Amy and Leon Kass report that their interest in courtship and marriage began when they asked their students what they thought were the most important decision they would make. Unsurprisingly, most students’ answers concerned self-fulfillment realized through graduate school or careers. But when one unsuspecting fellow innocently answered, “‘Deciding who should be the mother of my children,’ he was, ‘promptly attacked by nearly every other member of the class’” (Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar , 1). He was berated for squandering his career chances, sacrificing his freedom, and elevating motherhood which devalued women. The spirited reaction of the class was a clear indication that they thought his understanding of marriage as largely defined by the begetting and raising children made him a misfit. Misfits everywhere will discover a resource in David O’Connor’s Plato’s Bedroom, which discusses their misfit desire in a way that is “palpable and delightful.” The book is challenging because misfits, as Diotima tells Socrates, will need to “strain all (their) attention… to trace the obscure depths of the subject.”
The Symposium and Phaedrus are records of conversations between characters who agree that following desire to its “obscure depths” requires a lot of talk to consider the many questions that desire raises. A partial list of their questions is still a long list. Is desire rational, passionate, or a combination of the two? What is it that we desire when we desire to love and be loved? Is desire human or divine? Is love about “filling a need” or “about overflowing in joyful fullness”? What makes us loveable? What makes us love another? Why does the lover talk only about himself? Does commitment destroy desire? Is it better to be the lover or the beloved?
To see how others have talked about these questions, O’Connor introduces readers to the strange world of Plato’s Symposium. This is a report on a male-only party, occupied alternatively with heavy drinking and recovering from heavy drinking while conversing about sexual desire. The character Phaedrus in the Symposium, consumed by his desire for Socrates, thinks that desire “makes us more motivated to live up to an ideal than any other human relationship.” Desire is characterized by shame because we desire to be “better than our usual selves” and so “feel deeper pain when we fall short.” Phaedrus imagines that an army of lover-beloved couples could never be defeated “because they would be so ready to die for each other.” They would exemplify the heroic courage of Alcestis and Orpheus whose desire was stronger than death. But when we meet Phaedrus in the dialogue named after him, he is attracted to the view that sexual passion is purer if not complicated by the commitments of love.
In the arc of the Symposium, the discussion brings us to the comic playwright Aristophanes, who tells a funny story about primordial androgynous beings. Once upon a time, Aristophanes recounts, humans where genderless spheres whose unity threatened to usurp the power of the gods. The gods split the being into male and female, so that, in their neediness, they would be occupied with finding their soulmate.
Socrates follows this speech by reporting what he has learned about erotics from Diotima who teaches that Eros is an emptiness desiring fullness, a kind of poverty and a kind of abundance. Our desire for a human sexual union moves seamlessly to the divine desire to create. There is in earthly desire an immortal longing that we express in procreation. Helping misfits strain all their attention to understand this obscurity of desire, O’Connor offers a Platonic reading of Atom Egoyan’s 1994 film, Exotica, concluding that the boredom and sadness of a sex club indirectly confirms the view that sexual passion is an immortal longing which desires procreation. “The gentleman’s club is a hidden maternity ward,” says O’Connor, “if only its denizens could be unsettled enough to acknowledge their true needs.” And by reading stories by Andre Dubus (1936–1999) in a Platonic light, O’Connor sees a palpable and delightful representation of the wildly unpopular encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968). Published at the height of the sexual revolution, it is known for its rejection of contraception. O’Connor thinks this focus on its prohibitions misses the encyclical’s point, which is to think about the connection between sexual union and procreation. O’Connor’s argument, like that of Humanae Vitae, will not have wide purchase in our culture today, except with misfits who believe that “the fundamental nature of the marriage act” embodies their immortal longing (Paul IV).
For misfits to believe such a thing they will need resources, like Dubus’s stories and characters, to think their “way down into the predicaments of romantic love… in the modern world.” In “Falling in Love,” Ted characterizes the “temptation to control romantic love” by detaching ecstasy from intimacy. He enjoys and exploits the relaxed standards of the sexual revolution until he meets Susan, an actress, who Dubus says has “been ‘acting with passion,’” for the same length of time that Ted has been back (wounded) from Viet Nam. They fall in love in the way that fictional characters in a love story fall in love, experiencing the feeling of love while knowing it is not real. Susan becomes pregnant; Ted proposes marriage; Susan has an abortion. In retrospect, Ted realizes that their “love” had a “secret, never-spoken, but very real condition, that any child conceived from the lovemaking in the relationship would be killed.” Having fallen in love under this condition, Ted recognizes that “‘something inside of him was falling, and it would not stop until it broke.’”
In the story, “All the Time in the World,” LuAnn, who is a “good” Catholic, having gone to a Catholic college in Boston, begins to feel that her “relationships” leave her with “a growing feeling of emptiness and hopelessness.” She recognizes that, as Allan Bloom (in)famously argued in The Closing of the American Mind, “relationship” is a code word for sexual intimacy without poetic commitment. A relationship comes with the stipulation that, “‘If you get pregnant, we’ll pay for an abortion together.’” LuAnn rejects this condition, gives up dating, then falls in love with Ted. Together they come to recognize the immortal longing in their sexual passion that is reaching for an intimacy that is “complete, unreserved, mutual self-giving.” Desiring to be self-giving, they ascend the ladder of love in being drawn outward to each other and then to their offspring.
Plato’s Bedroom advocates for an out-of-favor notion of love. As such, it is not a surprise that the book has a blunt either/or edge. Sexual passion is a path that leads somewhere: Either to strip clubs and abortion clinics or to Catholicism. This is not a hardened conclusion, but the beginning of a kind of conversation. These conversations especially need to be sustained by the church of the misfits as we must reconcile the vitality and volatility of the love called Eros with the self-giving divine love called Agape.
Finally, Plato’s Bedroom is a happy book that deals with hard truths. For me, I read it like a book-length commentary on Screwtape’s observation that God is “a hedonist at heart.” If he must use the blunt edges of “fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses,” it is to bring us into His presence where there are “pleasures for evermore.”
David K. Weber is Lecturer in Theology at Valparaiso University.