Several weeks ago, Saint Valentine’s Day at my school came and went. There was no dance. There was no concert. There was no ice cream social. There was no party for trading little gifts. There was no showing of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Marty or Goodbye, Mr. Chips or Casablanca. There were no foolish and innocent flirtations on the way to class.
But there was some small notice taken of the holiday. A group of women, as has been customary for several years, rented space at a local theater to stage there what they are not allowed to stage at our Catholic college, the dreary, hapless porno-twaddle called The Vagina Monologues. A few hundred of our students made the trip across the city to watch it, including some young men motivated by a sort of homeless chivalry. The stated justification for the show is to protest violence against women—though, in Eve Ensler’s initial version of the play, the only violence against a woman was a lesbian drug-rape of a teenage girl, and that was celebrated as liberating.
So it’s come to this: Even lust now is gray and dispirited. The girls celebrate Valentine’s Day by putting on a series of vulgar and angry skits, to instruct the boys in how rotten they are, and the boys, most of whom have no particular desire to treat girls badly, roll their eyes and go along with it, or file it away with all the other petty resentments of our lonely contemporary existence.
Of course, there isn’t a feminist on my campus who will admit to these young women that if they really want to be protected from violence, they should marry a decent man and stay married to him, because such married women are less likely than any other group of Americans to be the victims of a felony.
Nor will they call for a return to chivalry, because that would imply an exchange of gifts, from man to woman and woman to man; and gifts are incompatible with the squint-eyed reckoning of those who see all human relationships in terms of dominance. It’s why they will never say to them, “You know, artificial estrogen is a class one carcinogen,” or, “For physiological reasons that are perfectly understandable, induced abortion puts women at a much higher risk for breast cancer.”
Doubtless the same people who affirm that women ought to enjoy special protection against physical violence—for men, after all, are both the main perpetrators of violence and the most frequent victims of it—were cheering the recent decision to plunk female soldiers into the ranks of the infantry and send them against young men at the peak of a man’s physical prowess, armed to the teeth, and on fire to kill, maim, loot, and rape.
It’s rather like desiring to live in a place never known to man, a half-a-jungle, or a jungle on even-numbered days and a Victorian drawing room on odd-numbered days. It cannot be. And make no mistake, a jungle it is, because lust by its very nature is cruel. The promoters of the sexual revolution thought that good will between the sexes was immutable; we could alter the conditions of their dealings with one another, and they would adjust accordingly, and they might even treat one another more honestly and humanely, once the starched-collar “rules” were dispensed with.
We should have known better. It’s never easy for men and women to admire and love, not just one exceptional member of the other sex, but the other sex generally. The triumph of undirected eros—old brute lust—has made that situation worse, and wrought a new sadness in the world. Men and women now have almost nothing kind to say about the other sex. It’s not that they don’t love one another. They don’t even like one another. The girls, I’m told, see the boys as threats—the creatures who will hurt them, drug them, and have their way with them, cajole them into bed and then dispense with them; and the boys see the girls as manipulative, hot-and-cold, quick to accuse and blame, and, frankly, emotional roller-coasters after the high winds have struck and left the soul a looped and tangled mess.
As I said, we should have known better. The great poets of our heritage could have taught us. Christopher Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander” is a tour de force of young love; it’s from him that we derive the great rhetorical question, “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” The beautiful lad Leander, struck by the beauty of Hero, becomes a “bold sharp sophister,” coining one chop-logic line of reasoning after another, all to win Hero over to his will—even though he is still too innocent to know exactly what that will desires. He will find out, though. He toys with Hero as with his sister, yet something in his animal nature leads him to suspect that “some amorous rites or other were neglected.” So he presses her to his bosom; she, as if afraid to be thrown to the floor, strives against him (in both senses of that preposition), and
the more she strived,
The more a gentle pleasing heat revived,
Which taught him all that elder lovers know.
And now the same ’gan so to scorch and glow,
As in plain terms (yet cunningly) he craved it;
Love always makes those eloquent that have it.
That scene is comical; the “love,” little more here than friction, “teaches” Leander everything that a “creature wanting sense” or an aficionado of love will know. But later in the poem, when the consummation comes, Marlowe, deft artist that he is, shifts from comedy to violence. The boy has swum the Hellespont, naked of course, to be with Hero, and shows up in that state at the door of her castle. She flees—into her bedroom, naturally, where she “hides” under the covers, and where Leander pursues her. Female provocation and male aggression, that is what we have here, and a half-hearted attempt by Hero to preserve her virginity, the aptly pronominal “it” that she pretends to want to save and he seeks to have. In vain:
Love is not full of pity (as men say)
But deaf and cruel where he means to prey.
Indeed, the very cruelty of the moment provides for a flutter and flurry of action, all of which adds to the excitement:
Even as a bird, which in our hands we wring,
Forth plungeth, and oft flutters with her wing,
She trembling strove; this strife of hers (like that
Which made the world) another world begat
Of unknown joy.
This is the jungle, and they who live there must be content with the laws of predator and prey.
“The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” says Shakespeare, “is lust in action,”
and, till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoyed no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had,
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.
It must be so. Beasts copulate; but men and women are meant to marry. They perform the marital act; they know, when they unite in that act, that it is, or it ought to be, the seal of a love that, to quote another of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “bears it out even to the edge of doom.” We are the creatures aware of time, and oriented toward eternity. We know that the act of marriage brings into the bond of love the past generations, whose history we bear in our loins, and the present, and the future, in the child that may be born of the act. We cannot copulate! We cannot forget, when we unite, that we are doing what our parents did, and their parents; we cannot forget that we are saying, with our bodies, “We now may beget a child, to whom we will be devoted together for the rest of our lives.” We can only tell lies, and in doing so mimic the beast, or rather “improve” upon the beast, since we add the power of our unleashed brains to the beast’s frank provocation or aggression.
For lust longs for the innocent mindlessness of the beast; and, to grasp that mindlessness, will pervert language itself, calling sex “safe” or “protected,” and cohabitation “honest,” and relationships “mutual,” which are nothing but forays into a jungle, where the strongest and most cunning survive. There is no way to make such a place habitable. The only choice is to leave it, and return to a land of love, humility, gratitude for the excellence of the other sex, and marriage.
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.