Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Aristocracy of the Heart

photo of Benjamin Nugent
There is nothing like the self-satisfaction of moral superiority. It’s a thrill in and of itself that may even create a buzz is the message communicated by the novelist Benjamin Nugent in a recent Times Sunday Review piece, “The Adulterous Sins of Our Father Figures.” (NYT, 4/27/13).  Nugent recounts the contempt in which he held his “mother’s partner” after receiving an “e mail confessing to an emotional affair.”  Nugent’s view that “men raised before second wave feminism—that is, men born before l960—were deformed by a culture that regarded romantic indiscretions as natural expressions of manliness, an alternative to hunting” was only challenged when he himself cheated on his girlfriend. Only then did he deal with problem of what “you do when you discover you belong to a class of men you hate?” Nugent’s point is that there’s a price to be paid for purity. Avoid the seven deadly sins at your own peril since you may eventually find yourself guilty of “self-loathing.” For Nugent the hatred of instinct had acted as a mechanism of self-control. And then it had backfired when it transformed into a perverse form of vanity. “Hating yourself is a kind of stimulant, anxiety-producing, but also energizing. It can be nearly pleasurable. I found I had to kick that stimulant in order to act morally.” But is he talking about morality or emotion? Desire, in any form, is a hard thing to legislate, however hard the Catholic Church or the superego try to do it. Isn't Nugent really alluding to a form of knowledge, which E.M. Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy described as being possessed by “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky?”--in effect an aristocracy of the heart.

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