The Personalist Project

In an article in the latest issue of First Things, What Does Woman Want?, Mary Eberstadt brilliantly exposes the link between the rising tide of pornography (and the social pressure among secularists to treat it as a harmless, if vaguely embarrassing, pastime) and unhappy, sexless marriages.

Yet the explanation from imposed gender neutrality does not by itself go far enough. Something else lurks under the rocks picked up by the fashionable writing about marriage these days—something that crawls away from the light even as it squirms just under the surface of much of the new confessionalism.

“Don’t eat too many snacks, or you’ll ruin your dinner.” Every woman issuing the new literature of complaint and heartache will understand just how meaningful the saying is—at least when it applies to kids and dinnertime. Yet sexual satiety, of the kind that oozes by other names from so much female confessional literature these days, is almost never recognized the same way. In particular, pornography is the invisible ink of many of these essays and lives—obvious one minute, unnoticed the next, and the bearer of a message no one apparently sees. Understood or not, however, it appears to be leaving a mark on at least some of these publicly lived lives.

In Loh’s essay, for example, a husband—as it happens, one of those husbands no longer interested in sex with his wife—bookmarks his pornography on the computer; his wife knows all about it, even reports it to her friends who are also commiserating about their sexless marriages—and no one seems to connect the dots at all. Another writer for Salon, reflecting on Loh’s essay, similarly nudges up against this obvious if missing piece of the puzzle (in a piece called “Why Your Marriage Sucks”), noting, “I write this article from a hotel room in New York City, where nearly a dozen porn movies are on offer”—a fact the author uses to highlight what she thinks of as an irony, when it might instead suggest something else: a possible causal relation between all those movies on the one hand and, on the other hand, a loss of romantic interest on the part of those who think them inconsequential.

The article brought to mind Charles Williams’ novel, Descent into Hell, which I read many years ago, after learning that Charles Williams was one of the Inklings and that Tom Howard had written his dissertation on his novels. In it the lead character, by preferring a fantasy to reality, gradually cuts himself off from everything, becoming in the process less and less human, less and less real and good and true. More and more this seems to me the prime temptation of modern existence: reality avoidance.

Roger Scruton, in a paper given for the Witherspoon Institute: The Abuse of Sex eviscerates the utilitarian myths about sex that dominate our culture. And he does it phenomenologically (i.e. starting from the data of moral experience), and via personalism, in a way reminiscent of Josef Pieper and Dietrich von Hildebrand.

[Sexual desire] is rooted in animal instincts. But in a person desire is re-centered, self-attributed to the I, so as to become part of the inter-personal dialogue. Hence sexual desire, as we know it, is peculiar to human beings. It is an interpersonal emotion, in which subject and object confront each other I to I. In describing sexual desire we are describing John’s desire for Mary, or Jane’s desire for Bill. And the people themselves will not merely describe their desires, but also experience them, as my desire for you. ‘I want you’ is not a figure of speech but the true expression of what I feel. And here the pronouns identify that very centre of free and responsible choice which constitutes the inter-personal reality of each of us. I want you as the free being that you are, and your freedom is wrapped up in the thing I want.

...This is not a state of the body, even though it involves certain bodily changes. It is a process in the soul, a steady awakening of one person to another, through touches, glances and caresses. The exchange of glances is particularly important here, and illustrates a general feature of personal relations. People look at each other, as animals do. But they also look into each other, and do this in particular when mutually aroused. The look of desire is like a summons, a call to the other self to show itself in the eyes, to weave its own freedom and selfhood into the beam that calls to it….Likewise the caress and the touch of desire have an epistemic character: they are an exploration, not of a body, but of a free being in his or her embodiment. They too call to the other in his freedom, and are asking him to show himself.

...Persons are individuals, not merely in the weak sense of being substances that can be reidentified, and which undergo change, but in the strong sense of being identified, both by themselves and by others, as unique, irreplaceable, not admitting of substitutes.

...It follows from this that, in those relations between persons in which self and other relate as subject and object, each is viewed as unique, without a substitute. As I try to show in my book, this has an immediate impact on sexual desire. John, frustrated in his desire for Mary, cannot be offered Jane as a substitute – someone who says ‘Take Jane, she will do just as well’ has not understand what John wants, in wanting Mary.

His conclusion about the effects of pornography is remarkably similar to Mary Eberstadt’s:

Like all cost-free forms of pleasure, porn is habit-forming. It short-circuits that round- about route to sexual satisfaction which passes by the streams and valleys of arousal, in which the self is always at risk from the other, and always motivated to give itself freely in desire… It exhibits in addition, however, a depersonalizing habit – a habit of viewing sex as something external to the human personality, to relationship, and to the arena of free encounters. Sex is reduced to the sexual organs, which are stuck on, in the imagination, like cut-outs in a child’s picture. To think that this can be done, and the habit of doing it fully established, without damage to a person’s capacity to be a person, or to relate to other persons as one sexual being to others, is to make a large and naïve assumption about the ability of the mind to compartmentalize. Indeed psychologists and psychotherapists are increasingly encountering the damage done by porn, not to marriages and relationships only, but to the very capacity to engage in them. Sex, portrayed in the porno-image, is an affair of attractive people with every technical accomplishment. Most people are not attractive, and with only second-class equipment. Once they are led by their porn addiction to see sex in the instrumentalized way that porn encourages, they begin to lose confidence in their capacity to enjoy sex in any other way than through fantasy. People who lose confidence in their ability to attract soon become unattractive. And then the fear of desire arises, and from that fear the fear of love. This, it seems to me, is the real risk attached to pornography. Those who become addicted to this risk-free form of sex run a risk of another and greater kind. They risk the loss of love, in a world where only love brings happiness.

Comments (3)

Matt Chominski

#1, Oct 8, 2009 7:52am

Having read and heard Scruton in this regard, I am wondering if and to what degree he coincides with Wojtyla and von Hildebrand and how he might diverge?

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Oct 8, 2009 5:08pm

I think the Scruton article (to which Katie linked in her post) is very very good, and profoundly in harmony with both Wojtyla and von Hildebrand.

There is only one minor point with which I (and I think vH) would disagree, viz. that there are many things, such as physical pain, fatigue, hunger, or seeing and hearing, which we experience in the same way as animals experience them.

As far as seeing and hearing go, all one has to do is think of a dog or cat hearing Beethoven’s 9th or seeing one of Giotto’s frescoes, to understand what I mean.  But also in the case of pain or hunger, sensations that are, in some sense, less spiritual than sight and hearing, there is an important difference. The mere fact that we can ask ourselves “How long is this going to last?” drastically changes the nature of pain.  Pain is experienced differently depending on whether it is deserved or not, understood or not, willingly embraced as an offering or bitterly resented as meaningless, etc.

This difference is very important, it seems to me, in sexuality. It is not just in the intentional (i.e. other-directed) aspects of sexuality that our personhood makes itself felt, but also in the accompanying non-intentional sensations.  (I think von Hildebrand makes this point in In Defense of Purity. But I can’t find the passage.)

Anyway, it is only a minor point, with which, for all I know, Scruton would agree.

I admire the way Scruton refuses, in the linked article, to get distracted by unnecessary philosophical difficulties.  He sticks to the real task at hand, which is “to remind you of what you all know and what you have all experienced in moments of desire.”  In answer to Matt, however, I should perhaps add that in his book Sexual Desire, where Scruton does not avoid these thorny philosophical issues, some important differences between him and Wojtyla and von Hildebrand emerge.  In particular, from what I remember, the latter two thinkers would question his interpretation of Immanuel Kant and insist more strongly on the importance of metaphysics.

Jules van Schaijik

#3, Oct 9, 2009 6:55am

I left out something in yesterday’s comment that I had meant to add:

Unlike Wojtyla and von Hildebrand, Scruton goes into more detailed discussions about all sorts of sexual immoralities and perversions. (One wishes these discussions weren’t necessary. However, given the state of things I think they are.) Scruton’s insights into rape are an example, e.g. why it is “experienced as an annihilation and not just abuse,” or why girls complain about date-rape even if they consented to it. Also his explanation for how pornography, by replacing reality with fantasy, leads to a loss of self and love, is a good case in point.

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