Monthly Archives: January 2015

Myrrha and Cinyras meet on Facebook

Tuesday 20 January 2015

A curious article appeared in a hipster magazine a week ago. Therein was reported the story of a Midwestern woman, barely legal (as the saying goes), in love with her own father, a love he claims to requite. Let us take the tale as true; if false, we will be relieved.

The back story is wretched. Eighteen years ago a young man and young woman went to their high school prom together. Later that night she conceived. They cohabited for a while but the young father abandoned the family and the mother suffered progressive emotional disorders. Grandparents assisted in rearing the baby. As she grew the father made intermittent attempts to see and spend time with her; he sent occasional presents and made brief visits, but her mother prevented any meaningful contact. The mother and father each engaged in serial failed relationships through the years. During a lonely and chaotic childhood the girl clung to an idea of her father. When she was seventeen he contacted her through Facebook. They began spending time together. She went to visit him where he was living with a girlfriend. There she gave up her virginity to him. They moved out of the girlfriend’s house and now room with a former lover of his, who is at ease with their relationship. So, it seems, are the girl’s paternal grandparents and her best friend. She says she has found her soulmate, a once-lost part of herself, and now feels complete. She paraded him at her own high school prom. Father and daughter are engaged, having sex, and planning their wedding, after which they will move to New Jersey where incest is not prosecuted. They look forward to having children together. She declares her ecstatic joy.

This ecstasy blinds her to the horror she is in and to the far greater horrors awaiting her. But we see and foresee them. Her father’s depredation and depravity are hidden from her. But not from us. Oedipus famously blinded himself upon recognizing the hideous truth of his incestuous love. This real-life case is worse than a scene from Chinatown. We pray that no children issue from this coupling. For her we are anguished, hoping that she can somehow escape sheer catastrophe. For the father there can be no pity.

In an ancient Semitic myth, adapted by the Greeks, a young princess, Myrrha, fell hopelessly in love with her father, Cinyras, the king. She detested even the thought of young suitors her age. She confessed her wicked desire to her nurse and confidante who was at first revolted, but when the princess seemed bent on suicide, the nurse facilitated a liaison (always, a nurse). She told the king of a young noblewoman, unnamed, who was mad with lust for him but out of shame wished to conceal her identity. He, flattered and eager, arranged with the nurse to bring the lady to his bed in the dark of night while the queen was away for some days at a religious festival. Each night the nurse led the princess into her father’s room where they enjoyed unbridled sex. On the last night the king, overcome by curiosity about his lover’s identity and looks, suddenly lit a lamp he had ready. As he beheld in horror his own child in his own bed, he drew his sword to kill her. She fled, he pursuing. She escaped and wandered, pregnant, for nine months to Arabia. At last, too weary to continue, she begged the gods for mercy. They in pity turned her into a myrrh tree, her tears becoming drops of fragrant resin. As the metamorphosis neared completion, the child was born, a boy. He smelled so sweetly that the goddess of sexual desire adopted him and saw to his rearing. When he was old enough she and he became lovers. He died horribly.

The laws of the gods are those things which three thousand generations of our kind have learned to be true. We cannot say just why they are true, but we know they are. We know, too, that fury and nemesis hound those who violate these laws. Even in Jersey.

The authoress of the New York article writes a “What It’s Like” feature on alternate lifestyles and sexual preferences. Bestiality, for example. Her reportage in this case is hip and cool, passing no judgment. Clinical jargon, however, betrays a will to accept. “Genetic sexual attraction” and “consensual incest” help us avert our stare from the truth of this freak show. And so does her citation of Keith Pullman, whose Full Marriage Equality blog encourages marital anarchy, especially between family members: “The global definition of marriage should be as follows: ‘The uniting of consenting individuals in a witnessed ceremony.'” That is, marriage is what any compact of adults (more or less) decide what it is for them. More precisely, people should be free to call whatever sexual relationships they have “marriage,” mutual consent and a witnessed ceremony the only requirements. At least Myrrha and Cinyras did not pretend it was marriage.

Samantha Allen in the Daily Beast quickly takes down this pseudo-science farce. She further faults Pullman for borrowing arguments used to qualify same-sex unions as marriage in order to claim the same status for incestuous and all other conceivable sexual relationships. But he has every reason to do so. Arguments and rhetoric of racial civil rights campaigns were and still are employed in demands to recognize same-sex unions as marriages, despite their inaptness. Warnings about unintended consequences of redefining marriage were not merely unheeded; the warners themselves were scourged, shunned, silenced. And now marriage redefiners grasp for arguments to prevent others from enjoying the fruits of their great achievement. They have left themselves none.

This pitiable young woman is a victim of their success.


But will you love me tomorrow?

Tuesday 13 January 2013

Is sex a lasting treasure, or just a moment’s pleasure?

A slight change to Carole King’s lyrics gets right to the point of her song and also of Conjugal Union. What Marriage Is and Why it Matters by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George.

The sexual revolution was a surrender of marriage to hedonism. This capitulation was justified by pronouncing marriage a failed institution, a repressive rapist regime, a worn-out construct that no longer fit modern reality. In its place, free love, shacking up, and open marriage, much more thrilling, more fulfilling. Murphy Brown required no redundant male parental unit to help raise her child. Swift and easy divorce spares us acknowledgment of our faults. Many Boomers boast of this transformation of the family, our liberation of ourselves and future generations from those shackles upon our happiness. We uncoupled sex from marriage. Marriage now is what we choose to call it, lasting as long as we feel satisfied in it or until we get a better offer.

But many others rue the social and political changes our generation wrought, changes whose damages we now must try to undo. Resources are needed for this. To understand the real nature and the good of marriage, to defend marriage from downward definition, to find principled, clear, and convincing reasons for the restoration of marriage, and to return meaning to sex, this book is indispensable.

Definition is the core problem. Expanding on What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Lee and George argue that marriage is a unique relationship: the comprehensive, exclusive, permanent, biologically sexual, social, emotional, and spiritual union of one man and one woman oriented toward procreation. Marriage cannot be defined in any other way. Other kinds of relationships share certain features with marriage (common residence, caring for children, mutual affection, sexual intercourse, etc.), but this does not qualify them as marriages. To extend the term to other relationships destroys its whole meaning.

The authors’ argument against including other associations such as same-sex partnerships and polyamorous arrangements in the term “marriage” is strictly logical and ethical. They acknowledge their personal religiosity but allow it no place in this presentation. They do not criticize same-sex preferences per se, but rationally show why homosexual sex acts cannot be naturally complete as necessary for marriage; only male-female sexual intercourse can be so. This is so because male-female sexual congress, as Lee and George repeat, is biologically oriented to the joint creation of new life and the rearing of children. This inescapable fact is the essence of the meaning of marriage. Opponents will attempt as an analogy that many man-woman couples cannot beget children but are still married. But this is to confuse what marriage does in particular cases with what marriage is in principle and in nature.

The authors demolish the legal arguments for considering same-sex and other kinds of relationships as marriages. They articulate how the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment have been wrongly interpreted by justices in same-sex “marriage” challenges and they show how there is no way for judges to avoid making arbitrary and unfair decisions when they attempt to broaden the definition of marriage.

Lee and George restrict themselves, properly, to narrow legal reasoning. I would have liked to see a refutation of the underlying assumption in most cases: that same-sex preference is equivalent to being of African descent and that to forbid “marriage equality” (a euphemism) is to deny a civil right. The “born this way” premise, that one’s sexual preferences are as congenital and unchangeable as one’s racial characteristics, is a foundation of sand. We will find no homosexual gene nor will a Laplander ever come out as a Nigerian. Comparison to the Loving v. Virginia case, which challenged anti-miscegenation laws, also fails the test of simple logic. Assume that same-sex preference is, like race, genetically determined. To be analogous to Loving, a same-sex attracted person would have to be denied and then claim legal right to marry a heterosexual person. This is of course absurd.

We have experimented with sex and marriage. We have tried to detach the meaning of one from the meaning of the other. This is no cause for self-congratulation. We have confused ourselves and are now passing that confusion on to our posterity.  Conjugal Union helps us — forces us — to admit the experiment’s failure and to do all we can to repair the damage it has caused.



Remember James Powell and Lt Thomas Gilligan?

Wednesday 7 January 2015

I’d been away for some time at the University of East Anglia (motto: “Do Different”)  where I spoke at a convention on the Role of the Village Idiot in Society.  It was a good meeting. We all came away with fresh energy and commitment to the practice of idiocy in our own villages. Upon my return to these shores, though, news of violence and turmoil over the deaths of two young men at police hands and of two young policemen assassinated by a vicious loser cast my thoughts back in time …

Boisterous teenaged boys are loitering on a city sidewalk one summer morning. They are of African descent, from other parts of the city. They are in this affluent white neighborhood to attend summer school at the junior high across the street. The superintendent of an apartment building, a man of Irish inclination, is hosing down the walk in front of his building. He tries to shoo the annoying youngsters away from the stoop. They ignore and then mock him. So he sprays them with water from his hose, scattering them into the street. Slurs and imprecations are hurled from either camp, then trashcan lids and bottles by the kids. Other newly-arriving teens now join the affray. At a flash point of temper, one of the latecomers chases the super into his building, where a brief altercation takes place out of view. As the youth exits he is seen by an armed off-duty much-decorated police lieutenant, also of the Irish style, who has just emerged from an electronics repair shop next door. The officer confronts the youth, showing his badge and gun. Three bullets, the second one mortal, boom from his sidearm. He claims that the adolescent had attacked him with a pocket knife (he displayed injuries on his arm as proof and such a knife was found near the curb). A police squadron arrives as several hundred highly distraught teens scream, shout, and assault them. With difficulty the school principal and cops restore order by afternoon.

The next morning, professional activists show up to organize and agitate, holding the death yet another case of epidemic police brutality. Protest and demonstration dissolve into mêlée, mayhem, malice, and every manner of mischief. It recalls a simile from Vergil:

     Ac veluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
     seditio, saevitque animis ignobile volgus,
     iamque faces et saxa volant—furor arma ministrat —

And just as when, often in a great multitude, an insurrection has arisen,
and the nameless mob grows wild in its passions,
and now torches and rocks fly — their rage supplies them weapons —

Tactical police troops are called in who bludgeon protestors and who in turn are pelted with brickbats and Molotov cocktails. Firing warning shots, they run out of ammunition; a fresh shipment is delivered by armored truck mounted with machine guns. The battle blazes for a week, leaving one other person dead, hundreds sent to hospitals, and property damage of one million dollars. At trial later, eye-witness accounts are Rashomon-like. It is learned that the young man was familiar to authorities and had brought two knives to school that morning. The lieutenant is acquitted of all charges. In half a dozen other cities similar riots erupt in solidarity. Thus begin almost ten years of summer riots across the United States.

Those events were fifty years ago, beginning Thursday 16 July 1964 in Yorktown on the Upper East Side, flowing north to Harlem, then over the river to Brooklyn. That very same day, as it happened, Barry Goldwater accepted the Republican party’s nomination as its presidential candidate in San Francisco. Out in Flushing Meadows, Queens, the New York World’s Fair was well underway, “Peace Through Understanding” its motto. And it was Freedom Summer. Lyndon Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act only two weeks earlier. Not one month had yet passed since Ku Klux Klan brutes murdered three young voting rights organizers down in Philadelphia, Mississippi. It was a very hot summer.

The human mind cannot take in or make sense of the chaos of real experience; only the divine can do that. The human mind’s efficiency is to sort that chaos into recognizable and memorable patterns of action, scripts for later reference. It makes symbols, analogies, and metaphors to give meaning to these patterns, to teach and to learn lessons from them, to make them portable through place and time. Such action patterns (or “narratives,” to use a current term) we call myths, stories which, while not factually true in each real detail, nonetheless convey knowledge. They are packets of meaning, stored and shared.

From such real cases as the one related above, as from those of Rodney King, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and far too many others, a structured myth emerges: a young black person, usually male, usually between fifteen and thirty years of age, is engaged in some criminal activity of minor or grievous degree. A policeman, usually male, always white, attempts to check the activity or arrest the malefactor. The young black person resists the policeman’s authority, sometimes violently. The policeman responds, sometimes excessively. Almost always the policeman shoots a pistol at the young black person, who dies. Or it could be a severe beating. An immediate local display of outrage is taken over by persons who see in any one such particular event further proof of a general wrong or injustice and who arouse the passions of the multitude. Protest marches and demonstrations ensue, sometimes exciting more malevolent behavior. As in every good story, some initial harm or loss is suffered, followed by a complex working-out of the damage and a restoration of the normal state of things. But it is sometimes tragic, for undue suffering is often visited upon those who don’t deserve it. There is a brief journalistic apotheosis of the dead. At some point a ceremony is staged, rather like a tragic chorus. Important personages speak and attempt to teach lessons larger than the actual disturbance. People calm down, sadder and wiser. Before long it all happens again.

James Bowman, acute critic of journalism and man of Honor, writing recently in The New Criterion (Jan 2015, 68) about the media representation of the Brown and Garner deaths, expressed this distinction between chaotic reality and organizing mythology as one between content (facts) and context (the story or narrative): “It was enough that the victims were black and the policemen white for the whole matter to default to the classic paradigm on which the racial grievance industry has thrived for years, of white authority figures brutally exercising an illegitimate power over oppressed blacks.”

That “classic paradigm” is of course one version of this particular myth. There is another: the miscreants themselves, by their poor upbringing and consequent antisocial or illegal behavior, attracted due police attention to themselves and then either resisted or acted out against the arresting authority; the brave and dutiful policeman was mortally imperiled and resorted at last to legitimate use of lethal force; this one incident neither proves nor fits into a pattern of general injustice; it does prove the valor of — and the need for — police in protecting society from outlawry.

Neither story is wholly true, neither wholly false. But each is a meaningful distillation of complex and disturbing events. And the meaning intensifies with each iteration of events. With each fresh addition, with every retelling, the Tale acquires greater verisimilitude, greater power. Some people associate around this version, others around that one. We all belong to the species homo mythopoeticus. We cannot escape our own myth-making because that is very much who we are. It should not surprise, therefore, that journalists, no matter their professed standards of objectivity, also associate with one or the other version: it makes sense to them, it represents reality. Yet we are not at the mercy and whim of our inclinations. Nor must we fall victim to falsehood. We can with humility accept our ignorance of all the truth of any one thing. We must therefore recognize the danger of accepting any one story without acknowledging that some of the truth might lie in another telling of it.