Before Michael Novak turned political and began to plump in earnest for democratic capitalism, his work focused upon more properly philosophical themes. Hence, early on in his career, he wrote a book called The Experience of Nothingness, which I was glancing through the other day. The book is rather breezy and conversational and not especially dense, but sprinkled throughout it are some excellent passages. One in particular struck me:
"The enormous weight, meanwhile, put upon sexual fulfillment [in modern society] is insupportable; intercourse is an organic expression of entire psyches, not a mechanical plugging in. Among young people, the weakening of cultural forms supporting sexual rituals and restraints deprives sexual intercourse of sustenance for the imagination and the spirit. It comes too cheaply: its intimacy is mainly fake; its symbolic power is reduced to the huddling warmth of kittens in the darkness - not to be despised, but open as a raw wound to the experience of nothingness. Close your eyes and plummet through the empty space where a lover ought to be."
Modern culture, for Novak, is marked deeply by the "experience of nothingness," the absence of any ground of meaning, be it divine or not. The infelicitous alliance (though this not for Novak) of individualism, liberalism, and capitalism has conspired to wrench the human person from his naturally "thick" social milieu, like a limb from its body - and with all the attendant pain and anguish and self-mutilation. Through the rampant mechanization and atomization of modern life, the individual is now cut off from the vital source from which his identity once flowed and must navigate a desiccated, commodified, disenchanted world. It is no surprise, then, that ours is a culture of wounded psyches. Modern life, especially in its more extreme modes, is an abattoir from which few escape unscathed.
In the midst of all this, the question arises: How is one to find meaning? In a world whose metaphysical horizons have been swept clear and in which "all that is solid melts into air" (to use Marx's phrase), one cannot but search for something that can provide meaning and stability in one's life. As Novak suggests above, one such putative source of meaning is, for many people, sex. It claims to offer euphoria, release, ecstasy, liberation, and an escape from the dull and harsh conditions of modern society. By means of the body, it claims to supply a flight from the body, proposing as its glorious goal a spiritual unity with one's partner. In order to cope with the realities of life, then, sex has become mechanical in its means and spiritual in its ends, a split of subject and object. To put a twist on Walter Benjamin, we are now living in the age of mechanical reproduction.
We are trying to find ghosts of meaning in the machines of our bodies. But this meaning cannot be found. Divorced from the (mechanized) body, such meaning becomes only formal, lacking in substance or content that could give it real depth. And so, to that extent, this kind of sought-after unity cannot be realized. With the body viewed as just a simplistic mechanism - not as the lived body - no true inter-subjective integration is possible; a person is just a monad, an atom isolated from all other atoms. Fulfilled only for a fleeting moment by one's sexual partner, desire cannot rest, but moves on searching for fulfillment elsewhere, in other sexual encounters and in other expressions of sexuality - if only to satisfy the heart's longing for unity. But the dialectic repeats itself: at once mechanized and spiritualized, sex of this sort cannot adequately attain its end. Neither ghosts nor machines can provide us with meaning. But if not in casual sexual encounters, then how else is one to find meaning in a meaningless world? In marriage.
It is in marriage, in the actual, organic, psychosomatic unity of man and woman committing and sacrificing their lives and their very selves to each other, naturally ordered towards the incomprehensibly wonderful ends of procreation and spousal companionship that connect the couple to all of society and to generations past and future - it is in all of this that true meaning lies. The antidote to the rationalization and technologization of society is to be found not in so-called "liberated" sex, but, paradoxically, in marriage. For marriage, though one of the most ancient and venerable institutions, is at the same time the most subversive and radical, standing obliquely to the currents of the age and to all the passing orthodoxies.
This is why, today, it is necessary more than ever to hold up marriage as an ideal. But this is, of course, not easy to do: the ideology, the false consciousness forced upon us by the debacle that was the "sexual revolution" still holds powerful sway. The rapid explosion of "freedom" in the sexual sphere has drowned out the firm but soft voice of marriage in our culture. But the whole revolution was based upon an illusion, a massive one, holding out a promise of ghostly meaning in our mechanical bodies. Yet these are promises that have gone - and must go - wholly unfulfilled. It is time we stopped believing in ghosts.