The Psalmist and the Sex Doll

Sex dolls at the Dreamdoll company in Duppigheim, France (Vincent Kessler/Reuters)
As our civilization lost its understanding of sacramental marriage, we have dreamt up new ways to be alone.

You can love something before you understand it. You can love something and never understand it: I get Shakespeare and David Foster Wallace and Walt Whitman (and the Clash and Henry Rollins) but I am not entirely sure why the music of Bach works the way it does, or where Moby-Dick’s power comes from, or what it is in Caravaggio’s paintings (I’m pretty sure it is not actually Catholic piety) that makes them so seductive.

Like a great many people, I have long loved the songwriting of the late Leonard Cohen. It took me a long time to figure out what was so appealing about it. His most famous song, “Hallelujah,” is only one E7 chord past a four-chord song, barely more musically sophisticated than “Earth Angel” or “Stand By Me.” (It is, in fact, musically very close to the Misfits’ punk classic “Astro Zombies.”) Cohen, like Walt Whitman, was a terrible editor of his own work: You’ve probably heard “Hallelujah” 10,000 times, but never the whole thing: There are about 80 verses; to the extent that there is a canonical version of the song, it is either John Cale’s recording or something close to it. As a lyricist, Cohen usually was more clever than profound: The first verse of “Hallelujah” is written around a cute musical in-joke in which the lyrics (“It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”) describe the chord progression.

And there is, of course, the fact that Cohen, great soul and gift though he was, really could not sing. But he had character enough to overcome that deficit, casting himself as a searcher at once hard-boiled and hopeful:

Even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.

It occurred to me later that what Leonard Cohen really was, at heart, a psalmist. That probably would have been obvious to someone with a better religious education than I have, given that he more or less announces the fact in his one unavoidable contribution to the American songbook, in which he adopts the persona of the most famous psalmist: “They say that there’s a secret chord that David played and it pleased the Lord.” There is a long Jewish tradition (and an ancient, yet considerably less ancient, Christian tradition) of using what may look on the surface like a love song as the basis of a hymn. In the Islamic world, qawwli music works much the same way. On the face of it, a lot of qawwli songs are the South Asian equivalent of country music: a lot of alcohol-soaked lamentation about lost love. But to the initiated, it is devotional music.

Romantic love and the longing for God are closely intertwined in our music and literature, in our theology, and, beneath all that, in our souls. Whatever the real cause of the Trojan War was, the legend that it was the king’s love of his wife, Helen — “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?” as Christopher Marlowe famously put it — is the story we know, because it is a story we knew before we knew it. Religious differences have launched a few ships, too. In the Catholic tradition, the identification of the marital relationship with the divine is deeply imprinted on the rhetoric and literature, but also on the ethics and morality they support. If the relationship between God and Church is the model of the relationship between husband and wife — if each is in some way a version of the other — then that changes things, fundamentally. “Irreconcilable differences” might very well describe the states of the condition of the souls of the lost, if you believe in that sort of thing.

The cynic might argue that marital love and divine longing are mixed up in our minds because each speaks in its way to the terror of being alone in this vast and indifferent world. That has a way of sneaking itself into music, too: They Might Be Giants had a hit with “Ana Ng,” a song in their usual chippy style. But it is in fact one of the darkest songs I can think of. If it were a film, it would be in black-and-white, pure noir: A man sits alone at a desk with a gun in his hand, brooding — not over a love that has been lost, but over a love that has never been found, worrying that he and the one meant for him will get old and die before they finally find one another. He is ready to take desperate measures. That is a depth of aloneness (which is not quite the same thing as loneliness) that might, in an earlier time, have driven a man to church, or at least to scripture:

On my bed by night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not.

The fact of separation is fundamental to Cohen’s music. And that sometimes renders his psalmistry more obvious. “Coming Back to You” is one example:

I’ve got to have your word on this
Or none of it is true
And all I’ve said was just instead of
Coming back to you.

(I recommend Trisha Yearwood’s lovely version.)

The Catholic tradition (and much of the broader Christian tradition) holds that within sacramental marriage, a man and a woman encounter their authentic natures in the act of procreation, through which they participate in God’s creative work. (Genesis is a book that does not really have an ending.) That, incidentally, is the Christian case against same-sex marriage: not the desire to deny same-sex couples legal rights or the ability to arrange their lives as they see fit, or even resistance to extending social recognition of arrangements that are considered immoral — not that, but the belief that marriage between two members of the same sex is, irrespective of what laws we may pass or what social norms we may adopt, something that simply does not exist. From that point of view, whatever sense of liberal toleration or genuine love and friendship we may have for gay people is entirely beside the point on the question of marriage.

We social conservatives have spent a big part of the past two decades talking about homosexuality and its role in public life, particular when it comes to marriage. That isn’t an entirely unimportant question but, in the context of what has happened to marriage since the 1960s and the overall state of our sexual culture, it is a relatively trivial one. It seems to me that very often talking about homosexuality has mainly been a way of not talking about other things that need talking about.

The things that have gone along with our retreat from what historically would have been understood as marriage into what we have now — that tepid and deformed legal construct that pretends to be a substitute for the real thing — are not the cause of that separation. They are only correlates. It was not the invention of the birth-control pill, or the adoption of no-fault divorce, that hollowed out marriage: It was that we became the sort of people who desired those things. We became — Western civilization became — the kids who flunked the test in the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, unable to resist immediate gratification and, having stripped ourselves of the cultural basis for understanding the distinction, unable to tell the difference between pleasure and happiness.

Hence the sex dolls.

Toronto soon will be home to North America’s first (known) sex-doll brothel, offering “sexual services with the world’s most beautiful silicone ladies.” (The brothel’s claim to being first is disputed by people who are maybe a little prouder of being in the doll-pimping business than one might expect.) In Europe, where there are legal brothels, some have begun offering sessions with sex dolls as an alternative to sex with a living human prostitute.

Inevitably, there are questions about how to regulate such things. The most charged questions at the moment involve the sale of sex dolls designed to look like children. The British have convicted and imprisoned a man attempting to import such a sex doll, charging him with the importation of child pornography. Others face similar charges, and more than 100 sex dolls have been seized in the United Kingdom by the Border Force. The dolls are not illegal in the United States, though there is an effort under way to prohibit them. Online retailers such as eBay prohibit listing them for sale.

The debate calls to mind the related question of regulating” virtual” child pornography that does not involve actual children, being rendered by computer. (A federal law prohibiting virtual child pornography was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2002 and returned as the PROTECT Act of 2003.) The libertarian case against such regulation is fairly straightforward: We prohibit child pornography because we prohibit the sexual abuse of children, but virtual pornography does not entail the abuse of children, or any contact with children at all. Getting into the business of criminalizing fantasies, however repulsive, is dangerous and unwarranted. It is conceivable that such material could encourage pedophiliac fantasies that might be later acted out in real life, but if we go prohibiting things because they might — might — inspire some person to commit an actual crime, there will be no end of it. The same case has, for instance, often been made against rap music exploring violent themes. If I myself were sitting on a jury in a domestic-violence case and the accused pleaded, “Eminem made me do it,” I would be skeptical. I would be skeptical of similar claims about Lolita, or, indeed, about childlike sex dolls.

But the regulatory question here seems to me secondary.

The sterility of the act in question is not merely biological. Regulation of that act is not entirely beside the point, but it is not really the point itself, either. Imagine, if you can — with charity, if you can — the state of a man in a silicon brothel paying to have sex (a simulacrum of sex) with an inanimate object. The act indicates a profound alienation not only from ordinary healthy sexual expression but from humanity. And from something more than that. If you want an image of a man alone in the universe, bereft, then there it is.

The Marquis de Sade thought that the old order might be overthrown by a great orgy of dissolution and blasphemy, an organized assault on every accepted value until the achievement of a state of absolute freedom. De Sade and those who follow him hated and hate what marriage was, because they hated and hate the order founded on it. (Even now, what is left of it.) But they genuinely appreciated its power, and believed that if it were to go down, it would go down in flames. He would have been disappointed by the smallness and banality of where we ended up, even if it is more perverse (though generally less violent) than his fantasies, which were almost exclusively limited to the traditional, transgressions and violations sufficiently longstanding to have Old Testament injunctions against them. De Sade dreamt up theatrical acts of depravity, while we have only dreamt up new ways to be alone.

From the psalmist who discerned in the love of husbands and wives an indication of God’s design to the question of which kind of silicone sex dolls might be unallowable in the marketplace — that is the arc of our history, and of our sorrow.



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