Note: This is part of a series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Robert Reilly’s Making Gay Okay. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.
Now we’re (finally) getting into Esolen’s text. The book is divided not into chapters, but into twelve “arguments” against gay marriage, most of which take off from a reading of some classic piece of literature or art.
Esolen begins his first argument, “We Must Not Give the Sexual Revolution the Force of Irrevocable Law,” by recounting a scene from Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. In it, the king Polixenes, who has heard that his son Doricles is in love with the shepherdess Perdita, disguises himself to spy on the couple as they dance at a rustic festival. Though the king expects to discover that Perdita is unworthy, that she’s conniving the prince or that the prince’s “love” for her is either lust or foolishness, instead he sees the couple dancing and is utterly charmed by their innocence. His cynicism melts away.
Esolen is trying to show us that we’ve lost that cultural innocence, which he contrasts to the (fact-challenged) scene from Woodstock that we discussed in our last post. He blames this loss on, of course, the Sexual Revolution, and argues that gay marriage is the logical conclusion and irrevocable seal of that revolution. And to illustrate his point further, he gives us one more contrast, this time between a young woman in a hospital room awaiting an abortion and, again, his parents marriage, this time giving us a moving account of his father’s last moments.
Before I get into the meat of my contention with this chapter, a few quick points:
1. These aren’t really arguments.
Part of my struggle in responding to these “arguments” is that they’re not really arguments at all. They lack structure and coherence and, (as we’ve already noted) Esolen actively disdains evidence. Instead these twelve “arguments” are meditations, essays, in the sense that the word essay comes from the french verb to try. These are twelve attempts, tries, to find an argument. So they meander.
That’s not necessarily bad. In fact, this type of essay often makes for my favorite reading. But it mixes poorly with Esolen’s certitude—as I’ve written, every sentence he writes feels like it’s meant to be proclaimed while pounding on a table. Is it possible to meander emphatically? To wander around full speed ahead? Because that’s what’s happening in this book.
That’s a problem when Esolen’s writes about something on which he clearly has no idea, like the causes of homosexuality. But it’s almost as bad when Esolen focuses on his areas of expertise, like literature. Because he writes so fast and furious, so emphatically, that he makes all kinds of careless statements that don’t hold up to even a moment of thinking.
2. Shakespeare say what?
To wit: here are a couple of minor points that really need to be addressed.
Esolen writes, “The works of Shakespeare are filled with bawdy humor, yet he always holds up for our admiration the virtue of purity, and he never leaves unpunished sins against marriage and the family, whether they occur before or after the wedding.”
Shakespeare never leaves unpunished premarital or extramarital sex? Off the top of my head, Bottom spends the night in Titania’s bower in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I don’t see how either one is punished for that. And Rosalind, from As You Like It, suggests that Oliver and Celia are “incontinent” before their wedding. Esolen will quote As You Like It later in the book, so he’s probably aware of that.
And that comes a page or two after Esolen writes this:
If it were a modern playwright and not Shakespeare directing this scene from The Winter’s Tale, we would be treated with stale jests about how Doricles is attempting to get the girl Perdita into bed, or how Perdita, like the cunning husband-huntress in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is playing her cards right, leading the boy on little by little until she finally hooks him with a ferocious night of fornication.
Huh? Like Shakespeare never makes cynical jokes about boys trying to get girls into bed? And like Shakespeare never jokes about cunning spouse-hunters? What else is Petruccio in The Taming of the Shrew? In his first scene in that play, he says he has come “to wive it wealthily in Padua,” and he doesn’t care if she be “as foul as was Florentius’ love, / as old as Sibyl, and as curst and shrewd / as Socrates’ Xanthippe or worse.”
In fairness, though, Petruccio doesn’t “hook” Kate with a night of fornication. He just carries her off against her will. So point for sixteenth-century sexual morality, I guess.
Also, that’s not what happens at all in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But, once again, forget it—he’s rolling.
[I have a feeling I’m going to wear out this clip before this series is over.]
Okay, on to my point. And, as promised, a story.
This is isn’t really Doricles & Perdita’s chapter. Instead, Esolen takes our focus off of the couple at the center of the scene, and points us to the outsider observing them. “In fact,” he writes, “what makes this particular scene so powerful is precisely the tension between what the spying king wants to believe—that his son is a deceitful fool and the girl a conniving hussy—and what the playwright actually presents to us, a scene of incomparable youth and beauty, radiating forth from the goodness and innocence of the boy and girl in love.”
That tension is what Esolen wants us to see in throughout his book: the contrast of the cynical, “jealous” father and the beautiful, wholesome young couple. “The jaundiced man,” he writes, “sees the whole world through the sour yellow of his own disposition.”
Though Shakespeare’s king eventually recognizes the beauty of the moment, Esolen argues that this recognition is beyond us moderns. The sexual revolution, he says, “has scorched us all,” made us all into that jealous man, unable to see the beauty in Shakespeare’s scene.
Does that strike you as odd? It does me. I’ve never had trouble seeing the beauty in that scene, or scenes like it. It sings to me as surely as it sings to Esolen.
But then, maybe that’s because there’s nothing in the scene to make me jealous. I found someone as lovely and good as Perdita, and I can look at our wedding pictures and see that radiance. It warms me, sure, but I don’t feel scorched.
So, fine. He’s not writing about me. But then who does Esolen want to put in the king’s place?
Let’s keep reading:
The first reaction of the lust-corrupted to something like the dance of Doricles and Perdita is wistful longing for something lost, for the virtue that he sees, but no longer possesses. Next comes a disconcerting incomprehension—what can this be? Next comes belittlement, a deliberate attempt to tear the good thing down, to reveal what is ‘really’ beneath, a reality that is as sordid and base as the imagination of the would-be exposer. Last comes sheer boredom. It doesn’t take long to reach that final state. It didn’t take long after the sexual revolution. What good was marriage?
Oh. That’s who hates Doricles and Perdita. The lust-corrupted.
And who are the lust-corrupted?
Well, there’s Satan, whom he later describes in a scene from Paradise Lost “leering” at Adam and Eve from the bushes, “attracted to what he sees despite himself, and hating it all the more because it is innocent, and it is love.”
Then, of course, there are gay people.
Esolen repeatedly depicts gay people as jealous observers of straight life. In Chapter 8, he’ll tell us that gays envy heterosexual children, who are “crossing the very gulf that the homosexuals have not managed to cross, and sometimes not dared to cross.” In Chapter 10, he’ll tell us gay people are trying to “visit a crisis of identity upon every child in our society.” Why? Because “the intention of many homosexual activists, whose revenge upon the children who were once cruel or indifferent to them is to afflict other children with doubts, to make them endure the questions they themselves endured.”
In Esolen’s telling, gays are always the envious guests at the good feast or the wedding. Always seething on the sideline, like Satan in the bushes.
If you’ll indulge me, let’s go back my wedding.
I’ve written before that H and I were just kids when we married, and we didn’t really know what we were doing when we planned our wedding. In the pictures from that day, my haircut looks a little silly, and my suit is too boxy. We didn’t have all the style right. Well, I didn’t—my wife looked perfect. Still, though we hadn’t thought enough about marriage and family, its whys or hows, we stumbled our way to doing it right, to making our wedding everything that Esolen says a wedding is supposed to be. That is, we managed to put together a wedding that reflected not us but the people and places that mattered to us: it was a wedding about our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our communities.
My favorite example of this is the music that we chose. We hired a western swing band that we had first seen at the Gypsy Tea Room in Dallas on New Year’s Eve 1998 opening for our favorite alt-country group.
If you’re not familiar with western swing, it’s a music form developed in the 1930s and 1940s in Texas and Oklahoma, a mix of jazz and country, and you can hear in it the early strains of the first rockabilly music. We knew it would appeal to H’s Texan family and neighbors, and to the musicians and jazz fans in my dad’s family, and to our friends, too, who were making the drive up from Austin. As soon as we started planning our wedding we thought of this band, and we spent more than half of our wedding budget to secure them—which is not to say they were expensive, since we were two broke kids and our overall budget was small.
It was the right choice. In the Land of Marriage, Esolen writes, “People like to go dancing, too, and that is for young and old, and the youngsters look on and shout their approval and clap their hands as grandma and grandpa show them what it really means to trip the light fantastic.” That’s literally what happened at our wedding—just about everyone who was there remembers H’s Grandma and Grandpa, married more than fifty years then, taking the floor before anyone else and showing us all how it’s done.
That’s our family’s best memory of that day, and it’s not about us at all. Which is how it should be. Or rather, a wedding is about the couple only insofar as the couple reflects the people—and the land—that made them who they are they are.
In my favorite picture from our wedding, of the moment when I finally got to kiss the bride, what really makes the scene is the reaction on the faces of everyone around us. And the person with the biggest smile in that picture is my wife’s maid of honor. Her sister.
I’ve mentioned my sister-in-law before on this blog—she’s my wife’s best friend, the first person she calls with good or bad news. And while I’ve lost contact with some of the friends from my wedding, few people have played a bigger part in my family’s life than my sister-in-law. She’s opened her house to us over and over again. She was the first person in the room after our daughter was born and she, and her wife, gifted us so many boxes of diapers that we didn’t have to buy any for our daughter’s whole first year.
What does it do to Esolen’s point if the gay person at the wedding isn’t out to destroy anything? If she’s not envious or rotten? What does it do if she’s just as idealistic and good as the couple saying their vows? What if she’s just as capable of self-sacrifice and commitment? What if she’s not seething at the margins of the feast, but right there in the center, leading the celebration?
I think it makes Esolen’s argument beyond wrong: I think it makes it ridiculous.
You know what? Let’s take if further: what does it do to Esolen’s argument if the gay person isn’t at the margin at all, but instead the community is circling around her, celebrating the virtue they see (because it’s plain as day) in her love for her new wife?
My sister-in-law’s wedding happened eleven years after ours, and it was a very different event. In the first place, she couldn’t do it in her home state. So instead of a sunny Texas afternoon, she got married on a crisp night in New York City. Instead of taking place in the backyard where she and my wife played My Little Ponies as girls, it happened in the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station. Instead of eating fajitas under an oak tree, we ate in a dining room at the Standard Hotel.
But it was the same: it was two families coming together in the formation of a new family; it was about them and about us, and about the ways they relate to us.
All of this became clear when the all-female mariachi troupe poured into our dining room and surrounded our table. My sister-in-law had hired them as a surprise for her new wife, but they were for all of us, her guests, too. We were two families from border states, Texas and California, and so the music brought an instant familiarity, an instant note of home, and an instant connection across generations and between our previously separate families.
It was what happened with the music at our wedding, and it was an incredible gesture on my sister-in-law’s part. I mean, who’s ever heard of surprise mariachis? But it was also an incredibly meaningful gesture. And the meaning in that gesture is precisely what someone like Esolen, sulking around outside of the feast, is refusing to see.