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On The Wings of a Wombat

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Okay, I’ll admit it.   There’s really no point to the title of this post except that I was thinking of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove, and I really like wombats.

I’ve also got to admit that I’ve never read The Turn of the Screw, largely because it always seemed to me that teachers tended to assign it not because it was the best James, but because it was relatively short, and therefore suitable for students who didn’t really like to read.

I wonder how much of the literature that gets beat up here as awful and boring gets assigned for the same reason–not because it’s the best that could be assigned, but because it’s relatively short and therefore at least theoretically easier to read.  That might explain why so much of what people here think is part of the Canon consists of stuff I managed to get through four years of high school, four years of college, and seven years of grad school without ever having been assigned even once.

That said–I think most of you think of morality differently than I do.  For one thing, I think we need to separate the essential from the secondary. Take the sentence “any moral code that is to prove workable must do something to control the innate aggressiveness of young men, by drafting them into the armed forces and training them to be disciplined soldiers instead of rootless loose cannons.”

Only the first half of that sentence is essential.  The second half is a strategy, not a moral precept, even if it presents itself in society as “it’s immoral for young men not to join the army and do their bit.”

I think that one of the problems with talking about morality and moral codes is that we tend to frame our statements about strategy as if they were moral precepts.  It is, I think, the differences in strategy that make moral codes look vastly different when they very rarely are. 

That’s not to say the strategies are necessarily negligible.  Sometimes they are, and sometimes they’re not.  But questions of strategy rest on different foundations than questions of morality, and mixing the two together only makes everything look arbitrary and muddled.

Thinking of the human capacity for thinking in moral terms as analagous for the human capacity for language explains a lot of things, not the least of them the tendency of people who vigorously deny the existence of morality altogether (everything is relative!) to engage in highly puritanical, often hysterical moral censoriousness under other names.  Cigarettes?  Fossil fuels?  Hate speech?

What’s more, when we’re dealing with something that is an essential question of morality–sexual behavior, for instance–the moral thinking not only comes back with a vengance, but comes back in the very same area we pretended to banish it from.  Sex?  Well, sex is good, everybody gets to decide what to do about sex, that’s none of society’s business, we should all do our own thing–but if you’re over eighteen and have sex with somebody under eighteen, we’ll lock you up for five years, even if she was seventeen at the time and you were nineteen and the only reason the two of you had sex is that she walked into your dorm room stark naked and threw you a condom. 

Hell, we’ll go farther than that.   If you’re a fiteen year old girl and take a naked picture of yourself on your cell phone and then send that picture to everybody you know, we’ll brand you as a sex offender for life, and do the same to everybody you sent the picture to, even people who didn’t want the picture or know it was coming. 

What’s more, we lump everything from the actual rape of a six year old to the consensual sex between a nineteen year old and a seventeen year old as a “sex crime,” and if we catch you doing any of it we will make you register as a “sex offender” and brand you, literally, for life, and warn the public about you in a way that makes it impossible to know what you actually did.  They will assume,  however, that you violently raped somebody, or molested a child, because why else would you have to register at all?

If you look at this stuff, you’ll notice that what it is is an attempt, once again, to control the sexual behavior of young and youngish men.  All the different rules about sex that have come down to us over time, from the burqa to the sex offender registry, exist largely to protect women and children from the sexuality of men. 

In Crete before very modern times–we’re talking right up to WWII here–mothers carefully sequestered their daughters from the men in their own families once the girls reached puberty.  The assmption seemed to be that men would nail anybody or anything if they got the chance, so it was important not to give them the chance. 

We’d call that wrong,  punishing the (prospective) victim instead of the (prospective) perpetrator, and it’s not the kind of rule I’m fond of myself, but it speaks to a deep and abiding conviction in all human societies at all times that sex is a dangerous thing, and that the sexuality of men is violent, volatile, unrustworthy and anarchic.

Controling that sexual behavior is an essential moral question.  Wheter we do it by sequestering women, establihing parietal hours, or running sex offender registers is a matter of strategy.

Nor do I think that it’s all that odd that so many people do not follow the moral rules they’ve been brought up with, even in societies where failing to follow them results in harsh penalities.

Genes are blindly driven to insure their survival and replication at any cost.  Morality addresses individual behavior in order to direct it away from radical selfishness and towards a concern for and recognition of others.

Moral precepts that insist we keep alive men and women who have passed their ability to reproduce are almost certainly reacting to something hardwired–respect for elders is something else that tends to exist almost universally in all societies. 

And the evolutionary advantage in that should be obvious–in a preliterate world, there’s a lot to know and no way to know it but acquiring it painfully and over a long period.  The Elders might not be able to have children, but they’ll enhance the ability of their grandchildren and your children to surrive to reproduce themselves by their knowledge of things like agriculture, hunting, cooking, and building shelters.

Obviously, strategies matter in another way, too–some of them are conducive to the advancement of civilization and technology, others seem to just mire themselves in an eternal present. 

But–just to throw a bombshell at the end here–there’s something else that has existed in all societies everywhere until the twentieth century.


Written by janeh

July 5th, 2009 at 7:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'On The Wings of a Wombat'

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  1. Charles Fort never mentioned wombats.

    Literature. Maybe short–“look how many different authors we’ve exposed them to”–but also moralizing. When I wasn’t thinking my English teachers obtuse or sadistic, I thought them patronizing. “Here are stories about young people just like yourselves who have to make Important Life Decisions. Author and teacher are standing by to tell you what the right answers are.”

    A friend retiring after 30 years in the middle school English business leads me to suspect there was less consistent planning than I supposed. Texts were changed in middle schools without any consideration of what was taught in elementary or would be taught in high school. Individual teachers or departments have motivations, but they may not survive committee compromises.

    And, of course, I still say “best of type” “most influential” “best to learn deep reading from” and “most insightful into culture” are not the same lists. If we had any agreement on why we continue to teach English once basic reading skills were mastered, there would be less trouble picking out a list.

    Morals: I mostly agree: a simple matter of objective and stratgem. But not all the things all societies must deal with are, in my mind, moral decisions–and a stratagem may be immoral. I might be able to “solve” the problem of hypersexed young men by drafting ten percent of the girls for temple prostitution, say–or solve male aggression with lethal gladiatorial combat. This is where tribal custom and morality diverge. To be right, it has to work, but not everything which works is right.


    5 Jul 09 at 12:01 pm

  2. I tried to post something, but it seems to have vanished. I shouldn’t try to do two or three things at once.

    Here’s someone who likes wombats. She’s written a comic in which the heroine is one:


    I was never assigned ‘The Turn of the Screw’ as an assigned school reading. If I had, I probably would have read it since I read all my school assignments up to ‘Maria Chapdelaine’ in French, which I never got through because I too such a strong dislike to the heroine.

    Sexual behaviour, like violence and (in settled societies) the transmission of property from generation to generation are all examples of problems that have had assorted solutions. Sometimes it’s been female sexuality that’s been seen as the dangerous, uncontrollable one – think of all those voracious and bawdy widows in old stories. Sometimes the female is the strong one – as in the Victorian tendency to consider women the ones who had to maintain propriety and moral tone in the family home, because men, poor creatures, were much more likely to be unable to restrain their natural urges. We could go on with examples. It’s still hard to justify one choice over the other with a moral argument *before* you have a moral code to go by.

    As for religion, I don’t have the slightest problem in believing that it is a vital part of human societies and that many – maybe most – people have an inborn tendency to practice it. It’s a certain subset of atheists to which I do not belong who appear to think that because they don’t feel any need for religious belief, no one does, and who can’t recognize that the same drive to belief and need for meaning that could be directed towards God is also directed instead towards everything from personal obsessions to UFOs, crystals, angels (take separately from any religious tradition) and political ideologies (including very violent ones). You can’t simply remove religion from society; the drives involved in it just pop up in other ways, often ones that are far more dangerous to public order.



    5 Jul 09 at 3:06 pm

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