On Loving Mortals
Essays Society

On Loving Mortals

Kent Anhari

Curtis Yarvin lost his wife this week. The man has always been a stylist first, and while I’ve never found his critique convincing, I’ve always enjoyed his poetry. I would call the stuff he’s written over the last few days “characteristically excellent,” but that would be trivializing. There are echoes of Mount Eerie’s A Crow Looked at Me: unrefined, diary-entry prosody constrained, contained only by good writerly habits and a poet’s trained attention. It almost bursts the seams of poetry, but never does. It’s villa-at-Pompeii, cathedral-in-Dresden stuff. Ruinous. Not keening, hair-rending grief, but only the vertigo of standing on the precipice of a life lived in someone’s conspicuous absence. The open sepulcher of the future.

I’m obsessed with art made by widowers. The first book I read after my wedding was A Grief Observed. That sounds morbid in retrospect, but I didn’t much consider this at the time. It felt urgent. That year, a close childhood friend of my wife’s lost her mother in a car accident. We convened for the memorial at the little non-denom church this dear woman had attended faithfully for years, alone, despite the incomprehension and the gentle ribbing of her family. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” the Lord says, “thou hast been faithful over a few things.” The plain-clothes pastor preached from Ecclesiastes and called its author “Qoheleth,” which I liked. No platitudes; only the porcelain fragility of life lived in earthen vessels. Her widowed husband, looking as shell-shocked as any veteran, told me, teary-eyed, to “take good care” of my wife—which is what you would say, I guess, but it didn’t feel contrived. He said exactly what he meant to say.

When you marry someone and mean it, you’re committing to bury them. You’re committing to see their corpse. You’re committing to conversations with dipshit doctors and coroners and funeral directors whose another-day-at-the-office happens to be your life’s Permian-Triassic extinction event, or else you’re burdening your spouse with doing the same for you. It’s not a “maybe” or a “God forbid,” it’s an inevitable “someday.” The assurance of their presence and their small daily kindnesses and the weird little idiom shared uniquely between you will die all at once, and then you just have to keep living. Sometimes your spouse dies young, suddenly, leaving small children to be cared for amidst the wreckage. Sometimes you lose your spouse at 60 and live another 30 years without them. We could just as easily have not signed on to this terrible inevitability, but we did it anyway, in the faith that the radically indeterminate number of days between then and now will justify the whole venture. Reading Yarvin, I’m overcome—just as I was for those three straight months in 2017 when I listened to nothing, all day, on repeat, except A Crow Looked at Me—with the desire to hand-write him a letter. “I understand what you’re going through,” it’d say. “I, too, love a woman.” I know, intellectually, that this is a bad idea. I know that it would seem presumptuous and weird and self-obsessed, but I only know these things intellectually. I tell myself that I don’t know what he’s going through and I act accordingly, but I don’t really believe it. The desire is overwhelming, and the sentiment is wholly, achingly sincere. I’m obsessed with art made by widowers because marriage already feels to me like mourning. I, too, love a woman.

~

Aristotle’s most interesting passages are in his works on biology. Occasionally, he makes a beeline, as if caught up in prophecy, from the mundane to the sublime. In his treatise on animal motion, he notes that animals depend on something immobile and exterior to themselves for their locomotion and reasons therefrom that this must also be true of the cosmos as a whole. At this thought, he’s unable to restrain himself from boiling over into poetry, and quotes from the Iliad about the chain which Zeus hangs from heaven to earth. In On the Generation of Animals, he makes a single gnomic remark that the blood of the womb, the locus of conception, has an “affinity to the prime matter,” the eternal, fundamental, sub-elemental, non-hylomorphic substrate of all material change. He doesn’t explain further.

In conception, as Aristotle has it, the male contributes form and the female contributes matter, which correspond (per his Physics) to act and potency respectively. Despite the peculiarities of the Aristotelian idiom, this intuition—that male and female correspond, somehow, to act and potency, form and matter—is fairly widespread. The Philosopher is virtually always “good to think with,” to crib a phrase from Lévi-Strauss, regardless of whether we accept his conclusions. One needn’t think this particular theory true, exactly, to withhold the assumption that it’s merely an arbitrary justification for patriarchal labor relations (consider how far the Aristotelian view is from that early modern theory which imagined women to be nothing more than incubators for tiny but fundamentally complete homunculi manufactured entirely in the bodies of men), and to try and appreciate the wrinkle in biological and social reality to which he’s directing our attention. Aristotle finds an indication in his natural philosophy of that great femininity, dignified and terrible, which is attributed to the formless earth and seas in the cycles of myth, and he furthermore leaves neither sex superfluous in that task for which sexual difference exists. If the wisp of difference which distinguishes woman from man has something, on some level, to do with a resemblance to the prima materia, what of that which distinguishes man from woman? What presence, and what lack? What, in complement to the Protean matter of womanhood, resembles disincarnate form, limit-without-extension, in men?

In his Politics, Aristotle further claims that women and men correspond, respectively, to the private and public spheres. Again, I have no interest in asserting that women are somehow uniquely built for domestic labor. In my marriage, the bulk of the domestic labor falls to me and the bulk of the wage labor to my wife, but this in no way changes the fact—despite my interest in, and experience with, homemaking, and, frankly, my good taste in decor—that she is our household’s Hestia, and not I. Women, after all, make homes all by themselves. Surely there are women who live without bed frames or floor coverings—exceptions, as always, abound—but these remain an exception, while men remain a cliché. We simply don’t “settle down” for ourselves. Even professional ambition tends to be for the sake of family. You can try and pin this fact on differences in socialization, but I’ve known enough men and enough women, married and unmarried, socialized under radically different conditions, to see the pattern. Disincarnate form, unlike prime matter, is something of an Aristotelian oxymoron. The notable exception, according to the medieval synthesis, is the human soul, cloven temporarily from the body in death. The soul, irrespective of beatitude or reprobation, is homeless until the first blast of the Last Trumpet reunites it to its matter. Whatever intensité happens to differentiate men by default, it involves a kind of homelessness: life without a stake in the world. Men desire women, perhaps, because we can’t ourselves conceive of a private world which nourishes rather than isolates us.

When I was 20, I would have died for a cause. Not that there aren’t causes—people, most especially—for which I’d die today, but you could have convinced me much more easily then. Young men are built for dying. The community will always need a surplus of kids willing to throw themselves at foreigners or house fires or Pleistocene megafauna as the need arises. The cliché has it that young men think they’re immortal, and this might be true of some of us, but I suspect that a much greater number simply don’t perceive their mortality to be a problem. Without a stake in the world (and, as I’ve said, this usually means our own relationships, because what we call “the world” is made of intersubjectivity), undertaking life-threatening tasks can be a valuable use of one’s time. In lieu of an opportunity to throw our lives away for a good reason, we’ll do it with fentanyl or League of Legends. Family, however, problematizes death. Because the substance of my world—that is, my family—is mortal, I’m obliged to tend to my own mortality. I become indispensable only because other mortals, whom I love, depend on my care.

~

In this light, the Homeric epics make for an interesting diptych. For the Achilles of the Iliad, a long life lived as husband and father is a distant, unrealized possibility. Too distant; forever unrealized. He chooses, instead, to fall on the two-edged sword of vengeance, to burn hot on its uncontainable wildfire while his body is still strong for killing. Homer’s Odysseus, in the starkest of contrasts, clings to life and to the prospect of his homecoming with almost scandalous tenacity. In extra-Homeric tradition, this makes him something of a villain. Sophocles’s Ajax calls him “παντουργός,” a man who will do anything. This isn’t a compliment. A well-known story has him feigning madness, yoking an ox and an ass together and plowing his field unevenly in order to escape the summons to war, breaking only when his son Telemachus is placed in his path. There’s no lie he won’t tell, nobody he won’t stab in the back, no indignity by which he won’t debase himself for the sake of that child and his mother. Hecuba, in Euripides’s Trojan Women, calls him “πολεμίῳ δίκας, παρανόμῳ δάκει”—an enemy of justice, a lawless animal—and despite the peculiarities of its context, this isn’t an unusual characterization. Sometimes you need men to show up for the cause, and it’s a great deal more difficult to persuade a man with a stake in the world to die for someone else’s priorities.

As I say, I think that masculinities of both the Achillean and Odyssean species are needful in their turns. I nonetheless experience this dimension of the dialectical tension, the scandalousness of the Odyssean tendency, somewhat more acutely than I’d like to admit. I think I’m being honest when I say that a younger, bachelor me might have been willing to surrender his life in radical obedience to the evangelical commandments. I was certainly more willing to offer hospitality to strangers. Now, I cling to life in a way that feels at times unregenerate, even sub-Christian. I’d readily die for my wife and for the little girl she’s carrying, but it’s much harder to imagine myself depriving them of a husband and a father for the sake of a stranger, or even a dear friend. I take fewer risks for the sake of charity and generosity. I don’t know what to make of this sense of my own indispensability. I have to trust that the Author of marriage sculpted my heart thus for good reason. For his part, however, Homer seems to privilege living tenaciously. “Nay, seek not to speak soothingly to me of death, glorious Odysseus,” says the shade of Achilles in Hades, “I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve as the hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood was but small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished.” If this isn’t a vindication of Odyssean tenacity, I don’t know what is.

By and large, our culture (that is, Anglo-American post-Protestantism) privileges the same—often to pathological excess, but basically for good reason. An excess of young men who know that they’re built for dying is a dangerous problem. The Achillean tendency motivates men to enlist, but also to become school shooters and militants and NEETs. Kids who skip town to fight for ISIS are often the Achillean sons of Odyssean families. Immigrant parents fight tenaciously for stability and the conditions for long life, but the real goods for which that stability was sought in the first place—that is, the relationships which give substance to the world—exceed their childrens’ reach. Anglo-Americans marry late, the bar is high, and these kids aren’t so good at courtship, anyway. Sometimes our Achillean youths explicitly conceive of their grievance in terms of exile from the community of lovers. Here’s a catch-22, or a Meno’s Paradox of sorts: why should these young men live well without a family for whom to do it, and why should young women tolerate (much less love) men who don’t live well? Loving a mortal saved me, and countless other men I know, from the Achillean fate, but in most cases it seems something like a miracle. There are policies that make marriage and childbearing less financially onerous, all of which are worthwhile, but knowing that young men of this type might be better served by an experience of their own indispensability—that they’re right, in some cases, about what they need, even if they can conceive of it only in the most vulgar of terms—brings us not one inch closer to the possible-but-far-from-actual world in which they have the self-understanding, the generosity, the discipline, and the patience to be genuinely marriageable. I don’t have an upshot here, really. I’m stuck on a passage from Wesley Yang’s "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho." You know the one; I’m not going to quote it.

~

In my wedding photos, I’m dressed for my funeral: a black tuxedo, a grave expression, and a crown of silver laurels. People made fun of me for months about that thousand-yard stare, but I was overcome by the gravity of the rite. The laurels are an athlete’s crown, awarded to one who has “run the race,” as the Apostle says. In iconographic tradition and the Church’s hymnody, they’re the reward of martyrs. In the ceremony, they touch your head but briefly, as a momentary foretaste of the eschaton. When one of us dies, the ribbon that binds the two crowns will be cut, and we’ll be buried in them, looking much like we did on our wedding day.

Orthodox Christians love to talk about the martyric character of the wedding rite. It’s often a kind of tedious joke. Yes, yes, marriage is self-mortification. The martyrdom of hard compromises and dirty dishes and getting the kids up for school. All true. But the cruciform character of marriage seems clearest to me in the act of committing, at the outset, to the end. The Lord gives you someone for whom you must be Nicodemus. Here is one, beloved disciple, the Lord says, at whose cross you must stand.

In four months, God willing, I’ll be a father. I pray I’m not an anxious one.


Kent Anhari is a writer from Maryland.