Posted by Ginny on February 26th, 2006 (All posts by Ginny)
Lex’s post asks what drives demography and notes Spengler’s answer. They seem often right and provocative. (More.) Surely, those who refuse to defend themselves & choose not to reproduce themselves are troubled. And Lex & Spengler demonstrate at least for some it may be a lack of faith. That lack reverberates in the center of the Rothko Chapel, where the ecumenical becomes negation.
As the mother of three daughters, I, like everyone else, has always been pulled by the the nurturer & the bitch, the submerged & the awakend self; I like to talk about the alienation of twentieth century modernism from the biological as Lex sees it solipsistically moving from the spiritual. Or, as my children say, there Mommy goes again – its all life force & castration with her.
If we look at American literature at the turn of the century, we shouldn’t be all that surprised modern man (especially modern woman) is less interested in reproducing. Henry Adams appreciated the “life force,” but in his great tribute to the virgin we also see what endangers it. (And we remember that he was childless; his wife a suicide.) Of course, little did he see how wrong he would be about France, but that is neither here nor there:
The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force—at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either.
This problem in dynamics gravely perplexed an American historian. The Woman had once been supreme; in France she still seemed potent, not merely as a sentiment, but as a force. . . . Puritans knew that sex was sin. In any previous age, sex was strength. Neither art nor beauty was needed. Every one, even among Puritans, knew that neither Diana of the Ephesians nor any of the Oriental goddesses was worshipped for her beauty. She was goddess because of her force: she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction—the greatest and most mysterious of all energies; all she needed was to be fecund.
He goes on in this vein, then concludes:
American art, like the American language and American education, was as far as possible sexless. Society regarded this victory over sex as its greatest triumph.
And as the century rolled on, asexuality proved more triumphant than I suspect Adams could have imagined. The triumph of “sexlessness” might be when a surprisingly large number of people believe the relative strengths of our upper bodies depend upon nurture rather than the nature of our sex. And, so, we came to people who believed that a woman’s desire for children is socially conditioned. (Ah, yes, without capitalism none of us would reproduce?) And, indeed, in even the most extreme ways, our sexual roles are determined from without – by society – rather than from within – by biology.
Earlier, Spengler’s argument might be countered by noting the importance of religious renunciation of the worldly – thus the sexual. Paul argues that celibacy is better; nonetheless, because most remain tempted, marriage can maintain and give appropriate expression to these passions. This is not unwise about human nature, but it certainly places a premium upon the inevitably childless life of the celibate. Indeed, this conflict between the contemplative, dedicated life and the messy demands of married life is important throughout history. The Puritans noted the difficulty but their solution was the difficult but exhilerating command to be “in the world but not of it.”
Nor is that meditative interior vision only characteristic of traditional religion. The purity & intensity of vision Thoreau seeks is contrasted sharply with that of John Fields; Thoreau remarks on the confusion & chaos of life of these Irish immigrants with their many children (that he doesn’t tell us how many reflects his dismissal of their importance as much as their number). The father & son are mired in a bog both real & profound. As the parents work to provide meat & coffee, Thoreau preaches abstinence, retreat from the material world. His is a choice for idealism, no less transcendental & unworldly than that of a religion celebrating the mystic, the monkish. It, too, finds little value in the messy confusion of sex & reproduction & parenting.
Nonetheless, Lex & Spengler are clearly right: reproduction is greatest in those who most firmly build their life around their religions. Today, the church treasurer noted in our Sunday School class that over the decades families giving the largest proportions of their income stayed together and had children. He wasn’t arguing cause & effect, but, rather, those committed to this old line church as a couple were committed to one another and their families as well.
The world has become even more thoroughly mechanistic, material, urban, “unnatural” – Henry Adams’ dynamo-worshipping modern. The church may be for many the only nurturer of the natural passion for reproduction as well as the only place that offers order in an often chaotic world. The Catholic church’s emphasis upon natural law is more attuned to the biological rhythms in art & culture. Ironically, this church recognized the desire for procreation is necessarily messy & chaotic, so it removed its most contemplative members from these temptations. That church and others which value a more rural, more “natural” culture run counter to modernism. They recognize a universal human nature and remain in touch with the nature of the human; they understand the rewards of both the contemplative & the procreative. While not Catholic nor Evangelical (nor Mormon, with its similar retreat from modernism), these quite divergent churches are in touch with something I, too, revere: the life force.
The modern is often at odds with the human, the natural, the meaningful. The religious vision has, more or less, remained the same: rooted in human nature and balancing the private mystic with the public rite, the private relationship with faith with its public application. But underlying much that is modern is the prioritization of the separate self. We speak of becoming self-conscious, “awakened” to the unique and separate nature of the self; for centuries, the independent will was associated with the villainy of Satan or Iago. Faulkner still emphasizes such willfulness in a villain like Ab Snopes. But we have also come to celebrate the unfettered self – not surprising, given the Emersonian ideal of self-reliance.
Of course, reproductive trends are influenced by much other than the grand world views. Birth control at the level of efficacy we now take for granted is modern. Most previous forms were not all that successful – and even the most natural, with modern technology, has vastly improved success rates. Given the basic biological drive to reproduce, the science to redirect it was necessary to lead to the sea changes in those statistics.
Second, we need to note the importance of various retirement plans & subsidies throughout the Western world. If AFDC led to more out-of-wedlock births, think of how many more people today come to childbearing age and think that their retirement is likely to be a lot larger & more secure if they don’t have children than if they do. I felt a certain ping of envy yesterday as I watched a gay couple decide whether they were going to buy the $100 salad bowl or the $125 one. My friend & I had been buying gifts for our children & her grandchildren. A farmer of old wanted a son to work the land and support his parents in their old age; now he thinks of selling it off and wonders how much Social Security he’ll get. I ask my students if their parents think of them as assets or minuses financially. Clearly, not even the kindest of students from the poorest of homes worries much about supporting their parents in their old age. On the other hand, contemplating parenting, we know we will have to give up some luxuries & accept constraints on time & energy.
Third, the distance between the moment when a girl is capable of bearing a child and when that same now-woman has reached the level of education and independence most of us believe precedes marriage and child-bearing is getting longer and longer. Our culture, our customs and (primarily many would argue) the skills needed for work have longer training periods. This is, of course, most true of women training in the professions, but it is true for blue-collar workers as well if not as long. The demands of the body & our culture often seem at odds, a conflict not easily resolved by a teenager.
And we aren’t even talking about feminism & our desire to develop a more productive economy – the sense many of us had (and many of the next generations still have) – that a woman isn’t really fulfilled in the home. This is always going to lead to considerable tension when women are educated to be independent and define themselves through their work; their desire for children is likely tempered by a desire for self-assertion, to challenge themselves in a larger if not more important sphere – one that offers easier & quicker rewards. This is the argument underlying so much of the pro-choice argument – that men want to restrain women, that pregnancy & indeed biology are traps, constraints, even oppressive for women.
Nonetheless, even all these don’t explain that downtick completely. I’m glad Lex has given us Spengler and he’s probably right — the absence of faith is important. Among even the least religious of the founders was a confident faith in a force and pattern they called by many names, but perhaps the most popular was “Providence.” They were confident the world was an ordered place. That confidence was a necessary underpinning for their optimism. A sense the future was real & good was characteristic of a people who believed in man’s innately sinful or at least (as the less religious would quickly agree) innately flawed nature, but who also believed in the open marketplace of ideas, religions, economics. And it made reproducing oneself seem a quite good idea – it was part of the natural order, it was part of the providential order.
By mid-nineteenth century, that optimism was muted in Hawthorne & Melville, but lived on rather buoyantly in Emerson & Thoreau & Whitman. By the turn of the century, though, we started seeing other choices. Our literature is full of the sad solipsism of man alone (and, yes, such solipsism followed the arc defined by those mid-century optimists). Its chroniclers are many – Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Robert Frost, well, it can go on – perhaps it reached some kind of nadir of solipsistic violence in Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch.
But characteristic of the awakened & self-conscious is a sense of alienation, arising from the consciousness of the unique, separate, tragic self. The interplay of alienation and nihilism is central to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, published at the turn of the century. The lines from an early chapter, repeated as she “freely” swims out to lose her self & her life in the book’s conclusion, tell us: “the voice of the sea is seductive, never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander in abysses of solitude.” Chopin has led into this in the early chapter by noting that “a certain light was beginning to dawn dimly within her,–the light which, showing the way, forbids it. . . . In short, Mrs. Pontellier was beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her.” Not surprisingly, she reads Emerson’s essays. And to reinforce Spengler’s point – it is in a church service (a Catholic rite of the society into which she has married rather than the stark Protestant one of her own youth) that she faints and has to leave mid-service. This is followed by a sleep, from which she awakens, newly aware of her distinct self.
As the book continues, she comes to realize that the husband with whom she shares her life, the man with whom she shares her body, and the man with whom she shares romantic passions each represents a fragment of her broken self. She is an impetuous mother, one who cares little for her children (in both the loving and the watchful senses). She is impelled to go to the shore, to move toward her suicide, by seeing her friend give birth. In seeing that pain, she remembers her own – but it is less labor than the connectedness it represents that she fears. Edna discusses her friend’s labor with Mandalet, the old & wise doctor. He sighs:
“The trouble is. . . that youth is given up to illusions. It seems to be a provision of Nature; a decoy to secure mothers for the race. And Nature takes no account of moral consequences, of arbitrary conditions which we create, and which we feel obliged to maintain at any cost.” [She responds,] “Yes. . . The years that are gone seem like dreams—if one might go on sleeping and dreaming—but to wake up and find—oh! Well! Perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
Chopin had married at nineteen and bore six children by Oscar Chopin; their marriage was apparently quite happy. Nonetheless, life turned hard for her when he died; she was thirty-four, his business had not done well, and she now had six children to support. Surely she understood well both the pull of the separate self – awakened, self-conscious, selfish perhaps, aware of its unique identity. She more and more defined herself as her fictional characters grew before her; still, she remained also the nurturing, loving mother absorbed by the needs of her family. She was independent & assertive as a writer but also the nurturer of her brood. She understood how difficult balance is and if she appears sometimes impatient with her heroine, she also understands (and helps us understand) why her character swims out to sea, severing herself from land & others:
There was no one thing in the world that she desired. . . . The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul’s slavery for the rest of her days. But she knew a way to elude them. She was not thinking of these things when she walked down to the beach.
Edna belongs to a world that values the assertion of the self – even in such an arbitrary gesture as refusing to keep to a proper “visiting” schedule. And Chopin demonstrates how sexuality can be a vehicle as her heroine enters a loveless but sexually awakening relationship. Here she chooses to fulfill her own needs – turning the sex that connected her so firmly through her children to one that asserts her separateness, even from the man with whom she sleeps – that asserts her will. This approach to sex, of course, has long been a staple of literature but for women, such assertions were always problematic in practice as well as in social sanctions. Theoretically armed with modern birth control women, too, could add sex to their tools of self-assertion. Nonetheless, freedom faded fast, as we can see in the quick move from the stride of Veruschka through the pages of Vogue to her vulnerability in Blow Up on to the high-end advertisements that captured a woman on the brink – in a mental institution, at a car accident.
The childlessness that accompanies a passionless or dead religious enthusiasm may also arise from a passionless relationship with life itself. Religion becomes meaningless because life seems meaningless as well as life seems meaningless with an empty spiritual life. The twentieth century found us viewing the world from a perspective that challenges any sense of a providential order.
Religion can offer a safe place to retreat from the ideas of the modern world. And from its art. W. T. Stace, in his “Man Against Darkness,” argues that modern art captures:
The picture of a meaningless world, and a meaningless human life, is, then, the basic theme of much modern art and literature. Certainly, it is the basic theme of modern philosophy. According to the most characteristic philosophies of the modern period from Hume in the eighteenth century to the so-called positivists of today, the world is just what it is, and that is the end of all inquiry. There is no reason for its being what it is. Everything might just as well have been quite different, and there would have been no reason for that either. When you have stated what things are, what things the world contains there is nothing more which could be said, even by an omniscient being. To ask any question about why things are thus, or what purpose their being so serves, is to ask a senseless question, because they serve no purpose at all. For instance, there is for modern philosophy no such thing as the ancient problem of evil. For this once famous question pre-supposes that pain and misery, though they seem so inexplicable and irrational to us, must ultimately subserve some rational purpose, must have their places in the cosmic plan. But this is nonsense. There is no such overruling rationality in the universe. Belief in the ultimate irrationality of everything is the quintessence of what is called the modern mind.
So, modern man turns from a sense of order & harmony (no matter how deeply submerged it may be in our chaotic daily life) to the world that Stace describes. If there is no natural order, as so much in the twentieth century argues, then we can not go to nature for an affirmation of our own meaning, an affirmation of who we are. That we can only do by acting as separate selves, alienated from one another, moving through and somehow leaving our mark on the world–a mark transitory & minor.
Children, if we have them, tug at us, interrupt restrain us, keep us from that unfettered movement that defines who we aren’t as much as who we are. In her bio in House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros defines herself by what she isn’t, by negation: “nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife.” And of course if what we have to define who we are is primarily the control, the negation, we have exerted over our section of that world, the “I” is what we are not connected to rather than what we are–well, then, children violate that sterile order. The “I” connected fears a loss not just of independence but of integrity itself. But, of course, we want to belong as well & those commitments also restrain us from wandering “in abysses of solitude.”
So, a hundred years after Henry Adams and Kate Chopin, fifty years after Stace, we shouldn’t be all that surprised birthrates are falling – especially among those most alienated from natural forces – the urban centers of Europe and America. Such doubts worry the Taliban. Life’s messy irregularity, its chaos is kept at home, its theocratic rules may encourage procreation but by women kept in the dark, hidden. No public recognition, admiration for her fecundity—only fear of the power it represents.
The west’s sexlessness is central to modern art, as provocative as it often appears. The assumptions of Stace, the arguments of Spengler echo what has always bothered me about the stark, beautiful, asexual, & quite chilly Rothko Chapel. Sure, others respond differently; some find peace in its quiet. Perhaps my imagination has been stirred too much by the chaos of my life, seldom loving (& seldom finding) such quiet. But my visceral response has been of despair.
And James Breslin’s biography of Mark Rothko concludes his section on the chapel as embodying “a despairing wish to withdraw from the human”. He begins by describing the impetus the Menils provided: “High-toned and Old World, discrete and low-key, the de Menils, in the context of the dissolving high cultural ideals of the mid-1960s, were generous, reassuring presences.” (463). Then Breslin describes the chapel entrance in a series of negatives: “You see no steps, no portico, no columns, no crucifixes, no statuary, no spire, no dome, no stained glass, no windows – just a low, simple entrance with two black, wood doors. Plain, cheerless, geometric, with an interior sealed off from the pleasant neighborhood and park outside, the building looks more like a tomb than a chapel or one-man museum.” (463) His work is purposely unwelcoming, with little of the sensual & joyful we associate with, say, stained glass windows & booming pipe organs. Breslin tells us “Rothko wanted a room that would disturb.” (469) He wanted “to withdraw his works from the marketplace into the chapel; and he wished to withdraw the chapel from the art center in New York, as if his work now belonged in the provinces, safe from the professionals, available to those ordinary viewers he had always imagined at the ideal audience” (464). His art is less designed to make the viewer pause with that remarkable sense art so often does – the realization of an old & universal truth only now made conscious. To a modernist, however, the universal has no meaning: man is connected to neither past nor future. The shock of the viewer is less of recognition & connection than of alienation.
He battled with Philip Johnson, whose buildings so often capture & emphasize light. For instance, “Johnson wanted a vaulted structure; Rothko wanted something more like a vault.” So, they fell out & Johnson resigned, finding Rothko was backed by the de Menils. Characteristically, Rothko established a barebones workroom: He “was not the kind of artist who filled the walls of his studio with photographs of friends, heroes, or family with reproductions of works of art, paintings by others.” (467) In modern man’s intense subjectivity, sense of place has also been shredded. And, again, Rothko’s vision reproduces this sense: “Pulverizing the defining, separating contours of physical objects, withdrawing from natural and social realities, Rothko’s vacant canvases were themselves placeless, only really attached to, only belonging and alive in, the place of their origin.” (468).
Breslin sums up his own carefully detailed response:
Intended for a Catholic chapel, hung in an ecumenical one, these murals are spiritual only in the sense that they renounce the world—the world of material objects, of historical time and social pressures. Decorating a public, sacred space, they express a private and very human desire: a despairing wish to withdraw from the human. (482)
And so, as the next century ends, we find the artist, not unlike Chopin’s character, “withdrawing from the human” whose essence is the Virgin & her child. Breslin sums up: “The Houston chapel—a plain, low, flat, windowless, brick building, apparently sealed off from the outside—constitutes a monument to a reclusive interiority that has survived.” (But Rothko, probing his own interiority, did not. Like Clover Adams, an early artistic photographer, he chooses death.)
Soon, a monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. was placed outside, Barnett Newman’s “Broken Obelisk.” Above a reflecting pool, its simple, stark vertical is almost completely severed near its root, standing tense & still. Whatever that statue and that building may mean to others, Dominque de Menil, tells us “I very much believe that the chapel is the womb and the obelisk in front of the chapel is virility.”
The “interiority” Breslin describes leads to a womb, enclosed & dominated by large canvases of an almost impenetrable darkness, carefully designed to absorb rather than give light. We are not surprised that he kills himself before hanging these darkened works, achieved by driving his assistants hard to achieve an unbroken, layered darkness. Paired with a phallic symbol of “virility,” that must (necessarily it seems to me) invoke the image of castration, we now have the late twentieth century’s opposition to the cathedral’s virgin. Sterility, isolation: indeed, in Breslin’s words, “a despairing wish to withdraw from the human.”
Quite accessible, quite quiet, we seem drawn there every few years. The word that kept coming to my mind reinforces Spengler’s point: asexual, its sterility defining a dead space. This is not my response to the chants of monks, hidden away from the world as, indeed, Rothko was not. But those chants are filled with the beauty of a spiritual order that structures & supports this world; the music arises from the hearts of those who’ve chosen less to retreat than to actively choose the contemplative life .
My responses have been influenced by the time I went with my youngest child, as we waited for her sister’s lesson to end. She toddled from bench to bench in that chilly space: her pink playsuit, her curly little girl hair, her laughter. She didn’t belong in that darkened, chilly, vacant room. A black & empty womb, I thought, as I looked at the brochure. It may be ecumenical, but it seems to communicate negation, a rather sorry form of tolerance. The Menils later set up, a block or two away, an abstract mini chapel with sacred works from Cyprus. Here, sitting amidst symbols so meaningful to others (even though I have little understanding myself), my children sat quietly a few years later, contemplating the beauty of the great mosaics. They were derived from the religion of a quite messy world, objects brought to Houston as “art” by those who feared their power as symbols of faith. Not an absence of but a presence of meaning permeates the room.
We gasp at the iconoclasm of the Puritans, the degradation of those quiet Greek churches by the Turkish invaders so many centuries ago., the Taliban blasting the Bamiyan Buddhas. But even those barbaric acts recognized the power – just as the bizarre and, well, evil subordination of women in certain societies today recognizes women’s power.
Spengler’s charts note as we move toward the ecumenical, the old-line, the birth rates go down. These churches are losing believers. As we move upward in birth rates, however, we find a sentimentality with which many of us are no more delighted than we are by the stark coldness of a contemplative moment with Rothko. As great art & powerful transforming beliefs have shown us, the life force can lead us to understand our connections to both future and past. If we think that these two forces aren’t important, we have truly learned nothing from history – or our own feelings. Biology & faith can help us mature & enrich the sentimental. They can lead us to respect both ourselves & others. If we refuse to recognize the power of religion or the power of the life force, we are likely to be blind-sided in the future as well as leading deeply unfulfilling lives. And to understand them, we will need to connect with others as well as understand ourselves.
This is related to an extremely personal, lengthy & discursive earlier post.