Make America Mate Again: What Eroticism Has to do with the Family Unit

Celeste Marcus, University of Pennsylvania

An analytic and continental philosopher are arguing.

The analytic philosopher says, “You’re being insufficiently clear!”

The continental philosopher says, “You’re being insufficiently!”

I spend too much time asking myself whether or not I am being insufficiently.

Specifically, I’ve been spending too much time asking whether I’m being insufficiently, and the bare midriffed, high heeled Those People strutting down Locust Walk[1] aren’t. Those People are proposing that there are Essential Life Experiences, learnt through premarital erotic escapades, from which I am cut off because I believe, as my religious tradition teaches, that eroticism has something to do with the family unit. They are making a philosophical claim. And it’s freaking me out.

Before college my convictions were easily maintained. I was doing a difficult thing and was guilty of assuming the logical fallacy that difficult and correct are synonymous. I was not yielding to the clubs’ carnal siren calls. It never occurred to me that those scintillating summonses were advancing a philosophical proposition. I never considered that they were positing a particular truth about the nature of life. I thought the bare midriffs didn’t care about fulfillment. I’m sure most of them don’t (most of most people don’t). But I met a very, very smart member of the carnal choir who accused me of being insufficiently intellectually rigorous, demanding that I analyze and defend my own practices. He asked why the difficult thing was also the good thing. “Celeste, what does eroticism have to do with the family unit?” Fair question.

Let’s define our terms.

Eros, according to Dictionary.com is, “physical love; sexual desire. Compare this with Agape: Love of Christians for other persons, corresponding to the love of God for humankind.” Think legs that go all the way down to the floor and crop tops that go all the way down to, um, not much of anywhere.

This definition is incorrect. Plato’s, which preceeded the internet and all other insipid contributions to this conversation, is far sharper and richer : Eros[2] is “the desire for begetting offspring on a beautiful object by means of body or soul for the sake of the lover’s own immortality.” (E12.) Plato ranks cases of Eros, beginning with Body-Eros, or the simple act of copulation for the sake of reproduction, upwards towards Soul-Eros, or “friendship since the children of their union are more beautiful and more immortal” (209). Eros, then, is exactly not animalistic, but rather fostered through the touching of souls and the creation of “immortal” offspring.

We are assuming that my Licentious Interlocutor meant Eros as Plato defines it; that he was positing that the sort of sexuality that allows for the touching of souls can only exist outside of marriage. Presumably, he meant that marriage is serviceable, it is sturdy, functional – it is devoid of desire, which features significantly in Plato’s definition. Marriage is paying your taxes, arguing over who has to walk the dog, and taking out the trash in crocs and oversized t-shirts. Marriage stabilizes society; it does not strike fire in the hearts of men and women. Serviceable. Not sexy. Sexiness, the carnal choir croons, is passionate, impulsive, hungry and selfish — three cheers for fidelity and five for freedom.

There are a few things wrong with this analysis. First, that monogamy is prudential for society is contested (a thing I didn’t know before writing this article, as I’d only ever been exposed to views that buttressed my own). Bertrand Russell, for one, advocates for a society in which premarital sex is encouraged, “as long as children are avoided.” [3] This, he believes, is necessary as it allows men to seek fortune young and marry late. These men have needs. In order for expectations to be met they must be attainable.

But let us set aside the question of prudence and productivity (who needs those?). Let us concentrate on the question of being with which we began. I have an intellectual responsibility to take seriously the philosophical implications of the Locust Walkers’ Walk.

My Licentious Interlocutor was positing that I could be forming friendships in which my soul and body rub up against the souls and bodies of others. My life, according to Them, is shallower because I am ripe for a particular sort of knowledge now, and I am refusing to partake in the experiences that would grant it to me. I am being insufficiently.

The calculus is simple; either the more restrained you are the more meaningful your life will be, or the more you restrict yourself the less you will know. Either the heights of Eros can be reached, and immortal offspring created through the premarital and copious exchange of love and thought, or only in committed twosomes within the confines of marriage.

What sort of knowledge do I have? What is the life experience I have selected? To what theory of human nature am I subscribing through my practice? What does eroticism have to do with the family unit?

First an analysis of the view that rejects my thesis. D.H. Lawrence was a 20th century novelist whose works are famed amongst the pure-of-soul for shocking, blush-inducing sensuality. Consider his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover[4] in which authentic union is fostered via adultery committed on a forest floor. What could be more liberating? The embryo resulting from that liaison will, we are told by our protagonist Lady Chatterley, result in a “living” man – as opposed to the lifeless lot to which she was consigned before her liberation. She was fettered to a husband she did not love within an intellectually and emotionally unfulfilling marriage. This, Lawrence and the Locust walkers contend, is what systematizing sexuality wrought.

Not surprisingly, the word “Eros” and its cognates never appear in any of Lawrence’s works. This is in keeping with the “We don’t like boxes” philosophy of the current generation – the convictionless conviction that “That’s okay.” Who needs definitions? They stifle our communion with the natural world. Man’s life is fuller and richer when he is on the forest floor emancipated from all structure and commitments.

This thesis ignores the thirst for immortality to which Plato links Eros. The human appetite to latch onto the infinite through creation cannot be fed through ephemeral fornication in the forest.

The Jewish tradition proposes a superior thesis. Leon Kass, in his exegesis of Genesis, addresses Man’s longing for partnership and woman’s subsequent creation. She is cast as a “help mate against [Adam]”[5], an equal and warring partner in life. Professor Kass explains, “Man cleaves to his wife not because she is ‘flesh of his flesh’ nor because she is beautiful or because she loves him back, but because she is his chosen, willing and coequal lifelong partner in self conscious devotion to the work of perpetuation.”[6] Thus Kass, in keeping with Plato, roots Eros in the human obligation to self perpetuate, to latch onto the immortal. Eros, Judaism contends, requires discipline and commitment as well as desire. It binds. As Professor Jon Levenson puts it, “Jews have so long interpreted the Song of Songs to be about the sexual desire, as it were, that binds their own Beloved and themselves.”[7]

The Ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract, acts as glue. It is not romantic. It smacks of sensible, sturdy infrastructure. Written in Aramaic, the text assigns both parties new legal statuses, just like any other legal document. It lays the ground work necessary for a project to move forward. The affianced seek to create an ancient institution together, through which they can perpetuate themselves and their people. They are linking onto the infinite. This contract allows for the erotic hunger for immortality to feed itself through the creation of a family, by acknowledging the carnal, biological needs of the people involved. As Rabbi Meir Soloveichik explains, “Nothing could be more mundane than [ketubah’s] subject matter: a public promise by the groom to support his wife and obligating his estate to insure her well-being in case the marriage dissolves. It embodies a balance of interests: The groom wishes to be married, and the bride, in agreeing, seeks to protect her own interests.… Because without the respect provided by law, there is no love. Without a recognition of difference, and of disparate interests, there can be no relationship.”[8]  The upper echelons of Eros are reached through years of painful, sweaty middle-of-the-night-hospital-runs, and salty, runny-nosed tears shed while wrapped around one another. It isn’t some enchanted evening; it’s the human mess of years that follow the glance across the crowded room. After the arched backs and glittery winks there is erotic, human vulnerability. It is sexy. It is rich.

So the scintillating summonses continue unheeded, and the choir croons somewhere off in the distance. Its members strut syncopated to a forced rhythm – a perverse one. Judaism, in all its wisdom, recognizes that in order to be sufficiently, you must first tend to being.

 

 

[1] University of Pennsylvania’s spine.

[2] Plato, Alexander Nehamas, and Paul Woodruff. Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1989. Print.

 

[3] Russell, Bertrand. “Our Sexual Ethics.” Our Sexual Ethics. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.

 

[4] Lawrence, D H. Lady Chatterley’s Lover. New York: Bantam Books, 1971. Print.

 

[5] Genesis 2: 18

 

[6]Kass, Leon R. “Educating Father Abraham:.” First Things. N.p., Dec. 1994. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.

 

[7] Levenson, Jon D. (2015-10-20). The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Library of Jewish Ideas) (p. 142). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

[8] Soloveichik, Meir. “Blessed Unions.” Commentary Magazine. N.p., 1 Mar. 2012. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.