Friday, July 31, 2009

THIS IS MY AMCON PIECE about Dupont Circle and bobos and rum and... rambling. This link actually works!
Mind you, there are some who think soccer is super. These are the ones who charge, biff, tackle and slam the leather first-time into the net ect. They hav badges and hav a horible foto taken at the end of term with their arms folded and the year chalked upon the pill. This foto cost there parents 7/6 on the skool bill and i hope they think it is worth it. i would not care for grabber's face on my walls, that's all.

Of corse i'm no good... no, i mean it... i simply am no good... no, please, grabber, my body-swerve... well, it go in the wrong direction... o, i sa, no... wot a nice thing to hear about myself... if i try hard i'll be in the seconds! And then how much further on would i be in the career of life, eh?

--Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, Molesworth Back in the Jug Agane... channeling a particular kind of soccer-related childhood bitchiness to which I was always prone.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE WORLD IS TOO MUCH WITH US: If you do not want to read vast amounts of bloggery about Gay Catholic Whatnot, you can skip to this post and scroll down for "Kings," squid, lawyers and language, avant-garde film, a creepy fetus, and the usual flotsam and/or jetsam.

If you do want to read vast amounts of bloggery about Gay Catholic Whatnot--my friend, have I got a deal for you!
SONG FOR A FUTURE GENERATION: OK, my thoughts on many different issues raised in response to my "Romoeroticism" piece.

"Beauty is an encroachment upon autonomy." (C. Paglia): It's been instructive to me that 90% of the comments I've received on the piece have been about this idea of vowed same-sex friendship, since, to be perfectly honest, that was a last-minute addition! And perhaps an ill-timed one, see below. I do have a lot to say about vowed friendship.

But maybe the other elements of my "Romoeroticism" piece are more fruitful, even though I have less to say about them. I think there's an immense amount of work yet to be done on how Catholicism's insistence on sexual difference may make the Church more attractive to gay people; I think Miss Ogilvy is right to suggest that talking about "gay as a genre" would illuminate in some way the difficulties of our current cultural moment and the possibilities for transcending them. And yet I have nothing left to say about that! HELP ME OUT, PEOPLE. Yes?

You can go your own way...: And, although in what follows I will be primarily talking about vowed friendships, I'd also challenge us to consider how we can foster friendships and extended forms of kinship outside of the formal vow. Can we make it culturally normal to take a leave from work because your friend needs you? Can we honor and respect godsiblinghood in the public sphere, giving that relationship the kind of weight and acknowledgment we give to blood kinship?

In Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, And Good for America, Jonathan Rauch lists off a bunch of cultural markers of the importance of marriage: When you're married, people ask after your spouse, and you're expected to know how your spouse is doing. Your family treats your spouse as part of their family: holiday photos, concerned questions, understanding that your obligations to the spouse and her family may conflict with your obligations to your family of origin. Your boss and your coworkers understand that the pictures on your desk represent ties of love and obligation, as deep as any human ties we know. Breaking up with your spouse is a tragedy, a publicly-acknowledged heartbreak. You're not expected to mourn that loss alone, just as you're not expected to bear the burdens of caring for and serving your spouse with no social support.

The thing is... these markers of kinship were not always restricted to marriage. (And, as I said before, in some communities in America today they are still not all restricted to marriage.) If marriage is the only form of kinship we recognize, all other loves will be treated as lesser, as purely private. When only marriage counts, should we be surprised that marriage is overburdened? Should we be surprised that Americans report far fewer close relationships than in the past? You get more of what you honor; we've withdrawn from any form of public honor for nonmarital chosen kinship.

Forget the vow thing for a moment and ask yourself whether there are things you can change in your own life--in your role as boss or coworker, in the questions you ask your children, in the invitations you extend for family gatherings, in the degree to which you are willing to sacrifice pride or time or money for another person--which would support and strengthen your own friendships and those of the people you love. If you can think of any way to make devoted friendship more normal... maybe do that thing, you know? Even if you disagree with me on everything else.

"Steady, Eddie...": But now, vows, since I do actually want to talk about them!

I think I messed up, in writing about this concept first for a piece about Gay Catholic Whatnot. In my own personal head, this was never an exclusively gay concept, though I think it should be obvious why it would be especially interesting to gay Catholics. But I thought at least as much about the many elderly women who make their homes, in their widowhood, with their best friends. A lot of families have these friendship pairs; a lot of families continue to care for the woman who is unrelated by blood, even after her blood-relation best friend dies. These are the "Aunties" who aren't really Grandma's sister. A formal vow might not matter to most of them; to some, however, it might seem as beautiful an acknowledgment of lifelong loyalty as it does to me.

Then there are veterans; then there are "straight" men who have virtually no way of articulating love for another man. I know that straight guys aren't allowed to talk about beauty and gay stuff like that!--but maybe that's also something we can change in our culture. It certainly isn't a good feature of contemporary American life.

One thing I really like about the possibility of renewing this tradition is precisely that it would offer so much solidarity, so much common recognition, between disparate groups. I won't denigrate my own concerns: Even if vowed friendship comes to be a "chaste gay thing," it will still be shockingly beautiful and entirely worthy of honor. But I hope these vows actually offer an expansion of our vocabulary of love and kinship for everyone.

If I am astonishingly lucky, and this form of kinship is in fact renewed, I strongly suspect it will take several different forms. I would argue that the basics should still involve the Eucharist, a pledge of mutual loyalty and loving care, a promise to care for one another's families, and a promise that the longest-surviving friend will arrange for Masses to be said for the souls of both friends. (Friendship always exists in the shadow of death, because it does not produce children. That's one reason the art of friendship is death-haunted from Augustine to the Weakerthans. And it's one reason that some form of fruitfulness and union beyond death should be a part of vowed friendship.) But other features of traditional friendship vows, such as living together, will vary. I wouldn't necessarily be surprised if men's friendships end up with somewhat different norms than women's, though I couldn't predict how, and I'd also be relatively unsurprised if they end up looking basically the same.

I know I keep saying this, but again I want to emphasize that this is lab research in theology: As with any tradition, you can't control it; you can only attempt, with rhetoric and the example of your life, to guide the river. I don't know how friendship will look in a hundred years, or even how it should look. I can rule things out, but I can't set up an ideal model. All I can do is suggest things we might try.

Thorns of the Mystical Rose: I do want to address one strain of argumentation I've noticed, which is basically to point out ways in which intense, devoted friendships (whether vowed or not) can be dangerous if you are attracted to your friend but cannot marry her. Because yeah: That's a danger. There are many friendships in which the best response is greater distance, a cooling-off.

But I absolutely do not believe that is true of all such relationships. Here are three angles of approach to that question (and I know I'm not disposing of every possible argument here, but I hope I'm at least giving food for thought):

1) All manner of pious practices can be misused, can become covers for sin. And yet at the Easter Mass I still got a plenary indulgence, you know? Cat'licks are always arguing that danger is not an argument against beautiful devotion--that the misuse doesn't crowd out the use.

2) I am quite sure that a friendship vowed and sealed publicly in the Eucharist, in front of family and friends who know that these two friends have pledged fidelity not only to one another but to the Gospel and to Jesus Christ, is more likely to be chaste than a friendship which is purely private, often treated by others as trivial, and granted no religious significance.

3) If unintended--and explicitly disclaimed!--consequences can argue against a pious practice, may I please deploy that reasoning against the pious practice of stating that the Catholic Church offers no way of honoring same-sex love? Because the unintended consequence of that act is atheism, when it isn't self-destruction.

So maybe we should accept that what we do and say can be misused and misunderstood, but it might still be worth doing and saying. She said, with a hint of acid.

No humility without humiliation: If you do want to make vows of same-sex friendship, I suspect you are in for a much harder time than Robin Darling Young had--especially if you're gay (whether or not your friend is gay also, and whether or not you're even attracted to her!). You will need to explain yourself, at tedious length I'd guess, to priests upon priests. You will need to figure out some way of introducing your friend which makes it clear both that she is part of your heart's landscape and that the two of you are not sexually active. I can say from experience that the whole "I'm gay but chaste because of my religion" conversation is humiliating and awkward and you feel like an ass.

All of this is good for your own spiritual life, and also necessary to prevent scandal. But you should be prepared. Public love has public consequences.

And we have not yet developed a beautiful public language. You can be a pioneer!

Call it what you want, you've got a home here: So why is it worth it? Why would anyone bother with the dilemmas, both old (spouse vs. friend is a theme the old ballads knew well) and new ("I dance around in a gay, gay way, but I'm not gay!")? Why bother with the humiliation? And in my case, why bother with the argument?

Well... for me it's easy. I mean, first of all, on the lower level, the conversation around gay stuff in the Church can get so stifling and polarized! I desperately want to let in some oxygen, give people some sense that our contemporary battles and jargon are not the sum total of Catholic faith, good God. But there's also something more.

For years and years I've seen the beauty of friendship. I've seen this unacknowledged, barely-supported love turn the water of our culture into wine. And then, not only did I find a way of honoring that love--so much more than that! I found a way of exalting it. To draw the strong wine of friendship into the Body and Blood of the Eucharist... it's breathtaking. You know, you can all but hear Alan Bray catching his breath when he first sees the tomb of two devoted men friends... and years later, reading his book, I reacted the same way. There's a feeling when your heart finds its home, and that home is so much more than you ever dreamed.

How could I not want to shout this from the rooftops?
#8 or 9, I've lost count: anonyreader: The last in today's series of replies to my "Romoeroticism" piece. I'll do a longish post in which I hope to give a better sense of what I'm going for here, but maybe not for another several hours--I may want to sleep on it a bit before the final (for today) roundup. Thanks to everyone who has written in!

This email, I note, was entitled, "Is 'Romoeroticism' Synonymous with 'Homo-eroto-schism?'" To which one can only say, "Well, no!"
Dear Ms. Tushnet,

I hope you will forgive my belated response to your article "Romoeroticism" but I needed time to digest what it was you were saying and insure that I understood you properly. My preparation may yet be inadequate but I trust that you will point it out to me should you find it so.

Your proposal, that the Church begin again to formally recognize chaste, same-sex friendships seems to be ignorant of the culture the Church now finds herself surrounded by. Everything has become sexualized to such a degree that a formally innocuous phrase like "come and see" now contains implications of the most indecent nature (forgive me). In the wake of a scandal where the sexual exploitation of adolescents was passed over with a wink and a nod, does it seem prudent to formally reinvigorate a custom from the past which, in the present culture, might be misunderstood as a wink and a nod to same-sex sexual activity?

Further, it seems to me that your attempt to discover licit, even sanctified, expressions same-sex desire fails to address the concession to utter depravity made by so many an apologist. Attempts to find precedents in stories such as that of David and Jonathan has, time and again, been utterly rejected with assertions that there can be no valid parallel drawn between that experience and the experience of two same-sex attracted men. Is it surprising, in the current climate, that even the Catholic Church seems to have nothing to offer beyond the frail hope that one's same-sex desires may cease? How does one escape the charge that one is simply reading justification for one's appetites into Tradition, Scripture or what have you?

To the question "Is there anything in my love and desire that the Catholic Church can respect?" the only answer I can arrive at honestly is "No." Even without sex, there is lust. Even without lust there is scandal. The occurrence of same-sex desire may not itself be a sin, but its every expression, both genital and affectionate, is. Chastity, properly understood, seems to imply the absence of same-sex desire. Therefore, in the midst of it, such an individual is caught in the paradox of learning not to love so that he or she may learn to love.

Eve says: I did say I'd post all critical emails. But I do think this position, in which cooking a bowl of soup for a sick lady becomes sinful if I think the sick lady is hot ("its every expression"), is untenable and forces us to reject an astonishing amount of beauty and love. I don't think it is necessary.

I do think the changed culture, and the increased possibility of scandal, are real issues. I'll address them in the roundup post... soon. Later today.
#8: another possibly-anonyreader?:
I read this piece (and your blogpost), and the comments with interest but also a good deal of confusion.

When I began to read the blogpost, I thought at first that you were recommending "vowed friendship" simply as a way of binding friends together. But as I read further, and read the piece at Inside Catholic, it seemed clearer that you were talking about a substitute for marriage, of a kind that would, I think, appeal mainly to SSA people, no matter what the original purpose of such vows might have been.

You seem to recognise this risk, and ask whether it matters, on the grounds that that chaste gay Catholics need an affirmation of their loves and family lives. I can see why this would be important to gay people, but I suspect that instituting or re-instituting such ceremonies would cause bewilderment among Catholics of whatever sexual orientation.

Straight people (esp. men, I suspect) would fear to try it with members of their own sex on the grounds that it might make them seem gay. Straight women might like the idea but not understand why such "best friendship" had to be exclusive. Straight men and women friends would fear it might be threatening to their spouses or potential spouses. Gay people would, I think, be sorely tempted to treat it as a marriage in every sense, including the physical. This temptation would be particularly powerful for the young and inexperienced, who might also reasonably ask "we're allowed every other expression of our love, why not the physical as well?"

You mention people like David Morrison and his partner, who live a chaste life together, but such couples are in a special position. Mr Morrison and his partner were once lovers. They have already found some form of sexual fulfillment together, in so far as homosexual sex can provide this type of fulfillment (and I suspect the Church would say that it cannot do so, or only in a limited sense). Two young SSA persons who exchanged best-friend vows would not have such a history behind them and find it very difficult to refrain from seeking sexual intimacy, esp. if they lived together, as you suggest such couples should.

I think the best hope for an SSA person who wishes to share his/her life in chaste friendship with someone of similar tendencies (or not of such tendencies? you aren't quite clear about this) would be some form of "domestic partnership" arrangement. This would not, of course, provide the public and vowed commitment you long for, but it would help to solve the loneliness problem and give some legal structure to chaste gay friendships.

I suspect that the Church simply is not going to yield on its view that homosexual love (if not chaste in both body and heart) is "objectively disordered", and thus not a thing to be celebrated by public vows of friendship, however chaste in intention. Sigh. I remember that when I was younger I used to search history, scripture, and anywhere else I could think of for some legitimate way out of the Church's restrictions on both pre and post-marital heterosexual activity. I couldn't find any. I realise that you aren't trying to do anything of the sort regarding SSA love, but I suspect you won't be any luckier than I was, just the same. Marriage is a sufficiently grave matter that the Church is unlikely to compromise regarding anything that looks like marriage, or could be mistaken for marriage, for fear of "scandalizing" the faithful.

Eve says: Yeah, I think this email hits on real issues, esp. cultural barriers (if a practice is taken up by gay people, will it become unattractive and/or embarrassing for heterosexual same-sex friends to do it?) and the potential for scandal. I think my upcoming post will make it clear that this is not "gay marriage lite," but in the end, really these questions of how can only be answered by individual people taking up this practice, renewing and reshaping it. If they want to, then the tradition will grapple with its accompanying problems; if they don't, we'll move on to other possibilities and other questions.

Super-quick clarification: While living together was one traditional part of English friendship vows, I wouldn't say vowed friends "should" live together; I think that's a matter for discernment, and often it just won't work for any number of reasons both practical and spiritual. Again, I don't think a renewed tradition would look the same as the earlier forms of that tradition....
#7: a... possibly-anonyreader?:
Eve, a question. (Well, upon re-reading this is more of a monologue) A lot of your talk about vowed same sex friendship seems to be very similar to my idea of the best friend. (I hate that particular usage, but it is the only phrase in current parlance that even comes close to the concept.) When I say best friend, I am referring to what Cicero talked about when he discussed friendship. If you haven’t read his On Friendship, you absolutely ought to.

I have a best friend, Ben, who is almost completely unlike me. But we were best friends literally days after we met, very much in the “unchosen” way you speak of. We have never taken any formal vows, but I would drop everything I am doing and fly to Florida (where he lives) to help him if needed. Our friendship is one of mutually held commitments and duties that we both take very seriously.

So, I am wondering if this is the kind of thing you are talking about, except with the addition of sexual attraction as a complicating factor, something to be transcended that I don’t have to worry about. Ben is really the only person I am comfortable describing as my “friend”, though I use the term more loosely with my close acquaintances to avoid hurt feelings. But I simply don’t have the depth of bond with those other people as I do with Ben, even though we only see each other at best once a year.

It is a different relationship than I have with my wife. And yet, somewhat similar. It’s hard to describe. It may just be that I have difficulty forming emotional attachments with people (which is true, my wife and Ben are the only people I would say that I am so attached to) but I don’t see a friend as merely someone with whom to hang out and have fun, watch the ball game, etc. It’s not even shared interests or political ideas. It is a shared commitment very similar to marriage, but without the sex or even the desire for it. It is a sort of mutual defense treaty, but deeper because you really want to put yourself out to help the other person. It’s not a burden. This seems to share some data points with what you are describing, though I get the impression that the vowed same sex friends might live together like siblings. Correct? Or is that simply a possible but not necessary variation?

This note is already too long, so I’ll shut up. I could talk about this kind of friendship for tens of thousands of words. However, you should definitely read Cicero’s thoughts on the subject! I think I see very much what you are saying, but slantwise. I think there are one or two elements that I am still failing to grasp, but it seems to me to be very similar to the concept of the non-Paris Hilton best friendship. I can see how some people would take this as simply “same sex marriage lite” and an unnecessary and troubling near occasion of sin, but I don’t think that is at all what you are driving at. And I'm not sure why the vows are necessary. However, there is something out there other than neanderthal beer buddies or frustrated suppressed longing.

Eve says: Yes, this is quite in line with my own thinking, as I hope will become clear when I do the final post in this series (for today). I hope that post will also give some sense of why the vows themselves are important to me, even though I also think we really need to give more honor to friendship when no formal vows have been taken.
#6: anonyreader:
I'd like to offer this meditation-response on your article, "Sublimity Now!", with some [relevance to "Romoeroticism"]. I am sorry that this is entirely too long and completely out of season. So feel free to edit as needed. ...


Eve Tushnet's description of the bonfire scene at the beginning of the article "Sublimity Now!" reminded me of the great hymn of Pentecost, Veni Sancte Spiritus. "Come Holy Spirit and supernaturally send forth a ray of your light."* Tushnet observes that the sublimity of the bonfire implies danger and perhaps a tantalizing lack of control. Beauty, in the quotation she provides from Edmund Burke, implies that the awesome and fearsome nature of the sublime often turns people towards the beauty that is within their reach and control. Perhaps the sublimity of the bonfire represents the tongues of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The call of discipleship that flows from the burning, uncompromising tongues of Confirmation and Pentecost lasts well beyond the bishop's blessing of the last confirmand and the Ite of Pentecost Sunday Mass.

The concept of sublimity and the sacred resonates with my own experiences. So many times I will turn my face from the searing bonfire of the Holy Spirit and follow after the five watt bulb of flirting with some hottie. Yet even he will eventually wrinkle and lose his "beauty" and quick wit. And so will I, sans wit. And so will we all. The tungsten filaments of human light fizzle out quickly but the intense bonfire of of the Holy Spirit climbs even brighter. Brighter it glows, despite the times I have desperately wanted to reject sanctification for a few desperate minutes of screwing.

The Veni Sancte Spiritus petitions the Holy Spirit to correct the faults of Christians. "Bend what is rigid, warm what is chilled, [and] set straight what has gone astray."* Like our first parents who took the quince and ran with it, we paint masks to protect our faces from the heavenly rays that search the entire body and leave no lust, no desire unturned. It is a war between the choir loft and the pew: the words of the cleansing Spirit unmistakably flow over the congregation on Pentecost morning. But many in the pews deflect the searing and uncompromising Flame with crudely shaped Attic masks that protrude frozen lips shaped for shouting. "Teh gays!" these dramatists often cry outside Mass, as their masks slip slightly to reflect the loneliness we all partake of time after time. We queers know pain. Yet we busily paint our masks as well. We desperately deflect the cleansing Fire, and curse those who salt our wounds and bathe us with pity rather than compassion.

The Veni Sancte Spiritus ends with the following stanza: "Give us a virtuous reward, give us a graceful death. Give us joy everlasting."* It would be so nice to dance around the bonfire with a chaste lover, trampling our masks underfoot. The Flame tans our faces with Spiritual rays; the Flames occasionally leap to show the inadequacies of the beloved. We bruise our bare toes with misplaced dance steps.
Fumbled words trip up our intellectual pretensions. The tongues of fire protect us against settling for sex to mask our inadequacies. Discipleship is only a degree higher.

As Tushnet states in "Sublimity Now!", "an encounter with the sublime can teach us the white-hot passion of submission."

Shouldn't we queers search a lifetime for the fascination of the Flame living within another person, and reciprocating that Flame with mind and emotion transformed?
#5: Miss Ogilvy again (see below):
It seems to me that to win over the naysayers, you really ought to emphasize the "gay is a genre" point: how, for example, might the historical shifts in understanding sexuality speak to the question of renewing same-sex friendship-blessing? One could make a case that renewing this tradition would encourage skepticism about our culture's primary way of understanding "the tangle of experiences we've decided to call being gay" (as you put it in a post about Lillian Faderman). Chaste same-sex vowed friendship would be a way, not just of redeeming particular instances of same-sex attraction, but of changing (restoring?) the meaning of sexuality.

Eve says: Oh, this is so fascinating! I wish I had something useful to say about it! I know that gay is a genre but have a hard time cashing out what I mean by that. So if any of you all have thoughts on this question, I would really, really love to hear them!
#3: Miss Ogilvy:
...But for now, on to "Romoeroticism" (my reaction is kind of lengthy). [Also, by way of identification: I'm also SSA, female, and a recent adult convert (well, grad student convert, which isn't quite adult) to Christianity. I'm still trying to figure out the ethics of same-sex love.]

One of the comments-boxers accuses you of “trying to see the world through the prism of same-sex attraction.” But I wonder if it might be more accurate to say that you’re simply noticing ways in which Catholicism enables celibate same-sex attracted Catholics to receive God’s love corporeally. Let me flesh this out (pun intended).

As I was reading “Romoeroticism,” I kept thinking of Rowan Williams’ essay “The Body’s Grace.” For Williams, the question of embodiment is central to the problem of same-sex sexual ethics. In sex one learns that her body can be the cause of happiness to herself and to another person, and, as Williams puts it, “The life of the Christian community has as its rationale - if not invariably its practical reality - the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy.” And the problem of embodiment, of knowing ourselves to be desired, doesn’t go away for the single person:
All those taking up the single vocation – whether or not they are, in the disagreeable clinical idiom, genitally intact – must know something about desiring and being desired if their single vocation is not to be sterile and evasive. Their decision (as risky as the commitment to sexual fidelity) is to see if they can find themselves, their bodily selves, in a life dependent simply upon trust in the generous delight of God - that other who, by definition, cannot want us to supply deficiencies in the bliss of a divine ego, but whose whole life is a “being-for,” a movement of gift.

I’ve thus often bristled at the fact that so much of the Biblical picture-language for God’s love focuses on heterosexual marriage. How can I understand the tenor of divine love when my experience excludes me completely from the vehicle of these metaphors?

I think you’ve come up with an awesome solution in the way you look at Mary and the Church and Dante’s Beatrice.

That said, I have a couple of questions re: your desire to renew the practices of same-sex friendship blessing:

I take it that in your view one of the main reasons for recovering this tradition is to sublimate same-sex desire. But what if we saw the chief end of such friendships differently, focusing instead on its material and social benefits? In that case, what would you make of the possibility of a vowed, lifelong, liturgically-blessed friendship between a gay man and a gay woman? Or between a gay woman and a straight woman? Or between two straight women or two straight men? I know I would find a lifelong vow of sexless yet intimate friendship much easier to undertake with a gay or straight man – and maybe even with a straight woman – than with another lesbian: it would be heartache to live with a beautiful woman who also loved women and to remain chaste.

The “Romoeroticism” project implies that we can isolate the sex in same-sex relationships and call it wrong, while seeing the rest of the relationship as fine (the comment-boxers noticed this). I want to think carefully about what makes this sort of theological move possible. At first blush it seems silly – if the friendship structurally resembles marriage (sharing finances, caring for the friend’s aging parents), what makes having sex so bad? Is it simply a question of procreative potential?

The English poet W.H. Auden, a gay convert to Christianity, has an interesting take re: question-cluster #2. In a letter to Wendell Stacy Johnson in the early 50s, he writes: “Have you seen the C of E report on homosexuality? In its wish to be fair, it falls into the odd position of declaring that only the act is sinful which is, of course, heretical and, from a practical point of view, ineffective. Nobody, where there is mutual consent and pleasure, can possibly feel an act is wrong: if it is, the reason must lie in the personal relationship which desires the acts.” But from your comments in the Romo-thread, it seems like you imagine that personal relationships which become vowed friendships probably won't include desire for sexual acts (I note your example of the eroticism w/ your striking, brilliant friend that pointed toward education, not sex). I get this - maybe it would help your argument if you talked about the (hopefully communal) discernment process that would lie behind such vowed friendships. On your chaste model, it would be important to partner w/ people w/ whom shared eros very obviously didn't point toward sex.

Eve says: Hmmm, first of all, I'm so glad the Beatrice stuff made sense to you! Second, I think possibly my basic vision of how vowed friendship could work will be a bit clearer in a moment when I've posted my next installment of wiggy ponderings on the subject.

Third... I find both Williams's and Auden's quotes here very odd indeed, especially the latter! The act of sex makes a difference because our bodies make a difference. (And I would argue that some form of iconicity--la difference--is primary in the Christian vision of sex, and procreation is secondary.) I genuinely don't understand his argument w/r/t "Nobody, where there is mutual consent and pleasure, can possibly feel an act is wrong: if it is, the reason must lie in the personal relationship which desires the acts." I can consent to and take pleasure in all kinds of acts with another person which in fact I should sublimate and express in another way. This seems so obvious that I think I must be misunderstanding! If so, please just ignore all this, as I don't mean to waste your time with unhelpful ranting. (I can give examples and analogies if needed, though I'm trying to avoid that since analogies, as I've said, generally beg their questions in this kind of discussion.)

I... see your point, re communal discernment of a vocation to a specific vowed friendship, since it's easy to fool ourselves and assume that the sacrifice we want to make is the sacrifice God wants. And yet every fiber of my being revolts against the idea of trying to explain my love to a parish committee! In fact, there seems a danger of "sincerism" there, if we believe and require that love can be fully articulated and brought under the sway of juried evidence and common sense. I am unwilling to recommend specific forms of communal discernment to everyone, though I will recommend getting outside perspectives from people you trust. I know that's very individualist--you are most likely to trust the people who will give you the answer you already want!--but I don't see a better alternative. More on the necessary humiliations involved in renewing vowed friendship in a moment. But I wanted to say that you make an important and difficult point here.

And finally, I highly recommend Miss O's blog to anyone interested in Gay Christian Whatnot! I will link it in my blogroll forthwith.
#2, Philomena:
I've been a lurking follower of your blog for some time now, and am just emerging from the shadows to comment on the comments on "Romoeroticism" at InsideCatholic (don't really feeling like fighting it out amongst the commenters at the moment, but wanted to offer a positive review anyhow).

I loved the piece for the same reason I enjoy all your writing: intellectually rigorous without being pedantic, orthodox beliefs which you don't feel the need to constantly apologize for, lovely prose, and (last but not least, as they say) for the experiences and reflections that I identify with. In this piece particularly, I immediately recognized the feeling you talk about, a yearning which is essentially unfulfilled but which seeks to be fulfilled through God, something which is deeply associated with the body but not reducible to physical urges and desires. Though my own tendencies don't generally run in the direction of SSA, I find that your writing often touches that chord of recognition in me. Maybe it's just a function of being young and reared on the same sort of critical/theoretical/philosophical language, like the post-modern tendency to find sexual motivations for everything. It gets silly, but that kind of thing is rooted in a real experience, the thread of eros (the longing, that is) that runs through a lot of everyday life.

But the comments at InsideCatholic puzzle me because so many of them just seem to be missing the point completely. They're either a) identifying eros with lust and/or , which I'm pretty sure is not theologically sound, or b) wanting the "bottom line" of whether or not you're saying homosexuality is sinful. Or both. None of the contentious commenters seem to be really engaging with the spiritual reality that you're describing, and instead are telling you what you're "really saying" and then going from there (I'm trying really, really hard not to be snarky right now!). I'm forced to think that the problem is a lack of recognition, because surely everyone has felt that formless longing at some point in their lives; they're just not identifying their experience as being the same as what you're talking about, since yours is attached to SSA and theirs is presumably attached to something else.

If they did recognize it, then they wouldn't be gabbing on about how God told them personally to be fruitful and multiply and how if there's a sexual shading to adult friendship it renders the relationship poisonous and how we all just need to read our Bibles really. Instead, they would actually maybe be able to sympathize with gay people, who currently (and quite understandably) feel frustrated by the amazing unhelpful stuff they're saying.

Internet comment threads are where the influence of the Tower of Babel really becomes clear. We're all speaking the same language, even using the same words, but we mean rather different and specific things by them. The only way to define them is with more words, which leads to the same problem. The only way to escape it is to make a leap of understanding and identification not strictly intellectual in nature; my theory is, there used to be a bridge there, so we didn't have to jump.

Sorry for the long and somewhat rambling email. I should really stop reading comment threads, cause they always make me want to hit something.

Eve says: Well first, thanks for the very kind words! And yeah, I think there is a point at which prudence becomes safety-fetishism... which is not the Catholic way. (Or not the only Catholic way!) I understand why many of the IC commenters thought I was imprudent, but I still disagree with where they draw that line. More on this in a bit.
RESPONSES TO "ROMOEROTICISM": Post #1, anonyreader. (this is a repost--accidentally posted it in a messed-up form earlier, which I hope nobody noticed! And it's actually about my Commonweal piece, but I thought it was apropos.)
I have just read your essay or reflections on Homosexuality & the Church in Commonweal. I liked your voice - but I ended up feeling confused...

I remembered once, many years ago, I had my little niece visiting me - she was only three, four or five years old - don't remember exactly and I was out of the church at that time, and we were talking about God and I think I said Where is God? - and she pointed her finger towards the heaven - and I smiled and said No, she is down there pointing towards the ground. She looked at me bewildered first and then giggling....

I think I did it because I had just discovered how different it would have felt for me If our creed had been talking about the Mother, the Daughter and the Holy Spirit - very estranging....

I know what Fatherly love is and I know the thrust in the Father - but the metaphor of relationship is not gendered? Being a son is not different from being a daughter? I hope not! To love God with all my heart - is loving a You/ a Thou -

Relating to the Word, the Son, The Christ, Jesus - and loving Jesus - How is that for a man and a woman? Is it a gendered face or is it Compassion, Lovingkindness in eyes - in a bodylanguage which still is not a masculine body? Just Human? Or is it not? Like when we don't differentiate between he and she in our prose and let he be both? - because for me there is a difference reading he and/or she....

I am a man who is longing for another man - a thou embodied in a male body - still my love is for a thou. Some men and women fall in love with another man or woman with the same personality profile - some fall in love with someone who has another personality profile then their own - no matter if they are hetero- or homosexual...

But then there is the question of energy - that prototypes of Man and Woman even though they conceal all differences in those categories - they help molding the feeling of wholeness - for most gendered people - and this is based on the man longing for a woman and a woman longing for a man... maybe... and that's why children have to protect those bounded categories. We have all kinds of labels for lesbians and gays - and people identify with those roles, even though they might know that they are more than that identity. Some of those roles seems to me to be somewhat not autentic to the self...

I think there is a problem with the dicotomy of Man and Woman - if we don't ask what kind of man and what kind of woman - and I don't mean a real man and not a real man/ a real woman and not a real woman - or a good woman or a bad woman. I think polytheistic religions may have more opportunities for personal fullfillment through prototypes than we have through Jesus and Mary....

These are just some impulsive reflections... I would like very much to read what you think about these things.

Eve says: I do think our longings are often, though not always, very strongly gendered. That's where I was going with the "Beatrice" passage in the IC piece. This doesn't require rigid gender roles, but a more subtle sense that Woman and Man have some iconic reality. There's a very lovely thing in Thomas a Kempis's Reflections on the Passion of Christ where he reworks the Song of Songs as a hymn to the Christ crucified, which is deeply attentive to the body, very much attuned to the sublime aspect of the flesh; you might appreciate that. I've found praying the Anima Christi is also very striking.
ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY. It's the feast of St. Martha.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Sunday, July 26, 2009

A MOCKERY KING OF SNOW: Some thoughts on what is either the season or the series finale of Kings. My first post on the crypto-Biblical show; my second. Spoilers, but not ultimate ones, i.e. I won't tell you how it ends. I'll just give you a rough sense of a couple things which happen on the way there.

The most striking thing to me in this episode was the scene in which Jonathan realizes God didn't choose him for the crown. Finally, I can get behind Sebastian Stan's acting! I haven't felt that way since the first episode. He shows unspoken thoughts completely clearly, without relying solely on the lip-wobble he substitutes for emotion in most of the other scenes of this episode. He does a thing which always gets me, where you laugh or smile while saying something obviously painful. (There's a bit in the acting book Audition which suggests playing against the obvious emotion of a scene; even a quick moment of that reversal can go a long way toward conveying emotional complexity and shaky control.) Stan has to sell this scene, and its many shifting parallels: God as father, God as lover, God as enemy, God as king. There were at least two moments where I felt like I knew exactly what Jack was thinking, even though those thoughts weren't articulated--in a show which tends to spell out way too much.

...After that he mostly reverts to lip-wobbling. But still--despite the cliched dialogue, that was a really effective scene.

Other things which worked for me: There are some comedic moments dropped without warning into the grimth. I really liked that hairpin twist of audience reaction, and it cut through the melodrama.

Rose is great. Silas is stupidly great. William Cross is evil and great! So, in a startling twist, is his Culkin-played son.

There's a scene with ridiculous dialogue, but I loved it anyway, because what at first appear to be noir conventions are completely overturned. A city rainstorm, which ordinarily would be treated as isolation and abandonment by justice (cf. the beautiful series finale of Veronica Mars) is instead treated as if the country and the genre were still agricultural--rain is providence. I'm actually more impressed by this than by the many times the dialogue has spoken from within a monarchist worldview, since it's harder to think in alien metaphors than to think in alien lines.

I'm not sure how I feel about the deeply obvious father/Father parallels. Various lines where you're not sure whether "him" is capitalized. There's some lovely later stuff where the same thing is done with enemy/God-as-Enemy, which is a callback to a previous tank-laden scene and also reminiscent of Judah Halevi.

eta: I'd forgotten, until I re-read my first post about this show, that the enemy/God parallel is present from the very first episode. Oh man, that's hot.

Things which didn't work for me: Everything involving God except Rev. Samuels's lines, and the aforementioned rain scene.

Specifically, the implication that God instituted the monarchy is directly in opposition to the Hebrew Bible. Which... maybe okay???, if I had any sense of why that change to the Biblical text was made. Which I don't; because God is still mostly just a tank.

Neither Jonathan nor David appear especially devout. In fact, they're two of the least devout main characters--only Rose and her brother appear less concerned with God!--which is just weird. And, as I've said from the beginning, this change makes the story vastly less interesting than the Biblical canon. This final episode showed Jack moving closer to his father in his view of God (which would still be a far cry from the devotion of the Biblical characters), but still, what is God in this series other than celestial election returns?

On a less-intense level, I note that the front/homeland tension of the first few episodes was completely dropped and pretty much never regained. I'm sorry about that. American television should have a show for that, and I'm not sure there's another one.

I think the ending of the episode fits with the series but doesn't expand it.

Do I want this to be renewed? I've heard rumors that it might be. And... I'm conflicted, but mostly yeah, I want more. On the one hand, its portrayal of God--Who surely should be an important character!--is shallow and convenience-oriented. And it's hard to watch a David story where I deeply dislike both the Jonathan actor and the Michal actress. On the other hand... this show is doing such an unusual, risky thing. And I'm interested! They know how to build suspense. They give me something to think about, even when I can't stand their choices. I want there to be a space on television for souffles, even if I think this particular souffle is a bit floppy.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

HEAVEN IS NOT A FARM. I have a piece in the current American Conservative--basically vignettes from Dupont Circle. You can read it here as PDF; I'll let you know if an html version goes up.
IN RE: CONSTITUTIONAL INTERPRETATION: A fun post about the linguistic-theory difficulties with a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode; but I was struck by this comment: "Perhaps more lawyers need to see this episode, for the Tamarian language is exactly what we sound like to laymen. We communicate with each other by shorthand references to complex legal doctrines that are, without a fairly full explanation of context, misleading when reduced to a short summary."

ETA: I also liked some of the comments defending the episode, especially this one, since Nietzsche's parable of language-formation falls close to my own view (though without the atheist's insistence that metaphorical meaning is arbitrary).
IN WHICH A NATURE DOCUMENTARY COUNTS AS "AVANT-GARDE" FOR SOME REASON: Thoughts on Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s: Disc One. This is the remainder of the first disc. As before, no accent marks.

Brumes d’automne: Same guy as “Menilmontant,” but only 12 mins long. Does what it says on the tin. Falling leaves; parallel between fire and rain. He leaves her, she burns his letters, she stares soulfully, she walks through fallen leaves. Blur effects felt kind of cheap (unlike e.g. the underwater, Monet blur effects in “L’etoile de mer”). Really cool singing on the soundtrack, which is original I’m pretty sure, not new.

Lot in Sodom: Biblical retelling; old-fashioned music; shirtless boys leaping about in makeup. The opening is fantastic, with “Bride of Frankenstein”-style electricity effects lancing down through a clouded sky; then mists part like fire from Heaven, and we zoom down onto the city. Unfortunately, the flick itself doesn't live up to its opening. …Does “Mulier templum est” really mean “Woman is a temple”? (Or, “The woman is a temple”? Or something completely different?) Snakes, doves, blossoming flowers = sex. No trains into tunnels, sadly. A hilarious beard which looks like the cotton-ball concoction we used at JCC day camp to play “Pin the Beard on Mordecai.” There’s a lovely moment with Lot’s wife running, just before she looks back at the city. Her transformation is done in a way that reminded me a bit of the original Star Trek crossed with modern “become a flower” dance.

Rhythmus 21: It’s a Severed Heads video from 1990, only seventy years too early! …No, actually, it’s three minutes of rectangles. Ohhhhhkay.

Vormittagsspuk/Ghosts Before Breakfast: “The Nazis destroyed the sound print of this movie as ‘degenerate art.’ It shows that even objects revolt against regimentation.” Charming, playful imagery—hats flying upward, a shirtcollar baffling its wearer, an assassin’s target making his head fly around to defy the assailant, men stroking phantom beards. Kind of “Monty Python” animation meets children’s television, with (new) cabaret music. There are a lot of guns here, giving a sense of menace, but the overall tone struck me as lighthearted… for now. This is the same guy as “Rhythmus 21,” but this one is delightful and more than a little foreboding.

Anemic cinema: Marcel Duchamp, anagrammatic. (We’re so proud that little Marcel has won the Surrealist Spelling Bee of 1922! His wonderful prize is a dictionary in which all the definitions have been replaced by pictures of alley cats.) The new music is slightly Doors-like, hypnotic, paired with what I found predictably hypnotic and willfully-nonsensical imagery. Possibly the wordplay is a lot more fun if you’re French.

Ballet mecanique: The new music is lovely, thin and shivery, but I admit I zoned out for most of this. It’s, you know, gears and stuff. There are some really fun shots of women’s eyes opening—women’s eyes are made for the movies, but maybe especially for the avant-garde. There’s a nice if heavyhanded bit of imagery-punning as the O’s in a newspaper-style headline become the pearls of the stolen necklace which is the subject of that headline. There are some odd shots of a stocky woman walking up a road; not sure what those are doing.

Symphonie diagonale: The director’s first name is “Viking”!!! TOO MUCH AWESOME. Ooooohhh I’m loving the new music. I’m not sure how it would play with the original soundtrack (if any?), but with this music it comes across as a study of pacing. The kind of thing fanvid makers often talk about: matching visual movement to music beats. (I may be over-influenced by the pre-title here, which talks about how the piece explores time in film. Don’t worry—only two of the movies have pre-titles, and both are decades old, so you’re more or less allowed to come to these movies raw.) Man, this music is hot. If Sue Harshe composed this specifically to mirror the beats of the visuals, rather than simply adapting original music which did the same thing, she’s a stone genius.

Le Vampire: Original music, very jazzy and cool. Nature is bizarre! “Fully articulated appendages suggest a supernatural being.” At first I thought that meant that anytime you find fully-articulated appendages, that articulated critter is like a supernatural being in some way, but actually I think it’s intelligent design theory. Oh well. This short quotes from “Nosferatu” and locates the origin of the vampire myth in the various eldritch horrors of the natural world. An intelligent designer need not be a benevolent one!

Animal was harmed in the making of this picture. (Guinea pig, playing a guinea pig.)

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles!!! …and also William Vance. Parodic Southernisms including blackface and much grotesquerie. It becomes a thing which might be a protest against lynching, without sacrificing its avant-garde artistry in the service of politics.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

MAN RAY? I'LL WAIT UNTIL THEY MAKE A WOMAN RAY...: I'm watching a Netflixable thing called "Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and '30s: Disc 1." It's three hours long and you couldn't pay me to watch that much indie-film at once, so I'm taking it in bits and pieces. Here are some thoughts on the first six movies--all but two highly recommended. I make no attempt to provide accent marks, because "that's the way Dad did it, that's the way America does it, and it's worked out pretty well so far!"

And also, I'm lazy.

Man Ray, "Le Retour a la raison": This is a great teaser for the rest of the disc. It's maybe two or three minutes long?--yet you'll find yourself catching "future echoes" of everything from Sesame Street to Hitchcock. (Seriously, I'd need two hands to count the times this disc has reminded me of children's television--from Pinwheel's opening sequence to 3-2-1-Contact's, from ZOOM's cheapness-equals-existentialism to Looney Toons' expressionism.)

The music, so far on every movie, has been amazing. It's new--created for this release, I think?--and so it creates a completely new viewing experience from the one contemporary audiences would have had. But then, my experience would never be what a contemporary audience might've had; and this new experience is so fantabulous that I can't wish it were different. I'd play this every day just for the music. Imagine... maybe the Raincoats, muddled with Herrmann, dragged a few feet leftward to Messaien, about a quarter-mile east toward Mozart, and a mile south toward Bizet??

Man Ray, "Emak-Bakia": Suspense music plus adventure-movie visuals! Pilotesses in earflaps! Sheep and pigs! The ghosts of women's legs stride out of a jeep again and again, memory, until they resolve into the Charleston. A lady has eyes painted on her eyelids. Daggone that's uncanny.

White buildings and film-white skies.

Man Ray, "L'etoile de mer": Surrealist sex! The clash of symbols (Cybele, Impressionism); perversity (she strips to her skivvies, then tells him to leave!); mad science; the permeable boundary between nature and culture. Oozy beauty.

I loved this like cake.

Man Ray, "Les Mysteres du chateau du De": ...The music is bouncy and hilarious, and for a long time this feels like a Beckettish, Goreyish comedy of meaninglessness. But then it settles down to portentous talk of MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN and Venus Astarte, and I can't do it anymore. Fans of The Prisoner might like it more than I did. Also, I wonder how much the opening of The Exorcist owes to this piece--if anything.

Robert Florey Y U NOT MAN RAY?, "The Life and Death of 9413": Bog-standard Hollywood disillusionment, barely redeemed by some lovely acting. MEH. If you're enough of a film buff to watch this disc, you're enough of a film buff to have seen this movie five times already, only better.

Someone I forget, "Menilmontant": WOW, shivery horror piece. Fans of Heavenly Creatures, Doctor Faustus, and especially Picnic at Hanging Rock shouldn't miss this. I felt like it lost steam relatively quickly, but there are some frightening moments here even in silent film, and I'd absolutely watch a remake of this. I'm not sure if it was genuinely a bit conventional for an "experimental" disc, or if it merely highlighted how many avant-garde techniques carried over into genre filmmaking. Highly recommended either way.
UMBERT THE UNHEIMLICH: If you spend a lot of time in Cat'lick pro-life circles, you may well run across a cartoon strip called "Umbert the Unborn." In this thing, a charmin' little guy hangs out in his (never-pictured) mother's womb, offering uplifting folk wisdom about the funny little things in life.

You... can probably tell from that description that this strip is way too Bil Keane for me to understand its virtues. Apparently at least one other pro-life Catholic has found the premise of this strip intensely creepy.

Matthew Lickona's Alphonse features a similarly-sentient fetus. But Alphonse is vividly aware of his utter helplessness--not as a political contingency but as an existential threat. His mother wants to kill him. And she would succeed... except that Alphonse, in a horrific freak occurence, survives and crawls away.

This is a horror comic which simultaneously exploits and transcends the abortion-horror storylines I talked about here. The comic relies on the flesh-creeping, Uncanny Valley nature of the late-term fetus in order to get its effects--yet, unlike most other horror-baby works, it treats the creature as a person: a monster like Frankenstein's, a bloodied self whose individuality is real, not purely symbolic. And Alphonse's would-be savior herself must break ethical boundaries in order to do what she thinks she has to do to preserve his life. We get trapped in spirals of wrong actions, and when you get down low enough it's hard to see a clean way out.

(The fact that the comic never states explicitly that that's the very reason many women abort is one of its many signs of respect for its audience. There are several parallels between the would-be abortive mother and the would-be baby-saver, but they're done quietly, not stridently.)

The artwork is gritty but not awkward, by an artist who's worked in mainstream comics (WildStorm and maybe something else?) and who uses fairly standard contemporary Western comics techniques clearly and well. The art basically doesn't get in the way, though it also won't be the reason you buy the comic. The figures, gestures, "camera angles," and pacing are all unobtrusively well-chosen. (The women, by the way, look like individual women--indie comics usually do a lot better about this than superhero titles, but I still thought I should mention it.)

I don't know to what extent I can recommend this title yet, since I've only seen the first issue. It's the sort of thing where the premise might be much better than the denouement. But if you think this sounds worth trying, do check it out. I'll say that it does pummel you emotionally, but not ideologically. I'm excited to see where this story goes. Lickona's website might be the best place to order it.
CONTEXTUALISM: Readers have questions about my epic American Constitutional Society panel post! You got questions, I got answers. (Or... I got replies. "Answers," not so much, this ain't Ann Landers, bud.)

reader #1 (I will add names if I get permission):
I'm a lawyer, and I saw your comment that you have "found the Sotomayor hearings a farcical exposure of the weaknesses of the 'originalist'/'just read the text' position." I wouldn't let the ham-handed, grandstanding questioning by the Republican Senators be an indication of the weaknesses of the originalism/textualism position, any more than the equally hapless grandstanding questioning of Justices Roberts and Alito by Democratic Senators should be an indication of the weaknesses of [...] other interpretive theories.

Yeah, in fact I basically agree with this. I tried to indicate in the post that I think the progressive/"democratic Constitutionalism" position has weaknesses which largely parallel those of the textualist/"originalist" position, and the latter position has strengths with which the progressives at the ACS are, in my view, productively grappling. (Most prominently, the text guys hammer on our desire not to be ruled by five philosopher-kings or costumed vigilantes; and our belief that words should be basically intelligible to most people. This latter may be naive, but it's not stupid, and it's not wrong.) But confirmation hearings, as my father might tell you, are basically the worst window into Constitutional interpretation.

reader #2 aka Willard Moore:
Why do you think it is an advantage to come from an academic and intellectual society, rather than from people with actual experience in practicing law? What do you mean when you say you are out of sympathy with the silent majority?

To the first question, I'm sorry--I hadn't meant to contrast academia with legal practice. I was intending to contrast academia with political office. The Reagan-era "Constitution in 2000" document came from within a sitting administration; the ACS guys have much more freedom, I think, to distance themselves in intellectually-fruitful ways from the Obama administration.

Second question: Oh you know, this was just my usual anti-bourgeois shtik, and largely not worth the time you spent wondering about it! My sympathies never go to the people who make the world work. I always want to be the monkey-wrencher. I always focus on the things the current culture gets wrong, where we all need a slappin' from the Church, instead of talking about ways we do things better than other possible civilizations. There are benefits to that approach but there are obvious drawbacks (especially of prideful contempt for one's fellow Americans), so I try to flag that tendency when I notice it.
Holding the mask is like handling a pair of handcuffs: you can't help wanting to try it on.
--Father of Frankenstein

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

L'OSSERVATORE ROMANO ON OSCAR WILDE. I am contractually obligated to provide you with this link! (...I wouldn't wade into the comments if I were you.)
BRIDE OF THE REFERRER LOGS: Search requests which have brought people to this catty corner of the Internet. In chronological order. As always, if you send me something related to one of these search requests and it makes me laugh, I will post it here, and you will win a fabulous sparkly No-Prize.

jewish nazi eskimos
harold bloom lesbian eskimos
resentments and resentments
ivy league privateer eve [How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!]
punches the alien
ferocious namesake
poem hound of heaven Alfred Lloyd Tennessee
Why would a football
you’re dead to me keats
Graham Greene made tyrants tremble
aristophanes fanfiction
futilism middle ages
total depravity of man for middle schoolers
humorous definition of a conservative
campaign slogans for plato
what societal constructs do most people accept without question [Pants.]
Whale looks out the window, desperately needing to see something on which he can lock his mind and stop its slide into absurdities.

And he sees a spaceship. A great disk like a slow spinning top reclines against the sky, as big as a house and orbited by tubes that must be neon lights at night. The monstrosity stands over a ring of parked cars where a bare-legged girl on roller skates waltzes out with a tray of paper bags. Whale solemnly watches the spaceship and the girl drift past.

This is where he will die?

--Christopher Bram, Father of Frankenstein

Monday, July 20, 2009

...AND TOUCHED THE FACE OF GOD: Megan McArdle on the cultural significance of the moonwalk. (On the actual moon, not Michael Jackson's.)

I don't know why this doesn't resonate with me. Some of it is doubtless temperament. But a lot of it is that my very first "public memory"--the first memory I share with most people my age--is the white clouds spiraling down from Challenger. "Obviously [there's been] a major malfunction."

I remember when that tanked series, Enterprise, started up, I wished it would begin with the Challenger disaster. Because I loved Star Trek. I love it now. My heart shudders with those first high, weird notes, and "Space--the final frontier...." I couldn't see the new movie because I knew I'd irrationally blame it for not being Shatner (my first and everpresent icon of leadership and loyalty), Nimoy and Kelley and Nichols and the rest. But I wanted the new Star Trek to acknowledge why we're still, culturally, Earthbound. We were chastened, and so we retreated into the greatest truth of science fiction: Wherever you go, there you are. We retreated into the alienation of home. I wanted the new series to redeem that experience, somehow: to grapple with it and still tell us that "the eyes of the world look, now, into space."

Well, it didn't. But ours has been an anguished retreat--not a philosophical rejection of the beauty in the dark spiral of stars.

Reagan's Challenger speech here.
"GAY AT WHEATON." Powerful stuff.
FIRST THINGS is doing a survey of college experiences, especially w/r/t religion on campus. Go throw your two cents in the hat!
ME: Where's this coming from? You were never cruel when you were alive. Not knowingly.

YOU: But now I sometimes wish I'd hurt you knowingly instead of accidentally. A deliberate kick is more real and intimate than an accidental one.

--Lives of the Circus Animals

Sunday, July 19, 2009

THINKING ONE'S OWN THOUGHTS IN THE SPACES AROUND THE PRINT: A dilettante's notes from the American Constitution Society's "Constitution in 2020" panel.

This is one of those posts where I get up on my hind legs and fuss at my elders and betters. Although in this one, there isn't much fussin', since the panel (at the National Press Club, last Tuesday--watch it here!) was really meant more to give the flavor of the perspectives and internal debates you might find if you read the ACS's new essay collection--titled, in a shocking coincidence, The Constitution in 2020. I still haven't read it, although I'm planning to read at least some of the pieces. I want to finish Father of Frankenstein first! So... this is how the panel looked to the layest of women, who comes at these issues from a broadly right-wing viewpoint but who has found the Sotomayor hearings a farcical exposure of the weaknesses of the "originalist"/"just read the text" position.

The idea behind the book came from a Reagan-era document from the Meese DOJ, an internal report-type thing called "The Constitution in 2000," laying out where the administration's judicial guys wanted to take constitutional interpretation. So The Constitution in 2020 is the progressive version of this '80s right-wing document. The ACS version has the obvious advantage of coming from an essentially intellectual and academic society, rather than from within a sitting administration. (Has anyone done an organizational-theory or leadership-theory study of the Federalist Society vs. ACS?)

The panelists were introduced by a fire-breathin' lady, who is apparently the new head of ACS?, and who followed the grand tradition of people who introduce highly intellectual panels by throwing red meat. I liked her! The panelists were Jack Balkin, Reva Siegel, Walter Dellinger, and... uh... Mark Tushnet, alias my father.

What follows are very scattershot notes, in chronological order. Stuff in quotes = exact quotes, as best I could take them down; other stuff following someone's name = paraphrase; stuff in brackets = me. I'll probably also duck in and out of the narration in ways which should be transparent to all--e.g. the last couple paragraphs will be just me talking about something my father said which really struck me.

Somebody described the (or a) progressive approach to constitutional interpretation as, "It's law, but it's our law"--a "democratic" jurisprudence tempered by the rule of law. The democratic part seemed to be cashed out by the idea that there are "many constitutional interpreters, not just the Supreme Court"--legislatures and citizens can be interpreters as well. [When they say "citizens" I hear "culture," but those words may have important differences in connotation--not sure. The panelists mostly seemed to mean "social movements" when they said "citizens." I'm not sure about that. As much as I am out of sympathy with the silent majority, they're citizens too; shouldn't somebody speak for the people who keep their heads down and try to play by the rules?

[Anyway, this point about culture shifting our interpretations of the constitutional text is both a) obviously true! and b) the universal alibi for courts who want to pretend that they're just responding to preexisting cultural shifts. More on this anon.]

MVT (my dad): "Design of national health care policy is a matter of Constitutional significance, even if the courts have nothing to say about it," ditto education. In the US, the courts have not developed/taken on a notion of social-welfare rights.

Dellinger: The current Supreme Court pretends that courts and judges are the only constitutional actors/interpreters, ignoring the President and Congress. If the Congress creates legislation creating rights against the state, the Supreme Court asks whether they would have created these rights in a lawsuit brought directly under the Constitution, and if the answer is no, then they say Congress can't do it either. His example is Bush v. Gore: There was already a process for determining the outcome of contested elections, which the court simply bypassed. [I agree.]

Bob Dornan (passed?) a bill to hunt out and expel HIV+ servicemembers. "Why can't the President say this is a restraint on liberty which hurts military preparedness, and thus it is unconstitutional, regardless of what the Court would hold?" [Ohhhh... guy, do you really want to go there? I thought the "imperial presidency" was part of the problem!]

Balkin: Gay rights advanced in state legislatures due to social movements, long before the Supreme Court decided Lawrence. [This point gets challenged later.] Similarly, the DC gun-rights case, Heller, only happened long after the gun-rights social movement had won a lot of cultural success.

Siegel: What is uniquely valuable in the judicial branch? "We prize in courts their independence," the lack of immediate electoral reprisal. Examples of the Rehnquist Court vs. Congress: VAWA, parts of the ADA, RFRA. There's a "signaling function": Representative branches can inform the Court that there's a changing vision of civil rights.

Balkin asks MVT what difference it makes if we think about e.g. Social Security as a Constitutional matter. He replies that this reframing "should alter the way we talk about [these social-welfare issues] in our political discourse. ...'The best way to maximize distribution of health care' rather than whether some people should have it and others shouldn't."

Also [or, as both cause and effect of the above], this reframing would change our understanding of "what it means to be an American."

And the reframing "would give the statutes we enact to embody these values a special kind of normative weight." [And therefore maybe also more deference from the Court?]

Balkin: Democratic constitutonalism renders confirmation-hearing questions like, "Are you an umpire?", silly. Instead, we should be asking, "How do courts integrate themselves into the larger web of interpreters?" We shouldn't ask, "Tell us what the Constitution is." [He doesn't give an alternative question, but maybe, "Tell me what the Court's interpretive role should be"? More on confirmation-hearing questions at the end.]

[How much of the integrative/social-movements claim is empirical and how much is normative? When the court can push the culture, when should it? Or, to put it another and more pointed way, would anyone on this panel actually vote to uphold DOMA?]

Siegel: The Court can smack Congress to protect individuals' civil rights but not to restrain legislation designed to protect individuals' civil rights. [This is both bracingly coherent and intelligible... and a bit "heads I win, tails you lose" if you take a more procedure-oriented view of the law. More on procedure vs. outcome in a bit.]

The courts' "special purpose": "protecting relatively disempowered individuals" against "mobilized majorities." The courts can't stop a really determined majority, but they can ask the majority to "reflect"--basically, to take some time to consider whether they really want to be such colossal jerks. [Not her words!]

[I was really sympathetic to Siegel's focus on what makes the courts unique, since the rest of the panel was so focused on knitting the courts into a broader web of interpreters. Somebody needs to talk about why we should bother making courts interpreters at all. Still, her comments really brought out how language like "minority" and "civil rights" relies on specific traditions, which can be challenged. Within these traditions, women are a minority, doctors who won't prescribe contraception aren't, and polygamists might be in ten years, you know?]

MVT: Right-wing "originalism" is basically a rallying cry in favor of some substantive goals and against others. [Sort of the parallel criticism to the one I just made: "Originalism" is a tradition in which many of the terms conceal their connotations.]

[Here again I wonder: When do/should judges find against their substantive-outcome beliefs?--e.g. Thomas's opinion in Lawrence. This question might be esp. knotty for Siegel (assuming I'm not misinterpreting her comments), since it would require substantive philosophical judgment on who constitutes a relevant minority and what her rights against the majority should look like. ...Dellinger asked this very question a bit later, but said only that it's "very, very hard" to answer. Thanks, guy.]

MVT also uses the example of gay rights (and disability rights) coming mostly through statute--although Siegel challenges this and says that state courts have not been so quiet on gay rights. She says state courts have "empowered certain voices otherwise not heard in politics," and "created a space" for legislative action. ["Certain voices"--there's that unspoken tradition again! And again, the implication that legislatures really want to be leftists a.k.a. not jerks, and the courts need to give them permission.]

My father then noted that in 2020, Scalia--"the oldest of the conservatives"--will be 83, "younger than Justice Stevens is now." The dismay in the room was audible.

His suggestion for addressing this actuarial fact, offered with an uneven grin: "The number nine is not written." Why not just add a few justices here and there?

Balkin suggests, more gently, term limits. [I'd agree with this, and think it will become boringly obvious if lifespans continue to lengthen.]

Siegel invokes empathy. [And in fact I agreed with her specific examples (I forget what they were), but her approach again seemed a bit "You should defer to the legislatures when my outcome wins, because I'm right, but not when my outcome loses." When the law is against you, invoke the facts; when the facts are against you, invoke the law; when the law and the facts are against you, pound the empathy!]

[How does democratic Constitutionalism deal with the shocking popularity of torture? ...I suppose I should read the book.]
OK, all the rest of this is just Eve talking. One split I noticed in the panel was a three-way divide between what you might call a unitive interpretive theory vs. a unitive procedural theory vs. a unitive political-outcome or philosophical theory. Obviously all three of these intertwine and interact, and it's legit for a judge to draw from one or the other more from case to case. But I'd put my father roughly more in the "procedural" camp and Siegel roughly more in the "philosophical" camp. I didn't get a good enough sense of the other two panelists' positions to take a guess. But would talking in these terms be illuminating? It might help address some of the concerns of the "textualist" or "judicial humility in the face of text and legislature" types.

Because right now I do wonder whether democratic constitutionalism is just a fancy way of saying that both legislature and courts (and the President??) should drag the text, kicking and screaming, into the progressive sunshine whenever they get the chance. Which, if you're a progressive, might be a very good idea! And yet the more procedure- and interpretive-theory-oriented talk from the panelists seemed to suggest that this was not the Wizard behind the curtain.

Anyway, last thought. After the panel, a woman was talking with my father, and I didn't hear what she said but it might've been something about which Supreme Court justices he most admired or something. And again, I don't actually remember whom he named--Marshall I'm 99% sure, and someone else--but his explanation really stuck with me. With a kind of baffled certainty, he said, "He was a good judge. He was a good judge."

And that tone of voice was very familiar to me. It's the way people talk about leadership: the irreducible capacity not merely for prudence but for some combination of right philosophy and risk and rhetoric. The beliefs really do matter, but there's something else there, something which can only be put into words if the words are poetry.

So I started chewing on whether there would be any way to orient our hazing-ritual confirmation hearings more toward an assessment of leadership. Wryly I offer, "Name the three Justices you most hope to be compared to, and the three you most fear being compared to, and explain why"! But another point about leadership is that it's much easier to rule things out than to say what should be done. Would it be possible to ask, "Is there any chance there's a constitutional right to X? What are some things which might convince you that there is one, and that there isn't?" rather than, "How would you decide a case about X?" I don't know. This post suggests that Sen. Cornyn tried something similar and got precisely bupkes for his troubles, so maybe not. (I adore how progressives can laud the cultural potency of social movements, and the need for the courts to protect the rights of the minority, but at confirmation hearings nobody has a thought or a personality anymore! And visa-obviously-versa for the right-wingers as well.)

I suppose "I don't know" is a fitting note on which to end these notes of a professional amateur!
HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO HELL: Three more thoughts about Shaun of the Dead--which I loved even more on rewatching!

1. The extra material on the dvd is terrific. Two commentary tracks, which I almost always love; the usual deleted scenes; outtakes; but, fantastically, a section devoted to Plot Holes! The dvd points out three different huge plotholes and, via truly ridiculous comic-book pages, narrates how they might be fixed. I love that they did that.

ETA: Now I've listened to the entire director + writer/star commentary, which is fine, and I'm about halfway through the cast commentary, which is hysterical. Good grief, is there anything about this movie I don't love???

2. This movie didn't actually hit my best-friendship buttons, because Shaun and Ed are too unequal. The more-competent one (relatively speaking!) is also the more-charismatic. So they don't work as a Pats-and-Eddie/Harold-and-Kumar/Withnail-and-narrator duo.

3. I know I always whine about how post-Romero zombie movies don't interest me the way old-school, Haitian-style zombie flicks do. But Shaun's antimodernity felt old-school to me.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

OUR CULTURE, WHAT'S LEFT OF IT: Shaun of the Dead. Nobody told me Theodore Dalrymple made zombie flicks!

No, this is terrifically fun--and genuinely poignant, sad in the absurd and heartfelt and helpless way that the best horror is always sad. (I'm thinking of the scene in the car with Shaun's stepdad.) Horror so often exposes our most naked feelings and then ravages them; this film does it with a miserably funny compassion. It gets almost all its humor from the thing you and I know well: the knowledge that the weird stranger might be our deaths. It's a movie in the genre I associate with the late '70s or the '80s, in the United States--it's Escape from New York, but hilarious and with English zombies. Its antecedents are the many Agatha Christie novels in which her murderers are able to hide in small country villages because the Second World War has disrupted all the old ways of life.

The most striking thing about Shaun of the Dead is how long it takes him to figure out that he's in a zombie movie. He's so used to threatening, muttering strangers, people nobody knows, people he doesn't recognize... that actual zombies are only the extreme case of his usual way of dealing with modern life.

I loved this, maybe in part because it's the horror-comedy counterargument to my upcoming American Conservative column about the virtues of D.C. life.
"A STORY LIKE MINE." I have a piece in the new Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. Some few, persistent readers may remember it as a revised version of "Recognition."

It's... sort of fantasy/"slipstream"? It's one of those weird pieces where I didn't expect it to do anything, but it seemed to hit a chord with people--I was surprised at the response. The LCRW version is better than anything you've seen, and anyway, I've never been able to track down the old version, even through the Wayback Machine.

A quote from toward the beginning:
Once upon a time there was a boy whose face broke open.

He was shaving in front of the mirror one day--he had only just started shaving--when his hand slipped and his face split. Underneath the skin there was horror. Where the skin split he could see oily, black things, writhing and pulsing. He cried out, dropped the razor. His mother knocked on the bathroom door and asked if he was all right. He tried to hold his face together, tried to pinch the edges of the cut in the hope that it would somehow heal itself. He told her he was fine.

Whatever was under his skin smelled foul. The stinking stuff began to crawl out from between his fingers. In the bright bathroom light he could see that it was reddened black, like blood clots, and it had a gelatin texture.

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ZOMG. Luap is real!!! (Second item.)

...The three people who get this joke are laughing really hard. It's just that you can't hear them. For real!
YOU: At first we talked about hospitals. It was like those awful parties where businessmen talk about their least favorite airports. But what we mostly discussed was what it was like to "pass over." The fear, the pain, the exhilaration, the relief. We all needed to tell that tale, even though we were afraid we were full of cliches. It's the dead person's answer to the coming-out story.

ME: And how people treated you? Do you talk about that? Who loved you, who didn't? Who was kind, who was cold?

YOU: There you go again. "What do the dead think of us?" The living are so biocentric.

ME: We think about you. We want to believe that you think about us. Even if you think about us badly.

YOU: The rules are like this: You have to think about us, but we don't have to think about you.

ME: Hardly seems fair.

--Christopher Bram, Lives of the Circus Animals

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

PUBLIC LIVES IN PRIVATE PLACES: More thoughts on vowed friendship. My Inside Catholic piece was advocacy; this is the place where I complicate that advocacy.

This is where my head is at right now, when I think about renewing the Christian tradition of vowed same-sex friendship. I'm very open to criticism, especially critics who have alternative ideas for how to honor the loves I want to honor. But even if you're basically like, "Don't go that way!" rather than "Follow me!", I want and need to hear from you. My email's on the sidebar.

Maybe the first, necessary thing to say is that renewal is never rewind. There is simply no chance that vowed same-sex friendships in (say) 2055 will look the way they did in 1655. "With the inevitable forward march of progress/comes new ways of hiding things/and new things to hide." One thing I loved about Alan Bray's The Friend was its awareness of tensions, its ability to acknowledge conflicts without feeling the need to resolve them. This seems like a basic fact about any real, important tradition: It will serve both bad and good ends. You will not be able to harness it fully to any philosophy. It will always be messy and human and novelistic.

And so I am not suggesting that a renewal of vowed same-sex friendship would "solve our problems." Instead I'm suggesting that it might shift our problems, so that we moved from less-Catholic problems to more-Catholic problems.

Or to put it yet another way, even if I get everything I want from this idea, there will still be deep ethical problems with same-sex vowed friendships (just as there are deep ethical problems with Catholic marriage today, and there always have been). My goal is not to solve problems but to suggest that we might change them. If you think there are better ways to change our problems, email me!!! I promise to post all emails critical of this position.

PRENUPTIAL AGREEMENT: The one thing I most want to emphasize is that the Eucharist seals these vows. The Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. These vows might have some kind of fifteenth-generation-xerox possibility in the absence of the Catholic faith, but they gain their depth and meaning and hope from Christ's Body.

Having said that, I should note that my very last point is about generally Protestant communities and how they've maintained a sense of the family of baptism which most American Catholics have simply discarded. The Eucharist is at the heart of everything I care about with these friendships, but I'd be remiss if I didn't note that suffering and solidarity can create a kind of Protestant love-feast as well.

GIRLS DON'T WANT BOYS, GIRLS WANT CARS AND MONEY: The tradition Alan Bray describes grew up in a culture where women were unequal, and where we were separated from men by a vast gulf of social status and poetic/theological imagery. The tradition he describes was purely same-sex, and drew its power from metaphors both of marriage and of siblinghood, suggesting chosen kinship without sex. The tradition he describes defined the friend against the "sodomite," and had no place for what we now would call "gay identity"--a lady could contract a sexually-transmitted disease from her ladyfriend and perhaps never consider herself implicated in the usual Romans condemnation-passage.

We now live in a world where, as Bray himself describes, chosen kinship has been narrowed, filed down to marriage-and-nothing-else. Possibly this narrowing of kinship fuels the gay-marriage movement. (If you're a "conservative Catholic" and you've warred against my "Romoeroticism" piece, maybe consider this?) We now live in a world of "sexual orientation," of "homosexuality," of women working outside the home, and of women's theoretical equality.

(Have women ever been "equal" in any interesting sense? I suppose it depends on what you consider interesting. Women have never been equivalent to men in any poetic sense. Women have never--as far as I know--been equal to men in any societal-power sense. If I were a man, I would ask God why I was not a woman, for precisely these reasons.)

So: Can there be vowed same-sex friendship in a context so radically--at least in theory!--divorced from Bray's context?

I think there are reasons to believe we can still renew this practice.

First, traditions adapt to fill new needs. We clearly have new needs. There are actual, existing same-sex couples in which one or both partner chooses to become chaste. Some of these couples are raising children. We need some way of honoring their love; otherwise we say, "Split up," and that is wrong.

This is why I think vowed friendship, while I would recommend it to everyone!, will be most attractive to gay people. We are the ones who need it.

I realize that if gay people take this on as a way of understanding our loves, it will be culturally harder for straight people to do the same. This is one of the new tensions and new problems I noted above. I'm not sure how to address it. I want y'all ladies to be able to make sisterhood vows without your husbands getting wiggy; and yet I want, also, for a gay man to be able to introduce his "vowed friend" to his family, and for them to understand that this means more than a boyfriend, and different than a friend.

(Parenthetically, I'll say that I think there are strong reasons to follow tradition in restricting vowed friendships to same-sex pairs, even today when supposedly we're all equal. Men and women aren't similarly situated; tradition is a strong guide; regardless of sexual orientation, there's a point to distinguishing between relationships between two men, relationships between two women, and relationships between a man and a woman. I can expand on this if people want, since I know it's another point of tension! Mostly though, I'm a "trad," I believe in sex differences [that would be how I come to like ladies, yo], and so I like structures which preserve the sense of difference.)

Second, traditions exist to fill old needs, even when we've forgotten how to address those needs. Veterans still have comrades. Straight men who need other men have virtually no way to articulate that need in terms our culture can understand. Vowed friendship between comrades would a) not preclude marriage and b) even more importantly, let the community--not necessarily the law, I don't care about that right now--acknowledge that these are men who have an unchosen but inescapable tie to one another.

(For another point of tension: I know that now that we have ladies in the military, the relevant veteran-to-veteran links may cross the sex line. I genuinely don't know how to deal with that.)

Third, traditions reflect minority practice, not just majority. I've been struck, from the elementary-school playground to the pregnancy center, with how much more important godparenthood and godsiblinghood is to DC's black communities than to the white communities in which I was raised. We hear a lot about how black people are supposedly more "homophobic" than white, but we hear nothing about how much more open many black communities are to an expansive notion of kinship. I know this is a generosity born of necessity; but if all our communities worked the way black communities do, we'd already have a better framework for understanding Alan Bray's description of premodern English kinship. "Gossip" is short for "godsibling," yet the intimacy and responsibility of godsiblinghood is something I've only found in DC's black communities.

These ties are real and exist in America now. If you don't see them, it doesn't mean they've gone away. Maybe they can be harnessed to handle all our needs.