Life Under Compulsion: The Itch

by Anthony Esolen on February 11, 2013 · 15 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Articles,Culture, High & Low,Education & Liberal Learning

inf.29.82.dore

Thee let old men, Thee let young men,
Thee let boys in chorus sing;
Matrons, virgins, little maidens,
With glad voices answering:
Let their guileless songs re-echo,
And the heart its music bring,
Evermore and evermore!

From Prudentius, Cordenatus ex parentis (4th c.), tr. John Mason Neale (1854)

WINTER CONCERT, 12/12
WINTER HOLIDAY BEGINS 12/21

From a sign outside of the Wakefield Hills Middle School, West Warwick, RI

EPIC SEX!
GET IT, GIVE IT, AND GET IT AGAIN!

From the cover of a recent issue of Chaopolitan Magazine

To please my son, innocent of the cruelties of our time, we turned on the television a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, to see the “ball” in Times Square fall.  There were a million people down below, waiting for the inexorable turn of the temporal odometer.  I’m not sure what they were celebrating, but the frenzy seemed proportionate to the triviality and impersonality of the moment.  When the last tick of the clock arrived, the band played that song whose words nobody really understands, but which I will translate for the age:

Let auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind;
Let auld acquaintance be forgot
With all the ties that bind.

Now my mind returns to that lovely song by Prudentius, which in the self-forgetfulness of joy celebrates the birth of Jesus.  Unlike the tick of the clock, the moment of Jesus’ birth does not arrive in complete abstraction from all things most profoundly human, nor does it leave with the celerity of the sweep second-hand on a clock.  It is not secular, in the deep sense of that word, suggesting one thing following upon another.  It stands above the world; it beats in the heart of the world.

There’s nothing hectic in the praise that Prudentius calls forth.  All the ages of man are brought in communion, with the angels and the saints that have gone before us.  The young are not battering down storefronts, the elderly are not shuffling down the halls of nursing homes in padded slippers.  The boys and the girls are here, and their songs are guileless, not barbed and angled.  We can almost hear the ringing of the trebles, the soprano women in rich vibrato, the young men belting out their clear tenor, the old men rumbling low; and all is cheerful, wondering, solemn and gladsome at once.  It is free: it arises both spontaneously, and in decorous order, from the fullness of a generous heart.

That song, I know, cannot be sung at the Wakefield Hills Middle School.  Not that, nor anything like it.  Not in contemporary America, united solely by the conviction that nothing can unite us.  But where there is nothing to celebrate and no one to worship, something must occupy our attention.  The throne will not remain empty.  In America, the something is the itch.  You must be at Times Square.  Why?  What does it mean?  You must watch the television extravaganza.  Why?  What, in that brew of folly, narcissism, mass marketing, and noise is worthy of honor or affection?

The magazine cover splays the truth out naked before our eyes.  There’s no person there, no one who needs love, no one sad or shy or confused; no warmth, not even in sin.  Human eros, as opposed to the urges of a brute beast, bears the intimations of eternity, of a love that does not fail.  But this does not rise to the level of eros.  It hardly rises to the level of natural hunger.  The degenerate rich in the days of the Roman Empire would binge and purge and binge, for a sickly pleasure in eating, and for distraction from the emptiness of their lives.  The cover encourages the same bingeing and purging, get and give and get, what?  Some undefined object.“Pick me up, open me,” it whispers, wheedling.  “I hide the secret of epic sex!” The adjective, once filled with literary and human meaning, is empty, to be filled with that sub-hunger, that terrible desire for something, anything, to desire.

That is what prurience is all about.  It is, literally, the instigation of an itch.  It doesn’t have to be about sex – but in our mass marketing, sex is the most common virus for the inception and the spread of the rash.  The itch brings no joy.  We know, when we are scratching some scrofulous dermatitis, that we’d be better off not scratching – but we can’t help ourselves.  To think about the itch, without scratching, would drive us mad.  It is why Dante, that cunning psychologist, punished the pettiest of his liars, the bunko artists, with a never-subsiding itch, the sufferers raking their flesh as if they were scraping the scales off a pike.  They feel a ferocious moment’s relief, burning in frustration.  The prurient cannot move an inch without the tickle, the prick, the bristle.

He says, “I won’t scratch that itch!  I won’t think about it.  I’ll count to ten,” but none of those tricks work.  It is the colossal failure of some (not all) calls to abstinence, when there is nothing grand or beautiful beyond to stir a genuine human longing.  For the call to abstinence, detached from the deepest human realities – and detached from a community wherein one might hear such songs as Prudentius composed – is nothing more than a call not to scratch the itch.  It acknowledges the itch.  It reminds us of the itch.  It allows the itch to creep.  It permits the prurience of magazines, library books, advertising campaigns, politicians, video games, all the little spikes and prickles of a consumptive economy, coughing and coughing.  Then it says, “In all these other ways you may debase yourself.  You may scratch here, here, here, and here, but not here.”

And now we turn to the public schools, and many a private school, the insanatoria where the law of the itch is taught.  “Protect yourself from these diseases,” our children are advised, because they must yield to the disease they have already caught.  There are human choices only around the edges of the rash – how to scratch, not whether.  That in part explains curricular choices for high school literature courses.  Where the itch has set in, it must be scratched; where it has not set in, it must be introduced.  It also explains choices for stocking the school libraries with “young adult” books about vampires, zombies, spicy fornicators, and admirable murderers in this or that miserable dystopia.  The school is far from the hymn by Prudentius, but it snuggles up to the covers of Self, Glamour, Elle, Maxim, Us, Scrape, Rip, Itch.

I understand the challenge teachers face.  You have thirty children who have been itching and scratching for years.  They skitter from video game to video game.  They don’t read.  If they do, it’s our puerile newspapers, or sniggering celebrity magazines, or “novels” whose dialogues range from the grunt to the sneer.  These young people are precociously senescent.  They cannot be moved by the feelings of Mr. Knightley for Emma.  They need scratching.  But is the teacher always better off?  Hence the choice for “controversial” works, or “relevant” works, to spur real “discussion,” because only a text laced with obscenities and profanities, or cruelty, or perversion, will do.  That is called being on the “cutting edge” – the scratching edge.

How to raise children who would want to sing that hymn by Prudentius?  Who delight in innocence?  Young men so moved by the beauty of a woman, they would not wish to sully it with actions no nobler than those of dogs rutting?  Youths who still possess youth, which lends them a frolic childlikeness and a wisdom beyond their years?  How to raise children who can sit with a good book, and read?  Who can walk outdoors and enjoy the beauty of weeds and sparrows?  Who have no compulsions – who don’t have to buy the latest this or that vanity?  Not bound to the instant urge, wherever it may be found?  That is the educational question of our time, unnoticed by technocratic utilitarians left and right, by the “progressives” who have to move, move, move, who knows where, and even by lovers of the humanities, who don’t wish to acknowledge the disease, because we all infected.

The itch is but the poor, measly counterfeit of the quest: the liberating gift of oneself, to find something of incomparable worth and beauty.  More to come.

Illustration by Gustave Doré

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Chris Travers February 11, 2013 at 5:06 am

One of the things that strikes me is that New Years Eve is basically the focal point of liberal secular religion. Our bodies are machines. Our homes are machines. The universe is a machine. We build machinery of government, of which our public schools are a part, and one day a year we all get together and worship a giant clock.

avatar JimWilton February 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm

I am in sympathy with this essayist. But, at the end, the focus is too much on the trivial, and conditioned and degenerates into griping and complaint. The essay has none of the wild transcendence and joy that come with a genuine religious connection.

avatar Tony Esolen February 11, 2013 at 3:03 pm

I’m puzzled by Mr. Wilton’s comment, since I don’t know that fornication is trivial, and I don’t know that real youthfulness, such as is evident in Prudentius’ hymn, isn’t joyful. Any call to leave one world and enter another must involve showing the inadequacy of the former and the glory of the latter. Sometimes one or the other of these two will predominate, depending upon the circumstances and the audience.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

The dropping of the New Years Eve Ball in Times Square over a crowd of thousands is a perfect cap to the annual year of Unceasing Want we wallow in . We yearn for time to go by, for better gas mileage, for 5pm to come around and for a full 12″ rather than a mere 11″ foot long submarine sandwich. Everything in this vicarious culture revolves around the productive capacity of want. It is productive to those who have built a ten decade monument to said want yet it is entirely corrosive to a species that possesses far more emotional and intellectual attributes than mere “want”. Want is an undeniably productive force but in this time, it is now, inexorably, pornographic.

avatar JimWilton February 12, 2013 at 12:29 pm

To call desire (or its subset lust or lust’s manifestation — fornication) trivial was wrong.

There is still something that bothers me about the essay. Maybe because it seems to me to lack compassion for the suffering described.

avatar andrew February 12, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I recently performed a small surgical procedure on a petrified young lady whose boyfriend, surprisingly to me, had reached out to hold her hand during surgery. When I looked at the boyfriend more closely, I noticed that he was also staring at and thumbing through his Facebook page on his smart phone with his other hand. Now there’s a smart, multitasking — and itching — lad for you! I wonder what Mr. Knightley would have done had it been Emma on the surgical table.

avatar Chris Travers February 16, 2013 at 11:13 pm

@Andrew: To be fair, it could have been a nervous reaction, an effort to distract himself from the stress of seeing his girlfriend terrified and undergoing surgery.

avatar Gian February 19, 2013 at 1:36 am

The Austrian economics is built upon the assumption that a person acts as to satisfy an unease.
This blatant denial of love and the rational nature of man is now the reigning orthodoxy of the Republicans.

The denial of the notion of common good on the Right is far more insidious than the corresponding denial by the Left.
The only message of the Right is we know how to make you rich. They have a cult of the rich men.

avatar Tony Esolen February 19, 2013 at 2:02 am

Gian — agreement about Austrian economics, but not about the Stupid Party. Consider that George W. Bush made plenty of attempts, with very mixed success, to turn over to faith-based groups much of the work done badly by government entities. A lot of the Republicans I know are rural people who retain some shadow of a community life and have no interest at all in pursuing wealth for its own sake. That would include all homeschoolers, for example.

avatar Gian February 19, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Mr Esolen,
Far it be from me to disagree with you but please note the words “the reigning orthodoxy of the Republicans”. The counter-examples you quote are are minor and probably best regarded as heretical within the Republican tent.

Can Adam Smith be reconciled with Aquinas? The transvaluation of morals that occured in 17 and 18C was the driver of the capitalist revolution. And this transvaluation enthroned Self-interest from a vice to a virtue.

But self-interest is a rational thing and if consistently and intelligently pursued may lead one to Aquinas–my self-interest is in the common good. So the economists have ditched self-interest for satisfaction of uneases. And this is libertarianism.

avatar Ray Olson February 20, 2013 at 10:14 am

Dear Gian–Good comments. As we Quakers say, thee speaks my mind. I share southern historian Dr. Clyde N. Wilson’s conviction that the most important task before the U.S. today is the extermination of the Republican Party–écrasez l’infâme!

avatar Larry February 21, 2013 at 8:29 am

Ray, I did not know that Quakers made a priority of exterminating groups of people.

avatar D.W. Sabin February 21, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Exterminating the GOP ( no matter how satisfactory an outcome this might be for those who remember the Adult Party before it had a Stroke and went into decline) would be for the feckless Democrat party to remain standing. It would be like a meeting of the AA where everyone decided drinking aint really a curse and its time to hoist again.

The Democrat Party and this GOP deserve each other. Unfortunately, they are inflicting the dysfunction on the citizen …a citizenry that is now about as incurious and un-critical as a discarded spare tire.

avatar Chris Travers February 23, 2013 at 11:22 am

I must agree here with D. W. Sabin. What we are left with here is a choice between two deeply and destructively liberal parties (and I mean liberal in this case to mean in favor of liberalism, liberal capitalism, free trade, corporatism, and the like). The only reason the Middle Class is still here is that the two parties can’t agree on how to wipe us out. They are giants and we, I am afraid are in their sandbox.

I was raised as a Quaker and I have a great deal of respect for that movement, particularly for rural Quakers the rural states (as how I was raised, a Quaker first in rural Utah and then in rural Washington State). I was left of center in my politics too but then I found that Quakers and Liberals do not share first principles to any great degree and that there would be no room for Quakers in a world where Liberalism reigned supreme. My politics are now neither right nor left. It is true the right accuses me frequently of being far-left and the left accuses me of being far right.

At the end of the day we need alternatives to arise to the Democrat and Republican parties. I would like to see a Localist Agrarian party that we could get behind and let the Republicans sail into the sunset. I don’t know what one could possibly salvage from the Democratic platform though.

avatar A.X. August 26, 2014 at 9:10 pm

“The Austrian economics is built upon the assumption that a person acts as to satisfy an unease.
This blatant denial of love and the rational nature of man is now the reigning orthodoxy of the Republicans.”

Hold on–blatant denial of love and the rational nature of man? Where did you get that conclusion? Couldn’t I define “sense of uneasiness” to include discomfort and pain at seeing the suffering of a fellow man? Mises himself gives this example in Human Action.

I agree with you on the discomfort bit though. That is too simplistic a concept of human action. Why do scientists keep creating new research? They do it because even though they’re contented, they think there is still room for improvement.

But that error was corrected by Rothbard later on. Man, Economy, and State doesn’t have any mention of all action arising from uneasiness.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: