Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Unhealthy Influences." Power, Liberty, and Sexuality

"Unhealthy influences" is the euphemism the Chinese regime uses for pornography. The Beijing regime uses the excuse of "protecting" the people from pornography as a cover for cracking down on internet access and traffic.

Why should an officially atheist regime in a culture with no ties to Western Judaeo-Christianity feel compelled to prohibit internet porn? Why should it be necessary to describe pornography with a euphemism?

We always think of terror and revulsion at sexuality as being primarily religious, part of the religious contempt for all things carnal in favor of things spiritual. We routinely associate contempt for sex with Western religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

And yet, officially anti-religious communist regimes from the Soviet Union to China to North Korea to Cuba had puritanical societies that would be the envy of any Muslim or Christian religious fanatic. Pornography was absolutely banned and driven far underground. Marriage and procreation were tightly regulated. Homosexuality was ruthlessly persecuted from Shanghai to Havana. The criminalization of homosexuality in Russia was only repealed with the fall of the Soviet regime (that criminalization may return as the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church upon the Russian state grows).

The ideological tyrants of the 20th century appear to have been largely asexual. The only exception might be Mao who by all accounts had a sybaritic sex life in his old age. Hitler appears to have been largely indifferent to sex, despite his affair with Eva Braun. I suppose the wildest Saturday night romp in the hay pales before the gratifying thrill of absolute power over a major country with a huge population and a large industrial economy.

We think of the puritanism of the 19th century Anglo-American Victorians as religious and particularly Christian. And yet, some of the most enthusiastic apologists for the Victorian regime of "self control" were secularists. Thomas Huxley, the scientist who publicly defended Darwin's work and derided religious zealots was every bit as puritanical in his outlook as the pious William Gladstone.

The more time goes by, the more I agree with the Marxist historians on the issue of 19th century Victorian puritanism. It was not a consequence of religious belief so much as the modern industrial economy. Industrial mass production needed the rational organization of large numbers of people to make it work. Indeed, the whole of society needed to be organized and rationalized to make the modern consumer economy work. The proper economic function of sex was to produce more workers and consumers, and to tease consumers into purchases. Advertising since the early 19th century is full of sex. As so many writers (most notably George WS Trow) have pointed out, sex in advertising is always a tease. It always promises gratification without ever quite delivering it, and leaves us panting for more. The only thing that has really changed about advertising sex is the sexualization of men over the past 30 years.
Beyond those 2 functions, modern sex is strictly regulated. Anything beyond procreation and advertising is potentially very disruptive. No matter what our religious or political allegiances, we are always anxious to put our desires in their place and to keep them under control.

The Classical poets described love as a madness from which no one is immune, not even the gods. It is the madness that distracts heroes from their duty and their destiny. It is the madness that makes the gods come down from the heavens and mortals think they can dwell on Olympus. It is the madness that brings disruption, sorrow, and death into the lives of both gods and mortals. Love is the great monkey wrench thrown into the orderly workings of the cosmos.

Sex is the one thing that successfully resists all of our attempts to rationalize it, whether through religion, ideology, or economics. The burning desires of our flesh keep us out of both Heaven and Utopia. But as other poets have pointed out, they also keep us out of hell. Not only do they disrupt our ambitions to be perfectly good, so do they also sabotage our best laid plans to do evil.

And yet, it is out of the madness of Love that the arts, the next generations, and whole worlds are born. "Eros, builder of cities," said WH Auden.

Caravaggio, Amor Vincit Omnia


June Butler said...

With the painting, I'm pulled away from the topic of your post on the puritans, both religious and secular, to ask why Caravaggio is not on your list of favorite painters?

OK, back to the topic. With the puritans, it's mainly about control of themselves and others. Sex is a form of madness and is out of control, messing up the order of things as the puritans would like them to be.

Remember, the Calvinists gave us the protestant work ethic, too. If you're having sex, you're not working.

Counterlight said...

My! How could I have neglected Caravaggio in my list?
I added him, and Annibale Carracci for good measure.