The Personalist Project

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Accessed on August 12, 2020 - 1:46:20

New light on prudishness

Katie van Schaijik, Jul 08, 2009

I am reading an extraordinarily touching and beautiful book, loaned to me by my friend Janene, called The Little Locksmith. It is the memoir of a woman born in Massachusetts to a happy, loving, bourgeois family at the end of the 19th century. In childhood she developed tuberculosis of the spine and was forced to spend ten years flat on her back in bed. When she finally arose, she found she had a hunchback. She also had all the spiritual sensitivity of the true artist, honed by suffering.
The whole thing is full of personalist resonance. And just now I came to a passage that seems to me to throw some light on the discussion of prudishness we had below. The quote is long, but so lovely and rich in perception I don’t think you’ll mind. In it, she has just emerged from a deep and long depression stemming (she later realized) from intense loneliness and “sexual starvation.” (She uses that term not to indicate a mere physical urge and need, but rather a soul-sickening yearning for love.) She writes at a time of dramatically changing social mores. It was the end of the Victorian era.

The great war between mothers and daughters was then only just beginning, and I was one of its most passionate fighters on the side of the captives. My friends probably thought of me as being much wiser than I really was partly because, as a partisan of the wistful daughters, I was always reiterating my belief that every human being must fulfill his or her own destiny. It must have been for these two reasons that my friends who were hesitating on the brink asked for my advice. They knew that I would be sure to give them the advice they wanted—that which was contrary to the world’s and to their New England consciences. They knew I would urge them to go ahead and risk everything.

I did urge them. For my conception of love was that it was merely another form of man’s assertion which he makes in every work of art, that life is not ordinary. I was a fanatic in my belief that life is not ordinary, and in my hatred for all the acts, manners, talk, and jokes which treat the mystery of life as if it were comic and obscene, to be handled with contempt and laughed at or kicked around like an old rag. I believed that the experience of being born, of living, and of dying was all a poem, and that it should be received—all of it, every part of it—with wonder and gratitude. I thought that love was a power, like the artist’s, which suddenly gave to a man and woman together the sense of wonder. When I saw a man and a woman in love regarding each other with an intense awareness of each other’s mystery and preciousness I believed that those two had for the time being cast off the corruptions of ordinariness which makes most people blind to the miracle of existence. I believed that their sudden vision was like a saint’s or an artist’s vision. And I knew that when two unextraordinary people are in this state their happiness is in great danger. It is new to them and they do not know how to hide it and protect it from its enemies, and therefore it is in grave peril at the hands of those traditional enemies of the ones who see visions, those members of society who make and enforce they rules which are hostile to anything they themselves cannot understand, and who take upon themselves the right ot treat the most sacred experiences in the manner of the police court. Whenever I heard or read in the newspapers about some poor devil of a hard-working respectable bank clerk or businessman whose career was suddenly ruined by the astounding discovery that he was keeping a mistress, I always used to imagine that he was a man who was merely trying to find for himself some reassurance that life is not ordinary—some escape from an existence that had been made intolerably unmiraculous for him by a prosaic wife. Most lives, I thought, lacking art, lacking religion, were choked and suffocated by the continual insistence of the personal, and of all its wearying insistent paraphernalia. I thought that husbands whose lives were so choked and suffocated with too much boredom and talk and anxiety and struggle wanted only a chance to worship love in the abstract, as it could be represented for them by an unknown woman or an anonymous girl in the darkness of an unfamiliar room. For this reason I believed that even prostitution should be regarded not as something evil, but as a sacred ritual as necessary for human beings as books and music and paintings are. I felt that my old favorite magic of transformation could show that it can be a good service just as easily as it can be a profane one.

Now, obviously I find her conclusion deplorable and her reasoning full of errors and problems. She projects her own romantic sensibility and poetry onto everyone else, overlooking the fact that sexual affairs (not to mention prostitution) can also be banal and prosaic and much worse than that. They might have nothing to do with love. Further, I find the whole notion of “love in the abstract” almost an oxymoron. But still, I understand what she means. And I think it may come close to what Christopher West has in mind when he speaks of prudishness.