The End of Courtship, Part 3

Jul 29, 2010 |Leon R. Kass

In this final excerpt in our three-part series, Dr. Leon Kass calls for a restoration of cultural gravity about sex and marriage.  

Part 2: The End of Courtship »

Why It Matters

Given the enormous new social impediments to courtship and marriage, and given also that they are firmly and deeply rooted in the cultural soil of modernity, not to say human nature itself, one might simply decide to declare the cause lost. In fact, many people would be only too glad to do so. For they condemn the old ways as repressive, inegalitarian, sexist, patriarchal, boring, artificial and unnecessary. Some urge us to go with the flow; others hopefully believe that new modes and orders will emerge, well-suited to our new conditions of liberation and equality. Just as new cultural meanings are today being "constructed" for sexuality and gender, so too new cultural definitions can be invented for "marriage," "paternity and maternity," and "family." Nothing truly important, so the argument goes, will be lost.

New arrangements can perhaps be fashioned. As Raskolnikov put it — and he should know — "Man gets used to everything, the beast!" But it is simply wrong that nothing important will be lost; indeed, many things of great importance have already been lost, and, as I have indicated, at tremendous cost in personal happiness, child welfare and civic peace. This should come as no surprise. For the new arrangements that constitute the cultural void created by the demise of courtship and dating rest on serious and destructive errors regarding the human condition: errors about the meaning of human sexuality, errors about the nature of marriage, errors about what constitutes a fully human life....

According to the story of the Garden of Eden, our humanization is in fact coincident with the recognition of our sexual nakedness and all that it implies: shame at our needy incompleteness, unruly self-division, and finitude; awe before the eternal; hope in the self-transcending possibilities of children and a relationship to the divine. See my "Man and Woman: An Old Story," First Things, November, 1991. For a human being to treat sex as a desire like hunger — not to mention as sport — is then to live a deception.

Thus how shallow an understanding of sexuality is embodied in our current clamoring for "safe sex." Sex is by its nature unsafe. All interpersonal relations are necessarily risky and serious ones especially so. And to give oneself to another, body and soul, is hardly playing it safe. Sexuality is at its core profoundly "unsafe," and it is only thanks to contraception that we are encouraged to forget its inherent "dangers." These go beyond the hazards of venereal disease, which are always a reminder and a symbol of the high stakes involved, and beyond the risks of pregnancy and the pains and dangers of childbirth to the mother. To repeat, sexuality itself means mortality — equally for both man and woman. Whether we know it or not, when we are sexually active we are voting with our genitalia for our own demise. "Safe sex" is the self-delusion of shallow souls. This is not to say that the sole meaning of sexuality is procreative; understood as love-making, sexual union is also a means of expressing mutual love and the desire for a union of souls. Making love need lose none of its tenderness after the child-bearing years are past. Yet the procreative possibility embedded in eros cannot be expunged without distorting its meaning./p>

It is for this reason that procreation remains at the core of a proper understanding of marriage. Mutual pleasure and mutual service between husband and wife are, of course, part of the story. So too are mutual admiration and esteem, especially where the partners are deserving. A friendship of shared pursuits and pastimes enhances any marriage, all the more so when the joint activities exercise deeper human capacities. But it is precisely the common project of procreation that holds together what sexual differentiation sometimes threatens to drive apart. Through children, a good common to both husband and wife, male and female achieve some genuine unification (beyond the mere sexual "union" that fails to do so): The two become one through sharing generous (not needy) love for this third being as good. Flesh of their flesh, the child is the parents' own commingled being externalized, and given a separate and persisting existence; unification is enhanced also by their commingled work of rearing. Providing an opening to the future beyond the grave, carrying not only our seed but also our names, our ways and our hopes that they will surpass us in goodness and happiness, children are a testament to the possibility of transcendence. Gender duality and sexual desire, which first draws our love upward and outside of ourselves, finally provide for the partial overcoming of the confinement and limitation of perishable embodiment altogether. It is as the supreme institution devoted to this renewal of human possibility that marriage finds its deepest meaning and highest function.

There is no substitute for the contribution that the shared work of raising children makes to the singular friendship and love of husband and wife. Precisely because of its central procreative mission, and, even more, because children are yours for a lifetime, this is a friendship that cannot be had with any other person. Uniquely, it is a friendship that does not fly from, but rather embraces wholeheartedly, the finitude of its members, affirming without resentment the truth of our human condition. Not by mistake did God create a woman — rather than a dialectic partner — to cure Adam's aloneness; not by accident does the same biblical Hebrew verb mean both to know sexually and to know the truth — including the generative truth about the meaning of being man and woman. I recognize that there are happily monogamous marriages that remain childless, some by choice, others by bad luck, and that some people will feel the pull of and yield to a higher calling, be it art, philosophy, or the celibate priesthood, seeking or serving some other transcendent voice. But the former often feel cheated by their childlessness, frequently going to extraordinary lengths to conceive or adopt a child. A childless and grandchildless old age is a sadness and a deprivation, even where it is a price willingly paid by couples who deliberately do not procreate.

And for those who elect not to marry, they at least face the meaning of the choice forgone. They do not reject, but rather affirm, the trajectory of a human life, whose boundaries are given by necessity, and our animal nature, whose higher yearnings and aspirations are made possible in large part because we recognize our neediness and insufficiency. But, until very recently, the aging self-proclaimed bachelor was the butt of many jokes, mildly censured for his self-indulgent and carefree, not to say profligate, ways and for his unwillingness to pay back for the gift of life and nurture by giving life and nurturing in return. No matter how successful he was in business or profession, he could not avoid some taint of immaturity.

Marriage and procreation are, therefore, at the heart of a serious and flourishing human life, if not for everyone at least for the vast majority. Most of us know from our own experience that life becomes truly serious when we become responsible for the lives of others for whose being in the world we have said, "We do." It is fatherhood and motherhood that teach most of us what it took to bring us into our own adulthood. And it is the desire to give not only life but a good way of life to our children that opens us toward a serious concern for the true, the good and even the holy. Parental love of children leads once wayward sheep back into the fold of church and synagogue. In the best case, it can even be the beginning of the sanctification of life — yes, even in modern times.

The earlier forms of courtship, leading men and women to the altar, understood these deeper truths about human sexuality, marriage and the higher possibilities for human life. Courtship provided rituals of growing up, for making clear the meaning of one's own human sexual nature, and for entering into the ceremonial and customary world of ritual and sanctification. Courtship disciplined sexual desire and romantic attraction, provided opportunities for mutual learning about one another's character, fostered salutary illusions that inspired admiration and devotion, and, by locating wooer and wooed in their familial settings, taught the inter-generational meaning of erotic activity. It pointed the way to the answers to life's biggest questions: Where are you going? Who is going with you? How — in what manner — are you both going to go?

The practices of today's men and women do not accomplish these purposes, and they and their marriages, when they get around to them, are weaker as a result. There may be no going back to the earlier forms of courtship, but no one should be rejoicing over this fact. Anyone serious about "designing" new cultural forms to replace those now defunct must bear the burden of finding some alternative means of serving all these necessary goals.

A Revolution Needed?

Is the situation hopeless? One would like to be able to offer more encouraging news than the great popularity — and not only among those 50 or older — of the recent Jane Austen movies, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Emma, and (on public television) the splendid BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. But, though at best a small ray of hope, the renewed interest in Jane Austen reflects, I believe, a dissatisfaction with the unromantic and amarital present and a wish, on the part of many 20- and 30-somethings, that they too might find their equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy (even without his Pemberly). The return of successful professional matchmaking services — I do not mean the innumerable "self-matching" services that fill pages of "personal" ads in our newspapers and magazines — is a further bit of good news. So too is the revival of explicit courtship practices among certain religious groups; young men are told by young women that they need their father's permission to come courting, and marriage alone is clearly the name of the game. Various groups, including David Blankenhorn's Institute for American Values, have put marriage — and not only divorce — in the national spotlight. And — if I may grasp at straws — one can even take a small bit of comfort from those who steadfastly refuse to marry, insofar as they do so because they recognize that marriage is too serious, too demanding, too audacious an adventure for their immature, irresponsible and cowardly selves.

Frail reeds, indeed — probably not enough to save even a couple of courting water bugs. Real reform in the direction of sanity would require a restoration of cultural gravity about sex, marriage and the life cycle. The restigmatization of illegitimacy and promiscuity would help. A reversal of recent anti-natalist prejudices, implicit in the practice of abortion, and a correction of current anti-generative sex education, would also help, as would the revalorization of marriage as a personal, as well as a cultural, ideal. Parents of pubescent children could contribute to a truly humanizing sex education by elevating their erotic imagination, through exposure to an older and more edifying literature. Parents of college-bound young people, especially those with strong religious and family values, could direct their children to religiously affiliated colleges that attract like-minded people.

Even in deracinated and cosmopolitan universities like my own, faculty could legitimate the importance of courtship and marriage by offering courses on the subject, aimed at making the students more thoughtful about their own life-shaping choices. Even better, they could teach without ideological or methodological preoccupations the world's great literature, elevating the longings and refining the sensibilities of their students and furnishing their souls with numerous examples of lives seriously led and loves faithfully followed. Religious institutions could provide earlier and better instruction for adolescents on the meaning of sex and marriage, as well as suitable opportunities for co-religionists to mix and, God willing, match. Absent newly discovered congregational and communal support, individual parents will generally be helpless before the onslaught of the popular culture.

Under present democratic conditions, with families not what they used to be, anything that contributes to promoting a lasting friendship between husband and wife should be cultivated. A budding couple today needs even better skills at reading character, and greater opportunities for showing it, than was necessary in a world that had lots of family members looking on. Paradoxically, encouragement of earlier marriage, and earlier child-bearing, might in many cases be helpful — the young couple as it were growing up together before either partner could become jaded or distrustful from too much pre-marital experience, not only of "relationships" but of life. Training for careers by women could be postponed until after the early motherhood years — perhaps even supported publicly by something like a GI Bill of Rights for mothers who had stayed home until their children reached school age.

But it would appear to require a revolution to restore the conditions most necessary for successful courtship: a desire in America's youth for mature adulthood (which means for marriage and parenthood), an appreciation of the unique character of the marital bond, understood as linked to generation, and a restoration of sexual self-restraint generally and of female modesty in particular.

Frankly, I do not see how this last, most crucial, prerequisite can be recovered, nor do I see how one can do sensibly without it. As Tocqueville rightly noted, it is women who are the teachers of mores; it is largely through the purity of her morals, self-regulated, that woman wields her influence, both before and after marriage. Men, as Rousseau put it, will always do what is pleasing to women, but only if women suitably control and channel their own considerable sexual power. Is there perhaps some nascent young feminist out there who would like to make her name great and who will seize the golden opportunity for advancing the truest interest of women (and men and children) by raising (again) the radical banner, "Not until you marry me"? And, while I'm dreaming, why not also, "Not without my parents' blessings"?

Copyright 1997 Leon R. Kass. All rights reserved.

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