Monday, June 9


Peculiarly American Vices

An unpublished essay from June of 2006, when I had considerably more free time:

I have taken, in the crush of the subway, to reading the little pretend newspapers the gentlemen in orange vests hand out on the street above. Metro is a sort of global franchise paper with local city news that I am told is considered by real New Yorkers to be in comparison to the Post and Daily News what Delta Sky Magazine is to Vanity Fair. Still, it's not without its charms. Plus, it's much harder to read a hardback while clinging to a subway pole for dear life when the 6 Train does that weird swaybacked curve on the tracks at 42nd Street, a jolt which makes up for my utter lack of exposure to roller coasters.

So anyway, I read of a particularly grisly story recently, of a young woman who was arrested for decorating her home with six human skulls and a severed hand in a mason jar which she nicknamed "Freddy." (Presumably after the late German emperor.) I think they eventually found out some local love-sick medical internist mooncalf gave it to her for whatever inexplicable reasons drive the human heart. The ostensible life lesson here is that medical waste ought not to be used as interior accessories unless one is a Capuchin monk living in the catacombs, and even then, one simple memento mori seems in times past to have been quite enough as a desk item. Though given today's multicultural boho kick, perhaps Pottery Barn is missing a market here--Aztec Neo-Vintage Skull Racks, anyone?

Another thing that struck me about this article is the young woman in question earns her daily bread by taking her clothes off in public at a stripper juice bar.

Yes, you read that right, she works at a strip joint that doubles as a juice bar.

The Three Ages of Woman and Death, Hans Baldung Grün, 1510

I want to concentrate on the second half of that sentence; the first half I will ignore, because I needn't remind my readers that paid exhibitionism is a very bad idea. (Right? Ladies, don't undress in public. 'Nuff said.) Now, I have very little use for alcohol, less because of some un-Catholic Puritan streak in my character, but simply because of a lack of interest that I may chalk up to an un-Chestertonian congenital flaw. American alcoholism is different from the wine cultures of the sunny Catholic south, which seems strangely unafflicted by alcoholism, this sad disease of the tepid and chill north.

The Italians and French drink much, but they never seem to quite get indebted to it in the despairing, sad way Scandinavians and English and Americans do. There is an honesty in their approach to the matter which is not unappealing. Their wine-drinking is an honest virtue in moderation and in their relatively small excesses it still seems a vice more honest than voyeurism. They need not go to excess so often because their moderation is not called a vice, and socialized by the humanity of conversation and food. I can think of many Italian gourmands, by way of a parallel example, but few true gluttons since the days of Nero.

My theory has a few holes, I will confess. The example of Matt Talbot shows alcoholism to not merely non-Catholic vice, but I wonder if it might be chalked up to some stark Jansenist current in the Irish temperament, just as alcoholism in America might be considered the flip-side of Prohibition and Puritanism. That being said, I would assume Irish drunkenness to be far more sociable than the American vodka-and-rice-crispies variety.

That being said, the junction of juice and sex, of health-consciousness and stripping, is such a bizarrely appropriate instance of the dark, Manichaean side of the American psyche it is hard to pass up comment. This nation's peculiar fixation with women uncovering themselves, and our anti-Puritan Puritanism which leads us to torture our bodies with exercise machines and promote trendy juice drinks in public while dram-drinking in private, is at root a hatred of the body as God made it. It has become an end in itself, an amusement park for the libido.

The nude of Catholic Europe, of Botticelli and Michelangelo--is not stripped, she exists in her perfection without the tension and teasing of covering and uncovering that seems to be the whole point of such American vices and which a priest-lecturer I once heard, Fr. Thomas Loya, said was really distinguished pornography from art. Great art lacks that lustful tension, and simply dazzles the viewer with its glory. Venus is unveiled in The Birth of Venus in one clean sweep like a sacred artifact being uncovered amid the bell-ringing and lights of Holy Saturday. It is joy, not selfish obsession, that possesses us at such moments. Such an uncovering is not the sustained tease which points more to the American obsession with underwear than a serene and chaste appreciation for the body.

I sometimes wonder if the naked body is less an occasion of sin for some than when it's partially covered up with fancy underpinnings designed to create and luxuriate in that sexual tension. In some ways, artistic nudity, however complete, in the chaste tradition of the great masters, is more wholesome than the strutting mannequins in their underpants that fill so many shop windows today. (People used to wear fancy clothes on the outside and, if they were holy, hair shirts on the inside--now we turn the situation inside out with ugly clothes and novelty boxers.) If perhaps we had not so sexualized clothes, like Americans sexualize everything, we would realize one can contemplate the body in art, clothed or unclothed, with chaste serenity. John Paul II was right to remove the skivvies forced on the saints in the Last Judgment, or at least most of them. The body is fallen, but it is nonetheless beautiful and nonetheless redeemed. Not everyone can, of course, contemplate such great works with this serenity, but if you're getting turned on by a Raphael portrait, you aren't trying hard enough to resist.

(Once again, some poor souls should always engage in custody of the eyes. Don't assume you're automatically exempt. Though watch out for fire-hydrants and brick walls.)

But getting back to the young lady who takes her clothes off in public. In many ways, her sins of the flesh and her oddball decor somehow go together. They both result from a misunderstanding of the body's true purpose and importance--it is not a tool, but a shrine.

I'm reminded of Chesterton's distinction between the martyr and the suicide--in this case, between veneration and desecration when it comes to relics and our mortal remains. The similarity illuminates the radical difference. Relics, and the public display of them in churches (not in some bedroom in South Plainfield!), may not be for every Catholic in America I admit, but the abstract question here is worth pondering. And nobody in their right mind keeps a severed hand in their bedroom, no matter whether it came from a saint or a sinner.

This is display through indifference, of a pragmatist lack of honor for our bodies, rather than an extreme and occasionally odd devotion to the scraps of life a saint left behind. The utilitarian Jeremy Benthan had equally silly and sick ideas about corpses, that they ought to be used to more practical ends. He ended up getting his own body mummified and put on display in a glass cabinet, incidentally, as a sort of waxwork, not for reverence by his followers, but as a creepy sort of educational opportunity. South Street Seaport these days is mounting a similarly ghoulish exhibit of flayed cadavers, equal parts hiply transgressive and dryly scientific, and there is something in the lurid anonymity of the bodies I have seen in the horrible and ubiquitous promotional posters that is so markedly different from our own saints and martyrs, much-loved, much-venerated and certainly not held up to the same prying scrutiny. (A friend of mine told me the Bodies exhibit wasn't quite so bad as I made it out to be, that it had a pro-life spin, so perhaps I jump to a conclusion. It still gives me, as the Strongbad saith, the jibblies.)

The monk in days past may have kept a single skull on the altar as he said Mass to remember death with a dry impassivity, while the Goth racks them up anonymously to get a little creepy thrill out of it. One is driven by sober reflection and public display, and only if his soul truly needs it, the other prurience and a private and disordered desire.

You see this once again in how we can react to the naked body. I've written about this before, but an artist's model does not waltz into the studio in her birthday suit--she waits until the shutters are closed and in a sense the moment is right for her strategic and complete unveiling. It is illuminating to contrast that quiet, sober and in some senses selfless unveiling, which forces the student to study her with a sober and even impersonal level of detail which feels like the utter opposite of lust and yet leads to such joy in the presence of divine creation that, at least in the two or three scattered instances when I've done life drawing, leads to an almost religious joy.

Let us strive for that joy, and thank God for giving us our bodies, no matter what shape or size they came in, for it is all His handiwork.

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