Contemporary Life Is Not Just Unreal—It’s Irreal

You look over your fence and see your neighbor in his backyard, with a big pot over a roaring fire. Clouds of steam are rising from it, and they bring to you the sharp sweet smell of something cooking, something you know very well, but somehow it doesn’t fit the scene.

“What are you cooking there, Jerry?”

He looks up and extends his hand. In it is a skewer, with big strands of stuff wound around it. “Spaghetti, of course,” he says. “It’s time for fall planting.”

You knit your brows. “Fall planting?” Your neighbor is an accountant.

 

“Sure,” he says. “I have a couple of stumps I need to get rid of, otherwise there’s no way I can plow.”

“Jerry,” you say, “you don’t have a plow.”

“I have a cat,” he says.

“You’re going to use the cat?”

“Yes, once I’ve gotten rid of the stumps with the spaghetti.”

“I see. Very sharp spaghetti.”

This time Jerry knits his brows. “Spaghetti is soft and limp,” he says. “How else are you going to pry up the stumps?”

You now wonder whether there is something else in the cauldron besides spaghetti, but you try to make the best of a bad situation. “What are you going to plant?” you ask.

“Pinto beans,” he says.

“Pinto beans?”

“Yes. I was going to try quartos, but I always found them too dry. Honey,” he calls out to his wife, who is looking from the window, “would you fetch the shampoo? I think the spaghetti is ready.”

“All right, dear,” she says. “Should I get the box of paper clips, too?”

“No need. I have some mothballs.”

At which you go back indoors with a headache.

Ah, the contemporary scene. I have called it unreal. That was an injustice to the unreal. A talking dog is unreal, because dogs do not talk, but we can imagine a talking dog, as C.S. Lewis did in The Chronicles of Narnia, and as folk tales have done everywhere in the world. If dogs could talk, they would talk about doggy things, and this would make perfect sense. A tree with silver needles is unreal, because there happen not to be any, but we can imagine one, or a ruby as big as a boulder, or mermen darting in and out of the ruins of a drowned city. However, we need another word to describe unreality that does violence to reality—that could in no coherent sense ever be called real. The laws of logic and of being apply to The Lord of the Rings; they do not apply to us now.

We are sick of sex, we are indeed. Reality is too dull for us. The imaginary is too real for us. So we have turned to the irreal: to what could not be real in any conceivable universe.

In times when men and women are directed by the healthy necessities of physical survival, they have not the leisure to grow bored with the real. The belly needs food. In our time, we are cushioned by wealth from the punishments that nature metes out to those who do not honor her. I will give what should not be a controversial example. We pretend that an ordinary woman can be a soldier in the infantry. She does not have the bodily strength of her 15-year-old brother, and she does not have the aerobic capacity of her 40-year-old father, but she can be a soldier. She presents all kinds of medical problems, she can be raped and impregnated by the enemy, and when everybody else is in peak physical condition, she will always be the weakest in the platoon. Her 15-year-old brother is stronger than she is and he is not fit for the army, not yet, but that doesn’t matter. It is like pretending that you can cut down a tree with a plastic hatchet. It won’t work.

Now, that is unreal. It is not yet irreal. Let us take the same woman out of uniform and put her in civvies. She is at a party, and men are drinking. She is drinking, too. One of the men makes gross advances toward her. Another man pulls him off her and flings him against the wall. Thirty-six years later she attempts to ruin the man’s career, because of what he tried to do. She says she has never gotten over the horror of it.

We are getting close now. We might ask her the first obvious question. “So why didn’t you beat him up?” Men beat each other up all the time. Men are, for reasons that are easy to grasp, more likely to engage in violent crimes than women are, just as 20-year-old men are more likely to do so than are 80-year-old men. They do it in part because they can. It doesn’t make them worse, morally, than those who cannot but it does make them more dangerous. Women are also, for reasons that are a little harder to grasp, less likely to be the victims of all violent crimes except for rape, because men generally hold women immune from their violence. They do that because they actually like women and do not want to hurt them. They also recognize that there is no honor to be gained from taking advantage of someone who is weaker.

If she admits as much, we ask, “Then why are you pretending to be a soldier, when you cannot beat up a drunken sot?” For drunken sots are easier to beat up than are men who are sober. And then we ask the next question. “Precisely what did you find so offensive in his behavior?”

Here, too, we are venturing close to plowing a field with a cat. I am a Roman Catholic. I believe that sex is both natural and holy. Its nature is reproductive. It is holy, because it is the act that brings into being another person made in the image of God. But our enemies believe neither of these things. They have said that the act is or can be merely recreational. They have said that the act implies no difference between the male and the female. They have said that it has nothing essentially to do with babies. They have even said that there is nothing wrong with its being impersonal: hence, not solely pornography, but also the delight of waking up the next morning to ask the name of the person with whom you have soiled the bed.

Suppose one of the boys in the fraternity has had too much to drink, and compels you to sit down with him to watch an inning of baseball. Watching an inning of baseball can be impersonal, can be done equally well by men and women, is just recreation, and doesn’t involve babies. Do you then, three decades later, break out into a sweat when someone says that the count is two and two? Faint at the prospect of a sacrifice fly?

But perhaps, despite our fantasies, there really are such things as men and women, and men owe women an immunity that they do not grant to other men. Yet wait—we are told that there are no such things, not really. A man can be a woman by declaring himself to be so. He then pranks himself up with lipstick and affects a girly voice, and instead of being a rather unpleasant and boring fellow who is engaging in some bad impersonation, he is taken seriously. He is a trans-woman, which I believe is supposed to be a man pretending to be a woman, as I believe a trans-man is supposed to be a woman pretending to be a man. Of course, there need be no end to the pretending. What do we call a man who is pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man? A boomerang? Or a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a marsupial? A boomerangeroo?

Here we are squarely in the realm of the irreal. I can imagine a talking horse. I cannot imagine a talking mute. I can imagine a crazy person thinking that he can pry up a stump with a crowbar. I cannot imagine even a crazy person trying to pry up a stump with spaghetti and saying that he can do it because spaghetti is soft. I can imagine a madman who says that women deserve no special consideration from men. I cannot imagine someone who says that women deserve special consideration from men, because there are no differences between men and women. I can imagine a madman who says that a woman is mighty enough to fight in the front lines of a battle and wrestle with a man armed with a bayonet, who wants to kill her. I cannot imagine the madman who says that the same woman must wilt like a flower if she has to wrestle with a man armed with nothing, who wants to grab her. I can imagine a very bad man or woman who says that sex has no meaning, and therefore sexual assault is not a big deal. I cannot imagine the very bad man or woman who says that sex has no meaning, and therefore sexual assault is one of the worst crimes that a man can commit.

We are, as I have written before, not like the madman who believes he is Napoleon. We are like the unimaginable madman, an irreal madman, who believes that he is Napoleon and that there is no such person as Napoleon at all; and in those towers of the irreal, by which I mean our college faculties, we have people who believe they are Napoleon because Napoleon is inconceivable. Soon, full soon, they may elevate themselves to an irreal deity, and declare that their essence is not to exist.

“Where are you going, Moses?” says Jethro.

“Over to that bush that is not burning. I want to see why it is not burning.”

“I don’t see any bush at all.”

“That’s just it,” says Moses. “It is very strange. I want to check out that bush that does not exist, and see why it is not burning.”

I know why sexual assault is evil. It is because the act of sex is holy. I know why it is not just evil but despicable to subject a woman to violence. It is because she is a woman, not a man. I believe in realities. I suspect that the enemies of the Church still have some sense of reality, and that it occasionally breaks out into the open, in chaotic and unreasonable ways. Maybe we can eventually persuade them that a baby is a baby and not a wart. For the near future, the odds are greater that I will meet a mermaid on the shores of a pond, grilling fish. How sweet and real that would be.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “The Brothel of Avignon” painted by Picasso in 1907.

Anthony Esolen

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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).

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