A Hot Mess: Marriage, Derrida, Nabokov, and Whatnot

I don’t really understand what the same sex marriage hullabaloo is about. I can understand it at a personal, anecdotal level. I know a great many people who are upset and concerned and animated about this issue. But I do not have a clear grasp of what is really going on.

As a Roman Catholic, I understand marriage as a sacrament. I’m not even sure what it means to be “married” outside of the sacrament of marriage. I guess filing taxes is the only place where it makes some concrete sense to me.

If this is just about taxes, I am inclined to think that everyone should be allowed to cheat as much as possible on their taxes. It’s the American way.

There is also the anthropology of marriage, its history and role within human civilization. I’m not an anthropologist, but I have read enough of the Old Testament to know that “one man, one woman” is not exactly traditional. Right, King David? Traditional marriage is really just a placeholder for a way of life we’ve developed over time and formalized and it will always be changing. Divorce has become at least statistically traditional, too, right? Woman’s suffrage and all that jazz has transformed so-called traditional marriage. What’s next?

This is why sacramental marriage is important and distinct from anthropological marriage: it can inform anthropology, but it does not submit itself entirely to tradition. Sacramental marriage is radical and exceptional to tradition. But the two are not entirely unrelated either. Where and how and when they come together is not clear to me. Things were easier when Church and State were one, I suppose.

When we begin to have a serious discussion about marriage, my first question is always “What is marriage?” No one, to date, has been able to explain this to me with the slightest sense of consensus. It seems like the Supreme Court has trouble agreeing on what the term ‘marriage’ refers to, too. So at least I’m not the only idiot.

And no. The Constitution does not help. Not at all. It makes things far, far worse. For one, everyone seems to equivocate between something being good or just and being constitutional. If something is legal, it does not follow to assume that it is good or just. Same goes for anything that is (un)constitutional. The Constitution of the United States is a sham document that only confuses and forces us to make leaps in reasoning that are downright insane. I see no need for a constitution of any kind. It is not a Creed. I would abolish the Constitution and replace it with something like common law—and common sense.

Then there is homosexuality.

Maybe I’m just too old fashioned, but I find it laughable that same sex attraction is a big deal, politically speaking or otherwise. From classical antiquity to the present, homoeroticism is a constant, vital part of Western culture. I do think that both sides forget this most of the time, and I find it very hard to sympathize with either for precisely that reason.

Gay pride isn’t edgy or new or cool or an abomination; it is quite old and commonplace and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, thank God. This, too, shall pass—for better and for worse. Everything stays the same.

Jacques Derrida seemed to understand how odd it is to hear people railing for or against something they don’t know the first or second thing about. In this case it was not only the Western tradition he sought to trouble, it was also his own work. In this brilliant review of a new biography on Derrida in the New York Review of Books, Emily Eakin argues,

Even Derrida claimed astonishment at the way his elusive and poetic glosses on Heidegger and Husserl were refashioned into a blunt, all-purpose tool—a kind of lethal deep-reading app—wielded by Americans determined to wage war on a canon they hadn’t always bothered to read.

There it is: a canon they hadn’t always bothered to read. This is the lesson I am learning from this whole charade: read books, lots of them, old ones too. Read books you hate lovingly, to be sure you know exactly why you hate them. Read books you love with rage, to ensure you really love them. Do your homework, period. Until then, there is very little to discuss.

Creativity is wildly overrated, sometimes.

In another gem from the New York Review of Books, we catch a glimpse from the classroom of Vladimir Nabokov, at Cornell, circa 1950. His insight on reading is more inspiring than my own:

He said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines.

There is a distinction between creation and invention.

To invent isn’t necessarily worthwhile, to create is impossible. Chris Hedges seems to enjoy re-inventing Noam Chomsky, fitted for the present generation. I really don’t think Hedges is saying anything that Network (1976) didn’t accomplish in the “mad as hell” scene, but I do like to see what he is up to every once in a while.

Here’s a nice rant from him, writing at Bill Moyers:

The celebrity trolls who currently reign on commercial television, who bill themselves as liberal or conservative, read from the same corporate script. They spin the same court gossip. They ignore what the corporate state wants ignored. They champion what the corporate state wants championed. They do not challenge or acknowledge the structures of corporate power. Their role is to funnel viewer energy back into our dead political system — to make us believe that Democrats or Republicans are not corporate pawns. The cable shows, whose hyperbolic hosts work to make us afraid of self-identified liberals or self-identified conservatives, are part of a rigged political system, one in which it is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, General Electric or ExxonMobil. These corporations, in return for the fear-based propaganda, pay the lavish salaries of celebrity news people, usually in the millions of dollars. They make their shows profitable. And when there is war these news personalities assume their “patriotic” roles as cheerleaders, as Chris Matthews — who makes an estimated $5 million a year — did, along with the other MSNBC and Fox hosts.

It does not matter that these celebrities and their guests, usually retired generals or government officials, got the war terribly wrong. Just as it does not matter that Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman were wrong on the wonders of unfettered corporate capitalism and globalization. What mattered then and what matters now is likability — known in television and advertising as the Q score — not honesty and truth. Television news celebrities are in the business of sales, not journalism. They peddle the ideology of the corporate state. And too many of us are buying.

Yawn. All this whatnot is making me tired. I am growing more and more interested in seeing Spring Breakers.

  • Frank La Rocca
    • srocha

      Thanks, Frank. I liked the spirit of the interview, but Archbishop Cordileone and the interviewer don’t seem to tell us what marriage is and Archbishop Cordileone also makes certain claims that strike me as hard or impossible to defend, anthropologically and philosophically. But, really, thanks for the interview. It was very pastoral.

  • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna
    • srocha

      No! Thank you for sharing this. Looks like they are trying to be very thorough about it. I’ll read it (and the blog post) with interest.

      ps: I agree with the blogger that equality has nothing to do with the matter.

    • JoeC

      Here’s the one they wrote for the Supreme Court hearings. It’s probably pretty similar.

  • Sam Schmitt

    “As a Roman Catholic, I understand marriage as a sacrament. I’m not even sure what it means to be “married” outside of the sacrament of marriage.”

    Well, as a Catholic, you should understand that the Church understands marriage first as a natural institution which existed before Christ established the sacrament, and still exists today, and that it is between one man and one woman, Old Testament deviations notwithstanding. A non-sacramental marriage between two unbaptized people are still bound by the rights and duties of marriage – fidelity, indissolubility, fruitfulness. If they are baptized later, they do not get remarried.

    So it’s bizarre to suggest (as you seem to do) that gay marriage is no big deal since it leaves the sacrament of marriage untouched. The Church knows that the sacrament is based upon a natural institution, so the fate of the this natural institution is very much the concern of the Church, both as it affects Christians as well as non-Christians.

    • srocha

      Dear Sam,

      The Church is very clear about certain aspects of this, but very clearly unclear on others. For instance, from CCC 1603, “Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures.” There is a certain vagueness when the Church speak to the anthropological institution. However, when speaking within the economy of salvation and salvation history, it is crystal clear. These two degrees of clarity, for me, indicate the distinction I am pressing here. I should also note that in this post I quite explicitly affirmed the sacramental—the mystical—as transcending the anthropological.

      This wasn’t the best post in terms of rigor or clarity. I am planning to write a “take two” very soon.

      Thanks for writing.


    • Petro

      I think that history is quite clear that marriage as a “natural” institution has had incredibly varying and changing definitions and characteristics across cultures and eras. This is the same as various other cultural traditions such as rites of initiation and rites of passage ceremonies from which the sacraments derive their primordial form. Suggesting that marriage as a natural, thus universal, institution has always been about one man and one woman in an indissoluble union is ignorant of both recorded history and even biblical scholarship.

      The role of the Church is to take the partial truths of what existed in these various rites and bring them into the whole truth of Christ in His Church. This is how and why we have sacraments and sacramental marriage.

      Throughout history though, societies and cultures outside of the Catholic Church, both religious and secular, have defined marriage in other ways. Our secular society has not viewed marriage as an indissoluble union between one man and one woman, based on fidelity and fruitfulness, for a long time, if it ever did. Divorce has almost always been a legal option for men. Remarriage after divorce has been a clear option. Fidelity has not been a truly necessitated legal requirement for many years. This is what opens up the real question about what marriage means as a “natural,” or better said, anthropological institution.

      In our society, marriage has basically become a somewhat temporary institution in which two people agree to share their lives and possessions and receive benefits to care for each other and their possessions. There is little about fruitfulness in this, because many decide not to have children. There is nothing about fidelity in this, because that does not enter into the equation of care for the person or possessions, unless someone is giving away shared possessions. There is nothing about dissolubility, because a divorce is easy to acquire.

      In this context, people who are in committed homosexual relationships, caring for one another, and sharing their lives and possessions are questioning why they cannot receive the legal benefits and protections from this type of agreement. Saying that they are the ones that are sullying marriage as defined by our sacramental definition is ignoring the fact that our society as a whole does not honor that definition of marriage. To say that someone in the past may have believed that this is the way it should be, thus it should still be that way, is to hope that people won’t realize that we didn’t make these same arguments against divorce law or other injuries to what we now say is natural marriage.

      The truth is that we had the chance many years ago to solve this issue by affording homosexuals the benefits and protections that they seek, but doing it under another name. Instead, we decided that the best way to proceed was not to support those issues but to pass laws that banned extending those protections or the use of the term marriage. The response to that approach was most assuredly going to be to challenge those laws and make the fight about marriage first. Now we are reaping what we have sown for not addressing the legitimate concerns of our neighbors years ago.

      Maybe we can learn from this experience and move to act with love first in the future. This battle has been lost.

  • Theodore Seeber

    All I know is that I was once a good progressive Catholic for civil unions to provide equality in tax law for homosexuals and other non-standard adult contracted families, then the next day (thanks to the decision of a local but not the same county as me group of county commissioners) I was an evil conservative Catholic for civil unions to provide equality in tax law for homosexuals and other non-standard adult contracted families THAT WASN’T LETTING THEM GET MARRIED.

    Note, no change in my own beliefs at all- this was all external to me- I became a bigot overnight for my belief in Sacramental Marriage. From that behavior, it is easy to extrapolate that gay marriage becoming legal in the form they want it will make Sacramental Marriage illegal. And the violence over that, on both the side of the hyper-heterosexuals and the hyper-homosexuals, has already begun.

    It is for that reason that I’m now against Same Sex Marriage- and have strengthened my beliefs against rape, divorce, pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, and non-procreative sex.

    In other words- I’m now utterly against the sexual revolution because I’ve seen that the fruit of the sexual libertine is dictatorship.