Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Benedict XVI and pedophilia

My heading does not refer to current events, but to a little known episode that occurred when Joseph Ratzinger was nine years old.

In July 1933 the Vatican (represented by Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII) signed a Concordat with the Nazi government. Distrust persisted, however, as Catholics reacted to the neo-pagan aspects of the regime, while Hitler disliked the political side of Catholicism (the Center Party) as an independent power center, and potential site of resistance to his regime. Catholics objected to Nazi euthanasia, on right-to-life grounds.

Matters came to a head early in 1936 with the "Immorality" Trials, in which hundreds of priests, monks, lay brothers, and nuns were accused of "perverted and immoral lifestyles," code words for homosexuality and pedophilia. Parents were urged to withdraw their children from Catholic schools lest they be molested.

For a long time I thought these charges were just trumped up. To be sure, the Nazis engaged in some entrapment and other chicanery. However, as recent experience in Massachusetts and other states has shown, there may have been something to the accusations.

At any rate this background probably explains the anti-Nazi views of Ratzinger's father, who resented the attack on the Church. The memory may linger today in the son. It could help to account for the pope's evident ambivalence on the matter of priestly pedophilia. In 1997 Cardinal Ratzinger received credible evidence concerning pedophile behavior on the part of a Mexican youth leader, Father Marcial Maciel. John Paul II, it appears, wouldn't hear of investigating such a fine priest. So the matter was quashed. Now, however, Benedict XVI is reopening the case.

A historical irony is that the original base of Nazism was in south Germany and Austria. The Beer Hall Putsch was in Bavaria. But Catholic opposition initially prevented Hitler's triumph. It was only after Protestant north Germany went over to him that he was able to become chancellor in Jan. 1933. Hitler had reason to resent Catholics.


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Benedict (not-so-sweet) sixteen

The elevation of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger is eliciting a muted, but growing sense of apprehension in Western Europe and North America. Gays have particular reason for concern. It was Ratzinger, as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who issued the 1986 document characterizing homosexuality as an "intrinsic moral evil." Women’s ordination is now very unlikely, though there may be some expansion of the role of married priests, who in fact already exist within the Church. In my view the most serious disappointment will be the continuing attempt to ban contraception (a ban most American Catholics wisely ignore). The Roman Catholic church is opposed to abortion, yet by seeking to block access to birth control the institution makes more abortions inevitable.

Perhaps there is even more reason to fear than one might think. Twentieth-century theology has been dominated by a serious of penetrating, tireless writers whose native language is German. The names of Rudolf Bultmann, Karl Barth, and Jürgen Moltmann come immediately to mind. These are all Protestants.

Yet they have Roman Catholic counterparts in Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Rahner, and Hans Küng. Küng in particular has served as a bridge to Karl Barth, who although a Reform theologian has been particularly influential in Catholic circles. It is oversimple to label Barth as neo-orthodox, as is sometimes done, but there is no doubt that he set an example of uncompromising rigor that has been hostile to ecclesiastical liberalism.

What do these figures, von Balthasar, Rahner, and Küng, have in common? First, they show a combination of erudition in many languages and unceasing productivity. Theologically they reject what might be termed the dead hand of Thomism (for so long the "official" system of thought in the RC Church) in favor of resourcing, that is, a return to previously neglected patristic sources such as Origen and Clement of Alexandria. These scholars are familiar with the flood of new and newly discovered documents from the ancient Near East. In addition there is an affinity with modern existential thought, as seen in the work of Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers. They seem to share a predilection for playing Mozart on the piano.

The group is not monolithic. When, in his role as theological watchdog, Ratzinger found that Küng had strayed from the reservation, he disciplined him. Despite their conflict, however, Küng has just opined that his old adversary should be given a chance.

While some celebrate his theological acumen, it is probably fair to say that Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, has not quite attained the stature of the leading members of the German-speaking group. It is perhaps in that sense that he is humble. Yet the new pontiff will continue to access the deep learning and analytical sharpness that is the common storehouse of the group.

Despite criticism in Western Europe and North America, Ratzinger’s elevation makes a good deal of sense in terms of where the Church is now. His views with regard to the “silent apostasy” that has produced so many empty churches in Europe are forthright. Instead of trying to ignore this erosion, as was mostly the case with his predecessor, Benedict XVI will shrink the Church in those prosperous but demographically declining countries. For the foreseeable future there will be no attempt at reevangelization among the errant flocks. Instead, the center of gravity of the Church will settle even more decisively in the Third World, where an increasing proportion of Catholics live and where Benedict’s theological conservatism will be welcome. His emphasis on the perennial teachings of the Church will also be reassuring to those in this camp. And indeed many will say that the accommodation to the modern world, so much commended by secular intellectuals, has been counterproductive, as people shun the "enlightened" denominations of liberal Protestantism in favor of denominations of stricter observance.

Much has changed since 1968, that tumultuous year which ostensibly marked an epochal change. It did help to produce Liberation Theology. In retrospect Ratzinger’s condemnation of that ephemeral movement seems prescient.

But, but, but—readers will say. Is there really any future in Benedict’s obstinate rejection of modernism and relativism? This intransigence would seem to recall Pius IX with his Syllabus of Errors—or even King Canute’s legendary attempt to turn back the waves.

It is a dismaying thought, but the twenty-first century--globalization and all--may not turn out to be an unalloyed triumph for modernism, at least in the social realm. Even among non-Christian faiths, fundamentalism and traditionalism are on the march. I take no pleasure in this prospect, but it needs to be faced.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Urban legends concerning homosexuality

In recent years folklorists have spotlighted the phenomenon of the urban legend. Here is the archetypal example. An American couple from San Diego visited Tijuana. Spotting a tiny, emaciated dog on the street they took pity on the creature and brought it back home with them. The animal proved very affectionate, but it fell sick. The couple took it to the vet, who confirmed that the animal was indeed very sick—and was a Mexican sewer rat.

Typically these stories are bolstered by attestations of three or four degrees of separation. "The story must be true, because my wife’s cousin, who lives in Denver, got it from her next-door neighbor, a close friend of the San Diego couple."

Several of these legends concern homosexuality. One that dates back at least thirty years claims that Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors got married in San Francisco. This story began long before AIDS forced the revelation of Hudson’s homosexuality. Although Hudson and Nabors were friends, there is no truth the to the story itself. Apparently, it started as a party gag, in which the guests were invited to attend the "wedding."

In this case there is a smidgen of truth. One is reminded of the story about the composer Camille Saint-Saens who was asked if he was a homosexual. "Certainly not," he replied heatedly. "I am a pederast."

The Hudson-Nabors story created a pattern. A more recent version has it that a rabbi in Los Angeles married actor Keanu Reeves and producer David Geffen.

Many hold that J. Edgar Hoover, for many years director of the FBI, was a transvestite and that he was conducting a long-term affair with his assistant Clyde Tolson. Yet only one witness has attested that Hoover wore a dress, at one party. While both Hoover and Tolson were probably gay, it is unlikely that they were lovers. Rather they were probably two older "aunties," gay buddies who enjoyed cruising together and ogling hunky agents, but who did not sleep together.

An urban legend that has a surprising longevity is the claim that Saddam Hussein appeared in a gay porno film. Perhaps this was suggested by the similarity of the name Saddam to Sodom. It is amusing, but improbable.

Other stories concern fictional characters. The close relationship of Batman and Robin seems almost designed to fit such an interpretation, even though the comic strip and the subsequent television and movie series never supported it directly. Recently, one of the Teletubbies and Spongebob Squarepants have been alleged to be gay.

Some urban legends have to do with business firms, sometimes claiming that they are racist or even satanic. A fairly harmless example is the interpretation of the name GAP as "gay and proud." Supposedly, the gay founder of the firm wanted to make his sentiments known in this way.

The oldest urban legend of this type that I have been able to trace dates back to the thirteenth century, if not before. In a religious compilation known as The Golden Legend, Jacobus of Voragine (ca. 1230-1298) claimed that in order for Christ to incarnate the sodomites all had to die. Only in a world cleansed of this in could the baby Jesus appear. Accordingly, on the first Christmas Eve the Lord destroyed all the homosexuals.

This murderous legend enjoyed considerable popularity in Christian Europe until the early eighteenth century. Then it faded--but not entirely. Only last year a Greek Othodox priest pronounced that homosexual conduct was very dangerous. The proof was that the sodomites had to die on Christmas Eve.

The most insidious contemporary urban legend concerning gays is the gerbil hoax. Supposedly, gay men cut off the claws and teeth of gerbils and pleasure themselves by inserting the tiny creatures into their rectums. Typically, the claim is buttressed by the word of a "friend of a friend," say, a hospital employee who saw such a person in the emergency room. Sometimes this vicious rumor is applied to a particular person, say a television personality, which can threaten the career of the individual

While some gay urban legends are merely amusing, others are truly vicious. As these spread by word of mouth, little can be done to stop them. Let us hope that the gerbil hoax, for which no evidence has ever been found, is dying out.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Sex mysterious--and not mysterious

In recent years sex researchers have focused on a number of apparent anomalies having to do with sex. The search for anomalies, and the attempt at their resolution, is a central aspect of the scientific enterprise. Some gay writers have said that the etiology of heterosexuality needs explanation just as much as the etiology of homosexuality. Not so.

Current sex research, informed by ethology and evolutionary psychology, has a much broader scope than that of Alfred Kinsey a century ago. Kinsey and his team deal only with human males and females--with a further limitation to white people in the United States during the twentieth century). A fuller understanding requires broadening the range of inquiry from human beings to the mammalian sphere, with special attention to our close relatives in the order of primates. A number of questions are outstanding. Among them are these:

1) Why is it that, unlike most primates, human females do not experience estrus?

2) Of some 270 primate species, thirty-one (including ours) menstruate. Why this difference?
3) Why is it that in most species women are in the aggregate 10-20% smaller than males? In view of childbearing, shouldn’t the ratio be the opposite?

4) What are the reasons why monogamy prevails in some primates, polygyny in others?

5) In what species is it appropriate to speak of animal homosexuality?

6) Why is the Y chromosome disintegrating among humans? Are we destined to become an all-females species?

7) In humans, why do women live long past the child bearing age? Why are some men still able to procreate as they near the end of their life cycle? These men will not be able to care for the child they procreate.

8) What is the role of flagellation, urolagnia and other paraphilias?

9) Why do men have nipples?

10) Why are a few human men and women given to exclusive same-sex relations? Do any animal species reveal this pattern?

As is evident, there is much to be learned about sexuality. And much is being learned. Against a comparative cross-species perspective, the profile of human sexuality emerges with greater clarity.

Some matters have been long established. In all of the species there is no need to explain penile-vaginal intromission and the attraction that leads to it. Oddly, some gay writers insist that there is such a mystery. The reasons for this insistence do not appear to lie within the sphere of scientific inquiry.

It was the cry of Harry Hay, the founder of the American gay rights movement 55 years ago that "We are a people!" This concept of gay separatism has been useful in the political sphere as an organizing tool. Yet it should not intrude into our ongoing effort to understand mammalian sexuality. To allow this intrusion is, if I may say so, a form of self-gratification.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Is the Laocoon a fake?

Since its discovery in a vineyard near Rome in 1506 the marble Laocoon group has ranked as one of the great touchstones of ancient sculpture. Authenticated at the site by none other than Michelangelo Buonarroti, the monument was immediately acquired by Pope Julius II, who installed it in the Cortile del Belvedere of the Vatican, where it has been ever since.

In this prominent place the Laocoon group has compelled admiration as the perfect union of form and content. Diffused through prints, the group’s image has been visually quoted and satirized in countless guises. Oddly, the date assigned by scholars has oscillated between ca. 250 BCE, which would make it a work of the Hellenistic baroque, and some 300 years later, so that it would be a product of the Roman classical revival. The difference is not as great an anomaly as it seems, since under the Roman Empire gifted sculptors were able to produce remarkable copies or pastiches of Greek works.

So far, though, no one has suggested that the Laocoon might have originated much later, and that it might have been a Renaissance forgery. This evening (April 6, 2005), before a packed house in Columbia University’s Casa Italiana, Dr. Lynn Catterson did just that. A Renaissance scholar, the speaker attributed the famous group to the hand of Michelangelo. If Catterson is right, the work must be subtracted from the roster of great works of antiquity and added to the canon of perhaps even greater works created by Michelangelo

What are the reasons for this extraordinary proposal?

First, in his youth Michelangelo is known to have made several fakes of ancient sculpture. While most believe that these forgeries have all been detected, the history of fakes suggests a different lesson, to wit, that to date not all fakes have been detected. Some, it is alleged, still lurk in the collections of major museums. If the work is a fake, it is better to discover this fact later (namely now), rather than never.

During the period 1498-51 Michelangelo ordered much more marble than he needed, even considering the work on the big Pietà of 1498. What became of this marble?

In addition Dr. Catterson made a number of comparisons with drawings attributed to Michelangelo. However, since some of these are doubtful, possibly even forgeries, we have the irony of the obscure clarified by the yet more obscure.

Some objections spring immediately to mind. How was Michelangelo able to conceal this major endeavor from his contemporaries? How was the work transported to its find site in the vineyard? Why is it that for the last 499 years no one has ever suspected the authenticity of such a prominent monument?

Finally, there is a problem of a more subjective sort. The Laocoon group just doesn’t seem to fit into the accepted roster of Michelangelo’s early works. For one thing, the marble group shows a contrast between the beefy central nude and the two lissome sons on either side. It almost seems as if two incompatible sculptural concepts of the human body have been collaged together. Scholars, who note that one of the remarkable features of the work is that through sheer forcefulness it somehow makes us overlook the problem, have not overlooked this discrepancy. Yet Michelangelo would not do this. Whenever presented with an assignment to combine several figures into one work, he adjusted them all to his heroic, almost overwhelming archetype of the human figure. Even in the early stages of his work, he would not have tolerated the presence of the two "sissy" boys in the presence of a massive central figure (which would have been to his liking). The anomaly is easily explained, however, if we accept the traditional view that three sculptors collaborated to create it in antiquity.

Perhaps those of us who have brought up to think that Michelangelo is Michelangelo and, despite its influence on him, ancient sculpture is ancient sculpture, simply have difficulty changing our minds. We have been "brainwashed" for too many years into accepting the Laocoon group as one of the major landmarks of ancient sculpture.

At this stage, though, Dr. Catterson’s intriguing thesis remains only hypothetical. Possibly, arguments will surface to settle the matter one way or the other. Or perhaps, as with other contested works, such as the Getty kouros, it must linger in a kind of twilight of uncertainty.

I am far from embracing the postmodern view that such uncertainty is a good thing—perhaps even in many cases inevitable. Still, it must be acknowledged that, as with all historical issues, we know less about art history than we would like to think we do. Perhaps we must acknowledge that here at least our "certain knowledge" is not certain.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

France and ourselves

I am far from sharing the aversion to France that is rampant in America today. Some are going so far as to empty out bottles of French wine onto the ground. Don’t do that. Give them to me, and I’ll be certain to pour them down the drain--not!

Of course distrust of France goes back a long way in our country. When I first traveled to Europe in 1957, I talked to some ordinary GIs in Germany, who identified with the Germans as "our kind of people." By contrast the French were, in their view, shifty and unstable. Foreign policy differences--as recently over Iraq--have also proved an obstacle to understanding. As with our dynamic of love/dislike of England, feelings about France tell us something about the culture wars in our own country. Chablis and Brie may still be the thing at social gatherings on the two Coasts, but they don’t cut it in the heartland.

In the course of many trips to France I have found the French more reserved than some peoples, but consistently correct in their behavior. They are not enthusiastic about my mangled pronunciation of their language, but I am not so keen on it either. In these trips I had specific, sometimes all-consuming goals that drove me to special efforts at seeing buildings and works of art, touring the extraordinarily varied countryside, consuming good food, and (being the person I am) buying books. However exigent, I could always satisfy my needs. Subjective though it may be, that is my definition of a good country.

To be sure, the French have their problems. Most stem from the gap between the image that they would like to project--a relic of former great-power status--and the reality, which is much less grand and comforting. To be sure, the French have made extraordinary progress during the trente glorieuses (1945-75), when they came abreast of the other leading Western nations. Now that things are better for them, they are also taking a more realistic view of their capacities to act on the world stage.

However, a certain weariness, even in the view of some decadence, set in after the loss of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. Above all, this malaise was conditioned by the low birthrate. After World War II, this problem was offset, but not sufficiently, and to keep its industries humming France had to permit large-scale Muslim immigration, yielding the social discord that has ensued. Today low birthrates are the rule throughout Western Europe. These population deficits probably doom the aspirations of the European Union to become a superpower.

Let me just mention one economic indicator. For a long time, French books were not very well made. The paper was poor, and the texts marred by typos and lack of an index. Foreign names were habitually misspelled. Today French books are better produced, ours less well—-so I suppose that we now have a level playing field. In keeping with this new equality, French books are no longer cheap.

These technical difficulties in book production have been unsettling, especially to a bibliophile like myself. The books are vehicles of the highest importance. It is my belief (shared, e.g., by many Italian and Latin American intellectuals) that French literature offers the only fully rounded achievement that can compete with the ancient Greek and Latin authors. Again and again, even when I should be doing other things, I go back to the original texts of the Arthurian cycle; of Rabelais and Montaigne; Pascal and Molière; Diderot and Voltaire; Balzac, Stendhal, and Flaubert—not to omit the moderns Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Cocteau, Proust, and Céline. This treasure house is inexhaustible. I am less keen on the contemporary gurus Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault. Yet they do not loom as large as they once did.

Of course there is a great world beyond books. Even today the specter of 1940, the Fall of France, hangs over the country. In six weeks, during May and June of 1940, Hitler’s armies rolled over France. For foreigners, and perhaps for the French themselves, this long-ago event is a haunting reminder of inadequacy. But should it be? A recent book by Ernest May shows that the French and German armies were almost equal in equipment, leadership, and morale in 1940. As Ernest May argues in a recent revisionist book, the battle could have gone the other way.

It may have been turned by what at first seemed a piece of luck for France and her allies. In January 1940, a German plane got lost in the fog and went down near Mecheln (Malines) in Belgium. It contained the plans for invasion, which were almost the same as those of the Schlieffen plan of 1940, that is to push straight across Belgium and then come down on France from the north. Once Hitler learned that the plans had been found, he was forced to adopt a risky new scheme. This involved an invasion further south through the Ardennes. First there was an almost trackless forest, then the cliffs of the Meuse channel. Such an invasion route was viewed very improbable, so that when it came the French thought it was just a feint. German troups poured in through the Sedan gap, and soon it was all over. (See the stimulating, if sometimes inconclusive analysis in Julian Jackson, The Fall of France, Oxford University Press, 2003.)

Many would disagree, but it does seem that the accident of one downed plane in Belgium played a decisive role in what was to come. What appeared to be an advantage to the allies, turned out to be the reverse.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 the French had expected a long war. Although they were better prepared for fighting than many thought, they recognized that the advantages of the German war machine could only be worn down over time. Their strategists foresaw that it would take years for the economic superiority of the allies, especially of Britain and her empire, and the United States, to achieve victory. De Gaulle recognized this, brilliantly improvising with limited means. And victory was achieved, after five horrendous years. In the upshot France has emerged a strong modern nation, something that could not be said of the period 1870-1939. So perhaps the French won their war after all. And not just over their occupiers, but over their internal deficiencies.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Straight (= heterosexual)

Noting interest in historical semantics, a friend asked about the current meaning of the word "straight"= heterosexual, nongay. Since ca. 1945 this sense has flourished alongside another, in which straight means "not under the influence of drugs." Both senses function as antonyms for a family of epithets thatincludes "crooked," "devious," "twisted," "bent." In contemporary British usage a secondary meaning of the term bent is homosexual.

As early as the sixteenth century "straight" had come to mean honest, as in business dealings. By 1868 a sexual (or rather nonsexual) meaning had emerged: a straight woman was a chaste one. This development produced a template contrasting “good women” (who preserve their chastity) and "loose" or "fast" ones. And this template underlies the pairs -- straight: heterosexual :: bent: gay.

What is the origin of the assumption that, in effect, it is always best to follow the shortest route between two points? The trope seems to be cross-cultural, as seen in the Latin word rectitudo, reflecting recta via, on the right (straight) path, and yielding our "rectitude." In its English versions the Bible often praises "righteousness," echoing the Hebrew sedek. A straight path is one that goes in the right direction (cf. Psalm 23:3).

There is some non-Western evidence as well. In the Analects Confucius warns against "twisted thoughts."

Cross-cultural it may be, but the contrast between straight = good and detour = bad is not a semantic universal. The French lesbian theorist Monique Wittig lived in the United States for a number of years. In 1992 she brought out a book The Straight Mind. When she decided to translate it into French the title read "La pensée straight." Apparently she was unable to find an exact equivalent in French for this expression, so familiar in English. Similarly, in German the adjective "gerade" seems to lack the secondary connotations of the English "straight."

Not surprisingly, American gays have reacted against the value judgment implicit in the contrast of straight and gay. During the 1970s and 80s the independent editor Boyd McDonald published an underground magazine in New York City originally entitled Straight to Hell (aka S.T.H., The Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts). Nowadays, some gay reactions against the usage seem to go too far, as the T-shirt some men wear that reads "I can’t even think straight'" It is one thing to note and deplore homophobic slurs; another to adopt them as one’s self-definition.

The expression "get straight" suggests that the condition of nonstraightness can be overcome. This may be the case with emerging from a state of mild confusion or a period of indulgence in drugs, but most gay people believe that with regard to sexual orientation it is not such a simple matter. At the other extreme of the spectrum, those who disparage homosexuality is a deplorable character stain do not accept that it is easy to expunge.

Since heterosexuals tend to assume that (absent contrary evidence) everyone has the same orientation they do, they have little use for the term straight. Still, there are indications of a fledgling Straight Pride Movement. Or so a prowl on the Internet suggests. How serious this trend is remains to be seen.

All this being said, how boring is this notion that one may never wander from the most direct route! And how fascinating and rewarding bypaths can be!

Moreover, the ideal of perpetually remaining straight does not reflect a realistic assessment of human nature. This approach is not simply boring, it is almost impossible to maintain. In a saying embraced by Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher Immanuel Kant noted "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing will ever be made."

Finally, what is the purpose of the current Internet rendering "str8"? Cute it may be, but it is paradoxical also, because in our mathematical notation the symbol for eight [8], with its crisscross intersection of the single curved line, is hardly an exemplary rendering of the concept of straight. Even staid Euclidean geometry admits curved lines; otherwise why bother with calculating the value of pi? Piet Mondrian was one of the very few artists not to employ curved lines

Placed on its side [∞], the figure 8 means infinity. Perhaps that is fitting enough, for it seems that this dialogue between moral straightness and its more realistic competitor, allowing openness to deviation, will never end.