Mastering Sex

by Peter Augustine Lawler

I’m sure everyone enjoyed Jim’s singular theatrical experience below, and I’m still reflecting on the significance of a Tocqueville who’d prefer to “show”– instead of  “tell”– his tough but decisive choice for democracy over aristocracy.

Carl is right to complain in the thread that we haven’t been sharing our appreciation of TV and movies much. Let me begin by vindicating the very good book and film The Fault Is in the Stars from its misguided conservative and faith-based critics. It’s, to some extent, a philosophic criticism of diversion, or of floating through life seemingly untouched by what we can’t help but know about the oblivion to come. But philosophy or listening to the universe and its natural explanations just isn’t enough to account for persons, and young people with terminal cancer stuck with quickly learning how to love and die have to struggle hard with whether being ephemeral is compatible with (or essential for) being lovable. And they do learn finally that personal being, even in the absence of a personal Creator, extends beyond biological death. They don’t struggle at all with the meaning of the intense physical suffering that’s part of the territory of cancer;  they won’t be seduced by the wishful thought that there is any. They knew and experienced all they could without faith in that Creator, and, after all, they really do inhabit a world without attractive faith  (the Christianity they experience is nothing more than diverting happytalk, and their parents and friends don’t believe), for which they and the book’s author can’t be blamed. This book is being compared with Catcher in the Rye as all about being authentic or not a phony. But Holden is a whiny jerk who doesn’t have to come to terms with anything that might make him tough or loving or genuinely truthful. And it’s really important to notice how much books mean to the dying girl. She has the skill or competency of being able to take reading personally!

Today’s TV news is not the World Cup final, in which I can’t even feign interest. The new seasons of Ray Donovan and Masters of Sex start tonight on Showtime! These shows would, in fact, be better with less sex and nudity, if Showtime were a bit more about censorship in the service of art. That doesn’t mean they aren’t really good and in many respects very conservative.  Both are better than any new film I’ve seen in a long time.

One episode of Ray Donovan had one of Ray’s brothers finding a priest to confess adultery. Choosing against more adultery with the only women he’s loved or has loved him was the exceedingly difficult act of a basically good man. The priest failed to help this man. He told him to stop being so hard on himself. The trouble, of course, is if sin isn’t recognized for what it is, it can’t be forgiven. Priests these days, in Ray Donovan, are discredited because they molest children. But the bigger problem is that they have no consciousness that even they themselves are sinners.  The priest who molested Ray showed no remorse even decades later; he told Ray he had loved him (and that made abuse something else).  So Ray shot him.

I’m not quite caught up on last season’s episodes of Masters of Sex, which is about the lives of the pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. The very title of the series suggests a criticism of  the idea  that human sexual experience can be mastered by its complete description through physiological experimentation, and the show also is masterful in its criticism of the deceptive pretensions of scientific detachment and the cold deployment of compensated sex workers, even in the service of science. The show, reasonably enough, is somewhat appreciative of the benefits of the objective or “involuntary” or wholly physiological approach. Masters and Johnson really did add to our useful knowledge of human sexual response, and lives of ordinary couples are sometimes in some ways better as a result. There’s also something real to their shared joy in scientific discovery, although it gets mixed up with all kinds of issues of personal attachment and sexual attraction. They never come anything close to being masters of their relational domain.

There’s so much more to the show.  One character is a young physician who explains to an old patient that he’s floated through life.  He became a doctor to please his family and because he’s good at math and science. His parents were Jewish, but he’s “nothing.” The result of his floating is he’s about to marry a girl he doesn’t really love because she’s “chosen him,” and he’s willing to become a Catholic to please her. Religion, after all, is just words. And he tries to convince himself he’s not harmed by proclaiming his faith that Jesus has saved him, although he doesn’t believe any such thing. Most of the words of his life meant to correspond to real devotion really have meant nothing to him.

The old patient tells him: ”Only the young think floating is an option . . . when you get older you realize floating is for boats.” It turns out that almost all the show’s characters have been floaters, unhappily immersed in an option that’s not really available to anyone who not’s a body (described by physiology) or a mind (scientist) but a third kind of being — a person born to know, love, or die. They’re all getting older, and so each of them is having to come to terms with the futility of floating. The moral of the show is not primarily that, before scientific enlightenment, most Americans — even or especially prosperous and sophisticated Americans — used to be in the hellish thrall of sexual ignorance and repression.  Pop scientific enlightenment doesn’t address — and in some ways exacerbates — the deeper and more intransigent floating issue. That goes both for the science of sexology and the science that makes death in childhood from accidents and cancer more rare, more clinical, and more terrible — more terrible, at least, for those who have to live in love with the dying.

The young physician stops eating bacon (for the sake of his father), refuses to become a Catholic, and breaks up with the wonderful girl who, with the best of intentions, has chosen him. He realizes, first of all, that he’s stuck with choosing for or against being a Jew, and he does. I have to watch the next episode before I can tell you more. (I haven’t told you enough, in any case, to spoil your personal viewing experience.)

Postmodern Conservative

Reflections on politics, culture, and education.