Love in the Ruins
There is an interesting video up (probably not for long) at the NYTimes website, on the role of sex in the lives of various middle-aged people. The title of the short is "Naked", but I think it could just as well be called, "sex in a society where Christianity isn't even a glint in the eye." Of course, Christianity is not mentioned, but should be, since the film is motivated by the spirit of the erotic, which Walker Percy (following Kierkegaard's observation) points out in Lost in the Cosmos is a consequence of the Christian event, the opposition between the spirit and the flesh, or as he titles it, "the demoniac spirit of the erotic." There is a helpful article by John Desmond that explains this nicely:
In the section in Lost in the Cosmos titled "The Demoniac Self," Percy made a rather strange statement. He said: "Soren Kierkegaard ... said that Christianity first brought the erotic spirit into the world . . . Kierkegaard wrote: 'Sensualism, viewed from the standpoint of Spirit, was first posited by Christianity.'" Percy then explained that what Kierkegaard meant was that while sensualism had indeed existed in paganism, it did not exist "as a spiritual category," but as "an expression of harmony and unison." To clarify his remark, Kierkegaard added: "In the Greek consciousness, the sensuous was under the control of the beautiful personality or, more rightly stated, it was not controlled, for it was not an enemy to be subjugated, not a dangerous rebel who should be held in check." In contrast to the Greeks, Kierkegaard argued that in the Christian era the sensuous-erotic becomes "a qualified spirituality, that is to say, so qualified that the Spirit excludes it; if I imagine this principle concentrated in a single individual, then I have a concept of the sensuouserotic genius. This is an idea which the Greeks did not have, which Christianity first brought into the world, even if only in an indirect sense".
The overwhelming impression I had from watching this film was, how pathetic. Sex is either, a release, uninteresting, animalistic terror, middle-aged pastime, or controlling imposition. The Catholic understanding of sex as a sign--that points to and illustrates the deeper spiritual reality of the gift of self, which is ulteriorly referred to the image in which God created us, His own Trinitarian life, and is the very substratum of reality, in that it reveals and aids man in loving God above all, through the sacramental mediation of an Other--of course was entirely absent.
Kierkegaard's language here is typically abstract and complex. What does it mean to say that the sensuous-erotic is a "qualified spirituality," one that is "so qualified that the Spirit excludes it"? Kierkegaard seems to say that, under Christianity, the sensuous-erotic spirit in human beings is an ambiguous power which can be exercised toward the love of God and fellow humans, or exercised as a destructive force if not controlled, or as Kierkegaard says, "excluded by the Spirit." Adopting Kierkegaard's view of the sensuous-erotic, Percy argued that it is not to be confused with the ordinary biological sex drive, but understood, in Kierkegaard's terms, rather as "the inspiration of the flesh by the spirit of the flesh." Kierkegaard called the spirit of the flesh "demoniac," which, Percy says, implies "possession of the soul by an unbenign spirit". A person so possessed by an "unbenign spirit" is what Percy called a "demoniac self." Percy saw what he called the modern "autonomous self," i.e. the unbelieving self, as possessed by this demoniac spirit and by a secret love of violence. According to Percy, this combination of autonomy and the secret passion for violence led to millions of brutal killings in the twentieth century and now threatens the future of the race.
I once wrote a paper applying Percy's (which is really C.S. Peirce's) intepretation of the triadic structure of human knowing (centered on the concept or inner word as sign) to John Paul II's hermeneutics of the gift, otherwise known as his catechesis on the theology of the body. The body is the preeminant sign. Or as Percy would say, the body is not simply there, it cannot be explained dyadically or binomially, but means something, and this meaning is an irreducible third thing.
But back to my original point: we should be very worried. For as Percy prophesied, when sex is no longer the preferred mode of transcendence, when it loses its power to catapult one from the world of immanence, and instead remains just another instrument of malaise and ennui, all that does remain is the love of violence. The successor to the age of free love? The age of total war and violence. How naïve we are to think we have moved past that age.