Corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst, a Latin aphorism that has been adopted into Catholic theology, is a pithy, three word description of the effect of the metaphysical basis of evil: Evil, as a privation of good, must always exist in good. As something ‘good that is missing but that should be there’, evil itself does not really have existence. Rather, it is a corruption of the good.
The corollary, of course, is that the more good something is, or has, the more evil of which it is capable. Or as Peter Parker’s Auntie May tells him, with great power comes great responsibility.
This is why the Church, and our society, place an emphasis on sex, for our sexuality is the greatest purely physical power in Man (prescinding, of course, from his intellectual and spiritual faculties). Sex is what gives us the most physiologically intense pleasure (of course, there are other pleasures which are greater and more lasting), what forms the most solid bonds, is the basis for the family structure, gives impetus to much of what we do (at some level, whether sublimated or not), and defines who we are at the most basic bodily level as man and woman, male and female, masculine and feminine, husband and wife.
The virtue which perfects our sexuality is chastity, given a bad rap in today’s world, as something weak and effeminate: Au contraire, chastity is a powerful and necessary virtue, which the Catechism defines as the ‘successful integration of sexuality within the person, and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being”. Chastity allows us to be in charge of and to own ourselves, and so capable of giving ourselves to others in a way and manner of our own choosing, again in accordance with reason and virtue, instead of blind and selfish passion. Not that passions are bad, but, without reason, they can and usually do wreak great evil.
The opposite vice is lust, the habit by which we misuse our sexuality for our own self-gratification, in the process also using others, either in real life or in our imagination, to satisfy base, primal urges. As one might expect, lust leads to the dis-integration of the person; he does not own himself, but is a slave to every whisper of desire. Saint Thomas writes that nothing so clouds and distorts the reason as lust, due to the vehemence of the sexual desire, and the fact that our sexuality, in some way, touches all of our powers. The man in the grip of lust, contrary to what the movies tell us, becomes effeminate, soft, weak, and much less a man, much less, well, ‘masculine’. So much for the great fornicator, James Bond (at least in his film adapatations which, I must confess, I have enjoyed); in real life, the British spy would be a rutting, distracted animalistic man, with little or no powers of attention, and certainly not much courage in his pleasure-addicted body.
Contrast Bond to Sherlock Holmes, who is seemingly immune to the allures of lust, and thus able to sharpen his reason and focus his mind intently. I truly loathe the distorted Benedict Cumberbatch (per)version on BBC, where in one episode Holmes falls in love with a prostitute, after seeing her for a protracted period of time in a state of complete, shall we say, divestiture, and this says nothing of what they do to assassinate the character of the honorable Dr. Watson who, in an early plot line, just wants to ‘score’ with a young (female…I suppose one must specify nowadays) physician, and is frustrated with Holmes for foiling his intent (accidentally, in turns out…Of course, we would not want Holmes or anyone else passing judgement on someone’s sexual proclivities). In Conan Doyle’s stories, Watson would not even hear of dishonour to a woman, not least his fiancee, whom he, guarding both their chastity, scarcely touched until their wedding.
Where was I? Oh yes, lust…Lust also affects women, but in a different way. They become less feminine, more brutish and hardened and, to be quite honest, far less alluring. There is nothing that turns a man off, at least a normal man, than a predatorial woman, sometimes referred to anthropomorphically as a cougar.
Either way, lust, paradoxically, makes both of the sexes (and, yes, there are only two) become less attractive, and less attracted, to each other. Sex becomes less fun, less enticing, more just scratching a darned itch. Hence, the seeking out of new stimuli, new pleasures, ever-more novel ways of regaining the rush of pleasure one first felt.
Which brings us to Fifty Shades of Grey. I must admit at the outset that I have not seen the movie, nor read the book, and have no plans to. Lust is the one sin and temptation from which one must flee, and not stand and fight, as many a repentant man can tell you. In fact, I was hesitant even to write on this theme, but a priest friend asked me to, since the sexual deviance portrayed in this novel, and its film adaptation, is washing over our culture like toxic sludge. Know thy enemy, says Sun Tzu in the classic Chinese treatise, the Art of War.
So, I delved into the sludge enough to know something about the phenomenon, surprised to find that the book, written by a middle aged woman who seems, at least from appearances, to have lived a rather ordinary life, sexual and otherwise, is the biggest selling single book in British history. The film adaptation raked in over $80 million on its opening weekend. Really? Who is reading and watching Shades of Grey? My hunch is that it is primarily women, with some men dragged along on movie dates.
The protagonists in the movie are both young, beautiful and nubile. The man, Christian Grey, played by Jamie Dornan, is a playboy billionaire, who lives in a plush condo, can buy whatever he wants, physically is in top condition, drives an Audi SUV and so on.
The woman, Anastasia Steele, a co-ed played by Dakota Johnson (who, I discovered, is the daughter of the two eighties ‘sex symbols’, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffiths), is alluring and not-so-young that it looks creepy (in real life, Dornan is 32 and Johnson 25). One could believe, looking at the two actors, that, yes, they could very realistically fall in love…But then we would just have another boring old romance, wouldn’t we? The movie, rather, follows the corruptio optimi principle, taking this great potential good, and twisting and perverting it, but, and here is the point, not so much that the beauty is lost. Rather, much of what is good, the ‘optimi’, in this whole mess, to some extent, remains.
Their initial attraction, not itself bad, (for why would they not be attracted?), becomes lustful; fornication ensues; then, since this does not titillate enough in our bored culture, the man’s dominance (in what little I know of the plot) becomes psychologically manipulative, then violent: hitting, slapping, bondage, anything to raise the tension level. The clear difference in their levels of power ratchets up the drama. The audience is, I gather, supposed to be shocked and fascinated by the juxtaposition of such great beauty with such ugliness and sadism. I have heard the movie tones things down a bit from the book, which has the advantage of stimulating the imagination far more powerfully than any visual image.
The Marquis de Sade in late 18th century France was the first to really tap into this satanic mix between the beauty of sexuality and the viciousness of violence. His writings, a recounting of his own deviant sexual escapades, spawned a genre, and his work is still required reading on many college campuses (the tragic Marquis, like Nietzsche, also a sex addict a century later, spent much of his life in various insane asylums, vindicating Saint Thomas’ teaching on the link between lust and the loss of reason). Sadism, the practice which adopted his name, has travelled some distance in the intervening centuries, but it is still the same sad story.
So, the author of Shades has followed vicariously in the footsteps of the Marquis, tapping into a great need and desire in our society for, not be trite, true love. Women, whether they fully express this or not, do want a dominant man who knows his mind, but one who can court and romance her honorably, with some degree of aggression, or one might better say confidence, making her feel, yes, ‘desired’. Christian Grey fits the aggression bill, and the fact he is chiseled, handsome and rich helps. What women do not want is a wan, pale metrosexual following them around like a lap-dog, who has an i-phone app blocking him saying anything even remotely offensive or politically incorrect (and, in consequence, he is of course devoid of a sense of humour).
Men, on the other hand, want a woman willing to be so desired, who will respond to their advances, but demurely, with some caution, waiting for them to prove themselves by deeds of chivalry and valour; certainly any man worth his salt wants a woman who will hold out for that final expressed commitment, what has been called ‘matrimony’, before submitting to the sexual desires of both.
Alas, although Shades of Grey taps into many of these latent desires, it also indicates that we are deviating more and more from the traditional, and moral, norm; although people are still seeking the good, true and beautiful, they do so in all the wrong places and in many of the wrong ways, with all of the evil consequences flowing therefrom. The great and holy good of human sexuality, which has the power to unite the couple and give life, is instead used to fill a physiological and psychological void, to humiliate and to inflict pain and suffering. What have we become?
Deep down, however, we all still desire these fundamentals of courtship and romance which, although they have taken various forms through our ages, retain the same essentials. Hence, the popularity of the ‘love interest’ in just about every movie under the sun, including Shades. Although most film romances are also to some degree vitiated by the disordered view of sexuality in our culture, their plots generally follow the traditional pattern, with boy-wins-girl and true love for evermore, the end.
What we need is a Christian Grey who is a true Christian, a modern-day man who does not use his riches to lavish upon himself, who helps the poor and ensures that the wealth of his holdings are justly and equitably distributed, in particular that his workers receive a just wage (he need not be a billionaire, but rather a still-quite-comfortable millionaire, or even a hundred-thousand-aire); who has integrated his sexuality through a disciplined life and thereby owns himself, and who is able to court and win the heart of a beautiful young woman in chaste romance and, yes, build together a home full of children who will grow tall, strong and confident in their beauty; for there is nothing wrong with beauty, nor with our sexuality, so long as they are not squandered on ourselves and our own selfish pleasure, but offered to God in the vocation to which he calls each of us.
At least, that is how the story should go.
February 21, 2015
Saint Peter Damian, Bishop and Doctor of the Church