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?
 
 

By

Anthony Esolen is the author or translator of 28 books, most recently In the Beginning Was the Word: An Annotated Reading of the Prologue of John (Angelico Press), No Apologies: How Civilization Depends upon the Strength of Men (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord, a book-length poem made up of 100 poems centered on the life of Christ. He has also begun a web magazine called Word and Song, on classic hymns, poetry, language, and film. He is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts.

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