Friday, June 1, 2012

Love Me for My Skeleton Alone

You know the opening of Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans?  (Apparently it comes ultimately from Aristotle.)
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard.  "Stop!" cried the groaning old man at last, "Stop I did not drag my father beyond this tree."
I've noticed the same pattern in many places.

Images like the one above have been proliferating on Facebook lately, or maybe they're just annoying me more.  Here's another one.

This could probably be called the Common Sense approach to same-sex marriage, and it shows the severe limitations of Common Sense.  Cybill and Clint don't really mean that any two people who love each other should be allowed to marry.  They mean something like "Any two people, except, you know, like first cousins, or brother and sister, or an adult and a child -- someone under twenty-five or so -- or gross people.  You know: any two people who don't gross me out at the thought of their getting married.  And polygamy (as opposed to serial monogamy) is totally out, okay?"  But if that's what they and other advocates of same-sex marriage mean, they should say so.

I don't think I'm just nitpicking here.  Advocates of "marriage equality" present themselves as rational, sensible, compassionate people, and and their opponents as unreasonable, irrational, prejudiced nutjobs.  The trouble is that their opponents also see themselves as rational, sensible, compassionate people who are being persecuted for their sincere beliefs.  ("We are people of mercy.")  And same-sex marriage advocates don't seem to do any better in explaining why some people aren't "any two people."  The higher risk of birth defects in the offspring of first cousins is a cause for concern, but it's not clear that that alone is a reason to forbid them to marry, especially since they can legally marry already in so many places.  "Euuwww, yuck, that's gross!" isn't a reason, but it is the first response of many friends of same-sex marriage.  (I just remembered the frenzy of hatred that animates critics of the Duggars for having "too many" children.)  So why isn't "Eeuuwww, yuck, that's gross!" a valid response to same-sex marriage, or just to two guys smooching?  (Two girls smooching is hot, though, so they should be allowed to marry, right?)  When Rick Santorum asked a college audience why happiness wouldn't justify plural marriage, none of them could answer him, but it was a valid question.

Maybe I should repeat: I'm not in favor of polygamy, or brothers and sisters marrying, or bestiality, or marriage between adults and children.  I just want to hear some serious arguments against them.  If grossness were a serious argument, it would count against same-sex marriage, interracial marriage, or any other arrangement that used to flout Common Sense but doesn't anymore.  If imbalance of power, an argument against intergenerational sex (even when both parties are adults), were valid, it would apply to heterosexuality too.  Objections based on immaturity of younger partners run aground on the wide variation in age-of-consent law and custom.  If potential birth defects were a valid argument against first cousins or closer relatives having offspring, everyone, and especially everyone with a heritable condition, should at least have to get genetic counseling before getting married.  (How about two brothers, or two sisters, or father and son?  There's zero chance of birth defects resulting from their coupling.)  But there's an idea for a reality TV show: the audience rates couples who want to marry, and votes them down based on the grossness of either or both partners.

This image turned up on Facebook last night, and it was sort of the last straw for me.

It could just as easily be a brother and sister, or a fifty-one-year-old and a sixteen-year-old "sharing love."  So why not?  But what really bothers me about this is the idea that sex equals love, which it doesn't of course (though that doesn't count against sex); and even more, the idea that in having sex with another person, his or her body, his or her individual personhood, isn't involved.  It's fairly obvious why so many people want to dismiss the body: a radical body/spirit dualism is still the norm in American society, even or especially among people who officially reject dualism, and the body is still despised.  The text under the image is one of the most blatant expressions of such dualism I've seen in a long time, and it sent a chill down my spine.  Anyone who could write that isn't as far from Rick Santorum as they'd like to believe.

A couple of weeks ago my Tabloid Friend linked to a news story about a man whose penis had been eaten away by "flesh-eating bacteria."  That led to predictable comments about how awful it would be to lose such a vital body part, with some women jeering about how men think that the penis is all that matters, and then the discussion took a weird turn.  One youngish heterosexual said that it would at least mean he wouldn't be driven by sex any more, that women had been his ruin.  (He was probably wrong: sex in adults is mostly in the mind.  Even castration lowers sexual interest but doesn't eliminate it.)  Some other people agreed with him, and I disagreed, though I'm ambivalent.  St. Augustine believed that before the Fall, copulation was an act of will, not of desire or bodily pleasure.  Sophocles reportedly said at eighty that at last he was free of a cruel and insane master, and there have been times when I could see his point.  But as with the fuss over first-cousin marriage, I was struck once more by ostensible liberals' antipathy to sex and the body.

Sex is a relation between bodies.  Admittedly I don't believe in spirit as a substance distinct from matter in the first place: we are one substance, living flesh.  I was delighted to find in Norman O. Brown's Life Against Death (Wesleyan, 1959, p. 104) the dictum that we are unique individuals, not because we possess immortal souls but because we have mortal bodies.  (Looks like he was paraphrasing Hegel.)  Whether you agree with that idea or not, the image above literalizes the skeleton as the soul, the person's true essence.  The flesh is something that gets in the way of our seeing each other as we really are -- it could even be to blame for racism and sexism and homophobia, according to the graphic: if we could see past the false surface to the bones beneath, we wouldn't care who was having sex with whom.

For me this relates to liberals' general discomfort with difference.  (Not only liberals, of course, but they seem most obsessed with it.)  For example, the notion that the way to get rid of racism is for everybody to interbreed until we're all the same color.  That's absurd for so many reasons, but it's revealing how it agrees with racists that differences in skin color are significant, so the remedy for bigotry is to get rid of difference: replace different languages with Esperanto, different religions with Unitarian Universalism, different bodies with robots that have had our personalities downloaded into them.  If this view is right, we're doomed.  But the point I'm trying to get at is that nice judgmental liberals don't really seem to be able to think about difference any more rationally or effectively than conservatives.  They seem to be trying not to think about it, which I don't believe will work in the long run.