Profanity in Thought and Deed


I first read this Dan Hitchens essay in First Things while Democrats were both affirming their devotion to Planned Parenthood and taking (it seemed) every opportunity to swear in front of microphones.  The topic is progressive Catholic Dorothy Day:

It was hard to get thrown out of the Catholic Worker house over which Day presided—a house which welcomed the helpless, the lost, the mentally ill, the addicted, and the simply obnoxious—but Day did once expel some young bohemians after they used the printing equipment for an obscene magazine entitled “F*** You.” The use of the word shocked her: It showed contempt, she wrote in her diary, “for the very sources of life itself.” It was a “breath of evil,” a blasphemous nihilism which maimed “the creativity within them.” To profane the creativity of sexual desire, in word or in deed, was a kind of self-harm.

In one letter she surmised: “The kids are almost hysterically afraid underneath and want to eat, drink, and be merry because they feel death is so close.” But their attempted revolution set them “against the body and its needs, its natural functions of childbearing. It can only be a hatred of sex that leads them to talk as they do and be so explicit about the sex function and the sex organs as instruments of pleasure. . . . This is not reverence for life, this certainly is not natural love for family, for husband and wife, for child.”

So much is coarse in our society.  Coarse and superficial.  So much of our shared culture is nihilistic (if it’s honest) or banal in its assertions of meaning (if it’s not).

Last night, I caught most of the movie Me Before You (spoiler coming), which consciously chose to normalize euthanasia.  In summary, a rich, handsome playboy of the sort of perfection that only exists in fiction has an accident that leaves him paralyzed from the neck down.  His parents hire a bubbly local woman to keep him company during the six months preparation he has given them before he heads to Switzerland to end his life through assisted suicide.

At precisely the moment at which the plot gives him every reason to reconsider, the writer, Jojo Moyes, simply has him restate his intentions.  He acknowledges that he could have a “good life” still, but not the sort of carefree, impossible life he’d led before.  His girlfriend doesn’t argue that death is final, leaving him no reason to rush into it just as they’re falling in love.  The movie provides no full-throated argument for what his life could still be.  It’s his choice; he’s adamant; and that’s it.

In the end, he gifts the woman enough money to change her life and has the audacity to write her a posthumous letter exhorting her to “just live.”  If the author intended the viewer to feel critical of him at the end, it isn’t clear from the story, which hits all the notes of a bittersweet, but positive ending.  At one point, the girlfriend catches him in the truth that, if he weren’t crippled, he wouldn’t have lowered himself to see how wonderful she was, but the movie makes nothing profound of this point.  This new condition in which he lives may have made him able to see how she shines, but that isn’t good enough; the perspective in which he can see her wonders doesn’t provide a life good enough to live for.

In Dorothy Day’s observations, the youth of her time were so fixated on feeling good that they devalued that which gives life substance.  In Me Before You, the vain, crippled rich kid couldn’t use his sex organs as “instruments of pleasure,” so he utterly rejected life.  In the end, his girlfriend seems happier than not, leaving only some vague message of empowerment in a meaningless world.

As the credits rolled and it was clear that the girlfriend wasn’t going to turn the corner and reveal to the audience that her love had changed his mind, I couldn’t help but fear for the future of our civilization.  Day may have had reason for discomfort with some of those in her broader movement, but the results of their contempt and self-harm are now producing their poisonous fruits.