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What do You Think was in the Box?

[The excerpt below is from the first critical account of England’s elite “public” schools. First published in 1914 in the form of a novel, The Harrovians was ‘based on a very careful and full diary’ kept by Arnold Lunn while he attended England’s second most prestigious public school from 1902 to 1906. On the religious side, Harrow was an Anglican institution, and it is clear from the passage that at that time—shortly after the death of Queen Victoria—sex was still a taboo subject. So perhaps the “box” in the sermon was invented by the preacher to avoid getting down to specifics: each schoolboy could put into the box the contents of his own sexual imagination. The ‘Peter’ in the book is the author himself.]

The sermons which attracted the most attention were those dealing with the fundamental problems of sex. None of these provoked more comment than the problem sermon of a certain Canon Rail. The preacher was an eloquent man with a dark, impressive countenance. He seemed to feel his subject intensely. He sketched with great power the slow degradation of an undergraduate whose vice was in some way stimulated by a dreadful thing which he kept locked up in a box. The School woke up. This was getting interesting. “He would take this terrible thing out, glance at it, shudder, and replace it.” Canon Rail then proceeded to draw a fine picture of the boy’s suicide. “Good,” nodded the School, “please go on.” The unhappy father was then lightly sketched. He visits his boy’s room. He sees in the corner the box. He opens it, and then he starts back. The School, on the contrary, leant forward. But their curiosity was to remain unsatisfied. “And then he understood what had caused his son’s downfall; and in this story, my dear young Christian brethren, we have a terrible illustration . . .” etc. The peroration [concluding inspiring words of a speech] followed conventional lines, and if the School could have risen to a man and hooted, I dare say they would have done so.

Kendal voiced the general sense of injury in Peter’s study: “What an irritating old blighter he was! I was fearfully keen to know what was that in the bally box. Why the deuce didn’t he tell us?”

“It’s all that rotten hencoop [the hencoop was where the women sat in chapel],” said Peter angrily; “the thought of the women always pulls a man up just as he’s getting interesting. I wish they’d boot the women out of chapel.”

“I wonder what was in the box,” mused Kendal; “perhaps it was ‘The Awful Confessions of Maria the Nun’?”

Various solutions were put forward, with which we need not concern ourselves. The problem was debated fiercely by the entire School.

“I wonder,” said Peter, “what good they think they do? Of course, everybody knows that if you’re a rip it isn’t exactly good for your health. But all this bosh about men committing suicide don’t seem much to the point.”

“Oh, they’ve got to jaw like that,” said Kendal; “they’ve got to pretend than only an occasional man goes on the burst, and that he’s a kind of vampire. Such rot. My brother, who’s up at the Varsity, says that most men go on the bend sooner or later. He jolly well does.”

“The important thing,” said Perry sententiously, “is to go on the bend like a gentleman.”

“What one feels about it all,” said Peter thoughtfully, “is that all the jaw about purity, and so forth, doesn’t really seem real. They pretend such a lot of things which they can’t believe themselves. They pretend that every chap who is a bit of a rip is a low skulking blackguard [a man who behaves in a contemptible way]. Now, we know that most of the men one meets, who are grown up, have been on the bend occasionally, and yet they’re not vampires, but just like you and me.”

“The average sensual man,” said May, who wished to air Matthew Arnold, whom he had begun to read with more pride than understanding, “constitutes the great bulk of our population.”

“Dry up,” said Peter, who was jealous of this display of literary knowledge; “we all know you’ve been reading Matthew Arnold. And it’s not only that,” he continued; “they have to pretend, like they do in school stories, that boys get into corners and whisper nasty stories, and look up when anybody passes, and drop their voices and giggle furtively. Not much furtive about us. And why the devil shouldn’t one discuss it? It’s the most interesting thing in life. It crops up in every page of history. We wouldn’t be here but for it. And they call it nasty conversation. There’s nothing nasty in being born, so why is it nasty to discuss why one’s born?”

“Oh, they’d tell you,” added May, “to come to them if you wanted to know anything about it, not to discuss it with other boys.”

“What rot!” put in Kendal; “I don’t want to talk about it to my governor [i.e. his father]. It would make me feel a fool and he’d look an ass, too. Besides, he wouldn’t tell me anything interesting. He’d just say, ‘Keep off women, my boy; bad for your health and bad for your pocket.’ ”

Pre-Vatican II Catholic Nonsense about Sex

[The following passages are from Catholic publisher Frank Sheed’s The Church and I, 1974, written around the peak of the crisis that followed the Second Vatican Council.]

Inside the Church as outside, one got the same impression that no one ever actually used his mind on [the subject of] sex. There was plenty of feeling about sex, for and against: within the walls of the Catholic Church and school it was wholly against. We had a book jacket showing Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. A priest preached against it as too overtly genital. I wrote to remind him that it was from the ceiling of the Pope’s own chapel, the Sistine. He answered, “If the Pope had heard as many confessions as I have, he would know better.” The ordinary Catholic could hardly help feeling there was something necessarily nasty and brutish about sex. Some of our teachers seemed to feel it faintly shocking of God to have created a race which could propagate itself only by sexual intercourse. Indeed there have been Catholic writers who tried to clear God’s character by teaching that intercourse was a result of the Fall: if Adam and Eve had not sinned, generation would have occurred without bodily contact! Even where this particular oddity was not taught, there was a sense of uncleanness about sex. One heard of girls taught that they must somehow wash their bodies without actually uncovering them, lest they be an occasion of sin to their guardian angels.

Just forty years ago [about 1935] I approached an archbishop about the numbers of Catholics who married without any knowledge of the mechanics, so to speak, of the marriage act. There were plenty of non-Catholic manuals available, but they all had chapters on birth control. So the archbishop told me to go ahead and have a book prepared. We translated from French a most admirable book, in which the bodily union was explained and the spirituality of marriage wonderfully shown. The archbishop said he could not possibly grant his imprimatur: it was too outspoken: could I not “modify” it? I answered that this would mean leaving out sex altogether: but as God had not left sex out of marriage, I didn’t see how we could. The book was not published. Soon after that we did publish one, by Dr. Halliday Sutherland. It was banned in Ireland, though it carried the imprimatur of Cardinal Hinsley [head of the Catholic Church in England from 1935 to 1943].

[Sheed’s own wife, Maisie Ward, had to have the facts of life explained to her the night before her wedding. In her midthirties by then, she reportedly took them in stride.]

Post-Vatican II Catholic Nonsense about Sex?

Sex does not live on illusion but illusion is what it tends to breed. As Shaw says: “There is less difference between one young woman and another young woman than the average young man thinks.” This has always been so, but among today’s believing Christians there is one illusion sex has not often bred before. I must have read hundreds of articles and letters written by Catholics in protest against the papal encyclical on Contraception. What interested me most was what the writers thought not about the encyclical but about sex itself. For the most part they struck me as of a purity so refined I felt coarse and earthy in comparison. The sex act they saw as love’s highest expression. The ruling purpose in their own intercourse seemed to be the enrichment of their partner’s personality. One wondered how refinedly they bore the discovery that she did not want her personality enriched that night. I mentioned this particular point to a couple of thousand women at a luncheon in Los Angeles. They laughed and laughed. . . .

I have returned more than once to the fine art of kidding oneself. In no area is autokiddery so active as in the sexual. One marvels how anyone can think that bodily union is love’s highest expression. The essence of love is precisely the giving of oneself to the other. But in bodily union the body’s own need for physical release can be urgent to the point of anguish, so clamorous that it is hard to remember the other person as a person at all. A full rich bodily union is possible, with a true balance of delight for oneself and love for the other—this last not drowned in the excitement without which the act can hardly happen at all. This sort of union can be worked for, grown towards, but only if the whole of a shared life is experienced in it. Mere bodily release need be no more emotionally valuable than vomiting after seasickness.

Frank Sheed

Secular Liberal Nonsense about Sex?

[The following is from A. C. Grayling’s book Russell: A Very Short Introduction, 2003. Was Russell also a victim of the ‘autokiddery’ that Frank Sheed spoke about?]

Sex of course must be governed by an ethic, just as business or sport has to be, but it should not be based on ‘ancient prohibitions propounded by uneducated people in a society totally unlike our own’—by which Russell means the teachings of the Church fathers long ago. . . . A new morality, premised on rejection of traditional Puritanism, must be based on the belief that instinct should be trained, not thwarted. A freer attitude to sexual life does not imply that we can simply follow our impulses and do as we like. . . .

The general principles on which Russell thinks sexual morality ought to be founded are therefore simple and few. First, sexual relationships should be based on ‘as much as possible on that deep, serious love between man and woman which embraces the whole personality of both and leads to a fusion by which each is enriched and enhanced.’ And secondly, if children result, they should be adequately cared for physically and psychologically. Neither of these principles is particularly shocking . . . but together the principles imply certain important adjustments to the conventional moral code.

One is that it permits a measure of what is usually called ‘infidelity.’ If people were not brought up to think of sex as hedged about by taboos, and if jealousy did not have the sanction of moralists, then people would be capable of more wholehearted and generous attitudes towards each other. Jealousy makes couples keep one another in a mutual prison, as if it gave each a right over the other’s person and needs. . . .

‘It may, I think, be hoped,’ Russell wrote, ‘that with the right education from the start this respect for the personality and freedom of others may become comparatively easy; but for those of us who have been brought up to think that we have a right to place a veto upon the actions of others in the name of virtue, it is undoubtedly difficult to forgo the exercise of this agreeable form of persecution.’

In my second marriage I tried to preserve the respect for my wife’s [sexual] liberty which I thought my creed enjoined. I found however that my capacity for forgiveness and what may be called Christian love was not equal to the demands I was making on it. Anyone else could have told me this in advance, but I was blinded by theory.

Bertrand Russell

He [Bertrand Russell] was enough of a puritan and a very conscious intellectual to have to explain to himself every sexual call of nature as a fated invitation to a mystical union of souls, an incurable form of rationalization that got him into perpetual trouble.

Alistair Cooke (speaking of his onetime friend Russell)

None of us know what exactly is the sexual code we believe in, approving of many things on paper which we violently object to when they are practised by those we care about.

Beatrice Webb

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