Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/07/2010

E.M. Forster, Mark Jordan, and Other Scoundrels, (and Brendan Behan and Henry VIII’s Balls)

A professor at UTDallas with whom I worked 1994-1999 said she “wrote to know what I think.” It’s one of those days.

Beware the Protestant minister:
his false reason, false creed, and false faith;
the foundation stones of his temple

are the balls of Henry the Eighth.

–attributed to Brendan Behan, 1923-1964 (1)

Not the Virgin King

Not the Virgin King

On Wednesday, August 4, the day Judge Vaughn Walker declared California’s Proposition 8 unconstitutional, I did two searches in an academic database to which my university subscribes. Curiosity, not any urgent need to know anything, was my motive. In the first search, I used the terms “pleasure,” “sex,” and “marriage.” In the second, I used “violence,” “sex,” and “marriage.” The “pleasure” search yielded 6188 articles. The “violence” search yielded 8073. Apparently one is—according to my understanding of statistics—only 3/4ths as likely to encounter pleasure in sex and marriage as one is to encounter violence in sex and marriage.

I’m pretty sure that’s true. Statistics bear me out.

In his article, “Living happily however after,” Alexander Welsh explains the origins of the word “happy.”

The word enters the English language in the sixteenth century with an etymology attaching it to chance or luck. Middle English had already picked up hap from Old Norse and given us the verb happen, useful to this day. That makes happiness seem rather chancy, yet by the end of the sixteenth century the word could refer to a more lasting state of contentment (2).

Welsh says elsewhere that he

. . . was intrigued by a somewhat peevish remark by E. M. Forster about marriage and death that also reflected on this nineteenth-century practice of novel writing: “If it was not for death and marriage I do not know how the average novelist would conclude,” Forster wrote. “Death and marriage are almost [the novelist’s] only connection between his characters and his plot.” (3)

Forster’s peevish remark aside (this from the book in which he argues that novelists are stuck with plots, and the art of fiction writing would be improved by not having plots), the connection between marriage and death controls the “plotting” of a vast amount of fiction.

. . . marriage and death were not exactly the same thing, but the first regularly implies the second: that is, the parties to a marriage implicitly accede to their own passing; they typically, ceremoniously vow to be true to one another until death (4).

Welsh begins his article with the discussion of the etymology of “happy” I quoted above. His question revolves around how much of what makes one “happy” is pure “happenstance” since the words come from the same root. According to the proponents of Proposition 8, I gather, what makes one happy is to be in a heterosexual monogamous relationship that, at least in much fiction, is seen as the handmaiden of “death.” I’m not quite unkind enough to say that it appears to me that many “straight” marriages (as well as a couple same-sex marriages) I know certainly look like some kind of “death.” At the very least, they appear to have not much more than a 75% chance of providing any real “pleasure” (see the statistics above). That is to say, the happenstance of being married doesn’t appear to be any guarantor of being happy.

I would not have begun this writing to find out what I think if I had not stumbled across a statement in online news this morning by Bryan Fischer, the American Family Association’s director of issue analysis, saying that Judge Vaughn Walker should be impeached because “federal judges are out of control” (5).

The American Family Association, I need not remind anyone, is a self-proclaimed keeper of the christian faith and Americanism. Pursuing any argument with their work and beliefs at this point would be worse than beating a dead horse. We all know where we all stand on the issue(s) associated with Proposition 8. But a couple of things they have published may help me figure out what I believe this morning as I write about them.

In 1994, Richard G. Howe of the AFA wrote,

I believe the term gay was introduced to prejudice the debate in favor of homosexuality. To call someone gay connotes notions of happiness. I avoid the term gay because I do not believe homosexuality is happy (6).

Aside from his obvious rhetorical error (“homosexuality” cannot be happy or unhappy; it is an abstraction and has no feelings), Rowe has acquitted himself well as a proponent of the worldview that “marriage and death [are] not exactly the same thing, but the first regularly implies the second.” He confirms his belief that

. . . any understanding of sexuality, including heterosexuality, that makes it chiefly an arena for the satisfaction of personal desire is harmful to individuals and society. Any way of life that accepts or encourages sexual relations for pleasure or personal satisfaction alone turns away from the disciplined community that marriage is intended to engender and foster (7).

This theological/political ground has not only been covered but tromped down so much there is no real reason to mention it. However, in my random search for “pleasure,” “sex,” and “marriage,” I stumbled upon some perhaps un-trampled territory.

Late medieval definitions of sexual sin, and of sodomy in particular, tend to be so all-encompassing as to nearly obscure the topic altogether: sodomy could be any behaviour that fitted the category of. . . sin against nature, including a range of heterosexual acts. Heterosexual adultery, for instance, is termed by Chaucer’s Parson, “All that is enemy and destruction to nature is against nature.” Parson’s Tale, line 864 (8).

Mr. Howe would certainly agree that heterosexual adultery is a sin against nature. We have no argument there. But does adultery comprise “sodomy?” (For the record, Mr. Howe uses the word “sodomy” without distinction from “homosexuality.”) Mark D. Jordan, in his thorough and enlightening study of the “invention” of sodomy in the Medieval church, suggests that Mr. Howe’s premise about sexual pleasure is wrong:

The irrational force of the Christian condemnation of Sodomy is the remainder of Christian theology’s failure to think through the problem of the erotic. We might even suspect that Sodomy came into existence as a category just because of that failure. To invent Sodomy was to invent a pure essence of the erotic without connection to reproduction. . . . “Sodomy” is a name not for a kind of human behavior, but for a failure of theologians. “Sodomy” is the nervous refusal of theologians to understand how pleasure can survive the preaching of the Gospel (9).

Back to Henry VIII’s balls.

Against Nature?

Against Nature?

In the preface to his own version of the scriptures, the good King writes:

You know well how our Lord God, whose words or scriptures we are
discussing, ordered that when a king sat on the throne of his

kingdom, he should write for himself the law of God, and, having it
with him, should read it every day of his life, so that he should
thus learn to fear the Lord his God, and guard His words.

David Jeffrey says this is “Henry’s tidy though blasphemous verbatim evocation of Deuteronomy 17:19-19.” Apparently anyone, even the King, or any defender of christianity can “write for himself the law of God.”
_______
(1) Jeffrey, David Lyle. “Courtly love and christian marriage: Chretien de Troyes, Chaucer, and Henry VIII. Christianity and Literature 59.3 (2010): 515+.
(2) Welsh, Alexander. “Living happily however after.” Social Research 77.2 (2010): 491+.
(3) ibid. Quoting, Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, 1927.
(4) ibid.
(5) Wolens, Alex. “Judge Vaughn Walker Targeted for Impeachment.” SFWeekly Blogs. sfweekly.com.  Aug. 6 2010. Web. 7 Aug 2010.
(6) Howe, Richard G. “Homosexuality in America: Exposing the Myths.” The American Family Association, 1994.
(7) ibid.
(8) Federico, Sylvia. “Queer times: Richard II in the poems and chronicles of late fourteenth-century England.” Medium Aevum 79.1 (2010): 25+.
(9) Jordan, Mark D. The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1997 (176).

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