gall and gumption

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Ask "Monk" Lewis

A recent poster described the elections as a "speed bump on the way to theocracy."

Well, if it is true, this story is like the car slamming into a big pothole and breaking an axle.

The DailyKos diary quotes this passage from a profile of Louis Sheldon in The Jewish Week. Sheldon is head of the Traditional Values Coalition.

Then, as if things could not get worse, there was the disgrace of Sheldon's own friend and colleague, Rev. Ted Haggard, the Colorado mega-church leader and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an even bigger pillar of Republican support on the Christian right. Sheldon disclosed that he and "a lot" of others knew about Haggard's homosexuality "for awhile ... but we weren't sure just how to deal with it."
Months before a male prostitute publicly revealed Haggard's secret relationship with him, and the reverend's drug use as well, "Ted and I had a discussion," explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal then: "He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn't. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that."

Roy found a piece by David Frum (coiner of the phrase, "Axis of Evil") the week the Haggard story broke. Here's the bit he quoted:

Consider the hypothetical case of two men. Both are inclined toward homosexuality. Both from time to time hire the services of male prostitutes. Both have occasionally succumbed to drug abuse.

One of them marries, raises a family, preaches Christian principles, and tries generally to encourage people to lead stable lives.

The other publicly reveals his homosexuality, vilifies traditional moral principles, and urges the legalization of drugs and prostitution...

...the first man may well see his family and church life as his "real" life; and regard his other life as an occasional uncontrollable deviation, sin, and error, which he condemns in his judgment and for which he sincerely seeks to atone by his prayer, preaching, and Christian works.

Yet it is the first man who will if exposed be held up to the execration of the media, while the second can become a noted public character - and can even hope to get away with presenting himself as an exemplar of ethics and morality.

How does this make moral sense?

I believe that Matthew Gregory “Monk” Lewis can clear matters up.

Ambrosio felt embarrassed as He entered the Chapel. Guilt was new to him, and He fancied that every eye could read the transactions of the night upon his countenance. He strove to pray; His bosom no longer glowed with devotion; His thoughts insensibly wandered to Matilda’s secret charms. But what He wanted in purity of heart, He supplied by exterior sanctity. The better to cloak his transgression, He redoubled his pretensions to the semblance of virtue, and never appeared more devoted to Heaven as since He had broken through his engagements. Thus did He unconsciously add Hypocrisy to perjury and incontinence; He had fallen into the latter errors from yielding to seduction almost irresistible; But he was now guilty of a voluntary fault by endeavouring to conceal those into which Another had betrayed him.

. . . .

He determined at all events to continue his commerce with Matilda, and called every argument to his aid which might confirm his resolution. He asked himself, provided his irregularity was unknown, in what would his fault consist, and what consequences He had to apprehend? By adhering strictly to every rule of his order save Chastity, He doubted not to retain the esteem of Men, and even the protection of heaven. He trusted easily to be forgiven so slight and natural a deviation from his vows: But He forgot that having pronounced those vows, Incontinence, in Laymen the most venial of errors, became in his person the most heinous of crimes.

Once he rationalizes his hypocrisy to himself, Ambrosio goes into some very dark ways indeed.

How dark?

Oh, I am so glad you asked: well, there’s idolatry, blasphemy, iconoclasm, black magic, blasphemy, illicit sex (and lots of it – once he gets going he’s like a mink), hypocrisy, lying, murder, invocation of demons, rape, incest, matricide, voyeurism, selling of souls to the devil… and I think I may have missed a few. In the end he is punished, of course, but it is too late for the reader (that would be me), who knows by this point that she has enjoyed it all far too much and knows that enjoying it puts her in closer moral proximity to Ambrosio than is quite comfortable. The book was such a scandal that it earned its author the nickname “Monk” for the rest of his life.

Now, Lewis is not a great moralist. The book, for all its diabolical subject matter, has a weirdly pantomime atmosphere, as if you have met all the villains before -- well, all of them except the Grey Nun. (I do not complain of this quality, I rather like it.) I don’t think you would call Lewis a deep thinker on moral questions – a deep thinker on moral questions would not have written The Monk. It would have given a great moral thinker like Samuel Johnson the horrors, and I don't mean the fun kind. And Johnson understood human fallibility. But Lewis was a competent moral thinker: he knew just exactly what public opinion of Ambrosio’s behavior would be. That, I think, partly accounts for the pantomime atmosphere.

Which is all my way of saying that the objections to hypocrisy are not in such hard-to-reach places; even a man like “Monk” Lewis could find them ready to hand when he needed them. Like the authors of bodice-rippers, thrillers and romances for the popular taste, he knew that you win your readers by respecting their norms in matters such as the meaning of hypocrisy or dishonesty, even while you tickle them with the illicit, sublime, and subversive.

But if you would like a more respectable source, consider George Herbert:

Think the King sees Thee still,
For his King does.

Paradise Lost is too long to quote here.

And here’s one that every Jamaican child learns, suitable for the simple.

Speak the truth and speak it ever,
Cost it what it will;
He who hides the wrong he did
Does the wrong thing still.

So I'm not sure what traditional values are represented by "damage control," which Ambrosio the Evil Monk would recognize in his very bones as hypocrisy and the work of the devil whom he knew so well. God, at the very least these people reveal such a low and bestial incompetence in the very matters on which they profess to have exclusive authority, it's revolting. It's like even in matters of religion and truth they have to frighten and bully you into buying their sleazy cheap wares.

You know, I think that anybody who travels far to fetch back an argument in defense of the indefensible Oh, hi, Mr. Satan, I'm your neighbor, the wife and I live just across the Universe, and I was wondering if I could borrow a cup of arguments from you -- and comes back to set you straight with tortured reasoning like Frum's, reeking of brimstone and dog turds, is even worse than a person who tries to mislead you as to facts. This person is trying to corrupt your judgment. And that must surely be a first-class ticket back to that other place.


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