Community Standards and Private Acts

Tuesday in its reporting on vasopressin 1a, a marital bonding gene, the Washington Post reminded readers that our inheritance comes in more forms than the genetic.

Walum [the lead researcher] said that the presence of the allele increased the risk of conjugal discord, but that many other factors probably shape marital behavior. However, he and other scientists said the study is the latest piece of evidence to show that biology — down to the level of individual genes — can play a powerful role in shaping complex human behavior.

In other words, if a man’s culture, religion and family background each have a seat at the conference table that determines his attitudes toward marital fidelity and monogamy, his genes might well sit at the head of the table.

Culture. Religion. Family. A rather communal, non-individualistic set of influences. A few years ago, Herman Wouk wrote an entertaining novel, A Hole in Texas, about a fictional physicist Guy Carpenter, formerly leading work on the aborted Superconducting Super Collider, who suddenly lands in hot water when the Chinese announce discovery of the Higgs boson. Carpenter and the director of the Chinese experiment, Wen Mai Lee, were in love decades earlier when she was a student at Cornell. However, her devotion to her homeland was too strong to allow a life abroad, even with a man she loved. A widowed congresswoman becomes Carpenter’s ally helping him maneuver a defense against those looking for a scapegoat on whom to pin America’s defeat in the race for the Higgs boson. Though a good woman, she is jaded by the company she’s kept through her lifetime. (And here I’m coming to the part of interest for this post.) She can’t believe it when Carpenter explains to her that his relationship with Wen Mai Lee, though emotionally intense, was and remains chaste. Carpenter defends the truth of his claim with the explanation “She’s Chinese,” a traditional woman for whom sex outside marriage is not an option. At the end of the story, the congresswoman understands that Carpenter had been truthful with her and apologizes for not believing his tale of chaste romance.

Carpenter’s explanation for the chaste romance was his old girlfriend’s cultural standards. It is never indicated that Carpenter had any standards of his own regarding pre-marital relations, and it may be thought that, not belonging to any community that held any such standards, there was no basis for him as an individual to have any. It’s an incidental point in the story, but probably one that was intended by the conservative Jewish author.

In 1955, Time magazine ran a cover story on Herman Wouk on the occasion of his fourth novel, Marjorie Morningstar. (Wouk’s third novel four years earlier, The Caine Mutiny, had been the biggest success to come along since Gone With the Wind.) A few passages from that article, “The Wouk Mutiny”:

Wouk, a man of paradox, seems like an enigmatic character in search of an author. He is a devout Orthodox Jew who has achieved worldly success in worldly-wise Manhattan while adhering to dietary prohibitions and traditional rituals which many of his fellow Jews find embarrassing. He is an ex-radio gagwriter who severely judges his own work by the standards of the great English novelists. He is a Columbia-educated (class of ’34), well-read intellectual with an abiding faith in “the common reader” (“They’re good enough to elect our Presidents, aren’t they?”). Although he is a highly sensitive member of a religious minority, he is one of the few living U.S. writers who carries no chip on his shoulder and who gives the U.S. straight A’s in his fictional report cards.

In The Caine Mutiny, Wouk defied recent literary fashion and loosed some real shockers by declaring his belief in 1) decency—in language as well as deeds, 2) honor, 3) discipline, 4) authority, 5) hallowed institutions like the U.S. Navy. In Marjorie Morningstar, Wouk will set more teeth on edge by advocating chastity before marriage, suggesting that real happiness for a woman is found in a home and children, cheering loud and long for the American middle class and blasting Bohemia and Bohemians. Wouk is a Sinclair Lewis in reverse. His chief significance is that he spearheads a mutiny against the literary stereotypes of rebellion—against three decades of U.S. fiction dominated by skeptical criticism, sexual emancipation, social protest and psychoanalytic sermonizing.

Wouk majored in comparative literature (like The Caine’s Willie Keith) and in philosophy (like Marjorie’s Noel Airman). This was the period of what Wouk now calls “the great sophomoric enlightenment … I discovered the 18th and 19th centuries, and, for a time, I didn’t observe my religion very carefully.” In time he went back to his faith. His return was not caused by any particular crisis, only “the crisis of living as an adult. I felt there’s a wealth in Jewish tradition, a great inheritance. I’d be a jerk not to take advantage of it.”

From Babbitt, to The Grapes of Wrath, to The Naked and the Dead, a generation of talented but angry men has been bending the ear of U.S. readers, almost suggesting that thinking men should secede from the U.S. Wouk is not an angry man. But there is more than artless optimism or patriotism beneath the surface of his stories. Wouk denies taking stands for or against anything, but the evidence of the books contradicts him. There is an indictment in The Caine Mutiny—not, ultimately, of Queeg, the maniacal martinet, but of Keefer, the phony intellectual. There is an indictment in Marjorie Morningstar—of Noel Airman, the restless Bohemian.

These characters are not indicted because they are intellectuals, but because they are irresponsible. What Wouk is saying, in effect, is that if everyone acted like Keefer, armies would fall apart, and wars would be lost. If everyone acted like Airman, marriages, families and society would crumble. These are platitudes, but they are the platitudes (as Wouk has Willie Keith say) of “growing up.”

To Wouk, rebellion for rebellion’s sake is an outmoded adolescent cliche. Friends find him a hard man to know, perhaps because he is without capacity for the sustained and often neurotic introspection in which writers often indulge. If all this makes him a conformist, he is willing to bear the tag, provided that the accent is on the second syllable. Says Wouk: “One must impose a form on life.”

On one hand, sexual behavior is among the very most personal and private things that people do, and yet it shapes society, and for those who are part of a community, their choices in sexual matters are governed by the standards of the community. Without a community, private sexual morals are thin stuff.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

One thought on “Community Standards and Private Acts

  1. Blaming our lack of moral backbone on genes is, IMO, simultaneously both obvious (a biological incentive to produce offspring with maximum variety to enhance their possibilities to survive) and oversimplified.

    Our behavior develops out of our relationships as well as our inner beliefs. And still we are often tempted by something we find repulsive.

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