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Does Sex Have to Mean Something?
Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.
—John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle
One day in class, there loomed up into the discussion of old books the barren playland of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, that posthuman wilderness where it is the "duty" of people to be infantile, even if they wish not to be—a wish that conditioning makes impossible for all but a few. Most of the students had read the book, and remembered passages like the following:
"It suddenly struck me the other day," continued Bernard, "that it might be possible to be an adult all the time."
"I don't understand." Lenina's tone was firm.
"I know you don't. And that's why we went to bed together yesterday—like infants— instead of being adults and waiting."
"But it was fun," Lenina insisted. "Wasn't it?"
"Oh, the greatest fun," he answered, but in a voice so mournful, with an expression so profoundly miserable, that Lenina felt all her triumph suddenly evaporate. Perhaps he had found her too plump, after all.
Though not by precisely the same methods as in Huxley's world, students these days are pretty thoroughly conditioned, so most were on Lenina's side. Why anyone should feel anything amiss in such a world was a mystery to them. If everyone is having fun, then what could be the problem?
But Harris, in the first row, disagreed. In fact, he was revolted. "Those people are disgusting," he said.
Thinking that I got his point, I gave a premature nod. "Sex ought to mean something," I remarked.
"No," he replied, to my surprise. "Sex doesn't always have to mean something."
That threw me a little off balance, and before I could shake myself out of teacher-trance, someone else spoke up, turning the discussion in another direction, and the moment was lost.
After class ended, when students were filing from the room, I asked Harris to wait a moment. "Your comment about Huxley's people—obviously I misunderstood what you were getting at. But if sex doesn't have to mean anything, then why did they revolt you?"
"The way they make babies—in factories, without parents," he replied. "The whole thing about 'decanting' them from glass bottles. That's what's disgusting." Unfortunately, we both had someplace else to go, and as though we were acting out a parable of Huxleyan disconnection, for a second time the contact was broken.
That was a failure of teaching. I've tried to make up for it since then, and this book is part of the attempt.
One might ask: So what if the contact failed? Did that matter? After all, the puzzle had been cleared up anyway, hadn't it? I asked Harris what he had meant, and Harris told me. Babies shouldn't be industrially produced, check. But sex itself doesn't have to mean anything, check. We might disagree about the second point, but at least we both knew what he'd been getting at.
But did we both know? I don't think we did. What issue had our brief exchange of comments really presented?
At first I thought that the issue was merely whether sex has to mean something. My answer to the question was "Yes," Harris's "No."
But the real question wasn't that at all. It was how sex can both mean something, and also not mean anything. To be even more precise, it was how sex can both always mean something, and also never mean anything. I draw this conclusion because Harris's opinion was at variance with his emotion.
He said sex doesn't have to mean anything. If it doesn't "have to" mean anything, that means it doesn't ever mean anything really—at least it doesn't ever mean anything in any way that could restrict our choices. Behind sex is nothing but a void. And yet, for some reason, Harris was revolted by the factory production of children in canisters. The void was not empty after all. For if it was really a void, then how could he be revolted? How could one be disgusted by nothing?
I hear the objection already. You're getting worked up over nothing, Professor. Feelings don't make sense. Is that so? I give people more credit than that. Every feeling makes some kind of sense, even if only confusedly. So I ask again: Why was Harris revolted?
Presumably, what bothered him about the assembly-line production of babies was that it sliced the conjugal union of the mother and the father out of the picture. But if sex doesn't have to mean anything, then so what if that was sliced out? It shouldn't have bothered Harris unless procreation is something that ought to take place in the loving embrace of the parents. But if so, then in the depths of his mind, didn't he recognize that sex means something after all? In fact, didn't he recognize that it means at least two connected things—an aspiration to children, and an aspiration to union?—the act by which babies are made, and the act by which their parents are united? Moreover, since Harris was revolted that the aspiration to children could ever be separated from the aspiration to union, it would seem that he recognized that these two meanings aren't merely sometimes joined together, but that they are joined whenever we have sex. In short, although he reported that sex doesn't always have to mean anything, his loathing for factory production of children told the story that it means something already, and it means it all the time.
The fact that he asserted the opposite opinion doesn't wipe out our conclusion. It only makes it more mysterious. Apparently sex means something to us even if we don't admit to ourselves that it does.
Let us look a little more closely into this mystery. What did Harris think he meant—what was he trying to get at—when he said that sex doesn't always have to mean something? One of the reasons I am interested in the answer to that question is that it seems to me that a lot of people are trying to get at the same thing.
One might be tempted to think that he wasn't getting at anything in particular, that he was just confused. No doubt he was confused, but airy dismissals of this sort don't treat people with the respect that their confusion deserves. It is childish to dismiss someone's thoughts as unworthy of consideration just because they are mixed up; human beings are always trying to get at something, even when they don't know what it is. The oft-derided truth that man is a rational being does not mean that he always thinks clearly. But he always thinks something, so what, in this case, was that something?
If I had questioned Harris further—"What do you mean when you say sex doesn't have to mean anything? Do people engage in it for no reason at all? Does it just happen, like a gurgle in the stomach, a can rattling down the street, or a screen door blowing shut in the breeze?"—perhaps he would have conceded that sex does have trivial meanings: a little pleasure, a little fun, a little relief from boredom and desire. This wouldn't be much of a concession. Sex would mean something, but only in the way that eating a peanut means something, chewing on an ice cube means something, scratching an itch means something. There would be no more call to rhapsodize about the touch of a man and a woman than to compose sonnets about the communion of a picnicker with his mayonnaise. Maybe less.
But a response like that would not get us any further in reconciling what Harris said with what his emotion implied. So let us start at the other end. Let us start, not with his opinion, but with his revulsion.
When Harris described his aversion toward the factory production of children, he seemed to be saying that it is wrong to separate procreation from the act of union. On the other hand, when he said that sex doesn't have to mean anything, he seemed to be saying that it is all right to separate the act of union from procreation. That is like saying that you may take the seeds from the apple, but you may not take the apple from the seeds. This, of course, is nonsense. To sever A from B is to sever B from A.
Perhaps what Harris was getting at—I don't mean what he was thinking, but what he might have meant to think, what he might have started to think if I had pressed him—was a bit different. Perhaps the idea is that it is all right to separate our meaning for sex from the meaning for sex—to separate what sex means for us from what, simply, it means. Just because something disgusts us, he might say, that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it.
If I could make Harris speak like a philosopher, perhaps he would concede that from the perspective of human nature, the two meanings of sex are joined like the apple with the seeds, but perhaps he would also insist that we aren't slaves to nature. After all, don't we breed such things as seedless apples? Perhaps he would say that human will is greater than human nature. Perhaps he would say that from this different and higher perspective, the perspective of the will, the meanings of sex are merely options, like items on the shelf of a pantry. Nothing prevents someone from removing the sack of sugar but leaving the flour behind, or for that matter leaving both behind and opening the refrigerator instead. Perhaps Harris would say that making choices in just that way—"thus I will it, and so thus it is"—is what it means to be free.
I realize that in making Harris speak like a philosopher I am asking a lot from my readers. There are limits to the suspension of disbelief. We all know that undergraduates don't speak like that. True, but they think like that. Someone might protest, "No, they don't even think like that." This is only half true. They don't think like that clearly, but they think like that vaguely. I suspect that the words I've put in Harris's mouth are pretty close to what he was vaguely trying to say, and I more than suspect that a great many other people are vaguely trying to say the same thing. So allow the words I have put in his mouth to remain there.
Even so, they leave us with a problem. In fact they leave us with three problems.
The first of these problems is that meaning isn't arbitrary. Yes, we can associate sex in our minds with anything we choose—with pain, pleasure, tedium, amusement, alienation, reconciliation, fertility, sterility, misery, joy, life, death, or what have you. This is true of all things, not just sex. We can associate anything with anything; as Katherine Hepburn's character declared in the romantic comedy Desk Set, "I associate many things with many things." I may associate friendship with betrayal because my friend was untrue. I may associate birth with death because my child was stillborn. I may associate emptiness with intelligence because I have read too much Sartre. Even so, the meaning of friendship as such is not betrayal, the meaning of birth as such is not death, and the meaning of emptiness as such is not intelligence. If anything whatsoever could mean anything whatsoever—if girls in straw hats could mean jars of processed cheese, or children on swings could mean termites in the walls—then nothing could mean anything in particular. Language itself would be pointless. We might as well give it up and just bubble our lips. Even the statement that sex doesn't have to mean anything is intelligible only against the background of a world in which, in general, things do mean something.
And if other things do mean something, then why shouldn't sex mean something? Why should something as powerful and interesting as sex be the exception?
The second problem is that human nature is not a master, distinct from us, reducing us to bondage. It is the deep structure of what we really are. The fact that we are not free to be other than human doesn't mean that we aren't free; how could it truly be freedom to be false to ourselves? Blue may as well demand the liberty to be red, odd the liberty to be even, vegetable the liberty to be mineral. That kind of liberty is just the liberty of self-annihilation. But if true freedom doesn't lie in being false to ourselves, then as the old adage claims, it must lie in being true to ourselves. Either this ancient recommendation is fatuous—for we are already ourselves, and cannot help but be ourselves, in the mere sense that we do what our wills bid us do—or it means directing our wills in such a way that the meanings and purposes that lie fallow in our nature can unfold. By the latter test, everything is free only when its nature is unfolding. An acorn is free only when it is coming to be an oak.
But if we are free only when our nature is unfolding, then shouldn't this be true of our sexual nature, too? Shouldn't we direct our wills in such a way that the meanings and purposes that lie fallow in sexuality can unfold?
The third problem is that human will isn't something separate from human nature, but a part of human nature. At best, when someone says that his will is greater than his nature, he is badly expressing the idea that his will is greater than the rest of his nature—that his nature does matter, and that his will is its best and noblest part—that it acquires from this nobility a royal right to rule all the rest of the kingdom. So perhaps we come even closer to the latent intention of Harris's words if we say that freedom is not freedom from the reign of human nature, but freedom of the highest part of human nature to exercise dominion over its lower parts. So far as it goes, I think that principle is true.
But is the highest part of our nature really the will? Isn't the highest part rather the intelligence that directs the will? Wouldn't one of the highest functions of this intelligence be recognizing the meanings embedded in the lovely array of the rest of the parts of our nature? In fact, hadn't Harris's moment of revulsion brought him to the very edge of recognizing some of these meanings? I think that it had, though I am pretty sure that he wasn't paying attention.
There are more mysteries here, such as why, if it is impossible to transcend our nature, we imagine that we would like to. We cannot literally be other than what we are. Yet is there some other sense in which we might transcend ourselves? Is it possible that the confused desire for self-transcendence might really, unknown to Harris, be an even stronger motive in his heart of hearts than a little pleasure, a little fun, a little relief from boredom and desire? Might it even be possible that these little motives of pleasure and distraction are only masks for the greater motive, that they are cases of mistaken identification? Could this be one of the reasons why we are so confused about what we are getting at, contradicting ourselves at every step, feeling so strongly about things that a moment before we insisted didn't matter?
I am trying to say too much at once. First things first. So many more elementary things have to be considered in this book before we can return to such questions as the ones I have raised. For now, let me call an end to my imaginary interrogation of poor Harris. He is paying a pretty high price for my failure to teach him that day.
Ah, but perhaps it is already too late. Even if I do finally call an end to the interrogation of Harris, I have already read far too much into his offhand remarks. In one sense: Yes, of course I have. Surely he wasn't consciously thinking all those thoughts I attributed to him. But in another sense: No, of course I haven't. All these thoughts were hovering around him like ghosts, like leaves drifting dimly through a pond.
Why such an effort to gather those drifting leaves? I offer the following defense.
In the first place, I owe it to Harris. However a teacher may fall short, that is his calling. In the second place, when I speculate that Harris might say this, or might say that, I am not relying simply on my actual knowledge of Harris, which is slim. I am supplementing my reflections about Harris's state of mind with the ruminated-upon memories of my own conversations throughout life, dialogues with others, colloquies with myself. Finally, allow me to point out that human beings know a great deal more than they are usually aware of knowing, and Harris was no exception. So much of our knowledge is latent, "in potentiality," not yet fully actualized.
When latent knowledge does break the surface, the experience is more like remembering something than like thinking of something. Ordinary language has an armory of expressions for this. We say things like "I didn't know I knew that," "I thought it must be something like that," or "I never thought of that, but somehow I knew it all along."
It is too late for me to evoke that sort of response from Harris, but I would consider the book successful if even just now and then, it evoked that sort of response from a few of its readers.
Excerpted from On the Meaning of Sex by J. Budziszewski. Copyright © 2012 J. Budziszewski. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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