Surprised by Delight by Anthony Esolen


Surprised by Delight

Divine Love & the Love of Man & Woman Surpass Mere Consent
by Anthony Esolen

When in Milton's Paradise Lost Adam beholds Eve for the first time—and "behold" is the correct word, since he is in the presence of a consummate work of divine art—he is already delighted even before he says a word. God had put his taste, intelligence, and boldness to a bit of a friendly test, asking Adam why the beasts were not sufficient company for him, or why solitariness was not a great blessing. When Adam held his ground, God cast a sleep over him, formed Eve from his rib, and brought her to him. The first Man, the man who is the root both of all human persons and of all males specifically, acknowledges that he is caught, that the beauty of the woman will make the man do what otherwise he would not do:

This turn hath made amends; thou hast fulfilled
Thy words, Creator bounteous and benign,
Giver of all things fair, but fairest this
Of all thy gifts, nor enviest. I now see
Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, myself
Before me; woman is her name, of man
Extracted; for this cause he shall forgo
Father and mother, and to his wife adhere,
And they shall be one flesh, one heart, one soul.

Yet the woman does not merely pass into the man's power, like property. Adam must win Eve, lest she be misprized, and that is exactly as he would have it:

She heard me thus, and though divinely brought,
Yet innocence and virgin modesty,
Her virtue and the conscience of her worth,
That would be wooed, and not unsought be won,
Not obvious, nor obtrusive, but retired,
The more desirable, or, to say all,
Nature herself, though pure of sinful thought,
Wrought in her so, that seeing me, she turned:
I followed her, she what was honor knew,
And with obsequious majesty approved
My pleaded reason.

Trans-consensual Delight

It is clear that he and she "catch" each other. He seizes her by the hand because he has already been seized by her beauty, and this is not male aggression and female manipulation, but mutual delight, in the etymological sense of the word, as we will see. "To the nuptial bower / I brought her blushing like the morn," says Adam. The blush suggests awe, a mental and spiritual reticence before something tremendous; it transcends mere consent.

As is only just. For if consent is supposed to be a sufficient condition for moral action in a couple or a group, we have no way to disapprove of consensual evil, nor will we be any closer to understanding the movement of Adam and Eve toward one another in their trans-consensual delight. Duelists fighting for honor consent—they consent to murder or suicide or both, while the tradition they uphold establishes an evil precedent for everyone else. Fornicators consent—they consent implicitly to participate in the general evil of putting the unwanted child out of the way or sentencing him to grow up without a married mother and father; and their evil precedent robs good young women and good young men of the guidance and the guards they deserve, as they suffer those years of passion and uncertainty. Anyone who speaks of a "structure of evil," supposing such a thing to exist, implies that consent can be beside the point, since no anthropological structure is ever built without innumerable and interrelated acts of consent.

Nor is consent adequate to describe what Adam and Eve do, or what happens to them. Eve is not Adam's decision or creation. More especially does fallen man need what comes to him from without, what leaves consent gasping and halting behind. As John Donne puts it in the famous sonnet:

Yet dearly I love you and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

The ambiguity is intended, because man's state is ambiguous. We want, and we do not want. We love, but we are betrothed to the enemy, whom we are powerless to resist. So Donne prays to have his will overcome by the will of God. He must be ravished: by violence it seems, because unless his hard and bolted heart is battered in, there will be no ravishment, no being swept off in the joy of love. We do not choose between "freedom" and "commitment." We choose between enslavement to the will and enslavement to God: to enthrall ourselves, or to be enthralled, taken by storm, overcome by awe and splendor. Thus we should pray, "Lord, break my will, for not my will but thy will be done."

An Ascending Pursuit

Grace is by definition unmerited; it is often unwanted, too. Saul did not want that Damascus lightning. Jeremiah says that God duped him. "Woe is me, I am a dead man," said Isaiah when he saw the Holy One upon his throne. "Depart from me, Lord," said Peter, "I am an evil man." The hound of heaven pursued the poet Francis Thompson, in full flight from grace. Augustine prayed, "Let me be chaste, but not yet!" C. S. Lewis says that when he was persuaded of the truth of the gospel, he was the most miserable of converts. Yet that grace is glorious too, and when we receive not what we want but what we need, we come to sing, "Not to us, not to us give the glory, O Lord, but to thy holy Name."

Is there in the order of nature nothing like that grace, that ravishment? "You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes," says the Bridegroom in that best of songs. Why should not beauty ravish? The whole of Plato's theory of education is erotic, as the soul is led on an ascending pursuit of beauty: the horses of the charioteer in his fine parable in the Phaedrus do not analyze the beautiful. They behold it and long for it and gallop after it with thundering hooves. The wayward horse of appetite does not consent to any restraint, while the proud and noble horse of the spirit does obey the guidance of the rational charioteer, but the being-seized, the rapture of the beholding, is not a matter of consent at all. It is not the result of a plan. It is not the solution to a problem in geometry. Awe is not tame.

We cannot demand grace by installment. "Now is the acceptable time," says the Lord, and that means now, whether we like it or not. Mostly we will not like it. Nor can we say that we will have human love, especially the love between a man and a woman, on our terms. It is a contradiction. Terms are for a truce, and a truce is for nations that do not like one another. Where there are terms, temporizing, releases, conditions, and reservations, there is no love but wariness. A pre-nuptial agreement is like a treaty between Russia and Germany, made to be violated. But love properly speaking is always the aggressor, coming to us, breaking us open, and few would have the courage to consent to love if it were not also for delight.

Praise Is the Keynote

I don't mean pleasure. A whore and her patron may enjoy plenty of that. I mean delight, being caught by the laces, tangled in the snares: love comes with the laqueum or net, to trip you up and take you prisoner by your own senses and desires. The man in love is so tangled in his fascination with the beautiful woman that he hardly knows what to do. Think of lovelorn Orlando, pinning awkward but sincere sonnets on the trees of the Forest of Arden; and think of Rosalind, fainting away when she sees a handkerchief soaked in Orlando's blood. Spenser imagines the lovers in the Temple of Venus so taken up by innocent delight that it appears to them to be all the world:

And therein thousand Pairs of Lovers walked,
Praising their God, and yielding him great Thanks,
Ne ever aught but of their true Loves talked,
Ne ever for Rebuke or Blame of any balked.

Their keynote is not a sense of accomplishment or security, but praise: for the beauty that comes uncalled-for and unmerited warrants the free response of praise and gratitude. We delight in that praise, and we must always remain incomplete and unquiet without it. Why should man praise God, who needs no praise from us? It is our heartiest share in the divine life, this delight in praise, for God has made us to praise, and our hearts are restless, says Augustine, until they rest in him. Says Sidney, in words that might apply to a beloved either human or divine:

Not thou by praise, but praise in thee is raised:
It is a praise to praise, when thou art praised.

A Strange Question

Now, if it is not good for the man to be alone, or the woman either, despite the bitter delusions of feminists, how do we raise children who will be delighted by the other sex? How do we express our own delight? How do we make ourselves vulnerable to those foreign entanglements? How do we prepare our hearts for the grace of ravishment?

The question would have struck our grandparents with incomprehension. Why should it need to be asked? Nor can we say that those grandparents had no hard times to suffer, and therefore were more inclined to indulge in flights of romantic love. They were more likely by far, not less, to break their backs and their hearts with brutal work: in the coal mines, for my grandfathers. My aunts and uncles worked in many a sweatshop; my father when he was a teenager helped keep the grounds at a prison for the criminally insane; all the men served in the military; others tended bar, wired houses, worked on the railroad, and so on. When my mother met my father, his family home had no indoor plumbing.

Yet the last thing they worried about was whether they would get married (everybody did), or what they would do for their spouses (common sense). When I listen to them describe their experiences with the opposite sex when they were young, the impression I get is one of delight. It is not a series of train derailments, or sleazy sweats. It is not a litany of evil things done or suffered, and hard feelings forming over the heart like a crust, like a cancer. How did they manage it, and why can't we? They had delight, and we do not. Why?

Each for the Other

I'll venture one suggestion. Adam is given Eve, as one like him and not like him. "Part of my soul I seek thee, and thee claim / My other half," he cries when he first sees her. God has sprung the trap: such is grace. Nor does the surprise fade. It grows with knowledge. Says Adam to Raphael, confessing that he feels weak only in the presence of her beauty:

When I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to know
Her own, that what she wills to do or say,
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best;
All higher knowledge in her presence falls
Degraded, wisdom in discourse with her
Loses discountenanced, and like folly shows;
Authority and reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made
Occasionally; and to consummate all,
Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic placed.

The "virgin majesty of Eve" needs no political program to protect or promote her. Virtue itself, embodied in distinctly feminine form, builds in her its lovely seat of authority, and guards her round about with awe. Eve, too, will acknowledge the superior power of Adam, when she describes her submission to his wooing, saying that from that moment on, she sees "how beauty is excelled by manly grace, / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair."

So should we stress that each sex is for the other, raising boys and girls to be both separate from one another and destined to be united with one another; to use that separate development to endow each sex with peculiar gifts for the other, which the other will experience with surprise and gratitude. Common sense. Familiarity breeds contempt, and nobody ever said, "I love her, because I find nothing surprising in her." We are swept away not by what we possess in ourselves, but by what we could never imagine in ourselves. If boys and girls are treated indifferently, should we expect them to treat one another as specifically members of the opposite sex with anything but indifference? Certainly there will be some residual natural attraction, and the obvious dermal excitation of sexual congress. But dogs experience that, and no wonder. No wonder.

The Delight of the Old Dance

I recall a birthday party, when the neighbor girl turned eight. She was a cousin of my cousin, whose family had just that year moved into the neighborhood. We had then a little "playground" across the street from her, fitted out with the nail-studded remains of a burnt-out shack, a few dinged and dented playground rides, a sandbox, and enough of a field for wiffle ball. I loved it.

What I loved better, though, was what she did. She had a trace of the tomboy in her, so when we boys played wiffle ball and she was around, she was welcome to join in. But that summer she set up an outdoor "store," with a cupboard full of cubbyholes, some chairs, jars of lemonade, cookies, and other refreshments, which she sold for a nickel or a dime. It was great. Not in a hundred years would I or any of the boys have conceived of such a thing, just as not in a hundred years would the girls conceive of baseball, or prying open the cellar of that tetanus-ready shack, for exploring.

So she had a party, attended by her grandparents from Germany, and I was there too, in coat and tie, as she was in a dress. Somewhere there's a picture of me dancing with her in the old-fashioned way, while grandma and grandpa look on with approval. I was surprised by puppy love.

Most of the comedy of the world has to do with what Chaucer calls "the old dance," a dance that makes sense of both the separation of the sexes and their reunion. In our world, a dance-less world, a world wherein neither sex has anything good to say about the other, there is little comedy that rises above the swamp of scorn. It is a world without surprise.

In a healthy world, we would have longing, wooing, playfulness, admiration, gratitude, and a regular ravishment of love. To talk of mere consent, then, is to tote up calories at a feast. It may be a bare necessity, in some sense or other, this consent. It is not of the essence. Delight catches us up and hales us in its traces toward the essence, which is gratitude and love. 

Anthony Esolen is a faculty member and Writer-in-Residence at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including: Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity (St. Benedict Press), Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), and Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House).