You may wince at the crass behaviour of Donald Trump, roll your eyes at Caitlin/Bruce Jenner’s portrait on the cover of Vogue, or lament the legalization of same-sex marriage — but there is something even more painful about these events. We don’t know how we got here from there.
Without sugar-coating the past, a bare half a century ago divorce was rare, churches were full, most movies were family-friendly, modesty was praiseworthy. Today, octogenarian mums and dads of that era mutter as they look around at their grandchildren: “whatever happened to the world I remember?”
It may sound naïve, but it’s a good question, and one to which historians, sociologists and philosophers need to put their mind. If we don’t understand how we got here, we won’t know where we are going. It’s a bit like the AIDS epidemic. When it was first identified, AIDS was terrifying; its origin was mysterious and its future was apocalyptic. But now scientists believe that it began in the Congo in the 1920s when viruses crossed over from monkeys and chimpanzees, thence spreading to Haiti, and to gay communities in the United States. Equipped with a knowledge of what AIDS is, how it works and how it spreads, they are in a position to contain and cure it.
Similarly, the first step towards helping Western culture recover from its intoxication with unlimited sexual freedom is to understand where the infection began.
One discerning analyst is Augusto Del Noce, an Italian who is regarded in his own country as one of the leading public thinkers and philosophers of the post-War era. He died in 1989 just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Until now, very little of his work has been available in English. But a collection of essays has recently been published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, The Crisis of Modernity, which sheds light on the rapid evolution of our culture.
Reading them is not a walk in the park. A philosopher steeped in the Continental tradition, Del Noce is fond of isms and ists. Be prepared for phrases like “psycho-erotic-Freudian-Marxist de-Christianization”, digressions about obscure thinkers and paragraphs of monumental length. But it’s worthwhile persevering. In one particularly insightful essay from 1970, “The Ascendance of Eroticism”, he identified three explanations for the rise of rudeness and lewdness: scientism, hatred of Christianity, and capitalism.
Del Noce’s analysis begins with the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution, whose most radical representative (even by the standard of his own day) is the Marquis de Sade. De Sade (1740-1814), whom Del Noce nominates as “the founder of eroticism”, was the author of philosophical novels which promoted sexual freedom (“sadism” is named after him) – so extreme that Napoleon threw him in jail and took away his paper and pens.
The French Enlightenment is a complex phenomenon, but amongst its many strands are a deep hostility to Christianity and a corresponding idolatry of science. In the works of de Sade both are significant. Del Noce regards “scientism” as the key to understanding de Sade’s incredible obscenity. If God does not exist, then Christianity is a fraud and repression of the sexual instinct is the worst form of immorality, in de Sade’s framework. If all that exists is sensation, then empirical science must be the only form of knowledge.
Although this is common currency in today’s op-ed pages, it is evident nonsense. The principles of the physical sciences are not self-explanatory; they require meta-physics to be intelligible. Del Noce concludes from the case of de Sade, “The question of eroticism is first of all metaphysical. Only a restoration of… ‘classical metaphysics’ can truly dismantle the framework of judgements that make up eroticism.”
The 20th Century standard bearer for de Sade’s vision of science and sexuality was Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957), an Austrian psychoanalyst who died in an American jail. (He was serving a two-year sentence for distributing “orgone energy accumulators”, in violation of the Food and Drug Act. He was convinced that these absorbed a life-force from the atmosphere which could cure colds, cancer, and impotence; the FDA condemned them as sheer quackery.)
During Reich’s life he was relatively unknown in the English-speaking world, but his book The Sexual Revolution (PDF link to the table of contents) became the bible of rioting students in 1968 – and a blueprint for all subsequent developments in the culture of eroticism. Here are some of its ideas; do they sound familiar?
- the abolition of lifelong, monogamous marriage
- encouraging infantile sexuality, because suppressing it leads to perversity in late life
- promoting frank sexual education and sexual freedom for adolescents
- abstinence is pathological
- freedom for people with “abnormal” sexualities such as homosexuality to pursue their inclinations
- legalizing abortion
Del Noce regards Reich as a mediocre but rigorously consistent thinker. “If Reich deserves any credit,” he says, it is for having pushed the practical judgement of the libertine type to its ultimate consequences.” His starting point was De Sade’s scientism: that nothing exists apart from empirically verifiable facts, nothing at all. Man is a mere bundle of physical needs. And from there he reached the same conclusion: the necessity of absolute sexual freedom.
Reich began by trying to reconcile psychoanalysis with Marxist theory. But he was more radical than Marx, Del Noce says. Although Marx was a materialist and an atheist, he did locate values in something objective, which for him was the progress of history toward utopian Communism. This ultimately meant that the Soviet Union – a bit like Christianity — regarded unlimited sexual freedom as “the last stage of disintegration and degeneration of bourgeois society”.
Reich grasped that all discussion of finality and ends, all metaphysical notions whatsoever, implied the existence of God. To assert that something had an innate purpose would be an obstacle to the attainment of universal happiness through full sexual satisfaction. Consequently, to say that sex is intended for procreation is not only repressive but covertly religious. Sex has no purpose apart from pleasure. In Reich’s words:
“[The] concept of the sexual urge as being in the service of procreation is a method of repression on the part of conservative sexology. It is a finalistic, i.e., idealistic concept. It presupposes a goal which of necessity must be of supernatural origin. It reintroduces a metaphysical principle and thus betrays a religious or mystical prejudice.”
Furthermore, the family must be destroyed as the repressive institution par excellence. As Del Noce comments perceptively, “the idea of family is inseparable from the idea of tradition, from a heritage of truth that we must trader, hand on. Thus the abolition of every meta-empirical order of truth requires that the family be dissolved.”
Reich eventually broke with Marxism because the Bolshevik government, after a brief experiment with state-sponsored free love, had re-established the family and banned homosexuality. To Reich, this was anathema.
Hatred of Christianity
The other relevant strand of the French Enlightenment, hostility towards Christianity, surfaced, according to Del Noce, in Surrealism around the same time as Reich was developing his theories, in the 1920s and 30s. As a movement in the arts, surrealism seems relatively harmless. Surrealist artists defied conventions and tried to liberate the subconscious from the fetters of rationality, as you can see in the melting clocks of Dali and the mysterious jests of Magritte. But it also had a revolutionary program, whose theorist was the French poet André Breton. It proposed the creation of “a new reality in which mankind will supposedly reach the fullness of its powers, taking back what it had projected outside of itself by creating God”.
Del Noce believes that “having started from de Sade, Surrealism (and, in general, the avant-garde) rediscovered through an independent development Reich’s idea about the necessity to complete Marxism with the new sexual morality, in order for the total revolution to succeed.” The most substantial obstacle to this cultural revolution was Christianity, notably the Catholic Church. The Surrealists were the first to realise that “the decisive battle against Christianity could be fought only at the level of the sexual revolution”. They were quite open about their goals; in 1949 Breton summarized the Surrealist program as follows:
“To bring forever to ruin the abominable Christian notion of sin, of original fall, of redeeming love, to replace them without hesitation with the idea of the divine union of man and woman … Morality based on the exaltation of pleasure will, sooner or later, wipe away the vile morality of suffering and resignation, preserved by the vile morality of suffering and resignation, preserved by forms of social imperialism and the Church.”
Surrealism did not have much direct influence upon mass culture, but as the cultural counterpart of Freudian psychology, it did have a significant impact upon intellectuals and artists. Through Hollywood and Madison Avenue its message of the “exaltation of pleasure” reached millions.
It is common to say that the “gay agenda” is a refinement of Marxist praxis. There is some truth in this, but Del Noce points out that Reich believed that America’s consumer society offered more fertile ground for his sexual revolution than the USSR ever did. Reich replaced the class struggle with a “struggle against repression”. This meant, in practice, that complete sexual fulfilment and happiness was not inconsistent with economic inequality.
“today’s social struggles are being waged between those forces interested in the safeguarding and affirming of life and those whose interests lie in its destruction and negation. Today the principal social question no longer is: ‘Are you rich or are you poor?’ but: ‘Do you endorse and do you fight to secure the greatest possible freedom for human life?’”
And so it turned out that Reich’s Sexual Revolution complemented American consumer capitalism during the Cold War era. There would be no danger of revolutions on the streets if workers were absorbed in exploring their sexuality. As Reich wrote in 1949:
“But here, as nowhere else, there is the possibility of striving for happiness and for human rights. … The present volume, The Sexual Revolution, has also been favorably received. In America, there are powerful and wellestablished parent-teacher organizations which defend the principle of self-regulation and, with it, of sex-economy for the child. Universities teach the life principle, including its sexual elements. Here and there one encounters hesitation, silence, even hostility, but sexual hygiene for the masses is making strong progress.”
Something about this rings true. Left-wing American politics has redefined social justice as sexual freedom. Once upon a time the West resonated with the spine-tingling opening words of the Communist Manifesto, “A spectre is haunting Europe,” the spectre of justice for the proletariat. A latter-day Marx would have to write, “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of unfulfilled sexual desire.”
A paradigm example of this was Hillary Clinton’s response to a question in her third debate with Trump the other day. She was asked to identify the most important priorities for the Supreme Court. Of the three, the first two were abortion and gay rights. Workers were invisible. Reich would have applauded.
What lessons does Del Noce’s analysis have for us? He was writing in 1970, but the factors he identified as contributors to the “ascendancy of eroticism” are on the money. Scorn for religion, the belief that science and metaphysics are mutually exclusive, hatred for Christianity as the principal agent of repression, and support from the business world are all are playing their roles in advancing same-sex marriage and transgenderism. Where “eroticism” originated, how it works and how it spreads can be identified. Equipped with that knowledge, we are in a position to contain and cure it.