The Prison of My Person, The Shackles of My Skin

Wesley Hill quotes some powerful words from CS Lewis on masturbation and lustful fantasy:

For me the real evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his unselfishness, no mortification ever imposed on his vanity. In the end, they become merely the medium through which he increasingly adores himself…. And it is not only the faculty of love which is thus sterilized, forced back on itself, but also the faculty of imagination.

The true exercise of imagination, in my view, is (a) To help us to understand other people (b) To respond to, and, some of us, to produce, art. But it has also a bad use: to provide for us, in shadowy form, a substitute for virtues, successes, distinctions etc. which ought to be sought outside in the real world—e.g. picturing all I’d do if I were rich instead of earning and saving. Masturbation involves this abuse of imagination in erotic matters (which I think bad in itself) and thereby encourages a similar abuse of it in all spheres. After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in. Masturbation is to be avoided as all things are to be avoided which retard this process. The danger is that of coming to love the prison.

Hill’s concern in that post is with understanding Lewis’s argument as it pertains to those of us not called to eventual marriage. I want to draw out two other aspects of the argument.

First, it switches from “what this act is” to “what it does” so quickly that it can seem to instrumentalize chastity. In the longer, more-developed parts of this argument both masturbation and lustful fantasy aren’t bad because of what they are, but because of what they do–how they affect our mentality in the future. This leads to a counterclaim, which you can find in the comments, basically, What if masturbation can be instrumentalized for good ends?

I don’t want to argue against Lewis’s claims because a) they ring true! I like this argument a lot; and b) they’ll also ring true for plenty of other people. Practical wisdom based on consequences is a basic form of theology which I don’t want to denigrate. But to me the more persuasive claim is actually the one Lewis doesn’t talk about as much, the claim about what masturbation is: the use of sexual desire–which is meant to pull us to others (including God) and provoke us to pour out our lives as gifts for others–to please the self. You can think of this as “what masturbation symbolizes” if that helps, since part of my general belief system is that “is” and “symbolizes” aren’t much different when the symbol-maker is God. In a religion so thoroughly imbued with bridal mysticism, how can masturbation possibly be justified?

But the second thing I noticed about Lewis’s point is how much it sounds like the dreams of success in Requiem for a Dream. “I like thinking about it….” Self-comforting fantasy of all kinds can become a masturbatory escape from living–from the love which is inextricable from struggle.

Title is from The Last Unicorn (the novel–it’s from a song which isn’t in the movie).

About Eve Tushnet

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