THE MINDLESS SHIFT
When Friedrich Nietzsche wrote longingly of the “transvaluation of all values,” he meant the hoped-for restoration of sexuality to its proper place as a celebrated, morally neutral life force. He could not possibly have foreseen our world: one in which sex would indeed become “morally neutral” in the eyes of a great many people — even as food would come to replace it as source of moral authority.4
Nevertheless, events have proven Nietzsche wrong about his wider hope that men and women of the future would simply enjoy the benefits of free sex without any attendant seismic shifts. For there may in fact be no such thing as a destigmatization of sex simplicitur, as the events outlined in this essay suggest. The rise of a recognizably Kantian, morally universalizable code concerning food — beginning with the international vegetarian movement of the last century and proceeding with increasing moral fervor into our own times via macrobiotics, veganism/vegetarianism, and European codes of terroir — has paralleled exactly the waning of a universally accepted sexual code in the Western world during these same years.
Who can doubt that the two trends are related? Unable or unwilling (or both) to impose rules on sex at a time when it is easier to pursue it than ever before, yet equally unwilling to dispense altogether with a universal moral code that he would have bind society against the problems created by exactly that pursuit, modern man (and woman) has apparently performed his own act of transubstantiation. He has taken longstanding morality about sex, and substituted it onto food. The all-you-can-eat buffet is now stigmatized; the sexual smorgasbord is not.
In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.
So what does it finally mean to have a civilization puritanical about food, and licentious about sex? In this sense, Nietzsche’s fabled madman came not too late, but too early — too early to have seen the empirical library that would be amassed from the mid- twenty-first century on, testifying to the problematic social, emotional, and even financial nature of exactly the solution he sought.
It is a curious coda that this transvaluation should not be applauded by the liberationist heirs of Nietzsche, even as their day in the sun seems to have come. According to them, after all, consensual sex is simply what comes naturally, and ought therefore to be judged value-free. But as the contemporary history outlined in this essay goes to show, the same can be said of overeating — and overeating is something that today’s society is manifestly embarked on re-stigmatizing. It may be doing so for very different reasons than the condemnations of gluttony outlined by the likes of Gregory the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas. But if indiscriminate sex can also have a negative impact — and not just in the obvious sense of disease, but in the other aspects of psyche and well-being now being written into the empirical record of the sexual revolution — then indiscriminate sex may be judged to need reining in, too.
So if there is a moral to this curious transvaluation, it would seem to be that the norms society imposes on itself in pursuit of its own self-protection do not wholly disappear, but rather mutate and move on, sometimes in curious guises. Far-fetched though it seems at the moment, where mindless food is today, mindless sex — in light of the growing empirical record of its own unleashing — may yet again be tomorrow.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
George Will discussed this article from Policy Review in his column today. Her conclusion: