The Moral Life Takes a Holiday

When New Jersey-born novelist Philip Roth, arguably America’s most acclaimed author, turned eighty last month, his home town of Newark rolled out the red carpet, determined to honor a local luminary whose fame had reached into every corner of American cultural life.  Did I say fame?  Maybe the more honest appellation should be infamy, since the amount of raw sewage found in the novels of Philip Roth easily exceeds that of the city of his birth, where there are at least waste treatment plants to cope with the ordure.   And while that fact is not likely to disabuse the citizenry of Newark—anymore than, say, the awfulness of Andy Warhol has persuaded Pittsburghers to pull the plug on the Warhol Museum—the time has come for someone to blow the whistle on this guy.

For instance, in a radio interview some years ago on NPR, Roth was asked by “Fresh Air” host Terry Gross about a certain disconnect between the sexual habits and hang-ups described in his early fiction (Portnoy’s Complaint comes instantly to mind), where unbridled adolescent libido is celebrated, and later forays featuring much older men, for whom the whole landscape of carnality seems to have been ravaged by repeated failures of love.

The ever-ingratiating Ms. Gross did not quite put it that way, of course; nevertheless, the impression she gave her listeners was that somehow the thirteen year old Alexander Portnoy, whose countless masturbatory fantasies drove the story forward, had at last metastasized into the dirty old man his parents direly predicted he’d become.  Only now, of course, he feels so little pleasure in a life of perversity that the prospect of erotic exhaustion is greeted with weary relief.  As regards all that “sexual caterwauling,” he confesses, “I couldn’t meet the costs of its clamoring any more.”  Final entropy thus awaits him.

However, when the interviewer ventures ever so mildly to suggest that perhaps it might have been the very “sexual hyperactivity” of so many of his characters that finally immobilized them, Roth will have none of it.  “What hyperactivity?” he asks scornfully.  “There are no sexual norms that an adult can take seriously!”

Perhaps not such norms as Philip Roth might care to recognize, but surely they continue to animate the lives of at least some of his readers, since without them there can be no shock value to a fiction whose satisfactions depend on how well he succeeds in scandalizing us.  And certainly the novel itself as a literary form demands the maintenance of a fixed and stable moral universe, otherwise there is nothing for the characters to collide against.  No pillars, as it were, left to profane.  Isn’t that why blasphemy can only carry real artistic punch so long as something sacred remains in place?   Does anyone seriously set about blaspheming the Greek gods?

The theme of adulterous love, therefore, which we find so richly itemized in the writings of Flaubert and Tolstoy, is no mere triviality.   Just think what a quick read those twin towers of 19th century literature, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, would be without all that weight of middle class morality to rail against.  Not to mention the cumulative weight of moral disapproval that both authors finally pronounce upon the souls of their characters.  Meanwhile, the pile of smut so copiously dispensed by Philip Roth seems to exist solely to sell books.

In the circumstance, it is worth asking about the extent to which those norms are still operative among the reading public today.  Or have we all become more or less like Philip Roth, spirited little solipsists for whom the pleasure principle, especially in its most forbidden venereal form, trumps all?  In a recent poll conducted by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, it was revealed that nine out of ten people engaged in sexual intercourse before marriage; and that women were no less promiscuous than their male counterparts in breaching that particular bastion.  The conclusion, which the authors of the study were not slow to draw, indeed they took gleeful and protracted pleasure in telling us, is that “premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans…has been for decades.”

Never mind of course the fact that those who engineered the study have been for years and years in the forefront of groups agitating to dismantle those very standards.  Still, what are we to make of the argument that people should pretty much be allowed to fashion their own moral universe?  Not that they haven’t done so already.  The question rather is this: is it morally permissible that they be free to do so?  Are we to extend a free moral pass to people who engage in behaviors that, until quite recently, nearly everyone regarded as beyond the pale?  As subversive, in fact, of those very institutions of marriage and the family on which the whole of civilization itself depends?  And when people persist in doing it, should there not be some sense of shame—however residual and atavistic—attaching to such behaviors as were once pretty widely regarded as wrong and, yes, sinful?  What are the larger consequences to a society that permits so unfettered an exercise of sexual license?

Can we not at least agree that society has a stake in the survival of some recognizable ethos?  That without a moral framework, even if it functions only in the most intermittent and episodic way, life as we know it becomes insupportable?  In other words, if society were only the sum total of so many discrete human beings, each pursuing exclusively self-serving ends, doesn’t that force the rest of us to endure the consequences of so many autonomously arrived at decisions?   In the face of the solipsistic imperative, I am saying, there really does remain something to be said for a public morality, the sanctions of which have historically been sustained by people of decency and faith.  That what some of us persist in calling, however quaintly, the moral imagination, i.e., ethical perceptions beyond the borders of the self-centered self, is still something worth trying to shore up.

“We live in a society that glorifies autonomy,” writes Heather King in her memoir entitled Redeemed, which is the story of a life once spent in its frantic pursuit.  “But autonomy doesn’t free us from bondage to ourselves and our desires—only humility does.”   (The fact that her book is subtitled “Stumbling Toward God, Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding,” suggests the real possibility of overcoming its false glamor.)

No sooner, incidentally, had the Guttmacher report been released than the federal government weighed in with the usual secularist solution, stealing several moral bases along the way.  It seems that some Assistant Secretary for Children and Families over at the Department of Health and Human Services, where the abstinence-only approach to young people had just come under fire from the folks at Guttmacher, had decided that the time had come to vacate the high ground in its efforts to discourage young people from having premature sex.  The interest of the federal government in this area, he announced airily, was no longer moral but strictly medical.  “The longer one delays, the fewer lifetime sex partners young people have, the less the risk of contracting sexually transmitted disease.”

Right.  And a necessary first step inasmuch as health concerns are not matters about which governments ought to remain cavalier. But it is hardly sufficient where the survival of a free people likewise depends on habits of virtue and discipline.  And here the flourishing of a moral life is something which government really does have some stake in promoting.  When people choose to live in an undisciplined and morally dissolute way, indeed, when a lifestyle of degeneracy carries them and their transgressions with them straight into hell, is that really a matter of total indifference to the rest of us?  A society crawling with countless pleasure seeking monads, is that morally ok so long as they just do it hygienically?  To live without any reference to the good of others, or to God, is that to be the shape of the new public order we wish to encourage?   A world made safe for Philip Roth?

The authors of the Federalist Papers did not think so.  The final barrier to the abuse of power, they argued, was neither wise laws nor a just constitution; it was the people themselves, the strength of their attachments to a morality grounded in justice and self-restraint.  For the men who founded this country, there could be no common good unless people were determined to live, not just for themselves, but for others.  In the absence of what Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray used to call “the living repository of a moral tradition,” whose expression the people themselves embodied, there could be no freedom for anyone.

In living out the myth that here in America each of us must be entirely on his own, absolutely at liberty therefore to take ourselves straight to hell, we should not be surprised at the failure to sustain a corporate and generous vision of the good, nor of the incapacity to impart even the most minimally demanding discipline of the moral life.  Such has become the face of the New Pluralism: total suspension of moral judgment and value from the ordinary decisions of men and women.  How far we have come in this country from that “deliberate sense of the community” that once fired the imagination and the lives of so many citizens of this once great land. Leaving us with only the sad detritus of acedia and lust on which, alas, poor Alexandria Portnoy continues to feed.

Editor’s note: Above image is of novelist Philip Roth. (Photo credit: OPAL NC.)

Regis Martin


Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

  • David

    What a solid initial argument for the ellimination of public schools: the heart of our problems. Thank you for a superb article.
    Consider – who are teaching morals to our children. Answer – young, too young, immature, too immature – robots of Robispierre…..
    I firmly believe that the number one activity our Church and leaders should take is to get our children away from these dungeons.

  • Alecto

    The quality verse has deteriorated so much so, that if we
    are to view reading as nourishment for the mind, then most works of
    fiction written over the past century could be viewed as
    intellectual junk food. I have a yellowing, decayed book of sonnets dating from the
    English Renaissance to the present. Read this beautiful poem by John Donne from the 16th century and tell me what reason have we to believe ourselves more “civilized” than they?

    Thou hast made me; and shall thy work decay?
    Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste;
    I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
    And all my pleasures are like yesterday,
    I dare not move my dim eyes any way;
    Despair behind, and death before doth cast
    such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
    By sin in it, which it toward hell doth weigh.
    Only thou are above, and when towards thee
    By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
    But our old subtle foe so tempteth me
    That not one hour myself I can sustain.
    Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
    And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.

  • hombre111

    Excellent. And before we yell at the teachers, we should ask parents if they have control over the shows their kids watch and the video games they play. Starts there, I think.

  • Yes, quite a lot of junk out there. But when the dust settles, we will find that the Church nourished, directly or indirectly, most of the authors worth reading in our desert of the imagination. A partial list:
    Sigrid Undset (Kristin Lavransdatter, The Master of Hestviken)
    Heinrich Boell (The Clown, House Without Guardians)
    Willa Cather (O Pioneers!, Death Comes for the Archbishop)
    Henryk Sienkiewicz (With Fire and Sword, Quo Vadis?)
    G. K. Chesterton (The Ball and Cross, The Man Who was Thursday)
    C. S. Lewis (Till We Have Faces, The Great Divorce)
    Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home)
    Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (Cancer Ward, The First Circle)

    • Charles Lewis

      Check out these Catholic writers Ron Hansen (still writing, Mariette in Ecstasy), Flannery O’Connor (Short Stories), Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, Love in the Ruins, etc.). Hansen is also a deacon.

  • John O’Neill

    During the presidency of George W Bush when an abstinence policy was being pushed in the government office of education the leader of the opposition was Senator Ted Kennedy who thought that this was a terrible policy. Apparently Kennedy a serial adulterer thought that the government should not interfere with fornication. At his funeral mass Kennedy was adulated by the Archbishop of Boston and declared a great and moral man. When will the leaders of the American Catholic Church take a moral stand against immorality?

  • Ayanin

    The state of the arts is indeed deplorable. But what is even more horrifying, is hearing (or reading online, as the case may be) aspiring Catholic writers rushing to the defense of the indefensible… I mean of that very same sort of man you describe, if only he has the “taste” to conceal his filth and his blasphemy and his adultery well, under the label “Catholic.”

    If it is horrifying to behold and consider what the mainstream arts have come to, and even what the mainstream ARTISTS have come to, it is still more horrible to find Catholics themselves, in their private online clubs, hailing the atheist writer and the occasional hypocritical Catholic artist as the very ideals of their own aspirations, naming the mainstream modern writers among them, and, as I said, defending any sort of filth, sin, violence, blasphemy or corruption, so long as, in the end, “the bad guy gets his.”

    When your enemies seek to kill you, it should come as no surprise. To find your supposed friends mixing any amount of poison into the punch bowl from which they mean to serve you, with the smile of friendship on their faces, is much more horrifying.

  • roxwyfe

    The public school system is a mess in regards to enriching the souls of the students. When my daughter was in junior high school, I asked her about her required reading list for her literature class. She looked at me as though I had suddenly sprouted a second head or was speaking Martian to her. While the school system did not think that reading literature was necessary for a literature class, I made sure that the void was filled at home. She read American classics from Huxley to Poe to Margaret Mitchell. She read several European classics as well. I’m a firm believer in education making you smarter, not just an exercise in getting to the next grade level.

    The parents have GOT to take some responsibility for what goes on in the lives of their children. Unfortunately, many parents aren’t in charge in their homes. They are, instead, buddies with their kids. Well, the kids have buddies elsewhere. They need PARENTS to guide them and set boundaries. This is not only true for behavior but for what happens with their little brains, too. The TV is too often used as a babysitter today. Non-stop video game playing has no purpose other than occupation of their time (unless they’re playing educational games, which is unlikely). It’s not that idfficult to engage intellectually with your children. Try it – you might like it 😀

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  • Charles Lewis, Toronto

    This column and the ensuing comments are very disappointing. Mr. Martin takes one of Roth’s earliest books, I believe written more than 40 years ago, to judge the body of his work. Read The Plot Against America or American Pastoral and then decide what sort of writer he was. Personally, I hated Portnoy’s Complaint but there is much more to Rother than that one boo. I’m sorry, Mr. Martin, this is a cheap attack. Crisis should know better. And by the way, Andy Warhol went to mass every morning and worked at a soup kitchen too. Why is that Christians believe Christ forgives sinners but are not capable of doing it themselves.

    • Alecto

      Mr. Lewis, you make some valid points, but I do not share your views on this column. The point is the state of current literature, and Mr. Martin uses Roth’s book to illustrate it. He also references Flaubert and Tolstoy to show how literature shapes and directs society. If literature doesn’t provide examples of how to better live the moral life, society devolves. What exactly would you have us forgive Roth? Prurient writing? Please clarify your last sentence.

      • Charles Lewis

        Alecto: Fair point you make. But was it necessary to attack a very accomplished American author on the basis of a book written 45 years ago? While were’ at it, a great Catholic author currently writing is Ron Hansen. Not all his books are religious but several are. He is also a Catholic Deacon. Worth checking him out.

  • Teresa L

    Which is why I still go back to the classic 20th century writers like Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, for more spiritually and intellectually nourishing literary fare. You forgot to include the current best-selling “Fifty Shades of Gray” that, while I haven’t read (and don’t intend to do so), sounds like a reflection of the moral turpitude that the dominant and loud-mouthed culture calls “normal” today.

    • Alecto

      With all of the resources available to the Catholic church, why aren’t we making our own culture? I would love to see programs, books, music, anything that isn’t repleat with crude innuendo, mindless violence or sexually overt material. We have a opportunity to challenge the status quo, yet no comers? I believe Catholics have enormous talent, potential and a voice no one hears in the popular culture. That’s how you do “New Evangelization”.

  • One thing that strikes me quite powerfully when I teach a literature course that includes poetry and fiction ranging from the Middle Ages or the Renaissance to the modern era is how much less complex our own is; how much less is going on, linguistically; how many fewer things I have to ask the students to attend to. As much as I admire Robert Frost — who I believe is the greatest American poet and yet is tremendously underrated, because he isn’t “political” — you can’t say of Frost’s verse what you have to say of Dante’s, or Milton’s, or George Herbert’s, or even in a sentence or two of Dickens or Jane Austen or George Eliot, that five or six things are going on simultaneously, reflecting fifty or sixty other things, as if in a constellation of jewels….

    • Alecto

      Allow me to present a facetious premise for a dissertation in linguistics: The rapid advance of unbounded technology contributes to the devolution of language. This explains the shrinking complexity of our own with the eventual result that humankind will communicate (like our cave-dwelling ancestors) in inflected prehistoric grunts! I believe one could offer evidence by linking the appearance of the smartphone and so-called social media, with the disappearance of both prose and poetry over the past twenty or thirty years. Ugh.