Anthony Esolen, the Irreal, and Sexual Violence

Anthony Esolen, the Irreal, and Sexual Violence October 19, 2018

 

Just a few days ago, I found that a crank of my acquaintance had tried to humiliate me by publicly denouncing me as a “dingbat,” and this because I stated that Anthony Esolen is a bad writer. I found this out several days after he posted that rebuke, so I don’t see that it worked. It did, however, lead to some laughter because of the comments.

One of the commentators on that post said, in total seriousness, “She is not worthy to untie Tony Esolen’s shoes!” and I concur. I’m not worthy, and may the Lord render me ever unworthy.  I don’t want to get within ten feet of him, for any reason, because his writing alarms me more than a little. In my opinion, he doesn’t write like a man with a healthy view of… well, anything. I’m told his translation of Dante is excellent, and I don’t doubt it. Dante is far from my specialty. I defer to his expertise in that field. But when he’s not writing about damned souls entrapped forever in a river of boiling blood and such, Tony starts to get distasteful and grim.

I was waiting all week for an opportunity to share that anecdote about being unworthy to untie Esolen’s shoes, and here he’s given me one. Today, Esolen published an article entitled “Contemporary Life is Not Just Unreal– It’s Irreal,” over at the aptly named Crisis magazine.

The article has a fun title, and it’s illustrated by a detail from one of my favorite paintings, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” It seems that it would be difficult to go wrong from there.  And, indeed, the first bit of it is a truly lovely piece of absurdist narrative that reads like Samuel Beckett fan fiction. I can see it taking place in a play.

“Pinto beans?”

“Yes. I was going to try quartos, but I always found them too dry. Honey,” he calls out to his wife, who is looking from the window, “would you fetch the shampoo? I think the spaghetti is ready.”

That’s my favorite snippet. If only Esolen wrote like this and illustrated it with famous paintings all the time, I’d be his biggest fan. I’d want to direct his creations in a blackbox theater, and star in them as well.

Sadly, he doesn’t.

The rest of the article is a mean-spirited rant, devoid of fun, logic or common sense. It’s written in Esolen’s usual pip-pip-cheerio purple prose, which makes me grateful that I’m in no way worthy to bend over and untie his grubby sneakers.

He begins to claim that everything that’s gotten on his nerves lately is not only unreal but “irreal: …what could not be conceivable in any believable universe.”

I can think of a few things that fit that bill, but Esolen has his own list in mind.

First, he makes fun of ladies in the military: “We pretend that an ordinary woman can be a soldier in the infantry. She does not have the bodily strength of her 15-year-old brother, and she does not have the aerobic capacity of her 40-year-old father, but she can be a soldier. She presents all kinds of medical problems, she can be raped and impregnated by the enemy, and when everybody else is in peak physical condition, she will always be the weakest in the platoon. Her 15-year-old brother is stronger than she is and he is not fit for the army, not yet, but that doesn’t matter. It is like pretending that you can cut down a tree with a plastic hatchet. It won’t work. Now, that is unreal. It is not yet irreal. Let us take the same woman out of uniform and put her in civvies. She is at a party, and men are drinking. She is drinking, too. One of the men makes gross advances toward her. Another man pulls him off her and flings him against the wall. Thirty-six years later she attempts to ruin the man’s career, because of what he tried to do. She says she has never gotten over the horror of it… We are getting close now. We might ask her the first obvious question. “So why didn’t you beat him up?”…If she admits as much, we ask, “Then why are you pretending to be a soldier, when you cannot beat up a drunken sot?” For drunken sots are easier to beat up than are men who are sober. And then we ask the next question. “Precisely what did you find so offensive in his behavior?”

This is the beginning of Esolen’s idea of a contradiction that is completely irreal; one that could not be conceivable in any believable universe. It is inconceivable to Esolen that a woman could be a soldier and at the same time be traumatized and unable to defend herself from an attempted rape at a party.

But it’s not inconceivable.  It’s not inconceivable in any believable universe that women can both serve in the military and also be sexually assaulted and traumatized by it. After all, we’ve recognized for years that men and boys can be sexually assaulted, at parties and at other venues, and it does traumatize them for the rest of their lives. I know that Tony Esolen realizes this, because he’s written about teenage boys being the victim of a sexual predator. Yet, males can be and often are soldiers who serve in the military on the front line. Some men are even sexually assaulted by the members of their platoon in the military, for that matter, and it does traumatize them for the rest of their lives, because being raped while vulnerable in a barrack or the like, or at a party, is simply a different matter than being in combat in your combat gear with a weapon in your hands.  If it is conceivable in our own universe that a man could be sexually assaulted and traumatized by that assault, and the selfsame man can also be a soldier, then it’s not irreal to say the same thing about women.

Oh, but he’s not done. Esolen goes on to describe everyone who does not believe everything the Catholic Church teaches and holds to be true as “our enemies” and give a caricature of their beliefs about sex, as if everyone who is not a Catholic holds the same belief.

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