The recent controversy over whether a church, or indeed a single individual, may be compelled to purchase health insurance that provides free coverage for contraception, abortifacient drugs, and sterilization suggests that Americans may yet reconsider the wisdom of what has made the controversy possible in the first place. That is the sexual revolution.
I find it instructive here to glance backward before that revolution, to a poem that celebrates its arrival, and that in fact presents to us several of the crucial elements or motifs of the current controversy: contraception, the Church, a certain vision of freedom, and a supposed maturation beyond the need for the strictures of the past. The poem is “High Windows,” by Philip Larkin. It is, technically and rhetorically, a brilliant work. It is also fundamentally dishonest and self-contradictory, from beginning to end. Here it is in full:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
Paradise—a perfect garden of delights, with young people rutting and hallooing down the slide to happiness without end. And yet this vision of carefree nature rests upon a strange submission to technology, and a depersonalization of human love.
Consider that opening sentence. The “couple of kids” are evidently not free, no matter what Larkin may say, and no matter the casual obscenity that surprises us out of careful thought. For the girl in question must ingest the artificial estrogen, or must insert a blocking device into her body. Why must she do so? Precisely because neither she nor he intends the natural result of their engaging in a reproductive act. But in what way is this an expression of being free of care? They must take great care beforehand, so that they may pretend that they need not care while engaging in intercourse. They are not ready for a child, but they do what makes for children, and hope that none will come.
Thus they are not naked to one another, as an innocent Adam and Eve in Eden. They disrobe, but they hide. They push to the side all “bonds” and “gestures,” conveniently vague. That is, they refuse to be free with themselves, each one giving wholly to the other. The bond of marriage that sets a couple truly free, that gives a man and a woman the confidence to devote themselves forever to their mutual good and that of their children, is simply dispensed with. It is relegated to irrelevance, like “an outdated combine harvester.” But that analogy, startling and effective though it may be, is downright strange. Larkin uses it to suggest something ungainly and absurd, but his ironical contempt seems to have prevented him from noticing a contradiction. For there is nothing inherently silly about a combine harvester. It is a tool for reaping the goods of the earth. It does its work quite well, and only becomes “outdated” when a new combine harvester is invented that will do that same work better. The work of a harvester depends upon fertility. The work performed by the “bonds and gestures” of marriage is also oriented toward fertility, like the free and glorious fertility of a beautiful garden—a paradise. But in this poem the whole idea of reaping a good harvest is replaced by reliance upon pills and a diaphragm. It is therefore an artificial and sterile paradise, dependent upon tools that bring to pass a willed infertility. What’s the use of a harvester, when there is no life?
But that state of affairs will be “the life,” as Larkin imagines a wishful hedonist saying to himself forty years back. That life is defined largely in negative terms. There will be no God; meaning that there will be no felt presence of God, no pangs of conscience as regards sex, no virtue to aspire to, no duties to fulfill, and no sins to confess and to expiate. One might also add that there will be no sense of holiness; no sacred promise to devote one’s life to one’s spouse; no victory over the importunacy of the flesh; no shielding the sexes from abusing one another. This will be like going “down the long slide.” There will, apparently, be no broken hearts, no one cajoled into saying with the body what is not held in the mind, no children living without a father, no visits to the abortuary, nothing but living “like free bloody birds.”
Which brings us to another contradiction. When we think of birds leaving the earth behind and soaring where they will, we naturally think of freedom. But birds in flight are doing what they do by nature. So too, when mating season comes they join to beget and raise offspring. Even if Larkin meant the word “birds” only as a colloquialism for “lucky stiffs,” or something of the sort, his hidden contempt for nature has gotten the better of him. The couple of kids he sees are not at all free in the sense of being unrestrained (for they must engage in complicated evasions), or in the sense of being generous (for they withhold their fertility from one another). Nor are they at all like the birds. Instead they desire exactly the opposite of what the birds in mating season desire. They do not want chicks. They want nothing.
So we arrive at the end of the poem, when Larkin presents us with the “religious” experience of someone whose pocket of prophylactics protects him from needing the priest. He has removed human love from the chapel of marriage. But now he wishes to place it back in a chapel of his own. He wants to bless it with the clarity and the “sun-comprehending” of “high windows,” like those of a great church. What is here? There are no stories to behold in the windows; they are colorless. There is nothing beyond the windows either, nothing but “the deep blue air,” the endless nowhere of the sky.
We will all enter paradise, then, when we scoff at nature, rig up some nifty devices to guarantee infertility, consider neither holiness nor virtue, and believe in the blessings of no one and nowhere and nothing. To quote Milton’s Belial, that must end us, that must be our cure.
Where is that promised paradise of no one and nowhere and nothing, Mr. Larkin? Visit a prison, and ask the men in the cell blocks to recount their sexual histories, and those of their mothers and fathers. Visit a hospital, and see the faces of women who have determined to violate their inmost natures as the givers of life. Visit a neighborhood—if you can find one; for your paradise has placed transience and infidelity at the heart of the most intimate of human relations. You with your quaint erudite use of obscenity! The streets of your nation and the sullen youth who roam them make you look like a monocled Edwardian with a taste for French novels.
And this is the world we must protect, even at the cost of our Constitution and our civil liberties?
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child and Ironies of Faith. He has translated Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata and Dante’s The Divine Comedy.