Friendship & Desire -- Augustine Reviews ‘Will & Grace’
Commonweal, Sept. 27, 2002
Will and Grace are the main characters in NBC's wildly successful sitcom about the relationship between a gay man of deliberate sensibility (he's a lawyer) and a free-spirited straight woman
(she's an interior designer) who share a New York City apartment. As Catholics of a certain age and education will also know, "will" and "grace" are also the main categories used by Augustine to map the complicated terrain of the human psyche.
After catching a few episodes of Will & Grace over the past couple of years, I wondered what Augustine would say about the lives and loves of the two main characters. Such speculation is not quite as crazy as it sounds. Augustine was not only a moralist, but also an accomplished rhetorician. In his time, as in our own, the most influential moralists were the creators of broadly appealing forms of entertainment. Separated by millennia as well as by moral sensibilities, Aristophanes and legendary sitcom producer Norman tear (All in the Family) both count as passionate social critics about the place of women and the oppressed classes in their respective societies. Their influence stems from their power to turn an appealing phrase.
So what would Augustine say about Will & Grace? Some probably think the answer is obvious. He would tell Will to stop sleeping with men forever, and tell Grace to stop sleeping with men until she marries one. My sense is that, true as this may be, Augustine's response would be more complicated. If he took seriously the show's depiction of the delights and despairs bound up with human sexual desire, I believe he would say that Will & Grace gets things half-right: the sitcom provides an accurate diagnosis of the problem, but offers the wrong cure. Despite its superficially buoyant and laissez-faire attitude, Will & Grace actually presents us with a dark depiction of human sexuality that has much in common with Augustine's own.
Augustine is commonly perceived as teaching that the human body is evil. That perception is wrong. Augustine knew that Saint Paul's sins of the flesh encompass more than sins of the body: they are sins of whole persons, who are integrated unities of body and soul. According to Augustine, the springboard of human evil is not the body but the will. We do wrong not by choosing evil itself (that, for Augustine, is impossible) but by preferring a lesser good to a greater good.
How do wrong choices come about? Sometimes from distorted perception: we mistakenly believe the lesser good to be the greater. At other times it is from weakness of will: we know the right thing to do, but we choose the wrong thing. In a way, we cannot help ourselves, but we cannot deny that the choice is our own. For Augustine, human sexuality provides the paradigmatic example of the unruly nature of the human will.
It's not just that we can't control the circumstances in which desire overtakes us, or block desire from going in disastrous directions — the problem is even stranger. Just as desire can sweep in when it is not welcome, so it can also leave us high and dry when we want nothing more. Candles and chilled wine on the table, rose petals on the bed, these do not always work. Nor do we always fall in love with Mr. Right. And Mr. Right doesn't always fall in love with us. And even if we do fall in love, it may not last forever. Or maybe he's gay.
Will & Grace exemplifies Augustine's view that sexual desire can escape from human control in a way that causes great anguish all around. Will and Grace are soul mates, best friends who live together and are there for one another, for better or worse. In every respect but one, they look and act like a married couple. It would be better all around if Will could refocus his sexual energies on Grace; it would be better all around if Grace could let go of Will, to find someone who could be a complete partner in her life. Neither, however, is going to happen. The saga of their relationship proceeds with a raucous humor undiminished by the sad dilemma that lies at its heart. In fact, rumor has it that they will soon have a baby together .
For Augustine, the inability of Will and Grace to direct their sexual desires in ways that will lead to their own happiness would not be surprising. What would surprise him is the content of their expectations, which he would find breathtakingly unrealistic: a passionate sexual relationship that is also the best and most fulfilling of friendships. One reason for his surprise, of course, would be his skepticism about the show's assumption that a man could truly be friends with a woman. I like to think, however, that had he lived in an era such as our own, which takes for granted the full equality of men and women, he would reconsider his view.
The second reason for Augustine's surprise, however, would likely prove more intractable: his
acute sense of the disruptive nature of the sexual drive itself. In the beginning of Book III of
Confessions, we find his famous passage: "I went to Carthage, where I found myself in the midst of a hissing cauldron of lust. I had not yet fallen in love, but I was in love with the idea of it, and this feeling that something was missing made me despise myself for not being more anxious to satisfy the need. I began to look around for some object of love, since I badly wanted to love something."
For Augustine, restlessness and instability are inseparable from uncontrolled sexual desire. His self-description continues, "My love was returned and finally shackled me in the bonds of its consummation. In the midst of my joy I was caught up in the coils of trouble, for I was lashed with the cruel, fiery rods of jealousy and suspicion, fear, anger, and quarrels." Garry Wills has recently suggested that Augustine was not promiscuous, but clearly he knew the desires that lead to promiscuity.
As it turns out, ancient Carthage is not much different from contemporary New York. Although Will and Grace hope for a long-term relationship in which passionate sex and mutual support seamlessly coexist, the sitcom's story-lines continually undermine that possibility. Augustine's cruel, fiery rods of jealousy and suspicion fuel the comic plots of Will & Grace. The characters are restless, persistent only in their search for a better relationship, a more powerful sexual connection.
Like Augustine, Will and Grace believe that desire is reliably fickle. It cannot remain true to itself and be folded into a stable relationship. Sexual passion is grace (understood in secular terms). It is serendipitous and ecstatic, a bolt of lightning. Friendship is not like that. It involves knowing and loving people as they are without glamour and even with the flu or chicken pox. Friends are more or less patient with each other's neuroses. Friendship requires seeing the other's soul, not in an idealized form but as a bundle of noble aspirations and base fears. It is will (understood in secular terms). In this perspective, except in the rare case, the miracle case, one cannot expect both friendship and long-lasting sexual passion with the same person in the world of Will & Grace.
You will no doubt ask, How can Will & Grace have an Augustinian attitude toward sex when the sitcom considers homosexual desire to be the moral equivalent of heterosexual desire? In a certain respect, so did Augustine. For him, sexual desire can be consuming, and its satisfaction intoxicating, but the ultimate consequences for human well-being are frequently destructive, no matter what the object. We might say that he viewed the cycle of sexual desire, satisfaction, and renewed desire rather in the way we now view dependence on addictive substances. Being addicted to heterosexual sex might be better than being addicted to homosexual sex in an abstract sense, just as it might be better to be addicted to prescription medications than to illegal sub- stances. In the lives of actual addicts, however, the difference is minimal. Ironically, our own supposedly liberal era, which frequently places a one-sided emphasis upon the goodness of heterosexual desire, may end up generating a larger moral chasm between heterosexuals and homosexuals than earlier, supposedly more conservative eras, which viewed all human sexuality as tainted by the Fall and therefore as potentially dangerous.
So in their vision of the disruptive nature of human sexuality , the sitcom and the saint are on the same page. But what about the obvious follow-up questions: How should we act in a less-than-perfect world? What should our priorities be? Here again, we can find a surprising similarity. In the land of Will & Grace, the demands of friendship are para- mount. Lovers come and go, providing emotional distraction and physical release, but they are not the whole of one's life. If we are wise, we will treat our lovers the way a prudent person treats an excursion to Las Vegas. Just as we should devote only our discretionary financial capital to the pastime of gambling, so we should expend only our discretionary emotional capital on fleeting affairs, while devoting the bulk of our emotional resources to the friendships that will sustain us throughout our lives.
At the risk of sounding entirely sacrilegious, I would guess that after the initial delirium of his encounter with the joys of sex, the young Augustine's attempt to balance relationships was not considerably different from that depicted on Will & Grace. His friends, and the projects he concocted with them, were his clear priority .Sexual relationships fitted in on the side; they quenched his physical appetites, but they did not feed his soul.
In the end, of course, Augustine found the division of his loyalties destabilizing and unsettling. So he turned to a higher power, begging God for release. Finally, his prayers were answered. Significantly, Augustine does not claim that the power to master his sexual desires came through his own will; he attributes it to divine grace. Thinking of Augustine as having the psychology of an addict helps put the dark sexual ethics of his later writings in perspective; they demonstrate the attitude that someone in recovery frequently takes toward the substance that nearly destroyed him: If you can, avoid sex entirely; if you can't, limit it to begetting children within marriage. But always remember you're playing with fire.
Finally, we reach the point where Will & Grace parts company with Augustine. It is impossible to imagine Will or Grace relinquishing, or restricting, the pursuit of sexual satisfaction.
They will continue balancing their pursuit of romance with the obligations of friendship, seeking what physical comfort they can from various sexual partners even as they strive to find that elusive ideal combination of lover and best friend. But a nagging question remains: What happens in five or ten years, if the ideal doesn't work out, or if the Manhattan dating scene begins to get old, and they begin to get tired? Anyone who is concerned with contemporary sexual mores had better take seriously another aspect of human existence that fascinated Augustine: Time marches on.
Baby boomers (and those just a little older) have dominated the intellectual and cultural scene for over thirty years now. That generation can be characterized by its attitudes toward sex: they were determined to throw off the negative views of human sexuality that shackled their parents and grandparents. The Catholic Church, or so it is popularly thought, has been one of the few forces in contemporary society not to embrace this optimistic view of human sexual relations. Ironically, however, some conservative Catholic literature has in fact adopted one of the rosiest views of human sexuality in circulation, although it restricts the channels available for expressing it (no sex outside marriage, no contraception). Some of these writers believe the best way to defend the church's traditional teaching about marriage and contraception is to maintain that Catholic sexual discipline offers the surest path to great sensual delights. For example, one writer says, " A woman who gave up barrier methods [of contraception] described their sexual experience now as fantastic! Giving our whole selves to each other intensified the sensations of pleasure and the feeling of unity in this expression of our love." The emphasis by baby boomers on the goodness of sex was essential and understandable given the circumstances that forged their identities. Still it is important to remember that another generation has come of age now, a generation whose experience animates sitcoms like Will & Grace and Friends. Their experience is significantly different from that of the boomers. They were still children, or not yet born, when their parents and older siblings implemented the sexual revolution. They saw firsthand the seamier side of freedom; the divorce rate exploded around them while the wider society , even their churches and synagogues, seemed to lack stability and direction. In recent months, of course, the destructive paths that human sexual desire can take have been epitomized by the crisis deep in the heart of the Roman Catholic Church itself.
This younger generation takes sexuality for granted as a valuable aspect of human life; the ghosts of sexual repression do not haunt them. But they have their own ghosts. Like Will and Grace, they want to find a sexual partner who is also a best friend, and they are fearful that this is an unrealistic dream, since they have seen firsthand the destabilizing effects of sexual restlessness on their parents and on themselves. They value loyalty , and seek the treasure of unconditional acceptance.
Would-be Catholic moralists need to remember two key points. First, unbridled romanticism, emphasis on the unitive power of sexual passion by itself, is not likely to be effective rhetoric in addressing this generation. At best, an approach to sexual ethics permeated with romanticism will be dismissed as naive; at worst it will be deemed an outright lie. This generation has seen the harm caused by following one's own passion at all costs, wherever it may lead; it knows that desire can burn fast and burn out. Moreover, the one-sidedly romantic approach discounts the degree to which stability and support through the mundane challenges of life can be existentially attractive.
Second, we have witnessed a Copernican revolution in the relationship of men and women. Until recently, the basic existential problem had been integrating friendship, or at least domestic peace, into a relationship based on sexual attraction, since boys and girls were brought up to assume very different roles in the home and society .Today, we face the opposite challenge: integrating sexual desire into solid peer relationships — friendships between men and women, who receive the same education and aspire to many of the same goals. Their lives were not and are not segregated from one another .
A study by the Independent Women's Forum called "Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women and Dating Today," confirms what anyone who spends time on college campuses already knows: There is virtually no dating; men and women socialize in groups before pairing off. They "hook up" in transient sexual encounters, or they are hitched at the hip in a committed relationship. Some people, like the scholars Leon and Amy Kass, are doubtful that this reversal will nurture stable heterosexual partnerships; they advocate a return to older ways of romance, courtship, and marriage. But there is a counter argument that the new integration of the lives of men and women will finally prove positive. If the partnership of marriage and child rearing is best viewed as involving a certain type of friendship, then the best way to practice may be learning how to be friends with members of the opposite sex. This isn't easy, but it is not impossible either. Will & Grace is obviously driven, at least in part, by this dynamic.
In addressing this generation, the main focus should be not on when sex will generate transient feelings of unity between the parties, but on when sex will contribute to a real friendship. Is it fulfilling or dehumanizing to have sex with people whom one has no intention of being friends with later on? Is a "friendship with benefits" (a friendship in which the friends look to each other for sexual release when they are between romantic relationships) really likely to remain stable over time?
What about the elusive ideal? Can one find a friend who is also a lifetime sexual partner? Augustine might have said no, but some of his followers are cautiously optimistic. Thomas Aquinas, a celibate male renowned for his chastity , gave systematic consideration to the possibility of real friendship between a husband and a wife. Martin Luther, a former monk, loved his wife Katie in a way that was deep, earthy, and entirely unsentimental. Will & Grace may not be salvageable; their dilemma is tragic. Yet we may find one beacon of hope in the storyline of Friends, which follows the lives of six young New Yorkers who remain each other's constant support as their lovers come and go. Last year, viewers witnessed a television miracle: the wedding of long- time Friends characters Monica Gellar and Chandler Bing, who finally found in each other the sexual partners and life partners they were seeking all along. Maybe, then, the most helpful counterpoint to Will, Grace, and Augustine will be Aquinas, Luther, and Friends.