Last week we set off for a brief vacation up at Yosemite in California’s Sierra mountain range. On the way up, in the wickedly hot central valley around Fresno, we stopped into a Borders bookstore for some light reading material, and I came across what looked like an interesting collection of short stories. Even better, the volume was on sale that day. But I wasn’t prepared for what it contained.
A couple of days later I was out on the deck of our cabin, encircled by fragrant pines and some giant redwoods. Birds chirped and chipmunks scampered about. In a leisurely mood I got out the book and began to read.
It soon became evident that the author, a Russian citizen, was really exercised about the pandemic of sexual promiscuity and disease in his society. He has one of his characters declare: “If a one-hundredth part of the efforts devoted to the cure of syphilis were devoted to the eradication of debauchery, there would long ago not have been a trace of syphilis left. But as it is, efforts are made not to eradicate debauchery but to encourage it and to make debauchery safe.” He went on to point out that sexual promiscuity (the new, airbrushed term for old-fashioned fornication) was actually being legitimized as an innocent recreation, and encouraged as a healthy safety valve for well-adjusted young people. The assumption was widely promoted that an active sex life outside of marriage was natural, pleasurable and necessary. As he saw things, there was in place an integrated system of assumptions and behaviors that was necessary to sustain this way of behaving. It all sounded pretty familiar.
The author seemed at times to be an ardent feminist. “People assure us that they respect women,” he wrote. “Some give up their places to her, pick up her handkerchief; others acknowledge her right to occupy all positions and to take part in the government, and so on. They do all that, but their outlook on her remains the same. She is a means of enjoyment. Her body is a means of enjoyment. And she knows this . . . The enslavement of women lies simply in the fact that people desire, and think it good, to avail themselves of her as a tool of enjoyment . . . They emancipate women in universities and in law-courts, but continue to regard her as an object of enjoyment. Teach her, as she is taught among us, to regard herself as such, and she will always remain an inferior being.”
Next the author reflected on the effect on marriages of this societal preoccupation with sexual expression and satisfaction. The principal character in this story, a deeply troubled man by the name of Pozdnyshev, reflected on what it had felt like to him and his young wife when their brief honeymoon came to an end. “Amorousness was exhausted by the satisfaction of sensuality and we were left confronting one another in our true relation: that is, as two egotists quite alien to each other who wished to get as much pleasure as possible each from the other.” The story takes a dark turn at this point, which we will leave alone.
While contemporary readers may find the language here a bit stilted, the sentiments expressed are remarkably relevant to the present time. They come from a story entitled “The Kreutzer Sonata,” written by the novelist Leo Tolstoy, back when Russia was still ruled by the czars well over a century ago.
Leo Tolstoy! Who knew? Apparently some social attitudes we consider new are not so new after all. Evidently each generation struggles with pretty much the same moral challenges. Surely it’s long past due that the church should take a stand against the still-pervasive objectification of women—for example, by ceasing to rank women chiefly according to their relative physical beauty, and by no longer regarding the winners of vacuous beauty contests as our moral exemplars and inspirational heroines. It would be a huge step in the right direction if we could start regarding women first and foremost as persons.
Likewise it’s been known for millennia that healthy human relations require disciplined control of the self, including discipline of one’s sexuality, and that marriage must be first and foremost a covenant commitment of two wills infused with sufficient resolve to weather the fickleness of feelings and wandering infatuations. But as with just about everything in the domain of ethics and morality, living well depends much less on the extent of our knowledge of what ought to be than on the strength of our character to actually do it.