By Jonathon Van Maren
Catholic commentator and professor Anthony Esolen is one of modern culture’s most incisive critics, and his latest offering, Sex in the Unreal City: The Demolition of the Western Mind, is exceptional. As with his other cultural critiques—2017’s Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture and 2018’s Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, Esolen marshals what he refers to as the great unused artillery in the culture war—literature, poetry, and Scripture—and uses them to devastate the current insanities that afflict our dying civilization. Even as a non-Catholic, I found this book enormously helpful—and a pleasure to read.
I’ll give you just a few examples. On transgenderism and our mutating beliefs about gender, Esolen reminds his readers that for thousands of years, Christians have “laboured under the quaint misconstruction that God created man in the beginning, male and female he created them. Not so, said the gelders and spayers at Christians for Biblical Equality. There is an intermediate class of people, once known as hermaphrodites or androgynes, possessing the sexual characteristics of both sexes. So it was as the Catholic author David Mills commented: a birth defect is elevated to the status of normal, just so we can tear down the whole idea of the normal.”
That sums it up well, I’d say.
Those of you in the pro-life movement will remember the outcry after President Barack Obama was asked what his reaction would be if one of his daughters became pregnant before marriage. His response was that he would be disappointed, but that he would not want to “punish her with a child.” Esolen’s response: “I wish someone would punish me with a grand child. Can you be punished with a Rembrandt? But a child is are more beautiful than anything that an artist has ever accomplished.”
As always, Esolen writes the sorts of things that are so true I can’t believe I haven’t read them before.
My colleagues in the pro-life movement are also familiar with the relentless backlash that meets any condemnation of abortion in the public square, from signs reading “Adoption is the Loving Option” to those depicting the broken bodies of abortion victims. I was on the streets doing outreach earlier this week, and the rage of some abortion activists (several of whom were witches, they happily informed us) was so fierce it must have exhausted them. Sin, says Esolen, does that—because sins, at their root, are lies:
You say, ‘I may kill this child I have made, because he would only be unhappy if I allowed him to live,’ and besides, you are hardly paying for your rent as it is, and you might have to sell your car or take a year off from school. It is a lie, and you know it. But the more egregious the lie is, the more energy you expend in telling it, and if anybody should name the lie for what it is, you will turn on the truth teller with all the ferocity of a wounded and cornered animal.
That is precisely it. Online, abortion activists attempt to tell two stories at the same time—that abortion is just healthcare, that it is no different than an appendectomy, that the child in the womb is not a child. Simultaneously, they accuse pro-life activists of inflicting enormous trauma, of triggering past pain, of forcing people to confront what they wish to forget. In other words: Abortion is no big deal, and it is the biggest deal. Not even abortion activists really believe what they are saying—but they seem to think that if they scream loudly enough, perhaps we will start to think that they do. I always get the sense that they are attempting to persuade themselves as much as anyone else.
“In Unreal, the object of human life is to try to force reality, including human nature itself, to conform to your desires; this is what is called being true to yourself,” Esolen writes. “You are to ‘follow your dreams’, and when the rest of the world does not conform to them, you lash out in anger. I do not want to follow my dreams. They prove to be empty or to be nightmares of self-absorption. I pray for reality, and tremble, because that means that God will show me what I am.”
We live in a culture built on attempting to escape reality and the God who created it. Anthony Esolen has once again torn back the flimsy curtain, and exposed the fundamental fiction of the Unreal City.
Listen to my interview with Anthony Esolen on his last book, Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World:
My conversation with Anthony Esolen after the publication of Out of the Ashes: