(Sacristy towel rack at Cathedral of St. Joseph the Workman, La Crosse, Wis.)
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely
The pangs of despised love…
The book is called “50 Shades of Grey” written by TV executive E.L. James and it’s apparently leaving quite a dust in its wake. It’s being kicked about as the latest political football in the culture wars and has raised as many eyebrows for who’s reading it as for its content. A genre of erotic literature, it is attracting women of all sorts because it’s heroine, Anastasia Steel, is drawn sympethetically. A young women in search of love – and finding Christian Grey (I’m not making these names up!), a powerful young executive with a penchant for whips and chains.
First there were “mommy bloggers” and now, thanks to 50 Shades, there’s “mommy porn.” I pray that never the twain shall meet.
But the books – there’s a trilogy of them - while clearly meant to draw a new line in the sand for sexual politics are also a barometer of our culture’s loss of creature, of mystery and of manners. This loss is nowhere clearer than in the cultural saturation of pornography. The more sexual “freedom” we gain the more we lose any sense of ritual’s place in relations between the sexes. The prevailing – and often conflicting – concerns for equality, individuality and pleasure not only prevent courtship from occurring and have bottomed out relations between the sexes to the lowest, rawest and most explicit denominators: flesh and fornitication. These same forces have rendered men as boys incapable of courting women and likewise leaves women lonely and desperate for some sort of courtship ritual. I am reminded of what Mary Eberstadt, quoting Roger Scruton, recently pointed out in her excellent work “Adam and Eve after the Pill” (a review of which will be arriving anon):
“…Roger Scruton has put the paradox about men and pornography memorably, ‘This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk fo another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world whre only love brings happiness.”
But reversing course on this matter is a bit like trying to stop an ocean liner on a dime.
Enter E.L. James, whose BDSM themes do nothing more than reinforce the fact that porn is here to stay – but with this difference, that unlike the conventional [sic] hard core pornography, BDSM requires that participants, as Wikipedia notes (I dare not look anywhere else for the info – and even Wiki’s got some rather disquieting images to accompany its text), take on “complementary, but unequal roles, thus the idea of consent of both the partners becomes essential.” Thus, the BDSM relationship serves as a bad imitation of the traditional courting ritual between the sexes.
I haven’t read the trilogy and don’t intend to, but Carolyn Moynihan over at Crisis has stared into the abyss long enough for us (although it’s not clear whether she made it through the entire trilogy herself) and come back with much to tell about James’ literary efforts. She complains, rightfully so, that the explicit nature of the material eclipses any literary effort invovled.
“The problem for those of us who wouldn’t touch this stuff with a barge-pole — let alone download it onto our iPad — is its popularity,” Moynihan writes. “It has been dubbed ‘mommy porn’ because it is allegedly being devoured by ‘mainstream’ and ‘suburban’ women over 30 and not just by young urbanites. It even has its academic apologists. Two of them writing on the CNN website invoke ‘the novel’s compelling relevance’ and suggest that its ‘abundant references to classic literature unlock a subtler commentary [than its fan-fiction origins suggest] on enduring obstacles to women’s individual freedom and rights.’ The classic references include Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
Perhaps the popularity could also be a sign of the culture attempting to address the fact that because manchilds are not quite connecting with women, James’ readers see Ana Street as the spokeswoman for all those lonely women looking for a romantic connection at any cost. The disconnect between men and women, as Eberstadt points out in her book, is precisely due to the prevalence of porn – one of several rotten fruit, she says, of our sexual mores’ upset apple cart. “…[I]t is surely the sexual revolution that is the prime mover,” she writes, of sexual immaturity among men and a disparing attitude toward romance by women. “This seems so for two reasons,” Eberstadt continues. “First, it has led to an atrophying of the protective instinct in many men – because many have nothing to protect. The powerful majority desire for recreative rather than procreative sex has led not only to a marriage dearth, but also to a birth dearth; as the old saying correctly goes, ‘Adults don’t make babies; babies make adults.’”
So what, then, is James trying to provide women in her stories? Again, Moynihan is helpful here in peering through the keyhole to the goings on in Christian Gray’s world. While Moynihan proposes that the popularity of the trilogy can be attributed to ”the herd mentality among an entertainment and titillation focused public that sends people stampeding after the latest daring foray into forbidden subjects, whether blasphemy or bondage,” she dismisses the proposal that the work has a literary pedigree.
“Frankly, I think James has a cheek to even mention Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre and Tess in the context of an SM relationship, whose object is depraved sensual pleasure,” she writes. “Whatever male ‘power’ they contended with in their very different ways, they were women of moral sensitivity who aspired to married love and, to a woman, would have been revolted by the Shades of Grey conceit.”
True enough. But consider: Could it be that James’ work is attempting to flesh out (pun intended) the grammar of that “moral sensitivity” which Bennet, Eyre and Tess possessed and were guided in large part by? Fleshing out, in fact, in a way that your average Harlequin romance or other bodice rippers cannot? As I’ll discuss in a bit, the BDSM comes with its own social norms and mores – and could it be that James – consciously or otherwise – has tapped into that deep well in women which desires to see that same sort of “moral sensitivity” – even if it’s not quite in keeping with the tastes of the Regency or Early or Late Victorian England.
But you can’t give what you don’t have – especially if you already gave away what you wish you had again. So there’s no question that we can see the BDSM culture as even a pale reflection of true society any more than a vampire can expect to see anything but the mirror when he looks into it. Indeed, thanks to the Sexual Revolution, the social norms in 18th-19th century England were vastly different from what we have today. But if BDSM is not society then neither is much of what passes for culture today true culture, a point Eberstadt makes in her book:
“Ubiquitously, it seems, those who were once husbands and fathers and providers have traded in their ties and insurance cards for video games and baseball hats worn backwards. It is a message that the popular culture also broadcasts nonstop – from vehicles for women like Sex in the City and The View to those popular among men, including such commercially successful examples as the Jackass franchise, the Spike channel, and just about every comedy about idiot males to issue from Hollywood in recent memory.”
Which brings us back to the question of what makes Ana Steele such an atrractive heroine for women? To answer that, let us look at her motivations. Again, not having read the work, I can only speculate. But it seems that Eberstadt might have the answer in her analysis of the Sexual Revolution’s marvellous failure to produce anything but monsters such as Christian Gray. Moynihan states that if women are eating up the Gray trilogy, it is a sign that things have come to a bad pass indeed for women in America. “The pornification of sex,” she points out, “if it has truly captured the imagination of wives and mothers, is a path to personal and social oblivion.”
And yet, as Eberstadt notes, the Sexual Revolution has rendered American society fertile ground for just such a view of sex. ‘Today’s revolution against traditional marriage amounts to two charges made repeatedly, almost always by women and with many echoes elsewhere in contemporary sources: first, that the combined pressures of motherhood and marriage and breadwinning are just too much to bear; and second, that many of today’s marriages – that is to say, marriages made among enlightened, older, educated, sophisticated popele – are sexual deserts” (Emphasis mine).
Doesn’t it seem that Christian Gray redresses both these charges in his “Red Room of Pain” – by enabling Ana to give her self exclusively to Gray with plenty of sex, even meaningful and playful sex – in a context where roles and ends are clearly defined?
Furthermore, Eberstadt declares the war of the sexes over and the winner is – no one.
“There are no more sexes, only lists of chores that one gender unit mysteriously does better than the other” and in a more literal sense “because contemporary man, many comtemporary women charge, has lost interest in sex” (Emphasis mine).
Christian Gray takes the mystery out of the gender confusion by showing a fervid – some would say excessive – interest in sex. Perhaps I am saying nothing more than this – that it is easy to see why the female imagination might be ensnared by James’ work. But I would like to push it a step further and recall two other fictions, one classic (it is at least recognized as canonical) and one which is a modern cult-classic. I am speaking of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Brett Easton-Ellis’ American Psycho.
It is the central thesis of E. Michael Jones’ book Monsters from the Id: The Rise of Horror in Fiction and Film that the cause for the rise in horror as a major genre of literature and film has been the undermining of natural law in the individual and in society. The book – perhaps the best written on the subject – is rife with examples. Does culture condone abortion and pornography? We have a film which helps us work through this horror: Alien. Has modern thought rationalized what is evil into what is good - such as adultery and incest? We have a story for that too: Frankenstein. Is society feeling a bit queasy about sexual libertinism? Let’s look at Dracula and make sense of it, shall we? In each case, the monster created is an avenger out to unmask, wittingly or not, the unnatural and depraved state of society while at the same time hinting at some sort of – dare I say it? – korrektiv.
Jones does a good job especially of documenting Mary Shelly’s troubled relationship with her lust-crazed husband Percy Bythe Shelly (not to mention her batty mother, an Ur-Gloria Steinem who believed in polyandry inter alia). It’s too bad he had not taken up Easton-Elllis’ work in his book. Whereas Frankenstein channels the myth of Prometheus to reveal the depths of human depravity – science eaten by its own “quest for fire” – in Easton-Ellis’ 1991 novel (I never saw the film) the anti-hero and possible psychopath Patrick Bateman attempts to rip the mask off the excesses, as he saw it, of Yuppiedom in the 1980s through an overlay of Dante’s Hell. Although the correspondences are somewhat vague, and the ending anything but conclusive, it is clear that the rank abuse and objectification, whether real or imagined, is meant to touch the nerve that lies raw just below the consumer instinct and says, This stuff is just stuff. Is this all there is?
Here’s what the author had to say about his work: “[Bateman] was crazy the same way [I was]. He did not come out of me sitting down and wanting to write a grand sweeping indictment of yuppie culture. It initiated because my own isolation and alienation at a point in my life. I was living like Patrick Bateman. I was slipping into a consumerist kind of void that was supposed to give me confidence and make me feel good about myself but just made me feel worse and worse and worse about myself. That is where the tension of “American Psycho” came from.”
Bateman’s story is an attempt to get a handle on the male “consumer” – and the novel is flawed, I think, for trying too hard to convey this notion through the depravities that Bateman visits on his female victims. I imagine the same sort of excess destroys the literary pretensions of 50 Shades as well. Nonetheless all those men who have turned in their credentials to manhood and fatherhood for unlimited access to the Spike Channel and the Spice Channel are in some sense represented by Mr. Bateman (it’s even hiding there in his name – get it?).
Is it too much of a leap of logic to assume that Ana Steel could be the female response to the Patrick Bateman’s in the world? (Her first name, by the way, means “resurrection.”)
Moynihan in her essay on 50 Shades of Gray and Eberstadt in her chapter on porn in Adam and Eve both conclude on a hopeful note.
For Moynihan, it’s a matter of numbers.
“But, so what if a few million women read the sick fantasies of a television executive?” she asks. “There are roughly 3.5 billion women in the world, and when the erotica boom has finally spent itself there will be more than enough of them still with their wits and dignity to carry on the work of love and civilisation that women in particular are equipped to do.”
Likewise, Eberstadt also places hope in hope – although one that possesses a more theological framework.
“‘Where sin increased,’ as Paul’s Letter to the Romans has it, ‘grace aboundeth all the more’ (5:20),” she writes. “The record of what pornography has wrought shows that kind of abundance too, though it may not yet be an issue of academic study…Look at energy fuleing all those atttempts to repair the damage done – the turns to counseling, therapists, priests, pastors and other working in these awful trenches to help the addicted get their real lives back.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether this hope will translate into the sort of cultural crucible necessary to cure women of their loneliness and men of their immaturity. But in the meantime, we should understand that just as Patrick Bateman will be written into the contemporary literary canon as the Everyman of today, so too, Ana Steel will remain a barometer of exactly how lonely women are - and how the abuses of the Sexual Revolution have borne fruit.
In the book of Genesis, God made man and woman and saw that it was good. Adam and Eve, I’d like you to meet Patrick Bateman and Ana Steel. They’re pikers, of course, in the sin department, but since they’re your children and the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree, I think they’re worth paying attention to – if only to learn how to work out own redemption – perhaps even with whips and chains.
*I just can’t bring myself to steal Mr. Lickona’s excellent signature feature. But being a writer, I have no problem appropriating.
…I dreamed up a cartoon. Not so long ago, I got around to drawing it.
…and we can’t help but listen:
”The term mystery is generally applied to situations in which there is no immediate answer and in these cases a mystery is something that seeks a solution. The searcher or researcher keeps probing in anticipation that an answer will be found and the mystery will be solved. That’s the situation in the society in which we live – we expect that every single mystery is going to be resolved, that we can pinpoint and come to an explanation for every single thing that exists, every single problem, for every single situation and thought.
“Mysteries have to be resolved, and because we live in an age of television and instant communication, most mysteries have to be solved within 60 minutes – given a little time for commercials. That’s not possible! That just doesn’t happen when you’re dealing with the sacred mysteries, the mysteries of God. God is not a problem to which we need to find an answer; our relationship with God is not a problem for which we need to seek a solution.
“Sacred mystery draws us to desire to know God. Our desire to know God leads us to indeed know him and to draw ourselves closer to him, and God makes himself accessible to us in Jesus Christ. I say this to the kids all the time, ‘Look into the mirror and you’ll see how smart God is because this is what God looks like.’ God is so smart that he chose to come among us looking like us, because you never know where you’re going to see Jesus. He’s sitting right next to you and looks just like you. How wonderful and awesome is God.”
- Bishop William P. Callahan, Tenth Bishop of La Crosse, Wis., delivered during the 2011 (diocesan) Catechetical Conference: “Transforming Hearts to Christ…Both Mine and Others,” Aquinas High School, La Crosse, Wis., July 30.
A short story writer AND cartoonist (hey, we’ve got one of those around here somewhere, don’t we?)?
According to the blabberage of a recent UK Guardian piece – come to our attention via the goodfolk at Dappled Things, Ms. O’Connor might very well have done landed hesself on the pages of a certain illustriously insular and urbane readery as well known for its cartoned Goofuses as for its fictional Gallants. A good literary “What if…?” proposition, at any rate.
Nowadays you get a lame quiz from a smart ass with some f-bombs and that is what? Comedy? I’ll show you comedy in a handful of dust. There is no spirit there. How do you send terror into a legion of demons with this? – Cubeland Mystic.
All gifts are freighted with a certain terror for those mundane devils of the world, infected as they are by the metastasis of self-interest. And this is so with the gift of beauty foremost. So the point, of course, is not simply to send terror into legion, but once terrorized to cast legion over the edge.
Among writers, some of us practice these gifts with the sturdy tissue of words girding an edifice of lines and rhymes; others with a rail-splitting sense of dialogue firmly planted in the trackbed and soil of place; still others with flesh-and-grass insights into the human condition as sharp as a scythe’s edge; some with a mother-wit as profound as Jacob’s Well; others with the beautiful sense of comic crises – comic because Christian, critical because human – informing the landscape of the memory punctuated by pools of grace and streams of desire.
In short, the demons run from beauty because beauty is pure – and as filthy as our loins are and as scrofulous our flesh – that same intricate knit of body and soul is human and lovable and worthy of redemption, worthy of that purity because beauty itself, truth itself, love itself embodied such purity, and once known, exhibited that purity to all the world at high noon in a dry dusty place. Withering yet triumphant at the precise moment of death, humanity, body and soul, was transformed forever.
But even before God condescended to serve as the human billboard for redemption - he knew that the demons were attempting to make an end run around the mystery. But God, of course, always has the last laugh.
And he asked him: What is thy name? And he saith to him: My name is Legion, for we are many. And he besought him much, that he would not drive him away out of the country. And there was there near the mountain a great herd of swine, feeding. And the spirits besought him, saying: Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them. And Jesus immediately gave them leave. And the unclean spirits going out, entered into the swine: and the herd with great violence was carried headlong into the sea, being about two thousand, and were stifled in the sea.
In the transformation of the flesh, we are drawn not toward Gerasene, but it seems in an opposite but equally fitting way. St. Bernard says this of the faithful – represented by the Bride, the Church, in his 21st sermon on the Song of Songs: “[The Bride] requests…to be drawn, because ‘your righteousness is like the mountains of God,” and she cannot attain to it of her own strength. She requests to be drawn because she knows that no one comes to you unless your Father draws him.”
In our acts of making, then, we do not celebrate our flesh in its natural gravity, to be “stifled in the sea,” a natural gravity which in any case must be overcome by the comic lightness of Christ; but it is the very comedy of our flesh – struggling to gain God’s mountain through the arc that sources in Homer as in Hopkins, and which Dante rendered explicit – that we get to work with our tools and talents.
We chronicle the hours and seasons that our Christ delivers us daily from our demons. That’s the unique perspective, it seems, of the Christian writer. Every moment an opportunity for grace; every season an opportunity to represent, imitate, and in other ways render that grace palpable to the senses – and our sense of humour.
It was not for nothing that Christ cast legion into a semblance of human flesh, a perverse verisimilitude of man’s ingrained image of God, an exaggerated facsimile of the elements, proportions and features with which the Lord crafted the human face. It was Christ’s way of saying, “Now that’s funny!” Why funny? Because all in all, Legion sought shelter from grace in flesh, an image, a face, destined for destruction, abject and brute, unclean and committed to death. It could not, it seems, distinguishe one creature from another, one shape from another, one form from another. It was ugly and it knew no beauty and its very ugliness became incarnate in the swine.
But with countervailing instincts our talents still obtain and maintain the power of beauty. Even amid the ugly. Even amid the swine. Man and woman were conjoined to participate in the act of creation through marriage. In a similar way, the writer is conjoined with the comic stuff of the world. Even Shakespeare’s darkest comedy retained a comic lightness – perhaps to keep bawdy humanity grounded in the body that was God’s body too. Indeed, the writer’s castigations and exorcisms can be dramatic and – as the swine’s fate at Gerasene was meant at once to be terrible and hilarious – as risibly crude or visibly glorious as our human conditions can dream up. One of the consolations outside of Eden’s eastern gates is our ability to retain he gift of laughter. We learn from Christ to send our own demons headlong over the desperate cliffs from which they syllogize and declaim their solopsistic squeals of self-slaughter. We learn, also, to laugh, even if sometimes that laughter is low and guarded, grim and self-effacing. It is never a laughter that refuses to serve; it is always a laughter that understands.
The world marvels or hides behind its temple curtains because it does not know how to laugh in the face of death; but because the Christian does know, he fears nothing but God and boldly proclaims beauty in the face of the monstrous and grotesque. There’s nothing new to all this, of course. And these musings are a long winded way – uphill or down mountain, who knows? – to gain a foothold among the seven storeys. If nothing else.
And perhaps even as we look at today’s dithyrambic poets and satirical rhetoricians, even in their temeritous, middle-finger-wagging flight from the heaping shadow of God’s grandeur, headlong for the sea, these bunches and scads - I don’t say herds - must recognize God’s grandeur for what it is. And it is for this reason that even so, Christians can afford to laugh.
Inspired by Jack Bauer and a comment by SEP, I’ve shown a bit more of my hand – or would that be a trotter?
For that reason, I hope everyone here at the Korrektiv makes some timie to visit Joyce Uhlir over at West Central Wisconsin Catholic.
Ms. Uhlir was kind enough to go through the trouble to hunt down me and then my editors for permission to reprint one of my articles from our diocesan newsaper. She’s doing good work up Nort’ of us here in southwestern Badgerland.
And look! Better than stamps or coins or missionaries’ shrunken heads, the WCWC folks collect - Stained Glass windows!
As a side note, (the image under discussion is a bit provocative, so for those queasy about too much flesh – even tastefully done – a forwarning!) speaking of Rachel weeping for her children, here’s this with an explanation here. Stirring, to say the least. And a sign of hope, if Mr. Gjertson’s talent is a sign of anything…