Whether or not we are persuaded by various theological or philosophical explanations, each of us, in our own way, experiences the world as somehow imperfect, damaged, or broken. Things are not as we would have them be. But it is not only the world that is lacking; we also experience ourselves as broken—we are not as we would be.
Recognizing the world as broken differs remarkably from experiencing ourselves as such. To borrow a distinction from Gabriel Marcel, the broken world can rightly be viewed as a problem, something that lies before me that I address without needing to first examine myself, whereas a mystery is something “in which I am myself involved.” A mystery, in other words, cannot be separated from me, for I am part of the brokenness at hand, with my identity at stake in a way not true of mere problems. Inflation is a problem. Sex and death are mysteries.
The purpose of this distinction is not to celebrate irrationality but rather to acknowledge that the human person is not just another object among the world’s objects. The statement “I am” is different in kind from the statement “it is.” To say “I am in love” or “I am dying” brings me face to face with just how different I am from the non-personal. Yet, according to Marcel, it is characteristic of our time to refuse mystery and acknowledge only the problematic. For us, now, death is viewed not as a theological or metaphysical mystery but as a technical glitch with a technical solution. Death is optional, if only we can provide the right “fix.”
So also with sex. Increasingly we view sexuality with the impoverished imagination of the technician scouting out solutions to problems. Disease? Use a condom. Unwanted pregnancies? Here’s the Pill. Heartbroken youth? Give them sex-ed. Resulting despair and purposelessness? More condoms, more pills, and more sex-ed. The feedback loop is by now fairly obvious, with “solutions” causing as many problems as they “solve.” Yet we cannot imagine anything other than to double-down on the solutions. So we try the same things again and again in the naïve faith that these mysteries are really just problems.
Leon Kass once noted that some think the biggest obstacles to happiness arise from material stinginess. They look to the inventors and scientists, wishing for another Prometheus to bring new fire. Others, however, believe obstacles to happiness “arise from the turbulences of the human soul itself.” Such people look to statesmen or prophets for assistance. Technique is for problems, wisdom for mysteries.
In Plato’s Bedroom: Ancient Wisdom and Modern Love, David K. O’Connor seeks wisdom to answer contemporary questions about love and sexuality, turning to Plato’s Symposium, Shakespeare’s Othello, and a range of contemporary fiction and film to overcome pathology and find our better angels. Ancient wisdom still speaks to modern love in this very fine, engaging text.
According to O’Connor, we often seek to escape or control the mysteries of love by altering the language we use to describe it. Eros, for instance, once had an expansive meaning including everything involved with being in love. Now it has a narrowly sexual meaning, “reducing the realm of the Greek god to something little better than lust and pornography, as if Eros lived in a brothel, not a bedroom.” So, too, “sexual intercourse” or “sex.” Rather than evoking images of the things of Aphrodite, the terms inhabit the same linguistic world as “appendectomy” or “influenza.” Asking someone, “would you like to have sexual intercourse this afternoon?” sounds a little like asking, “would you like to go to the dentist later today?” The dentist may seem the better option. As O’Connor notes, the phrase “sexual intercourse” was given to us in 1798 by Thomas Malthus, to whom we owe so much of our misbegotten fear of overpopulation. This linguistic shift reduced the marriage act to “the action between men and women that caused populations to increase”—the vocabulary of public policy.
This tendency to control Eros is evident in the Symposium, which recounts a party at the home of Agathon, a young playwright celebrating a recent literary triumph. It is the second night of the party, with participants suffering from their excesses of the previous evening. In their weakened state, they suggest imbibing only a little in order to engage the pleasures of rational conversation. In doing so, says O’Connor, they are attempting to control the wildness of Dionysius brought on by drink, music, and sex. The group is unready or unwilling to be intoxicated by Bacchus, and even though the various speeches praise love or being loved, theirs is a love unwilling to forgo control. The speakers each betray their anxiety. Phaedrus, for instance, is worried that he is too soft and Pausanius that he is ridiculous, while Eryximachus views passion as a kind of immoderate disease. Each provides a way of avoiding love’s demands, “making it simpler, easier, and more manageable than an abandonment” ever could be.
We see something similar in Othello’s killing of Desdemona, explains O’Connor. Des-demon-a functions as a kind of demon who could enslave Ot-hell-o in the hell of consummated and responsible marriage. As O’Connor reads it, Othello never sexually consummates his marriage with Desdemona, even though he is portrayed by Iago as a kind of rutting beast, a sexual force despoiling the young maiden. Instead, it is Desdemona who wishes to “live with him” as wife in the sexual rites of marriage. But the bed is never warmed by him, as he prefers the “steel couch of war” to the “bed of down.” The “young affects” are in Othello “now defunct,” and he lacks the passion for her that she has for him. Confronted by her vitality, Othello is threatened. Aware of his loss of potency, he views her as diminishing his self-sufficiency. He experiences her desire to be his wife, to be joined with and to him, as a threat to freedom and power.
On the way to her death, Desdemona places her wedding sheets on the bed, an ancient ritual in which they will be bloodied by the sacrifice of her virginity. She is willing to be sacrificed, in this sense, and yet she is refused by Othello. He will not take her blood, although he will kill her. He chooses to strangle rather than to stab her, preserving her as a “monumental alabaster” wrapped in pristine sheets. He will not accept the initiation into domesticity demanded by marriage. Confronted with the gift of making marriage through making love, he accepts nothing and refuses Desdemona. To Othello, manliness and husbandry cannot go together.
Children, too, are refused. As O’Connor notes, “in modern romance stories, children are never the happy ending. In fact, children . . . aren’t the business of being in love, but a distraction from that business.” For many, children are a threatening intrusion upon romantic affection, not intrinsic to the “mutual power of fertility in a sexual relationship.” In Dancing after Hours, by Andre Dubus, one of the characters, Ted, rejects the immaturity whereby “conception and procreation would be unhappy accidents rather than ecstatic consummations.” One lover, Susan, aborts their child, and he recognizes as obscene his romantic first principle that “any child conceived from the lovemaking . . . would be killed.” By luck, or providence, he meets another woman, LuAnn, coming out of Mass, which she sorrowfully attends because her boyfriends, “even the most tender and gentle of them, have abortion as the secret but necessary condition of their love.” Stumbling on the Church steps, she breaks a heel; Ted offers to mend it and takes her to brunch, during which he says that he wants a home “with love in it, with a woman and children.” For Ted, any home in which love is welcomed would have children as a hoped-for consummation of love, not its impediment. At this, LuAnn almost laughs aloud—such impudence—but instead sputters out “My God!” Hearing Ted affirm sexual love as including the future, LuAnn “puts a name on what it is, and it turns out to be a divine name.”
The characters of the Symposium (except Socrates, who considers himself a midwife, after all) want to control the intoxication of love. They do so in the name of rationality and self-control, but it really is about refusal, the inability to open themselves beyond fear. They do not attain rationality, and in the end refuse all that is divine to remain with their own truncated and distorted selves. But sexuality is not a power to flee, “it’s a part of what it would be to be as perfect as a human being can be.” Perfection is open to the beloved in such a way as to desire a future—desiring even something divine, immortal, deathless.
We shall be as gods—this is the hope of the modern technocratic project. Yet nestled in the roots of this hope is a refusal to accept the mystery of our own existence. We are mysteries to ourselves, but we have supplanted and rejected this reality, reducing everything to a problem in need of a fix. While this has not made us divine, it has made us fear the divine promise of new life. Far too many of us, even the most tender and gentle of us, have absorbed the hypothesis that a refusal of life is the condition of love. But we will never be divine if we maintain that poor hope.
R.J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His books include The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and Acedia and Its Discontents.