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Really Wandering Around in the Fog Here…

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Okay, let me see if I can frame this in a way that it sounds coherent.

I am working out the characters–and eventually the plot–in a new Gregor Demarkian.  This is not the Demarkian that will come out next year, which has already been written, but the one for the year after that.

This new one begins with an on-and-off continuing character, an extern sister in a cloistered Carmelite convent who left a partnership in a prestigious old money Philadelphia law firm to become a religious. 

For those of you who know little or nothing about Catholic religious orders–nuns in a cloistered convent do not come out into the world at all, ever.  They even receive vistors behind a grille, so that they cannot be seen, and when they have to travel, they wear what are called “exclaustration veils” that cover their faces, as well as what are usually (even these days) fairly elaborate habits.  A number of cloistered orders still wear full habits, as does the Carmelite house where my character lives.

(An addendum here–technically, only cloistered nuns are actually “nuns,” sincel only cloistered nuns take what are known as solemn vows.  The teaching sisters you remember from school, the nursing sisters you remember from the local Catholic hospital, are what are called “religious sisters,” and take only simple vows.)

Anyway, an extern sister, like my character, is a religious sister and not a nun proper, and she takes only simple vows–because somebody has to.  Cloistered religious orders do a lot more than you think–most of them run small businesses of various kinds, some of them even farm, and all of them need somebody who can deal with the outside world.

Thus:  extern sisters, who, taking only simple vows, can go off and get the shopping and the shipping down, run the gift shop, and all the rest of it.

So, my semi-continuing character is an extern sister at this Carmelite monastery (all cloistered convents are called monasteries, even though there are only women in them), and she used to be a lawyer in this big firm.

And one day, she’s visited by a woman she knew, a lawyer at the same firm, and the kind of strident-hysterical atheist who seems not so much to have rejected religion as to have reacted to something much deeper psychologically and then gone completely off the deep end.

And then, you know, soon after that, the woman ends up–well, never mind.  You can read the book when it comes out.  Knock wood.

BUT–and here’s the thing that was getting me today:  when and why did it become the norm for intellectuals to be nonbelievers?

I don’t really feel like deconstructing the patently bogus claim that “intelligent” people don’t believe in God, because it obviously isn’t true even of this century, never mind of earlier ones.  Augustine, Aquinas, Graham Greene, James Schall…I can name lots of very intelligent people who are highly committed Catholics.  I’m a little sketchier on Protestants, but I’m fairly sure I could find some intelligent people there, too.

And it certainly hasn’t always been the case–Yvor Winters’ very intellectual work made him a believer in God, although not a Christian.  And if you look at every part of every century in the West up until the last half of the 20th, there have been plenty of intellectuals who were believers as well as plenty of the other kind.

And, I suppose, we have some intellectuals even in this period who have been or are believers–William F. Buckley comes to mind–but the fact is that the pairing of intellectual vocation and professed unbelief has become so common as now to constitute a cliche.

Someone like Hilton Kramer would say–if you don’t know Kramer, go check in at The New Criterion–that intellectuals are always religious, but the religion of modern intellectuals is some form of Marxism.  Okay, Kramer might come right out and call it Stalinism. 

And I tend to side with the people who find Marxism to be a religion–to function as a religion, may be the better way to put it–in spite of its protestations of scientific foundations. 

But then, I know a fair number of people who use science as a form of religion.  I’m putting this badly.  But I still can’t get over the guy on the Internet forum I sometimes post on who excoriates the mindless conformity of religious believers while declaring that he knows evolution is true even though he doesn’t understand it, because it’s “science.”

I want to skip, for the moment, the conjecture that religion never really goes away.  When we deny it, most of us–and maybe especially those of us whose vocation is one kind of intellectual work or another–simply find something else that does the same thing on the front that is really necessary to us:  exegesis and interpretation.

I don’t think it’s an accident that so many first class names in the academic Humanities have been either Catholics or Jews, because in both Catholicism and Judaism there is a tradition of the close reading of texts (scripture) and the importance of disputing about them and interpreting them.  Which is, after all, what a decent literary scholar does.

So, yes, I do think that there is something there, a habit of mind, that almost compels academics in the Humanities towards religious-like thinking, if not towards religion itself.

But the puzzle gets deeper, because if there is something the standard academic Humanist is not it is, well, how to put this?  Highly sexed.

That’s an ancient construction there.  I’m dating myself.

The thing is undeniable, however, that the concentration of so much “rebellion” and of almost all intellectual “rebellion” since the Sixties has been sex, and that in spite of the fact that the people doing most of the hyperventilating about it are the people least likely to be having much of it–middle-aged and getting to be geriatric, sedentary, nebbishy academics…

Okay.  It’s a cliche.  But it’s true.

I sort of get the sexual rebellion of the Sixties.  At eighteen, your mind is basically in your biology, and that’s evolution.  I even get the oversexed mania of much modern youth culture.  At eighteen, once again–yes, okay.

But most of us grow out of that after a while.  We get older.  We find reliable partners, so that sex is no longer a matter of not being able to get any when our bodies really want it.  And our bodies calm down.  We have children.  We go on to other things.

Modonna hasn’t gone on to other things because she makes millions of dollars sticking with the freak show.  It’s not so clear to me why the average literary deconstructionist is still fixated on all things genital. 

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that a large part of the reaction against traditional religion in academia is really a reaction to the idea of a cultural climate that would not allow full, flagrant, unjudged access to any and all kinds of sex for anybody at all at all times and under virtually all circumstances–some of the male versions of this won’t even completely condemn rape–no matter what.

And if what I was looking at here was a group of people who were having orgies every night and a quickie every afternoon in the faculty bathroom, I could see it.  But in general, that is not what is going on here.  The middle-aged nebbishes live as all of us middle-aged nebbishes do–they are no more interested in running around screwing everything that moves than their religious counterparts are.  They’re just interested in defending the running around.

The question is–why?  If there’s one thing you learn growing older, it’s that the mania for sex of your adolescence was not terribly good for you, and not terribly interesting, and you’re a lot better of putting sex in perspective and getting some work done.  And I know these people have in fact come to the same conclusion on a practical basis, even if their theory is very different.  If they hadn’t come to some such conclusion, they’d never have finished their dissertations and gotten tenure. 

And certainly there is no necessary connection.  The most flagrantly public of the New Atheists don’t seem to be this fixated on sex, or much concerned with it at all.  Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens and Dennett are not writing passionate defenses of having multiple anonymous partners while wearing a chicken suit.

Somewhere here, there’s a connection I can’t quite make, although–if my screwing around witha first draft of this thing is any indication–I do seem to be able to write it.

(And there’s a question for you–why is it I do in fact understand how someone like a Nurse Ratchett works but I can’t write from inside her head, but I don’t understand this and yet I seem to be able to write from inside this head just fine?)

Anyway, there I am.  It’s not too coherent, but it’s what’s on my mind lately.

In case you want to know, I’m reading Hilton Kramer’s The Twilight of the Intellectuals:  Culture and Politics in the Era of the Cold War, and I’m probably going to follow it by reading Whittaker Chambers’ Witness.

But I don’t know.  The week-end’s coming up, and I’ve got Agatha Christie.

Written by janeh

October 22nd, 2009 at 9:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Really Wandering Around in the Fog Here…'

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  1. I think the common thread you’re looking for may be “I want what I want when I want it.” Pure selfishness. Both social constraints against free-range sexuality and religious prohibitions against same restrict unbridled gratification of needs, and so must be rejected.

    If you look more closely, you’ll find it in the desire for more and more social programs without higher taxes (hah!), the wish not to be offended in any way by other people’s opinions or beliefs, and the willingness to indulge in cellphone conversations anywhere, anytime, completely disregarding anyone else’s need not to listen to details about your colonoscopy, in living color.

    Even if someone is middle aged and nebbishy, they still agitate for atheism and sex Sex SEX! because who knows…you might get an urge. Heaven forfend you might not be able to indulge it. Immediately.

    People used to mourn the death of chivalry. I mourn the death of delayed gratification.


    22 Oct 09 at 12:32 pm

  2. I’ve got to wait two years for that book? Darn!

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of the individual and how a lot of modern thinking has taken the idea of the importance of each individual and removed the restraints that custom and religion put on it – all the rules that say you can’t (or shouldn’t) use your right to be an individual to get out of meeting a bunch of people you didn’t choose every week. Or to ignore the wants of people more senior than you – within and outside the family. Or to ignore the claims of people on your level – your siblings, spouse and co-workers. And suddenly, you’re talking about applying freedom without brakes, personal control of one’s person unaffected by anything outside the person. You’re in the driver’s seat, whether it’s a case of a social rule about how you spend some of your spare time, whether you or your parents choose your career and whether you really should stick with your spouse when you’re sure someone else would serve your personal needs so much better.

    So when you’re talking about sex, you’re talking about your own personal satisfaction, first and foremost, and your own ability to control when and how you get it. And sex is a great thing to use as a way to exercise your ideas about the freedom and importance of the individual, because no one gets quite as excited about the freedom to stay up late at night or read lots of books as they do about the freedom to have lots of sex partners. Especially at the age most people seem to make up their minds about this sort of thing. And the pattern is set, and remains throughout life. People think of sex in terms of liberty and the rights of the individual. And if they’ve had a smattering of psychology, they probably believe all kinds of Freudian things about sex and think you can only be emotionally and physically healthy if you have lots of it. There’s no reason for them to change any of this just because they themselves lead a very quiet and conventional sex life especially because if they admit that maybe their views on sex could change, they might have to admit that their views on human nature and the role of the individual in society would have to change too.

    And I’d like to say something about the unpopularity of religion among intellectuals, but I don’t have time. Well, except to say it’s kind of like a Quebec intellectual NOT being a left-wing separatiste. You can’t do it. You’d never be accepted into the club. You’ve GOT to have the right beliefs to be accepted as members of a group, and this particularly applies to the groups that call themselves ‘inclusive’ and claim that they accept all beliefs.


    22 Oct 09 at 12:34 pm

  3. Sex for self-gratification reasons is not really popular with Christian religions. I won’t speak for other religions because I really don’t know what they teach. The strident atheists I know are rebelling against the restraints of their religious upbringing. They see the ‘evil’ in all things Christian. I suspect the support of sexual freedom has much to do with the denial that anything suppressed by Christianity could be actually bad in some way.

    I do think it is popular today for intellectuals to profess a disbelief in God. However, some of the intellectuals I know are simply rejecting religion, not God. When pressed they can’t articulate a world in which there is no one to pray to, no one to shift the balance, no afterlife (that great pool of consciousness). For me, the realization that there is no God included the realization that the soul does not exist, or, if it does, as Epicurus argues, it is simply a material thing that dies with the body. I’m a hard core materialist. It doesn’t bother me at all that other people, my husband included, believe in God. If that belief provides comfort, go for it; if a belief provides pain, time to switch up the belief.


    22 Oct 09 at 1:01 pm

  4. Lymaree said things better and shorter than I did.

    Gail – some people, perhaps many, believe in a god that is non-personal – I’ve heard it described in many ways. Believers still have no one to pray to, no one to ‘shift the balance’, often no afterlife, or at least not one as an individual…I never saw the point much, myself, to that approach, but it seems fairly popular among those who can’t get past the difficulties with a personal God, and yet have some sense of the numinous.

    I’ve also heard from a lot of people who gave up religion, but not God (or god, depending…). That doesn’t make much sense to me either, since religions are basically ways of approaching to God; histories of how God was approached and traditions and structures intended to support worship.

    But it would be a boring world if we were all the same.


    22 Oct 09 at 1:16 pm

  5. I have long thought that many people are treating science as a religion. “Science has the answers” or “Science will find the answers.”

    The following is my reaction to science as a religion. I thought it was to incendiary to post but Jane has asked me to post it so …

    In the beginning was the Void
    And in the Void were the spirits of Quantum Mechanics (QM) and General Relativity (GR)
    And QM and GR looked on the Void and saw that it was empty
    And they said “Let there be a Big Bang”
    And lo, there was a Big Bang

    They looked upon the Big Bang and saw that it was shapeless
    And they said “Let there be Entropy and Stellar Evolution”
    And the angels of Entropy and Stellar Evolution came into being.

    The angels of Entropy and Stellar Evolution produced Carbon and Oxygen and Nitrogen
    And the spirits of QM and GR looked upon the works of Entropy and Stellar Evolution and saw that it was lifeless.
    And the spirits said “Let there be Biological Evolution”
    and the angel of Biological Evolution came into being and produced Life.

    Then the spirits of QM and GR looked upon the works of Entropy and Stellar Evolution and Biological Evolution and saw that they were good
    And the spirits went to sleep.


    22 Oct 09 at 5:04 pm

  6. This is not substantiated by expert scholarship and for a librarian who is stating an educated (supposedly) opinion, that is not a good thing (always list your sources.) Regarding the idea that religious people (or believers in a supreme being) are less intelligent: could that perception have begun with the renaissance? That there was something worth contemplating besides God and the church. Was this the start of modern atheism and over the centuries and certainly after Darwin, did people who considered themselves intellectuals feel that believing in God was equal to not thinking and that believers were unintelligent? I’m asking here. I do know that T.S. Eliot converted to the Anglican church five years after he wrote “The Wasteland.” And, there is a man who teaches or taught at a university in Alabama–Wayne Flint–who is BAPTIST and quite intelligent and has written about poverty and working class southerners. And, no, moderate Baptist is really not an oxymoron.
    As far as academics, particularly middle aged ones, having little interest in sex, I think it’s a been there, done that kind of thing. Fundamentalists, especially, it seems, televangelists, gravitate toward extramarital sex, mostly, I think because it is frowned on. Always want what you can’t (or shouldn’t) have.
    Anyway, that’s one opinion.


    22 Oct 09 at 7:59 pm

  7. Agatha Christie for the weekend sounds divine. I’m simply hoping for a break in the midwestern monsoon season we seem to be enjoying to get out and pick pumpkins. Terribly plebian perhaps, but equally divine.

    Regarding your question, however, you might check out John Paul the Great’s Theology of the Body. And while his encyclical is a beautiful work, it does make for some heavy reading. Personally, I have found Christopher West’s “Theology of the Body For Beginners” and “The Good News About Sex and Marriage.” I know he has a website with several articles as well. Perhaps something there will fill in one of the gaps?

    Looking forward to the newest book!
    Jane Marcoux


    22 Oct 09 at 11:22 pm

  8. I think what you’re looking at is a struggle for moral authority–which, like power and prestige, is pretty well a zero-sum game. If you disagree with a religion over facts–well, facts are what they are, and one is either right about a particular fact and its interpretation or not. But morality is an area more suitable for being “wrong at the top of your lungs.”
    I refuse to spend serious time on 20th Century intellectual history, but I suspect that’s the argument for which sex is merely a proxy, and the point of intellectual atheism: when intellectuals went from wishing to know and understand to wishing to be a source of moral authority, the Competition had to go.


    23 Oct 09 at 4:57 am

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