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Postcard to Rome: gay people can flourish too

The Catholic church has a new pope! Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio this week became Pope Francis I, the first non-European pope. The first BRIC pope. He sounds like a man of humility and asceticism, who travels on budget airlines – Lord knows that is a trial of the flesh. While a friend to the poor, Pope Francis is not a liberal when it comes to homosexuality or gay marriages, despite coming from Argentina where same-sex marriages are legal. He has written that the moves to legalise gay marriage are ‘a machination of the Father of Lies’. OK then!

Here in the Church of England, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, faces a much harder decision on this issue. Unlike in the Catholic Church, there is a real division in the Anglican church over homosexuality and gay marriage, and there are some high profile gay priests – one of whom has been tipped to take over from Welby as the Bishop of Durham.

The C of E is in a very difficult position because the Anglican community is, by numbers at least, overwhelmingly African. There are roughly 13 million Anglicans in the UK, and around 38 million in Africa, with 17 million in Nigeria alone.

Infographic from BBC News in 2008

The liberal wing of the C of E is quite strong in the UK, and is vocal in the British media through spokespeople like Giles Fraser or Reverend Coles, who is a presenter of Radio 4’s Saturday Live. In Africa, by contrast, there is barely any institutional demand for gay marriage or gay priests within the Anglican church. African Anglican bishops would be horrified by the prospect – although Desmond Tutu, former Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa, is a rare exception.

As one priest put it to me this week: “Justin is caught between two lorries speeding towards him: British liberal Anglicans, and conservative African Anglicans. And whichever way he moves on the issue, he will get hit.”

There are pragmatic, political considerations on the matter. In Nigeria, for example, where the Islamic and Christian churches are in a tussle for spiritual power, Muslim leaders are much more hard-line on the issue, and use Christians’ apparent softness on the topic (there is now an underground ‘Rainbow church’ for gay Nigerians) as ammunition against them. If Welby came out in support of gay marriage and sexually active gay priests, would the Nigerian church break away, immediately reducing the Anglican church’s congregation by almost 50%?

What’s the right thing to do?

There are moral questions too. Never mind the questions of political expediency, what is the right thing to do? Both Christians and Socratics try to do what is good, but for Christians, the will of God as expressed in the Bible is an important part of that process. It may be uncomfortable and it may go against popular opinion (or the ‘pattern of the world’), but Christians strive to submit their own will both to the will of God as expressed in the Bible, and to the will of the Church. Socratics by contrast don’t have to submit to anyone or anything besides our own reason, which is lovely, but also means we don’t really have much genuine community.

Don’t look back, like Lot’s wife in the movies

Anyway, the Bible is not the most rainbow-tinted text. The Old Testament God was no friend of the Sodomites, who surrounded Lot’s house and demanded Lot allow them to ‘know’ the two angels who were visiting him, in the only known instance of attempted angel-rape. Nothing annoys God like angel-human sex – he almost wiped out the entire human race when the sons of God bred with the daughters of men in Genesis 6. And, sure enough, He wiped out the city of Sodom when they tried to rape the angels.

This has been taken as a sign that homosexuals are Sodomites and therefore evil, and any culture that allows homosexuality will incur God’s wrath. But maybe the sin of Sodom was angel-rape, which for various reasons is obviously a bad idea. Or maybe the unnaturalness of their act was rape of any kind? After all, this was clearly a very bad way to treat guests, whoever they were. Perhaps the Sodomites got what was coming to them, but not because they were into anal sex – because they were rapists. (I still think it’s unlikely the entire city was entirely made up of evil rapists – it would make city-living impossible, in a Hobbesian sense).

In the New Testament, however, the matter seems clearer. In the first verses of his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul condemns those who

exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures…For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

This is a pretty weird passage. St Paul suggests homosexual desires are ‘unnatural’, but they’re not exactly a crime. They’re a punishment for worshipping animal-gods! This seems to be drawing on a calumny that was frequently hurled at early Christians by Romans – that they worship a donkey-God and have orgies. St Paul is perhaps throwing that accusation back at the world…I don’t know.

Anyway, if you’re a serious Christian and you think the word of St Paul is the word of God, then this is a difficult passage to wrestle with. I personally think St Paul was a writer of genius, an astounding and inspired writer. The rest of that letter is beautiful. But Socratic as I am, I don’t agree with everything he says, just like I don’t agree with everything Plato or Aristotle say. Paul had a particular personality, which was one of complete celibacy and suspicion of the body, and he says he wishes everyone could be like him (which would rapidly wipe out the human race), but if they can’t then they should marry to prevent fornication. His words have been taken to mean no sex before marriage and (in the Catholic church) no sex for priests.

I personally think St Paul is too Stoic, that he demands far too much of us. I think it is asking too much to expect people not to have sex before marriage (boys, anyway), and dangerous to expect priests never to have sex. His teachings go against nature, and nature will always win. There might be some strong people capable of celibacy, but for most people, sexual urges will come out, despite all the Church’s fine words. If they are not allowed natural expression, they will come out in twisted and unnatural forms, which is what has happened in the Catholic Church’s systematic child abuse (for how many centuries?)

The same thing used to happen in single-sex English boarding schools, by the way. There was no way for natural adolescent sexual urges to come out, so older boys systematically raped younger boys (and their parents paid to send their children to these rape camps!) By the time I went to boarding school, thank God the culture had improved, arguably because girls were more proximate and porn was more available.

Homosexual and flourishing

I also think homosexuality naturally occurs in human nature, at all times and in all cultures. I don’t think it’s a deviancy. On the contrary, some of the greatest humans who ever lived have been homosexual or bisexual, from Plato to Shakespeare. You can be gay and flourish. You can be gay and love God – I have gay friends who do, passionately. And the fact that people have been gay even in cultures which are very homophobic, like many African societies today, is proof of the natural occurrence of these passions. As Desmond Tutu put it: ‘it is so improbable that any sane, normal person would deliberately choose a lifestyle exposing him or her to so much vilification, opprobrium and physical abuse, even death.’

St Anselm, who took matters into his own hands

I don’t think you can entirely extirpate natural erotic passions, as the Stoics believed and as St Paul seems to believe – at least, not without doing violence to yourself, like Origen and Anselm cutting off their balls. Instead, as Plato and Aristotle argued, we should guide our passions from their savage state into their higher, civilised state. Eros, the god of passion, can be deeply socially destabilizing, but we can civilize him and guide him into pro-social institutions. That is one practical argument for gay or heterosexual marriage: that it knits people together and is good for community. In this sense, I am resolutely bourgeois about gay marriage.

The other, even better, argument is not about civility, but about love. Plato believed that our sexual desire, in its highest state, points us towards God. Our earthly loves (for men or women) soften our hearts and prepare us for the deeper experience of God’s love. This is similar to the mystery of love in the New Testament – the Holy Spirit that fills our hearts. Do we really think that the Holy Spirit does not also fill the hearts of gay people…that only straight people receive it? It is more oceanic than that. It flows over boundaries. This, in fact, seems to me what the rest of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is about – God’s love isn’t just for the Jews but for everyone. ‘There is no partiality with God’.

I read today of a Republican senator, Rob Portman, who initially opposed gay marriage, and who changed his position when his 21-year-old son Will told him he was gay. He said: ‘It allowed me to think of this issue from a new perspective, and that’s of a Dad who loves his son a lot and wants him to have the same opportunities that his brother and sister would have – to have a relationship like Jane and I have had for over 26 years’.  That, to me, is a loving father. I’d be surprised if a Republican was capable of greater paternal love than God.

The Anglican church faces a very difficult and painful decision. But if the decision is between politics and love for the marginalised and oppressed, then I think the answer is clearer, particularly when considering the persecution that gay Africans suffer. As Desmond Tutu said: ‘The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority.’ That’s also the opinion of this unchurched north London metrosexual liberal, for what it’s worth.

Senator Portman and family. Guess which son is gay. Wrong! It’s the macho one in the centre.


In other news:

On this day in 1884, Tolstoy imagined a Calendar of Wisdom, with entries from Aurelius, Epictetus and the Buddha. The first New Age pick-and-mixer!

Next week sees the release of David Esterly’s philosophical reflection on his vocation as a woodcarver and his love for the Baroque work of Grinling Gibbons. It’s called The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. He writes: ‘A carver begins as a god and ends as a slave’. Here’s a review from the Boston Globe, comparing the work to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

Cardiff Uni has released a pamphlet of six essays about evil and Nietzsche, for A-level philosophy students.

The British Psychology Society has released a monograph on the history of psychology in British education, going back to 1913.

Gallup released an interesting survey on which jobs had the highest well-being (physicians and teachers scored well), finding correlations with the extent to which workers feel they use their strengths at work, and whether they feel their boss is more like a partner.

Interesting and to my mind legitimately scathing take on Frank Furedi and his Institute for Ideas by the Guardian.

Two upcoming events in London – a lecture next Wednesday by Steven Pinker, and Andrew Stead is organising a ‘Five Daily Slices’ event on well-being with five experts on Sunday April 7 (neither of these have paid me to promote this by the way, I’m just giving you a heads-up). Also, there’s a job going at Nina Grunfeld’s Life Clubs in sales, get in touch with her if you’re interested.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has started a sort of ‘consciousness-raising circles’ movement for modern women with her ‘Lean In’ circles. More about that here.

Comedian Stewart Lee had an interesting piece bewailing the disappearance of intellectuals from TV.  He exaggerates how great it was in the past – hardly anyone watched the BBC’s Third Programme in the 50s – and it’s not that bad now, particularly on radio. I was at a great AHRC / Radio 3 workshop on media engagement for humanities academics yesterday, and was very impressed firstly with the calibre of the academics and secondly with how keen Radio 3’s Nightwaves is to engage with academics.

Talking of publicly engaging academics, here is Thomas Dixon, head of the Centre for History of the Emotions, talking about anger in Metro newspaper.

That’s all for this week, see you next week. Thanks to everyone for supporting my book and buying it for their friends!


We’ve all hallucinated during sex, haven’t we?

We’ve all hallucinated during sex, haven’t we? Or…is it just me?! Well I have anyway, on a couple of occasions. Once was back in 1996. I had just left university, and broken up with my girlfriend in the clumsiest and most insensitive way imaginable. I moved to Seville to try and write a novel, but instead fell into a ditch of guilt, depression and self-loathing. Plus it was really hot, like 40 degrees. One evening, I met an English girl in a bar and we ended up going to bed. As I was making love to her, she transformed before my eyes into my ex-girlfriend. I stared at her in wonder, tried to blink the hallucination away but for a few seconds my ex remained, like a mirage in a desert.

I think the hallucination, or waking dream, was what psychologists call a ‘projection’. Fears or desires from our past can be so strong within us that we see the world through them. If our consciousness is like a bright white light, then our habitual fears and desires are like a magic lantern, projecting shadows from the past onto the wall of the present. This doesn’t usually involve a full-on hallucination – we might be attracted to or repelled by someone partly because they remind us of a key figure from our past. The emotional traces of the past push and pull us towards or away from certain people or experiences. All of us are wandering around in a dream: at work, on the Tube, in the pub, we’re actually sleep-walking and projecting our dreams of the past onto the present.

We’re like tyrannical film directors, who cast everyone as actors in our grand psycho-dramas and force them to play dream-roles from the past. We don’t see them for who they are. We are attracted to a girl because they remind us of a previous girl who reminded us of a previous girl, who reminded us of our mother, who in turn reminded us of…how many girls before? And so on, back in time, ad nauseam.

I thought of this when watching Vertigo, Hitchcock’s classic psychodrama, which was on TV last week. What a strange film Vertigo is. For one thing, the plot is utterly bizarre. A cop called Scottie suffers from vertigo. He leaves the force when his vertigo leads to another policeman’s death. He gets hired as a private detective by an old school friend, to follow the friend’s wife around, Madeline. She has become possessed by the spirit of a crazy Spanish noblewoman from the 19th century. Scottie falls in love with the beautiful, tragic Madeline, but fails to stop her from apparently throwing herself off a bell-tower and killing herself. He’s unable to stop her because his vertigo prevents him following her up the bell-tower.

Scottie is shattered by Madeline’s suicide and his impotence to stop it. He is a broken man. After a spell in a mental health home, he wanders the street aimlessly (there is a lot of aimless wandering in Vertigo), drawn to girls and things which remind him of Madeline. Then he comes across a girl called Judy in the street, who looks just like Madeline, except with red hair rather than blonde. He follows her, meets her, and invites her to dinner. He becomes obsessed with her, but – like a tyrannical film director – he wants her to play the role of Madeline. He makes her dye her hair blonde and wear clothes exactly like Madeline’s. He doesn’t love Judy for being Judy, he only loves her when she is Madeline. And poor Judy is prepared to become the role and negate herself, to try and win Scottie’s love. “If I become her, will you love me?” she asks. When Scottie finally succeeds in turning Judy into his dream archetype, he kisses her, the camera circles around them, and the music turns into the mad organ-grinding of a whirligig. Scottie looks up, and he has a hallucination that he is in the 19th century, kissing the ghost of the Spanish noblewoman.

Then the plot gets ridiculous. It turns out that Judy is Madeline, or rather, she’s a girl that Madeline’s husband hired to pretend to be Madeline as part of a murder-plot – the plan was that Scottie falls in love with her, believes she is possessed and then fails to stop her from killing herself. In fact, the body that fell from the bell-tower wasn’t really Judy / Madeline – it was the real Madeline, killed by her husband. It was all a plot by Madeline’s husband to use Scottie as cover for the murder of his wife. I know – what the fuck? It must be the most convoluted murder-plan ever.

Vertigo is a prime example of a film whose ‘objective correlative’ (ie the external facts of the story) don’t quite synch with what the film-director is really trying to get at. What Hitchcock is trying to get at is how we’re all haunted by the ghosts of our past. We’re all like Hitchcock himself – tyrannical directors forcing everyone to fit into their dream archetypes. In Hitchcock’s case, he had a very strong dream archetype of the platinum blonde, which he endlessly and compulsively searched for in his actresses (Grace Kelly, Tippi Hendren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint) and fetishistically reproduced in his films. He knew he was obsessed with this archetype, and Vertigo was his way of exploring that obsession and the pathology and cruelty of it.

Hitchcock’s blondes: from left, Kim Novak, Tippi Hendren, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie-Saint and Grace Kelly

But more than that, it’s also an exploration of our fetishism, the voyeur-audience sitting in our cave watching the shadows on the wall. Our tyrannical desires draw poor homely girls like Marilyn Pauline Novak or Norma Jean Mortensen to Hollywood, to become the artificial vessels of our dream-longing. As Kim/Marilyn Novak says in the interview below: “Judy was in a sense me, trying to become the Hollywood person, needing to be loved, and willing to be made over.” We are not interested in our icons as flesh-and-blood human beings, only in the dream-archetype. That’s a very unfortunate thing for a human to become. It fucks you up, becoming the dream-vessel for millions of lonely people. Hollywood, the Dream Factory, turn you into a wax-work madonna to attract the desire of strangers. You sacrifice real love for movie love.

At an even deeper level, Vertigo asks where our dream-longing stops. How long has it gone on for? How many lives have we been pursuing the illusion of the dream-girl? There’s a particularly dreamy scene where Madeline and Scotty go into a forest of redwood pines. They look at a cross-section of one of the trees that’s been cut down, which shows the period each part of the tree dates back to, all the way back to the Battle of Hastings. It induces a spell of vertigo in Madeline, as she wonders what eras she’s lived in before. Scottie’s vertigo is likewise a metaphor for this dizzying sense of endless reincarnations through eternity. Madeline may be Scottie’s ‘dream-girl’, but who was the archetype? His mother? How many loves were there before that, stretching through the ages? How long has he wandered, pulled along by the emotions of the past?

Bernard Hermann’s score increases this sense of vertigo and nausea. The score, which the New Yorker’s Alex Ross suggests is the greatest film score ever, combines falling violin scales with crescendo horns and harsh atonal chords suggesting panic, danger, perversity. It’s both lyrically beautiful, and also somehow feverish and insalubrious. The score makes reference to the famous prelude of Wanger’s Tristan und Isolde, which is also about the relentless, obsessive and pathological quality of desire. Wagner’s opera was inspired by his reading of Schopenhauer, whose philosophy was in turn inspired by his reading of Buddhism and its theory of desire as the root cause of an endless cycle of death, re-birth and suffering.

The Buddhists believe we are reincarnated through our desire for our parents. Like Hitchcockian voyeurs, the souls of the dead peer down into the bedrooms of the world, and our desire and loneliness draws us into the zygote of our parents and back into the cycle of Samsara. And so the whirligig of death and re-birth goes round again. Occasionally we wake briefly from the dream, look down through the cycles of death and re-birth, and feel a sickening sense of vertigo. How many times have we been around already, searching for our soul-mate? As Schopenhauer wrote: “Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original.” Vertigo is the evil doppleganger of Groundhog Day. It also suggests that we are going round and round in endless cycles, but it tells us that we will never escape. We will never get the dream-girl, because the dream-girl is an illusion. Not very consolatory, but then, that’s Hitchcock for you.


In other news:

Tuesday of this week was University Mental Health Day. Today, the Guardian had a good online chat about student well-being – go to the comments in this article.

Michael Lewis wrote a review of John Lanchester’s Capital, in which he considered the UK’s embrace and, now, rejection of American financial capitalism.

David Brooks wrote a good column on the things that data can’t tell us, and how there’s no such thing as ‘raw’ data.

Interesting article on the possibility that temporary tattoos will be developed that can act as interfaces between the brain and machines.

The London Philosophy Club has just become the biggest philosophy club in the world! Overtaking our friends in NYC. Come and celebrate with us next Wednesday, when we’re hosting Claire Carlisle for a talk by her on Kierkegaard.

Alternately, if ancient philosophy is more your thing, check out Christopher Gill of Exeter University, who runs the Stoicism project I’m involved with. He’s giving a talk in London on ancient philosophy and modern well-being, also on Wednesday.

Thomas Dixon of the Centre for the History of the Emotions wonders why we cry, in this piece for Aeon.

John Gray has a new book out, developing some of his favourite themes. Here’s an interview with him.

There is no QMUL philosophy workshop this coming Tuesday – I am off to see the Book of Mormon. Classes resume the following Tuesday evening (March 5th).

See you next week