There’s a sucker born every minute.
For just $99.00 and a used ticket stub for Wonder Woman, if you order by midnight tonight, you can enroll in a course on Healing Toxic Whiteness. It is taught by a young woman named Sandra Kim, a person of “multiple marginalized identities,” as she describes herself; with what psychiatric precision is unknown. Her website, Everyday Feminism, features her picture right up front: She’s a pretty young woman of presumably Korean ancestry, who also leads online courses on “Everyday Self-Love and Relationships” and “Compassionate Activism.” She claims a readership of 150 million people. The day I accessed her site, the heading asked me, “Is ethical non-monogamy for you?”
Not for me. Maybe veridical perjury, or blasphemous piety, or a Quaker throwing hand grenades, or a feminist making sense. For laughs, give me the humorless every time.
But I am “toxic,” according to her and others selling the new fashion in liberal millinery, because I am “white” (my Italian skin is rather dark), male (you bet), heterosexual (normal), and married (more normal). I shudder to admit that I am also an orthodox Roman Catholic who meets once a week with others of his tribe to offer up their cabal’s Founder in a bloodless sacrifice.
Toxic whiteness, indeed. I know what a male is, even if it is fashionable to pretend to a mystic doubt about it. But a “white” is what? A Calabrese muratore, like my cousin Enzo in Italy; a German driving instructor and mechanic, like my good friend who summers on Cape Breton; a Swedish law-librarian, like the leader of the choir in which my daughter used to sing; a Scots seminarian, a Lebanese professor of philosophy, a French Canadian organist and music teacher. What do they have in common, other than that they have all been formed by the remains of that Christian civilization founded upon Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria, and Rome?
Perhaps that is all that really moves the Kims of the world, ultimately—a diffuse but potent odium Christi. And something else, something suggested by the word toxic.
Before I name what it is, I’d like to note that attributing toxicity to a billion people, most of whom are minding their own business, surely sounds like racism of the worst sort, as if merely being in the vicinity of a white person were to cast gloom upon your day, or make you shrivel up like a spider. Just a few drops of black blood, according to the old Southern racists, would vitiate the stock. Take a few breaths near a white man who believes that women make poor members of an army platoon, and your head is like to swim. “Fetch the salts, Julius,” says the gentleman on the veranda. “Miss Emily’s got the vapors!”
Behold then the poison, courtesy of Edmund Spenser and The Faerie Queene:
And next to him malicious Envy rode
Upon a ravenous wolf, and still did chaw
Between his cankered teeth a venomous toad,
That all the poison ran about his chaw;
But inwardly he chawed his own maw
At neighbor’s wealth, that made him ever sad;
For death it was, when any good he saw,
And wept, that cause of weeping none he had,
But when he heard of harm, he waxed wondrous glad.
Envy is inverted pride, the form that obsessive self-regard takes in the weakling. It is, said C.S. Lewis, the only one of the deadly sins that brings no pleasure in any form. Pride can do great things in the world, but envy’s aim is to keep great things from being done at all. Wrath may flare up with justified vengeance, but envy is cold and sour and cares less to see justice done, though intemperately, than to feel injustice. Sloth at least gains the apparent good, if not of true rest, at least of cessation of activity; but envy is restless: It weeps when it has cause, and weeps even more, as Spenser shrewdly notes, when it has no cause.
Envy chews that venomous toad in its chaw, with the poison dribbling about its chops; a fine image of ceaseless, futile, and ironic self-poisoning. Envy is also at odds with itself and the world, and here Spen ser plays upon the meaning of the Latin invidia: to see things inside out, to look at things askance. Envy is clothed in a “kirtle of discolored say” which is “ypainted full of eyes.” The envious in Dante’s Purgatorio atone for their sin by weeping tears through eyes sewn shut with iron wire, and they must quite literally rely upon one another—back to back—so as not to tumble over the edge of the precipice. They saw things wrong: The suffering of an enemy made them happier than their own good fortune. The remedy for envy is love, which does not enjoy the discomfiture of others. They have no wine, we hear upon the wind there, the words of Mary to Jesus at Cana.
Much of our electoral politics is just envy, as we train ourselves to see and not to see. Says Spenser:
He hated all good works and virtuous deeds,
And him no less, that any like did use,
And who with gracious bread the hungry feeds,
His alms for want of faith he doth accuse;
So every good to bad he doth abuse.
You can flatter the proud, but only your abasement will satisfy the envious. The proud man may miss your good deed, because he is thinking of himself and his great deeds; the envious man will never miss your good deed, but will hate you for it. If you are generous, he will call you condescending. If you are pure, he will call you a Puritan. Gregarious? A glad-hander. Your jokes are bawdy? Sexist filth. Your jokes are clean? Repressed. If you pray you are a hypocrite, and if you do not pray you are an infidel.
Milton was thinking about “our sage and serious Spenser” when he had Satan, like a coach in self-love and relationships, or an ethical non-monogamist, whisper into the ear of Eve his evil imaginations. Adam and Eve, having said their prayers before nightfall, have entered their holy bower, enjoyed the delights of love, and fallen asleep in an embrace, when Satan too enters where no beast would enter, “such was their fear of man,” and begins his temptation:
Squat like a Toad, close at the ear of Eve,
Assaying by his Devilish art to reach
The Organs of her Fancy, and with them forge
Illusions as he list, Phantasms and Dreams,
Or if, inspiring venom, he might taint
Th’ animal spirits that from pure blood arise
Like gentle breaths from Rivers pure, thence raise
At least distempered, discontented thoughts,
Vain hopes, vain aims, inordinate desires
Blown up with high conceits engendering pride.
We do not yet know the content of the bad dream he brings, but we do know that envy is its motive, for Satan has spied on the innocent couple that evening. They were talking about how they first met, and when the conversation is over, they do what you too would do, if you were innocent, alone, young, beautiful, married, naked, and wildly in love:
So spake our general Mother, and with eyes
Of conjugal attraction unreproved
And meek surrender, half embracing leaned
On our first Father; half her swelling breast
Naked met his under the flowing gold
Of her loose tresses hid.
They kiss passionately, and then
aside the devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plained:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting! Thus these two
Imparadised in one another’s arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, whilst I to hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love, but fierce desire,
Among our other torments not the least,
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines.”
He must look, though he hates what he sees. He must look, because he hates what he sees. His toxic envy transmutes into pain a scene of peace and joy. Married women with small children tell me that they often get the evil eye from other women for “wasting” their lives, but they know that it is pure, sour-mash envy. It won’t blind you if you drink it. You will see everything keenly—wrong.
The she-wolf that prevents the wayfaring Dante from climbing the sun-clad mountain at the beginning of Inferno will someday, says Virgil, be thrust back to hell, “whence envy set her loose upon the world.” Shakespeare’s Cassius plays poisoner to Brutus, shading with evil intent everything that Caesar has done, and Brutus is too noble and too obtusely naive to suspect the reason why. Macbeth’s “vaulting ambition” is mingled with a dour sadness at the elevation of Malcolm to the status of Prince of Cumberland, and he will, after the murder of Duncan, have to look sidelong at Banquo and Macduff, too.
The envious Queen in Cymbeline is literally a poisoner. She gathers herbs and roots, compelling them from the King’s physician, ostensibly to learn their power, which she tests on cats and dogs. The drugs are “movers of a languishing death,” slow and deadly, says the doctor, warning her away from them. He does not trust her, and we learn that he has given her, instead of poison, a drug that will cause the image of death for some time. His caution proves to be most warranted.
That love of poison fits with the Queen’s deeds and motives. She hates her husband’s daughter, Imogen, and Imogen’s husband, the brave young Posthumus Leonatus. She tries to conceal the hatred, but in secret she has so acted upon the King that he is moved to banish Posthumus from England, and threaten to disown Imogen. The Queen’s endgame is to force Imogen to marry her own son, the big-mouthed, crude, and violent clotpoll Cloten (rhymes with rotten). “A father cruel, and a stepdame false,” says Imogen. Cloten for his part disdains Posthumus, taught to do so by his mother, for the supposed baseness of the youth’s blood. “I love and hate her,” Cloten says, thinking of Imogen’s beauty and royalty and then of her having given herself to a man whom he must know to be far superior to him in reality. If he does not know it, Imogen herself will let him know, rejecting his suit in words as bitter as ever sounded on the lips of a Shakespearean heroine:
[Posthumus] never can meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His meanest garment,
That ever hath but clipped his body, is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men.
“Thou art poison to my blood!” cries Cymbeline to his daughter at the opening of the play, for no other reason than that she has in this crucial matter consulted her love and her reason, and not her stepmother’s envy and her father’s unreason. But the Queen has wrought upon him with her drugs, and when at Imogen’s flight from the court he flies into a high rage, she says, aside, that that is so much the better for her purpose, because if Cymbeline dies, she surely “will have the placing of the British crown.”
It will not work out that way. For when the envious fail in their designs, the poison turns upon them most virulently. So we learn at the end of the play, after the death of Cloten, and the apparent death of Imogen, and the return to Britain, incognito, of Posthumus. Thus, the doctor reports the Queen’s death to Cymbeline:
She did confess she had
For you a mortal mineral; which, being took,
Should by the minute feed on life and lingering
By inches waste you: in which time she purposed,
By watching, weeping, tendance, kissing, to
O’ercome you with her show, and in time,
When she had fitted you with her craft, to work
Her son into the adoption of the crown:
But, failing of her end by his strange absence,
Grew shameless-desperate; opened, in despite
Of heaven and men, her purposes; repented
The evils she hatched were not effected; so
The physically weaker sex works its malice not by open challenge but by subterfuge; the more sensitive sex knows just what nerve to touch, what word to drop, to make a loved one’s life a little more cramped, gloomier, hopeless, closer to death. The Queen—I am tempted to call her Hillary, but Shakespeare’s Queen was a British patriot—dies while spitting out her venom, repenting not that she had done evil, but that the evil had failed.
Such envy is toxic enough. But when envy flowers from a condition that seems ineradicable, a wrong as it were perpetrated by the world, then, unless you ward it off with all your spiritual armor, the poison may curdle and become a veritable poison’s poison: the malady that Nietzsche called ressentiment. Nietzsche wrongly attributed it to the spirit of the Testaments Old and New; Max Scheler, in Ressentiment, corrects Nietz sche on that score and goes on to deepen the analysis of the disease. The person in the grip of ressentiment inverts love, hugging himself for hating the good that another enjoys or has done. It is why you cannot say to the ressentiment feminist, “Look here, see the bridge spanning the Hudson, which men built at constant peril of their lives, so that you and I might cross the river speedily and safely in our cars.” It’s not that she misses the good thing done. She sees it: She sees it inside-out, invidiously. You cannot say to her, “See, our grandfathers really did love their wives, and they sweated from dawn to dusk and often in the filthiest places to provide for them and their children.” She cannot respond with gratitude. Satan knows how beautiful Eden is. It makes his torment worse. He knows that God is glorious and just. It fires his hatred all the hotter. The feminist knows too well that men and women have loved one another. She weeps, because she has no cause to weep.
That is the real toxin of our time.
Consider: I am an Italian American. I read (or stumble in) ten languages. I teach literature that spans many cultures and 4,000 years. A Germanic poem is as dear to my heart as is a painting in a church in Fiesole. I admire the Icelanders for their All-thing, the Romans for their Public Thing, and the Greeks for their variety of things. I am as pleased reading Pascal as he was when he was a boy playing with conic sections. A Bach cantata delights my Catholic soul.
Imagine the inverse. Imagine that because you are or you think you are culturally crippled, you cannot delight in the good that another person enjoys or, more dreadfully, the good that the wrong kind of person has conferred upon you. We hate no man worse than one whom we have wronged, unless he is one who has benefited us and so made us feel our inadequacy. Think of how many people you have to cut down to smallness: Columbus, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Goethe, Pasteur, Edison, Rembrandt, Melville, Tolstoy, Jefferson, Churchill, Newton, Planck—it never ends. Everywhere the envier turns, there is a man of an unapproved flesh tone laying a road, trucking food to the store, or laying the bricks for the very building where you, in front of students whose parents you have squeezed dry, will smile and express your educated contempt.
Spit out that venomous toad, whoever you may be who have fallen into ressentiment, and learn to love the gifts in others that God has wisely withheld from you.