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Unmentionable Taboos: How Death Supplanted Sex by Harrison Pitt

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Unmentionable Taboos: How Death Supplanted Sex

"L'Umana Fragilità" (Human Frailty) (first half of 17th century), a 199 x 134 cm oil on canvas by Salvator Rosa (1615-1673), located in The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

A few years ago, Jordan Peterson landed himself in trouble by defending “enforced monogamy.” To a generation reared on little literature other than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Peterson’s remarks seemed like a call to enslave women. This was the interpretation favoured by the New York Times, whose writers smeared Peterson as the patriarchy’s apologist-in-chief.

Of course, the word “enforced” can conjure up a legalistic image of the state exercising its monopoly on violence and control to secure submission. But when speaking to the more charitable Joe Rogan, Peterson was allowed time to explain what he had meant at greater length. The anthropological literature is quite clear, he insisted, that “enforced monogamy” refers to cultural, as opposed to legal, enforcement of the values which help a society to flourish. These used to be called ‘taboos’—now a dirty word in its own right, thanks to the erosion of our ethical life by successive waves of selfishness disguised as a ‘tolerant’ liberalism.

The term ‘taboo’ was encountered by the explorer James Cook on his 1773 voyage to the Polynesian island of Tonga. Cook observed the Pacific islanders he met with intense wonder. These people, he saw, might not possess a Supreme Court or a Bible-like book, but there nevertheless existed a shared understanding of the sacred and profane. Their word “taboo,” reported the British explorer, conveyed this culturally ingrained sensibility, signifying, as Cook wrote, “that a thing is forbidden.”

It has since entered the wider European lexicon, being rendered as tabou in French, tabú in Spanish, and tabu in German (the same as in Polish, Hungarian, and Romanian). Putting language aside, however, it is clear that all societies are in part defined by some such ethical framework, even if the value structure can be made fuzzier by a strong dose of relativism of the sort that now afflicts the West. The law is one form of jurisdiction, but in any strong community that cares for its health and survival, prevailing cultural attitudes will also pressure its members to pursue virtue. Certain practices will be lauded while others are stigmatized, ideally without foreclosing the prospect of mercy or forgiveness. The question becomes whether these taboos are cruel and unnecessary or whether they contribute to the health of the wider community—something that needs to be worked out prudentially over time.

Peterson’s defence of enforced monogamy was very thorough in this respect. A culture that prizes the ethic of ‘one man and one woman’ will, ceteris paribus, produce the optimal conditions in which to raise children. For added measure, it is also likely to discipline the natural male instinct for aggression, by giving every man a fair chance in the sexual sweepstakes. Polygamous societies, according to the anthropologists, are markedly more violent than those which enshrine life-long marriage at the expense of slapping a taboo on sexual license. The sexual-liberation brigade might lament this fact, but it is the task of political thinkers to work with the real, if disappointing, human creatures thrown up by nature. It is worthless to imagine an infinitely malleable type of man that can be stripped of his innate passions and easily contorted to fit the utopian designs of ‘free love’ idealists. Shelley was talking sublime nonsense in ‘Prometheus Unbound’ when he paid tribute to the endless plasticity of human beings: 

Man, one harmonious soul of many a soul,

Whose nature is its own divine control.

Peterson might have added, too, that just as riches beget more wealth, so indulgence begets more evil forms of indulgence. As the West’s technological prowess has grown, our moral sensibilities have withered. This is so because, increasingly, the decisions made by adults, however irresponsible, no longer come attached with natural obligations. Thanks to the streamlining of artificial technologies, bonds arising from nature—the relation of mother to child, for instance—can be severed to ‘liberate’ the individuals who would otherwise be burdened. Thus, abortion has come to be viewed by the Left not as some unnatural, life-destroying act, but as a sacrament, a glorious tribute to maximal autonomy. 

The dead taboo against sexual indulgence, having been left to rot in the middle of the public square, has produced a lingering stench, polluting our moral life well beyond the sexual act itself. The modern obsession with abortion requires the invention of a new right from thin air: the inalienable freedom to kill unborn babies. But crucially, this apparent right would not even need to be asserted in the vast majority of cases if adults, selfish men most of all, either restrained their appetites or faced up to the responsibility of having conceived a child. Our estrangement from nature, and from the taboos to which natural forms of life give rise, has made ethical sleepwalkers of us all. Formerly aware of taboos and on guard against the consequences of breaking them, in many situations today we can get by fine in the world without even bothering to activate our moral instincts.

Moreover, the ethical blindness inflicted on us by this mix of technology and the cult of selfishness obscures the way in which we approach the past. This is why modern people so often look back upon, say, the Victorians as a bunch of po-faced, joyless, repressed sexual moralists. Having flown the perch of nature, we think of ourselves as free to treat sex with tremendous levity. This freedom to be frivolous, however, means that we have lost sight of the reasons why our ancestors, still firmly rooted in the conditions of nature, regarded sex as a serious subject. “Presumably, they were just terribly boring,” goes the modern judgement; “Inhabitants of a dark age not yet illuminated by Sigmund Freud and Marie Stopes!”

In truth, the shift from Foucault’s image of the “imperial prude” to the mantra of “if it feels good, do it” does not purely reflect a change in religious mentality. Indeed, there were also material conditions, to use the Marxist jargon, that determined the deeply conservative Victorian consciousness around sex. The prospect of unwanted pregnancy, as we have recognized, was a risk intrinsically attached to sexual indulgence. There was no Planned Parenthood, no diabolus ex machina, offering legalized infanticide as a convenient get-out. This was a time, of course, when wanted pregnancies were dangerous enough, given the unimaginably high rates of maternal mortality. Plus, quite apart from the possibility of conceiving a child, the Victorian underworld was a seedbed of vicious, often life-threatening sexual diseases. Syphilis, gonorrhoea, and chlamydia were ever-present dangers to any husband or wife who chose to get frisky beyond the marriage bed. 

It is no wonder that the soixante-huitards did not strike in 1868. The taboo against sexual incontinence, as it existed from Plato to the Victorian period, has not been always and everywhere a cultural phenomenon. Culture is at best a secondary cause, in the sense that cultures must work on the natural surroundings in which they find themselves, rather as a gardener cultivates a pre-existing patch of land. In this fundamental sense, the long-established taboo against treating sex like a casual pastime has up until now been rooted in nature. The natural limits of our bodily functions, combined with the dangers that used to follow from abusing them, meant that most of history’s taboos were decided for us. They struck our ancestors with all the force of self-evident truths.

Our casual denunciation of pre-1960s sexual ethics is just another example of the modern tendency to rebuke the past for not being more like the present. Like all such ahistorical judgements, this prejudice gets in the way of understanding people who lived in prior centuries and precludes any opportunity we might have to learn from them.

Perhaps we should be more introspective. What, after all, is the main modern taboo? Is it healthy, as the old stigma on sexual promiscuity surely was at a time when syphilis and childbirth were all but synonymous with death? Or is it—like, say, the Aztec practice of executing commoners who dared to wear cotton clothes—a pointless danger to collective flourishing?

Death is directing the child to write on a scroll: “Conceptio Culpa, Nasci Pena, Labor Vita, Necesse Mori,” (Conception is a sin, Birth is pain, Life is toil, Death a necessity.)

In the advanced West, the closest thing we have to a cultural taboo is our childish denial of death. Sadly, unlike the dire consequences of limitless sex, death is a natural law that no technological breakthrough will ever allow us to escape. That said, thanks to advances in medicine (life-saving discoveries in this instance, as opposed to the deadly efficiency of abortion), death has been pushed to the margin of our social experience. In 2021, the life-expectancy for those born in developed countries was 76 for men and 82 for women. This civilizational blessing, the result of a century-long quantum leap in progress unique in the annals of human history, should not be taken for granted.

The problem is that this achievement, by radically deferring the reality of death, warps our perspective in a manner that eats away at human resilience and can even lead to disastrous results. The fact of mortality is not felt to anything like the same degree that it was in more benighted ages. It was due to our holiday from awareness of death that COVID-19, a remarkably mild pandemic in historical terms and a selective killer, provoked the kind of nuclear reaction from our governments that we might expect in response to weaponized smallpox. In a futile attempt to avert death, our leaders banned many of the things, from education to social life, that make health worth having, while failing to protect the vulnerable groups most at risk of dying. There is no doubt that this overreaction was unprecedented. The disease itself was not. Still, having lived at an historically anomalous distance from death for so long, commentators could not help flirting with apocalyptic language.

This kind of safetyism afflicts our culture more generally. If Oscar Wilde laid into Dickens for his sentimental treatment of the death of Little Nell, just imagine what he might have to say watching modern millennials bleat about the merest migraine. It is natural for a society to cultivate its own taboos. The key is for a culture to be realistic, sensible, and proportionate about the prevailing attitudes it enshrines at the heart of its communal life. Of course, our ancestors were no less saddened by death than we are today. Nor did they find sex any less enjoyable. (If anything, they may have enjoyed it more, rather as the man who eats in moderation enjoys food more by limiting the pleasure than the glutton who kills his very capacity for pleasure by overindulging himself all the time).

The only difference is that our forebears took a healthier attitude, both to the activity that produces new life and the solemn moment when life comes to an end. They were soberly conscious of sex, death, and the sacred character that they both share as the landmark moments that frame the human drama. Aware of its grave natural consequences, they were rightly cautious about sex and saw no reason to speak of it in public, largely because they believed that much of its value dwelt in its privacy. Meanwhile, they knew that death was a tragic event; but it was also an inevitable one that must be faced and integrated into the procedures and rituals of any community. Thus, they had the language for death, they wrote poems about its cruelty, and they took refuge in the funeral mass. Many of these antiquated sentiments we still borrow in the 21st century, if for no other reason than that language would fail the modern world if it tried to write its own requiems.

For this reason, more than anything else, we largely try to avoid the topic of death. It now occupies a place that previous generations reserved for sex. That is to say, it has become a frightening, unmentionable taboo—although, as we have observed, our ancestors had better reasons to elevate sex to this solemn status than we do to flee like children from our own mortality.

However, in the last two years, nature has caught up with this short-lived delusion. Perhaps our lost resilience in the face of death will accordingly make a modest comeback. A taboo is only worthwhile if it can be enforced, and there is nothing less enforceable than a taboo against death, as the failure of worldwide lockdowns has demonstrated.

For now, however, there is no indication of us losing our frivolous attitude to sex. “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” These words, taken from the Gospel of Matthew, exercise less force over Westerners than they did in the days of Christendom. Our world is inclined to treat commandments about life-long, monogamous marriage as just another variety on Plato’s “noble lie”—a magnificent myth that may have sustained some bygone community, but which has been outgrown in the modern era by technological advances and newly discovered rights.

But even if the name of God rings hollow, nature still exists. With the exception of Israel, fertility in Western societies is plummeting well below replacement rate. Any culture that creates a taboo around death while worshipping the most sterile forms of hedonism should prepare for a nastily ironic surprise: extinction. In this way, Mother nature—the genuine origin of all healthy taboos—could yet enjoy the last laugh against societies like ours which, weighed down by appetite, have for too long felt free to defy her laws.

Harrison Pitt is a writer for The European Conservative. Based in the UK, he has also been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, The Critic, and others.