Extremely old Americans may remember that vending machines in truck stop men’s rooms once dispensed condoms whose wrappers were printed with the warning, “For the prevention of disease only.” As textual history demonstrates, that was not just a monition but a commandment. In Connecticut, where Congregationalist Protestantism was the state religion until half a century after the American Revolution, Yankee Calvinists wrote religious laws against birth control in the nineteenth century and Irish Catholics enforced them in the twentieth. The legislative climates were similar in other states, but because a part of art is defiance, defiant literature imagined into being a little paragraph of counter-prose. Getting its hands dirty with latex and ink, literature remolded the words of solemn warning into a mocking anti-sanctimony and stocked cash-operated machines with it under the deacons’ noses.
In 1965, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut that people have a right to use birth control for any diseased or undiseased purpose they choose to name, and at that historical point the Trojans lapsed into silence. They’ve remained silent ever since, but it seems possible now that the time will soon return when the men’s room gets noisy as the tiles echo again with priestly bellowings. In 2022, in a concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center, the decision which reversed the court’s 1973 holding of a constitutional right to abortion, Justice Thomas of the Supreme Court opined that Griswold v. Connecticut must now be reversed too.
Art, however, always anticipates a counter-art. Greek tragedy performed itself in alternation with bawdy satyr plays, and Justice Thomas’s script was anticipated as far previously as 1954, the year Shepherd Mead published his satire The Big Ball of Wax: a novel set in a distant future (1992!), when scripted dreams are beamed directly from TV studios into the brains of the masses. Not all of Mead’s science fiction came true on schedule; his 1992 is still a time of slide rules and carbon paper. On the other hand, a new part of its geography is “St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), Russia,” and the plot’s key event is that an adman figures a way to get commercials into the dreams. Now that the phones in our pockets are our spying intimates, that part reads like prophecy.
And about that, the cheery satyr-prophets of art invite Justice Thomas, his Christian Church, and every one of the rest of us to unzip a little and dwell on this love scene. Just do the logical thing with the new words that arrive to reclothe your thought, the satyrs suggest, and then what happens after they teach you to speak laughingly will be Happily ever after.
In the days of Betty Friedan, an object of feminist scorn was Phyllis McGinley, poet of suburban domesticity. The hate has gone away now, if only because the immensely successful writer of the middle twentieth century is now unread. A fast history of her representative evanishment from memory, if you need one, is Ginia Bellafante’s “Suburban Rapture,” New York Times, December 24, 2008.
Acting on the need isn’t mandatory, though. The historical point about Phyllis really makes itself. It has a completely self-evident background, for example, here on these four pages from The New Yorker. “War war war! Fiddle dee dee!” Miss Scarlett had protested a short time before they appeared, but by now the date on the cover had advanced to October 25, 1941. The war had been on for more than two years as of then, and Pearl Harbor was less than two months in the fully foreseeable future. So no, say the images on the pages to you, as of 1941 and also as of ever after: don’t ignore and don’t evade. Fiddle dee dee won’t work, and now you are obliged to know that it never did. You always had to look.
But the consecutive corpus is actually five pages long, and you looked only at pages 1, 3, 4 and 5. Except for the little dog-doodle by James Thurber, page 2 is read-only, and one part of the reading it imposes on you is not in prose. There it is, below the dog: the poem by Phyllis McGinley.
See how The New Yorker’s typographers have helped you identify it the way a timetable identifies a train. Yes: Phyllis McGinley, poet of America’s northeastern burbs, classified this section of her lexicon into an English or Shakespearean sonnet, a consist actually devised by Surrey. That arrangement of words is a form, and it belongs to literature. After the war, when Americans who had survived the war needed to forget, literature went looking within its forms and found there a Phyllis technique for forgetting the whole by remembering parts. After a while, when the work of forgetting was complete, that phase in the history of form could be broken back down to the parts: octave and sestet, salvageable steam engine and children. Phyllis McGinley herself (1905-1978) could be trucked to the antique store, and while we’re at it ubi sunt the Spasmodic poets and Mrs. Humphry Ward?
But affection isn’t mortal on schedule.
Look at this Phyllis. If the looking gets you to think, as unerringly as birdsong, some such word as “face,” perhaps the association has evoked a notion of being loved face to face, regardless of what you know better. So a possibility remains that in some nest somewhere there always will be a Phyllis, regardless of the But you know better words that persist in saying things like “pathetic fallacy.” Ahistorically, just as a matter of biological necessity, a Phyllis nest may still be building somewhere for us, regardless of who the Phyllis of the moment may be.
Offered in sincere sympathy, this message of comfort from section 11 of Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, as published in 1704. “He” is Jack, Swift’s name for cultural practitioners of the theology of John Calvin.
“Here’s the thing,” Rabbi Avi Shafran chummily confides to the Jewish magazine Tablet. Then, summoning his reserves of charm, he proceeds to confess:
“Here’s the thing: I’m a Jewish heretic. I don’t mean forsaking (as some famously have done) traditional Orthodox Jewish belief and practice for a libertine life [. . .] Instead, I refer to a real heresy: my reluctance to accept an orthodoxy so deeply entrenched in contemporary society that its rejection summons a hearty hail of derision and ridicule, and results in effective excommunication from polite society. What I can’t bring myself to maintain belief in is . . . evolution.
“There, I’ve written it.”
If, like me, you grew up in a small town in the days of prayer in the schools, you’ll recognize Rabbi Shafran’s tone from sixty years ago. It’s, “Hey, kids! You know who’s really cool? Jesus!” But this recent history also has a prehistory, and embedded in that are some actually interesting bits. Those are the vestiges within the fossil: traces of classical rhetoric retroactively assimilated into the stone-age dialect of theology. Consider, from the same essay:
“[. . .] the high priests of scientism (and the masses that venerate them) [. . .]”
“Yet it is unassailable dogma among the enlightened these days that non-living matter generated living matter [. . .]”
“I don’t reject science, only speculations and assumptions made in its name. And I’ve read and pondered all the ‘answers’ to my questions.* My skepticism remains unbudged.** [. . .]
High priests, venerate, dogma, the enlightened: here Rabbi Shafran employs irony, or rather irony’s shabby cousin, sarcasm, in the service of his heretical persona. But with these days the mask comes off (in Latin, persona means “mask”) and the rabbinical beard springs back into view. It is a seriously long beard, too. No more “Hey, kids” noises surface from its depths. Instead there comes a piercing and utterly sincere cry de profundis:
“In the meantime, lead me to the stocks, if you must. And as I’m pilloried, I will proclaim [. . .]”
Well, we’re all familiar with this vocabulary of martyrdom. It’s ecumenical. In the United States as of 2015, it’s the property not just of Rabbi Shafran but of the Southern Baptist Convention, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Fox News. It’s also long established. As far back as 1704 Jonathan Swift was taking an interested view of it in A Tale of a Tub.
Meanwhile, in 2015, in Syria and Pakistan and West Africa, Christians actually are being martyred. The tools of their martyrdom aren’t figurative stocks or pillories, either, or even copies of The Origin of Species. No; they’re non-literary, actually literal agents like slavery and murder.
On the scale of the suffering inflicted by those physical things, Rabbi Shafran’s own effective excommunication from polite society may seem to score low. But effective excommunication from polite society does command a reserve of pain that mere slavery and murder don’t have. Unlike slavery or murder, after all, the agents that torture Rabbi Shafran have an aesthetic power. They give pain a form shaped by the concept called metaphor, which works by evoking an analogy between something that doesn’t exist and something that does. Twinned by metaphor with an image of the real, the name of something imaginary (pillory, proclaim) begins to seem real itself. It communicates not pain but an idea of pain from the body (somebody else’s nameless, featureless, who-cares body, where pain is a mere experience) to the mind (Rabbi Shafran’s mind, ark of the undying, unsuffering ideal).
In the mind, of course, it still isn’t real. But now (or rather these days) any language that might have been able to say so lies buried under institutional rock. Look, there, at the strata of language that have been laid down to hold reality’s mute remains still! They shape a tomb whose Hic jacet translates as “Here’s the thing.”
Of course the thing isn’t there. Technically, it never was there. It was a vehicle whose tenor never did exist. The metaphors that built its tomb covered its non-existence with words, spoke more words to make it seem to have disappeared, and then set men happily howling, “I am a martyr” at what they would no longer have to know. No more science commanding, “Know the world”; no more Delphic Oracle commanding, “Know yourself.” Only the howl, the happy wordy howl howling effective excommunication from polite society.
Among its echoes, nothing need remain standing except the tomb. Word-bearing but silent, it is stone all the way to its center; but stone artistically made to appear formerly alive and capable of meaning.
* Yes, the modest polymath did write “all.”
** But isn’t a dogmatic skeptic a contradiction in terms?
Source: Avi Shafran, “Skeptical About Evolution — And Not Because of Religion.” Tablet 20 July 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/192334/skeptical-about-evolution-and-not-because-of-religion. Accessed 23 July 2015.
— but I also tagged it #libertarian and #AynRand and #GlennBeck when I posted it to Twitter this morning. Those magic words were all it took. Two substantially identical Libertarian retweets have followed so far, each of them going out to many hundreds of followers. To be inspired likewise to buy a gun and/or an investment-quality Jeff Koons, click here.
Dwellers in the other than tropical will want to know that my kitchen light is the kind that’s accurately called a bugcatcher, and its guardian is a watchgecko. Junior citizens, the soundtrack is a TV commercial from the Eisenhower era, when haircuts like Glenn Beck’s were taken as the outward sign of inner non-communism.