In his bestselling book, “The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom describes a contemporary professor who sees his task as that of setting people free by breaking taboos: “He reminded me of the little boy who gravely informed me when I was four that there was no Santa Claus, who wanted me to bathe in the brilliant light of truth… My informant about Santa Claus was just showing off, proving his superiority to me…Think of all we learn about the world from men’s belief in Santa Clauses, and all we learn about the soul from those who believe in them. By contrast, merely methodological excision from the soul of the imagination (which lets us believe in this kind of thing) does not promote knowledge of the soul, it only lobotomizes it, cripples its powers.” (Bloom, Page 43)
The breaking of taboos, the death of an innocence, however naive, what does this do to the human soul?
I was raised in a time when there was an emphasis on chastity. There were a lot of taboos. Many things were not permitted and among many of the important things that were, dating, friendship, marriage, sex, there was a certain protocol that had to be observed; a certain caution, a waiting, a string of taboos, and a proper way in which a thing was to be accomplished. We call it chastity. Not everyone was chaste, of course, but the ideal was basically agreed upon.
Today this has changed. Far from being thought of as positive, as the key to all experience, chastity is associated with being inhibited, repressed, timid, and naive. The push is to break taboos, to experience more things and to experience them earlier and earlier. Few persons, I am sure, would deny this. Many I suspect, will however deny what I am about to say, namely, that a lot of the emotional chaos, meaninglessness, and deep despair that is ungluing the Western psyche comes, in the end, from a lack of chastity.
Let me explain: The biggest crisis within our culture is not economic, but psychic. Emotional unrest, deep disease, sexual pathos, the sense of loss, of meaninglessness, of death, these are the deep cancers in Western society. Human goodness remains and God’s unconditional love will, ultimately, wash all things clean. But if our souls are not going to the devil, they certainly are dying to youth, innocence, enthusiasm and passion.
As Bloom puts it, in the book quoted earlier, our eros has gone lame.
Even as we grow emotionally more chaotic and more deeply restless, the eros of our youth and the enthusiasm for true sexuality are dead. We are no longer fired into life by a madness that comes from our incompleteness and lets us believe that we can recover our wholeness through the embrace of another, the perpetuity of our seed, and the contemplation of God. Instead, we are tired, erotically fatigued, lame. We’ve already been there! We’ve had a look! There’s a deadness within the Western soul.
How does this link to chastity, or lack of it? Already a generation ago, Albert Camus, an atheistic writer, commented: “Chastity alone is connected with personal progress. There is a time when moving beyond it is a victory – when it is released from its moral imperatives. But this quickly becomes a defeat afterwards.” (Quoted by P. Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Page 233)
What is chastity? What Camus is suggesting is that the feeling of emotional despair that is so pervasive in our culture is a result of a lack of chastity. To understand this, however, we need to better understand what chastity is. Chastity is normally defined as something to do with sex, namely, a certain innocence, purity, discipline, or even celibacy regarding sex. This is too narrow. Chastity is, first of all, not primarily a sexual concept. It has to do with the limits and appropriateness of all experiencing, sexual experience included. To be chaste means to experience things, all things, respectfully and to drink them in only when we are ready for them. We break chastity when we experience anything irreverently or prematurely. This is what violates either another’s or our own growth. It is the lack of chastity in experiencing, irreverence and prematurity that lobotomizes the soul.
Experience can be good or bad. It can help glue the psyche together or tear it apart. It can produce joy or chaos. Travel, study, achievement, sex, exposure to newness, the breaking of taboos, all can be good, if experienced reverently and at their proper time. Conversely, they can tear the soul apart (even when they aren’t wrong in themselves) when they are not drunk in chastely, namely, at a pace that respects fully both others’ and our own growth.
Always look carefully at any taboo. Always link learning to integration, epistemology to morality, experience to chastity. There is much danger in killing Santa Claus too soon.