix of Christian culture. It was never the last line drawn. On the contrary, beyond that first restriction there were drawn others, establishing the Christian corporate identity within which the individual was to organize the range of his experience. Individuality was hedged round by the discipline of sexuality, challenging those rapidly fluctuating imperatives established in Rome’s remissive culture, from which a new order of deprivations was intended to release the faithful Christian believer. Every controlling symbolic contains such remissive functions. What is revolutionary in modern culture refers to releases from inherited doctrines of therapeutic deprivation; from a predicate of renunciatory control, enjoining releases from impulse need, our culture has shifted toward a predicate of impulse release, projecting controls unsteadily based upon an infinite variety of wants raised to the status of needs. Difficult as the modern cultural condition may be, I doubt that Western men can be persuaded again to the Greek opinion that the secret of happiness is to have as few needs as possible. The philosophers of therapeutic deprivation are disposed to eat well when they are not preaching. It is hard to take Schopenhauer at his ascetic word when we know what splendid dinners he had put on, day after day, at the Hotel Schwan in Frankfort.

The central Christian symbolic was not ascetic in a crude renunciatory mode which would destroy any culture. Max Scheler described that culture accurately, I think, when he concluded that “Christian asceticism—at least so far as it was not influenced by decadent Hellenistic philosophy—had as its purpose not the suppression or even extirpation of natural drives, but rather their control and complete spiritualization. It is positive, not negative, asceticism—aimed fundamentally at a liberation of the highest powers of personality from blockage by the automatism of the lower drives.” That renunciatory mode, in which the highest powers of personality are precisely those which subserve rather than subvert culture, appears no longer systematically efficient. The spiritualizers have had their day; nowadays, the best among them appear engaged in a desperate strategy of acceptance, in the hope that by embracing doctrinal expressions of therapeutic aims they will be embraced by the therapeutics; a false hope—the therapeutics need no doctrines, only opportunities. But the spiritualizers persist in trying to maintain cultural contact with constituencies already deconverted in all but name.

What Rieff is saying here, sometimes amid thick jargon, is that what was distinctive about Christianity from the beginning is a spirit of asceticism, especially sexual asceticism. As Rieff makes clear, Christianity did not prescribe “crude” sexual renunciation (i.e., total denial of the sexual instinct), but rather controlling it, reining it in to make it serve higher spiritual purposes. If you can master your sex drive, the theory went, then you can master any other passions that, unreined, will destroy you and the possibility of community.

Rieff’s prophetic point is that Western culture has renounced renunciation, has cast off the ascetic spirit, and therefore has deconverted from Christianity whether it knows it or not. In bringing this up with my priest friend, I asked him why he thought sex was at the center of the Christian symbolic that has not held.

“It goes back to Genesis 1,” he said. “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then he told them to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ We see right there in the beginning the revelation that male and female, that complementarity, symbolizes the Holy Trinity, and in their fertility they carry out the life of the Trinity.”

In other words, from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible, gender complementarity and fertility are built into the nature of ultimate reality, which is God. Our role as human beings is to strive to harmonize our own lives with that reality, because in so doing we dwell in harmony with God.

“Do you know what the word ‘symbol’ means in the original Greek?” he asked. I said I did not.

“It means ‘to bring together,'” he said.

“To integrate,” I replied.

“Yes. Now, do you know what the antonym for symbol is?”


“It is diabolos, which means to tear apart, to separate, to throw something through another thing.”

“So when something is diabolic, it means it is a disintegrating force?”

“You could say that, yes,” he said. “All the time I’m dealing with the fallout from divorce and families breaking up. Kids who don’t know their fathers. You should hear these confessions. It’s a huge deal. You can see the loss of the sense of what family is for, and why it’s important.”

He said that the students he works with are so confused, needy, and broken. Many of them have never seen what a functional, healthy family looks like, and have grown up in a culture that devalues the fundamental moral, metaphysical, and spiritual principles that make stable and healthy family formation possible — especially the belief that the generative powers of sex, within male-female complementarity, is intimately related to the divine nature, and the ongoing life of the Trinity. Nobody has ever explained it to them, he says. If they’ve heard anything from the Church, it’s something like, “Don’t do this because the Bible says not to” — which is not enough in this time and place. And many of them have never, or have rarely, seen it modeled for them by the adults in their lives.

The Judith Butler essay brought that conversation to mind this morning, and reflection on the symbol/diabol distinction sent me online looking for more. Lo, the Google results give me this entry from a dating website, in which the author quotes from a bestselling 2004 book The Art of Seduction, by Robert Greene. From the website:

In the book, Greene talks about the importance of language in seducing someone. Seduction, as you know, is a matter of how and what you communicate to your target, and is thus, extremely important in your interactions.

Greene makes the distinction between two types of languages — symbolic and diabolic language. To quote him here:

“Most people employ symbolic language—their words stand for something real, the feelings, ideas, and beliefs they really have. Or they stand for concrete things in the real world. (The origin of the word “symbolic” lies in a Greek word meaning “to bring things together”—in this case, a word and something real.)
“As a seducer you are using the opposite: diabolic language. Your words do not stand for anything real; their sound, and the feelings they evoke, are more important than what they are supposed to stand for. (The word “diabolic” ultimately means to separate, to throw things apart—here, words and reality.) The more you make people focus on your sweet-sounding language, and on the illusions and fantasies it conjures, the more you diminish their contact with reality. You lead them into the clouds, where it is hard to distinguish truth from untruth, real from unreal.”

As an indirect seducer, you must focus on using diabolic rather than symbolic language. Your goal is to stimulate your target’s imagination, enveloping her into your spirit. Do this, and she will not be able to resist you.

There you have it. If nothing is real, then there is nothing but lies — that is to say, the manipulation of reality — and the pursuit of power. A worldview that believes in nothing real, only the will to power (expressed, for example, in deciding that your gender is what you say it is, and nothing more), is intrinsically diabolical. It scatters, it disintegrates, and makes the song of the world into senseless cacaphony.

This is our world today. The Russian Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, in his 1923 book The End of Our Time, wrote:

The middle ages safeguarded human powers and prepared the way for the splendour of the Renaissance. Man came to this flowering with mediaeval experience, mediaeval preparation, and all that was authentically great in the Renaissance had a bond with the Christian middle ages. Today man is going towards an unknown future with the experience of modern history and what led to it behind him; he is not full of creative enthusiasm, as at the beginning of the Renaissance, but exhausted, weak, without faith empty. All that gives us something to think about.

At the dawn of the Renaissance, says Berdyaev:

Man’s creative activity was then at its fullest in Catholicism, and the whole of the great European civilization, Latin above all, was grounded on the culture of Catholic Christianity, it had its roots in the Christian religion. This itself was already soaked in antiquity — to what an extent it had taken over the ancient culture is now recognized. That culture still lived in mediaeval Catholicism and by it was carried on into modern times. It was because of this that a renaissance in our history was possible. The Renaissance was not, as the Reformation was, against Catholicism. A tremendous human activity was afoot in the Church, it showed itself in the papal sovereignty, the domination of the world by the Church, the making of a vast mediaeval culture. In this, Catholicism is to be distinguished from Eastern Orthodoxy. Catholicism not only showed men the way to Heaven, it also fostered beauty and splendour upon earth. Therein is its great secret. By seeking first for Heaven and life everlasting there, it adds beauty and power to mortal life on earth. The asceticism of that Catholic world was an excellent training for work; it safeguarded and concentrated man’s creative powers. Mediaeval ascesis was a most effective school: it tempered the human spirit superbly, and throughout all modern history European man has lived on what he gained in that schooling. No other way os spirituality could have so tested and trained him. Europe is spending her strength extravagantly, she is exhausted; and she keeps some spiritual life only because of the Christian foundation of her soul. Christianity has gone on living in man in a secularized form, and it is she who has kept him from disintegrating completely.

He wrote that almost 100 years ago. Now there is virtually nothing standing in the way of that disintegration. Berdyaev once more:

The subsistence of human personality is impossible without the life-making stream of religious asceticism, which differentiates, which separates out, which puts first things first. And yet modern history has been built upon the illusion that personality can spread its wings without the help of these ascetic influences.

But putting “first things first,” Berdyaev means places the Logos as the ordering principle of all other things. All things can only be integrated because of God. This is the fundamental message of Dante’s Divine Comedy. 

This civilizational madness will have to run its course. We now have our leading scholars saying that women can have penises — and this is considered the highest wisdom. It is on the basis of this wisdom that our laws are being changed. It is diabolical, in the sense of being fundamentally about dis-integration. Depending on your point of view, it is diabolical in every sense of the word. You hear in Judith Butler the voice of the Seducer, the voice of the Diabolist. Hers is no longer a marginal voice, but rather one increasingly magnified by our mainstream media.

Signs of the times. The denial of Logos as an ordering principle, and asceticism as an ordering function, is leading to the disintegration of all things, including the family, and ultimately the human personality. The world accepts this. Even many in the church accepts this. If you are going to be part of the resistance, and one day far into the future, when the lies fail, a renaissance — then you had better make provision for surviving and thriving in the long defeat.



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