By John Timpane
Warning: The author of the following piece has a very dirty mouth and mind. He is perhaps the last person who should be writing such high-minded things.
Each of us and all of us are in a relation to God – whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we are attentive to it or not. Being itself is a relationship, and we who exist change our beings, and our relationship to God, by what we do. When we speak, we speak out of and within our relation to God. Same when we use money, when we invest it, when we hope our investments prosper. Same when we are physically close to our beloved, around and within our beloved, welcoming our beloved with all senses, literally with everything we’ve got. As the neoplatonists believed, that is when we are next to God.
In Canto XIV, Dante beholds one of the most horrible set-pieces yet, as he sets eyes on the Third Ring of the Seventh Circle. It’s a panorama of pain played out on an arid desert plain, with flames falling from on high on the suffering damned. Blasphemers lie supine (so they suffer on both sides at once), usurers sit on the sand, and sodomites wander ceaselessly. We are told this circle is reserved for those who have been violent toward God.
Medieval categories can strike us (as ours would strike them) as inconsistent and arbitrary. What do usurers share with sodomites? And what does either category of sinner have in common with blasphemers? How are these sins violence toward God?
Usury violence against God? Well, isn’t it? Ten percent of Americans, more or less, are unemployed at the moment and probably will be for an average time of six months. The percentage swells to 17 if we count the underemployed and those not even searching for work. And, as Dante would be the first to say, much of this is chickens come home to roost in our way of making money out of money. I won’t go into the relative moral standing of derivatives and hedge funds, even if I understood them, and I don’t – but I do know that our intention with money is deeply sick and deeply culpable. We act as if riches are what we’re here for. We regard as fools anyone who lives as if money isn’t the main or most important thing, and we celebrate as geniuses anyone who manages to compile the biggest pile.
It’s not wealth itself. You do have to make a living, and it is not always evil to have prospered. (Not always.) But in our unconscious celebration of the ways money pollutes, we are all usurers. Usurers place money between themselves and God. And that is violence supreme.
We perhaps will be most uncomfortable with the sodomites being in the Seventh Circle. Their restlessness lets us know that, in Dante’s world, sodomy was always wrong (and, by the way, the term had a very expansive meaning – it included homosexual and pederastic acts but could also include what used to be called “perversions” in general), that practitioners of these acts had lost their way and had forfeited spiritual rest.
I am profoundly uneasy with any viewpoint that condemns homosexuality per se as always, inevitably damnable. I speak only for myself (and that’s how everyone should speak of these things), but I cannot find the moral ground from which I could ever make a judgment like that. The point is not the gender you choose to be intimate with – it’s how you treat people within intimacy.
But Dante’s vision strikes home when we accept that each of us is a pervert, in the darkest sense. Perhaps we are largely conventional in our conduct in the realm of intimacy – yet what is more morally sensitive, what more challenging to our patience, our compassion, our ability to show love, than intimacy? Anyone who says, “I have never failed in my intimate life” is saying something not even they will believe. And intimacy is so momentous, so deific, and so damaging when it collapses, that when any of us fail, that’s a moment of perversion (“turning away”). In the sense that the loved one is our ultimate home, our mirror of God, our chance to be our best and do our best, when we turn away, lose patience, withhold gentleness, suppress compassion, when we do not see our beloved (as in the Na’vi sense of I see you), when we fail to be home for our beloved, to take him/her in, shelter him/her, lead our guests to the table of the Lord in our intimacy – then, truly, we have lost our home and wander an arid life ceaselessly. We have shown utmost violence against the God in our beloved, and the God in us.
During Lent, there might be nothing that haunts me so much as the many perversions littering my path.
Violence against God is easy to see with blasphemers, who employ language to abuse the deity. Our age does not take cursing or blasphemy seriously – in fact, our age, maybe because it is awash in words, saturated with an engulfing onrush of language, doesn’t take language seriously. Cursing is a way to be accepted, to show you’re modern, with it, to fit in with various crowds. It’s how men show other men they’re tough. It’s how teens show other teens they’re willful, rebellious, and cool.
Let’s take a mild case. That sucks, once a thing you’d never hear in public, is almost invisible today because it has become so common. It is, of course, entirely coarse and insulting; its broad acceptance as an expression of exasperation, judgment, or sympathy suggests to some people that we have become desensitized.
That sucks insults an intimate act. Behind the slang use of suck is the notion that certain sex acts are dirty, and those who perform them (women, mostly) are degraded thereby. Strangely, and ironically, many of us enjoy being sucked – yet much of our common language assumes that sucking is bad and suckers polluted and inferior. If a Martian came down from Mars and observed our swearing habits, they’d be perplexed.
Fuck you is a subjunctive or optative statement meaning May someone have sexual intercourse with you. “Oh, what a nice custom, to wish such a pleasant fate on somebody else,” say the Martians. They would not be able to hear the toxic overtones in the verb fuck, which (although often used as a catchall term for intercourse – and that’s toxic in itself) is freighted with overtones of degradation, submission, and even violence. May someone have sexual intercourse with you – and may it ruin you.
I remember the first Lent I ever tried to give up swearing. It was sixth grade, and I’d only gotten started. Hell and damn exclusively – I wonder if I even knew any others. I didn’t make it. What was hard about keeping the resolution was this: I did it without thinking. The horse was out of the barn, galloping over the hill, and eating daisies in the neighbor’s farm, way before I was aware. I even woke up one morning remembering a stray hell the day before.
I try to exercise all sorts of disciplines during Lent, and I do try to watch my mouth. To me, words and our use of words, our second-to-second choice of what to say and how to say it, is the closest, most continual gauge of the self who does the choosing. Word choice is moral choice. It has to be.
Now allow me to contradict myself. I want to make clear that at some level, a certain degree of freedom and coarseness with language is meant not to be taken seriously. And if we take it too seriously, we assume a moral position it’s impossible to maintain. If we have no sense of humor, well, for me, that’s acedia. If we allow no sense of play, even coarse play, with language, we set ourselves up as tiny gods.
What’s bad is when we use words as weapons, when we say Go to hell and mean it, Fuck you and mean it, whore or ho and mean it, when we imagine the person before us as shit, as garbage, as worthless. When we do such things, we do violence, literally, to the target person, and thus to God. And we do worst violence to ourselves, and thus to God.
As my sixth-grade experiment shows, we can’t actually watch every word we speak. Language is too liquid, too quick, too mercurial. And we shouldn’t be like the naïve sixth-grader me, worried he was polluted because he said hell yesterday.
What I need, this and every Lent, to think of is my general ways with language, the values that flow out of my mouth and pen and keyboard. Am I building up or tearing down? Am I having playful fun, toying with openness and abandon in creative ways, or am I just being a pottymouth and pottyhead? Do I ever, when I open my lips, sacred portals created by the deity, dirty those portals with words as weapons?
And if I deny this ever happens, aren’t I like Capaneus, the type of the toxically proud man? He declared he was so great he couldn’t be beaten – and then he got smoked by a higher authority. Our usury, our perversion, our violent words all speak loud and clear, all the way to Good Friday. Humility. Humility.