Nothing under the Skin

When I was a boy, I used to walk a mile or so into the woods behind my house, with only the family dog and my thoughts for company. I was lonely in those days, and still that loneliness is a mystery to me, even a source of some bittersweet nostalgia. I can almost remember the feeling, a mingled pride and longing, as I stood on a wintry day on the top of my favorite lookout, the ice under my feet, my breath rising like smoke, even the smoke of the small toy houses half sunken in white, in the streets of my town far below. And I thought of many things on that escarpment, of boyish triumphs I would never enjoy, of the God that made me, of growing old and dying, of those mysterious creatures called girls, imagining that someday I would show this place to someone and tell these thoughts.

It was quiet up there, except for the far whoosh of a few cars, and sometimes a muffled shout, as incomprehensible as the call of a bird. I don’t know that I ever prayed — but had I been wise enough to do that, it would have been quite the place for it. I do remember the confusions of my mind and heart. It was not the best time to be young: Even into my small town, far from the fashions of the city, the sexual revolution was leaching its slow poison. Boys and girls did things; what they were I had been told, and my imagination supplied the rest. They did them in the mud by the river; in parked cars on defunct sections of mountain road, cut off like oxbow lakes when hairpin turns were straightened out; in a cemetery, with a view of a drive-in movie screen, no sound available but no sound needed; in a shanty the town had hammered up for old people to rest in on a sunny day; on buses returning from a football game; underneath bleachers; anywhere. They knew they were sinning back then, but there was something struggling to be human in the darkness of their hearts. I am convinced of that. Experience would teach me so.


In those days, there was no one to say to me, “You are shy, because you sense that there is something sacred about your heart, and even about your being a boy, with a boy’s mind and body. If you pray, if you wait for the right place and time, if you wait for God’s place and time, you will be able to give of yourself, down to the secretest depths of your being, to someone you love, who will love you in turn. Just as you would not take a scoffer to your lookout, as you would not take your mother’s picture and bandy it about for pimply teenagers to sneer at, as you would not spit in church, so would you not use your body, which is the clothing for your inmost being, as if it were a rag for any practical or filthy use whatsoever.” No one said it, so I never heard it.
 
 
Thirty and more years later, I look at my students and wonder if they have felt the same things. Sometimes, a cast in the eye, a tilt of the head, a shying away suggests that the inner life has not all been exposed, to die in the glare of the vulgar and meaningless pursuit of pleasure. These young people, though, many of whom are trying to live out those teachings of Christ that we, their elders, had foolishly cast away, seem out of place beside their schoolmates; as if they were much older, or much younger, or from a far planet, one whose people still held their breath in the presence of the holy. I wish the world were a saner one, for their sakes. I wish they could simply enjoy their innocence, as people enjoy a hearty meal — not the solemn and joyous dinner, but the easy picnic with friends rowing upon the lake. But the innocence is too strange these days for that ease.
 
Its antagonist, I am afraid, is not guilt. It is, perhaps, nothing at all. Suppose one has been “taught” about sex long before one has felt the mysterious pangs of eros. Suppose sex has been sanitized, and made into a drab little daily thing, like taking a vitamin. Suppose also that one is bustled about in a world of much noise, and little genuine speech; many crowds, but few celebrations; alienation, without even the tang of loneliness to draw one back into real human love.
 
I am wondering, now, whether my account of the glacial hillside, and the snow, and the dog, and the faraway houses, and night falling, and loneliness, would make much sense to the young people we are now bringing up. They are battered with words — from the radio, the television, the newspapers, salesmen, politicians, everyone with an angle, everyone hawking an elixir, and telling lies so old and so obvious that no one any longer blames them for it. Their churches are festooned with billboards for both the eye and the ear. They find it nearly impossible to retreat into the quiet world of a good book. They go to the drugstore, or the grocery, and see on display shoulders, chests, abdomens, thighs, like fine slabs of meat, with smiles pasted on. They aspire to that condition. What sense can they have of the holiness of their bodies, when there is no inner life to which their bodies are the incarnate witness? What should one do with the wrapper to a mass-produced hamburger? Build a shrine for it?
 
Such is our punishment. C. S. Lewis saw it long ago. Let eros be your god, and the first thing you will lose is eros itself — that longing for what is genuinely beautiful, to possess it, and to rejoice in the possession. Treat the body as if it were but a tool for the pleasure of the soul, and soon there will be no soul — misguided or otherwise — for it to serve. Make sex a matter of emotional hygiene, and soon there will be nothing to clean; the person will be all skin and nothing beneath. So take a bulldozer and level that hill. That is what the last deadening sexual revolutionists say. What difference does it make?
 
 

Anthony Esolen

By

Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Deacon Ed

    out of the ballpark, Anthony.

    It brought back memories of a time when we were raising our sons in Connecticut and I, looking out from my son’s bedroom window, caught a glimpse of him in the woods beside our house standing eerily still and looking up into the trees. I wondered what was so captivating for him. As time went by, I realized that, in his solitude, he had heard the sound of a bird’s chirp in the tress and was trying to locate this other creation of God. In that moment, everything that mattered made sense – to him and to me.

    Can the utter innocence of times like this be replicated in our banalized world?

    I sometimes think that perhaps once again, as it was 1500 years ago, the monasteries will preserve for us the culture that is fast eroding. Perhaps it will places of quiet prayer and contemplation that will help preserve and restore our civilization once the Vandals have laid waste to the values and morals that ring with the Truth.

  • Stephen Wise

    Anthony,

    Your commentary brings to mind a passage from John Paul II’s Theology of the Body — from an audience given on April 30, 1980:
    “Man turns his back on God-Love, on the Father. In a way he casts God out of his heart. At the same time he detaches his heart and almost cuts it off from what “is of the Father.” Thus, there remains in him what “is of the world.”

  • Spencer

    Wow. That’s always my reaction when I read your work, professor. You are a gift to intelligent readers. You also articulate (more clearly, of course) thoughts I happen to be having at the time. I am glad to be on the same page with you.

  • Francis Wippel

    Professor Esolen, I

  • Steve Skojec

    Thank you for this. It was something I didn’t know I wanted to hear.

  • Roy F. Moore

    Alas, this is what evil men like Leon Trotsky, founder of the infamous Red Army of Russia, wanted all along.

    He called it “unwinged Eros”. What he meant by this was that people would treat sexual activity outside of the bounds God set for it as, paraphrasing him now, “no more important than drinking a glass of water”.

    Men and women like him have been promoting this anti-ideal for decades and have dominated the West for just as long. Which means we must push them back and eliminate their influence forever.

    So that Christ-centered innocence may rule the Earth again.

  • Brian Killian

    That’s some fine writing Anthony!

  • Jitpring

    Esolen is one my favorite current writers, along with the great Theodore Dalrymple.

    Silence is indeed becoming intolerable for many (most?). Such is the Brave New World. It’s upon us. See my page here:

    http://tinyurl.com/63eyo3

    As for today’s cultural Marxism, see:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyu-9-OhHog

    &

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K0bqQetlgJ4

  • Doug Moore

    Well told, and with much in common with most of us, in varying degree. I realize now that I was told, in part, in bits and pieces, even there, in our most secular environment, some idea of modesty, self discipline, and the waiting for true love did come through. Of course, very privately held, these thoughts, not being acceptable at all or cool to those who were our peers.

  • Karl Erickson

    Another great article, Anthony. This one really hit home for me. Keep up the good fight–your voice is sorely needed!

    Although mine is greatly inferior, I wrote an article reflecting similar thoughts on places of our youth some years ago at http://home.earthlink.net/…/id35.html .

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