A Little Sex Talk

A pastoral letter on chastity issued this week by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, warns against the “misuse of sex” even inside the institution of marriage—that is, against sexual relations other than traditional intercourse between husband and wife.  The letter singles out pornography as an especial problem, stating that it is “reaching almost epidemic proportion.”  Amongst pornography’s evils, the letter also mentions, is the inducement to masturbation.

Intertwining throughout the document are the good, the bad, and the ugly, of the usual Christian attitudes toward sex.

It is not obvious, pace the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, that all erotic pursuits other than traditional intercourse need be unkind, or unexpressive of unconditional, self-giving love.

One example:

The first graphic description of sex in literature which made a strong impression on me was, by chance, the description of oral sex to be found in the ultimate chapter of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s historical murder-mystery My Name Is Red, set in late sixteenth-century Constantinople.  (Pamuk has, famously, run afoul of the Turkish authorities for calling a spade a spade, and acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of Turkey’s Armenian Christians as genocidal.)  I was eighteen and a newly-minted freshman when I read My Name Is Red, then newly-translated.  Thinking back, I did not care much at the time for the novel’s post-modernist use of multiple narrators, nor for its extremely stylized historical fictions.  But I do remember being struck by one of the novel’s concluding scenes, in which the principal protagonist, the miniaturist painter Kara (or “Black”—as in Kara-mazov), and his beloved Shekure (also the name of Pamuk’s mother), consummate their love.  Black is seriously wounded in the shoulder, which Shekure dresses.  She speaks:

… I warned Hayriye not to let the children upstairs.  I went up to the room where Black lay, locked the door behind me and cuddled up eagerly next to Black’s naked body.  Then, more out of curiosity than desire, more out of care than fear, I did what Black wanted me to do in the house of the Hanged Jew the night my poor father was killed.

I can’t say I completely understood why Persian poets, who for centuries had likened the male tool to a reed pen, also compared the mouths of us women to inkwells, or what lay behind such comparisons whose origins had been forgotten through rote repetition—was it the smallness of the mouth?  The arcane silence of the inkwell?  Was it that God Himself was an illuminator?  Love, however, must be understood, not through the logic of a woman like me who continually racks her brain to protect herself, but through its illogic….

While my mouth was thus occupied, my eyes could make out Black looking at me in a completely different way.  He said he’d never again forget my face and my mouth.  As with some of my father’s old books, his skin smelled of moldy paper, and the scent of the Treasury’s dust and cloth had saturated his hair.  As I let myself go and caressed his wounds, his cuts and swellings, he groaned like a child, moving further and further away from death, and it was then I understood I would become even more attached to him….

While I was confused as to whether the forearm I kissed was my own or his, whether I was sucking on my own finger or an entire life, he stared out of one half-opened eye, nearly intoxicated by his wounds and pleasure, checking where the world was taking him, and from time to time, he would hold my head delicately in his hands, and stare at my face astounded, now looking as if at a picture, now as if at a Mingerian whore….

“You can tell them you were spreading salve onto my wounds.” [1]

"Was it that God Himself was an illuminator?"

I cannot comment on the quality of the English translation, and do not wish to comment on whether this is or is not a “good sex scene.”  What I do want to point out is that Pamuk treats what Black and Shekure do with each other gently, and with compassion.

Black is seriously wounded, near the point of death, an association which is important to make: not only because, as a result of Shekure’s attentions, he moves “further and further away from death,” and because “salving wounds” becomes the couple’s euphemism for sex.  For in fact, as often as we choose to have sex, whether it be of a heterosexual or homosexual variety, vaginal, anal, or oral, we are implicitly acknowledging the power death possesses over us, and our own finitude.  This is true, crucially, even of sex which results in a child—the decision to procreate is at a basic level the decision to be replaced, by another life and another generation.  I am not saying that all sexual acts are equally beautiful or worthy of choice, but no sexual act is exempt from the status of a sign of our impending demise.  That is why virginity is a sign of our impending eternal life, and why a decent society includes any number of consecrated virgins.  Virginity is potentially a state of tremendous personal creativity; in which considerations of sexual orientation and preferences are secondary.  But by the same token, non-procreative sexual acts fundamentally share more in common with procreative, at least so far as the actors are concerned, than the bishops’ letter might care to admit.

Returning to Pamuk’s description of oral sex, one asks, does it enjoy a degree of verisimilitude?

Shekure, in the novel, has rejected Black’s previous advance as lustful and crude, which it probably was, and her primary motivations throughout revolve around the best interests of her family, the final chapter included.  We learn that her marriage to Black will not be free of difficulties; we learn that she does not derive equal pleasure from sex with Black, and from this one sexual act in particular.  And yet, she performs it as he has long desired.  Performing it she “understood [she] would become even more attached to him,” and she became confused which body parts belonged to whom.  The situation is a romantic one, though certainly not an ideal romance; the “unitive” function of sexuality moreover may be experienced apart from the procreative, albeit (always in Shekure’s view) imperfectly.

If we allow Pamuk to tell his story, and if we allow ourselves to examine our own lives and/or the lives of others, I think we have to conclude that oral sex, say, can, in certain situations, be both kind and expressive of love.  To give an ordinary pleasure to whom you love is not evil.

Unkindest Sin

If the bishops’ letter is hyperbolic and sickly politicized, it is not altogether incorrect.

Sex which is unkind, and unexpressive of love, surely is sinful.   One of the many brilliances of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—which is maybe worth thinking about because the sin which it recounts has since become, for the contemporary media, “the one unforgiveable sin”—is to confuse the distinction between manipulator and manipulated.  That is, a large part of the atrociousness of Humbert Humbert and Lolita’s relations is that each party is caught up, seemingly inextricably, in acts both of manipulating and being manipulated:

Sitting on a high stool, a band of sunlight crossing her bare brown forearm, Lolita was served an elaborate ice-cream concoction topped with synthetic syrup.  It was erected and brought her by a pimply brute of a boy in a greasy bow-tie who eyed my fragile child in her thin frock coat with carnal deliberation.  My impatience to reach Briceland and The Enchanted Hunters was becoming more than I could endure.  Fortunately she dispatched the stuff with her usual alacrity.

“How much do you have?” I asked.

“Not a cent,” she said sadly, lifting her eyebrows, showing me the empty side of her money purse. [2]

Are the relations contracted, just for example, between Calvin Klein and his latest boy toy, Nick Gruber, likely far removed from this?  Is the facial surgery for the twenty-year-old porn star so far removed from the ice cream sundae for the nymphette?

What Money Can Buy: The Two Faces of Nick Gruber

By singling out any and all masturbation, or oral sex, or anal sex, for absolute condemnation, the church hierarchy seem to be missing the forest for the trees.  There is a whole lot of genuine unchastity going on out there, most of all within ourselves, damaged as we are by our society’s ubiquitous pornography and voyeurism and body dysmorphia, and with terrible consequences for our actual love lives, to say nothing of our souls.  It is regrettable that the hierarchy currently lack the insight and the moral authority to address it convincingly.


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] Orhan Pamuk, My Name Is Red, trans. Erdağ M. Göknar (New York: Vintage International, 2001), pp. 408-09.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (New York: Vintage International, 1955), p. 115.

Published in: on January 29, 2011 at 8:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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“A Long and Happy Life”: E. Reynolds Price, In Memoriam

… [A]ll Rhodes Scholars didn’t have to fulfill—as I surely didn’t—Cecil Rhodes’s specific stipulation that his Scholars must demonstrate “a fondness for and success in manly sports.”  Once at Oxford, my own sport would become—very quickly—vigorous walking.  On average, even in heavy rain, I’d circumnavigate the perimeter of Christ Church Meadow at least once daily, well over a mile’s walk. [1]

Reading that in the opening pages of Reynolds Price’s 2009 memoir Ardent Spirits—chronicling the three years he spent in Oxford, and then his return to his native North Carolina, in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s—instantly produced in me a great affection for the author, who died this week at the age of 77.  Way back when, when like everyone else I was filling out an unhealthily large number of college applications, I invariably wrote “aggressive non-competitive walking” in the section on sport.  And a few years later, when I found myself, truly unexpectedly, in Oxford, I quickly developed the same habit which Price recounts in his memoir, since Christ Church Meadow is just across the street from my college, Pembroke.  The habit was fortunately contracted, too.  As a consequence of it I made the brief acquaintance of one of Oxford’s most curious recent inhabitants, an elderly and very likely perturbed Arab refugee woman, who refers to herself only as “Zoe,” and who spends an awful lot of time at Christ Church Meadow.  Her knowledge of Oxford’s many trees—which she sketches and re-sketches obsessively—and their individual personalities, is absolutely comprehensive.  It will, I suspect, get her into heaven.  For Christmas 2004 she gave me a small red laminated booklet of her poetry, which I still have, and keep in my icon corner.

My copy of Price’s memoir, which Edmund White reviewed here, also came to me as a gift.  The memoir’s real subject is happiness.

(“What is happiness?” I ask my students.  Glasses are placed in front of each, and two bottles of wine.  Mouths unhinge.)

In a partial answer to the question, Price tells the following anecdote concerning the death of Nevill Coghill’s mother.  Coghill taught English literature at Price’s Merton College and served him in the capacity of a thesis examiner:

Lady Coghill had chosen an inconvenient time to die since Nevill was, I believe, serving as a Schools examiner—whatever, he had urgent duties in Oxford.  He hired a small airplane to fly him from a tiny field in Oxfordshire to the family estate in rural Ireland; but when he arrived, his mother was in a final deep sleep or coma.  He waited with his other muted kin as long as he possibly could before having to return to his professional duties; then he went to in to kiss her sleeping head goodbye.  She showed no response and he turned to leave quietly.  As he touched the latch of her door, though, there came the sudden sound of her voice: “Nevill.”  He turned to see her behind him, half-risen in bed.  She lifted a frail hand and pointed toward him strongly.  “Nevill, remember—I only regret my economies.”

As he finished his story in the dimming room, I could see that his bright eyes had filled.  I stood to leave, knowing that I’d heard a crucial sentence—wisdom indeed, from a dying woman, brought forward by her son who was way past old enough to be my father.  Few things I’ve heard have ever been wiser or of greater use in my own long life; and I pass the story on, every chance I get, to my younger friends and students—the story and the words it embodies (with a pronoun change): You’ll only regret your economies[2]

If taken literally, such a statement would of course be absurd: there are many occasions on which we must be sparing.  Nor is this statement a sentimental example of “cheap grace”: Nevill Coghill was once in the trenches of the First World War, and so can be safely assumed to have known whereof he spoke.  But still the captured thought remains, ancient, possibly antiquated, yet absolutely universal, and the point at which the natural law draws closest to touching the supernatural.  If you would be happy, you must first be generous with your self to others.  In happiness there is no economizing.  If you would be happy, you must first lose your self in something larger than your self.  And if happiness eventually comes in a certain sense involuntarily, it nevertheless requires an initial, voluntary decision, one which is surprisingly difficult to make, not to get in its way (in which doctrine both the Desert Fathers and the Jesuits quite marvelously concur).

For most people, I believe, the “something which is larger than their own selves” is their children.  For Price, that something was the backwoods North Carolina and Carolinians about whom he wrote and whom he taught in the course of his whole life.  For Clifford Stoll, that something is making Klein bottles and catching KGB spies.  For Nico Muhly and Jónsi, that something is musical composition and performance, punctuated by properly ecstatic moments—“Boy Lilikoi” is Francis of Assisi.  For the monk, chanting “his interminable, tinny, nasal, gabbled Kyrie eleisons,” or the sutras of Far-Eastern religion, that something is, in a relatively direct and unmediated way, divinity itself.

Reading about Price’s “ardent spirits”—that is, moonshine—helped to impress on my own mind a plain, minimally adorned, and uniquely New-World sort of nobility.  Price has the Oxford love, but without the pretension.  He talks about the spinal cancer which rendered him quasi-paraplegic with as much humorous good cheer as with genuine pain.  The impression of nobility is, moreover and of necessity, not invulnerable.  Throughout the book Price returns again and again, in such a way as to leave the reader not quite convinced that he really had attained the emotional peace he claimed, to the fact that the first and great love of his life was straight, and thus never was able to reciprocate Price’s feelings for him with perfect equality.

Recounting their travels in Italy during the Easter vac of 1956, Price makes this comment:

We invested more hours in the Uffizi, the Baptistery, the Duomo, the Accademia, the Medici Chapel and palace, and the Piazza della Signoria; and I was further reminded of my satisfaction in accompanying Michael to galleries and other sites—he enjoyed beauty in the way I most admire and find it easiest to travel with, which is to say that he loved it rather silently; it affected his actions, not his chatter. [3]

Happiness does require generosity with our selves, but it does not require us to be loud.  Price, significantly, did not wear his sexual orientation on his sleeve, not because he was afraid or maladjusted—he got out of military service because he told the military exactly who and what he was—but because he understood that “chatter” does not make for a sound theo-/anthropology.

Whereas the “gay community” so-called is deafened by so much chatter—also this week, on a dark note, I learned of the existence of Grindr—can we not rather imitate all the good in this man’s long and happy life?

"Portrait of Reynolds Price," Will Wilson, 1998

Grant rest, O Lord …


Victor de Villa Lapidis

[1] E. Reynolds Price, Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back (New York: Scribner, 2009), pp. 23-24.

[2] Ibid., pp. 286-87.

[3] Ibid., p. 120.

Published in: on January 22, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Disagreement Between Friends, III

Part 3: The Law of Nature and the Law of the Church

To understand and make use of the perduring sense of “the two laws”—the lex naturalis and the lex christiana—is our central challenge.

In earlier posts in this series, “The Necessity of Dogma” and “The Priority of Scripture,” I tried both to defend the value which conservatives attach to the traditional sources of authority in the Church, and also to defend the skepticism with which liberals point out that these sources of authority do not settle the Queer Question.  For the infallible teachings of the Church are indeed few and far between, and the New Testament does not talk about anything that we would regard as a monogamous homosexual relationship.

There can be no doubt, however, that the Church’s canon law and penitential discipline, and the traditional understanding of natural law or natural right which the Church has assumed, do prohibit any sort of homosexual relationship, as well as any non-procreative sexual activity generally.  The rhetorical legacy of “the sin against nature” still trickles down, moreover, even into the most secular of contemporary contexts.   In its amicus brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas, the American Psychiatric Association found it relevant to cite a 1999 study demonstrating the existence of homosexual behavior in approximately 450 different animal species.  (Not the least of them being the chinstrap penguins, made famous by the years-long courtship of Silo and Roy at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo.)

For the queer Christian, two problems arise.  The first is the tendency to reject altogether and even belittle the Church’s tradition of natural-law ethical reflection.  John Boswell seems to do just that in his introduction to Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, where he asserts that “[t]he scientific, philosophical, and even moral considerations which underlay this [natural-law] approach have since been almost wholly discredited and are consciously rejected by most educated persons.” [1] Not only would that be astonishing news to a (politically diverse) host of twentieth-century worthies—in the English-speaking world alone, names like Finnis, MacIntyre, Nussbaum, Bloom, Strauss, Voegelin, and Arendt, all spring immediately to mind—it would also belie the public’s evident interest in mentioning penguins in connection with opposition to Texas’ anti-sodomy law.

The second problem is the tendency in the other direction, that is, adhering to the letter of traditional natural-law theory and canonical law and discipline, without regard for their spirit, or awareness of their historical context.  Fr. Erickson, in the introduction to his anthology The Challenge of Our Past, caricatured such people in the Church, and accurately, as believing that “the Pedalion fell from heaven on Pentecost, along with the Typikon and other such vital compendia of rules and regulations.” [2] Sad to say, but when Pope Benedict XVI—or at any rate his fan club—characterizes anything in modernity which falls short of his idea of Christian society, as a “dictatorship of relativism,” as if there were no intermediate positions, both he and they are no more persuasive than the bearded Orthodox zealot who labels a modest reform of the liturgical calendar as heresy.

Born Under the Law: The Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord, January 1st

I will make some preliminary comments about each problem in turn.  Given the problems’ extent, and centrality, I expect I will return to them again and again.

Pages: 1 2 3

Published in: on January 16, 2011 at 12:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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