Virtue, Luck, Mental Health, and Pedophilia

Marble, Feet, Legs, Hands, Limbs, Art, Sculpture, Stone

In All the King’s Men, there is a tender scene where teenage Jack Burden and Anne Stanton find themselves alone in the house after a rainstorm and almost, but not quite, make love for the first time.  For some reason he can’t explain, Jack can’t go through with it, because it doesn’t seem right somehow.  Then his mother comes home unexpectedly, and he doesn’t get a chance to change his mind.  In retrospect, though, Jack decides that it was his great virtue that prevented them from sleeping together:

I suddenly had the feeling of great wisdom: I had acted rightly and wisely….And so my luck became my wisdom…and then later my wisdom became my nobility, for in the end, a long time after, I got the notion that I had acted out of nobility….and frequently, late at night or after a few drinks, thought better of myself for remembering my behavior on that occasion.  (p. 447)

This really hit home for me; how many actions or decisions do I pride myself on, thinking they were a result of virtue, when actually they were just a result of luck, or my natural inclination, or my particular psychology?

It is only at the end of the book, when Jack has come to forgive his father for betraying the trust everyone had in his spotless virtue, that he realizes the corollary to this principle: not only can virtue really just be luck or disinclination, but vice can actually be the result of an excess or perversion of virtuous intentions.  “A man’s virtue may be but the defect of his desire, as his crime may be but a function of his virtue.” (p. 660)

I’ve always loved this quote, and recently I realized that it’s very similar to something C.S. Lewis says in the preface of Mere Christianity:

No man, I suppose, is tempted to every sin.  It so happens that the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.

He goes on to point out that God judges us, not by our outward nature–our inclination either to “niceness” or “nastiness” of character–but by what we freely choose to do with the personality we’ve been given:

If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are quite likely to be satisfied with your character as it is….You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper….You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing….it is hard for those who are ‘rich’ in this sense to enter the Kingdom….But if you are a poor creature–poisoned by a wretched upbringing in some house full of vulgar jealousies and senseless quarrels–saddled, by no choice of your own, with some loathsome sexual perversion–nagged day in and day out by an inferiority complex  that makes you snap at your best friends–do not despair.  [God] knows all about it.  You are one of the poor whom He blessed.  He knows what a wretched machine you are trying to drive.  Keep on.  Do what you can.” (Book 4, Ch. 10)

Let’s talk about “those wretched creatures” who have to deal with something much more seriously consuming than an inclination to anger or vanity: sexual disorders.  It’s really upsetting to see how many Christians don’t realize that same-sex attraction is an inclination, not a sin in itself; that God (and the Church) does not judge anyone for bad inclinations, but only for acting on those inclinations.  Same-sex attraction is like any other inclination or temptation; something you did not choose for yourself, but which you have the responsibility to conquer.  And here is something I’ve only realized recently: the same is true of pedophilia.  I recently came across a heartbreaking website called Virtuous Pedophiles, which functions as a support group for people with pedophiliac inclinations who find themselves alone in their struggle to stay chaste.  The intention of the website is not only to function as a support group, but to spread awareness of this horrible struggle; to teach non-pedophiles that pedophiliac urges themselves are not sins or crimes, because, like other temptations, they are beyond our control.  Understanding this is the key to helping pedophiles resist temptation and keep children safe; because only if we understand that there is such a thing as a “virtuous pedophile” will we be motivated to give him the help he needs.  As it stands now, most people would recoil if someone confessed pedophiliac urges to them, and many therapists would feel obligated to report them to the police as potential molesters.  How can pedophiles get the moral support and psychological help they need, if we act as if temptations and urges that appear unwanted in their minds are just as bad as actual molestation?

God help those of us who were blessed with healthy psyches, to not attribute our luck to virtue; and God help those who, as my husband pointed out, were saddled with bad self-esteem and attribute their bad luck to moral shortcomings.  Most of all, God help those of us with really “wretched machines” to work with, who need help and prayer more than anyone.

P.S. As I was writing this, I discovered a wonderful post about “Virtue Privilege,” where the author discusses the ways in which virtue without empathy can lead to a lack of mercy.  Here is my favorite part:

Only when we learn to differentiate between the accidents of our birth and upbringing and the truly universal will we find grounds for communion with one another. While I may not be tempted to the things that tempt you, I know what it is to be tempted. While my suffering has different causes and effects than yours, I do know what it is to suffer. Whatever our advantages, we know, or should know, all too well how easily we fall prey to our own pet vices. We need not be able to imagine how a woman could believe herself to be doing good while working in an abortion clinic—we need only be able to remember how often we ourselves have been tempted to ignore or deny a “lesser evil” out of disordered but sincere love for something or someone.

Advertisements

Books, Books, Books!

Book, Read, Relax, Lilac, Bank, Old, Book Pages, Rest

Sorry for my long absence!  It’s birthday season here–3 in the last 2 weeks and one more coming up.  Here’s a fun questionnaire, found on The Anchoress, to help me get back into the groove.

1. Most treasured childhood books

      • anything by Edward Eager, especially the hilarious Half Magic, which explores what would happen if four very realistic children found a magic talisman that answered only half their wishes, in unexpected ways–what’s half of wishing to be a medieval knight?  what’s half of a desert island? what’s half of wishing you belonged to a different family?
      • almost anything by John R. Tunis, especially The Kid from Tomkinsville and its sequels.  I loved the baseball action, the larger-than-life characters, and the 50’s slang.  This is great Americana and great character-building literature for kids, while still being a fun read.  A few of my favorites–Keystone Kids, about anti-semitism on the baseball diamond, and Highpockets, about a self-centered star who learns humility, are pretty heavy-handed, but they’re such enjoyable reads that I didn’t mind at all.
      • The All-of-a-Kind Family series is a funny and realistic portrait of a Jewish family in WWI-era New York City that manages to handle things like the family’s friendship with their Irish Catholic neighbors, the oldest daughter’s boyfriend going off to war, and the parents’ struggles to shield their children from the disappointments of poverty, without being preachy or heavy-handed.  A delicate, loving, and tear-jerking portrayal of a close family.

2. Classics you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never read

  • Anything by Dostoevsky except Crime and Punishment.  Blah.  I hate Raskolnikov.  Who needs the grief.
  • Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and all those depressing high school books.  Again, who needs it?

3. Classics you read, but hated

  • The Scarlet Letter.  I hated every single character, especially Dimmesdale.
  • Anything by Faulkner.  Depressing, gross, barely intelligible sometimes.  But hey, it’s Southern Lit, so it’s cool.
  • Walker Percy.  I hate him.  He reads like a preachy, bombastic, second-rate Michael Crichton.  No offense to Michael Crichton.

4. Favorite light reading

  • P.G. Wodehouse–the Jeeves and Wooster novels, of course, but also a fantastic little short novel that’s lesser know, which I’ve read a dozen times: Quick Service.
  • Dave Barry, natch.
  • Hester Browne’s The Little Lady Agency and sequels.  (Thanks to Laura’s recommendation, I let my kids totally trash the house with paint one day because I couldn’t put this book down.)  This is a romantic comedy with a pretty original premise–a woman who’s smart, organized, and efficient, but who can’t seem to find the confidence to stop being a doormat, puts on a wig and adopts the identity of Honey, the “little lady” that every bachelor needs in his life to give him a wardrobe makeover, a crash course in small talk, an escort to an awkward party, or a gift-shopping expert.  I enjoyed the concept and the humor, but also Browne’s writing, which is a head above your normal chick lit; she’s obviously very well-read and capable of writing something more serious.  I also enjoyed her take on Americans (she’s British).

5. Favorite heavy reading

  • Father Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth.  So wonderful, and much more accessible than I was expecting, but still a slow read.  I can’t believe that he actually wrote two more while I was still slogging through the first one.

6. Last book you finished

7. Last book you bailed on

8. Three books on your nightstand

  • Eifelheim by Michael Flynn.  I got bogged down in the middle, but I’m really hoping to finish and review this marvel.
  • yikes, that’s about it.  I’m in a re-reading, skimming, light reading mood these days.

9. Book(s) you’ve read over and over again

  • Jurassic Park.  I just enjoy the characters, the writing, and the ridiculous philosophical rants so much.

10. Book(s) that changed the way you look at life.

  • The whole Space Trilogy, but Perelandra in particular, taught me so much about temptation, about sin and holiness, and about an ordinary sinful person’s role in God’s plan.
  • Tolstoy’s Fables taught me things about love that I constantly need to remind myself of when things get unnecessarily complicated inside my head.
  • Madame Bovary taught me a lot about being honest and realistic with yourself.

11. Books you plan to read this year

  • Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.  I love Norse mythology, and I’ve heard so much about this book.  I’ve been waiting until I feel emotionally stable enough.
  • A history of India, and hopefully a few books that will remedy my shocking ignorance of Native American and Inuit culture, without making me cry.

12. Desert island book

  • All the King’s Men.  It’s not perfect, but I’m thinking you can find about 50% of everything you need to know about life in this book.  Gut-punching, lyrical writing, over-the-top but too-close-to-home characters, soaring themes made flesh.

I’ve skipped some of the categories that didn’t mean much to me, and left out things like the Bible, because that goes without saying.  I’d love to hear your answers!

 

 

MacDonald, Tey, Waugh, and Warren for your Pleasure

The book I’m reading on fiction-writing (Writing Fiction, from the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, which is wonderful so far) cautions against getting too enamored of your own writing: “Be particularly careful of language that’s so beautiful you notice it just for that.  Always ask yourself: Does the description interrupt the flow of the story?”  The point about flow is a good one–I always get bogged down in long descriptions, and my suspension of disbelief is broken.  But I personally don’t mind stopping to notice a gorgeous metaphor or description.  If it’s done well, it can serve its purpose in developing a character or plot while still giving you a little gift of good writing to enjoy.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Robert Penn Warren’s descriptions are a joy to read, but he definitely doesn’t reign it in as often as he should. Here’s a nice succinct one that I always remember after eating a huge home-cooked meal:

I had just managed to get down the last spoonful of chocolate ice cream, which I had had to tamp down into my gullet like concrete in a posthole…  (All the King’s Men, p. 52)

 

  • Here’s one from an author I’ve recently discovered: Josephine Tey.  She’s a mystery writer with a talent for creating devastatingly accurate and sympathetic characters.  Here’s a description of Miss Pym’s inner dialogue from Miss Pym Disposes:

Sitting there so calm and beautiful and all wrong inside.  What does she remind you of?  One of those brilliant things that grow in the woods, isn’t it?  One of those apparently perfect things that collapse into dust at a touch because they are hollow inside. (p.169)

 

Miedo-ajeno.jpg

  • It’s been a long time since I’ve read Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and I need to read it again; but this image of Julia has always stuck in my mind:

The diamonds flashed in her hair and on her fingers, but her hands were nervously rolling little balls of crumb, and her starry head drooped in despair. (p. 230)

 

File:Humphrey Bogart 1940.jpg

  • Finally, the heartbreaking work of Ross Macdonald.  He writes mysteries, the kind that get made into film noirs starring people like Humphrey Bogart.  He reminds me of Raymond Chandler, but to my mind his characters are more real and sympathetic, and he takes the gritty cheesiness of the “hard-boiled” mystery and turns it into real literature.  A few quick examples, which he seems to pepper his work with effortlessly:

“Her face was granite in whose crevices her eyes were like live things caught.”  (from the short story “Guilt Edged Blonde”)

“She woke and struggled up on her arms like Lazarus, looking at me out of underground eyes.”  (The Wycherly Woman, p. 94)

His blonde good looks were spoiled by a small goatee which wagged on his chin like an unfinished piece of face. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 63)

Outside, the offshore wind was rising.  The choppy sea at the foot of the street reflected crumpled light. (The Wycherly Woman, p. 36)

And my favorite, one which really gave me pause:

Deep feeling sounded in her voice.  I had no doubt that the feeling was partly sincere.  Still, there was something unreal about it.  I suspected that she’d  been playing tricks with her emotions for a long time, until none of them was quite valid.  (The Galton Case, p. 14)

Ouch.

If you can take it, I’d recommend starting with Macdonald’s collection of short stories, The Name Is Archer, and then moving on to the novels, especially The Chill and The Wycherly Woman.  For Josephine Tey, I’d recommend A Shilling for Candles, starring the endearing Inspector Alan Grant.  I haven’t read any Robert Penn Warren except for All the King’s Men, and very little Waugh, though I would recommend the hilarious satire Scoop.  What images from your reading have stuck in your mind?  What would you recommend for me to read next?

Images:

Humphrey Bogart

Hollow tree

Tears

Anne Stanton

Speaking of sheltered people, my mind keeps returning to the character of Anne Stanton in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.  (Spoilers ahead, for anyone who hasn’t read it!)  I had never really understood why Anne got involved with Willie Stark toward the end of the book.  She tells Jack that after she fell in love with Stark, she found out about the ignoble crime her father was involved in, and “[t]here wasn’t any reason why not then.” (p. 489) This used to seem ridiculous to me–just because her father wasn’t the perfect man she had imagined, she felt like she had the right to do anything?

I think I understand it better now.  Anne had set up a world of black and white for herself–her father, and Judge Irwin, stood for justice, and Willie Stark stood for corruption.  Her picture of the world was so absolute and unbending that when those distinctions got a little muddied–when she discovered Stark’s good side, and her father’s imperfect past–her entire moral world collapsed.  Or actually, it fell apart because it wasn’t about morality in the first place–it was built around something more artificial.  She hadn’t really resisted friendship with Stark because it was wrong, but because if she’d broken any of her rules she would have been completely banished from the supposed perfection of her family.  She didn’t have a category in her mind for a basically good person who fails sometimes; so with her father’s fall from grace, all her careful distinctions fell apart.  Although Willie was still a corrupt man–and a married man!–when she finds out that perfection doesn’t exist, there’s no reason left to keep her from succumbing to her attraction for him.

Something similar happens to her brother Adam–but for him the paragon of virtue is not only his father, but his sister.  He can’t handle her affair with Willie because his world is also black and white.  There is no category in his mind for a good woman who commits a sexual mistake; instead he is convinced that she has been completely corrupted into a “whore.”  And when he finds out that his father committed a single dishonesty, there’s no category in his mind for that, either; instead, his father has become an irretrievably evil man: “[d]amn his soul to Hell.” (p. 381) Now that I revisit the first scene, where he confronts Anne about her affair, I notice that he’s maybe even more disturbed with what’s happened to his reputation and righteousness: “he said if everything else was filthy a man didn’t have to be….he wouldn’t be pimp to his sister’s whore and nobody would ever say that about him.” (p.588) I still think Adam’s a sympathetic character but this casts a bit of a disturbing light on him.  He’s a good man, but he can’t untangle his morality from his pride.

Willie Stark’s view of the world makes an interesting contrast to Adam and Anne’s, because it’s not simply a flat opposite.  Willie is seeking justice too–in addition to glory and power–but he’s starting from the somewhat more realistic idea that everything is corrupted:

Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud.  There is always something. (p. 286)

He’s right, in a way–nothing is untouched by original sin.  But he fails to see the goodness that survived the Fall.  Where Adam and Anne think the original goodness remained pure in their family, Willie thinks it was never there from the beginning; you have to “make it up as you go along.”

….plain, simple goodness.  Well you can’t inherit that from anybody.   You got to make it, Doc.  If you want it.  And you got to make it out of badness.  Badness.  And you know why, Doc?…Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of. (p. 386)

Once again, this is not entirely wrong.  Anyone who’s ever studied politics (or history, like Jack Burden) knows that you can’t get anything good done if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty.

The law is always too short and too tight for growing humankind….You can’t make bricks without straw, and most of the time all the straw you got is secondhand straw from the cowpen. (p. 205)

No one can deny that Willie made a lot of good out of badness.  Even Anne can see that the free hospital he’s planning is going to be wonderful.  But could he have done it without falling into corruption?  I’m not sure if the book answers that question.  Warren doesn’t condone Willie Stark’s actions, but he doesn’t have much praise for the opposite extreme, either.

I can see now why the blurbs always say that this is a book about politics.  But oh, it’s so much more than that!  This post was awfully hard to write, because every time I dipped into the book for a quote, I started reading again and couldn’t stop.  Gosh what a book.  Tune in for some more thoughts on All the King’s Men soon!