Impure thoughts

Impure thoughts

To say that everyone has them is to state the obvious. One of the issues confronted early in Paradise Lost after the “Eve’s Dream” episode is what constitutes a sin? Is it a sin if you only think about it? Raphael says “no,” but according to a preacher friend of mine in a class, Jesus says “yes.” I find this hard to swallow; in Milton’s version, Satan crouches as a toad whispering in Eve’s ear, polluting her dreams. Happens to me all the time.

The controversy over Lewis Carroll is an interesting case. Katie Roiphe tries to dissect the either/or approach to his relationship to Alice Liddell. Child molester or reverential old man?

Is it possible that neither view of him is correct — that he was neither the child molester nor the pure, white-haired reverend? It is possible that our crude categories, our black and white views of romantic feeling, cannot contain someone like Dodgson. It is almost impossible for us to contemplate a man who falls in love with little girls without wanting to put him in prison. The subtleties, for those of us still mired in the paranoias of the 20th century, are hard to grasp. When one thinks of a paedophile, one thinks of a lustful, over-the-top, drooling Nabokovian love, but that is not Lewis Carroll. His love was more delicate and tortured and elusive; his warmth, his strange, terrified passion, more intricate and complicated than anything encompassed by a single word.

Victorian writers are really a mess when considering sexual issues. They suffered from the backlash against Romantic period excess, and were forced to sublimate things that were dealt with far more openly by the previous generation. I think we lose sight of Romantic openness in their wake. Shelley and Byron’s complex sexuality are reduced into battles over gay and straight, reflecting the harsh divisions of Victoriana. I don’t think that this sort of binary battle does anyone any good. Things are just more complicated than that. When you can convict people for having thoughts, you’ve really set a dangerous precedent. One of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is that the gulf between thought and action turns into an abyss; yes, I’ve got lots of thoughts. But I act on very few. I’ve got to agree with Roiphe’s conclusion:

He had impure thoughts, yes. What matters, in the end, is what he did with them.

1 thought on “Impure thoughts”

  1. hmmm… i need to agree with you there otherwise me and my thoughts are in a lot of trouble. hehe
    i am doing a report on Lewis carroll and i would just like to say that your site was a huge help to me thanks

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