Friday, January 21, 2011

Beast of Eden (plus: Nick Drake)

The Christian blog Patum Peperium suggested that Helen Rittelmeyer, the ex with whom I sparred on C-SPAN2, should have read my earlier ex Dawn Eden's book on Christian dating, Thrill of the Chaste.  Dawn's subtle and indirect influence on the C-SPAN2 fracas is ambiguous, though (aside from the more concrete post-panel facts, such as her giving me -- not Helen -- a consoling hug when I got down from the podium and later trying to convince me, for good or ill, to take PR cues from Opus Dei on how to handle the subsequent controversy -- advice which I worry might simply have led to people thinking I was trying to kill Tom Hanks or that there was some element of cultish sadomasochism involved). 

True, if Helen had taken Dawn's warning in Chapter 18 not to date atheists like me literally, we would have avoided some conflict.  On the other hand, Helen doesn't like to take anything literally, despises truth-telling and rationality (bad signs, in retrospect, I admit, as was her contempt for kindness), was already quite familiar with Dawn's views and my relationship with Dawn before dating me (and had met Dawn), and has repeatedly dated either atheists or libertarians, always preferring to have something to fight about.  Always. 

Furthermore, atheism was not the problem.  (The problem, in a nutshell, was that I am good whereas Helen is evil.  I know that might sound to some like a slight oversimplification -- the sort that would make it hard to keep credentialed relationship counselors in business -- but I'm not even sure Helen would disagree with it, which is the scary part.  We'll render final judgment upon her in Sunday's entry, though.)

For now, let me just say that Dawn -- who I think is one of the most well-meaning people I've known even if I don't always agree with her methods -- made admirable efforts to avoid hypocritically glamorizing her pre-conversion rock groupie years in Thrill of the Chaste, despite me arguing back when she was writing it that the best marketing approach might be to split the book down the middle, devoting as much time to her years reporting on and sometimes dating 60s and 60s-influenced rock musicians as to her later conversion to Christianity, and call it From Mod to God.  (Since I dated her during a transitional period in which she'd recently turned Christian but not yet Catholic and not yet opposed to premarital sex, she might also have considered From Mod to Todd to God, though the order is a bit ambiguous.)

Despite Dawn's best efforts, though, there were bound to be some younger women out there who saw in
the book a marvelous, decadent fusion of those three forces I have seen united as psychological warning signs time and again: sex, God, and rock n' roll. 


It's always been the moderate in me, really -- the calm, sane seeker of some rational middle ground -- who perhaps over-optimistically thought that triple-combo, that trinity of ecstatic pursuits, might represent a kind of healthy balance in a world torn between right and left, tradition and innovation, conservatism and punk.  More often, it's a barely-stabilized gyroscope of conflicting psychological forces that one probably ought to avoid -- not that I regret my diplomatic forays into that strange territory, for the most part.  But never again.  (And I'm pleased Dawn, who acknowledges how troubled she used to be, has stabilized so nicely.)

So there are lessons to be learned here, surely, Patum Peperium -- and indeed lessons that could have been drawn from experience with one ex before dealing with the other -- but I do not think they are at all the ones you suggest.  I humbly submit that atheism is not the main source of crazy in this story.  Furthermore, I would suggest to Patum Peperium, Dawn, and for that matter to Christians generally, that one of religion's great flaws is using such a broad moral brush that it obscures the finer moral distinctions that really matter. 

Someone who thinks "I must try to resist all lust, though I know I will fail," for example, hardly seems to me as morally sound and discerning as someone who thinks "There's nothing wrong with sex, but I will not lie to my partners, even by omission, nor treat them as quickly-disposable means of recreation when deeper emotional commitments are possible and indeed are superior." 

Making all non-marital sex sound evil is the kind of error that leads to so many religious people being unable to see an important moral distinction between, say, homosexuality and rape, or between conventional dating and adultery.  Religion is a clumsy, blunt instrument, in short, and not up to my moral standards. 

It is not the sole reason that Helen, an avowed Dawn fan from the time we first met, ended up being called an "Untamed She-Beast of the Right" even by one of her most ardent online supporters (the execrable Robert Stacy McCain), but I would contend religion didn't help, merely providing Helen with a delightfully naughty vocabulary in which to describe her transgressions (with pride) and a purported means of cosmically compensating for those transgressions.  Or, if religion has played a positive role in keeping Helen in her meek mode more often than in her marauder mode (some people only seeing one or the other), perhaps we can at best declare her a "Partly-Tamed She-Beast of the Right."

But coming up tomorrow: what does Eve Tushnet call Helen Rittelmeyer?


And call me lazy, but I'm functionally reverting to my teenage default of assuming religious people are crazy until proven otherwise -- and not to be dated, probably not at all but at the very least not without a lot more assurances than I've demanded in the past. 

Of course, in modern America, the voice of true moderation is often one that says, "Oh, I'm technically religious, I guess, or at least I remember going to -- it was Congregationalist services, usually -- when we were young, so once or twice I've gone to Easter things they've had since then, but I don't really think about it much.  I think it'd be sort of nice if there were a Heaven or something, like when I miss my grandfather, but I don't really know."  That's terrible philosophy, but I think we all know it's often the mark of the soundest and most normal psyches. 

Most Americans, in short, can plead "haven't really given it that much thought" -- and as someone who is usually pro-apathy, except in times of crisis, I can respect that.  Amongst your high-faluting intellectuals, who actually claim to have given just about everything much thought, drawing the conclusion that there is a God and that God clearly wants certain things is more troubling.  It's like the distinction between someone who casually says "I think I heard about some UFO abduction in New Hampshire or some place that experts think may have been real" and someone who says "I have a Ph.D. in physics, have an IQ of 237, and have been studying the UFO menace for fifteen years -- and the government's web of lies must be exposed!!"  Can you spot the sounder mind?  I think you can. 

As for me: dinner with two atheist buddies last night and a trip with another one tonight to Hofstra University (not too far from the Hempstead LIRR stop on Long Island) to catch the 8pm performance there of Ayn Rand's early, more blatantly Nietzschean play The Night of January Sixteenth.  Think of it as a warm-up for my Sunday, Feb. 6 (3pm) performance (as speaker and, yes, dancer) in the show Don't Tread on Me, a combo theatrical and installation-art work by director Chelsea Knight, who thought it'd be neat to have some real libertarians, right-wingers, and Tea Partiers on display -- at Momenta Art, 359 Bedford Ave. in Williamsburg.  Be there. 

P.S. A culture note of some possible interest to 60s music aficionados, by the way: that AT&T ad with people making their way to a cloth-wrapped beach is interesting to me in two ways (besides its aesthetic appeal).  It bears a highly unusual tiny disclaimer at the end assuring us that the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude had nothing to do with it, and it also happens to be a rare TV ad that uses Nick Drake's music, he being like a lot of current hip indie-folk-depressive music except back in the late 60s. 

Indeed, without his influence, there would probably be no Iron & Wine concert for me to go to one week from tonight, and perhaps the Decemberists show I'm seeing Monday wouldn't even sound quite the same.

No comments: