Especially while driving, it is our longstanding habit to turn on the radio Saturday afternoons when it’s opera time in America. On this occasion, we stumbled into Charles Gounod’s “Faust.” We arrived at our destination just before the final scene Marguerite in prison for drowning her child.
Though no longer party to the heart-rending last encounter between Faust and Marguerite (Gretchen, of course, in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Faust”), the thought process that had begun in anticipation of it was under way.
Clearly, this year’s presidential campaigns have placed the abortion issue on the back burner. But on ABC-TV’s “Sam and Cokie” this past Sunday, George Will spoke about our “culture of death” in connection with the court decision in Britain to separate the Siamese twins, and his comment added currency to these ruminations.
The child Gretchen had drowned was the fruit of her union with Faust a union of pure passion that bypassed the concept of marriage and family. By the time the child was born, Gretchen was on her own, buffeted by the scorn of society and the harsh words of her beloved brother. The world of literature is filled with similar tragedies, and I can recall the passionate desire of my teen years for a more “enlightened” world in which people could act on their feelings and were accorded help, as opposed to censure, in their hour of need.
I suppose, that is why the fate of humanity has generally not been entrusted to teen-agers.
No amount of enlightenment can alter reality. And reality is the same for the believer and the agnostic. Human beings are different from the animal world, and, for the species to flourish, certain arrangements have been found necessary. (Not perfect necessary.) Among other things, the requirement of a male and a female to produce a child has been mirrored in that both male and female are deemed necessary to bring up the child. Because of the temptations of life, restrictions were placed on the personal freedom of both to ensure, perhaps even force, their continued partnership.
The preceding has been ex- pressed in such cold and neutral terms to make it abundantly clear that being an atheist does not provide a way out.
The preceding, also, is clearly incompatible with the adolescent explosion of desire that fosters the articulation of every possible argument against social convention so long as the argument will hasten the satisfaction of said desires. In time, adolescents grow up, acquire responsibilities, and come to accept reality.
The teen-agers who attained voting age during the late 1960s decided this growing-up thing was a big mistake. But even they faced the reality that killing a human being is unacceptable in our civilization. While the prohibition may have started with the Ten Commandments, it now forms an integral part of who we are.
As for unwanted children, no one wished to follow Gretchen to prison. The answer to the dilemma came in the shape of “taking care of the problem” before the child becomes a legal entity.
These thoughts are not about one side or the other in the abortion debate. The hope is to persuade readers about the alarming extent to which we have come to peddle our lust for an unbridled existence as intellectual argument.
Or, to put it another way, let us be clear about our growing mastery in lying to ourselves.
Fair or unfair, Nature has placed the primary burden for responsible sexual behavior upon women. Nature’s intentions are expressed not only through the conception, bearing and delivery of children, but also through the physical evidence of virginity, peculiar to women. Forever, people have been looking for ways to get around these arrangements. But never before our time has there been an undisguised campaign to establish legitimacy for everybody “doing it” with everybody else no exceptions.
It began with slogans such as “the woman’s right to choose,” “reproductive freedom,” and “I decide about my own body.” It took just a few years thereafter to proclaim that a family is what anyone says it is neither the number nor the sex of the component parts matter.
No aspersion is intended for the many instances where circumstances truncate families in which men and women mostly women heroically face impossible odds. The subject of these contemplations is the free-for-all we now regard as the norm. None of it has to do with rights or freedom, only with license and unrestricted gratification.
Our current views are defensible only if we have come to regard the thousands and thousands of years directly preceding the late 1960s as a vast blanket of fog in which humanity was staggering around with no chance of seeing beyond its nose. Then, the thesis seems to postulate, the torch was passed, a new generation claimed its place, and the fog lifted at once.
How else are we to explain that the little which is still taught about the past (and less and less it is) takes the form of censure? How else are we to explain the certainty with which the hare-brain courses that fill our schools, and “reinterpretations” that boggle the mind brush aside what centuries no: millennia have produced, preserved, authenticated? That attitude used to characterize adolescents, and they were granted the privilege in the assumption that one day they would grow up.
The cardinal sin of the generation, appropriately represented by President and Mrs. Clinton, is not the careless and callous manner in which they have treated the riches assembled by and inherited from previous generations. Their cardinal sin is the creation of blank spaces where, throughout the ages, tradition bridged the generations. Our children attend schools in which they learn nothing about the past, except that it was wrong.
They are at the mercy of a generation that refused to grow up.
In this roundabout way, we might comprehend why the past is not taught, and why our greats have to be torn apart if mentioned at all. It would be most inconvenient to be asked by young innocents about the character, the sacrifice, the heroism of times past as they watch a perjuring president, a filth-mouthed comedian, or a megalomaniac newscaster on television.
But some day, new generations will encounter Gretchen’s tragedy. Perhaps first they will ask why, if Faust was not around, Gretchen did not team up with Martha so the child could have two mommies. Then, hopefully, among the myriad of what is now called “texts,” they might discover the poems, dramas and novels that built, defined, and carried forward our civilization.
We must believe it will happen.
We must do everything so it can happen.
Balint Vazsonyi, concert pianist and historian, is director of the Center for the American Founding and author of “America’s 30 Years War: Who Is Winning?”