The Agonist Journal

What is the feminist aim, if not equality between man and woman? So many a conservative will say, agreeing with the aim but disavowing the means that feminists use to attain it, such as abortion on demand and no-fault divorce. The conservative, chivalrous to a fault, sees the former as a crime perpetrated by men against women, and the latter as an invitation to bad men to abandon the wives who depend upon them. Taking a cue from Old Nick—Machiavelli, of course—feminists understand them as powerful engines of economic war against the father-headed family and the guardian walls that the family raises up against female ambition and male irresponsibility.     

“This contribution needs a pullquote”

Both take for granted that equality is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But we can sing the thousands of love songs composed in the Christian west since the time of the troubadours and never meet one reference to equality. That is not because the poets assume that equality between man and woman, between the lover and the beloved, has already been attained. It is because they do not think in those terms at all. C. S. Lewis, in his essay “Membership,” understands why not. “Equality,” he says, “is a quantitative term and therefore love often knows nothing of it.” For the lover rejoices in the excellence of the beloved. Theirs is not a mercenary exchange, such as one finds on dating websites: this is what I demand, these are the goods I have to offer. In this regard as in many another, feminists have confirmed the shrewd judgments of the old liberal Christopher Lasch, who in Culture of Narcissism located them as tamely and safely floating along with everybody else down the late capitalist river.  

As for Lewis, when he speaks of love he speaks from the love poetry that the spirit of the Scriptures inspired, love poetry that opened out the erotic flights of the ancient pagans and brought them into a new and unexpected world. We might call it the world of grace, in all the many senses of the word. Grace is gratuitous: it gives what is not earned, what in some ways cannot ever be earned. It is gracious: returning good for bad, the gentle for the harsh, the sweet for the bitter. It is graceful: there is a beauty to it, in word and deed and manner, that is like a melody instead of bare words, a transfiguration. It inspires and lives by gratitude: the virtue whereby the receiver of a gift participates in the generosity of the giver, and in its most divine form, the virtue whereby man is invited into the very dwelling place of God, who gives from superabundant love and not from want or necessity. 

Take for example a shining scene from Lewis’ most beloved poem, The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser. Calidore, the knight of Courtesy, has for a time abandoned his quest to find and shackle the monster of backbiting, detraction, and slander, the Blatant (or “Blattant,” blithering, babbling) Beast.  That is because he is wholly in love with a beautiful shepherd girl, Pastorella. One day, he is roaming about a mountaintop when he sees ladies dancing merrily, and a shepherd piping in their midst.  More than a few they were:

     An hundred naked maidens lily white,
   All ranged in a ring, and dancing in delight.

     All they without were ranged in a ring,
     And danced round; but in the midst of them
     Three other ladies did both dance and sing,
     The whiles the rest them round about did hem,
     And like a garland did in compass stem:
     And in the midst of those same three, was placed
     Another Damsel, as a precious gem,
     Amidst a ring most richly well enchaced,
   That with her goodly presence all the rest much graced.

The shepherd is Colin Clout. “Who knows not Colin Clout?” asks Spenser, tongue in cheek, because Colin had long been his own persona, casting himself as a humble shepherd and servant of Queen Elizabeth; but here Colin is Spenser as the wooer of Elizabeth Boyle, whom he married in 1594, and for whom he wrote, as a wedding gift, the Amoretti sonnets and the greatest marriage song I have ever read in any language, the Epithalamion.

We of course cannot imagine a hundred naked maidens dancing in the woods without thinking of an orgy, devouring and being devoured. When Calidore enters, they vanish, not in guilt, but as the dispersing of a heavenly dream of truth beyond our capacity to imagine for ourselves. In Spenser’s mythopoetic vision, the ladies are innocent and pure because they are naked; they hide nothing because they have nothing to hide. The three ladies of the inner ring are the three Graces, handmaidens to Venus in her heavenly manifestation, the Venus of heavenly love. Two of them, says Colin, explaining the vision to Calidore, face away from us and one toward us, to show “that good should from us go, then [or: than] come in greater store.” All is a giving and receiving, all is gratitude and grace.  

What about the lady in the center of the ring? That was she whom Colin loves. She is “but a country lass,” yet she surpasses all of them as far as the sun outshines the stars, not in beauty of form alone, but also in beauty of soul, in virtue, for which reason the Graces themselves

   Have for more honor brought her to this place,
   And graced her so much to be another Grace.

Notice the Graces are not moved by egalitarian drives. Precisely because they are the Graces, they honor the woman so far as to place her in the center of their dancing. It is an honor that cannot be deserved if we think of economic exchange.  It can be deserved only by grace:

     Another Grace she well deserves to be,
     In whom so many Graces gathered are,
     Excelling much the mean of her degree;
     Divine resemblance, beauty sovereign rare,
     Firm chastity, that spite ne blemish dare;
     All which she with such courtesy goth grace,
     That all her peers cannot with her compare,
     But quite are dimmed, when she is in place.
   She made me often pipe and now to pipe apace.

Colin plays merrily and with hearty pace upon his woodland pipe, and of course the image is broadly sexual: the new Mrs. Spenser is the inspirer and receiver of his energetic music. But music too, as I have suggested, here the music of merriment, of reveling in the excellence of the beloved, of gratitude and admiration, is a grace: is superabundant, not bought. No one sings an office memorandum. No one sings a price list. No one sings to arrange the details of a hookup.  

To understand love, we must cease to speak and think in the language of quantitative appraisal, which is the language of equality. The members of a Body, as Lewis points out, are such by their not being the same, or even on the same plane of existence or authority. Individualism and collectivism are cousins that hate each other, but they are cousins, not strangers. The first is a parody of the excellence of man made fully real; the second, a parody of the communion of love wherein man becomes fully real.  But, to illustrate the point, in the family “the grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units in a homogeneous class.  They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself.” Convicts have numbers, says Lewis. To the extent that we engage in quantitative evaluation of our worth and the worth of others, we build a prison house for our souls, we clap ourselves in irons, and we put on our backs the dreary mass-issued uniforms of a life without love.

In the life of grace, rather, we come alive:

We are all constantly teaching and learning, forgiving and being forgiven, representing Christ to man when we intercede, and man to Christ when others intercede for us. The sacrifice of selfish privacy which is daily demanded of us is daily repaid a hundredfold in the true growth of personality which the life of the Body encourages. Those who are members of one another become as diverse as the hand and the ear. That is why the worldlings are so monotonously alike compared with the almost fantastic variety of the saints. Obedience is the road to freedom, humility the road to pleasure, unity the road to personality.

But for the sake of a barren ideology we have rejected these truths, and song itself has slouched into the beast, or faded away.  “For Bonnie Annie Laurie,” sang the man in love, “I’d lay me doon an’ dee.” To us he might as well be a creature from another world.  And I would rather be least in that world, a world of grace, than be the greatest in this world of egalitarian envy and reckoning.