Part four in a series. Read the first three parts here, here, and here, and the following two parts here and here.
This will be a briefer post, a mere aside in this series, but one important to grasping the extent of my case. If the whole series were a long essay, this would be an especially long footnote, which I should fight tooth and nail with the editor about, so as not to have it placed at the end. I would want it to disrupt the reader’s eye on the page.
I have been using literature to make my point, but the keen-eyed reader will have discerned that it is really a point about culture. I talk of “Beauty and the Beast” and Passengers; but the phenomenon under inspection—the tendency to interpret actions in an ugly way—plays as large a part in our day-to-day life as it does in literature.
Political scandals are an easy example. Cast your mind back, gentle reader (and strive with all your might to keep it gentle, since I will be asking you to look coolly on things that rightly provoke ire) over the past few months. Think about two infamous recordings whose speakers bore the rather absurd Christian names “Donald” and “Milo,” recordings of speeches which the speakers have not exactly disowned. Think (if you wish for something more innocent to fix in your mind’s ear) of a man named Mike who won’t eat dinner tête-à-tête without his wife.
I know what you’re thinking: Is Milo even a Christian name?
Research (by which I mean the internet) informs me that it possibly
derives from German or Slavic roots meaning gracious, mild, peaceful,
merciful, tender, etc. Alternatively (or perhaps simultaneously) it
appears to be associated with crushing until soft, i.e., tenderizing.
There may be a link to the Latin miles (foot soldier) as well. Make of
all that what you will. As for Donald …
In all three cases, there was outrage; in two of them at least, the outrage was understandable. In all of them, the outrage was complex. But I would suggest that all three episodes of media and social media phrenzy have one thing in common, one thing that they share with Pratt’s character in Passengers. In all three (or four) cases, someone was accused of making light of another’s autonomy: more precisely, of making light of their right to freely bestow or withhold consent to (for lack of a better adjective) romantic overtures.
Now it would be unfair and inconsistent with my last post to say that disrespect for autonomy is the last great sin in modern eyes. But, to use the language of that post: the last great pathology that moderns recognize—the only great modern pathology—is disrespect for autonomy.
There is truth in this liberal recognition of individualism: respect for the Other is right and just. Christianity mandates respect for the Other and (what is larger) Love of the Other, an activity which includes under its umbrella a great many seemingly contradictory things, some of them seemingly inimical to respect: fear for, fear of, passion, teasing, competition, flirtation, persuasion, tutelage, learning, discipline, obedience, … the list goes on. Some of these are appropriate to marriage, some to the parent-child relationship, some to friendship—the three great human loves. But most of these things have been denied across the board by modernity, castigated as uncivilized and even inhuman and certainly inhumane. Discipline and obedience no longer have place in parent-child love, competition no place in friendship, and flirtation no place in romance; for all of these things potentially threaten the autonomy of the Other. And so the Other, because he or she must be respected, ends by being merely respected, and stays emphatically Other. An overtures which would bring about a closer understanding between Self and Other are threats to the autonomy of the receiver. And in those rare cases where two people decide to risk such threats—whether they be glamorous young things hurtling through space in an imaginary fictional future, or a very real middle-aged and slightly hum-drum couple taking a whack at second-chance luck—well, for any couple that ends up turning from Self and Other into One, modernity is always left suspecting that whatever change of mind occurred can’t have been legitimate. Something fishy has happened; there was some slight of hand that escaped the audience’s eye. Two can’t become one unless one of the two is consumed.
This, of course, is the logic of Uncle Screwtape or, to put it more bluntly, the logic of Hell.
It is only fair to add (in defense of suspicious modernity) that the haplessly-borrowed logic is logical. True symbiotes are rare in the natural order, almost rare enough for human instances (involving so much more sensitivity and complexity than plants and animals) to be called miraculous. Perhaps this was part of the reason why the ancients, although they did not join modernity in denying the existence of Love, did call Love a madness, and sometimes a god. If one wished to make a Chestertonian trifecta of it, one might almost say that for the ancients, the great tragedy was to have loved, whereas for the Christian the great tragedy is not to have loved, or not to have loved enough. I suspect the modern no longer sees matters on the individual level as great tragedies at all. If they did—if they do?—they would certainly not ascribe to the Christian position.