BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
A literary lament for lost love
, October 25, 2014
Twelve Arguments for Sanity
by Anthony Esolen
(Charlotte, NC: Saint Benedict Press, 2014)
Paperback: 192 pages
Reviewed by Dwight Longenecker
If you write a book exposing our society’s aggressive LGBTQ agenda, do not expect to be thanked. Do not expect to be noticed. Do not expect for your book to register on the cultural radar. Expect the opposite.
Robert R. Reilly’s recent book Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behaviour Is Changing Everything was ignored not only by progressive elites, but also by increasingly timid conservatives. Mr Reilly — a veteran, diplomat, advisor to president Reagan and a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council — is no lightweight.
His book is lucid, well-argued and concise. It was also quietly shelved. “Thank you. Your views have been noted.” The brilliance of Mr Reilly’s book is that he does not use religious arguments to refute the homosexualist agenda. He relies instead on reason, philosophy, history and common sense.
In Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, another expert takes a stab at it from a different perspective. Anthony Esolen, professor of English at Providence College and accomplished translator of Dante, complements Mr Reilly’s acute analysis with a defence of marriage from literary sources. Also avoiding arguments from religion, imprecatory preachments and Bible proof texts, Professor Esolen does not so much attack the sordid homosexualist agenda as sing a paean of praise to the sublimity of marriage.
We should not suppose that Professor Esolen does anything so banal as to go snooping for proof texts from Shakespeare or Milton. He does much more than that. He takes the reader into the mind and the world of Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien and Spenser.
He does not argue against homosexuality, but for a healthy, wholesome, innocent and natural approach to human sexuality. Esolen presents us with a vision of human sexuality, courtship, marriage and romance which is timeless and poignantly alluring.
Unfortunately, the book’s cover, title and subtitle do not convey the beauty and strength of Professor Esolen’s essay. The cover design told me the book was one of those worthy books with lots of footnotes, serious argumentation, solid research, and plenty of yawns.
The publishers have slapped on a cover which does not do justice to this fine book. The cover is pedestrian and does not communicate the emphasis on beauty and the classical tradition. One cannot help wondering if the designer took the time to read the manuscript. Alas, we do judge books by their cover, but if I judge the cover by the book, the cover disappoints.
The blurb says Professor Esolen uses moral, theological and cultural arguments to make his case, and the chapters lay out one, two, three, four — up to 12 arguments — like, “We must not enshrine in Law the Principle that Sexual Gratification Is a Personal Matter Only With Which the Society Has Nothing to Do”.
I read the table of contents and cringed. Did I really have to read such a dull book? Must I wade yet again through the deep cold waters of worthy arguments made by a sincere academic who was preaching to the snoring choir?
I persevered, for I have lunched with Anthony Esolen and his delightful family, and I know he is no dull academic, but a spiritual man of vast erudition and wisdom.
My perseverance was rewarded. Instead of a thumpingly dull book with sincere and correct argumentation, I found a thrilling book written with humour, passion, nostalgia and grace.
Professor Esolen writes finely-honed and passionate prose and makes his case as a poetical preacher rather than a tiresome tutor. He captivates us with the vision of innocent romance — weaving a spell from The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and As You Like It. He explains what an Epithalamion is and why Spenser’s blissful song of praise to his bride so successfully unlocks the mystery of marriage and the joy of romance.
Professor Esolen uses his literary references not to prove a point or even to illustrate a point, but to evoke within us a different and more beautiful understanding of what it means to be male and female, boy and girl, husband and wife. From his exaltation of human love within literary culture Professor Esolen conjures up a forgotten world where girls and boys were naturally attracted to one another and flirted and played together innocently. He helps us look back to a world where young men and women courted, stole a kiss and kept themselves pure for their wedding day.
He unlocks the unknown remembered gate into the rose garden of the marriage bed where a young Adam knew his young Eve, and they longed for children to complete their love.
Professor Esolen then invites us to consider true masculine friendship. There is Tom Sawyer playing pirates with his mates, killing the enemies, fighting the thieves, then swimming naked in the Mississippi and flopping down exhausted on the beach. Here is Samwise Gamgee cradling Frodo’s head in his arms, kissing him tenderly, and affirming his love for his friend and master.
Professor Esolen analyses the necessity of male friendship in clubs, gangs, teams and the military and laments its destruction and desecration for it has been destroyed by the sexual revolution and the politically correct; the ability of boys to grow safely and securely into men has been mangled.
The sexual revolution, with its tragic legacy of divorce, broken homes, battered and scattered fathers, predatory and prostituted females, the fractured family, ravished relationships, and a desiccated sexuality has left us as wounded warriors wandering alone on a devastated cultural battlefield.
One could re-phrase Hopkins’ lament, “All is seared with sex; bleared smeared with porn; And wears man’s smudge and share’s man’s smirk: the bed is bare now, nor can heart feel being crushed.”
Anthony Esolen’s book is an excellent, passionate and desperate cri de coeur. Instead of an angry rant against a depraved and decadent society, the author reminds us what has been and laments what has been lost.
He sees that they have mangled the Madonna and slashed the Mona Lisa. They have leered at Botticelli’s Venus, ravished Helen of Troy and pimped Beatrice. Not content with their destruction of marriage they have set their sick sights on the children beckoning them with insatiable lust saying, “Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not….”
Professor Esolen’s last chapter is a sustained allegory between the Land of Marriage and the Land of Divisia. He paints a word picture of a land where the abundant life is happy, simple, innocent and free and contrasts it with our modern world where the machine triumphs, where belief and beauty have died, and every person is treated as no more than a machine made of meat.
In praising the beauty, sanctity and powerful purity of marriage, Professor Esolen avoids the negativity of merely ranting at vice and scolding the sinner. His work is innocent but not naïve.
Instead of howling at the horror he holds up the nobility and glory of humanity fully alive. He invites us to rediscover the beauty, simplicity and innocence of a truly abundant life — a life overflowing with that human goodness and fecundity that locks us into that eternal and eternally fruitful love — the love that “moves the sun and all the other stars”.
American-born Revd Fr Dwight Longenecker is a theology graduate of Oxford University. Before his conversion to Catholicism he served as an Anglican parish priest, a chaplain at Kings College, Cambridge, and a country parson on the Isle of Wight. He currently serves as a parish priest at Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author of 16 books and contributes to many magazines, papers and journals in the United States and Britain. His web site is at DwightLongenecker.com. His latest book, The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty(Thomas Nelson, 2014), is available from News Weekly Books. His above book review first appeared in the online journal, www.TheImaginativeConservative.org (June 2014), and is reprinted with permission.