LGBTTQQIAAP. Or something like that.
I am so over radio talk shows. I’m not a sports talk guy, either. And while I enjoy classical music, it definitely plays second fiddle to a good recorded history or novel while I’m on the road.
I’m currently listening to Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland. Though it was pretty much chosen at random from the library’s shelves, I got lucky. (Some reviewers, of course, like the book, some don’t.) While it’s impossible for an untutored amateur like me to keep track of the enormous cast of characters that turn up over the course of 14 CDs, the gist of the story is pretty straightforward: ancient Rome’s first several emperors after the fall of the Republic were, on the whole, a very unsavory bunch. And even though it’s been 2,000 years since they ruled the world, their names still have the power to conjure up a rogues’ gallery of cruelty, treachery and deviancy: Caligula, Nero, Tiberius.
The catalogue of crimes and sins run the gamut: parricide, matricide, and and pretty much any other of variation of “cide” that you’ve heard of-and probably some you didn’t even know existed. Incest was endemic. (And probably goes a good way toward explaining the madness that keeps turning up like a bad penny in the dynastic line.) Pederasty? No big deal. Nero, in a rage, kicks his beautiful, pregnant wife, Poppaea, in the stomach, killing her and the baby. Seized with remorse, he has a young boy who looks like Poppaea made into a eunuch and marries her(?) with great pomp and ceremony. You can’t make this stuff up.
Nor was virtually any other deviant sexual coupling out of bounds. One book reviewer says that Holland, certainly no prude, “can’t quite bring himself to describe them in full.” That’s a mercy-since there’s plenty that’s not left to the imagination.
Holland also makes it clear that he shares his ancient sources esteem for the “simple, republican virtues” that were rapidly giving way in the face of the degeneracy and luxury of the empire. In doing so, he thus gives these monsters credit for at least this: they were moral agents. In other words, they were capable of acting in reference to right and wrong. They weren’t mere puppets hanging from the strings of their genes or hormones.
So, where do we stand now, 2,000 years on? Is moral agency an archaic notion that must give way to puppetry? Increasingly, especially in reference to our sexuality, the answer seems to be, “Yes.” The evidence? LGBTTQQIAAP. A bewildering array of initials that would tax the imagination of even the most creative of Rome’s sexual free thinkers: Lesbian. Gay. Bisexual. Transgendered. Transexual. Queer. Etcetera. And so on. And so forth.
Must all these exquisitely fine gradations of what, for millennia, have been seen as abnormal expressions of human sexuality be granted moral immunity because, as their advocates contend, they’re genetically hard wired into our DNA? Which is another way of saying, at least in regards to our sexuality, we’re no longer moral agents? Apparently so.
But what does this say about us as people in a larger sense? Who can doubt that sex plays a central role in who we are as humans? But, if our sexual conduct is beyond our control, can we still be considered the only creature whose defining characteristic is the capacity for rational thought and action? And, if so, where does it all end?
Two potential resting places come to mind.
First, what we do with ourselves. But isn’t it obvious that we are already well beyond this stopping place? Old taboos are viewed, at best, as quaint. And, more realistically, hurtfully repressive. What is LGBTTQQIAAP, if not an affirmation of this?
When I was in junior high, our gym teacher taught us boys a sex-ed class. While we squirmed in discomfort next to our fathers, the teacher soberly warned us about the dangers of masturbation. Now, kids that age are introduced to, and not discouraged from exploring, all manner of previously unexplored frontiers of sexuality. At Ivy League campuses BDSM clubs are officially sanctioned. And what takes place beyond the “hallowed halls” of academia I will certainly leave to your imagination. The instinctual animal reigns supreme.
And then, of course, there’s what we consensually do with others. And this certainly seems like a secure stopping place. It definitely should be. It’s the clear message we are getting from the outrage being expressed over the sexual harassment scandals currently so rampant in high places.
But how do we restrain the animal instincts of people when the culture teaches that, at least when it comes to sex, we aren’t moral agents? You tell me. And if your response is that we need to make the laws tougher, I don’t agree. There aren’t enough cops or prisons. And do we really want to live in a sexual police state?
I sat through more than one sexual harassment training session when I served in the legislature. They’re about as close to a bad joke as you can get. If an adult who has the moxie to get elected to office isn’t smart enough to have a grasp of the principals of decency that a kid should have learned in grade school, heaven help us. (Which is, in actuality, where we should be looking for help. But to even suggest such a solution would probably be considered, in many quarters, worse than the illness itself.)
Otherwise, we might just as well revert to the practice of having malefactors go to the black board in front of the class and write, 100 times, “I will not harass that woman over there. Or do something worse.” Which public humiliation would, no doubt, be a far more effective deterrent than sprinkling platitudes over an anonymous training course. Nonetheless, even I will concede this for an indoctrination session: while we don’t need to be told the difference between right and wrong. We do, occasionally, need to be reminded.
“Predictions,” as Yogi Berra famously said, “are difficult, especially about the future.” Nonetheless, I’ll go out on a limb. Or, rather, two limbs. You decide which is more likely.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is among the best known dystopian predictions of what the future holds for us as sexual beings. It’s the world of the feelies. And shaming if one isn’t sufficiently sexually freewheeling. And the dream world of soma. Are these predictions any more outlandish or disheartening than what we’ve seen come to pass in reality? Probably not, given that we live in an era when same sex marriage has become, in remarkably short order, about as American as apple pie. And an era where, like the few, stubbornly retrograde dissenters in Brave New World, to question what has become the new, conventional wisdom about things sexual is to risk being consigned to the outer darkness.
But nothing grows to the sky. The pendulum swings. There is another limb, even in popular culture.
Consider Ground Hog Day; it sketches out an alternative, more hopeful vision.
Counted among the finest comedy films of all time, it features Bill Murray, a self -centered, low life weatherman who, trapped in a time warp, is condemned to relive the same day, over and over. But who eventually comes to understand that to live, he must die to self. The turning point shows Murray, arms extended, throwing himself to his death from a tall building. When he rises the next day, he begins living for others rather than just himself. And rather than trying to manipulate the film’s beautiful and virtuous romantic interest into his bed, he wins her heart through acts of service. Before the credits roll, they are planning their wedding.
Another film that represents a tender, green shoot pushing into our our burned over sexual landscape is Blast From The Past.
Also a comedy that packs a punch, it features a hilarious, perfectly “square” family that locks itself into a bomb shelter under Los Angles in the mistaken belief that the Cuban missile crisis resulted in nuclear armageddon. When they emerge 35 years later, their cute suburban tract home has been over run by porn shops, irradiated, “mutant” prostitutes who “can be whatever sex you want,” and lowriders that lurch down LA’s mean streets.
Adam, the son who was born just as the family went into the shelter, is sent on a mission to get enough supplies to last until the mutants kill each other off. He meets the foul mouthed, but reluctantly honest Eve, and hires her to help him navigate the many perplexities of la la land. Including getting a non-mutant wife. Eve scoffs at the idea of marriage, asserting that “Everyone is divorced. Just talk to my divorced parents. Talk to my divorced brother and sister. Everyone knows that marriage bites the big one!” She does, however, concede that she might be able to “help get you laid.”
As the movie progresses, though, Adam’s relentless courtesy and old fashioned decency takes its toll on Eve’s cynical, thoroughly modern heart. Near the end, Eve is fingering her wedding ring in a house that is a replica of the suburban home where the story began. Except it’s out in the country, situated in a new Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve share with his parents.
Eve reflects that, “Adam says that this is simply how things work. First, the parents take care of the children and then the children take care of the parents. He says, historically, that’s how it works. Whenever Adam gives me such obviously incorrect information, I just smile and look out the window. Why spoil his dreams? They’re such wonderful dreams.”
Dream? Or Nightmare?
Because I know how to use Google, rather than because I was able to labor through James Joyce’s Ulysses, I know that it contains this line: “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”
So, as the Romans would say, quo vadis: which way, America? Toward an admittedly less than perfect dream of a man and a woman committing to life together where, in the sometimes fiery crucible of marriage and family, they learn that life’s most important lesson is to die to one’s self? And live for another? It’s not easy. It’s not meant to be. But it’s been designed to help prepare us for something infinitely better. A place where the dross that can make this life, at times, a nearly unbearable nightmare, is finally left behind. For a joy that surpasses our wildest imaginings.
Or will we settle for something far less? Where, by indulging the insatiable, apparently infinitely variable demands of our sexual selves, we are merely preparing ourselves to be gluttonous beholders of our own distorted image in a nightmarish house of mirrors from which there is no exit.