Freedom and the Rules of Life (part 2 of 3)

Calypso’s island has become a familiar place to we moderns—a pleasure palace designed to distract us from our work and to prevent us making it to where we want to be. When we reach some island of relative peace and pleasure compared to other places we’ve experienced—maybe not what we set out for, but better than it might have been—like wind-driven dust, we might settle.

Paying attention to the hyper-seductions of pop culture, I sometimes find myself thinking about Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s Isle, who knew he was wasting his life in spite of the goddess’s charms. Every morning he left her enchanted cave and climbed down to the beach where he gazed out to sea in the direction of Ithaca where his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus waited. It was, he knew, a somewhat doggie little life he was living with the nymph. He knew he was made for something more.

Unlike the gods of Greek literature and folklore, he was born to make worlds. The gods the poets created to explain the forces that act upon us spend their eternity gossiping and strategizing and fiddling about forever without real consequence. They don’t create and they don’t redeem. But Odysseus’ home as a man is in the real world.

That’s what his place, Ithaca, meant to him—its meaning was inseparable from his fields and flocks and herds, his friends and family, including ancestors gone into death and posterity not yet born. It was all a kingdom in which only a man and a woman together could form today’s link holding all the past and all the future together. He was a king and his kingdom was formed of his marriage to Penelope.

Odysseus’s marriage was more than a legal bond. Wendell Berry notes in The Unsettling of America that “it was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family that included both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth.”

He had carved their marriage bed from an olive tree rooted in the soil of Ithaca. “That marriage bed, and what it symbolized of both his love for Penelope and his practical, human rootedness in an actual place,” symbolized a love meant to be enacted and embodied. That love was the meaning of his long voyage of homecoming. His quest, his purpose, the telos of his heroism was a world that had to be created and held together through his moment-by-moment actions. “These things, wedded together in his marriage, he thought of as his home.” He understood that in spite of the pleasures his time with the goddess was a captivity, barring his fulfillment of a stronger desire.

Life can be full of discouragements for people who want more than modern culture seems to offer. One of my better students stayed after class to talk a little about Jane Eyre–-the novel the class had chosen to read, mainly because she talked them into it. The novel is similar to The Odyssey in that it tells the story of a young woman, an orphan girl, trying to make a home. For her, this means finding the love of a man who measures up to her longings both for passionate love and for goodness—an ethical life. She finds the right man, Rochester, but the circumstances are so troubling that getting to a happy ending seems impossible.

My student was in a desultory mood. She felt loneliness and a desire to be loved by a worthy mate. And as she waited, she tried to be what the authorities urged her to be: focused on her career plans for after high school. A thousand voices insisted that succeeding at a career was the paramount goal of a life well-lived. She felt stranded in a place where what she really wanted was never taken seriously. “There are no Rochesters,” she said.

“What you really want is to marry Rochester and live happily ever after?” I asked teasingly.

“Yes,” she said, without smiling. “But boys are not like that anymore.”

I understood “that” to refer to the passionate commitment to making a life with one woman that defined Rochester’s quest. It’s certainly true that many boys are less “like that” than they used to be. A recent report on marriage, “The State of Our Unions,” found that “both boys and girls have become more accepting of lifestyles that are considered alternatives to marriage, including nonmarital childbearing and unmarried cohabitation” in spite of the fact that for both boys and girls desire for “a good marriage and family life” remain high.

We’re fifty years on in a “sexual revolution” that gave people permission to do whatever they wanted sexually without guilt at violating traditional morality. Part of that involved redefining female sexuality to be more like male sexuality—that is, unlinked from having children, more casual. For centuries, women’s honor had been understood in terms of sexual purity just as men’s honor had been understood in terms of courage (made formidable by strength and skill).

The code of chivalry, one of the most civilizing social constructs of European history, had been broadened and moderated over centuries so that many men could find satisfaction in the everyday heroism of providing for a wife and family. Lots of women, sometimes smiling at that boyish need to feel big and strong and competent, expressed appreciation for the work that men did for them and their families. But that’s not the way of modernity. Indeed, our pop culture is more likely to excoriate such a man as a bore and a loser in an age where having “adventures” seems to be the point of life. And the girls, repeating the propaganda slogans that are everywhere, are likely to cut off conversation about such things with a haughty rebuke: “I don’t need a man to take care of me.”

The old cultural narrative was (1) get an education, (2) get a job, (3) get married and (4) have a family—in that order. Most men and most women wanted to get married. According to a much-discussed article by Suzanne Venker in 2012, most women still want to get married but many men are changing their minds.“According to Pew Research Center, the share of women ages eighteen to thirty-four that say having a successful marriage is one of the most important things in their lives rose nine percentage points since 1997 – from 28 percent to 37 percent. For men, the opposite occurred. The share voicing this opinion dropped, from 35 percent to 29 percent.”

A new cultural narrative has left many men unsure what, exactly, a man is for. They find it natural to want to love women and to take care of them, but they have likely encountered women who respond to moves in that direction with sharp rebuttals. To be happy, most of us do need someone whose private life touches ours not because we are weak or helpless but because humans don’t thrive when they are alone. We do better when we live with people who know what we are trying to do and what makes us happy, people who can see what is admirable about us and appreciate us and love us. People who care for us.

Venker believes that if you want to understand what young men are doing, look at what young women are doing. Women still have the power to turn things around, she claims. “All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs,” she said. “If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.” Some young women now say that’ s not true. They say that young men now have most of the power, and if a woman is not ready to give a guy what he wants he will soon move on. There are lots of fish in the sea.

Increasingly, young people of both sexes feel stranded in a world where they do not know how to get to where they truly want to be. Such an education as the schools provide is little help. “Sex education” is mainly technical and clinical without any profound grasp of what either men or women are.

The main focus of the official curriculum is on other things—fitting into the economy as it currently exists. Beyond that, students are taught to be compliant and polite no matter what is or is not going on in class. Lots of young people adopt the attitudes taught by pop: it’s all a game played for someone else’s benefit, and the trick is to stay true to your own inner desires and to take seriously your own feelings and to respond to everything else with nonjudgmental indifference.

But making the self and its feelings the point is a low game. The self is a multitude of competing voices, a bottomless abyss. As a god it fails, leading to depression and despair. The secret of happiness, as both ancient philosophers and modern psychologists have shown, is to escape the relentless preoccupation with self and to serve something larger and more enduring.

Philosopher Allan Bloom suggested in his 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind, that an “unproven and dogmatically asserted” belief that it is the self and its desires that should preoccupy us had sabotaged the “real motive of education, the search for the good life.” He said that modern students were “flat-souled,” having lost the sense of the transcendent, they had succumbed to the primal seductions of rock music in a culture obsessed with sex:

“Picture a thirteen-year-old boy sitting in the living room of his family home doing his math assignment while wearing his Walkman headphones or watching MTV. He enjoys the liberties hard won over centuries by the alliance of philosophic genius and political heroism, consecrated by the blood of martyrs; he is provided with comfort and leisure by the most productive economy ever known to mankind; science has penetrated the secrets of nature in order to provide him with the marvelous, lifelike electronic sound and image reproduction he is enjoying. And in what does progress culminate? A pubescent child whose body throbs with orgasmic rhythms; whose feelings are made articulate in hymns to the joys of onanism or the killing of parents; whose ambition is to win fame and wealth in imitating the drag-queen who makes the music. In short, life is made into a nonstop, commercially prepackaged masturbational fantasy.”

Though the book provoked a storm of controversy, today such a description seems almost quaint–-a vision of American adolescence before the immersive stories of digital games which thrive on murder, theft and destruction along with virtual visits to a prostitute who can be subsequently mugged or “25 to Life” which features bloody gangs taking hostages and killing cops. Researchers at Boston University’s School of Public Health found in a 2011 study that one in 13 teenage girls reported having a ‘multi-person sex’ (MPS) experience, often initiated by boyfriends who had been watching pornography. More than half the girls “were pressured or coerced into a gang rape,” said the researcher. The population of the study was poor, urban kids, so the middle class suburbs need pay to great notice yet.

In her NPR music blog, Ann Powers observed that “pop music is very dirty.” Reviewing the most popular songs, she noted that “there were several underground rap hits unabashedly celebrating oral pleasures; Top 10 songs about sex addiction, the cowgirl position and extraterrestrial booty.”

At this point, such reports are old news. A typical response to them is affect a world-weary wisdom and intone that people have been complaining of youth since time immemorial. Some people are fond of a quote from Socrates: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Leaving aside that there’s no direct evidence that Socrates ever said that, the more interesting point might be that Socrates in actual fact did live at the end of Athenian democracy and the beginning of rule by tyrants. Worlds do come to an end. It has happened innumerable times.

In ancient Greece, people became obsessed with sex and the nation’s business was neglected or done poorly–I think of Bill enjoying Monica in the Oval Office while on the phone with a senator discussing putting American young men in harm’s way. Socrates was intensely aware of the cultural suicide that was underway in Greek society. The moral corruption of society was his major theme, and the historical reality is that his Athens did not survive much longer. Quoting him for reassurance seems a bit like quoting the captain of the Titanic, with water to his chin, chuckling because people have been warning of icebergs for years.

If you feel you have arrived somewhere that’s far away from where you want to be, not truly sold on all the pleasures on offer around you, sensing that happiness is not to be found amid all the noise, the shallow and fleeting deceptions, you maybe in somewhat the situation of Odysseus, who in his deepest being rejected the thought of hanging out forever on Calypso’s Island. Beyond the promise that he might stay forever young on an island with a goddess who shared her “perfect bed”, he longed to go home, where he could be a doer of great deeds, a defender of prosperity and freedom, a maker of worlds.

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